Premier League Playback: Man United hit rock bottom, Hazard the hero, Liverpool dark horses?

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UNITED’S PREDICTABILITY PROVES THEY AREN’T LEARNING

“Today is probably as bad as it gets. We completely dominated the game, being 1-0 down was bad enough and it could’ve been 2-0 at one point. I mean the amount of chances, the play and attempts we had… how we didn’t win the game comfortably I have no idea.”

Sadly for fans of Manchester United, those sentiments uttered by David Moyes following Sunday’s damaging 2-2 draw with Fulham have come all too often this season.

As the Red Devils season hit a new low, they’re now nine points off the top four with 13 games to go, Moyes’ side examined many of the key factors why they are languishing in seventh spot and are 16 points away from league leaders Chelsea.

Defensive frailties, offensive predictability and a lack of belief.

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Click to enlarge: Average position of Fulham’s players vs. United. Source: Opta

As you can see from the diagram on the left, the average position of both teams shows that not one of Fulham’s players were in United’s half. But somehow the Red Devils conceded twice, and despite their record haul of crosses, 75 percent possession and 22 attempts at goal, they only bagged two goals to leave over 75,000 at Old Trafford scratching their heads.

On Sunday cross after cross came in as United’s predictability, often a trait of Moyes’ management of Everton, came to the fore. The Red Devils sent in 81 crosses, more than any PL team in a single game since Opta started keeping records of that component in 2006. But the crosses often hit the first man, or found one of Fulham’s white shirts who piled into the box as United’s attackers wandered around with no real gumption to get on the end of the deliveries. Look at the image below on the right, the ball often got to the byline but was just hung up aimlessly. They played into the Cottagers hands time and time again, as only one of United’s 10 outfield players didn’t attempt a cross, Nemanja Vidic.

That leads us nicely into the problems in defense, which were highlighted by both of Fulham’s goals. Granted, they came against the run of play to snatch a point, but the ease in which Fulham exposed United’s defense, skippered by the outgoing Vidic who announced he will leave United at the end of this season, was shocking.

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Click to enlarge: The cross graph from United’s 2-2 draw with Fulham. Red balls indicate blocked crosses.  Source: Opta.

For Fulham’s opening goal Steve Sidwell’s run wasn’t even a complex or well-crafted one, it was straight as a dye and cut through United’s defense like a knife through butter. Juan Mata and Darren Fletcher were both caught napping, Patrice Evra didn’t tuck in  from left back to close the gap Sidwell ran into, and Fulham were 1-0 up. As easy as that.

Then came the assault on the Cottagers goal, as they held out until the 78th minute 1-0 up, but Robin van Persie re-directed Mata’s shot to make it 1-1, then United went ahead just over a minute later. Michael Carrick’s 79th minute goal hit the back of the net via a deflection to hand United a lead they’d relentlessly pushed for. As the ball went in, Moyes turned to the directors box and punched the air with fury, delighted and relief.

Sir Alex Ferguson was in there somewhere, and that act of jubilation from Moyes seemed to also vent his frustration as the Red Devils continue to underwhelm across the board. Ferguson was watching on from the comfort of his warm, padded seat, with the husky voice of Simply Red’s lead man Mick Hucknall sat next to him but Fergie must feel a little uneasy at the squad he left Moyes to inherit. At this rate, Hucknall better take his boots with him the next time he turns up at Old Trafford…

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Click to enlarge: Average position of United’s players vs. Fulham. Source: Opta

Because all of Moyes’ jubilation was for ‘nowt,’ as they say in Northern England. Another huge defensive lapse cost United all three points in the 94th minute as, just like the first goal, basic errors at the back saw them come unstuck. Vidic had to head the ball clear but instead knocked it down to Carrick who was stripped of the ball, and suddenly Fulham had a four on four break in the final minute while United were 2-1 up at home.

As you can see on the left, both United’s full backs were bombing on throughout the game, leaving the duo of Vidic and Chris Smalling incredibly exposed.

That should not happen, and the Cottagers took full advantage of it as Darren Bent nodded home from close range following Kieran Richardson’s shot being parried away by David De Gea. Silence at Old Trafford.

Not for the first time this season, and probably not the last either. United have now hit rock bottom and the only way is up. But just how far is that?

If they keep putting in performances like that, chances of reaching the top four and Champions League soccer is a million miles away. If it hasn’t vanished already.

Premier League Schedule – Week 25

Result Recap & Highlights
Aston Villa 0-2 West Ham Recap and watch here
Chelsea 3-0 Newcastle Recap and watch here
Crystal Palace 3-1 West Brom Recap and watch here
Liverpool 5-1 Arsenal Recap and watch here
Man United 2-2 Fulham Recap and watch here
Norwich 0-0 Man City Recap and watch here
Southampton 2-2 Stoke Recap and watch here
Sunderland 0-2 Hull Recap and watch here
Swansea 3-0 Cardiff Recap and watch here
Tottenham 1-0 Everton Recap and watch here

HAZARD: BALLON D’OR PRETENDER?

On Saturday Chelsea brushed aside Newcastle 3-0 at Stamford Bridge, going top of the PL stansings in the process, as the Belgian boy-wonder Eden Hazard bagged his first-ever Blues hat trick. Afterwards Chelsea’s manager Jose Mourinho reserved special praise for the 23-year-old trickster, the player he often refers to as ‘The Kid.’

“I think a team is made of 11 guys, but obviously he is special. I think in this moment he’s the best young player in the world.”

After two quick one-twos in the first half with Branislav Ivanovic and Samuel Eto’o, Hazard put Chelsea 2-0 up with fine finishes as he scampered past Newcastle’s defenders as if they weren’t there.

His eyes were locked on the prize and as his scything runs cut out the entire heart of the Magpies defense, Hazard continue on his path to greatness. The Kid is turning into a man before our eyes.

Earlier in the week Hazard spoke of his admiration for FIFA World Players of the Year Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo and how he needed to score more goals to be in that bracket. Scoring your first-ever hat trick for Chelsea immediately after stating that shows the mark of the young man. He know has 15 goals on the season and has lit up Chelsea’s rise to the PL summit. The Blues paid French side Lille $48 million for Hazard’s services in 2012. Pretty soon, that fee could look like a snip. Warning Messi and Ronaldo… there’s a Hazard coming your way.

HOW LIVERPOOL HAMMERED ARSENAL

With Steven Gerrard delivering pinpoint crosses for Liverpool’s juggernauts to attack, it’s no surprise the Reds got off to a flying start with two goals inside the first 10 minutes from big center half Martin Skrtel on Saturday. Add in the lighting quick trio of Luis Suarez, Raheem Sterling and Daniel Sturridge and it was an absolute nightmare start for Arsenal that didn’t get any better.

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Liverpool had a dream first 20 minutes at Anfield, they surged into a 5-0 lead just after half time and embarrassed title hopefuls Arsenal on Merseyside. Gerrard sprayed the ball around masterfully from the holding role as he was at the center of it all, but the quartet of Sterling, Suarez, Sturridge and Philippe Coutinho tore Arsenal apart, as the cumbersome duo of Laurent Koscielny and Per Mertesacker were once again exposed due to their lack of pace on the turn. Here are three things we learned from Liverpool’s demolition of the Gunners, as the away side ran around like loose cannons on Saturday.

High-pressure play has evoked high hopes for the rest of the season at Anfield. With Liverpool just six points off top spot and both Manchester City and Chelsea still to play at home, can Brendan Rodgers’ team come from nowhere to win this PL title?

PALACE, FULHAM: TRANSFER WINDOW WONDERS

Holtby’s delicate chip into Sidwell for Fulham’s first goal in the 2-2 draw at Old Trafford showed what the young German is capable of. His driving runs and artful weaving on the ball see him stand out above the crowd. But often at Spurs he didn’t have moments of substance, yet he already looks like the main man in a Fulham shirt and is driving the Cottagers on. The German international linking up with new $18 million poacher Kostas Mitroglou, expected to make his Fulham debut on Wednesday against Liverpool, should have fans of the Lillywhites licking their lips. Maybe, just maybe, Fulham can salvage their season as another deadline day buy Johnny Heitinga looked solid at the back against United.

RECAP: Transfer window grades for all 20 PL teams

Elsewhere, within 30 minutes of their debuts Thomas Ince and Joe Ledley had both scored to put Crystal Palace 2-0 up vs. West Brom. Talk about making an instant impact. Tony Pulis has often been lauded for his ability to rummage around in the transfer bargain bin hurriedly on deadline day, and being able to pull out a gem or two.

He’s done it again. And now the Eagles are surging towards safety as the cavalry have well and truly arrived, as the 3-1 victory vs. WBA was a fifth home win in seven attempts for the Eagles, since the former Stoke boss arrived in November.

To watch that big win for Palace, and all the other goals and action from Round 25, here’s the PL video highlights below. Enjoy.

Premier League Playback takes an alternative look at all the weekend’s action from the PL, it comes out every week. Due to midweek action, it will be back on Thursday. Double helpings…

Herrera: Ibrahimovic competitive drive insatiable in everything

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Ander Herrera is dishing the goods on his Manchester United teammates while on Spain duty this week, and was asked about Zlatan Ibrahimovic.

The Swede is a fierce competitor on and off the pitch, which Herrera jokes is an ever-present challenge to personal patience.

[ MORE: Deulofeu laments early Messi talk ]

It almost seems like there’s a bit of envy that Ibrahimovic can charge into public comments the way Herrera goes into tackles.

From Marca:

“[Ibrahimovic] is a genius, he’s very intense because he wants to win everything, even football-tennis,” Herrera said to Radio MARCA.

“He assumes this role of doing or saying what he likes in front of the media because he does not care, he can say that he’ll score 30 goals or is the best because he can afford to.”

There’s certainly something to stature when it comes to saying what you feel (though on the other hand, being egotistical is rarely controversial. It’s not like Ibrahimovic is often railing on controversial soccer or social issues).

We’re sure there are plenty of players across all sports, casual and professional, who don’t understand hyper-competitive teammates, but we love a guy who doesn’t turn it down when it comes to on-the-field activities. Hopefully Ibrahimovic is the Jaromir Jagr of soccer.

Gerard Deulofeu calls early Messi comparisons “detrimental”

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Players often like to brush off speculation or criticism in the moment by claiming they don’t read stories written about themselves, but we all know better.

Former Everton winger Gerard Deulofeu confirmed that sentiment by citing specific comparisons he remembers as a youth with Barcelona, citing stories that compared him to Lionel Messi. Now 23 years old, Deulofeu reflects on those early comparisons and wishes the media wasn’t so quick to jump to conclusions about his career.

“In the end, [the comparisons] were more detrimental than beneficial,” he told weekly magazine Forza Milan. “Normally I don’t read newspapers, but that headline I remember well. It created too much expectation among Barcelona fans. There’s only one Messi.”

With expectations high, Deulofeu made just six senior team appearances without a goal or assist before loan spells at Sevilla and Everton saw him out of the club permanently. His time at Goodison Park was up and down as well, with his ability to dazzle a crowd punctuated by long spells of invisibility, failing to earn himself a consistent starting role.

Deulofeu is now on loan from Everton at AC Milan, looking to revitalize his career. He has started every league game since arriving, and has picked up a goal and three assists in 11 matches. There is speculation he could end up in Milan on a permanent basis this summer, but he’s not focused on that right now.

“My future? It’ll be seen to,” Deulofeu said. “My sights are in the present, from experience I know it’s best to leave the past behind and focus on the present. We’ll see what happens in the future. For now, I just want to enjoy the good time that I‘m having at Milan.”

Barcelona plan Cruyff tribute at club’s training center

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BARCELONA, Spain (AP) One year after his death, Barcelona says it will name the future stadium at its training center after Dutch great Johan Cruyff.

The new stadium at Barcelona’s training center just outside the Catalan city will be called “Johan Cruyff Stadium” in honor of the club’s former player and coach.

Barcelona says in a statement that “the most emblematic building in the facility where future Barca players are coached is to be named after somebody who played such a central role in fostering youth talent at the club.”

Barcelona also says it will commission a “commemorative sculpture” of Cruyff, who died of lung cancer on March 24 last year at age 68. The statue will be placed at Barcelona’s main Camp Nou stadium.

Cruyff is largely credited with launching Barcelona’s era of trophy success, both as a player and a coach.

As a player, Cruyff joined Barcelona midseason in 1973 and led the middle-of-the-table team to its first national title in a decade.

He later returned as a coach and guided Barcelona to four consecutive Spanish leagues from 1991-94 and the club’s first European Cup in 1992.

“I think the tributes are very warming,” said Cruyff’s son, Jordi Cruyff. “It sort of changes the sadness that we might feel as family to lose a father, a husband and a grandfather. It changes to a certain kind of pride to understand that he left something behind.”

MLS Snapshot: Defense optional — Crew SC outlast Timbers, 3-2

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The game in 100 words (or less): As far as teams who get out in the open field and score the lion’s share of their goals on the counter-attacking, there aren’t many MLS teams better than Columbus Crew SC and the Portland Timbers. The two sides met Saturday night at MAPFRE Stadium, site of their MLS Cup 2015 clash, and lived up to their reputations. Of the five goals scored, two were notched on flat-out counters and two more came to pass through quick transitional movements. Portland (9 points) dropped their first points of the season, falling 3-2 to goals scored by Justin Meram, Ola Kamara and Niko Hansen, while Crew SC have back-to-back wins and find themselves level on points (7) with the New York Red Bulls with each side having played four games.

[ MORE: Saturday’s MLS (afternoon) roundup ]

Three Four Five moments that mattered

4′ — Asprilla opens the scoring early on — 2017 Crew SC defending, same as 2016 Crew SC defending.

11′ — Meram fires home the rebound for 1-1 — One of Portland’s biggest weaknesses last season was their set-piece defending. Looks like not much has changed.

19′ — Higuain feeds Kamara for a 2-1 lead — The question mark that Portland will eventually have to answer is this: How much, if at all, have they improved defensively in the open field? Based on this Crew SC counter-attack, the answer might be “not much.”

45+3′ — Adi recovers to make it 2-2 — Everything Adi does these days (even the bad things, like this first touch) ends up being good.

84′ — Hansen cleans up at the back post for 3-2 — Jake Gleeson made a spectacular reaction save to deny Kamara his second goal of the game, but the rookie, making his MLS debut, was in the right place at the right time.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverageStandings | Stats | Schedule ]

Men of the match: Wil Trapp

Goalscorers: Asprilla (4′), Meram (11′), Kamara (19′), Adi (45+3′), Hansen (84′)