Manchester United, Van Persie stick to their scripts, more EPL thoughts

Publish date:

Five things we learned from Saturday's action in the Barclays Premier League:

1. A pattern develops. Manchester United has now played three Premier League games since the historic and humiliating home thrashing by Manchester City. All have ended by the same score. On Saturday, United went to Swansea and won 1-0. Once again it scored in the first half and was able to make the lead stand up.

Not for the first time, Javier Hernández put United ahead with a typical close-range finish. Swansea, a team loaded with pace, fought hard. Scott Sinclair air kicked in front of goal and also forced a good save from David de Gea. Yet United's defense, with Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand starting a second consecutive league game together in the center, is looking a little more solid.

Alex Ferguson keeps making changes, particularly in the problem area, midfield. His team struggled at times again Saturday, but in the end it won comfortably enough.

"We didn't really look as though we were going to lose a goal,'' Ferguson told the BBC. "In the past when we have won titles we have won four or five games 1-0."

The way it's playing at the moment, if United is going to retain its title, it will do so by winning a lot more than five games 1-0.

2. Who needs Batman? Arsenal utterly outplayed a leaden Norwich team at Carrow Road, yet it only won 2-1. One reason the score was close was that Arsenal, most notably the usual suspects, Gervinho and Theo Walcott, wasted so many chances.

Once again, where others faltered, Robin van Persie delivered. He scored both Arsenal goals. His 2011 statistics are astonishing. His goals took him to 31 in the league since Jan. 1. Only Alan Shearer, with 36, and Thierry Henry, with 34, have scored more league goals in a calendar year since the Premier League was founded in 1992. Arsenal has seven league matches left this year. Van Persie has also had an assist on seven other league goals. That means he has either scored or set up two-thirds of Arsenal's league goals in 2011.

Van Persie is quick, but unlike Henry, not blindingly fast. He is skillful but not as tricky as Henry. He is tough and brave (though injury-prone) but not as big, strong and physically intimidating as Shearer was. What Van Persie does have, and it's the hallmark of great players, is time. His touch, his movement and his anticipation always seem to allow him to find enough space close to goal. Opponents know he is the main danger, and yet time and again Saturday, he gave his markers the slip just before the pass arrived and without sacrificing good position in front of goal.

No team wants to be utterly dependent on one player for goals. On the other hand, every team would love to have a striker it knows it can depend on. When Henry was in his pomp, Arsène Wenger, the manager, set up the team around him. Henry, who liked to drift out to the wings or drop deep, could wander where he wanted, the rest of the team would adjust.

Now Wenger is again setting up Arsenal to orbit around one striker, although Van Persie wanders much less than Henry did. Gervinho, who is not really a winger, and Walcott, who is, play wide. They are there to support Van Persie. The players clearly believe in Van Persie. Laurent Koscielny, playing out of position at right back, seemed happy to whack every ball in the direction of Van Persie. When Alex Song won a ball in midfield and surged forward he saw Gervinho open to the left and Van Persie with company to the right. Song seemed to think for a stride. Then he passed to the Dutchman. He was right. Van Persie scored with cool ease.

With Van Persie, Arsenal knows how it can score goals. That's more than most teams.

3. And then there was one. Manchester City and Newcastle entered their match as the last two unbeaten teams in the Premier League. This might suggest a contest of equals. Really it wasn't.

City has been very good at winning games. Newcastle has been good at not losing them. The Magpies entered the match six points behind City, they ended it beaten 3-1 and nine points back. Indeed, the unexpected element of the game was that, like QPR two weeks ago, Newcastle, which came with an aggressive 4-4-2 formation succeeded, at times, in at least ruffling the league leader.

Maybe other clubs have worked out that setting out to defend against City doesn't work, so they might as well attack. Yet City, with David Silva starting on the bench, may simply have had one eye on its next game in a competition where it has found winning a lot more difficult: at Naples in the Champions League on Tuesday.

4. A local boy made good. It's an almost iron rule of soccer that great teams have at their heart kids who have come through their own youth system, cost nothing and are rooted in the club. This applies even to some of the biggest spending clubs of recent soccer history.

Think of Franco Baresi, Paolo Maldini and Alessandro Costacurta at Milan or Iker Casillas and Raúl at Real Madrid and half of Ferguson's first Manchester United Premier League title team or Pep Guardiola's current Barcelona team. That is why Manchester City, as it tries to buy itself a history, should hold on tight to Micah Richards, who it inched at the age of 14 from nearby Oldham.

Richards made his debut for City at 2005 and the following year, at 18, he became the youngest ever defender to play for England. His career has not followed a steady upward path. But like another occasionally volatile youngster, Mario Balotelli, Richards has blossomed along with City's fortunes this season.

He is a bull: strong and brave in defense, direct and dangerous in attack. On Saturday, he scored City's second goal and won the penalty that brought the third. He was voted man of the match. He may have fallen behind Phil Jones, Glen Johnson and Kyle Walker in the crowded battle for England's right-back place, but for City, he represents an important connection to the earth.

5. What comes around ... "The lads don't stop," Steve Kean, the Blackburn manager told the BBC after his team salvaged a 3-3 draw at Wigan. Nor do managers.

Three weeks ago Kean complained bitterly after the referee awarded a penalty against his team in the fourth minute of added time at Norwich, which allowed the home team to draw 3-3. On Saturday, Blackburn won a penalty kick in the NINTH minute of added time. Yakubu scored to earn it a 3-3 draw. Blackburn's second goal had come from an illegally taken corner. Kean came out to face the BBC camera with a smile on his face and immediately started doing his job and complaining about refereeing decisions. Wigan's first and third goals should have been disallowed. David Dunn should not have earned a red card.

As for the penalty, a collector's item because it was awarded for a foul on the Blackburn goalie, and the second goal, scored after Morten Gamst Pedersen had dribbled in from a corner, Kean told the BBC: "We're owed some luck because we've had some bad decisions go against us."

Of course the decisions do not cancel each other out. Blackburn gained two points from two draws. It would have gained three points from a victory and a loss. But Saturday's late goal did prevent Wigan escaping last place and pushing Blackburn to the bottom. So Kean was smiling and his opposite number, Roberto Martinez was not.

"The second goal is an absolute disgrace,'' Martinez said, before adding that he felt his club was now owed something. "Hopefully we'll get lucky one day and get the points we lost today."