Tuesday Morning Tea Week 15: Derby Weekend

Derby’s are special.

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:

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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.

City 1
Photo Courtesy of Getty Images

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.

Otamendi
Photo Courtesy of Getty Images

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.

Lukaku
Photo Courtesy of Getty Images

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.

Tottenham
Photo Courtesy of Getty Images

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.

Chelsea 2
Photo Courtesy of Getty Images

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.

Chelsea 1
Photo Courtesy of Getty Images

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.

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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

 

Moment of the Week: Ederson’s Death-Defying Double Save

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

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10 Things I Think

  1. 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. 

    Leicester.JPG
    Photo Courtesy of Getty Images
  2. 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. 

    Arnautovic
    Photo Courtesy of Getty Images
  3. 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. 

    Giroud
    Photo Courtesy of Getty Images
  4. 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.
  5. Other notable tallies include Mohamed Salah’s Liverpool opener, Marko Arnautovic’s West Ham winner, and the ‘would-have-been goal of the week’ scored by Riyad Mahrez’s rocket left foot.
  6. 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. 

    Jesus
    Photo Courtesy of Getty Images
  7. 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. 

    St. James
    Photo Courtesy of Getty Images
  8. 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. 

    Mourinho
    Photo Courtesy of Getty Images
  9. 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. 

    Benteke
    Photo Courtesy of Getty Images
  10. 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.
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Tuesday Morning Tea Week 15: Derby Weekend

Ryan Riffs: The Premier League

It’s been a while since I ventured into ‘Ryan Riffs’ territory, but I’m back, and we’re venturing into even more new territory with this venture. This, I’m hoping, will be the first of many articles diving into British Premier League soccer, among other soccer. So, let’s do it.

Traditionally, the Premier League has been a hierarchy, with a certain few teams running a monopoly at the top of the table with only a brief interruption from a random club here and there. Manchester United, Chelsea, Arsenal, and Liverpool have been the traditional big boys in the British schoolyard. Usually, you would pick one of those teams, and 100% of the time you would be right.

Then, along came Manchester City.

Man City Title Win
Photo by Getty Images

In 2011-12, the Citizens became the first club outside the ‘Big Four’ listed above to win the Premier League title since 1994. The very same season, Tottenham broke into the top 4, and a chain of chaos was set in motion capped off by Leicester City winning the Prem this past season.

The Foxes were listed at 5000-1 in the oddsmakers book before the season, but they took those odds rode them all the way to the most improbable title run in the history of sports. Leicester City confirmed, last season, what everyone now knows; the Premier League will be absolute chaos.

Leicester City Title Win
Photo by Getty Images

Seriously, any number of 6 teams have a legitimate shot to win the title, with clubs like West Ham and Everton having an outside shot. Never before have traditionally bottom feeding clubs been able to look themselves in the mirror and say, “Hey, we actually have a shot.” It’s beautifully hectic and impossible to predict.

So, now that we’re on the same page – ha ha ha, writing puns….please love me – let’s get into my Premier League thoughts, just two weeks into the season.

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Manchester United are back. Following their 2012-13 title win, United have fallen down the table, eventually finishing outside of Champions League contention for the first time since 1995 – along with Chelsea, coincidentally. But, unfortunately, the empire of Old Trafford is back, and in a big way.

Last season, United were a mess of a team. Full of underachieving attackers, old, slow midfielders, a shoddy defense, and a whack-job of a manager, it’s pretty amazing that they even were able to end the season in 5th.

United has addressed all of those concerns during this offseason in astounding ways, and they are as dangerous as ever. Beginning with the signing of manager Jose Mourinho to helm the team, you could make the argument that Man U replaced the incompetent Louis Van Gall with the most brilliant manager in the world – I prefer Pep Guardiola, but that’s a different argument for a different time. And Mourinho immediately went to work hauling in droves of talent.

Mourinho’s first signing was designed to address the Red Devils’ poor 2015-16 defense, and what a signing it was. Eric Bailly has come in and immediately impressed, with some calling him “the perfect Mourinho defender.” Needless to say, Jose really likes him, and he has certainly contributed during the early part of the season.

Next up was the casual entrance of one, Zlatan Ibrahimovic. And when I say casual, I mean not at all. In typical Zlatan fashion, he made a grand entrance to Old Trafford and brought all of his traditional style and flair. So far, Ibra has scored 3 Premier League goals in his first two games, as well as the winning goal in the Community Shield final. Not too shabby.

Mourinho’s cap to the summer was literally the biggest transfer of all time; Paul Pogba. The former United academy star turned Juventus star returned home to the tune of just over $118 million, breaking the world record transfer fee held by Real Madrid for Gareth Bale. Pogba returned to the club that brought him up and, in the eyes of many, catapulted Manchester United to the assumed top of the Premier League’s predicted final standings.

So, in short, United needed better defense, a creative midfielder, a proven scorer, and a capable manager. What they got was Eric Bailly, Paul Pogba – only the most creative midfielder I’ve ever seen – Zlatan freaking Ibrahimovic and Jose Mourinho. Yeah, I’d say the Red Devils are back to being the football powerhouse we all know them as.

Zlatan and Pogba
Photo courtesy of Zlatan’s Instagram, God bless that man.

So far, United has beaten Bournemouth and Southampton by a combined tally of 5-1, with their next fixture being another away game against upstarts Hull City – we’ll get into them soon.

They will presumably squash Hull and now have 3 dominant Premier League wins to open the Mourinho era. But don’t get too excited, the first major test – and boy, what a test it is – for the new look Red Devils comes in the Manchester Darby at Old Trafford on September 10th. What a clash that should be.

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And speaking of the early season Manchester Darby, that game is between the two clear Premier League title favorites. As wide open as I made things sound in my opening riff, the signing of Pogba to United and the impending signing of Claudio Bravo to Manchester City – combined with the new arrival of John Stones – have separated these two from the rest of the pack.

Chelsea have looked good so far, with Antonio Conte’s defensive structure making them look very hard to crack combined with Eden Hazard and Diego Costa’s early season brilliance. But Chelsea just don’t seem to have the extra gear of talent that United and City can press out onto the field on a consistent basis.

The same goes for Liverpool, who’s opening fixture with Arsenal was a brilliant offensive display that coincided with Philippe Coutinho and Sadio Mane announcing their arrival with authority, but their offensive arsenal – we’ll get to them in just a second – is limited, and they can’t defend for their lives. Jurgen Klopp’s bunch will be fun to watch, but don’t count on them finishing atop the table.

And Arsenal, what do we even say about them. Another silent summer of Arsene Wenger apparently forgetting that his defense is absolute trash and not making any transfers. That has resulted in a confusing 0-1-1 start, including a thrilling 4-3 loss to Liverpool that exposed every defensive fault you could ever think of, and a 0-0 draw with Tottenham that showed every offensive flaw you could ever think of.

Arsenal, as much as their seemingly star studded roster would have you believe, is not a serious title threat. In fact, they are legitimately in danger of finishing outside of a Europa League spot.

Yeah, this is a strange time in football.

Because I feel inclined to touch on the reigning runner ups, Tottenham aren’t title contenders either. As exciting as their offensive talent seemed last season – with Harry Kane’s 25 goal season and Dele Alli’s breakout – Tottenham’s lack of consistency and inexperience will doom them. The top 4 is not in their future, but they should still be a fun offensive club. When Spurs and Liverpool face off? Tune in.

All of that was basically a really long way of me undermining my entire first riff on how unpredictable the Premier League is. Manchester City and Manchester United have separated themselves as legitimate title favorites.

I talked about United at length, and City’s depth and offensive firepower are incredible. Between Sergio Aguero, Kevin De Bruyne, Nolito, Kelechi Iheanacho, David Silva and a suddenly remarkable Raheem Sterling, City can and will put up lots of scoring this season.

Man City Squad
Photo courtesy of BBC

The question has always been defense.

New manager Pep Guardiola’s late pre-season addition of John Stones has seemed to fix some of those questions, with Stones playing a very sturdy fullback position. And, to boot, it is expected that former Barcelona #1 Claudio Bravo will join the team on a transfer tomorrow.

If that happens, it would be a huge boost as one could argue that Bravo is the ‘sweeper keeper’ in Europe – an aspect that Guardiola relies on, and is the thing that is resulting in Joe Hart’s saddening and impending exit.

September 10th will be the first day that really gives us an idea of what the Premier League landscape will look like, with the top two title contenders facing off at Old Trafford in a power shifting matchup that will have a lot of eyes on it.

Regardless of the result of that one match, it should be a wild Prem season. Buckle up.

Thanks for reading.

-Ryan

Ryan Riffs: The Premier League