Bill Clinton is the President of the United States. Amazon is a harmless, happy little bookstore, and I am a spritely 6 days old, still trying to figure out what in the world is happening.
But more importantly than any of that, the Pittsburgh Pirates were in Colorado for an early week series with the Rockies.
Baseball >> Everything else in life. Your moral of the story.
Anyway, the Pirates enter this particular series with a record of 49-56, sitting 5th in the NL Central, below everyone except for the lowly Milwaukee Brewers. Manager Gene Lamont is struggling through his first season at the helm of the Jolly Roger, trying to guide a roster where the average position player age is 26.2 back to the postseason for the first time since Sid Bream broke Pittsburgh hearts in 1992.
The Rockies, in just their 6th season since being born to Major League Baseball in 1993, enter the series with a record of 46-59, chasing the National League best San Diego Padres. Led by the trio of Larry Walker, Dante Bichette and Todd Helton, the Rockies boast an impressive offensive pedigree, 5th in baseball in runs scored.
Both teams being well out of the playoff chase, the game means next to nothing to anyone not affiliated with either side.
Hell, it probably doesn’t even mean that much to those affiliated with each side. But is that gonna stop us from talking about it 20 years later? That answer should be fairly clear.
In the 3rd inning, a perfect culmination of random weirdness exploded over the course of 15 seconds to create the ultimate baseball moment that has brought us here, together, over 20 years later.
The bottom of Colorado’s staunch hitting order came to bat in the bottom of the 3rd inning, already down 5-1. Pirates’ starter Todd Van Poppel made quick work of catcher Kirt Manuring and starting pitcher Mark Brownson before the Rockies’ lineup flipped over, bringing shortstop Neifi Perez to the plate for his second at bat of the game.
Now, maybe you know what comes next, maybe you don’t. The short version is that, on a 3-2 count, Perez drilled a Van Poppel fastball deep to right field and off the wall, above a leaping Jose Guillen. Rounding second base and thinking he had an easy triple, Perez was stunningly thrown out by a Guillen laser beam that soared from the Coors Field warning track to 3rd base on the fly.
However, we aren’t here to discuss the ‘short’ version of the play. So let’s get out the proverbial shovel and dig in a little bit.
Just in and of itself, it’s a downright absurd play. It’s at the forefront of the ‘best baseball throw ever’ discussion and the play-by-play announcer on the video even went so far as to say the play showed “shades of Roberto Clemente.”
In my lifetime, I’ve only ever seen two throws like it, both also made in Colorado, and both made with the help of significant crow-hops by players known for their strong arms in Rick Ankiel and Yasiel Puig.
But the beauty of this play doesn’t so much lie in the play itself, but more in who made the play.
First of all, the fact that Neifi Perez is hitting in the leadoff spot for an actual Major League team in 1998 needs to be discussed.
Perez, a native of the Dominican Republic, was signed as an international free agent in the summer of 1992 as an 18 year old. His lauded defensive skills carried him through the minor leagues over the course of the next four years, a highlight being his turning of the first unassisted triple play in California League history before making it all the way up to debut in 1996 for a cup of coffee with the still brand new Rockies.
Unfortunately, that 1996 cup of coffee was unceremoniously spilled onto everyone who tried drinking it. Perez flopped to the tune of a .156/.156/.200 slash line over 46 PA, good for a WRC+ of -43 and -0.9 fWAR. But hey, this was still a highly touted 23 year old shortstop and a really small sample size, so more chances will come.
And, in 1997, Perez somewhat took advantage of those chances, slashing a much more impressive .291/.333/.444 over 344 PA, good for 0.7 fWAR. Entering his age 25 season in 1998, Perez had supplanted the incumbent Walt Weiss (name drop) as the Rockies’ everyday shortstop and Colorado was hoping he could build on that 1997 season in a positive way.
What they got instead was the beginning of one of the worst offensive careers in Major League history.
Perez slashed .274/.313/.382 in 1998, good for 59 WRC+ and -1.6 fWAR, an absolutely putrid line over the course of 712 plate appearances. His career includes the 4th lowest Fangraphs OFF score in the history of the live ball era at -305.1 offensive runs below average – roughly equivalent to being worth around -35 wins offensively.
A highlight (lowlight..?) of that career is a stretch of 5 straight seasons, beginning in 1998 and ending in 2002, where Perez accrued negative fWAR each respective year.
Now, it’s impossible for the Rockies to have known that they currently employed one of the 5 worst Major League hitters of all time. But still, by the time Neifi Perez was coming to the plate on July 27th, 1998, it was painfully evident that this wasn’t a guy that should be hitting in the invaluable leadoff spot for such a powerful Colorado lineup.
However, despite what you now know about his offensive profile, Perez managed – on this one special occasion – to barrel up a fastball and drive it to the right field wall. Which brings us to the other side of this equation.
Our friend Jose Guillen, the Pirates’ 22 year old Dominican right fielder, is currently in the midst of his own disastrous campaign. As rough as Perez’s first taste of the big leagues was, Guillen’s has been significantly worse.
It couldn’t have been known at the time, but Guillen would finish the 1998 season at -3.1 fWAR, the 5th worst fWAR season since 1920.
(Magically and coincidentally for the sake of this article, the 6th worst fWAR season of all time just so happens to belong to Neifi Perez in 2002 at -2.9.)
Now, over 526 plate appearances, Guillen slugged 14 HR’s and posted a .712 OPS, good for 82 WRC+. Although comfortably below league average, these numbers aren’t too terrible for a 22 year old rookie. So, offensively, our friend Jose isn’t the historically terrible player that I have portrayed him as.
However, Guillen’s defense is truly what sets him apart in the annals of awful-ness.
With a total zone score of -27 (0 is league average) and a Fangraphs DEF score of -34.7 (the 5th worst single season DEF score of all position players since 1920), Guillen’s playing of right field resembled something much closer to Bambi wearing stilettos on ice rather than Roberto Clemente.
So, at this point in the play, Neifi Perez has achieved the minor miracle of hitting a ball to the right field wall. Considering everything we now know about Jose Guillen’s defense, seeing him miss making the catch and flopping up against the Coors Field scoreboard like an octopus in a washing machine sure makes a lot more sense.
But then it happens.
Jose Guillen uncorks the throw, catching lightning in a bottle, and guns down Neifi Perez on his way to 3rd base with a nearly 350 foot laser beam. The play is captured and preserved in immortality and immediately entered into the conversation for ‘best throw ever’.
Again, it’s a mind-blowing play just by itself. But when you consider that we’re combining one of the worst offensive players of all time at peak bad-ness and one of the worst defensive players of all time at peak bad-ness, Jose Guillen’s warning track throw ventures away from ‘amazing’ and into ‘miracle explosion of weirdness.’
In America, we call it a rivalry and the fierceness often depends upon whether or not the teams are winning. For example, when the Yankees or Red Sox suck, that rivalry isn’t any fun and it’s just some normal games.
What I love about Premier League derby’s is that they are always intense and hard-fought, no matter if one or both of the teams is winning or not. That being said, it certainly doesn’t hurt when the teams are winning and the game really matters.
This weekend saw the London Derby between West Ham and Chelsea, the Merseyside Derby between Liverpool and Everton, and the Manchester Derby between City and United. All 3 were hotly contested and produced significant results.
West Ham, in one of the shock results of the season, gave David Moyes his first victory as manager and defeated Chelsea 1-0. Everton, on the back of a controversial late penalty scored by Wayne Rooney, drew with Liverpool 1-1 and Manchester City all but wrapped up the title with a dominating 2-1 display over Manchester United.
Elsewhere, Leicester and Newcastle played a brilliantly entertaining game that went the Foxes’ way after an unfortunate Magpies own goal. Burnley kept rolling with a 1-0 win over Watford, Swansea won their first game since the calendar said ‘October’ and Huddersfield easily handled Brighton 2-0.
Here are your weekend headlines:
Manchester is Blue and the Title is Too
If you still had any doubt about who the best team in England is, Sunday should officially cement Manchester City’s status as the top dog in the yard. Having won 13 straight games and only dropped points in 1 of 15 games so far, a trip to Manchester United was the last true test on City’s 2017 docket.
Oh, they passed. You better believe they passed.
Manchester City won the Derby on Sunday afternoon in every way possible. The 2-1 scoreline was possibly flattering towards Manchester United and it’s amazing to think that it could have been 2-2 if not for Ederson making an absolutely remarkable double save in the 85th minute of action.
Pep Guardiola out-classed Jose Mourinho once again, maintaining his spotless record against the Portuguese manager since the two came to England at the beginning of last season.
Mourinho had a clear plan, sucker City forward and then play long balls over the top to Marcus Rashford and the other pacy United attackers. Guardiola was perfectly happy to push his team as high up the pitch as possible and then trust his centre backs to stop counter attacks. Nicolas Otamendi had a fantastic day in City defense, making 3 interceptions and 4 clearances while not giving away a single foul all day.
The thing that it didn’t seem Mourinho was prepared for was just how little of the ball his side would have. If not for a late push in both halves from Manchester United, City might have held 80% possession throughout the full 90 minutes. As it stands, the possession numbers read 65%-35% in favor of the boys in blue, but that seems favorable to the Red Devils.
When City had the ball, they were probing the United defense, making them run and eventually break down on a pair of set pieces. When City didn’t have the ball, the blue shirts were flying all over the pitch, making ferocious efforts to get it back as soon as possible. United didn’t seem to be prepared for quite how tenacious and aggressive City were going to be, and it cost them.
In each of the other major battles, City came out on top of them all.
Kevin De Bruyne and David Silva bossed the Red Devils’ defensive midfield pairing of Ander Herrera and Nemanja Matic. No City player touched the ball more than De Bruyne and Silva at 103 touches and 92 touches respectively, and United paid for their inability to silence the Sky Blues’ dynamic midfield pairing.
On the other side of the pitch, Romelu Lukaku was bullied all day long by Vincent Kompany and Eliaquim Mangala. The big Belgian only had 20 touches in a full 90 minutes of work, the fewest of any United player, and contributed significantly to both City goals with shoddy set piece clearances.
Manchester City are now 11 points clear at the top and it’s not even Christmas yet. The Sky Blues have garnered 46 points from 16 games, the joint-highest total ever in that span, and have now set the all-time Premier League record for consecutive wins in a single season with 14 straight W’s.
United, meanwhile, have just lost at home to their bitter rivals and now find themselves all but out of the title race in early December. City have one hand on the title and there’s not a damn thing that their red rivals can do about it.
Manchester is blue and the title is too.
Tottenham Break Winless Streak in Style
If you don’t count the Champions League, it’s been a while since there was a winning feeling at Wembley. Winless in their last 4 games, Spurs haven’t pulled down a full 3 points since defeated Crystal Palace 1-0 all the way back on November 5th.
So, yeah, it’s been a while.
But the winless streak is no more after this past weekend’s 5-1 thrashing of a helpless Stoke City. Everyone got in on the action for Spurs, with Heung-min Son scoring the 2nd goal of the day, Harry Kane bracing the 3rd and 4th, and Christian Eriksen slamming home Tottenham’s 5th.
After a week in which Mauricio Pochettino called out his players to “show their true quality,” his boys responded in motivated fashion.
Spurs were rampant going forward in every way. The counter-attack was just as ruthless and precise as we’ve come to expect, and the open play attack was just as lethal. Tottenham’s passing, in particular, stood out on Saturday afternoon as Spurs completed 696 passes with a sparkling 89% accuracy.
There are still some warning signs that Pochettino and Tottenham can’t ignore from this matchup. The goal given up was due to poor goalkeeping by Hugo Lloris along with a marking error by Eric Dier. Those errors may seem small in the context of a 5-1 victory, but there were far too many of those individual errors by white shirts on the day and those mistakes have made the difference between winning and losing during this mini 4 game streak.
With a visit from Manchester City on the horizon next weekend, Tottenham can’t afford those types of mistakes again and they need to be even better than they were Saturday to have a hope of defeating the rampant Sky Blues.
This was a nice way to end a winless streak for Spurs, but the warning signs are still there and need to be addressed. Tottenham aren’t out of the woods just yet, not even close, but they’ve begun cutting down some vines in their way.
Chelsea Shocked at London Stadium
If Manchester United’s loss to Manchester City this weekend dropped them out of the title race, as Jose Mourinho said in his postgame presser, than Chelsea’s 1-0 loss to West Ham on Saturday also dropped them out of the title race.
The Blues have now dropped 16 points through 16 games this season, a far cry from their form of last season that saw them only drop 21 points all season long. Now trailing Man City by 14 points, Chelsea’s title defense is all but officially finished and they have nobody to blame for it but themselves.
With defeats on the docket already to far inferior teams like Burnley and Crystal Palace, Chelsea have made a habit this season of playing down to poor competition and letting valuable points slip away. This loss was no different, with West Ham snatching an early lead and then holding onto it against a seemingly indifferent Blues’ side.
It took 55 minutes for Chelsea to even record a shot on goal and it was just 1 of 2 on the day. Only 2 shots in a full 90 minutes of football flat out isn’t good enough and West Ham, much to their credit, made Antonio Conte’s side pay for it.
“We played tired,” the Italian manager admitted about his team. “We created chances but were not able to score. There is still a fight to be had this season for the Champions League,but we are disappointed.”
Five of Antonio Conte’s 9 Premier League defeats as Chelsea manager have come in London derbies, with West Ham joining Arsenal, Crystal Palace (x2) and Tottenham as crosstown Chelsea poachers.
All season long, the Blues have been possibly the quietest of the top 4 teams. They haven’t been out of a Champions League position since week 3 and that doesn’t appear set to change anytime soon, but their hopes of pulling in a successive Premier League title appear over.
Chelsea are what they are at this stage. They have proven their quality with wins over Tottenham, Manchester United and a 2nd place finish in a tough Champions League group, but have also proven their inconsistency with losses to Burnley, last place (at the time) Crystal Palace and now last place (at the time) West Ham.
With a midweek game away at Huddersfield right on the horizon, there could be another disappointing shortcoming in the works if the Blues aren’t careful and for a side so talented, this feels like a team on the verge of collapse.
Real Madrid has already begun courting the likes of Eden Hazard and Thibaut Courtois, Antonio Conte’s job is on the ropes, 50 million pound summer signing Tiemoue Bakayoko is being heavily criticized from all corners, and Alvaro Morata hasn’t scored a goal in all competitions since November 18th.
Tough times at Stamford Bridge for the Prem’s most volatile club.
Player of the Week: Steve Mounie
Huddersfield have had to wait nearly 4 months for their record signing to score his first goal at the John Smith’s Stadium, but it was certainly worth the wait. Mounie turned in an exquisite performance on Saturday against Brighton, scoring twice in a 2-0 Terriers win. The Beninese international has been a crucial cog in a surprisingly good Huddersfield side so far this season and it was nice to see him be rewarded this weekend with two home goals that saw the Terriers’ faithful erupt in jubilation.
Runners Up: Nicolas Otamendi, Son Heung-min, Marko Arnautovic
Team of the Week: Manchester City
They all but clinched the title this weekend with a tremendous display at Old Trafford. Pep Guardiola’s upstart world-beaters have dispatched their greatest rival and biggest test of the season so far and are now 11 points clear before Christmas. Their name is being carved onto the trophy as we speak.
Runners Up: Huddersfield Town, Burnley, Swansea City
David De Gea’s stunner last week was probably better, but holy smokes does Ederson’s double effort in the 85th minute of the Manchester Derby give the Spaniard a run for his money. After saving a point blank Romelu Lukaku drive with his face/throat, Ederson popped right back up and sprawled himself out to deny Juan Mata as well. It was a crucial juncture in the game and denied Manchester United’s best scoring chance of the day, securing all 3 points for Man City in the biggest game of the season so far.
Runners Up: Newcastle 86’ own goal, Christian Benteke’s penalty farce
10 Things I Think
Don’t be surprised if Leicester City finish higher than Tottenham or Arsenal in the final standings. After such a rough start to the season under Craig Shakespeare, Claude Puel has the Foxes back playing their best football and Riyad Mahrez is grabbing games by the scruff of the neck again like he did during the 2015-16 title campaign. This is an extremely dangerous team, winners of 3 straight and only becoming more difficult to defend as they increase in confidence. Watch out, Southampton and Crystal Palace this week.
I might be alone in this boat, but I thought it was nice to see Marko Arnautovic finally get off the mark for West Ham and score his first goal this weekend against Chelsea. Arnautovic has floundered thus far in London after moving from Stoke, but he was rewarded with a goal this weekend for a string of good performances he’s turned in recently. Slaven Bilic played the Austrian in 6 different positions before being fired, which isn’t conducive to success in any way. Since arriving, Roy Hodgson has given Arnautovic 4 straight starts as an attacking centre midfielder, a position he has thrived in. West Ham’s Austrian star is finally off the mark and he should only get better.
I think Olivier Giroud is completely under appreciated among Gunners fans. Arsenal’s French marksman scored his 17th goal as a substitute in the 88th minute on Sunday, rescuing a 1-1 draw for his side against a tough Southampton team. Only Jermain Defoe (23) has scored more Premier League goals as a substitute than Giroud, and the Frenchman’s 17th goal for Arsenal pulls him level with former Manchester United hero Ole Gunnar Solskjaer in terms of substitute goals for one club. Giroud has been there time and time again for Arsenal and it’s time he got the credit he deserved.
And, speaking of Jermain Defoe, Bournemouth’s English poacher scored the goal of the weekend with this stupidly good volley. Defoe doesn’t even take a look at the net, this is purely instinct and muscle memory. A remarkable goal.
I think Gabriel Jesus was the most underrated cog in Manchester City’s derby victory this weekend. The striker played nearly all 57 of his game minutes in a wide role, essentially as a false #9, in order to give Kevin De Bruyne and David Silva more space to operate in. It was a subtle tactical adjustment by Pep Guardiola, but it was fascinating to watch Jesus play wide. He didn’t touch the ball much and didn’t have a very tangible influence on the game (other than putting Marcos Rojo on skates in the first half with some dribbling trickery) but his willingness to play wider allowed De Bruyne and Silva to boss the midfield like they did. Jesus has been hailed as the perfect modern striker because of his intelligence on the pitch and this was just another example of that.
I think St. James Park possesses the most lively and impressive atmosphere in the Premier League. Rafa Benitez has routinely pointed out the influence that his teams’ supporters can have on the club, and it was evident on Saturday afternoon against Leicester City. When Newcastle opened the scoring in the 5th minute, the place erupted and the noise could be heard all the way in Wales. Before the game, while Newcastle were celebrating the club’s 125th birthday, the Magpies’ fans brought their A game in the tifo department, unfurling newspaper headlines and banners all over the park. It was an incredible scene and one that I felt was worth mentioning here.
I think Jose Mourinho’s post-match interview is indicative of where his club stands in relation to Manchester City. After being thoroughly taken apart by the Sky Blues, Mourinho insisted that it was the referee’s fault his side lost, claiming that Ander Herrera deserved a penalty and that it was “an important mistake” that it wasn’t given. The Portuguese manager went even further, claiming that Man City are “protected by the luck and the gods of football are behind them.” Winners focus on winning, losers focus on winners. You be the judge of what Mourinho and United are.
I think that Christian Benteke is the goat of the week (goat as in scapegoat, not GOAT). Tied 2-2 in the 92nd minute of a crucial game against Bournemouth, Crystal Palace won themselves a penalty and looked as if they just might be able to pull out all 3 points. Curiously, up stepped Christian Benteke – instead of Luka Milivojevic, who had already scored a Palace penalty earlier in the afternoon – and, of course, the Belgian striker’s pathetic effort was saved by Bournemouth goalie Asmir Begovic. After the match, Roy Hodgson admitted that Benteke taking the penalty was a decision made by Benteke and Benteke only. Palace were cost 2 points because of the mistake and it could bite them at the end of the season during their fight for survival. A crucial mistake and a crucial miss from a horribly out of form Benteke.
Another 2-game week in the Premier League begins on Tuesday with the best midweek clash between Watford and Crystal Palace. Palace’s penchant for playing a wide open game has produced some of the most entertaining ties of the season, as has Watford. There could be some serious fireworks in this game, and I see a 2-2 draw with goals from Zaha, Doucoure, Andre Gray and Luka Milivojevic.
I proclaimed the midweek slate of games to be the best in the season and, while I still believe that, this weekend sure gave it a run for all of its marbles.
Manchester United and Arsenal played in possibly the most eventful match of the season, seeing 4 goals, 14 David De Gea saves and a Paul Pogba red card – among other things. Manchester City held yet another late show, trailing at halftime before scoring twice in the 2nd half – capped by a David Silva goal in the 83rd minute to snatch their 13th straight win.
Elsewhere, Tottenham lost Davinson Sanchez to a red card and surrendered yet another draw, this time to Watford. Liverpool kept rolling with a 5-1 win over Brighton, while Everton have now won 2 straight in preparation for next weekend’s Merseyside Derby.
At times, this Premier League season has been a bit anticlimactic. Big matches have disappointed in terms of excitement and Manchester City have taken complete control of the title race thus far. This week reminded me, and hopefully everyone else, why we love this league.
Without further adieu, here are your headlines from the weekend that was:
David De Gea is Superman
So, the Emirates got set on fire last Saturday.
In a barn-burningly wild game that saw 20 total shots on goal, a Paul Pogba red card and Jesse Lingard absolutely body the ‘Milly Rock’ after scoring his first of two goals on the evening, David De Gea comes away as Manchester United’s hero in a crucial 3-1 victory.
By making 14 saves, including an absolutely stunning double on Lacazette and Alexis Sanchez, United’s Spanish starlet put himself in the history books, equalling the Premier League record for most saves in a single game. His being awarded man of the match on Saturday evening is possibly the easiest man of the match award in any game all season long.
I remember when Tim Howard saved 14 of 16 shots against Belgium in the World Cup and instantly became America’s new ‘Secretary of Defense’ and a national hero in a sport that we didn’t particularly care about at that point in time (things have certainly changed…..). However, just about all of Howard’s 14 saves were routine to the point where he would’ve been ashamed to not have made all 14 stops.
The majority of De Gea’s 14 saves on Saturday were absolutely mental, some defying logic and sense. There was the double against Lacazette and Sanchez, several more robs of Arsenal’s #9, a wonderful diving stop on Hector Bellerin, a phenomenal reaction save off of an inadvertent Romelu Lukaku deflection and I haven’t even gotten halfway into De Gea’s save total from Saturday.
All told, it was an absolutely superb afternoon from the world’s best goalkeeper (yup, I said it….fight me, Manuel Neuer) and he stole a victory for Manchester United in a game they likely shouldn’t have won as handily as they did.
Arsenal out-did the Red Devils in every possible facet on Saturday. The possession numbers ran 76%-24% in favor of the Gunners, Arsenal put up 33(!) total shots to only 8 total Man U shots, while Arsenal also put 16 shots on goal vs only 4 from United. The only difference was the finishing quality, and Manchester United made no mistake in front of goal, converting 3 out of those 4 shots into goals.
While De Gea was possibly the sole reason that the scoreline didn’t finish 7-3 in favor of Arsenal, the rest of the Red Devils deserve a lot of credit for the game they played. Although they only had 25% of the ball, United were constantly moving forward when the chances arose and had a high shot frequency relative to their possession numbers. They finished strongly and did well to exploit the Gunners’ weakness on the right side of defense.
Arsenal fought like hell, but David De Gea gave everyone a reminder of his quality this weekend and Manchester United now roll into a massive weekend derby against Manchester City with momentum and confidence.
Performance of the season.
Claude Puel Leads the Midseason Manager Pack
You would have to imagine that being thrust into the managerial job of a professional football team midway through a campaign is possibly the most difficult thing in all of football.
The Premier League is no stranger to the manager merry-go-round, and this season has already seen Slaven Bilic, Frank De Boer, Tony Pulis, Craig Shakespeare and Ronald Koeman sacked from their respective clubs.
For West Ham, Crystal Palace, West Brom, and Everton, there have been varying degrees of success in their post-(insert previous manager) eras. But, for Leicester City, it cannot be denied that new coach Claude Puel has already had an incredibly positive influence.
The Frenchman has only tasted defeat once in his 6 games in charge of the Foxes and now has the team playing at a level we haven’t seen since the title run in 2015-16. This weekend was just another brilliant Leicester performance with Puel’s influence written all over it.
One of the most significant changes that Puel has made with Leicester is that he’s been much more adaptable in his game-planning for specific teams.
For example, in the midweek against Tottenham, the Foxes sat back and let Spurs control 70% of possession before using the pace and creativity of Riyad Mahrez and Demarai Gray to launch lethal counter attacks. Using Tottenham’s penchant for occasionally lazy passing in the midfield against them, Leicester pulled out a 2-1 win.
This weekend, against Burnley, Leicester knew that they could hold more possession and control the attack a little bit more. So the Foxes maintained 53% possession and attacked down the flanks, avoiding Burnley’s exceptional centre back pairing of Ben Mee and James Tarkowski by attacking the much weaker fullbacks. The approach worked well enough and Leicester pulled out yet another victory.
It seems so simple that the solution for Puel to solve all of Leicester’s woes was just to be more malleable in his game plans, but that’s how it is at the King Power right now, I guess. Riyad Mahrez is back at his world-class best, Demarai Gray is an emerging superstar, the defense is back to its organized and disciplined best and Harry Maguire has been a godsend since coming over from Hull City, scoring once and assisting 3 times this season.
Another complete team effort pushed Leicester into the top 10 for the first time this season and with 3 straight games coming up against Newcastle, Southampton and Crystal Palace on the horizon, the Foxes’ recent run of form certainly appears sustainable.
This is a dangerous team right now and Claude Puel deserves a ton of credit for the job he’s done to get them back on track.
Liverpool Are Rolling
With their 13th straight win this weekend, Manchester City have equalled the Premier League record in terms of consecutive victories in a single season. With their exceptional run of form so far this season, it could be easily forgiven if you assumed that the Sky Blues were playing the best football of any English side right now.
But, you’d be wrong.
Liverpool, since losing 4-1 on October 22nd to Tottenham, have yet to taste defeat and their only non-win was a 1-1 draw with Chelsea during match week 13. During that time, the Reds have won every single match by at least 3 goals, including this weekend’s 5-1 thrashing of Brighton.
So, yeah, Liverpool are the best English side going right now. And, with a 7-0 Champions League dispatching of Spartak Moscow today, there don’t appear to be any signs of slowing down.
The biggest change for Liverpool since losing to Tottenham back in October has been a locational alteration in attack. Against Spurs, Liverpool favored the right flank when going forward, attacking from there 51% of the time according to WhoScored.com. This allowed Tottenham to pretty easily funnel the Reds into a corner, taking away the pace and creativity of their wingers and forcing them to try and out-physical the likes of Jan Vertonghen, Davinson Sanchez and Serge Aurier.
As you can probably guess, this didn’t go well for Jurgen Klopp’s men, so they made a change. In every game since the Wembley loss, Liverpool have attacked through the middle more than 35% of the time, making it their primary focus when going forward.
This change has allowed the Reds to maximize Philippe Coutinho’s creativity while giving him two blazing fast wingers on either side and Roberto Firmino in front. The front 4 of Liverpool has truly turned into a dynamic and interconnected front 4 instead of just 4 wonderfully skilled attacking players that didn’t know how to play together.
The goals are now flowing for Liverpool and they have looked unstoppable at times going forward. Leading the way, Mohamed Salah is as close to unstoppable right now as any player in England and leads the league in goals with 12 and Coutinho is back into his blistering form and earned a perfect 10/10 rating from WhoScored.com against Brighton this weekend.
With the Merseyside Derby and a visit to the Emirates on the near horizon, Liverpool are raging their way through all comers at the moment and have the look of the most dangerous English team going. The Reds have had their struggles this season but they appear to have sorted them out and are now in peak form.
Look out, everyone else.
Team of the Week (Part 2): Liverpool
5 goals past Brighton, 7 goals past Spartak in the midweek Champions League, 3 past Stoke in the midweek Prem. Nobody playing better than the Reds right now, fascinating matchup coming up this weekend against a suddenly revived Everton squad. But, for now, Liverpool rule the roost.
Runners Up: Everton, Leicester City
Player of the Week (Part 2): David De Gea
When I tell you that I thought nobody would be able to touch Wayne Rooney’s midweek performance, I sure as hell believed that. David De Gea turned in the performance of the season on Saturday evening against Arsenal and has easily bested Rooney’s sublime hat trick. For a goalkeeping display, it doesn’t get any better than what Manchester United’s #1 did.
Runners Up: Dominic Calvert-Lewin, Eden Hazard, Philippe Coutinho
Just in case you haven’t gone and checked out what David De Gea did on Saturday, here’s the highlight of his evening. Everything about this sequence is absolutely mental and it doesn’t get any better from a goalkeeper. Arsenal pelted the Man U net with 16 shots and, if either one of these shots had gone in, the game would have been 2-2 and had a completely different feel to it. Instead, De Gea pulled a rabbit out of a hat – twice – and kept United in front. My word, what a player.
Runner Up: David Silva completes another Man City late show
10 Things I Think
I think I was spot on with my Everton prediction after their midweek victory over West Ham. I said that the good feelings at Goodison would roll through the weekend after a 2 goal victory over Huddersfield and, what do you know. the Toffees won 2-0. Somehow, Everton have dragged themselves up to 10th in the table with these two straight wins. Remarkable turnaround.
I’ve neglected them recently, but no more. Swansea are the worst team going right now and absolutely deserve to be at the bottom of the table. 8 goals scored all season leaves them at the bottom of the scoring charts with Crystal Palace and there just isn’t any fight in the Swans right now. A 3rd minute Wilfried Bony goal should have been the catalyst for a spirited performance against Stoke. Instead, it caused the team to sit back even more than usual and they had lost that lead by halftime. I don’t know how they turn this around, but they’ve got to find a way.
Manchester City have powered through several key injuries so far this season to Benjamin Mendy, Sergio Aguero, Ilkay Gundogan and Vincent Kompany. However, the loss of John Stones may finally be the straw that collapses the camel’s back. Ever since Stones went out against Leicester, not only have City not kept a clean sheet but they have looked like a shell of the former defensive monster that was rolling over teams by 5-0 and 6-0 margins. City are struggling on set pieces without their big centre back and his passing influence out of the back is also badly missed. December 30th, Stones’ targeted return date, can’t get here soon enough for Pep Guardiola.
I think Wilfried Bony scored the goal of the weekend with this wonderfully composed and powerful volley. Exceptional control and pace on this ball for the Ivorian to open his 2017-18 goal account. Brilliant
In a game that finished 1-1, you would have assumed that Watford had hung on over Spurs to salvage a home point while the visitors pushed for a winner. Instead, it was the home side at Vicarage Road that were playing the contest on the front foot. After a 52nd minute Davinson Sanchez red card, the Hornets sensed blood in the water of a recently dismal Tottenham team and pressured hard. Abdoulaye Doucoure hit the post with an exceptional drive, Richarlison very nearly drew a penalty, and 45% of the 2nd half play occurred in Spurs’ defensive half. Strange times right now when you see Watford being the clear aggressor against Tottenham, but such is life.
Speaking of Watford, Abdoulaye Doucoure is very quietly blossoming into one of the Premier League’s finest centre midfielders. His performance against Tottenham this weekend included 52 of 56 successful passes, 4 tackles, 2 interceptions, a game high 13 time winning the ball back and his 2nd half shot that rang off the post. The 24 year old Frenchman’s relentless work ethic reminds me of a taller N’Golo Kante, but Doucoure’s thunderous finishing ability can set him apart from the snack sized French midfielder. Between him and Richarlison, Watford have some young superstars in their squad right now.
If West Brom want to survive relegation this season, they have to embrace ugly results and ugly football. Tony Pulis’ biggest mistake this season before being fired was that he tried to appease his fans instead of sticking with his stubborn and frustrating defensive style. West Brom attempted to go forward more and were subsequently opened up on the counter attack, which led to the run of poor form that got Pulis sacked. Interim manager Alan Pardew would be smart to learn from the mistakes of his predecessor and stay true to that defensive style. Yes, it will include some maddening and ugly 0-0 games (like the one this weekend against Crystal Palace) but it will also include the Baggies’ best chance at surviving relegation.
I don’t know who came knocking for him this summer, but Chelsea are reaping the benefits of not selling Eden Hazard to Real Madrid, Barcelona, AC Milan or whoever else wanted the star Belgian. Hazard is back in top form right now, evidenced by the 2 goals he scored against Newcastle this weekend and his perfect 10/10 rating from WhoScored.com. Chelsea have a busy month and a half ahead – between the Prem, Champions League and FA Cup – and keeping Hazard in peak condition will be extremely conducive to the Blues’ success during that period.
Folks, we may be witness to the biggest Manchester Derby in history this upcoming weekend. Manchester City have a date with destiny, as a victory over their crosstown rivals would give them 14 consecutive this season and break the Premier League all-time record for consecutive wins. Manchester United have a chance to finally get themselves back in the title race by handing City their first loss of the season. Mourinho vs Pep is a rivalry that dates back to their days at Real Madrid and Barcelona and it always promises fireworks. Paul Pogba, before his red card suspension, had a controversial quote in which he wished injury on sever City players. Vincent Kompany has gone on record saying he “hates” United “with all my blood and guts” and always wants to win the Derby just a little more than any other game. What a game we could be in store for.
Normally, Tuesday Morning Tea, as you could probably guess, comes out on Tuesdays after a Premier League weekend concludes. The holiday schedule is throwing a wrench in my normal plans, so expect to begin seeing some condensed midweek editions of Tuesday Morning Tea during the hectic holiday period.
This midweek, we saw 32 goals in 10 games, two teams hold shutouts and score at least 4 goals, and a Burnley-Tottenham table swap. Here are your headlines:
Raheem Sterling Does it Again
What a player Raheem Sterling is turning into.
With 10 Southampton defenders packed into the box, desperately trying to hold onto what would have been a massive 1-1 draw, Manchester City’s man for the moment found a way through the Saints’ defense to score his most important goal so far this season.
Man City were not at their best on Wednesday, not even close. But, as NBCSN studio host Kathryn Tappen said after the game ended, “championship teams find a way to win the games that they don’t play their best in.”
City’s normally lethal bite in front of net was inexplicably missing on the night, as the Sky Blues pelted Fraser Forster with 12 shots on goal but were only able to score on 2 of them. Pep Guardiola’s side maintained their typically gaudy possession numbers (74%-26%) but just couldn’t find their way through Southampton’s stubborn and disciplined back line.
Give the Saints a lot of credit too. One week after gaining an undeniable degree of confidence by thrashing Everton 4-1, Mauricio Pellegrino had his side ready to push City to the limits. Left back Ryan Bertrand in particular played an outstanding game, both on defense and going forward up the left flank.
But, in the end, Raheem Sterling’s persistence and tremendous finishing ability proved the difference. Sterling has now scored 5 league goals this season that have given Manchester City points, with this one being the latest episode in his ever growing collection of movie-like moments.
With 40 points through 14 matches, Manchester City are now the best Premier League club to ever start a season. There were several changes to the team, but the squad that City trotted out against Southampton on Wednesday featured a team that they could have put out in 2016-17.
The evolution of players like Raheem Sterling has been the difference between City’s form last season and their incredible run so far this season. The English winger has now scored 13 goals, his best ever tally from any single season ever.
His latest game winner gave a massive boost to an underperforming City squad and helped them keep their remarkable winning streak alive. It also gave a hefty gut punch to all chasing teams that thought they might be able to close a little bit of ground on the table toppers.
Possibly the most important moment of the season so far.
Vintage Leicester Continue Tottenham Slide
Last week, following a disappointing 1-1 draw with West Brom, I talked about Tottenham’s alarming recent slide down the Premier League table. I wasn’t willing to sound the alarm bells just yet after that loss because they fought back to a draw, to their credit, and it was just a 3 game winless slide at that point.
After this loss to Leicester, I’m inching closer to pressing the panic button at Wembley.
Firstly, let’s give the Foxes a ton of credit. New manager Claude Puel has made some tremendous changes to the team and has gotten Leicester back into the playing style that won them the title just two seasons ago.
Tuesday’s home victory over Spurs was a perfect example of that style, as Leicester’s two goals came on the counter attack, one brilliantly finished by an incredible Jamie Vardy volley lob over Hugo Loris and the other being a magnificent Riyad Mahrez solo effort.
Vardy’s goal included a 12 pass build-up out of the back, a far cry from what’s been seen lately at the King Power Stadium. Instead of trying to rush a long pass forward, Leicester showed a lot of patience, precision and poise in their passing out of the back against Tottenham. It was a clear sign of Claude Puel’s influence on the club and bodes well for the Foxes going forward.
But, as much credit as Leicester deserve, Tottenham are just flat out poor right now. Sure, they miss Erik Lamela – who made a bright return after subbing for Christian Eriksen in the 77th minute – and Victor Wanyama, but this is the same side that drubbed Real Madrid 3-1 in the Champions League and couldn’t muster up enough to score 2 goals against a Leicester side that has conceded 25 so far this season.
Say what you will, but Tottenham’s recent slide in the Premier League comes down to one thing; the players just don’t care about the league as much.
In the past, Spurs have been right in the thick of title races, finishing 3rd to Leicester two seasons ago and 2nd to Chelsea last season. This season, they currently find themselves 7th after 14 games and are 16 points off of Manchester City’s blazing pace on top of the table.
Meanwhile, in the Champions League, Tottenham has clinched the top spot in Group C, going undefeated through a gauntlet that includes German powerhouse Borussia Dortmund and the 2-time defending UCL champions, Real Madrid. Quite simply, Spurs just care more about the Champions League than the Premier League at the moment, and it’s showing on the field week in and week out.
The effort level from Mauricio Pochettino’s side wasn’t there on Tuesday against Leicester City, it wasn’t there last Saturday against West Brom and it certainly wasn’t there 2 weeks ago against Arsenal in what should have been a fiery North London Derby. It’s incredibly disheartening to see such a talented Spurs team play so lackadaisically in the league, but they’re clearly worried about bigger things.
The defensive shape, normally stout and disciplined, is routinely showing lazy cracks down the middle – Davinson Sanchez was particularly poor against Leicester on Saturday, but Jan Vertonghen certainly didn’t help things at all. And, when push came to shove and Tottenham were trailing 2-0 at halftime, they couldn’t muster up a goal until a fiery Erik Lamela came off the bench and was the creator behind a 79th minute Harry Kane tally.
The biggest revelation from this midweek slate of games was that Tottenham aren’t title contenders this season.
Originally, I had them finishing 6th in the league, well below the top 4 due to a poor summer and the Champions League grind catching up to them. In September, when Harry Kane was putting literally every kick he took into the back of the net, it felt like I might be wrong. But, a few weeks later, Tottenham are being bludgeoned by teams who simply care more and they’ve fallen out of the title race by December.
For the club’s supporters, it’ll be nice to look up and see the overwhelming degree of success that’s been achieved in the Champions League so far, but that won’t be able to wash over this poor run of form that will ultimately take Tottenham out of the running for a Champions League spot next year.
Team of the Week (Part 1): Arsenal
Huddersfield played Manchester City as tough as they possibly could have on Sunday and stymied the league leaders for most of the afternoon with a spirited defensive effort. Arsenal sliced through that same Terriers defense like a hot knife through butter on Wednesday night en route to 5 goals. Mesut Ozil did whatever he wanted to, assisting two goals and scoring one of his own, Alexis Sanchez was his normally dynamic and electric self, and Olivier Giroud came off the bench and turned in a vintage performance while securing a 2nd half brace. It was a top class all-around display from the suddenly rampant Gunners who continue to quietly climb their way up the table after a rocky start to the season.
Runners Up: Everton, Liverpool, Leicester City
Player of the Week (Part 1): Wayne Rooney
A hat trick that included one of the most brilliantly audacious goals that you’ll ever see. This was the easiest award I’ve handed out all season. The best day of the season at Goodison Park happened on Wednesday and Rooney was at the forefront. And trust me, we’ll get to that goal later.
Another no-brainer in the awards section today, Sterling’s winner against Southampton may have been the biggest moment of the season, let alone this midweek slate of games. A gut punch to the pack chasing City and an incredible boost to the Sky Blues. A moment for the ages in a historic season so far at the Etihad. Absolute scenes.
Runners Up: Rooney’s hat trick, Jamie Vardy’s opener
10 Things I Think
I think that this was the best and most entertaining slate of games that I’ve watched all season long. There’s just so much to talk about and take away from Tuesday and Wednesday and it’s not fair that I have to compress it into this laconic midweek article. More of this for the whole holiday period, please
I was almost perfect in my Burnley vs Bournemouth prediction last week. I said that the game would finish 2-0 in favor of the Clarets with goals from Chris Wood and Robbie Brady. The actual final was 2-1, but the Burnley goals were scored by Chris Wood and Robbie Brady, in that order. Sometimes I’m just spot on and this was so close to being one of those times.
And, speaking of Burnley, they’re now up to 6th in the table and just continue to quietly go about their business. Sean Dyche is putting on an absolute show with the players that he has. Burnley are routinely stubborn and damn near impossible to break down defensively. The only teams to put more than one goal past the Clarets in a league match this season are Manchester City and Chelsea, and Burnley won 3-2 over Chelsea just for good measure. This is a remarkable side putting together a remarkable season and they’re unfortunately getting overshadowed by the top 6 that they have now penetrated. No more should they be overlooked, this team is for real and will put together another masterclass against Leicester this weekend, winning 2-1 at the King Power.
Wayne Rooney scored the goal of the midweek, week, month, season, year and possibly the best Premier League goal of the decade. This one is up there with Luis Suarez’s 2013 dipper, it’s that good.
Arsenal were as lethal on Wednesday against Huddersfield as they’ve been in at least the last two seasons. It boggles my mind why Arsene Wenger has yet to consistently start Lacazette, Ozil and Sanchez in a front 3 every chance he gets, but they’re just superb together. The 3 of them compliment each other so well and they sliced the Terriers to pieces on Wednesday night to the tune of a season high 5 goals. The Gunners are now up to 4th in the table and looking as dangerous as ever. For a club with so much turmoil throughout the summer and early fall, I tip my cap to the turnaround currently happening at the Emirates. It’s been remarkable to watch.
And, speaking of turnarounds, how about Everton for you? The Toffees have gone from Southampton punchline to the talk of Merseyside in a matter of 36 hours. On Tuesday night, it was announced that Sam Allardyce had been hired as the new permanent manager at Goodison Park. And then, with Big Sam in attendance on Wednesday night, Everton thrashed West Ham 4-0 behind a sublime hat trick from Wayne Rooney. Goodison was as loud as its ever been and rocked all through the night as the boys in blue walked all over David Moyes’ overmatched Hammers side. Suddenly, Everton are up to 13th in the table and have all sorts of hope surrounding the club. Optimism has been rare this season for the Toffees, but Wednesday served as the latest and greatest episode for club supporters to try and latch on to. My prediction? It’ll last through the weekend after Everton dispatch Huddersfield 3-1.
Manchester City have won 12 straight league games. The Premier League record is 13, held jointly by last season’s Chelsea squad and the invincible Arsenal squad of 2003-04, which City should tie this weekend against a hapless West Ham side. If the Sky Blues are able to defeat the Hammers on Saturday, it would set up a date with destiny on December 10th against Manchester United. The narratives just write themselves for that matchup. The biggest Manchester Derby ever? Possibly, but we have to get there first. I HAVE ALL MY FINGERS CROSSED.
The biggest matchup this weekend, without a doubt, is Manchester United taking a Saturday evening trip to the Emirates to take on a suddenly hot Arsenal side that have won 5 of 6. Aside from this game having massive implications on the table as a whole, it’s a huge chance for Arsenal to possibly convince wantaways Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez that staying through the season is in their best interests. My prediction is a 1-1 draw, with Arsenal opening up the score before halftime and United equalizing through Marcus Rashford in the 2nd half. That scoreline seems boring, but that doesn’t take anything away from this being the best matchup of the weekend.
Usually, I end the article after the 10th thing that I think, but this midweek slate was just too good to end right there and I need to say a few more things.
Enjoy these kinds of games, folks. Raheem Sterling’s goal will be one that we look back on at the end of the season and point to as a major reason why City were able to hold off their challengers and win the Premier League title.
Wayne Rooney out-did phenomenal goals from Ashley Young (x2), Jamie Vardy and Jesse Lingard to score the best goal of the season. Any of those other 4 tallies that I mentioned would have won ‘goal of the week’ in probably any other week, but not this one.
Leicester took us all back to 2015-16 with a vintage performance that reminded us of a simpler, more beautiful time in our world. Burnley continued improbably climbing the table and Abdoulaye Doucoure scored his 5th goal of the season – only Leroy Sane (6) has more among wingers in the Premier League – and continued to blossom into a superstar for an upstart Watford team.
I have yet to even mention Mohamed Salah scoring his 11th and 12th goals of the season in a 3-0 Liverpool rout of Stoke City, while West Brom and Newcastle quietly played a fantastically entertaining 2-2 draw that featured a spirited Magpies comeback in front of a raucous St. James Park crowd.
It’s matches like these that remind me why I love doing this and why I will continue doing it in the future. Football can be brutal to watch sometimes and taxing to follow, but payoffs like this make it all worth it.
Through 13 league games, table toppers Manchester City have 37 points. No team has ever accrued more in the history of English football. As NBCSN pundit Robbie Mustoe pointed out after City’s victory over Huddersfield Town on Sunday, “Soon, it’s going to be time to start talking about this maybe being the best club team in English history.”
Clearly, there’s a long way to go before that talk can really gain steam, but Pep Guardiola’s squad are sure making a strong case this season. City’s tight 2-1 victory over Huddersfield on Sunday of this past weekend set several club records and continued a stunning start to the Sky Blues’ season.
11 consecutive away wins in all competitions is a club record, 26 straight unbeaten games in all competitions is a club record, 18 consecutive wins in all competitions is a club record, 11 consecutive Premier League wins matches a club record.
Look, I don’t think you need me to tell you that Manchester City are a phenomenal side, but their run of form so far this season is something rarely, if ever, seen before. But more on that later.
This past weekend represented the last breath that Premier League clubs can comfortably take before the craze of the holiday schedule. Next week features 4 different match days and each club will play 2 games. Then comes Champions League before match week 15, the League Cup resumes during match week 16 and then the Christmas madness ensues.
The Premier League’s holiday schedule has long been the butt end of many jokes by players in other leagues around the world due to its game frequency, particularly around Christmas and New Years, meanwhile other players are relaxing on holiday.
Needless to say, it’s a brutal element of the English top flight and one that truly separates contenders and pretenders. Match week 13 was the final bit of calm before the holiday schedule storm, so let’s enjoy some peace before things get crazy.
Here are your week 13 headlines:
Sensational Southampton Crack the Top Half
If I were to make a list of the Premier League teams that we aren’t talking about enough, it would be easy for me to start with Burnley and Watford, the two teams putting up the most stiff resistance to the reign of the big 6.
Southampton is the newest addition to that list after match week 13.
With a 4-1 thrashing of Everton, the Saints have not only bagged their highest goal tally of the season but are now up to 10th in the table, tied with Brighton at 16 points.
Back in week 6, I called Southampton “the most irrelevant team in the Premier League” because their boring style and penchant for 0-0 draws just literally gave me nothing to talk about. I mean, aside from this week’s victory, what have the Saints given us to talk about? Manolo Gabbiadini scored a brace once…..so there was that, I guess.
But anyway, Southampton joined the parade of teams wrecking Everton this past weekend and now find themselves in the top half of the table. On the back of a Charlie Austin brace, Mauricio Pellegrino’s squad broke free of match week 12’s frustrating 3-0 loss to Liverpool and will now carry a strong degree of confidence into a midweek matchup with Manchester City.
“We deserved to win today,” Pellegrino said afterwords. “It’s been frustrating at times this year, but today we played a really good game, converted our chances and our players played really hard. I’m really pleased with the team.”
Southampton, a team plagued by the lack of a true goalscoring threat all season, showed out with 4 tallies on Sunday, their most since scoring 4 on the last day of the 2016 season – in a twist of irony, that 4-1 win over Crystal Palace was Southampton’s last game under then boss Ronald Koeman, fired by Everton just over a month ago.
Charlie Austin scored two lovely goals with his head and the Englishman’s constant ariel threat served as a significant deciding factor in the game because Everton just had nothing to defend him with.
Southampton dominated every facet of the game on Saturday, peppering 17 shots while only conceding 5, garnering 7 corners to only 1 Everton corner and even holding 67% possession over a team that relies on being able to maintain ball control in the midfield.
Normally, a Southampton win isn’t something remotely worth talking about in the greater fabric of the Premier League, but I owe it to them this week. It’s not often that the Saints score 4 goals in one game, and the occasion warrants a headline in Tuesday Morning Tea.
So, good on you Southampton. I still believe you’re mostly irrelevant, but now you have one shining moment in the sun. May you enjoy the 2 days of sunshine before Manchester City throws a massive blanket over it on Wednesday.
And speaking of Manchester City……
Manchester City Win the Game of the Weekend
What a contest we saw at John Smith’s Stadium on Sunday afternoon between Manchester City and Huddersfield Town. If you had this as the game of the weekend, take a bow and go buy yourself a lottery ticket.
During his Friday presser, Pep Guardiola pointed out that this game against Huddersfield would be “tricky and difficult” for his squad. Many rolled their eyes at Guardiola’s relentless competitive nature, but he was spot on with his prediction and clearly knew exactly what he was talking about.
Huddersfield put together nearly a perfect game plan to stymie City’s high flying attack and executed it to perfection for the entire first half before a Christopher Schindler header deflected in off of Nicolas Otamendi just seconds before the halftime whistle.
In the second half, City pushed forward about as hard as a team possibly can and were rewarded with the two goals that they so desperately desired courtesy of a Sergio Aguero penalty and a Raheem Sterling tap in.
The Terriers fought like hell and put up the most stiff resistance that City have faced all season in any competition but were ultimately undone and broke underneath the immense weight of the Sky Blues’ relentless pressure. Manchester City won an away Premier League match after trailing at half-time for the first time since 1995 and maintain their 8 point lead atop the table after Sunday’s scare.
“If you want to win the title you cannot expect easy games,” Guardiola pointed out after the game. “We have to live these kinds of situations and we spoke at half-time about how we are going to react. We competed amazingly and I’m very pleased with the team.”
Many pundits are shaming Manchester City’s lack of bite in front of goal, but Huddersfield deserve an immense amount of credit for the way that they were able to frustrate and impede the City attack, especially in the box.
Of their 336 successful passes in the 2nd half, the Sky Blues weren’t able to connect on a single one in the Huddersfield penalty box. Terriers’ centre backs Christopher Schindler and Mathias Jorgensen maintained perfect symmetry and synergy all afternoon long and kept City just a hair off on through balls.
Kevin De Bruyne and David Silva, normally able to pierce through any defense while playing their attacking trio on net, tried everything they could to break through the opposing defense but couldn’t find the formula. Only when Gabriel Jesus came on in the 80th minute did City get that little extra bit of bite that they needed to score the winning goal, tapped in by Raheem Sterling off of a Jesus shot and Jonas Lossl save.
Huddersfield maintained an extremely high work ethic on defense, keeping their tight shape and frustrating the league leaders all afternoon before the visitors finally managed to break through. It was a heroic defensive effort that came up agonizingly short but leaves much reason for optimism in West Yorkshire.
It was the kind of game that the Terriers played against Manchester United and can create belief among the team and supporters that this is a team that can stay at the top level and possibly snatch wins from the big boys in the league.
For Manchester City, it’s an ugly but extremely important win. Manchester United experienced the same kind of defensive performance from Huddersfield but were unable to break through and ultimately succumbed to the Terriers’ shape and stubbornness. City have continued their historic winning run and proven that they are a team of high character by winning this game. The scenes on the field after the game showed how much this win meant to the Sky Blues.
Their historic run of 18 straight wins in all competitions marches onwards into the holiday craze.
A North London Shuffle
Two match weeks ago, Tottenham Hotspur sat 3rd in the table with 23 points, just above Chelsea and below Manchester United. With Harry Kane leading the league in goals at that point and all cylinders clicking, it appeared as though Spurs were ready to take off and challenge the supremacy of the two Manchester clubs.
Now, after a somewhat shocking 2-0 defeat to arch rivals Arsenal and a disappointing 1-1 home draw with hapless West Brom, Tottenham are now 5th in the table with 24 points, just below Arsenal.
A week after claiming North London supremacy on the pitch, Arsenal has also claimed it in the table.
For Arsenal’s part, they took all 3 points from a hard fought game at Turf Moor against a stubborn Burnley side this past Sunday. After a match week 7 defeat to Watford, I declared Arsenal “an absolute mess that may miss the Europa League.” They have responded by winning 4 out of their past 5 league games, the only loss being an understandable 3-1 defeat to rampant Manchester City.
The Gunners now enter the holiday period in Champions League position after a rocky start to the season. Alexis Sanchez, scorer of the decisive 92nd minute penalty against Burnley, is back in top form wreaking havoc on opposing defenses. Combine Arsene Wenger’s star Chilean with a much steadier defense and Alexandre Lacazette’s consistent excellence and you have the winning combination that has propelled Arsenal into the top 4.
Tottenham, meanwhile, have run into the same skids that saw them drop home points to Swansea City and Burnley while losing to Chelsea during a bad 3 game stretch back in August. Spurs appear to have lost their offensive bite in league play recently, with just 2 goals scored over their past 4 games.
Harry Kane has been absolutely outstanding this season, but he can’t do everything and the English striker is getting next to nothing from his supporting cast. Dele Alli has been almost damningly absent recently and got bullied this weekend, committing 5 turnovers and only winning 1 ariel duel.
The lack of key passes being made by Spurs right now is leading to a lack of quality chances and has created a disturbing trend. In each of their past 4 league games, Tottenham have had at least 15 more shots than shots on goal, meaning that the players sense a lack of bite in front of net, but can’t find consistent quality chances.
Next week, Spurs will play Leicester City and Watford, both away, while Arsenal will face Huddersfield and Manchester United, both at home. North London has shuffled itself in the table and the upcoming week will prove crucial in deciding which team ultimately finishes in the last Champions League spot.
Manchester City has separated at the top of the table while United and Chelsea have cut themselves out as the only clear and true challengers. The battle for the final spot in the top 4 is underway in full force and has taken a turn in Arsenal’s favor in recent weeks.
We’ll see whether the teams keep shuffling or if this is a continuing trend.
Player of the Weekend: Charlie Austin
With two brilliant headers and the presence of a constant ariel threat, Charlie Austin has now given the south coast renewed optimism that maybe, just maybe, Southampton already have the required goal-scoring threats that they have craved for so long already in the team. The English striker formed a fantastic partnership with Boufal and Steven Davis up front and the Saints now have some mojo going into a Wednesday tilt with Man City.
Runners Up: Raheem Sterling, Mohamed Salah, James Tarkowski
Team of the Weekend: Huddersfield Town AFC
I know, I know, I know…they lost. But believe me when I say that no team played as well or fought as hard as Huddersfield this weekend. If the Terriers were playing literally any other team in the Premier League this past weekend, I have no doubt that they would have secured at least 1 point, if not all 3. It was a stubborn and sterling defensive effort undone by one small mistake and then a bit of misfortune. But neither of those instances should take away from the defensive masterclass that David Wagner’s scrappy club put on.
Crystal Palace have had a tough go this season. Things started with a 7 game winless and goalless run in league play, a feat which no team in the history of English football has done. Following that and the sacking of Frank De Boer, Palace have garnered points from 4 of their last 5 league matches and Mamadou Sahko’s late winner over Stoke City provided an electrifying moment in what has been a depressing season thus far at Selhurst Park. Just listen to the reaction after he scored, it’s remarkable.
I think that Manchester United are in for the fight of their season at Vicarage Road on Tuesday against Watford. The weakest point in the Red Devils’ defense so far this season has been left back Chris Smalling. Brighton’s Pascal Gross terrorized the veteran Englishman this past weekend and was a constant threat for the visitors. Now, replace Gross with Watford’s Richarlison and it’s easy to see how Smalling could be in for a looooooooong day. I can easily see Watford winning this game behind a brilliant performance from their Brazilian wunderkid. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.
Mohamed Salah is the closest player to Kevin De Bruyne in the PFA Player of the Year race at the moment. The Egyptian now leads the Premier League with 10 goals, 40% of Liverpool’s season total. He’s easily the best attacking winger in the league right now and, in my eyes, is the only player challenging Manchester City’s Belgian superstar for the Player of the Year title.
And, speaking of De Bruyne, I believe that this Raheem Sterling postgame quote perfectly encapsulates the evolution of one of the world’s finest players. “As an attacker, I know that all I have to do is make the right movements and runs and Kevin will find me.” Speaks for itself, doesn’t it?
Xherdan Shaqiri scored the goal of the weekend with this solo stunner. What a superb run and finish.
I was very impressed with West Brom’s fight this weekend. After Tony Pulis’ midweek firing, it would’ve been understandable if the Baggies came out limply on Saturday and got thrashed by Tottenham. However, the team showed an impressive amount of resolve and character in securing a hard fought 1-1 draw that featured an impressive opening goal from Salomon Rondon. With a home game coming up against a struggling Newcastle United squad this Tuesday, West Brom have a legitimate chance to really get themselves back on track after such a rough stretch. I think they’ll beat Newcastle before at least securing a point against Crystal Palace. Props to you, boys.
Everton and West Ham are playing a midweek matchup that could go two ways. Either we’re gonna see a game with at least 5 goals or a game with none, there really isn’t an in between. Everton have conceded 28 times this season, tops in the league, while West Ham have conceded 26 times, just below the Toffees’ total. On the surface, it’s a boring and useless game, but don’t sleep on the fact that it could turn into an absolute barnburner.
Newcastle, amid turmoil regarding who is set to own the club in 2018 and beyond, have lost 4 straight league games and are the worst Premier League club not currently wearing blue on Merseyside. After consecutive 1-0 defeats to Burnley and Bournemouth, the Magpies have now been thrashed by Manchester United and Watford to the tune of 4-1 and 3-0 defeats. This most recent loss was particularly disheartening because Newcastle were able to launch some offense, posting 12 shots, 2 on goal and garnering 6 corners, but nothing was even remotely threatening. Rafa Benitez’s club has no attacking talent that can be relied on and is consistently getting beaten up by far superior clubs. It’s a disheartening stretch from a club in turmoil. Tough times in Newcastle.
Brighton’s Matthew Ryan made the save of the weekend with this phenomenal double save to deny Romelu Lukaku and Paul Pogba. It might go unnoticed in the overall scheme of an otherwise uneventful game in a mostly uneventful weekend, but it shouldn’t.
The best midweek matchup is an underrated matchup between upstart Bournemouth and Burnley. The Clarets have yet to lose a league match this season away from home and Bournemouth have avoided defeat in 4 of their last 5. This is an extremely important game for both sides and it should be extremely entertaining. I have Burnley coming out with a 2-0 victory courtesy of goals by Chris Wood and Robbie Brady, but don’t let that sway you from not watching.
Usually, when poring over the weekend that was in the Premier League, I find myself looking for trends. Who scored goals? Which teams won? Were they all from the same area? Were there a lot of goals? Were there not a lot of goals?
This weekend’s trend was clean sheets; most everyone did the laundry in week 12.
Out of the 8 games where there was a winner, 7 of those winning teams kept clean sheets and the 8th, Manchester United, won by 3 goals. Bournemouth, Chelsea, Arsenal, Liverpool, Burnley, Watford and Manchester City all won by at least two goals while keeping the opposition off of the scoresheet.
In the most important match of the weekend, Arsenal defeated Tottenham by a 2-0 scoreline in the North London Derby, somewhat surprisingly asserting their dominance over the region by dismantling a stunned Tottenham side. The defeat kicks Spurs down to 4th in the table and leaves them 11 points back of league leaders Manchester City.
City, threatening to run away with things at this point, relatively easily dispatched Leicester this weekend courtesy of a dominant display of passing excellence and another Kevin De Bruyne stunner. However, the Sky Blues suffered another critical injury, as centre back John Stones went down with a pulled hamstring and looks to be out for 6 weeks. Unfortunately for the English defender, he was in the form of his life and had become a rock at the back for Pep Guardiola’s rampant side thus far.
City’s two closest challengers, Chelsea and Manchester United, both breezed their way to victory by scoring 4 goals in commanding respective performances. Elsewhere, Watford and Burnley both pitched 2-0 shutouts over West Ham and Swansea City respectively, continuing the battle between the two for Europa League spots.
And, aside from those games, here are your weekend headlines:
One of these days, I’m going to take a look at the Prem table and be able to correctly assess where teams stand and where they’re going to finish. This season clearly isn’t going very well for me, aside from the top 6, which I’m currently PULVERIZING in my predictions.
Just two match weeks ago, Bournemouth were coming off of a 1-0 loss to Chelsea and found themselves sitting in 19th, just below Swansea and in some pretty deep relegation fear. Eddie Howe’s bunch were struggling to score and had only two league wins on the season up to that point.
Times appeared dire on the south coast but the Cherries have suddenly and, a bit shockingly so far, turned it almost completely around. After a tight 1-0 win over Newcastle before the international break, Bournemouth came out on Saturday and trashed a helpless Huddersfield side 4-0, even playing the entire second half down a man after Simon Francis was shown red for a poor challenge on Rajiv van La Parra.
That card hardly stopped a rampant Cherries’ side, though, as Callum Wilson completed a second half hat trick and Bournemouth sent Huddersfield out of Vitality Stadium with tails firmly tucked between legs.
Now up to 13th in the table and with their scoring legs underneath them, the Cherries’ appear to have evened out and are in the midst of a crucial stretch of play. Before a holiday period that sees them play United, Liverpool and Manchester City in 3 straight weeks, Bournemouth play their next 4 games against Swansea, Burnley, Southampton and Crystal Palace.
In a season that began as a fight to escape relegation and is now rapidly turning into a possible top half fight, Eddie Howe’s side must take as many points as possible from these next four games, all of which suddenly appear winnable when considering Bournemouth’s recent form.
In particular, Callum Wilson’s form this weekend served as a promising sign of potential things to come for the Cherries. The oft injured Englishman made just his second league start since an ACL tear in February and marked the occasion with an outstanding hat trick.
Highlighted by a wonderful volleyed finish on the second goal, Wilson gave Bournemouth the attacking bite that they needed after the team had yet to score more than 2 goals in any game over all competitions.
Wilson formed a dynamic partnership with Josh King up front and those two, combined with Jordon Ibe and an in-form Harry After – who scored brilliantly for Bournemouth’s 3rd goal – now give the Cherries a quality attacking presence.
As Heath Ledger’s Joker once said, “all insanity takes, sometimes, is just a little push.” In this case, “insanity” means a winning run, and Bournemouth have gotten their little push from Callum Wilson and two straight wins.
We’ll see if they keep it going or if I’m wrong, yet again, about my predictions with a bottom half team.
Scintillating Salah Leads Liverpool
Take a look at the Premier League scoring chart real quick.
See that name at the top? The one you weren’t remotely expecting to be there at the start of the season?
Yeah, that’s Mohamed Salah leading the Prem with 9 goals so far this season.
I repeat, Mohamed Salah is leading English football’s top division with 9 goals.
Not bad for the Chelsea dropout, eh?
Liverpool’s Egyptian superstar was at his electrifying best on Saturday against Southampton, scoring two goals to bring his season total up to 9 and take the top spot on the Prem scoring chart. So, what about Salah has evolved to get him to the point he’s at right now and what is causing this goal surge?
A first reason, as Eden Hazard candidly pointed out this week in an interview with The Guardian, is that Salah “did not get his chance at Chelsea” under Jose Mourinho during his stint with the club in 2014. Jurgen Klopp backed that claim up by saying that “If Salah were better at Chelsea, he wouldn’t be here with us right now.”
There can be no denying that Salah’s lack of first team football at Chelsea and the fact that he’s been able to play consistent first team football since leaving Stamford Bridge has helped elevate his game to the level that Chelsea thought it would be when they first signed him from FC Basel. However, it’s a mere part of Salah’s evolution.
In reality, his stint playing in Italy at AS Roma helped Salah harness the elements of his game that are now shining so brightly at Anfield and Jurgen Klopp merely deploys the Egyptian in perfect harmony with Sadio Mane to create the best pairing of wingers in the Premier League on this side of Sane and Sterling in Manchester.
Salah’s blistering pace and high football IQ allow him to make piercing runs through a defense and his wicked left foot and uncanny penchant for superb finishes help him convert those piercing runs into goals, something that’s becoming more and more common.
Liverpool’s star winger is at his best when allowed to roam freely in the offensive half. Sarah is not a strong defender, so his strength comes from being kept in the final third. He’s a brilliant counter-attacker and a defense always has to be keeping tabs on him because he can strike at any given time.
On Saturday, his full range of skills were on display. The crackling finish that gave Salah his first goal of the game was evidence of his stunning left foot. The second goal came courtesy of a smart, perfectly timed run through 2 Saints’ centre backs before a sublime, one-touch finish.
After falling through at Chelsea, Salah’s transfer to Anfield this summer was considered risky because the Egyptian was already labeled a Premier League flop. Instead of flopping, Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp has helped to highlight the best aspects of Salah’s game, which has only made them stronger and turned him into one of the finest and most dangerous attacking players in the world.
On the eve of a matchup with his former club, Salah’s importance to Liverpool is possibly greater than ever. This weekend, look for Chelsea to possibly use Davide Zappacosta as a roving winger assigned to keep Salah on the outside and prevent him from cutting inside, where he does his most dangerous goal-scoring work.
Regardless of the result, Mohamed Salah has turned into a superstar at Liverpool and his evolution appears to only just be getting started. Don’t be surprised if he actually finishes on top of the Premier League goal scoring chart.
He’s certainly taken a long road to the top.
Disaster at the Hawthorns
I mentioned earlier how wrong I typically am about predicting the middle and bottom of the Premier League table and 2017-18 West Brom thus far have been a perfect example of my incompetence.
After week 3, when the Baggies were sitting 3rd in the table with 7 points after 3 matches, I declared that this was a “legitimate Europa League candidate” due to their gritty defensive style and opportunistic offense led by Hal Robson-Kanu and Jay Rodriguez.
9 match weeks later, West Brom have yet to win another game in all competitions, only pulling 3 points from their 9 league matches over that time. It’s been a consistent string of pathetic performances from the Baggies that ultimately culminated in a 4-0 defeat to Chelsea this past Saturday and Tony Pulis’ successive sacking on Monday morning.
When the Welshman was appointed manager of West Brom back in January of 2015, he was saddled with one task and one task only; keep the club in the top division of English football. You may say many things about Pulis as a manger, but he is excellent at his job of keeping teams in the top flight.
He proved it at Stoke City and he proved it over his nearly 3 year stint at West Brom. However, Pulis was fired because his style has a clear ceiling to it and that ceiling was exposed over this horrific 9 game stretch at the Hawthorns.
Pulis’ signature style proved to be his ultimate undoing. He can organize a deep-block defense in his sleep and, early in the season, that strategy only gave up 1 goal over West Brom’s first 4 games in all competitions. However, as the season has gone on, the Baggies have been cracked by teams more consistently, and if West Brom doesn’t hold their opponent to 1 goal or less, there’s virtually no chance of them being able to get points.
Only twice this season have Pulis’ bunch scored more than 1 goal and those games ended in a draw with West Brom and a loss to Manchester City. There is no ability of this team to get forward, they are built to play with the lead and have rarely been doing that this season.
Saturday against Chelsea was the low point of West Brom’s season thus far, being completely and totally sliced open by a clearly better team in every aspect. The Baggies were only able to muster 1 shot on goal and it was easily handled by Chelsea keeper Thibaut Courtois.
West Brom surrendered 7 shots on target to a rampant Chelsea side that literally went where they wanted and did whatever they wanted to. Led by an in-form Eden Hazard, the Blues sliced and diced a helpless Baggies’ defense en route to the 4 goal tally and, 2 days later, Pulis was out of a job.
West Brom, after starting the season so promisingly, now find themselves 17th in the table, just 1 point clear of the drop zone. Interim manager Gary Mergson will now have the unenviable task of trying to pick up the pieces of this squad and then keep them in the 1st division for next season.
Survival will be the name of the game at the Hawthorns for the rest of the season and the Europa League is a long lost dream at the moment. In the future, never listen to me when I predict middle-lower end teams in the Premier League based on their early season success.
The road back for West Brom doesn’t start promisingly this week as they will have to travel to North London for a matchup against an angry Tottenham team coming off of a midweek victory over German powerhouse Borussia Dortmund.
The Baggies already have the recipe for success instilled in them. They have shown excellent defensive structure at times and know that Jay Rodriguez and Hal Robson-Kanu can be effective strikers. Mergson’s job will mainly involve finding a way to effectively use his troops as counterattackers instead of trying to control possession.
A much easier thing said than done, but it still must be done nonetheless in order to avoid true disaster in the West Midlands.
Team of the Week: Liverpool
Chelsea and Bournemouth both produced more dominant scorelines than the Reds’ 3-0 dispatching of Southampton, but no team dominated their game as thoroughly as Liverpool did on Saturday. 21 shots for, only 4 conceded (and zero on goal). Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mane, Philippe Coutinho and Roberto Firmino controlled every aspect of the game and showed how dangerous Liverpool’s attack can be when fully gelled. If only the defense could match…….
Runners Up: Chelsea, Arsenal, Burnley
Player of the Week: Eden Hazard
It’s taken a little while, but Chelsea’s Belgian superstar is officially back. Hazard has looked just a shade off over the course of his season thus far, but his two goals and relentless pressure against West Brom on Saturday give him the edge in this category over Bournemouth’s hat trick hero, Callum Wilson. In 71 ruthless minutes, Hazard roamed freely, passed with aplomb, finished when necessary, terrorized with his signature close control and dribbling and garnered a 9.81 rating from WhoScored.com. I rest my case, Hazard is back.
Runners Up: Callum Wilson, Mohamed Salah, Kevin De Bruyne
Moment of the Week: John Stones’ Injury
Hoo boy, this is a big one.
Typically, the ‘Moment of the Week’ category is reserved for a game changing goal or a feel-good moment or a great save or something like that, but John Stones’ injury can’t be ignored this week. The heartbeat of Manchester City’s stunningly good defense thus far, Stones has been in the form of his life this season and is turning into an elite centre back right before our eyes. Seeing him pull up lame with a bad hamstring and then learning that the Englishman could be out for up to 6 weeks is brutal news for City. Already thin on defense, they’ll now have to make do without one of the most significant keys to their blistering start to the season so far. Just a horrible blow.
Runners Up: Callum Wilson’s hat trick, Peter Crouch’s record breaking 143rd substitute appearance
Where I Was Right Last Week
I lauded Peter Crouch last week for his ability to just keep scoring goals, even at 36 years old. This week, the big guy made his 143rd career appearance as a substitute, the most of any player in Premier League history. It’s a remarkable achievement and, considering that I’ve noted him all season, I’m gonna claim a piece of this history for myself, thank you very much.
Also, I wrote a blurb about how “toothless” Swansea City have been recently and, wouldn’t you know it, they didn’t score last weekend against Burnley and put up a pretty pathetic display. The Swans are now 19th in the table, 2 points from safety and their season keeps deteriorating into a fight for survival.
And, prognosticating Ryan forecasted that, “Facing Burnley won’t be easy for Swansea but it would go a long way if they could steal one. They won’t, though…..”
Look at me.
Where I Was Wrong Last Week
I said that Spurs would come out of the North London Derby with a 3-1 win and wow, was I wrong about that. Arsenal outplayed Tottenham in every facet and destroyed Mauricio Pochettino’s bunch by a 2-0 scoreline. Yikes for my prediction last week.
Sometimes, I sit back and question why I would wake up at 6:30 on a Sunday morning. After all, it’s my only day to sleep past 8 AM, so why would I waste it by waking up that early just to watch English soccer that doesn’t affect me at all?
That questioning is fulfilled by Sunday slates like the one in week 11. I mean, what an unbelievable quartet of games to christen the Lord’s day.
Starting the day off was a surprisingly fantastic matchup between Tottenham and Crystal Palace. The Eagles came to play on Sunday and should have come away with a point, but it was Spurs who played the full 90 minutes and were rewarded with all 3 points.
Next up was Manchester City hosting Arsenal in an entertaining 3-1 fixture. Then, to cap it all off, Manchester United and Chelsea played to an electric 1-0 result in favor of the Blues while Watford and Everton played the game of the weekend, with the Toffees picking up a crucial 3-2 win.
Saturday’s action was pretty typical of the league so far this season. Some late goals, some great goals, some good action, but mostly boring and inconsequential results between mostly boring and inconsequential teams. Sunday’s action was almost the complete opposite, with incredible action between extremely relevant sides that made me care about games I wouldn’t otherwise have cared about.
Example ‘A’ is the fact that I wasn’t remotely planning on being entertained by a 6:30 matchup between Spurs and Crystal Palace, but holy cow was I wrong about that one; what a game it turned out to be.
With all of that said, pardon me while I might talk extensively about the games on Sunday and only briefly mention Saturday’s events. So if you tuned out after Liverpool-West Ham ended on Saturday afternoon, here’s a spoiler alert for you, I guess.
In addition to that spoiler alert, here are your weekend headlines. Class is in session.
“We’re Just a Rich West Brom”
Entering the weekend, I – much like almost anyone else – had Manchester United vs Chelsea circled as my fixture of the matchweek. The entertaining Sunday affair ended with a 1-0 win for the home side, the lone tally coming courtesy of an Alvaro Morata header because how else do Chelsea score…?
The result for Antonio Conte’s side will go a long way in calming down some of the talk surrounding the Italian manager’s job security at Stamford Bridge. Meanwhile, Manchester United manager Jose Mourinho has now last all 3 of his side’s fixtures at the Bridge since he was jettisoned as club manager before signing at Old Trafford.
The Blues gladly welcomed back star midfielder N’Golo Kante and he may as well have pivoted the entire match just with his gritty presence. The dynamic Frenchman won the ball back 11 times for his side, more than any other player in the game, and was crucial in denying service up towards a mostly silent Romelu Lukaku.
And, for Manchester United, Lukaku’s struggles were a microcosm of their whole day in London this past Sunday. The big Belgian striker was unable to manage even one single touch inside the opposing penalty area and spent the afternoon with embittered looks on his face, kept well in check by a brilliant Andreas Christensen.
The Red Devils’ frustration was almost perfectly summed up by a Monday morning caller on Ian Wright’s BBC radio show. The United fan, named Hasson, furiously dismissed his side’s Sunday disappointment with a soundbite for the ages.
“We’re nothing more than a rich West Brom right now,” Hassan said before continuing, “I’m just really angry at that diabolical performance. When we’re struggling, we bring on a tree in Fellaini, lump it forward and just hope for the best. We’re playing boring, horrific football.”
But although they are undeniably hilarious, Hassan’s criticisms are well merited and do have some substance.
Since taking over as manager at Old Trafford, Jose Mourinho has played 10 games against the ‘big 6.’ In those 10 games, the Portuguese boss holds a record of 0-5-5, with all 5 of those draws being of the 0-0 variety.
Say what you will about how well Mourinho’s bus parking can work at times, it’s not entertaining at all. Losing or drawing is one thing, but on a club with the prestigious and prodigious attacking talent that Manchester United have, it’s unacceptable to be boring and fans are beginning to lash out.
The Red Devils’ last 4 league games have featured a scoreless draw to Liverpool, a loss at Huddersfield, a 1-0 win over Tottenham and a 1-0 loss to Chelsea. In such a tight race at the top of the table against a currently rampant Manchester City squad that show no signs of slowing up any time soon, this stretch of poor form from United could prove to be the difference between 1st and 2nd place at the end of the season.
United were out-classed in every way on Sunday by a much better and more fearless Chelsea squad. Jose Mourinho’s ‘park the bus’ strategy has played itself out and is clearly failing against the top teams in the league. Will the ‘Special One’ be able to adapt to his changing circumstances or will he stay stubborn as ever and potentially sink his squad’s rapidly evaporating title chances?
For my money, there’s no way Mourinho’s ego will let him adapt his style. He’ll just continue insisting that his squad is struggling because of injured players, which might be true, but it’s not an excuse anymore.
United should win their next two matches against Newcastle and Brighton purely on class alone, but a week 13 trip to Vicarage Road to take on Watford should prove as a make-or-break game for Mourinho’s squad. Will they or won’t they adapt? Time will tell…
Take 2 on the Everton Comeback Story…?
Do me a favor and rewind the season 5 weeks back to match week 6. Everton were coming off of 3 straight shutout losses to Chelsea, Tottenham and Man U – a brutal stretch of games for any team in the Prem – but had just beaten Bournemouth thanks to two late goals from Oumar Niasse.
After that win, I proudly declared that Everton were “back on track in a big way.” The Toffees, to reward my faith, went on to go 0-2-6 in their next 8 matches over all competitions. The firing of Ronald Koeman seemed to be the culmination of early season frustration so far at Goodison Park and Everton entered this weekend 19th in the table with a pathetic goal differential of -13.
Greeting them on Sunday was an upstart Watford team sitting 8th in the standings at the time, 2nd behind Burnley in the battle of all non-big 6 teams. 64 minutes into the weekend tilt, Everton found themselves down 2-0 to a thus far dominant Watford side and seemingly digging themselves deeper into the already abyssal hole being dug at Goodison Park.
But then, something magical happened. Oumar Niasse received a fortuitous bounce in front of the Hornets’ net and, try as he might, was unable to miss. Suddenly, the score was 2-1 and Everton were back in the game. 7 minutes later, in the 74th minute, Dominic Calvert-Lewin headed in off of a corner kick and the Toffees had tied it.
Oh but it got better from there for the home side.
After an announced 12 minutes of stoppage time – that number is outrageous, but that’s how wild this game was – Leighton Baines only needed 1 of those extra minutes to both win and score a penalty.
After Tom Cleverly somehow missed a penalty of his own in the 99th minute of the game, Baines’ goal was able to stand tall as the winner in one of the wildest games all season and certainly the most important result of Everton’s season thus far.
The Toffees came from two goals down to win at home in the Premier League for just the second time ever, the first being a 1994 game against Wimbledon. Interim manager David Unsworth’s side now find themselves 15th in the table, 2 spots clear of the danger zone.
With their next four games being against Crystal Palace, Southampton, West Ham and Huddersfield, this appears to be the perfect time for Everton to have potentially gotten themselves back on track.
5 weeks ago, I thought the Toffees were set to begin their comeback to relevancy after a comeback victory over Bournemouth. At the risk of being wrong about an Everton comeback for the second time in a span of 2 months, now is the time that the Toffees begin to dig out of the hole at Goodison Park.
Everton will find themselves in the top half of the table after this upcoming 4 game stretch concludes, a much more confident and formidable foe. All it took was a 2 goal comeback over a top half team instead of a one goal comeback over a bottom half team, I suppose.
It’s Time to Talk About Brighton
We’ve avoided it up to this point while lauding and heaping praise on the other two newly promoted sides having success, but it’s time to stop ignoring Brighton and acknowledge that this is a team and a story worth being excited about.
Following this past weekend’s 1-0 win over Swansea City, the Seagulls (my favorite nickname in the Prem, by the way) find themselves sitting 8th in the standings with an even goal differential and hopes of not just avoiding relegation, but maybe finishing in or around the top half of the table.
Four straight league games without defeat, two away wins in a row at West Ham and now Swansea, disciplined defending and renewed confidence in attack have the Seagulls flying into the top half 11 weeks into the season. This certainly isn’t a storyline that I think any of us were planning on experiencing this late into the campaign.
After losing the first 4 games of their debut season in the top flight, Chris Hughton’s side have recovered in a big way, with the Seagulls suffering defeat just once over the last 6 matches by following a simple formula of organized, methodical defense and opportunistic attacking.
Brighton’s front 3 of Glenn Murray, Pascal Gross and Anthony Knockaert are able to give opposing defenses problems with wily, smart movement and great chemistry. They certainly don’t have the most skill or pure ability of any attacking trio anywhere in the world, but they’re no less dangerous and know exactly when to pounce on sleeping defenses.
Such was the case on Saturday when Murray scored the only goal of Brighton’s match with Swansea. Knockaert received a pass with plenty of space out on the right wing before picking out Murray in the box for a simple cross that the veteran Englishman meekly slotted home with a re-direction off of his thigh.
The Swans, playing on the front foot up to that point in the game, shut off for maybe 30 seconds defensively and were made to pay for it. Murray was left unmarked at the back post and ran directly in between the two Swansea centre backs who had lazily left way, way too much room in between them.
It was such a simple goal, but a clinical one from Brighton’s standpoint. Murray’s savviness, combined with the service and creativity of Knockaert and Gross are making goals like this increasingly common for the Seagulls, who have employed a combination of simplistic attacking quality with renewed confidence to give opposing defenses headaches.
Murray now has 27 league goals for Brighton since the beginning of last season, a tally only bested by Harry Kane among all players to play both seasons at either of the top two levels in English football.
Brighton are winning in all sorts of different ways now, having scored in 7 of their last 8 matches while still holding clean sheets in 3 of the last 6. This past weekend’s match against Swansea featured a meager 15 shots, the fewest combined of any game in the Premier League season, and the Seagulls were able to comfortably come out on top, a testament to their disciplined defensive ways.
I mentioned earlier in the season how I’d underestimated the fight and desire levels of newly promoted teams and Brighton are proving just how wrong I was. This is not a particularly talented team, but boy do they fight like hell every single time out.
The Seagulls have ridden a wave of surprise results all the way up to 8th in the table but they may have lost an important quality; they won’t be able to sneak up on unsuspecting opponents. Brighton will now be given the respect they deserve and taken seriously as a top half contender.
This is the tough part for Chris Hughton’s squad. They’ve announced their presence and are in the top half of the table 11 match weeks into the new season, but can they stay at that level?
I want to believe so, but I need more confirmation first. A convincing victory over Southampton and a point against Manchester United would do that for me in Brighton’s next two games.
But, for now, snaps for the Seagulls. This is a story worth following and worth talking about because absolutely nobody expected anything like it. May the Cinderella ride at the AmEx only continue on the up and up.
Where I Was Right Last Week
I lauded new Leicester manager Claude Puel for allowing his squad to return to their counter-attacking ways in their week 10 matchup with Everton. This week against Stoke didn’t yield 3 points, but the two Foxes’ goals were both scored on…you guessed it…the counter attack.
The first came courtesy of a thumping Vicente Iborra strike off of a Wes Morgan flick on header, while the second came off of a lovely solo run and effort from club starlet Riyad Mahrez. There are some things that need to be tightened up defensively at the King Power, but Leicester look back to their old attacking ways under Puel, which is great news for supporters.
Also, I wrote a sentence last week that read, “the Clarets’ [Burnley] upcoming matchup at St. Mary’s against Southampton pits two notoriously stingy sides against each other, but I’d put a lot of money on Burnley coming out on top.”
Well, guess who beat Southampton on Saturday by a 1-0 scoreline. Thank you very much.
Also, I lauded Liverpool as last week’s team of the week before writing, “the attacking Reds are back and should thrash West Ham this week as well”
GUESS WHO THRASHED WEST HAM THIS PAST WEEKEND. Thank you very much again.
Where I Was Wrong Last Week
This is a bit of a technicality, but I still got it wrong so…..
I mentioned the key battle in Manchester City vs Arsenal as being Alexis Sanchez vs Kyle Walker on the right wing. Arsene Wenger apparently didn’t read Tuesday Morning Tea last week because he ignored my strong suggestion of starting Lacazette-Ozil-Sanchez as a front trio in favor of keeping the Frenchman on the bench and playing Sanchez in a centre forward role.
It didn’t work at all and only once Lacazette was off the bench and on the field were Arsenal able to sustain some sort of attack. That being said, because Sanchez was in a centre forward role, he and Walker didn’t see that much of each other on Saturday, with John Stones and Nicolas Otamendi handling the pacy Chilean instead.
Like I said, a technicality, but still one that I was wrong about.
Team of the Weekend: Chelsea
Whether unfairly or not, Antonio Conte’s job may have been on the line this weekend. His Chelsea squad responded accordingly with a convincing 1-0 win over Manchester United. The Blues generated 8 shots on target while conceding only 2 to the Red Devils and were in complete control of the game from start to finish. Chelsea still find themselves 9 points behind leaders Manchester City, but a victory this weekend was crucial for the club and they got the job done.
Runners Up: Brighton, Liverpool, Burnley
Player of the Weekend: Leighton Baines
The leading charge of the Everton comeback, Baines swung in the cross that resulted in the Toffees’ second, equalizing goal while also slotting home the winning penalty in the 91st minute, setting a club record with his 24th made penalty shot in the process. Everton’s longest tenured player led the fight that may have saved their season for the time being. There will be many more performances like this one needed in the future, but Baines brought about the start.
Runners Up: Kevin De Bruyne (every freaking week) Glenn Murray, Paulo Gazzaniga
As huge as Everton’s win was for the Toffees, there’s another side to the coin. After what was a stunning win against Arsenal, Watford had lost 2 straight league matches entering Sunday’s tilt at Goodison. Up 2-0, they seemed to be in perfect position to redeem all their previous woes, but that lead evaporated. However, after everything, Richarlison won Tom Cleverly a 99th minute penalty and the Hornets seemed like they just might be able to salvage this one. Instead, Cleverly’s miss capitulates Watford’s poor run of form and sends them spiraling further down the rabbit hole.
Runners Up: Peter Crouch’s Stoke equalizer, Alvaro Morata’s Chelsea winner, Rajiv van La Parra’s Huddersfield stunner
10 Thoughts I Have
PETER CROUCH IS BACK!!! Pulled off the bench by a desperate Mark Hughes in the 69th minute, the big guy did what he always does and snuck his way to the back post to head in an equalizing goal and salvage a point for Stoke City. At 36 years old, the former Liverpool striker is clearly on a downswing of his career, but he…just…keeps…scoring…goals. Apparently, an England recall is a serious possibility for the in-form Crouch and honestly, few things would make me happier. I just love him so much…keep on keeping on, Peter Crouch.
Man, oh man did Wilfried Zaha have the missed chance of the weekend. Having rounded Tottenham keeper Paulo Gazzaniga and being in brilliant position to break a 0-0 deadlock between Crystal Palace and Spurs, Zaha rushed his shot and put the ball wide of the yawning cage. In a game where the Eagles certainly deserved a point, Zaha had a chance to give them the lead and maybe shock Wembley. Instead, he missed and left his club with the same feeling they’ve had all season long. More cellar-dwelling at Selhurst Park.
Riyad Mahrez is giving everyone a clinical reminder of just how great he is. Leicester’s Algerian star has two goals and two assists in his last four games and is approaching the world class form he was in while being a lynchpin in Leicester’s title run of just two seasons ago. As I’ve mentioned before, I have an immense amount of respect for the way that Mahrez handled his transfer request, quietly going about his business and not whining about not being able to move to a bigger club. Now that he’s approaching his best form again, he’s a complete joy to watch. Hat tip, Riyad.
Rajiv van La Parra scored the goal of the weekend with this absolute screamer. Huddersfield have had many magical moments so far, this one is up near the top.
Your unsung hero of the weekend is Heung-min Son. In the process of breaking Crystal Palace hearts by scoring the only goal in Tottenham’s 1-0 win on Saturday, Son now stands alone as the Premier League’s highest goalscorer from Asia with 20 league tallies. Spurs’ superstar South Korean has been nothing short of magnificent since being signed for 22 million pounds from Bayer Leverkusen in the summer of 2015 and will only continue getting better. What a milestone, though.
Manchester City won an extremely important game this weekend in an extremely important way. Only being able to hold 52% possession against Arsenal, City had to adapt their playing style to match the game and did so wonderfully. Instead of pressing higher and trying to force their way into holding more possession, the Sky Blues let Arsenal come to them and then were lethal on the counter attack. The pace of Leroy Sane and Raheem Sterling caused problems for Arsene Wenger’s back 3 all day long and Kevin De Bruyne was a brilliant orchestrator for the City machine on Sunday. Last season, Pep Guardiola’s squad had no backup plan if they weren’t able to control 65% possession or more and they were caught out too often by teams able to possess the ball. This game was an example of City’s adaptation and the main reason why they will run away with the league by Christmas. Just so, so good right now.
Swansea City are absolutely toothless right now and it confuses the hell out of me. Tammy Abraham can’t find the mark, Wilfried Bony has been silent since his deadline day return and Renato Sanches isn’t influential enough to save all of them right now. Paul Clement’s bunch are completely devoid of confidence at the moment, something the manager mentioned after his side’s latest loss to Brighton on Saturday. The Swans have managed just 22 shots on target over their first 11 games, the fourth lowest total through 11 games in Premier League history. Swansea just needs to find a way to generate more shots on net and the goals will come. Facing Burnley in 2 weeks certainly won’t help, but if the Swans can steal one it will go a long way for their confidence. They won’t steal one, though…
Sam Vokes’ 81st minutes header was the most underrated goal of the weekend. Firstly, the header itself is phenomenally taken by the Welshman and secondly, it won Sean Dyche’s upstart Burnely squad yet another league game. The Clarets are now up to 7th in the table and continue to frustrate teams week in and week out with their terrifically organized and stubborn defensive ranks. This isn’t a club with the talent and structure to beat the top teams in the league – Chelsea was a fluke – but it’s a club structured to beat literally everyone else in the league, which bodes extremely well in the fight for Europa League spots.
After this latest international break ends, the big match to watch in week 12 is a Monday night tilt between Brighton and Stoke City…………………………man, I can’t even say that with a straight face. Obviously it’s the North London Derby between Arsenal and Tottenham. If you have anything else scheduled on your Saturday morning at 6:30 AM, cancel it and watch the best rivalry in English soccer. Should be a barnburner, but I have Spurs coming out on top via an entertaining 3-1 scoreline.