FA Cup: What we learned
Malaise for Chelsea and Arsenal defined the Cup weekend
While the lyrics might not fit perfectly, this season's FA Cup fifth round made me think of that classic hip-hop song "The Breaks," by Kurtis Blow. In particular, the defensive gaffes that defined more than one game as own goals and schoolboy errors that shattered any further FA Cup dreams for six clubs over the weekend.
Martin O'Neill exacted revenge against Arsene Wenger by breaking up Sunderland's winning strategy into quarters rather than halves. The least appealing Cinderella still dancing at the ball, Crawley Town, had her glass slippers smashed against Stoke while Tottenham couldn't break down stubborn League One club Stevenage. Bolton and Leicester City efficiently dispatched their opponents, and a streaker at Anfield served as a bold metaphor for the overexposed Brighton & Hove Albion back line, which committed three own goals in a 6-1 loss to Liverpool. (It's not often a team scores four times in a single game yet loses by five).
As the venerable Mr. Blow opined in his legendary track, though, these are the breaks to win and breaks to lose but these here breaks will rock your shoes.
Chelsea is still out of alignment
Although Daniel Sturridge's 62nd-minute equalizer against Birmingham saved Chelsea's blushes and earned it a March 6 replay at St. Andrew's, it failed to mask a trend seen by those too hell-bent on booing at Stamford Bridge. Of the many issues plaguing Andre Villas-Boas, the biggest is surely his side's lack of application to basic defensive lessons -- allowing a set piece to bounce twice inside the 6-yard box, gifting Brum with a shocking lead in the 20th minute. The further removed Chelsea is from the Jose Mourinho era at Stamford Bridge, the worse its defense gets, and as things stand, this will only continue at least through the remainder of this season with AVB appearing to have lost the dressing room (read: John Terry is finished with the Not-So-Special One).[+] EnlargeChristopher Lee/Getty ImagesAnother shaky performance from David Luiz, right, has us wondering: is it his destiny to play defense?
Chris Hughton and Birmingham deserve a good deal of praise for their performance, but the 1-1 draw largely derived from Chelsea's complete lack of self-belief from front to back; so afraid was the Blues' midfield to push upfield and leave the struggling rearguard exposed that any attacks were disjointed and anemic as a result. Gary Cahill -- in just his second appearance since leaving Bolton -- looked nervous partnering Sideshow Bob's more clowning cousin David Luiz. (Then again, anyone looks anxious trying to form a stout defense next to the Brazilian.) With Ashley Cole out with injury, the midfield sat even deeper to compensate, frequently leaving Juan Mata in isolation to weave through Brum's stout back four.
Back from the Cup of Nations, Didier Drogba did slightly better as a halftime substitute for the so-hopeless-it's-no-longer-funny Fernando Torres, but even he was ineffective with Chelsea's midfield aimlessly engaged in Route 1 soccer, too scared to advance into the final third lest Birmingham beat it on a counter.
For Villas-Boas to survive the upcoming Champions League tie with Napoli, he must forget about his Torres problem and concentrate on mending that back line. There are options: First, the grand David Luiz center back experiment must end -- push him into midfield perhaps? Being relieved of strict defensive duties made a superstar out of Gareth Bale -- and the more defensively astute Branislav Ivanovic should remain at right back ahead of Jose Bosingwa if John Terry is available to partner Cahill. If the Blues' capitain is unavailable, shifting Ivanovic centrally ought to provide enough confidence for Chelsea's midfield to advance forward without the fear of being undressed by the likes of Edinson Cavani and Marek Hamsik. A strong base from the back will give Chelsea's midfield its missing vitality, regardless of whether Torres ever regains his full form.
Further, positively addressing its defending should place Chelsea in better stead heading into the FA Cup replay in the West Midlands. In just a short time, Hughton has returned St. Andrew's to the fortress it once was under Alex McLeish: Birmingham has yet to lose there in the league this season, allowing a paltry six goals in 16 matches. This suggests Chelsea will be facing an even sterner challenge than it encountered this weekend, so there must be no mistakes defensively should it wish to host Leicester City in the quarterfinals.
An Evertonian evolution?
In what was hyped in the pregame as an entertaining, end-to-end affair -- the two sides combined for eight goals at Goodison Park last year -- Everton surprisingly brushed aside Ian Holloway's Blackpool thanks to two goals in the first six minutes. While Landon Donovan's flulike symptoms forced him to miss his final start, he ends another successful loan spell on Merseyside having given the Toffees not only bundles of confidence but having shown Royston Drenthe how to play the right wing effectively. Drenthe was electric on both sides of the pitch against the Tangerines, but his command on the right and his much-improved crossing suggests a subtle shift from the Everton that used to run its attacks firmly up the middle via Tim Cahill (and before his transfer, Mikel Arteta) to one that attacks using the enviable width supplied by Drenthe, Leighton Baines, and Magaye Gueye.
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Super-bargain striker Denis "The Argentine Duncan Ferguson" Stracqualursi is beginning to look the player David Moyes has needed to vary Everton's point of attack when the midfield gets too static, and with him as an effective target man for just-returned-from-Spursian-exile Steven Pienaar and Drenthe, Everton could likely sustain this momentum in the absence of Donovan.
Further, Gueye proved he is an able deputy on the left to provide the necessary threat should PIenaar be unavailable. Although this performance should be taken with a grain of salt as it came against a side well-known for being cavalier at the back, it is nevertheless promising for the blue half of Liverpool, and should hopefully give David Moyes cause to celebrate in his upcoming 10th anniversary at Goodison Park.
Sorry, Arsenal; it's not always a game of two halves
In what served as the perfect ending to one of the worst weeks in recent memory for Gunners fans, Arsenal's dreams of placing a shiny new cup (trophies you invent, like the Emirates Cup, don't count) front and center in its decrepit trophy case were mangled on Saturday at the Stadium of Light. A second Thierry Henry era at Arsenal -- when a club builds you a statue, it counts as an era -- ended with a masterful Italian job done to them by Milan, and at the Stadium of Light the post-post-Henry era began with a pathetic performance for the ages (if Sebastien Squillaci makes it onto the field, whatever happens next tends to trend toward humiliation) in a 2-0 loss to Sunderland.[+] EnlargePaul Ellis/AFP/Getty ImagesRoyston Drenthe, on loan from Real Madrid, set the tone for a wonderful performance against Blackpool with his sublime left-footed strike in the second minute.
The key to Sunderland's dismantling of Arsenal was in how Martin O'Neill's squad conserved its energy for attacks in 15-minute bursts. Like punching a time card, the Black Cats allowed Wenger's players to aimlessly Tiki-Taka every quarter hour, but kept their shape and discipline in the center of defense to give the Gunners little more than the odd chance from Gervinho or a quiescent Robin van Persie. Then, with Arsenal subdued and short of ideas, Sunderland pressed forward, spending ever more time in Arsenal's end, only to retreat again for the following quarter-hour until Arsenal lost its cool.
Silly fouls from Johan Djourou and Mikel Arteta that gave Seb Larsson the chance to punish Arsenal for free were the end product of a Gunners XI too frustrated and ill-equipped to overcome the Black Cats' shifting style of play. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain's own goal in the 78th minute for Sunderland's second was produced during that final 15-minute blast as O'Neill directed his charges to recommence attacking a Gunners side that more closely resembled a Mardi Gras Moon Pie than a well-honed, top-four Prem team. It got even more ragged once Wenger moved Alex Song deeper with the inclusion of Theo Walcott and Aaron Ramsey already off injured.
Arsenal is soft in the center and crumbling on top and bottom, and at present, lacks the personnel to adapt to such tactical maneuvering by its opponents. But rejoice, Gunners faithful! This embarrassment has led management to want to spend some money on more competent players! In truth, though, it might be better spent on a new physio staff judging by Coquelin's recurring injury and the news that Per Mertesacker is out indefinitely. After all, these are the breaks.
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