Perhaps I was a little heavy with the criticism of Liverpool and light in praise for Manchester United in my 16 Conclusions straight after the game. Forgive me the barely disguised glee at the Brendan Rodgers bandwagon being derailed; I gave in to schadenfreude rather than gloried in one of the most impressive performances of the season. We shall put that right now.
United’s record against their fellow members of the top seven is P9 W5 D2 L2. Two seconds on a calculator will tell you that they are almost equally as effective against their peers as the rest of the Premier League. Back-to-back victories against Tottenham and Liverpool suggest we should now start talking about a top four rather than a top seven; they have pulled away just as the bell sounds for the final lap.
In September, Manchester United contrived to lose to Leicester. Their starting XI that day contained only four players who walked out at Anfield six months later: David de Gea, Daley Blind, Ander Herrera and Wayne Rooney. And two of that quartet have changed position. This team has transitioned beyond almost all recognition, with the underperforming Radamel Falcao and Angel Di Maria sidelined, Marouane Fellaini and Juan Mata rescued from the bin marked ‘Moyes men’ and Antonio Valencia and Ashley Young benefiting from Van Gaal’s love of versatility and demand for discipline.
Just as they did against Tottenham last week, United adopted the perfect combination of pragmatism and thrust. Cynics will point to Fellaini’s head but there was method here; the ball was forward quickly but so were the players, pressing and winning the ball before passing it quickly between Liverpool’s static lines. Fellaini, Ander Herrera and Juan Mata were excellent. Who needs the pace of Di Maria if you keep close together and move the ball quicker than any player can move?
“We beat Liverpool by their own weapons with pressure on the ball in the first half,” said Van Gaal. The statistics show a tackle count of 28-13 with Herrera (7) leading the way with a complete midfielder’s performance that makes a mockery of the notion that he is a luxury player. He tackled, he created, he got his leg in the way of Steven Gerrard’s studs: The perfect performance.
Manchester United have lost only one of the 14 Premier League games started by Michael Carrick this season. It’s not that Carrick makes match-winning contributions but rather that his presence enables Blind to play at left-back, enables Herrera and Fellaini to push forward without fear, enables Phil Jones to step out of defence and be seamlessly replaced and enables Van Gaal to pick Juan Mata without losing too much height at set-pieces. Never has enabling looked so damned cool.
Two steady, assured performances in rapid succession. Put away your memes and bring out your England flags.
“The maximum distance we’ve had is eight points with the same number of matches. Now it’s six and a match in hand with nine matches to go,” says Jose Mourinho. Frankly, he can start planning the victory parade because this is one bus that will not be staying parked at Stamford Bridge. It’s six points but it might as well be 66.
Eleven Chelsea players have started at least 20 of their 29 Premier League games and it shows: They are knackered. But they were still good enough to get past Hull thanks to one of their legion of under-used and they will likely be good enough to get past the majority of Stoke, QPR, Leicester, Crystal Palace, West Brom and Sunderland. It’s done. Over. Settled. Which is a bugger for those of us who make our living writing about football.
Mourinho can almost start thinking about next season and maybe putting together a squad of more than 11 players he can trust; that way they might win a Champions League game after Christmas.
The English press can be unforgivable in the football news desert of international fortnight. Had Manchester City failed to beat West Brom at home, there would have been two weeks of unforgiving CRISIS coverage that may have pushed even the normally unflappable Manuel Pellegrini towards the hint of a frown.
Chastening defeat to the Baggies – coupled with victory at Liverpool on Sunday – would have left City just two points ahead of fifth. As it stands, West Brom were reduced to ten men within two minutes of kick-off, City cruised to a simple 3-0 win and the gap is seven points. And breathe. Nothing to see here. Go and do some Rodgers revisionism instead.
“You never know, you have to believe in football and that’s why we want to win every single game,” said Olivier Giroud this weekend with some title talk as fancy as his face. Nobody really believes that they can bridge the seven-point gap to Chelsea, but I wouldn’t mind seeing the odds on them remaining unbeaten until the end of the season and finishing second. This is Arsenal’s golden time. Last season they lost once in their last eight games; the previous season they did not lose at all.
An FA Cup and a second-place finish? Hands up any Gunners who wouldn’t have taken that at the start of the season. Nobody? As you were then.
He definitely won’t say it out loud, but it must feel bloody good to be ahead of Newcastle. When he left the north-east for south-east London, he dropped ten points and eight places down the league. Now his side is deservedly one place and one point ahead of hapless John Carver’s hopeless Mags.
Palace’s form under Pardew has been nothing short of phenomenal. From ten games in charge, he has claimed 19 points – equal to Tottenham and better than Southampton or Manchester City in that spell. He was even likeably humble on Goals on Sunday when he gave credit for Palace’s excellent defensive record to Keith Millen and Tony Pulis. Likeably humble? He really is a different man these days.
Palace were a little laboured at Stoke on Saturday but the pace of Yannick Bolasie and Wilfried Zaha is a hell of a weapon in a mid-table side. And that’s where they proudly now stand, with Pardew already talking about summer plans and being able to compete with teams like Swansea and Stoke for players. Talking about summer plans in March? Mike Ashley wouldn’t have stood for that.
Their first back-to-back Premier League victories since October have coincided with a) playing against the dross of Newcastle and QPR and b) finally playing both Arouna Kone and Romelu Lukaku. We will leave you to decide what is the most compelling factor of the two.
Relegation fears have at least been eased but Everton now need to end the season with some muscle memory of last season’s panache in order to avoid the ‘Martinez out’ shouts echoing into the summer. Eleventh place now looks within reach and that should be enough to earn Martinez a crack at a season free of the Thursday-Sunday slog. A reminder may be required that David Moyes’ first four seasons in charge saw league finishes of 7, 17, 4, 11.
We keep waiting for the slide but there’s no sign. They now need only five more points to beat their record Premier League points total (47 in 2011-12 under Brendan Rodgers) but heady eighth place and 55 points now looks well within the scope of their ambitions. Jack Cork is just the latest in a series of excellent purchases from one of the top-flight’s most sensibly run clubs. Their next trick must be coming up with a permanent replacement for Wilfried Bony because it ain’t Bafe Gomis.
Even his mis-hits are going in.
And don’t you need an excellent, lucky striker when you have a back four of Kyle Walker, Eric Dier, Jan Vertonghen and Danny Rose. Major surgery is needed this summer but in the meantime…he’s one of their own, you know.
Six points between first and second, five points between fourth and fifth, and defeats for the bottom three: that battle for eighth is awful fun, mind. Come on Swansea.
Made to look like a rookie when he came up against a manager who was taking over Ajax when the teenage Rodgers was arriving at Reading as a defender. For more on Rodgers’ mistakes, click here.
“I think it was clear that in the first half we gave them too much room,” said Rodgers. “They were able to control the game much better than us and they deserved the lead at half-time.”
Who could ever have predicted that might possibly happen after it had happened at Swansea just seven days before?
We won’t dwell on Gerrard too much here except to highlight his textbook reaction to his own foot stamping on another man’s leg: 1) ‘Get up’ gesture to prone opponent, 2) Incredulous look and ‘but, but, but…’ and then ‘who? me?’ when referee indicates he has spotted said stamp and then 3) Repeated shakes of the head when leaving the pitch.
It makes you look even more ridiculous when you then “take full responsibility” (so honest) for what everybody has seen you be fully responsible for.
The unbearable smugness of Tim Sherwood (who last week took credit for Harry Kane’s form for the 427th time) needed a knock. And it came in the form of defeat to Swansea, which leaves Villa with just six points accrued from five games. Still think Sherwood has come in and revolutionised Villa with his magic wand? It’s also worth noting that none of those five opponents were from the top seven.
Garry Monk did an excellent job of exposing Brendan Rodgers’ flat midfield last Monday so he must have rubbed his hands at the prospect of facing Villa’s 4-4-2 with his fluid 4-1-2-1-2. Sorry Tim, but you will need more than a ‘gee-up’ to win games against better, more tactical managers. The only surprise is that it took Swansea 87 minutes for Gomis to take one of his five chances.
Substitute not used: Juan Cuadrado
Seven minutes of football played in March. When Mourinho needed fresh legs, he looked to Oscar, recently described by his manager as “not a natural physically strong man”. On the plus side, Petr Cech seems a nice man to spend time with.
Substitute not used: Theo Walcott
With a team shattered from midweek, Arsene Wenger still picked an attacking midfield trio of Alexis Sanchez, Santi Cazorla and Danny Welbeck. Fresh legs? Send on Tomas Rosicky.
Wenger has recently made it very public that Walcott is fast on the pitch but slow when it comes to contract negotiations, so surely it’s now better for both parties that Walcott sprints off in the direction of Anfield? Wenger need only hope that he gets there before his hamstring goes.
It can’t feel great to see your manager apoplectic with rage when the referee erroneously sends off your teammate. And then you lose 3-0. And then you get a ban anyway.
What’s more depressing than having only three players in your squad who have claimed three Premier League assists all season and none who have claimed more? Having only one of your precious three-assist men fit to start, it seems.
Two weeks ago, a target of 51 points – it would be a Premier League record for Stoke – looked very much in reach, but defeats to West Brom and Palace have seen brakes applied to the Potters’ ambitions. Injuries have played their part and exposed a squad short on depth. With Bojan and Victor Moses missing, and Ryan Shawcross playing at 75% fitness, Stoke look like a team who are counting the days until summer. But not before they somehow eke out another nine points from their last eight games.
A reminder of this from the Daily Telegraph’s Luke Edwards: ‘Sunderland’s capture of Jermain Defoe could just be the best piece of transfer business done in the January transfer window, ever.’
A reminder of Defoe’s record for Sunderland: Two goals in nine games.
Not sure we can put this better than Rory Smith in The Times: ‘This is not a team full of bad players. It is just a team of players who are, when it comes down to it, not good enough. Not by a lot, but still not quite.’
Burnley and Leicester