Boxing Day roundup

On a day when Tottenham striker Harry Kane broke Alan Shearer’s calendar year scoring record with a 5-2 victory at Wembley over struggling Mauriccio Porchettino’s former Southampton team, what else happened?

Manchester United recovered from a 2-0 deficit to draw 2-2.

Liverpool put five goals past bottom placed Swansea. 5-0.

If you were Southampton manager Manuel Pellegrino, and you knew Harry Kane was seeking to break a record, would you not double team him for much of the game? Take him out of the equation, force the others to make plays without Kane, yet still try to go through him, and then strike on the counter? One wonders why Pellegrino did not consider that kind of tactic.

Bournemouth and West Ham drew 3-3, but the match ended in controversy when former Stoke striker Marco Arnautovic’s injury time goal was cancelled out by the Cherries Callum Wilson, who appeared to be in an offside position, and to also handle the ball.

The guy must think Thierry Henry is his idol. Henry, of course put the Republic of Ireland out of the World Cup with his infamous handball.

If you take into account all the diving, handball and other misdemeanours on the field you may conclude that the modern game nowadays is about gaining an edge by deceiving the referee. And many players are tumbling like flies at the slightest jostle, yet referees seem apprehensive about awarding yellows for dives, or straight reds for lunges. Remember Harry Kane’s lunge on Raheem Sterling at Manchester City? Had he been sent off, he might have been banned and could have kissed the record goodbye.

How Bournemouth manager Eddie Howe’s stock has fallen. Last year after Sam Allardyce was sacked, he was touted as a possible manager, a young hand being steadied by an old manager such as Harry Redknapp. But now his team are in danger of being relegated, he no longer hears his name associated with being England manager any more.

It was goals galore at Liverpool and Tottenham, but the fact of the matter remains that outside the top six, only one other team – Burnley – has a positive goal difference. And that’s not much, because Sean Dyche’s men have only scored one more than they have conceded. And with James Tarkowski banned for a flagrant elbow that looked less intentional that Charlie Austin’s boot to the goalkeeper’s face, it is unlikely that Burnley will continue to maintain that positive goal difference.

Tottenham are posed to make a move for Everton’s Ross Barkley, currently out injured. Barkley was the thorn in former manager Ronald Koeman’s summer, as speculation over his future at Goodison continued to overshadow things at the club, even the departure of Romelo Lukaku. In a way Barkley was like the Alexis Sanchez of Merseyside, and perhaps when the transfer window opens both may find themselves being linked with other clubs again.

Ronald Koeman was boasted that he had Olivier Giroud nearly ready to sign for the Toffees but the deal collapsed because Giroud preferred to remain in London. Will Giroud consider Goodison again? He is behind Lacazette in the pecking order and also perhaps behind Sanchez, so it pretty much remains if Sanchez is going and Lacazette and Giroud play together. It would be interesting to see a 3-5-2 featuring Lacazette and Giroud as the forwards, as it would give the Arsenal wingers the chance to lob balls in the penalty area to trouble opposing centrebacks.

But the last Boxing Day word must remain with Harry Kane. He has only scored one less goal than Lionel Messi in all competitions and surely he must be in the running in the Ballon d’Or this year with a high chance of winning.

And then maybe it’ll be Kane to Spain. To one of the big two anyway.

A weekend of records

So what happened in the league this weekend?

Arsenal and Liverpool split a six goal thriller on Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain’s return to the Emirates. The Gooners scored three goals in a five-minute spell in the second half, before Roberto Firmino’s header dashed all Arsenal hopes of a win.

And what sort of a record did this set? Well, Arsenal didn’t fall apart in a big game, after a two-goal deficit. Usually they just go to pieces after they concede in a big game.

Remember the 6-3 defeat of Arsenal by Manchester City? Or the 8-2 defeat by Manchester United?

You can see why some of the stars of the team wanted to leave. Arsenal always had a reputation for losing big games with the top six. And when they lost, player such as Mesut Ozil always got the blame for switching off, and for their poor body language.

Certainly no one could fault Alexis Sanchez for effort. The ____ – bound Chilean hustled for the first goal by nipping in front of the Liverpool center-back and getting back a goal which he really had no business of winning.

And what about Mesut Ozil? Often accused of switching off in big games, he scored the third goal in the five-minute second half blitz.

Incidentally, it looks like Chelsea’s Alvaro Morata has been swotting up on Ozil’s style.

At least it wasn’t this.

Speaking of Chelsea, could Alexis Sanchez be off to Chelsea instead?

Manchester City’s record breaking season continues and continues without Alexis Sanchez, giving the casual onlooker doubts about what Alexis Sanchez could add to that team.

And if Aguero is already unhappy about his playing time in the team then what happens when Alexis Sanchez arrives there? Two sulks on the bench when Gabriel Jesus plays?

In fact the longer it drags on it appears Sanchez might not be City-bound but may consider a move away to another club where he can still win trophies, such as Manchester United, or increasingly possibly Chelsea. Or why not Paris St Germain or Bayern Munich?

Sergio Aguero scored his 100th league goal at the Etihad, Manchester City eclipsed more than 100 goals in the calendar year. And Harry Kane equalled Alan Shearer’s record of 36 Premier League goals in a calendar year.

Goals. Goals. Goals.

Yet if you looked at the Premier League table, only the top six teams have a goal difference of more than 1.

It tells you how the Premier League teams are playing this year. Like Burnley, playing to scrape points rather than lose games. Aiming to win by 1-0 on 25% possession, rather than playing good entertaining football.

While Sean Dyche’s Burnley team have done well, and are a remarkable side considering what they achieve on their budget, you might well say they deserved to lose 3-0 at Turf Moor against a Tottenham side. When you set out to get a point for a draw, or play for a 1-0 win, as a neutral fan you might prefer it if teams played “who cares about defence” attacking football like Liverpool and Arsenal did.

The gap from 13th to 20th remains at six points, which means win two and you’re out of the drop zone. Which is exactly what Sam Allardyce and Everton have been trying to do. Score goals, don’t concede; but if you’re up against a team like Chelsea, then don’t concede, and hope to score, letting the fans put pressure on the better team. A run of wins and clean sheets has helped Everton rise up the rankings.

Make no mistake. The Premier League developments at the bottom end will be more interesting than at the top end. The bottom three change more often than the seats in the X-Factor’s six chair challenge.

Speed or possession? The most important stat

Is football a game of speed? Is the speed of the game increasing? When you watch a game of football, sometimes a stat flashes up telling you how much distance a player has run, or his fastest sprint. You might be forgiven in thinking that speed is certainly not the essence of the game, if you watched the game from five years ago. Certainly the Spanish teams made a meal and influence on the game in what they called possession football, where the players kept the ball, passed it among themselves, then slowly walked it up the opponents half and then tried to thread it into the goal with some one on one skill. This concept of tiki-taka was copied by various teams across the continent until Spain were demolished by Holland 5-0.

Newspapers ran the headline “Tiki Taka is dead” and from then on the teams slowly transitioned to a different kind of play, a counter attacking style, waiting for the team with ball control to run themselves out of energy while launching short bursts of attack themselves. You didn’t need to have the ball for long periods, all you had to do was be clinical and make the most of your limited opportunities. And then defend and frustrate your opponents as they burned up their own energy trying to think of ways and ideas to get past your walls of players. It is the game plan teams employ against the football club Arsenal, by holding out against them defensively while they burn their own energy, both physical and mental, trying to probe for a link; then counterattacking and trying to make Arsenal continue wasting their energy. Having the ball and not being able to do anything with it can be very frustrating, and the more possession you have, the more it works against you.

This counter attacking of football bears many resemblances to modern life. Modern life seems to operate on two speeds, a slow, waiting for things to happen speed, and one that has got to be very responsive and reactive. It is like the world of home buying, for example. According to The Property Ombudsman Service, this waiting for long periods without much movement, followed by a short period where everything has to happen very quickly puts the average homebuyer under a lot of stress. It may or may not be a stretch to equate home buying with the world of football but certainly some similarities can be drawn.

What happens when two counter attacking teams play each other? Is it end to end action, or do they gift it to the other so they can play their normal game?

The modern game happens so fast and hinges on split second decisions. Sometimes coaches point to incidences on the field that could have changed the course of the game; an offside decision, an outside goal, a penalty that should have been awarded or otherwise, and while some may be attempts to deflect criticism on the players, some may be true.

But sometimes it is not on the field incidents that coaches refer to as if they changed the course of the game. This weekend Liverpool manager Jürgen Klopp charged that had he been allowed to bring on substitutes when he wanted to, he would have emerged triumphant at Chelsea. Instead his side conceded an equaliser before the substitutes were allowed on the field in the closing stages of the game.

You can question the decisions in the game when the result didn’t go your way, especially if the game changer happened in the closing stages. But it is easy to overlook the remainder of the game and overlook the chances to kill the game that were not taken.

Football is a simple game. Start on level terms, then score more goals than they do to win. How much possession you have is irrelevant. You could score from the kickoff and then set up to defend for the rest of the game. Whether you play possession football, or counterattacking football, 4-4-2, 4-3-3, 3-5-2, just make sure the ball ends up more times in your opponent’s net. That is the most important stat.