Wednesday January 13th, 2016

With just nine minutes to go in Wednesday's wild round of Premier League games, things were looking pretty good for the league leader, Arsenal.

Then Leicester City took the lead at White Hart Lane, normally an event Gunners’ fans would celebrate, and in the dying seconds at Anfield, Joe Allen scored to deprive Arsenal of a victory.

Instead of opening a four-point lead, Arsenal, which drew 3-3, ended the evening ahead of Leicester only on goal difference. Such is this season's Premier League.

In a match that began with a blizzard of goals and finished in a snowstorm, Arsenal and Liverpool both showed their strengths and weaknesses.

The home team started with the same striker-free formation that destroyed Manchester City in November but had been largely abandoned by Jurgen Klopp as Liverpool sputtered.

Planet Futbol
Watch: Highlights from Liverpool, Arsenal's 3-3 Premier League thriller

For the first 20 minutes, Arsenal could not cope. Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny looked like a pair of redwoods, rooted as Liverpool scampered round them. Roberto Firmino pounced on a rebound to put Liverpool ahead. He was so excited he tore off his shirt and earned a yellow card.

Arsenal’s first attack was quick, cohesive and crisply finished by Aaron Ramsey. Minutes later, Firmino struck back. This time he kept his shirt on.

All evening high crosses caused chaos in the Liverpool penalty area. After 25 minutes, Olivier Giroud was allowed to reach a dropping ball and smacked it into the goalmouth where Simon Mignolet, lunging with his feet, turned it into his own goal, making it 2-2.

The scoring slowed but the pace did not. This was breathless Premier League soccer at its exhilarating.

Arsenal gradually took control. It simply had more good players in more positions than the home team and had chances to take the lead before the 55th minute, when Giroud picked up a loose ball turned sharply and scored what appeared to be the winner.

Planet Futbol
Tactical breakdown: How Jurgen Klopp is transforming Liverpool

Liverpool did not give up. With three minutes left, Wenger, playing it by the book, took off Mesut Ozil, who had been quiet, and brought on the more defensive Mikel Arteta. That only seemed to entrench Arsenal in front of its own goal. In the 90th minute a simple lofted ball into the crowded penalty area reached Joe Allen who poked it in.

The two managers agreed that it had been an exciting match. Yet the result left both sides disappointed.

“We can be...yeah...satisfied,” Klopp told BT Sport, but the four letters of “yeah” do no justice to the extended, frustrated exhalation of breath with which it was delivered.

Giroud, who had been credited with two goals, also found words deserting him. At the end of an interview in which he had talked, without conviction, about the character Arsenal had shown, he muttered “we should be stronger” paused, shrugged and gave a long, unhappy, final “bleugh.”

Leicester snaps its drought 

Tottenham outshot Leicester 21-10. Spurs had five attempts on target, to Leicester’s two and that does not include a Harry Kane effort that hit the bar. The home team had 61% of possession and won 16 corners. Yet, Leicester fully deserved to win, 1-0.

Leicester rode all of Tottenham’s punches but did not simply crouch in defense. The Foxes constantly probed for a quick counterattack. Yet they did not begin to look really dangerous until Leonardo Ulloa replaced Jamie Vardy, who had returned from an injury.

Planet Futbol
Tactical breakdown: How Ranieri's Leicester City has overtaken the EPL

On the face of it, Vardy’s pace should be a dangerous weapon against a Tottenham back four that plays very high up the field and leaves space for a speedy striker. But Vardy’s only real chance was set up by Kyle Walker, who has developed the bad habit of making one sloppy error a game. Vardy was quick as he pounced on the Tottenham defender’s back’s weak back pass, but goalkeeper Hugo Lloris was quicker, racing out to poke the ball off the striker’s toes.

Ulloa, immobile but combative, caused the Tottenham center backs horrible problems. In 19 minutes. He had as many touches in the opposing half (10) as Vardy did in 71.

Leicester often strikes late, after opponents have punched themselves out. In the 76th minute from a long ball forward, Ulloa won a header to cause chaos in the Tottenham box. Danny Drinkwater, Riyad Mahrez and finally Ulloa all had shots blocked as the ball pinballed across the goal.

It was a brief reprise. Ulloa did not score, though his presence might have upset Tottenham’s marking at a corner. Eric Dyer and Toby Alderweireld seemed to change their minds as the ball swung in. They collided, leaving Robert Huth free. He lobbed his header into the far corner of the net.

Claudio Ranieri had again tinkered to good effect.

The Premier League is supposed to be unforgiving. Yet after a run of three matches without a victory or a goal, that header was enough to put Leicester back into a tie for first more than halfway through the season.

“Unfortunately it's January, not May,” Ranieri told the BBC.

Howard stifles Manchester City 

At 6-foot-3 and clad in luminous yellow, Tim Howard was hard to miss at the Etihad. So much so that as they desperately chased the goal that would allow them to keep pace with the leaders, Manchester City’s players were unable to miss him.

The U.S. goalkeeper made three particularly impressive saves as Everton earned a 0-0 draw. He flew to his right to push away a header by Yaya Touré. Howard stood strong as Sergio Agüero smashed a shot at his head. Then he stuck out a foot to stop a low-angled drive by Raheem Sterling. Sometimes, Howard’s mere presence seemed to turn shots away. Kevin De Bruyne, closing in on goal, glanced up to see Howard, huge and perfectly placed, looming and slashed the shot wide.

Howard’s defenders blocked a large number of City’s 22 shots. But behind them the 36-year-old Howard, big, bald and brave, was a yellow brick wall.

Are you not entertained?

After a strong Manchester United team managed two shots on target before squeaking past third-tier Sheffield United with a last-minute penalty in the FA Cup on Saturday, Paul Scholes, a former United great, said even the players looked bored.

On Monday, Louis van Gaal, the United manager, showed that he had heard the mounting drumbeat when he said at a press conference, “There are also matches where I am very bored on angry.” He went on to add the caveat that is his catchphrase: “but that’s football.”

On Tuesday, United was a team transformed as it produced a thrilling attacking display at Newcastle. Yet this time it conceded a goal in the last minute. A thrilling game ended 3-3 and United collected only one point.

Planet Futbol
Watch: Louis van Gaal calls Rooney-critical reporter 'fat man'

Again United took the lead with a penalty, converted by Wayne Rooney. It could have had one or two more. Rooney also set up the second for Jesse Lingard with a clever no-look pass after a wonderful United counterattack. Rooney then pounced on Paul Dummett’s poor clearance to smash the third.

“We could have scored easily six goals,” Van Gaal told the BBC.

He then listed the worst misses: Rooney shooting wide when one-on-one with the goalie, Rob Elliott, Marouane Fellaini heading straight at Elliott from five yards and Lingard attempting a fashionable curler for the far corner and missing the goal. Van Gaal bounced in fury on the sideline and then yanked Lingard off.

Yet Newcastle could also have had six. David de Gea made several excellent saves. Van Gaal complained about the penalty that led to Newcastle’s second goal, but anywhere but a soccer stadium (or a WWE event), Chris Smalling might have been arrested for his assault on Aleksandar Mitrovic. Newcastle also might have had one or two more spot kicks.

Newcastle edged United in nearly every attacking statistic. Dummett’s deflected 90th-minute equalizer was no less than the home team deserved.

Afterward, Van Gaal was clearly furious, and he had an ominous message for Scholes and the fans.

“You have to score one more than your opponent,” he said. “And it’s not so interesting that you score three goals and it is not so interesting that you score 40 goals. You have to win every game.”

Stylish West Ham 

Meanwhile, in the East End of London, one club is enjoying the rewards of caving to fans who wanted to jettison a pragmatic manager.

West Ham, which let Sam Allardyce go in the summer, won, 3-1, at Bournemouth on Tuesday to climb above Manchester United and into fifth place. The Irons won in style, something that can rarely be said of Allardyce teams. The hostility to Allardyce was partly tribal. He’s a northern thug. They are Cockney thugs. There were also philosophical differences.

West Ham fans present a curious contradiction. While a significant slice of the supporters glory in their reputation as the nastiest hooligans in English soccer, all of them also take pride in their club’s reputation as “The Academy.” That title reflects, in part, West Ham’s history of developing talent, but it also gives a sense of the club’s tradition of thoughtful passing soccer. The academy’s graduates include some of the most elegant English players of the last 50 years: Bobby Moore, Martin Peters, Trevor Brooking, Alan Devonshire, Joe Cole, Rio Ferdinand, Michael Carrick and Frank Lampard.

Planet Futbol
Watch: West Ham's Payet, Valencia deliver dazzling free kicks in win

As the last four names suggest, in the free agent era, it’s hard for a medium-sized club to keep young talent until it matures. Instead, clubs like West Ham need to go out and find mature talent. Last summer, freed of Big Sam, West Ham acquired a couple of pearls fairly cheaply. It borrowed Manuel Lanzini, a 22-year-old, from Al Jazira in the UAE and bought Dimitri Payet, a 28-year-old French international, for a reported £10.7 ($15.5) million from Marseilles.

Both are small. In the physical war that is the Premier League, both have paid a price. Payet has just returned after breaking an ankle in early November. Lanzini is out until March with a thigh injury.

Lanzini, just 5-foot-6 and 130 pounds, is one of the Premier League’s understated joys. Every touch, even the simplest little pass, is a thing of beauty. He’s not showing off. He just cannot help himself; each contact with the ball is like a great artist caressing the canvas with his brush.

Payet is altogether more dangerous. He too is an imaginative and accurate passer. Like Lanzini, Payet can hit a lethal dead ball. He scored West Ham’s first goal with a perfect free kick: hurtling and serving into the corner of the net off the underside of the bar. But, three inches taller and 40 pounds heavier, Payet can also drive through defenses, as he did to set up the winning goal for Enner Valencia. Payet squirmed past two defenders, waited a beat and then played a perfect cross to Enner Valencia. It was the sort of pass the French call “caviar.” Valencia gobbled it up.

Payet is not a luxury though. When he plays, West Ham scores more than twice as many goals and picks up, on average, almost half a point more. It’s hardly surprising that the manager, Slaven Bilic, yanked off precious, fragile Payet shortly after West Ham went ahead.

Payet is making the fans happy.

“West Ham fans love that kind of player with a bit of magic and he has got more than a bit,” Bilic said after the game.

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