Arsenal gets convincing win; Chelsea's road struggles continue
Contenders and pretenders -- There was a whiff of nostalgia when Arsenal and Liverpool kicked off on Saturday evening as the top two teams in the Premier League. The days when they regularly fought for the title seemed long to have disappeared.
The question is whether either has the strength or depth to sustain a challenge. The sense that Arsenal is somehow lightweight when compared to Chelsea and Manchester City was enhanced on Tuesday when Chelsea's backup players easily beat the Gunner's second string in the League Cup.
That match was the start of a run against top teams that will reveal a lot more about Arsenal. If the Gunners failed the first test, they passed the second, more important one, beating Liverpool, 2-0.
It was a pleasing, flowing match. Both teams completed an impressive 85% of their passes. The stats say both had 12 shots, but a high proportion were dangerous chances. Liverpool's two strikers, Luis Suárez and Daniel Sturridge, again looked menacing but, on the big night, lacked the composure to exploit their chances.
As a whole, Arsenal functioned better. It attacked and defended as a team. On several occasions, it made Liverpool look lightweight and short-handed.
Liverpool has been experimenting, with some success, with three central defenders. After 19 minutes on Saturday, Arsenal pulled the Liverpool system apart. Neither Jon Flanagan, the right wingback, nor Mamadou Sakho, one of the central trio, was in the penalty area when Bacary Sagna waltzed past Aly Cissokho, the other wingback. Sagna crossed. Santi Cazorla was alone when he met the cross with a header against the post. He was still alone when he picked up the rebound and smashed it in.
Aaron Ramsey gave Arsenal a safety cushion when he whacked home the second just before the hour.
It was hard to disagree with the Arsenal manager, Arsène Wenger, who said it was "a convincing win against a good team."
After 10 games, Arsenal, which had made a bad habit of slow league starts, has 25 points. It is averaging 2.5 points, which puts it on course for 95 points and a league title. Ramsey tried to scare the other contenders by pointing out that Arsenal has always grown stronger as the season has gone on. He argued that this meant it would do the same thing this time.
For now, Arsenal holds a five-point lead, though that will be trimmed if Everton and Tottenham do not draw on Sunday.
Wenger smiled happily when asked about Arsenal's lead. "It's positive and it's nice," he told Sky TV. "But it's early in the season."
Chelsea lets its defense drop -- José Mourinho has come back to Chelsea to make the club a contender in the league again. Already, his team has given some intimidating displays -- as it should given the wealth of talent in the squad. Yet Chelsea cannot find consistency away from home. It has won once in five road league games.
On Saturday, Chelsea comfortably dominated the first half at Newcastle, failed to scored, gradually surrendered control and lost, 2-0.
Maybe Mourinho had one eye on the Champions League match with Schalke on Wednesday. He rested his in-form attacking player, André Schürrle, and a central defender, Gary Cahill. David Luiz, who replaced Cahill, showed once again that he cannot always be relied on to win key challenges. John Terry was exposed when Newcastle was able to attack with pace -- which is one of the things the Mourinho system at Chelsea is designed to prevent.
Mourinho was not happy.
"I made 11 mistakes, 11 mistakes. I should have picked another 11 and not this one," he told the BBC. "When my team plays so badly, it's the feeling I have."
Then he added that the problem existed when he arrived, a fact, he implied, that he has only just discovered.
"Of course I am worried, and I read in previous years it happened the same," he said.
Chelsea might have won if it had gone for the jugular more aggressively. Yet Mourinho's focus is on making his team tougher to beat. The problem is that, the squad he has inherited, is not set up for the type of smothering, physical defensive tactics he likes to employ. On Saturday, Chelsea got the worst of both world. It was sacrificed verve in attack without gaining security in defense.
The good news for Mourinho is that if he wants to select another 11 for the next time, Chelsea's resources mean he can do it.
The sack race-- Just a quarter of the way through the season, the two clubs anchored at the bottom of the standings have already parted with their managers. As bad things happen to the clubs just above them, it seems clear that there are other coaches who could lose their jobs sooner rather than later.
Sunderland was the first club to enter the sack race this season when it fired Paolo di Canio. It quickly gained its traditional new-manager lift of a victory over Newcastle. Yet Sunderland was still in 19th when it visited Hull on Saturday. It stayed there.
If Gus Poyet, the new man, sought some consolation from a disastrous afternoon, it could be in the fact that his team only lost, 1-0, even though it played the second half with nine men after Lee Cattermole and then Andrea Dossena were sent off. Poyet should keep an eye on Feb. 1. That's the next time Sunderland plays Newcastle in the league.
Crystal Palace, at the bottom with three points after its 2-0 loss at West Brom, does not have the option of firing its manager. It doesn't have one. It still hasn't appointed a successor to Ian Holloway who walked out in disgust at the mess he'd made.
It seemed possible on Saturday that two of the managers of teams just above Sunderland might be axed at half time. Fulham's defense seemed not to have showed up as Manchester United walked in three goals at Craven Cottage. The other Manchester club, City, seemed to score every time it shot as it took a four-goal lead against Norwich.
United may have started thinking of the Champions League in the second half. It allowed Fulham to flirt with a revival before winning, 3-1. Martin Jol, the Fulham coach, has shown the knack of winning one game in three which is usually enough to stay in the Premier League. But not for the first time this season, his team looked like a disorganized and lazy collection of random veterans. Yet, in the end, they weren't utterly humiliated.
Norwich, beaten 7-0, were. The Canaries are in the bottom three. Chris Hughton, a highly likable man, is in trouble.
At least Hughton does not seem to be at war with his club owner. On the face of it, Malky Mackay, whose Cardiff team faces neighbor Swansea on Sunday in the revival of one of the nastiest rivalries in British soccer, has been doing a good job with a promoted team. Yet the blizzard of leaks detailing the extremely hands-on approach of Vincent Tan, the club owner, suggest that relations in the Cardiff hierarchy are collapsing. If Mackay is picking a fight with his manager, he must know it's the sort of battle coaches tend to lose.
Grabbing his chance with neither hand -- On Saturday, Joe Hart paid the price for handing Chelsea victory a six days earlier. The England goalie was benched as Costel Pantilimon made his first league start for City. Pantilimon, a 6-foot-8 Romanian, had started for City in the English cup competitions. Now he faced the increased pressure of the Premier League. Except that on Saturday, Pantilimon faced no pressure at all. As City routed Norwich, the goalie had one tame strike on target to deal with in 90 minutes. It will, as Hart could tell him, get harder.
Stoke find the long ball still pays -- Mark Hughes might be trying to introduce Stoke City to the joys of passing the ball along the ground, yet, as it showed after 14 seconds on Saturday, the long ball can work.
With the wind at his back, Asmir Begovic, the goalie, booted the ball out of his penalty area. With no Stoke striker in the vicinity, the Southampton defenders let the ball bounce, only to turn and see that Artur Boruc was doing his best Joe Hart impersonation. Boruc had come trotting out of his goal. He scampered desperately back as the ball arced slowly over him, bounced again and fell gently into the goal.
Southampton fought back to draw 1-1. A point at Stoke in bad weather is, historically, a good result. Yet, surging Southampton lost ground and momentum at the top of the table.