- The EPL's bg clubs had plenty of reason to celebrate on Boxing Day.
- Swansea don't look improved under Bob Bradley, and face an uphill battle to avoid relegation.
- Sam Allardyce didn't win his Crystal Palace debut, but he should still do just fine at the club.
Just as the big clubs are setting themselves for a mid-race acceleration, the Premier League schedulers throw a banana-skin in their paths.
The European competitions are on a break. There are no more domestic cup games until January. The summer signings have had four months to bed down. Since, for Premier League managers, Santa does not usually come down the chimney in December, but through the window in January, now is the time to play with the toys they already have and collect league points.
And then comes the Christmas and New Year fixture rush. It’s enough to give some managers indigestion. Chelsea, the leader, plays three games in 10 days. If you think that’s bad, talk to Arsène Wenger or José Mourinho. Arsenal has three games in nine days, including two in 48 hours after the New Year. “I don’t completely understand the organization of the fixtures,” Wenger complained last week.
United has three games in eight days. “It looks like the fixtures are chosen to give a rest for some and to create problems to others,” Mourinho moaned.
Liverpool is even worse off, with three games in seven days, the last two in 48 hours. “It makes no sense,” said Jürgen Klopp. “I care about the boys. For me it's no problem to play a game every day – I don't have to run. But the players have to run.”
On Monday, four of the top six were in action and three of them solved their problem by sewing up the victory with time to spare.
At home to Bournemouth, Chelsea took the lead with a pretty goal from Pedro after 24 minutes. The Blues absorbed some pressure before half time, doubled their lead with a penalty from Eden Hazard just after the break and kept the ball for the rest of the match before adding a flourish, thanks to an own goal by Steve Cook, in added time. Chelsea won 3–0 despite playing the second half in second gear. It was a 12th straight victory for Chelsea, a club record, and that, more than the unbalanced calendar, is applying the pressure that is making rival managers wriggle.
Manchester United, also starting the festive orgy at home, took a first-half lead. It comfortably dominated the second half, adding two late goals, the second a stunning scorpion from Henrikh Mkhitaryan, as Sunderland attacked with growing. Fabio Borini scored a late consolation for Sunderland, but United kept plenty of gas in its tank as it won, 3-1.
Manchester City took until the 72nd minute to take the lead away to Hull, but then made its greater strength in depth count as it scored three times in 20 minutes to win 3-0. Hull huffed and puffed, but City hardly looked out of breath at the end.
The only leading club that had to work hard for its victory was Arsenal. The Gunners dominated possession and chances at home to West Brom but could not pass their way through a determined defense.
In the end, it took a goal of traditional English crudeness to earn three points. Mesut Ozil flourished his right foot elegantly as he curled the ball into the penalty area in the 87th minute, but this was a traditional hit-and-hope cross from closer to the half way line than the goal-line. Olivier Giroud outmuscled Gareth McAuley and nodded the ball deftly into the top corner.
Of the four, only Arsenal faced a team in the top half of the standings. Chelsea, Arsenal and Manchester United all follow one home game with another against a bottom-half team. Manchester City, meanwhile, is away again, at Liverpool. The only guaranteed winner from that match is Chelsea
Bradley on the edge – Bob Bradley inherited a mess yet from the start many Swansea fans begrudged him even that. Uniquely in the Premier League, those fans own just over 21 percent of the club. That’s a large enough share to allow them to feel entitled to a voice in the club's decisions. But it’s far from a majority. When Steve Kaplan and Jason Levien, who bought 68 percent of the club over the summer, decided in October to replace Francesco Guidolin as manager, they did not ask the fans. That was asking for trouble.
What made matters worse was that Kaplan and Levien are American and therefore instantly distrusted by British fans. When they rapidly fired the incumbent, and replaced him with an American, that distrust deepened.
John McMullen, a minority partner at the New York Yankees, once complained "There is nothing in life quite so limited as being a limited partner of George Steinbrenner." Levien, who owns D.C. United of the MLS and was once CEO of the Memphis Grizzlies of the NBA, may take the Steinbrenner approach to minority stakeholders. The problem is that the minority owners at Swansea from a vast majority of the 21,000 inside the Liberty Stadium on match days.
After Bradley was appointed, the Supporters Trust issued a statement saying it was “disappointed”. It should be noted that if Swansea had at some stage appointed the manager who would have been most likely to save the club, Sam Allardyce, who resurfaced at a relegation rival on Monday, the fans, who cherish Swansea’s recent tradition of stylish soccer, would have been more than merely disappointed.
To win them over, Bradley needed to win fast. He needed to do so with an unbalanced squad short of talent and depth.
He hasn’t done that. There have been flashes, such as a home victory over Sunderland on December 10, but for the most part Swansea has looked worse.
In the 10 games under Bradley, the Swans have dropped from 17th to 19th, picked up just eight points and conceded a horrible 25 goals.
On Monday, the Liberty Stadium turned on Bradley with a vengeance long before the 4-1 home loss to West Ham was sealed, chanting “We want Bradley Out.”
“There was absolutely a mood in the stadium today,” Bradley said after the game.
He said all the right things about fighting on. Axing Bradley probably won’t save Swansea. He is simply caught in the intensifying crossfire. The corrosive mood will only worsen until the owners swallow their pride and make the humiliating climb-down the fans are demanding.
Boxing clever – For Christmas, as the British tabloids gleefully pointed out, Santa brought Alan Pardew the sack.
In the strange karma of soccer, Pardew’s loss meant Santa could give Sam Allardyce, who has been naughty rather than nice in 2016, the prefect present. On Boxing Day, when the English traditionally unwrap their presents, Big Sam seemed happy with delayed gratification as his new team, Crystal Palace, drew, 1-1, at Watford.
Allardyce has a habit of winning his debuts but he could barely suppress a smile as he told Sky Sports: “It was 2 points dropped.”
Allardyce knows that Pardew has set Palace up perfectly for a Fireman Sam makeover. This is a team that has repeatedly done what it did at Watford and played well, in parts, but failed to collect three points. That is why Allardyce could say the draw was “in some ways encouraging away from home in my first game.”
Allardyce, through sheer force of habit, complained about the refereeing and the Palace injury list but he concluded: “It’s our own fault we haven’t won three points.”
Palace has a large collection of solid defensive players but cannot protect its goal. Allardyce the organizer should sort that out. When he does, he can face the cameras and say “it’s because of me we have won three points.”
That will only set up his next problem. English managers can have a difficulty managing in other regions of England. Pardew, a Londoner, was always regarded as a sneaky Cockney by Newcastle fans (although, to be fair, the Geordies hated Allardyce as well). Down South, even though Allardyce turned West Ham into a solid Premier League team, its Cockney fans never trusted their manager’s plain-spoken northerner shtick. The sleazy way Allardyce’s brief reign as England manager ended in September suggests they were right. They did not like his dreary defense-first tactics either.
For now, Fireman Sam just has to pour a glass of water on a small blaze, ensure the Premier League survival of a squad that already has far more talent than the three clubs below it in the standings, and then boast about it.
No wonder he was happy with a draw that drew attention to the problems he has inherited.
Suicidal tendencies – Hull was doing alright against Manchester City until the 71st minute. Then it tripped itself up again.
Hull once again played some quite good attacking soccer but could not score. That blunt edge up front creates anxiety at the back.
Last week at West Ham, Hull hit the inside of the post three times before Tom Huddlestone gave away a penalty that produced the only goal in a 1-0 defeat. Two weeks before that, Robert Snodgrass gave away a spot kick with Hull ahead at home to Palace and the game ended 3-3. It’s developing into a bad habit.
On Monday, Hull conceded its ninth penalty kick of the season - that’s four more than the next two most penalized teams, Arsenal and Swansea.
Hull was holding City with less than 20 minutes to play. Then Raheem Sterling zigged in from the right. Even through the television screen, the panic was palpable. This time Andy Robertson, the left back, lunged into a tackle he should have resisted. Sterling went down to win a penalty for the seventh time in the last four years. Yaya Touré converted. Hull was finished, although it had not finished with the self-inflicted wounds.
In October, an own goal by Michael Dawson cost Hull points at Watford. In added time on Monday, Sterling darted at Hull again and flashed the ball into the goalmouth where Curtis Davies turned it into his own goal.
Hull is destroying itself by trying too hard, stretching to attempt tackles and interceptions when it would be better to hold off.
The penalty debate – Anyone who has just spent Christmas with the family will know that some people are better at accepting gifts than others.
Monday again demonstrated how important penalties are in top-level soccer. Quite apart from the gift Hull gave Manchester City, there were two penalty kicks at Watford and one at Chelsea. Some players accepted the present more gracefully than others.
Last week three players converted Premier League penalties after stutter step run ups and this blog tutted. On Saturday, at Watford, the match pivoted on two PKs (as Bob Bradley calls them to the superior amusement of the British). With a chance to put Palace two goals up, Christian Benteke stuttered. Heurelho Gomes saved.
Later, Troy Deeney, who has been nervously chasing his 100th Watford goal since October 1, blasted his penalty straight down the middle. Wayne Hennessey dived out of the way. Watford gained a point.
Allardyce, a stats nerd, stuck to the game-theory approach.
“He should've put it to the other side, as he's put the last two there,” he said of Benteke.
Gomes, however, suggested that it didn’t matter what side Benteke put the ball given how weakly he took the shot.
“You have to get in the mind of the player who is going to kick and wait,” Gomes told Sky. “I saw some penalties from Benteke before the game and I know that he comes to the ball so slow and if I could wait…and I did wait for him to make the decisions and I come for the right side.”
Where Benteke tried to bluff, and lost, Deeney abandoned subtlety.
“I’ve been having a bit of a stinker recently,” he said. “I just think, like, when you’re not having the best of moments in front of goal just smash it as hard as you can. if the goalkeeper gets in the way, it’s going to hurt him at least. Just smash it down the middle.”
If Hennessey had imitated Gomes and waited, he would have saved. The pain would have been worth it.
At Stamford Bridge, Eden Hazard eliminated the guesswork as he solved the same 12-yard conundrum by pinging the ball just inside the post to put Chelsea two goals up. Artur Boruc did not stand a chance.
But, after Monday’s games, the most successful penalty taker of the Premier League era, per OptaJoe, is now Yaya Touré. He stuttered in his run up against David Marshall, but that seemed more an exercise in style. He walloped the ball high into the corner of the net anyway. That was Touré’s 10th penalty kick in the Premier League, he has converted all of them, no one else has taken as many penalties in the competition and remained perfect.
Despite appearances, Touré does not stutter.