EPL notes: Conte's defense, Hazard's play key to Chelsea's revival

Former EPL player of the year, Eden Hazard has rediscovered his play under first-year manager Antonio Conte and more notes from this English Premier League weekend.
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Don’t look now, but Chelsea is back.

The day after the top three all scored four goals and won on the road, Chelsea remained a point behind with a victory carved out in less flamboyant style.

The Blues scored early at St Mary’s, defended comfortably for the rest of the first half before emerging from their shell to finish Southampton off in the second half and win, 2-0. It was Chelsea’s fourth straight league clean sheet.

The most eye-catching element of the Chelsea revival is the way Eden Hazard has rediscovered the force-field of fear that made him the league Player of the Year the season before last. He is again playing in a three-yard bubble which seems to push defenders away even in the crowded zone around the penalty area. He scored the first goal jogging into space on the right of the box, sending Steven Davis running into the crowd with a gentle change of direction, then rolling the ball through Fraser Forster’s legs. It seemed easy and effortless.

Antonio Conte, Chelsea’s first-year coach, has performed the neat tactical trick of strengthening Chelsea’s defense while freeing one of his key midfielders, Hazard, from defensive duties. The Belgian has responded. He is liberated.

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Some of Conte’s other transformations seem to come from Dr. Strange, though, given the manager’s preference for basic  efficiency, it would be the less cosmic black and white version.

Rafa Benítez, José Mourinho and Guus Hiddink could not find any use for Victor Moses and loaned him out. Under Conte, Moses looks like a player. Nemanja Matic has rediscovered a yard of pace. David Luiz, for now at least, has mastered the 90 minutes of concentration and discipline a true defender needs. Most miraculous of all, Conte has made the permanent argument that surrounded Diego Costa disappear, without dulling the striker’s scoring edge. Even though Costa did not seem remotely interested in starting a fight with anyone all afternoon, he still scored, curling in a shot from the outside the box to insure the victory and remain level with Sergio Agüero as the top scorer in the league.

While Manchester City, Arsenal and Liverpool are winning with attack, Conte and Chelsea are making the case for the defense.


THE BARKLEY PROBLEM  When Sam Allardyce, during his brief tenure, dropped Ross Barkley, the latest Everton phenom, from the England squad it attracted much less ink than the question of whether a previous Everton phenom, Wayne Rooney, would start in the team.

Yet Rooney’s time is nearly past, while Barkley should be the future.

On Sunday, as Everton beat West Ham, 2-0, Barkley showed all his qualities. He resembles the young Rooney. He is big and strong and smoothly skillful. He is perhaps a better, quicker, athlete than the young Rooney was. 

Barkley forced a brilliant save from Adrian early on, scored Everton’s second goal late on, had more shots than any other player, created as many chances as any other player and completed almost twice as many passes in the attacking third as any team-mate—Seamus Coleman, a fullback was second.

Barkley also displayed the glaring weakness in decision-making that must infuriate any manager.

The word “simple” does not appear to be in his vocabulary. He often loses the ball trying to beat a crowd rather than make an easy pass to an open team-mate. Perhaps he was one of those players who was always so much more gifted and stronger than everyone else in youth games that he cannot shake the belief that he can beat all 11 opponents on his own. Perhaps he is feeling the pressure of his own hype, and anti-hype, and treats every possession as a chance to prove to his doubters how brilliant he is.

If he learns how to do less, he will achieve more.

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BURNED Burnley’s bizarre variation on rope-a-dope worked again on Saturday as it somehow clung on to a 0-0 draw at Old Trafford. The idea seems to be to let the opponent hit you as often as they can and hope for the best. Somehow it’s paying off.

In August, the Clarets allowed Liverpool 26 shots and still won at home. Last week, Everton took 21 shots at Turf Moor. Burnley won again. On Saturday, Manchester United had 37 shots against Burnley, the most by one team in one game since Opta started counting Premier League stats in 2003. Yet United could not score. Even though the home team was reduced to 10 men after 68 minutes, play remained almost entirely within 25 yards of the Burnley goal.

If it was Sean Dyche’s plan to allow United a record number if shots, it worked.

“You've got to take what you can get,” the Burnley manager told the post-match press conference.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who hit 50 goals in 51 games for PSG last season, had 12 shots and could not score. He managed four on target but was denied three times by Tom Heaton, with one good, one very good and one brilliant save, and by a brave headed block from Ben Mee. So snake bitten was Zlatan that he skied over the bar from a yard in the dying minutes.

It was comical, though Mourinho clearly did not think so. Before half time, he made up his mind who to blame and it wasn’t his misfiring players. It was, naturally, the referee, Mark Clattenburg.

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Mourinho was incensed that Clattenburg was not awarded a penalty after Burleys' Jon Flanagan tripped Matteo Darmian. It would have been a marginal decision in every way. Darmian’s foot was on the line marking the penalty box, the contact was light—the brainless reaction to being beaten that seems to be programmed into most modern players—and Darmian made the most of it. If it had been at the other end and Clattenburg had awarded a penalty, Mourinho would have equally indignant.

Mourinho vented his anger in the tunnel at half time and was banished to the stands. If the intent was to intimidate, Clattenburg showed it had not worked.

Ander Herrera, charging with scary intent at Dean Marney, trod on an invisible banana skin and performed a Keystone Kops skid that carried him, feet first, into the Burnley midfielder. Clattenburg did not see the funny side. Off went Herrera.

It hardly mattered. United could have played nine hours with 12 men and taken 260 shots and still it would not have scored.

After the game, Mourinho was presumably sympathizing with his players in the locker room, so assistant RuiFaria faced the microphones and tried his hand at comedy.

“I just want to say fantastic work from the referee,” Faria told the BBC.

Across Britain the referees who will handle United’s games in coming weeks were watching, rubbing their hands and going “Ho! Ho! Ho!”


SHINING STARS One reason Sergio Agüero and Alexis Sánchez are so good is that they find new ways to remind us so often.

On Saturday both scored two impressive goals. Agüero helped snap Manchester City out of six-game slump with two goals in the first 28 minutes at West Brom. The first was a sharp first-time shot inside the far post. Then after dribbling along the edge of the box he blasted a 20-yard, no backlift, rocket into the top corner.

The BBC calculated that Agüero ran 10.2 kilometers, or 6.3 miles, against West Brom where last year he ran an average of 7.8 kilometers in Premier League matches, although the BBC neglected to point out that last season Agüero, City’s most protected asset, was substituted 20 times.

Yet it is clear Pep Guardiola is asking for a more all-round contribution from his star. As City cantered to a 4-0 victory to stay top of the standings, Agüero set up one of Ilkay Gundogan’s two second-half goals.

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All-round effort is not an issue with Sánchez. Asked to play as a lone central striker by Arsenal, Sánchez simply combines that with his day job as midfield creator. For his first goal at Sunderland, the Chilean picked up the ball near the center circle, floated it out to the flank then sprinted into the penalty area. There Sánchez, who is 5-foot-7, finished with a traditional center-forward’s goal, outjumping Lamine Koné, who is four inches taller, to flash a header into the goal.

After Arsenal stuttered in the second half, Arsène Wenger sent on a traditional center forward, Olivier Giroud who made his manager look a genius but scoring with his first two touches: a crisp half volley and a header from a corner. But Anything Giroud can do, Sánchez can do better. He completed a 4-1 victory that kept Arsenal second, with impudent and imaginative dancing finish from close range that carried the hallmark of genius.

Despite missing three penalties, Agüero has scored 13 goals in 13 appearances for City this season. Sánchez has eight in 13 for Arsenal. They aren’t just pretty to watch, they are scoring the goals that are keeping their teams at the top of the league.

KLOPP’S TRADE OFF Liverpool showed again at Crystal Palace on Saturday evening that it is lethal in attack and fatal in defense.

The Jürgen Klopp trade-off paid again at Selhurst Park as Liverpool, despite its shaky defense, outscored the home team, 4-2, the stay level on points with City and Arsenal at the top of the standings.

Liverpool repeatedly carved the home team open. Emre Can and Roberto Firmino scored the first and last goals after pretty moves. The two in between were headers from the central defenders, Joel Matip and Dejan Lovren, from set pieces, but that only confirms what an all-round attacking force Liverpool has become.

Klopp concentrates his resources on attack. Where other managers focus on screening their defenses, Klopp goes for the throat. He gambles on outscoring opponents. That might explain why the back four looks so jumpy.

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Lovren had a particularly nervous first half. His horrible miss-kick set up James McCarthur to nod the ball over Loris Karius. McCarthur tapped his head in disbelief. Fifteen minutes later he did it again after outjumpingLovren to head a second equalizer.

With their team leading by one goal, Liverpool’s anxious defenders made three clumsy challenges on Wilfried Zaha in the box in the second half. Referee Andre Marriner was lenient. Alan Pardew, the Palace manager, was furious.

Klopp laughed in the face of chaos. His team “gave presents,” he told the BBC smiling happily. “It was far away from being perfect,” he said. “We have 23 points and we won at Crystal Palace so nothing really to moan about.”