EPL Notes: Chelsea draws with Burnley, Leicester continues to sink and more
The 1-1 draw between Burnley and Chelsea on Sunday was a throw-back match at the Premier League’s throwback ground.
Burnley was one of the 12 founders of the Football League in 1888. It has played at Turf Moor since 1882. Only Preston has played longer at one site. The ground is surrounded by the Victorian row houses built for workers in a town of just 73,000 and nestles up against the East Lancashire moors.
Chelsea, in contrast, is a big city team that was only founded in 1904. While shabby Turf Moor, which holds 22,000, may be English soccer fans idea of what a soccer stadium should look like, Chelsea has hired the Swiss architects who designed the brutalist Bird’s Nest in Beijing, to design it a chic new stadium at Stamford Bridge next to the fashionable King’s Road in the heart of wealthy West London. It will cost £500 million ($625 million) and hold 60,000. When Burnley rebuilt half its ground in 1995, it spent £5.3 million.
On Saturday, in old-fashioned Lancashire weather, Burnley started with an old-fashioned team nine Englishmen and two Dubliners – playing in an old-fashioned 4-4-2 formation led by two real strikers. The home team did add some diversity in the second half, bringing on a Welshman and a Scotsman who has opted to play for the Canadian national team.
Chelsea, on the other hand, fielded an anti-Brexit lineup. Only Gary Cahill is from the United Kingdom. The rest of the 13 players it used come from six different continental European nations and Brazil. The team started in the 5-4-1 formation it has made fashionable in England.
For the first 10 minute, Chelsea looked capable of adding another comfortable victory to its streak. It cut easily through the outnumbered Burnley midfield. Eden Hazard bursting through the middle of the box, forced a good save from Tom Heaton. In the seventh minute, from an identical position, Pedro found the corner of the net.
Yet that was the last Chelsea shot on target in the whole match.
Both Burnley and Chelsea offer proof that formations are only as good as the players who put them into effect. Both are built on the traditional virtues of winning athletes: hard work, intelligence, discipline and a willingness to make sacrifices for the team.
Burnley bustled its way back in the game. Thibaut Courtois had already stopped a low shot from Matthew Lowton before Robbie Brady levelled from a free kick in the 24th minute. The goal, a precise and powerful shot, was the first Courtois had ever conceded direct from a free kick in the Premier League. The most dangerous moment in the second half came when Andre Gray found himself free in front of the Chelsea goal but scuffed his shot straight at Courtois.
In the 72nd minute, Antonio Conte paid Burnley’s old-fashioned approach a compliment. Unable to beat the host, he joined them, bringing on Willian and abandoning the five-man defense in favour of a variation on the 4-4-2.
Chelsea never grew desperate in its attacks. A draw suited both teams. It left Burnley floating blissfully 10 points above the relegation places. Tottenham’s loss at Liverpool meant that, at least until Manchester City visits Bournemouth on Monday night, Chelsea had increased its lead in the standings to 10 points. It escaped one of the toughest grounds in the Premier League with an old-fashioned away point.
GENIUS RESTORED Sadio Mané’s impact in the first half of Liverpool’s 2-0 thrashing of Tottenham at Anfield proves again that better players make coaches better. Mané was absent at the African Cup of Nations for all but the first and last matches of the 10-match winless streak that ended on Saturday. Mané’s pace and power gave Liverpool’s lightweight front four a cutting edge. He scored in the 16th and 18th minutes. But for the Brilliance of Hugo Lloris the striker might have had four in the first 25 minutes.
Yet it is not all down to Mané. After all, just off the plane from Gabon, he was ineffective in the loss to Hull a week earlier. In nine of its last 11 games, Liverpool has dominated possession with between at least 60 per cent and sometimes more than 80 percent of the ball. In all those games, except perhaps the 1-0 FA Cup replay victory at Plymouth, Liverpool was chasing victory with increasing desperation.
The two exceptions are two matches in which Liverpool scored early and finished with the result it could accept. At Old Trafford, on January 15, Liverpool had less than 50 percent of the ball. In that game, it was defending a lead for almost an hour and finished with a 1-1 draw. On Saturday, Liverpool had two thirds of the ball as it ripped into Spurs in the first 30 minutes. With the lead, it settled back to defend in depth, which allows it to cover the weaknesses in its back four, and hope to hit opponents with rapid counter attacks.
For Spurs, the match offered the same lessons in reverse. Tottenham was undermined by the absence of key players and its need to win. Spurs have successfully deployed a back five at times this season. With two first choice defenders, Jan Vertonghen and Danny Rose, injured, Mauricio Pochettino might not trust the backups enough to field five defenders. Tottenham’s position at the start of Saturday, second but nine points behind Chelsea, might have encouraged the coach to go for the victory rather than imitate Antonio Conte, whose team ensured it did not lose when it visited Anfield at the end of January.
On Saturday, with Heung Son Min playing as an attacking left winger for Spurs, Liverpool went for the unprotected Ben Davies. The Welshman lacks Rose’s pace and floundered in Mané’s wake as the Senegalese striker broke away to score the crucial first goal after just 16 minutes.
That moment of brilliance made Jürgen Klopp a genius again.
SWANS MAUL FOXES Swansea’s 2-0 home victory over Leicester on Sunday confirmed just how quickly Paul Clement, who took over as manager in at the start of January, has brought order to chaos.
The victory lifted Swansea four points and two places above the drop zone. As recently as January 20, Swansea was bottom, four points from safety.
As recently as last season, Leicester was top of the Premier League. Now, it hovers one point and one place above another resurgent team, Hull, and the trap door.
Part of Claudio Ranieri’s problem may be that most of his players have title medals. In another pitiful first-half display, some gave the impression that matching Swansea’s discipline was beneath them. Perhaps they were saving themselves for the Champions League match against Sevilla on Feb 22. Many will be rested for the FA Cup match against Millwall next Saturday. They did not seem eager to impress.
When Ranieri yanked off two of his title-winners, Marc Albrighton and Christian Fuchs, at half time, it seemed to grab his players’ attention. In the second half, they performed like men playing for their places.
Unfortunately, another failing undid their efforts. Where last season every shot Leicester took went in, this season few are. Part of that is confidence. Jamie Vardy seems to be waiting a split second longer before pulling the trigger. Some of it is just luck coming round. If Lukas Fabianski had not somehow saved Islam Slimani’s low shot with his backside in the 63rd minute, Leicester might have been inspired to rally.
For now, Leicester is sinking while the Swans are cruising out of danger.
HELPING HAND After their team lost, 2-0, away to Arsenal on Saturday, Hull players reported that at half time the referee, Mark Clattenburg, apologized to them for allowing goal put over the line by Alexis Sánchez with his hand. Clattenburg hardly atoned in the second half when he opted not to send off Kieran Gibbs for a last-man foul on Lazar Markovic and later awarded an added time penalty to the home team.
Meanwhile, Sunderland crumbled to a 4-0 home defeat against Southampton after the opening goal flew in off Manolo Gabbiadini’s arm.
There are small differences. The touch by Sánchez was almost certainly accidental. That by Gabbiadini might have been intentional. On the other hand (ho ho). Sánchez would not have scored without the deflection. At Sunderland, the ball was already rocketing toward the goal off Lamine Koné’s head.
After the games, there was much debate about intent. Yet referees, even though managers often demand superhuman powers from them, are not mind readers. In the penalty area, the simple rule of thumb (ho ho) should be: did a team benefit from when the ball struck a hand or arm. Arsenal and Southampton did. The goals, as Clattenburg acknowledged at the Emirates, should have been disallowed.
TAKE A BREAK Managers, such as Klopp, often complain that instead of taking a winter break, English soccer piles on extra games at the turn of the year. Yet so unpredictable is the British weather, that it is hard to work out when would be the Best time to interrupt the season.
Yet, as chance would have it, a weekend when Chelsea and Burnley played in sleet and snow, signaled the start of an interruption to the Premier League schedule.
Next weekend is reserved for the FA Cup. The Premier League resumes on Feb. 25, but that weekend also brings the League Cup final between Manchester United and Southampton. Those two clubs and their scheduled league opponents, Manchester City and Arsenal, do not play their next Premier League game until the weekend of March 4.
Liverpool, which is not in Europe and was eliminated in both domestic cups in January, does not play a match of any kind until it travels to Leicester on Monday, Feb. 27, a 15-day rest. March could be even lighter. The sixth round of the FA Cup is scheduled for the weekend of March 11 and will pre-empt planned Premier League games. Then there is an international break from March 19 to April 1.
Liverpool, having played 10 games in January will play three in February. If Burnley beats Lincoln in the FA Cup next weekend its March 13 visit to Anfield will be postponed. In that case, Liverpool will play just twice in March. Perhaps Klopp should have studied the whole schedule before whining about the number of games in December and January and giving his players an excuse to lose during a pivotal a part of the schedule.