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The Reducer: Week 4, We Are Big, It’s the League That Got Small

Everton and Aston Villa pull themselves together

Game of the Week: Everton 2, Aston Villa, 2

If you went and saw the bright lights last Friday night and collapsed into a recliner on Saturday morning — Mason jar of 5-hour Energy drink along with a bowl of Trail Mix laced with Aleve within reach — to watch Aston Villa visit Everton, you have my sympathies. At least at the outset, this game was not a hangover helper.

<a href="http://msn.foxsports.com/foxsoccer/video?vid=4c6c5e97-acfa-44ce-b414-2999ac726ede" target="_new" title="">PL Highlights: Everton/Aston Villa</a>

It was a subtlety brutal match. Every other minute someone seemed to be nursing a possible above-the-shoulders injury: Marouane Fellaini rubbing his jaw after catching a stray elbow; Darren Bent rubbing the back of his head after going up for a contested header; Richard Dunne rubbing what was left of his face from an earlier encounter with a storm drain on the side of a Russian field during an international match last week. Passes were careening off players’ shins. Hamstring injuries were being acquired. This was blood-and-thunder English football. This was making my head hurt. And a few years ago, this would have been a standard Saturday afternoon match.

There is a man, a straw man, somewhere in the U.K., right now waiting to do a drop in on Sky Sports or the BBC or TalkSport, and he is about to say something like, “English football is about commitment. It’s about hoofing it up to the big man up top. It’s about getting stuck in on a tackle and letting your man know you’re there. Let the fancy Spaniards play give-and-go’s and fancy-dribble their way to Champions League trophies. English football is what won the war. Which war? I can’t remember because I have too many concussions from Tony Adams’ shoving his elbow in my ear.”

This straw man is becoming more and more of an antique. The Premier League has increasingly put a premium on technically skilled players and keeping the ball on the ground. It’s not unlike the NFL’s effort to protect quarterbacks. And like the NFL, the league itself is definitely trying to protect its more entertaining and dynamic performers. Tackles like this Kevin Davies insta-classic on Tom Cleverley from Bolton’s weekend match against Man United, are increasingly being looked down upon rather than celebrated.

And if this Everton-Villa match started out all blood, sweat, and grass stains, sometime around the departure of Villa striker Emile Heskey (he of the hammy problem) and the introduction of Scottish midfielder Barry Bannan, the two sides started to brush away the cobwebs and a really exciting game broke out. Everton went into the half with the lead after a nicely taken Leon Osman goal, partly created by Villa midfielder Stiliyan Petrov’s inability to get in front of a Phil Jagielka pass. But, in the second half, Petrov made up for his gaffe with a beautiful, curling wonder-strike from far outside the box.

The Toffees pulled ahead when Aston Villa’s Fabian Delph tried to get Jagielka to give him a shoulder ride inside the box, resulting in a coolly taken penalty from Everton’s Leighton Baines. But Villa refused to leave empty-handed. In a wonderful bit of team attacking, Gabriel Agbonlahor found Marc Albrighton on the wing and immediately made a beeline for the goal, where Albrighton found his head with an inch-perfect cross, ending the game, honors even, at 2-2.

The real joy of this match, though, was watching all the impressive young talent on display. Everywhere you looked someone was trying to make something happen, whether it was Baines and hold-your-breath Irish winger Seamus Coleman torturing Villa on the flanks, Toffees midfielder Jack Rodwell crushing a long-range shot like he practices kicking tree trunks in his spare time, or Bannan, Albrighton, and Agbonlahor showing off their pace and creativity for Villa.

Managers David Moyes and Alex McLeish (of Everton and Villa, respectively) are both going to war with the army they have, not the army they want.1 The transfer window was not particularly kind to either side. McLeish, a controversial appointment for Villa fans in the first place, is trying to blood young players while staying competitive, as American owner Randy Lerner’s free-spending ways ended when manager Martin O’Neill showed himself the door at the beginning of last season.

Everton, as The Reducer has mentioned in previous missives, is in an even worse way. Chairman Bill Kenwright, a theater impresario, is done acting (GENIUS! THANK YOU!) as if he has any money, selling off the team captain, Mikel Arteta, and so-so striker Jermaine Beckford — and adding only should’ve-could’ve-would’ve Royston Drenthe and Argentine striker Denis Stracqualursi.

Does this bother David Moyes? Come on, man. David Moyes is the one who knocks.

After the match, the man, who looks like he’s glassed a few Begbies in his day, put it like this: “The transfer window is obviously there to improve your squad and your team but, bah2 … but, we do the job, we take the training, and we try and prepare the players. And anyone who watched Everton today would have to say they were right at it today and done Everton proud.”

Here’s the thing: Villa and Everton are big clubs. They may not have the cash to compete in the compressed-by-oil-money-and-debt sweepstakes at the top of the league — a league that has become a top tier of two or three and a dogfight for remaining glory left behind. But that doesn’t change the fact that upwards of 40,000 people will come watch them every week, that the clubs are regional institutions with rich histories.

One key to whatever success either side will have this season will depend on McLeish and Moyes convincing young players like Bannan and Rodwell and Coleman that, against all odds to the contrary, they determine their own destiny. And that while whatever success they attain might not land them in European competitions or domestic cup finals, they should remember one thing: They play for the shirt and the fans.

Off the Pitch: National Lampoon’s International Friendlies Vacation

Not unlike your sophomore-year girlfriend who did a semester abroad and returned to school somehow uninterested in eating Waffle Crisp and watching It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia reruns with you, international breaks tend to have strange impacts on players.

Prior to this past weekend’s matches, many Premier League players were on international duty, playing either in friendly matches against other nations or in European Championship qualifiers. And a lot of the biggest names in the league came back just a little bit different:

  • Fernando Torres has scored one (1) goal for Chelsea since being bought for 50 million pounds from Liverpool last January. The Reducer has no profound assessment of his play; compared to the man who scored 31 goals for Liverpool in all competitions in the ’07-08 season, he is unrecognizable. While on international duty for Spain, Torres gave an interview to the official La Liga website in which he allegedly called his Chelsea teammates “very slow” and “older.” These are both entirely true and factual statements, though we can’t be certain as to the veracity of them since often times interviews given in foreign languages make their way to the English press in a much mangled fashion. Still, whatever Torres said was enough to make Chelsea boss Andre Villas-Boas state that Chelsea was “going in-depth to regain the tape of that interview. … We’ll see if things play exactly as they are in that interview.” To show how serious he was, he dropped Torres in favor of young, fast striker Daniel Sturridge in Chelsea’s victory over Stoke.
  • Manchester City midfielder Samir Nasri not only broke his hand while on international duty for France, but he also had French manager Laurent Blanc complaining that he could “do more” for Les Bleus, and French sports paper L’Equipe tutt-tutted Nasri’s positioning and tendency to keep the ball rather than keep it moving. Mon dieu! All this seemed to do was make Nasri even better for City (see the Goal of the Week, below).
  • Arsenal midfielder Aaron Ramsey has had a rough start to his club season, but looked influential and confident for Wales. He will be looking to replicate his national form for his club, which may be hard with the arrival of new signings Mikel Arteta and Yossi Benayoun. Meanwhile, England manager Fabio Capello, following a win away in Bulgaria and a win at home to Wales in Euros qualification matches, wasn’t happy with what he saw from the Three Lions. “We will speak about some things in the performance. They can train very well, respect everything I tell them, and the players can be really good, but then they are here at the game, it is different. I hope to find a solution. I need to find one.” This no doubt led several players to wonder if the Italian was talking about them.

Step Overs

  • Tottenham put in a cool and impressive performance against a competitive Wolves side, winning 2-0. While some fans and critics complained that Spurs chairman Daniel Levy was more interested in the bottom line than investing in Tottenham’s on-field talent, new signings Emmanuel Adebayor and Scott Parker both looked like solid buys, with Adebayor particularly shining with a goal in his debut for the side.
  • Stoke’s imperious form continued as it defeated Liverpool 1-0 at the Britannia. Manager Tony Pulis must be delighted with this start, and the rest of the league must be even more loath to go to Stoke now.3 What will be interesting is to see how Pulis navigates Stoke’s upcoming inaugural European campaign. The Potters are in the Europa League, and, given the purchase of striker Peter Crouch and midfielder Wilson Palacios, look to be making a go of it. The problem with Europa League matches is they take place on Thursdays, forcing Stoke to play two games in a two to three days. The side’s endurance is sure to be tested, as will Pulis’ commitment to getting European silverware.

Goal of the Week: Sergio Aguero, Manchester City

(1:15) Oh! Did we forget to mention the 24-Hour Party people in Manchester this week?! Where are The Reducer’s brain-booster vitamins? Manchester’s two teams dropped eight goals (five for United, three for City) this weekend. The above goal is a lovely bit of one-touch fantasy football between Samir Nasri, Yaya Toure, David Silva, and, finally, Sergio Aguero. Look familiar? Well, listen to what Roberto Martinez had to say about it:

Quote of the Week: Roberto Martinez, Wigan manager

After watching his team get torn apart by Manchester City: “Three years down the line, you’ll be able to compare to a side like Barcelona. Nobody can be compared to Barcelona yet. You have to win many titles, you have to play many games together. But what is quite clear is that the ingredients of this Manchester City have got the capability to achieve anything in world football.”

Chris Ryan is a staff writer for Grantland.


Previously from Chris Ryan:
The Reducer: Week 3, This Is the North, We Do What We Want
The Reducer: Week 2, Youth Attack
The Reducer, Week 1: Blue Kun
The Reducer: Premier League Preview
The Huddle: Baltimore is Too Ratchet!!!

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