Saturday December 26th, 2015

English soccer’s longest day was another bad one for the teams at the top of the Premier League.

It was the worst for Arsenal. The Gunners’ capitulation as they lost 4–0 at Southampton, a team that had taken one point in five games, was another demonstration of why, despite playing well for sustained periods, it is hard to believe in them as title contenders.

With a full slate of matches crammed into one day to give most players at least 48 hours to recover before Monday’s fixtures, play started at 12:45 local time and ended nine hours later.

Of the clubs that began in the top eight, only two (Manchester City and Tottenham) won. Each looked the part as City and Spurs dispatched lowly visitors Sunderland and Norwich by three goals.

Watford could be pleased with its draw at Chelsea. West Ham might not be happy to finish 1–1 at Villa, but it was a fifth straight league draw for the injury-hit Hammers, so it was hardly a surprise. Crystal Palace drew at Bournemouth.

Leader Leicester’s loss at Liverpool might prove to be only the long-awaited blip. Manchester United’s 2–0 defeat at Stoke was a humiliation that might have rapid repercussions. Yet the worst failure came as Arsenal brought the curtain down on the holiday entertainment.

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Arsenal took the stage on Boxing Day knowing victory would put it atop of the table after Leicester’s loss, but the Gunners stumbled. Their attack was as scary as a custard pie. Cuco Martina put Southampton ahead with a ferocious long-range shot that he curled with the outside of his boot. It was a great goal and seemed to break Arsenal’s resolve. In the second half, the Arsenal defense trod on one peel after another.

Laurent Koscielny and Per Mertesacker looked like a pantomime horse. They were two men locked uncomfortably together, moving slowly and uncertainly, pulling in different directions and incapable of getting where they needed to be. The Southampton crowd might helpfully have trotted out the old panto chant “look behind you!” The Arsenal defenders were repeatedly taken by surprise.

Shane Long scored twice and also hit a post. José Fonte headed one. Virgil van Dijk had another header disallowed for a marginal offside. The four-goal final score flattered Arsenal.

Arsène Wenger complained that all the goals were “discussable,” a marginal offside here, a generous corner award there, but he also accepted that Southampton won “too many challenges.”

Arsenal has injuries. But this was a team of internationals that easily beat Manchester City last week.

One consolation for Arsenal is that every other team chasing Leicester has looked awful at some stage in the last two weeks. Leicester remains the only team in the league averaging more than two points a game. It is conceivable that Arsenal could give three or four more performances like this, end up with just over 76 points and still win the league. But the same applies to pretty much any one else in the top eight places.

VAN GO

After Manchester United’s latest loss Louis van Gaal suggested that he would jump before he was pushed.

“It is not always the club that has to fire or sack me,” the United manager told the media in reply to the predictable questions. “Sometimes I do that by myself, but I am the one who wants to speak first with the board of Manchester United and my members of staff and my players, not with you.”

The defeat meant that United had lost four straight games in the same seasons for the first time since 1961.

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For much of 2015, United was able to eke out narrow victories because David de Gea stopped so many shots. On Saturday, United ran into the goalie who now has the highest percentage of shot stops in the Premier League, Jack Butland of Stoke. United forced him into a couple of excellent saves in the second half, but by then Stoke was toying with the visiting defense.

Stoke had again opted for the striker-free attacking formation. From the start, United was unable to cope with the passing, dribbling and movement of Bojan, Marko Arnautović and Xherdan Shaqiri prompted by Ibrahim Afellay and Geoff Cameron. Bojan and Arnautovic scored in the first 26 minutes.

If a van Gaal team cannot, or will not defend, it has very little to offer. The Dutchman has his pride. He might decide his dignity is worth more than hanging around waiting for United to pay him to go away.

ARE YOU WATCHING UNITED?

If van Gaal goes now it would put United in a quandary. Would it jeopardize its receding chances of a precious Champions League berth and wait until the summer for the biggest name on the market, Pep Guardiola, or would it jump now for the other available celebrity coach?

Yet the way plucky undermanned underdog Chelsea fought back to grab a 2–2 draw against high-flying, star-studded Watford on Saturday was hardly an advertisement for recently axed manager, José Mourinho.

Chelsea has begun to get some decisions from officials, something that did not happen under Mourinho. Watford did score with a penalty, but, for the second week in a row, Chelsea was awarded one. Unfortunately, Oscar fell on his backside as he ran up to take it—a metaphor for the Chelsea season.

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Diego Costa might have been offside for the second of his two goals and could easily have been sent off at the end. On both occasions, referee Andre Marriner gave Costa the benefit of the doubt.

The change in Chelsea’s luck is probably simply one of those random things, but it does lend credence to Mourinho’s suggestion in his final, desperate days at Stamford Bridge that officials are out to get him. That might not be baggage United, a club which expects deference from officials, wants to take on.

Meanwhile, Costa recorded a brace for the first time since January. He had only hit three league goals all this season. Against Watford, Costa tried standing around in front of the goal. It’s an old trick that often works for strikers.

The upturn in Chelsea’s play and the revival of Costa and, despite the miss, Oscar, does suggest that at the end of the Mourinho era, the manager was part of the problem. If the United players are feeling mutinous under van Gaal, bringing in a coach who has just been deposed by what is looking more and more like a mutiny might not be the answer.

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WHAT’S WRONG WITH THIS PICTURE?

Mighty Liverpool dominated happy-to-be-here Leicester at Anfield on Saturday. Christian Benteke, the Reds’ big summer signing, scored the goal in a 1–0 victory. If you’d written the script at the start of the season, that would have been the outcome.

Yet, it is Leicester that leads the Premier League. Liverpool languishes eleven points back in eighth. Benteke started the day, once more, on the bench. The Belgian only came on when his younger compatriot, Divock Origi, injured a hamstring in the first half.

Benteke’s lunging 63rd minute goal might suggest he is the man for his job, but his inability to kill off the match in added time, with Leicester goalie Kasper Schmeichel stranded upfield, is the sort of miss that gives managers nightmares.

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The last 18 months have brought a string of false dawns for Liverpool under first Brendan Rodgers and now Jürgen Klopp. This victory does not make Liverpool a top-four contender.

Does the defeat herald the much-anticipated Leicester collapse? The Foxes failed to score for the first time in the league this season and the first time since May 16 vs. Sunderland, 20 matches ago. Jamie Vardy went off with 20 minutes to go. Claudio Ranieri, the Leicester manager, said the striker was running a fever. Ranieri also said Riyad Mahrez was “very tired” and he exited early as well.

Leicester responded to its one bad league result this season, a 5–2 home defeat to Arsenal in September, by winning at Norwich and then winning four of its next five.

This time it has 48 hours before taking on its next opponent: Manchester City. That will test what air pressure remains in the Leicester balloon.

IT MUST BE A TYPO

Of the seven clubs that have played in every Premier League season, Tottenham has conceded the most goals. It has let in almost 400 more than United and comfortably more than Arsenal, Chelsea and Liverpool. Spurs have even let in more than Everton and Aston Villa. If there is one thing fans of English soccer know, it is that Spurs cannot defend. Yet the standings suggest that Tottenham has the best defense in the Premier League.

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The formula is familiar (though not to Tottenham fans): a well-drilled back four, a five-man midfield with two holding players and a goalie, Hugo Lloris, who makes at least one world-class save every match.

Yet Tottenham is also proving that a willingness to attack can help the defense. Spurs, particularly Erik Lamela and Dele Alli, pressed Norwich relentlessly in a 3–0 win.

Harry Kane again turned tiny margins into big goals. Kane was a quarter-step ahead of diving goalie Declan Rudd to win a penalty and then converted it. For the second goal, Kane found a little separation from the defense, jockeyed a defender to allow a tiny gap and then shot just inside the far post.

Tottenham’s high-energy style might exhaust its squad. Its young players might lose their focus. But for now, Tottenham is tied with Manchester City for the best goal difference. That’s a promising statistical indicator in a tight and confusing season.

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