SINGAPORE — How have your favourite English Premier League (EPL) teams performed over the past week? Yahoo News Singapore looks at the key talking points surrounding the league in this weekly review:
Sense of injustice amid VAR decisions
WHAT HAPPENED: When the Video Assistant Referee (VAR) was introduced last season, the aim was to correct “clear and obvious errors” and “serious missed incidents” in football matches. In short, it was meant to make the game fairer.
In all fairness, VAR has definitely helped in spotting some errors and incidents, and rectified them to everyone’s satisfaction. Yet, there were instances when, combined with strange updates to the laws of the game, the application of VAR has caused consternations among players, managers, clubs and fans with worrying regularity.
And so the past EPL weekend was again dominated by a couple of VAR decisions that crucially affected the results. At the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium on Sunday (27 September), the hosts were seemingly en route to a hard-earned 1-0 win over Newcastle United when VAR alerted the referee Peter Bankes to an incident deep into stoppage time.
The ball had brushed the arm of Spurs defender Eric Dier just inside the penalty area, as he leapt to challenge for the ball with Newcastle striker Andy Carroll. As the ball was travelling at high speed, it was difficult to see how Dier could have deliberately used his arm, but according to recent changes to the laws of the game, accidental handballs are to be penalised nowadays.
Another key decision came Everton’s 2-1 over Crystal Palace on Saturday. Richarlison’s 40th-minute penalty – which proved to be the eventual winning goal – came after Palace defender Joel Ward was adjudged to have handled the ball despite his efforts to pull his arm out of the way.
In both penalty instances, the referees had allowed play to continue despite protests, seemingly using common sense to decide that those handballs were never deliberate. Yet, the fastidious use of VAR to punish these infringements has made a farce out of these matches, which managers on both sides coming out to criticise the new handball guidelines.
“If you’re going to tell me that is handball, then we all may as well pack it in. It’s a nonsense of a rule,” said Newcastle manager Steve Bruce, even after his side had escaped with the draw.
Indeed, in punishing accidental handballs, a sense of injustice is threatening to ruin what had been an entertaining, unpredictable start to the new EPL season. Tightly-fought matches could be decided by a moment of negligible infringement which players had no intention of committing. Teams could be robbed of much-deserved points, while fans have to put up with interminable pauses in the game while the referee checks with VAR on pitchside.
WHAT’S NEXT: Short of the entire footballing world launching a petition to the International Football Association Board to change the rule on accidental handball, the next best option is for referees and VAR to use some common sense. Yes, there are rules and guidelines, but there is also a sense of justice that needs to be included in referees making crucial calls that could make or break a team’s hopes and aspirations. Hopefully, they will come to their senses soon enough.
Defensive woes threatening to derail Man City, Chelsea
WHAT HAPPENED: They were supposed to be the main challengers to Liverpool in the EPL, but Manchester City and Chelsea have stumbled out of the blocks this new season. And their stumbles have highlighted persistent defensive woes that they would need quick fixing if they are to mount a creditable challenge to Liverpool’s dominance.
Chelsea were widely expected to register an easy victory over newly-promoted West Bromwich Albion on Saturday. Yet, they shockingly went 0-3 down within 27 minutes of the match, and needed a 92nd-minute goal from Tammy Abraham to salvage a 3-3 draw that seemed like two precious points dropped.
The draw, together with the 0-2 defeat by Liverpool in the previous match-week, has already put a serious dampener on the Blues’ extravagant off-season spending. Despite bringing in six key signings at more than £200 million, Frank Lampard’s side continued to be porous in defence, with their goalkeepers under great pressure to fend off constant bombardment of dangerous crosses from opponents.
The pressure is now on Lampard – one of Chelsea’s greatest players, but a relative newbie in management – to tweak his tactics astutely to shore up his team’s defence. And everyone knows that patience for managers is in short supply in this club. With highly-rated former Tottenham manager Mauricio Pochettino available in the market, Lampard will be feeling that the clock is already ticking on his tenure unless he somehow gets the best out of his resources quickly.
Pressure is also growing on Man City manager Pep Guardiola, especially after a chastening 2-5 defeat by in-form Leicester City on Sunday. It was the first time in his illustrious managerial career that the Spaniard has witnessed his side conceding five goals.
City’s defenders conceded three penalties in the match, and those were clear-cut errors that needed no VAR intervention. It summed up City’s Achilles heel in the past year which had seen them concede their EPL title to Liverpool and being stunned by French side Lyon in the Champions League quarter-finals.
For all their extravagant signings in every transfer window, they have failed to adequately replace former captain and defensive linchpin Vincent Kompany. John Stones has underachieved badly, Aymeric Laporte has been injury-prone, and Nicolas Otamendi is on his way out.
Benfica’s Ruben Dias is likely to be the next candidate in audition for the job of being City’s defensive rock, but Guardiola must be feeling similar pressure as Lampard as his enters the final year of his contract without delivering the coveted Champions League trophy to the club.
With teams like Leicester figuring out how to contain City’s formidable strike force and launch incisive counter-attacks to test their defence, it is a big test for Guardiola to adapt and refine his intricate tactics to keep City in contention for the biggest trophies.
WHAT’S NEXT: Both Chelsea and Man City face tricky opponents in their next matches. On Saturday, Chelsea will host Crystal Palace, who will want to rebound from a controversial loss to Everton and unleash speedy Wilfred Zaha, Jordan Ayew and Eberechi Eze on the Blues’ shaky defence. Meanwhile, Man City travel on Saturday to face Leeds, buoyed by a two-match winning run. The newly-promoted side play a high-pressing game which could put the City defence in pressure. The heat is on for these two title challengers.
Gulf in development evident in Reds’ 3-1 win over Gunners
WHAT HAPPENED: While all the title challengers are flailing around with issues and problems, defending champions Liverpool have steadily won three out of three matches to begin the season – just like they did last season.
Monday’s 3-1 win over Arsenal was their second straight victory against a team whom pundits believe to be able to mount a credible challenge to the Reds’ supremacy. Instead, just like Chelsea’s limp 0-2 defeat, the Gunners were sent back to the drawing board as Liverpool dominated proceedings.
“The reality is they are superior to us in many aspects,” Arsenal manager Mikel Arteta conceded. “This is the standard we have to reach. We are on a different journey. They have been together five years; we have had a few months.”
Indeed, the five-year reign of Jurgen Klopp saw him methodically build up the Reds team – putting the right pieces of personnel, instilling a strong work ethic and positive environment among the club, and drilling everyone on the intricacies of his high-intensity football philosophy. Success came gradually, but right now, Liverpool are reaping the fruits of their arduous climb to the top of the EPL.
Arsenal should not be too discouraged either. Under Arteta, they have eradicated their previously error-prone defence, and have assembled a potent strike force. Like the Spaniard said, they are just starting to build up a strong team, and so they should be taking small steps at a time.
Champions League qualification should be their key target, and anything else, like a good Cup run, is a bonus.
WHAT’S NEXT: The two sides will actually meet again in midweek, although both are likely to field second-string sides in their Carabao Cup clash. Back in the EPL, Liverpool will travel on Sunday (4 October) to Aston Villa, who have started the season positively with two wins out of two and no goals conceded. Arsenal will host Sheffield United on Sunday, and will hope to take advantage of the visitors’ wretched recent form to rebound from their Anfield defeat.
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