The Premier: It's been a long time coming for Cardiff City and Campbell
A landmark occasion for a club and a player? A tactical tour de farce? A not so-subtle reminder from The Special One who runs this joint? That and more in Week 2 of The Premier.
The Premier Lede
Cardiff City had waited just over half a century for this. For Fraizer Campbell, it had been a lifetime. Over 25 stunning second-half minutes Sunday against Manchester City, Campbell and Cardiff created eternal memories for themselves and their fans while sending both the red side of Manchester and the blue part of west London into similar rapture.
The celebrations of those favoring those colors seem apt. The Bluebirds' controversial, owner-fueled change to red kits starting last season was the most recent headline in what had been an incredibly complicated half-decade for the club off the field and one filled with heartbreak on it. After quickly rising from England's fourth division to the second around the turn of the millenium, Cardiff ran into significant financial distress in 2008 and also had an outstanding tax debt to reconcile in 2010. Cardiff also lost the 2008 FA Cup final to Portsmouth, gagged away a promotion playoff spot in 2009, and then lost 3-2 in the promotion final to Blackpool in 2010.
The club was taken over later that year by Malaysian interests, which infused it with much-needed cash, but new ownership didn't immediately shake off the on-field pain. Cardiff somehow lost 3-0 at home to Reading to crash out in the 2011 promotion playoffs and then watched as archrival Swansea City won promotion, becoming the first Welsh side in the Premier League. A year later, they were thumped at the same stage by West Ham and also lost the Carling Cup final in a shootout to Liverpool, missing a second chance to be the first Welsh side in Europe (an accomplishment Swansea also notched this season).
The Bluebirds finally got it done last season, winning the Championship and auto-promotion, but not before its fans more or less revolted over the color and club badge changes that made red the club's primary color after more than a century of blue.
In comparison, Campbell's story is less complicated and more familiar: He was a talented player who was not quite good enough to feature for the top teams in England and then blew out his knee twice trying to salvage his career at Sunderland. Campbell grew up a Manchester United fan and developed in the club's youth setup, but he never managed to get any traction in terms of impact on the senior team despite successful loans to lower-division teams in Belgium and England. Due to the injuries, he only made 15 total appearances for the Black Cats in 2010-11 and '11-12, and then was sold to Cardiff last January for around $1 million.
Before scoring twice off headers on corner kicks against Manchester City (as well as creating the first goal when a rebound of his shot was slotted home), Campbell had scored just seven Premier League goals, and none against anyone of City's caliber. It was a true afternoon of redemption after seven years of working toward a successful career at this level.
Think he was happy?
So, it was a feel-good Sunday for everyone except the light-blue shirted visitors, who are the first of the three primary title challengers to truly slip up this campaign. In my season preview, I detailed a worst-case scenario for City where Joe Hart's dip in form last season would become a trend and that they would screw up some easy matches early while injuries depleted their central defense. Both of those issues conspired to kill City on Sunday, with suspect central marking a huge factor on all three goals and Hart's flapping at a corner directly responsible for the second.
Much like last week's defeat for Arsenal didn't mean the season was lost, one poor match shouldn't deflate expectations for City, but it's a club that didn't come close to living up to them last season, and the flaws that showed up on Sunday are worth keeping an eye on.
Assume you're Martin Jol and that both Darren Bent and Alex Kacaniklic still aren't ready to play even 60 minutes. You're also without Ashkan Dejagah and Derek Boateng. And you, for some unstated, insane reason, decided to bench Bryan Ruiz against a side he played great against last year, possibly because he fulfilled Costa Rican national team obligations (link en español) in mid-August.
Even with all that benefit of the doubt on Saturday's personnel selection (which I crushed before kickoff), his tactics (or at least his team's execution of said tactics) were flawed and exposed repeatedly in a 3-1 home loss to Arsenal.
Offensively, Jol's concept wasn't bad. Pushing Pajtim Kasami up higher and seeing both outside midfielders (particularly Adel Taarabt on the left) play narrower helped create space in attack, both for targets inside and for the fullbacks to overlap down the wing. In actuality, though, it didn't work as well as hoped because 1) Kasami's not that good and doesn't add threatening pace, either; 2) Despite signing Scott Parker, Fulham still lack a creative passing mid (Fulham's only incisive ball all match came from Sascha Riether, a fullback); and 3) The fullback/outside mid combos seemed backwards.
Taarabt's positioning (very similar to how Clint Dempsey used to play for Fulham, now with Berbatov drifting right most of the match) opened space for the less dangerous fullback (John Arne Riise) while creating a defensive debacle on that side against Theo Walcott. Meanwhile, Duff's relative lack of ability shackled Riether until Duff was subbed. I don't love moving guys into less familiar positions, but flipping Taarabt and Duff may have worked better on a day where the manager's hands were relatively tied on personnel.
Defensively, though, having Kasami play in a pressing role high against Arsenal's center backs when Arsenal had the ball repeatedly left Parker and Steve Sidwell having to defend three very skilled players in huge swaths of space (not to mention the persistent Walcott issue on their left). This being Parker's first week with the club made his communication with Sidwell inconsistent and made the numerical mismatch in the middle of the park that much more pronounced.
Here's an early warning sign for Fulham, on a play where Kasami actually sort of presents himself as a third defender against three Arsenal players, but two passes and poor communication between Sidwell and Parker create a wide-open shot:
It just got worse from there in the opening 15 minutes, with Arsenal exploiting its advantages on two other occasions before finally scoring. With Kasami now nowhere to be found, Arsenal's Santi Cazorla receives a pass, walks into space and, when Sidwell has to step up to meet him, finds Aaron Ramsey in a huge gap. Ramsey's shot accidentally ends up as a pass to Olivier Giroud, who slots home:
Five minutes later, the spacing and communication problems showed up again, when both Fulham D-Mids went with one Arsenal attacker (sitting right on top of the center backs, too) and the ball fell to a completely unmarked Cazorla for a shot.
After a solid stretch where Fulham was a bit unfortunate not to have drawn level, the Cottagers were undone again right before halftime. Not only is Kasami once again pressing high when Arsenal's Per Mertesacker has the ball in his own half, but this time Parker is also high and out to the right, meaning only Sidwell was occupying the space that Arsenal had repeatedly abused.
One simple pass to Lucas Podolski unlocks that space to the point centerback Aaron Hughes has to show, now pulling him out of position, too. Podolski finds a wide-open Cazorla, who sends it out wide to Walcott (in space, again). Walcott strikes a shot that's parried out to the top of the box where, guess who, Podolski hammers it home. The guy jogging just behind Podolski, watching the whole thing, never recovering from his initial advanced position? Scott Parker.
Fulham managed to create a number of decent chances, but it wasn't consistently dangerous enough for the defensive trade-off to make it worthwhile. Jol saw enough warning shots fired by Arsenal in the game's opening quarter-hour to tweak his approach, but he never did.
Arsenal is better than Fulham and deserves credit for the way they created and finished opportunities (particularly Ramsey, who was excellent and impactful all over the pitch), but Jol's "Faustian Bargain" decision misfired. He showed his intent to have a goal-scoring side (at home, anyway). It's just not clear that this was the best way to a result against this particular opponent with the available personnel.
A Special (One) Reminder
Manchester United-Chelsea! Two of the league's presumed title challengers clashing! And the first opportunity this season to... be reminded of how José Mourinho can choose to play (and smother) big matches, if he desires.
In a pregame interview, Mourinho defended his selection of a a 4-6-0, or perhaps more practically a 4-5-1-0 with Schurrle as a "False 9," saying he was "trying to win the match." The bravado fell flat over the next two hours, though, as his side seemed fairly content with 0-0. Mourinho's alignment basically challenged United, the home side, to create the initiative, and allowed Chelsea to stay nicely composed in the midfield and back four. The Blues' midfield talent certainly is skilled enough to at least maintain possession for awhile, so Chelsea wasn't really under constant pressure, even if they didn't manage to create much themselves.
Interestingly, this really prescient blog post from Sunday discusses whether Chelsea could try to play with a False 9, coming to the conclusion that while the midfield talent is there to do it, Mourinho perhaps lacks the prototype guy at the top to make everything work. Perhaps Schurrle was the best of options that included Romelu Lukaku and Fernando Torres for that role, but it didn't come off very well on this day.
The buzz about Mourinho's return to the Prem obscured how he found success in the league his first time around. Chelsea allowed a total of 61 goals in his three full seasons in charge (in 114 matches), and this team (albeit with two home matches) has allowed just one in three. Mourinho also has a bit of a history of spoiling high-profile matches with a turgid approach, with the Chelsea-Liverpool Champions League semifinals in 2005 (won 1-0 on aggregate by Liverpool on a controversial goal) still sticking out prominently.
In the end, the match was basically a two-hour stalemate, with Chelsea the happier to take the point, and perhaps Mourinho happy to (re)make his point: He'll play games his way, thanks.
• Aston Villa were somewhat unfortunate to leave without a point against Liverpool on Saturday, but the Villans were even more hard done a few days earlier, where their rescheduled match against Chelsea provided numerous talking points. Branislav Ivanovic easily could have received a straight red card for his attempted elbow on Christian Benteke. Then, three minutes later, Ivanovic looked to be a shade offside when he thumped a header home to give Chelsea its eventual game-winning goal.
The biggest talking point, though, was Chelsea's John Terry avoiding being whistled for a hand ball in the box in the final minutes that would have given a penalty kick to Aston Villa.
Here are the relevant points from FIFA's laws of the game concerning handling the ball:
"Handling the ball involves a deliberate act of a player making contact with the ball with his hand or arm. The referee must take the following into consideration:
- the movement of the hand towards the ball (not the ball towards the hand)
- the distance between the opponent and the ball (unexpected ball)
- the position of the hand does not necessarily mean that there is an infringement"
While real-life application often sees a player who handles the ball like Terry did (with arm overhead interfering with a knockdown header) penalized, strict interpretation of the rules in the book suggest that the embattled Kevin Friend actually got this decision correct. Or at least he could argue that Terry's posture and the distance from the ball when it was headed mitigates a foul. Or that Terry was actually being fouled, which helped cause the handling (although it wasn't called).
That's maybe the most frustrating aspect of soccer, that the rules in the book have been adjusted for real-life application, but often with not close to 100 percent consistency. That leaves a ref like Friend, who may have been correct by the letter of the law, looking bad. He didn't have the best day overall, and right or wrong, this incident certainly didn't help that perception.