Sunday, 24 November 2013

Facts: 7 Premier League truths – Arsenal, United and Lukaku

1. Arsenal are the new Manchester United
For the last 20 years we've become used to teams folding against Manchester United. They gave up silly goals, missed straightforward chances, lost concentration in the last five minutes and invariably played beneath their true level as they panicked in the face of what they perceived to be an innately superior force.
But now it appears to be Arsenal whose mere presence on the pitch causes opponents to lose their minds: their ninth win of the season came courtesy of two moments of insanity, one from Southampton goalkeeper Artur Boruc trying to dribble his way past a world class striker, and another from defender Jose Fonte giving away a late penalty in almost equally baffling circumstances.
It's a decade since an Arsenal side last had anything that resembled an aura of infallibility - the famous 'Invincibles' side of 2003-04 - but with a third of the season almost gone Arsene Wenger's side appear to have discovered some genuine Fergie-esque quality.
2. Manchester United are the new Liverpool
Is it too early in the day to draw parallels between the 1990-91 Reds and the 2013-14 Red Devils? The resignation of Kenny Dalglish at Liverpool during the 1990-91 season saw the club lose a legendary manager and brought an end to roughly two decades of dominance. The resignation of Alex Ferguson at Manchester United saw the club lose a legendary manager and appears to have brought to an end to roughly two decades of dominance. In the first two full seasons after Dalglish's resignation, Liverpool finished sixth in the table. Spookily enough, United currently sit sixth in the table - and their performances this season so far suggest a strong likelihood that the same spot will still be theirs next May.
What is more worrying is the manner of those matches. Sunday's draw against newly-promoted Cardiff City is exactly the sort of game that Fergie's United would never have let slip regardless of how well or badly they played. On Sunday they looked completely ordinary, and actually a pretty close match for Malky Mackay's men, before - ignominy of ignominies! - conceding the sort of Fergie-time equaliser they used to thrive on.
3. Andre Villas-Boas needs to stick to plan A
For most of the first half of Sunday's match against Manchester City on Sunday it was more or less business as usual for Tottenham: they dominated possession 60/40 but were utterly unable to produce anything resembling a clear-cut threat on goal.
Yet as frustrating as that is for fans demanding radical action, the events at the Etihad proved that AVB's conservatism is justified - because the alternative looked truly horrific: he gambled on Erik Lamela from the start, and Lamela floundered; he gambled on switching to 4-4-2 at half-time, and his previously dominant midfield barely touched the ball again; and worst of all he gave 45 minutes to Emmanuel Adebayor, who barely produced 45 seconds of notable activity.
Two weeks ago this blog begged AVB to take a few chances. Today, it's begging him not to, and begging his pardon for ever having suggested as much.
4. Chelsea-reject Lukaku can have a say in the title race
Football hath no fury like a striker scorned, and Romelu Lukaku looks like a man on a mission after inspiring Everton to a draw in a thrilling Merseyside derby on Saturday lunchtime. The Belgian still seems sore to have been sent out on loan yet again rather than given the chance at Stamford Bridge this season, but he seems to be having his say in Chelsea's season regardless.
Without him Everton would have been buried by Liverpool, so as long as he's out there taking points off Chelsea's title rivals while remaining ineligible to do the same against his parent club, Jose Mourinho is getting plenty of value out of him after all.
5. Manchester City need to teach their players some basic mathematics and gardening
Watching Manuel Pellegrini's men cut loose on home turf yet again in their 6-0 destruction of Tottenham was inspiring and depressing in equal measure. The inspiration came from the sheer joy the players obviously had in carving opponents apart, a joy that was oddly reminiscent of Lionel Messi's always-evident relish in scoring amazing goals.
As for the depression? That's down to the fact that it's almost embarrassing to watch City play so well at the Etihad while knowing that they're so bad on the road. It's rather like being married to a supermodel who is your constant delight and companion at home, but who refuses to leave the house and hides in the airing cupboard when your friends pop round.
Our suggestion? Sit the players down on Monday, explain that every football pitch in the league is roughly 115 yards long, 75 yards wide. They are all covered in grass. Seriously, boys, they're really not that different.
6. It won't be a Jol-y Christmas at Fulham
After yet another miserable performance at Craven Cottage on Saturday, Martin Jol is now 4/11 on to be the next Premier League manager to leave his job. Considering that the next nearest contenders are Andre Villas-Boas (unsackable, thanks to the backing he received in the market this summer) and Chris Hughton (unsackable, because Norwich know they're lucky to have anyone as good) those odds seems generous. If Fulham fail to beat West Ham next Saturday the Dutchman will surely be picking up his P45.
7. An epic relegation battle starts here
The clubs in the bottom half of the table have been building their season around one major misapprehension: namely, that this season they're effectively just two teams being relegated, since Crystal Palace were so irrefutably doomed before the season even started.
But a gritty 1-0 win for the Eagles against the Tigers in what could well be the worst Premier League match of all time suggests that Palace may not in fact 'do a Derby County' by having the worst season of all time, but could yet spring a few surprises. After all, if the club's indisputably canny new boss Tony Pulis can inspire a victory merely by sitting in the stands, what might he do when he actually starts working with the team? At least for the moment, it looks like the relegation battle will be not be the worst two out of 19 after all, but rather the traditional three out of 20. And considering that just eight points separate 10th place from 20th, nothing looks certain for anybody just yet.

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