Delayed by a day thanks to the Premier League scheduling a pretty big match on a Monday, And it did not disappoint! Let’s get to it.
Tottenham and Chelsea engaged in…something, yesterday. It’s hard to call it soccer, and sadly it will, somehow, act as the biggest treatise on the frailties and faults of VAR. And we’ll get to that in a moment, but there’s far more to this game. This was performance art mixed with kabuki theater performed by porpoises.
It would be quite humorous should the title race come down to the points Spurs and Liverpool lost thanks to having two men sent off in a match, both at the Tottenham stadium. While both managers, Ange Postecoglu and Jurgen Klopp, would like to use their teams’ brave performances with nine guys as launching points and unity-rallyers, and both have and will, the bigger issue is that both teams lost three points in matches they easily could have gotten much more from.
The other similarity between the two managers is in my own head, along with various other gremlins. One of my favorite Liverpool follows on Twitter used to use a picture of Klopp’s face photoshopped onto Hank Scorpio’s body as he giddily fires a flamethrower as his avatar. We may all have to replace that with Postecoglou’s face, given his appetite for chaos and bravado in his tactics.
While only down one man, it was sensible for Tottenham to still go for it as they normally would. The score was only 1-1, this was Chelsea after all, who are as fragile as a mousetrap car that I’ve put together, and Spurs know no other way. But after going down to nine, and losing three of four starting defenders either to injury or red cards, this was an excellent demonstration of the very thin line between genius and lunacy:
You don’t have to squint all that hard to see the thinking. Even if Chelsea repeatedly broke through this suicidal defensive line at halfway, they would still be dependent on Raheem Sterling, Nic Jackson, and mostly Mykhaylo Mudryk to not Mr. Bill every chance that came their way and send the ball to Gatwick or something. It wasn’t the worst bet that they wouldn’t figure it out. But give even that confederacy of dunces enough chances to do so, especially against an exhausted defense after being down two players so long and even they’ll eventually find paydirt, even if you wouldn’t trust them to do the same with their own ass.
It is very Chelsea to get a 4-1 win over a title challenger and still not be able to feel all that good about it. What they did do was avoid utter embarrassment. And for Chelsea, that’s about the only bar they’re aiming to clear at the moment.
Ok, now to VAR. The problem here is that VAR got pretty much every decision right, and it was still a miserable experience. At kickoff, the stadium was absolutely rocking. Spurs fans had the highs of a surprise season, combined with the anticipation of finally getting one over a struggling Chelsea, a team that they’ve been a plaything for for a decade or more.
That was only ratcheted up by an early Spurs goal, the crowd might have brought the walls down, and it was the kind of occasion that only the Premier League can provide, with two teams absolutely having at each other in a bed of cacophony on the level of being stuck next to an airplane engine.
And then 10 minutes later the crowd had to sit through a minutes-long review to confirm a Heung-min Son goal that had already been ruled out for offside. Seven minutes later there was another long review to rule out a Raheem Sterling goal for handball. Six minutes later they had to sit through another extended review to rule out Moises Caicedo’s goal for offside. Then the match-turning sequence when Cristian Romero was eventually sent off, which also took forever.
Even if Romero had stayed on the field, a beautifully bubbling match had all the heat taken out of it so officials not at the stadium could look at replay after replay to mostly come to the same decision the ref and assistants already had. There just has to be a better way.
No review should ever take more than 20 seconds, because an obvious error should be clear well within that time. It’s one thing to have controversial calls, which more and more fans are already under the impression is ruining the game. It’s quite another for VAR to actively kill the atmosphere, even if it is technically getting everything right. Otherwise, we’re all going to lose what we came here for in the first place.
Anyway, we’ll find out about Spurs now, with both James Maddison and Micky van de Ven looks set to miss multiple weeks. Using a loss as a battle cry will only take a team so far.
What else went down this weekend?
4. Arsenal couldn’t escape their own VAR hell either
Mikel Arteta can rant and rave all he likes, and he will, but his post-match soliloquy mostly just sounded like a manager bitching about not getting the calls he wants. Mike D’Antoni would be proud.
What should worry Arteta is how toothless Arsenal have looked in their big matches so far this season. They got away with it twice against both sides of Manchester at home with last-minute goals. They weren’t so lucky at Newcastle.
This match certainly exposed the weakness of having Eddie Nketiah as the central striker, especially when Martin Ødegaard isn’t around. Nketiah doesn’t link the attack in the same way that Gabriel Jesus does, dropping in between the lines allowing the wide forwards to run beyond him. He only created one chance, had no successful dribbles, and was dispossessed twice, which was one more than shots he had. And Arsenal can’t really trust Jesus to stay healthy for a long enough stretch to do all of these things in every big match they’re going to play.
This becomes more acute when Bukayo Saka is off his usual stellar game, which he is at the moment has he recovers from injury/suffers under the avalanche of matches he’s been asked to play for a few seasons now.
Arsenal can still feel a little unlucky as they were the biggest victims of Newcastle turning into Atletico Madrid North. They’ve become a snarling, irritable on purpose bunch, and especially in the bigger matches they’ve had a tendency to turn them into pit fights more than soccer matches. And three cheers for Bruno Guimaraes’s discus lariat on Jorginho…
3. Darwin Nunez lives to make me look stupid
Write about how he’s changed this year, and then he’ll pull this out on ya just for the yuks.
One of those days for Nunez and Liverpool, and I guess what makes him the most entertaining man in the world is he can do that just three days after doing this:
Liverpool seemed to adjust for their newfound fascination with inverting Trent Alexander-Arnold into a midfielder with the ball by starting three centerbacks behind him. But that left them pretty narrow, as Diogo Jota on the left of the attack isn’t a winger at all and wants to come inside to be the striker that he is. Mo Salah provided width on the right, and that’s been more a part of his game since TAA starting doing the John Stones thing, but that’s also not where Liverpool would want Salah consistently. He only had two shots for the match.
When City do this, both their wide forwards stay wide to stretch defenses. Ditto for Arsenal with Saka and Martinelli. Liverpool haven’t cracked this yet, and when faced with teams in a low block it’s still very much a work in progress.
2. Everton don’t learn their lesson
A couple weeks ago, Everton put out the geriatric Ashley Young out against one of the Premier League’s most firecracker wingers in Luis Diaz. He was sent off in 40 minutes. So why they thought putting him out against possibly an even more dynamic winger in Brighton’s Kaoru Mitoma is beyond any of us. It took longer this time, but…
Young is extremely unlucky, but Young isn’t really doing anything here. He’s in no-man’s land, neither doubling up on Mitoma or marking anyone in the box. Everton may not have any other options at right back, but they should probably create one.
1. West Ham crumble after one miss
West Ham won a European trophy last year, so they should have more steel than letting one miss undo all their work. David Moyes discovered a wild hair on his ass before the match at Brentford, and started with a 4-2-2-2 with Jared Bowen joining Michail Antonio as a straight-up striker and Mohammed Kudus and Said Benrahma behind those two. It led them to come from 1-0 down, starting with this farcical Kudus finish:
But at 2-1 up, Antonio and Benrahma combined to get in each other’s way to both biff an open net. From there, West Ham didn’t manage another shot on target as Brentford stormed back to win 3-2. The fear is that after actually going for it and seeing it come up empty, Moyes will retreat to his normal, boring-ass ways. But West Ham should be made of more.
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