1. REASON TO HOPE FROM TOTTENHAM
If Wednesday’s League Cup exit gave fans reason to doubt, Sunday’s win at St. Mary’s will be cause for belief. Against a Southampton side whose defensive prowess once vaulted them into the top four, Tottenham scored three times, and while Jos Hooiveld’s own goal boosted that mark, Tim Sherwood’s side showed a restored Emmanuel Adebayor (two goals), 4-4-2 formation, and midfield chosen with attacking intent might reverse Spurs’ fortunes. Their 3-2 win at Saints, their first League game since Villas-Boas’s departure, was their best win of the season.
There were a few other take homes, ones that undermine any premature Spurs reborn narrative. Southampton, who haven’t won since Nov. 9 (and haven’t beaten a team in the league’s top half since Sept. 29), were just as culpable for the result. Only two games into Sherwood’s stewardship, it’s still too early to draw conclusions about turned corners, though the collapse the team was experiencing under their former boss has stopped. Spurs may have steadied the ship, but it’s also too early to tell where it’s going.
Though many noted Villas-Boas’s virtues when he left, change for change’s sake may have been enough. At home to West Brom and Stoke over the week, the now seventh placed Spurs may have acted just in time. Sunday’s performance gives them reason to believe things are getting better, something that clearly wasn’t happening under their former manager.
2. First place: Liverpool
Nowhere in the world do they laud a temporary first like they do in England. Elsewhere, Liverpool reaching the top of the table would be reported while noting the match day’s not over, and in many places that cover the Premier League, they’re showing that kind of restraint. But with Arsenal hosting Chelsea on Monday, the Reds could finish Round 17 where they started: Second place.
Yet after their 3-1 win versus Cardiff City, Liverpool’s potentially fleeting position is being lauded as progress. And to a certain extent, it is, provided the right context can be applied. Luis Suárez continues to remind England what they’re in store for next summer, scoring his 18th and 19th goals of the season. An improving Reds defense only conceded once up three goals. In a league where only Manchester City seems to be hitting its stride, Liverpool’s form may be enough to keep them in the race. With questions having evolved from whether they’re Champions League contenders to doubts about their title credentials, the Reds have certainly earned their accolades.
That, instead of premature celebrations about first place, is Liverpool’s real progress. Most expected Brendan Rodgers’ team to move forward in 2013-14, but with Spurs having brought in so much new talent, few saw the Reds doing more than pestering the top five.
After 17 games, Liverpool has transcended those expectations, and although they may yet regress once the calendar turns, the ease of Saturday’s win highlights how far they’ve come.
3. Days and nights of Vincent Tan
The flip side of Saturday’s match at Anfield: the chaos that is Cardiff City. Had the Bluebirds lost to Liverpool under any other circumstances, the defeat would have been seen as an expected one. That it came after a fortnight where Malky Mackay declared the need for reinforcements, was publicly rebuked by ownership, and was asked to resign made the defeat into a plot point in a larger drama. How long until Mackay is written out?
Public perception has fallen in favor of Mackay, a sentiment with which I don’t necessarily disagree. There is, however, a scenario where Tan’s predilections make sense. If Mackay (and Ian Moody) really did drastically overspend this summer, Tan had reason to be concerned. Not only has Mackay not made good on that investment (Cardiff four points above the drop), but he’s show his truculence in the face of a fired Head of Recruitment. Now, asking for more money (and doing so through the media), it might be fair for Tan to ask whether another man can stick to budgets, not complain in the press, and produce a better product on the field. Didn’t Steve Clarke just become available?
It all depends on which side you believe. Of course, you can choose to believe neither and just see how things unfold. Regardless, the soap opera being directed by Vincent Tan is bound for another turn, even if Cardiff’s benefactor hopes to calm things down.
4. MANCHESTER City wants all the goals
Four years ago, Chelsea set a record for goals in a Premier League season, scoring 102 times. After 17 rounds, Manchester City’s already halfway there. When James Milner’s 83rd minute score made it 4-2 at Craven Cottage, City had their 51st goal of the season, putting them on pace to score 114 times over 38 rounds.
Odds are they’ll slow up a little, regression and all. Yet through 17 rounds, they’ve already built up a bit of a cushion. When they slow up, they’ll still have to creep far under Chelsea’s 2.68 goals per game to fall short of the Blues’ mark. After yesterday’s outburst on the Thames, City’s averaging an even three-per-match.
If anything, City is trending the other way. Over their last six matches, the Citizens have scored 19 times, putting up six against the likes of Tottenham and Arsenal. Though losing Sergio Agüero until late January could slow them down, an attack led by Edin Dzeko and Álvaro Negredo still scored four times at Fulham. And without Agüero in Munich, City managed three on Bayern.
Like others who changed managers this offseason, City has needed time to adjust. Unfortunately for the rest of England, that adjustment period seemed to be over. Though they’ll sit third come Monday evening, City is the best team in England. And if Arsenal loses, they’ll only be one point out.
TOFFEES Barkleys OF EVERTON
Everton are improved at every level of the field. Even players like Tim Howard, Phil Jagielka, and Sylvain Distin — players who’ve been held over from David Moyes’ time at Goodison — are performing better this year. Forging the league’s best defense (16 goals allowed), Roberto Martínez’s team sits fourth in the Premier League, its 2-1 win over Swansea leaving the Toffees in a Champions League spot pending tomorrow’s result.
In a World Cup year, however, it’s no surprise that a young Englishman has garnered much of the attention, though 20-year-old Ross Barkley is one of a litany of players who’ve fueled Everton’s rise. But as a long-discussed product of the team’s academy, the attacking midfielder is a natural source of speculation. Carrying the hopes of a local and national fan base, Barkley represents England’s latest Wilshere-esque conundrum: Is he really as good as the hype suggests?
On Sunday, however, Barkley’s impact was undeniable. With the match drawn in the 84th minute, the World Cup hopeful delivered a moment to match his manager’s superlatives – a free kick fired against the bottom of the crossbar and beyond the line, delivering all three points for Everton.
In Wales, Barkley lived up to the hype, something no player’s capably of doing on a regular basis. But with a few more performances like today’s (one that was excellent beyond the match-winner) Barkley will become the new Wilshere, even if the Everton product is only one year younger.
6. surge becomes baseline
Newcastle’s 3-0 win at Selhurst Park quelled any momentum the Eagles had built since Tony Pulis’s appointment. More than that, it affirmed the Magpies as more than mere upstarts. It’s one thing to get a team up for performances against Chelsea, Tottenham, and Manchester United, but it’s another for Newcastle to dominate games they can control. Ahead for 65 minutes on Saturday, Newcastle’s sixth win in eight was never in doubt, hinting at a level of control that goes beyond a mere hot streak.
Given the highs of this run (those wins over Chelsea, Spurs, and United) as well as the more mundane results (Saturday at Palace), can we say this is more than a surge? This doesn’t look like a team running on momentum or emotion, producing transcendent results. Even in their one loss in that stretch, a 3-0 defeat at Swansea, they looked fine. At what point do we say this is the real Newcastle, admitting the early season performances that had made Pardew’s job a point of speculation were probably the aberrations?
Perhaps, 17 games into the season, it’s too early to do that, but it’s worth considering: What does Newcastle have to do to prove themselves contenders for a (say) top-third spot? At some point we should answer that question, let the season play out, and stop doubting the Magpies if they happen to reach that mark.