Though Wigan Athletic and West Ham United have become fixtures on the relegation battle's guest list, the English Premier League saw a significant, mid-week shake-up amongst its bottom three. All of Fulham, Birmingham City and Wolverhampton Wanderers found three points in the league's 22nd round, each forging temporary safety.
As much as our need for drama has us pining for a close title race, the naively euphoric crests and overly morose troughs of a relegation battle are far more interesting. Besides, we're coming off the closest title race in league history, a season where relegation was cemented at the end of the 37th round. With the league's bottom seven separated by two points, an honest-to-goodness fight for survival looks (thankfully) likely.
Amplifying the stakes, it looks like those hoping to avoid the Championship will have to earn (not back in to) their Premier League spot. Whereas last year historic ineptitude meant 31 points would have seen your club survive. This year, both 18th and 19th (Aston Villa and Wigan Athletic) are in pace for 38 points, meaning the myth of 40-Points To Survive (coming to a theater new you) may find fruition. And here I thought England was all about folklore.
Should 40 be the low water mark, potential survivors will need to find more performances like those we saw from Brum and Wolves. That's where we start our look back on England' mid-week action, Prolonging the Buzz with Birmingham City's performance at Blackpool.
Still Not Pretty, But At Least Not Boring - Before January 1 saw a legion of gold-bearded leprechauns pull the New Year's sun over the rainbow horizon (I had a great New Year's Eve), Birmingham City was my answer to Which club do you least enjoy watching? Alex McLeish's tactical lack of ambition in both halves of the field made each match into an existentialist's metaphor - a player kicking a ball against a wall, when no matter how skilled that player is, ennui will envelop you after the third thud.1 Brum's embodies that wall, and even this weekend, when Arsenal was the player, it was difficult to find the neutral's stake.
Put Birmingham City at Bloomfield Road and you have some more reasonable conflict, a chance the kid might break down the wall. Throw in a couple of compelling individual stories, some nice counter attacking, and Birmingham City becomes buzzworthy.
The most compelling of the stories may have been Alexander Hleb, scoring his first Premier League goal since leaving Arsenal in 2008, though that would unfairly overshadow another great defensive performance from Roger Johnson, As Birmingham has struggled, Johnson's plaudits have faded, but against an inquisitive Blackpool side that put nine shots on Ben Foster, Johnson was the defender who made sure few of those chances were legitimate threats. Brum may not be the 2009-10 version of themselves, but Johnson continues to live up to that formerly acclaimed standard.
More Than One Way To Win A Match, And More Than One Way To Evaluate It - As avid soccer fans, we're used to teams being outplayed and losing. When it's the club we support, it's injustice. When it's another person's side, it's charm, and from the mid-week action in England, three found lucky ones:
- We've already discussed Brum, who were out-footballed by Blackpool. Regardless, they had a great plan, capitalizing on a first half mistake that allowed them to Threaten Through Counter (though a conventional goal had to be found to win the match).
- Manchester City played to Roberto Mancini's casting, letting Arsenal look the better team while being coaxed into a home draw.
- Wolves rediscovered the pluckiness that forged survival last spring, using Chelsea's prolonged moment of weakness (as well as an early match own goal) to ignite this year's campaign.
Wolves, Brum and City combined for just seven shots on goal (five by Brum) as compared to their opponent's 24. In overall shots, the aggressors held a 59-17 advantage. The possession stat, often mistakenly used to hint who should have won, gives us the best glimpse of who controlled these matches. Chelsea, Blackpool and Arsenal averaged 63.3 percent possession.
But control doesn't mean you have a right to points. It doesn't even mean you're the better side. Wolverhampton, Birmingham City and Manchester City all willingly ceded control of their matches yet eventually combined for seven points, and while people are going to deride Roberto Mancini's willingness to play for one, the result was still in line with his motives. It may be a truism, but it's one that played out brilliantly over the last two days: There's more than one way to skin a cat. Though in this case, the cat was more of a lion.
|Birmingham City||Manchester City||Wolverhampton Wanderers|
|Opponent||at Blackpool||at Arsenal||versus Chelsea|
|Shots On Goal, Net||-4 (5-9)||-11 (5-16)||-1 (2-3)|
|Total Shots, Net||-8 (16-24)||-5 (0-5)||-16 (3-19)|
|Possession, Net||-18 (41-59)||-14 (38-62)||-16 (32-68)|
Arsenal's kids are starting to like the big stage - Like may be an overstatement, as Arsenal still has a 1-0 loss to Manchester United and a historic capitulation versus Spurs on their 2009 dossier, but their three other matches within the Big Five have been impressive. They routed City at Eastlands (granted, they were up a man for 86 minutes), accepted Chelsea's holiday gifts last Monday, and showed an early (if unfulfilled) edge against City.
It's that edge - that confidence and determination - that's most noteworthy, as Arsenal had been accused of cowering in the spot light, their kids too inexperienced to rise to the occasion.2 Arsène Wenger played into this, saying (over the past two years) his team could no longer use youth as an excuse. Now, there's no need for excuses. Arsenal has arrived. If they don't win the title, it won't be because of a mystical inhibition manifest in big matches. That mentality has been discarded, something that could make Manchester United's April 30 visit to the Emirates the match of the season.
And Let's Not Overlook:
- Red cards for Emile Heskey and Bacary Sagna were well deserved. If Pablo Zabaleta got caught in the cross-fire, so be it. It's not as if he walked away before Sagna could "nudge" him. As I listened to Ian Darke and Steve MacManaman try to give Sagna and Zabaleta the benefit of the doubt, I couldn't help but think a little overreaction on the part of officials could lead to less petulant, immature behavior from players
- I assume managing a relegation embattled side is unduly stressful. I'm nauseated just thinking about it, which only buttresses my admiration for Roberto Martínez and Mick McCarthy. Both managers have been ensconced in survival battles since day one of the 2009-10 season. Yesterday, with relegation likely to hang over their heads for five more months, each got results.
- Leon Best and Benjani combined for five goals. Their 2010-09 totals prior to yesterday's kick-off? None. Zero. Zed! Best has been injured while Benjani's taken an involuntary walkabout, but surprise Wednesday starts for each led to one of the match day's best stories: Two pieces of unexpected glory. Times five.
- Everton not only pulled off an upset over Spurs, they were actually exciting while doing so, moving the ball better than they've had all season. Short, intricate moves through the middle of a Wilson Palacios-led midfield looked liked an off-Broadway version of Barcelona. Perhaps of greater long-term importance, David Moyes got a game from Louis Saha. Scoring his first goal since last November while playing a crucial role in a second, Saha gave Toffees supporters hope their season-long search for a striker may have taken a positive turn.
1 - Regarding watching skilled players kicking balls against a ball, are there any where this would be exciting to watch for more than, say, 15 minutes? Roberto Carlos would crush one ball and either break the wall, deflate the ball, or start dejectedly walking as the ball rolls into the distance behind him. Xavi Hernández would make the perfect pass each time, the ball never fluctuating off it's 180 degree "angle." Perhaps Ronaldinho, with his short attention span, could make this interesting, where after five minutes he would see how many times he could make the ball do to his left, spin off the ball back to him, while only playing the rebound with a right, backheel? Yeah, I would watch that. 2 - Isn't it strange that we only note occasions to which we have to ascend. You never hear people drop to the occasion or maintain for the occasion. It's as if occasions are defined as things to which we rise, which seems to fall nicely in line with the assumption of ever evolving expectations.
1 - Regarding watching skilled players kicking balls against a ball, are there any where this would be exciting to watch for more than, say, 15 minutes? Roberto Carlos would crush one ball and either break the wall, deflate the ball, or start dejectedly walking as the ball rolls into the distance behind him. Xavi Hernández would make the perfect pass each time, the ball never fluctuating off it's 180 degree "angle." Perhaps Ronaldinho, with his short attention span, could make this interesting, where after five minutes he would see how many times he could make the ball do to his left, spin off the ball back to him, while only playing the rebound with a right, backheel? Yeah, I would watch that.
2 - Isn't it strange that we only note occasions to which we have to ascend. You never hear people drop to the occasion or maintain for the occasion. It's as if occasions are defined as things to which we rise, which seems to fall nicely in line with the assumption of ever evolving expectations.