30 October 2011

A London Derby and a Crazy EPL Season

Last night, I was channel-hopping between StarSports and ESPN to monitor two English Premiership matches that were curiously playing at the same time. Kicking off a bit earlier was the morning encounter – UK time, that is – between hosts Everton and visiting Manchester United. Then, overlapping with this game about forty minutes later was the London derby – a game between two clubs from the same locality – between hosts Chelsea and neighbours Arsenal.

The former was a typical encounter between the blue side of Liverpool and the red side of Manchester – highly technical and tactical – cagey, even – and won by a single goal. The game was won by the Mancunians courtesy of a first half goal by Javier “Chicharon” Hernandez.

Yes, I meant the Chicharon. I am a Liverpool fan.

As the Blues poured forward in search of an equalizer that would restore Scouse pride, in the other channel Chelsea and Arsenal got started with the preliminary jabs. Curiously, what used to be a testy and cautious affair burst open right from the opening whistle. Chelsea could easily have been 3-nil to the good even before Arsenal managed a shot worthy of note.

Indeed, when Frank Lampard opened the goalscoring for the Blues of London, my thoughts wandered to the possible excuses Arsene Wenger would be telling the press either to apologize for his team’s performance or to deflect criticism away it.

At this point, though, I was still more engrossed with the other match. Despite the mere one goal that separated Everton and Manchester United, this was a more captivating game. Despite conceding much of the territory, United was quite comfortably winning the battle of wits.

I managed to sneak a peak at the London derby and was surprised to find that the Arsenal had equalized. By the time the game at Goodison Park ended, in London the score was already 2-all. Highlights showed that both Chelsea and Arsenal goals came off soft – even amateur – defending.

You would think that with 4 goals already shared between two of the most celebrated club sides of the Premiership era, that there would just be one more goal – if at all – left in the match. On the contrary, there were another 4 more. The match ended 5-3 in the Gunners’ favour.

The defending – by both teams – was at times comical. People often accuse Liverpool’s Luis Suarez of diving. What about John Terry’s simulation yesterday of a crashlanding to gift Robin van Persie with Arsenal’s fourth goal? In fairness, the slip and fall had the fullest entertainment value; even if Terry was probably wishing that the earth would just open up and swallow him!

One of the pundits at the television studio said that the game was a great advertisement for the English Premier League. Pardon me, but I will have to disagree!

Of course goals are what spectators pay to see. If 8 goals are not entertaining, then I certainly do not know what will be! If one counted the missed chances, the score could easily have been that of a basketball game.

To the neutral, the ebb and flow of the match must have been utterly fascinating. However, whatever Arsene Wenger said afterwards to the contrary, I do not think that he slept well at all last night. The gods just simply favoured Arsenal; but in truth, Chelsea could have had the game boxed and giftwrapped as early as the first fifteen minutes.

Neither would Chelsea’s young coach Andre Villas-Boas have slept well, either. Van Persie’s first goal was Arsenal walking the ball into the goal. And this was Chelsea. Made in the mould of Jose Mourinho, the self-declared Great One. Erstwhile masters of the clean sheet and feared for its uncompromising defence.

The ease with which the two teams’ strikers got behind each other’s defence last night to create countless goalscoring chances was certainly money’s worth for the spectators. Unfortunately, what was also being advertised were schoolboy defending errors being committed one after the other by players of both sides. Neither team kept its shape; there were gaping spaces in midfield; and marking was all over the place.

How could these have been a great advertisement for the EPL? The continental greats – Barça, Real, AC Milan, Bayern – had they been watching would have been totally amused and probably reassured that neither of the London teams – on the basis of last night’s performance – would be much of a threat further on in the Champions’ League.

What I mean, in other words, is that if you are a top side – as both Chelsea and Arsenal supposedly are – you just do not leak 5 goals! To be fair, a certain team from the north leaked 6 just last week in what has been a crazy EPL season.

I mean, I do not believe that even during the days of the old English Division I that unbelievable scores were being turned in practically week in and week out. True, there was always the occasional rout for people to talk about in pubs over mugs of ale.

But this season, apart from the 6-1 result in the Manchester derby, we have also seen Arsenal lose by a mindblowing 2-8 to Manchester United; Fulham blow away Queen’s Park Rangers 6-nil; and Manchester United demolish Bolton Wanderers 5-nil away. And these are just the higher-scoring results.

Goals are fine; but these are only one side to the equation. Have the normally tenacious EPL sides suddenly forgotten how to defend? Defending, if I may say so, is every bit as exciting as attacking. That is why I appreciate a ball cleared off the line probably more than a ball walked into the goal because a lazy defence stayed static and left it all for the goalkeeper to deal with.

And that is why, between the two games shown on TV last night, I appreciated the Goodison game more. Yes, there was just one goal. But it was a fiercely contested match when defenders fought attackers tooth and nail for every inch of space; and spectators were on the edge of their seats for all the right reasons. They were also on the edge of their seats in London; but not necessarily for the right reasons.

In fact, when teams do not defend properly, even if they score a bagful of goals I still think that they are still short-changing spectators. As a fan, I will always want my team to be able to score. That said, I will also want my team to be able to defend. And I will feel short-changed if my team is only doing well on one side of the equation.

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