Hillsborough tribute not without jarring notes; more EPL thoughts
The remembrance of the Hillsborough disaster reeked of a PR move by the EPL
A referee's importance was cemented in the Man United victory over Liverpool
Plus: Arsenal's contender status, the struggle of André Villas Boas, and more
Here are five thoughts on Sunday's English Premier League action:
1. Remembering the dead. The sight, and sound, of Liverpool fans, gathered Sunday in their chosen place of worship, hymning their dead with "You'll Never Walk Alone," was unquestionably moving.
The 96 fans who died in Sheffield in 1989 should be remembered. The report of the Hillsborough Independent Panel on September 12 revealed a disgraceful cover up. Yet it has been hard to suppress a twinge of cynicism about some of the reactions.
First, the way the Premier League has thrown its well-oiled marketing machine into suddenly commemorating the dead over this weekend smacks of a PR exercise. Why didn't this happen before the report? The Premier League is, to some extent, built on wreckage of Hillsborough, Heysel and the Bradford fire. Supporters were, in part, victims of neglect, bordering on contempt for their safety, by the soccer clubs and administrators and the police. Of course, some fans had done a lot of over the preceding decades to earn contempt. That was a point driven home Sunday by some United fans, determined to act as jerks, as they persisted with a chant of their own, many angrily punching the air in resentment, as the rest of Anfield sang. (Liverpool fans have not been innocent over the years in this particular bad-taste contest.) English soccer reacted to Hillsborough by adopting a strategy of excluding the poor, young males who were seen as a problem. The strategy worked and gave us the shiny, all-star league that has become such a global money-spinner. The message over the weekend seemed to be "we are big business, but we care."
The second cause of cynicism, is that, while the Hillsborough 96 are so publicly remembered, the victims of Bradford, Heysel, Ibrox and a host of others, are not. There were special circumstances surrounding Hillsborough, as the report made clear. But that report was in part a product of the ceaseless campaign by the Liverpool F.C. community for what they saw as an injustice.
As the fans sang on Sunday, it was a celebration, of the memory of those who died and of the triumph of those who had been left behind and, in the face of a conspiracy by government and police, had walked on, through the wind and the rain, with hope in their hearts. It's a worthwhile lesson.
2. Who'd want to be a referee? Manchester United's 2-1 victory in a typically rough-edged match at Liverpool was proof, once again, of how pivotal and difficult a referee's role is. The match hinged on a series of decisions by Mark Halsey. He probably got all of them right, but many were marginal and, taken together, they determined the outcome.
Halsey's decisions to send off Jonjo Shelvey in the first half and award a penalty kick with the scores tied in the second were harsh but correct. His decisions to send off neither Jonny Evans nor Robin van Persie nor to respond to any of Luis Suárez's many demands for a penalty were also, on balance, correct. But they all added up, and Halsey was rewarded for his afternoon's work by being booed off by the home fans.
3. Title contenders. It wasn't clear as City and Arsenal played out a wild 1-1 draw in the Manchester rain whether Arsenal has grown into a title challenger or City is slipping backward.
Arsenal dominated possession and territory. City had far more shots on target. At times, both teams attacked with menacing speed and fluency. Yet none of the high-price attacking players on the field could put the ball in the net. Gervinho of Arsenal was, not for the first time, eye-catchingly wasteful near goal. (Van Persie? Who's he?) Both the goals, Joleon Lescott for City and Laurent Koscielny, were scored by center backs after corners.
At their best, both teams looked superb. But neither could find a way to win. Both are chugging along nicely on nine points from five games, but that already leaves them four points behind Chelsea, which isn't playing well but is finding a way to win.
4. Managing to win. One of the many, many, criticisms levelled at André Villas Boas after his brief stint at Chelsea was that he was not a good man manager. On Sunday, the Spurs team he sent out to face QPR seemed to have been picked with the principal objective of keeping his stars happy rather than actually winning the game.
In the first half, Gareth Bale played at left back with Clint Dempsey in front of him. This negated the strengths and highlighted the weaknesses of both men. Dempsey worked hard to screen Bale, but the pair struggled. Their teammates looked confused. QPR, which has put together quite a nice midfield from other clubs' castoffs, dominated and led.
At halftime, Villas Boas risked bruising an ego when he removed Gylfi Sigurdsson. Spurs improved but Villas Boas also enjoyed a stroke of luck when a bemused Alejandro Faurlín put the ball in his own goal. Jermain Defoe quickly added the second. Tottenham won, 2-1.
The manager's desire to put all his new players on the field is understandable. He wants to keep them happy. He also needs them to grow to know each other. Dempsey, who looked much happier in a central role, already seems to have an understanding with Defoe and Bale. They almost always shoot rather than pass. On Sunday, Dempsey did the same, smashing the ball goal-ward almost every time he got within 30 yards. Most of his shots didn't get through but he did force one good save from Júlio César. It's an attitude that suggests he now views himself as a star. The manager's desire to work Dempsey into the starting line-up at any cost indicates agreement.
5. Paying the penalty. In "Soccernomics" (or, for the British market, "Why England Lose"), Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski tried to apply the sabermetric methods of Moneyball to the far more unstable and fluid sport of soccer. Unsurprisingly, one area that seemed to lend itself to statistical analysis was the game within a game when play has stopped: the penalty kick.
The kicker and the goalie are both faced with a simple choice: right or left, strong side or weak side. In practice, as Kuper and Szymanski acknowledge, some kickers simply go straight down the middle. So they excluded those kicks from the calculation. Game theory suggests that the kicker should go to his stronger side (shooting across his body) roughly seven times out of 10. The research showed that kickers, and goalies, had worked that out for themselves and went that way about 70 percent of the time.
That makes it seem that a penalty is simply a shell game. It ignores the fact that soccer is a game based on an ability to kick a ball hard and accurately. Sometimes players seem to forget that too and try to score penalties with their heads, not their feet. A good example was Nani's pathetic miss for United against Galatasaray on Wednesday, a night when all three penalties awarded in the Champions League were missed. Nani stopped, illegally, hoping the goalie would make the choice for him by diving out of the way and when he didn't rolled it tamely at him; too much thinking, too little confidence in his ability.
On Sunday, with the game on the line at Anfield, Robin van Persie, who had wasted his previous penalty by trying to bluff the goalie with a cute chip, walloped the ball. Pepe Reina guessed right. He got both hands to the ball. It didn't matter. The shot was too hard.
Even more impressive was Rickie Lambert's spot kick as Southampton beat Aston Villa, 4-1, on Saturday. The goalie, Brad Guzan, guessed correctly but couldn't get close as a ground-hugging missile zoomed just inside the post. Lambert has converted all 26 of the penalties he has taken for the Saints. His ability to hit the ball very hard and very accurately, over and over again, eliminates the goalie from the equation.