“Villa threatened to spoil things when Christian Benteke side-footed over from Andreas Weimann’s pass, only for Robin van Persie to double United’s lead with a strike to rival any goal scored in Europe this season. Wayne Rooney floated a 40-yard pass behind the Villa defence and van Persie met the ball first-time with a technically immaculate volley from outside the box that rocketed past goalkeeper Brad Guzan and into the net.”
My AFP match report from Old Trafford on the 3-0 victory over Aston Villa that gave Manchester United their 20th league title can be read here.
“Laid next to United’s results, City’s goal-shy tendencies are telling. Both sides have only lost four games this season but whereas United have only drawn twice, City have found themselves just a solitary goal from victory on eight separate occasions. Had only half those draws been turned into wins, the gap between the clubs would now be just four points, rather than the chasm it actually is.”
I wrote a piece for AFP on the factors that have derailed Manchester City’s Premier League title defence, and you can read it here.
“LONDON: When Michael Owen comes to reflect on his career, he may have cause to remember New Year’s Eve 2005 with particular regret. After an underwhelming season at Real Madrid, Owen was back in England with Newcastle United. He had missed the start of the season with a thigh injury, but since making his debut in September, he had scored seven goals in nine league games, including a hat-trick at West Ham United a week before Christmas. Aged 26, he still looked like the lean, livewire striker who had scored 158 goals in 297 games for Liverpool, but in first-half injury time of a league game at White Hart Lane, disaster struck.”
My AFP profile of Michael Owen, who announced his retirement from football on Tuesday, can be read here.
“In 2011-12 van Persie averaged a goal every 111.1 minutes in the Premier League, according to statisticians Opta, but this season, that figure has improved to a goal every 103 minutes. It might appear that he is simply benefitting from being the spearhead of the league’s most attacking side, but in fact, van Persie’s attempts at goal have become less frequent. Last season he shot at goal, on average, 3.7 times per game. This season, that figure is 3.1, and yet he is scoring more regularly. The apparent paradox can be explained by a sharper focus purely on scoring goals and an increased ruthlessness in his shooting.”
Ahead of Manchester United’s trip to Tottenham Hotspur on Sunday, I’ve written a piece for AFP looking at how Robin van Persie has become an even more clinical striker since leaving Arsenal for Old Trafford. You can read it here.
“The peculiar synchronicity in the ebb and flow of the two clubs’ periods of dominance lies at the root of the rivalry’s ferocity. Where most sporting rivalries thrive on the give and take of even-handed competition, fans of United and Liverpool have each spent decades accumulating enmity while their rivals bathed in glory.”
When is a rivalry not a rivalry? My take on the peculiarities of the relationship between Manchester United and Liverpool for AFP can be read here.
“LONDON — Jon Walters scored an unfortunate brace of headed own goals and missed a late penalty as Chelsea won 4-0 at Stoke City to reclaim third place in the Premier League on Saturday.”
My AFP round-up of Saturday’s Premier League matches can be read here.
“LONDON – Joe Cole’s return to his roots at West Ham United is his latest bid to revive a career that has been flat-lining ever since he left Chelsea for Liverpool in 2010. One of his generation’s stand-out players, Cole has been a household name in England for the best part of a decade but as he returns to Upton Park after a 10-year absence, there is a feeling that his talent remains unfulfilled.”
My profile of Joe Cole for AFP can be read here.
“Chelsea have been linked with Atlético Madrid’s all-action Colombian striker Radamel Falcao, who has a release clause in his contract reportedly worth £48 million, but they, like City, must beware the looming shadow of FFP. UEFA’s initiative aims to prevent clubs from spending beyond their means and last week’s announcement that indebted Spanish side Málaga will be banned from European competition for one year suggests that the plan may have more teeth than its critics have claimed.”
I’ve written a piece for AFP looking ahead to the January transfer window in the Premier League, and you can read it here.
“Roberto Mancini’s side, runners-up in 2011, needed only to match United’s result at Sunderland to claim the title but as stoppage time arrived, they trailed 2-1 to Queens Park Rangers and United were 1-0 up. Džeko equalised, and with United’s players anxiously awaiting news on the Sunderland pitch, Agüero drove in a 94th-minute winner — drawing a memorable cry of “Agüerooooo!” from Sky Sports commentator Martin Tyler — to deliver City from the huge shadow cast by their cross-town rivals.”
I’ve written a review of the year 2012 in English football for AFP, and you can read it here.
“Arsenal have gone seven and a half years without winning a trophy, but while they used to be able to take solace in the quality of their football, Wenger’s side are no longer the swashbuckling team of old. They continue to enjoy more possession of the ball, on average, than any of their rivals (59.9 percent per game, according to the website www.whoscored.com), but after 15 games of the current campaign, their attack is only the seventh most potent in the division.”
My piece for AFP on the identity crisis that has hit Arsenal this season can be read here.
You can also read my round-up of Saturday’s Premier League matches, including Manchester United’s madcap 4-3 win at Reading, here.
“The spine of the side — Petr Čech, John Terry, Frank Lampard — remains largely intact from the team that [José] Mourinho built, and [André] Villas-Boas paid the price for his clumsy attempts to ease players like Lampard out of the picture. [Roberto] Di Matteo galvanised the old guard for one last hurrah and took them to Champions League glory, before he, too, sought to shake up an ageing squad packed with domineering figures. The young attacking triumvirate of Juan Mata, Eden Hazard and Oscar thrilled as Chelsea stormed four points clear in the Premier League, but they were unable to arrest the slump that ultimately cost Di Matteo his job. The quandary facing Benitez is that the Mourinho-era core has still not been replaced.”
I’ve written a piece for AFP on the challenges facing Chelsea’s new interim coach, Rafael Benitez, and you can read it here.
And here’s my match report on the 1-1 draw with Real Madrid that saw Manchester City eliminated from the Champions League: Real Madrid send Man City to another early exit.
In recent weeks, Hatem Ben Arfa has started to look like the player he had always threatened to become.
With two goals and three assists in his last four appearances, the 25-year-old is the form attacking midfielder in the Premier League. There have been flurries of eye-catching form in the past, but he has rarely played such daring, decisive football on such a consistent basis and against such strong opposition.
The catalyst for his spring renaissance was the January arrival of Papiss Demba Cissé, who was signed to link up with his Senegal team-mate, Demba Ba. With two prolific strikers at his disposal, Newcastle United coach Alan Pardew was forced to abandon his long-held ambition to deploy Ben Arfa as a number 10 behind a lone striker. He has re-emerged on the right.
Ben Arfa started on the right flank for the first time in the league this season in Newcastle’s 5-2 defeat at Fulham on January 21 (a game in which he scored), but it was not until March 18, and a 1-0 win at home to Norwich City, that he was included in the same starting line-up as Cissé and Ba. The trio subsequently started in the slick 3-1 win at West Bromwich Albion and last weekend’s 2-0 defeat of Liverpool at St James’ Park. After opening the scoring in the 2-1 defeat at Arsenal, Ben Arfa scored once and created the two other goals at West Brom and was then instrumental in both goals against Liverpool.
Over the course of those recent games, Newcastle’s shape has slowly morphed from a lopsided 4-4-2 into something resembling an orthodox 4-3-3, as Ben Arfa has become the focal point for his side’s attacking play on the right flank and Pardew has responded by adding more ballast to the centre of midfield.
George Orwell once wrote: “The English are not happy unless they are miserable.” They are not the only ones. France may be within four points of a place at Euro 2012, having also beaten both England and Brazil in friendlies over the last 12 months, but the French sports media are not satisfied.
Critical of the team’s play and piqued by the supposed egotism of certain players, some members of the French press pack have even dared to make ominous comparisons with the atmosphere in the months that led up to last year’s fateful World Cup campaign. To the neutral observer France appear to have come on in leaps and bounds since the end of the Raymond Domenech era, but fissures remain.
The focal point of much of the criticism over the international break has been Samir Nasri, who stands accused of wilfully slowing France’s play by dwelling on the ball and intruding into areas of the pitch that should be the exclusive domain of his defensive midfield colleagues.
Told by Laurent Blanc that he could “do more” for the national team, Nasri responded that he would prefer to be told about the coach’s concerns “face to face”. Largely anonymous in the 2-1 win in Albania last Friday, he was among five players dropped to the bench for Tuesday’s instantly forgettable 0-0 draw with Romania.
In the endlessly self-mythologising Premier League, it was perhaps inevitable that a visit to Stoke City’s Britannia Stadium would be cast as the sporting equivalent of the descent into Hades. It is a place, we are told, where madness and brutality reign, where identities are called into question, reputations torns to shreds, and from which only heroes emerge unscathed.
The Britannia is clearly a foreboding place for opposition teams to visit, but Tony Pulis’ side have also come to represent a pan-European vision of the most rugged extremes of English football. Andy Gray attracted widespread scorn for wondering aloud how Barcelona would handle Rory Delap’s long throws, while Rennes coach Frédéric Antonetti rebuked critics of his side’s patient approach play last season by fuming: “If you want to see us play like Stoke City, you’ll have to change coach.”
If Stoke have become a modern byword for direct, no-nonsense football, it is certainly borne out by the statistics. In the 0-0 draw at home to Chelsea last Sunday, the hosts saw just 34 percent of possession. They averaged 38 percent of possession across the whole of last season, and their pass completion rate in the opposition half of 56 percent was the lowest in the division. This Stoke side may have given their supporters mid-table stability and a first ever FA Cup final appearance, but they have not done it with the ball at their feet.
To accuse Pulis of wilful brutishness, however, is to overlook the fact that physical robustness is a fundamental prerequisite to success in the Premier League. You only have to look at the way that José Mourinho went about spending Roman Abramovich’s billions at Chelsea, or the way Roberto Mancini is constructing the current Manchester City side, to recognise that there is nothing perverse about Stoke’s approach.
While analysing the tactical trends that emerged during the 2009-10 Premier League season, Football Further speculated that the increasing popularity of ‘inside-out’ wingers could lead to full-backs being re-deployed on the opposite side of the pitch in a bid to counter the threat of wide players cutting in from the flanks onto their stronger feet. There are no clear indications that any such counter-trend has taken hold just yet, but the experiences of Liverpool’s Glen Johnson and Sunderland’s Phil Bardsley provide interesting case studies.
Johnson and Bardsley, both right-backs, have been playing at left-back for their clubs this season. Johnson was moved to the left side of the pitch by Kenny Dalglish a few weeks ago, in order to accommodate 20-year-old Martin Kelly in the other full-back position, while Bardsley has been filling in at left-back since taking over from the injured Kieran Richardson (himself a converted midfielder) at the end of September.
While using a right-footed player at left-back makes sense against a left-footed winger, such as Bayern Munich’s Arjen Robben, who constantly seeks to move infield onto his preferred foot, Johnson and, particularly, Bardsley have demonstrated with their recent performances that they can also provide interesting options in the attacking third.
Wide midfielders and full-backs are often instructed to ‘pass on’ wingers who cut inside to their defensive midfield colleagues, but if those wingers are followed by full-backs doing exactly the same thing, the defensive team can find themselves overloaded. A winger who pulls wide towards the touchline, meanwhile, creates space in the inside-left or inside-right channel for the full-back to move into. Full-backs advancing forwards and moving infield thus often find themselves in more space than they would if they attempted to beat their opposite number on the outside, where they can be more easily funnelled towards the corner.