Sunday February 1st, 2015

Arsenal’s 5-0 victory over Aston Villa at the Emirates demonstrated just how hard scoring goals can be -- and just how easy.

Aston Villa has now gone 612 minutes without scoring in the Premier League. That’s more than six games, the longest goal-less stretch in the club’s 141-year history. Watching them, it is possible to wonder how any team ever scores a goal.

Yet, Arsenal scored four times in 34 minutes in the second half. The Gunners made it look easy.

Aston Villa had more of the possession. It had eight shots to Arsenal’s 13. It was also utterly outplayed.

Under Paul Lambert, Villa has enjoyed repeated success with counter-attacking tactics against the EPL's top clubs. On Sunday, Villa came out to play a high-pressing game. The problem was that while the midfield and attack were harrying Arsenal, the defense, badly missing Ron Vlaar and terrified of Arsenal’s pace, could not make it’s mind up whether to push up in support or hang back. It did not know whether to leave space in front or behind. Against Arsenal either approach can be fatal.

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“They tried to stop us going forward, Aston Villa, by blocking us very early,” Arsenal manager Arsène Wenger told Sky Sports. "With time going on we had the chance to play through their lines.”

“When we passed through we looked always dangerous.”

Olivier Giroud, hardly the paciest striker, punished Villa on the breakaway in the first half. He was allowed so much time that he could even afford to miss-control the ball, then stop to gather it before scoring

“The way Arsenal have been playing, if we sat back and sat back I think they’d go at you anyway,” Lambert told Sky.

Arsenal is beginning to look consistently dangerous again. It has won three straight league games for the first time this season. It is still fifth but is just one point behind Manchester United in third.

“We have to play catch-back,” Wenger said, coining a phrase.

The one consolation for Lambert and Villa is that Hull, Leicester, QPR, West Brom and Burnley all looked as bad, or worse in losses on Saturday.  

But, as Lambert said, “If you don’t score goals, you can’t win games.”

Short corners

Badly drawn Chelsea -- When the rivals in a two-team race meet, it is clear that a draw is a better result for the team that leads.

Chelsea earned a 1-1 draw with Manchester City on Saturday without two its key players, Diego Costa and Cesc Fàbregas. The point preserved Chelsea's five-point advantage over the reigning champion. Yet there were worrying signs.

Chelsea recorded only three shots on target, its lowest total in 11 seasons. That follows a two-leg League Cup semi-final against Liverpool in which Chelsea took two-and-a-half-hours to muster a shot on target not from the penalty spot.

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Chelsea looked weary. Despite the amount of money the club has spent, four of the seven subs were teenagers. The best Chelsea player might well have been Kurt Zouma, a 20-year-old Frenchman making only his second start in place of the suddenly-shaky Gary Cahill. Zouma was quick, strong and smart.

Mourinho has always known how to park the bus, but he has also always had a killer’s instinct. Victory would have given Chelsea an eight-point edge, but the team never looked capable of it.

“I think there is just one team from the beginning to the end that wanted to win,” Manuel Pellegrini, the City manager told the BBC.

“If you say it’s a good point at Stamford Bridge, maybe you can think it’s a good point, for me the way we play and what happened during 95 minutes, it’s not a good point.”

We don’t know what Mourinho thinks .

On his return to Chelsea he promised to be a more relaxed and mature Mourinho. With the pressure on, he has reverted to his bunker mentality and this week refused to speak to the media. That’s probably not a good sign for Chelsea either.

Failing the audition -- Southampton’s surprising performance this season has received recognition, and it occupied the headline slot in Premier League schedule: playing the closing game of the weekend at home to Swansea on Sunday.

The Saints flopped, losing 1-0.

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Southampton started in brilliant style, penning Swansea back and bombarding its penalty area, but it could not score. Graziano Pelle’s reluctance to gamble and make runs into the goalmouth was a particular problem as his teammates consistently fired balls across just in front of the goalie only to see Pelle standing on the penalty spot.

If you don’t score, as Paul Lambert could tell you, bad things can happen. For much of the second half, Jonjo Shelvey had seemed to have the wrong boots on, slipping every time he tried to shoot. After 83 minutes, he tried again from well outside the area. This time he connected. The ball flew past goalkeeper Fraser Forster. It was Swansea’s only shot on target. It won the game.

Courtois is human -- Perhaps the most impressive aspect of Thibaut Courtois’ goalkeeping is not his size or his fast reactions, it is the absolute certainty with which he does everything. That certainty evaporated after 45 minutes on Saturday when he flailed at a cross from Jesús Navas.

Courtois may have been unsighted by James Milner, who leaped across his field of vision just as the ball arrived. Yet Courtois was a yard away from where he should have been. He had to stretch and reach backward and could only flap the ball to Sergio Agüero who drilled it back into the goalmouth where David Silva scored.

Courtois may have been undermined by Mourinho’s recent tendency to alternate him with Petr Cech. But maybe Mourinho simply spotted the signs of fallibility first.

The magic Christian -- For a midfielder who plays just behind the main striker, Christian Eriksen seems surprisingly incapable of delivering a killer pass.

He has just one assist in 25 games in all competitions this season. That stat is even more surprising because he also takes a large portion of his team’s corners.

Yet Mauricio Pochettino, the Tottenham manager, is clearly building his tactics around Eriksen. He scores goals.

The Dane set Tottenham on the way to a comfortable 3-0 victory at West Brom on Saturday with a sixth minute free kick. He has supplanted Seb Larsson as the deadliest man with a dead ball in the Premier League.

The goal made Eriksen the top-scoring midfielder in the division with nine in 23 games, one more than Eden Hazard, although Hazard has five assists.

Eriksen can also score from open play, shooting with a calm precision that seems to desert him when he is passing.

The goal briefly made Eriksen Tottenham’s top league scorer, though Harry Kane added the next two goals to move to 10.

Who cares if Eriksen cannot pass, if he can shoot?

Back with a bang -- If Eriksen’s boots are brushes, painting artistic rainbows or imaginative lines toward the goal, Daniel Sturridge’s right foot is a rifle.

Just 12 minutes after coming on as a substitute against West Ham at Anfield on Saturday, Sturridge smashed a low shot just inside the post to seal a 2-0 victory. He is a sniper.

It was his first appearance since September 3 and his first goal since the opening game of the season. He returns from injury to join a Liverpool team that finally seems to be emerging from its post-Luis Suárez swoon.

The summer signings are bedding in. The defense has, at last, settled; This was Liverpool’s fifth clean sheet in six games. Philippe Coutinho is becoming increasingly visible and effective. Jordan Henderson and Raheem Sterling no longer have to carry the team.

Sturridge may have timed his comeback as well as he times a shot.

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