The Premier: United pays for roster flaws; will a second manager soon pay with his job?
Did City make United pay for poor roster management? Is Martin Jol on the ropes at Fulham? Does anyone in England know what a concussion is? That and more is here in Week 5 of The Premier!
The Premier Lede
In the aftermath of Manchester City’s 4-1 dismantling of arch rival Manchester United on Sunday, there has been a lot of discussion as to the benefit of City making its significant mark early in the summer transfer window vs. United’s leave-it-very-late approach. While having more time for a new coach to gel with his new purchases certainly may have helped City in such an early derby match, it was United’s surprising lack of depth at right back that became the decisive talking point of the match.
Starting right back Rafael was injured in the season-opening Community Shield match with Wigan and still wasn’t deemed fit by David Moyes to get back into the lineup against City. That left Moyes with an unenviable decision against a team with City’s makeup. He once again filled the position with center back Chris Smalling after his strong midweek Champions League performance, but this time, the move was an abject disaster.
Moyes absolutely owned Manchester City when he was the manager at Everton, but this is no longer Roberto Mancini’s narrow-playing, slow attack. Yes, City bought early in the window, but they also bought cleverly, adding a significant amount of pace and skill to the wings that they simply didn’t have (or utilize) under Mancini. The result is a much more varied and pacy attack, and on Sunday, Pellegrini zeroed in on United’s major weakness and pounded it into submission.
In Outside90′s tactical breakdown of the match, the eye-opening graphic is the Action Areas chart for City left back Aleksandar Kolarov, who spent almost half of the match terrorizing United in their half of the pitch. You can tell by the graphic how diligently he took his assignment, which was to stay very wide and take advantage of the space created by Sami Nasri, who pinched in repeatedly in the midfield.
That combination was directly responsible for both City’s first and third goals. On the opener, Kolarov overlapped and caused a brief communication failure between Antonio Valencia and Smalling, sort of like a pick-and-roll defense being half a step late in basketball. By the time Smalling traded off his man for the rampaging Kolarov, he was late and couldn’t prevent a dangerous cross that was volleyed home by Sergio Aguero. On the third goal, just after halftime, Nasri used Kolarov’s space-opening to weave inside himself before threading a clever ball to Alvaro Negredo, whose clipped cross was once again crashed home by Aguero.
In total, all four City goals came off crosses from a wing (in one case, a corner). That would have been impossible under Mancini, but is a major consideration when against Pellegrini’s version. And City, with striker combinations of Aguero, Negredo and Edin Dzeko available, will be devouring that service all season against teams that can’t keep City from exploiting their wings. Mix in the still-enterprising direct central play of Yaya Toure, and this City team is much more difficult to defend.
There will be copious overreaction to Moyes’ first five matches in charge after replacing uber-legend Sir Alex Ferguson. United have already played Chelsea at home and at Liverpool and City, so the schedule hasn’t exactly been favorable. That said, there seems to be growing evidence that United left itself short at the transfer deadline, especially in defense. With 31- and 34-year-old starters in the middle showing their age at times, a 32-year-old left back, and utility backs covering for the right flank, United could find itself shipping odd extra goals here and there. In a league that looks like it will be very competitive, these deficiencies in defense could equal a significant difference in table position by the end of the season.
When has a manager had enough time?
Paolo Di Canio’s short, bizarre reign in the Northeast ended Sunday when Sunderland fired him after a verbal showdown with his team. The volatile Italian had been courting a canning with a combination of poor results and increasingly unstable behavior. Last week, he asked the referee to send him off near the end of a 3-1 home loss to Arsenal (in which Martin Atkinson may have cost Sunderland at least a point). Then, after Sunderland was poleaxed 3-0 at West Brom on Saturday, Di Canio spent several minutes gesturing back and forth with the traveling supporters before nearly predicting a timeframe for his demise. The whole experiment was a disaster, and Ellis Short and Co. reacted appropriately to end it before more damage was done.
But what’s a club to do when more data are available, but a decision is not so clear cut? That may be the choice soon facing Fulham with Martin Jol as the club continues its struggles under the Dutchman.
There are reasons to give Jol the benefit of the doubt. It took him several months in each of his first two seasons to figure out a best approach and run off some results. This year’s Fulham side has also struggled with injuries, so Jol hasn’t had the ability to play anything near a likely first-choice side. He’s also shown he can bring in players with some pedigree.
That said, the decay at the club hasn’t been arrested since last season’s late slide that somehow dragged Fulham into the relegation picture. Fulham has just two wins and two draws in its last 13 league matches, and hasn’t won at home in six straight tries. So far this season, Fulham have attempted 40 shots at goal (the fewest in the league) and have allowed 100 (the most in the league). It’s a slow, old team that fades in the final 30 minutes of matches and has a nasty habit of late goal concession. Fulham has allowed a goal after the 80th minute in each of its last four matches.
Since the sales of Clint Dempsey and Mousa Dembele to Tottenham at last year’s August deadline, Fulham is 11-11-19 (W-D-L) for 44 points in 41 matches. That’s relegation-level performance achieved while Jol has not succeeded in lowering the age of the starting lineup, either. Any likely 11 may only have two players under 28 years old, and one of the possibilities (Alex Kacaniklic) has regressed.
So what is a club to do? Does a manager “deserve” a certain amount of time to integrate new signings, or do you need to react quickly when evidence is pointing at an extended downtrend? Relegation is the ultimate price to pay for a smaller club like Fulham. Can the Cottagers afford to wait things out as winnable matches pass by? It will be interesting to see what happens if Jol doesn’t handle the next three matches (all home — Everton in the Capital One Cup and then Cardiff City and Stoke City in league play) competently. Queens Park Rangers waited 11 matches before pulling the trigger on Mark Hughes last season and never recovered. Can Fulham afford risking that same mistake for the sake of patience?
• Last week, after receiving criticism for his performance at Costa Rica, Tim Howard ran off consecutive clean sheets against Mexico and then Chelsea. The American starter was impressive and, afterward, his agent crowed about it in a tweet (ignoring Howard’s awful pass straight to a Chelsea attacker that should have cost Everton a goal, but Tim played very well in that match other than that).
With much less Twitter braggadocio involved, Howard’s competitor for the U.S. No. 1 shirt, Brad Guzan, turned in his own clean sheet this weekend, stopping a penalty at Norwich in the process. It was Villa’s first shutout in its last 27 matches, which really tells you something about what Guzan has been working with defensively, since he was named the club’s player of the year last season by the fans.
While Guzan made three excellent saves, what makes some (including myself) believe he may be a better option than Howard at next summer’s World Cup is not his shot-stopping prowess. It’s his organization skills and calm command of his 18-yard box.
In Saturday’s match, Guzan cleanly collected 10 of the 11 crosses for which he came. Most of the catches were relatively routine, but when you’re good at something, you make it look easier than it is. Also, as the game progressed, they started increasing in difficulty and coming further from his line.
Guzan is big, mobile and athletic and, as he gets more seasoning, is making better and better decisions. He also has experience dealing with a young, inconsistent back line, which the United States also likely will have to manage next summer. It would be a bold choice by Jurgen Klinsmann to repeat his 2006 decision where he dropped Oliver Kahn for Jens Lehmann on the eve of the World Cup, but Guzan is going to give him something to think about if the next nine months progress as the last year or so has.
• Romelu Lukaku scored an excellent game-winning goal on Saturday for his first during his loan spell with Everton, but what happened after the ball left his head is extremely concerning.
Lukaku clashed heads with a West Ham defender and was left writhing on the ground as the ball rippled into the net. After receiving some treatment, the big striker stayed on the pitch (Everton was out of substitutes at the time). At the final whistle, Lukaku bent over at the waist and was clutching the side of his head. Then, in a post-match press conference, Lukaku admitted that he had no recollection of the goal. He actually had to ask someone else who had scored, and was told he had.
A postgame report from a British tabloid described it thusly:
“Lukaku then bravely put his head in where it hurts to score from Kevin Mirallas’ cross and the on-loan striker needed lengthy treatment for concussion before bravely playing on.”
The fact that Lukaku played almost 10 more minutes after receiving a head injury extensive enough to blank his memory of the entire sequence is really troubling, not to mention he was doing so for a club that is not the owner of his contract. Lukaku is a very physical player and still just 20 years old. He has a lengthy and successful future ahead of him. The Premier League and the clubs need to take more responsibility for players in situations like this.
No player with an obvious head injury should “bravely play on” when compromised. It’s 2013. We understand concussions better, at least on this side of the pond. Given what we saw and were told afterward, it’s unimaginable that he successfully passed a concussion protocol when he admitted soon after he couldn’t remember the play, and the sight of him bending over at the end was the punctuation on what appears to be a very suspect decision by Everton’s medical team.
• Tottenham mostly dominated its match at Cardiff City on Sunday, but were left needing an injury-time goal from Paulinho to grab the full three points. The entire tenor of the match could have changed, though, on a play involving goalkeeper Hugo Lloris early in the first half.
Left stranded by a bad backpass that played in Cardiff striker Fraizer Campbell, Lloris came out and won the ball with his right hand as Campbell attempted to round him. There was considerable discussion as to whether Lloris handled the ball outside the penalty area, which in this case would have led to a straight red card for denial of a goal-scoring opportunity.
Video and a still photo of the play are in this post.
The crucial part of the rule, which the announcing team didn’t really explain very well, is that the line is considered part of the penalty area. Just as the entire ball has to be across the whole of the line to be a goal or considered out of bounds, it also has to be completely outside the 18-yard box to be considered unable to be handled by a goalkeeper. As the still photo shows, Lloris appears to have made contact with the ball right on the line, which would make it a legal play. It doesn’t matter whether his body is outside the box at the time of contact. It’s only where his hand made contact with the ball.
Lloris is very well known for his prowess in coming off his line, and he seems to have (barely) gotten this one correct and saved Tottenham from a very bad situation early in the Welsh capital.