Has there ever been a weekend where we heard the phrase "Magic of the FA Cup" more than we did this past weekend? It probably would have been overused just on the strength of Cambridge United drawing with Manchester United on Friday giving commentators and headline writers a full weekend of matches to use it. Throw in shocking home losses for Chelsea, Manchester City, and Spurs AND a home draw for Liverpool AND an away defeat for Swansea - all to lower league clubs - and the "Magic of the FA Cup" went from trite catchphrase used to try to convince you to watch huge mismatches while recalling glories of yesteryear to a real thing. Oh, and in case you were wondering, yes, I'm throwing Leicester City in as a lower league club since they appear to be headed back that way soon enough. The weekend was so incredible that it moved Jose Mourinho to be gracious in defeat. If that's not magic, I'm not sure what is.
What I'm not going to do here is give a re-telling of the weekend's action. It was great but we've got YouTube, highlights shows, and the like to give you a flavor for the action as it unfolded. What I will do is try to make some sense of what happened and what it might mean for the Premier League going forward and the last week of the January transfer window:
1. Manchester United - Another miserable attacking performance from the Wannabe Galacticos. The names on the back of the shirts are big ones and they cost a ton of money on the transfer market in FIFA2015 but on a real field, playing together, they showed once against that they aren't even as good as the sum of their talented parts let alone more than them. The implications are a few:
- Sir Alex's Legacy - Over the past season and a half we've seen shots of Sir Alex Ferguson in the stands looking happy and relaxed. And no wonder, it was one thing for United to flounder with a crumbling roster and a manager who had never operated at the highest levels of the game. This season, with a huge transfer war chest already burnt through and a World Class manager in place, United still aren't anywhere near the standard that Ferguson set over the course of his career and as recently as his last season. With Van Gaal not doing any better than Moyes did, one wonders how much leash he'll get given what I'm sure is a huge contract to go along with his huge ego and huge reputation.
- The Formation Mess - Louis Van Gaal just can't seem to figure out which players to start and how to align them when he does. The defense isn't giving up that many goals but that seems to be down to the impressive form of David De Gea more so than any tactical genius from Van Gaal or particular effectiveness of either the holdover players or the new ones. Moving up the formation, the center of midfield is just as much of a mess with Michael Carrick playing well but no one sure exactly how Marouane Fellaini, Daley Blind, Ander Herrera, Juan Mata, Adnan Januzaj, and Wayne Rooney fit together. Maybe the worst of all is that Angel Di Maria's name isn't mentioned as a midfielder. Louis Van Gaal may have struck gold moving players around during the World Cup but moving Di Maria to a forward role has been a disaster. Either the player is really still hurt or he's not at all suited for that role and LVG is effectively wasting about $100M in players by having Di Maria being useless at forward and keeping another expensive forward on the bench.
- The Transfer Market - It seems likely that Darren Fletcher will be headed out as his contract expires at the end of the season and he is unlikely to feature much between now and then. United have been linked with a number of defenders during the transfer window including both right backs - most notably Nathaniel Clyne - and center backs. Clyne would make a lot of sense for United since Valencia and Rafael are the definition of adequate. The better question is why Southampton would sell to a top four rival when the player is signed through the end of the 2015-16 season. A more likely scenario is the Saints seeing if they can secure Champions League football for next season before making a decision on the much sought-after Clyne. As for center backs, sure, United could use a significant signing at that spot but unless that signing also unlocks the attack then I'm not sure that salvation will come from anyone United has been linked with in even the most fanciful of rumors.
Worry Index: 5 - it is worrying but there isn't anything really new in United's miserable performance, at least they're not out of the competition.
2. Chelsea - The most stunning of Saturday's upsets because a) Chelsea was up 2-0 after 40 minutes and b) they were playing at home. Regardless of the opposition, that has "game over" stamped all over it. Unlike Manchester United and some of the other upset victims over the weekend, Chelsea can at least claim some solace in the fact that they played a significant number of reserves. Now, Chelsea's reserves were supposed to be one of the club's huge strengths but what we learned is that there's a massive difference between having talented players to slot into the line-up one or two at a time and swapping out nearly the entire first choice group in favor of reserves who haven't played a great deal of football this season. Of the starters against Bradford City, only Oscar, Gary Cahill and Cesar Azpilicueta start regularly for the Blues. An occasional Ramires or Kurt Zouma start in the league when surrounded by Terry, Ivanovic, Matic, Fabregas, Hazard and Costa is one thing but Ramires, Zouma, Christensen, Mikel, Salah, Drogba, and Remy all starting is a little different. Embarrassing for sure but hardly a sign of anything significant other than maybe Mourinho should rotate his squad a little more frequently in the league.
Worry Index: 2 - It isn't ideal that Chelsea's reserve can't hold a two goal lead against a team that cost £7,500 to assemble but it was a reserve group for Chelsea and I don't think there's anything that supporters should be particularly worried about as it relates to the Premier League or Champions League.
3. Manchester City - Of all of the shocks, this is perhaps the most worrying. We knew Manchester United had it in them to be horrible in the attack. Once Chelsea announced it's starting eleven there was always at least a slim chance that they could be had. Manchester City were playing at home against an admittedly game Middlesbrough side with Sergio Aguero, David Silva, Vincent Kompany, Pablo Zabaleta, Stevan Jovetic, James Milner, and Jesus Navas starting. The only decidedly reserve players who got starts were Boyata and Caballero. There are a few theories behind City's overall weakness: 1) the easy one is the impact of the club's training camp trip to Abu Dhabi and 2) the lack of full fitness for key players Sergio Aguero and Vincent Kompany. Middlesbrough are a cut above Bradford City and Cambridge United so losing to them isn't exactly quite as shocking. Boro are currently second in the Championship and even slight issues associated with jet lag and star players recovering could easily be the difference. The deeper worry is that Kompany has been slipping for a while and Aguero is always a risk to pick up another injury. The final issue, one that was insightfully brought up on ESPNFC.com is that City's core is getting old and the recent reinforcements haven't been impactful. City have the oldest squad in the Premier League and key members are among those driving that number up. If you believe that a footballer's prime tends to range from perhaps 24 to 28-years-old with central defenders and holding midfielders able to extend that window slightly then you're looking at Gael Clichy (29), Martin Demichelis (34), Vincent Kompany (28), Pablo Zabaleta (30), Frank Lampard (36), James Milner (29), Jesus Navas (29), Fernandinho (29), David Silva (29), Yaya Toure (31), and Bacary Sagna (31) all either at the tail end of their prime or outside of that window. Throw in Sergio Aguero's propensity for injuries at a mere 27 years old and you've got a squad that is a year or two away from being comprised entirely of players 30 years old or older. Given that City have already been hit with FFP sanctions this year and their ability to turn the squad over in short order is probably at least somewhat limited. City are likely to rebound from this specific loss just fine but there are some legitimate cracks showing in this squad the same way there were at Manchester United in the couple years before Sir Alex retired, the difference is that there's no Sir Alex to coax an incredible season from this group.
Worry Index: 7 - Wilfried Bony is a nice pick-up at 26 and could be part of City's next generation but where's the next Yaya Toure? David Silva? Vincent Kompany? Pablo Zabaleta? Those are the players that inspired City to two titles in three years and they need to be replaced soon if City are to keep up with Chelsea and even keep up with the very competitive pack challenging for Champions League places.
4. Tottenham Hotspur - For 80+ minutes, it looked like another lackluster Spurs win against a team at the bottom of the Premier League. They weren't as dominant as you'd expect from a team hoping for a Champions League spot would be against the 20th place team in the league but they were winning. Then Leicester City scored an equalizer. A replay wouldn't have been ideal as Spurs are competing in the League Cup, Europa League and Premier League as well but a draw would have been pretty well ignored given the magnitude of the results taking place elsewhere on Saturday. Instead, Michel Vorm conspired to score what was essentially an own goal. It was credited to Jeffrey Schlupp but it looked for all the world like Vorm either rolled over it or rolled it into the net himself. Wasn't he everyone's favorite Premier League keeper just a couple seasons ago at Swansea? In the grander scheme of things, Spurs have the same excuse that Chelsea does here which is that they played what amounted to a reserve squad against Premier League opposition. None of the Spurs players individually would look out of place starting a Premier League match but an entire starting eleven of players who haven't played regularly is bound to produce some issues and they did. In the short term, this could be seen as an opportunity lost because the FA Cup favorites list looks to be Arsenal, Manchester United, and Liverpool heading into Round 5 with neither United nor Liverpool guaranteed a spot in Round 5 yet. Spurs didn't know that when they set their line-up though and having one less thing to worry about is probably OK.
Worry Index: 3 - Spurs have plenty to be worried about given recent performances against mediocre teams in the league but this shouldn't add to those worries given the players used in this one.
5. Liverpool - This one was just hard to watch. The uniforms were the same ones worn by those guys who scored a ton of goals last season but it never looked like they had much of a shot this time around. There were a couple of nice saves from Bolton keeper Adam Bogdan but it was just as likely that Bolton would score as Liverpool. I think we already knew this but what we saw demonstrated again is that Raheem Sterling isn't ready to play a "false nine", at least not with the supporting cast that Liverpool offers him when he does so. Liverpool will have a chance to redeem themselves at home next week so this could end up being a blip on the march to an FA Cup winning season but you certainly don't see it from the performance they put on.
Worry Index: 5 - They played a mix of starters and reserves but it never looked good. They need a forward in a huge way and then hope that the rest of the talent steps up when played in the appropriate position. If Sturridge isn't Sturridge when he comes back in the same way that Aguero hasn't been Aguero since he returned from his latest injury then it could be an ugly second half of the season.
6. Arsenal - Just kidding. It wasn't a perfect performance by Arsenal by any means but they got a chance to bring Theo Walcott and Mesut Ozil back into the squad with goal-scoring performances which will help when they are eventually brought back into the line-up for a Premier League match. Tomas Rosicky continued to play as well as he ever has in an Arsenal shirt. Wojciech Szczesny featured for the first time since the debacle at Southampton and looks locked into the role of "Cup Keeper" with Ospina playing well in the League. The biggest news here is that there were no new injuries reported and Arsenal's most worrying competition to the defense of their FA Cup have now exited the tournament.
Worry Index: 2 - It should be "1" but this is Arsenal and it would be so very them to go out in Round 5 despite having a clean march to a second consecutive FA CUp after seeing Manchester United and Liverpool lose their Round 4 replays. Either that or the tackle that saw Aaron Ramsey limping around a bit late will turn out to sideline him for the next six months.
Transfer Bits and Pieces
It's been fairly quiet so far this January but with one week to go in the transfer window, here are a few important items that have made an impression so far:
- ARSENAL HAVE ACTUALLY SIGNED BOTH A HOLDING MIDFIELDER AND A CENTRAL DEFENDER!!!
- OK, the center back hasn't gone official yet (work permit granted and medical to come shortly) and the holding midfielder isn't going to play until next season at the earliest but still...
- Gabriel Paulista looks to be a Koscielny-like presence who is on the rise at age 24 and with a half-season of La Liga starting under his belt. He isn't going to be a superstar but Arsenal didn't need a superstar, they just needed an above average third center back and it appears that's what they've got. FINALLY!
- Fabian Delph re-signed with Aston Villa. This is big news for a club facing the potential loss of their best player at each level of the pitch (Benteke at forward, Delph in midfield and Vlaar in defense) over the summer. They may still lose all three but at least they won't lose more than one (Vlaar) for free. Delph will probably still leave but by signing a long-term deal he ensures that Villa will get some serious compensation if he does leave.
- Kyle Naughton went from Spurs to Swansea in a move that gives the Swans some depth at right back while giving hope to Americans everywhere that DeAndre Yedlin might actually see the pitch at White Hart Lane at some point in the not too distant future.
- Finally, Crystal Palace's somewhat odd-seeming conglomeration of Arsenal wash-out forwards worked to perfection in the FA Cup over the weekend. Alan Pardew got two goals from Marouane Chamakh and one from Yaya Sanogo as Palace scored their second consecutive 3-2 come-from-behind victory. There's at least some chance Sanogo has an interesting second half of the season with far more playing time available at Selhurst Park. The idea of Wilfried Zaha, Dwight Gayle, James Puncheon and Sanogo flying around and being athletic and fast could be a real change of pace for the Eagles. It could be fun to watch even if it is bound to go horribly wrong from time-to-time.
Here's hoping that there's some interesting activity over this next week because otherwise, sifting through all of the transfer rumors this January will end up being a real disappointment. I generally enjoy "silly season" more than most in the media claim to but I at least want there to be SOME payoff at the end of it all. I'm going to enjoy the dramatically reduced chance of having to watch Calum Chambers/Nacho Monreal deputize at center back at Arsenal over the second half of the season but that and watching Wilfried Bony sit on the bench at City aren't exactly the injection of excitement that I was hoping for over the second half of the season.