New Year, Same Old Trafford -- Since the Premier League was reduced to 20 teams in 1995, no team has lost six games and won the title. Manchester United's 2-1 loss to Tottenham on New Year's Day means with 18 matches still to go, the reigning champion has already lost six games this season. United dropped 25 points last season. It has dropped 26 already this season. It has lost four league matches at its fortress, Old Trafford. Worst of all it is in seventh place, 11 points behind the leader Arsenal. The portents are not good.
In the context of modern tactical thinking, the way both teams set out to play was mildly insane. It got madder. Tottenham, playing away to the champion, started with two attackers and two attacking wide midfielders. United finished with three defenders and seven attackers.
At the start, United looked as if it would overwhelm Tottenham's undermanned defense. By the time Emmanuel Adebayor nodded Spurs ahead after 34 minutes, Tottenham had begun to enjoy a measure of control.
David Moyes started to make attacking substitutions. It did not improve things. When Christian Eriksen nodded Tottenham ahead by two after 66 minutes, the two nearest United defenders were Antonio Valencia, who had started the game on the wing, and Wayne Rooney.
What happened next was a demonstration of one of soccer's stranger psychological patterns: the difference that two goals can make. Less than two minutes after Eriksen's goal, Danny Welbeck replied for United. At 1-0, Tottenham had been cool and in control, United had been subdued and subsiding. At 2-1, still one goal ahead, Tottenham went into panic mode, United found reserves of energy and belief.
Somehow, Tottenham, with goalkeeper Hugo Lloris mixing brilliance with lunacy, hung on. There have been times when Tottenham's season has looked like a train wreck. Yet its seventh victory in 10 away games lifted it to sixth, just two points behind fourth-place Liverpool. It may not look like a top-four contender, but the standings say otherwise.
The post-match comments of the managers reinforced the Alice in Wonderland feel. Moyes insisted he was pleased with United's display.
Tim Sherwood, the Tottenham boss, complained that his team should have wrapped up the game before halftime.
"I thought we could have moved the ball a bit sharper," Sherwood told BT Sport. "They were there for the taking."
Then he added: "But you know what, games are won on different qualities we won with the heart of a lion."
Moyes insisted that his team also had heart, though he didn't specify an animal. "Overall the players played really well and their effort was terrific," he said.
Sherwood had protected his lead by bringing on one attacking player after another, starting 19-year-old Nabil Bentaleb in place of the holding midfielder, Etienne Capoue. One player he wouldn't have wanted to have to take off was the revitalized Adebayor, who left on a stretcher. Sherwood, who has displayed a wisecracking streak since taking over at Tottenham, deflected questions about the striker's health with a joke.
"He's got ice on every part of his body, we can't really tell what's wrong with him," he said.
Moyes, who does dour in the best Scottish tradition, deflected questions about United's league position in more traditional fashion.
"We'll keep trying to win the next game, that's all you can do we're not necessarily looking at the league table. We'd like to be higher up."
Pretty much any Premier League manager except Arsène Wenger could say the same thing
What Money Buys -- On Tuesday, Chelsea announced that it had lost £49.4 million, or $81.67 million, in the 2012-13 financial year. Those numbers, on a turnover of £255.8 million, mean that, Chelsea risks falling foul of UEFA's Financial Fair Play regulations. The club will have to bring its losses below £5 million next year to avoid possible suspension from the Champions League. The following year it must make a profit of £9 million. Chelsea promised that it would meet the targets. But the club has tried to go that route before. It even recorded a tiny profit in 2011-12, before losing patience, giving into its shopping addiction and splurging more than £60 million last summer.
One reason why UEFA is so keen to stop billionaire owners funding spending huge deficit is that, as Chelsea showed again as it won, 3-0, at Saint Mary's on Wednesday, money can buy success.
For the 53 minutes, Southampton gave as good as it got against Chelsea. Then José Mourinho removed Juan Mata and one of the summer acquisitions, André Schürrle, and brought on Oscar and the most expensive 2013 purchase, Willian.
"They gave a different creativity, a different intensity, a different spirit," Mourinho told the BBC. "I feel sorry for the players I changed. But I'm not here to be nice to the players."
Within two minutes, Oscar burst through the Southampton defense and went flying over Kelvin Davies, the home goalkeeper. Davies barely touched the Brazilian. All Oscar won for his acting was a yellow card from the referee, Martin Atkinson.
In the 60th minute, Oscar's cross was deflected onto a post. Chelsea's most expensive ever purchase, Fernando Torres, reacting at last like a true striker, threw himself at the ball. It struck him in the face and flew into the net. None of Chelsea's recognized strikers scored a league goal away from home in 2013. Torres ended that sorry streak just 16 hours into the new year. It was an encouraging omen for the club.
Just more than 10 minutes later, Oscar danced in from the right and passed to Willian who provided an unerring finish.
With Southampton reduced to rubble, Oscar again broke through after 82 minutes. This time he stayed on his feet and scored.
Chelsea is beginning to add some attacking edge to its largely impenetrable defense. That should worry Arsenal, but not as much as the form of the team that briefly took over first place on Wednesday afternoon.
City Finds A Smoother Road -- The scariest predator in the Premier League at the moment is Manchester City. It briefly broke the surface after it won, 3-2, at Swansea in the first game of the New Year, only to slide back into second when Arsenal won later on.
City is the Premier League's other big deficit spender. Like Chelsea, it faced a well-drilled passing team that has depleted by injuries. Like Chelsea, it took City an hour to exert control. The slight difference is that where Chelsea needs to work on its attack, City could tighten up its defense. On the other hand, when you are banging in almost three goals a game, you can afford to give away one or two.
Indeed, that might be Manuel Pellegrini's calculation. He may be the most boring interview among Premier League managers, showing an impressive mastery of monotone clichés in a foreign language, but his team might be the most exciting. He is another coach who goes against fashion and picks two central strikers. No coach likes to see his team concede goals, but he seems willing to pay that price.
City has bought frightening strength in depth. Without Sergio Agüero, who is injured, and David Silva, who was suspended, it could still field Alvaro Negredo and Edin Dzeko as twin strikers. Such is its firepower in almost every other position; it did not even need them to score.
One central midfielder, Fernandinho, drilled City ahead after a corner. The other, Yaya Touré, danced through the penalty area to restore the lead. Aleksandar Kolarov added the third with a goal straight out of the playground. The left back won the ball in his own half, charged up the field unchallenged, cut inside Chico Flores, backing off like a 10-year-old, and walloped a shot past Gerhard Tremmel, who waved limply at the shot like another 10-year-old.
Unlike Chelsea, City let in two goals, both scored by Wilfried Bony, but the second, in the dying moments only created the illusion that this was a close game.
For the first time this season, City has won two straight away league games. After dropping 16 points in its first six road games, it has collected 10 from its last four.
The Cost Of Diving -- With three points wrapped up, Mourinho was able to take a relaxed view of Oscar's failure to win a penalty against Southampton.
"On the game, I think it is a clean penalty, because I am 50 meters away," Mourinho told the BBC. Of course, his team was also being held 0-0. "But watching on TV," by which time his team had won, "I understand clearly Atkinson's decision."
"Oscar is a clean boy but he's clearly waiting for the contact," Mourinho told Sky, before adding that while he expected his own players to be punished for diving, all he asked was that referees also show yellow cards players at other clubs.
Mourinho might have found the game at Old Trafford interesting.
With United one goal down, Welbeck went flying in the penalty area as Vlad Chiriches of Tottenham closed in. Howard Webb, the referee, waved away United's appeals but did not punish Welbeck who, replays suggested, had made the most out of minimal contact.
A few minutes later, Adnan Januzaj collided with Tottenham's Danny Rose. Januzaj collapsed. The words "house" and "cards" come to mind. Webb was again unimpressed, but this time he did wave a yellow card. Januzaj seems to be suffering Gareth Bale syndrome. It's safe to book him for diving because other referees have.
Moyes, who in happier times, had struck the same note as Mourinho by criticizing one of his own players, Ashley Young, for diving, this time defended Januzaj.
"Certainly isn't a dive. That's a wrong decision," Moyes said, before muttering that United should, of course, have had a penalty, presumably for an incident when Young, having already passed, dived to escape being cut in two by a lunging challenge from Lloris.
On Wednesday, Moyes wasn't worried about doing the right thing only about getting the right result. It's a state of mind Mourinho knows well.
Is Solksjaer Tan's Man? -- The television cameras are understandably fascinated by Vincent Tan. Before his club's game at Arsenal kicked off on Wednesday, they lingered on the Cardiff owner.
The first thing that caught the eye was his tacky pale sky sweater even more tackily tucked into his pants, perhaps a sop to fans who want their club back in blue rather than the red. The second thing was the man next to him. It was Ole Gunnar Solksjaer.
If the Cardiff team was auditioning for its prospective manager, it did not do badly. It hung on for 88 minutes against the league leader before, rather embarrassingly, conceding a goal to Nicklas Bendtner, who pounced on a save from David Marshall and scored from close range. Theo Walcott added a second, two minutes into added time. Arsenal won, 2-0.
The Norwegian was a hero at Manchester United, scoring the winner in the 1999 Champions League final. He spent a couple of years coaching in the United youth system before going home and taking over at Molde. He led the club to its first Norwegian league title in 2011 and to a second in 2012. In 2013, Molde finished only sixth but won the Norwegian cup. Unsurprisingly, Solksjaer was linked with a series of managerial jobs back in England.
On Wednesday, Tan sent his jet to fly Solksjaer to London to continue negotiations to replace Malky Mackay. The fact that Solksjaer came and was prepared to be seen with Tan suggested he was leaning to accepting.
His mentor, Sir Alex Ferguson, who is friendly with fellow Scot Mackay, has reportedly told Solksjaer to steer clear of Tan. Fergie once told another protégé, Steve McLaren: "Choose a good owner, not a club."
Solksjaer might also be tempted by the owner's checkbook. Tan has reportedly promised funds for players to whoever takes over.
Solksjaer prides himself on developing young talent. He boasted to The Guardian that at Molde "I can choose from a team of 11 Norwegians under the age of 22." But he's unlikely to see working for Tan as a stable long-time job.
Solksjaer might calculate that even though Cardiff is one point and one place above the relegation places, it's only there because of the recent disarray. The squad he would inherit has shown it can live with the big boys, as it did for 88 minutes at the Emirates. If he doesn't make a mess, Cardiff should stay up and enhance his reputation. Then he will be well positioned to move on and up if Tan starts to interfere.