The role of captain at Liverpool post-Steven Gerrard was only ever going to follow one of two paths. It would either represent a new lease of life for the man who replaced one of the finest players in the club’s history, the armband inspiring him to lead Liverpool into a new era, or it would be a burden, a hindrance, a responsibility too difficult to manage.
It all started so well for Henderson. Appointed captain by Brendan Rodgers in the summer, the former Sunderland midfielder had played alongside Gerrard for the past five years. Henderson had learned from the best. Gerrard’s retirement was an opportunity for each player in the Liverpool squad to step up, but more was expected of the 25-year-old than anyone else. Back-to-back victories over Stoke and Bournemouth to open the season will have helped to calm the nerves.
Then came the injury. A month on the sidelines with a heel impairment. Just days after returning to full training, Henderson had broken his foot. Disaster. In his absence, Liverpool won just three games in 11, and lost their manager. The conventional wisdom was that his return would precipitate an upturn in fortunes. Natural leadership would be restored. Henderson would lead the way.
Hardly. The former Sunderland midfielder has started six games since his return, with the club winning, drawing and losing two each. In mitigation, much has been demanded of Henderson, both in terms of replacing Gerrard and of reviving the club’s fortunes immediately upon his recovery from injury. But little has been delivered. Of Liverpool players to have started five or more Premier League games, only Christian Benteke has a lower pass success rate than Henderson’s 76.7%, six make more interceptions, and eight make more tackles. Only Benteke and Philippe Coutinho attempt more shots per game, but Henderson has scored just one, with a further two assists to his name.
No other Premier League captain epitomises their club quite like Henderson does at Liverpool. Capable of excellence, but not quite of the required standard. Seven months into his tenure, and the captaincy is proving to be a burden.
The return of the bottler. A ‘slight foot injury’ sidelined Ozil against Stoke, but Sunday’s clash with Chelsea will herald his return. Can it be described as long-awaited even though he only missed one game?
A 0-0 draw with Stoke at the Britannia Stadium was by no means a poor result for Arsenal last Sunday. Both Manchester clubs have fallen to defeat at the hands of Marko Arnautovic, Bojan Krkic and Xherdan Shaqiri on their travels this season. A point lifted Arsenal back to the summit of the Premier League. But Ozil was conspicuous by his absence. Arsenal average 16.1 shots, with six on target, per game – both second in the league only to Manchester City. Against Stoke, they registered just eight attempts, with only three testing Jack Butland. With their master assister removed, so was their impetus.
Ozil has started 20 Premier League games so far this season; he has failed to either score or provide an assist in just five. Only Odion Ighalo (15 of 25, 60%) has directly contributed to a larger proportion of his club’s goals than Ozil for Arsenal (19 of 37, 51.3%). The German was largely ineffective in his last appearance against Liverpool, but the 2-0 defeat to Chelsea in September was arguably the nadir of his – and Arsenal’s – season. Revenge is a dish best served on Sunday at the Emirates Stadium, with the motivation of maintaining a lead at the top of the table. Or something like that.
And so it was decided that 16 games would make or break the most unpredictable of seasons. Leicester have transformed themselves from relegation battlers to title challengers in a matter of months. Their exit from the FA Cup leaves the Premier League as their sole focus.
The importance of scheduling should not be underestimated in terms of the remainder of Leicester’s season. The Foxes have just two more midweek games to contend with until May, with players afforded the luxury of rest where their counterparts at Arsenal and Manchester City, who both enter the Champions League knockout stages, are not. Liverpool built a title challenge on similar circumstances in the 2013/14 season. Were the Foxes to emulate the Reds, Ranieri would be in line for a knighthood.
On Saturday, Leicester face a Stoke side who have been beaten just once in seven games against the six sides above them this season. The Potters have emerged victorious against both Manchester sides, and have drawn with Arsenal, Spurs and West Ham. Leicester themselves failed to overcome them in their first meeting in September. With their closest contenders for a top-four finish previously struggling against Mark Hughes’s side, Ranieri could score a psychological blow.
When Louis van Gaal discussed his desire for “pace and creativity” from Manchester United back in November, he may as well have played Marouane Fellaini on the wing to ram the point home. The Dutchman’s missive was aimed directly at his wide players, and he made no mistake in letting them know. With Anthony Martial and Memphis Depay showing signs of both characteristics on the left, attention soon turned to the opposite side. Attention soon turned to Juan Mata.
A player never blessed with supreme pace, Mata could always rely on his excellent passing and creative touch. But times have changed. The Spaniard remains the only United player to feature in all 22 of their Premier League games this season, yet disappointment has become default. Mata has just four goals and three assists, and Van Gaal’s patience looks to be wearing thin. Jesse Lingard, allying pace with precocious talent, has started the last two games in his stead, scoring once and injecting much-needed purpose. Mata was afforded just 39 minutes in those fixtures. The beginning of the end for the 27-year-old, or merely Van Gaal hoping to inspire some long-lost form? The starting line-up against Southampton should reveal all.
“If we get another offensive player, we need to bring the right one, who will fight for us. Because if you take the wrong decision, maybe you break the balance in the squad and changing room.”
So that’s a ‘no, thank you’ to Saido Berahino. Mauricio Pochettino has faced questions over the striker situation at Tottenham all season, and with just over a week left of the January transfer window, the boss is edging more towards stick than twist. Since the start of June, Harry Kane has been available for 39 games for club and country; he has started all but one, missing only the Europa League group stage dead rubber with Monaco in December. With no other senior striker on the books, Pochettino is placing an awful lot of faith in his tireless 22-year-old.
Wednesday evening may influence Pochettino’s decision on incomings. A meeting with Leicester at the King Power Stadium concluded the quadrilogy between the two clubs this season, with Heung-min Son receiving top billing. A well-taken goal capped an excellent performance for the £21.9million summer signing. Son has now started 10 games in all competitions this season, scoring four and assisting four. He has scored or assisted a goal every 168.3 minutes in the Premier League. After an injury-plagued few months, the South Korean has emerged as both Kane’s back-up and a first-team player in his own right.
The unbeaten Guus Hiddink has been credited with reviving Chelsea, yet they remain just four points above the relegation zone. Premier League leaders Arsenal await, with the Blues failing to win at the Emirates Stadium since Fernando Torres and Juan Mata scored in a 2-1 win in 2012.
Welcome back Eden Hazard. The Belgian has returned to training and should be fit to feature on Sunday after missing three games through injury. Having failed to score in his last 30 club games, the 25-year-old will be tasked with breaching the third-best defence in the Premier League. Good luck.
How quickly times change in the Premier League. When Watford beat Liverpool 3-0 in December, the newly-promoted Hornets sat seventh in the table, five points behind Arsenal, with Spurs, Manchester United and Crystal Palace all just one point ahead.
Nearly a month to the day, Watford have lost their last four league games, and are now in imminent danger of freefall; they sit 12th in the table. After 22 games last season, Newcastle were 11th, eight points above the relegation zone. They survived with victory in their final game. Norwich were 12th after 22 games of the 2013/14 campaign; they were relegated. A mid-table club is generally dragged into the relegation battle at the turn of the new year. If Newcastle manage to beat Watford on Saturday, the gap between the two sides will be reduced to five points. Talk about a thin line between success and failure.
Manchester City’s travel sickness
Five games, five wins, 11 goals scored, zero conceded; Manchester City’s early-season form was something to behold. Then West Ham happened. A 2-1 defeat to the Hammers in September knocked the confidence of the champions-elect. The only surprise was that it came at the Etihad Stadium.
The return game at Upton Park could be pivotal for Manuel Pellegrini and his side. City are ninth in an away Premier League table after ten games, with four wins, three draws and three defeats. A battling victory from behind against Watford in January banished some of their travelling demons, but West Ham have been beaten just twice at home all season. Failure to secure a win in Saturday’s late game could see that one-point gap to the top increase.
Remember that part in Cinderella where the Russian businessman and the American private equity firm team up to spend nearly £20million on Benik Afobe and Lewis Grabban to escort the princess to the ball?
Forgive the sanctimony and the slightly off-track analogy, but that is the story of Eddie Howe and the Bournemouth fairytale. Promotion to the Premier League as champions of the second tier was greeted with glee. Little old Bournemouth, stalwarts of the fourth division, battling their way up the league ladder. As modern-day football dictates, it was not funded by stardust and the flatulence of unicorns.
That is not to denigrate the Cherries’ remarkable achievements. One safely assumes that Howe would have been relatively happy sitting just one point behind Chelsea after 22 games. The 38-year-old will know all too well the pressure that Bournemouth’s recent spending has placed upon him, however. Three players signed, each of them attackers. Will a promoted club once again fall foul to the dangers of not strengthening in defence? Perhaps. Perhaps not. Victory against Sunderland would push them six points clear of the relegation zone, with a nine-point cushion between them and their opponents.
Start of the miracle, or a false dawn? While some Aston Villa fans would rather the club accept their fate and suffer their maiden Premier League relegation, a win and a draw in their last two league games has sparked hope of a revival. Progress in the FA Cup has certainly helped, too.
But the gap to survival remains at ten points. Beating Crystal Palace and drawing with Leicester is commendable, but the damage is done against teams around you; Villa have won just one game in ten against teams in the bottom half, with seven defeats compounding their struggles. A Midlands derby with West Brom, who have beaten them just twice in nine games, presents the opportunity to build some valuable momentum.
If 2015 was the year of Pardew, 2016 most certainly is not. Only Arsenal and Manchester City won more Premier League games in the last calendar year than Crystal Palace, with Pardew appointed in early January. Three games into the new year has brought no goals, no wins, eight conceded and three defeats. So this is the Pardew Newcastle fans warned of. Spurs, outscored by only two sides and boasting the best defence in the league, await.
Whether his presence is worth ten, 12 or 15 points over the course of a season, Cech can help Arsenal increase the gap between themselves and Chelsea to 22 points with victory on Sunday. The keeper has undeniably transformed the Gunners into serious title contenders, and while Cech will insist a win at the Emirates Stadium is purely a professional thing, it would be difficult to deny that personal gratification is on offer.
…and Lee Betts, Gary Beswick and Andre Marriner: the officials at Everton’s game against Swansea on Sunday. Roberto will be watching, fellas.