After months of mockery over Tim Sherwood’s media persona and solipsism (and I’m guilty too), he’s doing an excellent job at keeping Aston Villa in the Premier League. Sherwood labelled the 1-0 victory over West Ham as a “big step” towards safety, but I can take that further. Villa are safe.
Before Manchester City’s result against QPR, a Premier League table calculated since the beginning of March saw Villa sitting in fifth position, and no side had scored more goals in that time. Both of those facts were negated by City’s 6-0 victory, but the point still stands: Sherwood has transformed Villa. Extrapolating his current record over the course of this season would put Villa in ninth, and he has also reached the FA Cup final.
There are caveats to his success, of course. Being the man to take over from the dour Paul Lambert was one of the most attractive jobs imaginable. Villa were in 18th place, but the quality of their squad belied that low standing. From such a funk the only way was up, and Sherwood has led the merry march.
Next season will be the biggest test of Sherwood’s ability as a manager, the challenge of managing increased expectations. Until now, he is an effective short-term motivational fix, and nothing more. But he has at least earned the chance to prove his credentials.
Sherwood’s methods are not particularly technical or complicated – he simply aims to make players enjoy playing the game. This is largely achieved by showering them with praise. Take Villa’s four best players since Sherwood’s arrival, for example:
On Christian Benteke: “I don’t know if there’s a better striker in Europe right now. He’s the best.”
On Tom Cleverley: “He showed the quality he has. He works tirelessly. But he has more than that – he can burst forward.”
On Jack Grealish: “He could be right up there amongst the best of them.”
On Fabian Delph: “I don’t want to go over the top, but Fabian Delph – there’s not a better midfielder in the country at the moment.”
It doesn’t matter if such statements are inaccurate, fanciful or just ludicrously optimistic, just so long as it motivates the players to prove their worth. In Sherwood’s defence, all four have done so in the last six weeks.
He remains a difficult man to like, but there can be no doubting Sherwood’s ability to inspire players through the simple method of making them feel valued. There are still questions to be answered of his aptitude to do so in adversity but, for now, those issues have been pushed to the back of Villa fans’ minds.
Sherwood’s task at Villa Park is far from complete, but after plenty of sarcastic snidery, it would be crass to ignore his positive impact.
“From my point of view to study at close quarters Messi, Xavi and Iniesta was invaluable. Messi is wonderful but I think I can model my game on Xavi and Iniesta” – Tom Cleverley, June 2011.
Number of league goals from Cleverley in his last three matches: 3
Number of league goals from Xavi and Iniesta this season: 2
Who’s laughing now, eh? Well we are, still. But it’s nice to see Cleverley’s decline finally halted. Enjoying the collapse of a young English player’s form is not a particularly pleasant pastime.
United fans can finally celebrate. Not because Louis van Gaal has achieved something wonderful or with any great style, but because they got what they needed. These are celebrations not of joy and jubilation, but relief. That doesn’t make them any less emphatic.
Van Gaal may well have been the beneficiary of a Premier League in which his rivals for the final top four place were all weak, but history will not make note of that. The means may have been testing, but the end is all that matters. United are back in the Champions League, and they intend to stay there.
David de Gea
A wonderful save to deny Glenn Murray, and another match-changing moment from Manchester United’s best player. Marouane Fellaini may have won the match for Van Gaal’s side, but it was De Gea who made that a possibility.
That was certainly the view of Ashley Young after the game at Selhust Park. “He’s been making save after save for us and that one today was vitally important,” Young said. “Maybe that spurred us on to get the winning goal.” It’s becoming the familiar tale of United’s season.
For all United’s hope of further reinforcements this summer (initiated by the signing of Memphis Depay), the possible departure of their goalkeeper would cast a shadow over all incoming business. Hugo Lloris is a potential replacement, but the Frenchman is a) likely to cost £30m, b) four years older than De Gea, and c) not as good. Keeping hold of De Gea would be the biggest signing of United’s summer, with only the arrival of a defensive midfield player rivalling it for importance.
“Yes, I have improved,” De Gea said this week. “I’m very young and I always try to keep getting better, in every training session, every match, and I think it’s been a very productive season for me. I’m still growing as a player.”
With a contract extension still remaining unsigned and Iker Casillas suffering in Madrid, the concern at Old Trafford is that it will be Real and not United who are the beneficiaries of the best goalkeeper in the world in three years’ time. He’s pretty close now.
More league goals than he has scored in a season before, and five more than anyone else in the Premier League. Yet still Aguero was not worthy of a place in the PFA’s Team of the Year. Their loss is…well, nobody’s gain, actually.
You can keep Neymar, Suarez and Ibrahimovic, although all are wonderful players; I rank Aguero as the third best forward in the world after Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo.
Given his nationality and career history, we are incredibly lucky to still have him in England. It is on afternoons such as Sunday when I give thanks.
You can put away your ‘Dick Dastardly’, ‘Devil’s Advocaat’ and ‘Dick Heading Home’ headlines, because Advocaat has got this one covered.
Having grown weary with Conor Wickham, Danny Graham and Jermain Defoe, Sunderland’s manager made the bold decision to pick Lady Luck to lead the line. She can claim at least assists for both of the goals that took Sunderland away from danger.
Unless Hull can take at least two points from fixtures against Tottenham (a) and Manchester United (h), Sunderland will have survived the drop once more. Supporters will be hopeful that their club can finally avoid making the same old mistake all over again.
Six wins out of seven for Leicester, with the only exception coming against the Premier League champions – the unlikeliest of Premier League survivals is all but secured. Nigel Pearson may be a dislikeable man in front of a camera, but he has inspired his players to embark on a run that nobody could have predicted.
Leicester have now scored 17 goals in their last eight league games, two more than they managed in their previous 23. They have also kept four clean sheets in their last five games, matching their previous 27. This isn’t just a remarkable turnaround, it might just be the biggest reversal of fortunes in Premier League history. Pearson’s miracle pushes Poyet’s miracle and Toca’s miracle into second and third place.
A shining light piercing the fog of Newcastle’s murky, depressing season. Perez may only have only scored seven league goals, but he has offered more fight, drive and conviction than most of his teammates put together.
That it has taken a 21-year-old Spaniard in his first top-flight season to set the example at Newcastle says much about Perez’s quality and maturity and the inadequacies of those around him. After turning down Barcelona and Real Madrid for St James’ Park, we would not blame him for hot-footing it up the A167 to Newcastle international.
Winning when the pressure is off and the battle is lost can often lead to a negative reaction from supporters. “Where was this in February and March?” would be a reasonable question from City fans to Manuel Pellegrini. It’s now four straight wins since the Manchester derby defeat at Old Trafford extinguished any lingering City title hopes.
For the rest of us, we can simply bask in the glory of Manchester City’s relaxed excellence. The attacking display against QPR made me yearn to watch them train every day.
Stoke City’s top-half finish is all but confirmed, thanks to a manager who has spent just £8m in transfer fees since the beginning of last season. Tony Pulis left the Britannia Stadium after reported disagreements over transfer budgets, but Mark Hughes has shown Stoke a different way. Sustainable development might not sound like a sexy phrase, but it’s getting Peter Coates hot under the collar.
Last season Hughes led Stoke to their highest league finish in 39 years. This season he has spent £1.6m on new players, the fee they paid Barcelona for Bojan Krkic. No other Premier League team has spent less than £11m. Hughes is about to match that ninth-place finish, and could yet beat it.
Amidst talk of Jose Mourinho, Ronald Koeman and Garry Monk, Hughes has been entirely overlooked in the discussions over the Manager of the Year award. A reminder then that the five clubs directly above Stoke have spent £455m on new players in the last ten months, and the three clubs directly below them each spent at least 17 times as much as Hughes. His is a reputation fully restored.
A fine first senior start for the 19-year-old midfielder, who never once gave the ball away when faced with Philippe Coutinho, Jordan Henderson and Steven Gerrard. Go here to read more on Loftus-Cheek, Chelsea and Liverpool in 16 Conclusions.
Queens Park Rangers re-entered the Championship in fitting manner on Sunday. Eleven of the 14 players used by Chris Ramsey at the Etihad are full internationals, and eight were aged 30 or over. There’s something to be said about their combined wages too, but I’m not prepared to estimate. Let’s just leave it at ‘obscene’.
While Burnley were relegated with a battling away victory, QPR showed all the steel and grit of a baby gerbil. Defenders can’t defend, midfielders struggle to hold back the tide and all but one of their strikers is below the quality required.
Only Rob Green, Charlie Austin, Leroy Fer and Matty Phillips can leave the Premier League with their heads held high, and all four are likely to move on this summer. As one QPR fan joked on Twitter on Sunday: ‘The only players I want to stay are the ones who are most likely to leave’. Ouch.
QPR are, and have been, a pathetic Premier League outfit, a club dangerously addicted to short-termism and name over value. They are the equivalent of a 15-year-old boy who spends all of his Christmas money on a badly-made designer jacket and then cries foul when it gets a hole in February. ‘Naivety to the point of destruction,’ could be the club’s new motto.
‘Destruction’ might just be the new buzzword at Loftus Road. There is a Wikipedia page dedicated to the phrase ‘Doing A Leeds’, which begins as follows: ‘”Doing a Leeds” is an English football phrase which has become synonymous with the potential dire consequences for domestic clubs of financial mismanagement’. QPR’s biggest effect on the Premier League might be to update the lexicon. Are they about to ‘do a QPR’?
During last season in the Championship, QPR overspent to the tune of £68m. Their wage bill was higher than Borussia Dortmund and Atletico Madrid’s (the losing finalists in the last two Champions League seasons), and they have spent £95m on transfer fees since June 2012. Their wages-to-turnover ratio in 2013/14 was 195%. Joey Barton is on £70,000 per week – one can only imagine figures for Sandro, Steven Caulker and Edu Vargas.
QPR are now obliged to pay a £58m Football League fine on their return to the Championship, a penalty they are still trying to fight. During a summer in which rebuilding is necessary, Rangers are likely to be embroiled in a court battle regarding their perilously unsustainable financial plans.
Were two seasons in the dim sunshine really worth it for such a miserable end result? As ever, it will be the supporters left to pick up their own pieces.
Rickie Lambert: 23 league appearances, two goals, one assist.
Mario Balotelli: 16 league appearances, one goal, no assist.
Fabio Borini: 12 league appearances, one goal, one assist.
Daniel Sturridge: 12 league appearances, four goals, one assist.
As I wrote in 16 Conclusions on Sunday, Liverpool’s failure to adequately (or even barely) replace Luis Suarez last summer has only caused the problem to be exacerbated. In July 2014 Brendan Rodgers only needed one striker, but now he might need four.
That’s unless his predictions of grandeur regarding Divock Origi are true of course. “He can be one of the most exciting talents in world football. I genuinely believe that,” Rodgers said in July 2014. You’ll forgive me for taking most of what Liverpool’s manager said during that month with a hefty pinch of salt.
My natural response to Burnley’s relegation is to be complimentary, but it will again sound like nothing more than patronising.
So, instead of praising Sean Dyche’s side for their spirit, fight and determination in adversity, instead I’ll say this: “Haha, good riddance, enjoy the Championship, losers.”
At least I can’t be accused of condescension.
Europa League ‘Hopefuls’
Southampton have gained one point from their last four matches, while Tottenham have gained one in their last three. The adage about flip-flops in April and May rings true again, and threatens to peel away at the varnish.
The only points both sides have gained in their last seven matches combined was against one another. “Thursday nights, Channel Five,” seems to be a slur both Southampton and Spurs are doing their best to avoid, though Tottenham are the bookies’ favourites to finish sixth.
The personification of Tottenham’s summer 2013 spending. It’s not that Chiriches is struggling to find his feet in England, it’s that Spurs overpaid (£8.5m) for a player who pertinently isn’t good enough. The defender is comfortably the most expensive player ever sold by a Romanian club.
Chiriches looks like a liability in almost every game he plays. His positional discipline is questionable, and his tendency to commit himself in the tackle is award-winning. The red card at the Britannia Stadium on Saturday was coming from kick-off.
Jan Vertonghen has committed a foul for every 131.5 league minutes played this season. Federico Fazio is at 114.1, Eric Dier at 105.5, Ben Davies every 127.3 and Younes Kaboul every 99 minutes. Chiriches has committed a foul every 64.5 minutes.
Having repeatedly demonstrated that he is not up to the task in the Premier League, surely the Romanian will be moved on in the summer. This is no tale of rags Chiriches.
‘Spare a thought for poor Hull boss Steve Bruce, whose side are now just one point above the drop zone,’ wrote Neil Custis in The Sun last week. It’s time to get the violin out, Neil. Things have got worse.
Yes, poor Steve Bruce. Poor manager who has spent £65m on players since summer 2013, and £40m this season. Poor man who has consistently told fans to stop demonstrating against an owner who wants to change the name of their club. Poor manager who has led Hull to the brink of relegation.
Hull are now deep in the mire. They were given a boost by (and Bruce given widespread credit for) victories over Crystal Palace and Liverpool in April, but that was simply matching the upturns in form from Aston Villa, Leicester and Sunderland. When it mattered most on Saturday, Hull and Bruce were found wanting.
This column finds logical reasons to feel sorry for Sean Dyche, who has worked on strict budgets. His Championship squad have embraced the Premier League, and were found to be short of quality. But that goodwill doesn’t extend to Bruce, as late as last September tipped to be the next England manager. Hull have won 13 league games since December 2013, and have scored more than twice in only one of their last 47 Premier League matches. That only ends one way.
Before you feel sorry for Bruce, remember that he has spent £57m more than Mark Hughes at Stoke over the last 20 months, and gained 29 fewer points. Hull have spent £20m more in the last two seasons than Burnley have spent in their entire history. And for what?
Having backed the owner in his battle against the fans, the manager shouldn’t expect too much sympathy from jilted supporters should Hull be relegated. Poor Steve Bruce my arse.
In late-April Allardyce bemoaned West Ham’s powerlessness to stop preventable goals from being conceded, but May has brought complaints at other end of the pitch. After the Hammers’ inability to score at Villa Park made it four goals in nine games, Big Sam bemoaned his side’s shyness in front of goal.
“For a number of weeks now we have tried and tried and tried to find the goals you need and we can’t find them. Simple as that,” said Allardyce.”Whatever we do, whatever chances we create, none of our players seem to convert them into goals. Because of that, life is extremely difficult.”
Struggling in attack, struggling in defence and struggling to pick up points. If West Ham’s players really do want Allardyce to stay, they’re going an odd way about it.
“In saying all that, I think Enner Valencia’s header is a goal. The assistant referee is in no position to give a decision one way or the other. He is four yards in the wrong position, so he guesses. I find that rather difficult to take” – Sam Allardyce, May 9.
Just to point out to Allardyce that Valencia was offside, so the official made the correct decision.
“Listen, the rules are the rules. It is a totally ridiculous rule.Who knows? It might not have made any effect on the outcome but, when the ball is played into your box and you are without your centre-half, who you expect to see standing and heading it away, then it summed up the afternoon for us, which was deeply disappointing. That rule is totally disappointing because there was not really blood pouring everywhere. Why can’t we get on with it and give him a chance to get on the pitch and defend the corner?” – Steve Bruce, May 9.
Two things, Steve:
1) Michael Dawson wasn’t just asked to leave the pitch because he had blood on his shirt, but because he had blood coming out of his nose that needed treatment. In those cases players are asked to leave the field of play for their own safety, and the safety of other players.
2) There were 26 seconds between the corner being played into Hull’s penalty area and Danny Ings giving Burnley the lead. Three times Hull cleared the ball only to allow Burnley to win it back and put it back into the area. Hull had seven of their players in their box to defend the set-piece.
Why is it always the managers so quick to criticise referees for their ‘mistakes’ who seem unwilling to take responsibility themselves?