Sunday January 24th, 2016

One ray of comfort for Arsenal after it surrendered first place in the Premier League on Sunday is that it does not have to play Chelsea again in the league this season.

Chelsea’s 1-0 victory at the Emirates Stadium means that Arsenal has not won in nine league games against the Blues and has not scored in six. While the match continued a pattern, it also provided a twist.

Since 2004, when Arsenal last won the title, its regular losses to Chelsea have been a reminder that Gunners were second best in London. But this season, Arsenal is a title contender while Chelsea is hovering above the relegation zone. Even now that Chelsea is bad and Arsenal good, Chelsea wins. That must hurt.

Sunday’s game followed a similar pattern to the first meeting between the clubs in September. With the score 0-0, Arsenal lost a central defender to a red card after a close encounter with Diego Costa. 

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Although Costa seemed purely the victim this time, Arsène Wenger, the Arsenal manager still blamed the Chelsea striker.

“Two players off in two games, so he’s clever,” he said after the match. “A fact is a fact. I do not accuse him of anything.”

In September, Arsenal subsided in the second half. On Sunday, the 10 men kept fighting. Chelsea should have had a penalty early in the second half, but after that it regressed to José Mourinho’s defensive, scared, Chelsea. In the last 20 minutes, Arsenal’s ten-men swarmed around the Chelsea goal. The Gunners managed only one shot on target, but that was partly because its best chances fell to shot-shy Mathieu Flamini.

“It’s a shame to put such an energy into a game and come out without any point, even with 10 men,” Wenger said.

It was a stirring fight by Arsenal and suggests that for once it has the depth of character to compete for the whole season. 

Yet, Leicester’s devastating display as it crushed Stoke, 3-0, on Saturday to regain first place, suggests the Foxes can also keep fighting.

Thin red line — Where argumentative soccer managers are concerned, nothing is obvious.

Two incidents over the weekend suggested that referees have adopted a simple formula to help them settle what is “obvious goal scoring opportunity”. They pretend it’s an offside decision in reverse.

On Sunday, after 18 minutes at the Emirates, Per Mertesacker allowed Costa to run past him some 50 yards from goal, level with the side of the penalty box. The German solved his immediate problem by bringing the striker down. On Saturday, after 32 minutes at the Boleyn Ground, Martín Demichelis of Manchester City, in a similar area, was beaten by West Ham’s Michail Antonio and responded by bringing the attacker down.

At West Ham, referee Craig Pawson showed Demichelis a yellow card, on Sunday Mark Clattenburg sent Mertesacker off.

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Five minutes later, Costa found space in front of the Arsenal goal and put Chelsea ahead.

Where Arsenal lost 1-0, City drew 2-2. That point means City took second place and Arsenal dropped to third.

The one difference between the two fouls was that at West Ham, the covering central defender Nicolás Otamendi, was a yard nearer the goal than Demichelis. On Sunday, Laurent Koscielny, who was inside Mertesacker, was a yard, or maybe two, further from goal.

Koscielny is faster than Otamendi and Antonio is faster than Costa. Both covering defenders had the inside line on the striker. Yet referees have no time to perform complicated geometric calculations. Costa was past the offside line, so Mertesacker went off. Antonio was not, so Demichelis stayed on.

However much Arsenal might complain about the decision that effectively settled the game, Mertesacker must have known what was coming.

As he chased Costa, the German glanced over his right shoulder. He saw that there was no Arsenal player between him and the goal. Even so, he lunged. The punishment that followed falls into that bulging category: red card for stupidity.

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On the spot — Time could be running out for Tim Howard at Everton.

The 36-year-old American goalkeeper was perhaps sending a signal when he “followed” the Colorado Rapids of the MLS on Instagram on Saturday -- before making his account private.

But if Howard is thinking of leaving Goodison, it might be because he no longer feels welcome.

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Howard has given several sensational displays this season. Yet as his club struggles to turn good performances into good results, Howard is becoming the scapegoat for Everton fans. At least twice this season, Howard has gestured at supporters in the Gwladys Street stand behind one of the goals after they sarcastically cheered a save.

On Sunday, all of Everton’s qualities and failings were on display as it lost, 2-1, at home to Swansea. Everton was sluggish in the first half but urgent and fluid in the second. The team created chances, but could not take them. Seamus Coleman encapsulated the afternoon when he volleyed over from a yard out with the final kick of the game.

Both the goals Everton conceded could be blamed on John Stones. The defender deflected André Ayew’s shot away from Howard for the second. Before that, Stones dallied on the ball while inviting pressure, as is his habit, and then sold Howard short with a back pass. Ayew beat Howard to the ball. Howard brought him down.

While Stones put Howard in trouble, the goalkeeper reacted badly. He did not need to whack down Ayew. It was, according to soccer statistics provider Opta, the fifth penalty the American has conceded since the start of last season. No other goalkeeper has conceded more than two in the Premier League in that span (though few have played as many games as Howard).

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Stones has also had issues with Everton fans who dislike his hot-dogging deep in his own half. But he is the rising star, the young talent the club fought desperately to keep in the summer.

After more than 400 games and at 36 years old, Howard is old and boring. Joel Robles and Russell Griffiths are waiting. Robles, a Spanish youth international, is 25. Griffiths, a product of the Everton academy, is 21. Neither has conceded any penalties or dropped any crosses in the Premier League this season – because neither has played a minute. No wonder Everton fans still love them.

Theater of sleep — At Old Trafford all the excitement seems to be off the field.

On Sunday, David Gill, the former chief executive who is still a board member, gave manager Louis van Gaal a subtle kicking in an interview with BBC radio. Meanwhile, José Mourinho’s people were scrambling to deny that the former Chelsea manager had written a lovesick six-page letter to United. The Special One reportedly promised to change his behavior for the club of his dreams.

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That was more action than the fans saw at the ground on Saturday. Maybe that’s why they mustered a gentle cheer for Daley Blind’s tame long-range effort in the 13th minute. They were right to celebrate. It was the only shot United managed on target all afternoon. The Theater of Dreams should be renamed the Sleep Research Center.

Southampton was little better. It won the game, 1-0, with one of just two strikes on target. Charlie Austin, who had come on to make his debut seven minutes earlier, lost his marker by standing still in the 87th minute and had an unchallenged header which he planted past David de Gea.

Austin, a proven Premier League scorer, cost only a reported £4m ($5.7m). He perhaps gave a hint why clubs are wary of him, when he told the BBC: “I’m delighted for me.”

Twitter went wild on Saturday night when Opta tweeted that United has fewer shots on goal at home than any other team in the top four divisions in England and Wales. It was a stat fans wanted to see. 

Other statistics (home points collected and home goal difference) suggest that Van Gaal’s defense-first, ball-control strategy is yielding some results. United’s board must have watched his Dutch teams at the last two World Cups and known what they were getting. Nevertheless there did seem an element of stubbornness about the cautious lineup and passive approach Van Gaal adopted at home to a struggling team on Saturday. It is not clear his players trust the Dutchman’s methods.

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“We stayed in the game, controlled the game and each time you saw more nerves in the Man United team,” Ronald Koeman, the Southampton manager, told the BBC.

At the end, the United fans booed.

“They were right,” Van Gaal said. “I cannot deny it. I have seen the match as well.”

He should, perhaps, be more worried about the booing from the boardroom.

“We all hoped results would be better," Gill told the BBC on Sunday.

“I am not going to sit here and say it is that attractive," Gill said. "Manchester United going back to the 1950s played in a certain way. We want attacking football and I am sure that will be a key part going forward."

Gill, who did not name Van Gaal, mouthed the right platitudes when he said: "I know everyone at the club is working hard to turn things around. We have to stick together."

United is in a bit of a pickle. Pep Guardiola is reportedly betrothed to Manchester City. The Old Trafford fans might be showing their love by buying unofficial United merchandise with Mourinho’s face on, but if they want attacking football, he is not their man. In his alleged mash note, he promises he will change, but don’t all men chasing a desirable match say that?

Rose-tinted spectacles — A 5-4 final score in the Premier League is always remarkable. Liverpool’s victory at Norwich on Saturday ended in a breathless flurry of excitement with both sides scoring in added time. But one reason there were so many goals is that both teams were so poor.

Jürgen Klopp, the Liverpool manager, could only address his own sides failures when he told the BBC after the game: “Four goals is in general is not good.”

“After set plays, or after second balls from set plays, it is the biggest rubbish,” he went on.

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​Klopp was slightly exaggerating. The first and last Norwich goals, nicely taken by Dieumerci's Mbokani and Sébastien Bassong, came after Liverpool failed to clear high balls from set pieces. But before the second, a pretty goal by Steven Naismith, and the third, a penalty after an insane double assault by Alberto Moreno on Naismith, Norwich carved Liverpool apart from open play.

When Wes Hoolahan converted the penalty in the 52nd minute, Norwich led 3-1. Up to that point, Liverpool had been listless and clueless, short on energy and ideas. The way Norwich defends, the Reds did not have to be better than mediocre to fight back.

The Norwich back line is a donut, densely packed but soft and with permanent hole in the middle. Jordan Henderson and Roberto Firmino, for the second time in the match, were unmarked in front of goal as they scored the goals that brought Liverpool level. The fourth was even worse as Russell Martin’s miserable attempt at a back pass gave James Milner the chance.

Bassong thrashed Norwich level when Liverpool failed to deal with a long free kick in added time. That set up an exciting finale as Adam Lallana, in space, of course, pounced on a rebound and bounced home the winner then ran off and broke his manager’s glasses in celebration.

It provided an alluring final glaze on what was, for the most part, a limp spectacle.

The game yielded nine goals from 12 shots on target and one of those was the blocked attempt that preceded the Lallana goal. The wild scoreline was the result not of dazzling attacking but of dismal defending.

"When you concede five goals you deserve to lose the game," Alex Neil, the Norwich manager told the BBC.

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