AVB gets the job done, Sir Alex plays mind games, more EPL thoughts
1. AVB delivers: Andre Villas-Boas went a long way to justifying his hiring in the eyes of Tottenham fans and ownership, on Sunday when his team beat Arsenal, 2-1, at White Hart Lane.
Spurs regained third place from a neighbor it dislikes, Chelsea, and increased its lead over a neighbor it detests, Arsenal, to seven points. It may also have quelled a recurring nightmare.
Spurs have been here before. On February 25 last year, Tottenham went to Arsenal in third place and 10 points ahead of its north London rival. Spurs took a 2-0 lead. The fans could smell a finish above the enemy for the first time since 1995. But their team collapsed. It collapsed in the game, losing 5-2. It collapsed in the league. The defeat started a nine-much run in which Tottenham won just one game. It regained a little poise, retook third place, but ceded it on the penultimate weekend. It ended the season looking up at Arsenal, yet again.
There were all sorts of reasons why the Tottenham ownership might have lost patience with Harry Redknapp, but that collapse confirmed suspicions that there was a reason why he had never managed a Premier League contender.
His replacement, Villas-Boas has already repeated one Redknapp feat this season, as Tottenham led at the Emirates in November but lost, 5-2. Yet he has also taken four points off Manchester United, the first time Tottenham has won that season series in the Premier League era.
AVB has been fiddling his formation lately to try to free Gareth Bale to play more centrally and to find roles for a trio or recent signings who were all bought to play in that role: Gylfi Sigurdsson, Lewis Holtby and Clint Dempsey. The manager's choices were rather simplified because Dempsey was ruled out with a calf injury.
On Sunday, Arsenal dominated possession. Tottenham defended better, created more chances and took two of them. Bale and Aaron Lennon ran behind the leaden Arsenal defense to pop in two goals in three minutes just before halftime.
After Bale -- who can't stop scoring -- deflected the ball into his own net at the start of the second half, Arsenal tried to press. Arsène Wenger threw on attacking players and Aaron Ramsey squandered a good chance. But Jermain Defoe, Sigurdsson and Bale all squandered excellent chances as Tottenham carved Arsenal open on the counter attack.
"This year about this time is when Arsenal started to make up the difference of 10 points," Villas-Boas told Sky, the British cable channel, after the game. "We know how that finished."
But, as he added, the situation is different.
"Now they are on a low,'' Villas-Boas said of Arsenal. "It's going to be very difficult for them to bounce back now."
Last season, the Arsenal game marked the start of Tottenham's downward curve. AVB's team is unbeaten in the league in 2013. For the first time since the end of August, it has more points than last season's team had at this stage last year.
Winning games in February, March and April is what he was hired to do.
As he said twice of his team in his interview, "we're just doing our job."
2. Honoring the fallen: It is hardly a surprise when Wenger complains that the referee got something wrong when his team concedes a goal. The Arsenal manager was certainly unhappy when Lennon scored Tottenham's second goal with Santi Cazorla lying stricken in the center circle.
It's more surprising when Michael Dawson, normally a smiling assassin, loses his cool and charges at the referee as the Tottenham captain did after Arsenal kept playing with Emmanuel Adebayor lying, apparently at death's door, in the Arsenal half.
There is nothing in the laws of soccer that says referees should stop a game if a player is hurt. They do have instructions to stop play for head injuries and will also almost always stop play if a goalie goes down.
Players themselves have taken to booting the ball out whenever an opponent is down. This has led to abuse. Certainly the Cazorla incident might have been an example. Cazorla lost the ball in midfield, took a healthy step or two and then collapsed as if he'd been shot with a bazooka. If he was faking, and if Tottenham, or Mark Clattenburg, the ref, had stopped play, Spurs would have been cheated out of a goal by something that carried the whiff of gamesmanship. After the goal, Cazorla got up and carried on.
Adebayor was hurt. But Tottenham had already played on with an opponent down. This was a North London Derby, after all. Dawson is normally a player who neither gives nor expects any quarter and keeps his cool even when the boots are flying and the blood and adrenaline are flowing. It is bewildering that he should have lost his cool because the referee failed to stop the game flowing.
Yet, by the end, desperately chasing an equalizing goal and running out of time, the Gunners kept playing when one of their men went down. This moral principle is clearly flexible.
3. Is Bale the best?: Bale's goal on Sunday, finished with a precision and speed that gave Wojciech Szczesny no chance, took him to 16 league goals this season. It meant he had scored 10 of Tottenham's last 12 goals in all competitions (Lennon slightly diluted that stat a couple of minutes later.). In a run that has included a string of great ones, Bale's goal on Sunday was merely an impressive one. But is Bale a world-class, or even a great, player?
Those who are getting carried away and comparing Bale to Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi, aren't watching much Spanish soccer. The comparison with Ronaldo is interesting, because Bale is a kinder, gentler clone of the Real striker. Where Bale often looks as if he is playing at 45 rpm while everyone around him is stuck at 33.3 rpm. Ronaldo, however, is playing at 78 rpm. While Bale runs into blind alleys or turns circles while trying to work out what to do, everything Ronaldo does is suffused with dangerous intent.
Bale has only one assist for Tottenham this season. That says something about his teammates. It also suggests he still doesn't see the whole canvas when he has the ball and is ready to create art.
Yet that lack of a consistent sense of what he needs to do in any situation to help his team and hurt the opponent, also puts him behind several other players in the Premier League.
Bale is going to win the Premier League player of the year polls, but there are other players who are more dangerous, more often, and a couple who having be consistently good all season.
The most obvious is Robin van Persie, the mostly deadly finisher in the league. He has 19 goals but also eight assists.
The other is Luis Suárez who took his tally to a league-leading 21 with a ruthless hat trick as Liverpool crushed Wigan, 4-0 on Saturday. Everything Suárez did was informed by intelligence -- he may be an evil genius, but he is a genius.
Gary Lineker was right when he called Bale the best British player. That's still a pretty good thing to be. And there's more to come. Bale is 23, Suárez is 26, Ronaldo is 28 and Van Persie is 29. Experience makes a difference.
4. Taking his time: The value of experience was demonstrated by another Welsh lefty this week. At 39, Ryan Giggs signed a new contract with Manchester United. At the announcement, it almost seemed as if Alex Ferguson was not just smiling for the cameras, but laughing.
Maybe he was laughing at Chelsea, which seems determined to release Frank Lampard, who is just 34 and has scored 13 goals this season. Maybe he was laughing at Wenger who, following his actuarial tables unloaded Patrick Vieira in 2005 and Thierry Henry two years later. Both were 29 when they left Arsenal. Both might have been starting to decline. But Arsenal has missed their experience. As Giggs' age has meant the Welshman can run less, he has learnt to think more.
Of course, Wenger was dealing with financial constraints, which made unloading highly paid veterans seem more attractive. That's not a problem Ferguson has to worry about when offering the likes of Giggs or Paul Scholes new contracts. Ferguson can be extremely ruthless, but at 71 he can hardly take an ageist line. He values experience and is happy to pay for it. Vieira is coaching at Manchester City. Ferguson has talked of Giggs eventually taking a similar role at Old Trafford.
The timing of the announcement was probably not a coincidence. Including his rare appearances for Wales, Giggs has played 999 senior games. His next appearance will be his 1,000th. Ferguson held him out of the squad for the home game against Norwich on Saturday. Then he promised Giggs would play some part in United's next game on Tuesday night. That allows him to reach the milestone in the fullest glare of the spotlight, against Real Madrid in the Champions League. Ferguson is not simply showing respect for a veteran: He's playing mind games. The attention on Giggs will add an extra shot of electricity to the intimidating Old Trafford atmosphere and will overshadow the return of Ronaldo and any hoopla that José Mourinho can generate.
With a new contract in his pocket, Giggs can afford to be patient. With a huge lead in the Premier League standings and the arsenal of talent at his disposal, so too can Fergie.
On Saturday, his patience was again rewarded. Shinji Kagawa has struggled with injury and the English style of play since arriving in the summer. Against Norwich, he scored United's first three goals in a 4-0 victory. The first was a miss-hit, the other two very cute finishes. None seemed to cross the line at more than 10 miles an hour but they all got where they were going. Kagawa was showing what his manager knows. Intelligence can be as valuable as speed.
5. The glass half full: Harry Redknapp was both delighted and indignant after Queen's Park Rangers had somehow won 2-1 at Southampton for its Premier league victory since January 2.
Redknapp is back doing what he is most experienced at doing: Managing a team in danger of relegation.
What made 'Arry so angry was a report in a British tabloid that his players had turned a training week in Dubai into one long spree. He seemed particularly irked by the suggestion that the players had had the time and energy to hit the bar, because his training sessions had barely lasted 90 minutes.
On the other hand, if the story is true, it does show how quickly the modern globetrotting pro can adjust to a new style of play in a new country. 'Arry's collection of Africans, continental Europeans and South Americans have evidently embraced the demanding and competitive British habit of binge drinking. On the other hand, maybe they were simply celebrating Redknapp's birthday, which fell in advance.
On Saturday, they delivered the most precious present a manger can receive, three points. The victory put QPR just four points from safety. The defeat also dragged Southampton back towards the quicksand, just when the Saints seemed to be striding elegantly away from danger. Southampton, meanwhile, might be slightly mystified as to how, when it outshot QPR, 21-7, and enjoyed twice as much possession, it lost.
The Southampton manager, Maurizio Pochettino, could console himself by joining the party and having a drink. Saturday was his birthday, too.