North London and Merseyside derbies dominate Premier League
Strictly in the interests of research, I decided to prepare for a Barclays Premier League weekend enhanced by derbies by flying north of the border for a taste of the local confrontation that, for me, is the best in soccer: Dundee United versus Dundee. And I was only half-dismayed by the manner of my beloved Dundee's defeat.
Okay, we lost for the second time in four days, but there was all the difference in the world between an error-strewn 4-1 home capitulation in the Scottish Premier League and a thrilling contribution to a Scottish League Cup tie settled by its only goal in injury time after we had been reduced to 10 men in the 26th minute. No, the part of me that was still troubled the next day was not the heart but the head.
So I checked the statistics and, sure enough, they seem to confirm that United -- a superior team without question over the two matches, not flattered by their position at the top of the League -- had cynically used "tactical" fouling to frustrate their opponents. It happened at Dens Park on Sunday and at Tannadice the figures were stark. Dundee, despite their numerical disadvantage, committed four fouls and United fifteen.
And crime paid. It often does. In the Barclays Premier League, at the World Cup. Everywhere, it seems, tactical fouling is increasingly fashionable and the danger is that the cleaner teams -- the best example would be Barcelona at most points over the past two decades -- will be drawn towards it, making soccer more overtly physical and staccato in rhythm on the dismal model of Brazil vs. Colombia during the World Cup.
How referees should address it is a difficult question, because at present teams avoid incurring too many yellow and cards by having their players spoil in rotation. Maybe there should be a yellow every five fouls or so, regardless of whether the culprit has erred before. There is no mileage, sad to say, in an appeal to their better nature, because the game is about winning and most coaches will take any advantage they can.
So here would be my hope for not only the Merseyside and north London derbies but every other Premier League game this weekend: That each rewards the side more interested in making the game flow. The notion that derbies need to be attritional affairs has long been dispelled and the once-notorious Merseyside event could contain plenty of constructive play, given the principles of both managers.
Roberto Martinez and Brendan Rodgers were both contributors to the recent history of Swansea City, helping to form the progressive style that is so admired; Rodgers completed the work Martinez had begun by steering the club into the Premier League four years ago. But in midweek, Martinez found his Everton side being bitten by the hand he once fed as they were dismissed from the Capital One League Cup at Swansea, conceding three goals without reply to a side now coached by retired captain Garry Monk.
Although both sides fielded diluted teams, as is customary at this stage of the domestic game's third-rated competition, it was a familiar story as the Everton defense leaked goals. Although Martinez's team have scored more goals than anyone in the League except Chelsea, they have also conceded more than anyone full stop -- six in a nine-goal thriller with Jose Mourinho's leaders.
For Everton fans, it is an uncomfortable echo of Martinez's time at Wigan, where he won the FA Cup with handsome attacking football while being relegated because the defense wasn't mean enough. They are asking if last season, his first, contained a nice balance between the two requirements because he benefited from the back five left by predecessor David Moyes; Tim Howard in goal, Seamus Coleman and Leighton Baines at fullback and super-solid centerbacks Phil Jagielka and Sylvain Distin.
Surely, he will have to try to tighten up against Rodgers' Liverpool team, with not only points but local bragging rights at stake. Not that Liverpool have been very impressive thus far. After last season's heroics, which saw them run Manchester City close for the Premier League title, they remain rooted in mid-table and needed penalties to scrape past admittedly impressive Championship side Middlesbrough in the Capital One League Cup.
They are missing Luis Suarez, of course. And the injured Daniel Sturridge, for thus far new signing Mario Balotelli has yet to produce his best. But the form of perennial inspiration Steven Gerrard has also dipped.
A draw seems the most likely outcome both at Anfield and the Emirates, to which Tottenham will travel with optimism after a mid-week in which Mauricio Pochettino's new club beat Nottingham Forest while his old club, Southampton, were knocking out Arsenal at the Emirates. True, many of the players will change for the Premier League encounter, but the feeling that Spurs have at last found the man to give them style and stability is growing.
Again, we can expect a more controlled game than an old-fashioned derby -- and let's just hope that the trend towards cynicism is absent when we analyze the stats. I've seen enough spoiling fouls this week.