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Have analytics gone too far? Author argues we're devaluing human creativity

As a magazine storyteller, Chris Jones has written about astronauts, filmmakers, game show winners, magicians, one U.S. presidential nominee, the youngest manager in pro baseball, and Conor McGregor, who put Jones in a rear chokehold at his request. (Certain he could stay conscious, Jones passed out in seconds.)

Jones never profiled Billy Beane, though he tried. When Beane was general manager of the Oakland Athletics, Jones asked to shadow him to learn about his approach to roster-building. Sure, Beane said – just not yet. Another writer was hanging around the A’s front office, but Beane doubted the guy would publish anything.

“And then ‘Moneyball’ comes out,” Jones said over the phone last week, referring to Michael Lewis’ 2003 book. “Then it became a huge bestseller and the movie, and changed the world.”

By spotlighting how Beane ran the A’s, Lewis made analytics popular. Crunching baseball’s voluminous data helped Beane acquire undervalued players, like batters who got on base a lot, for little cost. Everyone began to look for overlooked opportunities. Baseball teams shift a lot nowadays. The NBA ditched the mid-range jumper to shoot threes in bulk. Win probability models spur NFL coaches to go for it more often on fourth down.

Billy Beane (left). Michael Zagaris / Getty Images

Jones enjoyed “Moneyball” but thinks the movement it inspired went too far. His new book – “The Eye Test: A Case for Human Creativity in the Age of Analytics,” out Tuesday – counters the notion that numbers should drive decision-making in all walks of life, sports included. He’s met a lot of curious, adaptive, empathetic, expert people. What happens, he wonders, when the world discounts what they see and feel?

“I’m worried that people are going to write that the book is an anti-‘Moneyball’ book,” Jones said. “It’s not. I just think data has its limits. And where it has its limits, those are opportunities for people to shine.”

Jones, who’s written for Esquire, The New York Times Magazine, ESPN, Grantland, and Netflix, lives near Toronto in Port Hope, Ontario. He spoke to theScore about a range of topics that relate to his book, including Derek Jeter’s defense, the Tampa Bay Rays’ 2020 World Series loss, and the ingenuity of Jason Witten and Mohamed Salah.

The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Chris Jones. Courtesy of Twelve Books

theScore: “The Eye Test” covers a lot of ground: sports, policing, Hollywood, the 9/11 victims compensation fund. Everywhere in life, you argue, problem-solving could stand to be more humane and less reliant on algorithms and spreadsheets. What made you want to mount that argument?

Jones: My first sportswriting job was as a baseball beat writer. I covered the Blue Jays for (Canadian newspaper) the National Post. I learned a ton from old baseball guys. Jim Fregosi was the manager of the Jays. Every Sunday we were on the road, he would sit in the dugout with me and teach me something about the game. I still remember one I got on the changeup in Cleveland. It was 20 minutes on this single pitch.

“Moneyball” came out a few years later. When it came out, I was like, “This is super cool.” I think the movie’s fantastic. But then I felt like that movement started going too far, and those old guys who taught me stuff in the late ’90s were exactly the kind of people who were being ridiculed or dismissed as morons, basically – do you know what I mean? – that they didn’t know what they thought they knew.

I think data does provide some useful corrections. I’m not saying I’m anti-data. I’m just saying I think that, like a lot of revolutions, it’s gone too far and the collateral damage is starting to be something that we need to reckon with. I think there are claims being made about analytics that are not true, and if you dare to raise opposition, you’re cast as a heretic or a moron or you believe in fairy dust.

What I’m trying to say is: No. There’s a place for data, but there’s also a place for experience. There’s still a place for multiple perspectives. Nearly 20 years after “Moneyball” has come out, I think a lot of people will, hopefully, agree they’re feeling a little unease about the path that we’re on.

Kevin Cash. Douglas P. DeFelice / Getty Images

You bring up how Tampa Bay lost the 2020 World Series because of a math decision. Blake Snell was cruising in Game 6, Kevin Cash pulled Snell before the Dodgers batted against him for a third time, and L.A. took the lead. The counterpoint is that the Rays’ analytical approach got them to the World Series in the first place. This got me wondering: Where, to you, is the line at which analytics stop being valuable?

I don’t know that there is a hard line. I would be a moron to make the case fully against analytics. It works for Tampa Bay. It worked for Oakland to get into the playoffs (under Beane). They’re valuable to a point.

But then I think what sometimes happens, human discretion gets cast aside and you always follow the math. There has to be a moment where you trust the guy or you trust your own wisdom. You trust your experience.

Why do we only choose one perspective? Why does analytics become the law? Why can’t it be analytics plus our sense of things? The analytics movement will talk about the pre-“Moneyball” time in sports as being blind, archaic. I feel like we’re trading one kind of blindness for another.

There’s a guy, Ian Graham, who’s a physicist. He’s a backroom architect at Liverpool. He refuses to watch games because he thinks it taints him – that the emotion of it will make him less objective than he needs to be. I’m like, well, you’re just choosing one myopia (over) another. You’re trading the pure eye test for pure analytics. Isn’t there room for both?

The book opens with an Albert Einstein quote: “Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.” If sports did more to encourage imagination, creativity, and discretion, what effect would that have on the product?

For me, if you get a really smart person working on something using creativity and imagination, that’s now the competitive advantage. There’s no baseball team that isn’t using analytics now. There’s a limit to what they can divine. You might find a new statistic, or you might find a better way to statistically analyze defense. But at some point, you’re all using the same figures.

The pendulum has swung in favor of analytics. Again, I’m not against them. But I do feel like it’s time for a correction, where you bring it back a little bit. That’s your competitive advantage now: It’s in finding the right person for the right role.

Steven Gerrard in 2016. Shaun Clark / Getty Images

About people who’ve spent a lifetime in their sport, you write, “their bones can reveal its truths better than any spreadsheet.” Who’s a person you had in mind when you wrote this?

I did a story (for ESPN The Magazine in 2014) on Mike Jirschele, who was the Kansas City Royals’ third base coach. He spent, like, 36 years in the minors before he finally got to the majors. His son, Justin, is the youngest manager in professional baseball. I spent a lot of time with both of them.

When I was with Justin, I closely watched a baseball game that he was managing. After the game, we broke it down. He was telling me things that I didn’t even see. For him, these were obvious things. I was like, man, you understand this game because you’ve grown up with it. Because you’ve been around this game since you were a baby. And because after every game you’ve ever played or coached or watched, you and your dad have talked about it.

Steven Gerrard was a major player at Liverpool, and then he moved to the LA Galaxy. I got to watch a game with him. He was doing remarkably accurate analyses of players he’d never seen before. He’d be like, “I don’t know who No. 6 is, but blah, blah, blah,” and he’d be bang-on about who that guy was.

The book is not a case for random gut or flipping coins. But when you’re smart – when you’ve earned an understanding of something – those people are so valuable. You might have a super good quant on your side, but if you also have someone like Steven Gerrard on your side? That’s only an advantage.

Derek Jeter. Jim McIsaac / Getty Images

This seems to be where Derek Jeter enters the picture. He won five Gold Gloves, but the metrics show he was a poor fielding shortstop with limited range. Yet he made spectacular plays, like his famous flip in the playoffs against Oakland. To you, what does Jeter represent about the tension between analytics and creativity?

He’s always held up as the reason you can’t trust your eyes. The truth is the eye test and statistics dovetail pretty nicely when it comes to baseball defense. Ordinary fans are pretty good judges of whether someone is good at defense or not.

Jeter is this exception that’s always used as the rule. That’s a narrative sin. That’s what analytical guys always talk about with narrative: “You’re picking and choosing. You can make any argument if you’re selective enough.” That’s what they’re doing with Jeter.

If he was a below-average defender, he still made some amazing plays. He was a great shortstop despite some serious limitations. His knowledge, his wisdom, his experience, all of those things allowed him to make a play like the flip. For me, he’s an optimistic story; a guy who doesn’t have all the physical tools of another player can still rise to greatness given enough passion and attention to detail and practice and time.

He’s the embodiment of what I’m talking about. You earned the knowledge. You put the time in. And you see things that other people don’t see because you love and understand this game in a different way.

You wrote about a play that Jason Witten made to great effect throughout his NFL career. He’d run upfield on the Y Option and choose to turn left or right. What do you find so compelling about Witten and this route?

It’s everything I believe in, which is that you can take a simple, basic, seemingly binary thing and make magic out of it if you understand it better than anybody else. Jason Witten was a huge competitive advantage for the Cowboys because he could do things and saw things that other people couldn’t do or see. He could do it with the most basic route.

The Y Option, as he says, it’s not sexy. It’s left or right. How much thought could go into that? But even that gives you opportunities for greatness and difference and distinction. Imagine a much more complex thing, like policing, like medicine. If you can find a way to be great running the Y Option, imagine the possibilities in other fields of endeavor.

When you spend time around smart, interesting people, you can’t help but be inspired by the way they do what they do. Someone like Jason Witten – God, he was awesome. He was awesome at something that you wouldn’t think someone could be awesome at. But he was. There’s beauty in it.

Jason Witten in 2019. Wesley Hitt / Getty Images

What athlete do you like watching the most these days?

I find him completely confounding: Mo Salah for Liverpool. He had one great season (in 2018), and I wrote a piece that was like, “They need to sell him. He had one great season. It’s a fluke.” Then he did kind of have a downish year, and now he’s arguably the greatest goalscorer in the game. I watch him going, “How did you keep getting better?”

He scored (last) week against Chelsea. I’m a goalkeeper. He made this little fake, (as if) he was going across the net, and instead dumped it short-side. The goalkeeper bit on the fake. I would have bit on the fake. He does stuff that’s so subtle and beautiful. That goal is a good example. The statistics will show that he scored a goal from close range. But when you watch how he got the goal, it reveals so much more about him as a player.

It’s something that Ian Graham, the Liverpool (analyst) who’s looking at his spreadsheets, wouldn’t see. He’d appreciate him as a goalscorer, but he wouldn’t know exactly what makes him great.

It seems like a good example of how analytics and personal brilliance work in tandem. Liverpool has a data-driven approach and Mo Salah, this transcendent player who helps make them a terrific team.

Why would you ever choose to see things one way? Especially complicated things. This will sound a little weird, maybe, but I think we’re all taking in more information at the moment than humans are designed to take in. Because processing information is sometimes hard, we just sort: “I’m on that side. I’m not for that. I am for that.”

It’s making us black-and-white thinkers. For me, there’s so much beauty and possibility in the gray, in the nuance – in where these two things meet. If I had Ian Graham analyzing a football match and I had (Liverpool manager) Jurgen Klopp analyzing a football match, then I think I could really find the truth.

Mo Salah scores against Chelsea. Catherine Ivill / Getty Images

Outside of sports, who’s your favorite character in this book?

Teller, the magician. He gave me my favorite quote that I’ve ever gotten: “Sometimes, magic is just someone spending more time on something than anyone else might reasonably expect.”

He does magic that is so confounding, other magicians are completely fooled by him. I went to his house and he gave me a deck of cards. He’s like, “I want you to pick a card out of this deck. Don’t show me.” I cupped the deck. I looked at the card. He’s like, “OK, just remember that card.” Half an hour later, we went outside. There was a sculpture of a big bear in the yard. The bear starts talking and goes, “Was your card the three of clubs?” And it was.

The answer to how that happens is time. It’s loving it more than somebody else. Putting the time in, being careful, always striving toward improvement, watching, learning. He has a voracious appetite for magic and magicians past.

For me, he’s the ideal of how you make something beautiful, which is basically what the book is for me. I hope people read the book and are inspired to do something awesome.

Nick Faris is a features writer at theScore.

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FIFA president: More World Cups can save migrants from 'death in the sea'

FIFA president Gianni Infantino sparked outrage Wednesday after claiming plans to hold the World Cup every two years could stop African migrants from suffering “death in the sea.”

Infantino was speaking at a parliamentary assembly session for the Council of Europe, a collective dedicated to the support of human rights, about promoting inclusiveness in the European-dominant landscape of football.

“Football is … about opportunities, about hope, about national teams, about the country, about the heart, about the joy, about the emotion. And we cannot say to the rest of the world, give us your money … but watch us on TV. We need to include them,” Infantino said.

“We need to find ways to include the entire world to give hope to Africans so that they don’t need to cross the Mediterranean in order to find maybe a better life but, more probably, death in the sea.

“We need to give opportunities and we need to give dignity. Not by giving charity but by allowing the rest of the world as well to participate. Now, maybe the World Cup every two years is not the answer. We discuss it. We debate it.”

The biennial World Cup proposal has been roundly criticized across Europe and other parts of the globe. However, Infantino and former Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger – the latter of whom is leading the controversial Future of Football project – appear determined to promote and eventually implement the shortened tournament cycle.

David Ramos – FIFA / FIFA / Getty

Ronan Evain, the chief executive of Football Supporters Europe, took to Twitter to strongly condemn Infantino’s monologue: “How low can Infantino go? Instrumentalizing death in the Mediterranean to sell his megalomaniac plan is beyond words.”

Evain was also disturbed by Infantino being given such an important platform in Strasbourg. “His speech today wasn’t about common good. It was about commercial interest and his own personal political interest,” he told theScore over the phone.

Tony Burnett, chief executive of anti-discrimination charity Kick It Out, was similarly furious with Infantino’s address.

“FIFA is a multibillion profit-making organization. They already have the funds to invest in creating and inspiring opportunity for disadvantaged people around the world,” Burnett said, according to The Guardian’s Paul MacInnes.

“It is therefore completely unacceptable to suggest that a biennial World Cup, predominantly set up to drive further profits for FIFA, could be a solution for migrants who risk their lives, sometimes fleeing war-torn countries, to seek a better life.”

Infantino subsequently released a statement via FIFA Media on Twitter. He claimed his words were “misinterpreted and taken out of context” and that he provided a “general message” to those in power, rather than a comment “directly related to the possibility of playing a FIFA World Cup every two years.”

Copyright © 2022 Score Media Ventures Inc. All rights reserved. Certain content reproduced under license.

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10 thoughts from the weekend's Premier League action

theScore examines the most important Premier League developments from the weekend, dissecting the biggest talking points after a busy slate of action.

Norwich’s survival bid might have substance

Norwich City seem to win in pairs. Their first two victories of the season came in twos, a 2-1 result at Brentford preceding another by the same score against Southampton. Their last two wins arrived consecutively as well, with last weekend’s 2-1 defeat of Everton setting up Friday’s 3-0 humbling of relegation rivals Watford.

Norwich couldn’t sustain the momentum the first time, picking up just two points over the eight contests that followed, but there’s enough evidence to believe Dean Smith’s side can turn its latest run into something more substantial. It’s now outside the relegation zone for the first time in 53 top-flight matches, albeit with one more game played than 18th-placed Newcastle United.

Nick Potts – PA Images / PA Images / Getty

Despite controlling just 31% possession, the Canaries showed a clinical edge their opponents lacked. Josh Sargent ended his 18-match scoring drought with an out-of-this-world scorpion kick and headed in another shortly after, and Juraj Kucka’s mishap gave Norwich three goals in an away fixture for the first time since August 2015.

Norwich simply couldn’t score earlier in the season, managing just one tally over the eight games that followed their first two wins. But with Sargent’s goalless run over, talisman Teemu Pukki looking more lively up front, and a relegation specialist in Smith now behind the bench, the East Anglia side might have the conviction to stay up.

“To get the win was the main thing,” Smith said afterward, according to The Guardian’s John Brewin. “There was a calmness that came over the players after the goals.”

Gerrard revives role as Goodison Park villain

It might not have been obvious that Steven Gerrard was buzzing in the days leading up to Saturday’s match against former rivals Everton, but the Aston Villa manager revealed his hand shortly after setting foot on the Goodison Park pitch again. The former Liverpool captain seemingly couldn’t resist engaging with Everton supporters ahead of his first game at the stadium as a manager.

As was the case throughout most of his illustrious career in the red side of town, Gerrard had the last laugh as Aston Villa secured three points with a 1-0 victory over Everton. The contest wasn’t pretty, but Villa managed to scrape their way to victory over a poor Everton side that lacked quality and struggled to create scoring chances in their first match of the post-Rafa Benitez era.

Emiliano Buendia’s goal to close out the first half was the difference, as the Argentine winger delivered a beautiful header off a corner despite being the smallest player on the pitch. Aston Villa continued to control the match in the second half on their way to winning and helping Gerrard pile more misery on a club he loved to torment throughout his playing days.

As the old saying goes, you can take the man out of Liverpool, but you can’t take Liverpool out of the man.

Digne shines in Everton return

If archrival Gerrard celebrating another victory at Goodison wasn’t bad enough, former defender Lucas Digne rubbed salt in the wounds of the Everton faithful by playing a crucial role in the Villa win

Less than two weeks after his transfer from Everton, the French full-back made his second appearance for Aston Villa and provided the assist to set up Buendia’s decisive goal. Overall, it was the type of performance that Everton supporters were accustomed to during Digne’s spell on Merseyside before his relationship with the club unraveled this season.

Digne’s return, however, was marred by an ugly incident in which he appeared to be struck by a plastic bottle near the Gwladys Street End as Aston Villa players celebrated Buendia’s goal. Digne, along with teammate Matty Cash, crashed to the ground after a projectile was thrown from a section of Everton supporters.

Thankfully, both players avoided serious injuries and managed to stay on until the final whistle.

Willock’s unsexy yet necessary graft

Joe Willock was close to scoring his first Newcastle United goal since his loan was turned into a permanent transfer in the summer, only to be thwarted by an excellent save by Illan Meslier. But the graft that preceded his stoppage-time opportunity was a key feature of the Magpies’ huge 1-0 win at Leeds United.

The midfielder was excellent at doing the unsexy work when Newcastle were ahead. He ran from the center circle and held off Stuart Dallas before winning a corner kick. He squeezed Rodrigo off the ball and then played it off the Spaniard, allowing Martin Dubravka to drain the clock as he prepared the resulting goal kick. And he did well to ride Robin Koch’s challenge and tempt Luke Ayling out of the backline in the buildup for his chance.

Mike Egerton – PA Images / PA Images / Getty

His goal rate at the end of last season – he scored in seven consecutive games – was unsustainable, and it created the perception that Willock is primarily an attack-minded midfielder. However, his display in West Yorkshire can serve as proof that he’s also willing to do defensive drudgery while Newcastle are mired in a relegation battle.

Outcast Martial flourishes in rare cameo

The Anthony Martial era at Manchester United isn’t over just yet.

Just when it seemed that the French forward was on the verge of leaving Old Trafford, Martial made a surprise cameo appearance Saturday and went on to help Ralf Rangnick’s team pull off an important victory over West Ham United.

OLI SCARFF / AFP / Getty

Martial made headlines at the end of December when news broke that he notified Rangnick of his desire to leave United. The situation deteriorated in the weeks that followed amid Rangnick’s claim that Martial refused to be included in the squad for their clash with Aston Villa on Jan. 15.

But earlier this week, Rangnick said that the situation had been resolved, proving as much by introducing the 26-year-old with less than 10 minutes left in Saturday’s contest. The French forward didn’t disappoint in his first Premier League appearance since Dec. 2, providing a much-needed spark in attack before playing a pivotal role in the buildup to Marcus Rashford’s injury-time winner.

Although whatever friction he had with Rangnick seems to be a thing of the past, it would be premature to write off the chances of Martial leaving before the transfer window closes at the end of the month.

Salisu is hot property

Mohammed Salisu’s dedication to honing his craft at Southampton was indicated by recent reports from his homeland that he resisted a call-up for Ghana’s ill-fated Africa Cup of Nations squad. While he may live to regret denying himself the experience of representing his country at the tournament, there’s no doubting that Ralph Hasenhuttl’s coaching is greatly improving his game.

Salisu’s name rung out around St. Mary’s as Southampton’s 1-1 draw with Manchester City approached the final whistle.

The defender’s effectiveness in possession has developed to the extent that he’s given license to trigger attacks with long-range passes. But what stood out against City was his proactiveness without the ball as he led the fixture in blocked shots (three), interceptions (four), tackles (seven), and clearances (14). His immaculate challenge on Kevin De Bruyne in injury time was a particular highlight that demonstrated his quality in one-on-one duels.

Bryn Lennon / Getty Images Sport / Getty

Another element that suggests a bright future for Salisu is the strength of his decision-making, which is far advanced for a 22-year-old with only 33 Premier League appearances to his name.

Southampton bought Salisu for under £11 million in the summer of 2020. A year later, they sold the underwhelming Jannik Vestergaard to Leicester City for £15 million. That’s excellent business.

Once again, we’re not talking about actual football

The dominance of Liverpool’s first-half display and Crystal Palace’s excellent response in the second period provided plenty of talking points from Sunday’s game at Selhurst Park. Could the Reds use the result as a springboard in the title race? What did Patrick Vieira say to his players at halftime?

But the post-match conversation was instead dominated by yet another dubious decision.

It was a bewildering call. Diogo Jota lost control of the ball and ran into Eagles goalkeeper Vicente Guaita, but somehow, after referee Kevin Friend checked the monitor, a penalty was awarded. Fabinho’s spot-kick made it 3-1 in the 89th minute and killed any prospect of a Palace comeback.

Adam Davy – PA Images / PA Images / Getty

“For me, it spoiled a really good game of football,” former Palace striker Glenn Murray said on BBC Radio 5 Live.

The standard of refereeing is a legitimate concern and one that needs to be addressed at the grassroots of the English game, but the influence of VAR also deserves scrutiny. Has it greatly improved officiating at the top level? That’s debatable. Have the delays and repeated slow-motion replays made the game as a spectacle slightly worse? Absolutely.

As an entertainment industry, the latter answer should be of the utmost concern to the game’s top figures.

Leicester’s late slumps continue

Brendan Rodgers’ plea for his players to “get up and fight again” for Brighton & Hove Albion’s visit seemed to be taken aboard as Leicester took the lead through Patson Daka early in Sunday’s second half. It was exactly what the Foxes deserved after creating the best chances of the opening stanza.

However, their midweek collapse to the Steven Bergwijn-inspired Tottenham Hotspur seemed to weigh heavily on Rodgers’ men as the second period wore on. Their play became desperate as their bodies tired – and only Manchester City have scored more goals in the final 10 minutes than Brighton this season.

An equalizer, and maybe even a winner for the Seagulls, seemed inevitable.

NurPhoto / NurPhoto / Getty

Kasper Schmeichel did well to keep out a Danny Welbeck header, but he couldn’t repeat the trick nine minutes later when the former Manchester United and Arsenal frontman nodded inside Schmeichel’s near post. Panic set in at that point for the Foxes, and they would’ve lost the game if it wasn’t for Youri Tielemans’ goal-line clearance and another great Schmeichel save.

A season like this wasn’t in the script for FA Cup holders Leicester. Riyad Mahrez, Harry Maguire, and Ben Chilwell left the club in turn over the previous three summers. But there were no such departures ahead of this campaign, and improving on back-to-back fifth-place finishes seemed a real possibility. They should’ve only gotten stronger.

Instead, Leicester are 10th – four points off ninth place but also only four points above 15th – and have logged two straight league wins just once back in October. Rodgers needs to find a way to refresh things at the King Power Stadium.

Arsenal’s scoring woes persist

Arsenal have a scoring problem.

The Gunners couldn’t muster a goal in Sunday’s draw with basement dwellers Burnley and have now found the net just once in their last five matches across all competitions. They were getting goals from other sources earlier in the season – Emile Smith Rowe leads the north London outfit with eight league markers – but the lack of a standout presence up front is hampering the club’s push to re-establish itself as a top-four threat.

Disciplinary issues have made former captain Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang an outcast, while Alexandre Lacazette has two goals in his last 17 games. This isn’t exactly Manchester City that we’re talking about here, with their abundance of attacking options everywhere on the pitch. It’s no wonder Arsenal are chasing Fiorentina striker Dusan Vlahovic this month.

The numbers from Sunday’s affair, per Opta, make for grim reading. Arsenal attempted 25 crosses against a Burnley team known for its size in defense, and only two of those open-play crosses found a teammate. Knotted at nil-nil and needing a goal, Mikel Arteta’s team managed only one shot in the last 20 minutes of the match. The Gunners have failed to score in four straight games for the first time since 2005, and, perhaps most damning of all, Arsenal finished the month of January with more red cards than goals.

Unless this drought ends, and quickly, Arsenal will be watching the Champions League on television for another year.

Chelsea superior to Tottenham in all facets

For the third time in just three weeks, Chelsea asserted their absolute authority over Tottenham, winning 2-0 on Sunday after shutting out Antonio Conte’s side 3-0 on aggregate in League Cup action. Up until the final 20 minutes, when the Blues were content to defend their lead, the hosts controlled more than 70% possession and allowed just two straightforward shots on target.

The gulf in class between these two sides is significant. It’s a credit to Conte that Sunday’s defeat was only Spurs’ first in the Premier League since the Italian manager replaced Nuno Espirito Santo in November.

Tottenham Hotspur FC / Tottenham Hotspur FC / Getty

This is a broken team. Conte has a surfeit of reliable players in his squad, particularly in midfield and on the flanks, where Tottenham so often cede control to their opponents. Conte has every reason to demand reinforcements, because even when his team wins, it does so in the scrappiest fashion possible.

Meanwhile, Chelsea can take comfort in a win that should buoy their spirits after going winless in four league matches. They’re now a point behind second-placed Liverpool, albeit with two more games played, and should kick on from here with nine of their remaining 14 fixtures against clubs in the bottom half of the table.

Copyright © 2022 Score Media Ventures Inc. All rights reserved. Certain content reproduced under license.

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Premier League

10 thoughts from the weekend's Premier League action

theScore examines the most important Premier League developments from the weekend, dissecting the biggest talking points after a busy slate of action.

Brighton, Palace are teams to watch

The shift in Crystal Palace’s identity under Patrick Vieira is turning the Eagles into one of the most watchable teams in the Premier League.

Though it may take some time to see the best of Eberechi Eze as he returns from an Achilles injury, the prospect of the graceful attacker lining up alongside Conor Gallagher and Michael Olise for the remainder of the season is truly exciting. This is no longer a defensive team overly reliant on Wilfried Zaha, who’s currently with Cote d’Ivoire at the Africa Cup of Nations. It’s a slick and well-coached collective capable of intricate, attractive football.

But Palace weren’t at their best in Friday’s 1-1 draw on the south coast as they tried to keep a superior Brighton & Hove Albion side at bay.

Bryn Lennon / Getty Images Sport / Getty

Graham Potter is destined for a much bigger job as he continues to fine-tune Brighton with comparatively meager resources. Full-backs Marc Cucurella and Tariq Lamptey – the latter entered as a substitute against Palace – are arguably the most electrifying players in Potter’s side, but the development of Alexis Mac Allister and Leandro Trossard is proof of further improvement for the Seagulls.

With a more reliable striker, there’s no reason Brighton can’t soon be outsiders to sneak into a Europa League place.

Brighton and Crystal Palace don’t have the big-name appeal of some Premier League teams, but they’re the closest things the division has to guaranteed entertainment.

Premier League postponements are farcical

Tottenham Hotspur are understandably aggrieved by the Premier League granting Arsenal’s request to postpone the north London derby.

England’s top flight has fallen afoul of its own postponement guidelines; in addition to COVID-19 cases and injuries, the league considered the number of Arsenal players at the Africa Cup of Nations before deciding to call off Sunday’s game.

If clubs aren’t prepared for players to miss matches on international duty, that’s down to their poor organization. Everyone knew this tournament was coming. Some of Arsenal’s issues were self-inflicted. Did they need to let Ainsley Maitland-Niles join Roma on loan last week, thereby denying themselves a player who can be deployed at full-back and in midfield?

Giuseppe Bellini / Getty Images Sport / Getty

Premier League matches should only be postponed if squads are down to 13 outfield players and one goalkeeper because of positive COVID-19 tests and injuries. Nothing else should affect that decision. Premier League clubs have Under-23 and B teams. They should use them.

While fans can speculate about the necessity of Arsenal’s postponement and others, the fault lies firmly with the Premier League. Its postponement rules had little initial clarity, giving clubs an opportunity to take advantage.

No one can stop Manchester City

That’s it, then. Manchester City are Premier League champions for the fourth time in five seasons – because they must be. Neither Chelsea nor Liverpool have demonstrated the consistency to keep up with City, who are now 11 points clear after Saturday’s 1-0 win over Chelsea.

Thomas Tuchel’s side retreated into its shell at the Etihad Stadium, handing City the ball when it needed to show ambition to revive its title bid. Make no mistake: Chelsea absolutely needed to win here. Instead, Kevin De Bruyne’s kill shot ended any hope for a dramatic conclusion to the campaign.

Pep Guardiola won’t buy any of this, by the way. He doesn’t want his players to believe they’ve already won. Fair enough. But they’ll have to seriously implode for any other team to hoist the trophy in May.

City haven’t lost in the league since October. In that span, they’ve navigated a significant COVID-19 outbreak, injuries to key players, and numerous cancellations. If they were to slip up, they would have done so by now.

Chelsea attackers out of sync

“Our offensive players need to show up more. We need consistency. Chelsea is not a place to hide,” Tuchel said after Saturday’s 1-0 loss to Manchester City.

The defeat saw the Blues fall 13 points behind the domineering league leaders – almost certainly an insurmountable deficit – and highlighted Chelsea’s struggles to create and finish chances consistently.

Romelu Lukaku’s £97.5-million re-signing was heralded as the solution to that problem ahead of the campaign. But myriad factors have conspired to spoil his return, not the least of which was an explosive interview in which the Belgian voiced his displeasure with how his season has unfolded thus far.

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Lukaku, who squandered two excellent chances Saturday, has just five league goals this season.

Not for the first time this year, he looked out of sync with his attacking teammates. That wasn’t entirely his fault, though. Christian Pulisic and Hakim Ziyech, who played behind the lone striker in a supporting role at the Etihad, didn’t fare much better; the American wasn’t proactive enough on the ball, while the mercurial Moroccan’s final passes let Lukaku down too often. One instance – when a hilariously overhit through ball for Lukaku scuppered a very promising chance – had Tuchel seething on the touchline.

Chelsea have amassed 39.2 expected goals in the league this season, lagging well behind City and Liverpool. The Blues have spent far too much money on attacking talent to be so toothless relative to their title rivals, and whether or not the solution involves Lukaku, Tuchel needs to find it.

Coutinho provides spark for Villa

Philippe Coutinho only needed 14 minutes to make an enormous impact on his Aston Villa debut, providing an assist and scoring the equalizer in Saturday’s 2-2 draw with Manchester United.

The Brazilian’s introduction in the second half changed the complexion of the match and provided a glimpse of what Steven Gerrard’s team could look like once Coutinho settles in.

His time with Barcelona was, frankly, a disaster. His was an unnatural tactical fit at the Camp Nou – not all his fault – and his spell is remembered more for the damage he did against Barcelona while on loan at Bayern Munich than for anything he accomplished with the Blaugrana.

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“There have been many ups and downs. It is in the past,” Coutinho said after his Villa debut. “I’m here, and I’m focused on the objectives of the club and the manager, and I want to do a good job to help my teammates and the club.”

It’s easy to forget after his unfortunate Barca tenure, but Coutinho remains an extremely talented footballer. In the right situation with a club that actually wants him, he could thrive.

If Gerrard can consistently field Coutinho and Emi Buendia in support of Ollie Watkins, the little Brazilian will flourish again – and Villa will follow suit.

Matic’s struggles are no secret

Fred was chosen as the more expressive half of the midfield duo in Manchester United’s 4-2-3-1 formation, and some of the success of Ralf Rangnick’s approach was evident when the Brazilian assisted on Bruno Fernandes’ second goal against Aston Villa.

But by then, the cracks had started to appear.

Given Scott McTominay’s suspension and United’s scatterbrained approach to recruitment in recent years, there was no alternative to the stiff-limbed Nemanja Matic as Fred’s partner in the middle. Matic, 33, initially offered balance to Rangnick’s side, but he gradually faded after receiving a yellow card for a cynical challenge in the 31st minute.

Ash Donelon / Manchester United / Getty

He only attempted two tackles thereafter – one on Buendia, the other on Jacob Ramsey – and was easily bypassed each time. He also misplaced nearly one-fifth of his passes when he was meant to keep United ticking behind Fred. The threat of a second yellow card troubled Matic; he became twitchy and overly cautious.

Vast spaces opened up as Matic withdrew into anonymity, and Buendia, Ramsey, and Coutinho took full advantage as Villa quickly turned a 2-0 deficit into a 2-2 draw. There were issues elsewhere in United’s lineup by that point – right-back Diogo Dalot’s resistance to Lucas Digne’s runs had crumbled – but Matic’s struggles were the most obvious.

It’s not Matic’s fault his mobility has deserted him in recent years. But it’s also no secret, and United should have replaced him long before this campaign kicked off.

Benitez leaves a mess at Everton

From the outset, Everton fans suspected the worst from Rafa Benitez, whose ties to crosstown rivals Liverpool made him out to be a double agent. Six months later, the Merseysiders are at serious risk of relegation and have been torn apart by Benitez’s hard-line approach. Everton lost a talented left-back in Digne – as well as their head of recruitment and director of football – because of disagreements with Benitez.

His sorry reign lasted just 200 days and ended with Saturday’s embarrassing 2-1 defeat to Norwich City that dropped the club to 16th place in the Premier League. The Toffees were trending in the wrong direction for months, but losing to the league’s worst outfit – a team that had lost each of its last six games and failed to score in any of them – was inexplicable.

So, what will happen next? Everton have too much at stake to even countenance the thought of relegation. They have a new stadium lined up with a hefty bill to pay and numerous players on big wages. But who can they hire to replace Benitez? Wayne Rooney, who’s currently coaching Championship side Derby County, is the bookies’ favorite to take over.

This will end well.

Newcastle still look like relegation fodder

Eddie Howe hasn’t changed much since taking the reins at Newcastle United. With one win in 10 league matches, just eight goals scored, and 19 conceded, the Magpies have shown no indication they can reverse the scoring issues and defensive vulnerabilities that first appeared under Steve Bruce.

Newcastle were closing in on a much-needed 1-0 victory over Watford on Saturday when Joao Pedro found a seam and headed home from close range. Even before allowing the late equalizer, Howe’s side was far from convincing, relying on Allan Saint-Maximin’s individual brilliance just to go ahead. Only one of Newcastle’s 12 shots hit the target, and £25-million signing Chris Wood didn’t lead the line with much authority.

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“We’ve damaged ourselves,” Howe said afterward. “There’s a psychological failing that we can’t hold on to a lead. The longer the game went on, the more anxious and desperate we got. There are mental scars.”

It was a sobering admission from a man who appears to be coming to grips with the scale of his task.

Ward-Prowse has no equal

There’s no debating it anymore: James Ward-Prowse is the best free-kick taker in the game right now.

The Southampton captain provided yet another example of his set-piece prowess on Saturday, uncorking a majestic strike against Wolverhampton Wanderers that defied physics:

Ward-Prowse has scored eight direct free-kicks since the start of the 2019-20 Premier League season. Trent Alexander-Arnold, a celebrated dead-ball practitioner in his own right, ranks second over that span. He’s only scored three.

The Saints midfielder can find the net in a variety of ways, showing a mastery of the free-kick art that nobody can rival.

Leeds aren’t gone just yet

Sunday’s hard-fought 3-2 win against West Ham United was undoubtedly Leeds United’s biggest of the season. They hadn’t beaten an opponent in the top half of the table all season; all they had were victories over Watford, Crystal Palace, and Burnley.

So, Leeds should take a lot of encouragement from their performance in east London. In ending West Ham’s four-match winning streak – which included a victory over Leeds in the FA Cup – Marcelo Bielsa’s outfit produced a ton of chances, three of which Jack Harrison converted for a famous hat-trick. Leeds pressed well and combined with authority on the counterattack. Frankly, they should have scored more.

The win was all the more remarkable given Leeds’ injury crisis. Bielsa named 15-year-old Archie Gray on the bench just to fill in the numbers, and the treatment room became a little more crowded when starters Adam Forshaw and Junior Firpo limped off midway through the first half. Crucially, midfield lynchpin Kalvin Phillips and top scorer Patrick Bamford remain out with long-term injuries.

But the West Yorkshire side still has life.

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