Time to space out grueling schedule

Perhaps it is time to review the wisdom of the holiday fixture calendar in England. After a four-day spell that has seen some desperately poor matches and only a smattering of true quality, might the Premier League in their infinite wisdom let up a bit on the schedule?

Yes, there were some thrillers: Manchester City’s 2-1 win over Liverpool was a tense and fitting contest; and both Newcastle and Arsenal battled bravely in the Gunners’ 1-0 win Sunday. But so many of these games were marred by the effects of having to play so many games in such a tight window.

Some of the league’s most glittering stars — Wayne Rooney, Mesut Ozil — were forced to idle while others — Aaron Ramsey, Branislav Ivanovic — limped off injured. It’s hard not to see a bit of cause and effect at work here, and while attrition may be a very English way to decide who wins a league, it doesn’t make for the best spectacles.

Take, for example, the dire displays at Carrow Road and Villa Park. Norwich City, a desperately poor side, struggled against what was essentially a Manchester United B-team, making for grim viewing. United won thanks to Danny Welbeck, but if Norwich had anyone that actually scores goals, matters might have been reversed. They don’t, so matters were not. In Birmingham, Paul Lambert’s Aston Villa stopped a four-match slide but it was against a Swansea City side missing Michu — but Michael Laudrup was correct when he said that his side should have departed with all three points. Swansea were a better side, but reduced to playing at a simmer, rather than full boil.

The winners on the weekend had to be Arsenal, who put in a gritty show of their own. Handed the second-hardest test of the weekend, they went up north and escaped thanks to a bit of training-ground play that saw Theo Walcott loop a free-kick in to a sneaky Olivier Giroud. The Gunners do like to keep people on the edge of their seats so it was fitting when Wojciech Szczesny smashed an outlet right into Loic Remy’s head, and was subsequently nearly left with egg on his face, fortunate to see the ball trickle wide of his unguarded net. Then again, Arsenal had bumbled and stumbled through the game 72 hours early at Upton Park, fortunate to take full points from a West Ham team that lacks luck and mettle in equal measure. It is fair to say that while the Gunners show resilience, they still don’t convince you that they can hang on to their slim lead atop the table.

Speaking of which, a team that looks consistently dangerous is Manchester City, who are just a point off the Gunners’ bow. They outlasted Liverpool in a fantastic contest, and then dealt with the revived Crystal Palace in a professional manner. City are starting to look like champions, a team that wins games even when they don’t play particularly well — and if there’s anyone in this league that can match their depth of talent, they are hitherto unknown to all. They are the one side that has enough money to cover up for bad injuries — did you miss Sergio Aguero this week? — but just because they can doesn’t mean everyone else should.

And then there’s the Reds. Liverpool have now dropped their second straight big game against a plausible title contender. In both cases, the Reds have looked solid enough in losing, but the results continue a worrying trend. The fact is that teams with pretensions of hoisting the crown go to difficult places and collect a share of the spoils. Liverpool have so far failed that test, losing to City, Chelsea and Arsenal away, with their lone road triumphs coming in a 3-3 draw at Everton, and a 5-0 thumping of Tottenham when that team were still considered credible contenders.

One also wonders if Liverpool have been insulated so far from that observation; I suspect that if a comparable record was posted by, say Arsenal, that they would be branded choke artists who cannot win big games. The key this week was in removing Luis Suarez from the occasion, and City and Chelsea both did well to deny him time and space on the ball. That proves just how difficult it is for one player — even a transcendent striker – to win a game alone week after week.

But for ugly this weekend, look no further than Chelsea. They are “gritty,” which in football double-speak means “borderline dirty.” But they have gone to the difficult places, and, lo and behold, ground out points: at the Emirates, Old Trafford and White Hart Lane, with the lone stumble coming at Goodison — there’s Everton rearing their heads again. They look to be transforming themselves from a bunch of pretty passers into thugs who know how to get in and get out of games. In other words, a classic bunch of Mourinho men. It’s not pretty — their game against the Gunners was abject — but it is effective, so it will continue.

Winning, of course isn’t everything. Palace entertained in losing this weekend, as did Hull City last Thursday before losing to Manchester United (Hull at least got their reward, whipping Fulham 6-0 on Saturday.) Everton and Southampton have shown an ability to entertain, and there is the faint whiff of the car crash around Tim Sherwood’s men at White Hart Lane. Fans pay to be entertained — quite a lot at the Emirates, in fact — and by that standard, the holiday program has been a letdown.

So let me offer this gentle suggestion: Space the games out. Give the players a rest and emphasize quality over quantity.