The notion that good defenses win league titles has rather fallen out of fashion, but this weekend’s Premier League action divided into two groups of matches. Those in which at least one team knew how to defend and those in which neither team looked comfortable at the back. Chelsea is looking like a likely champion because it doesn’t give up careless points.
Saturday’s six matches generated 27 goals. Only Swansea, of all teams, managed a clean sheet. Even Arsenal had nervous moments as it won, 3-1, at home to Stoke and it ended the game without defensive enforcer Shkodran Mustafi, who damaged a hamstring.
Sunday opened with the case for the defense as the first three games ended, 1-0. Then Liverpool and West Ham restored some disorder. Both produced some woeful defending, and goalkeeping, before the Hammers discovered some belief and organization in the last 30 minutes to cling on for a 2-2 draw.
West Ham started nervously, as struggling teams should at Anfield. When Adam Lallana, allowed space and time in front of goal, shot through Winston Reid’s legs to put Liverpool ahead after five minutes, it seemed the rout was on. Perhaps the home players’ minds drifted to Middlesbrough on Wednesday. The deluge never arrived.
After 27 minutes, Lallana gave away a free kick, some 30 yards out. Dimitri Payet curled the ball gently over the wall. It dipped as it flew toward the center of the goal. Goalie Loris Karius seemed wrong-footed and dived late. He got a weak-wristed hand to the ball, and his fingers barely changed the direction of the ball.
After 39 minutes, a hopeful long ball by West Ham clipped Jordan Henderson’s head in midfield and looped past the bewildered Joel Matip. Michail Antonio pounced. Karius advanced, then stopped and Antonio poked the ball softly past the goalie.
Stats show that Karius has a respectable save percentage. Nevertheless, he repeatedly looks bad on the shots that do beat him. Players need to believe in their goalie, even if, as is the case with this Liverpool team, he cannot entirely trust the defenders in front of him. Karius is in the team because JürgenKlopp clearly does not have faith in Simon Mignolet. Now, Liverpool, like Manchester City, has a problem at the heart of its defense. It’s a problem that can fester. The top two in the standings, Chelsea and Arsenal, meanwhile, have ThibautCourtois and PetrCech. They could prove decisive.
Karius at least had company on Sunday. With West Ham ahead, Darren Randolph dropped a soft cross at the feet of Divock Origi who tapped in the to level the score. Even though Randolph later made a spectacular save from Henderson, he was distraught at the final whistle, pulling his jersey over his face as he dropped on his haunches. He seemed close to tears as he offered only monosyllabic answers in a post-game interview even though West Ham had won an unexpected point.
“Our second goal was unlucky for West Ham,” Klopp told Sky Sports.
But he also said: “It felt that we were the whole time in their box.”
Yet Liverpool, as Klopp also said, created few clear cut chances.
Perhaps Philippe Coutinho could have unlocked West Ham. But he is out until next year. Liverpool must find a way to through packed defenses without him. For now, its challenge is slipping as Chelsea, a team that can defend, keeps winning.
BREAKING AWAY On an English Sunday lunchtime, Chelsea and West Brom served up a contest as British as lasagne.
After 75 minutes against West Brom on Sunday, Chelsea had managed one shot on target, and that was a tame long-range free kick by David Luiz. Then the home team managed its second, and last, strike on the goal, a brilliant, curling shot from a narrow angle by Diego Costa. That was enough to secure a 1-0 victory that took Chelsea back to the top of the Premier League. It was Chelsea’s ninth straight league victory. It was, despite the almost total absence of chances, fully deserved.
This was an old-fashioned Italian Serie A match. Tony Pulis, that most British of managers, had brought his team to defend and, perhaps, steal a goal on the counter attack or from a set piece. For 75 minutes, his tactics worked brilliantly. Chelsea probed, cautiously and patiently and got nowhere. Then, with WBA venturing forward, Chelsea had a rare chance to counter. CescFàbregas chipped a poor pass up the wing, but with Costa closing in, Gareth McAuley hesitated rather than wallop the ball away. It was a fatal mistake.
The new, well-behaved Costa growing forward. Last season he would have fouled McAuley, perhaps starting an ill-tempered confrontation. On Sunday, he pressed, attacked the ball, stole it cleanly and swooped toward goal and beat Ben Foster with a flourish.
In true Italian style, Antonio Conte yanked off Eden Hazard and brought on BrankoIvanovic. Chelsea, who certainly know how to defend, saw out the game without allowing West Brom near the goal.
In its last four victories, has managed just 14 shots on target, or one shot every 25 minutes. It has turned those into seven goals. That is either a testament to Italian ruthlessness and Costa’s deadly ability to make the most of his few chances, or it’s warning of scoring problems ahead.
For now, Chelsea is three points clear of Arsenal, pulling away from Manchester City and Liverpool and looking forward to a December that will bring matches against Sunderland, Crystal Palace, Bournemouth and Stoke. As Conte, and his team, sat down to their late Sunday roast they would have been licking their lips.
STANDING STRONG Manchester United also enjoyed an emphatic and comfortable 1-0 victory on Sunday. After giving up very late goals to draw, 1-1, with Arsenal, West Ham and Everton in its previous three games, United might have expected to look nervous as it once more defended a one-goal lead against Tottenham.
On Sunday, after Henrikh Mkhitaryan blasted United into the lead in the 29th lead, the home team never wobbled. Paul Pogba hit the inside of the post with a ferocious free kick and forced a lunging save from Hugo Lloris. Goal-shy Spurs only created one dangerous chance which Victor Wanyama squandered, heading wide from a few yards.
Finally, United lived up to the billing JoséMourinho has been giving it. It was solid in defense and occasionally threatening in attack.
“Very important,” the United manager told Sky Sports. “We played very, very well again against a very good team. We don’t deserve to spend the last 10-15 minutes with our heart in our hands because we did enough to score the second goal and kill the game. Just 1-0 but it is more than 1-0. For us it is magic.”
United is still only sixth, it is 13 points behind Chelsea, but it finally won and it closed the gap on the team immediately ahead of it, Tottenham, to three points.
LEARNING THEIR LINES Nature is supposed to hate straight lines. Soccer coaches love them. While four men in perfect alignment in midfield is a sign of control-freakery, keeping things straight makes sense at the back, especially when trying to play high against a speedy opponent.
At Leicester on Saturday, Manchester City’s defense was all ugly dog legs. It took Jamie Vardy, suddenly back to his hungry best, just three minutes to sink his teeth in. He ran repeatedly into the gaps City offered and ended the 4-2 victory with his first Leicester hat-trick. For one night, at least, Leicester again looked the title contender.
“It is not about the system,” Pep Guardiola, told the BBC after the match. “We defended well with these players at the beginning of the season.”
The problem might not be the system, but Guardiola’s attitude might be bringing the worst out of his defenders. Since possession often starts at the back, it makes sense that defenders should be prepared to initiate attacks. Yet on Saturday, Aleksandar Kolarov, a defender who would rather not defend, thank you very much, and Bacary Sagna showed far more energy surging forward than hustling back. They looked like schoolboy footballers. Pablo Zabaleta, one City player who can play defense, was hung up in some weird, or innovative, tweener inside wing-back position, while Kevin de Bruyne, a man without a defensive bone in his body, struggled to grasp the same role on the other flank.
Meanwhile, Guardiola’s laudable insistence on playing passing soccer everywhere, Bravo!, is only encouraging John Stones’ penchant for living dangerously. He gave away the fourth goal by passing back to the goalie when he could have cleared. Sagna and Kolarov stood and watched as Vardy pounced.
In a sense the Guardiola system worked. His team had 78 per cent of possession. It outshot Leicester, 19-10. Yet City only played into Leicester’s contrasting counter-punching tactics, which, for the first time in the league this season, clicked. The Foxes had more shots on target, 6-4, and scored the first four goals.
While Leicester returned to last year’s best, City, confused and tentative in defense, reverted to the worst of its displays during Manuel Pellegrini’s lame-duck days last season.
BOUNCING BACK A week ago, at Tottenham, Swansea laid an egg. On Saturday, against fellow bottom feeders Sunderland, that hatched into something altogether more attractive as the Swans won, 3-0.
Bob Bradley turned disaster to advantage.
"Players used the word pride a lot when we talked this week,” the American told the media after the game. “We asked what it looks like on the pitch -- intensity, clean sheets -- but don't just talk about it, turn it into something more.”
Swansea survived some early scares as Jermaine Defoe found shooting space but failed to hit the target and finished with only its second shutout under Bradley.
It needed a penalty to take the lead and scored the second from a corner yet, for the most part, Swansea executed, particularly in the second half. Swansea climbed briefly out of the bottom three. Pride is good. It was lacking a week earlier, but on Saturday, it finally looked as if Bradley has something more to work with.