Sunday August 23rd, 2015

After just three games, Manchester City is already clear at the top of the league. City has won three, scored eight and conceded none. Liverpool can draw level if it beats Arsenal on Monday. But City is looking good. 

The 2–0 victory at Goodison on Sunday bore some resemblance to the three-goal home victory over Chelsea a week earlier.

"Again we score two goals, again we keep our clean sheet so I think we are working very well as a team,” Manuel Pellegrini, the City manager told Sky, the British cable channel, almost with a shrug.

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​ Like Chelsea, Everton gave City some problems. Romelu Lukaku had a goal rule offside and hit the bar from a free kick with goalie Joe Hart beaten. It took City until the first minute of the second half to take the lead. Again it rode its luck as Everton fought back. Again it killed off the game late on. This time when Samir Nasri scored a neat goal with three minutes left. Yet City had nine shots on target to just one by Everton. City simply had too many great players. Where Sergio Agüero sparkled last week, this time David Silva shone as he orchestrated City’s attacks. Raheem Sterling was much more purposeful, mobile and confident than against Chelsea. He set up the first goal for Aleks Kolarov with a neat run and clever pass.

Eliaquim Mangala again looked clumsy and occasionally over-aggressive. He played the last 50 minutes on a yellow card. If Nicolás Otamendi, the £32-million ($52-million) signing from Valencia, lives up to his reputation, Mangala can be unreliable on the bench. 

The victory is City’s ninth straight in the Premier League. It is a club record. Hart wasn’t interested. He pointed out that City knew long before the end of last season that it could not win the league and that the streak started with “six wins at the end of a dead season.”

“We’re a hungry team,” Hart told Sky. “Last season was hard. We constantly remind ourselves we played the last six games for nothing. 

Pellegrini echoed the sentiment. “We are just starting,” Pellegrini said. “This finishes in May.”

THE GOOD NEWS FOR CHELSEA After starting the season without a victory in its first two games, the Premier League champion needed a victory in the worst possible way. It eked one out on Sunday with a 3–2 victory at the Hawthorns, where it had not won in the previous four seasons.

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Pedro made an immediate impact. The £21.1 million acquisition from Barcelona constantly threatened to unhinge the ponderous West Brom defense. He was rewarded. Pedro scored the first, with the help of deflection. He set up the second, although he was probably trying to shoot rather than pass to Diego Costa. Pedro was lucky, but he earned his luck.

Chelsea fans enjoyed themselves by taunting Manchester United, which seemed to have the inside track on Pedro but dickered over the price.

“It was something that basically we didn’t have in our team,” Cesc Fàbregas, another former Barça player, told Sky after the game. “This pacey player that goes behind defenders, that can dribble, goes one against one. He stretches teams.”

Chelsea won the league last season without a regular attacking player with breakaway pace. Suddenly its attack has become even more dangerous.

THE BAD NEWS FOR CHELSEA Chelsea’s attack needs to be better because its defense looks much worse. Chelsea won the game in the worst possible way. There were a couple of moments when it all looked like going horribly wrong.

If James Morrison had converted a 14th minute penalty kick with game still goalless, Chelsea’s nervous rearguard might have collapsed.

For the second time in three games Chelsea played much of the second half with 10 men after a player, this time John Terry, received a red card for bringing down an opponent who was out-running the back four.

The penalty came from a panicky tackle with the wrong foot by Nemanja Matic on Callum McMananaman, who was going away from goal. Matic looked a shaky shadow of last season’s dominant defense midfielder. He was fortunate not to pick up a second yellow in the first half after throwing an elbow in an aerial duel.

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Morrison was completely alone near the penalty spot when he volleyed West Brom’s first goal and again when he headed the second. Morrison is only 5-foot-9. He’s not the sort of player who should be winning aerial balls amid the thicket of tall trees in the heart of the Chelsea defense, Thibaut Courtois, Gary Cahill, Kurt Zouma, Branko Ivanovic and Matic.

John Stones’ price just went up again. And Paul Pogba, a powerful midfielder at Juventus, might suddenly seem worth the money at £69 million.

Fàbregas is the player who might be under threat if Pogba arrives. It is a reflection of the modern game that his six attempted tackles were four more than any other Chelsea player. He succeeded with two. Only Pedro of Chelsea connected with as many. Yet, so sluggish and uncertain is Fàbregas in defense that, at times in the 42 minutes after Terry was sent off, Chelsea seemed play with nine men when West Brom had the ball. Chelsea is not defending like a champion.

FLAGS OF FEAR The furore that followed Christian Benteke’s winning goal for Liverpool against Bournemouth last Monday night, seems to have brought a reaction from officials this weekend.

The Premier League issued a gobbledygook statement, apparently written by a senior bureaucratic, accompanied by a stickman graphic apparently drawn by a five-year-old. It concluded that the “expected outcome” should have been an “offside decision”. Officials seemed to have received the message.

The offside decision is notoriously difficult as assistant referees are expected to shift their eyes instantly from the passer to the player receiving the pass. To help them out, the laws clarify that when unsure, the striker receives the benefit of the doubt. This weekend, they did not. So far were assistants erring on the side of caution, that Wayne Rooney had a goal disallowed for an offside that was marginal at best. Officials refusing United the benefit of the doubt at Old Trafford? What is the world coming too?

On Sunday, Harry Lennard, the assistant who failed to flag at Anfeld on Monday, return to Merseyside and refused to give Romelu Lukaku the benefit of the doubt in the first half.

Lennard must have got the memo. The “expected outcome” was an “offside decision”.

THE DOMINATOR It is hardly surprising that Louis van Gaal wants to dominate. It’s in his nature.

“We have to dominate the opponent,” he said after Manchester United drew 0–0 with Newcastle at Old Trafford on Saturday. “We did it today, we did it against Aston Villa and against Tottenham. Against Tottenham was less, but against Villa, Brugge and today we dominate.”

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United has scored just twice in three league games this season. One of those was an own goal by Kyle Walker of Tottenham. With Ander Herrera nailed to the bench and United apparently having long ago decided that Javier Hernández isn’t good enough, there are only two regular starters who look capable of scoring in double figures. One, Memphis (who wants to be known only by his first name—and he who depayes de piper calls de tune) is still acclimatizing. The other, Wayne Rooney, seems to be in a slow, terminal decline. Unless Van Gaal buts, domination doesn’t look like it will translate into goals. What does it mean?

It means that Van Gaal wants to make clear that he is doing his job. Like Alex Ferguson he is the dictator who keeps the highly paid and hugely pampered stars at United under his total control. As the manager he doesn’t kick a ball, but he wants to control the way his players kick every ball.

Yet it is an approach to man management that does not always work. Van Gaal’s message to David de Gea appears to be “My way, but not the highway.” Reports from Old Trafford suggest that it is a lack of choice that has pushed the goalie into a deep sulk.

Sergio Romero, who is starting instead, won a Dutch title under Van Gaal at Alkmaar. He took Argentina to a World Cup final with saves in a semi-final penalty shootout against Van Gaal’s Netherlands. Yet there is a reason why he was only a backup at Monaco. Where the wiry De Gea plays big and, true to the Van Gaal bible, tries to dominate his penalty area, the burly Romero plays small. It’s not clear he can reach every shot De Gea might save. Romero’s flappy style and erratic distribution suggest he is an accident, or series of accidents waiting to happen.

So far, Romero has not conceded a league goal this season. He needs to keep repaying Van Gaal’s faith if United is going to keep turning its punchless domination into 1–0 victories or 0–0 draws.

TALKING TACTICS Van Gaal is not the only manager who wants to make it clear that he is earning his keep. On Saturday, both Alan Pardew, of Crystal Palace, and Claudio Ranieri, of Leicester, talked of how tactical their games were. Of course Ranieri, the Tinkerman, likes nice slice of chess with his soccer. Yet, in both cases the implication was that the games were determined by the tactics of the coaches.

“Villa came and tripped us up with a tactical formation—it was a real tactical game today,” Pardew said after his team had snatched a 2–1 home victory over Aston Villa. "But second half we sorted ourselves out and were a lot better.”

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That suggests Pardew’s two-second half substitutions decided the game. Perhaps his tactical acumen explains why Villa’s 21-year-old fullback Jordan Amavi gave the ball away deep in his own half three minutes from time to set up the winning Palace goal.

There was a time teams might spend the first 15 minutes “feeling each other out.” So tactical was the game at King Power Stadium, that Leicester and Tottenham seemed to spend the first 80 minutes tentatively groping. After Dele Alli gave Spurs the lead with nine minutes to go, Riyad Mahrez to collect the ball unmarked on the flank and swerve in unchecked to level 90 seconds later.

Like United, Spurs are so shallow in attack they cannot afford to give away any goals. But this was the second time in two matches Tottenham had thrown away a lead late in the game

Naturally, the Mauricio Pochettino, the Tottenham manager, was not interested in boasting about his tactics. Without altering his usual monotone, he told the BBC he was “angry.” Anger, as Alex Ferguson knew, is a good managerial fallback when the tactics aren’t working.

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