Premier League Pass & Move: The Heat Is On
A look back at the weekend’s Premier League action.
Chris Ryan: Tensions flared this week, folks, and I’m not talking about the time you mistakenly brought up Obamacare in front of your sister-in-law. Belts got a little tighter, and I’m not talking about your belt after you ate that third piece of pecan pie. No, I’m talking about England, where Thanksgiving is called “Thursday,” and belt-tightening and tensions flaring are just what happens at this time of year, as the games come fast, the injuries pile up, and tempers get short.
Take Tottenham, for instance. Last week, the odds were slashed on Andre Villas-Boas being fired from Spurs. This would be a pretty stupid move on the part of the North London club if for no other reason than there is pretty much nobody who could replace the Portuguese coach. Guus Hiddink? Fabio Capello? Really? Villas-Boas is never going to be confused for the Outlaw Josey Wales, so it wasn’t a shock when these rumors got under his skin. He had an opposing fan tossed during a Europa League game in Tromso for chanting, “You’re getting sacked in the morning,” though I imagine there may have been some more peppery language tossed in for good measure. Then, following a draw with the ascendant Manchester United this weekend, Villas-Boas lashed out about the assault on his integrity, human values, and professionalism that he saw being conducted by the English football press. Sam Allardyce told him to keep his chin up, and Spurs midfielder Moussa Dembele tried to change the conversation: “Everyone likes him.” Case closed then? Eh … someone in North London doesn’t like AVB. The only thing that will quiet this story is points.
You want more tension? OK. Fulham fired their manager, Martin Jol, replacing him with former Man U coach Rene Meulensteen (who himself had only just joined the Cottagers). Meulensteen will take over a very old team only three points off the bottom of the league. You’d think Liverpool were right down there with them, based on how Brendan Rodgers was talking after Liverpool’s surprising loss to Hull. “There’s no doubt the quality in our squad, with all due respect, isn’t big enough to cope with two big players like that missing.” He’s talking about Daniel Sturridge and Philippe Coutinho, and he’s not wrong, but it’s interesting to hear him so publicly lower expectations.
All of this sort of pales in comparison to the weirdest moment of the week: Hull’s owner, Assem Allam, attempting to rebrand Hull City as Hull Tigers. This is not going down well with Hull fans, and Hull manager Steve Bruce has demanded, wait for it because it’s 2013 and synergy and harmonic marketing … BRAND TALKS. Turns out there’s a faction of Hull support, calling themselves Hull City Till We Die. Allam’s take on these folks? “They can die as soon as they want, as long as they leave the club for the majority who just want to watch good football.” Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.
Old, Reliable Wayne Rooney
Mike L. Goodman: While Manchester United’s draw against Spurs extended the team’s seven-game unbeaten streak, that two-month-long run of games has seen them make up very little ground in the Premier League table. They still sit in eighth place, although in this year’s tightly bunched standings they remain only three points out of third and a guaranteed Champions League birth. Are the last two months indicative of a team figuring themselves out and starting down the long road to improvement, or has David Moyes simply driven his new club into uncomfortable mediocrity? It’s difficult to tell, and their fortunes, much like their roster, seem to be in constant flux. Moyes has used seven different wingers and six different central midfielders this season (with the ageless Ryan Giggs counting in both departments), as he seeks to find his strongest squad. The result has been an inconsistent and underwhelming season, with one exception: Wayne Rooney.
Rooney has been the glue holding United together, and he did it again on Sunday against Tottenham. Rooney scored both of United’s goals in a frenetic 2-2 draw (and while the second goal was a penalty won by Danny Welbeck, Rooney played the gorgeous pass that sprung him and caused Spurs keeper Hugo Lloris to unnecessarily come charging out). Rooney now has seven non-penalty goals and five assists this year. His involvement in 12 goals puts him second in the league, tied with Aaron Ramsey, and behind only Sergio Aguero. But both Aguero and Ramsey have had the luxury of playing in settled lineups, on teams that have performed at their peak for large stretches of the year. Rooney’s contributions often seem to be the only thing stemming the tide for Manchester United.
After scoring at a rate of half a non-penalty goal per90 over the last three seasons, Rooney’s scoring has ticked up to 0.6 goals this year, which amounts to an increase of almost four goals over the course of a season. That’s a pretty big jump, and it’s made all the more impressive by the fact that he’s doing that scoring on fewer shots. Rooney is averaging only 3.3 shots per90 as opposed to four over the last three years. And his passing numbers are up as well, with his assists jumping from 0.3 to 0.4 per90 and his chances created going from 1.9 to 2.1.
Rooney’s numbers are clearly great, and he’s been responsible for 59 percent of United’s goals, but there’s one caveat worth mentioning. A strangely disproportionate amount of Rooney’s statistics have come from dead-ball situations. He’s scored on three and assisted on two others. That’s not particularly promising for United. Rooney has been the team’s greatest threat, and he’s been strongest from dead-ball situations. That’s not exactly a recipe for a flowing attacking game.
Is Rooney’s emergence indicative of Moyes figuring out how to get the most out of a historically inconsistent but hugely talented star? Or does the increased reliance on Rooney suggest that this Manchester United team, which marginalized Rooney last season (and was stronger for it), is lacking cohesion? One way or another those questions will be answered over the next 25 games, and United’s Champions League hopes hang in the balance.
The Answer Is “Yes”
Ryan O’Hanlon: We now have an answer to a corollary of European soccer’s eternal question: Can Barcelona do it on a cold-ish, dry Saturday afternoon against Stoke? And the answer is Gerard Deulofeu.
Spain is Spain, and Barcelona is Barcelona, so the next star La Masia-ite was to become an indispensable part of the Everton lineup for a few months, cyclone through the 38 EPL games, and head back to the Camp Nou to join up with Neymar and Tata. With a manager who “likes to play,” and with a clause in his loan deal that pays when he plays, he’d be the Lionel Messi of Landon Donovans.
But Deulofeu didn’t happen right away. And, at least for me, it set off a cascade of existentially neurotic questions: Is Barcelona really fading? Was Andy Gray right? Could EPL exceptionalism be real? If you’re the next Spanish great and you can’t get a game for Everton, what is … anything?
That’s to say that it was, well, comforting to see the 19-year-old treat Stoke City like a bunch of practice flags for 90 minutes on Saturday. Hell, he even used his teammates like training equipment on that first goal. And you see it all in that give-it-get-it-give-it finish: He’s still small and the ball’s almost too big for him, so he needs to scoop it up to get it to go anywhere. Yet, he’s so slight that he’s basically able to move on a different plane — one that measures time more fractionally — than all the Stoke defenders. His jersey looks like its from the Greg Ostertag rugby line, and it seems like he still doesn’t know what to do with his arms when he runs because he’s been alive just long enough to learn only so many things.
It wasn’t just the goal, though. He played a part in two of Everton’s other scores, but more impressively, he completed 16 of 20 passes in the Angry Muir Woods that is Stoke City’s defensive third. It was the Deulofeu Ideal from before the season started. He might go on from here and do this every game, he might fall back to the role of occasional sub, or he might settle in to somewhere in between. Now that it happened once, though, it’s fun to wonder what comes next. But with only 26 games left, there won’t be enough time for him to ever grow into his top.
Goodman: One of Jose Mourinho’s hallmarks as a manager is his willingness to chase a game, and it was on full display again this weekend. Down a goal at halftime to one of strongest defensive teams in the Premier League, Mourinho subbed off the desiccated corpse of Michael Essien and brought on Demba Ba as a second striker. Mourinho made the change despite having already been forced to use a substitute in the first half when Oscar pulled up lame with an ankle problem. The manager had no qualms about leaving himself a single sub for the rest of the match.
And while wholesale changes don’t always work (just look at the rest of Chelsea’s month), they certainly did Sunday. Chelsea created more shots in the 33 minutes they played with two strikers than they had the entire first half.
When Southampton fell behind they similarly tried to change systems, subbing off central midfielder Morgan Schneiderlin in the 67th minute and bringing on a second striker, Ricky Lambert. The move was not exactly a success.
It was a nice example of one team shifting seamlessly from a well-practiced plan A to a well-practiced plan B, while the opposing team was unable to change the balance of power. Chelsea lead the Premier League in accumulating points from losing positions (and it’s not simply because they concede goals frequently; they are tied with Everton atop the league, averaging 1.3 points per game when they go behind). If Mourinho is losing, he changes his team. The willingness to adapt goes hand in hand with the Special Ones’s ruthlessly pragmatic approach. It’s a lot easier to play a defensive counterattacking style to start if you have confidence that you can change the game later to become dynamic and attacking. It’s a trick he’s brought with him from Real Madrid. While in Spain, Mourinho’s teams averaged an insane 1.7 points from losing positions.
Chelsea sit second with 27 points and Southampton sit seventh with 22. Both teams have gone behind in six games. Chelsea have managed eight points from those six games, Southampton have recovered only three. The Premier League this year is shaping up to be a fantastically close race, and every little edge counts. Chelsea’s ability to slip seamlessly into a two-striker system might currently be all that sets them apart.
Europa League Blues
Brett Koremenos: Swansea’s loss to Manchester City was a stark reminder of what a blessing and a curse the Europa League can be to a smaller club without the depth to adequately handle the rigors of the extra midweek matches. Minus the income generated from the competition, players like Wilifred Bony and Jonjo Shelvey may have never made their way to the club. The flip side is that the same tournament is also taking a physical toll on one of the most entertaining and talented sides in the Premier League.
Swansea were missing forwards Michu Bony, goalkeeper Michel Vorm, midfielder Leon Britton, and fullback Angel Rangel. Michu’s absence was a result of an ankle injury against rival Cardiff in early November, but Vorm, Bony, and Rangel can all thank the secondary European competition for their absence. Bony and Rangel picked up injuries in the club’s match last Thursday against Spanish side Valencia. Vorm, whose acrobatic shot-stopping was missed right from the start against City, missed out because of continuing knee problems — something a slate of extra matches certainly doesn’t help with. Maybe no keeper saves Alvaro Negredo’s outstanding free kick that produced City’s first goal, but you couldn’t help but wonder if Vorm would have done more than stand flat-flooted in the goal mouth watching it sail by like backup Gerhard Tremmel.
The Bony injury is perhaps the biggest blow. With Michu already sidelined, the Ivorian striker needed to be a key source of goals. Instead, the attacking onus on Sunday was heaped onto the shoulders of young Alvaro Vasquez — a player yet to find the back of the net in any competition this year. Vasquez took only one shot and created only one chance against City.
After finishing ninth in the table in 2013, one has to wonder how the club would fare without the extra wear and tear. One of the few matches this year in which the team was at full strength — a 2-2 draw against Liverpool that included Vorm, Bony, Michu, Britton and Rangel — proved that the Swans can certainly play not just beautiful, but productive, football. But instead of an entertaining match between two fun sides this weekend, City simply overwhelmed Swansea’s skeleton crew, en route to an easy victory. The loss meant Swansea had taken only 15 points in their first 13 matches, a disappointing figure for a side with so much talent.