Spurs and Arsenal blow their chance; Dempsey makes history
In a miserable weekend for the top 7, only the two Manchester teams won
Arsene Wenger received criticism for subsituting Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain
Clint Dempsey is in superb form but might not get a big club move
Five things we learned from the weekend's action in the Barclays Premier League.
1. And the winners are. On a particularly strange weekend in the Premier league, only two teams that were in the top 11 places on Saturday morning won. Both the victors are from Manchester. The upshot is that while City stays just three points ahead of United, it now leads third-place Tottenham by eight points, Chelsea by 13 and Arsenal by 18. After losing 5-1 at home to City in August, Spurs responded by taking 25 points from the next nine games. Yet even if they recover from the heartbreaking nature of Sunday's 3-2 defeat, they would still need significant wobbles from both City and United to let them back into the title race. Realistically, Spurs are fighting for third, and an automatic Champions league berth. They can take heart from the displays of the clubs below them. Chelsea was toothless, Arsenal sloppy, Liverpool mediocre and, Newcastle, during its second-half collapse at Fulham, inept. None will challenge the Manchester clubs. Their battle for the last European places promises to be ugly.
2. Is everybody happy? Manchester City may have the wealth to buy an entire squad of world-class players and pay them more than they could earn anywhere else. Yet it is wrestling with the problem that 25 into 11 doesn't go. Stars left on the bench grow unhappy (see Carlos Tévez), bored (Mario Balotelli) or lose form (Edin Dzeko).
Rotation breaks up the team's rhythm. On the other hand players, particularly those who are young or who have never played in England, Stefan Savic for example, need game time to find their feet. Savic, making only his third league start of the season, nearly gave Tottenham victory with errors in the last 30 minutes.
For all the apparent depth of the squad, City, like any team, is still dependent on a handful of core players. The absence of the Touré brothers at the African Cup of Nations, the suspension of Vincent Kompany and Sergio Agüero's loss of form (not helped by Dzeko's recent nervous habit of tackling his striking partner in front of goal) has not helped. But the fundamental problem might be that money doesn't buy peace of mind.
City's form has been spotty for a while, but, as chance would have it, the damage has occurred principally in cup games. After 60 minutes on Sunday, it led 2-0 and was in total control. Then Savic allowed Spurs back into the match. City's nerves were perhaps best demonstrated by Joleon Lescott's forearm smash on Younes Kaboul and Balotelli's stampette on Scott Parker. The television pundits, with their slo-mo, and Harry Redknapp, groping through the agony for something to hold onto, made a lot of the incidents. Yet both were fast, subtle and slight movements in the hurly-burly on the edge of the penalty area. They were also arguably, at most, marginal red cards. Both were easy for Howard Webb to miss or, with so much at stake, to ignore.
The good news for City is that in the end its overpaid stars found the will, and the way, to win. Money can't buy luck, but persistence can earn it.
3. Clint the man. It just keep getting better for Clint Dempsey. Already this season, Dempsey had become the leading American scorer in Premier League history. On Jan. 7, he hit his first-ever professional hat trick for Fulham as it beat Charlton in the FA Cup. On Saturday, he hit another hat trick, in 30 minutes, as Fulham demolished Newcastle in second half. As SI's Grant Wahl tweeted on Saturday, it was the first by an American in the Premier League.
The goals took Dempsey's league tally to 12 this season, matching his previous best, which was last season. His industry and intelligence, as well, perhaps, as his distinctive low-slung, energy-efficient footballer's run and huge puppy-dog eyes which make him look a little sad even when celebrating another goal, have helped make him a universal favorite with fans and pundits. At 28, he is clearly in his prime. So why not a move to a bigger club?
One problem is that Dempsey is a tweener. He outpaced Newcastle's lumbering central defenders for his third goal and is 6-foot-1 tall, but he has neither the blinding pace nor the aerial power coaches want from strikers. He is hard working and competitive, but lacks the power in the tackle to make him a midfield destroyer. He has an eye for a pass, but lacks the quick feet and trickiness to be the midfield creator. He is a high-class bits and pieces midfielder with an eye for goal.
Dempsey, for all his qualities, is also benefiting from the virtue of continuity. After a halftime rejig, Dempsey was playing with three men, Andy Johnson, Bobby Zamora and Danny Murphy, who have been teammates for three-and-a-half seasons. They understand each other. Johnson and Zamora pull defenders out of the center to make space for Dempsey's cunning late runs. Then they find him. as Johnson did for the second goal and Zamora for the third, with passes. It's a team game and one of Dempsey's most appealing qualities is that he is a team player.
4. Welsh wizards. In the days when balls were stitched from leather panels, most teams played two wingers whose primary job was to beat the fullback and place the ball on the forehead of a big center forward. In the 1950s, England fielded two of the best wingers ever to play the game. The man they were aiming for was often Stan Mortensen. Legend had it that when asked what was the difference between Stanley Matthews and Tom Finney, Mortensen answered that Matthews turned the laces away from his head. The joke was that both men had so mastered the difficult art of anticipating exactly where to place the ball in a crowded, jostling, goalmouth that all Mortensen had to worry about was marks on his forehead.
Not long after Ryan Giggs made his electrifying appearance in the Manchester United team at the start of the 1990s. Hugh McIlvanney, the doyen of British sport writers, said the winger played as if he was in a phone box. In other words, he lacked the vision to see even a few feet away. At 36, Giggs has developed to the extent that on Sunday at Arsenal he was entrusted with the role of providing the creativity in United's midfield. With his team huffing and puffing to turn domination into a goal, Giggs found himself in space on the left. He looked up and looped a ball into the area that dropped precisely on the forehead of Antonio Valencia who had little choice but to head the first goal.
Just over an hour earlier, in injury time at Manchester City, Gareth Bale, the heir to Giggs as the flying left winger who will carry Wales, burst into space on the left. Bale had already scored a sumptuous goal, but he had also fallen over when presented with an even better chance. Like the young Giggs, Bale often seems to play with his head down, although he often lifts it when he shoots, which is why his shots frequently goes high. He had a bigger target to aim at. Jermain Defoe, struggling to match Bale's pace, was alone in the penalty area. But Bale hit his pass too hard and too flat. Defoe just reached it with a despairing lunge but he was short by the width of the laces and could not control the ball. It dribbled just wide.
Two minutes later, City won a penalty and the game. As his pace has diminished, Giggs has added the refinement of accuracy to his skill. Bale is still a work in progress.
5. Wenger's dilemma. When Arsène Wenger removed Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain after 74 minutes on Sunday, with Arsenal holding United, 1-1, and replaced him with Andrey Arshavin, Robin van Persie, the captain, was caught on camera making a gesture of disbelief. The substitution quickly went sour. Arshavin's inability to defend contributed to Valencia's run which set up Danny Welbeck's winning goal.
Yet the change also suggested that Wenger is finally learning a lesson about teenagers. In the past, Wenger has happily piled a heavy workload on teenagers. Cesc Fàbregas played 106 league games before he turned 20. At 21, he began to pay the price. In his last three injury-ravaged seasons at Arsenal, the Spaniard played just 79 league games. Theo Walcott played more than 70 league games before he turned 20. Then he too started to miss chunks of seasons with injury. Jack Wilshere was 18 at the start of last season and 19 at the end. In between he played every league game. He has been out all this season with injury.
It may be that Wenger is trying to give Arshavin the playing time to rediscover his confidence. But it could also be that he has learned a lesson about teenage bodies, even bodies as imposing as Oxlade-Chamberlain's.
Peter Berlin has been following English soccer for 45 years and reporting on it for 25 years.