Sunday January 11th, 2015

When Dusan Tadic pounced on a shot that rebounded off the post, pinging the ball into the Manchester United net after 68 minutes on Sunday to give Southampton the lead, it was the only shot on target either team in the entire game.

Until then, the match had been a cagey display of why these teams are in the top four, but a long way behind the leaders. Both teams displayed organization, discipline and hard work. Both passed the ball intelligently and accurately. But, even with Ángel di Maria, Wayne Rooney, Juan Mata, Robin van Persie and Antonio Valencia all starting United could not find the spark of inspiration to break down the opposing defense. Southampton managed it just once. That was enough to break United's 10-game unbeaten run.

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The Saints' 1-0 victory, its first at Old Trafford in 27 years, lifted it past United and into third, but still 10 points behind Chelsea. Southampton has taken seven points from its last three matches, against United, Arsenal and Chelsea. 

The most entertaining moments before the Tadic goal were the substitutions. There was Van Persie developing a sudden limp as he trudged off to be replaced by Ander Herrera. Even more amusing were the two Southampton changes. When Toby Alderweireld was injured after 21 minutes, Southampton kicked the ball out. But the back-up defender, Florin Gardos was not wearing his shin pads. While he struggled to ready himself, his team-mates delayed matters by starting an argument about how United would give them the ball back.

Shin pads are not uncomfortable. It seems bizarre that a player sitting on the bench should be unready to leap into the action because he has not have taken a few seconds to stuff them down his socks. It should have been a lesson learned. Apparently it wasn’t. When Ronald Koeman, the Southampton manager, decided to replace Eljero Elia with Tadic after an hour, it turned out that not only was Tadic not wearing his shin pads, he wasn’t wearing his shirt and had left it in the locker room.

After he scored, Tadic, presumably in an attempt to make a joke out of the earlier incident, ripped off his shirt as he ran to the Southampton fans. Of the few things that say “I am an idiot” more loudly than forgetting to put on your shirt before a game, it’s earning a completely unnecessary yellow card for ripping it off again.

Tadic did have an impressive six pack, but those abs did not protect him when he collided with Phil Jones in dying minutes. He staggered off, briefly, clutching his midriff.

That was about the most painful body blow United landed. After the Tadic goal, United did carve out two close-range chances for Mata. He hit both cleanly but missed the target.

Short corners

You're another brick in the wall -- After Allan McGregor bizarrely dived on Ahmed Elmohamady's little back pass to concede a rare attacking free kick in the penalty area, the Hull defenders lined up just in front of the goal. Three men formed a wall covering the near post. Then there was a small gap, presumably so McGregor could see the ball. The short range meant it would have been impossible to hit the ball over the wall with enough dip to bring it down under the bar. But when the ball was rolled to Saido Berahino, Jake Livermore, the inside man on the wall charged. Berahino aimed for the gap. His low hard shot was heading straight at McGregor, but it hit the Livermore, who turned his back, and deflected inside the post. That crack in the wall gave West Brom a 1-0 victory over strikerless Hull.

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On Sunday, Alexis Sánchez was twice as far out and facing a hulking Stoke wall when he took a free kick from a similar angle. Again, the wall covered the near post. Again the bricks moved. Sánchez, anticipating that the wall would jump, tried to shoot low, but the ball flew about four feet off the ground. It found the mortar, in the gap between the knees of the leaping Steve Sidwell and Geoff Cameron, neither of whom seemed to be looking at the ball. The mis-hit shot took a deflection that allowed it to squirm past Asmir Begovic at the near post. That goal only put the icing on Arsenal’s 3-0 victory. Again the wall had failed.

Running in circles -- Before this weekend Steven N’Zonzi of Stoke had run (with, presumably, a little walking included) further this season than any other player in the Premier League, covering  a total of 141.2 miles. Traveling a long way is no good if you end up in the wrong place or do the wrong thing when you get there. On Sunday, After five minutes at Arsenal, when a corner by Sánchez was blocked back to the Chilean, N’Zonzi charged after it. Unfortunately, N’Zonzi was supposed to be covering Laurent Koscielny. Sánchez carefully crossed and the unmarked Koscielny headed Arsenal’s first goal. After 33 minutes, N’Zonzi, screening his defense, intercepted the ball and decided he had the time and the technique to take two touches. He didn’t. Sánchez stole the ball and, after a quick exchange with Tomas Rosicky, scored. N’Zonzi did not add to his mileage in the second half. Mark Hughes yanked him at the break.

Two of the best? -- The Premier League table tells a clear tale. Manchester City and Chelsea are far and away the best two teams in the division. Not that you would have known it on Saturday. Chelsea, perhaps still shell-shocked by the five-goal barrage at Spurs, could easily have gone two or three goals down at home against a vibrant Newcastle attack. Instead, Chelsea showed the ruthlessness of champions when Willian took a corner quickly in the 43rd minute and, with Newcastle’s defense dozing, Oscar scored unmarked at the far post. The second half brought a carnival of back heels by Cesc Fàbregas and Eden Hazard and a neat goal by Diego Costa. But this was not a dominant or convincing victory.

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At Everton, Manchester City totaled 18 strikes at goal, but, even with Sergio Agüero making his comeback with 23 minutes to play, only managed only two on target and only one, a scruffy header by Fernandinho, into the goal. At the other end, City struggled against Romelu Lukaku. It gave away two points when Steven Naismith, a known aerial threat, was allowed a free header in front of goal. The results gave Chelsea a two-point lead at the top of the table. As Manuel Pellegrini the City manager, told the BBC, between the usual boilerplate praising his players: “It is important to try to improve in the way we are playing.”

Scott Arfield, the new Messi -- In his best seasons at Tottenham, Harry Redknapp’s success was based on the terrifying speed of his attack. Now, his struggles at QPR stem from the terrifying slowness of his defense. Redknapp prefers the 35-year-old Richard Dunne alongside the lumbering Steven Caulker in the middle because, since he’s always been slow, Dunne can compensate for his lack of pace better than Rio Ferdinand, who seems bewildered by the loss of his superpower. But that doesn’t alter the fact that Dunne is slow and has the turning circle of a supertanker.

When Arfield danced through the QPR defense to put Burnley ahead on Saturday, one of the players he beat was, Dunne who was still trundling toward the corner flag as Arfield popped the ball into the corner of the net. “He’s not Messi,” moaned Redknapp. Playing against QPR can make strikers look like the little master. 

Andy Carroll, the new Messi -- In one brief flash of brilliance at Swansea on Saturday, Andy Carroll showed why managers keep giving him a chance. Carroll may be big, brutish and ungainly, but he has the feet of a ballet dancer. After 43 minutes on Saturday he outmuscled the hulking Ashley Williams to reach a cross, controlling the ball with his chest. As Tom Carroll (no relation) closed in, Andy flicked it with his head. He was going away from goal and surrounded, but four touches with his left foot , and a few feints, allowed him to turn deftly while sending defenders lunging in the wrong direction. Then he arced a perfect shot into the corner of the goal.

But we already knew Carroll was good. One man who is still trying to prove that is Bafétimbi Gomis. With Wilfried Bony off at the Africa Cup of Nations and then, perhaps, to Manchester City, Swansea will be hoping Gomis passes the audition. On Saturday he managed six strikes but only one was on target. But his header against the post then bounced in off Mark Noble to give Swansea a draw. It also gave Gomis to grab a French tricolor and wave it to say, “We are Charlie.”

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