Chelsea 3 – Everton 3
This game taught me something about the dynamics of teams. To clarify, there are squads and teams. Squads are made up of men for the purpose of winning. Teams consist of men for the purpose of winning for each other. While the qualification between the two seems minimal at a glance, squads, regardless of quality, rarely win titles. Teams do, and in that, the difference is gargantuan.
Photo by Richard Heathcote/Getty Images Europ
On Saturday, Stamford Bridge witnessed a tale of two teams. Chelsea, a team propelled by the urgency of looming arthritis and rotary-club fees, and Everton, a teamhuddling for footholds above the canyoning rapids of relegation, met with designs of resurgence, albeit from different places.
What struck me about the Mersyside Derby was how well Everton played, despite losing to Liverpool. As an avid Liverpool supporter, I took the points with glee. But in writing, I wondered which would last; the rectified performance and an unlucky loss or another subpar outing and a sympathetic three points? It seems my question was answered in the subsequent fixtures, which saw Liverpool continue to struggle and Everton continue to improve.
If asked if I thought Everton stood a chance against Chelsea, I would have said no. If asked if I thought Everton could overcome three goals from Chelsea, I would have said no much more resoundingly, and probably with a few obscenities for emphasis. But credit to the Toffees, they showed tremendous character, not only against Chelsea but in their continued improvement within the trenches of defeat. It’s difficult enough to improve while winning. But to grow through disappointing results is a function of a team, not a squad.
Chelsea fans will probably look at the tie to Everton as a failure. And in a weekend that offered a great opportunity for separation, maybe it was. But Chelsea have learned, either through a common thread of purpose or simply from playing together for so long, how to lose as a team. I maintain that the ability to adapt quickly from poor performances is the quintessential attribute to any title-winning team. Manchester United whittled their adaptation scheme down to minutes last season. Chelsea has the quality and leadership – both on the field and on the sidelines – to do the same.
Manchester United 0 – Aston Villa 1
United physios tell Rio Ferdinand, "There's nothing more we can do."
But what a glorious opportunity Chelsea’s tie provided Manchester United, who after the result sat only three points behind the leaders in the table. I said in my fantasy preview before the match that Aston Villa’s pace would expose United’s defense, which at the time looked more like an episode of M*A*S*H than a top-four back-line. Even at full strength, Evra is the only consistent defender in the side that can deal with the threat of speed, as Vidic, Ferdinand, O’Shea, and Neville look consistently awkward when facing a concoction of open field and quickness. Throw Darren Fletcher and Wes Brown to the whirling dervish gauntlet of Stewart Downing, Ashley Young, and Gabby Agbonlahor, and there’s just no chance of containment for 90 minutes.
Sure enough, Ashley Young (marked by Darren Fletcher) assisted Gabby Agbonlahor (lost by everyone else) for the only goal of the match. Shocker!
Aston Villa’s season is starting to resemble Liverpool’s from last year. So far, Villa have toppled Manchester United, Chelsea, and Liverpool, three out of four of tradition’s alleged top-four clubs. With only Arsenal left on the docket, Villa have a great chance to beat all the teams above them, yet just like Liverpool’s 08/09 team, are stuck in cactus-patch of dropped points to weaker opposition. Liverpool’s bane seemed to be negative team selections in supposed “easy” games, but Martin O’Neil won’t sit back. His coaching style and his squad simply don’t allow for tactical caution.
Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images Sport
So why won’t Aston Villa really pose a challenge for the title? My theory at this point in the season is that they don’t have the squad depth to support their core group ofplayers and the way that they play. By that, I mean that several of Villa’s attacking threats, specifically Ashley Young, Gabby Agbonlahor, Stewart Downing, and James Milner, play such an exhausting brand of physically intense, high pressure football. Their running is such a key element of Villa’s victories that I feel it must wear on them, especially in games immediately following the major fixtures in their schedule.
After beating Chelsea, they tied wolves. After pummeling Bolton 5-1, they drew at Burnley. We’ll see if my theory holds true on Tuesday, as Villa expect their key players to run Sunderland into the ground just three days after firestorming United.
United, despite losing to Villa, will challenge for the title. In fact, they may be the only ones up there with Chelsea win the season comes to a close. The reason is simple; they have cover for fatigue and injury at every possible position. Proof is in the Villa game – they held a very potent attack to one goal despite injuries to seven possible defenders. Same is true for midfield and striking options. If Ashley Young picks up a knock or runs out of gas, or Stew Downing or Gabby, the side loses a tremendous amount of potency regardless of the replacement.
But, I won’t cast dark clouds. Aston Villa defended superbly, especially in the second half. Commitment to make robust challenges and full-body blocks is a beautiful brand of football, and Villa are a very dangerous team when playing it.
Liverpool 1 – Arsenal 2
"Turn away, Steven, you mustn't see me like this."
The Liverpool boards have been interesting this afternoon. Recently, maybe even as far back as last season, “Rafa Out” ralliers have been calling for Rafa’s sacking on the basis of persistent negative-tactics in winnable games. This season, its been alike but louder, with Rafa’s harsher critics demonstrating expletive unrest at Lucas and Kuyt’s seemingly lock-tight position on the team-sheet.
But Rafa got it right this afternoon. Kuyt scored, Lucas played well, and out of three substitutions, three forward-thinking, impact players. Surely Liverpool’s abyssmal zero shots on goal in the second half can’t be Rafa’s fault?
From the Liverpool forums:
“We were a totally different team in the second half than we were in the first. The only common element is the half-time team talk. Rafa has to go!”
A few like-minded Rafa-axers reasoned:
“He took off Mascherano, our only passionate player, Benny, who is always a threat to score, and Glen Johnson, who has been one of our most consistent attacking wide-options. Rafa’s lost the plot!”
A few things seem true. First, Liverpool played pretty well in the first half. For the first time in a long time, they controlled the game with passes on the ground, created chances on the break, and pressured the ball high up the pitch. Second, Arsenal never got out of first gear. They were pedestrian throughout, and never really looked like taking the game by the throat like they have so often this season. But, they never had to accelerate because, third, Liverpool never came out of the locker room. The entire team looked sickly, as if Donovan McNabb’s mother stopped by with some month old Campbell’s Chunky Soup.
Rafa said after the game that the loss came down to lack of confidence. I believe he’s right, and to a major extent, the forging of that confidence depends on the players, especially Steven Gerrard. But a major part of that confidence depends on the manager. In today’s footballing culture, with big paychecks and bigger egos, it’s become increasingly important for managers to be able to focus players towards a single goal as a collective unit. Confidence is built from that collective, and a manager welds that steel together.
Some reports from Melwood suggest that Rafa’s new contract has incited complacency, as regular hour-long scouting reports at training sessions have virtually vanished. Whether this is true or fabricated, it seems likely that a loss in confidence amongst the players may mirror a manager’s loss of motivation in at least some respect.
On a technical level, Rafa Benitez is a considered by many to be a master tactician. Yet despite his footballing brain, which I don’t claim to have the experience to contest, the managing of players must be equally important if not more so in the job description of a top-level football boss. I don’t think many would argue that Rafa’s interpersonal skills are lackluster at best, which makes me wonder just how sturdy a tactical base of management can be. The problem with relying on tactics to motivate a team, and therefore build confidence, is that it is absolutely contingent on winning. In a rough patch, which every team inevitably faces, every manager should have that extra club in their bag to inspire confidence in their squad. Whether that be a connection to the club’s legends, an uplifting team-talk, or a riotous sense of humor, a manager must have that extra dimension of intangible spirit that reflects what he wants on the field. Rafa doesn’t have that. In my eyes, he’s a one-trick pony.
Arsenal, on the other hand, have to be worried about their title hopes. So far this season, Arsenal have lost to Manchester United, Chelsea, and Manchester City. Coupled with a very mediocre showing at Anfield and the impending clash with Villa, Arsenal can’t be oozing confidence at their threat to major opposition. A lot of that is due to the loss of Robin Van Persie, without whom Arsenal are forced to field several key players out of position. High pressure and rough tackling will totally scuff up the current Arsenal attack, just as Liverpool managed to do effectively in the first half, because the Gunners have no strength or hold-up play in outlet positions.
Arsenal need to be very careful with their next five fixtures, as Hull City, Burnley, Portsmouth, and Bolton will almost assuredly attempt to pressure way up the pitch and hassle the small-bodied Arsenal tricksters. For me, these next games will tell the story of the rest of Arsenal’s season. Can the Gunners learn the championship quality of winning ugly?
Stop stop stop saying Xabi Alonso. If you’re content to discredit Aquilani’s ability to single-handily turn Liverpool’s season around, surely you must recognize the fallacy in blaming all of Liverpool’s woes on Xabi’s departure?
Probably the most disappointing part of the loss today was realizing that I wouldn’t get to hear one of Wenger’s nonsensical rants after the game.
Tottenham 0 – Wolves 1 [Gettin’ paid the Spurs way]
Stoke 2 – Wigan 2
Birmingham City 1 – West Ham 0
Bolton 3 – Man City 3 [Great show by Carlos Tevez. Would pay just about anything to see him in a red shirt]
Burnley 1 – Fulham 1
Hull City 0 – Blackburn 0 [A defensive struggle? Nah, just Hull vs Rovers]
Sunderland 1 – Pompey 1 [How do managerial shakeups work, exactly?]
See you so soon! Midweek fixtures + winter break = a Louis Armstrong song