Southampton stands up to United, Arsenal dazzles; five EPL thoughts

Saturday October 19th, 2013

Dejan Lovren (right) and Jose Fonte celebrated after Southampton scored against Manchester United.
Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

Five thoughts from Saturday's slate of games in the English Premier League.

Saints are rising: Southampton added another impressive result to its strong early-season run when it scored in the 89th minute to gain a 1-1 draw at Old Trafford. The point, at a ground where the Saints have, in recent years, done nothing but lose, briefly lifted them to fourth in the Premier League. It follows a victory at Anfield in their last away game. Those are results that command attention.

Certainly, Southampton showed its strengths on Saturday. It is organized in defense. It presses opponents into errors in midfield. It has talent in attack. It is, at the moment, clearly the strongest of the division's second-tier clubs. The club has spent bravely and well to augment the talent it already had and the youngsters that continue to emerge from its junior teams. Mauricio Pochettino, the coach, is getting a lot out of the considerable talent at his disposal.

On Saturday, Southampton carried the game to United from the start. The Saints enjoyed a significant advantage in possession and outshot the home team, 18-12. Yet Southampton was extremely lucky to be only one behind when the ball bounced off Adam Lallana's knee, through his legs and over the line for the scruffy equalizing goal.

The result said as much about the strange place that United is in as it does about Southampton's quality. United rarely dominates possession, and it allows confident opponents to play through midfield.

United has neither a true ball-winner nor a classic creator. Why on earth it did not spend part of its huge transfer pot on Mesut Ozil was one of the mysteries of the summer. Instead it focused on Marouane Fellaini, who despite his talent and physique, is another player who does a bit of everything. With Wayne Rooney occupying his natural space, the Belgian looked as if he were still trying to work out what his role is at United.

Much of this was also true last season, when United ran away with the league. On Saturday, it could have run away with the game. United may have created fewer chances, but it created better ones. Robin van Persie missed a couple of early chances, but he did score in the 26th minute with a crisp finish after clever work by Adnan Januzaj. Rooney smashed a shot against the bar, and Van Persie also hit the woodwork in the second half.

"If we'd scored a second goal, we'd have put the game to bed," David Moyes, the United manager, told the BBC.

The match showed that the gap between Southampton and United has closed. The Saints clearly believed that they could go toe-to-toe with English soccer's heavyweight champion. Even so, they were lucky to escape the knockout punch.

Who is sitting on the bench?: Chelsea climbed to second with a 4-1 home victory over Cardiff City. The final score was emphatic, and yet for much of the game Chelsea struggled to take control. Part of the reason Chelsea's victory was the depth José Mourinho had on the bench, even when he wasn't there himself.

After David Luiz presented Jordon Mutch of Cardiff with a goal after 10 minutes, Chelsea barely threatened until it was, in turn, handed a goal in the 33rd minute. The gift was a combination of a schoolboy error from David Marshall, the Cardiff goalie, and an apparent willingness to ignore the laws by Anthony Taylor, the referee.

Preparing to kick clear, Marshall bounced the ball, even though Samuel Eto'o was standing at his shoulder. Eto'o stuck out a boot and poked the ball to Eden Hazard, who passed it back. Eto'o could not finish, but Hazard stuck home the rebound. Marshall protested indignantly, and legally he was right. The laws state that the goalkeeper is still in possession of the ball when he's bouncing it. But referees often seem inclined to take the view that stupidity deserves to be punished. Any youth coach would tell Marshall that was stupid.

Chelsea continued to struggle to breach the Cardiff defense until the 66th minute. By then, Mourinho had thrown on Oscar and Fernando Torres. Oscar played a role in setting up the goal with which Eto'o put Chelsea ahead. Oscar then scored the third. Hazard added a fourth as Chelsea turned a hard-fought game into a rout.

At that point, Mourinho wasn't even on the bench himself. He had spent much of the game protesting that Cardiff was wasting time and became incensed when, with Chelsea now ahead, Taylor chastised one of the home players for the same offense. Mourinho was sent off. He delighted the adoring home fans by finding an empty seat in stands and sitting there, surrounded by cameramen. On one level, it was the equivalent of Red Auerbach lighting a cigar to celebrate a Boston Celtics' victory long before the game was over. Mourinho was making clear that his team didn't need him. The match was won. He had also ensured that, once again, his name would fill the headlines and his photo would appear on sports pages conveying the implicit message that he was the most important man on the Chelsea bench.

Pretty, pretty Arsenal: Like Chelsea, Arsenal scored two late goals to turn a tough home game into a convicing 4-1 victory. Like Chelsea, Arsenal also received scoring help from the bench. But the most impressive thing about the victory over Norwich, as Arsène Wenger, the Arsenal manager, purred after the game, was the dazzling quality of the goals.

All followed quick, clever, precise and imaginative moves. Only one was scored from outside the six-yard box. That was the first, rolled in from about eight yards by Jack Wilshere. He had the penalty area to himself after Arsenal carved open the massed Norwich defense with a series of quick-fire passes that ended with Wilshere and Olivier Giroud exchanging heel flicks on the edge of the penalty area.

Arsenal lost its midfield defender, Mathieu Flamini, after 37 minutes. Luckily for the Gunners his replacement, Aaron Ramsey, is Arsenal's top scorer this season.

Norwich pressed. Arsenal scored its second with a breathtaking counter attack that ended with the unlikely sight of Ozil heading in a goal. Arsenal allowed Norwich a soft reply, but then struck twice in the last eight minutes. Ramsey dribbled through the Norwich penalty area on a Maradona-like run to score. Finally, another smart passing move left Ozil undefended to tap in from a couple of yards.

The doubts of the opening week are gone. Arsenal believes in what it is doing, and on Saturday, it did it very well. There are no marks for artistic impression in soccer, but a team which scores four goals as pretty as that deserves to lead the standings.

On the defensive: Barcelona has played with no strikers. Spain won a World Cup final without a central striker. True, Sam Allardyce has Kevin Nolan and Mark Noble instead of Xavi Hernández and Andrés Iniesta, but over the last two games, he has adopted a seemingly similar approach and sent out teams with six midfielders.

West Ham, helped by some luck, mugged Tottenham two weeks ago. On Saturday, Manchester City exposed the fundamental problems of the system: What happens if strikerless West Ham falls behind?

It could be that Allardyce is leaning toward this system to protect his center backs, James Tomkins and Winston Reid. Even so, he probably would not use the system if he had Sergio Agüero.

After 16 minutes, Tomkins and Reid stood and stared as a long, low pass from Fernandinho rolled between them and into the path of Agüero, alone in the penalty area. He scored. The two center backs were nowhere to be seen in the 51st minute, when the diminutive Agüero was left unmarked to head in from in front of goal.

West Ham huffed and puffed helped by occasional nervousness from a City team that has suffered a couple of away disasters this season. In the end, West Ham was largely toothless. City won, 3-1, in a game that most resembled some bizarre theoretical test: What do you do when an opponent, playing at home, refuses to pick anyone who can score? City easily solved the problem and is lurking dangerously in fourth place.

The Achilles heel: When Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa, a Newcastle center back, pulled down Luis Suárez of Liverpool on Saturday, it seemed like a game-changing moment.

Newcastle led 1-0, but Yanga-Mbiwa gave away a penalty kick and earned a red card. Steven Gerrard completed a pretty good week by converting the penalty for his 100th Premier League goal. Surely Liverpool, tied at the top of the standings, would go on to win. That's not how it turned out.

In his two league starts for Newcastle, Yanga-Mbiwa has proved a weak link in the Newcastle defense. He won a French league title with Montpellier and is a French international. He should know what he is doing. Yet he was yanked off at halftime in his first Premier League start against Everton. Newcastle's center halves keep getting injured, so Yanga-Mbiwa got another chance Saturday.

In the 40th minute he committed a triple sin. He allowed Suárez to pull away. Then he set off in unthinking pursuit, while his teammates were holding a defensive line, playing Suárez onside. When Suárez ran onto Gerrard's glorious pass, Yanga-Mbiwa grabbed the striker from behind and tugged.

Off he went. For a while, Newcastle was no worse off. Paul Dummett, making only his second Premier League appearance, came on. Dummett was impeccable in defense, making 10 clearances. He even scored, reacting quickly to strike from close range following a 57th minute free kick.

Liverpool eventually took control though, and Suárez cleverly set up Daniel Sturridge for a goal. After that, Liverpool created chances. A combination of good goalkeeping by Tim Krul, bad luck and wasteful shooting prevented Liverpool scoring again. The game finished 2-2. Against 10 men, Liverpool had been unable to press its advantage. Maybe it would have been better off against 11.

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