In an unpredictable Premier League, only three clubs have won their last two matches or more. Arsenal and Chelsea are two, while the third are engineering an unlikely spring resurgence that could end in startling survival come May. After stalling for six months, Leicester have finally cranked themselves into gear.
I won’t feel guilty about failing to predict these three consecutive victories, more than Leicester had managed in their previous 24 games. That run took them back to the heady days of September; it has been a long winter of discontent.
If victories over West Ham and West Brom came as a shock, the greatest compliment to Leicester is that their win over eighth-placed Swansea was comfortable and predictable. It was only their second victory by more than a single goal in any competition since April 2014 – the manic 5-3 win over Manchester United the other exception to a miserable rule.
Nigel Pearson’s side have felt the glorious benefit of playing three sides with very little to play for at the back end of the season, but that should not detract from his ability to motivate a team who looked dead and buried a month ago. A trip to Turf Moor next weekend is accompanied by a massive neon sign screaming ‘six-pointer’.
The backlash started before the final whistle had even sounded, Chelsea and Jose Mourinho harangued for their tactics in soaking up pressure before hitting Manchester United on the counter. ‘It’s eye-bleedingly bad,’ read the first mail in the inbox I opened on Sunday morning. It isn’t. It really, really isn’t.
Where has this modern demand for entertainment over success come from? If Chelsea’s supporters are happy, Chelsea’s players are happy, Chelsea’s owner is happy and Chelsea’s manager is happy, why on earth would they give a shuddering stuff what the neutral thinks of their style? This is football, not synchronised horse-dancing.
Of course Mourinho must die by the sword he lives by. A team defeated whilst playing with style and panache will perennially draw less criticism than a team defending its way to the same result. That seems to hark back to the hard-wired British respect for good sportsmanship, as if trying to attack is somehow a more valid strategy. “Oh unlucky old chap, at least you gave it a ruddy good go,” is the cliché. Better to have tried and failed than to not have tried at all.
That only makes Mourinho’s commitment to his principles all the more impressive. The Portuguese is risking ridicule, and yet time and again in the Premier League it has proved a successful tactic. Their results against the top five this season read: W3, D3, L0. Results against the same sides last season: W6, D2, L0. Anyone expecting Jose to change something that so palpably isn’t broken is guilty of football delusion, not football purism.
So after the backlash, some balance:
– Chelsea’s current lead at the top constitutes the second-largest margin of victory in a decade. There are still six games left.
– No team has scored more goals per game than Chelsea.
– No team in the top six have conceded fewer goals than Chelsea.
– No other team has remained unbeaten in the league against other top four teams.
– No English team got further in the Champions League than Chelsea.
– No team had more nominations for the PFA Player of the Year and Young Player of the Year combined, as voted by their peers.
– No team has converted a higher percentage of its chances than Chelsea.
– Seven players have contributed 18 or more goals and assists combined in the Premier League this season. Three of them are Chelsea players.
– Chelsea have won the only other major domestic trophy this season.
Those that expect Chelsea to change their tactics in the big games (unless it suits their need or desire) are the same ones trying to cheapen their fourth Premier League title. It’s as worthwhile as buying a bicycle for a fish. If you don’t like it, they don’t care.
Another wonderful display from the best player in the Premier League – on that point I have no doubt. Hazard retains the wonderful ability to make even the excellent look amateur.
It may seem a fanciful statement, but even when Chelsea are resorting to their ‘soak up’ strategy in the big games, Hazard remains their most important player. Without him there would be no outlet, and so repelling danger would be a 90-minute tactic to engineer only a 0-0 draw. Having Hazard turns 0-0 into 1-0 victory, Saturday’s win over Manchester United the emphatic proof.
For a team that will be crowned league champions by a large margin, Hazard has the second-most goals, the second-most assists, the most chances created, the second-highest shot accuracy, the third-highest shot conversion rate and the second-most touches. He is the master of all attacking trades, and the jack of none.
Furthermore, whilst Diego Costa’s 19 league goals have earned Chelsea eight points, Eden Hazard’s 13 goals have gained them 14. Add the eight assists and you have a player as close to complete as anyone in England.
However, the statistic to best indicate Hazard’s vital importance to Chelsea is this: Willian has completed the second-most dribbles of any Chelsea player in the league with 48. Hazard has completed 153.
After the public show of anger at his side’s late-season slump, Tony Pulis finally got the performance and result to confirm West Brom’s survival for another season.
Crystal Palace may have had 68% possession and 19 shots to West Brom’s eight, but that’s just how Pulis rolls. You know that by now.
After a run of 647 minutes without a Premier League goal, Leonardo Ulloa finally delivered. Nigel Pearson will be praying that it starts a mini-run that could well keep Leicester up.
Last week Shaw spoke of his disappointing season at Old Trafford, but Saturday provided hope for next season.
I briefly waxed lyrical about Shaw’s display in 16 Conclusions, but it is also worth remembering just how raw he still is. Nobody younger has started five or more Premier League games this season.
“I am still young and coming to the biggest club in the world hasn’t been easy for me,” Shaw said on Sunday. “I haven’t been playing and there has been a lot of negative comments about me. It is something that isn’t nice and I’ve tried to ignore it, but hopefully the Chelsea game is the start of me coming back.”
Shaw was honest in conceding that moving to a club of United’s size had been harder than he anticipated, and that is refreshing to hear. Admission is the first step to recovery. Given a summer off and an injury-free pre-season, we could see a vastly improved full-back come August.
On Saturday we saw flashes of what persuaded United and Van Gaal to part with £27m, a fee that could rise to £31m. With such a price tag comes great pressure. For England and United’s sake, we hope the performance against Chelsea was a glimpse of a bright future, rather than a false dawn.
Christian Eriksen and Harry Kane
Between them they account for 56% of Spurs’ league goals this season. Whatever the club’s next strategy in order to try and crash the top-four party, in Kane and Eriksen they at least have a pair of players worth building a team around.
The pro-Carrick brigade have another feather for their cap: Manchester United have lost 5.9% of the matches Carrick has started this season; they have lost 31.8% of the matches he has missed.
The mood in the Manchester United camp after the defeat to Chelsea was one of bullish pride. Louis van Gaal repeatedly stressed that this was his side’s “best performance of the season”. Wayne Rooney went further still.
“We dominated the game,” United’s captain said. “We’re a team that’s improving. It was always going to be tough to win the title, obviously with Chelsea having a big lead. But we’re a team that’s improving every game, and to come to Stamford Bridge and dominate the game so much, I’m proud of the team.” A reminder that you lost, Wayne.
Rooney continued his claims in an interview with MUTV the next day: “I thought it [the performance] was excellent, we dominated from start to finish. I felt that if we got a goal, even with five minutes to go, we would have gone on to win.” If ifs and buts were sweets and nuts, it would be Christmas every day.
Whatever Rooney and Van Gaal’s claims of domination, the caveat ‘sterile’ must be inserted. It took United until the 61st minute to have their first shot on target, from 20 yards by Paddy McNair. United may have completed close to 400 passes more than Chelsea, but the reality is that they were held largely at arm’s length. As I said in 16 Conclusions, Jose Mourinho works on the mantra of making the moments count rather than counting the moments in these games.
One can understand United’s reasons to stay buoyant, however. They did indeed enjoy most of the possession and territory at Stamford Bridge, and offered genuine reason to believe that they will be involved in the title race next season. They should be too, if the £160m spending of this campaign is even close to being matched in the summer.
Add a right-back, central defender and striker to this squad and it should be capable of making further progress both domestically and upon their return to the Champions League. We already await next season with fervent anticipation.
An official attendance of 47,000 questioned by various sources, and a support universally unhappy and disappointed but divided on the best strategy to force change. The grim answer may well be that nothing fans do will make any difference. Mike Ashley’s money drowns out even the loudest dissenters.
Those that did attend St James’ Park on Sunday may well wish they had stayed away. Newcastle were appalling against Tottenham: No vigour, no desire, no belief. The confidence has been sapped from the players as it has been sapped from the fans.
Newcastle may well yet get dragged into a relegation battle. They have now lost six league matches in a row for the second time in two seasons, a remarkable feat given that they had never done so in the Premier League before. Remaining fixtures against Leicester, West Brom and QPR should give reasons for optimism, but that’s a word currently missing from the Geordie lexicon. They could lose to anyone right now.
Even if Newcastle do stay up, it should be regarded as the smallest cherry atop a very bitter cake. This is a club rotting from the inside out.
“I have to find a method of trying to play that might not be pretty on the eye but I need to find a way of getting some results, getting some points. People might not like that but I’m going to have to do it” – John Carver, April 19.
You’re right John. All this beautiful tippy-tappy stuff Newcastle have been playing recently just isn’t working. The most under-qualified Premier League manager has been quickly found out. Who knew?
David Silva and Cheikhou Kouyate
Only one person will know if David Silva’s Sunday evening trip to Accident and Emergency was caused by a deliberate act, and Cheikhou Kouyate understandably pleaded innocence. It didn’t look good on the slow-motion replay, but then these things never do.
For now, the crucial thing is that Silva was not seriously injured. ‘Many thanks to all the messages of support, all the tests have gone well and I’m already home. The 3 points is what was important!’ he tweeted later on Sunday. If anyone dares to damage our beautiful boy…
On a day when Liverpool’s final trophy hopes were extinguished, their top-four aspirations also took a critical blow. If you needed to rely on one team to do you a favour away at Manchester City, West Ham would come before only John Carver’s Newcastle on your list.
Poor James Collins. If David Luiz is football’s new crown prince, the star of a thousand derogatory memes, then Collins is the aged and forgotten court jester. On Sunday against Manchester City, he produced one of his greatest tricks.
Scoring an own goal of such splendour takes ill fortune, poor preparation (Collins managed to get his feet tangled up on numerous occasions against City) and a special kind of panache that only Collins seems capable of producing. If Tony Yeboah scored own goals, he would have scored own goals like these.
Titus Bramble, Djimi Traore and Frank Sinclair. Belonging to a pre-social media era, these are the forgotten ones. Collins belongs with such heroes, but acts as the glorious link between old and new. Fifteen years ago he’d have avoided widespread mockery until Christmas and the latest release of Nick Hancock’s Football Nightmares. Now he’s infamous by mid-afternoon.
With Hull, QPR, Villa and Sunderland all out of action this weekend, Burnley needed to take the opportunity to gain ground on those above them. All they summoned was one shot on target in 90 minutes. Sean Dyche’s side have chosen the worst possible time to go four games without a goal, and have taken one point from 12 available.
Burnley have also now dropped back to the bottom of the table for the first time since November 8 after a run of six points from 12 matches. The sad suspicion is that an extremely likeable team have run out of steam.
The player with the most fouls committed in the Premier League this season saw red for the first time. He is the new recipient of the Chris Smalling award for services to ‘Why would you do that when on a yellow card?’.
“It shouldn’t be, should it?” said Ben Mee after the game. “But you never know.” Ludicrously, Mee was talking about whether Jose Mourinho’s criticism of Barnes’ tackle on Nemanja Matic two months ago had led to the red card. Don’t be so bloody stupid.
“He’s a nice lad, an honest lad, and he didn’t mean to get sent off for it,” Mee concluded. That may be true, but it was an idiotic challenge on a booking.
Everton’s Penalty Takers
A run of 13 points from five league games has taken Everton into the heady heights of mid-table, but Saturday’s victory over Burnley saw a recurrence of the club’s issues with penalty takers.
In January, Kevin Mirallas demanded the ball off Leighton Baines, and promptly missed the spot-kick. The ex-player brigade hounded the Belgian for his selfishness, but Roberto Martinez did not agree. “Leighton is our No. 1 taker but he was quite happy to let Kevin take it because he felt confident,” the manager said.
After such confusion, the least you would expect was for such buffoonery to avoid repetition. On Saturday, Ross Barkley was the player to step ahead of Baines in the queue. He too failed to score. A reminder that Baines has scored 15 of his 16 penalties in the Premier League – is it really worth messing about?
“If Romelu Lukaku had been on the pitch, he would have taken it,” said Martinez after the game. “Otherwise, I am happy to have three or four players who can take penalties and let it depend on how they feel at that moment.” So much for Baines being “our No. 1 taker”, then.
“There is no such thing as a best penalty taker,” Martinez continued. “I don’t agree with penalty takers being designated apart from Romelu being on the pitch.”
So you don’t believe in designated penalty takers, but Lukaku is the designated penalty taker? And the Belgian is your No. 1 despite labelling Baines as exactly that three months ago (a game in which Lukaku was playing)? And you aren’t worried about this tactic of sharing the love, despite it leading to two missed penalties this season?
It’s no wonder we’re all left confused.
The miracle run is over. It’s nice to know that Alan Pardew isn’t the new Messiah after all, but he’s still done a damn fine job.
Before (and during) Saturday’s defeat to Stoke, I was banging my ‘Southampton for the top four’ drum like a frantic audition for Stomp. It’s turned into more of a gentle patter now. Now the aim might be to finish seventh and potentially avoid the Europa League.
A Few Sunderland Supporters
You paid to have a plane flown over the ground of your rivals to boast about beating them five times in a row. Therein lies the difference between grown adults and grown-ups.