An appreciation of Norwich's Holt, Lucas is flourishing, more notes
Norwich's Grant Holt is the biggest impact substitute in the Premier League
Brazilian Lucas Leiva has emerged as Liverpool's midfield stalwart
Newcastle goalkeeper Tim Krul turned in a superb performance against Man United
There was nothing especially remarkable about Grant Holt's goal against Queens Park Rangers on Saturday afternoon. With 17 minutes remaining, the Norwich substitute bundled the ball over the line from close range to win a midtable clash that was shown last, as midnight approached, on BBC highlights show Match of the Day, and then squeezed into modest columns in the Sunday newspapers. The goal, his third off the bench this season, makes Holt the Premier League's joint-leading "impact sub;" Everton's young Greek forward Apostolos Vellios, with whom he currently shares that title, made bigger news. But then the attention paid to Holt's career is a study in understatement, the antithesis of fuss.
If he collects press cuttings, he will have had most to glue in to his scrapbook this summer, when people wondered out loud whether he was good enough for the top flight. Maybe that is not surprising, given how easily decent Championship forwards find themselves wandering dazed around Premier League opposition penalty areas, and the route Holt took to the top (he has been up and down the divisions like an elevator boy). But he has averaged more than 17 goals per season for a decade, and that doesn't include the nine goals he scored during a brief spell in Singapore with Sengkang Marine in 2002. It does, however, include his last season at Nottingham Forest, when he was forced to play out wide as part of a front three under Colin Calderwood.
Unsurprisingly, he scored just three in that spell. Holt is six feet tall and built thick enough to push a car up a hill; nippy wing play is not his forte. The Norwich captain is a traditional English center forward, a much-maligned archetype these days (cf. Andy Carroll), but one that Holt gives a fresh sheen. He has been top scorer each season since signing from Shrewsbury in 2009, and last season in the Championship he not only scored 23, but also set up a further 14. Those who fretted about Holt's adjustment to the Premier League, where we like foxy little five-footers, underestimated how well Norwich is set up to make the most of his presence in the box.
Though they won promotion using a diamond formation, players such as Wes Hoolahan deliver lethal crosses; now that the manager Paul Lambert has "proper wingers" such as Elliott Bennett and Anthony Pilkington (who set up Holt's equalizer at Anfield), Holt, and Norwich, have ample supply. Holt may lose his place in the starting line up on that basis (even if Norwich play 4-4-2, Lambert is unlikely to field both him and Steve Morison, another target man in superb form), but as the game against QPR showed, he requires next to no time to find his range. He had already seen a header cleared off the line by Luke Young when he scored the winner three minutes after coming on.
"The manager with the way he is, whether you are on from the start, you come on for 45 or you come on for five, you give the same performance because he won't let you slip," Holt explained to the Norwich Evening News. Even as he looked to extend his time at Forest, a few years ago, the forward insisted he was happy to play off the bench. But then, he does have a delightfully simple formula for staying City's top scorer: "I've played with [Hoolahan] long enough now; I stand still while he does his first three tricks, and then you just wait for the cross."
Owen Hargreaves. Darren Fletcher. Lucas Leiva. Players who have been treated to the super-deluxe Premier League welcome -- spittle-flecked hollers of abuse -- and then, after all that, turned out to be quite good at their jobs. In a 1-1 draw against Manchester City on Sunday, as during much of the rest of this year, Liverpool's Lucas was brilliant -- so much so that an instant tribute, complete with industry-standard OTT urban soundtrack, popped up on YouTube. He won every tackle, every head-to-head battle, and barely put a pass wrong. Lucas' partnership with Charlie Adam in the center of Liverpool's midfield is so good that the absent Steven Gerrard should be looking forward to an automatic starting place in the hole behind Luis Suarez when he's fit again.
Newcastle goalkeeper Tim Krul was in superb form at Old Trafford, only beaten when his defender, Steven Taylor, had his attempted clearance bounce back off Javier Hernandez and over the line. He made a host of excellent saves, including blocking a Nemanja Vidic header at point-blank range, but two late stops summed up Manchester United's fortunes in front of goal. First, he kept out Patrice Evra's outside-of-the-boot effort, then with a few minutes remaining he punched clear under pressure from Vidic a few yards off the goal line. As if to confirm his hero status, he spent his postmatch interview praising his teammates.
The penalty that was given for Rio Ferdinand's perfectly good tackle on Hatem Ben Arfa, from which Newcastle secured a point, was a "travesty," according to Sir Alex Ferguson, but the worst decision of the day was dealt to Dickson Etuhu. The Fulham player's tackle on Mikel Arteta was perfectly judged -- forceful, no doubt, but that's not against the rules -- yet not only did the referee award a free kick to Arsenal, he pulled out a yellow card. The art of defending is being caught studs-up by overzealous officiating.
Last week defeat to Liverpool meant Chelsea, with three defeats in four games, was definitely IN CRISIS!, despite the fact that Kenny Dalglish's side has not made a habit of losing this season (and is now the only club to have taken points off both Manchester clubs). This week, an easy win over Wolverhampton Wanderers, only just outside the relegation places, means everything is A-OK: "Chelsea revived," reckoned one headline. With Newcastle, Manchester City and Tottenham to come over the next few weeks, there's time yet for pronouncements on the health of Andre Villas-Boas' reign.
Sunday was a hard day for British soccer, breaking with the news that the Wales manager Gary Speed, who set a record for Premier League appearances in his 20-year playing career, had died suddenly aged 42. Ahead of Swansea's lunchtime kickoff against Aston Villa, the stadium announcer called for a minute's silence, though the crowd and players had long since fallen mute. After a few seconds, a round of applause broke out along with chants of "One Gary Speed," a spontaneous show of affection that left everybody choked. He will be sorely missed.
Georgina Turner is a freelance sports writer and co-author of Jumpers for Goalposts: How Football Sold its Soul.
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