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Dublin: 17 °C Monday 22 September, 2014

Premier League parting shots

Why Manchester United should look to their own players as much as the officials; Tottenham’s title challenge and more. Miguel Delaney picks out the key themes from a controversial day in the Premier League

Hernandez in offside position... or not
Hernandez in offside position... or not
Image: PA

History – and hysterics – go against United

At Old Trafford, there were two aspects have the game that the local crowd haven’t seen too often over the last 20 years. The first was a Manchester United siege not eventually – and inevitably – paying off. The second was not one but two decisions going against the home side.

Predictably, it is the latter that will dominate the next few days. And, certainly, it’s difficult to dispute Alex Ferguson’s vociferous argument that Rio Ferdinand’s challenge on Hatem Ben Arfa was no more than a corner. Likewise, there is enough debate about Javier Hernandez’s offside strike in the last-minute to suggest that Newcastle got off very fortunately.

But, really, it’s the first aspect that should trouble United much more. Because while they were undoubtedly hard done by as regards decisions, they’ve benefitted from enough at the ground over the years to know that – until referees get technological help – a certain amount of error is an unavoidable part of that game. And, along those lines – and as with Thierry Henry in Paris and so many others – a few seconds of flaws should not overly influence the other 90 minutes. That is the crux. United had enough opportunities before the Hernandez incident to make it irrelevant.

As much as they will justifiably look at referee Mike Jones and his assistant, United should also focus that glare on Ashley Young, Nani, Fabio, Federico Macheda and Hernandez himself. All missed gilt-edged chances. And, in the long-term, that is more worrying than referee errors. Because it also marks the second time in a week that a dramatic and relentless United siege failed to pay off after Benfica.

It’s difficult to remember that happening too often over the last two decades.

Granted it’s still early in the season and United will undoubtedly kick into gear last Christmas. But it shouldn’t be forgotten that, almost this weekend last season, it was a 94th minute Park goal that ensured they still kept afloat despite playing worse. Much worse.

Newcastle are a real deal

After all that, it shouldn’t be forgotten that Newcastle required a lot of luck to avoid a second successive defeat: two decisions going their way, atrocious finishing, the post… but also a whole lot of gumption and grit. What was most impressive about their display was that, when down to 10 men and suffering a United siege, the exact arrangement of the defence was making it very difficult for United to find space. At one point Ashley Young looked to be setting himself up for a clear shot only to be ferociously crowded out by two black-and-white shirts. And there was also Danni Simpson’s clearance off the line and – of course – Tim Krul’s overall wondershow.

Even if Newcastle will start to slide down the table, Pardew has constructed a team with a remarkably solid – and very committed – base.

Tottenham can think about a title race… but cautiously

No Modric and no Van der Vaart but still an admirable three points for Tottenham to keep up the second best run of form in the Premier League after Manchester City. Certainly, their current run is like that of champions. And it was admirable the way all of Scott Parker, Emmanuel Adebayor and Gareth Bale stepped up in the second half to secure what is usually an awkward three points at the Hawthorns.

Previously, a complaint that can be levelled at Tottenham is that they possess a few too many players who go missing as often as they can look absolutely exceptional: Lennon, Defoe, Adebayor and, of course, Van der Vaart himself. And, to a degree, those questions haven’t been answered yet. It’s still only November and this particular team still has to feel the pressure of April/May (their 2009-10 heroics notwithstanding). But, points-wise and momentum-wise, they’re giving themselves a fine foundation.

Mood music at Stamford Bridge

Other than the remarkable performance of young Romeu and the resurgent form (after a brief hiatus) of Juan Mata, Chelsea’s victory over Wolves didn’t really tell us anything we don’t know. As we’ve said before here after their defeats to the likes of Liverpool, Villas-Boas’s new style remains good enough to easily see off the lower teams. But, because the integration between defence and attack still requires deeper understanding among the players, it leaves enough gaps for better teams to exploit. So today was to be expected.

In the long-term, it did have one real positive for the team: it will restore confidence and reduce anxiety after a difficult last few weeks.

Wigan peering over the wall at last

Ahead of today’s win, Roberto Martinez said his team felt they were “owed points” after a series of games in which results didn’t match performances. And, to be fair, he was vindicated today with a real show of character. Not only did Wigan come from behind, they scored a 93rd-minute winner. And they’re not just real lifts in amental sense but also a tangible one as they rose off the bottom of the table.

To a degree, Martinez is in the same position as Villas-Boas in that he’s had to oversee a bit of an overhaul in his squad (because of sales rather than age) and as such much introduce a new batch of players to a passing style that requires time to instil. Finally, today, they added a bit more character to it too.

But such a result also raises the question over what kind of team Sunderland actually are. They’ve still only won two home games in 2011 and today lost to what were nominally the worst team in the Premier League.

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