3 Things We Learned This Weekend
Nothing ever lasts forever
The press appear to have treated Jose Mourinho`s post match assertion that United`s title defence is over as some kind of surprising or inflammatory statement. To some extent it`s understandable, Ferguson`s United has hovered over us all for so long that it`s impossible not to feel like they are on the cusp of revival. It`s like seeing your tormentor locked up in prison. It gives you some peace of mind, but it doesn`t remove the psychological scar for a little while. You still step carefully around every corner, anticipating impending doom every time that you do.
United`s defeat at Chelsea looked eerily familiar for an Arsenal fan. Some good work early on in the game being totally undone by a couple of defensive lapses. Relying on one precocious young talent to carry your entire threat whilst Robin van Persie peers on from the stands unable to assist. Yet even Ferguson`s brilliant United sides wouldn`t have been able to make up this deficit, which now sees them 14 points adrift of the top of the table. If United were chasing just one table topper, then a repeat of Newcastle`s collapse in 1996 or United`s collapse in 1998 could be forlornly hoped for.
But United were always relying on 3 teams collapsing in the event that they did put a formidable winning run together. The worry for Moyes now is that they are firmly in a battle for a top 4 place and their 3 rivals for 4th, Everton, Liverpool and Spurs, don`t look especially vulnerable either. You`d probably back United`s quality over those three in the next 4 months, but United`s destiny, even for 4th, is not in their own hands at this moment in time.
Tonight Thank God It`s Them, Instead of You
Whilst Arsenal, City and Chelsea have turned into unstoppable winning machines, at the bottom end of the table, the busy Christmas schedule seems to have separated wheat from chaff rather drastically. There are currently 7 teams averaging a point per game or less now. Some managers are probably not under as much pressure as they might otherwise be simply because the media is having a hard time keeping track of them all. Chris Hughton, Sam Allardyce, Mauricio Pochettino, Michael Laudrup and Mark Hughes oversaw some poor seasonal form, as did Alan Pardew prior to an away win at Upton Park on Saturday. Whilst Rene Meulensteen, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Pepe Mel haven`t even been able to make their dead cats bounce.
In this environment, Tony Pulis and Gus Poyet have been able to quietly oversee a revival in their survival prospects. I wrote on these pages just a couple of months ago that Palace and Sunderland`s limp surrender would have a consequence on the title fight. It appeared that many poor teams would have something of a busman`s holiday at the season`s conclusion with only one relegation spot to avoid. Palace and Sunderland`s reanimation has given cause for the likes of Norwich, Swansea and West Brom to become fearful again, with the knowledge that the bell could toll for them if they continue to slack.
Many predicted a rout as Arsenal took on one of the Premier League`s lesser lights Fulham on Saturday. Your sage writer, possessed of wit and good looks, predicted a routine 2-0 win. Arsenal have won by this score line in 3 of their last 4 games, and 7 times in their last 9 home games (draws with Chelsea and Everton the only exceptions). This is a more controlled Arsenal than past incarnations.
Arsene Wenger alluded to the confidence that the defence radiates out towards the team after the match on Saturday. Past Arsenal teams would probably have tried to win this game 6-0 and would have probably won 5-3 in trying to do so. (Who can forget Cesc Fabregas` brain-dead decision to launch a stoppage time corner into the Spurs penalty area at 4-3 some years back?) Arsenal don`t do that now because they don`t have to, at 2-0 they feel confident that the game is over and that there is no need to over extend thereafter.
A good professional job and onto the next game is all that is required. It is of course fun to hand out the occasional 5 or 6 goal thrashing, but you`re just as likely to over commit and put the result in doubt in trying to do so. You`re also likely to over extend and jeopardise immediate fixtures. After beating Southampton 6-1 last season, Arsenal lost 3 of their next 4 games. They didn`t win any of their next 3 games after beating Spurs 5-2. They didn`t win any of their next 3 after beating Newcastle 7-3.
Of course it would be too simplistic to attribute the lulls followed by these thrashings last season entirely to over exertion, there will be a number of factors. But they certainly held little long term benefit and weren`t the boon to confidence they are often portrayed as. Much better to win often than to win well occasionally and clean sheets tend to be better at instilling confidence than goal gluts. Though maybe Manchester City, with their expensively assembled attack, might beg to differ.