Quick Six: Top stories from the Premier League weekend

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1. PREMIER LEAGUE’S BEST ROUT LEAGUE LEADERS

Arsène Wenger can complain about the officiating all he wants, but there was no way Arsenal was winning yesterday’s game. Nobody in England can beat City when Vincent Kompany, Fernandinho, and David Silva play like that. Even on a day when Yaya Touré was flawed and an injured Sergio Agüero had to be pulled shortly after half time, City’s star power dwarfed that of the Premier League leaders’.

[MORE: Manchester City 6-3 Arsenal: Pulsating clash swings City’s way as offense explodes (video)]

Not that Arsenal shouldn’t have been better. Beyond mistakes from Laurent Koscielny and Mesut Özil, as well as the wall they seemed to hit halfway through the second half, the Gunners’ game plan could have been better. Wenger will understandably be criticized for selecting an attacking team, but deploying his midfield such that Aaron Ramsey played high, ostensibly to help with Touré and Fernandinho, needed to be coupled with some kind of pressure through the middle. The times Silva dropped to tip the balance in the middle, Mathieu Flamini was abandoned in front of the defense, the time given City’s midfield allowing Pablo Zabaleta and Gaël Clichy to push forward early, stretching the defense. You often see teams have trouble deal with opponents’ width, but on Saturday, Arsenal played into City’s lack of traditional width and were exploited.

Four days after beating the world’s best team, Saturday left no question: City is England’s best team, even if the standings don’t reflect it. Their road ailments cured while their home swagger has been preserved, City’s flipped the script. Instead of this winter’s story being their chase of Arsenal, the next few months will be defined by the field’s ability to find City’s kryptonite before they fly away from the pack.

2. LIVERPOOL SHREDS TOTTENHAM: BALANCING CREDIT AND BLAME

Let’s revisit last week’s thoughts on Spurs and Liverpool. Before Liverpool’s 5-0 rout today at White Hart Lane, the general feeling was Tottenham were back on track. Where they that convincing? No, but they appeared to have moved on from their embarrassment at the Etihad. In as much as they were headed in the right direction, they were technically back on track (as much as you can be technical about an idiom).

[MORE: Tottenham 0-5 Liverpool: Reds pummel erratic Tottenham defense to go second.]

As for Liverpool? They were still putting up huge wins, but they were doing so in the same way they’ve always done under Brendan Rodgers. The manager’s approach leaves the Reds winning by three, foul-goal margins where other (sometimes, better) teams either let up or don’t have the attacking prowess to pile on. That same style, however, might lead the Reds to be out-gunned against better teams.

That was all before Sunday, when Luis Suárez’s two goals, two assists lifted Liverpool that five-goal in in North London. Not only did the attack persist against a higher-ranked opponent, but the defense held up, conceding no shots on goal. This clearly dispels both of last week’s notions, right?

To a certain extent yes, but against a Spurs team that looked every bit as bad as the one that lost at Manchester City, it may be too assumptive to separate them from the Norwich and West Hams of the world. On talent, yes, Spurs are in a different class. In performance? They’re still better, but not so much that we should throw out every assumption we made about Liverpool.

But that imperfect, still-building Liverpool team, one that was without Daniel Sturridge and Steve Gerrard today at White Hart Lane? They’re clearly a Champions League threat, one whose greatest credential is their ability to get three points against the league’s weaker teams. Where other teams night be lured into a draw (or, as we say with Chelsea last week at Stoke, a loss), Liverpool’s more likely to take care of business. Their performance at Arsenal hinted they may not be title contenders, but they’re certainly a team whose strengths can carry them into the top four. They are, after all, in second place.

3. LOSS TO CARDIFF COSTS STEVE CLARKE HIS JOB

Steve Clarke is a very good coach, one who was crucial on staffs for José Mourinho and Kenny Dalglish. Yet this season, his second at West Brom, we saw a coach undone by his higher ups.

Last year, with a team mostly assembled by his superiors, Clarke pushed the Baggies to eighth, their best finish in 22 years. This year, forced into the transfer market to strengthen his squad and replace Romelu Lukaku (17 goals in 2012-13), Clarke’s support failed. The likes of Nicolas Anelka, Stephane Sességnon, Scott Sinclair, Markus Rosenberg, Victor Anichebe and Diego Lugano – all acquired since Clarke took over – have been busts. For a team like West Brom, these were significant investments, yet none of them are paying off on the field.

Yet when you watched West Brom play, you saw the coach’s virtues. Well organized, willing, almost always executing a clear plan in attack, the Baggies carried all the indicators of a well-run team. Unfortunately, after Saturday’s 1-0 loss at Cardiff City, that team will be run by somebody else.

[MORE: Cardiff City 1-0 West Bromwich Albion: Whittingham’s header the difference (video)]

After four losses in a row, West Brom had dropped to 16th, only two points above the drop. Their last win was a 2-0 victory on Nov. 2 over visiting Palace. Their last win over a team out of the league’s relegation spots? Their Sept. 28 win at Old Trafford.

Although West Brom had only lost twice by more than one goal, they had all the hallmarks of a team ready to change course. They were plummeting, there was no obvious, transient cause for the slide, and there was no indication it would turn around. Management could justify thinking another man would do more.

They would have also been justified sticking it out. They could have tried to address the problem (Clarke’s transfers) in the January window while keeping a clearly good coach. They could have built on their manager’s strengths while providing him help with his weaknesses. Or course, while doing so, they may have flirted with relegation. For a team that finished eighth last year, that’s unacceptable.

Perhaps in his next job, Clarke will build on these lessons. And hopefully, he will get another job. For now, West Brom are moving on.

4, VILLA THE PERFECT TONIC FOR UNITED

United were coming off a mid-week win in Champions League, so the Red Devils had already began moving beyond last week’s disappointments to Everton and Newcastle, but after today’s visit to Villa Park, David Moyes’s team can actually try to consolidate some momentum. Whereas their Champions League match with Shakhtar Donetsk could have gone either way, Villa were never going to beat Manchester United, permitting the Red Devils their most-lopsided league win since August.

And that certainty – the contrast between Villa’s Sunday performance and the teams that won at Arsenal and Southampton – has become their paradox. When they’re playing well, a strong midfield and swift attack is capable to protecting a subpar defense, taking advantage of their opponent’s possession to generate goals. It’s a method which, when employed correctly, can beat anybody.

When Villa aren’t on top of their game, though? You get results like today’s. Danny Welback had a brace and Tom Cleverley added a third to give United their first league win in over a month. There worst of their duel personalities emerging, Paul Lambert’s team made the Red Devils look good.

Perhaps this was the type of opponent United needed – somebody that would remind them they are, in fact, good. With the win, they jump a spot in the league, passing Sotuhampton for eighth place. Villa, in the meantime, stay where Jekyll balances Hyde: 11th place.

5. RUNNING OUT OF EXCUSES TO DOUBT EVERTON

At the beginning of the year, Everton’s two problems were an inability to convert possession into goals and (related) being left with one point in games where they should have claimed three. It’s why, despite losing only once (every other team’s lost at least three times), the Toffess sit fifth, though as Saturday at Goodison showed, those early season problems may be in the past.

Despite not playing up to the same standards they showed at Old Trafford and the Emirates, three late goals allowed Everton to cruise past Fulham, 4-1. The Cottagers may have made a mistake trying to play with their hosts, but under a new manager, that was understandable. Rene Meulensteen may have been willing to sacrifice one game’s chances to reinforce his team’s new approach.

[MORE: Everton 4-1 Fulham: Coleman and Barry ensure normality at Goodison Park over Fulham (video)]

But that approach led to four goals for Everton, the third time in five games Roberto Martínez’s side has scored at least three times. Those games gave Everton 11 points, including results against Liverpool, Manchester United, and Arsenal.

Along the way, the Toffees are starting to eliminate excuses for excluding them from top-four conversation. They can’t score enough? They can’t win enough? Or they can’t do so against the best teams? None of that is true. And against Fulham, Everton also showed they can avoid a let down. This is a team that will stick around.

6. THE LINE BETWEEN FANDOM AND NUISANCE

At the point where players have to apologize to fans for not clapping their acknowledgments, support becomes a burden. The tedium of protocol and kissing the rings of the entitled become nuisances, and people ostensibly there to embolden their team become weight on an anchor.

You’ll never hear a club say that about their fans, who they do truly value. And as Mesut Özil’s apologies to Arsenal fans showed, players will often do whatever necessary to avoid the issue. But at the point when kowtowing to the extremes becomes part of the job — when just wanting to leave the field becomes cause for strife between teammates — the costs of the charade begin to surface. When applauding traveling fans becomes obligatory instead of spontaneous, what should be earnest gesture becomes farcical and contrived, serving nobody.

[MORE: Per Mertesacker incensed with Mesut Ozil after refusing to clap away fans]

Fans are an integral part of sport, but when the (perhaps only perceived) obligations to them spark divisions between teammates, it’s worthe revisiting their role. Supporters are there to support, not define. They’re compelling, necessary, but also ancillary. They shouldn’t be the issue moments after 6-3 loss.

And it’s unclear Arsenal’s fans never intended to be. Maybe this is Per Mertesacker buying myth more than the reality. Regardless, Mesut Özil was shamed for wanting to get off the field after a three-goal loss. Is that something Arsenal fans really wanted?

Slow start dooms Southampton again: “We lost the game in first half”

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Slow starts are, ironically, quickly becoming the story of Southampton’s Premier League season. It happened again on Friday, resulting in a 3-1 home defeat to Bournemouth in the Premier League‘s budding south coast rivalry

[ Premier League Previews: Leicester City v. Tottenham | Man City v. Watford ]

Through six games, Saints have conceded the first goal four times. In those four games, they have taken just one point. When scoring the game’s first goal, they have two wins and two clean sheets.

It would appear that Ralph Hasenhuttl‘s side is set up to play one way, and one way only. Speaking after Friday’s defeat, Hasenhuttl lamented his side’s slow start, conceding that the game was all but lost when they fell 2-0 behind in the 35 minutes — quotes from the BBC:

“The finish was not important anymore. If you lose 2-1 or 3-1 it does not make too much difference. We lost the game in the first half.

“In the second half, we were sharp. Had about 26 shots to six from Bournemouth but the most important stat is the goals. They scored three, we scored once.

“We weren’t aggressive enough and too easy in the first half. It is not easy to be 1-0 down after 10 minutes. We had a lot of blocked shots and misses near the post. It was a good performance in the second half but without a result.

“For the second goal was had a lot of players in our attacking box so it was not easy to defend.

“We showed a good reaction because we knew we needed to be brave. We changed our shape and were aggressive for the second ball. It gave us 64% possession and we had a lot of shots. Maybe we didn’t deserve to take something because of our first half.”

Southampton’s next chance to start a game quickly will come in an away bout with Tottenham Hotspur next Saturday.

Bournemouth carried over the line by ‘fight and belief’

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It wasn’t pretty — at least not in the second half — but Bournemouth had enough “fight and belief” to get themselves over the line for a first-ever win away to Southampton on Friday.

[ Premier League Previews: Leicester City v. Tottenham | Man City v. Watford ]

Speaking after the game, Cherries manager Eddie Howe was obviously pleased by the victory in the Premier League‘s budding south coast rivalry, but quickly turned his attention to a list of areas in which his team came up short and was perhaps fortunate to hold onto a 2-1 lead prior to Callum Wilson‘s gifted goal in the 95th minute — quotes from the BBC:

“It was a nice moment. We rarely get those moments in football where you get that pure emotion and joy for a few seconds. Then you start thinking about next week.

“You want the players brought down to earth because you want the focus on consistent success. In the first, half we were okay. We didn’t hit the heights we are capable of. We were scrappy and didn’t keep the ball as well as I wanted, but we had spirit and sometimes that’s the most important thing.

“In the second half, we were reactive and looked tired and that’s where we needed to show our heart to see the game out. There were some heroics from our goalkeeper too.”

As for defender Nathan Ake, scorer of Bournemouth’s first goal, it was all about digging deep for the desire and will to win. The 24-year-old has established himself as one of the first names on Howe’s teamsheet every week at this point.

“It was a very tough game. The fans are buzzing. It was a great three points. The manager said to put the ball in the box.

“It was a great ball and it fell on my head. In the second half, we made it difficult for ourselves. We didn’t keep hold of the ball and had to defend more. The last result against Everton was great so it gives you confidence, but we had to fight and believe we could win.”

Had you offered anyone associated with Bournemouth 10 points from their first six games, they would have snatched your hand off to take them. A thoroughly solid start to the season. Up next is a visit from ninth-place West Ham United next Saturday.

Bournemouth picks up first-ever win away to Southampton

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Bournemouth picked up its first-ever victory (16 visits – all competitions) away to Southampton in the Premier League‘s budding south coast rivalry, 3-1 at St. Mary’s Stadium on Friday.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays ]

Nathan Ake and Harry Wilson got goals for Eddie Howe‘s side during a wonderfully dominant first-half performance before the roles were reversed in the second half. James Ward-Prowse pulled Southampton back to 2-1 not long after halftime and Saints pressed and pressed for an equalizer but ultimately came up empty. To make matters worse, Callum Wilson put the game away on a late Saints howler.


3 things we learned

  1. Slow starts for Saints — Through six games, Saints have conceded the first goal four times. For a team that’s built around the idea of defensive solidity and limiting chances, Ralph Hasenhuttl‘s side appears especially limited once forced to change its plan of attack and… well, attack. In the two games they didn’t concede first, two clean sheets and two wins.
  2. Halftime adjustments — Hasenhuttl certainly got his tactics wrong from the start, but whatever was said at halftime made a noticeable difference in the second half. Given loads more freedom to push forward in attack and to win back possession, Southampton made it a game from 45:01 onward.
  3. Making few chances count a lot — Bournemouth needed just six shots to get their two goals. On the other hand, they managed just six shots in 90 minutes. Highly efficient, or lacking in overall production? Both, perhaps?

Man of the Match: Oriol Romeu


Ake put the Cherries ahead in the 10th minute, rising high above the crowd to get his head to Diego Rico‘s corner kick. It was Bournemouth’s fifth goal (of nine scored) from a set piece this season.

It didn’t take long for Bournemouth to easily cut through Saints’ four-man backline — a tactical change from the three-man operation which secured a victory away to Sheffield United last weekend — and put the ball in the back of the net again. Joshua King finished a devastating counter-attack with a sublime finish, only to have the goal taken off the board for being narrowly offside, via video review.

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights ]

Once again, Bournemouth met little resistance en route to doubling their lead, only this time the goal stood. Philip Billing got to the endline down the left side of Saints’ penalty area and cut the ball back to the penalty spot where Wilson was waiting to sweep it past a helpless Angus Gunn.

Saints were gifted their way back into the game in the 52nd minute, when Steve Cook went straight through Che Adams as Southampton broke down the left side of the box. Ward-Prowse stepped up to the spot and hammered the ball past Aaron Ramsdale to cut the deficit in half.

Saints’ best chance at drawing level came in the 82nd minute, but Ward-Prowse was denied Ramsdale from close range, and though he spilled the rebound in front of goal, Bournemouth were able to clear the ball away in just the nick of time.

Gunn and center back Jannik Vestergaard ran into one another outside the Saints penalty area in the 95th minute, allowing Wilson to pick the ball up and walk it over the end line for the late exclamation point on Bournemouth’s historic night.

Bournemouth’s defensive desperation was such that they attempted just the six shots in the game, including zero between the 38th and 85th minutes. Alas, Saints couldn’t find the equalizer and Bournemouth catapulted all the way up to third in the PL, for the time being.

Watch Live: Southampton v. Bournemouth

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Southampton takes on Bournemouth in a battle of south-coast clubs at the St. Mary’s Stadium (Watch live, 3 p.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com).

Both teams enter the match with seven points, and a win can, for the time being, vault either side into the top four until the rest of the weekend’s games take place.

WATCH LIVE ONLINE

Interestingly, Southampton have ruled the roost when it comes to matchups against Bournemouth. Southampton has won three, drawn four and lost just once in Premier League matches against Bournemouth, but perhaps this time it could be different.

Both teams are coming off wins, though Bournemouth’s 3-1 shock of Everton could be seen as more impressive than Southampton’s 1-0 victory over Sheffield United.

Watch the game with us at the link above, and stay on PST for analysis and reaction at halftime and following the final whistle.


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