Welbeck does the job; Sensational Suárez; More EPL thoughts

Sunday December 15th, 2013

Danny Welbeck scored twice in Manchester United's dominant display against Aston Villa on Sunday.
Matthew Lewis/Getty Images

Goals are a part of the job -- Danny Welbeck really looked the part as Manchester United won, 3-0, at Aston Villa on Sunday to halt its mini-slide.

Welbeck has always seemed to have all the tools of a center forward. He's over six feet tall. He's strong. He's fast. He's brave. He works hard. He can appear gangly and awkward, but generally his technique is good. The problem is he hasn't always done the one thing that defines center forwards. As David Moyes, his manager, said after Welbeck had struck twice against Villa: "That's part of the job, try to score goals."

At 23, Welbeck has averaged just one goal in four games over his career, and 75 percent of those games have been for Manchester United -- a club that habitually creates an awful lot of chances.

On Sunday, with United on top from the start, Welbeck turned that domination into two goals in the first 18 minutes. Both strikes came from long-legged lunges in front of the goal -- the first to reach a rebound off the post, the second to meet a low cross by Antonio Valencia. Both times, Welbeck sent the ball flying unerringly into the net. They were true strikers' finishes. With 72 minutes left, he was on a hat trick but the old wildness returned. He had a series of chances, some very good, and took five more shots, but kept failing to find the target. Two goals had not suddenly turned him into a consistently deadly finisher.

"Danny done a great job," Moyes told the BBC. "He needed it for himself."

The question is whether Welbeck's poor scoring record is simply a question of confidence and experience or represents a crucial lack of some goal-scoring gene.

The record of the man he is replacing suggests players who should score more can learn how to.

Welbeck is starting in the center of the United attack because Robin van Persie is injured. In his first two seasons at Arsenal, the Dutchman scored just 21 goals in79 games, a shade better than one in four. Like Welbeck, he was often asked to play wide. Then at 23, the age Welbeck is now, van Persie's scoring began to trend upward. His progress may have been delayed by a couple of injury-interrupted seasons, but by 26 he had developed into a striker who scored better than a goal every two games.

Welbeck, with a slightly different skill set, has that potential. With van Persie injured he has a chance to show that he can fulfil it. Center forwards should score goals.

Red Menace -- The Liverpool bandwagon has sputtered occasionally on the road this season, but on Sunday it accelerated with a 5-0 victory at Tottenham that highlighted all its best qualities.

Liverpool looked like a team that knew exactly what it was doing; Tottenham was quickly reduced to a confused collection of expensive and unconnected parts.

While Tottenham sold Gareth Bale with a great show of reluctance in the summer, Liverpool clung on to Luis Suárez. The Reds probably won't be able to repeat the trick if Real Madrid comes calling next summer, and given the way Suárez is playing and scoring, they surely will. For the moment, however, he epitomizes everything Liverpool does well.

Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers, contemplating the absence of Daniel Sturridge and Steven Gerrard (both injured), has said that his team had won without Suárez and could win without any of its other stars. But Suárez makes the pacey, fluid style Rodgers has been teaching work so much better.

On Sunday, neither of Tottenham's central defenders could keep up with his constant intelligent movement off the ball and his deft imaginative touch with it. As Tottenham chased Suárez, his teammates also found space.

After Suárez scored the first goal with a finish of icy certitude in the 18th minute, Spurs began to slowly disintegrate. By the time Paulinho was sent off for kicking Suárez in the chest in 63rd minute, Tottenham was beaten.

Suárez, Jon Flanagan and Raheem Sterling (who like many teenage starlets is alternating dazzling displays with awful ones) ruthlessly turned Liverpool's advantage in numbers into further goals.

Despite missing the start of the season as he completed another suspension, Suárez now has 17 Premier League goals, four more than Sergio Agüero and eight more than Sturridge in third. Liverpool is back in second and, thanks to an eight-goal swing this weekend, now has a significant edge in goal difference over Arsenal.

Things are looking rosy for the Reds.

The axman cometh -- After Tottenham was crushed at Manchester City a few weeks ago, Andre Villas-Boas was being lined up for execution by Britain's newspapers and their anonymous sources at White Hart Lane.

The manager survived and started to build a rather wobbly unbeaten streak. Then, on Sunday, Tottenham collapsed again.

There are extenuating circumstances. Tottenham lost Bale in the summer. AVB has had to integrate a host of new players. His defense has been ravaged by injuries. On Sunday, with one of his midfield stoppers, Etienne Capoue, already playing in central defense, the other (the unlucky Sandro) was injured after 30 minutes.

But, as any coach knows, bad stuff happens. AVB has a huge squad at his disposal. On Sunday, the team he put out gave no indication that it was playing to a plan. Liverpool was good. Suárez is scary. But Tottenham was a shambles.

Liverpool's record victory at White Hart Lane was, almost certainly, one humiliation too far.

After the game, AVB told the BBC: "I assume responsibility," as he should. He is the manager.

"I will get down to work," he promised. Soccer, as he also said, is full of things "you never expect to happen." But it would be a surprise if AVB isn't gone sooner rather than later.

Manchester City's double-edged sword -- Soccer, like life, involves trade offs.

If, for example, you play two attackers, as Manchester City manager Manuel Pellegrini likes to do, then it's difficult to also play with five midfielders. If your fullbacks and midfielders surge forward at every opportunity, you can overwhelm your opponents when you attack, but leave yourself even more vulnerable in defense.

The two faces of Manchester City were very much in evidence on Saturday. It banged half a dozen goals past another North London club, but sometimes looked as if it might lose control of the match before beating Arsenal, 6-3.

One reason City can be so impressive going forward is that its midfielders and defenders are so willing to make lung-bursting runs to join the attack. This is not simply an exhibition of stamina and commitment -- it is also an exhibition of trust. It's rare to see City players making exasperated gestures at each other after a move breaks down. They trust in their teammates to take care of the ball and use it well. If they find space, there is a good chance that the ball will find them. If it doesn't, it's because there was another good option -- created, perhaps, because their runs served as a useful decoy.

City's speedy, clever movement of themselves and of the ball opened Arsenal up again and again. After Sergio Agüero put City ahead from a corner, Alvaro Negredo, Fernandinho and David Silva all scored from close range after pretty and incisive moves. Fernandinho also scored from longer range. Yaya Touré finished the rout with a penalty.

Yet in between the game's glorious blue periods, there were phases when Arsenal dominated. Its five-man midfield penned City back and threatened to overwhelm it. The Gunners fought back to 1-1 and then to 3-2 with goals by Theo Walcott. For a while in the second half, it was City's turn to appear outnumbered and exhausted. Its defense was clinging on. Olivier Giroud squandered three good chances in five minutes. Arsenal leads the league, and it showed the skill and the guts of a contender.

Yet in an elaborate game of tactical cat and mouse, City ultimately proved to be the hunter and Arsenal the prey.

With his team losing but seemingly gaining a grip on midfield, Arsenal manager Arsène Wenger took off his holding player, Mathieu Flamini, and brought on Serge Gnabry, an attacker. It was a decision, Wenger said after the match, which cost his team "control" of the game. That control was always an illusion.

Even before Flamini's exit, City was always capable of ferocious counter-attacks. When City stole the ball, defenders and midfielders who, seconds before, had been struggling to keep up with Arsenal's slick passing, burst forward believing a chance for glory was just one well-placed pass away. Fernandinho was rewarded twice. Even James Milner, who had come on to add defensive discipline to midfield, popped up in the six-yard box and won a penalty.

Where Villas-Boas, rather unwisely in retrospect, had suggested Tottenham's players should be "ashamed" after their six-goal thumping at City, Wenger insisted that the result did not prove that his team was that bad or City that good. Arsenal, he said, had given City five of the goals with individual errors. Wenger also resorted to that old fall back, the imaginary penalty -- in this case when Pablo Zabaleta accidentally deflected the ball onto his own arm -- and marginal offside decisions.

Yet City was the first English opponent this season to show that Arsenal is vulnerable. At the same time, City once again displayed its own frailties.

Another one bites the dust -- While AVB will have walked off the field on Sunday expecting the worst, Steve Clarke, it seems, was completely blindsided when he was fired by West Brom immediately after a 1-0 loss at Cardiff on Saturday.

Clarke became the fourth Premier League manager to lose his job this season, and those firings have followed a clear mathematical logic.

The first manager to go was Paolo di Canio. He was sacked in September when Sunderland was 20th in the standings. Ian Holloway was canned in October when Crystal Palace was 19th. Martin Jol was fired in November with Fulham in 18th. Yet Clarke's dismissal skipped a pace. West Brom is actually 16th, ahead of 17th-place West Ham on goal difference. Sam Allardyce, the Hammers manager and a man who likes to use statistics, must be trying to work out how he can get his club to climb at least two places by January.

Palace has risen one position under new boss Pulis, but the three teams that have already changed coaches have not greatly changed their fortunes. They still fill the relegation places.

If you are looking for evidence that new coaches can lift teams, Clarke's time at West Brom offers some proof. He inherited a solid, stolid team from Roy Hodgson in June 2012 and breathed new life into it. WBA made its best start to a Premier League season. It amassed 30 points by Christmas. It finished the season eighth -- its best Premier League place -- but it picked up only 19 points in the second half of the season. The Clarke effect had worn off. The team was worse than the one Hodgson had left him.

Clarke and Jol have been fired for failing to meet the, admittedly modest, expectations Hodgson created in his time as manager of West Brom and, before that, Fulham. Whatever Liverpool fans may think, Hodgson, it seems, is a good manager of second-tier teams. Maybe that makes him the ideal man for England.

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