Matchday 14 saw the beginning of England’s famous brutal schedule with all teams playing seven matches from this past Tuesday until New Year’s Day. Arsenal and Manchester City continue to flash their title challenger credentials. Manchester United and Tottenham have yet to figure out how they want to play football. And finally, this run of fixtures will begin to separate the wheat from the chaff and go a long way in defining which teams actually matter when it comes to the title, Top 4, and all the other important battles going into the second half of the season.
Arsenal Rotate and Play Just Fine
Arsenal may remember another game in which a less than full-strength Arsenal side went to Wigan, got up 2-0, and then gave up 3 goals in the final 10 minutes. This loss was the final nail in the coffin for Arsenal as they fell six points behind league leaders, and eventual champions, Chelsea with three games left to play. Though they did not have their first choice center forward, Olivier Giroud, on the field (the same was true of the Wigan match), along with not having Jack Wilshere, Kieran Gibbs, or Bacary Sagna either, Arsenal won comfortably against Hull City. They blitzed the visitors with an attacking display in the first 20 minutes more impressive than any other this season, outside of the first 15 minutes in their home match against Napoli. In less than two minutes, Arsenal’s biggest self-promoting underachiever scored the opener. While they did not score the second until the beginning of the second half, the anxiety, and ultimately the fragility, of a rotated Arsenal side was not present. Not only does this mean that Arsenal picked up three points while resting key players, it means that Arsenal have the ability to rotate key players rather comfortably against the lower sides (with the exception of GK and CB). This ability is critical when it comes to contending for the title. While claims of Arsenal lack of depth are often overblown (Manchester City’s lack of depth behind Vincent Kompany deserves as much attention as Arsenal lack of depth behind Giroud), it never hurts to have the ability to rest players, especially with the slew of fixtures in the next three weeks.
Manchester City Need To Keep The Pedal To the Metal
It is amazing to see the splits of Manchester City home and away (almost as amazing as Nolan Ryan’s home-road splits in 1972). At home, they look like one of the most dominant sides in all of football. Away from home, they dropped 14 out of 18 points before their 3-2 win against West Bromwich Albion. While the score line does not do Manchester City justice with respect to the quality of their performance, it does reveal a potential reason why City have struggled away from the Etihad. With the game already won, both of West Brom’s goals came late, with City’s standard of play dropping from the first 80 minutes of play. While it did not cost them points (and it is not like they are hurting when it comes to goal difference), this lack of focus and drive appears to be a theme of City’s play away from home. Looking at their most dominant performances this season, City blitzed their opponents from the start and did not stop until the other side capitulated. This resolve to curb-stomp one’s opponent like Danny Vinyard needs to extend to matches away from home. One does not win the league with just some big results and wins against the top sides. One has to have the best record after playing all 19 teams home and away. If they do not heed the sage advice of the announcer of Mortal Kombat, Arsenal or Chelsea will be the ones celebrating as another talented squad is wasted at the Etihad.
What Is Manchester United’s Identity Under Moyes?
Before the season started, Gary Neville and Jamie Carragher explored the issue of whether Moyes would change United or if United would change Moyes. Through a little more than a third of the season, it appears that neither seem to know who they are. Moyes does not seem to know how to best use his squad, nor does he seem willing to impose a Moyes’ style of football on the squad (though, as said before, that concept seems nonexistent). Without an identity/system and not picking a consistent XI, Moyes is killing the ability of the team to operate as a unit, instead of a bunch of individuals. This lack of identity for both manager and players has led to Moyes making curious decisions when Manchester United need to change the flow of a match. In their loss at Old Trafford versus Everton, after preferring wide players who stayed wide and played crosses into the box for most of this season (a curious tactic since Michael Carrick, Robin Van Persie, Wayne Rooney, and Shinji Kagawa are far and away United’s most adept players on-the-ball), Moyes put Nani and Adnan Januzaj on as inverted wingers to try to take the three points. While Januzaj’s made a few good runs in that role, the rest of the team did not seem to know how to operate with two inverted wingers on the pitch. This lack of familiarity on the pitch has come to define United’s season. In fact, the only certainty is that, when fit, Robin Van Persie and Wayne Rooney will play up front, with Rooney in a free role, and David De Gea will be in goal. The other eight roles are completely up in the air. If that remains the case, Manchester United will certainly end up closer to fourth than first, and possibly outside the top 4 altogether.
Tottenham Win in a Familiar Matter
Tottenham did not play well against Fulham. There is no getting around that. Despite this, they came away with all three points due to two fantastic long range shots from Vlad Chiriches and Lewis Holtby. Now this is not a sustainable way to win points, but for Spurs this is an all too familiar way to do so. Last season, especially in the second half, Tottenham morphed into a side whose Plans A-Z involved getting Gareth Bale the ball in positions to cut inside and unleash a shot on goal. Bale won Tottenham plenty of points with his individual play and his long-range goals. They rode Gareth Bale all the way to fifth place, and came two points away from Top 4. They sold Gareth Bale and brought in a multitude of players, none of which who have played with each other, in England, or under Andre Villas-Boas. So not only do Spurs have to figure out how to make up for a loss in quality, without a single player of Bale’s quality, they need to find a way of playing that allows the squad to function as a team, rather than a collection of individuals. Maybe all it will take is time and players like Erik Lamela play up to the levels those who have watched them are familiar with. However, after 14 games played, Spurs have only scored 13 goals, have a -2 goal difference, and do not appear to be improving. Without some major changes, it seems they will end up missing out on any European football in 2014-2015.
‘Tis The Season…To Play Football
This week began the most hectic stretch of the Premier League season. While most leagues have a winter break, England opts to stuff our stockings with six more Premier League fixtures from now through New Year’s Day. This period will help to start the separation of the league into the strata that will define which races matter during the second half of the season. For Arsenal, Chelsea, and Manchester City, it means rotation and making sure they define themselves as the only three with a shot at the title, with respect to the table, and not just the quality of their teams. For the six teams below them, this period will go a long way in eliminating pretenders for the Top 4. It could potentially expose Southampton’s and Newcastle United’s lack of depth. Liverpool have to overcome not having the strike duo that has carried a poor midfield and shaky back line this far. Manchester United (who will not have Rooney and maybe RVP for their next fixture, against Newcastle United) and Tottenham’s lack of an identity continue and continue to cost them points as the need to rotate limits their ability to create cohesion in their sides. All this could lead to Everton starting to pull away from the rest of their competitors and become favorites to end 4th. So while England’s lack of a winter break may not be the right thing to do when it comes to keeping the best plays fit and on the field for a larger percentage of games, it will be exciting, have some weird results, and do plenty to determine how the season plays out in 2014.
- Crystal Palace 1-0 West Ham United;
- Arsenal 2-0 Hull City;
- Liverpool 5-1 Norwich City;
- Manchester United 0-1 Everton;
- Southampton 2-3 Aston Villa;
- Stoke City 0-0 Cardiff City;
- Sunderland 3-4 Chelsea;
- Swansea City 3-0 Newcastle United;
- Fulham 1-2 Tottenham;
- West Bromwich Albion 2-3 Manchester City
- Liverpool’s Luis Suarez and Chelsea’s Eden Hazard scored perfect 10s for their midweek performances by Whoscored.com
- Luis Suarez become the first player in the history of the English Premier League (so since 1992) to score three hat-tricks against the same team
- With the two assists he picked up in Arsenal’s victory over Hull City, Mesut Ozil is top of the English Premier League with six assists
- In their loss, Southampton had 77% possession
- To make sense of that result, Aston Villa converted 3 of 6 chances, a 50% conversion rate
Goal of the Week