Give credit to West Brom, Norwich before blaming Di Matteo, Ferguson
Norwich and West Brom deserve to be praised for their weekend performances
West Brom has defied expectations by remaining ahead of Arsenal, Spurs
West Brom's Steve Clarke coached alongside Jose Mourinho while at Chelsea
The winner takes it all but the headlines. "Fergie's men get it all Ron as City triumph," said the Sun. "Di Matteo vents his anger as Chelsea stumble again," wrote the Sunday Telegraph, along with: "United punished by old boy Pilkington." "No case for the defence, RDM!" yelped the Mirror.
Of course, defeats for clubs such as Manchester United and Chelsea are big news in a league that they have dominated to the extent that they have rarely lost more than a handful of the season's 38 matches. United has won 12 Premier League titles, nine domestic cups and two Champions League trophies under Sir Alex Ferguson's charge, but has rarely looked less awe-inspiring than at present; if there are fears that Ferguson's leadership is starting to make Conrad's Captain MacWhirr look a lively crisis-manager, they are bound to feature high up on the agenda. Given the trajectory of Roberto di Matteo's brief time in charge of Chelsea, the recent downturn in Chelsea's fortunes must also tap editors on the shoulder.
Yet the focus on the defeated clubs leaves less room to elaborate and praise the way the victors -- Norwich City and West Bromwich Albion, in case you missed it -- have been going about their business. West Brom's 2-1 win over Chelsea at the Hawthorns may well have tripped Di Matteo's title chase, but it was also part of a significant run for the Baggies: this was their third straight win and a sixth in seven matches at home, where only the league leader Manchester City has triumphed.
Asked about the shouting match overheard in the away dressing room after Saturday's match, the Chelsea defender David Luiz sought to rationalize his team's response. "It is normal," he said, reminding reporters of the club's stature. "We are disappointed as we should have won this game." Perhaps Chelsea might have won the game, with better finishing from Daniel Sturridge or weaker goalkeeping from Boaz Myhill, but if they arrived thinking they simply ought to win the game, they haven't been paying attention.
Last season, after 12 games, West Brom had 14 points; the season before that, 16. Now the club sits in fourth place in the Premier League table with 23 points, above Everton, Arsenal, West Ham United and Tottenham Hotspur, and has looked excellent value for it. Good enough that it is probably no longer simply a good start, but something more permanent -- as Peter Odemwingie said: "We needed to show people against a big club that we have started well but we want to continue that way." Good enough, in fact, that it is not inconceivable that the battle for fourth could be a duel between Everton and West Brom rather than only the north London clubs.
"At the moment we are in the right position to think about Europe," said the manager, Steve Clarke. "But we go from game to game. I think this weekend we'll let the supporters dream a little bit; the team are certainly in a very good moment. But within the camp we'll keep our feet on the ground." Having just started his first managerial role after replacing Roy Hodgson, Clarke can hardly have imagined that he would be fielding questions about qualification for the Champions League.
Or perhaps he did. Albion had already benefitted from the defensive discipline on which Hodgson teams rely and Clarke, who coached alongside Jose Mourinho for several seasons at Chelsea, has added obvious confidence in possession; his team is smart on the ball and, unlike Chelsea, can rely on an excellent lone striker in the form of Shane Long. It was Long who gave West Brom the lead against Chelsea, easily shaking off the attentions of Luiz to nod the ball past Petr Cech, and who set up the winner for Odemwingie. That's four goals and four assists this season, and all in games where Albion has averaged less than 44 percent possession.
The season's start was less auspicious for Norwich City, also under new management after Paul Lambert's move to Aston Villa and Chris Hughton's arrival as his replacement. Hughton had to wait until just a month ago for his first Premier League win, but it came against Arsenal and his side is unbeaten since, adding Spurs, Stoke City and Manchester United to the list of defeated visitors to Carrow Road. Ferguson's midfield selection (Ryan Giggs and Michael Carrick? Really?) provides the longer and more teeth-gnashing narrative, but Saturday's 1-0 result is better and more simply recorded as another excellent Norwich performance, and a fourth clean sheet in six outings.
Norwich's creativity has never been in doubt with the likes of Wes Hoolahan and Anthony Pilkington around, and the loan signing of Javier Garrido gives the Canaries even more thrust from deeper areas; Grant Holt will on some days be spoilt for supply. It is the improvement at the back that is so impressive: who could have imagined this result as first Fulham and then Liverpool put five past Norwich at the start of the season? Who could have imagined this result knowing how regularly United is able to overturn a deficit?
"It's a really tough day to keep a clean sheet," said Hughton on the club's website. He praised his goalkeeper, the excellent John Ruddy, but was careful not to overstate the part his last-ditch interventions made. "I thought we restricted them to minimal chances and I can't really think of a clear-cut opening that they had."
The turnabout comes as Sebastian Bassong and Michael Turner (neither with a truly outstanding track record) forge an increasingly solid-looking central defensive partnership protected by the defensive midfielder Alexander Tettey, who arrived in late August and has settled in to a rhythm with Bradley Johnson. The personnel will inevitably shift and shift again as the season wears on, but like Clarke, Hughton is adept at handling the egos and aspirations of club and squad. In many ways, each may prefer the focus to be on the pall over United's play without Wayne Rooney, or the fall and fall of Fernando Torres. But matches are not only lost.