Things We Learned This Weekend
Arsenal love a 2-0 and it`s not a coincidence
Cardiff City, Fulham, Hull City, Liverpool, Southampton, Tottenham Hotspur, Fenerbahçe, Marseilles, Napoli and now Crystal Palace. A list of the teams that have come to the Emirates this season and that have lost by two goals to nil. That represents more than 50% of the Gunners` home games this season. Of the 20 goals accrued in those games, 12 have been scored in the second half, 9 of those arriving between the 46-75 minute mark.
Arsenal have had a clear game plan this season that has involved keeping teams at arm`s length. They tend to begin games quite cautiously and don`t over commit. Hence why there always seems to be such a disparity between their first and second half performances. Between 45-75th minutes, they tend to 'release the handbrake` to adopt Wengerist parlance, before again retreating and closing the game out at 2-0.
This was embodied against Palace on Sunday by two goal hero Alex Oxlade Chamberlain, who became the 7th different Arsenal player to score a brace this season. In the first half, Chamberlain played a deeper midfield role alongside Mikel Arteta. It meant Arteta had an out ball and Chamberlain saw a lot of the ball, but did so in deeper areas of the pitch with the Eagles` well erected defensive wall in the way.
In the second half, Chamberlain played much further up the pitch (with Özil sometimes dropping in to play alongside Arteta). Chamberlain, like Rosicky and Wilshere, has the ability to drive at defences with the ball at his feet and his direct running paid immediate dividends, as Cazorla`s beautifully clipped ball found Chamberlain`s undetected run to the back post. Interestingly, Chamberlain`s second came from a slightly deeper position, as his flick beautifully found Rosicky and he drove on to collect Giroud`s pass (illustrating perfectly why Giroud is such an important component of the team).
The win against Crystal Palace was the culmination of a well-executed plan against the bottom 12 or so teams. Keep at arm`s length for the first half, don`t concede the first goal, raise the tempo at the beginning of the second half, and then retreat when the game is safe. If Arsenal are drawing with one of the league`s lesser lights 0-0 at half time, I urge patience and so did the manager after the Fulham game. "The crowd is more patient with us now. Last year the crowd would have become impatient with us in the first half."
Chelsea look to be favourites now
For all of his churlish "little horse" talk, Jose Mourinho and Chelsea made quite a statement last night in becoming the first team to stop City scoring at home for over 3 years and the first away side to come away from Eastlands with the points since biblical times. The victory was more emphatic than the 1-0 score line suggested, with Chelsea hitting the woodwork three times in total. Matic and Hazard were standout performers in a consummate victory.
Chelsea`s performance is a reminder that personnel isn`t always an indicator for how you`re going to play. On the face of it, a midfield of Ramires, Matic and Luiz looked set to stifle, especially with the industrious Willian starting ahead of Oscar (who, in fairness, is no slacker). But Chelsea`s game plan to counter attack with runners from deep left City exposed time and time and time again. In fairness, Mourinho`s plan was aided by injuries to Aguero, Fernandinho and Nasri, three of City`s key performers. This meant the ageing Martin Demichelis moved into midfield alongside Yaya Toure, who neglected his defensive duties all evening, allowing Demichelis to be triple teamed by Chelsea`s flying V of counter attacking midfielders. City were forced into 16 errors as Chelsea strangled them in midfield.
Arsenal`s fixture list for the next 6 weeks is well acknowledged. City still have to visit Everton, Manchester United, Arsenal and Liverpool. Chelsea`s only engagement away from home at one of the top 7 comes at Anfield. At home, they welcome Arsenal and Everton. They have played both Manchester clubs twice, picking up ten points in the process. Mourinho`s side conceded 13 goals in 9 games between October and December and gently suggested that his team needs to tighten up defensively. Since that remark, his side have shipped just 2 goals in 9 games. Despite Mourinho`s public proclamations, his side have to be considered clear favourites now.
More money doesn`t seem to be making the lower sides better
There has been much talk of extra television revenues in the Premier League this season. Shared equally amongst the 20 league clubs, the team that finishes 20th this season will receive more television money than Manchester United did last season. There was some suggestion that this cash would make the league more competitive. Southampton signed Dani Osvaldo for close to £13m. Sunderland attracted Italian international Emanuele Giaccherini, West Ham were able to finance a permanent deal for Andy Carroll, Norwich broke their transfer record for Ricky van Wolfswinkel Aston Villa signed Christian Benteke up to a new contract and Swansea did likewise with Michu.
Yet, at time of writing, just 6 points separate the bottom 10. Games between teams in the bottom half are rarely tolerable affairs. Could it be that the cash has made clubs less ambitious? Many are stopping just short of kicking the ball into their own net in F.A. Cup fixtures so they can exit as quickly as possible and get on with the thrilling business of hanging on grimly for 17th place or above. Swansea`s drop in form since qualifying for the Europa League will mean teams would probably deliberately abort any attempts to qualify for Europe in the unlikely event that a winning run made that prospect remotely probable. More money hasn`t made the league more fun and the more you scratch the surface, the more you begin to suspect that it`s actually made it much less fun. OR maybe the clubs in the league`s depths are just really bad at spending it? LD.