Premier League review and team of the week, 23
22:02, 21 Jan 2013
For all the encouragement that Arsene Wenger tried to take out of Arsenal’s second-half performance at Stamford Bridge, the fact such a refrain is so repeated is much more of a worry.
Because the truth, really, is that it’s much easier to come back and play a bit in a game that’s long over. At that point, the score might have only been 2-0 to Chelsea, but it could well have been 4-0 or 5-0. Arsenal were ragged and, for swathes of the first half, it genuinely looked like another 8-2 type score could be on.
As reference to that very result at Old Trafford indicates, though, these generally dreadful performances - as opposed to just bad defeats - are becoming so much more frequent. This season alone we’ve already had Norwich, Swansea City, Bradford City, Manchester United away, Manchester City at home and, now, Chelsea away.
And, although Wenger tried to make out that this was a psychological issue with big games, that list indicates the sheer variety of sides that have record these resounding victories over Arsenal in the last few months. Worse, the start to the Chelsea game was such that the side seemed to take nothing from the midweek win over Swansea - a late result that should have re-energised them.
The danger when discussing Arsenal, of course, is to dip into so many of the old debates that have recurred over the last eight years.
But then, Wenger’s very post-match mantra in such circumstances would seem to be more evidence that the club is just going around in circles.
Were it not for Robin van Persie, and arguably Luis Suarez, Juan Mata may well have the claim to be the best player in the Premier League at the minute. Whatever you look at it, the playmaker’s game has evolved significantly even over the last year. Whereas once he was only decorating Chelsea games while doing his job, he is now driving and dominating them - and with touches that absolutely dazzle.
At Stamford Bridge, Arsenal’s defence seemed to psychologically collapse every time he touched the ball - and with good reason. His first goal was a glorious mixture of finesse and force, as he took the ball superbly with his instep and lashed it home. When Eden Hazard first arrived, and given how he first played, it seemed as if he was going to become Chelsea’s new reference point. Instead, he has mostly worked to serve Mata.
Funny how football works. At White Hart Lane on Sunday, Tottenham claimed their first point directly derived from a late goal against the team who have accumulated the most from such finishes. The fact that Spurs have also dropped the most amount of points from such situations this season makes it even more ironic. And, if they can invert that, perhaps Tottenham can also invert the general pattern of their seasons too.
Only last week, Scott Parker mentioned their fear of another collapse like last season and there does seem to be an element of apprehension around certain sectors of the support, if not quite the team. Villas-Boas, though, is a very different manager to, say, Harry Redknapp and much more enthralled by sports science. As such, he’s far more likely to have considered the physical toll of overplaying certain individuals and when they should be rested - which is something Redknapp definitely didn’t do last season. At around this point, the minutes played by the Spurs’ squad were the least spread out in the division. In that sense, a crash was inevitable.
At the same time, though, it does appear that a failure to sign someone might be a bit of a gamble. As it stands, Villas-Boas has managed the squad superbly, steadied them and illustrated an evolution in his approach and general pragmatism that he lacked at Chelsea. In short, the squad is well-positioned. You get the feeling, though, that with another quality player or two, they could really make certain of that Champions League place. The base is certainly in place.
In normal circumstances, it would be difficult to argue that Redknapp himself has not done a good job at QPR already: the team’s confidence bolstered, a side that’s harder to break down, unbeaten in 2013 and all after difficult games against Spurs at home and West Ham and Chelsea away. The only problem is that these are not normal circumstances. In fact, the manner in which Reading and, until recently, Southampton have suddenly managed to start picking up big wins greatly changes the dynamic of the relegation battle. Suddenly, ‘good’ away points - such as Wigan’s away at Fulham and QPR’s at Upton Park - don’t seem so valuable. Whether that can continue remains to be seen but, either way, as both Sam Allardyce and Redknapp also admitted on Saturday, it’s the wins that keep you up.
Team of the week
1. Julio Cesar (QPR)
2. Pablo Zabaleta (Manchester City)
3. Ben Davies (Swansea City)
4. Daniel Agger (Liverpool)
5. Matija Nastasic (Manchester City)
6. Jonathan De Guzman (Swansea City)
7. Aaron Lennon (Tottenham Hotspur)
8. David Silva (Manchester City)
9. Adam Le Fondre (Reading)
10. Steven Fletcher (Sunderland)
11. Juan Mata (Chelsea)
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