Five things we learned from
This season, United has made a habit of salvaging seemingly lost games. It trailed, 2-0 to Blackpool with 18 minutes left in January and won. It trailed Villa, 2-0, with nine minutes left in November and drew. It also scored in the third minute of added time to beat Wolves at Old Trafford in November. On Saturday, United started with Dimitar Berbatov, Wayne Rooney, Nani and Ryan Giggs. It threw on Paul Scholes and Javier Hernández. Yet against the normally porous Wolves defense, United looked increasingly threadbare and desperate. Scholes earned a yellow card for trying to fist the ball into the net. Giggs was lucky not to see a red when he kicked Doyle into the air with play stopped for a foul by Scholes. Wolves has won only seven league games this season, but its victims include Chelsea, Manchester City, Liverpool, sixth-place Sunderland and now the top team. Maybe it should be happy its next game is at Arsenal.
Sky and Gray, it's chief color commentator since it broadcast the first Premier League season in 1992, have helped make the English game far more violent than any other major European soccer league. Gray had virtues as a commentator. He was articulate, enthusiastic and strong on both tactics and player's thinking. He offered far more content than the average cliché-spouting ex-pro. Yet he was despised by many fans who felt that, like Sky in general, he favored the big clubs. In his playing days, Gray was a good and robust center forward who happily traded kicks and elbows with defenders. As a commentator, he was a tireless defender of the "physical" (thuggish) side of British soccer and a relentless critic of match officials. Controversy sells. Gray and Sky are far from alone in this. But the other worst offender is another longtime Sky pundit, Chris Kamara, who, as a player, was the thinking man's Vinny Jones.
Their tone is one many other major sports -- the NFL, NCAA, cricket or rugby union, for example -- simply do not accept from their broadcasters. Of course in soccer, red cards and penalty kicks are disproportionally important decisions. Referees, without instant replay, do get them wrong. But it's a question of tone and attitude. Yet British managers, particularly those at big clubs, have learned how to bully and manipulate media desperate for interviews and scoops. The split nature of English soccer doesn't help. Sky's contract is voted on by the Premier League's clubs. They are semi-independent from the Football Association, which supplies the referees. The politically cynical might also argue that while the FA and referees represent government, the clubs are big business and anyone who watches Fox or Sky news knows where Murdoch media stands on that divide. The result has been a two-decade beatdown of match officials.
On Saturday, Kamara was still at it. Providing bulletins from the Spurs match that viewers could not see he fulminated against referee Mark Clattenburg. "What's going on?" he demanded at one point and later he bellowed: "He's having a really bad day, Mark Clattenburg."
Contrast that with the equally belligerent Brian Moore during the BBC's broadcast of the Wales-England rugby match on Friday. Moore a former international player and also a trained lawyer, clearly did not like one decision, then cut himself short: "The referee's made the decision so I'll shut up." Maybe Sky should tape those words in its soccer commentary boxes.
On Wednesday, Liverpool had opted to play three center backs against Stoke and won, 2-0. Steve Bruce, the Sunderland manager, was evidently watching. On Saturday he imitated that formation. The appeals are obvious. Stoke are a big, physical team. Adding a big defender, in theory, counters that threat. Plus Bruce is a striker down since Bent left, so playing with one less forward makes some sense. And, in theory at least, the cover offered by the extra centerback allows the fullbacks to push up and flood midfield. It didn't work that way.
Part of the problem was the way Sunderland reacted after taking the lead at the start of each half. Kieran Richardson, who has surprisingly started producing goals since Bent left, smashed Sunderland ahead after three minutes. Asamoah Gyan, the man expected to pick up the slack, restored the lead after bullying the burly Robert Huth in the 48th minute.
After the goals, Sunderland allowed themselves to be pushed back by Stoke. And with five natural defenders on the field a notional 3-5-1-1 formation quickly became 5-4-1. Bruce, it turned out, was playing to Stoke's strength. It is one of the few teams in the Premier League more dangerous when faced by a massed defense -- which is another way of saying the Potters are useless on the counterattack but terrifying from set pieces. This is when Bent came back to haunt Sunderland. When Villa acquired Bent, it let John Carew join Stoke on loan.
On Saturday Carew killed Sunderland. His play suggested that, for the first time since leaving Rosenborg in 2000, the big striker might finally have found a team that can use his limited range of abilities. After 37 minutes Sunderland's massed defense could not handle a Rory Delap long throw. The ball dropped to Carew at his perfect range -- about 6 inches -- and he scored his first goal of the season. Carew made the second equalizer, winning a header from a free kick and guiding the ball goalwards for Huth to knee it over the line. Carew was a leaping distraction in injury time when Huth again scored from close range following yet another free kick to give Stoke a 3-2 victory. Bruce could have picked 10 center backs. Stoke would still have been too strong at set pieces.