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Premier League Pass & Move: Manchester Sings the Blues

A review of the weekend’s Premier League action.

A review of the weekend’s Premier League action.

What Happened?

Chris Ryan: Chelsea effectively ended whatever Capra-esque dreams United had of defending their title, beating the Red Devils, 3-1, at Stamford Bridge. How do I know they ended United’s title hopes? Jose told me: “I don’t think David will be upset if I say the reality: 14 points difference and 13 and 12 [to the others]. Can they recover to one of those teams? They can but to three of them? It needs three teams to have almost a collapse. What I hope they do is to beat all of them to finish top four.” That’s nice of you, Jose.

Elsewhere, Spurs stayed hot against teams not as hot as they are (beating Swansea), and Alan Pardew put out a Newcastle team that dismantled West Ham, then saw rumors circulate that he could be taking over the London club. Liverpool will feel like they dropped two points at home, even though they came back from two down to draw with Aston Villa. There’s another Luis Suarez diving controversy to contend with if you enjoy that sort of thing (you must also enjoy watching other people cut their nails and atonal free jazz, if that’s the case).

Other bits: West Brom have lost a sponsor in the aftermath of Nicolas Anelka’s quenelle controversy, Stevan Jovetic could be “like a new signing” for Manchester City (h/t Arsene Wenger) when he finally returns from injury (which could be soon), and the war against entertainment was won by nobody, even though Crystal Palace won the match.

Saint Santi

Ryan O’Hanlon: For everything great this EPL season has had — good Luis Suarez, bad Manchester United, a legitimate title race, another legitimate race for fourth, and just generally consistent excitement and fun — it has lacked one thing: the requisite number of forearm kisses.

On Saturday, Santi Cazorla kissed his forearm twice, which is to say he scored both goals in a nervy-until-the–second half victory, the kind that always seems required for the narrative of championship-winning sides. The egg-like attacking midfielder was pretty much perfect — according to WhoScored, he actually was — with two goals, five key passes, 80 of 86 passes completed, three accurate crosses out of five, three for three on long balls, four successful take-ons, and four interceptions. There’s not much more a wide-left midfielder can accomplish over 90 minutes.

Last year, Cazorla was Arsenal’s best player, and they finished third. This year, Arsenal’s in first, so it makes some basic sense to tend toward talking about the new things — Mesut Ozil, Aaron Ramsey turning into Michael Essien and Frank Lampard, Jack Wilshere turning into a while-he-has-the-ring Lord of the Rings character, Olivier Giroud’s brief flirtation with actually scoring, Mathieu Flamini actually still being pretty decent — when talking about Arsenal. Plus, Santi (I think he’d want me to call him “Santi”) hasn’t been as productive this season.  He’s still been pretty good, but that’s added up to three goals and two assists in 15 starts.

I don’t think anyone’s truly upset about Cazorla being not-transcendent-but-still-very-good this season — other than his son Enzo, whose name is tattooed on his father’s upper wrist. As Cazorla said last year, when talking about why he kisses his own arm, “If I don’t, [my son] gets annoyed with me and, at home, he’s not happy! No, it’s always a dedication to him. He’s the biggest thing in my life and, everything I do, I dedicate a little to him.”

In other words, Santi Cazorla, who dresses like a Hollister tween and is quoted as saying “I like to smile,” is a superior being. The more goals he scores, most likely, the more titled toward “good” the moral balance of the universe becomes. So, if you really think about it, we are all tattoos on Santi Cazorla’s forearm.

Wayne Rooney, Chelsea Steward

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Chris Ryan: What a world. (via The Sport Bible)

Sherwood’s Fast Start

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Mike L. Goodman: Another week, another win for Tim Sherwood and suddenly red-hot Tottenham Hotspur. That’s 16 out of a possible 18 points Spurs have taken in the Premier League since Andre Villas-Boas was summarily executed following a 5-0 hiding by Liverpool. In fact, Spurs are now even on points with AVB’s Liverpudlian executioners, and, pending Everton’s match against West Bromwich Albion, will be at worst a single point outside of the all-important top four.

While it’s tempting to anoint Sherwood as savior six games into his reign, Spurs fans should probably hold off from popping the champagne for a little while. It’s true there’s a lot to like, specifically that he’s featured Christian Eriksen heavily, called Emmanuel Adebayor in from the cold, and seen both players excel under his leadership. The new manager has also promoted youngster Nabil Bentaleb to the first team, and seemingly marginalized Lewis Holtby and Etienne Capoue. And he’s done it all without the team’s best defender, Jan Vertonghen, and maybe its two best midfielders, Sandro and Paulinho, each lost to injury. So, there is definitely a lot to like.

But, it’s only six games. Not only is it only six games, but all six have been against teams below them in the table (yes, this includes a trip to Old Trafford, where they beat Manchester United, but as we all know by this point, United are United in name only this season). This stretch is by far Spurs’ easiest of the season to date. Before Sherwood’s tenure, Spurs hadn’t gone more than three games without playing one of the five teams above them in the schedule. Spurs have looked good, and played well, but they’ve also hit the part of the schedule that you’d expect them to exploit.

It was a nice honeymoon period for Sherwood, but it’s over now. Things will look different over their next 10 games. By the end of March, Spurs will face not only the five teams above them in the standings, but also eighth-place Newcastle and ninth-place Southampton. It’s a brutal stretch, and one that will likely define whether Spurs truly are Champions League contenders this year.

The first six Premier League games of Tim Sherwood’s managerial career showed that Spurs have become a different team with him standing on the sideline. The next 10 will help answer the question of whether they’re actually better.

Same Old, Same Old

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Brett Koremenos: It’s not much fun to be a Hull City fan right now. No, I’m not talking about the crazy name change controversy. I don’t even want to mention that the club failed to find the net against one of the worst defenses in the Premier League this weekend. I’m referring to how Hull just spent upward of £14m on two strikers who don’t score goals.

Hull has a problem scoring goals. They currently rank 16th in shots per game (11.5), 16th in goals from open play (12), and 15th in percentage of shots coming from inside the opponent’s 18-yard box (43 percent). And that’s including a 6-0 drubbing of Fulham a few weeks ago. Take away that anomalous result, and Hull’s impotent attack looks even worse. Thankfully, for Hull City supporters, Steve Bruce has managed to keep his side organized enough defensively that Hull sit (relatively) comfortably in mid-table, despite such an anemic production from their attacking players.

But in no world is the answer to a goal-scoring dilemma “Nikica Jelavic.” As an Everton fan, I’m well aware that Jelavic burst onto the scene in the spring of 2011, converting goals at an elite rate in his Premier League time — .85 per 90 minutes to be exact. Since that fluky, magical  run, Jelavic has been in a word, dreadawfulerrible. From the summer of 2011 on, Hull’s shiny new striker posted a goals-per-90 rate of .22. That’s a number you’d associate more with a center back than a center forward.

Fellow newcomer Shane Long, whose deal wasn’t finalized by the weekend match against Norwich, isn’t much better. Long’s rate of .31 goals per 90 minutes in Premier League action looks Suarez-like in comparison to Jelavic’s recent output. That said, it’s still very … not good. Especially when you consider the transfer fee of nearly £7 million. But hey, while Long may not score many goals, he’ll at least run around a lot. So there’s that.

These two signings highlight the conundrum facing many clubs in the middle of the Premier Leauge. No matter how much cash they throw around, clubs like Hull can’t attract major names or entice clubs to loan them their young stars. Rather than developing young talent from within or taking a risk on a player dominating inferior competition abroad, they cycle through the same old names, with the same modest but still bloated transfer fees attached.

There’s Nothing Wrong With Mesut Ozil

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Goodman: Before December, Mesut Ozil racked up two goals and six assists. Since then, while he’s racked up two more goals, he’s only managed to add a single assist to his name. And after returning from a two-week layoff, the drought in assists has led some to conclude that something is wrong with him, that the little German maestro has been worn down, or found out, or otherwise tamed by the Premier League. Those people are very wrong, and it shows just how much things that are outside a player’s control can affect how their performance is viewed.

A look below the hood shows little has changed with Ozil’s numbers. While his goals came at the beginning of December, and he hasn’t scored since, his shooting has remained extremely consistent once you filter out free kicks. He’s shooting roughly once per 90 minutes during the six outings he’s had since December began, as compared to 1.1 per 90 minutes before that. We are talking about an extremely low number of shots here; sometimes they go in the net, sometimes they don’t. A five-game goalless dry spell for a player who is mainly a facilitator really isn’t anything to worry about. In fact, last season in La Liga, he had two separate 11-game scoreless stretches.

So, what about the decrease in assists? Again, very little has changed in Ozil’s underlying stats. From open play, Ozil started the season creating 2.9 chances per 90 with 2.3 coming from open play. Since December began, those numbers are at three and 2.3. The difference is that his teammates aren’t finishing those chances. Why?

Well, as always, the first answer is almost certainly luck. We are looking at very small samples of data here, and goal scoring is a rare event. Stuff happens. It happens all the time. You also have to take into account the injury to Aaron Ramsey. Two of Ozil’s assists during the opening months of the season were to Ramsey, and he created 0.7 chances a game for the midfielder. Ramsey was also Ozil’s favorite passing target, with the German shipping 121 passes to him, more than twice the amount of passes Ozil fed to anybody else while the two of them were on the field together.

Since the beginning of December, two things have happened: Ramsey has been hurt, forcing Ozil to spend time on the field without him, and even when they’ve been on the field together, their connection has been dampened, with Ramsey getting 49 passes to Santi Cazorla’s 47. Whether that’s due to tactical tweaks or a decrease in form from Ramsey, who seemed to be tiring even before his injury, it does seem as though Ozil has lost his favorite target.

Ozil’s production hasn’t dropped; it’s the team around him that’s changed. Whether that’s due to random chance, Ramsey’s absence, or something else is debatable. There’s only so much a player can control; oftentimes, though, that’s not what they’re judged on.