* Manchester United being dreary beyond belief before finally getting the job done. Liverpool struggling to defend set-pieces. The Premier League’s new breed (Watford, Crystal Palace, Stoke, West Ham) all impressing. The bottom four (Aston Villa, Newcastle, Sunderland and Swansea) all continuing to struggle. Southampton in danger of a worrying slump. Chelsea looking brighter post-Jose Mourinho. Leicester ruffling the feathers of the bigger teams and scoring goals on the road.
For all the talk of fatigued players, fixture pile-ups and weakened teams, the FA Cup felt an awful lot like the Premier League.
* “How many chances have Sheffield United created? Nobody is talking about that.” – Louis van Gaal, January 10.
There have beeb plenty of flirtations, but this might be the comment that took Van Gaal’s Manchester United tenure into parody status. The Dutchman was technically right, but that in itself should be telling. If nobody is talking about something, there’s probably a reason.
Sheffield United are in League One, Louis. They have not spent £250m in the last two seasons. They did, however, have the first shot on target at Old Trafford, and were less dire than Van Gaal’s United for long periods. They will have travelled back to Yorkshire disappointed not to have earned a replay.
Van Gaal should be embarrassed by his comments. To expect his side’s defending to somehow be given credit after a display of such dreariness is naive in the extreme, whatever his experience in the game. To believe that performances like these will keep him in a job would be just as foolish.
Demanding entertainment from a manager from day one would be to act like spoilt children, but United supporters are within their rights to expect excitement far beyond the current level. This is not about the ‘United way’, more a club with expensive players who should be motivated and coached to realise their potential.
Football is supposed to be enjoyable. Enjoyable to play, enjoyable to watch. Supporters are supposed to spend all week trudging through the tedium of Monday to Friday, nine to five, their weeks brightened by the prospect of feeling the buzz of watching their team play at the weekend. Van Gaal’s biggest crime is removing that buzz. Watching United is a pastime of endurance, not enjoyment.
* It’s easy to see why Jurgen Klopp selected a young Liverpool side to face Exeter; they had five games in 18 days in three competitions after Friday. The draw made it six games in four competitions. “I can’t believe we have another game,” Klopp said after the match.
However, it was not simply fixture congestion that affected Klopp’s team selection. The German spoke in October about his dislike for the English loan system.
“Of course I am looking at the loan players,” Klopp said.“I try to learn all about English football because it is completely different to other countries. Liverpool a few years ago had 20 to 25 players out on loan.It is not normal to have players on loan in Germany, but in England it is.
“It’s part of my job – what we do with the guys here and those out on loan. There will be a time when we have to make a decision. I’m not sure in this moment it’s always best to give young players to other clubs. I think it’s a kind of pressure you don’t need at that age.”
Klopp’s decision to recall Ryan Kent, Sheyi Ojo and Tiago Illori was partly in response to the club’s injury crisis, but also hints at a new strategy for Liverpool. “In my opinion the best talents should be at their own club so they can play together for the under-21s and develop as a team, so you always have them around you,” Klopp explained on Friday. It’s an interesting move away from the norm.
* It’s easy to criticise footballers for living in a bubble, wilfully oblivious to the frustration of supporters. As Aston Villa captain, Micah Richards should be embarrassed by the performances and results of the club this season, but congratulated for speaking to angry fans after the 1-1 draw with Wycombe.
“Where’s the passion? There’s no passion on that pitch,” the supporter shouted at Richards. “We’re trying,” he responded.
Such conversations are quite risky, particularly given the rising anger among Villa supporters, but at least offer evidence that the captain hasn’t completely downed tools. Unfortunately, he’s one of the only ones.
* Jose Enrique, dear me. When asked whether left-back Enrique could play in central defence against Exeter, Jurgen Klopp replied: “Who?” One suspects that Klopp will struggle to forget his performance against Exeter that easily.
It can’t be easy for players to come straight back into a match situation after months without any football, but Enrique was made to look like an amateur by a League Two attack. After being highly rated at Newcastle, the Spaniard has fallen from grace spectacularly at Anfield. He’s still not turned 30.
If Enrique was hoping for some much-needed support from a former Liverpool left-back, he was disappointed. “Glad to see Enrique impressing again for Liverpool,” John Arne Riise tweeted. Oh, cheers.
Having been forced to train with the youth team under Brendan Rodgers, Enrique has done nothing to impress his new manager. The best-case scenario is for him to move back to Spain – it worked out nicely for Alvaro Arbeloa.
* Mesut Ozil may have deservedly taken the headlines at Arsenal this season, but Hector Bellerin deserves immense praise for his development. Bellerin had a slight dip in form during November, but has now responded superbly. It’s easy to forget that he’d never started a top-flight match before October 2014.
Against Sunderland, Bellerin was Arsenal’s best player, surprisingly starting ahead of Mathieu Debuchy despite playing every game of the festive schedule. He assisted two of their three goals, dovetailing wonderfully with Joel Campbell. The Spaniard still has weaknesses in defence, but is incredibly refined for a full-back aged just 20.
“In the last 20 minutes, he created a goal chance every time he went up there,” Wenger said after the game. “Look at his defensive and offensive numbers. He’s only 20 years old so there’s a lot more to come from him. Of course he’s one of the best in the country.”
Now to keep Barcelona from banging down the door.
* Memphis Depay has struggled to settle in England, that much is clear. The Dutch winger has committed the cardinal sin of spending his weekly wages on exactly what his pleases, but his performances have certainly been worthy of criticism.
The suspicion is that Depay will last far longer than Van Gaal at Old Trafford, and he still has plenty of time to address his disappointing form. His performance from the bench against Sheffield United was comfortably the brightest aspect of a dismal Manchester United display.
Crucially, Depay possesses the ability to run at defenders, something so chronically lacking from United’s usual ‘death by a million passes’ strategy under Van Gaal. It was Depay’s run and shot after 65 minutes that drew sarcastic cheers from the Old Trafford crowd. An attacking player had tried to do something exciting!
It was another of those attacking bursts that created United’s winner, forcing a clumsy challenge from Dean Hammond that allowed Wayne Rooney to score the winner. Presumably Depay will be fined by Van Gaal for daring to dribble past an opponent.
Still, at least he gets to drive whichever car he wants this week. I’ve consulted the handbook, and an assist means the Mercedes is acceptable.
* Arsene Wenger’s FA Cup third-round record is a thing of wonder. Not only can Arsenal’s manager become the most successful coach in the history of the tournament should he win another trophy, but he has never been knocked out at the first hurdle during his time at the club.
2015/16: 3-1 vs Sunderland
2014/15: 2-0 vs Hull City
2013/14: 2-0 vs Tottenham
2012/13: 1-0 vs Swansea City
2011/12: 1-0 v Leeds United
2010/11: 1-1 and 3-1 vs Leeds United
2009/10: 2-1 vs West Ham
2008/09: 3-1 vs Plymouth
2007/08: 2-0 vs Burnley
2006/07: 3-1 vs Liverpool
2005/06: 2-1 vs Cardiff City
2004/05: 2-1 vs Stoke City
2003/04: 4-1 vs Leeds United
2002/03: 2-0 vs Oxford United
2001/02: 4-2 vs Watford
2000/01: 1-0 vs Carlisle United
1999/00: 3-1 vs Blackpool
1998/99: 4-2 vs Preston
1997/98: 0-0 and 1-1 (p) vs Port Vale
1996/97: 1-1 and 2-0 vs Sunderland
To save accusations of wanton bias, it’s also worth pointing out that Chelsea have also qualified for the fourth round for the 18th successive time. But in the time Arsenal have had one manager, Chelsea have had 13.
* The hype surrounding Ruben Loftus-Cheek has strangled his hopes of success almost as much as a succession of Chelsea managers’ lack of faith, so it was impossible not to be pleased by the midfielder’s first senior Chelsea goal. Unfortunately, Monday’s papers may well pour more petrol into that hype machine.
The most interesting aspect of Loftus-Cheek’s goal was the reaction it provoked among his academy team-mates. Each of them expressed their delight that a friend had finally made his mark in Chelsea’s team. The likes of Dominic Solanke and Tammy Abraham will hope to follow his lead.
There has been huge disappointment at the lack of opportunities for younger players at Chelsea, but the silver lining to this season’s dark cloud is that Guus Hiddink has an ideal stage on which to blood Loftus-Cheek, Kenedy, Bertrand Traore et al. It’s only a start, but ending the match with players aged 21 (Kurt Zouma), 20 (Traore) and 19 (Loftus-Cheek and Kenedy) is hopefully a sign of things to come.
* Saido Berahino’s West Brom situation is entirely unpalatable. The player has decided that he would like to leave (which is nothing unusual nor despicable), the club have decided they would rather keep him (which is nothing unusual nor despicable) and we therefore have a total impasse.
The best thing about keeping hold of your star asset is that you get to play him. Tony Pulis has regularly spoken out against Berahino’s efforts in training, but having a demotivated player at the club losing value and damaging his career benefits nobody.
Berahino was again left on the bench by Pulis against Bristol City, but scored just four minutes after being introduced for Rickie Lambert. His celebration was notably low-key, but did at least include a handshake with his manager.
The best situation for all would be for Berahino to leave the Hawthorns this month. If not, and West Brom continue to dig their heels in, it must be worth starting him over Victor Anichebe and Lambert.
* It’s a point we made about Manchester United, but there have to be both sufficient push and pull factors to make sacking a manager logical. Chronic underperformance can force a club’s hand, but a realistic shortlist of adequate replacements must also be drawn up before that decision makes sense.
Swansea’s reasons to terminate Garry Monk’s employment may well have been valid, but the club itself have admitted that there was no succession plan in place.
“I know some people will query why we didn’t have a replacement lined up when we parted company with Garry Monk, but we didn’t expect to be in the situation we were in when you look at our position mid-September,” Swansea chairman Huw Jenkins said.
“We hoped and expected things would eventually turn around. When they didn’t, we felt we had to act quickly in the best interests of the club going forward. Finding a replacement hasn’t been easy because we didn’t want to make a short-term decision that would be detrimental to the club long-term.”
For Swansea to make the decision to twist over stick without a replacement even explored was a gamble that has not paid off. Jenkins made the point of praising Alan Curtis, but it’s clear that the caretaker was far from the first choice for the job. Jenkins may talk about not wanting to make a short-term decision, but Curtis only has the job until the summer.
Defeat at League Two Oxford United was the worst start to Curtis’ full-time managerial career. Having seen one gamble fail to pay off, Swansea’s hierarchy must hope that this one does not also blow up in their faces. Just two points outside the bottom three, relegation is a real threat. The fear is that Swansea went for the caretaker rather than taking care.
* It is a long time since a product of Manchester City’s youth academy made the grade at the club. An awful lot of money has been spent trying to address that fact.
Having arrived from the Taye academy in December 2013 at the age of 17, Kelechi Iheanacho doesn’t quite qualify as an academy product, but the Nigerian certainly has the attributes to progress into the first team and succeed.
Against Norwich, Iheanacho scored his fifth goal of the season, having played just 458 minutes across four competitions. Those goals have also been of crucial importance to City’s season, including winners against Crystal Palace and Swansea in the league.
Iheanacho is also saying the right things. “As a young player you have to work hard in every training session and if you are given the chance to play you have to show the manager that you deserve to be in,” he said, when asked if he wanted to be playing more. “I think nothing is enough in football. I will keep working hard, I will keep giving my best every day and in every game. Every day I will keep learning from the professionals in my team.”
With Sergio Aguero’s fitness a cause for constant concern, and Wilfried Bony an unreliable back-up, Iheanacho should be confident of further time in the side. Until now, he has been a breath of fresh air.
* There are ways to deal with being left out of the first team, and this season Peter Crouch has offered a perfect example to young players. Having played 1,674 league minutes last season, Crouch has managed just 44 minutes so far in 2015/16. His response has been to regularly congratulate his teammates.
Incredible performance boys ! No wonder I can't get a run out ??? #STKEVE
— Peter Crouch (@petercrouch) December 28, 2015
Finally given a chance in the FA Cup against Doncaster, Crouch scored the opening goal with a clever run and flicked finish. He expressed his delight to be given playing minutes on Saturday evening.
Turning 35 later this month, Crouch admitted that he would have to seek a move elsewhere in order to gain vital first-team minutes. “Ideally I’d like to stay at Stoke because I think we’re a top 10 side and I’d like to be a part of that,” Crouch said. “But I’ve got to be realistic – I’ve featured hardly at all in the Premier League and that’s what I want to be doing. If needs be I’ll have to move on but I’d rather not. It’s been frustrating at times when you don’t feel part of the group but all you can do is work hard and get back in there – and hopefully I’ve done myself a bit of justice.”
Unfortunately, Mark Hughes doesn’t necessarily agree about Crouch’s need for minutes. “It is true to say that there have been a few enquiries about Peter Crouch if I’m honest but he’s one I want to keep here,” Hughes said. “He came on the other night and he’s very much part of what I’m looking to do here.”
Forty-four league minutes in five months isn’t enough to sate any striker, so one hopes a satisfactory solution can be found. It would be a shame for Crouch’s career to peter out (pun shamefully intended).
* Chelsea and Man City were in a better place in the league last year, so I think there is a better chance for the likes of ourselves, Everton, Stoke and even Newcastle,” said Alan Pardew of the FA Cup on Friday. “This game is top of our agenda this week, above Villa and Manchester City. I’ve explained that to the players.”
Pardew can take his old club out of that equation, but he is right to be bullish about Crystal Palace’s chances in this season’s FA Cup. Having got past a potentially tricky tie away to Southampton, there will only be five sides above Palace in the league ladder in the fourth round.
“You need a bit of luck,” Pardew continued. “When we got to the final as Crystal Palace our draw was fairly easy. We got lucky in the draw and capitalised on that. This first game is tough for us and we’ve got to come through. We had a tough draw in the League Cup and were well beaten by Manchester City and we have to put that right.”
A bit more fortune and Palace could go far. If Pardew makes the FA Cup the priority – and he has no reason not to – they should fear no-one. Having taken Palace forward in such large strides since his appointment, Pardew has little else to prove at Selhurst Park. Win the first major honour in the club’s history and he might just get a statue. Scenes.
* “This club has waited far too long to win a trophy, so that’s one of my primary objectives,” said Steve McClaren at his Newcastle unveiling. “There’s a lot of work to do, but the club has made it clear about wanting success and I would not have come here if I didn’t believe they were serious. A club the size of Newcastle United should be winning cups and finishing in the top eight in the Premier League.”
By that measure, McClaren has already failed in his Newcastle task. The manager has already admitted that a top-eight place is out of reach, and exit to Watford continued the club’s abysmal FA Cup record.
It was a case of same old story at Vicarage Road. Newcastle did create chances – that were spurned – before a drop in defensive concentration allowed Troy Deeney to open the scoring. McClaren’s side haven’t scored for four games, and have gone six without a clean sheet.
Travelling supporters made their feelings clear, and understandably so. “We want our money back”, “We’re sh*t and we’re sick of it” and “We want our Newcastle back” were heard throughout the second half, but McClaren did not agree with their message.
“I thought it was very harsh, the chants,” McClaren said. “I think we have had two games, Leicester and Palace, where we were all angry and frustrated and we could accept criticism. [But since then] you can’t ask any more from the players. It is just not having luck at one end and not sticking the balls in the net.”
McClaren’s continuous menacing glances in the direction of Lady Luck are starting to wear thin. He has won five matches in charge of Newcastle. Two of those were against promoted clubs (and the one against Bournemouth incredibly fortunate), and another against Northampton Town in the League Cup. For a manager who made significant promises, he has fallen short on every one.
A reality check then, for McClaren. If Newcastle continue as they are, they will be relegated. Either he needs to spark an improvement post-haste, or he should be sacked from his job. With that should go his last chance to manage at Premier League level.
* The established wisdom is that the days of the football hard man are over. Duncan Ferguson, Julian Dicks, Kevin Horlock and Stuart Pearce, we salute you.
Before you think you’re safe, however, there is still one remaining candidate in the Premier League. He is a throwback to a time when stamping on the ankle of an opponent was done, and done with a snarl on the face. His name is Marcin Wasilewski, and you wouldn’t want to spill his pint of Tyskie.