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’.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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?