EPL Notes: Giroud's brilliance leads Arsenal; Tottenham in pursuit of top spot

Sunday January 1st, 2017

Arsenal fans standing on the Holloway Road in the rain on Sunday evening waiting for the No. 43 might have reflected that scorpion kicks are like London buses. You wait for ever, then two come along at once.

Just six days after Henrikh Mkhitaryan flicked the ball over his head and into the net with his heel to sting Sunderland with what, those who worry about these things insisted, was the first scorpion goal in Premier League history, fans at the Emirates on Sunday saw a repeat as Arsenal beat Crystal Palace, 2-0.

Social media sites immediately started polls on which was better. The winner will be decided by whether more Arsenal fans or more United fans can be bothered to vote. Of course, Mkhitaryan was offside when he scored, but, Arsenal fans might reasonably argue that what made their scorpion so remarkable was the scorer.

Olivier Giroud is not beloved by Arsenal fans. He is an effective old-fashioned center forward in a team that plays slick, elegant, passing soccer. He is neither great nor graceful in a team that aspires to be both. He had spent most of the season sitting on the bench watching Alexis Sánchez, one of nature’s inside forwards, leading the Arsenal attack.

Giroud played for the France team that reached the Euro 2016 final in the summer, but he did not make his first league start of the season until December 26, He responded by scoring a late winner against West Brom. Giroud kept his place on Sunday. In the first minute, he whiffed on a low cross with the goal at his mercy. Yet, as so often, Giroud quickly followed the klutzy with something a little better.

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After 19 minutes, Arsenal launched a rapid counter-attack. Giroud, arms pumping, ran half the length of the field to keep up. He arrived in the goalmouth a step ahead of the cross from Sánchez. Giroud reached a foot back. He caught the ball with the outside of his left heel. The shot could have gone anywhere. It went where Giroud wanted it to go. The ball rocketed back over his head, against the underside of the bar and over the line.

“I have maximum luck,” Giroud told Sky Sports grinning bashfully. “I was not in a good balance. It was a great feeling.”

Arsène Wenger beamed with pride as he spoke to the cameras but he also made the point that anyone who plays soccer can buy the same lottery ticket and hit the jackpot, though perhaps with worse odds than Giroud or Mkhitaryan.

“It’s a reflex,” Wenger said. “I think all of us can score this kind of goal at the moment you have the strength, the power and the mental reflex just to kick the ball.”

Asked if Mkhitaryan’s goal flashed through his mind, Giroud said: “Yeah, you know in this position you can’t do something else.”

That goal pretty much the sum of Giroud’s contribution. Against an out-gunned Palace team it was all Arsenal needed. Arsenal took 22 shots, none of the others were from Giroud. Alex Iwobi added a second. Arsenal regained third place. Its fans waiting for a bus on a cold, dark, wet night could warm themselves with the thought that they had seen something rare and remarkable.

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The lane to the title – On Wednesday, Tottenham opened its holiday fixtures by conceding a goal from a set piece after two minutes at Southampton. On Sunday at Watford, Tottenham leaked another goal from a free kick with two minutes to play. In the three hours of soccer that separated the two goals, Spurs scored eight times and conceded none to record two 4–1 victories.

After 19 games last season, Tottenham was fourth with 35 points. It had scored 33 and conceded 15. It was starting the surge that kept it in the title race until the dying weeks of the season. This season at half time, Tottenham are again fourth but with four more points, having conceded one fewer goal and scored four more. Spurs are again hitting form at the turn of the year and are doing so from slightly higher base. Tottenham’s problem is that, while Leicester has faded, all the other traditionally big clubs are better. Arsenal has one more point than last season, Manchester City has three more points, Manchester United has six more points, Liverpool has 13 more points and Chelsea has 29 more. Last season, Tottenham trailed Arsenal by four points at the halfway point. This season it trails Chelsea by 10.

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Chelsea’s visit to White Hart Lane this Wednesday is crucial to Tottenham’s slim hopes of staying in contention. But then, the last 10 league matches at the old stadium, which will be demolished this summer, represent both a stiff test and a great opportunity for Spurs

Bizarrely, Tottenham has played only two teams currently in the top 10 at home this season. It beat Manchester City and drew with Liverpool. It has built the second-best home record in the division by beating up the league’s bottom dwellers at home while battling to a .500 record away to top-half teams. Tottenham has played both its easiest and its hardest games. Chelsea, West Brom, Everton, Southampton, Bournemouth and, in the last two home games, Arsenal and Manchester United, must come to the Lane.

The two emphatic away victories in the past week suggest Tottenham can win on the road against weaker teams. The question is how it will cope at home, starting with Chelsea.

Confounding expectations – The weekend’s results for the top clubs may have followed form but they did not follow the recent script.

Chelsea and Manchester United, despite the occasional scoring flourish, have been building streaks on defense. Chelsea had kept 10 clean sheets in winning its previous 12. Manchester United had conceded just six goals in a nine-game unbeaten streak (trailing only for 19 minutes at home to West Ham in late November) during that run.

On Saturday, both had rockier matches defensively. United trailed Middlesbrough at Old Trafford with five minutes left before scoring two to win, 2–1. Chelsea twice allowed Stoke to level before scoring twice in the last 25 minutes to win, 4–2.

Yet the tests those two teams faced only forced them to go forward. Both attacked for long periods with frightening pace, accuracy and power. Both showed that offensively they are clicking into a higher gear and do not need to rely on hermetic defense to win.

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Then, to finish the day, an encounter between the two pacesetters that have been dazzling in attack but shaky in defense, Liverpool and Manchester City, provided almost no New Years fireworks. Liverpool, which had been second only to Tottenham with 6.4 shots on target, managed just one against Man City. City, which had been third best in the division, did not manage a shot on target in the first 50 minutes and finished with just two tame efforts. The crucial stats were that Giorginio Wijnaldum scored with Liverpool’s only strike on goal, a powerful header, in the eighth minute and Liverpool won, 1–0.

“Arguably one of our worst performances, in terms of how we want to play, of the season,” James Milner, who gave an impressive display at left win back for Liverpool, said after the match. “But it was all about the result.”

That result kept Liverpool second to Chelsea, albeit hoping that cracks appear in the blue armor. Nevertheless, Jürgen Klopp sought a positive spin while paying proper respect to Chelsea’s run.

"Can you imagine how annoying it is when you've won 13 games in a row and there's still one team only six points behind,” the Liverpool manager said.

On the other hand, it must be annoying to be averaging better than 2.25 points a game, have just beaten one of your principal rivals, yet still trail by the leader by six points and have to go home and watch the highlights of Chelsea showing it can be brilliant in attack as well as rock-solid in defense.

Losing touch – Mid-winter in England is a dark and dreary time. On New Year’s Day in Manchester, the sun did not rise until 8.30am. It set at 4pm. The seasonal gloom has been deepened over the past few days by games shrouded in fog or doused in rain. Even so, daylight is suddenly visible in the standings.

Leicester, Burnley and West Ham all won over the weekend and are hauling themselves clear of the dark, dank cellar. Among the bottom five, only Hull, which led twice but ended up drawing 2-2 at home to Everton on Friday, picked up a single point.

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Hull was at least plucky, so too was Middlesbrough at Old Trafford. Swansea was embarrassed, 3-0, at home by Bournemouth, Sunderland was thrashed, 4-1, at Burnley. The best that could be said for Crystal Palace is that it avoided humiliation at the Emirates on Sunday. Crystal Palace is on course to collect just 32 points. No team has ever survived in the Premier League with fewer than 34. Yet none of the three teams below Palace is on course to reach even 29 points.

Managers of struggling clubs like to talk of consistency. In practice, all the top four teams could be awful in 12 or even 13 of their remaining matches and still survive. Palace could win just five matches and survive comfortably, particularly if it does not lose to the teams below it, starting with Swansea at Selhurst Park on Tuesday.

The big winners – Statistics nerds spent their New Year’s Eve producing tables that showed Chelsea won the most points in the Premier League in 2016. That’s nice. There are two problems. The small one is that, because the way fixtures broke down over the final weekend of the year, not every team played 38 matches in the calendar year. The big problem is that the Premier League, with no mid-season break, does not crown a winter champion. It only awards one title in a calendar year. Chelsea might have collected more points in 12 months. It might have been the best team in the league as the year ended. But in 2016, there was only one Premier League winner. There was just one champion. It was Leicester City. This was the year of the Foxes.

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