Chelsea, Arsenal show caution; Liverpool on top; more EPL thoughts

Tuesday December 24th, 2013

Neither Mesut Özil nor Eden Hazrd could find a breakthrough for their clubs on Monday.
Alastair Grant/A

A damp squib -- In some ways the encounter between Arsenal and Chelsea summed up all the clichés of English soccer.

Nearly every other European League had started its winter vacation by Monday, but on a dank, chill London evening two of the top teams in the Premier League faced each other in a potentially pivotal match. Only mad dogs and English clubs go out on nights like this.

Even the most enthusiastic advocates of "The Greatest League in the World" might be hard-pressed to find something positive about the 0-0 draw between Arsenal and Chelsea at the Emirates. Perhaps it showed the "passion" of English soccer, but frankly every league in the world can offer ill-tempered defensive matches in which players seem more focused on kicking opponents than scoring a goal.

José Mourinho, the Chelsea manager, summed it up, when he spoke on Sky TV after the game: "It was a match Arsenal wanted to win but Arsenal did not want to lose. It was a match Chelsea wanted to win but Chelsea did not want to lose."

Arsène Wenger, the Arsenal manager, echoed the point when he said that he made no substitutions because he didn't want to "destabilize" his "defensive band," before going on to insist that he wanted to win the game.

Wenger complained that Arsenal should have had a penalty, for a foul by Willian on Theo Walcott in the first half. Mourinho pointed out that the only "big chance" in the match was a shot by Frank Lampard.

Mourinho, a man who prefers to build from the back, has been brought back to build an attacking team. After Monday's game he blamed his players for not being "aggressive enough to attack defenders" and promised that his "project" to build a "new Chelsea" will come to fruition at some unspecified point in the future. But he couldn't help gloating over the way Chelsea strangled Arsenal.

"We were defensively in total control. We gave them the ball and let them play the ball from side to side to side."

Chelsea, a heavyweight without a punch, rendered Arsenal punchless too. It was not a pretty sight. The fact that the two teams spent much of the evening kicking each other did not make it any better.

Top of the tree at Christmas -- As recently as December 13, Arsenal was five points clear at the top of the table. It was 13 points clear of Manchester United. It is amazing how quickly an apparently strong lead can vanish even when a team is playing quite well.

Liverpool, not Arsenal, will top the tree at Christmas. But Manchester United is now only eight points off first place. Even Tottenham, despite a humiliation by Liverpool and a change of manager, has gained ground in the last few weeks.

That sudden congestion at the top may explain the caution showed by Arsenal and Chelsea on Monday night.

"One thing is to be two points behind the leaders and another thing to be five points behind," was Mourinho's explanation.

Fear will undoubtedly be a factor over a crowded holiday schedule. Caution might explain what happened as Liverpool defeated Cardiff, 3-1, at Anfield on Saturday. The host looked a worthy league leader in the first half but was not even as good as the struggling Bluebirds in the second.

Like every other team in the division, Liverpool clearly has weaknesses as well as strengths. It is a leader that is only averaging a little over two points a game. If the season carries on like this, the league could be won with 80 points or fewer.

Such a low total will allow a lot of teams to stay in the mix until the end.

A lot of teams appear to be works in progress and it is conceivable that one of them will solve its problems, go on a Manchester United-like run in the spring and gallop away from the league -- though City, not United, seems the likeliest candidate.

The joy of giving -- What the famous "neutrals", that is most fans most of the time they are watching soccer, are supposed to really like is skillful attacking play. Nonsense. There is nothing most neutrals like more than truly incompetent defensive play. Want to make a fan burst out laughing? Show him an own goal by someone playing for another team. Of course, like all goals, some oggies are better than others. This weekend in the Premier League brought a rich crop of own goals, one of them a thing of bizarre beauty.

On Sunday, Brian Oviedo of Everton twitched a leg at shot by Dwight Tiendalli that was going wide and instead of pushing it wider, somehow deflected the ball the wrong way leaving Tim Howard flat-footed and bringing Swansea briefly level. Everton still won.

Earlier in the afternoon, Southampton defender Jos Hooiveld lashed Danny Rose's low cross into his own net. Hooiveld has an eye for the wrong goal. Last season he equaled the Premier League record with three own goals. This one helped lead to a Southampton loss.

On Saturday, with no Newcastle player in vicinity, Danny Gabbidon of Crystal Palace stretched needlessly at a harmless cross and turned it into his own net. It was a bewildering act of stupidity. Palace lost.

But the pick of the self-inflicted injuries came across London. It was a special effort by a great player.

Vincent Kompany moved to clear a low cross by Sascha Rieter of Fulham. What happed next was a reminder of two things. First, if you are ever tempted to think you have seen everything on the soccer field, you haven't. Second, statisticians may claim they have just discovered that soccer is rather unpredictable, but anyone who has ever watched or played has always known he game has a large element of the random. Kompany aimed in one direction way and the ball flew in quite another, looping high off his boot, across the goal and dropping very precisely under the far angle of the bar.

If you aren't a City fan it was a glorious affirmation of soccer's capacity to surprise. It was very funny too.

Good as he is, if Kompany tried 10,000 times, he couldn't do it again.

That's a pity. It might just turn out that the own goal was a masterful, season-defining, piece of captaincy.

City had thrown away 16 points in eight away games. They were beginning to smell like title road kill. On Saturday, City cruised to a two-goal lead. When Kompany's own goal brought Fulham level with 21 minutes left, it looked like another City away collapse.

Instead, Kompany's teammates rallied to save their captain. Jesus Navas and James Milner scored to secure a 4-2 victory and, perhaps, break the deadly spiral of road failures.

Delicate flowers -- Wayne Rooney continued his recent brilliant run of form with another masterly performance at the heart of a Manchester United team that continued its latest little revival wit a 3-1 home victory over the hopeless Hammers at Old Trafford.

Emmanuel Adebayor continued his latest return from the soccer wilderness with two goals and a tireless, skillful and robust display as Tottenham began its latest mini-revival with a 3-2 victory at staggering Southampton.

Rooney comes from a boxing family in a rough part of Liverpool. Adebayor is the first soccer star from Togo. Not only has he had to overcome all the obstacles facing an African player trying to make it in Europe, but the Togo national team has been dogged by disaster. That included the ambush of the team bus before the African Cup of Nations Cup in 2010 in Congo. Three on board died. Adebayor was the team captain and, not for the first time in a crisis, the team spokesman. Like Rooney he clearly commands the respect of his teammates.

You might think given their backgrounds, all they have gone through and their standing in the game, both would be confident in their abilities and able to cope with the ups and downs of sport. Yet both are sensitive petals.

This summer, Rooney again seemed to be on the verge of leaving Manchester United. It sometimes seems that he is so insecure and desperate for affirmation that any time another team makes a bid for him, Rooney's immediate reaction is to fall for the team that wants him.

Adebayor lost his oldest brother at the start of the season and returned from the funeral to find himself excluded from even Tottenham's annual team photo.

"It was difficult," Adebayor told the BBC after Sunday's game. "When I come to train and see the team picture, which I'm not involved in, that shows me a lot of disrespect."

It should be added that some of Adebayor's few appearances last season were so awful that they amounted to a lack of respect for the club.

Both Rooney and Adebayor have suffered injury and illness in the past. This weekend both looked in tremendous shape. Rooney, at last, seems to be all muscle. Adebayor, who has always been tall and strong but a little stringy, seems to have been in the weight room. Physically they are at their best.

Emotionally they seem to be in the right place too. United's new manager, David Moyes, is clearly showing Rooney the love. Moyes is also letting Rooney run the team. Rooney is relishing it. He had 10 assists last season. He leads the league this time with eight.

Meanwhile, when Tim Sherwood took over at Tottenham last week he seems to have thrown his arm round Adebayor who has responded with three goals in two games.

"I thank the players and the staff," Adebayor said in a quote that gives away how much he needs constant reinforcement. "They have given me my confidence back and they said 'we know how good you are'."

The question is how long before one miss-placed word of criticism damages these warm relationships with their coaches. It only takes the merest touch of frost to take a delicate petal wilt.

Rolling the dice -- On Monday, a day after winning his first league match as interim Tottenham boss, Sherwood met with the club chairman, Daniel Levy, and was granted his wish. Sherwood, who was promoted from running the youth team when Andre Villas Boas was fired a week earlier, was named Tottenham's head coach until the end of the season.

For his two-match screen test, Sherwood, it seems, decided that he needed to roll two sixes. He had little to lose, after all.

Last Wednesday, for a League Cup game against West Ham, he not only reverted to the almost archaic 4-4-2 but he did it in the most uninhibited way. As well as picking two strikers, he picked two wingers and, partly because of injuries and suspensions, no holding midfielder. Tottenham looked good going forward but lightweight at the back and lost.

On Sunday, Sherwood did it again. This time it worked. Tottenham rode its luck at the back but was also a little unlucky in attack, but it still scored three times for the first time this season and won, 3-2.

It's difficult to believe that Spurs can keep surrendering central midfield and winning games. Sherwood now has a longer audition, maybe that will encourage a little more caution. But Sherwood can read. Tottenham is being linked to pretty much every big-name manager in football: Louis van Gaal, Frank de Boer, Marcello Bielsa, Michael Laudrup, Fabio Capello and so on. Van Gaal and Laudrup have made clear they won't leave their current jobs until after the season.

Sherwood's management résumé is two matches long. He might feel he needs to do something eye-catching and crowd-pleasing in the time before Van Gaal and his Dutch team finish with the World Cup. Keep an eye on that Tottenham formation.

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