Wasted or too limited to start on the right-hand side, not disciplined enough to play centrally. Desperate – by his own admission – to help in attack, but has not scored and has assisted just one goal in his past seven Premier League games. Is not Santi Cazorla. The charge sheet against Aaron Ramsey is quickly running onto a second page
When asked by The Guardian of his season objectives back in the summer, Ramsey’s answer was simple: “I just want to stay fit and healthy, have a full campaign and get my place back in the middle of the park, because that’s where I feel that I play my best football.”
The Welshman started the season continuing on the right, much to his chagrin. Fate dealt Ramsey a winning hand, delivering critical injuries to the Arsenal central midfield before the new year. This was the 25-year-old’s opportunity to impress, to stake his claim, to earn his place.
Suffice to say, Ramsey has failed in that regard. Since Cazorla was sidelined through injury in November, Ramsey has played every minute of the subsequent 14 Premier League games in his favoured central role. Arsenal were two points behind leaders Manchester City before Cazorla’s injury; they are fifth in a league table since, with Ramsey an ever-present at each inevitable slip, stumble and fall in a title quest seemingly doomed for failure.
“I want to have the freedom to go forward but also, once we’re defending, I’ll obviously have to get back in,” Ramsey continued in the summer. “I don’t want to be fixed in front of the back four or in the hole, I want to be the one who can do both and get up and down.”
Consider the above with the fact that no Premier League player is dribbled past more times per game than the Welshman, and it makes for a damning indictment of his tactical discipline. The desperation to score goals and help in attack is admirable but foolish, something which must be tempered, nurtured and somewhat suppressed if looking to excel in a role which demands restraint, control and authority. It is no wonder Arsenal struggle when the player who should dictate their play is too busy revelling in his own ‘freedom’.
‘One point gained or two points dropped?’ That was the question I asked on Tuesday. Leicester had just drawn 2-2 with West Brom, squandering the opportunity to extend their gap at the top of the Premier League to five points in March. By Wednesday, the question was answered.
Claudio Ranieri could hardly have dreamt of a more ideal scenario after such disappointment at the King Power Stadium. Spurs were soundly defeated when victory would have sent them to the top of the league. Arsenal had the opportunity to close the gap but proceeded to be Arsenal. Manchester City’s title aspirations were already in doubt before such a demoralising defeat. A point and a draw against West Brom trumps no points and three defeats for each of their title contenders.
Watford now await for the league leaders on Saturday. By kick-off at 5:30pm, the Foxes could be second in the table. Spurs face Arsenal at midday, and the former have a second chance at mounting the summit for the first time ever in the Premier League outside of August with victory. At least one of Leicester’s two closest rivals are guaranteed to drop points hours before they play, but Ranieri must ensure his players are concentrated and focused on their own fate. Watford have won just twice in their last 11 Premier League games, beating only Crystal Palace and Newcastle. The only thing stopping a Leicester win on Saturday will be themselves.
The England international must have expected no other reaction at Anfield. A cacophony of boos greeted Raheem Sterling upon his return to Liverpool, his first since leaving the club in acrimonious circumstances in the summer. Jon Flanagan proceeded to subdue his former team-mate before Manuel Pellegrini removed the winger at half-time. It was Flanagan’s first Premier League appearance since May 2014.
An ignominous removal in such a resounding defeat merely compounded what was a bittersweet week for Sterling. The 21-year-old impressed in the Champions League against Dynamo Kiev last Tuesday, before a meeting with the Reds in the Capital One Cup final at Wembley. Sterling cited his desire to win trophies as the reason behind his departure for Manchester City in the summer. This was his first opportunity at silverware. The winger missed a host of presentable chances to seal the cup for City, who instead had to rely on a penalty shoot-out for victory. As questions mounted over his form, another game against Liverpool provided the perfect opportunity to silence the doubters. On Tuesday’s showing, they justifiably grew in voice.
As Manchester City’s battle for trophies on four fronts quickly descends into a fight to secure Champions League qualification, Sterling’s form is one of the biggest worries for the club. The winger has not scored or assisted in his last eight Premier League games. To extend that run against Aston Villa at home would be borderline criminal.
Excelling or struggling. Mid-table or Champions League hopefuls. Gegenpressing or cause for stressing. Liverpool remain the club where the middle ground is out of fashion. The club progresses from one extreme to another, rarely enjoying an ‘in between’.
Liverpool started Wednesday in the bottom half of the table, one point above Watford and just two above West Brom. By the evening, the gap to their midweek victims, Manchester City, had been reduced to just six points. Champions League qualification was a possibility. From mediocrity to success, with no middle ground.
Jurgen Klopp will recognise the situation. This is a club which requires major surgery in the summer, a side enduring a transitional season under new management. But the German’s challenge is obvious. Liverpool will harbour reasonable aspirations of securing Europa League football next season through their Premier League placing, but Klopp must ensure the club do what they have failed to so far this season: Follow up a big win.
Beat Chelsea 3-1 in October? Lose 2-1 to Crystal Palace in your next league game. Thrash Manchester City 4-1 in October? Edge past Swansea in your next league game. Dismantle Southampton 6-1 in the Capital One Cup? Fail to win any of your next four games, including a 2-0 defeat to Newcastle and a 3-0 loss at Watford. Beat Norwich 5-4? Lose to Stoke three days later. Beat Aston Villa 6-0? Draw 0-0 with Augsburg. Excel, then struggle. There is no middle ground.
As impressive as beating Manchester City is, Klopp must now ensure Liverpool back it up. Making a statement is pointless when you whisper after being asked to repeat it.
N’Golo Kante and Mesut Ozil have been described as the players who could decide the destination of the Premier League title in recent weeks. Such a description is regularly bestowed upon Sergio Aguero, but the Argentinean, much like his club, have suffered from poor form. But is Dele Alli the most important player in this most unpredictable of title races?
The midfielder’s absence against West Ham was notable. The Hammers outran, out-fought and out-thought their opponents from kick-off to full-time at Upton Park, boosting their own hopes of European qualification in the process. Spurs delivered their worst performance of the season, but not of their own volition; they were powerless. Alli’s presence in midfield may not have altered the game’s outcome, but there is proof to suggest that his absence harms Spurs gravely.
Alli has started 21 games in his first season at White Hart Lane. Having been a League One player just a few months prior, Mauricio Pochettino consigned the former MK Dons star to the bench for the club’s first four Premier League games. They lost one and drew three, with Alli scoring the opening goal against Leicester in August within 15 minutes of his introduction. The 19-year-old started 17 of the club’s subsequent 18 Premier League games from September to February. No club earned more points than Spurs in that timeframe. Injury forced Alli to the bench against Watford at the beginning of February; he assisted the winner three minutes after coming on. This is the only occasion the club have won without their midfield talisman present from the outset. Of the six games Alli has not started in the Premier League, Spurs have won one, drawn three and lost two.
It is no coincidence that only one teenager in the whole of Europe’s top five leagues has featured more often than Alli. His importance to the Spurs cause is undoubted. Only Harry Kane has scored more, only Christian Eriksen has assisted more, and only four players have more appearances. It is a mark of his unbelievable progression that Spurs will desperately hope a 19-year-old midfielder whose experience was limited to third-tier football before this season is fit when Arsenal visit White Hart Lane.
Such has been Manchester United’s season, Jesse Lingard’s brief moment as the shining light of the club’s academy has been duly snatched away by Marcus Rashford. Within the space of a week, the winger has made the transition from once representing an image of the future of the club, to 23-year-old squad player.
Similar to Rashford, Lingard was handed his opportunity to impress by Louis van Gaal as a result of the club’s mounting injury problems. After numerous loan spells in the Championship, Lingard finally made his first-team breakthrough in November. And he impressed. Only Wayne Rooney, Anthony Martial and Juan Mata have scored more Premier League goals for United this season. Lingard became a first-team regular. On Wednesday against Watford, the Englishman’s 11-game spell in the starting line-up – by far his longest yet at the club – was brought to an end. Martial returned, with Lingard the man sacrificed.
The winger was introduced as a second-half substitute against Watford, but that will serve as little consolation. He must display resolve and character in his quest to escape the bench once more. Lingard faced a long battle to showcase his first-team credentials. He now faces the different but altogether more daunting task of regaining his spot.
“There is pressure, there is no hiding from it. The table doesn’t lie. We all need to come out and show some big balls on Saturday. We want to go out and put on a real show.”
New Newcastle captain Shelvey – an utterly ludicrous statement – can demand “big balls” from his team-mates, but he must be the catalyst. He must provide the inspiration. He has to elicit a response from both himself and the rest of a squad which has won twice in 12 games. It’s time to lead the way, captain.
Can the interim manager with the Midas touch strike the crucial balance against Stoke on Saturday? Win to continue an excellent run and breed confidence, but ensure players are rested enough to face Paris Saint-Germain in a crucial Champions League second leg on Tuesday. He has done little wrong so far, but Hiddink will know there is a fine line between success and failure.
Odion Ighalo and Troy Deeney
Considering the doomed outlook afforded to them in the summer, Quique Sanchez Flores will rightly be more than content with the fact that Watford are 13 points clear of the relegation zone at the beginning of March. But concerns will linger for the manager. His previously prolific strike partnership has become an ineffective union. Odion Ighalo and Troy Deeney have just two goals and no assists between them in the Hornets’ last five games. It is no coincidence that during this sequence the club have drawn two and lost two, beating only struggling Crystal Palace with a Deeney double.
Watford have scored 29 goals in the Premier League this season. Ighalo and Deeney contribute 22 of that total. Own goals is their third-top goalscorer with two. The two strikers aside, no other Watford player has scored more than one league goal. Of those strikes, Craig Catchart’s against Newcastle was assisted by Ighalo, as was Almen Abdi’s against Stoke. Which means Watford have scored just three goals without direct involvement from their two strikers. The club’s form is in direct correlation with that of their once deadly partnership. Mercifully, the Premier League leaders, with the best away record in the league, await on Saturday.
Ronald Koeman squandered his opportunity last weekend. Fellow contender for the Chelsea job Mark Hughes will hope his audition for the Stamford Bridge role generates more success on Saturday.
On a slightly more serious note, Hughes will know victory over the Blues could conceivably take the Potters to within one point of sixth place. Their opponents are in the midst of the longest unbeaten run of any side in the Premier League this season, having avoided defeat in their last 12 games. But Hughes will look to inspire Stoke to a fourth consecutive league win for the first time since December 2011.