EPL race stays at four; Refs in a tough spot; more EPL thoughts

Sunday March 16th, 2014

Arsenal escaped from White Hart Lane with a win thanks to a gritty defensive performance.
Paul Gilham/Getty Images

A four-horse race -- There has been some vigorous debate over the last couple of months about precisely the number, size, and pedigree of the horses in the Premier League title race.

Was Chelsea sure to win? Could Manchester City make up enough ground? Was Liverpool too lightweight? Was Arsenal too inconsistent?

The results at the weekend suggest that Mourinho might have been right to downplay the chances of his little pony. Chelsea lost, 1-0, at Aston Villa to a fabulous Fabian Delph goal. As well as dropping points, it had two players sent off and they will be suspended, as might Mourinho.

Chelsea still leads Liverpool and Arsenal by four points and City by six, but the three pursuers all have games in hand. Arsenal visits Chelsea next Saturday and Chelsea still has to go to Anfield.

The chasing trio all won impressively on the road in very different ways over the weekend.

City played 80 minutes with 10 men and won 2-0 at Hull to put two cup exits behind the club. But, like Chelsea, it must worry about disciplinary repercussions. Vincent Kompany, City's key defender, could face a lengthy suspension for his petulant reaction to his 10th minute red card. There might also be punishment handed down to goalie Joe Hart for his confrontation with the feisty George Boyd after the Hull player dived in the penalty area.

Liverpool simply crushed its hated enemy Manchester United by a 3-0 scoreline at Old Trafford on Sunday. On paper, Liverpool appears to lack the quality in defense and the power and numbers in midfield of some of its rivals. On the field, it just keeps winning. On Sunday it played like a team that believes.

Arsenal also traveled to a hated rival and did exactly what it needed to do as it beat Tottenham, 1-0. Last year Arsenal followed elimination in the Champions League by Bayern on March 13 by picking up 26 points in its last 10 league games. This year, Arsenal was eliminated by Bayern on March 11. If Sunday's victory starts a similar run, Arsenal will be in the race to the end.

Old-style Arsenal -- There was a time when Arsenal was synonymous with defense. If the Gunners scored the first goal, their fans could start singing "One-nil to the Arsenal" confident that the team would almost always be able to defend the slimmest of leads.

When Arsène Wenger arrived he inherited one of the great defensive units in English soccer. He was able to shore it up for a while with big-name signings. As Arsenal has struggled over the last decade to win another title, one of the accusations against Wenger has been that he doesn't know how to construct a defense.

On Sunday at White Hart Lane, Arsenal gave a throwback performance. It scored in the second minute and then defended for pretty much the next 90 minutes to win.

Tomas Rosicky smashed home the first shot of the game. That sweet strike was as good as it got for the Arsenal attack. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain wasted chances to increase the lead on the break with a pair of woeful shots. Maybe he needs coaching from Rosicky.

Tottenham dominated possession, a notable achievement against Arsenal, but never troubled Wojciech Szczesny in goal. Tottenham had 17 goal attempts, but the fact that 11 were blocked says something about its lack of penetration. As Mourinho said last week, this is a Tottenham team that struggles to hurt opponents.

Even so, the changes that Wenger made it the second half said something about his confidence in adopting a purely defensive strategy.

Wenger removed two attacking midfielders, Oxlade-Chamberlain and Rosicky, and a sort-of attacker in Lukas Podolski, and brought on a holding midfielder (Mathieu Flamini), a third center back (Thomas Vermaelen), and a third fullback (Nacho Monreal). Ending a game with six defenders and two holding midfielders is not a look we have seen for Arsenal for a while.

It may be that Wenger still doesn't know how to coach a defense, but is benefitting from last offseason's decision to make Steve Bould, a center back in some of Arsenal's meanest back fours, an assistant coach. It could also be that Wenger is reaping the reward for the patience he invested in Laurent Koscielny and Per Mertesacker as a center back pairing.

Tottenham could have closed to within three points of Arsenal and precious fourth place. It's still in the Europa League but goes to Lisbon for the second leg of its round of 16 tie on Thursday trailing Benfica, 3-1. What little life was left in its season died on Sunday. Once again, it will end the season looking up at Arsenal.

On the spot at Old Trafford -- Here's another way David Moyes is not Alex Ferguson. Under Fergie, United never conceded more than one penalty in the same game at Old Trafford. It had not conceded any at home since December 2011. On Sunday, against Liverpool, United gave away three in 45 minutes.

It could be that Fergie intimidated referees in a way that Moyes does not. Fergie was also smart enough to leave before having to sort out a group of defenders that includes the eternally maturing Rafael and Phil Jones and the aging Nemanja Vidic. They were the men who conceded three soft penalties.

With United down to 10 men, Liverpool could have scored more. Steven Gerrard, after all, missed the third penalty kick. The result was the worst nightmare for United fans who would probably rather Manchester City won the league than see Liverpool collect a 19th English league title, cutting United's lead to just one.

Orange cards -- Should a player already on a yellow card be treated more leniently when he commits another offense rather than receive a second yellow and therefore a red card?

No, seemed to be the view of Chris Foy who showed Willian of Chelsea a second yellow card for an innocuous challenge against Aston Villa on Saturday.

Yes, seemed to be the view if Mark Clattenburg, who declined to show Rafael a second yellow card despite awarding a penalty after the United fullback had handled the ball. Indeed, Clattenburg kept his cards in his pocket on at least one other occasion when he could have shown Rafael another yellow.

The referee's patience did run out when Daniel Sturridge dived over Vidic's outstretched leg in the penalty area. Clattenburg showed Vidic a second yellow. But by then the result was not in doubt. It often seems easier to show red to a player on a team that is already clearly beaten.

Red cards can lead to the accusation that the referee, rather than the players, is deciding a contest. There is a tendency to argue that reducing a team to 10 men spoils a match. But so does persistent fouling. If players stopped fouling, referees wouldn't be put in that position, but even when players know they risk a second yellow, many don't seem to adjust their play. Referees shouldn't react by adjusting their officiating.

Red cards always become talking points and expose a referee to scrutiny from pundits and criticism from managers. Foy, given his record with Chelsea, seems not to care what Mourinho thinks or says. That might be one of the reasons Mourinho was so furious at the end of the Villa game.

On the other hand, as Paul Lambert, the Villa manager pointed out, blaming the referee is a good way of distracting attention from your team's display. In this case, it also forestalled questions about an awful tackle by Ramires, which fully deserved Chelsea's second red card.

Mourinho said that after the game referees just "go home," as if that was a criticism. But referees should enforce the laws without having to worry about the consequences for the teams they punish. Otherwise we end up with a double standard for players, like Rafael, who have already offended once but are allowed to cheat and stay on the field.

Stress management -- Watching Mourinho saying at great length to any camera pointed at him after Chelsea's defeat that he wasn't saying anything, provoked the thought that the same applies to most coaches. Would we learn any less with the sound turned down?

Sometimes, undistracted by the predictable clichés, maybe we can learn more.

With the sound off, it's easy to see that the Special One's carefully groomed feathers were ruffled. His designer stubble is running to seed. There are plenty of hairs out of place on his carefully coiffed head. Tiredness shadows his eyes. But, in truth, his silent face suggests he is managing stress better than many of his rivals.

Mute Manuel Pellegrini's implausible plea that even from the touchline he is "too far away" to see what is happening on the field, and suddenly it is possible to believe that he is an old, blind man. His watery red eyes held in place by deep red rims, are unhealthy blotches of color in a sickly yellow face. He doesn't look as if he's coping well with the stress of City life.

But by far the scariest viewing is offered by two relative youngsters who took their first Premier League management jobs within 10 days of each other at the start of the year. Stop listening to their words. Watch their faces. It's scary.

When he took over at Cardiff on January 2nd, Ole Gunnar Solksjaer was a boyish looking 40-year old. Ten weeks and one birthday later he looks like an extra from the Walking Dead.

On Saturday, Solksjaer had just had a precious point torn from his cold, dead, hands by a deflected shot in added time as Cardiff lost 2-1 at Everton. That would increase any manager's stress levels. Yet he looks as if he has spent the last few months locked away from the light, and from personal grooming aids, in a crypt that also had other occupants.

With the sound turned down, Solksjaer's startled, staring red-rimmed eyes with the eerie, unfocused death blue irises, the grey, shiny skin and the scraggly ginger beard presented as eloquent a silent image of pain and helplessness as another Norwegian icon, The Scream by Edvard Munch.

Sherwood was given the Tottenham job for Christmas. Like Solksjaer, he had a birthday in February but has aged a lot in a short time. His pale blue eyes are also red and haunted and accessorized by deep, dark bags. His complexion is unhealthy. His histrionics on the sideline as Tottenham struggled to score, suggested a coach on the point of a breakdown.

Managers need to be able to manage themselves. Some seem to be doing it better than others.

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