Saturday February 1 2014

Trading places: English Premier League title race a delightful merry-go-round

Spanish Carzola is lately scoring crucial goals for

Spanish Carzola is lately scoring crucial goals for Arsenal. Agencies photo 


With his penchant for producing the quotable, Jose Mourinho caused quite the stir in midweek when he accused Sam Allardyce’s West Ham of dragging the beautiful game back into the dark days of the 19th century.

Unless you had been trapped in some time machine of your own, you will have known that Mourinho was referring to ultra defensive tactics West Ham deployed to shut out his Chelsea on Wednesday night and deny them the chance to climb into second and close to leaders Man City.

He did not so much chide West Ham for being ultra-defensive as accuse them of down and dirty gamesmanship, raising more than a few eyebrows.
We will all be curious to see exactly what tactics Mourniho intends to use against statistically the most fearsome attacking force anywhere in Europe this season, a bullying, free-scoring team in possession of a home record without blemish.

Thankfully for Mourinho, however pragmatic he sets out to be, he will not look anywhere near as ‘ugly’ as West Ham did because of the technical abilities of the three he deploys behind his lone front man - the sprightly Eden Hazard, Oscar and Willian.

He might drop one and change the shape so as ensure that David Silva, Yaya Toure ad Jesus Navas each get the undivided attention they require if they are to be stopped from supplying and supporting City’s trigger-happy strikers, but whatever he chooses to do I fancy the Portuguese tactician to conjure up something to help Chelsea get something.

Whichever way it goes though, this one is too early to be a title decider in a race I reckon will go the distance, and which involves a third party not to be disregarded, whatever Mourinho might say or imply about Arsenal’s credentials.

Man City
They have chosen to win the title in the most obvious way, by out-attacking and out-scoring everyone else.

In that sense they need to get Alvaro Negredo’s shoulder and Sergio Augero’s hamstring right pretty quickly, for to entrust the chores to Edin Dzeko (who even if he is scarily prolific is best equipped to play able backup) and Stefan Jovetic (who will only begin to find his feet now) is to lose the cutting edge.

It is a blessing that Samir Nasri is out injured for now, for it has allowed Jesus Navas the extended run he so crucially needed to get onto a wavelength with the rest; Nasri is more suited to rotation than the Spaniard with a history of travel sickness and adaptability issues.

What I have always believed will catch up with City is Manuel Pellegrini’s choice of two strikers and therefore a two-man central midfield. Fernandinho and Yaya Toure have not been exposed defensively because of the forcefulness of City’s attack.

But on Monday, and onwards through the clashes with Barcelona, Arsenal, what might by then be a resurgent Man United and a few others a change in approach will be needed, of that I am certain.

Never has Mourinho had to juggle so much, and this late in the season it is amusing that even if he has settled on a few shoe-ins there are still game-to-game changes in the full back positions, in the two defensive midfield slots and upfront.

It has not helped Samuel Eto’o and Fernando Torres that they have to swap constantly, and switching right pegged Cesar Azplicueta to the left has meant that Chelsea lack thrust and quality service from both full backs. And now that Nemanja Matci is in, what is left for David Luiz to do for the rest of the season?

The loss of Aaron Ramsey and Theo Walcott has robbed the team of goals, and the insistent niggles to Jack Wilshere and Thomas Rosicky are not helping.
Thankfully for the Gunners Santi Carzola has retrieved his scoring boots from wherever, but the pressure on the rest of the team that the recent goal-getting struggles are bringing will begin to tell, especially on the overloaded Per Metesacker and Laurent Koscielny.

Arsene Wenger was said to be shipping in striking backup for Olivier Giroud which hadn’t arrived by the time of my submission, but he has got to trust Lukas Podolski with more time and responsibility, and make the tactical adjustments necessary as and when.

Play him on the left of three-man attack, or as a false nine, or as partner to Giroud in a changed two-man formation, but find a way to play him, for he has the natural scoring instincts lacking elsewhere in that squad., @markssali on twitter