EPL thoughts: United's problems, Vermaelen's bittersweet day, more
Five things we learned from
Manchester United had won its three previous league games 1-0. It seemed on course for the same result when Javier Hernández scored after a clearance rebounded off him in the 49th minute. Newcastle had started feistily, but by early in the second half it was clinging on.
After Chicharito's goal, Newcastle barely escaped its own half. On one of the few occasions it did, Rio Ferdinand slid in from behind to tackle Hatem Ben Arfa, and was astonished when the assistant referee flagged for a penalty. Demba Ba converted. Newcastle was level. Somehow it survived. The last 10 minutes, after Jonás Gutiérrez was sent off, were almost comical. In all, United had 29 goal attempts. Hernández, Federico Macheda and Ashley Young all missed from close range. Tim Krul made some flying saves, and Newcastle's defense also blocked 11 attempts, including a couple on the line by Danny Simpson and Ryan Taylor.
"It was heroic defending," Alan Pardew told the BBC.
The Newcastle manager said he thought the penalty was a refereeing error, but said the draw showed "we're definitely a good side."
Alex Ferguson dutifully told the BBC that the penalty was a "travesty" and complained that Newcastle "fouled a lot," but he had a wry smile on his face. It suggested that he knew that while this was just one of those afternoons, his team had in fact played better than in any of its recent narrow victories.
The midweek draw with Benfica showed that United still has problems, but the team seems to be recovering from the psychological damage of its thrashing by Manchester City. The noisy neighbors could increase their lead to seven points with a victory over Liverpool on Sunday, but there is still two-thirds of the season to run. Asked if he was worried, Ferguson said "ask me in April."
Through Arsenal's troubled end to last season and stumbling start to this one, a source of consolation for Gunners fans has been that when Vermaelen returned from his Achilles' injury he would solve their problems at both ends of the field.
One of the things that make Vermaelen stand out from other central defenders is his eye for goal. Before Saturday he had 10 in 60 Arsenal appearances. Sometimes attacking flair can distract attention from defensive frailty, as was the case for a while for David Luiz of Chelsea. But Vermaelen is a tough, smart defender. Nevertheless on Saturday he showed his goal touch in the worst possible way, attempting to clear the ball away from another attacking defender, Fulham's John Arne Riise, and slicing it straight into the Arsenal goal. With time running out, Robin van Persie having no luck and Arsenal looking toothless, Vermaelen atoned with a typically powerful header.
The home draw brought to an end Arsenal's recent strong run. Arsène Wenger, who, for the first time in six years, had fielded a starting lineup without a single Frenchman, blamed Wednesday's Champion's League victory over Dortmund for leaving his team jaded. Even with Vermaelen scoring at both ends, it seems, Arsenal is struggling to compete on two fronts.
On Saturday, Adebayor had 10 attempts on goal. That's a lot. They weren't hopeful long-range efforts. Most were from around the penalty spot -- indeed one was a penalty. Adebayor put nine on target, which is very good, but practically every single one was straight at Ben Foster, which is not. Adebayor's first goal came after Foster had blocked the striker's tame penalty kick. The rebound fell kindly for Adebayor, who scored from two yards. His second came on a counterattack in garbage time with West Brom's defense far away. Again he shot straight at Foster, but the ball deflected in.
While Adebayor provided a demonstration of how not to score, 10 shots by one player and 26 by the team as a whole are impressive totals, especially away from home. Adebayor, strong, fast and hard working, is providing a focal point around which Tottenham's array of talented players can orbit. Adebayor has a reputation as a troublemaker, but it is also clear that his new teammates see him as a leader. One way that manifests itself is the willingness of players like Defoe or Gareth Bale to pass to him rather than take shots themselves. Maybe that's part of the problem. Spurs' winner came when Defoe, set free by Adebayor, did shoot and put the ball where Adebayor couldn't, in the corner of the net.
Spurs have Adebayor on loan from Manchester City, which is paying the bulk of his wages, between £140,000 and £170,000 a week, depending on which tabloid you believe. Wenger has complained that the system is unfair because Adebayor can play against every club except City. And while the Arsenal manager is right on a theoretical level -- the loan system IS a disgrace -- what he is really saying is that his own loaner, Yossi Benayoun from Chelsea, is proving a bust. Very few clubs round the world can match Manchester City wages, so if Adebayor won't take a pay cut, his stay at Spurs could be short. For now at least, he is transforming the team, even if his shooting is awful.
Chelsea had won just one of its four previous games, and that was against dire Blackburn. It had slipped to fifth in the league, and is wobbling in Europe. It would be easier to judge the manager's experiment if Wolves had turned up in the first half. By the time the visitors managed to construct a worthwhile attack they were three goals down. But Chelsea got the victory its manager needed.
Afterward, Villas-Boas could not resist seeing it as the start of a title surge.
"I think we can," he said of winning the league, adding that the core of his squad won the title two years ago. "We have most of the same players. We have the talent and belief will be the last thing to die with us."
That may be true. But speed and reaction time are the first to go, and several of his old war horses have looked slow this season. The coach's decision to try youth suggests he knows it. The question is whether the young players are good enough. Just as recent stuttering results did not suddenly make Chelsea a bad team, Saturday's victory does not suddenly make it a great one again.
Two of those nine were Blackburn and Stoke, who on Saturday provided a powerful argument for a contract that stipulates that some clubs NEVER appear live, certainly not during hours of daylight when children might be watching. The lunchtime live slot is unpopular with managers and fans, but it is prime time in East Asia, which is a market that obsesses the Premier League. This match will not have won more fans.
Stoke is not a pretty team, and Blackburn is not a good one. Tony Pulis seems to seek out players no one, except the most committed Stoke fan, would turn on their television to watch. The Potters, playing at home, hewed out just three strikes on target the whole match. They converted all of them and won 3-1.
Blackburn did produce some flashes of inspiration, most notably Rubén Rochina's late goal but were generally inept. The defeat dropped Rovers to last place, with just seven points after 13 matches. If the club's owners finally cave in to the fans and fire Steve Kean, he will not have to look far for a silver lining: he won't have to watch games like this every week.