Tottenham, Liverpool and ‘expectations’
Strange beasts, expectations. They are used by clubs to increase (or at least assess) managerial performance, indicating what they expect for money spent on players and wages. Yet managers themselves use them in reverse, putting a lid upon supporters’ unrealistic ambitions.
Jurgen Klopp and Mauricio Pochettino both refrained from spraying cold water on the hype after 4-1 victories, but were both also keen to reiterate the danger of getting carried away.
“After the games we’ve played, we have quality enough [to qualify for the Champions League], but football is about mental state and there a lot of components you need to manage,” said Pochettino.
“It’s only okay that you ask this [top four] if you ask it as well after Crystal Palace,” was Klopp’s plea. “We can’t change our targets every two weeks just because we have won. We don’t have to think about it. Our situation is difficult enough.”
That reining in of excitement is understandable, but managers must be careful not to dampen the mood too much. Both clubs finally have young, hungry squads managed by coaches who seem the perfect fit, and are making significant progress. Liverpool’s title bid of 2013/14 shows that a rolling stone soon picks up speed and momentum. That can be hugely powerful.
Both Liverpool and Spurs have beaten and outclassed, the current title favourites 4-1, and they both have new-found strength in depth. Liverpool’s bench on Saturday contained Daniel Sturridge, Christian Benteke, Joe Allen and Kolo Toure despite having Jordan Henderson, Jon Flanagan, Joe Gomez, Danny Ings and Mamadou Sakho injured. Tottenham’s bench featured Ryan Mason, Kieran Tripper, Andros Townsend and Ben Davies; Nabil Bentaleb and Nacer Chadli are still to return. Finally, of the 22 players starting for the two sides this weekend, only Martin Skrtel is aged 30 or above. Suddenly, there are very few reasons to be fearful. The effect of these two managers cannot be overstated.
Aiming for a top-four place may still be the realistic expectation of Liverpool and Spurs, but this is the wrong season to place any false ceiling on achievement. Each of the title-challenging squads are flawed and each have at least two match-winners.
Futhermore, 28 points is the lowest total to lead the Premier League after 13 games since 1998/99; this should be wide open. If Leicester can top the table with more than a third of the season played, there is no reason for Tottenham or Liverpool to see fourth place as the height of their ambition.
Leicester and Claudio Ranieri
And so it goes on. Everyone (yes, definitely me included) who assumed that the lurch from Nigel Pearson to Ranieri was just too weird to work now looks very silly indeed. It took Leicester until April 18 (and league game No. 32) last season to reach 28 points. This is incredible in the truest sense of that word.
There have been many quick to state how much credit Pearson deserves for this Leicester rise, but that feels slightly disingenuous. Of course they finished the season strongly, but Ranieri has got far more out of the club’s attacking players, recruited smartly and changed the formation from 3-4-1-2 to a fluid 4-4-2 that varies between 4-2-3-1 and 4-4-1-1. He has been the tinkerman, but less so with his team selection and more with the shape.
Leicester will not win the league title – although even that is now said with a degree of trepidation on a platform where everything is kept for posterity – yet they have provided hope to every ‘other’ Premier League club that dreams can be realised, that twist can be better than stick. What’s more, this dramatic improvement has been achieved through an attacking endeavour that belies pre-season predictions of relegation trouble. All hail Ranieri’s entertainers.
A record-equalling goal, whatever the Jimmy Dunne fan club try and say. Jamie Vardy is now level with Ruud van Nistelrooy in scoring in ten consecutive Premier League matches. Note: The clue’s in the word ‘Premier’.
‘To every single person that has supported me and never doubted me…Thank you…..I’m still pinching myself!’ tweeted Vardy after the victory at Newcastle. The striker had scored yet another direct goal, running straight at defenders before dipping to one side and firing low into the net. At times in this run, he has looked unplayable.
Like Kane last season, Vardy’s run feels fragile and unsustainable. Rather than providing a reason for any negativity, that only means it should be cherished while it lasts.
Oh yeah, and it’s still really f**king silly.
Tottenham’s fountain of youth
Kyle Walker, Eric Dier, Ben Davies, Danny Rose, Kieran Trippier, Ryan Mason, Andros Townsend, Erik Lamela, Heung-Min Son, Kevin Wimmer, Tom Carroll, Christian Eriksen, Clinton N’Jie, Alex Pritchard, Harry Kane, Nabil Bentaleb, Dele Alli, Harry Winks, Josh Onomah. There ends the list of the 19 Tottenham players aged 25 or under to be involved this season.
49% of the league starts made by Tottenham’s outfielders this season have been by players 23 or younger. It’s pretty damn great to watch young players maturing on the biggest stage.
Everton’s fountain of youth
Bryan Oviedo, James McCarthy, Joel Robles, Ramiro Funes Mori, Muhammed Besic, Romelu Lukaku, John Stones, Gerard Deulofeu, Leandro Rodriguez, Matthew Pennington, Ross Barkley, Tyias Browning, Brendan Galloway, Mason Holgate. There ends the list of the 13 Everton players aged 25 or under to be involved this season.
45% of the league starts made by Everton’s outfielders this season have been by players 23 or younger. It’s pretty damn great to watch young players maturing on the biggest stage.
Barkley may still not have established his standing within England’s midfield, but he’s Lord of the Manor in Everton’s. Two goals and an assist against Aston Villa equates to Barkley’s finest ever return in a match.
James McCarthy and Gareth Barry behind him, Gerard Deulofeu and Arouna Kone out wide and Romelu Lukaku in front. On current form it’s a lovely circle to have around you.
Four chances created (no Spurs player created more), more passes completed than any of his team-mates, the joint highest number of touches of any player on the pitch (despite playing in an advanced midfield role) and four tackles made (no Spurs player made more).
Yet the most striking statistic about Dembele on Sunday is that he won possession 14 times, with no other Spurs player doing so on more than eight occasions. From White Hart Lane outcast to an all-working, all-passing, all-running attacking midfielder. Someone confiscate Mauricio Pochettino’s wizard hat and spellbook.
One-season wonder? Pah. Kane still misses chances that make you think this is all just a silly dream, but now has eight goals in his last five Tottenham games.
On November 23, 2014, he scored his fifth Premier League goal in the 2-1 victory over Hull. A year to the day, and Kane will have woken up on Monday morning still remembering to pinch himself to check it’s all real. Twenty-seven league goals have followed in the meantime.
Jurgen Klopp and ‘making the most of it’
Go here to read about why Klopp is maximising quality possession, whereas Brendan Rodgers preferred quantity.
I’m not tired of saying it, but you’re surely tired of reading it. I’ll keep it brief.
Lukaku has now reached 50 Premier League goals at a younger age than any other non-English player, and he’s still only started 95 matches. He’s now on 116 career goals, and turns 23 next May. Decent.
Gerard Deulofeu has recorded 5 assists this season, no U21 player in Europe’s top five leagues has made more. pic.twitter.com/aX55idzgA1
— Squawka Football (@Squawka) November 21, 2015
Bloody hell, he’s still really young isn’t he?
The fourth Everton player to feature, but Kone deserves credit for the accuracy of his passing and ability to retain possession. A fortnight ago against West Ham, Kone completed 21 of his 23 passes. Against Aston Villa on Saturday, he completed all 23. That’s a fine achievement for a player operating in the final third.
Build ‘em up to knock ‘em down. To build ’em up again?
Having spent weeks reading about why Depay’s attitude stank, largely based on his predilection for fancy headwear and not arriving late to a team meeting, it was great to see the Dutchman respond with Manchester United’s opening goal. Another claim about Depay was that Ryan Giggs was getting sick of his attitude, so it was interesting to see the forward thank Giggs for his guidance.
“I think every young player goes through these things but I keep training and enjoying it,” Depay said. “The stuff I am learning has stuck with me and Ryan Giggs has given me good advice. I’ve been working on some things with him. You need that backing.” We’ve said it about a number of players recently, but you have to remember that Depay is 21, and trying to settle in a new country. A country with fewer hats for sale.
Better news for Depay even than his goal came from Louis van Gaal after the game: “In the first half, Memphis was superb. I think also this role for Memphis is the best one for him. He played it also in the World Cup for me when Robin van Persie and Arjen Robben were injured so I knew he could do it.”
Juan Mata on the right, Anthony Martial on the left, Depay up front and Wayne Rooney in behind with Jesse Lingard as the perfect second option? Why not.
Another young import starting to impress after finding his feet. Have a little patience.
Philippe Coutinho and Martin Skrtel
Something weird happens when this pair face Manchester City. Coutinho now has four goals in his last five games against City, while Skrtel also scored his fourth goal against them on Saturday. Both have more Premier League goals against City than any other team.
‘Hull, Sunderland, West Brom, Maccabi Tel-Aviv, Aston Villa. Can Costa add Norwich to the glamourous list of teams he has scored against in the last eight months?’ asked Big Weekend on Friday.
‘Yes,’ Winners and Losers answers. It’s an odd medium for conversation. With myself.
Praising the reigning Player of the Year for his dominant performance against Norwich is like lauding Michelangelo for doing a decent stick man, but this is not a Chelsea season during which signs of progress should be overlooked. Hazard created five chances on Saturday, more than in his previous four league games combined.
‘Andre Ayew – No shots or chances created in last two league games. Three chances created in last seven league games. Five shots in total in last eight games’ – Big Weekend.
Three shots against Bournemouth, one chance created, a backheeled goal and a penalty ‘won’. Ayew may have tripped over his own feet, but Garry Monk will not give a stuff. Ayew with me?
A few Stoke supporters felt (probably fairly) that I failed to give their side enough credit for the victory over Chelsea, with most of the focus inevitably on the failure of the champions.
Following that with another win at Southampton makes for a buoyant mood at the Britannia. After a sluggish, uninspiring start to the season, Stoke have now won five and drawn one of their last seven league games. They can now again bask in the comparatively warm glow of mid-table, closer in points to Leicester at the top than Bournemouth in 18th.
The ninth league goal of an odd career. King is a striker with four international goals for Norway, yet he has never scored more than twice in a league season. The opener against Swansea on Saturday ended a run of two goals in 54 domestic league games. That’s bleak.
The greatest headed goal you could ever wish to see.
Arsene Wenger and that position
When Gary Neville publicly wondered whether Wenger was “naive or arrogant”, his point was that Arsenal lacked leaders throughout the side, failing to replace the strongest personalities within previous squads. Patrick Vieira, Emmanuel Petit, Gilberto Silva, Martin Keown, Sol Campbell and Tony Adams all merited Neville’s mention.
In fact, the problem was more obvious than that. While Neville (rightly) worried about leadership candidates, everyone else regarded Wenger’s decision not to sign a single outfield player as tantamount to wilful blindness. It was when looking towards defensive midfield that most eyebrows were raised.
For his part, Wenger was bullish against the criticism: “The world has changed. The appreciation today of the quality of a player is just down with the money you spend. If we had bought Francis Coquelin at Christmas for £40 million, everyone would say ‘what a signing’. I am sorry he didn’t cost any money, but he is still a good player.”
Wenger’s patronising “I’m sorry he didn’t cost any money” now looks as foolish as many regarded it at the time, and that’s before pointing out that he was prepared to get rid of Coquelin before his eventual emergence. There were no protestations from sensible Arsenal supporters that the club should spend money for its own sake in the summer, more that a central midfield unit of Francis Coquelin, Santi Cazorla, Mikel Arteta and Mathieu Flamini was wholly insufficient to maintain challenges on four fronts. That’s without considering Arsenal’s infamous ability to turn legs into balsa wood.
The most ludicrous thing about Arsenal’s lack of defensive midfield reinforcement is that it instantly made Coquelin the club’s most important player. Pressure was being piled on the form and fitness of a midfielder whose body had never been tested over the rigours of a full season.
With Coquelin now injured, Arsenal must – almost literally – limp through until January. Arteta and Flamini must carry out a role for which one is not suited and the other not good enough, or Calum Chambers must suddenly look like a better central midfielder than centre-half. Then the club must surely buy at a more inflated price than last summer at a time when fewer options are available. Top work all round.
Arsenal’s season is not over, far from it, and there will be fingers crossed that the initial three-month estimate of Coquelin’s absence can be accelerated. It’s at this point Arsenal fans burst into fits of rage or tears. Unlike Wenger, they all saw this coming.
It is this stubbornness on Wenger’s part to refuse to see what everyone else could that tarnishes his reputation. More than any other, this is the season during which the league title looks most up for grabs. If Arsenal miss out on that opportunity through the refusal of their manager to see the wood for the trees, it threatens to irrevocably damage his legacy. If you think that’s a bloody shame, there’s only one person to blame.
Moving away from (but still linked to) the lunacy of Wenger’s wilful blindness, there will now be real concern among Arsenal supporters that their season is coming apart at the seams. “But this doesn’t normally happen until February,” they presumably remark.
Arsenal have won one of their last five matches. They have exited the Capital One Cup and require near-miracles in the Champions League to progress. In a tight Premier League they remain in the title race, but have lost as many games as Everton, Southampton and Liverpool in seventh, eighth and ninth. Extrapolating their current league record would see them achieve their lowest points total since 2011/12, and the fewest goals scored since 2006/07.
As so often with Arsenal, it is in which direction they lurch next that is most important, and Norwich, Sunderland and Aston Villa are welcome league opponents. Anything other than nine points, and Wenger may have mastered yet another close-but-just-not-quite season and squad. For some, that will be his true lasting legacy.
Having been introduced for Coquelin after 14 minutes, Arteta gave away a needless free-kick, allowing it to be taken quickly and a West Brom player to waltz past him. Five minutes later he scored an own goal to give the home side the lead. Four minutes after half-time, he went off injured.
It’s nice when the captain leads by example.
Manuel Pellegrini and big games
It was a point made in 16 Conclusions, but worth reiterating; Pellegrini is back under the spotlight for his big-game tactics.
‘Manchester City benefit after Manuel Pellegrini finally shows he can be flexible,’ was the Guardian’s headline after Manchester City’s victory in Sevilla last month. ‘The revelation of the 3-1 lesson Manchester City handed Sevilla at the Ramón Sánchez Pizjuán was Manuel Pellegrini’s willingness, at last, to adjust formation and approach,’ was Jamie Jackson’s assessment.
Rather than attacking at will, Pellegrini had set up his side to attack when practical or reasonable. Yaya Toure played in front of Fernandinho and Fernando, giving them greater cover for the defence. Gone was the requirement for Toure to be all things to all men, gone too was the tendency for City to be overrun in defence. City finally had their big-game blueprint, if you’ll pardon the pun.
Against Liverpool, the same old problems returned. Pellegrini abandoned his defensive midfield pair, and City were close to beaten quicker than you can say ‘Is that Nicolas Otamendi and Fernandinho on the bench?’.
Pellegrini must shun this naivety, and quickly. His team are still favourites for the title, but their performance in the biggest games threatens to curb their ambitions. Twenty-one goals conceded in eight defeats to Liverpool (twice), Barcelona (twice), Manchester United, Tottenham, Juventus and Arsenal in 2015 alone.