Man United survives battle of midfield; more EPL thoughts
Five thoughts on the weekend's Premier League action:
1. Packing the midfield. Soccer formations are easy. You have to have a goalkeeper. That's obvious. Forget three center-backs; a four-man defense works best. It's in the balance between midfield attack that some coaches grown confused. The answer is to pick a five-man midfield to ensure possession and a two-man attack to make sure that possession is not wasted. A team playing that formation would win nearly every game. Some might object that this would be because it had 12 players on the field, but that's the sort of stupid quibble with which small minds react to paradigm-challenging genius.
Alex Ferguson and Brendan Rogers remain mired in the 11-man mentality. On Sunday, when their clubs met at Old Trafford, the two managers adopted different approaches to the problem.
Wingers and strikers for both teams sometimes joined the midfield fray. But essentially, Liverpool played three central midfielders. United used two. Liverpool's trio -- Lucas, Steven Gerrard and Joe Allen -- are all experienced ball-winning internationals. Soccer logic dictates that they should have controlled midfield. Yet for the first 55 minutes United dominated.
No Premier League team is better at turning possession into goals than United. It did that. Robin van Persie scored a goal of typical lucid awareness. Nemanja Vidic added a second without having a clue what was happening.
Two goals down, Liverpool replaced a midfielder, Lucas, with a striker, Daniel Sturridge, and almost immediately fought back into the game. Sturridge scored. The two-man midfield finally established parity. It was too late. United held on to win, 2-1.
The fact that United's outnumbered midfield still dominated for so long could simply be one of those things. It could be a reflection of the fact that, as a whole, the United team is still much better and more confident than Liverpool. It may also be that a team that starts with only two genuine attacking players on the field, as Liverpool did, struggles in midfield because it has so few options when it has the ball and the opposition can easily snuff them out.
2. City grabs its gift. United's victory meant Manchester City started the late game Sunday 10 points adrift. Shorn of two of its best players, Sergio Agüero and Yaya Touré, City faced a tough test against Arsenal, a team it hadn't beaten on the road in 37 years. That's not how it turned out.
Arsenal was reduced to 10 men after eight minutes. Edin Dzeko wasted the penalty kick. City nevertheless exploited its advantage ruthlessly. James Milner and then Dzeko, with a chance from one yard out that even he could not miss, scored in the first 31 minutes.
City was in turn reduced to 10 men when Vincent Kompany was sent off with 22 minutes left, but it still held on with only a couple of alarms to win, comfortably, 2-0.
Three points are always good. But there was some cause for concern for City. The first was that, leading by two goals and with an extra man, it could not turn its advantage into more goals. Last season City won the title on goal difference. After Sunday, it trails United by five goals.
Dzeko's physical presence disconcerted Arsenal, but he does not have the capacity to surprise that Agüero brings. City says the Argentine will return in the next week or so, but that seems quick for what the Argentine himself said was a torn hamstring.
Javi García is a powerful presence in midfield, but he is ponderous and not remotely in the same class as Touré, who could be at the African Cup of Nations until February 10.
Samir Nasri is about to return from a three-match ban for a red card. Now City could lose Kompany for three games.
3. Arsenal pays the penalty. One positive for Arsenal on Sunday was that the Gunners got more than 65 minutes of much-needed defensive practice. Indeed, Arsenal's problems stemmed from its awareness of its frailty and its defenders' fear of the corner.
When Laurent Koscielny fouled Dzeko at a corner after eight minutes, Mike Dean sent the Arsenal defender off and awarded a penalty. It's true that the double indemnity, a penalty and a red card, is a harsh punishment for a foul. It's also true that players hold and tug at every corner and that referees sometimes seem reluctant to whistle every time. Yet Koscielny had grabbed Dzeko down with a rugby tackle. It was blatant. It was what the French call "anti-jeu," or, in this case, anti-soccer. It deserved what it got.
That's not what the home crowd thought. They jeered every decision Dean made for the next hour. That might have had something to do with the red card he showed Vincent Kompany for a tackle on Jack Wilshere after 68 minutes. Kompany's tackle checked all the boxes. He went in with two feet. The colored soles of his boots were showing. Indeed one leg lifted as Wilshere tumbled onto him. But he was in control and made no contact with Wilshere. The Arsenal player went flying because the ball he was dribbling suddenly stopped dead.
Under other circumstances he might have enjoyed the benefit of the doubt, but Dean had already warmed up the red card and out it came, leveling the sending-off score.
4. Lampard the fan favorite. The people who pay the wages at Chelsea are at war. Roman Abramovich, the owner who has sunk £630 million, or $1.015 billion, into the club wants Rafa Benítez and Fernando Torres. The fans who buy the tickets and the merchandise don't. Their reaction to the removal of Torres during Wednesday's home loss to Swansea made that clear. Some fans are boycotting home games while Benítez is the manager.
Abramovich got rid of manager Roberto Di Matteo. The fans sing his name at every match. Abramovich seems determine to force Frank Lampard out of the club at the end of the season. That's where things could really get nasty.
Abramovich seems not to have forgiven the player revolt that ended the brief, rancorous tenure of Andre Villas Boas as manager last season. That could explain why Lampard and Ashley Cole are being eased out. It could be that the club is simply playing the odds. Whatever Paul Scholes, at 38, and Ryan Giggs, 39, are doing at United, a new contract for a man who will turn 34 in the summer is a big risk.
The problem for Abramovich is not just that the Chelsea fans adore a player who has made 581 competitive appearances for the club. It's that Lampard could end the season a goal or two short of becoming the club's all-time leading scorer.
When Lampard hammered in a penalty during Chelsea's 4-0 victory at Stoke on Saturday it was his 194th goal for the club. That broke a tie with Kerry Dixon for second place in the club's all-time list. Lampard is eight goals behind Bobby Tambling who scored 202 goals for Chelsea. While Lampard is a midfielder, both Dixon and Tambling were strikers.
It is a measure of how much Chelsea has grown as a club in the last decade that neither Dixon nor Tambling was a top-flight international player -- between them they totaled 11 England appearances. The club's one undoubted world-class striker in the 20th century was Jimmy Greaves. He left at age 21 for AC Milan after scoring a club-record 41 league goals in 1960-61. Chelsea used to be a selling club.
This season Lampard has scored one goal every three appearances, though his record in league matches is a goal every two games. Chelsea has 17 league matches left and is still in the FA Cup and the Europa League. If Lampard continues to appear in two games out of three, he should pass Tambling this season. It would be no surprise if he takes every penalty and nearly every free kick while he's on the field.
But whatever the outcome, it will pose a problem for Abramovich. Dare he sell a man one goal short of the club record? Dare he sell the man who has just broken that record? Sometimes money doesn't buy peace of mind.
5. Something stirs in the depths. At 2.30 pm on Saturday Queens Park Rangers probably felt good about life. The last-placed club had parked the bus at home against Tottenham in the opening game of the weekend and eked out a tedious 0-0 draw. That would surely put the pressure on the teams immediately above Rangers in the standings. That's not how it turned out. QPR ended the day further adrift than it started.
On most weekends, most of the teams at the bottom of the table lose. That's why they're at the bottom. On Saturday, of the seven teams above QPR, three won, three drew and only one, Aston Villa, lost.
Reading, the first team QPR must catch. Trailed at home to West Brom after 82 minutes. It should have been worse. Romelu Lukaku, on loan from Chelsea, scored both WBA goals and also hit the woodwork twice. Were you watching Demba Ba?
In the last eight minutes, Reading pressed and was rewarded as every ball bounced its way. It scored three goals in seven minutes and won, 3-2. It was a lucky result but one that could inspire Reading to believe.
Southampton clawed its way up the table as it won, 1-0, at Villa Park in a game that added a new wrinkle to the diving debate. The only goal came from a penalty. Mark Halsey, the referee, whistled after Enda Stevens, one of the young Villa defenders, lashed at Jay Rodriguez, who went flying. Replays showed that Stevens made no contact at all with the Southampton striker.
Paul Lambert, whose Villa team had just dropped into the bottom three, told the BBC that Halsey should be "embarrassed."
Nigel Adkins, the Southampton manager, accepted that there had probably been no contact but added, "Just as well he moved his foot out of the way, as there would have been. "
It may sound silly, but to everyone who saw the lunge, it makes sense. Any sane individual catching a glimpse, out of the corner of their eye, of Stephens' foot hurtling toward their leg would have jumped in terror. Sometimes, as Francis Lee, England's greatest diver, once said, staying on your feet at all costs can lead to injury.