10 November 2014

Rivals' Rundown, week 11: Can we still laugh at Spurs?

Any weekend that ends with an Arsenal loss is going to be a wasted weekend, all the more so when we have to wait two weeks for the next match. The interlull arrives just in time for most everyone including Arsenal to wring hands and gnash teeth.  Aside from Chelsea, everyone with European commitments struggled, and that might be the story of the week. Only Chelsea impress, and everyone else on this
list seems to be suffering from any of a number of different dilemmas. For as good as they’ve been, everyone else has been thoroughly average. It was all I could do to summarize the usual eight. Am I going to have to make room for West Ham (4th), Swansea (5th), and Newcastle (8th)? When will the table sort itself enough for us to know who the top five or six squads are? Nine teams are within four points of third place. For as much as we might mock Tottenham or Liverpool, only three points separate us. On the other hand, only four points separate us from Man City. May you live in interesting times…

Chelsea
● Position: 1st.
● Record: 11-9-2
● Points: 29 (87.8%)
● Form: WWWDWW
● Key matches: Everton 3-6 Chelsea, Man City 1-1 Chelsea, Chelsea 2-0 Arsenal, Man U 1-1 Chelsea, Liverpool 1-2 Chelsea (10 pts from 15)
● Last match: Liverpool 1-2 Chelsea
Effin’ Chelsea. It’s not enough for them to have one of the deepest, most-expensive squad in the league, if not the world. This week they  add dodgy refereeing to their repertoire. An equalizing goal awarded by goal-line technology was correct, although Matic seemed to have handled the ball after Mignolet saved Terry’s header, and their go-ahead goal seemed to come despite Azpilicueta appearing to lose the ball out of bounds before crossing in for Costa to score. Late on, a Gerrard shot looked to deflect off of Cahill’s arm, but no penalty was awarded. Rodgers called it obvious and a “clear, clear penalty”. However, I visited a few Liverpool sites found support for the handball on Cahill but no referece to the other calls I harped on, so those are water under a bridge. It’s still Machiavellian Mourinho; the ends justify the means. Perhaps worse, they’ve already gotten most of their toughest trips out of the way. At this rate, boredom might pose a bigger threat to them than any actual squad they’ll face.
● Next match: West Brom

Southampton
● Position: 2nd
● Record: 8-1-2
● Points: 25 (75.8%)
● Form: WLWWWW
● Key matches: Liverpool 2-1 Southampton, Tottenham 1-0 Southampton.
● Last match: Southampton 2-0 Leicester
First off, I’m disappointed in the lot of you. This whole time, I’d omitted Southampton’s loss to Liverpool from these little reports.  Someone really dropped the ball on that, I’m not sure who though. Anyway, whether that or the Tottenham result will continue to count as “key” looks increasingly tetchy. Looking past that, pointing out that Southampton have faced a soft start to the season is getting as tedious as mentioning that Arsenal have suffered a raft of injuries. Still, the Saints are making the most of the opportunities, refusing to drop points except in those trips to Anfield and White Hart Lane. The longer they can do that, the more-confident they’ll get. Hell, as we’ve shown time and again, a club can finish fourth even if it fails to take points against other top-of-the-table clubs if it maximizes the points it takes from the other 14-15, and Southampton is taking care of the second half of that formula very well to this point.
● Next match: at Aston Villa.

Manchester City
● Position: 3rd
● Record: 6-3-2
● Points: 21 (63.6%)
● Form: DWWWLW QPR
● Key matches: Man City 3-1 Liverpool, Arsenal 2-2 Man City, Man City 1-1 Chelsea, Man City 4-1 Tottenham, Man City 1-0 Man U. (11 pts from 15)
● Last match: QPR 2-2 Man City
12-man Man City needed everything their very-expensive squad could muster, and MotM Mike Dean delivered in the clutch, disallowing two Charlie Austin goals before being forced to concede the third, and overlooking an Aguero handball to allow City to equalize. To be more fair, Austin *was* offside for the first goal, and the second one involved a bizarre miscue from Hart as he took the ensuing free-kick. He accidentally tapped the ball before kicking it directly to Austin, who slotted it home. Law 13 states “the kicker must not touch the ball again until it has touched another player” but also “the ball is in play when it is kicked directly out of the penalty area”. Hart touched it twice in the penalty area, so the retake was the correct decision. Austin made no mistake in the 20th minute, and it was looking like QPR were the top-of-the-table side. For it to end 2-2 might even leave QPR a bit disappointed, and the Prem champs, again looking like a shadow of themselves, were lucky to leave with the point.
● Next match: Swansea

Arsenal
● Position: 6th
● Record: 4-5-2
● Points: 17 (51.5%)
● Form: DLDWWL
● Key matches: Everton 2-2 Arsenal, Arsenal 2-2 Man City, Arsenal 1-1 Tottenham, Chelsea 2-0 Arsenal. (3 pts. from 12)
● Last match: Swansea 2-1 Arsenal
Ugh. What a week. The draw with Anderlecht was disappointing, but this loss to Swansea was infuriating and makes it harder and harder to hold onto the optimism I usually carry. With Koscielny out, Arsene opted to play Chambers on the ride and Monreal at CB. It was clear from the outset that this was dicey; Montero raced past Chambers with alarming frequency and ease, and Monreal was ill-suited to grappling with Bony. Such concerns were nearly erased by a beautiful counter-attack, led by the Ox, who was as dynamic and dangerous as ever. Alexis finished it, of course, and it looked like we’d escape with a win. Why didn’t Bellerin come on after we took the lead, though? We’ve grown accustomed to a certain tactical inflexibility from the manager, but this felt like out and out stubbornness, if not something worse. Instead of making adjustments, we continued to get too far forward and expose ourselves to counters. The best we could was to send in a rusty Walcott, ailing Wilshere, and callow Sanogo to chase a game we should have won, or at least drawn. We’ll have two weeks to see if we can learn from this one before hosting Man U.
● Next match: Man U

Manchester United
● Position: 7th
● Record: 4-4-3
● Points: 16 (48.5%)
● Form: WWDDLW
● Key matches: Man U 2-1 Everton, Man U 1-1 Chelsea, Man City 1-0 Man U (4 pts. from 9)
● Last match: Man U 1-0 Crystal Palace
Man U are proving to be perhaps the most enigmatic lot. A hard-scrabble win at home over Crystal Palace, a tough 1-0 loss at the Etihad, a well-earned draw with Chelsea…are they coming together or barely holding it together? Alone among our chief rivals for top-four honours, Man U don’t have to worry about Europe (sorry, Southampton; I still don’t quite rate you as top four in the long run…), and you can’t look at a lineup that includes Di Maria, Rooney, Mata, and van Persie (and Falcao) without worrying that they’ll simply start scoring and scoring, winning games 5-3 and 4-2 and so on. It’s a recipe that Liverpool rode all the way to last weeks of last season—and Man U have three players who are capable of scoring 25 league goals. Then again, they did barely manage to score a single goal at home against Crystal Palace, who have conceded 20 goals. Which will we see? The squad that on paper, could and perhaps should score 100 goals, or the one we’ve seen to this point?
● Next match: at Arsenal

Everton
● Position: 10th
● Record: 3-5-3
● Points: 14 (42.4%)
● Form: DLWWDD
● Key matches: Everton 2-2 Arsenal, Everton 3-6 Chelsea, Liverpool 1-1 Everton, Man U 2-1 Everton (2 pts. from 12).
● Last match: Sunderland 1-1 Everton
Everton needed a penalty to equalize against Sunderland, highlighting a certain feast-and-famine approach. Either they score three goals or struggle to score one. With the callow Lukaku and the graying Eto’o, Everton seem to have attackers who are either too young or too old to deliver reliably, and the tactical nous that Roberto Martinez was reputed to have is in increasingly short supply. Even with our own struggles apparently mounting, does his name arouse as much interest as it did? Prior to this draw, the Toffees had lost in the Prem after playing in the Europa League earlier in the week. Is this a sign of improvement? They look likely to advance to the knockout stage but will still have to do well in their remaining two matches, and it will be a continued struggle to balance that with the challenges of contending in the Prem. They can at least look to the fact that they’ve overtaken Liverpool for the moment.
● Next match: West Ham

Liverpool
● Position: 11th
● Record: 4-2-5
● Points: 14 (42.4%)
● Form: DWWDLL
● Key matches: Liverpool 2-1 Southampton, Man City 3-1 Liverpool, Tottenham 0-3 Liverpool, Liverpool 1-1 Everton, Liverpool 1-2 Chelsea (7 pts from 15).
● Last match: Liverpool 1-2 Chelsea
I feel bad for Liverpool. They just can’t catch a break nor can they manufacture any. Even after Emre Can got his first Prem goal, a lucky deflection that caught Courtois wrong-footed, the wheels came off as described above. They arguably deserved a point, if not three, but were undone by Chelsea’s relentless pressure and sloppy refereeing. Balotelli was again anonymous, having about as much impact on the match as the still-injured Sturridge. Rodgers might have caused some head-scratching by making seven changes from the XI that did so well at the Bernabeu (losing 0-1). Depending on how results had gone, they might have slipped down as far as 12th or 13th, and it looks more and more likely that the answers will continue to elude them. As it stands, they manage to stay within striking distance thanks to our loss, Everton’s draw, and Spurs’ loss. If Balotelli or Sterling ever start firing, or if Sturridge’s return revitalizes them, they could be poised to gain momentum and points after the break.
● Next match: at Crystal Palace

Tottenham
● Position: 12th
● Record: 4-2-5
● Points: 14 (42.4%)
● Form: DWLLWL
● Key matches: Tottenham 0-3 Liverpool, Arsenal 1-1 Tottenham, Tottenham 1-0 Southampton, Man City 4-1 Tottenham (4 pts. from 12).
● Last match: Tottenham 1-2 Stoke
Like everyone except Chelsea, Tottenham seem to be struggling with fixture-clutter. Having now lost two Prem matches after playing Europa League fixtures, Tottenham will follow its remaining group-stage matches with a visit from Everton and a trip to Swansea. Anyone think they can reverse the trend? As with last season, they’re struggling mightily at home, where they’ve only taken six points from six matches, and they still can’t score goals. As with Martinez, it’s starting to feel like Pochettino might be, as we say state-side, all hat and no cattle. Where is the bright, attacking verve that saw Southampton do so well a season ago? If anything, Southampton are doing far better without Pochettino, and Tottenham are certainly no better with him, despite having a deeper, more-experienced, and more-expensive squad. If this desultory form keeps up, Pochettino might not last the season. Tottenham are almost Chelsea-esque in their managerial madness. He did promise a trophy within two years; at the rate they’re currently going, he may not have a chance to exploit that second-year loophole.
● Next match: at Hull



That just about does it. No one looks like they can catch Chelsea, not on current form, and we we may have to set our sights on trying to reel in City and Southampton with an eye towards finishing second. If there's good news, it's in the notion that we might have more room to grow than City does, and Southampton still have yet to put to the test. It's slender, but there's enough in it to pin some hope to...