Football took a break from the drollery of talking about what next year is going to be like and actually played a little football this weekend. The results put Arsenal in charge of their own destiny, and blew the title race open a bit.
Everton kicked off the weekend with a 2-0 loss away to Southampton. The Saints scored twice off Everton own goals, which makes the scoreline look a bit flattering but it was actually deserved win for Southampton as they dominated an Everton side that looked tired and out of ideas. Southampton won the possession battle 54-46, took more shots (though Everton had the two best chances of the game, right in front of goal), made more tackles, more dribbles, and recovered the ball 21 times more than Everton. In short, they outworked Everton and while the two goals were off errors, that’s what happens when you work hard.
Soton are the media darlings of the Premier League this year and it’s easy to see why. They have a gang of young players, brought up through their academy, who have great technique, pace and power. Adam Lallana, Luke Shaw, and Calum Chambers are all tipped to be tapped up by big teams this summer with Manchester United basically announcing the signing of Luke Shaw for £30m already.
Arsenal are being linked with Calum Chambers as the replacement for Bacary Sagna and I am unconvinced. He has a great cross percentage (21%) but is not very accurate with his long passes, he isn’t great dribbling, and he turns the ball over a lot. He’s a talented player, but he’s young, and raw and I’m not convinced he’s ready to make the leap.
Later on Saturday, Tottenham eeked a 1-0 win over 10 man Stoke and Spurs were lucky not to lose that game, frankly. Mark Hughes has Stoke playing football a bit and after they went down to 10 men they were passing around Spurs at will. What I don’t understand is how Mark Hughes is allowed to manage a football team. I mean I get that he teaches his players how to play football, Stoke looked impressive in possession, but he also gees his teams up to commit acts of violence. When he was manager of Man City, surrounded by billions of dollars worth of players, his teams were still overly violent. Remember Adebayor’s stamp on van Persie?
And once again, a Mark Hughes led side was out targeting a player for “special treatment”, this time it was Danny Rose. Shawcross saw red for a terrible tackle on Rose and from then on the Stoke fans and players targeted Rose physically and emotionally. It was horribly unedifying and I say that knowing the Stoke City fans very well. I just don’t think Hughes should be allowed to manage a football team if all he’s going to keep sending his men out to kick people off the pitch and try to get into fights.
And speaking of horribly unedifying, Jose Mourinho! It’s almost as if England had a collective bit of amnesia over what Jose Mourinho is like. From the way he set himself up as the savior of English football at the start of the season with his crusade against “foreign divers” to the latest thanking of the match officials and head of PGMOL Mike Riley for the officiating in a game which should have seen his player sent off, it’s all classic Mourinho.
What I don’t have a problem with were the tactics he used to beat Liverpool on Sunday. Yes, he barked the pus. Yep, Chelsea played anti-football (or what Mourinho called “football from the 19th century” when West Ham did it to him). Yep, they wasted time. And yep, they won. I called for Arsenal to do the same against Chelsea and Liverpool this season. Don’t play free wheeling football, sit back and defend — it is what got Arsenal to the top of the table in the first place, defense. And yet we didn’t, we attack, attack, attack.
To be fair, the Liverpool defeat was down to an early mistake and them piling on the pressure after that but the result against Chelsea, on Wenger’s 1000th game, will leave a scar for a long time. I understand that we have our own style. I like Arsenal’s style when it’s on its game, but there is absolutely nothing wrong with playing a different style when needed. And there is this weird notion among Arsenal fans that if we park the bus once then we are bus parking team for all of eternity. It’s not one or the other, just because we play negative football once it doesn’t negate all the beautiful football we play on the other days.
Sometimes you just have to be pragmatic, Arsenal played pragmatic football in 2005 when they won the FA Cup and I would have no problem at all if Arsenal were to play pragmatic football in any of our final four remaining matches. Yes, even against Hull in the FA Cup final. So what if it’s an ugly game? We need a trophy. These young players need to taste glory so that they can have that pride and hunger fired up in them. If that means parking to bus, give me the keys I’ll drive.
But that’s in a few weeks. Today we need to take care of Newcastle. Don’t be fooled by their recent form, form that coincides with Alan Pardew’s absurd headbutt, Newcastle can be a dangerous team and Pardew loves to get in Arsenal’s face. By all accounts, Arsenal should be able to beat this team: Newcastle have won just 3 of their last 12 matches — nine of which were losses! And Arsenal are finally getting over the injury bug, with both Özil and Ramsey available. Meanwhile Newcastle’s injury list is growing every day: Sissoko, Ben Arfa, De Jong, Cisse, Santon, Obertan, Taylor, and Sami Ameobi.
In the end, fourth place is in Arsenal’s hands. All we have to do is beat Newcastle today and then West Brom on the fourth (in which I will write a “let the fourth be with you” headline) and that’s 4th all wrapped up neatly. Then we can rest some players against Norwich and be fresh for the FA Cup final.
That’s how it should go. But first, we have to wrap up St. Totteringham’s Day today.
P.S. I will be the guest tweeter on Arsenal.com today and will be providing statistical analysis of the game live. Please join me @7amkickoff.