Rebuilt and loaded Spurs may finally catch -- and pass -- Arsenal
A changing of the guard in north London? What makes Asmir Begovic so good? The prototype for a smash-and-grab away win? It was a compelling opening weekend for the Barclays Premier League, and the debut of The Premier will try to make sense of it all.
The distance between the Emirates and White Hart Lane is less than five miles, but the chasm between Arsenal and Tottenham over the past decade and a half has often felt like a thousand times that. The Gunners, possessors of 16 straight top-four finishes in the Premiership and orchestrators of an immortal 49-match unbeaten streak spanning the 2003-04 and 04-05 seasons, have long lorded over their north London arch rivals. It's been so one-sided that Gunners fans even created the fictitious annual holiday of St. Totteringham's Day to celebrate when Arsenal is mathematically assured of finishing ahead of Spurs in that year's table.
For the past four seasons, though, Spurs have ramped up the challenge, finishing fifth, fourth, fifth and fourth. Last season, Arsenal edged them by a point for the final Champions League place, and Gunners fans celebrated once again, assuming Spurs had missed their best, last chance to finally surpass their tormentors. Having barely escaped with their annual Champions League presence intact, surely Arsene Wenger and Co. would open the checkbook and reinforce a roster that went 12-1-3 down the stretch but still had multiple questions on it.
Yeah, about that.
With less than three weeks left in the summer transfer window, Arsenal hasn't yet done a thing to improve while Spurs have been big spenders, reeling in talents like Roberto Soldado, Paulinho and Etienne Capoue, filling gaps on an already formidable roster filled with speed, strength and skill. And so Spurs were the side that ground out the full three points away on the opening weekend while Arsenal was being stunned, 3-1, at home to modest Aston Villa while suffering injuries and the red-card expulsion of Laurent Koscielny and derisive chants directed toward Wenger. The lost weekend was capped off with current board member and former large shareholder Nina Bracewell-Smith ripping current owner Stan Kroenke.
One week into the season, and Arsenal appears to be in turmoil, and Spurs last, best chance to catch them -- with or without wantaway winger Gareth Bale -- appears to be very, very real.
Maybe last year's finale was "bigger" for Arsenal, as tens of millions of Champions League dollars were on the line, but it's hard to imagine a more telling week than the one that's on tap. The Gunners first must travel to Turkey on Wednesday to face Fenerbahce in the first leg of their Champions League playoff round tie, then they head to Fulham on Saturday, a team that always plays them very well. Next Tuesday is the second UCL leg, where failure will cost the club a ton. Then, as if the schedule-makers planned it, the Gunners host Spurs on Sept. 1, the day before the window closes, in what is already looking like a massive match.
And Arsenal will be attempting this with what is currently a very shorthanded roster, one with which Wenger will be hard-pressed to put a competent back four together in front of up-and-down keeper Wojciech Szczesny. With most of the media buzz centering around Wenger's seemingly quixotic attempt to land Luis Suarez from Liverpool to make up for last season's sale of Robin van Persie, it's the defense (and goalkeeper) that needs the bigger upgrade (cough, *Asmir Begovic*, cough).
Meanwhile, Spurs look loaded. They're highly skilled, with the physicality that Arsenal is badly missing. Their debut performance at Crystal Palace wasn't stellar, but they should find chemistry with their newcomers sooner rather than later, and even the most devout Gunners supporter would probably look at the two teams right now and conclude that Spurs look like the better side.
And, if Tuesday morning's hot rumors pan out, with Gareth Bale finally heading to Real Madrid for a mountain of cash and Spurs about to lock up Willian (as well as Fabio Coentrao from Madrid, and with an eye on others), the disparity will soon be even larger.
Someone has to exit the top four for someone else to break in. When Manchester City rose to power, it was Liverpool that paid the price. Now, on the brink of a massive week for the club, it looks like Arsenal is the side that's most vulnerable, and their archrival is very ready to pounce.
Speaking of Begovic, Stoke's opener at Liverpool provided numerous examples of what makes the Bosnian so excellent, as well as a look at the miniscule margin for error goalkeepers have at the world's top level.
Reflexes and athleticism are obvious components of any top keeper's arsenal, but Begovic separates himself from most others because of his excellent footwork, positioning and technique. The way he manages angles as the ball changes position is terrific, his feet are quick and quiet, and he doesn't take a big crow hop to get set in anticipation of a shot. The result is he's almost always perfectly placed and squared up to a shooter, and can react quickly to a shot because he's not still coming down from the air when the ball is struck.
Look at Jordan Henderson's great chance in the 27th minute as evidence of all of this. Henderson gets played through and has an opportunity to immediately strike with his right foot. Begovic closes down the angle and is well set and square right when contact would be made.
Instead, Henderson cuts the ball inside, forcing Begovic to quickly slide right and reset as Henderson now goes to strike the ball with his left foot. Begovic gets central in the goal again, gets his feet set quickly as the ball is being struck, and then gets down smartly to stop the point blank shot. It was beautiful goalkeeping.
Now, let's move to two crucial moments in the match to see how things can change based on really small pieces of technique.
Liverpool scored the only goal of the match on an excellent strike from Daniel Sturridge that went through the legs of a Stoke defender and beat Begovic to the far post. It's a difficult chance, but watch what happens as Begovic tries to react to the shot.
As Begovic leans to his left, his left (nearest to the ball) leg comes very close to touching the ground, but then he pulls it out in an effort to get down quicker. Instead of being able to use that left leg to drive off and propel himself closer to the far post, Begovic only could cover as far as his outstretched arm could reach from his initial starting point, and he didn't get there. He also dove parallel across his goal line rather than out at an angle that would be more likely to reach the shot (geometry, ftw). The pace of the shot and how it came through the defender likely gave Begovic a late look. Maybe there's nothing more he could have done, but contrast that to a second-half play where Begovic made a sensational save to keep Stoke in the match.
This is a similar kind of "snap" shot (without a defender screen, but with Begovic having to move laterally as the cross came in) as the Sturridge goal. Begovic has very little time to react to the shot, but in this case, at least manages to get his right foot back on the ground and uses it to quickly push himself a bit farther to his right than his initial position. When he then reaches as he dives, this time at an angle out from the goal and perpendicular to the path of the shot, he manages to get a slight touch and tip the shot off the inside of the far post for a world-class save.
Very few keepers in the world stop that second shot, which explains how Begovic is rated as perhaps the best keeper in the Premier League. And why his reaction after Sturridge's goal suggests that he believed he could have done a bit better on it. That's his level of expectation.
There's an inherent unfairness to soccer at times. The low-scoring nature of the game means the better team doesn't win as often as it "should," and all a defending side needs is one chance to steal the points. It's hard to find a more perfect example of this than last Saturday's Sunderland-Fulham match, where the homestanding Black Cats took 21 shots at goal (only three on target, though, and most from long range) to Fulham's one attempt (although many match reports claim it had three; maybe two that were blocked were counted?), and lost the match, 1-0.
Here's an incredible shot chart from that match (h/t @30frames):
Perhaps even more absurdly, Fulham completed only two passes inside Sunderland's 18-yard box the entire match: One was the little pass that found Dimitar Berbatov just inside the 18 that eventually led to Fulham's only corner kick, and the other was Damien Duff's in-swinger that was thumped home at the far post by the head of Pajtim Kasami.
Sunderland didn't have the cutting edge necessary to unlock a resolute Fulham side that was without four possible starters and lost two more to injury during the match, but if anyone deserved to nick the game 1-0, it wasn't the Cottagers.
• Begovic wasn't the only keeper in his match who had a pivotal intervention. Newly signed Liverpool custodian Simon Mignolet (also one of the best keepers in the league last season, just not noticed as much playing for Sunderland) saved LFC from a very wasteful draw with an 88th minute penalty kick save.
NBC Sports Network also looked great in the process, flashing a TV graphic as Stoke's John Walters lined up the kick showing that Walters went low and to the keeper's right on four of his last five penalty kick attempts. Any Prem keeper will enter a match with a scouting report on an opponent's likely penalty kick takers, so Mignolet surely knew Walters' tendency, and with Walters hitting the one shot he crashed down the middle off the bar, it was reasonable to guess that in a high-pressure situation like this, Walters would go to his first-choice approach.
He had some help in confirming it, though, as Walters gave him a huge read ahead of contact, planting his left foot facing directly toward that left corner and opening his hips to come around the ball to pull it in that direction.
The combination of good scouting and a good early read on a shooter's approach pre-impact allowed Mignolet to start to his right and get down to save the penalty. The follow-up save on the eternally overrated Kenwyne Jones saved the clean sheet and the win for Liverpool.
• There were some fantastic goals scored on the league's first weekend of play (an underrated one was from Everton teenager Ross Barkley, who unleashed a 23-yard left-footed Howitzer past Norwich's John Ruddy, who had zero chance), but my personal favorite was Danny Welbeck's second goal (Manchester United's final one) in the 4-1 win at Swansea. Being able to hit a chip at full speed, with a defender in pursuit, that's high enough to clear an onrushing keeper and gauged enough to compensate for his momentum moving toward the end line, is sublime.
You can't make any full determinations in Week 1, but United's performance was a loud throatclear to the rest of the league. They went into a place where very few teams will win this season, and worked over the Swans, birdieing the 1st hole of their "round" while other title chasers were parring (or in Arsenal's case, carding a double bogey).
• The promoted sides pretty much gave you what you expected -- a sizable amount of grit and a miniscule amount of top-level class that would allow them to regularly create scoring chances. No one will be a pushover at home (as Spurs found out on Sunday morning at Selhurst Park), but on the basis of three shutout defeats and minimal threat provided, goals against top-half sides (at least) may prove hard to come by, especially on the road.
• The Premier League's new Hawk-Eye goal review system got its first test in the Chelsea-Hull match and passed with flying colors. Hull's Allan McGregor was correctly judged to have kept the entire ball from crossing the entire goal line. Goals in soccer are far too precious for mistakes to be made either way. Goal-line technology was long overdue, and it's exciting to see it work correctly on the opening weekend.
• Not sure there's too much to take from City's evisceration of Newcastle Monday afternoon. City (my preseason title pick) is really good with much more offensive variety. Edin Dzeko may drown in all the service he will receive most matches this season. City was thoroughly outclassing the Magpies even before Steven Taylor's silly straight red ended any competitive aspect of the match right before the half. If not for Tim Krul and a couple of fluffed finishes, Newcastle could have taken a record pounding at the Etihad. Then again, it doesn't have to play 38 matches at City, so let's hold off on relegation talk until we get more evidence that this wasn't just one bad game.