You know it's not exactly a scrapbook-worthy weekend of football when managers are reduced to bemoaning what they deserved or how they were the better team or how they "bossed it" (I see you, Martin Jol) following a loss or a draw. Coming at the end of a week where there was plenty of talk about England's place in European football's pecking order — what with Arsenal going out of the Champions League and both Manchester sides losing in the Europa League — the weekend's action did little to quell murmurs that the Premier League is no longer the premier league.
It can be a bit hard, after watching the first-touch control, elegant passing, and positional fluidity of AC Milan, Barcelona, and even Athletic Bilbao, to go back to watching Stoke, West Brom, Sunderland, and, frankly, Liverpool. But for whatever the league seems to be lacking in technical quality this season, it's making up for in the mad rush for various places on the league table. There are fevered battles going on for the title, the Champions League spots, as well as the Europa League slots. And then there is the scrap to stay out of the financially ruinous relegation zone — a fight that is currently embroiling five different clubs and could draw in more.
Since we missed a week last week, I'd like to cover as many sides as possible. Let's go from top to bottom and look at a bunch from this round of matches.
Swansea City 1, Manchester City 0
With Joleon Lescott and Vincent Kompany injured, Stefan Savic and Kolo Touré paired for the first time together in central defense. City manager Roberto Mancini compounded this deficiency by making an ill-advised move in this match: yanking Gareth Barry for Sergio Agüero early on, essentially going 4-2-4, with David Silva, Agüero, Sami Nasri, and Mario Balotelli up top. With only Yaya Touré and Nigel de Jong in the midfield, Swansea were allowed to get into rhythm with their passing, methodically moving the ball. Mancini obviously plays favorites and Balotelli is a wonderful sports personality, but the manager's soft spot for the player, who lost himself quite a knot of cash after a late-night strip club adventure last week, might have cost City some much-needed points on Sunday.
Balotelli's insolence and attitude are part of his edge. No one is sure what he is going to do next, and it's that unpredictability that terrifies defenders as much as it excites audiences. But Sunday he just acted like a brat. Two examples: first, attempting to catch the excellent Michel Vorm off his line in the first half, trying a shot from nearly midfield, even though he had a streaking Nasri running on ahead of him. And second, late in the game, repeatedly taking on multiple Swansea defenders or trying shots that Stephen Hawking would have been hard-pressed to explain the angle of, instead of keeping possession and moving the ball for a better shot.
It was indicative of the way City played when the pressure was on. At the end of the game, with some industrious Welshman banging on a kettledrum he had snuck into Liberty Stadium, Mancini's men seemed to be relying on individual acts of brilliance from players who haven't been individually brilliant this decade. On their final possession, with Joe Hart in the box, with about £90 million in attacking talent on the field, at a moment when — and imagine me banging on my desk and looking really serious about this cliché — champions find a way to win (or draw), City played a short corner to Gaël Clichy, who proceeded to try a shot even 2009 Gaël Clichy would have chuckled at. Hell, even Kolo Touré was going for YouTube clippery with his shots. For such a disciplinarian, Mancini's team played like this was a pickup game at the park.
A note about the fantastic Welsh club: Coming up from the Championship, Swansea were always going to have to make the most out of limited resources. But Swansea are showing that who you spend your money on is as important as how much money you have in the first place. As we are seeing with a lot of the teams mired in relegation battles (I'm thinking specifically of Wolves, who I'll get to later), making the wrong additions to a lean squad can have catastrophic effects.
Here's the problem: Unlike with American pro sports, there is never a "nothing to play for" period of the season. Teams are either competing for the top seven, hoping to get into Europe, or working hard to avoid being brought into a possible relegation battle. So you don't have what, say, baseball has, where "the kids" get a chance toward the end of the season. There's no room to take chances, and whatever few mid-season additions a manager makes are usually cosmetic, or with an eye toward the future, rather than looking for big on-field impact.
Swansea has been a subtle exception. Brendan Rodgers has tinkered with his team personnel as brilliantly as he has directed them on the field this season. In January he added Chelsea's bright young thing Josh McEachran on loan, journeyman striker Luke Moore, and Icelandic midfielder Gylfi Sigurðsson. All of them have contributed already, with Moore scoring the game-winner on Sunday, moments after being introduced, and Sigurðsson seeming to play everywhere in the central midfield at once. He's exactly the kind of creative passer that Chelsea so desperately need. He'll likely either return to Hoffenheim in Germany or earn a big-money move in the summer. I hope he stays, though; watching him partner with Leon Britton has been one of the pleasures of the season's second half.
Manchester United 2, West Brom 0
After United dealt with the Basque cheetahs from Athletic Bilbao last week, West Brom probably seemed like a bunch of guys riding Hoverounds. This is not meant (really) as any disrespect toward the Baggies. They played well in defeat, and looked like they might get something out of the game in its opening minutes. The Baggies players move in well-drilled, lock-step movement with one another. You can see it: midfielders advancing and retreating in a line, defenders conservatively shielding their territory. That discipline is exactly why I don't think West Brom boss Roy Hodgson will become the manager of England.
In recent days, with the anti-Harry Redknapp voices growing a bit louder, Hodgson has emerged as a candidate for the job, with Hodgson himself, who is in the last year of his WBA deal, saying he's "flattered." I feel bad negging the hopes and dreams of a 64-year-old man who sits in the technical area rubbing his face like a squirrel who just smoked some of Heisenberg's "Blue Ice," but Hodgson's coaching methods take much more time to be realized than he would have with the national team. Through both success (Fulham) and failure (Liverpool), Hodgson's players have often talked about the monotonous work they do on team shape, claiming they only see results after repeating the same drills for months. Given the timeline the FA have, where they plan on hiring a manager after the Premier League season wraps up, Hodgson will only have a matter of weeks before Euro 2012 kicks off in Ukraine and Poland.
As for United, Rio Ferdinand brought stability to the defense and Paul Scholes anchored the midfield, and they are both way too old for this shit, but it really doesn't matter because spring is here and Wayne Rooney is blossoming. Playing more as a creative playmaker, in the hole behind Javier Hernandez, Rooney scored two goals on Sunday, giving him 20 league goals for the season.
Arsenal 2, Newcastle 1
Arsenal's recent run of form — which includes come-from-behind victories over Tottenham and Liverpool, and almost pulling off a miracle victory over AC Milan in the Champions League (down 4-0 after one leg, the Gunners beat the Italians 3-0 in the next match, coming up just short) is making me question my value system. These are the kinds of matches Arsenal is supposed to blow, especially against Newcastle (the streets are paved with the tears of Gunners fans who remember Newcastle's four-goal comeback last February). It's hard to point to any one thing that's different about this Arsenal team from the one that drew with the Magpies last winter or even the one that played so ineffectively for most of the season. Tomas Rosicky, playing in the hole in place of Aaron Ramsey, has been a revelation; Theo Walcott and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain have been excellent on the flanks, and getting Bacary Sagna back has definitely helped the defense. The real key, though, is Robin van Persie — but not in the way you might think.
When you have 25 goals in 28 games, that is Player of the Year form, but where van Persie has been equally impressive is how he has been a team leader. Inheriting the captain's armband from the departed (as in went to Barcelona, not, you know, dead) Cesc Fábregas, van Persie has given Arsenal, especially in the last few matches, a bit of a dickish edge.
Fabregas was an officially licensed and bonded magician, but whenever things got tough, his attitude seemed to veer toward exasperation. With van Persie, you get the goals, but you also get the Dutchman. And Dutchmen love to mix it up. They especially love to mix it up with other Dutchmen. And van Persie's late-game altercation with Newcastle keeper Tim Krul, following Thomas Vermaelen's late winner, was some fantastic mind-gaming. The protracted argument delayed the kickoff, making it difficult for Newcastle to catch a celebratory Arsenal asleep at the wheel.
Everton 1, Tottenham 0
Going back to Redknapp … he's everybody's uncle when they're winning, but lose three on the trot and "'Arry" disappears and a little bit of "Hatchet Harry" emerges. Redknapp was rather twitchy following the loss to the Toffees. When asked whether the speculation over his being the England manager-to-be was affecting his team, the Spurs boss responded, "Absolute rubbish. Absolute rubbish. Absolute rubbish. You saw the effort out there. How can it destabilize the team when they come out and play like that? They haven't just said: 'The manager is leaving, we ain't bothered any more.' We have had three very, very difficult games — Man U, Arsenal away and Everton away, who have beaten Man City here and Chelsea here." OK then!
The Spurs' dip is somewhat due to gravity (for every peak, a valley; Tottenham could not possibly have maintained their sizzling form for an entire season) and somewhat due to Redknapp's injury-triggered tinkering. The manager has been shuffling Gareth Bale around, trying to find him the kind of open space he needs to get into a high gear. On Saturday, Bale seemed one-dimensional. If he couldn't find a runway he couldn't take off. By comparison, Everton's Leighton Baines made him look rather pedestrian. The prices often quoted for purchasing Bale have been astronomical, but I'd rather have Baines at less than half the price; he's a dead-ball specialist, excellent passer, and smart defender.
They get to play QPR, Blackburn, and Bolton (Bolton twice) in the coming weeks. If what the manager says about England not being a distraction is true, they should be able to hold on to their Champions League place for next season.
Chelsea 1, Stoke 0
This match marked the first Premier League victory in Roberto Di Matteo's career as Chelsea boss. It also nearly marked the end of the Ivanovic family name, when Stoke forward Ricardo Fuller bizarrely stamped on the Chelsea defender's jewels. Di Matteo, perhaps stating the obvious, said, after the game, "At the moment, the result is probably more important than anything else." Meet the new Chelsea, same as the old, old Chelsea, just a bit older and not as good. Andre Villas-Boas was relieved of his hysterical, jittery touchline-dancing (and managerial) duties because his efforts to transform a physically imposing, defensively sound, rather direct, and increasingly slow team into a quick-striking, counter-attacking bunch of high-line-playing banshees fell terribly flat. Di Matteo reinstalled the old guard of Terry, Lampard, and Drogba, but no matter whom he started the Blues were quite clearly driven by the creativity of Juan Mata. Coming on a sub in the first half once Stoke went down to 10 men, his passing and movement inside completely befuddled the ogres in Stoke's defense.
Sunderland 1, Liverpool 0
Liverpool is, barring some kind of appearance by Gozer the Gozerian that turns everything upside down, out of contention for the Champions League next season. After watching Jay Spearing and Charlie Adam on Saturday, you couldn't say the Champions League will be any poorer without them. Ever since Lucas Leiva went down with a season-ending knee injury, Liverpool have seemed off. The Brazilian provided defensive cover and a steadying influence in midfield. Without him, it seems as though everyone is playing just slightly out of position (Jordan Henderson is about as much a right winger as Charlie Adam is a male model). With Europa League guaranteed, it would be a great opportunity to see some of Liverpool's highly vaunted youth players get a run of games. I basically just want to see Raheem Sterling in action — but pride will likely make Kenny Dalglish stick with his first-teamers.
I won't dwell on this one. Given that Dalglish said, "I don't think it was much of a game," I'm certainly not going to write a ton about it. I only included the highlights to illustrate that nobody celebrates a goal that barely belonged to him like Nicklas Bendtner.
Aston Villa 1, Fulham 0
This was my first time watching the "Cold War" partnership of Clint Dempsey and Pavel Pogrebnyak. I was slightly distracted by several things:
1. Pog partnered with Andy Johnson rather than Dempsey (who, to be fair, isn't a pure striker, and often drifts in the area between midfield and the forward line … or really anywhere he wants, because he's Clint Dempsey).
2. Danny Murphy's face nearly coming off.
3. Stephen Ireland laughing after nearly taking Danny Murphy's face off.
4. Moussa Dembele's excellent midfield play. He had to cover for Murphy for a chunk of the first half. He then partnered well with Mahamadou Diarra. His ability to make just slight adjustments while in possession and to open up whole new passing lanes is wonderful to watch.
5. Remembering that Mahamadou Diarra is the subject of this, one of the funniest bits of soccer commentary you'll ever see:
Blackburn 2, Wolves 0
How are things going at Wolves? Roger Johnson turned up drunk at training last week. That's how things are going at Wolves. On Saturday, Wolves striker Steven Fletcher — who I SWEAR did not have any tattoos last week, but then again, I am not an avid Steven Fletcher tattoo observer — seemed to be seeing double, Jamie O'Hara was screamed at outside the grounds by Wolves fans while he was holding his son in his arms, and the guys at the top, from manager Terry Connor through the executive brass, don't seem to know what they're doing.
Steve Morgan, who was once a prospective buyer of Liverpool, and his mouthpiece Jez Moxey (who I keep having to remind myself is not Bez from Happy Mondays) had a lovely day of reading a banner in the crowd that said, "Scouse Mafia Out" (he's a Liverpudlian). Then he went out to face the profane, furious music outside the ground, where he met with angry fans that had been chanting, "Morgan, show your face!"
I'm not trying to be provocative when I say the English have a complicated relationship with outsiders. And their football, specifically the Premier League, has been an illustrative example of that. All over the nation — last season at Liverpool, Manchester United, and Blackburn, to say nothing of the lower leagues — you see fans decrying the missteps of "foreign" ownership, whether the owners are from outside the country or, in the case of Wolves, outside the region.
Across the board, Wolves definitely have the talent to stay in the Premier League, but in much the same way that Carlos Tevez seemed to single-handedly keep West Ham in the top flight a few seasons ago, special individuals can sometimes change a team's fortunes more than any manager or group effort can. In Blackburn's case, that talent is Junior Hoilett. The Rovers' attacking midfielder scored two goals on Saturday, running rampant all over the field. Along with Mauro Formica, he was the difference in the game, and could well prove to be the difference between Blackburn staying up or going down.
Goal(ie) of the Week
This is Joe Hart imitating Kobe Bryant telling LeBron to shoot the last shot at the All-Star Game. Rather similar results, too.
Quote of the Week: Sir Alex Ferguson, Manchester United
"We won't get nervous."
This is getting fun.