It was easy to understand why some Crystal Palace supporters were a little uneasy about the appointment of Roy Hodgson. Recency bias is forever strong in football, and the lasting legacies of Hodgson were the defeat to Iceland and that gif where he smiles before his head drops, like an old teddy bear that needs to be propped up.
Yet the concerns over his Liverpool tenure, as disastrous as it was, hardly seemed relevant. To worry about Hodgson’s inability to succeed at Anfield means that you had to also admire the body of work at West Brom and Fulham, as well as his success abroad. Taking Fulham to the Europa League final is arguably the stand-out achievement of any English manager this century.
Add in the necessary simplification after the over-complication of Frank de Boer, a group of players that needed a steadying hand and an arm around the shoulder and the fact that Hodgson was a local boy, and this was a pretty perfect fit. There were still plenty of people, including in the media, who poured scorn on the appointment before Hodgson had even managed a game.
Still, nobody saw this coming. Palace have gone from drowning in their own incompetence to bobbing along on the surface. A total of 22 points from 18 league matches might not seem imposing, but Hodgson lost his first three without scoring and was forced to address a communal morale that had reached rock bottom. All of a sudden, Palace’s players and supporters believe again. They have lost one of their last 11 league games.
The redemption of Hodgson and Palace has been built on resilience. Exactly half their points earned this season have been achieved after conceding the first goal of the game, their total of 11 beaten only by Everton. That is evidence of Hodgson’s belief that panic is the worst possible reaction to setback. Given his own performance with England in that regard, perhaps this old dog has also learned new tricks at Selhurst Park. He is the wise old owl of Croydon.
Yet Hodgson’s tactical impact should also not be overlooked. He is not a manager renowned for bravery, but on New Year’s Eve Hodgson devised a courageous tactic against Manchester City that caused Pep Guardiola’s team more problems than any other English club in the last three months. Palace soaked up pressure, but then looked for the long diagonal ball to Wilfried Zaha and tried to exploit the space in behind a Manchester City defence that played with a high line. It could easily have ended in victory.
These things matter. Not only is Hodgson well on the way to engineering an unlikely escape from relegation, but Zaha has now stated that he wishes to stay at the club. Was that really a likely eventuality while Palace were still stuck at the bottom of the table?
Hodgson’s arrival has given Zaha, Bakary Sako, James Tomkins and Luka Milivojević new leases of life, and there are others too. His appointment has been a game-changer for a club who were in danger of sinking without trace.
After his Newcastle United had defended for their lives against Manchester City but lost the game 1-0, Benitez dismissed the predictable criticism of that strategy. Gary Neville was particularly strong in his censure, telling Benitez that his methods for setting up his team were “not acceptable” in the Premier League.
The flaw in Neville’s argument was obvious, and Benitez pointed it out while simultaneously holding back. “Valencia is Valencia. I won two titles with Valencia and the Uefa Cup. They are at the top of the table. Why? Because Valencia is a massive club and a massive city, but I don’t want to go this way.” ‘How did your time there go?’ was the rough translation.
If there’s one manager who you would back to create a robust defensive line with mediocre ingredients, it is Benitez. To follow that City defeat with two consecutive clean sheets and four points to transform Newcastle’s season really is peak Benitez. He has a squad packed with Championship players, but as long as they can be drilled to stay resolute in defence, Newcastle have a chance. They have conceded more than one goal in one of their last six games, and they won that match.
There is also a simple plan for surviving relegation: beating the fodder. Twenty of Newcastle’s 22 points in the league this season have come against the seven clubs below them. Benitez maintains – quite reasonably – that his team do not have the quality to compete with elite clubs. Only the arrival of Amanda Staveley can address that issue, and there is an entire city waiting behind Benitez for that news.
Until then, Benitez will continue to do all he can to make Newcastle difficult to beat and hope to capitalise on the flaws of the teams around them. There are plenty of other teams in the relegation pack who would appreciate a manager capable of delivering that same characteristic.
Newcastle’s record with their captain and central defender this season:
Played – 17
Won – 6
Drew – 3
Lost – 8
Goals conceded per game – 0.88
And without Lascelles:
Played – 6
Won – 0
Drew – 1
Lost – 5
Goals conceded per game – 3.00
That last statistic is the doozy. He may have just turned 24, but Lascelles is the leader of this Newcastle United team and Benitez’s most trusted player. Keep him fit, and they will stay up.
The top-four race
Last season, a record-high points total was required to finish in the top four. Arsenal missed out with 75 points, which has never happened before.
After 22 games played last season, Manchester City were fourth with 43 points. Liverpool are currently fourth with 44 points from 22 games. Depending on results this midweek, the sixth-placed team in the Premier League could have 41 points from 22 games, exactly the same as last season.
As Sarah Winterburn wrote, this is a marathon at sprinting pace to the Champions League, and last season’s record could fall again. We desperately wanted a title race, but the battle for the top four will still offer plenty of intrigue. The two clubs that miss out will consider it a significant failure.
Jurgen Klopp in January
To those who criticise Klopp’s decision to rest players, this is the retort. Klopp is not a man who welcomes any victory without wide grin and touchline jig, but he must have been particularly delighted at winning his second Premier League game in January at the ninth time of asking.
Liverpool are now on a 16-match unbeaten run, have rested key players and coped without notable absentees. With a six-point gap to Arsenal and a major defensive recruit already confirmed, Klopp and Liverpool are on track again. The talk of full-blown crisis in October has been confined to the dim and distant past.
In a Premier League table of results created since Puel was appointed, Leicester sit sixth. Just as important is that only Manchester United, Manchester City and Liverpool have scored more goals than the team managed by the apparently boring Puel (who made our top ten PL managers of 2017).
The apologies from Richard Keys and Stan Collymore for their disdainful comments about his appointment will probably be along soon. Having been given plenty of grief at the time, perhaps Leicester’s owners are due a little bit of slack.
As Ian Watson wrote on Tuesday, Lingard might have taken his sweet time to come good but just as sweet are the rewards. Suddenly, he is one of Manchester United’s best players. That might say as much about his teammates as Lingard, but now is not the time for negativity. You can write the seat reservation for the plane to Russia in pencil.
His first goals of any kind since April, coming after a wretched first half after which Carroll could not have complained if he were substituted. I make it one more goal before people start touting him for an England call-up again.
Only his fourth league start since December 2016, Slimani has struggled to even make the bench in recent weeks, a £30m move that went south very quickly. Yet a goal and assist in a 3-0 victory while deputising for Jamie Vardy is enough evidence to suggest the relationship could be fixed with a little counselling. Perhaps Kelechi Iheanacho and Leonardo Ulloa have been pushed a place down in the queue.
Scorer of more than one goal in a game for the first time in his career. Nice timing.
Alan Pardew and West Brom
The good news for West Brom is that they are looking more likely to score than under Tony Pulis. West Brom have created more than ten chances in a league game five times this season, and four of them have come in Pardew’s eight games.
Still, that is a brief ray of sunshine on an otherwise rainy day. Being more creative than a miserable Pulis team was a certainty when appointing Pardew, but a quick improvement in form was also expected. That has not arrived.
In Pardew’s eight matches, his team have played teams currently in second, fourth and sixth, and collected two points from those three matches. By the typical standards of the Premier League’s rest against the Premier League’s best, that’s an acceptable return. The 1-1 draw against Arsenal should have been a cause for celebration.
The problem comes when you examine their results against their struggling peers. Pardew’s other five games were against clubs currently ninth, 14th, 16th, 18th and 20th in the table. They have taken two points from those matches too.
That would be hugely worrying even if Pulis were still in charge, but West Brom have already made their one phone call. In contacting Pardew, they gambled that his final months at Crystal Palace had not eroded away the chippy optimism that can easily osmose into under-performing players. So far, the gamble is backfiring.
The almost inevitable result of a bottom-half dirge and promoted clubs performing above expectation is that at least one established Premier League club will fall victim to relegation this season. There are very few West Brom supporters buoyant that their team can escape without major surgery in January.
West Brom are now four points from safety having scored a miserable 16 goals, and are without a win in 20 matches. That’s the longest winless run in the Premier League since Derby County’s record-breakingly terrible 2007/08 season.
Mark Hughes, still clinging on
You have to worry about a club’s lack of imagination when the reason for not sacking a manager who has taken 45 points from his last 46 games is because there are no other obvious options to replace him. Until he was announced as Garry Monk’s replacement at Middlesbrough, Tony Pulis was the bookmaker’s favourite to get his old job back. Sheesh.
In a bottom half containing teams beset by problems, Stoke should be fine. They have a passionate home support desperate to enjoy their club again, have a squad of players which includes Jack Butland, Kurt Zouma, Joe Allen, Xherdan Shaqiri, Eric Choupo-Moting and a few others who would all justify a starting place in teams above Stoke in the league. This is merely an extreme case of managerial underperformance, but Stoke could become the true architects of their downfall if they fail to address such underperformance. And still Hughes hangs on.
The Welshman’s newest trick is to enter the denial and anger stages of Stoke’s grief cycle simultanously. Hughes’ insistence that it is a media agenda causing his team the most problems is nonsensical, but snarkily asking journalists what the difference was between Rafa Benitez making changes to his team and him doing the same was truly incredible. That’s the same Benitez who retains the backing of his club’s supporters, had just won the game at the Bet365 Stadium and has a squad with far less talent than Stoke’s.
A fortnight ago, Hughes claimed that those who believed he should be sacked were guilty of not watching Stoke City play and therefore did not know what they were talking about. The overwhelming calls from Stoke’s own match-going supporters for him to be sacked since should answer that question. The manager has no mandate from his own fans.
“Who else is going to do it?” Hughes asked in his post-match press conference after the Newcastle defeat, and most people struggled to suppress a laugh. Hughes had piled all his eggs into that basket by sacrificing the game against Chelsea in favour of victory here, and had lost again. And still he was taunting those who believed he should go.
Shall we make a list to answer your question, Mark? There is no guarantee that any replacement will flourish at Stoke, but there is a world of managers who would back themselves to get a better tune out of these instruments. To repeat: this is not a bad squad, just one without any identity or playing style.
“In terms of the knowledge of the group and the progress in my time here, I’m the best person to do it,” Hughes added. “The players are frustrated, disappointed, but that’s a consequence of the high standards that I’ve set here.”
Truly superb work. Even in his final missive, Hughes pushed the blame solely onto the players. At no point in the entire interview did he accept any culpability. You have to admire such levels of chutzpah.
Hughes may well have set high standards, but it is an awfully long time since he or players new and old have achieved anything other than slow misery. Since the beginning of last season, West Brom are the only team to have participated in the Premier League over that entire period and won fewer matches. The five teams around Stoke in that list (West Ham, Swansea, Southampton, Crystal Palace and West Brom) have all changed their managers.
Even if Mauricio Pellegrino had been appointed following Claude Puel’s promotion to another club, as happened with Mauricio Pochettino and Ronald Koeman, it would have now been proven to be a mistake. That Southampton sacked Puel in order to appoint Pellegrino makes it a disastrous error.
It is hard to believe that Southampton will be sucked into a serious relegation battle, but they might have to change their manager to avoid it. They have a group of attacking midfielders who flatter to deceive, can barely muster one decent striker and have just sold their best defender. That Virgil van Dijk money needs to be spent, and spent wisely.
In those situations, a club needs a manager they can trust. Pellegrino is not that man.
Quantity over quality
You will not find any complaints from me about the amount of live football on television. From Boxing Day onwards, there was live Premier League, FA Cup third round or League Cup semi-final games on 15 of the following 16 days. For those of us to love to gorge on sport, this is truly a festive feast.
Yet there is a downside. By attempting to squeeze in three programmes of league fixtures in a week, the Premier League has damaged its own product. Most managers have chosen to rest key players in at least one fixture, and some have effectively picked reserve teams and chosen not to even attempt to compete against elite opposition.
The result of fatigue and changed teams is that the quality inevitably suffers. Teams are lethargic, managers unambitious, attacks stunted and technique dropped, even if only by a few percent. The last time there were four 0-0s in the Premier League in the same matchday programme was 2001.
The knock-on effect is that the FA Cup third round, so often a high point of the football calendar, will become the natural home of the reserve player this year. Managers have been blamed in the past for demeaning the old competition, but after three games in seven days they can hardly shoulder any guilt. The league programme has backed them into a corner.
Remember this packed schedule come June. I am no advocate of a winter break, but increasing the workload of players at precisely the time that their peers across Europe are enjoying some winter sun can only impact upon their longer-term fatigue.
Get rid of two-legged League Cup semi-finals, scrap FA Cup replays after the third round and lose the match-day played around December 28. It gives me no pleasure to recommend less football to watch, but a middle ground is needed. You will find no Premier League manager that disagrees.
Everton’s marriage of inconvenience
Sam Allardyce could never have been our early loser – the worst he will get is a whacking great pay-off – but the cracks are already showing in this relationship. Before Allardyce arrived, Everton hadn’t failed to have a shot on target in a home game since December 2011, under David Moyes. They’ve done so twice in the last ten days.
Arsenal’s top-four hopes
At the time of writing, Arsenal have a chance to make amends at home to Chelsea and thus have a game in hand, but their top-four hopes are beginning to look slim. That north London derby victory suddenly feels an awfully long time ago.
Since the beginning of December, the points earned by the current top six are as follows:
Manchester City – 22
Liverpool – 18
Tottenham – 16 (one fewer game)
Chelsea – 16 (one fewer game)
Manchester United – 15
Arsenal – 10 (one fewer game)
In that same time period, Arsenal have won the same number of league games as Huddersfield, Newcastle, Burnley, Stoke and Swansea, having played a game fewer than them all. So you see why the Chelsea match is so crucial.
Silva has now lost nine of his last 13 matches since being approached by Everton to take over from Ronald Koeman. If he has been pushed off course by that offer, Watford need his steadying hand again. The offers will soon stop coming if this run continues.
Crystal Palace’s penalty takers
Roy Hodgson may be having great fun, but it could so easily have been so much better. Had Palace scored all of their last three penalties rather than missing two of them, they would have four more points, be sitting in the top half of the Premier League and have ended Manchester City’s unbeaten run.
Arsenal supporters might be pleased to see Cech show some passion during his protestations to Mike Dean, but they’d much prefer that he saved a penalty. It’s now 14 and counting at Arsenal without one. Might as well put Gunnersaurus there and at least give us some fun.
Why always him?