Looking back on the weekend’s Premier League action.
A Tale of Two Managers
Mike L. Goodman: If you ever wondered what getting outcoached looks like, look no further than the beating Andre Villas-Boas took during his final game as Tottenham Hotspur’s head coach. Brendan Rodgers and Liverpool thoroughly outclassed Spurs in a match that highlighted the contrasting approach the two men take (or, in Villas-Boas’s case, took) toward running their teams, and the ways in which Rodgers’s flexibility has helped him achieve while Villas-Boas’s ideology has contributed to getting him fired.
Rodgers came to Liverpool talking a big, and sometimes absurd, game about keeping the ball and building a project and winning possession battles. But all that bluster overshadowed the fact that, as a tactician, Rodgers is a more willing tinkerer than most. He has switched formations to accommodate playing Luis Suarez alone or with Daniel Sturridge, and he willingly switches between a back three and a back four depending on the personnel available to him and the opponent he’s facing.
Against Spurs, he made two notable changes. First, he switched Raheem Sterling from the left after he’d started the previous two games on the right. For the opening 20 minutes, Sterling ran riot and gave Kyle Naughton such a tough time that despite being down two goals and already using a sub for injury in the first half, Villas-Boas decided to remove Naughton for little-used, untested, fourth-string left back Ezekiel Fryers at halftime.
Second, and slightly more subtly, Rodgers drastically changed how Liverpool’s midfield defended. For the better part of this year Liverpool have played extremely conservatively with a lead, sitting in their own half of the field, defending with the standard two banks of four defenders. Attacking duties were more or less left to Suarez, when he wasn’t suspended entirely, and Sturridge, when he wasn’t hurt. Against Spurs, Liverpool’s midfield was dynamic and aggressive in defense, unwilling to simply cede possession in the middle third of the pitch. Whether that’s because they were playing without Steven Gerrard, whose off-the-ball skills have diminished dramatically in the last few years, or because Rodgers wanted to exploit the specific lack of passing range in Spurs’ starting trio of midfielders — Sandro, Mousa Dembele, and Paulinho — it marked a noticeable departure in style for Liverpool. And it worked unbelievably well. According to ESPN Stats & Info, Liverpool made 12 tackles in the middle third of the field, the most they’ve made since the opening week of the season when they hosted Stoke.
Villas-Boas? Well, he no longer has a job, making all the counterpoints that would normally go here a fairly meaningless exercise in football theory. Suffice it to say that Villas-Boas adhered rigidly to his tactical beliefs, and in the end it contributed to the abrupt end of his time at Spurs.
Right now Liverpool are an odds-on favorite for Champions League qualification and Spurs are on the outside looking in. Their respective managers are a big part of the reason why.
Wanted: Fernandinho. Crime: Killing Arsenal.
Chris Ryan: On Saturday, Fernandinho played defensive midfield for Manchester City in their 6-3 win over league-leading Arsenal. He also played attacking midfield. And striker. He scored two goals, completed 80 percent of his passes, made four tackles, nabbed two interceptions, and put Aaron Ramsey in his back pocket. I think at one point he stitched up Laurent Koscielny’s leg, and he very well may have produced all of Beyoncé. Frankly, I’m not ruling anything out.
In the beginning of the second half, right when Sergio Aguero left the game with a calf injury, Arsenal had a chance to get back in the match. They were only down 2-1, and City had just lost their best attacking player. Arsenal started to put together some nice, if lethargic, passing movements, and in the 49th minute, Mesut Ozil rolled a perfectly good pass to Mathieu Flamini, just inside City territory in the middle of the park.
And that’s when the Brazilian bird of prey de-cloaked and blew everything up.
Fernandinho rushed Flamini, stole the ball, sent the Frenchman to the ground (with a little sprinkle of forearm), and then galloped over him like he was in a steeplechase competition. Sure, it was just a turnover, but it was that incredibly physical disruption of Arsenal’s passing game that was one of the differences Saturday.
Thirty seconds later, Ozil tried another pass to Flamini. Again, it didn’t have the appropriate amount of mustard on it, and again Fernandinho was there. This was the result:
That was the Brazilian’s first Premier League goal for City. A half-hour later, he would score his second. Where Arsenal seemed slow and pissy (see the postgame behavior of Ozi and Jack Wilshere), City seemed like the title-winning colossus that many saw them as before the season began. Maybe this was down to schedule (Arsenal were playing in their third match since December 8), and maybe it was down to recent results (the Gunners lost in Naples on Wednesday, while City beat the champions of Europe in Munich on Tuesday).
This match was always going to be decided in the midfield; that’s where Arsenal have been winning their games this season. On Saturday, the Gunners were just overpowered. Fernandinho, despite only being 5-foot-9, played huge. It seemed like Arsenal players were just exploding off of him. And nobody could cope with his relentless movement. Defensively, he would pressure just the right amount, at just the right time. And in the attack, he took his chances and made Arsenal pay.
One of the questions I had about City coming into this season, was whether, for all the money they had spent over the years, they could find an appropriate partner for Yaya Toure in the center of the park. It wasn’t Gareth Barry or Jack Rodwell or Javi Garcia. In Fernandinho, it’s increasingly looking like they have answered that question. And we should be very afraid.
Fear the Etihad
Goodman: Just how good are Manchester City when they play at the Etihad? Really good. They have won all eight games of their home games; nobody else can say that. They have 35 goals at home. Liverpool is the only other team in the Premier League that has more than 35 goals total (39, thanks to this weekend’s drubbing of Spurs). Forget trying to walk into that place and keep a clean sheet; in fact, don’t even set your sights at a single goal. Only one team, the mighty Hull not quite yet Tigers, has even managed to hold City to two goals. Arsenal gave up six this weekend, and so did Spurs last month. United shipped four and hapless Norwich got a seven-spot hung on them. The onslaught started when they crushed Newcastle, 4-0, on opening night and hasn’t stopped since. And it’s not like City are playing shootouts either. They’ve conceded the second-fewest home goals as well (those Hull NQY Tigers show up there again in first).
City’s home form is not a new phenomenon. Last season, City had the best defensive record at home, only allowing 15 goals, and they scored the third-most goals with 41. Obviously that’s a pittance compared with this year, but it meant they tied the champions, Manchester United, for best home goal differential. And the year before, during their Premier League–winning season, they went undefeated, winning 18, drawing only one, and conceding only 12 goals while scoring 55. After their white-hot start, City only need to get 10 wins and a draw out of their remaining home matches to equal their championship-winning pace. Right now, it seems absolutely doable.
The other thing you may have noticed about the City home results this season is just how many good teams they’ve faced. Newcastle, Everton, United, Spurs, and Arsenal are all teams in the top half of the table and all have varying degrees of aspirations for European competitions. They all got smoked at the Etihad. City host Liverpool on Boxing Day, which means that in the second half of the season, Chelsea and Southampton will be the only top-nine teams with a trip to the Etihad left on their schedule.
Of course, this all means City have a ton of tough road games in the second half of the season. And as good as they’ve been at home, their road form has been shaky. It’s understandable that they lost when they traveled to Chelsea, though how they lost (a last-second Joe Hart error) certainly made the result worse. But to get only two combined points from trips to Cardiff City, Sunderland, Aston Villa, Stoke, and Southampton is perplexing to say the least. It’s also the reason why, despite their immaculate home form, City sit fourth. Although, to be fair, fourth is a grand total of one point out of second and three out of first.
The challenge for City over the rest of the season, as it’s been for the last few years now, is to figure out how to translate their team-of-the-millennium skills at home to at least mildly above-average on the road. Do that, especially against their rivals, and they have every chance to win the title. Fail, and it’s going to be a comfortable second- or third-place finish again. That’s not a failure exactly, but it’s not what Manuel Pelligrini was brought in to accomplish either.
The Unwatchable West Ham
Ryan O’Hanlon: So far, three rules govern EPL viewing this season: (1) If you’re watching Manchester City and they’re playing at home, they will win; (2) If you’re watching Luis Suarez, he will score; and, (3) If you’re watching West Ham, oh god no, NO, why would you ever purposely do that?
I acquainted myself with Rule 3 over the weekend because Jozy Altidore was starting for Sunderland, but the opportunity to watch a player who has scored one goal this season and who plays for the worst team in the entire league is not — I repeat, NOT — reason enough to test the validity of rule no. 3. If you do so, you will end up watching 90 minutes of goalless banality in which the fact that both teams had more than 20 throw-ins is the only notable statistic.
Another notable statistic: West Ham, the team, has played in more 0-0 ties than the German Bundesliga, which is a league. As they sit one point out of relegation, the 2013 Hammers are a more effective mid-grade tranquilizer than they are a soccer team.
What makes them so mind-numbing, as outlined in this piece by Colin Trainor for the always excellent Stats Bomb, is a maniacal insistence on shooting from inside the box. Sam Allardyce, an avowed user of analytics, seems to have stressed shot quality to his team; coming into Saturday, it took 62 percent of its shots from inside the area, a mark only bettered by the two Manchester squads and Arsenal. Yet while these shots normally carry a higher conversion rate, West Ham only convert 8 percent of their central attempts within the box. Although this might seem like bad luck and reason to expect West Ham to improve, the numbers are very similar to what they were last year. And on top of that, the team is putting only 25 percent of these attempts on goal, an even lower rate than their league-bottom rate of 28 percent from last year.
So, it seems, in pursuit of the analytical Quality Shot, the team is actively sacrificing all the steps that lead to real-life quality shots. Just get it into the box and swing. If you watch West Ham play — and, please, do not do this — you won’t see any long-range goals, and you’ll be blessed to see any goals at all. It’s a tragic statement, but not even the Geordie Sergio Aguero will save you.
Seven Things About Everton That I Know to Be True
Brett Koremenos: As an American fan drawn to Everton by David Moyes and their blue-collar approach to football, I have no idea what to think of this year’s side. Just a few years ago, strikers like Jermaine Beckford existed and winger Royston Drenthe was the club’s version of an exciting, creative player. After winning at Old Trafford, drawing at the Emirates, and following that up by smashing a older-than-dirt Fulham side, it’s pretty clear that Roberto Martinez has completely changed the way Everton do business (as Mike Goodman broke down so excellently last week). Martinez has given supporters like myself a dangerous thing: hope.
Because of him, I now firmly believe in the following things:
1. Bryan Oviedo is a serious candidate for the Ballon d’Or.
2. Speaking of which, Leighton Baines can continue chilling with Miles Kane, Alex Turner, and the Arctic Monkeys as his toe heals because — and this is mind-boggling to say after the Moyes era — the Everton attack doesn’t grind to an unwatchable halt in his absence. So keep doing things that make you the coolest left back in the world, Leighton.
3. Steven Naismith will emerge from the darkness and be a complete possession footballer, filling in seamlessly for Gerard Deulofeu.
4. Ditto for Nikica Jelavic should something happen to Romelu Lukaku. Actually, wait, I’m not THAT delusional. Jelavic makes me long for a return from Denis Stracqualursi. And I’m now going to punch myself in the face for even mentioning a possible injury to Lukaku.
5. Moyes is going to buy Johnny Heitinga for an obscene amount of money to “shore up his back four” and Everton are going to be players in the January transfer window.
6. Everton is firmly in what is shaping up to a five-team race for the Champions League. And they’re going to beat those Red bastards to secure one of the spots.
7. When they do, I will usurp that Liverpool scum Chris Ryan’s title at Grantland because that is the law of the universe. Be prepared for a Brett Koremenos–run Triangle blog, world.