Man United's slip up not that shocking; Poor Mertesacker; more EPL

Sunday February 9th, 2014

Eden Hazard's well-taken hat trick carried Chelsea over Newcastle United on Saturday.
Alastair Grant/AP

Small earthquake in Manchester, nobody seriously hurt -- When Darren Bent nodded into an empty Manchester United net in the 94th minute to give Fulham a 2-2 draw at Old Trafford on Sunday, Gary Neville, the former United defender turned color commentator, declared "it will send shock waves round the country."

No it won't.

It's not even vaguely surprising that United is mediocre. Already this season, United has lost at home in the league to Tottenham, to Everton, to Newcastle and to West Brom. It drew with Southampton. United was knocked out of the FA Cup at Old Trafford by Swansea and out of the League Cup at home by Sunderland.

Now, José Mourinho might begin to suspect that Chelsea's 0-0 draw at Old Trafford in August probably represents two points dropped instead of one point gained.

United remains seventh, 15 points behind leaders Chelsea and, more importantly, nine points behind Liverpool in fourth.

Fulham is last and deservedly so. On Sunday it parked the bus and, in the second half, hid the keys. Indeed, Fulham seemed not to have done any preparation for the possibility that it might, at some stage, have the ball. That was one reason Manchester United, not a club that is historically much bothered with dominating possession, ended up with 75 percent of it. United managed 31 goal attempts, but only nine were on target. A good United team would have killed this makeshift Fulham side, but this is not a good United team.

In the first half, Fulham attacked just twice but created the two best scoring opportunities as the United defense parted like the Red Sea. Steve Sidwell took the first with a clinical volley. Kieran Richardson butchered the second.

Robin van Persie leveled with just 12 minutes left. Michael Carrick gave United the lead two minutes later. United should have been in control. In the dying seconds, Carrick lost the ball to Sidwell 30 yards from goal. Sidwell was able to pass to an unmarked Richardson. After David de Gea saved his shot, it fell to Bent, also unmarked and just five yards from goal.

Bent and Fulham accepted the gift. But then Old Trafford is a place where opponents are beginning to learn they can expect presents.

Dismal defense -- There is a tendency in any national media for everyone to discover the same story at the same time. This week in England many of the previews of the Liverpool-Arsenal game focused on Arsenal's central defense.

Part of the reason was, no doubt, that the Arsenal media department had made Per Mertesacker available for interviews. Part of the reason was that by this time of the season, the papers have already interviewed most of the attacking stars and can either repeat themselves or take a deep breath and talk to center backs. But part of the reason is that the Arsenal defense has been very good.

Yes, Mertesacker is still an ungainly, sluggish beanpole but he's a very clever one and he can play a bit too. Laurent Koscielny still resembles a cockatoo. But he seemed to have finally developed both maturity and consistency. The heart of the Arsenal defense has looked like the real deal, perhaps for the first time since the "Invincibles" a decade ago. Then came the first 20 minutes at Anfield on Saturday.

Martin Skrtel scored twice from crosses without having to leave the ground. The first he volleyed home after the ball had eluded the whole Arsenal defense. The second he headed in with Koscielny trailing behind physically and mentally.

Mertesacker's lack of pace was horribly exposed by the next two goals from the speedy Raheem Sterling and Daniel Sturridge. The German was left struggling to catch up at a pace that any other grown man would describe as jogging. Liverpool was four goals up after just 20 minutes. It would cruise to a 5-1 victory.

"Sorry guys, this was a bad day for the whole team," Mertesacker tweeted, generously sharing the blame with his teammates.

Liverpool's attack is good, but Arsenal should be worried that Mertesacker and Koscielny could not cope in the air or on the ground.

Arsenal manager Arsène Wenger suggested to the BBC that perhaps the Gunners are not a morning team. He pointed out that this rout, like the 6-3 crushing at Manchester City in December, was in a game that started at 12:45 on a Saturday, the earliest kickoff slot in the Premier League on the day.

When Arsenal plays Chelsea at 12.45 on March 22, all Wenger needs to do is give his defenders an extra cup of coffee and they will stop Eden Hazard.

A tangled Webb -- As both its rivals slipped, Chelsea cruised on.

Hazard gave another display of blossoming brilliance hitting two pretty first-half goals and completing his hat trick with a penalty as Chelsea beat Newcastle, 3-0.

Howard Webb, the referee for that game, is notorious for penalties. Look up Webb on the Web and there are two common categories for the results: the fact that he will referee in the 2014 World Cup, and the 10 penalties he has given for Manchester United at Old Trafford. This season, Webb had not awarded a single penalty in the league. Then, Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa pulled down Samuel Eto'o at a corner. It's the sort of foul which is ignored by referees every week. Had Webb, because of his status, been asked to send a message, or, with the game already decided, did he simply feel he could relax and give a point to the penalty spot?

The victory put Chelsea top of the league. Mourinho continues to insist his team should not be regarded as the favorite.

"We are building a team not for this year but to be completed next year and try to have another good decade," he told Sky. "Other teams have much more power and experience. If they let us win we don't say no. But the fact that we are one point ahead doesn't mean a lot for me."

Could he be spinning?

Quick thinking -- In the first 10 minutes of the showdown in the "race for fifth" at White Hart Lane on Saturday, Everton's Leon Osman might have scored three times. Hugo Lloris, the Tottenham goalie, made one brilliant save while Osman was not quite precise enough with the other two.

Over the whole afternoon, Tottenham had just one shot on target. It won, 1-0 and pushed Everton out of fifth place.

Without the ball, Everton pressed Tottenham into one mistake after another.

With the ball, the Toffees played in precise, Evertonian triangles.

For Tottenham, Christian Eriksen seemed physically incapable of defending; Paulinho didn't appear to want to. That's why, despite Tottenham's five-man midfield, Everton always seemed to have an extra player.

Everton had structure, work-rate and purpose. Tottenham had a lot of very expensive players.

Unfortunately, Everton also had Steven Naismith as its lone striker. Naismith is a Scottish international forward. He is industrious, brave and disciplined, but Few people think he's a Premier League goal-scorer. Least of all, on the evidence of Sunday, Naismith himself. He chose not attempt a single shot at goal in a match in which his team was generally on top.

Tottenham won because it exploited the one moment when Everton let its guard drop. When Spurs won a free kick in midfield, Everton's defense began to jog toward its penalty area to await the arrival of Tottenham's central defenders.

Instead, Kyle Walker sprinted to the ball and, taking the free kick from the wrong place, arced a precise pass onto the chest of Emmanuel Adebayor.

The big striker controlled the ball even as Seamus Coleman whacked him from behind, strode forward and hit a hard low shot just inside Tim Howard's near post.

Yet again, Tottenham had found a way to win.

Regression to the mean -- What can seem like luck can be what statisticians call regression to the mean.

Saturday offered double proof as Kevin Nolan outscored the whole Manchester City team for the second week in a row.

When Chelsea became the first side to hold City scoreless last week that could have been explained as a great defense stopping a great attack. When Norwich, which let in seven at City in November, withstood a medium strength City barrage to gain a 0-0 home draw on Saturday, that suggested something might be wrong.

Perhaps that home loss to Chelsea has left scars, though most of the players in the City squad have lost matches before and recovered. It's part of the job. Certainly City is missing Sergio Agüero, Fernandinho and Samir Nasri. That has an impact, even with the deep squad City has assembled. Of course, Mourinho isn't the only coach who can watch the video and come up with a plan. Chris Hughton can do it too. Though he presumably tried before that thrashing at the Etihad. Maybe in the endless tactical battle of battle of adjustments, it's Manuel Pellegrini turn to adjust.

On the other hand, it could simply be that City's luck is averaging out. The point of a league competition is that teams play so many matches that the bounces balance out. City is built to be the top scoring team in the Premier League. Even so, it went through a spell when it was scoring an awful lot of goals relative to the chances it was creating. A dry spell was likely. The question is what damage it will do to the team's title chances and the confidence in attack of the coach and his players.

Meanwhile, Nolan cannot stop scoring. He is a midfielder who has hit at least 10 goals, and usually far more, in each of the last four seasons. He struck on opening day for West Ham against Cardiff and then did not score again until Dec. 28. That goal against West Brom came between two nasty red cards against Liverpool and Fulham, which cost him the team captaincy and suggested that at 31 it was he that was regressing to mean.

Yet, at Aston Villa on Saturday, he struck twice for the second week in a row as West Ham won 2-0, for the second week in a row, to climb to 15th. It goes to show that if a player keeps running into the penalty area again and again over the length of the season, eventually the ball will drop to him.

There are reasons Nolan reaches double figures every season. He gave a glimpse of one of them with the cute back-heel that gave him his first goal on Saturday. Nolan just needed to keep working and believing in the law of averages.

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