A Weekend In Review
Another Premier League weekend has come and gone and there have been one or two developments in the league itself. Manchester City finally conceded a goal and, in doing so, lost their first game of the season; Diego Costa proved beyond any reasonable doubt that he’s the snidiest of snides; and the pressure on Brendan Rodgers has gone up even further. We take a look at all of the major talking points and explore the things everyone’s talking about.
Diego Costa Is A Terrible Human Being
Ok, that might be a slight exaggeration. But Diego Costa’s behaviour during the defending Premier League champion’s home match against Arsenal shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand. He was snidy, disruptive and his play bordered on cheating. The reality is that the Brazilian born Spanish forward is Jose Mourinho in player form, and Mourinho isn’t a particularly great person himself.
In case you missed it, here’s a quick break down of Costa’s behaviour: It goes without saying that he was angry and confrontational for the whole match, but he also grabbed Laurent Koscielny’s face, elbowed him in it and tried to punch him. He fell to the ground, stood up and chest bumped the Arsenal defender to the floor. After that, as the players were re-treating towards the Chelsea goal because Petr Cech geared up to kick the ball long against his old team, Costa walked behind Gabriel Paulista – who had earlier been booked for confronting the Blues’ striker – whispering in his ear in order to provoke a reaction.
He was successful, with Gabriel lashing out at the irritant that is Costa, with the forward then acting like the hard done to party to the referee who, despite not seeing the incident, sent Gabriel off. Jose Mourinho saw nothing wrong with his player’s antics after the match declaring that Costa was in fact, his man of the match. Was that just manager’s bluster or did the self-proclaimed Special One really believe that Costa had done nothing wrong? It’s difficult to tell with the Portuguese gaffer.
It’s worth remembering at this point that Mourinho’s list of misdemeanours is hardly a short one. From his continued battle of words with Arsene Wenger – ranging from calling him a ‘voyeur’ to a ‘specialist in failure’ – through to his attempts to gouge out the eye of Tito Vilanova during a match between Real Madrid and Barcelona, Mourinho is far from an innocent party.
To some Mourinho’s deeds are little more than a desire to win expressed to the Nth degree. Yes he pushes the boat too far sometimes, but he’s also a winner who has been victorious in England, Spain Italy and Portugal, so isn’t that proof that his methods work? To others, though, he goes too far and is exactly what’s wrong with modern day football. He has no respect for anyone, turns against those who can get one up on him and cries conspiracy every time things don’t seem to go his way.
Both Rafael Benitez and Roberto Martinez have made the point that Mourinho was friendly to them until they figured out how to beat him, at which point he turned against them and publicly criticised them. After Everton beat them 3-1 at Goodison Park recently Mourinho was critical of the fact that Martinez didn’t allow him to speak to the press first, swearing at him as he spoke to a journalist from The Liverpool Echo. Martinez said, “When he beat us 6-3 last season he was such a nice man. I prefer him like that”.
The Portuguese manager doesn’t believe that you can go to far in your pursuit of victory. Like Alex Ferguson, Mourinho feels that referees can be manipulated; opposition managers can be forced into mistakes if you push their buttons correctly; and players can be targeted into getting things wrong on the pitch without compunction. It’s no surprise, then, that Diego Costa is seen by many as Mourinho’s representative on the pitch.
Arsene Wenger, so often ridiculed by Mourinho, made an entirely fair observation in the aftermath of Chelsea’s 2-0 win. He said, “He can do what he wants, he stays on and everybody else who responds to him has to be sent off. I think it is unacceptable his behaviour. If you look well at the pictures what he does to Koscielny before he pushes him down he hits him in the face and the throat, he always gets away with it”.
Why does he always get away with it? Why is that referees aren’t on the look out for the antics that lead to players being provoked by a player who seems to specialise in the dark arts? Whatever the reasoning, time and again Costa gets up to no good but isn’t picked up on it. It’s also interesting that the mainstream press don’t seem overly bothered, with plenty suggesting that sort of fighting spirit is precisely what Arsenal are lacking. Yet the same press were keen to see Luis Suarez ran out of the country for misdemeanours far less dangerous than the sort of thing that Costa gets up to. Obviously biting is a disgusting thing to do and shouldn’t be tolerated, but is it actually as bad as elbowing somebody in the face?
Maybe we’re over-reacting and the behaviour of Costa is exactly the sort of thing every team would like to see. Yet there can be no question that Chelsea were in a bad run of form heading into the match against Arsenal and desperately needed a result in order to release a bit of the pressure on both the players and the manager. Would they have beaten Arsenal if Costa hadn’t behaved the way he did and got a player sent off for the Gunners? There’s no way to tell, but if that’s the way football is headed then we can’t say we’re all that keen to keep watching.
Anthony Martial May Just Be Worth The Money
There were serious questions asked of Louis Van Gaal when he apparently gave the go ahead to sign Anthony Martial on the final day of the transfer window. One of the big questions was, ‘who?’ as most people had never even heard of the French youngster, let alone seen him play football. Van Gaal wasn’t worried, though, and encouraged Ed Woodward, Manchester United’s executive vice chairman, to spend big in order to secure the teenager’s signature before other teams got in there first.
‘Spend big’ is something of an understatement, with United reportedly agreeing a £36 million deal to take him from AS Monaco to Old Trafford, a fee that could rise to £58 million during the length of his contract – a world record fee for a teenager even before the fee is upped. Van Gaal himself called the fee ‘ridiculous’ and claimed that United regularly have to pay £10 million or so more than other teams just because they’re Manchester United.
The incredulity of the British press was reflected in their French counterparts, with many absolutely astounded that United would be willing to pay such a fee for a player who is, for all of his potential, unproven at the highest level. After all, at Monaco he scored eleven goals in forty nine appearances, nine of those coming in thirty six games in his second season – hardly prolific for a youngster in a league that is decidedly easier to play in than England.
For United fans the whole thing stank of desperation, with many confused as to why the club had opted to sign him rather than break the bank over a player like Karim Benzema or even Real Madrid’s Gareth Bale. The rest of the league laughed at United’s decision making and wondered why they’d spent £36 million on him at the same time that they’d allowed another great Red Devil hope in Adnan Januzaj to head off on loan to Borussia Dortmund.
Then he got his first chance to impress in a Manchester United shirt when they played their old foe Liverpool at Old Trafford. Martial came on to replace Juan Mata with 25 minutes of the match remaining and looked largely ineffective for most of his period on the pitch. Despite the team not playing well, Christian Benteke’s stunning overhead kick looked as though it might give the Reds a platform to go on and get a draw out of the match. Then the ball fell to Martial in the left hand channel, Martin Skrtel and the Liverpool defence seemed to run away from him and give him acres of space to run into so the French wunderkind gladly obliged before slotting the ball past Simon Mignolet.
Martin Tyler, the Sky commentator, screamed with delight at the goal and the television broadcaster’s pundits waxed lyrical about the youngster, with Thierry Henry – who was sat in the Sky studio – praising him effusely and not rejecting claims that he was like a young Henry in his movement and style. The rest of the football world questioned whether Sky had joined some sort of Manchester United fan club and wondered whether it wasn’t all just a little bit exaggerating.
Then United travelled to Southampton this weekend, Martial was given a place in the starting XI by Louis Van Gaal and we were all able to get a closer look at him. As it turns out, the kid has not only got blistering pace and intelligent movement but he also knows how to put the ball in the back of the net, managing to do so twice against the Saints to turn the score line from a 1-0 deficit to a 2-1 lead.
Of course it’s far too early in his career to start suggesting Martial really is the new Thierry Henry, but his performances from the bench against Liverpool and from the start against Southampton suggest that he might just have what it takes to succeed at a club where expectations are always sky high. After all, the joint highest goal scorers in the Premier League so far are Riyad Mahrez and Callum Wilson with five goals a piece, meaning United’s marauding Frenchman is just two behind – ahead of Christian Benteke, Jermain Defoe, Oliver Giroud and Romelu Lukaku, to name a few.
Manchester City Are Fallible
When West Ham beat Arsenal on the opening game of the season there were more than a few commentators who pointed out that the Gunners often struggle in their opening game of the season. It wasn’t that the Hammers didn’t deserve any credit, but it was worth tempering their excitement as well as limiting the panic button hitting that might otherwise have been going on at The Emirates.
When West Ham then went on to lose two home games in a row against Leicester and Bournemouth that feeling of an anomaly was confirmed, with victory away to Liverpool being put more down to the failings of the Reds and the struggles of Brendan Rodgers at Anfield than to the success of Slaven Bilic’s new look West Ham.
Now, though, the Hammers have secured victory in games away to Arsenal, away to Liverpool, home to Newcastle and away to Manchester City. Ok the Newcastle result isn’t the most shocking in the world, but the other three are three big away wins that shouldn’t be overlooked or dismissed easily.
More importantly – at least as far as the likes of Chelsea, Manchester United and Arsenal are concerned – is the fact that the result proves that Manchester City are fallible after all. Prior to the game at The Etihad it looked like Manuel Pellegrini’s men were going to finish the season with 114 points having conceded a goal. After all, their first five games had seen them score eleven goals without reply and take fifteen points without breaking into a sweat.
Now teams can head into games against the champion’s elect not only knowing they are beatable, despite their wealth, but also having been given a blueprint to get the win against them by a well organised and determined West Ham team. It’s unlikely that one loss is going to have much of an effect on the destination of the Premier League trophy this season, with Chelsea struggling, Liverpool already out of the running, Manchester United still looking defensively unsure of themselves and Arsenal perpetual also rans, but Manuel Pellegrini may not have everything his own way now that Slaven Bilic has shown City aren’t the unrelenting machine everybody thought they were.
As Rodgers toils, Roberto Martinez Has Re-Found His Mojo
Ok, a nil nil draw with Swansea is an odd result to come off the back of and suggest that Everton’s Spanish manager has re-found his mojo, but football isn’t always about the attacking verve a team boasts. Everton have now recorded three successive away clean sheets in the league for the first time since December 2013, when they came as part of a season that would have been applauded on Merseyside more resolutely had Liverpool not come within an inch of winning the league.
Now the feeling on Merseyside is one of bizarre opposites, with Everton fans, normally so used to complaining and looking over Stanley Park at the home of their neighbours with jealousy and bitterness in their eyes, reasonably happy with the football their team is producing on the pitch. Anfield, meanwhile, is a ground full of poison and anger at Brendan Rodgers, with some fans even planning to attend their match against Aston Villa dressed like Jurgen Klopp as some sort of strange fancy dress protest to the Northern Irishman’s continued employment.
Everton’s season started rather alarmingly, being at first 1-0 and then 2-1 down to newly promoted Watford before managing to secure a draw. Then they went away to St. Mary’s and played Southampton off the park, running out 3-0 winners at a ground that isn’t always easy to go to. A home loss to Manchester City is no great loss for any team, and for a while it seemed as though the Blues’ might be able to hang on for a point.
The best performance of the season so far, though, came about when the defending Premier League champions came to town and Everton put them to the sword with a performance that contained grit, determination and a desire to win. The Blues won 3-1 with a perfect hat-trick from Steven Naismith and a team performance that left Jose Mourinho riled and rattled.
Against Swansea at the weekend there wasn’t quite the same determination from the Toffees but they still should have won the match. They had 52% of the possession against a team that famously likes to control the ball, had seventeen shots on goal compared to the host’s twelve and also committed one less foul than the Swans, despite having Kevin Mirallas sent off in the dying moments of the game.
The thing Martinez will want to take a long hard look at is the shots that his team managed to have on target, managing just two from their seventeen attempts. That’s one shot on target for every eight and a half shots on goal – a stat that is simply not good enough for a team that sees itself competing at the top half of the table moving forward.
Last season Everton were guilty of being not only wasteful moving forward but also open at the back and at one point in the season the manager admitted that they ran the risk of being involved in a relegation battle if things didn’t improve. They did, of course, but it was a season the Blues would rather forget.
This weekend’s result showed that Everton are more than capable of getting a result anywhere in the country, especially seeing as though both Chelsea and Manchester United have also dropped points at the Liberty stadium. 0-0 might not be something to write home about, but Martinez will know not only that his side probably should have won the match but also that they’re now looking decidedly more solid at the back than they did last year, and that is a huge step in the right direction.
No One’s Happy In The North East
If there are mixed feelings about the season from the two clubs in Merseyside, there’s no one having any fun whatsoever in the North East so far in this campaign. Steve McClaren’s appointment was supposed to give the Magpies a real lift heading into the season, with the former England manager providing far more intelligent management and experience than the outgoing John Carver.
Likewise the fact that Sunderland were able to persuade Dick Advocaat to change his mind about quitting in the summer was intended to give the Black Cats a much needed boost and see them start the season as they ended the last one.
Unfortunately it hasn’t worked out as it was supposed to for either team, with Newcastle sitting one place above their North East rivals in the table by virtue of a slightly less depressing goal difference. Neither side has yet managed to register a win, yet both have drawn two and lost four of their opening six encounters. Sunderland have scored six and conceded thirteen, whilst Newcastle have seen their own net bulge nine times and have only managed to score three.
The most worrying thing for both clubs is that a solution isn’t immediately forthcoming. The Magpies’ 2-1 loss at home to Watford at the weekend came despite the fact that the hosts enjoyed 58% of the possession, had two more shots than the newly promoted side (one more on target) and performed in front of a crowd of over forty seven thousand fans.
For Sunderland, their woes continued with a 2-0 loss away to Bournemouth – handing the newly promoted Cherries their first home win of the season and giving their fans a long and miserable journey home from the South coast. They had 6% less possession than the hosts, managed six shots less than them, three shots fewer on target and four fewer corners. The only good news for Dick Advocaat, such as it is, was that Sunderland committed fifteen fouls compared to Bournemouth’s fourteen, suggesting there is at least some fight left in the Black Cats.
Both clubs might feel that their performances so far this season have deserved more than they’ve received, Newcastle in particular feeling aggrieved at the refereeing decisions that went against them in their match against Arsenal at St. James’ Park. Yet in reality neither team is performing anywhere near well enough if they hope to maintain their Premier League status next season. The reality is that the only reason they’re still within touching distance of the other clubs at the bottom of the league is because nobody apart from Manchester City has really hit the ground running this season. If they don’t up their games, though, both North East clubs could find themselves a distance away from the rest of the Premier League in more than just geographical location.