Saturday December 5th, 2015

Does anyone in the Premier League want to win the title?

Yet again, the team that started the day in first place slipped up, as Manchester City opened the weekend’s program by losing 2-0 at Stoke. Yet again, many of the teams immediately behind could not grasp the opportunity.

Between them, the teams that ended the day in the top six picked up just nine points. That’s an average of 1.5 points each.

Only Arsenal (which made hard work of winning 3-1 at home against struggling Sunderland) and Leicester won. Only Leicester, which romped to a 3-0 victory at Swansea, looked like a champion.

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The table tells the same story. Leicester went back to the top, two points ahead of Arsenal. With 32 points from 15 games, the Foxes are the only team in the division averaging more than two points a game.

In the four seasons after the Premier League was reduced to 20 teams in 1995, the champion averaged only 79 points, just over two points per game. In the 16 seasons from 2000, the champion averaged 87.5 points, or 2.3 points a game.

Perhaps the target for would be champions should be 81 points. The average for second place finishers in those 16 seasons was 80 points, or 2.13 points a game, which is what Leicester is averaging. Though that average includes seasons in which the second place team stopped chasing long before the end.

Leicester showed it can win, and win well, even when Jamie Vardy doesn’t find the target. His record streak of goals in 12 straight games ended even though he had three shots. Instead, Riyad Mahrez hit a hat trick to take his tally to 10, tied for second in the league behind only Vardy.

Manchester United, in fourth, dominated at home against West Ham but drew 0-0. Man United only managed one shot on target, while the Hammers hit the post twice.

Tottenham, which is fifth, stretched its unbeaten run to 14 games despite being outmuscled and outhustled by West Brom as it drew 1-1 in a scruffy, windswept away game. Its problem is that eight of those 14 games have been draws.

All traditional top teams have problems. Manchester City’s central defense is a disaster area. Arsenal’s midfield lacks balance. United and Tottenham have the two best defenses in the division but struggle to break opponents down. None is close to greatness.

But that’s only one side of the story. In many of the last 16 seasons, the relegation battle started somewhere around eighth place. This season, the Premier League’s middle class is much stronger. Leicester is the most visible example but the rest of the table is a minefield filled with teams that pack a punch and have shown they aren’t scared anymore.

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​Things might change after Christmas when the long slog of an English season often wears down clubs with thinner resources. Yet a glance at the benches as Stoke beat City today, suggested that edge is being eroded.

“What we see now in this league is that anybody can beat anybody,” Arsène Wenger, the Arsenal manager told Sky, after his team had edged past Sunderland.

Xherdan Shaqiri, who set up both Stoke’s goals against Manchester City, agreed.

“The Premier League this year is a little weird you see that every team can be beaten,” he said.

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Chelsea subsides: Perhaps no result symbolizes that mood better than Bournemouth’s 1-0 victory at Stamford Bridge on Saturday evening.

Such has been the gulf between the top and bottom of the Premier League that no team promoted as champion of the second tier had beaten the reigning Premier League champion since Portsmouth won, 1-0, at home against United back in 2004. That’s a run of 22 matches. And never, in the history of the Premier League, had the second-tier champion won away at the Premier League champion.

Bournemouth could have led by two or three goals at half time. Thibaut Courtois, who made three great stops as his defense evaporated, saved Chelsea. Courtois, on his return, looked at once the best goalie in the league. But soccer is cruel, specially for goalies. Chelsea dominated the second half, but Courtois, flapping nervously at a corner, presented Bournemouth with the chance to score a late winner.

Of course, Chelsea was robbed again.

“The referee made an important mistake,” José Mourinho told Sky referring to an earlier incident. “I think it’s a clear penalty.”

Mourinho was right. Simon Francis could have got his arm out of the way as he slid to blocked Diego Costa’s cross.

Yet the complaint lacked Mourinho’s fire. “It’s all part of the game,” he said philosophically. He did not even mention that Glenn Murray was offside as he headed the winner in the 82nd minute.

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Referee Mike Jones is clearly a fully paid up member of the global anti-Chelsea conspiracy but Mourinho seems to have given up fighting the system.

On the other hand, Jones could easily have shown Costa three yellow cards. The striker took off his bib and came in from the Siberia of the Chelsea bench at half time. His appearance might have helped lift a Chelsea team that had been outshot 6-1 in the first half when it was “soft” according to Mourinho.

Costa is not soft. He started kicking people at once. He could have received a card in the 59th minute. He fully earned one three minutes later for grabbing Matt Ritchie round the throat and yanking him off the ball. Costa then screamed in Jones’ face when the referee had the temerity to punish the offense. That could have earned a card.

Chelsea stayed in 14th place but is only three points ahead of Sunderland in the first of the relegation places.

 “There is no chance that Chelsea will be fighting relegation,” Mourinho said, ignoring the golden rule of relegation.

Teams that don’t realize they are in a relegation battle are usually the one in most danger.

A defensive state of mind: No sooner had Manchester City regained first place in the Premier League than it collapsed again.

The 2-0 defeat at Stoke was a rout. When City had the ball, it was easy to see that a gale was blowing. When the home team had the ball, conditions seemed perfect.

Mark Hughes borrowed the formula that Jürgen Klopp and Liverpool used in its 4-1 victory at City a couple of weeks ago. The Stoke manager started without a recognized striker and played a tricky, mobile quartet of attacking midfielders: Marko Arnautovic, Shaqiri, Ibrahim Afellay and Bojan Krkic.

Stoke tore City apart. The home team scored twice in the first 15 minutes. It was hardly surprising that Stoke seemed to be showboating by half time. Even so, only its wasteful finishing and City’s good luck prevented the final score reflecting the home team’s domination.

“We went a little different today,” Hughes told BT Sport. “We haven’t played that formation before. Today was perfect for us.”

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“We looked at all Man City’s previous games,” Hughes said. “You look for flaws and you look for weaknesses you can exploit.”

It doesn’t take a tactical mastermind to spot some of the weaknesses. Vincent Kompany, Yaya Touré and Sergio Agüerro, the team’s world-class spine in its two title seasons, were all absent.

It is possible we will never see Kompany defending at his best again.

The two men playing at the heart of the City defense, Nicolás Otamendi and Martín Demichelis, are both too ponderous to cope with opponents who pass and move quickly.

But the problem is not just that the two center backs are mediocre and physically limited. City’s problems are also mental. On Saturday, it played an aggressive offside trap, which was asking for trouble. City seemed to have learned nothing from its trouncing by Liverpool.

The players in front of the center backs, with the exception of Fernandinho, seemed unwilling to run back to give their defenders some cover. Again and again, City midfielders lost the ball and stood and watched as Stoke sprung into attack.

Manuel Pellegrini blamed tiredness. City played in the League Cup last Tuesday and has a Champions League match this Tuesday.

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“Too many games for the same players,” the City manager told the BBC. "We defended very badly but we also had not too many chances to score. We are playing with 13 players in all competitions.”

It is barely credible that the manager of the most expensive squad in Premier League history is running out of players. But maybe that’s why club’s like Stoke are closing the gap.

Hughes suggested his team wanted the victory more.

“You can talk about formations and what we were looking to do in the game but first and foremost the players have got to go out there and actually do it and that’s what they did it to a man,” Hughes said.

City clearly has personnel problems, but on Saturday it was outfought and outthought.

Ready for his close-up: It is hard to watch Arnautovic without being constantly reminded of the remark of one of his former managers, Mourinho, who said the Austrian "is a fantastic person but has the attitude of a child.”

On Saturday, Arnautovic scored twice with deft finishes after smart runs onto superb passes by Shaqiri. Arnautovic had three chances to complete his hat-trick. He slipped slightly as he beat Joe Hart and struck the post. Then Arnautovic was narrowly wide first with a difficult header and finally with a tricky volley from a rebound.

Yet he also attracts attention for the wrong reasons. Arnautovic runs like a dressage horse. Every step cries “look at me”. He even seems to be voguing when he stands still. He has a bad habit of visibly admonishing teammates. He showed up Shaqiri with an irritated wave of the hands after Swiss had squandered a selfless pass from in front of goal. What was the point? Shaqiri knew he’d missed a sitter.

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At the final whistle, just after he had been named Man of the Match, Arnautovic tried to start a fight with City’s Fabian Delph and had to be pulled away.

“This is emotions in the game,” Arnautovic told BT Sport.

Long after the other players had gone, he lingered on the field, fiddling with his boots. That, of course, allowed the cameras to linger on him. Yet he deserved to soak up the moment.

This was a brilliant breakout performance in a breakout season. Arnautovic is good, but he is a child.

Leicester's opportunity: To be top of the table once could be chance. But having ceded top spot last week, Leicester seized in back on Saturday. Its fans and players are entitled to grow excited.

“We must stay calm,” Claudio Ranieri, the Leicester manager told Sky TV.

Sit down, have a nice relaxing cup of tea, seemed to be the message. Maybe the club could cash in on the recent fashion and sell blue mugs with message: “Stay Calm, We’re Top of the League.” It must be a warming though on a December night in the East Midlands.

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