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Premier League Matchweek 3: Strange Season

Soccer is an unpredictable game to begin with. The scores are low and the margin for error is razor thin. “Against the run of play,” is the unassuming British idiom for a goal scored by a the team getting their asses kicked, and sometimes that goal is enough to swing a match to the underdogs. Add skinny rosters and out of form players to the mix, along with a heaping helping of “That’s a Handball?” drama, and you have a recipe for exciting if a bit awkward football.

Optional musical accompaniment for this post by the under underappreciated Micheal Penn…

 

Game of the Week: Manchester City 2 vs Leicester City 5 at Etihad Stadium

Only two players have ever scored a hat trick against a Pep Guardiola’s Man City side. One is the G.O.A.T Lionel Messi, who scored three in a 4-0 neck stomping in the 2016 Champions League group stage. The other is Britain’s Most Aggrieved Woodland Creature (ht/ The Men in Blazers,) that most vulpine of Foxes, Jamie Richard Vardy, who has now done it TWICE, the first in the Foxes 2015/16 title run, and now again in a 5-2 thrashing, the first five spot ever dropped on a Pep squad as well.

Jamie Vardy is one happy varmint, (via premierleague.com

Knowing the end result it’s easy to forget that the Citizens had started the scoring first when Riyad Mahrez blasted an unstoppable shot off his weaker foot against his old mates only four minutes in. City hogged the ball, ending with 71% possession of the ball, and looked to be bossing Leicester about the pitch. But the first crack in the Sky Blue defense came at the half hour mark when Vardy zoomed past Kyle Walker as both chased a ball into the box. Walker flat out mugged his fellow Englishman for the first of Leicesters three penalty kicks, which Vardy put away with authority.

The second half was all about the Fleet Foxes, as Leicester City made the most of every chance to exploit the space behind the disorganized Manchester back line. The  second goal was classic Vardy, using his pace to put himself in the exact right spot to get the last touch on the ball, a beautiful flick past a flailing Ederson after a nifty passing sequence by Timothy Castagne and Youri Tielemans. Leicester’s #9 earned his second penalty kick of the day the same way as his first, by beating an overmatched Eric Garcia to the ball and forcing the befuddled teenager into a foul. James Maddison put the match out of reach with an postage stamp delivery from 30 yards, rendering Nathan Ake’s header and Youri Teilman’s own penalty kick academic.

Guardiola said most of the right things after his first five game shellaccing as a manager, refusing to blame the loss on injuries or the Covid mess. But it’s become obvious that his setup can be vulnerable to counterattacks and speed in general. Part of that might be his own focus on on the “sent from the future to destroy English Football,” offense at the expense of defense. Ever since Vincent Kompany returned to  his old club Anderlecht as player/manager, the City back line has lacked a leader on the field who could keep things organized. Aymeric Laporte was supposed to be that guy, but injuries have kept the Frenchman sidelined. The City Football Group deployed it’s most powerful weapon, dump trucks full of money, to bring in Benfica’s rising star Ruben Dias the next day. Benfica personnel were surprised to find  Nicolás Otamendi asleep under all that money, but the Argentine veteran seemed glad that someone had remembered him and happily ambled over to his new locker room.

Pep Guardiola tries to communicate his orders via his Charades skills, (via premierleague.com

More expensive center halves may help, but the truly transformative players at that position are rare. Guardiola might need to adjust the rest of his system to cover the holes Leicester exposed by adding someone with serious hustle to the midfield. The holding midfield duo of Fernandino and Rodri, as well as new center half Ake, were selected for their ability on the ball and their passing prowess. One of those three needs to give way for a player who can use his legs to cover more ground, like Liverpool’s Naby Keita or Chelsea’s N’Golo Kante.

As for Leicester City, nine points out of nine is a fantastic start to the season. Brendan Rodgers has his men laser focused on what they do best, get the ball to Vardy as close to the net as possible, and use speed to punish the defenders. And they are doing most of their damage from open play rather than counter attack. Five goals from the spot through three games probably isn’t sustainable though, expect some regression to the mean there. Lifting some of the attacking load off of the 33 year old Vardy should be a priority, the recent loan signing of Roma’s Cengiz Under looks like a smart move in that direction.

The Rest: Liverpool Dominates, Leeds United Celebrates, and Wolverhampton Gets Hammered

Oof… that GotW used up a lot of words! Let’s get through the rest of the slate quick before we run out! Spoiler Alert, there will be handballs.

Brighton and Hove Albion 2 vs Manchester United 3 at Amex Stadium

The way he busted his butt all day, I’d give Tariq Lamptey (on the right,) half a chance to get to Bruno Fernandes’ heartbreaking 100th minute penalty. (via premierleague.com)

The Seagulls looked to be the better side for most of this match, creating plenty of good chances but denied by the woodwork FIVE times. Still, it looked like Solly March had secured a point from the match when drifted into the six yard box unmarked and headed home Alireza Jahanbakhsh‘s cross with a mere minute to go. But credit the Red Devils, who quickly earned a corner. VAR revealed a clear handball on Neal Maupay when everyone though it was over and Bruno Fernandes sealed the win with the last kick of the match, (it was without a doubt the least controversial handball call of the day.)

Crystal Palace 1 vs Everton 2 at Selhurst Park

This clash of surprisingly unbeaten teams could have been worse for the Eagles. Everton dominated possession throughout and though Cheikhou Kouyate’s header for Palace cancelled out Dominic Calvert-Lewin’s fifth goal of the season, Richarlison’s 40th minute penalty kick was all the Toffees needed. The handball was awarded after VAR review and was roundly condemned by the announcers and analysts as yet another example of the new rules leaving defenders penalized for completely unintentional contact. 

The winless Baggies jumped all over the visiting Blues when Callum Robinson hit a laser past substitute keeper Willy Caballero only four minutes in. Robinson pounced on a misplay by debuting PSG icon Thiago Silva to double the score, followed two minutes later by a Kyle Bartley header. It looked like a rout was on.
Chelsea settled down in the second half, with goals from Mason Mount and Callum Hudson-Odoi dragging the game back, then Tammy Abraham completed the comeback three minutes into injury time. Both teams take home a point and neither will be really happy about it.
Two scrappy mid table teams clashing on a lovely September Saturday in Lancashire, the kind of match you might snag tickets for if your vacation plans lined up, happy to take in a game at Turf Moor, the second-longest continuously used ground in English professional football. Instead only the fake crowd noise cheered for Danny Ings’, who scored the day’s lone goal.
Only the scoreline of Sunday morning’s kickoff resembled the sleepy Saturday evening contest. The first Premier League iteration of the Yorkshire Derby saw two young and hungry teams going hard at each other for 90 minutes. Patrick Bamford headed Jack Harrison‘s cross at 88 minutes to send the Peacocks home happy. It was the veterans third goal in three games. The Blades, last years surprise team, were left at the bottom of the table for another week.
Patrick Bamford will never pay for a pint in Yorkshire again at this rate. (via premierleague.com)
Incredibly Handsome Englishman Harry Kane continued his run of virtuous play, feeding Lucas Moura for his fifth assist on the season and the Brazilian’s first Premier League goal since 2019. Spurs couldn’t capitalize on several good chances throughout the match’s leaving the door open for the Handball Fairy to gift the Magpies a penalty kick seven minutes into second half stoppage time. Yay for Handballs!
The Hammers finally beat Wolves, having lost the last four matchups since Wolverhampton’s return to the top flight. Jarrod Bowen scored his first two goals of the season and Sebastien Haller came on just before the end of regulation to open his own account for the season. Raul Jimenez chipped in with an own goal to send Nuno Esperito Santos’ home with lots of questions for his underachieving side.
Wolves displayed a lack of focus all day versus West ham (via premierleague.com
If a lot of folks have picked your team to be relegated, a fate you missed by one game last year, taking care of business against the other relegation warriors is vital. Spared their season opener against Manchester City, the Lions have done just that with six points snagged from struggling Sheffield United and hapless Fulham.
Jack Grealish, Hero of the Midlands! (via premierleague.com
The assault started early when Fulham failed to clear their lines and John McGinn snagged the loose ball. The attacking midfielder found Jack Grealish who put it away  for his first of the season four minutes in. McGinn also assisted the second goal, finding Irish veteran Conor Hourihane in front of goal. Hourihane then turned provider  just after the half when the set piece specialist found the big man,Tyrone Mings in the box on a free kick to ice the match. While the Cottagers hogged the ball for 2/3 ‘s of the game’s possession, they were unable to turn that time on the ball into chances, mustering only three shots on target.
At times this match lived up to it’s billing as a clash between two top six squads. Alexandre Lacazette drew first blood at 25′ when he was in the right place at the right time for a rare misplay by left back Andrew Robertson. Sadio Mané answered minutes later, collecting his third of the season when Leno couldn’t clear Mohamed Salah’s shot and the scraps landed at his feet. Robertson atoned for his error, hustling into position to collect a cross from his right side partner Trent Alexander-Arnold and poke it into the corner a half hour in.
What followed was sixty minutes of crushing possession  by the Reds, who would control the ball for most of the game. It wasn’t wasted possession either, with a staggering 21 shots taken, eight of which were “on target,” compared to the Gunners four in total. The match could have been a serious thumping but for some stellar saves by Bernd Leno between the sticks.
Sadio Mane celebrates his equalizer by actually flying back to his position. (via premierleague.com)
As the game wound down Jurgen Klopp sent the newest toy on his “scariest bench in football,” Diogo Jota in for Mane and the former Wolverhampton Wanderer (who I guess had too many goal scorers?) and the kid hit the pitch like a Portuguese Xherdan Shaqiri. Jota had a chance on goal mere seconds from his Reds debut and opened his Liverpool account by collecting a weak clearance at the top of the box and confidently shooting it into the bottom left corner. Seriously, sometime this season in an FA Cup tie or a Carabao Cup matchup Liverpool will start a front line of Jota, Divock Origi and Shaquiri that over half the top flight clubs in Europe would kill for.

 

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Matchweek Four Preview: Spurs Head into the Devils' Den October 2, 2020 at 7:59 am

[…] a VAR filled week of excitement, the Premier League returns this weekend for matchweek four. It’s the last matchweek before the […]

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