Alan Pardew debuts for Crystal Palace, Southampton march on Old Trafford in this week’s Premier League action.
Pardew’s Impossible Debut
I don’t think any single figure in sports is more improperly critiqued than the manager. Saturday’s match between Crystal Palace and Tottenham — a 2-1 Palace victory and Alan Pardew’s debut as Palace boss — might’ve been the premier example of this truth.
From my viewpoint, there were two huge decisions made in this match. The first was made by Benjamin Stambouli (although some Spurs fans would say it was made by referee Anthony Taylor). The Frenchman’s decision to go-to-ground in his own penalty box in an attempt to win the ball from Joe Ledley in the 68th minute was a baffling one. (The interesting thing is that Stambouli may have actually made an astutely timed challenge when you view the play in super-duper-slow-mo.) Wrongfully accused or not, the overriding fact remains that you don’t do what Stambouli did, period. Dwight Gayle’s ensuing spotkick was the spark to Palace’s thrilling comeback that came afterwards.
The second pivotal decision was made by Alan Pardew — sort of. Wilfried Zaha came on as a substitute in minute 74 for Glenn Murray and changed the match dramatically. The young Englishman showed the same flashes of brilliance that made Manchester United shell out £15 million for him two summers ago. His constant peltering of Tottenham’s backline not only led to Palace’s winner but also nearly broke through Hugo Lloris’s goal multiple times after. It was a game-changing substitution, no doubt about that.
So, looking at these two vital decisions made, the logical conclusion would be that the first occurrence (Stambouli’s foul) was generally a matter of luck albeit brought on by offensive pressure, and the second occurrence (bringing on Zaha with less than twenty minutes left) was almost completely a matter of luck. But none of that matters, because Pardew WILL receive credit for this win. Even though his coaching prowess will have been of minimal impact having only been his position for one week. And despite his decision to sub-in Zaha being practically canceled out by his decision to leave Zaha on the bench from the start.
The only credit that can justifiably be granted to Pardew is that perhaps his mere presence on the touchline was enough to inspire his squad to glory; but I warn you, that line of thinking leads to a fallacious wasteland. The truth is we never know the total reasons for a team winning and/or losing. We only ever speculate, hopefully, with evidence. Alan Pardew is a fine manager, but he’s just a man. He can’t incept a desire to recklessly lunge into Benjamin Stambouli’s mind, nor can he foresee that Wilfried Zaha is going to morph into Arjen Robben on a random Saturday in January. Palace fans may think he can do these things, along with many deluded writers and Pardew himself. But Tottenham — and Newcastle — fans will likely have an entirely opposing view of what happened. And it’s all because nobody knows what hell just happened, ever.
Swansea and West Ham played to a 1-1 draw at the Liberty Stadium on Saturday. A first-half solo effort from Andy Carroll was cancelled out by a late Bafetimbi Gomis header. The Hammers will see the stalemate as points-dropped as they commanded much of the action on the afternoon, while Swansea will be happy to further their impressive home league record. Though Sam Allardyce was stuck at home with an illness (along with Alex Song), the West Ham boss was surely pleased with what he saw from his players, two in particular.
What’s in a fullback? At first look, it wouldn’t seem much. They’d seem to be well below central midfielders, centereforwards, central defenders, and even goalkeepers in over importance to a football team. Well, that’s only half true. And at West Ham, it isn’t really true at all.
West Ham’s summer acquisitions of Aaron Cresswell and Carl Jenkinson have completely transformed their team. Sam Allardyce, one of world football’s most hated anti-aesthetes, has always maintained that his stylistic deficiencies have always been down to his resources as opposed to his personal preferences. His decision to go full-fledged “hoofball,” with a West Ham club long-proud of playing in a traditionally more fan-friendly manner, was always rather justified when you looked at his teamsheet.
Whether or not his reasons suffice — I have major issues with them — Allardyce is being made correct through his team’s performances this season. But the only real difference between the side he deployed at Swansea and his teams of the past two seasons is the fullbacks. Nolan, Carroll, Noble, Collins — they’re all still there week-in and week-out, but the additional flank threats have created multiple avenues of attack. Constant overlapping from Cresswell and Jenkinson has resulted in a widespread array of offensive potential. So, is the mere presence of two quality two-way fullbacks — who’ve been in-form all season long — all Allardyce needed to implement his contemporary footballing masterpiece? I’m not so sure. But they are his players who he picked out, so he deserves the credit.
Dutch Standoff at Old Trafford
A 69th minute strike from Dusan Tadic capped off an impressive 1-0 win for Southampton at Old Trafford on Sunday. Unable to unlock Ronald Koeman’s tactical puzzle, Louis van Gaal’s Manchester Unite side found the afternoon difficult despite controlling over 60 percent of the possession. The Red Devils now hang onto fourth place by a single point over Arsenal.
This was as unexpected of a result as van Gaal’s team have experienced all season. In a season so far plagued by widespread injury, the pervading narrative leading up to the match was framed around United’s newfound squad health. While the side wasn’t entirely match-fit coming into the weekend, it was only Ashley Young who found himself out of contention due to injury. However, van Gaal’s decision to exclude Falcao from United’s matchday squad proved to be most critical, as the Red Devils failed to register a single shot on goal over the 90 minutes. Though the Dutchman has defended his decision: “You have to look at the needs of your selection.”
It is indeed a peculiar situation for van Gaal. To have your job hampered by a lack of resources all season is one trouble, but for the floodgates to suddenly open, spilling an abundance of resources all at once is an entirely different trial. Finding a way to blend his returning players with the already thick top-layer of elite footballers currently employed at Old Trafford isn’t as easy as it sounds. Unfortunately, van Gaal will need to figure it out quickly, because, as everyone has already relayed to the Dutchman post-match, he currently sits on the same amount of points as David Moyes had at this time last season.
For the Saints, four wins in their last five matches — with the one odd result being a draw with league leaders Chelsea — take them to third in the Premier League table. Tadic’s super-sub appearance combined with Koeman’s deft strategic display and the ability to plug-in players where needed (see: the inclusions of Florian Gardos and Eljero Elia on Sunday) reveals a deeper level of nous alive in Southampton’s camp than most may have assumed. The running question at St. Mary’s has focused on how they’d fare over an extremely competitive and congested holiday fixture schedule. Well, they answered the call by capturing 13 out of a possible 15 points. In that time, they defeated Everton, Crystal Palace, Arsenal, and, now, Manchester United. Yes, they’re for real. Stop asking.