Mauricio Pochettino and sustainability
I wrote plenty about the manner of Spurs’ victory in 16 Conclusions, but it is important to note that this was a game won in the planning and detail, rather than by fluke or generated by the emotional melee of an intense derby atmosphere. Whilst Arsenal looked tired during the second half (having played 33 matches this season), Spurs seemed fresh. This was their 40th game of the campaign.
It is a hallmark of Mauricio Pochettino’s tenure at White Hart Lane. Spurs have won 12 points in the last five minutes of matches, twice as many as any other side. 28% of their points gained in 6% of the match – it’s an eye-opening statistic.
“We had a great pre-season,” Harry Kane said when asked of the reason for such a record. “As the season has gone on we’ve got fitter and fitter. We’ve got better and I think that showed again. We looked stronger and I think we can keep that going for as long as possible. I feel fitter. I feel the fittest I’ve ever felt.”
In late July, Christian Eriksen also remarked on the commitment demanded from Pochettino. “It’s been a hard pre-season,” he said. “We’ve been getting closer to where we want to be when the season starts. It is pretty hard. The first few weeks there were times when we went to bed pretty early. There have been double sessions two times a week when we were training at 10 o’ clock and then again at 4, so it’s a long day. Mentally as well it’s pretty hard but it’s fun to play football, so it’s alright.” The proof of the pudding is in the eating, and nothing tastes sweeter than derby victory.
There is also a sustainability to this improvement under Pochettino. Tim Sherwood must be credited with the development of Nabil Bentaleb, but the relative youth of this Spurs squad allows the glass ceiling to be smashed. Eight of the starting XI against Arsenal were aged 24 or under. This team had the youngest average age of any Premier League team this season, and it gave one of the most complete performances.
“This is our philosophy,” Pochettino said of his trusting in youth. “It was our philosophy at Espanyol, Southampton and now here. Why not? If you have players with potential for first team, why not? This is our identity. We have to give these players opportunities to show their value. Maybe we are brave.” Stirring stuff.
This is Tottenham, so there will be always those wary of one step forward and two more back. Many supporters are focused only on a top-four place, but sometimes you have to look at the bigger picture. Football isn’t just about the Champions League, it’s about fans feeling that a plan is in place, that proaction is being preferred to reaction. It’s about knowing foundations are being laid, rather than fancy houses built on sand.
Whatever happens this season, it feels like Spurs supporters are finally falling back in love with their club again. Pochettino deserves immense credit for effecting that transformation in such a brief time period.
Winners less for their result than for the strengthening of their grip on the Premier League trophy. Chelsea’s lead at the top is now seven points, the biggest gap between any two consecutive positions in the table. Manchester City now must take one more point than Chelsea for every two matches they play. Given that eight of Chelsea’s 14 remaining games are against teams in the bottom nine (and five of them are at home), you’d be forgiven for preparing the royal blue ribbons.
There was a great deal of chastisement aimed at those who had awarded the title to Chelsea as early as October, ignoring City’s challenge. Given the manner in which Jose Mourinho’s side steamrollered past all foolish or unfortunate to get in their path, it was only a natural reaction, but winter brought a degree of fallibility to Stamford Bridge. Manuel Pellegrini’s side responded.
We are now back where we started – Chelsea are 1/10 for the title in places.
Harry Kane and living for the moment
I said in 16 Conclusions that hyperbole and melodrama were easy bedfellows when discussing Harry Kane, but I am offering no apology. It’s impossible not to be excited about this rise.
And why shouldn’t we be? Why should the fun police tell us to wind it in and stop wetting our pants? There is still a feeling of the unbelievable about Kane, a nagging sense that he could just as easily be on loan at Leyton Orient in three years’ time as preparing for World Cup 2018, so why not enjoy the thrills for as long as they last?
Of course Kane may not reach his full potential, but that only persuades me more that we should revel in his joy. Too much of everyday life revolves around planning for the future, saving for a rainy day, playing it safe. When something wonderful and unexpected comes out of the blue, jump on board. Those who worry about how long something enjoyable will last tend to be the ones left most unhappy when it ends. Live for the moment.
“You could see from the way the fans celebrated at the end how much it meant and to score twice was unbelievable,” Kane said after the final whistle on Saturday. “I didn’t want to come off – I wish I was still out there now with the fans.” If you can’t find happiness in a young, humble, homegrown player saying something like that, you might as well pack up your stuff and go home, muttering all the way about how they’ll only be sorry when it’s over.
Included not just for the quality of his finish, although it was sublime, but for his consistent excellence at both ends of the pitch.
Branislav Ivanovic now has a combined goals and assists total of six in the Premier League this season. That’s as many as Philippe Coutinho, Jesus Navas and Kevin Mirallas. The Serbian also has 18 non-penalty league goals in the last five seasons. That’s the same number as Steven Gerrard.
Ivanovic is also the finest example of Chelsea’s impressive defensive recruitment. Whilst their strikeforce and midfield may have been assembled at significant cost, their back five on Saturday (Ivanovic, Cahill, Terry, Courtois and Azpilicueta) arrived for a joint expenditure of just £30m, or 60% of a David Luiz.
It is Ivanovic who stands taller than most, surely ranking alongside Nemanja Matic as the most valuable Premier League player in terms of overall impact on their side. He is a warrior, but with the cerebral aptitude to keep calm in attacking areas. He is part fighter, part sculptor.
“He came immediately after I left and after that he made a fantastic contribution for this club,” Jose Mourinho said after the win at Aston Villa. “He is a competitive animal. A big heart. What really matters more is what we as a club feel for him and people like John (Terry) and (Gary) Cahill, guys that without them – you cannot do anything. A team is an artist like (Eden) Hazard, it is a defender like Branislav. The mix and combination of talent makes a team.”
I’d go further than that. Given the names mentioned, it makes a title-winning team.
After a 1-0 defeat to Swansea, the balance was redressed by Southampton at Loftus Road. Saido Mane gave Ronald Koeman’s side the lead in the dying embers of their match against QPR to keep the Saints in the top three. They are now just four points behind Manchester City in second.
On a weekend in which only four of the Premier League’s 20 teams won, this felt like a hugely important moment in Southampton’s season. Despite the understandable concern over them tailing off, it’s worth mentioning that only one side have taken more points from their last six PL matches.
Clean sheets are not earned by goalkeepers alone, of course, but through collective effort. That said, Fraser Forster’s save to deny Charlie Austin on Saturday was world class, a magnificent stop to ensure that Southampton stayed level with 20 minutes remaining. He deserves at least half an assist for Saido Mane’s late winner.
Forster now has 11 clean sheets for the season, more than any other goalkeeper in the Premier League. Again focusing on that collective effort, only Bayern Munich, Barcelona and Juventus have conceded fewer league goals in Europe’s top five leagues than Southampton.
Burnley may well be relegated in May. Seven of their next eight league matches are against the top seven sides in the table, and the exception is ninth-placed Swansea.
However, given the struggles of Harry Redknapp, Nigel Pearson, Alan Irvine, Neil Warnock, Paul Lambert, Gus Poyet and Steve Bruce this season, it would be remiss not to applaud the job Dyche has done at Turf Moor on a shoestring budget.
I was not alone in thinking that Burnley would be stranded in the relegation zone by this stage, but am happy to admit my error.
Jermain Defoe’s second goal in his fifth game for Sunderland, and the first point gained through him scoring. The strike against Swansea means that Defoe has now gone past the total of league goals managed by Jozy Altidore during more than 2,000 Premier League minutes.
Gus Poyet will hope that home games against QPR and West Brom before February is out will see Defoe add to his total, taking his Sunderland side clear of danger.
If absence makes the heart grow fonder, Manuel Pellegrini will give Yaya Toure the keys to his house and a £10,000 gift card for Hey Little Cupcake on Hardman Street in Manchester. Since Toure left for the Africa Cup of Nations, Pellegrini and City have not won a single match.
One suspects there is a wide smile on the face of Dimitri Seluk.
A goal. An actual goal, after 659 Premier League minutes without one.
If that sounds patronising, then it merely reflects the widespread mood over Aston Villa’s goal drought. Villa are not a charity case; this run should be deeply embarrassing for all concerned.
Now onto the next battle. Villa have taken three points from their last 27 available and 12 out of 60 since Paul Lambert signed his new contract. Extending their form since the announcement of that new deal over the course of a season would give Villa 23 points. That’s appalling.
The only side outside the top five to win this weekend. Crystal Palace and Alan Pardew took a giant step towards Premier League safety. They are now six points from trouble.
Louis van Gaal
“This was a good point, because they played badly,” said Gary Neville as the final whistle sounded at the Boleyn Ground on Sunday. I can see Neville’s point, that United would have taken a draw with five minutes remaining, but it largely ignores the fact that this was a 90-minute match, rather than a five-minute affair.
Furthermore, playing badly and picking up a point was acceptable in November when Louis van Gaal’s squad was decimated by injuries. Come February, with the Dutchman in charge for six months and a fit first-choice team at his disposal, the focus must surely be on the “playing badly” element of Neville’s statement. And boy did they play badly.
For a manager who continuously promotes the importance of balance, Van Gaal has done his best to create a lop-sided and haphazard shape to United’s play. There are too many issues to discuss at length, but Wayne Rooney’s experiment as a midfielder looks defunct, Angel Di Maria seems robotic and starved of creativity, Adnan Januzaj has regressed alarmingly, Luke Shaw is lethargic and Radamel Falcao seems hamstrung by confidence issues.
For all Van Gaal’s undoubted coaching pedigree, how many players in United’s squad have actually improved under his tenure? David de Gea for sure, although a manager can only take small credit for the performances of his goalkeeper. Daley Blind, perhaps, although he arrived with a glowing reputation. Ashley Young, definitely. Ashley Young, the only unqualified success story of the Van Gaal era to date? That’s almost laughable.
With the money United spent last summer, the least we expected was for them to be box office. Nobody could be certain of success or failure, but the obvious prediction would that it would be damn interesting to watch. Di Maria? Ander Herrera? Januzaj? Shaw? Robin van Persie? Rooney? We giggled at the prospect.
Instead, the football is verging on the unwatchable. The match against West Ham was emblematic of the season as a whole, United’s lethargy going forward easily thwarted by a side of lesser quality but a more coherent plan of attack. The only point of interest in United this season is the simmering undercurrent that one of the defenders could metaphorically kick himself in the face. Where is the pace? Where is the flair? Where is the excitement?
United conceded in the 49th minute. The only substitution made by Van Gaal (other than to waste time in the final few seconds) was to bring on Marouane Fellaini and spend the final 20 minutes hitting the ball long into West Ham’s area. Leaving Ander Herrera and Juan Mata on the bench throughout should provoke a literal Spanish inquisition – that’s verging on gross negligence. Kevin Nolan dominated the midfield for goodness sake. I’m trying hard not to swear here.
Comparisons with David Moyes seem trite, but are inevitable when after 24 league matches both managers enjoyed the same number of victories. Moyes lasted only two more months than this.
Van Gaal is far from that stage, but there is no doubt that the mood is turning at Old Trafford. Ambitions are being slowly shifted to match reality. It really shouldn’t have been like this.
Now over a month since they last tasted victory, this is a Manchester City season in danger of falling off the rails.
“Experience tells us that five points is nothing so for us it’s time to start a good run again and play at the level that we can again,” said Vincent Kompany after the 1-1 draw with Chelsea. That’s easier said than done, captain.
Against Hull, City looked bereft of any confidence or spark, and their uneasiness in defence continues to haunt them. Last season, Manuel Pellegrini’s side were able to turn teams over at the Etihad with consummate ease, their reputation for attacking football striking fear in opponents. Now it is the home side who seem most afraid.
There is also a wider point to make on Pellegrini’s signings. Since arriving in Manchester, the Chilean has spent around £190m on his squad. The only Pellegrini signings in the line-up on Saturday were Martin Demichelis (now 34), Fernando (who has been largely woeful since arriving) and Fernandinho. The return of Yaya Toure will surely see one of these midfielders step aside. Not one player in City’s starting XI was aged under 26, and their 18-man squad contained ten players aged 29 or over.
There is no huge problem with this per se, but that short-termism increases the pressure on delivering results in the here and now. Whilst Mauricio Pochettino, Brendan Rodgers and even Arsene Wenger could claim that they have half an eye on a sustainable future, Pellegrini does not have such an excuse. City’s manager looks short of new ideas, too.
We were given the full fanfare, Steven Gerrard’s (probable) last Merseyside derby given top billing. The final few months of his Liverpool career feel like an extended state funeral, marking the sad passing of the Hollywood pass.
As now so often seems the case, the game passed Gerrard by, and 14 players touched the ball more often than Liverpool’s captain. For so long the heartbeat of this derby, 12 players made more passes than Gerrard, and 14 did so with more accuracy. This felt like an old rock legend desperate to play out the classics, forced onto a side stage whilst the younger, hipper acts captivated the crowd on the main stage.
Gerrard announcing his move to MLS was intended to remove the intense speculation surrounding the end of his reign at Anfield, but the hysteria has simply switched in focus rather than dissipated. As he completes this bizarre farewell tour, the spotlight shines brightly on each of his performances. Now on the wane, it’s not a good look.
“Steven was excellent,” Brendan Rodgers said after the game. “He was very, very good in the game. Tactically he was very good, and he was driving the team on.” Sorry Brendan, that’s simply not true.
Not yet back to the drawing board for Arsenal, but a display to significantly curb the enthusiasm. I covered the limpness of their display against Spurs in 16 Conclusions, but it is important to note that the only player to come away from such an important game with any significant credit was Francis Coquelin. He was on loan at Charlton less than two months ago.
There is little to be gained in making wild statements over the gravity of the situation, for Arsenal may well respond and have been superb of late. But there is also no point in pretending that Saturday was anything other than intensely disappointment from those in red and white.
Confusion reigned on Sunday evening, and so does Nigel Pearson after Leicester City confirmed that the manager had not been sacked. I didn’t even get to leave my ‘Fox Ache’ headline on site. In hindsight it only works if you say it out loud and quickly.
There is an element of prolonged agony to Pearson’s retention, and Leicester look like a hopeless case for survival despite being just four points from safety. The 19 matches since the home victory over Manchester United in September have returned just nine points. The Foxes have lost 14 of those 19 games.
The pressure is also showing on Pearson. He attempted to play down his clash with Crystal Palace’s James McArthur , but it is not the perpetrator’s place to calm the ensuing storm. “I’m more than capable of looking after myself,” was Pearson’s reasoning for the scuffle. That’s the boastful reaction of a drunken uncle who has let years of resentment get the better of him at a family barbecue. “I’ll take that f**king smug grin off his face for the last time.”
When an example needed to be set, Pearson demonstrated that he was unable to keep his head. That phrase may well be proved true in more ways than one: The stay of execution will surely be brief.
When it’s February and you’ve lost every single away game you’ve played, your home form needs to be outstanding if you are to have any chance of survival. QPR have lost their last three home matches without scoring, and have taken two points at Loftus Road since December 20.
The new manager, Tim Sherwood or otherwise, needs to enjoy an extended honeymoon period if QPR’s relationship with the Premier League is not to end in a second messy break-up in three seasons. They’re sinking without trace.
This was the perfect moment, as Martine McCutcheon once warbled. Played through on goal with Adrian, Radamel Falcao had the chance to draw Manchester United level with 15 minutes remaining. We waited for the inevitable…
…an inevitability that never came, the Colombian shanking his shot and screwing the ball horribly wide of goal. On the Manchester United bench, Ryan Giggs slumped back into his seat and puffed out a sigh of frustration, whilst Louis van Gaal scribbled some choice notes. Presumably the figures ‘£265,000’ and ‘£40m’ featured prominently, followed by a series of underlines and question marks.
It all felt a bit Fernando Torres-esque.