Saturday December 11th, 2010

Five things we learned from Saturday's action in the Premier League:

1. City pass the screen test. With all four of the English clubs who played in the Champions League during the week given an extra day off -- Spurs play Chelsea and Manchester United face Arsenal in a pair of prime-time showdowns on Sunday and Monday -- it was a chance for the supporting cast to step out of the shadows. Most of them did not shine in the spotlight.

After 73 minutes the five early games had yielded just three goals. A late flurry took that up to the grand total of eight, and Newcastle's entertaining 3-1 victory over Liverpool took the day's tally to 12 goals in six games.

Perhaps the tightness of the table -- just six points separate 18th place and 8th -- was partially to blame. Perhaps some of it was just a statistical anomaly; Everton managed 16 attempts on the Wigan goal and couldn't score.

The one team to seize the moment was the lone title contender in action. Manchester City flicked West Ham aside, 3-1, at Upton Park, to climb, for the time being at least, into second place, level on points with first-place Arsenal.It was a comfortable victory over a struggling opponent. Yet, as usual with City, it was neither pretty nor exhilarating.

Mario Balotelli is quickly developing into one of the most frustrating enigmas in the Premier League. There are moments when he looks scarily smooth and menacing, and moments are usually all a coach requires from goal scorers. But there is little end result. Balotelli wasted one good early chance. In the second half he sliced easily into the West Ham penalty area but failed to get off a shot. It is also clear that Balotelli resents physical challenges by defenders. That's a problem because English referees allow a much more robust style than those in other major European leagues. It's also ironic because City is a team built to bully opponents.

It is also a team built to defend a lead. In the second half on Saturday, ahead by Yaya Touré's first-half goal, City settled back into defense and invited West Ham to attack. Everything went according to the Mancini tactical blueprint. The Hammers showed little cutting edge. City absorbed the harmless pressure, scored twice more on counterattack and then politely allowed the host a late consolation goal.

City may lack the attacking élan of Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester United, but then it is a team that has been bolted together in a hurry. It needs to finish in the top four and win a place in the Champions League if its money is to attract a better class of star. At the moment, it is competing for a bigger prize than that.

2. Missing the points. City is in the leading pack not just because it is doing well, but also because the leaders are doing, statistically, quite badly. Last season, Chelsea won the league with 86 points. It was the lowest points total for a champion in seven years, but it still works out at an average of more than 2.25 points per game. This season only Manchester United, with 31 from 15 games, is averaging more than 2 points a game.

Chelsea has lost four of its first 16 games. Last year it lost six all season. But another reason is that the proportion of drawn games is up. Last season just over a quarter of games ended in draws. The two draws on Saturday mean that a third of games this season have ended in draws. Over the course of the season that will translate into 30 fewer total points in the Premier League.

The number of draws is to some extent related to the number of goals. The two goalless draws on Saturday involved some of the usual offensively-challenged suspects: Fulham, Sunderland and Everton have all drawn more than half their games this season. But the top teams are also drawing more -- last season's top four drew barely 14 percent of their games, this season the figure is 25 percent. Last season, Tottenham lost more matches than three of the next four teams, but finished comfortably fourth because it also won more.

This suggests that the gap between the top teams and the rest is shrinking. It is possible that this might just be temporary. Chelsea has been hobbled by suspensions. United's attack has been blunted by Wayne Rooney's injured ankle and ego.

3. Who would be a coach? Newcastle has been so erratic this season that it is difficult to know exactly what its 3-1 victory over an equally inconsistent Liverpool team signifies.

The match marked the start of the Alan Pardew era in Newcastle. Pardew this week replaced Chris Hughton, a career assistant coach, albeit one that had won over the fans by leading Newcastle straight back to the Premier League and had the team in a respectable position for a promoted team. But this season, as his team thrashed its local rival Sunderland, 5-1, and beat both Arsenal and Chelsea, Hughton was undermined by leaks suggesting the club's ownership still wanted a man with more experience.

The problem is that a club looking an eighth manager in six years is not an attractive career option. Newcastle ended up with Pardew, a man with plenty of experience but a mediocre record in 10 undistinguished largely seasons with four clubs. And even such an underwhelming candidate was able to squeeze a five-and-half-year contract out of Newcastle.

Whatever he does with the Xs and Os and however he motivates, a new manager can do little to address structural or financial problems at a club.

Liverpool's display Saturday confirmed that the summer appointment of Roy Hodgson to replace Rafa Benitez has, so far, done nothing to halt the steady decline of the underfunded team, over the last three seasons. Liverpool simply did not have enough good players on the field. Similarly the appointment of Pardew, in time for the January transfer window, won't do any good if he cannot bolster what looks like a very thin squad with better players.

"The king is dead, long live the king," Joey Barton, a Newcastle midfielder, told ESPN after the game, before adding that the players, not Pardew, deserved credit of the victory. Barton then dedicated his man of the match award to Hughton, who was reportedly spending his birthday in London.

"Always keep ahold of nurse for fear of finding worse," wrote the English poet and politician Hilaire Belloc. It's a rule that often does not appeal to sports club owners trying to find short cuts to success.

4. Christmas Carroll. Newcastle's first two scorers on Saturday, Kevin Nolan and Barton, are both from Liverpool -- although Barton was at pains to point out in the post-match interviews that he is an Everton fan. But the goal that will have most pleased Newcastle fans -- and Fabio Capello the England manager -- was the third, a long-range injury-time strike by Andy Carroll.

Newcastle and its fans have long made a fetish of the traditional British No. 9: the big center forward who combines size, pace, aggression and skill to batter his way through the heart of opposing defenses. The club can boast a string of great, or almost great, center forwards: Hughie Gallagher, a Scot, two southerners, Malcolm Macdonald and Andy Cole (more a poacher than a bludgeon, but let that pass) and, above all, two local boys: Shearer and Jackie Milburn. Milburn scored 177 goals in 353 games in a war-interrupted career. He was so beloved that he is still known in to Geordies as "Wor" Jackie -- Our Jackie.

The 21-year old Carroll was last seen in the Premier League playing a few games as a gangling teenager before Newcastle was relegated in 2009. This season he has returned like a comet -- a man suddenly growing into his gifts.

Carroll checks every conceivable box for a Geordie No. 9. He was born across the river in Gateshead. He is big (6-foot-3), strong, fast and skillful. And he plays big too. He is a ferocious header of the ball. He always seems to be around the ball when Newcastle attack.

On Saturday, Carroll occasionally fumbled in good positions but overall showed once again just what a threat he is. He outleapt the Liverpool defense to win the header that set up Nolan's goal. His barging presence helped usher the ball through to Barton for the second goal. Then when the sagging Liverpool defense gave Carroll some space 25 yards from goal he lashed a low, hard, accurate shot into the corner of the goal. Not many strikers of any size do that very often.

In all, Carroll again looked the complete center forward. The first worry for Newcastle fans is that the club will sell him, as it did Paul Gascoigne, Chris Waddle and Peter Beardsley. The second is that the aggression that helps make Carroll so good on the field could destroy him off it. He has fought with girlfriends and teammates -- allegedly smashing a glass in a man's face in a nightclub -- with the incidents leading to repeated encounters with the judicial system. What we don't know yet is whether, in the long run, the best comparison will be with Shearer, the great Geordie center-forward, or Gascoigne, the great Geordie self-destroyer.

5. It isn't always so easy. Jonathan Spector started life as a striker. Pressed into service as a defender for an injury-hit U.S. U-17 team he was spotted by mighty Manchester United. Doubtless the world looked good when he arrived there as a teenager in 2003. But over the next five years he made just three appearances and moved on, ending up at West Ham. Ten days ago, pressed into service in midfield for an injury-hit team he scored twice as West Ham beat his old club, United, 4-1, in the League Cup. They were his first goals in just over 100 games in England. The former striker, it seems, was about to be reborn again. He has started the two games since then in his new central midfield role. The problem is that he has been handed the chance because the club is so bad. West Ham has lost both those games. It is not going to be easy.

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