Georgina Turner
Monday September 13th, 2010

They say the Premier League table isn't worth looking at until at least 10 games into the season (which is good news for Everton, Stoke City and West Ham fans, since they occupy the relegation spots after four weeks), but the sight of Blackpool nestling in fourth, a point behind Manchester United and a point ahead of Manchester City and Tottenham Hotspur, is arresting nonetheless.

Not because it means the Seasiders need to invest in a set of European phrase books -- in 2008-09, newly promoted Hull City plummeted from fourth at one point to survive relegation by a single point -- but it is gratifying to see the club rewarded for manager Ian Holloway's refusal to water down his attacking philosophy. Especially since even he "didn't give us a cat in hell's chance."

Holloway's moves in the transfer market hardly inspire envy in other Premier League boardrooms. He has accumulated a troupe of freebies and loanees discarded by other clubs with a Womble's regard for their value in his hands. Yes, it will earn you hidings like the one dished out by Arsenal at the Emirates a few weeks ago (a 6-0 loss), but Holloway's confidence in his team's ability to win points on its own terms is inspiring when survival for promoted sides has become routinely couched in a defend-first approach.

"I've got to be careful I don't burst with pride," he said on Saturday, having overseen an improbable 2-0 victory over Newcastle. Improbable because Holloway asked his team, still in the 4-3-3 formation of last season, to emulate Spain's Tiki-Taka play. At St James' Park. Where Newcastle's last match had been a 6-0 win, and where it hadn't been beaten in the league since Fulham helped to relegate it two seasons ago.

Blackpool's midfield trio consists of Charlie Adam, sold by Scottish champions Rangers for a mere $770,000; David Vaughan, who cost less than half of that after a brief, ill-fated spell at Real Sociedad; and Elliot Grandin, the Frenchman who arrived a couple of days before the season started. It is hardly the same as eyeing David Silva, Xavi and Andres Iniesta, but the effect was startlingly similar as they moved like Maypole dancers in and around Newcastle, forcing Kevin Nolan to abandon Andy Carroll up front and help out the usually robust partnership of Joey Barton and Alan Smith.

Holloway's aim had been to stretch the home side and it worked a treat. Blackpool's second goal came from a fast three-on-three break in which Newcastle's defense backpedaled furiously but was undone by the speed with which DJ Campbell controlled Adam's perfectly weighted pass and teed up the shot. "I hate old-fashioned football, long balls lumped down the middle," Holloway explained. It's what his team restricted Newcastle to for most of the game.

In fairness, it might have paid dividends had Blackpool goalkeeper Matt Gilks not been in such agile form. In the club's requisite fairy-tale fashion, Gilks could barely get a game of foosball before Holloway's arrival but made crucial saves from Carroll and Peter Lovenkrands to preserve Blackpool's 1-0 lead. Up next, Didier Drogba and Co. at Stamford Bridge.

We're not referring to questions about the club's ownership; until Royal Bank of Scotland makes a move one way or the other, that discussion can only take us around and around in circles. No, focusing on the pitch, Roy Hodgson's impassioned defense of Fernando Torres (who has scored one goal in his last five appearances for Liverpool) has shifted the postmatch hubbub away from more pressing questions. Like: Where was the midfield? And: Isn't Glen Johnson getting a bit untidy?

Hodgson was moved to speak of Torres' havoc-wreaking potential by TV pundit Jamie Redknapp, who described his performance in Sunday's goalless draw with Birmingham City as "diabolical." And it's true that the Spaniard barely registered on spectators' consciousness before testing Ben Foster at his near post after more than an hour played. His form since cutting his bleached locks is making hackneyed references to Samson difficult to resist, though, of course, the coincidental injury to his knee is the decisive factor.

But Hodgson is on what looks like firm ground when he says that Torres "will get better and better as the season goes on." It would have been more interesting to probe his assessment of his midfield. While Birmingham's Barry Ferguson ran the show, Liverpool toiled anonymously in the center of the park. Only after 76 minutes, when Raul Meireles came on in place of Lucas Leiva, affording Steven Gerrard a shift into his comfort zone, did the Reds muster some forward momentum.

With Dirk Kuyt injured (shoulder) and Joe Cole finishing his suspension, Hodgson knows he has the luxury of choice to come -- and choices that will combat Liverpool's desperate lack of width. Selecting from a full complement, supporters will hope that the manager saw little enough from the bland combination of Leiva and Christian Poulsen to limit himself to just one of them.

Johnson was left exposed by Maxi Rodriguez's attempt to fill the right wing role, but for a player lauded for his attacking abilities (often over and above his defensive qualities at right back), he is starting to look incredibly sloppy on the ball. There's an inappropriate insouciance to some of his dribbling and distribution, and between his brain and his boots "Messi" becomes "messy."

This weekend highlighted better than most the importance of decision-making in a soccer player's arsenal of skills -- Everton's incredible 3-3 draw with Manchester United in particular. No one knows why Patrice Evra attempted to cut a ball over the top out with an overhead kick that left him on his backside on the halfway line and Mikel Arteta through on goal. United paid for his misjudgement when Leon Osman calmly nudged Arteta's parried shot to Steven Pienaar, free in the box, as rows of faces behind Edwin van der Sar's goal braced themselves for the possible impact of a wildly lashed shot. At least the catastrophic over-committal of Sylvain Distin in a similar position leveled things up in the second half.

Outdoing all of them in the harebrained stakes, though, was Lee Cattermole, the new (and possibly soon-to-be-former) Sunderland captain who earned his second red card in three league matches by launching himself at Hugo Rodallega 22 minutes into the 1-1 draw with Wigan and just four minutes after being booked for a challenge from behind on Mohamed Diame. That's five red cards in two-plus seasons. At 22, he has plenty of time to beat the English record of 13 career sendings-off.

Dimitar Berbatov's sumptuous goal for United's third, or the drool-inducing assist from Paul Scholes that set it up, is three minutes into this video if you haven't seen it. As well as a few poor decisions, this game also showcased the kind of deliveries UPS would be proud of. Nani created two of United's goals with pinpoint crosses from the right and Leighton Baines put in two first-time balls from the left to salvage the draw in injury time.

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