Chelsea and Arsenal drew on Sunday, here’s some point-counterpoint on exactly how supporters of both sides (and neutrals) can interpret that outcome to support whatever their hopes are for the rest of this season and all of next season in the Premier League:
Point Chelsea: You can say all the same things about Chelsea’s draw this week that you said about the victory over Manchester United last week. The difference in the two matches was that Chelsea’s one big chance against United fell to Eden Hazard who is really good and he scored. This time it fell to Ramires who isn’t quite so good. He didn’t score. Still, it was a master class in how to get what you need out of a match-up with a high quality opponent. Chelsea didn’t need a win so much as they needed to avoid a loss and that’s what they did. It wasn’t pretty to watch but it was brutally effective.
Counterpoint Arsenal: To be fair, Arsene Wenger went into the match also indicating that his plan was to “neutralize Chelsea”. It isn’t typical that Wenger has such pedestrian goals for a match but that was his line in the lead-up. Maybe he realized that there was little his team was going to do to score and decided a nil-nil draw wasn’t the worst outcome possible and that if he wasn’t going to win the actual battle, he could at least not look silly in the PR battle with Mourinho that he so often loses more embarrassingly than he does the actual match.
Point Chelsea: John Terry was exceptional. I saw or heard somewhere over the weekend that after playing every minute of every match for 33 Premier League matches, John Terry has only 10 fouls committed all season. That’s just stunning. He completely neutralized Olivier Giroud who has been in excellent form for about two months.
Counterpoint Arsenal (and everyone else): Terry is getting old and at some point he’s not going to be able to continue to perform at this level. Before you suggest that Chelsea have the money to find a replacement with no trouble just remember how many times Manchester City have botched their efforts to find a suitable partner to Vincent Kompany. They’ve spent a ton of money on Mangala, Nastasic, et al and come up with very little. Chelsea have been better on the transfer market but let’s not underestimate how difficult it will be to replace Terry when that time comes.
Point Chelsea: It’s hard to dispute the notion that they should have had at least one penalty if not two. There was definitely at least a little contact by Santi Cazorla on Cesc Fabregas although the notion that it was enough to topple the former Arsenal man seems a little fanciful. The one that can’t be denied is David Ospina’s demolition of Oscar about 10 minutes before halftime. Hard to understand how a penalty wasn’t called on that one. Bellerin did a nice job of clearing the ball of the line but the fact that the referee allowed the play to continue to see if the ball went in didn’t mean he couldn’t award a penalty after it didn’t. The fact that Oscar was injured on the play just makes the no-call worse. I may be a Gunner but there’s no excuse for any goalkeeper being given carte blanche to take out an opponent like that. I don’t think the play was intentionally dirty but a lack of intent doesn’t make it any less dangerous or worthy of reprimand.
Counterpoint Arsenal: At least the official was consistent, he missed them both ways. I’m sure I’ll get arguments about the “hand in a natural position” rule but you have to have Chelsea blue blood running through your veins to call the position of Cahill’s arm “natural” when he blocked Santi Cazorla’s shot. That’s like saying elbowing an opponent in the head when contesting an aerial ball is ok because people generally use their arms to jump. It’s true but it doesn’t mean that it’s OK to hit someone for that reason in the context of a match. He blocked a goalbound shot with an outstretched arm and that needs to be a penalty just as much as Ospina’s “tackle” on Oscar needed to be a penalty. Frustrating that neither was called.
Point Chelsea: The title was already pretty well theirs but the draw confirms it. The interesting thing about Chelsea’s grind-it-out second half of the season is that it was enabled by the lead that their imperious attacking in the first half of the season. What remains to be seen is whether they can repeat their attack-oriented domination in the first half of next season and build a similar lead in the standings. They are clearly the favorites heading into next season, have the least to do in the transfer market and have the most flexibility within FFP to accomplish whatever they need to accomplish but the one thing that failing to beat Arsenal and generally not dominating the second half of the season has done is provide some hope over the summer that there will be a tighter title race.
Counterpoint Arsenal: It was always the height of optimism that the Gunners were going to make a race of the title for this season. That said, they have a very reasonable chance of finishing second, winning a second consecutive FA Cup, and ending the season with a credible record against the teams around them in the top four. If they can beat Manchester United at Old Trafford in mid-May it will, in all likelihood, seal second for the Gunners and provide a real jumping off point for the summer. You always want the season to end in a title but if you’d asked me at the beginning of the season if I’d consider the likely outcome of this season a step forward, I’d have said “yes” in an instant. Arsene Wenger started two ascending players – Coquelin and Bellerin – who have emerged as high quality starters with room to grow in troublesome positions. Neither player shrunk from the occasion. That there was even fanciful talk of a title run in late April was always going to be icing on the cake.
Arsenal can’t truly claim that they have broken free of their seeming mental blocks until they beat Chelsea and Manchester United in important league matches. They still have a chance to do the trick over Manchester United and at least they don’t have another demoralizing defeat to Chelsea to have to live down over the summer. At the same time, Chelsea have another title to look at admiringly over the summer. In a match where neither team won, it could be said that both teams did win if the bar used to measure such things is progress forward from where they ended last season. It wasn’t pretty to watch but it was progress forward for both sides.
The Title Race
Chelsea – Not much to write here other than how much Chelsea clearly need another holding midfielder and a better reserve forward in the summer. Ramires runs a lot and I know Jose Mourinho likes his midfielders to bring effort but surely there has to be another midfielder out there who brings similar effort who can also provide something useful going forward. Nemanja Matic provides very little going forward and Chelsea can get away with that when they partner him with Cesc Fabregas as a deep-lying playmaker. When it’s Matic and Ramires there is a ton of industry but with that industry comes a great deal of pressure on Hazard and the other attackers to make it happen on their own at the attacking end. As much as I hate to say it, Morgan Schneiderin would be the perfect fit at Chelsea for situations where they want more bite in their holding pairing but don’t want to sacrifice the attack to the extent that Ramires forces them to.
The Race for Europe
Arsenal – More depth – at goalkeeper, at center back, and at holding midfielder – are clear summer priorities but surprisingly it is the attack that Arsenal find themselves needing to improve if they want to feel like they have a legitimate chance to challenge for the title. They don’t lack for “pretty good” options going forward but it feels like they have peaked unless they can add another superstar level player to the Sanchez/Ozil duo. Aaron Ramsey looked miscast flanking Olivier Giroud on the right of the attacking formation. If Wenger were asking me what I’d do over the summer (and let’s be clear, he isn’t) then the answer would be consolidating the depth he enjoys in the attacking positions into a single, exceptional player for about the same money. Selling good-but-not-great Theo Walcott and Danny Welbeck and using the proceeds to buy a real star like Reus or Dybala is the path for Wenger. A third genuine threat to score 20 goals in a season with Ozil and Cazorla pulling the strings with Ramsey and Wilshere available to rotate with both creative players is the recipe. You could argue that turning Ramsey and Wilshere into Schneiderlin would make sense as well but that’s a lot of homegrown talent heading out the door over one summer and probably too much.
Manchester United – Last Monday I wrote about the illusion of Manchester United’s “domination” against Chelsea in a losing effort and threw in that it’s hard to judge United’s great run of form against big name opponents because those big name opponents have struggled mightily since their losses to United. Well, here’s more fuel for the “United were lucky” fire. In Everton and Chelsea they have encountered one team in great form (Everton) and one great team and they’ve looked pretty toothless losing two consecutive matches to them. We gave a lot of ink/type to the notion that United were hamstrung against Chelsea by missing Michael Carrick and Daley Blind and being forced to play Wayne Rooney as a holding midfielder. Well, Blind was back and Rooney was restored to a forward role and the results weren’t any better. Apparently, the root cause of their slump is the absence of Michael Carrick. Not good news given the frequency with which he has been injured this season. Carrick seems to be the fulcrum upon which Juan Mata, Ander Herrera and Marouane Fellaini become very good players for United rather than the disappointments they have been when he has been injured this season. Any chance that someone at United is close to completing a cloning experiment because if Carrick is required for the rest of the midfield and attack to be effective then they’d better have a spare Carrick lying around for next season.
Manchester City – If ever things were looking up artificially in the top four then this weekend was it. The only one of the top five (really the top seven but we’ve already written off Southampton and Spurs for the season) to win. It will show up as a win on the final results but if anyone at the Etihad feels good about it then they’re fooling themselves. After going up 2-0 they let Villa tie the match and got a lucky break when Benteke was wrongly judged to be offsides which saved Joe Hart from being penalized. City promptly went on to score the winner at the other end of the pitch. A draw was probably the right outcome from this match and one that City shouldn’t feel at all good about even if it put them ahead of United in the race for third and provided a little distance between themselves and Liverpool in fifth. With City and United both having a ton of money to spend and seemingly both needing to do some serious overhauling this summer, the race for third will be important as players may be reluctant to sign for a club that hasn’t yet confirmed their spot in the group stages of the Champions League.
Liverpool – The wheels are certainly coming off at Anfield, aren’t they? United and City are trying their best to allow someone back into the race for fourth and Liverpool keep looking that gift horse in the mouth. Not only did they fail to score but they looked bad doing it. Like Chelsea, they clearly lack depth at forward behind an injury-prone lead forward. Mario Balotellli, Fabio Borini and Rickie Lambert are just not good enough and Brendan Rodgers doesn’t seem to be able to figure out how to generate goals without Daniel Sturridge in the line-up. It was true when Sturridge was hurt earlier in the year and its true now. With Champions League almost entirely out of the question for next season and no big Luis Suarez cash bonanza coming in, it isn’t clear exactly what Liverpool supporters can expect from a spending standpoint over the summer. That there is a need is clear, how much money is available and how interested top level players might be is far less so.
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.
QPR –What a time for the MVP of the team to miss a penalty. With every passing weekend it looks more and more likely that the Rs are going back down. Austin can take solace in the fact that he’ll still be in the Premier League next season as the West London club sell him in what is very likely to be a vain attempt to balance the books and avoid more financial disaster.
Sunderland – It took a horrible early error by Asmir Begovic to avoid Week 34 being another abject disaster for the Black Cats. They got an early goal through Begovic/Wickham but they didn’t do much else and only managed a point for their trouble. That point is looking less and less valuable as at least some of the clubs around them – Leicester City and Hull City this time around – continue to pick up points and raise the bar for survival. It isn’t that survival is out of the question but there is precious little to suggest that Sunderland have it in them to stay up. The desperation should have been present weeks ago and somehow there still doesn’t seem to be much, or, if there is, this team is even worse than we thought because the desperation isn’t doing much for the results.
Burnley – They needed that Matt Taylor penalty and at least one point. It might not have been enough to help them toward safety but it certainly would have helped by keeping Leicester City closer to the drop. Burnley are now critically more than one match away from safety and decidedly on the wrong side of the momentum continuum.
Hull City – Dame N’Doye was back at it after a quiet month or so. The win put Hull City clear of the relegation zone by a point and on even terms with Leicester City on points. They may only have one legitimate chance to pick up more points – May 9th at the KC Statium against Burnley – but at least they have themselves out of the relegation zone before matches against Liverpool, Arsenal, Spurs and Manchester United.
Leicester City – That’s four! They were living dangerously but Jamie Vardy’s goal was enough to win the six-pointer with Burnley and push the Foxes clear of the relegation zone. With this momentum and QPR, Sunderland and Newcastle still coming it’s hard to see the Foxes dropping out of the Premier League now. Amazing, just amazing.
Aston Villa – Leicester City and Hull City winning certainly makes things more uncomfortable for the Villains what with being only two points on the right side of the relegation line. Still, Villa have an easier run-in than Hull City and they have a forward in great form on their side. Hard to see this ending in tragedy for them.
Newcomer of the Year – After adding new categories to the list last Monday, the format is changing slightly again this week with the space here dedicated to the performance of the week from each category with the standings for the year at the end.
With apologies to Dame N’Doye who scored two more huge goals for Hull City in their efforts to stave off relegation, I’m giving the nod to Ayoze Perez for Week 34. The Spaniard seemed like a bit of an afterthought last summer given the more expensive attacking players that the Magpies brought in. It has been Perez who has looked the best purchase of the group. He is still far from the finished article but if I were a “big club”, I’d be thinking about picking him up relatively cheap soon because I suspect his price won’t be nearly so cheap a year or two from now. He wouldn’t see much time at an Arsenal or Liverpool next season but he would be a GREAT partner for Harry Kane at Spurs who need someone to play off of a target forward. I’d personally hate to see one of my favorite players of this season end up at Spurs but it would be a great move for him and for Spurs that wouldn’t cost a ton.
Domestic Transfer of the Year
Even in a week when Gylfi Sigurdsson scored and Joleon Lescott and West Brom got a clean sheet draw against Liverpool, I’m going to break the rules and give this one to a domestic transfer from the summer of 2013 rather than the summer of 2014 or January of 2015. James McCarthy was spectacular in neutralizing Manchester United’s “attack” – he was exactly what a holding midfielder should be. He was everywhere. Oh, and he scored to boot even though that isn’t integral to his game. He could be a hard one for Everton to hold on to this summer with Chelsea, Arsenal, United, City and Liverpool all potentially looking for a holding midfielder.
Young Player of the Year
There wasn’t an absolute stand-out in this category but Aaron Cresswell was part of another West Ham clean sheet and had a strong fantasy outing so we’ll give him the nod over Harry Kane who got an assist but has certainly had better weeks than this one.
Player of the Year
The popular choice for this week has been talking up the brilliance of John Terry over the course of the season and it’s hard to deny. The hard part of pulling a Chelsea player for the POTY award is that there are so many exceptional players but no singular star. If Diego Costa’s goals and Cesc Fabregas’ assists were the fuel that built Chelsea’s lead in the first half of the season then it has been Terry and Matic’s stalwart play leading the defensive effort combined with Eden Hazard’s individual brilliance serving up the goals that have allowed the Blues to play it closer to the vest as Fabregas has run out of steam and Costa has been felled by hamstring injuries. Terry gets the award for this week but as it always is with Mourinho’s Chelsea teams, it’s a group effort and singling out individuals for awards is always going to be tough. For me it’s still Matic for the season but in this age of Galacticos it’s a tribute that Chelsea can still perform as a team rather than an impressive collection of individual talents.
The Phantom Point All-Stars – Where we list those players who failed to tally any “major” statistics (goal, assist, clean sheet) but scored big in the more subtle categories like tackles won, passes intercepted, blocked shots, shots on target, successful crosses or corners won that can make a fantasy week in formats that reward these statistics. Occasionally, we’ll reward a player who gets an assist or a clean sheet if they also had a big “phantom” weekend.
I’m running late and there were so many clean sheets that it was hard enough to come up with five players who excelled on the basis of phantom points alone (and you’ll see I didn’t actually stick to that particularly with only five this week):
- Dame N’Doye – It was an entire month of fantasy production in one match with two goals, four shots on target, four fouls won, two corners won and a tackle won to boot. Not bad for a guy who most people probably picked up as an afterthought in January.
- Adrian – He got clean sheet points so I’m probably violating my own rules including him but he made seven saves and a penalty save on Charlie Austin and made his fantasy owners massively happy. We don’t acknowledge goalkeepers that often in this space so consider it making up for past oversights.
- Kieran Trippier – Trippier has a substantial lead over the second most prolific defender in the Yahoo scoring format for the season. On a team that hasn’t been very good that’s pretty amazing output with Week 34 being highlighted by eight (8!) successful crosses and four passes intercepted. He’ll be playing in the Premier League again next season for someone.
- Robbie Brady – He continues to put up strong fantasy numbers deputizing as a full back. He got an assist but didn’t get clean sheet credit in most formats because he started out the season listed as a midfielder. Week 34 saw six successful crosses and three tackles won added to his resume.
- Jordi Gomez – We might as well get some Sunderland players in here while we can because they may be toiling away in the Championship next season away from the vision of our coverage. Gomez tried to keep the Black Cats in the survival race with two shots on target, four tackles won, two corners won and a successful cross. It wasn’t enough but at least he was trying.
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.
Manchester City are back! Last weekend we talked in this space about how, despite Manchester United’s claims of dominating possession against Chelsea in a loss and featuring some wins against big clubs over a strong run of form, the cries that they had turned some big corners were off-base. This time we turn our focus to the other side of Manchester where City have climbed back into the second spot at least temporarily. Their minor revival is just as exaggerated.
- Arsenal hold a match in hand against Sunderland so their position in second place is cosmetic at best.
- Earlier in the column we discussed the tenuous nature of the victory over a club in Aston Villa who may be playing a bit better lately but are still hanging out near the relegation zone for a reason. Beating them, even soundly, shouldn’t be something that a top club views as turning a corner.
- City are still far too dependent on the duo of Sergio Aguero and David Silva to carry them in the attack. Both players are stars but they have both proven to be a bit fragile. Until City have a viable back-up plan the best they can hope for is sticking at the fringes of the top four and the knockout stages of the Champions League.
- The biggest worry here is where any improvement is going to come from. Chelsea and Arsenal have players on their rosters who are still ascending to pair with a core of players in their prime. Manchester United have at least one or two of those as well albeit with a lot of other concerns for the summer. Maybe Mangala fits that bill for City but he’s about the only one and he hasn’t actually shown any evidence that he’s improving, he’s only on the list because he’s young enough to not be a lost cause after a miserable first season in the Premier League. At City, you could see a necessity to buy and integrate four or five starting caliber players and that’s before we jump to the conclusion that the old Vincent Kompany is never again walking through that tunnel. That’s a lot of turnover to compete with Arsenal and Chelsea squads that will return nine or ten starters to teams that will almost certainly finish ahead of City this season.
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 – At least Graziano Pelle is showing that he’s not a lost cause. He has been getting better service over the past two weeks and he’s scored as a result. The fear with him is that he is too dependent on the quality of his service to be a first choice forward for a top club. At some point you need your main goal scorer to figure it out on his own when nothing else is working and that doesn’t seem to be Pelle’s bag.
- This Week’s Good Points: Hull City and Leicester City are the clear winners here as both notched huge wins on the road. Everton pick up a big three points in their late rise from the ashes while Sunderland get a grudging point because it came on the road. We’re going to give Chelsea one as well because even if it was somewhat expected, picking up a point on the road at the second place team in the table is a strong outcome – only Chelsea’s excellence makes in fairly unremarkable.
- The Good Points Table: Leicester City 24; Crystal Palace 20; Burnley 17; Hull City 16; Aston Villa 13; Swansea City 12; Newcastle 10; Stoke City 10; Sunderland 10; West Brom 10; West Ham 9; Spurs 8; Manchester United 8; Liverpool 7; Arsenal 6; QPR 5; Southampton 4; Everton 4; Chelsea 3.
- This Week’s Bad Points: Manchester City, Burnley, and Crystal Palace all pick up three “bad points” while Stoke City pick up two because there’s really no excuse for losing to Sunderland at your own stadium these days. Liverpool pick up two bad ones as well because they should really win even at the Hawthorns.
- The Bad Points Table: Manchester United 25; Manchester City 24; Spurs 21; Liverpool 21; Everton 14; Southampton 14, Chelsea 14; Arsenal 13; Swansea City 10; Newcastle 9; Stoke City 8; Crystal Palace 8; Sunderland 7; West Brom 6; Burnley 6; Aston Villa 5; West Ham 5; Hull City 3; and QPR 2.
- My Favorite Things – My favorite things this week all had to do with fantasy…Ayoze Perez picked a great weekend to turn glorious potential into actual results as he led the way for my win over Galin in our experts league…Perez was supported by clean sheets from Boaz Myhill and Craig Dawson as West Brom scored a surprise clean sheet for the second week running…in PL.com and Yahoo salary cap leagues I picked up Jamie Vardy who scored well regardless of the system as he led the Foxes to a feel-good fourth straight win…I also invested heavily in Chelsea’s defense in my salary cap leagues and was rewarded with a bunch of clean sheets in midfield, defense and goal (depending on format)…My favorite non-fantasy performances of the weekend were James McCarthy, Dame N’Doye, and Francis Coquelin (who gives me hope that Arsenal can stand up to Chelsea going forward)
- My Least Favorite Things – Having limited time to watch matches live this weekend and choosing to watch Arsenal vs. Chelsea with that limited time, it wasn’t easy on the eyes…Cesc Fabregas, Eden Hazard and Raheem Sterling producing next to nothing for me in fantasy (good thing the weekend turned out well or I’d really have been bitter)…Everything about Manchester United’s performances without Michael Carrick...the officiating in Arsenal vs. Chelsea…the penalty misses from Austin and Taylor in critical situations for their clubs…Asmir Begovic’s first minute…
- What did we find out? Leicester City! Arsenal still have another level to attain before they’re ready to beat Chelsea. The fourth place also-rans (Liverpool, Southampton and Spurs) are all stumbling down the stretch perhaps trying their hardest to avoid the Europa League. Everton aren’t dead yet and Michael Carrick might be the most important man in the Premier League.
- What’s Next? Midweek matches between Chelsea and Leicester City and Liverpool and Hull City are on tap before we get to Week 35. Once we do get to Week 35 there are interesting matches at both end of the table. Leicester City go for a fifth win in six (I’m going to assume Chelsea beat the Foxes midweek) against staggering (or staggeringly bad) Newcastle and could get close to sealing safety if they do get that win. At the other end of the table, Manchester United look to rebound against frisky-again West Brom at Old Trafford. Two weekends ago you would have assumed that this was going to be a blow out for the home team as United were winning their sixth in a row while the Baggies were getting crushed for the third week running. Not so any longer. We’ll see you there as it all unfolds on the NBC Sports Network (and elsewhere across the world).