Top side crushes Arsenal again; lip readers galore; EPL thoughts

Saturday March 22nd, 2014

Arsene Wenger's 1000th game as Arsenal manager was spoiled by a heavy loss and Kieran Gibbs' mistaken red.
Alastair Grant/AP

Are you Tottenham in disguise? -- Arséne Wenger's 1,000th game as Arsenal manager was memorable for all the wrong reasons.

In a potentially pivotal match at league-leaders Chelsea, third-placed Arsenal was three goals behind and reduced to 10 men after just 15 minutes. Chelsea won, 6-0. That score matched the biggest margin of defeat in Wenger's 18 seasons in charge. Arsenal lost 8-2 at Manchester United at the start of the 2011 season.

Yet the defeat repeated a disturbing pattern for Arsenal this season.

In February, Arsenal conceded three goals in the first 16 minutes as it lost, 5-1, at home to Liverpool. In December it lost 6-3 at Manchester City, although in that game the Gunners did not concede the third goal until the 50th minute.

The pattern of crushing defeats in the most important games against top-four teams is uncannily similar to that of Tottenham, which has been thrashed by City (twice), Liverpool and Chelsea.

Tottenham's problem stems from a lack of continuity. The club is a revolving door for players and coaches. However, Wenger at Arsenal embodies continuity.

The Arsenal team on Saturday contained plenty of the young players Wenger's job security has allowed to him to nurture: Alex Oxlade- Chamberlain, Wojciech Szczesny, Kieran Gibbs, Laurent Koscielny and Carl Jenkinson, who came on in the second half when everything had already gone squashed-pear shaped.

None had a good afternoon, although in the case of Gibbs the problem was not entirely of his own making. He was sent after 19 minutes because Andre Marriner confused him with Oxlade-Chamberlain who had handled a shot in front of the Arsenal goal. The embarrassing error by the referee should not distract from an embarrassing display by Arsenal.

Yes, Arsenal was without four injured midfielders. But Chelsea was missing players too. And Jack Wilshere, Aaron Ramsey, Mesut Özil and Theo Walcott would not have solved Arsenal's fundamental problem. Wenger's midfield lacks size and power. Against good big midfielders, its good small midfielders can struggle.

From the start, Nemanja Matic, Andreas Schürrle and David Luiz bullied Arsenal into passing errors. That allowed Chelsea to launch quick counter-attacks against an exposed back four and exploit another Arsenal problem. The central defense has size, but it lacks pace (you could say the same for Chelsea, but Matic and Luiz are in the team to stop it being exposed).

Of course, Wenger likes a good big midfielder if he can get one, but in the current market and with the armies of scouts his richer rivals now employ, he's unlikely to pick up a Patrick Vieira cheaply again.

After the game, Wenger made one of those hollow attempts to take the blame that implies, disingenuously, that only some small tactical error caused his team's problems.

"This is my fault," Wenger told the BBC. "We got a good hiding. You don't prepare all week to experience that."

But it was his party. He could cry if he wanted to.

"It is one of the worst days because when you go into a big game and it is over after 20 minutes it is not a nice experience," Wenger said.

ABNOS: Watch a referee send off the wrong player in the Chelsea-Arsenal clash

Chelsea keeps its shape -- In a way, what happened after Chelsea went three goals and a man up against a hated rival with 73 minutes still to play told you a lot about José Mourinho's soccer philosophy.

Chelsea had a chance to erode Manchester City and Liverpool's advantage in goal difference. Mourinho had an opportunity to humiliate a disrespectful rival and rub in his remark that Wenger was a specialist in failure. Yet, with Arsenal in clear disarray, Chelsea only intermittently went for the jugular. Oscar added two goals. When Oscar's replacement, Mohamed Salah, hit the sixth there were 20 minutes left. Yet Chelsea seemed largely uninterested in punishing a tiring foe.

It is telling that 6-0 was Chelsea's biggest ever Premier League victory under Mourinho. His teams are not built to run up the score once they have, to use a word he likes, "killed" opponents. The players are not allowed to let their hair down and deviate from the system Mourinho drills into his squads.

As the Chelsea players knocked the ball about in the later stages, it was difficult to shake the impression that even as they were playing Arsenal they were thinking of preserving energy for their next two opponents: Crystal Palace and Paris Saint-Germain.

A plan with a flaw -- Felix Magath faced a tricky problem on Saturday. His team, Fulham, has the worst defensive record in the Premier League. It was travelling to the team, Manchester City, that has scored more goals at home than any other team in the Premier League.

Magath's solution was to play as many defenders as he could, with two defenders joining two defensive midfielders in front of his back four. It was a plan that worked well enough for a while. Unfortunately, the personnel were not as good as the plan.

Fulham had the best early chances against a lackluster City team. But the problem was that one of the defensive players was Fernando Amorabieta, who has had a few rocky moments as he adjusts to the Premier League. After 26 minutes, the Venezuelan undermined Fulham's stout defense with a clumsy challenge on Alvaro Negredo. Yaya Touré converted the penalty. It was the only way City looked liked scoring.

Then, after 53 minutes, with Fulham still only a goal behind, Amorabieta did it again, bringing down David Silva. This time he earned a red card. Touré again converted.

Unlike Chelsea, City is a team built to kick opponents when they are down. Sergio Agüero is still missing. Negredo is horribly out of form. Yet against 10 men City could not help scoring. Touré completed a hat trick and in the last six minutes Fernandinho and Martin Demichelis (City's Amorabieta at times this season) scored two more.

City was awful in the first half, and still more or less restored its advantage in goal difference over Chelsea.

A plan that works -- Facing a team that had scored just 15 home league goals in 15 games this season, Liverpool somehow contrived to present Cardiff with three goals on Saturday.

All three goals were nicely finished, but were aided by an absence of marking of tackling by Liverpool defenders. The first put Cardiff ahead after nine minutes. The second restored the home team's lead after 25 minutes. The third was merely consolation. While Liverpool's defense can still have rocky days, its attack is consistently devastating. It won by the old-fashioned score of 6-3. Liverpool stayed second, sandwiched between Chelsea and Manchester City.

"We had them exactly where we wanted," Cardiff manager Ole Gunnar-Solskjaer told the BBC, casting his mind back to the illusion created by the fact that his team had led after 40 minutes.

Meanwhile, Liverpool boss Brendan Rodgers tried to argue that his team's crummy defending should be viewed as providing another demonstration of its inner strength.

"The mental resilience is how we've grown over the past 18 months, and that confidence to know we can get back in the game," he told the BBC.

The game provided a reminder of Liverpool's varied attacking strengths. Liverpool sliced another defense apart from open play with Luis Suarez scoring three goals, and Daniel Sturridge one. But Martin Skrtel also struck twice as Liverpool was again a threat from set pieces.

BIRD: Rooney channels Beckham with midfield golazo

Beware lip readers -- It didn't take Edward Snowden to convince soccer players that someone might be listening, or even lip reading.

Negredo seemed to following some spy handbook as he pulled his shirt up in front of his mouth while bantering with a Fulham defender after winning a penalty this afternoon. Lip-reading fans have proved remarkably sensitive to rude remarks uttered by players.

There was more furtive talking at West Ham in the evening as Manchester United won, 2-0.

Phil Neville, who put his hand across his mouth when whispering precious tactical advice to David Moyes on the Manchester United bench on Saturday, is hardly the only coach scared that the opposition could have hired a lip readers to steal his dazzling thoughts.

Although, if his insights were dazzling they weren't heard by the players. United, playing a league game in March that didn't really matter for the first time in more than 20 years and fielding a lot of backup players, gave a dreary display illuminated only by two flashes of lightning from Wayne Rooney.

More disconcerting was the sight of a boy in the crowd at Upton Park covering his mouth, just like Neville.

The child looked uncannily like 11-year-old Romeo Beckham, but with his hand covering his mouth, it was impossible to be totally sure. Certainly he was sitting next to David Beckham, who also had his hand across his mouth as the camera panned to his box after Rooney had scored from just inside the West Ham half. David seemed to be laughing at the sight of Rooney emulating his famous long-range goal against Wimbledon in 1997.

Beckham's goal was from his own half. On the other hand Rooney's was a trickier half volley.

Asked by Sky TV if his goal was better than Beckham's, Rooney looked as if he wished he could hide his mouth behind his hands before opting to shyly brazen it out and sheepishly boast: "Of course it was.

But the sight of Beckham junior so aware so young that he is being watched, raised a couple of questions. The first is: at what point in their increasingly-public childhoods are the offspring of celebrities coached to worry about what they say in public? The second is: what could young Romeo possibly have been saying that he might not want the eager world to hear?

Perhaps: "See Dad, I told you Rooney's better."

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