FanSided Premier League Week 8 roundtable

Photo by Robbie Jay Barratt - AMA/Getty Images   Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images
Photo by Robbie Jay Barratt - AMA/Getty Images Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images /

This weekend in the Premier League, Swansea were left to rue defensive errors against Arsenal, Manchester City’s winless run continued and Tottenham and West Brom played out a nail-biting 1-1 draw. In our weekly roundtable, FanSided’s soccer staff share their reactions. 

Swansea might struggle to address their defensive frailties

Dan Voicescu, @fiveboroball

For his Premier League debut, Bob Bradley lined up his side in a traditional 4-4-2, which was flexed to 4-3-3 in the second half as the Swans were seeking an equalizer, with Wayne Routledge pushing up the field. Arsenal lined up in a 4-2-3-1, employing a methodical approach, patiently moving the ball around in front of the 18-yard box searching for gaps in the Swansea back four.

Bradley’s game plan involved slowing the game down, staying balanced and keeping two four- man lines across the field when Arsenal had the ball. Essentially, focus on discipline, a balanced formation, avoid any breakdowns and break out on the counter. Pretty basic stuff.

The game plan seemed to work, as Arsenal failed to create any clear chances in the first 25 minutes. But the issue with such an approach is that it puts tremendous pressure on the back line, requiring a perfection of sorts, especially against a world class crop of forwards and attacking mids like Arsenal’s. Allowing an extra foot of space, or delaying pressure by a split second can prove to be very costly miscues, as the Swans found out on Saturday.

Let’s face it, this back line is not equipped to aspire to that type of perfection. The inevitable breakdown occurred as Alexis Sanchez floated a ball onto the path of overlapping full back Hector Bellerin, who managed to get in slightly behind the backline to head the ball into the middle of the box. Jordi Amat failed to clear properly, allowing Theo Walcott to capitalize on the miscue by slamming the ball home from close range. You can blame this goal on Amat’s poor clearance, as well as the initial breakdown that allowed Bellerin to get in behind the defense and disrupt the balance of the back line.

Following the relatively early go-ahead goal, Arsenal stopped forcing the issue, committing more numbers in the middle of the park to break up the play, dispossess, recover the ball quickly in the middle of the field and strike fast on the counter. The second goal came as a result of a corner given as a result of this type of fast Arsenal counterattack. This time it was the center-back Federico Fernandez who miscued the clearance off the corner kick, and Theo Walcott had time to settle the ball inside the 6-yard box, have a cup of coffee, turn and slot the ball in the net past a desperate, outstretched Lukasz Fabianski.

Just as we began thinking Swansea were about to unravel, Arsenal made things interesting through a miscue of their own, as Granit Xhaka’s gifted the ball into the path of Gylfi Sigurdsson right outside the Arsenal box.  As we saw later, this wasn’t one of Xhaka’s finest performances. Swansea’s Icelandic forward pounced on the ball and buried it far top corner with a great left footed shot, giving Petr Cech no chance.

Three goals, three defensive errors in the first half.

After the break, Mesut Ozil restored the hosts’ two goal lead with a powerful volley from 5 yards out, following yet another Swansea defensive error. Without taking anything away from Ozil’s beautiful finish, the goal came as a result of poor marking and poor organization as the Swansea backline failed to stay together as a unit and kept Ozil onside. The Arsenal man found himself wide open with no one within 5 yards of him, striking the ball into the top corner.

However, Swansea pulled within a goal yet again, as Modou Barrow’s cut back found Baston Borja in the middle of the box and the second half substitute sent in a low shot past Cech. To make things even more interesting, Swansea had a man advantage for the last 20 minutes, following a red card to Granit Xhaka as a result of a reckless tackle from behind. Swansea managed to create a few chances, mostly through the work of Barrow on the right hand flank, but failed to capitalize.

Arsenal did well to collect all three points, although they did make things harder for themselves than they needed to by having to play down a man. Although they comfortably controlled the game until Xhaka’s red card in the 70th minute, Arsene Wenger’s men cannot expect to be gifted the same type of opportunities versus a better quality opponent than 19th-place Swansea. In addition, Walcott will rue the two missed opportunities from point-blank range that prevented him from a hat trick.

On the other side, Swansea desperately need to clean things up on the back line. Bradley’s game plan should probably not include having to rely on the backline to keep him in the game. Absorbing pressure and looking for counter attacking opportunities does not seem to be the winning formula with the level of talent currently available on defense. On a positive note, Sigurdsson and Barrow have the individual ability to create chances on counterattacks, and they’ll need to continue to do so if the Swans are to clear out of the relegation zone.

Pep Guardiola finds life in the Premier League tougher than he thought

James Dudko, @JamesDudko

No matter what he says, this Premier League is tougher than Pep Guardiola thought after winning six matches in a row with Manchester City to start the new season. But City are now winless in two after drawing 1-1 with Everton at the Etihad Stadium.

In fact, City have gone three games without a win in all competitions, counting the 3-3 draw with Celtic in the Champions League. The barren run even looks likely to extend to a fourth game with Guardiola set to return to Barcelona in the same tournament this week.

It was easy to think that match was on Guardiola’s mind when he rested star striker Sergio
Aguero against Everton. Nolito was also left on the bench, while the manager even experimented with three at the back in a new-look formation. But England’s top flight isn’t the place to riff with it, and therein lies the major difference between life in the Premier League and what Guardiola was used to during previous managerial stops with Barca and Bayern Munich, even if he won’t admit it.

The Spaniard has called on the English press to show more respect for the intensity of the competition in other leagues. Yet there wouldn’t have been many times when resting players would have meant dropped points for Bayern. However, it doesn’t take much for the Premier League’s marquee clubs to go from elite to vulnerable.

It stands to reason there’s more quality and tougher fixtures throughout the division when there’s so much television money at the disposal of all 20 clubs. Those outside the top bracket in La Liga and the Bundesliga simply can’t boast the depth of quality of an Everton side able to leave precocious playmaker Ross Barkley and dangerous forward Kevin Mirallas out and still earn a point at the home of the leaders.

Guardiola may be defiant about the culture shock, but it’s there.

Of course, Guardiola could rightly point to the two penalties City had saved against Everton, and state his squad rotation wouldn’t be an issue if they’d been converted. It’s not an unreasonable argument. After all, many managers rest players ahead of Champions League duty.

The bigger issue for City will be how Guardiola responds to a winless run, particularly if it becomes four without joy. Responding the right way is key, and the right way will mean not making too many changes. It’s something a manager not used to not winning may find difficult to resist. But Guardiola re-shaping the picture as if he’s practicing free-form jazz will just lead to inconsistency in the title race. For all the artistry and fluency his attack-heavy teams produce, the Guardiola system is a lot more rigid than it appears.

For one thing, his pass, pass, pass and press, press, press approach needs the right balance in midfield. It’s a balance only Brazilian Fernandinho seems capable of providing. But even he can’t offer enough cover for a defence that looks shaky whether it’s manned by three or four.
Playing three at the back may let Guardiola add an extra forward and still allow him to get Ilkay Gundogan involved in the middle. However, a back four creates natural tandems in wide areas, partnerships offering vital balance and structure around an amoeba-like front four. It’s how City began life so spectacularly under Guardiola.

Even if another disappointing result comes from the trip to Barcelona, City’s manager can’t fall into the trap of forcing every star onto the pitch at the expense of blending the right, complementary mix of talent into a structure that works.

Tottenham vs. West Brom a game of inches

Matthew Miranda, @MMiranda613

In space, 372,461,747,061,600,000 inches equal one light year. In the Premier League, a single inch is even larger. An inch separates winner from loser, champion from runner-up, a team with ambitions come May from one with nothing at stake, stultifyingly free from the relegation zone and, even more odious, Europa League Thursdays. On Saturday, Tottenham and West Bromwich Albion played to a 1-1 draw. Sometimes ties feel like anticlimax, like nothing changes. But the subatomica of what is is what might have been.

Just after the 80-minute mark, Spurs gained possession outside their penalty area. Six seconds later, Christian Eriksen tried linking up downfield with Dele Alli. But his pass was long; West Brom won possession. Just thirty seconds later, the Baggies’ Craig Dawson, ten feet inside Spurs territory, misdirected a ball toward Tottenham’s Ben Davies. Davies’ header skewed right, to the middle of the field, where Salomon Rondon sucked in three defenders. His pass split Victor Wanyama and Eric Dier to find Chris Brunt, who tried linking up with James McClean. But Jan Vertonghen got in front in time to block the shot, leading to a West Brom corner.

Brunt’s corner bounced off Vertonghen. Nacer Chadli just missed getting his head on it. McClean’s foot found the loose ball and drilled it on-target, hitting the side post before Chadli, the former Spurs man, smashed the rebound home. If Chadli didn’t miss the initial header, none of what followed would follow. That’s how easily intent wilts before outcome. In mere seconds, possession changed hands. Advantage flipped. Fortunes reversed. A Baggies’ top-eight spot, just beneath Manchester United, within reach.

The game-tying goal was also a matter of inches. Dier hit a cross into the penalty area, where Baggies’ defender Jonny Evans was waiting. His glancing header ended up with Heung-Min Son, who went left. Dawson stayed with him, mirroring Son’s every move. As they neared the touchline some wrestling ensued, the type that usually ends with the ball going out of bounds. And it nearly did … only, by an inch or so, it stayed in play.

Son kept control and found Eriksen, whose shot found Claudio Yacob’s gut. It could have ricocheted in any direction; it ended up back on Son’s foot. He passed the ball to Alli. Evans nearly intercepted it, missing by an inch. That let Alli line up a good shot from close range. Allan Nyom leapt in for the block. He missed by an inch. Goal. 1-1. More late-game Spurs magic. Could they come back all the way and win? Three points would see them atop the Premier League. The journey of an established power begins with a single week atop the table.

Inches rendered Alli’s goal an equalizer rather than a game-winner. A few minutes between the two goals, Son had been pushing forward, but he passed the ball at Yacob. It appeared an obvious turnover. Somehow, the ball ended up right back at Son’s feet. He found Vincent Janssen at the top of the penalty area, who finished a perfect triangle of passing in setting up Davies streaking in toward goalkeeper Ben Foster. Tottenham were that close to a late goal and all the momentum to find a winner.

At the last second, defender Gareth McAuley came sliding between Davies and Foster. A fraction of a second later and Davies may have scored; strike the ball an inch differently in either direction and perhaps McAuley commits a handball. Perhaps Spurs complete their comeback; perhaps, in light of their dominance over Manchester City in the last game and this stirring victory, they ride the era of good feelings all the way to their first Premier League title. Perhaps their style and success lead them to overtake Arsenal as the preeminent team in North London.

Instead, Spurs stay third, and could fall to fourth if Liverpool beat Manchester United Monday. West Brom, rather than rubbing elbows with the Red Devils in the table, find themselves looking up at Watford and Bournemouth. Just another Premier League weekend; just another infinitude of dreams, rising and falling, the beautiful game breathing. Should Spurs or the Baggies finish this season labeling it a success, they’ll look back on games like this as foreshadowing: Tottenham for fighting back late to earn a point; West Brom for taking a point off a title contender. Should either term this campaign a failure, they may remember games like this and rue how close they came, only to fall just inches short.