Officials' calls impact games; City turn on the style; more EPL thoughts

Sunday November 24th, 2013

Jesus Navas put Manchester City ahead of Tottenham after just 13 seconds at the Etihad Stadium.
John Super/AP

Judgment Calls -- It was a weekend that demonstrated again why English officials have been erring on the side of cautions. Before this weekend, the 18 Premier League referees had, between them, issued 338 yellow cards and only 12 red cards (Andre Marriner had issued four of those ejections). Ten referees had shown no reds at all. They included Neil Swarbrick, Kevin Friend and Phil Dowd.

Friend finally cracked on Saturday. He sent off Sunderland defender Wes Brown after an aerial tackle on Charlie Adam, who is no saint himself. The referee probably wishes he hadn't produced the card. Brown lunged for the ball, but won it cleanly without touching Adam. It was Sunderland's fifth red card of the season. That's three more than any other team.

Dowd, who handled the Merseyside derby on Saturday, punished an assault by Kevin Mirallas on Luis Suarez with just a caution. At Cardiff on Sunday, Swarbrick watched Wayne Rooney mug Jordon Mutch off the ball and punished him with just a yellow card.

Unfortunately, what happened next in all three games bore out those who argue that red cards ruin matches. At Stoke, the home team was ahead when Brown was sent off and cruised to a 2-0 victory.

At Goodison, Mirallas should have seen red when he planted his boot on Suarez's knee. With 10 men would Everton have continued in the same attacking vein? Would Romelu Lukaku score two second half goals to put Everton ahead, only for Daniel Sturridge to strike in the 89th minute and give Liverpool a 3-3 draw?

Rooney's attack on Mutch was a throwback to the United striker's wild youth. After barely seven minutes, Rooney, for no good reason, tried to tug the Cardiff player back and when that failed, simply kicked his legs away. Again it should have been a straight red. But what followed was a pulsating game that kept producing twists to the very end, a 2-2 draw.

Red cards don't always decide matches. Crystal Palace scored an unlikely victory at Hull on Saturday with 10 men after Yannick Bolasie was sent off, like Brown, for showing the sole of his boot in a tackle.

A challenge like the Mirallas lunge at Suarez can end a career. The difficulty for the referee is that if he shows a red, the team that loses a player feels aggrieved and if he doesn't, the team that has been fouled feels a crime has gone unpunished.

Mike Riley, who is in charge of Premier League referees, recently tried the innovative approach of calling Steve Clarke, the West Brom manager, to apologise for a penalty decision against his team. It was a decent, honest thing to do. It might also have been a mistake to own up to a mistake. Now everyone wants an apology.

"Maybe Mike needs to call. I will have my phone on," Gus Poyet, the Sunderland manager, told BBC Sport.

Wayne's Weird World -- Opposing fans enjoy making fun of the strangely shaped object that rests on Rooney's shoulders. But one of the great puzzles of soccer is what is happening inside that lumpy roundish thing.

On Sunday, as United drew at Cardiff, Rooney once again showed his uncanny instinct for where the action is. That suggests well-developed soccer intelligence and intuition. The problem is that he doesn't always show an instinct for the right thing to do.

His attack on Mutch was bizarre because it was blatant, so pointless and seemed utterly unprovoked. Why did he want to kick that player at that time in that place? There seems no rational explanation.

Then, typically, Rooney rubbed it in by scoring. Again he showed his close control, his anticipation of where the ball will bounce, instinct for where the space is in a crowded penalty area and above all, his eye for goal. He knows how to score, except when he doesn't.

After Kim Bo-Yung had headed Cardiff level in added time, Rooney found a chance to win the game. He escaped the defense. He burst into the area. He had only an out-of-position David Marshall to beat. Then Rooney tried to pass sideways and backwards to Danny Welbeck. If it had been Robin van Persie on the end of that pass, it would still have been a bad idea. But Mr. 0.2 goals per game Welbeck? The chance vanished. United dropped two points. What was Rooney thinking? There seems no rational explanation.

Big Guns, Small Margins -- For 40 minutes at the Etihad on Sunday, Tottenham dominated possession against Manchester City. For long periods, Spurs camped round the City penalty area. The visitors might even have scored when a shot by Erik Lamela was cleared off the line.

Tottenham did not score. Instead, City pounced, ferociously, on two defensive slips to take a two-goal lead. When it carved open Spurs with casual ease for a third goal just before half time, the only question was how many would City score.

Over the 90 minutes, Tottenham had more possession. It had almost as many shots. Against the meanest defense in the league, City won, 6-0.

City has now scored 21 goals in its last four home games, stretching back to Oct. 5. It has so many weapons, it can score in pretty much any way it wants. When it's rolling, it can rip opponents, good opponents like Spurs or CSKA Moscow, apart. The question is why it doesn't roll more often. Since Sept. 28, it has also lost at Aston Villa, Chelsea and Sunderland and been beaten at home by Bayern Munich.

For Tottenham this was a humiliation. "We should be ashamed," manager Andre Villas-Boas told the BBC, presumably preparing to use the result as a motivational tool.

For City, curiously, it proved nothing. We already knew that they can be the most dangerous attacking team in the Premier League.

"It is really very difficult to understand why we don't have better results playing away," Manuel Pellegrini, the City manager told the BBC, before adding that, at some level, the sport remains a complete mystery even to its most experienced coaches: "Football has this. That's why it's the most popular game in the world."

Just Kick The Ball Out -- Southampton and Tottenham started and finished the weekend with the two worst attacks in the top half of the table. Southampton have shown flashes of brilliance in attack, but both clubs owed the fact that they were still on Arsenal's coattails to the fact that they had the two best defenses in the Premier league. That had a lot do with their goalkeepers.

Under the systems used by Mauricio Pochettino at Southampton and Villas-Boas at Tottenham, both teams like to pass the ball out of defense, and that starts with the goalie. This weekend showed why this is a high-risk strategy.

On Saturday, Southampton traveled to the Emirates for a game that gave it a chance to lay down its credentials as a contender. After 22 minutes, Artur Boruc, the goalie, collected an easy back pass from José Fonte. Not for the first time in the game, Boruc decided to take his time to ponder the best pass. This time, Olivier Giroud closed him down. Boruc still opted not to whack the ball away. Instead he back heeled. He could have hit the ball out. He back heeled and spun again. He might have cleared. Still he dallied. On the third "Cruyff" turn, Giroud caught him and scored. Against the league leader, Southampton, a team that struggles to score, had given away a goal. Inevitably it lost, 2-0.

After the game, Boruc posted an Instagram composite showing a photo of himself and a photo of Johan Cruyff. "Close enough," said the caption. Southampton fans probably weren't laughing. In any case, the joke was rather on Boruc. The goal came after Arsenal's goalie walloped a long clearance randomly down the field to Fonte. It was a low risk strategy Boruc didn't follow. The Arsenal goalie was Wojciech Szczesny, the man who has just displaced Boruc in the Polish national team.

On Sunday, Tottenham travelled to the Etihad for a game that gave it a chance to breathe life into its credentials as contender. In the first minute, Younès Kaboul rolled an easy back pass to Hugo Lloris, giving his goalie an early feel for the ball. Lloris took aim, hit a low clearance and unerringly picked out the most dangerous striker on the field: Manchester City's Sergio Agüero. Lloris saved Agüero's shot but the ball fell to Jesús Navas who clipped it into the top corner of the net. Against the best home team in the league, Tottenham, a team that really struggles to score, had given away a goal. City scored the second from another with a quick strike following another under-hit kick by Lloris. What happened next was perhaps inevitable.

Maybe if Boruc and Lloris had simply whacked the ball into touch every time, things might have been different.

Angry Frank -- In modern professional soccer, goal celebrations are rarely spontaneous expressions of joy. Gareth Bale has taken out copyright on his irritating heart sign. Icelandic teams carefully choreograph their glee and harvest the YouTube hits. Players have t-shirts made in advance with messages they can display when the camera is on them and the play has stopped. One of the more bizarre trends is players refusing, like Frazier Campbell after he scored for Cardiff on Sunday, to celebrate goals against former clubs out of "respect."

Respect was clearly the last thing on Frank Lampard's mind after he scored for Chelsea at West Ham on Saturday. Nor was joy. His reaction after both his goals can only be described as fury.

West Ham was awful. The tactic of starting without a striker has lost its novelty value. Chelsea wasn't surprised or threatened. It strolled to a 3-0 victory at Upton Park. It was so easy that only one Chelsea player seemed to feel the need to break a sweat. That was Lampard.

At 34, he kept surging up and down the middle of the field. Over the course of the game he managed seven strikes at goal. He was rewarded with his sixth and seventh Premier League goals against the club that sold him in 2001. His display was a tremendous advertisement for the power of hate.

Lampard's father, Frank Sr., played more than 500 times for West Ham and became a coach at the club. His uncle, Harry Redknapp, was the manager there when Junior emerged from the club's famous youth system. When Harry and Frank Sr. were fired, Frank Jr. insisted on leaving too. West Ham fans have never forgiven him. He has never forgiven West Ham.

Lampard is one of a generation of technically accomplished, hard-working English midfielders who's defining shared characteristic is that they lack the eye-catching athletic gifts of Steven Gerrard. The list of midfielders who have appeared for England this century is long. But the two midfielders who have completed a century of appearances are Gerrard and Lampard. Lampard is a smart soccer player. But the rage that poured out after his goals on Saturday might also explain his endless energy and his competitive edge. Lampard knows how to keep a grudge (and, after two seasons seemingly clinging on at Chelsea, he probably has other grudges saved up).

Anger can be an unstable power source. Joey Barton had the potential to rival Lampard for a place in the England midfield, but couldn't control the force and crossed over to the dark side. Lampard, despite a tendency to hector referees, almost never lets his control drop. On Saturday, in the pause in the action after his goals, he gave a couple of glimpses of the uglier emotions that can fuel greatness.

SI Apps
We've Got Apps Too
Get expert analysis, unrivaled access, and the award-winning storytelling only SI can provide - from Peter King, Tom Verducci, Lee Jenkins, Seth Davis, and more - delivered straight to you, along with up-to-the-minute news and live scores.