Arsenal shows its fragility; United finally upended for the first time
Manchester United lost its first game of the season to bottom-of-the-table Wolves
A record forty goals were scored on a single day in the Premier League
Arsenal astonishingly blew a four-goal halftime lead to Newcastle
1. A topsy turvy day. The last 45 minutes of a crazed Premier League Saturday finally brought a lull in the frenzied scoring. But the goal-less second half produced the most illogical result of a surreal day. Bottom beat top as Manchester United lost for the first time this season, 2-1, at Wolves. It was day in which the first six games produced an average of just over six goals. Wolves and United scored at that rate in the first half. Nani gave United an early lead. George Elokobi and Kevin Doyle replied before the break. In the second half, United had 70 percent of the ball but could not score and suffered its first league defeat in 10 months. The result made no immediate difference to the standings. United remains first, four points ahead of Arsenal. Wolves stayed last, although it moved level on points with West Ham and Birmingham, who meet Sunday.
This season, United has made a habit of salvaging seemingly lost games. It trailed, 2-0 to Blackpool with 18 minutes left in January and won. It trailed Villa, 2-0, with nine minutes left in November and drew. It also scored in the third minute of added time to beat Wolves at Old Trafford in November. On Saturday, United started with Dimitar Berbatov, Wayne Rooney, Nani and Ryan Giggs. It threw on Paul Scholes and Javier Hernández. Yet against the normally porous Wolves defense, United looked increasingly threadbare and desperate. Scholes earned a yellow card for trying to fist the ball into the net. Giggs was lucky not to see a red when he kicked Doyle into the air with play stopped for a foul by Scholes. Wolves has won only seven league games this season, but its victims include Chelsea, Manchester City, Liverpool, sixth-place Sunderland and now the top team. Maybe it should be happy its next game is at Arsenal.
2. It ain't over until the obese drunk bare-chested fan sings. After 27 minutes the cameras at St. James Park panned to the stands and showed a trickle of home fans heading for the exit. It was understandable. It was also a mistake. In the first game since despised club owner Mike Ashley had cashed in on the club's most marketable asset and sold Andy Carroll, potentially the next Geordie soccer legend, the team was a shambles from the start. After just 26 minutes, it trailed Arsenal 4-0, FOUR NIL. If there's one thing the Gunners are particularly good at is kicking opponents when they're down. The omens for the Magpies were catastrophic. Somehow, it didn't turn out that way. Newcastle kept plugging away. Abou Diaby of Arsenal was sent off after 50 minutes after tussling with Kevin Nolan and that arch-provocateur Joey Barton. Newcastle won two penalties. Barton converted both, In between, Leon Best, taking Carroll's place, scored. With three minutes left Chek Tiote completed a burst of four goals in 19 minutes with a net-seeking missile. The crowd, which booed the Magpies off at half time, was singing at the end. And what do we learn? Sometimes, this great game makes no sense at all.
3. Something in the wind. It was a day when defenses all over the Premier League went into meltdown. Perhaps it was the strong winds. Perhaps it was just coincidence. The seven games produced 40 goals -- a new Premier League single-day record. There were eight in Newcastle and also at Everton where Louis Saha, who had never scored a hat trick in the Premier League, scored four. There were seven at Wigan where the home team beat Blackburn, 4-3, to climb out of the bottom three. Perhaps unsurprisingly amid all this mayhem, the quivering defenses gave away eight penalties. In a season when, it has sometimes seemed, no one could score a penalty, all eight hit the back of the net -- although Rafael Van Der Vaart's second spot kick for Spurs against Bolton had to be retaken because a teammate was in the area when the Dutchman struck the kick. He missed the retake. Even so, seven successful penalties in one day was also a Premier League record. Barton hit two for Newcastle, So did Carlos Tévéz, who once again showed that Manchester City's title challenge will go as far as he carries it, as he scored all three goals in a 3-0 victory over West Brom.
4. Blowing the whistle on Sky. When Andy Gray and Richard Keys questioned a female assistant referee's knowledge of soccer's offside law two weeks ago, the public outrage was directed at their sexism. Sky is largely owned by Rupert Murdoch. His British media kingdom, which spawned his U.S. media empire, was initially built on The Sun newspaper's respect for women and their semi-naked bodies. It naturally responded by axing the two sexists. But, for the soccer watcher, the core issue was not whether women understand the offside laws -- a huge slice of soccer fans, including Gray and Keys, do not understand the law -- it's that the pair were suggesting that an assistant referee appointed to officiate in a Premier League game did not know the laws of the game. That is clearly absurd. Worse, it epitomized an attitude that has damaged English soccer over the last two decades.
Sky and Gray, it's chief color commentator since it broadcast the first Premier League season in 1992, have helped make the English game far more violent than any other major European soccer league. Gray had virtues as a commentator. He was articulate, enthusiastic and strong on both tactics and player's thinking. He offered far more content than the average cliché-spouting ex-pro. Yet he was despised by many fans who felt that, like Sky in general, he favored the big clubs. In his playing days, Gray was a good and robust center forward who happily traded kicks and elbows with defenders. As a commentator, he was a tireless defender of the "physical" (thuggish) side of British soccer and a relentless critic of match officials. Controversy sells. Gray and Sky are far from alone in this. But the other worst offender is another longtime Sky pundit, Chris Kamara, who, as a player, was the thinking man's Vinny Jones.
Their tone is one many other major sports -- the NFL, NCAA, cricket or rugby union, for example -- simply do not accept from their broadcasters. Of course in soccer, red cards and penalty kicks are disproportionally important decisions. Referees, without instant replay, do get them wrong. But it's a question of tone and attitude. Yet British managers, particularly those at big clubs, have learned how to bully and manipulate media desperate for interviews and scoops. The split nature of English soccer doesn't help. Sky's contract is voted on by the Premier League's clubs. They are semi-independent from the Football Association, which supplies the referees. The politically cynical might also argue that while the FA and referees represent government, the clubs are big business and anyone who watches Fox or Sky news knows where Murdoch media stands on that divide. The result has been a two-decade beatdown of match officials.
On Saturday, Kamara was still at it. Providing bulletins from the Spurs match that viewers could not see he fulminated against referee Mark Clattenburg. "What's going on?" he demanded at one point and later he bellowed: "He's having a really bad day, Mark Clattenburg."
Contrast that with the equally belligerent Brian Moore during the BBC's broadcast of the Wales-England rugby match on Friday. Moore a former international player and also a trained lawyer, clearly did not like one decision, then cut himself short: "The referee's made the decision so I'll shut up." Maybe Sky should tape those words in its soccer commentary boxes.
5. Bent out of shape. Darren Bent didn't score for his new club Aston Villa -- which was held 2-2 at home after Clint Dempsey scored a latish equalizer for Fulham -- but his shadow hung over his former club, Sunderland, which lost, 3-2, at Stoke.
On Wednesday, Liverpool had opted to play three center backs against Stoke and won, 2-0. Steve Bruce, the Sunderland manager, was evidently watching. On Saturday he imitated that formation. The appeals are obvious. Stoke are a big, physical team. Adding a big defender, in theory, counters that threat. Plus Bruce is a striker down since Bent left, so playing with one less forward makes some sense. And, in theory at least, the cover offered by the extra centerback allows the fullbacks to push up and flood midfield. It didn't work that way.
Part of the problem was the way Sunderland reacted after taking the lead at the start of each half. Kieran Richardson, who has surprisingly started producing goals since Bent left, smashed Sunderland ahead after three minutes. Asamoah Gyan, the man expected to pick up the slack, restored the lead after bullying the burly Robert Huth in the 48th minute.
After the goals, Sunderland allowed themselves to be pushed back by Stoke. And with five natural defenders on the field a notional 3-5-1-1 formation quickly became 5-4-1. Bruce, it turned out, was playing to Stoke's strength. It is one of the few teams in the Premier League more dangerous when faced by a massed defense -- which is another way of saying the Potters are useless on the counterattack but terrifying from set pieces. This is when Bent came back to haunt Sunderland. When Villa acquired Bent, it let John Carew join Stoke on loan.
On Saturday Carew killed Sunderland. His play suggested that, for the first time since leaving Rosenborg in 2000, the big striker might finally have found a team that can use his limited range of abilities. After 37 minutes Sunderland's massed defense could not handle a Rory Delap long throw. The ball dropped to Carew at his perfect range -- about 6 inches -- and he scored his first goal of the season. Carew made the second equalizer, winning a header from a free kick and guiding the ball goalwards for Huth to knee it over the line. Carew was a leaping distraction in injury time when Huth again scored from close range following yet another free kick to give Stoke a 3-2 victory. Bruce could have picked 10 center backs. Stoke would still have been too strong at set pieces.
Peter Berlin has been following English soccer for 45 years and reporting on it for 25 years.