You want to know why the Premier League is the best league in the world? It's for weekends like this past one, which feature a handful of headliner games, a couple more you didn't think would be that competitive but end up going down to the wire, and even when the title race is all but decided already, there's still the ultra-competitive spirit for the top four.
This weekend was awesome, and for a bunch of reasons. Let's break down some of it, yeah?
The biggest match in the league this weekend—which, between this, Everton-Liverpool, and Atlético-Real Madrid, should be enough to cement February 7th, 2015 as Derby Day—was unquestionably the North London Derby. There, Arsenal sought to continue its impressive run since the month of December, where they've only failed to win three matches out of 13, including their very un-Arsenal victory over Manchester City. On the other side of the pitch, Spurs were out to prove they really were a top four contender and that, despite some unconvincing performances, they were closer to the team that smoked Chelsea than the one that lost to Leicester a couple weeks ago. More so than the result itself—a 2-1 comeback win for Spurs—the story of the match was 21-year-old striker Harry Kane, who beats the shit out of teams just because he can.
There's nothing in American sports quite like the thrill of watching a homegrown player at the point where he begins realizing his potential. A late-round or undrafted QB going all Tom Brady is maybe close, but the main appeal of a young kid coming through the ranks and into the first team isn't merely its unlikelihood. A local basketball player staying home for college is closer, but even that doesn't have the same allure of a player growing up in the same system his whole life. No, hearing about one of your own awing the academy coaches, reading every couple years how he's flying through the youth levels, balling out at every stop, seeing him slowly integrated into the senior team, then finally making good on those years of promise by succeeding at the highest levels is a singular enjoyment of soccer's club system. And right now, Tottenham have it better than almost anybody with the success of Kane.
Kane is a quintessentially modern striker. He likes to drift all over the pitch, dragging defenders deep, wide, and back again as he searches for space into which he can receive the ball and take aim at the goal. It may sound almost tautological, but Kane is so good at scoring because he's so good at shooting. Specifically, he is able to reel off a great number of shots from all positions, and he places them so accurately that they go in. Here's a radar of Kane's stats which reflect his talents, made by Ted Knutson of soccer analytics site Stats Bomb:
As you can see, basically all he does is shoot. What prevents this from being a mere tautological statement is that shooting in itself is a talent. To be able to shoot so often means you need to be able to get into scoring positions, which, believe it or not, not all strikers are very good at. As the radar above demonstrates, it's his nifty dribbling that best aids him in sliding into his preferred shooting areas.
Kane's a pretty big, if gangly, boy at 6' 2", but he's far from the lumbering forward you'd expect from his size. He doesn't hypnotize defenders with repeated step-overs and ball-rolls, but his knack for shifting the ball between his feet and feinting this way and that still enables him to get past most anybody. Once he's in the clear, Kane can score with his left foot, his right foot, his head, from inside the box, from outside with one of his patented hard and low blasts that skip into the far corner—in any place, really. Sometimes he runs down the heart of the field with the ball at his feet and takes a crack, other times he lurks around the penalty area waiting for a fortunate bounce to send the ball his way so that he can apply the finish. Everything that goes into scoring goals, Kane's really good at.
This weekend's match against Arsenal was but another of his dominating displays on the season. Arsenal went up early when Mesut Özil scored in the 11th minute, and after that, the Gunners decided to close shop. It was more or less the same script they followed to victory against Man City. While Tottenham had control of the ball, Arsenal were content to sit back and try to break up their attacks from deep, then hit out on the counter. Arsenal were pretty good at stymying Tottenham's deliberate build-up play for most of the match, but were eventually were exposed when Spurs came at them in transition. Tottenham's high press repeatedly won them the ball back near or in Arsenal's half, where they could exploit the unprotected defense aided in midfield only by Francis Coquelin. Tottenham took more than three times as many shots as Arsenal, and were ultimately rewarded for their activity in the form of Kane's.
The goals themselves were evidence of the poacher side of his game. For the first, Kane found himself in just the right place (as he so often does) to slot home a redirected ball from a corner. On the second, the striker made use of every inch of his frame by soaring into the air and arching a header perfectly past the keeper in the match's dying minutes. The happiness he, his teammates, and the crowd shared at that moment was something else:
The result itself was big. With those three points Spurs leaped over the Gunners into fifth place in the table, one point behind Manchester United in fourth. They'll need to improve on their game a whole lot—they pretty much ride Kane, Christian Eriksen, and Nabil Bentaleb to results, while hoping none of the others fuck things up too badly—but as we've seen, they have the pieces.
More importantly, though, is what this meant to the fans. In front of the home crowd, many of whom Kane could count as neighbors his whole life, in the one match they most want to win every season, fans got to see one of their own blossom into a full-fledged cult hero. Regardless of where they end up in the table, when you see the sea of people leaping for joy at the actions of their favorite player in the video above, you know this season will be remembered as a success.
Damn, this match was boring as hell, wasn't it? Kind of a let-down after the fireworks of the morning's derby. Still, it was the day's second-most intriguing matchup of the league, and it did hold meaning in the Champions League race.
The big takeaway from the match is how Liverpool will feel like they let one slip here. Everton are an unbelievably uncreative side, so the Reds had to have predicted that keeping the home team off the scoresheet wouldn't be too hard a proposition. Sure enough, Everton only popped off six shots, only one of which came from a vaguely dangerous position. Their attacking midfield sucks, the man you'd expect to drive the team forward, Ross Barkley is still just a kid and has looked gassed all season, and Romelu Lukaku isn't the type of forward to make something out of nothing (shit, I don't know many forwards who would look good with the service Lukaku gets). The Blues didn't do anything, and Liverpool should've made them pay.
On the other hand, if I'm a Liverpool fan, I wouldn't be too concerned with the result itself. Liverpool have still played some of the best soccer in the league in 2015, and can still put pressure on those ahead of them on the table. Raheem Sterling is somehow getting better and better with more and more responsibility, Philippe Coutinho looks better than ever, Emre Can has also been great, and Daniel Sturridge is working himself back into fitness after his injury. The system change has worked, and Liverpool are again really good. It's probably too little for Champions League play this season, but it's certainly something to build on.
Hm, besides Tottenham, it's looking like the trend of the weekend is Champions League hopefuls shitting the bed. Man United apparently didn't want to derail the narrative and decided not to turn up against West Ham on Sunday. A win for the Red Devils would've seen them solidify their own Champions League hopes, which, despite where they currently sit, is by no means a lock or even probable for that matter. Instead, they were lucky to escape from London with a draw.
On one hand, West Ham are a lot better than you'd imagine. They are the best EPL team outside of the Champions League hopefuls and even made a bit of Southampton-like noise at possibly nabbing a spot in the top four of their own before stumbling back down to reality. Their 1-0 lead completely justified their play, and frankly, they should've been up more. Instead, they got got in Fergie time, and the rest is history.
Despite their league position, United have yet to convince for any extended period of time this season. They still have no idea what their preferred XI is nor which is their go-to system. It seems like their lineup is picked by the wage bill, where Louis Van Gaal is forced to start Robin Van Persie, Falcao, Wayne Rooney, and Ángel Di María every match regardless of whether all four can fit on the pitch together. The manager has tried to get creative by shunting Rooney deep and moving Di María further up the pitch so there's at least one attacker faster than the average center back threatening the back line, but it hasn't suited either player's strengths. Van Gaal's going to need to find a way to make it work or else start hurting some feelings and benching someone for Ander Herrera if they really want to end the season where they are now.
Shhh! After the heartbreak that was Liverpool's title collapse last year, we don't want to jinx Southampton's bid to show that the size of your bank account isn't the only thing that matters in this league. Sadio Mané was the hero this time, scoring the deserved winner deep into second-half stoppage time. If anyone benefited most from Arsenal and United dropping points, it was the Saints. Graziano Pellè might not be good, and they might be another Morgan Schneiderlin injury away from the Europa League, but we still have faith.
Now, this is where this leaves us in terms of the top four. Soccer writer Michael Caley has the following projections based on his magical and mysterious formula (basically, it's based on his expected goals stat, which you can read about here):
Chelsea and City are locks, Arsenal still looks really good on the strength of their underlying numbers, and Southampton and United are neck-and-neck. Tottenham and Liverpool still have outside shots, but it's not looking good. Of course, this is still the Premier League, and anything can happen. Just ask Liverpool fans and they'll tell you not to believe anything until it happens.