The destination of the Premier League title became a little clearer this weekend as Manchester United scraped past Blackburn Rovers and emerged with a five point gap over 'noisy neighbours' Manchester City. But for a long time the win had looked far from certain with United only able to muster three shots on target until the final ten minutes, despite enjoying 73% of possession and 92% pass completion at Ewood Park. At the other end, David De Gea had kept them in the game with three excellent acrobatic saves.
The second goal was a microcosm of the match in many ways. There were 37 passes in the buildup to Ashley Young's finish (the highest such sequence this season), but they were most sideways and offered no real penetration or threat to the Blackburn back four. It was only when Antonio Valencia finally picked the ball up on the right and drove forward that Blackburn's resistance was shaken and Young's smart finish sealed the points.
Michael Carrick and Paul Scholes posted great passing statistics, with the former making 92 successful passes and the latter only misplacing two passes in his 80 minutes on the pitch. However, as can be seen below the vast majority of these passes from both players were sideways with little threat to the Blackburn defence; only three goal scoring chances were created by the pair. It was possession for possession's sake for most of the game, and it was perhaps unsurprising that Scholes was substituted for Ashley Young so United could adopt the more direct, higher tempo approach which saw two goals scored in the next five minutes of the match.
The five point gap was secured thanks to Sunderland's 3-3 draw at Manchester City and an impressive performance from a diminutive playmaker, but not the one you'd expect. Stephane Sessegnon overshadowed David Silva with an impressive performance, only misplacing three passes and creating four chances, leaving the field with two assists. Silva could only produce one goal scoring chance in the 90 minutes.
Newcastle continued their push for fourth place with a relatively comfortable 2-0 win over out-of-sorts Liverpool. One outstanding feature of the match was the skew to the right that both sides exhibited, as shown by the crossing chalkboard below. Newcastle and Hatem Ben Arfa in particular were much more accurate in their crossing, attempting fewer but finding their target more often than Liverpool, including the cross for Papiss Cisse's opening goal.
Liverpool were able to get into crossing positions on the right quite often as Jonas Gutierrez was filling in at left back and was provided with little protection from Demba Ba. Alan Pardew has moved Ba to the left of a front three to accommodate CissÃÂ© while also keeping Hatem Ben Arfa in the side, and it is working for the team as a whole, if not for Ba, who seems a little lost on the left and hasn't scored in seven league matches. He tends to play the ball backwards so that he can adopt a more central position, rather than looking to provide balls into central areas from out wide. Andy Carroll on the other hand had an eventful afternoon, demonstrating his strength in the air by winning 11 out of 15 aerial duels, but rarely did those duels take place in the penalty area as Liverpool's poor crossing denied the former Newcastle man an opportunity to score against his old club.
Liverpool's slide has been capitalised on by Everton, who continued to enjoy their customary run of form in the second half of the season to move above their local rivals in the table. Steven Pienaar in particular was excellent, completing 92% of his passes against West Bromwich Albion. Such was the threat he posed, the Baggies were forced into fouling him now fewer than six times. He was only able to show glimpses of this type of form in his rare outings for parent club Tottenham Hotspur, including a 12 minute spell against the Toffees in January, that time playing on the right.
Could Tottenham live to regret letting the South African go, given their post-January struggle for form was in part due to the lack of a player like Pienaar to step in during the absence of Aaron Lennon?
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