Sports

Premier League Weekend Review: Arsenal, Manchester United, Liverpool and More

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Good grief Charlie Brown, where on earth to begin after that highest of high incident Premier League weekend? That was a five-course seven-course meal and not even a dash of Piers Morgan could ruin it.

Hell, where do we even start?

* Manchester City's 95th minute win over Spurs?
* Manchester United beating Arsenal, again?
* The coverage on FOX?
* Clint Dempsey's hat trick?
* The continuing Liverpool malaise?
* QPR's win over Wigan?

The Man, the Meme, the Legend:

Being right never felt this wrong. Shortly after Edin Dzeko was subbed off by Manchester City in the second for Mario Balotelli, my friend "Bones" texted me how lousy the Bosnian striker had been. My response? "Well Balotelli I destined to score the winner." (sic.)

Who, at about 8:50 a.m. Eastern, could have foreseen the exact road to that winner, however?

The irony here, is that City's 3-2 win -- the second half at least -- was about as good an advertisement for the EPL as possible. Great goals. Big personalities. Controversy. Drama. This was the kind of match all of America should have seen, even my non-soccer friend Greg got wrapped up in it.

Consider it the Balotelli Effect.

After what happened Sunday at the Eithad, it's a good bet we haven't seen the best (or worst) of Balotelli. However you slice it, he seems hell bent of doing the most insane, absoludircous act by a professional athlete ever.

Literally anything is in play. Stealing the Declaration of Independence? Sure, why not. Throwing his body into the Large Hadron Collider and turning into a Dr. Manhattan sort of character? I'll buy it.

All Balotelli did on Sunday was stomp The Gentleman Scott Parker -- twice -- directly in front of Howard Webb, no less, then draw a (deserved) penalty in the 95th minute via a Ledley King Ken Shamrock-scissor kick take-down, then covert said penalty -- in the rain -- to keep City atop the Premier League.

Why always him?

Because.

It could be said the stomping of The Gentleman was incidental, if you want.Was there malicious intent? Impossible to say. What's not is the maddening inconsistency of officiating in soccer across the globe. Balotelli might get his -- a multi game ban from the FA -- but he remained in the game and scored the winner.

Like I said, it's not a big game in English soccer without a huge dollop of hydrogenated controversy.

Weird game overall, too. City were never as ripe for the plucking as with Stefan Savic putting in a defensive performance that even had Titus Bramble and Jean-Allain Boumsong taking to Twitter to make jokes about it.

Still, City did manage a 2-0 lead, thanks to a slick pass by David Silva to tee up Samir Nasri and then just awful set piece defending by Spurs, allowing Jolean Lescott to let a ball bungle off to Klingon body and over the line. It's nothing we didn't already know, it's almost impossible to stop City from scoring goals -- especially at home, where they haven't lost since 2010 to (of all teams) Everton. City have only been held scoreless in two matches -- once on Boxing Day to West Brom -- and last week to Liverpool in the League Cup semifinals. 10 matches, 10 wins at home; 31 goals for; four against ... that's called getting the job done.(*)

What struck me in this game wasn't that Spurs rallied from 2-0 down to tie it, including a life-affirming, leper-curing strike by Gareth Bale, but the fact people were a) surprised Tottenham could do that and b) that the team is good. In soccer, more than any sport, there's this weird hegemony. It's almost as if the underdogs, or less perennial winners, are frowned on.

How many other team's in the world wouldn't want to field a midfield or Bale -- playing all over the field -- Luka Modric, The Gentleman and Aaron Lennon with Rafa van der Vaart playing right in front of it?

That said, maybe there's something to be said of the Tottenham history of being loveable, attract teams ... who just can't win the big one. Granted, my history of English football couldn't tell you much about the halycon days of 1961 with Dave Mackay and the double for Spurs, all I know is a team that can never -- bar rare occasions like the League Cup -- get it done, be it because of dodgy lasagna or some more nefarious, supernatural forces.

It's up to Spurs to forget about that history -- now 10 points up on Arsenal -- make sure they don't collapse and at least make the Champions League, if only to repeat scenes such as this one. Hey, if you don't win the league, trips to Bern and Milan are a nice consolation, in a "winner and loser" sense. At six points behind City and the two head-to-head encounters behind them. If Tottenham finishes six points behind City for the title, they'll know why, too. 

Long story short, this was the perfect advertisement for the what makes the Premier League so great.

(*) Side thought: overall the book "Scorecasting" was massively underwhelming. One decent point was the fact soccer teams win so often at home compared to other sports and how the referees decisions are impacted by it. Maybe at White Hart Lane it's a different decision. 

Same Old Story:

Honest question: Is it even worth re-hashing Manchester United's 2-1 win at the Emirates on Sunday?

Didn't everyone who's ever watched the Premier League, see that coming a mile -- nay, kilometer -- away?

Arsenal exposed for its lack of proper fullbacks? Check.

Arsenal teasing its fans with a glorious end-to-end goal, started by a Laurent Koscielny tackle inside his own box, a brilliant Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain pass and Robin van Persie, finish?

An apoplectic Arsene Wenger? Check.

An insane Wenger substitution? Check.

Now I know that there's an entire segment of the Internet writing community that make fun of columnists and other writers for determining that sports come down to things like "heart" or "mentality." Instead, everything can be proven via statistics or other metrics.

Arsenal's inability to beat Manchester United seems to boil down to, ahem, balls.

United lost Phil Jones inside of 20 minutes and had to slot Chris Smalling next to Jonny Evans and play Rafael at right back. Did the team crumple or give up? No. There's -- like it or not -- a commitment to winning that Sir Alex has instilled inside his team, up-and-down the squad. There's a lot of average and out-of-form players getting serious minutes for United at the moment, though the play of Antonio Valencia has provided a major spark. Old-and-creeky (Scholes, Giggs) or young-and-average (Evans), there's no whining in this team, so even ravaged by injuries all over the field (Chicharito, Vidic, Ferdinand, etc.) United never ease up.

Sir Alex is, in effect, Charlton Heston as NRA President. You'll have to wrest the title trophy from his cold dead hands. 

So even when Arsenal -- now losers of three straight -- knotted the game at 1-1, wasn't it obvious it was a matter of if, not when United would get the equalizer -- this time through Danny Welbeck?

Then again, gnashing our teeth and fretting about Arsenal seems silly. This team is patently average, slightly above average when van Persie is on his game. (The Dutchman may or may not have handed in a transfer request depending what you believe online.)

Go crazy, if you choose, about Wenger's (let's face it perplexing) decision to bring on Andrey Arshavin late in the game for the electric Oxlade-Chamberlain. Did you expect it to blow up in his face, with the enigmatic Russian getting toasted in the box on the game-winner? No, but it didn't make a ton of sense, though the Frenchman defended it through the fact the young English winger was tired and sick before the game.

It's not easy for Arsenal fans to come to gripes with this, but the dynamic has shifted. The glory days are, like, Theirry Henry -- part of the upper deck ringing the Emirates.

No Guts, (Faded) Glory?:

Somewhat of an interesting dynamic on display this weekend between two of the fading members of the old "Big Four" -- Arsenal and Liverpool.

Liverpool posted a shock 3-1 loss at Bolton, which afterward prompted Kenny Dalglish to wonder if the players care about what it means to play for Liverpool and if they took the Trotters for granted thinking they'd toss their jocks on the field and grab three points.

I've already underlined Arsenal's latest foibles.

Liverpool, with its American owners, want to embrace the "Moneyball" theories (not really, though) that helped make John Henry's Red Sox successful. In less than a year, the Fenway Group have only brought their free-spending Boston policies to Anfield, as it's looking a lot like Andy Carroll(*), Stewart Downing and Charlie Adam are that side of the Atlantic's versions of John Lackey, Carl Crawford and D-Kice.

(*) What were the odds, a year ago, that Newcastle United would be the big winners from the Carroll-Fernando mega-deal? 100-to-1?

Are the Liverpool trio already "flops" and unable to come back from it? Maybe too early to say, though something is clearly broken at Anfield, and not just Lucas' knee ligaments. You could certainly argue, though, overpaying for proven English/British talent would be the anti-Moneyball.

Liverpool have spent the money -- not exactly a "Moneyball" principle, though I'm not sure since I didn't see the movi. The club hasn't exactly looked in different ways to find success that are undervalued -- the true tale of the book.

Contrast that with Arsenal, which has probably been the one club with established success pulling a "Moneyball," as in trying to win with young, talented, attack-minded player instead of spending like crazy with high-priced important and even more insanely priced English talent.

Arsenal did buck its trend a little bit in August -- by necessity -- grabbing Mikel Arteta and Per Mertesacker and it looks like some of the seeds Wenger has sowed -- Alex Song and Koscielny are paying off.

Again, Arsenal seem gun shy in the transfer market, letting Chelsea beat them for Juan Mata, City pry Nasri and Gael Clichy away, etc. The last time Wenger splashed out the big cash, ironically, was for Arshavin -- a true bust.

Both Liverpool and Arsenal want to use their histories to their advantage, but it almost seems a burden as they backslide down the table, unable to surpass the raw spending power of Manchester City and Chelsea, the history of excellence of United and, at the moment, a red-hot Spurs team the envy of the league.

It seems the tactics toward team-building both  traditional powers have taken aren't working, one if not both will miss the Champions League -- five and six points off fourth at the moment -- and the money it brings. Should that happen, will both blow up what's been built up? Or will they embrace the theories of "Moneyball" and look at it in a completely different direction?

Don't Tread, Ever:
 

When you're Clint Dempsey, you can make this face.

Dear Deuce,
 
I feel like I can call you Deuce because you and me are so much alike. I would love to meet you some day. It would be great to have a kick. I know I can't kick as fast as you, but I think you would be impressed with my speed. I love your hair. You run fast. Do you have a good relationship with your father? Me neither. 
 
These are all things we can talk about and more. I know you have not been getting my letters because I know you would write back if you did, and I hope you write back this time and we get to be good friends. I am sure our relationship would be a real hat trick.
 
-- Mike


Yuuup. We've officially run out of things to say about how supremely awesome Clint Dempsey is after his second-half hat trick in Fulham's shock 5-1 romp over Newcastle at Craven Cottage, so I just decided to co-opt Mac's letter to Chase Utley from "Sunny." (Note, it's his second after a three-goal game vs. Charlton Athletic in the FA Cup.)

One salient thought, fair play to Eric Wynalda for making a good point on Fox Soccer during "Match Day" in that, why shouldn't Dempsey play striker, or closer to goal for the U.S. National Team?

Got into a great discussion on Twitter with @NateFC, @30frames and @thefarmerjones about the future of Dempsey and if he should play at a "bigger" club? Granted, yes, his value to Fulham is higher than it would be any place else.

It boils down to this, has Dempsey -- with nine EPL goals in 2011-12 -- out-grown a solid, decidedly mid-table team like Fulham?

After watching games this weekend, it's hard to say he couldn't be an asset scoring goals and doing Deuce things for teams like Arsenal, Liverpool or Tottenham. The ball is in his court, since he does have a contract. He'd have to want to force his way out and it doesn't seem like Dempsey's ego is the type to need to play at a Champions League club like most other star players.

FOX FOX FOX FOX:

Before getting into the snark and commentary, fair play to FOX for broadcasting the Arsenal/Manchester United match on most outlets across America live. Once the game started it was the usual feed, featuring Martin Tyler so there weren't any "Married with Children" or "Arsenio Hall" style woofing or cat calls pumped into the sound mix.

Everything else with FOX ... needs some work.

Not going to say anything much about Piers Morgan. Until Sunday I'd heard of him, but never really seen him anywhere -- guess he's a reality judge of "talent" or something. He's certainly part of that me-first "journalism," trying to interject himself into the story as much as possible, as in trying to pick fights with Rio Ferdinand. A creep/troll like Morgan thrives because people talk about him -- god help us if he and Skip Bayless ever joined forces, he seems universally reviled and revels in that fact. All I know is Morgan considered Arsenal a "we" scenario, which is news to me since I didn't know he played for the team.

He also later linked to a Bleacher Report article calling for Wenger's firing, which about sums it up.

Also a rarity? Wynalda(*) isn't the most detested analyst on a studio desk.

There's something ... chitzy? cheesy? greasy? About the way FOX does things. It doesn't have the polish or gravitas of ESPN, which makes you worry about the World Cup.

On Twitter I made plenty of jokes via the #EPLonFOX hashtag, look through it if you want a slight-to-mild chuckle. Overall, I'm bummed, would have loved to know who the cast members of "Glee" picked to win the match.

(*) Interesting to monitor Wynalda trying to bill himself as this voice of reason/truth teller in U.S. Soccer. I'll give him credit, he's not holding back his punches. Plus, from a TV standpoint, he does well as the host when paired with Warren Barton and Christopher Sullivan.

Around the League:

Hey, when you're wrong you;re wrong. Robbie Keane scored two sizzling goals for Aston Villa in a 3-2 win at Wolves, which featured a Pepe-like dirty stomp by Karl Henry. ... But when you're right, patting myself on the back for predicting a massive Swansea City letdown away in a loss to Sunderland on Saturday. ...Fernando Torres picked the right weekend to continue not scoring goals, as his drought will be overshadowed by everything else that happened. Chelsea is missing ... something (duh), though full marks to Norwich City, especially keeper John Ruddy and defenders Zak Whitbread and Daniel Ayala, ex-Liverpool youth player. ...Tough break for Tim Howard in Everton's 1-1 draw with Blackburn. He came off his line to make a catch, collided with a Blackburn player -- no foul was called -- he missed the ball, it felt almost directly on the goal line and was tapped in. Adam Bogdan smiled. ... Harry Redknapp is on trial today for tax evasion, wake me when it's over.

Fantasy Team O' the Week:

D mahon's "Missing Elmander" put up 62 points, thanks to Bale, Dempsey, Lescott and Ali Al-Habsi (who saved a penalty vs. QPR.)

One Other Thing:

Pretty sure I crossed over the threshold from observer, to maybe, possibly a Tottenham fan since that lose today left me irked and dazed for a good hour or two, although it didn't leave me physically sick to my stomach after Billy Cundiff missed a last-second field goal, helping propel the hated Patriots into the Super Bowl, but there was some sort of an empty feeling. 

It was an emotion a fan would experience, instead of the usual asshole hiding behind a keyboard making snarky comments with impunity at every team to tweak people.

Song of the Week:

Nothing's caught my ear, lately. Phantogram's "Don't Move" is pretty catchy, still.

It snowed in Connecticut Saturday, so I spent part of the morning staring out the window, sipping on green tea, listening to Bon Iver, snapped a photo of it with my phone and spend the rest of the day trying to decide which Instagram filter would be best express my inner-most feelings for a profile picture.