EPL thoughts: Van Persie dries up as Arsenal, Chelsea go scoreless
Robin van Persie has scored one goal in the last seven Premier League games
Brad Friedel, 41, made his 300th straight Premier League start, a 1-0 loss to QPR
Newcastle looked like a top-four team with a 3-0 win vs. Stoke, its sixth straight
Five things we learned in Premier League action Saturday:
1. Robin van Persie is not perfect. For seven months, Van Persie carried a battered and struggling Arsenal team. As spring arrived, Arsenal's injured began to return and the players bought in the desperate August shopping spree started to settle. The tide turned. The Gunners shot up the standings. Everyone around Van Persie was playing better. If he could score a goal a game for a stuttering team, surely they would pour in now that Arsenal's football was flowing again. Instead, Van Persie has dried up. He has scored once in seven league games. That was a penalty kick.
One of the continually astonishing aspects of Van Persie's play this season is the way he finds space in front of opposing goals. Arsenal essentially plays with one striker. Every opponent knows who that striker is. They also know he is very, very dangerous. Yet defenses continually lose sight of him. On Saturday, Chelsea defended well, yet Van Persie still managed seven strikes at goal. Not all were from good positions, but a couple were as easy as it ever gets for as a Premier league striker. Van Persie missed them all in a 0-0 draw.
Partly it's a question of statistics. Twice this season, Van Persie has hit balls dropping over his shoulder with the sweetest of left-foot volleys to score. That's a ferociously difficult skill. So when he blasted a similar chance very high and very wide on Saturday, well that was just the law of probabilities catching up with him. But when he raced onto a cute free kick from Theo Walcott with the defense standing still and prepared to shoot from a yard, the odds were in his favor. Yet Van Persie showed a second of insecurity. He twisted to take the ball with his stronger left foot and scuffed it against the post. On several other occasions, the Dutchman squandered chances as he delayed to try to switch the ball to his left.
Van Persie is still the top scorer in the Premier League with 27 goals, but he can't afford to stop now. Arsenal probably needs a couple more victories to be sure of a top-four place.
2. Roberto Di Matteo makes the case for the defense. The irony is too obvious to miss. Last season, with West Brom seemingly unable to defend, Di Matteo was replaced as manager. Roy Hodgson came in, instilled some basic defensive discipline and resurrected the Baggies and his own reputation. This season, with Chelsea seemingly in tactical chaos, the Blues axed Andre Villas-Boas. Di Matteo took over. Chelsea rediscovered its defensive poise and has now reached one cup final and leads Barcelona, albeit very narrowly, in a Champions League semifinal. On Saturday, despite the occasional lapse in locating Van Persie, Chelsea's defense was resolute again in the scoreless draw at Arsenal.
This doesn't mean that Di Matteo has suddenly become a defensive mastermind -- or even that he couldn't coach defense when he was at West Brom. His brief at the Hawthorns seems to have been to build an attractive passing team. Villas-Boas' mission at Stamford Bridge was clearly to drastically remodel an aging Chelsea team. In both cases, the long-term strategy went out of the window when results dipped.
Now, Di Matteo doesn't have to worry about the long-term problem of replacing the aging core of the team. Instead he has handed power and responsibility back to the Old Guard. They read the writing on Villas-Boas' chalkboard and know their time is running out. The 1-0 victory over Barcelona on Wednesday was the performance of desperate and motivated men.
Of course, Chelsea might have managed to beat Tottenham, and Barcelona under Villas-Boas. Chelsea's league results under Di Matteo, with just three victories in seven games, represent, if anything, a dip in form. But two finals beckon; Di Matteo's reputation is restored. The problem of how best to manage final acts of the proud careers of John Terry, Frank Lampard, Didier Drogba, Ashley Cole and the rest is simply on hold.
3. Brad Friedel's streak reaches 300. Friedel set a Premier League record when he started for Spurs at Queens Park Rangers on Saturday. It was the goalie's 300th consecutive league start, a run that began when he was with Blackburn in 2004. The Premier League will reward the American with a medal. He would probably rather have had a clean sheet. It was not a happy afternoon for either Friedel or Tottenham. QPR won 1-0. Tottenham slid out of the top four. Friedel was embarrassed by the only goal.
Friedel turns 41 next month. He is the oldest player in the Premier League.
At his age, he needs every edge that experience grants to compensate for slowing reactions and declining athleticism. But for the decisive moment of the game, Friedel was outthought by Adel Taarabt. When QPR was awarded a free kick, Friedel positioned himself way over to his left. Maybe it was an attempted bluff, or maybe it was an error of judgment. Taarabt simply passed the ball into the other corner of the goal. Friedel's starting position meant he could not reach it.
The result means Tottenham has won just once in nine league games. That run has dropped it from apparently certain third place to fifth in free fall. It was bad on Saturday, but QPR was, if anything, worse. Ultimately, the difference was one mistake by Friedel.
4. Adel Taarabt causes trouble. Despite his undoubted talent, Tottenham gave up on Taarabt. So, earlier this season, did Ian Holloway. On Saturday, Mark Hughes, who has replaced Holloway as manager, started his mercurial midfielder against his former club.
Taarabt delivered in style. First he scored what turned out to be the game-winning goal. Then he added a twist to the "immutable law of the ex" by picking up a needless second yellow card for dissent. That left his team to defend its lead with 10 men.
Of course, QPR has had plenty of practice at playing short. This was its eighth red card of the season. It needs just one more to tie the Premier League record held by Sunderland. Even though Taarabt will be suspended for three games, QPR still has plenty of players -- Joey Barton, Samba DiakitÚ, Djibril CissÚ and Shaun Derry, just for starters -- who can step up, lash out and get their team to that record.
5. Newcastle's charge. Newcastle looked every bit a top-four team as it flicked Stoke aside 3-0 for its sixth consecutive league victory. Newcastle seemed to be sliding away in midseason, its thin squad punctured by injuries. But while Tottenham is dying on its feet, Newcastle overflows with energy and confidence. Yohan Cabaye, who scored twice on Saturday, and Cheik Tiote seem rejuvenated by their rests.
All Newcastle's gambles seem to be paying off. The club rescued Hatem Ben Arfa, rescued from Marseille despite his reputation for petulance and tuck with him when he suffered a terrible leg injury. He is finally delivering consistently on his undoubted talent. He is also forming a clever creative pairing with Cabaye, last summer's big buy. Demba Ba, whose damaged knee made him a gamble when he joined from West Ham, terrorized defenses for the first half of the season and has moved wide to make room for January's big buy, Papiss CissÚ, who is proving even more terrifying. CissÚ set up the first goal for Cabaye with a thumping header against the bar and scored a neat second. These are good players and, allowed time; they have gelled into a good team.
That time might be running out. Newcastle with its big stadium and huge support has the potential for the big time. Yet if it doesn't make it into Europe this season, how many of the players it has built into a team will still be there in August?
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