Chelsea stunned, struggling English soccer; Five EPL thoughts

Saturday September 14th, 2013

Aaron Ramsey (right) celebrates scoring Arsenal's second goal against Sunderland on Saturday.
David Price/Getty Images

Five thoughts from Saturday's action in the English Premier League ...

The old answer: Samuel Eto'o was once voted the third best player in the world.

Nikica Jelavic and Steven Naismith might once have been the two best players at Glasgow Rangers.

Yet on Saturday, Jelavic and Naismith reminded Eto'o of an eternal truth of soccer. They conjured a goal and Everton won, 1-0.

At the age of 32, Eto'o was making his Premier League debut. He quickly showed that he can add the cutting edge that Chelsea sometimes lacks. As Chelsea, again dazzling at times, threatened to tear Everton apart, Eto'o gave a display in front of goal that left Fernando Torres, who was on the bench, in the shade. Eto'o missed with more pace than Torres, he missed with more power than Torres, he missed chances Torres would never have reached. He missed by less than Torres.

Eto'o managed six shots at goal. He did not score. Yet, unlike Torres, he looked as if he would.

"We have to score goals." Mourinho told the BBC. "We had 21 attempts and we could score and some of the attempts were really easy goals."

Eto'o surely will score some goals but he will also surely have a falling out with Mourinho, who knows the striker from Inter Milan.

Invited to criticize Eto'o, Mourinho answered: "I don't blame people."

Those who worry that at 32, Eto'o may have lost a step might look at the tiny hesitation in front of an open goal in the first half. But the man who slid in to make a goal-saving block, Gareth Barry, is also a 32-year-old making his debut and desperate to show that he can still play.

Asked about that, Mourinho made clear he was prepared to blame people not named Eto'o. The miss was the fault of André Schürrle who took to long measuring his pass and made Eto'o "wait for a slow ball."

Everton was also lively going forward. Unfortunately, its strikers, Naismith and Jelavic looked, as sharp as a pair of boiled potatoes. Yet just before half time, they found an old-fashioned way through. Jelavic won a header at the far post. Naismith headed it in.

That one goal gave Everton its first league victory of the season and inflicted on Chelsea its first defeat.

The English question: The Premier League returned Saturday from one of those brief breaks when the English turn their attention to their national team and are outraged by what they see.

England's goalless draw in Ukraine last Tuesday was a damp squib amid a colorful exchange of fire between journalists, coaches, ex-players and administrators over why the England team is so mediocre.

Greg Dyke, the new chairman at the Football Association, blames the Premier League. Dyke is a former television executive who could reasonably bear a grudge with the Premier League following a failed broadcasting rights bid two decades ago. Yet there seems universal agreement with his argument that the clubs are not giving young English players a chance.

At first blush, the numbers from Saturday's eight games seem to support the argument. Some 60 Englishmen started for their clubs -- it's a rough total because the league is dotted with the likes of Adrian Marappa, who played for Crystal Palace at Old Trafford. He's a London-born Englishman who plays for Jamaica.

Some more Englishmen could appear in the two remaining games, particularly for Liverpool and Southampton. Yet if England qualifies for the World Cup, roughly one in three English players in the Premier League who will make the squad of 23 would go to Brazil.

The problem is not simply one of quantity. There is also an issue of quality. The only team that started a predominantly English 11 was, ironically, Cardiff, a Welsh club. Indeed with five more Englishmen on the bench, it could have fielded an entirely English team. Even with promising young international Steven Caulker and the formerly promising Frazier Campbell, it wouldn't have been a good team. That's the true problem.

There are almost no Englishmen playing outside Britain. No one wants them. The 60 who started on Saturday are pretty much the 60 best English players on the entire planet. The best of them was Ashley Cole of Chelsea. He's 32. Most of the 60 best English players aren't even among the 60 best players in the English league.

Yes, the big clubs are reluctant to live through the growing pains of younger talents. But there are 72 clubs in the Football League, and, they seem to be unable to develop good English players. Maybe England's sporting talent is all playing cricket or rugby or winning Olympic medals or the Tour de France.

Roy Hodgson may be a dull and timid coach. That makes him the right man for the England job. Given the resources he has available, it's as if he's trying to take Fulham to the World Cup.

On the spot at Old Trafford: It's a familiar story. Manchester United struggles for most of the first half at home. It has more penalty appeals than shots on goals. Indeed, Ashley Young, who was once criticized by Alex Ferguson for his inept diving, has already received a yellow card for a tumble on the box.

Then Young gets half a step ahead of Kagisho Dikgacoi and bursts into the area. They tangle. Young tumbles. One of them will receive a red card.

John Moss, the referee, pauses. He seems to consult an assistant who shakes his head. Still, Moss points to the spot and shows Dikgacoi red. Robin Van Persie scores.

The penalty just before half time on Saturday was the turning point. United, which had been playing poorly against a poor team, cruised through the second half against 10 men. The game ended, 2-0. When Wayne Rooney scored the second with contemptuous ease from a fee kick he seemed too unexcited to celebrate.

The debate about whether Dikgacoi's tackle was inside the box or indeed whether it was a foul at all, is beside the point. Like the other two challenges, it was a marginal decision. Moss wasn't wrong to give it. He wouldn't have been wrong to turn it down. But did he give it because he was Old Trafford?

Ian Holloway, the Palace referee, implied Moss had succumbed to the pressure in the largest club stadium in England.

"He has a difficult job to do though especially at Old Trafford which such a noisy partisan crowd," Holloway said.

Yet United is not simply the fortunate beneficiary of marginal decisions. Its whole style of play is designed to force defenders to make challenges in and around the penalty area. On Saturday it started Young, Rooney van Persie and Antonio Valencia with Patrice Evra and Fabio hurtling forward on the flanks.

United keeps asking questions of opponents and referees. It attacks and is rewarded. It's hardly surprising that sometimes United, and its fans, gets the answer they want.

Gunners roll on: Like United, Arsenal was also by far the better team in its game on Saturday. Yet like United, its match pivoted on a marginal refereeing decision.

Martin Atkinson's call at Sunderland will have caused much more sadness among Premier League watchers, and not because Arsenal went on to win, 3-1, but because it deprived us of a first chance to see the future of Premier League officiating.

As Bacary Sagna tried to wrestle Jozy Altidore off the ball on the edge of the penalty area, Martin Atkinson decided to blow his whistle. By the time he had done so, Altidore had, of course, out-muscled Sagna and was lining up a shot. The ball hit the far post and seemed to be dribbling over the goal line when it was cleared.

Atkinson may have been impatient to show Sagna the yellow card. If the referee had only played the advantage for a couple of seconds, we would have, inevitably, seen the first official use of the goal line technology that the Premier League has introduced this season.

Arsène Wenger told the BBC, quite reasonably, that if Atkinson had played the advantage and Altidore had missed, the referee would have been criticized. Yet officials have been playing longer advantages this season. Maybe Atkinson could have replayed his decision to blow the whistle and then replayed the goal-line clearance.

Then we could all have watched in super slo-mo as Wenger and Paolo Di Canio (who later invited Atkinson to show him a red card and got his wish) exploded on the touchline.

Spurs evolve: Last season Tottenham's basic attacking strategy seemed to be to give the ball to Gareth Bale or Jermain Defoe. Then everybody else could stop running while they watched to see where the shot ended up. The tactic paid some dividends. The pair scored 32 of Tottenham's 65 league goals. Bale was elsewhere on Saturday, scoring from close range, and shooting from distance, for his new club Real Madrid. Tottenham, meanwhile, has spent its Bale money.

Tottenham decided to pay for a whole new midfield and attack. Andre Villas-Boas, the coach, clearly wants to take his time and teach his revamped team to play joined-up soccer.

There is still an element of last year's shoot-on-sight approach. AVB is playing Andros Townsend, who is left footed, on the right. This invites the winger to cut in and bomb away. Townsend took nine shots against Norwich on Saturday, only one from inside the area and only three on target. Of course, Townsend might have started the season thinking the way was clear for him to become the new Bale, only for Erik Lamela and Christian Eriksen to arrive just before the deadline. Maybe Townsend on Saturday was simply buying as many lottery tickets as possible before his window closes. But there were also little passes that suggest Townsend knows he needs to adapt.

The epitome of Spurs last season were superhuman feats by Bale: running the length of the field like Usain Bolt, evading tacklers like Alberto Tomba and ripping a shot into the net like Gordie Howe.

On Saturday, the defining, and game-changing, moment was a two-yard ball by Eriksen that 99 per cent of players in an under-7 team league could deliver. It was also a pass that 99 per cent of players in the Premier League wouldn't have seen. Receiving a short pass from Roberto Soldado on the edge of the area, Eriksen might have shot. Instead, he rolled the ball into the path of the onrushing Gylfi Sigurdsson who had no choice but to score.

Sigurdsson was bought to score goals from midfield. Last season he looked lost in the headlights as Bale and Defoe blasted past. On Saturday, the Icelander suggested he will thrive in a more thoughtful build up. He added a second from another short-range pass, from Paulinho. That made the final score, 2-0.

This is still a Tottenham squad made up largely of strangers. It will face tougher teams than Norwich at White Hart Lane. The Canaries' trips away from their nest so far suggest they could spend the season as road kill.

The home team offered glimpses of the new Spurs. If AVB is lucky it will end up looking a lot like the old Spurs, famed for their passing in the early 1950s and early 1960s.

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