Youth is served in EPL's early days; more thoughts

Sunday October 6th, 2013

Ravel Morrison had off-field troubles at Man United, but he has shown maturity at West Ham so far.
Lefteris Pitarakis/AP

Bubbles bursting, balloons gently deflating. The English soccer calendar has its emotional year backward. Hope springs in the fall, withers in the winter, and is only finally crushed in the spri

Sometimes, the process doesn't even take that long, as Tottenham and Everton discovered this weekend. Spurs were kicked in the cockerels, losing 3-0 at home to West Ham on Sunday. Everton, the last unbeaten team in the Premier League, was put in its place after a bright start at the Etihad on Saturday, losing 3-1 to Manchester City.

Arsenal's glass is till more than half full. It still leads the league after its 1-1 draw away to West Brom, a team that won at Old Trafford last week. Yet the way West Brom dominated for long periods should temper some of the euphoria that accompanied Arsenal's surging start.

The table still has a refreshing look. Liverpool is second. Southampton, which dispatched Swansea, 2-0, on Sunday, is fourth. But the sharks are already closing in.

Chelsea won 3-1 at Norwich on Sunday despite some awful defending and woeful shooting. It is up to third. Manchester City is fifth. Manchester United may still be below Hull, but it showed it has not entirely lost its knack of playing badly and winning, coming from behind to edge awful Sunderland, 2-1, on Saturday. Cue the music from Jaws.

Parking the bus, then driving off with three points. For West ham manager Sam Allardyce, Sunday was one of those rare days when a game entirely followed the coach's plan.

This was a meeting between two clubs who were defending well but having difficulty scoring. The difference was that Tottenham had been scoring just enough to win. West Ham had been conceding just enough to stop it winning.

The statistics suggested Spurs were an unlucky attacking team. The game Sunday suggested that, in fact, they had been a lucky defensive team.

West Ham set out to defend. Despite dominating possession, Tottenham rarely looked like finding a way through.

At the other end, even without Andy Carroll or any proper central striker, Allardyce still believed West Ham's best strategy was to bang high balls into the penalty area.

The approach paid off in the 66th minute when Winston Reid won a header at a corner then smashed in the rebound. Now the Hammers could wait and counter-attack. Ricardo Vaz Tê scored a second on the break six minutes later. Ravel Morrison then concluded a weekend for getting excited over youngsters by running from inside his own half to score.

The first two goals both followed the sort of quirky bounce that had been going for Tottenham and against West Ham this season. Reid's header hit a teammate Kevin Nolan on the line but the ball bounced straight back to Reid who scored. Hugo Lloris, the Tottenham goalie, saved Vaz Te's initial shot but the ball rebounded to the winger and rolled in.

For both teams it was a correction. Tottenham had looked far from title contenders as it has eked out victories. West Ham has not really looked like one of the worst three teams in the division as it has allowed points to slide though its fingers.

"This is a wake up call." Andre Villas Boas, the Tottenham coach, told the BBC. He added, as he groped for a silver lining: "We have done well so far."

A game of two teams. As Luis Suárez and Daniel Sturridge both scored inside 17 minutes to send Liverpool cantering toward another victory, the natural reaction was to ask just how good Liverpool is. And, indeed, just how good the Reds will be when Phillippe Coutinho returns to slip into the new 3-5-2 system that seems tailor-made for him.

Yet it takes two teams to make a soccer match, and Liverpool was running riot against a defense organized by Ian Holloway. Holloway was last seen in the Premier League adopting a strategy of attack, attack, attack in Blackpool's lone season in the top flight. This time, with a similarly under-resourced club, he started by trying to play safe. It didn't really work. Holloway's patience ran out after six games. Palace pitched up at Anfield determined to attack. Over the course of the game, Palace had as many chances as Liverpool. Maybe that's a moral victory. Only losing 3-1, after the start it made, might be another source of consolation for Palace. Yet the brutal truth for Palace was that Liverpool was better at every single position.

For Liverpool, the brutal truth is that it jumped to a two-goal lead at home against the worst team in the Premier League (Palace is worse than Sunderland) and couldn't press home its advantage.

That has been a puzzling pattern for Liverpool this season. It has scored 11 of its 13 goals in the first half of games, while allowing five of the six it has conceded in the second half. It might be another early-season statistical oddity. It might also be that a back three turns quickly into a highly defensive back five when a team has a lead to defend. The key for Liverpool is that so far this season, it has almost always had a lead to defend.

The beauty of youth. There is a special thrill in suddenly recognizing greatness, or the promise of greatness, in a young player.

The potential of Morrison, Ross Barkley and Adnan Januzaj has hardly been a secret. Yet it can take a while to turn potential into consistent performance. It is a point emphatically demonstrated by the tortuous route the troubled Morrison has taken to find a toehold in the Premier League. Sir Alex Ferguson essentially gave up on trying to tame Morrison when he sold him to West Ham.

"Sir Alex Ferguson told me 'I hope you can sort him out, because you will have a top class player on your hands,'" Allardyce told the BBC after the game Sunday. "I'm not sure I've done that, but he's enjoying his football."

"The penny has dropped," Allardyce said.

"He has become a man," Nolan said.

Morrison caught the eye by scoring. Januzaj, a player Ferguson kept, did so by scoring twice. In his first league start he gave United a 2-1 victory at Sunderland. The second was a particularly pretty goal. Yet Januzaj might also not be long for United. He is in demand and his contract is up this season. Dave Moyes can hope to win the 18-year-old's loyalty, and maybe even some games, by starting him, but that also increases his market value.

Januzaj is also in demand internationally. So desperate are the English for talented players, that Roy Hodgson, under pressure on the BBC on Saturday night, let his dignity slip and admitted that England was interested in the young man. Dream on. He would have to stay in England until 2018 for that to happen. In the meantime, he could walk straight into the starting line-up of Albania, the reported team of his heart, or opt for the country of his childhood and join the potentially powerful Belgian squad at the World Cup.

What was impressive about Januzaj was not that he scored twice, it's that throughout the game he seemed always to have time, the true hallmark of a great player. Januzaj outshone Wayne Rooney, another man who at 18 seemed to have all the time in the world but who is 27, looks older and seems often to be half a step too slow. Potential can take a toll.

Barkley, a year older than Januzaj, has already played 20 games for Everton and appeared for talent-starved England, yet on Saturday against mighty Manchester City he seemed to become a man. Facing Yaya Touré and Fernandinho, Barkley did more than just show flashes of promise. He ran the game, completing more passes than any Everton player. Meanwhile, another teenager, Romelu Lukaku, continued his impressive run by giving Everton the lead.

Yet the game also provided a reminder that potential, however golden, is not the same thing as the finished article. City doesn't have to bother with developing talent. It buys greatness off the peg. Barkley and Lukaku were good. Touré, David Silva, Sergio Agüero were better. They won the match.

Mourinho speaks. The master motivator, José Mourinho, has marked his return to England by drawing consistently surprising performances out of his favorite talent. That would be himself.

Last week he walked out of a press conference claiming to be bored with the questions. That was fun.

On Sunday, after his team had carefully laid out a banana skin in front of itself and then stepped on it, before bouncing up to win 3-1, Mourinho was in particularly entertaining and playful form.

Chelsea took the lead with a goal of classic simplicity after four minutes, scored by Oscar, set up by Demba Ba. After that Ba, one of three center forwards who haven't been able to score in the league for Chelsea this season, seemed to be seeking new and inventive ways to miss, though he lost the bad shot competition to an astonishing shank by Oscar.

"The first half the game was easy to kill and we didn't do it," Mourinho said.

Inevitably, Norwich leveled with a goal by Anthony Pilkington with 22 minutes left. A potential upset? Not at all.

Mourinho threw on Edin Hazard, who accepted a gift from the Norwich defense and scored 10 minutes after his arrival. Mourinho also sent on Willian, who slammed a superb goal five minutes after arriving.

Complemented by the BBC on his changes, Mourinho, grinning broadly, answered: "When I make a change the change it is always fantastic," adding that if they don't pan out, it's not his fault. "The players make it fantastic or they make it rubbish. It's up to them.

Mourinho stuck to the line that his team isn't playing nearly as well as he'd like and then added: "We are not far from the leaders. We are where we need to be." He smiled a shark-like smile.

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