Howard deserves criticism for his performance against Chelsea
Asking for improvement from a goalkeeper who has conceded six goals isn’t brain surgery. For the last couple of seasons, Tim Howard has been rightly heralded as one of the best goalkeepers in the league. His performances in the World Cup, particularly against Belgium, elevated him to icon status in the USA. While doing interviews with non-soccer-savvy radio hosts, I found myself inundated with questions about Howard’s history within the sport. Howard deserves his time in the sun, but his performance against Chelsea shows why Manchester United was happy to offload him 10 seasons ago.
While Howard can be a tremendous shot-stopper, he is prone to lapses in concentration and this was evident in the entertaining 6-3 loss to Chelsea. For the first goal, Diego Costa rolled the ball through Howard’s legs, who clearly should have done better. For both Costa’s and Ramires’ goals (Chelsea’s 5th), Howard should have come off his line to close the angle of the shot. His hesitation contributed to both Costa and Ramires having more time on the ball, as well as having a greater arc to shoot at. Howard will argue that for the pivotal 3rd goal, Coleman’s deflection caught him off balance. While that is certainly true, Howard made no attempt to stop the ball. Yet again, Howard’s positioning cannot be questioned – there was the requisite arm length between him and his near post. And therefore, any shot played near post would be within his reach. Had Howard stuck out a hand or a foot at the ball, perhaps he could have knocked it out for a corner. Perhaps it was a case of giving up the ghost, but the veteran will be disappointed at his non-action for the Coleman goal.
Happy to see referees take on embellishment
For me, referee Lee Mason got the two big decisions in Stoke City’s shock win against Manchester City right.
For the first decision, Mame Biram Diouf appealed for a penalty as he was brought down by Aleksandar Kolarov. On first view, it seemed that Kolarov had fouled the ex-Manchester United player. However, replays seemed to suggest that Kolarov may have got a touch on the ball before he tripped the Stoke City forward. More importantly, it was clear that Diouf was on his way down before Kolarov made contact. With governing bodies dragging their feet on the oft-debated and much-needed retrospective punishments for diving and embellishment, it is pleasing to see referees taking a firm stance on the issue. Too often, we see players anticipating the foul and going down before contact is made. Sometimes, there is no contact, and calling that a dive is universally accepted. However, if contact IS made, we enter a grey area of whether or not a penalty should be awarded. In my opinion, the decisions this season suggest that referees are less likely to give PKs than before. The decisions in this game – with Diouf and similarly with Yaya Toure – support that hypothesis. Both were penalty shouts. In both cases, the player was going down before contact was made. In both cases, no penalty was awarded. And, in both cases, last season, the referee would have probably pointed to the spot.
Spurs need to play better against top opposition.
Under talented manager, Mauricio Pochettino, Spurs have to find a way to compete against the top teams. Last season, Spurs managed to win one and draw two games in the 10 home and away games against Chelsea, Liverpool, United, City and Arsenal. The previous season, in Andre Villas-Boas’ first season, they won five and drew two out of the same 10 games. In order for Spurs to regain Champions League football, they will have to improve their performances against big opposition. Coming into the Liverpool game, on the back of a convincing win against QPR, the fans could have been forgiven for believing that their side might have the better of a humbled Liverpool side. However, the visitors outplayed Spurs for the entire 90 minutes, and the score could have easily been more than 3-0. There is no doubt that there is ability throughout this team in Nacer Chadli, Christian Eriksen and Erik Lamela – exciting players in their own way. However, Pochettino will need to improve the defensive organization of this Spurs side. Mauricio – a defender in his playing days – will have noticed the propensity of his fullbacks to get caught up the field of play. Liverpool exploited this area multiple times during Sunday’s game, with Danny Rose in particular struggling against the speed of Liverpool’s transitional play.
If Spurs could tighten their defense, and record a couple of good results against top opposition, this might be the season they make it back into the Champions League fold.
Louis van Gaal and his system is still failing to work
When van Gaal was asked about his 3-5-2 formation during pre-season, he said the formation was designed to bring the best out of his players. In premise, he was right – certainly, playing the Wayne Rooney Robin van Persie and Juan Mata axis in their favored positions seemed intuitive. However, the experiment has failed to provide dividends so far. The system has not suited the players at the club. Rooney and van Persie have failed to work together (again) and Mata has been ponderous in his play. At the back, it is clear that the defenders are not comfortable with the system. Jonny Evans’s play has been a perfect example of that. Evans is now the senior defender at United and is usually a very good passer of the ball. However, he has made a number of errors this week (against MK Dons and Burnley), that seem to be a consequence of being forced to play the ball out of defense. In midfield, United’s players have not pressed enough to turn over the ball – the way Nigel de Jong did for Netherlands.
Interestingly, van Gaal’s decision to not step into his technical area is confusing. Van Gaal is known to bark instructions at his players and tweak tactics constantly. Yet, we have yet to see him leave his seat in four games. Some might argue that this means that he trusts his players to do their jobs. However, when a very young team is being hammered 4-0 by a league one side, surely they need a few words of instruction (or anger) from their manager. Van Gaal doesn’t seem to think so. And, to me, that is clearly an error of judgement. Similarly, we have not seen assistant coach Ryan Giggs bark out instructions either. During Giggs’s time as interim manager, the Welshman barely sat on the manager’s chair at all. So, clearly, this is an instruction from van Gaal to abstain from histrionics on the touchline. Maybe it will pay off in the long run – as players understand that they are responsible for delivering the goods – but, for now, van Gaal’s plans remain mysterious, and his decisions remain questionable.