What an amazing match. It isn’t too often that two big name clubs get together for a featured match-up like Liverpool and Arsenal did on Sunday and deliver the goods in a way that matches the pre-match hype. This one did for sure. And boy did it have storylines everywhere. Here is a quick summary of the storylines that I jotted down as I tried to catch my breath after the match:
- Arsene Wenger was tactically outmatched – Arsene Wenger’s “genius” as a manager is tied mostly to him bringing a singular style and players able to execute that style. What he’s never really done is shown any propensity to go to Plan B when his preferred passing game tactics aren’t working. Brendan Rodgers came out with a 3-5-2 that saw Liverpool dominate the action early and Arsenal never really figured out how to counter. Liverpool’s wingers faded, especially Markovic likely because he rarely plays significant minutes, but Arsenal never really took the tactical advantage.
- The future of Calum Chambers – The former Southampton man had better have a future playing centrally because he’s just not fast or quick enough to play right back. Assuming that he does, apparently he’s not ready to assume central duties because Wenger had Chambers playing right back despite a right back in Mathieu Debuchy being available.
- Rodgers Christmas present to Arsenal – That said, Brendan Rodgers did Arsenal a huge favor by not deploying Raheem Sterling on the left side of the attack opposite Calum Chambers for the entire match. Once Sterling was moved out that way later in the second half I held my breath every time he touched the ball with Chambers between him and the net.
- Campbell as a defensive replacement? – I hope the reason for Arsene Wenger replacing Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain with Joel Campbell late had something to do with the injury that threatened to keep the Ox out for the match. Campbell might have a place in the squad long term but that place should never be related to helping an overmatched defender against a relentless attacker like Sterling.
- Whither Danny Welbeck? – He hasn’t produced big stats since coming to Arsenal but his early matches were filled with potential as he was at least knocking at the door on a regular basis. He hit a few posts and narrowly missed a few others in addition to his few goals but since the return of Olivier Giroud, Welbeck seems to have taken a massive step back in terms of his influence on matches. With Theo Walcott (theoretically) returning to fitness (again), it will be interesting to see how Welbeck fits in or if he fits in heading into January.
- Borini’s idiocy – Fabio Borini wasn’t in the match for very long but he did his best to undermine Liverpool’s push for a point. Yes, he might have been frustrated at not scoring on a decent chance at a header but that isn’t any reason to be slamming down the ball like my two-year-old does with his toys when he isn’t getting his way. That rash of petulance meant he had no margin for error a few minutes later when he tried to pull a Zidane on Santi Cazorla’s chest. Liverpool managed to equalize and then survive a good Arsenal break away before the final whistle but Rodgers will be feeling even worse about his forward options after Borini did his best Mario Balotelli imitation.
- Gerrard done – This past week, I heard someone on TalkSport putting forward the notion that we shouldn’t consider Steven Gerrard as “done” but rather should assume that he’s in a rut because of the mental stress from his huge error in the title race last spring and the mental/physical stress of the World Cup over the summer. Hard to feel good about that after this match where the only two times Gerrard even made you realize he was playing were a) when he committed the foul on Alexis Sanchez that led to Arsenal’s free kick that ultimately led to the first goal and b) when he made a horrible “Hollywood” pass that ignited a fast break for Arsenal’s second goal.
- Skrtel, really? – Back to the top where we questioned Arsene Wenger’s ability to adjust tactically. How could Arsenal not man-mark Martin Skrtel on that late corner after he scored on them twice last Spring? Calum Chambers tried to move on Skrtel as he drove into the box but he was too late and not physically strong enough.
- Giroud back to his best – Olivier Giroud looks like he is fully back. His goal showed off multiple aspects of his game that everyone should appreciate. His flick to Cazorla showed off his ability to pivot the attack with deft touches. He make a smart move to stay near the top of the penalty area rather than crashing the net and then smashed home a blistering shot. When Arsenal are at their best, Giroud provides a great Swiss Army Knife of skills that help both to facilitate opportunities as well as finishing them.
- Lucas shots from long – If Steven Gerrard were still alive and on the other end of those two shots, Liverpool would have won easily.
- Szczesny was strong – It is rare that Arsenal drop points in a heart-breaking fashion without the goalkeeper being at least somewhat culpable. Not this time though. Szczesny made a few very good saves over the course of the match
Those were the storylines but the most important thing here was that it was just fantastically entertaining.
The Title Race – Hard to say exactly what’s going on at Chelsea but we appear to have a title race again. The Blues are struggling to score while City are ripping their opponents apart.
Chelsea – City threw down the gauntlet with an easy 3-0 win to start off the weekend and puts the pressure on Chelsea to respond with a result later today at Stoke City. Can Chelsea come out of their doldrums against the Potters? Is a cold Monday night in Stoke as difficult as a cold Wednesday night?
Manchester City – It took them a while to get going but they won comfortably without a recognized forward in the line-up. They will be happy to get a brace from David Silva who appears to be returning to form after a spell out injured as well as another goal from Yaya Toure. Pablo Zabaleta was also very bring going forward subbing in for Samir Nasri as City’s third most effective attacker.
The Race For Europe – Manchester United aren’t very good but they seem like a very solid third place contender right now with Arsenal, Spurs, Liverpool, and Everton lagging and the candidacies of West Ham, Newcastle, and Southampton for that fourth spot looking more and more legitimate with each passing week. I’m not sure why I haven’t been doing this up until now but I will now start listing the clubs in this section in order of (my perception) the relative strength.
Manchester United – United’s mediocre play finally caught up with them as they dropped two very achievable points to Aston Villa which halted their winning run. They had all of their big-name attackers available for at least some of the match and still, they didn’t look terribly dangerous, did they? Van Gaal is back to the early-season dilemma of whom to start among Robin van Persie, Wayne Rooney, Radamel Falcao, Juan Mata, and Angel di Maria. In theory all five could start given that LVG seems to be resigned to playing four defenders rather than his 3-5-2 but it doesn’t seem like the parts fit together very well regardless of how talented they all are as individuals. It was good to see Falcao score given all of his issues so at least he’s going to make forward selection difficult for Van Gaal. The real question is how he gets the best out of the midfielders he lines up behind the forwards, a group which appears to include Wayne Rooney (better late than never). United are lucky in that they appear to be getting Newcastle just after the clock has struck midnight on their Cinderella Story – a Christmas present indeed.
Arsenal – Tactically over-matched and yet they had three points for the taking on the road at Anfield and still ended up with one. Not ideal but not tragic either. I think we’ve covered their exploits plenty in the intro.
Tottenham Hotspur – Being tied with Arsenal on points headed into the Christmas holiday will be a nice present for Spurs supporters that they get to follow up with a Boxing Day trip to Leicester who have been giving presents away like it’s been Christmas for about 10 weeks. That they also got an Erik Lamela goal – somehow his first one in the Premier League after a year and a half at Spurs – will look like the biggest holiday miracle of them all. The December 28th visit of Manchester United will the big test of Spurs’ recent run of strong play.
Southampton – They’re back, baby! This was the breakout that they needed to shake themselves out of the doldrums before their post-Boxing Day run of Chelsea, Arsenal and @Manchester United. They did it without Dusan Tadic but with a significant contribution from James Ward-Prowse. Good times on the South Coast for the holidays which would have been just miserable if they’d dropped yet another match.
West Ham United – Still hanging on to fourth and only a point out of third after United dropped two points at Villa while the Hammers were being treated to a wonderful holiday party by Leicester City who even went so far as to gift-wrap the opener for Andy Carroll in the form of a weak and ill-considered back-pass to the goalkeeper. Carroll certainly had to do some work to finish the job but I’m sure he’d like his odds of scoring that one more often than not.
Liverpool – We’ve covered them plenty already but tenth place heading into Christmas but at least they get Burnley on Boxing Day. The only drawback is that if they drop points in that one it will be an ugly end to 2014 indeed.
Newcastle United – Thanks for playing, it was fun while it lasted but being dominated by Sunderland, derby rivalry or no derby rivalry, is enough to get you thrown off the list given the dissonance between the talent on hand and the form they were in right up until Arsenal crushed them. We’ll always have what might be Chelsea’s one defeat of the season.
Everton – Eleventh and just whipped by a team that was reeling in Southampton. The Toffees just don’t seem to have what it takes this season. Sure, they could put a run together and move up once the calendar hits 2015 but given the number of teams between them and fourth and the relatively likelihood of each putting together such a run, it doesn’t seem at all likely. We like Roberto Martinez and a bunch of the Everton players but not enough to delude ourselves into considering them something other than what they are which is a mid-table team in the newly competitive and flush with cash Premier League team. It’s probably enough to point out that Charlie Austin is outscoring Everton’s two signature summer signings (Lukaku and Eto’o) combined. Not good.
The Relegation Zone - where we examine events at the other end of the table as established clubs flounder and newly promoted clubs reveal who they are going to be this season. Like the sections above, I’ve reordered with the most likely to be relegated being first and the least likely of the group last.
Leicester City – The Foxes didn’t necessarily play worse than they have been playing but they lost again and that is troubling both because they lost and because some of their nearest neighbors in the table are showing signs of life. It’s now five points to Crystal Palace who are currently “safe” in 17th place. That doesn’t sound like a great distance but given that it represents 50% of Leicester City’s output for the season and 250% of their total since that now even more mind-blowing 5-3 win over Manchester United. This doesn’t look like a hole they’re capable of climbing out of.
Burnley – A solid effort against Spurs only to be undone by that rarest of things, an Erik Lamela goal. Still “in the mix” for safety but unless the Board sanctions some spending in January and they do well with those purchases it feels like their neighbors at the bottom of the table will be better positioned to buy their way to safety.
Hull City – Swansea are a better team for sure but at a certain point a team that wants to stay up has to defend their home turf and beat some better teams. Swansea didn’t start Wilfried Bony and were without Gylfi Sigurdsson so there’s no reason to think that there was no opportunity here. Still, the Tigers managed to flub their lines and go down to defeat yet again. I keep saying it’s hard to imagine a roster that has this much talent being relegated but it looks more and more likely that that’s what is going to happen.
QPR – What a huge comeback for the Rs. Down 2-0 at home to West Brom and they stepped on the gas and scored three goals to win it. They could even have had a fourth if what seemed like a pretty solid shout for a second penalty had been awarded. I guess that’s one of the many problems with being Joey Barton, if anyone gets less benefit of the doubt on any and every topic, I’m not sure who it might be. Mario Balotelli could be in the running on that front but that has more to do with the media than official-dom. Maybe Lee Catermole would be on that list as well. Regardless, the only thing Harry Redknapp cares about right now is that he’s sitting a solid two points above the relegation zone and he possesses that rarest of things at the bottom of the table, a goal scorer.
Crystal Palace – The only reason Palace aren’t “ahead” of QPR on this list is that QPR have faced an inordinately easy home schedule thus far with West Brom, Burnley, Leicester City, Aston Villa, Stoke City, Sunderland and Hull City all having made their visit to Loftus Road already. Of the teams in the bottom half that leaves only Everton (11th) and Crystal Palace (17th) to visit over the balance of the season. If you haven’t looked at QPR’s away form, it certainly gives hope to Palace and others that they’ll fall back into the relegation zone as their home matches get tougher. For the record, that’s P8, W0 D0 L8 with three goals for and twenty goals against. Sadly, Palace’s best case for staying up involves no discussion of their potential to play well or improve but only that one of the teams ahead of them currently is highly likely to see the bottom drop out over the second half of the season.
Sunderland – Up to 19 points with a huge win over Newcastle and now closer to the top half than the relegation zone. We’ll see what happens over the next few weeks but adding a win to all those draws is finally starting to look like something for Gus Poyet’s men. If they’re good, or even good enough, between now and New Year’s Day then they’ll likely be off this list.
Newcomer of the Year - where we track the progress of players new to the Premier League this season
- Cesc Fabregas – Will his Arsenal history follow him to Chelsea and see him turn in a stinker against Stoke City? We’ll see in a few hours.
- Alexis Sanchez – As Olivier Giroud returns in good form and Santi Cazorla continues to contribute it has allowed Sanchez to carry a little less of the burden. His stats are down slightly over the past few weeks but you can still see him
- Diego Costa – Do all these matches on top of each other count as cardio training for Costa?
- Charlie Austin – Technically, anyone coming up with a newly promoted team is a newcomer so we are belatedly adding Champaign Charlie to the list and slotting him between Diego Costa and Gylfi Sigurdsson. If this list were “most valuable” as opposed to “best” then he might move a spot or two higher since he’s pretty much keeping QPR out of the relegation zone single-handedly.
- Gylfi Sigurdsson – Picked up a minor knock against Spurs and didn’t play in the 1-0 win against Hull City. His timing is so good he even picked the perfect time to pick up a knock.
- Bojan – The third man on our list who has yet to play this weekend. It will be a big ask for him to power through the Chelsea defense to wreak the sort of havoc he’s been causing over the past six weeks.
- Angel Di Maria – He returned as a late substitute against Aston Villa but wasn’t particularly impressive. He’ll certainly get his chance soon enough with the fixture list being what it is.
- Dusan Tadic/Graziano Pelle – Tadic was out with a minor knock (he should be back for Boxing Day) but Pelle was in the mix for the Saints first goal that was ultimately directed in by Lukaku for an own goal and he scored the second. As Pelle goes, so go the Saints apparently.
- Diafra Sakho – Still looking very effective as a foil for Andy Carroll, he picked up the assist on Stuart Downing’s goal.
- Fraser Forster – Back with a clean sheet and a strong overall performance including four saves.
Just Missing Out: Enner Valencia, Thibaut Courtois, Jefferson Montero, Toby Alderweireld, Falcao, Andrew Robertson, Leonardo Ulloa, Danny Welbeck, Daley Blind, Ander Herrera, Eric Dier, Kieran Trippier, Joseph Schlupp, Patrick van Aanholt.
Dropping Off: Enner Valencia
The Phantom Point All-Stars – Yes, we’re going to keep tweaking this one until we get it right. We’re going to re-instate the Joel Ward All-Stars (defending phantom statistics – blocks, interceptions and tackles), re-classify the Mido All-Stars (all attacking phantom points – SOTs, corners won, successful crosses) and add an all-around category for players who throw in a little of everything for a massive phantom point weekend.
We’re going to dip our toe back into this section of the column after a week off by making it the overall Phantom Point All-Stars. It’s already late in the day on Monday and I still have at least one more meeting that I have to get to so rather than putting off the column until Tuesday (which would make the title a bit misleading) this will be the solution:
- Danny Ings – A big weekend for the Burnley (soon to be Newcastle?) forward who put up three SOTs and three corners won while winning three tackles. Lots of phantom points for a Burnley attacker? It’s a Christmas miracle.
- Harrison Reed – Talk about a great season debut. The 19-year-old Reed came into a midfield missing Morgan Schneiderlin, Victor Wanyama, and Dusan Tadic and deputized with THIRTEEN tackles won while intercepting two passes and winning four fouls. Another young Southampton player to watch apparently.
- Sammy Ameobi – A great all-around fantasy performance from Ameobi with four interceptions, four successful crosses, two corners won, a blocked show and a tackle won. If you saw the match, you definitely noticed his presence.
- Steven Gerrard – Perhaps the worst 14 point effort ever in the history of the Yahoo format. He managed three shots on target, won three tackles and intercepted two passes but never have such solid-looking stats looked so inconsequential when watching live.
- Mile Jedinak – He hasn’t been the out-and-out stud of last season but he’s still pretty good at racking up the phantom points contributing six interceptions, a shot on target, a blocked shot, and a tackle won to a losing Crystal Palace cause.
- Scott Dann – Joining Jedinak in racking up big defending phantom points was teammate Dann who blocked three shots, intercepted four passes and won two tackles.
- Fabian Delph – Delph’s name has been in the transfer rumors a lot this season and performances like the one against United featuring a shot on target, two interceptions, two successful crosses, a blocked shot and a corner won won’t dissuade Arsenal or any other potential buyers.
- Angel di Maria – It didn’t look particularly impressive in real life but coming on as a second half substitute and putting up three shots on target and winning three corners in the process is very impressive work in our little fantasy world.
- Craig Gardner – Not often he makes this list on the strength of his attacking contributions but two shots on target and two resulting corners won accounted for eight of his 12 points in the Yahoo format.
- Moussa Sissoko – Another player who made the list taking shots on target and winning corners from those shots rather than scoring goals. Sissoko managed two shots on target/corners won and won three fouls while doing so.
The Fake Narrative of the Week - It is impossible to go a week without encountering a narrative somewhere in the football media that appears to be totally made up for the sake of gaining attention. They usually fall into the categories of made up transfer rumors, hanging on too long to a mental image of who a player was and not who he currently is, or preying on a long-held stereotype based on club, nationality, or position. When I come across them, I'll let you know and then let you know why I think they're silly.
Nigel Pearson should be doing better – I don’t remember where I heard it but someone asked if Nigel Pearson should be the manager most likely to lose his job at this point in the Premier League season. The obvious answer, when looking at the 10 points accumulated and general hopelessness of the last couple of months, would be “yes” which is what the expert being asked responded but I beg to differ. Leicester City came up to the Premier League and didn’t exactly set the transfer market on fire. They pulled in a veteran, likely an expensive one, in the form of Esteban Cambiasso and acquired a couple other established Premier League players in Mathew Upson and Danny Simpson (and another semi-established Premier Leaguer in Marc Albrighton) but their only real cash outlay was for Leonardo Ulloa. If you’re going to survive in the big time then you need more than that top have any hopes of anything but an immediate return from whence you came. If the goal of this season was to infuse the club with some cash (both from this year’s money and the balloon payments), acquire a few assets like Ulloa who will help them come straight back up again after a season back in the Championship then the results on the pitch should be secondary because there was never any real hope of or intention to win.
If the manager was the one charting this course and the Chairman/Board decided that they don’t agree with the strategy then it seems reasonable to think about firing him but that doesn’t seem like the sort of decision that gets made by the manager. That’s a Board decision on the future of the club. If the Board didn’t have the stomach to essentially tank the season in return for a multi-year financial windfall and a chance to season what is essentially a Championship roster with a season of Premier League football then they should have demanded more money be spent last summer. If they just don’t want to admit that that’s what they’re doing and that the famous win against Manchester United was just a happy accident then shame on them for hanging the guy that got them to the Premier League out to dry.
Sponsor I'd Like To See - As you can see from the lack of sponsorship for this column or this page, there's room for some additional corporate involvement here at the Rotoworld.com Premier League page. In a blatant attempt to solicit any sponsors who may be reading, I'm going to start suggesting some sponsors who might want to call the nice people at NBC Sports to find out what it would take to become part of the team.
FIFA 2015 – One form of “fantasy” soccer sponsoring another. They seem to be spending money like it’s going out of style as if everyone with a Playstation/Xbox doesn’t already own the game so why not us? Why not now? Come EA Sports – show us the love and we’ll find a way to get some sort of a readers tournament going with our soccer-crazed audience.
Random Closing Thoughts - Well, this one's pretty obvious and it will be how we close out the column each week at least until a better idea comes along.
- My Second Club – The curse is broken! Finally, a team currently known as “my second team” won a match and did so convincingly! I was starting to get a bit of a complex.
- This Week’s Good Points: Aston Villa picked up an unexpected point against Manchester United and Sunderland deserve three “good points” for their victory against Newcastle at St. James’ Park. Otherwise, the results went more or less as expected pending Chelsea’s match against Stoke City.
- The Good Points Table: Newcastle 10; Sunderland 9; Leicester City: 9; Crystal Palace 9; Stoke City 9; Burnley 9; West Ham 6; Swansea City 6; Burnley 5; Manchester United 4; Spurs 4; Aston Villa 4; Chelsea 3; West Brom 3; Hull City 3; QPR 1.
- This Week’s Bad Points: On the reverse of the “good points” are corresponding “bad points” for Manchester United (2 dropped) and Newcastle (3 dropped).
- The Bad Points Table: Liverpool 16; Spurs 13; Manchester United: 12; Arsenal 11; Everton 9; Manchester City 8; Newcastle 7; Stoke City 6; Chelsea 5; Southampton 5; Swansea 5; Aston Villa 2; and Crystal Palace 2.
- Southampton’s Champions League Chances: An injection of hope in a fading cause. They’ll need another win against Crystal Palace on Boxing Day to keep me on the bandwagon that will surely get less crowded over the three match stretch featuring Chelsea, Arsenal, and Manchester United coming up starting on the 28th.
- West Ham’s Rise – They actually solidified their hold on fourth with Arsenal dropping two points and got closer to third with Manchester United dropping points of their own. It will be a Merry Christmas in East London indeed. Imagine that Sam Alardyce was at risk of being the first manager fired this season. Going to be hard to fire him now.
- Player of the Week – The Stoke City vs. Chelsea match is still in progress but we feel good about nominating Charlie Austin for this three goals, Jores Okore for his exceptional defending against the waves of big name Manchester United attackers, and Erik Lamela because he scored and scored an important winner and who knows when that might happen again. Austin is the easy choice given how important every single point will be to QPR’s chances of staying up.
- My Favorite Things – Pablo Zabaleta coming in from the right side of City’s attack – he and Ivanovic are surprisingly terrifying attacking options but Zabaleta seems just a little bit better for my money…Benteke’s goal against Manchester United, a beautiful curling effort… Seeing Falcao back in action, Red Devil or not, he’s too good for us to not want to see him play…Jonjo Shelvey from deep – he was responsible for Swansea’s goal despite not getting the credit due to a minor deflection, he also had another strong shot from deep…James Ward-Prowse back with an assist…the Andy Carroll rejuvenation continuing…Steven Fletcher’s over-the-shoulder attempt on goal from what was essentially a blind Seb Larsson pass – it didn’t go in but it was close and it would have been SWEET if it had…Ashley Barnes who did hit a pretty fantastic goal against Spurs even if it came in a losing effort.
- My Least Favorite Things – Fabio Borini’s petulance at not getting the call on a throw in (he was in the right but get over yourself)…Fabio Borini’s attempt to gore Santi Cazorla, it’s hard enough for a guy Cazorla’s size to survive in the Prem without someone putting their boot in his chest…Calum Chambers defending with Joel Campbell “helping”…Paul Konchesky passing back to the keeper…Newcastle’s chances of finishing the season in the top half…Phil Bardsley’s tackle on Eden Hazard...West Brom’s ability to hold a lead…Steve Bruce’s chances of keeping his job.
- What did we find out? The battle for fourth is going to be THE race to watch this season. QPR have a fighting chance if Charlie Austin keeps scoring goals. Liverpool aren’t dead yet but they’re getting pretty close. Those thoughts of Manchester United joining the title race were just a bit optimistic, huh?
- Balotelli Watch – Apparently the Spirit of Mario invaded the body of Fabio Borini while Balotelli was suspended for his Instagram faux pas.
- What’s Next? Santa arrives followed quickly by Chelsea testing West Ham’s status as a top four team in the early Boxing Day fixture. Manchester United vs. Newcastle at tea time offers a match-up of two clubs who had been on great winning runs until recent stumbles. Finally, Arsenal look to rebound from their late match collapse against Liverpool with what should be a big win over QPR at the Emirates (and “at the Emirates” is the key phrase there and if you need to know why then scroll back up to the note on Crystal Palace’s relegation prospects and take a second look at QPR’s away form this season).