Jamie Vardy and lower-league strikers
The most unlikely of record-breakers, with my humblest apologies to the Jimmy Dunne fan club. For those who cry foul at the phrase ‘Premier League record’, a reminder that you were all saying ‘post-war’ before the big bad wolf came and blew the house down.
For Vardy, a phenomenal achievement. The constant reminders that he was working down the mines for threepence ha’penny a week only five minutes ago have become annoying through repetition, but there’s nothing wrong with being impressed by a rise from non-league to the top of the Premier League.
The last few weeks have seen countless columns written about why we should now be searching for the next star in lower league. The most positive impact of Vardy’s incredible run is that it has shattered glass ceilings placed above players across the country.
“This is the thing about Sam Allardyce,” said a Newcastle-supporting friend of mine. I waited a minute, expecting him to continue at length, but nothing came. It didn’t need to, either. Those seven words had summed up Sunderland’s new manager.
There is an argument that Sunderland were fortunate to beat Newcastle 3-0, lucky to stay in the game away at Crystal Palace and the beneficiaries of Ryan Shawcross’ majestic dimness to get sent off on Saturday. It’s at this point that Allardyce places his feet on the desk, rolls a cigar between his fingers and remarks: “You make your own luck in this world, son.” He’s right, too.
Big Sam is doing it again. Less than two months after taking over at Sunderland, Allardyce has them out of the bottom three. The club’s recent great escapes are renowned, but next week Sunderland will aim to win three consecutive league games outside the last month of the season for the first time since February 2012. Maybe this time there will be no need for Steve McQueen.
When he joined Sunderland, I wrote a piece about Allardyce in which his bitterness was criticised. Calling him a very good football manager shouldn’t be controversial, but his wanton desires to manage at the top of the game overshadow his abilities. There is nothing wrong with being known as the best man to save the day.
Ten games into his reign as Liverpool manager, we can now make the first assessment of Klopp’s start as Liverpool coach.
The headline statistics are that Liverpool have won six, drawn three and lost one of those ten games. They remain six points from the top of the Premier League, but have kept pace with every team in the division during the early days of Klopp’s reign, moving up four positions.
It is the fixture list which dictates that Liverpool are now in a remarkably strong position. They are four points behind Arsenal in fourth, but have already played them, Chelsea, Manchester City, Tottenham, Manchester United and Everton away from home.
On Sunday, Klopp also finally took advantage of Liverpool’s other great scheduling fortune. All six of their matches following Europa League games have been (and will be) played on Merseyside, negating much of the fatigue caused by travel. Before the victory over Swansea, their first four of these six games (Norwich (h), Everton (a), Southampton (h), Crystal Palace (h)) had returned just three points.
The Swansea victory was no classic. Liverpool had no shots on target during the first half, no Philippe Coutinho for the entire 90 minutes and needed a James Milner penalty to beat a side in rotten form. Klopp blamed the wind for the lack of cohesion, but shouldn’t worry too much about making excuses in victory.
One of the most alluring aspects of Klopp’s management – and certainly in contrast with Brendan Rodgers – is the lack of self-congratulation. Whereas Rodgers’ outstanding-itis became an amusing affliction, Klopp offers few public words of celebration.
“Maybe I should but I don’t,” Klopp said when asked if his side now had momentum. “We play again on Wednesday, that’s the problem.
“I’d like to feel better and say ‘come on, let’s have three days off celebrating’ and things like this, but we don’t have time for it. We have to analyse our game and try to find out what we can use for Southampton and what we should change.” Little things, but aspects of Klopp’s mentality to suggest that this run of form is not built on sand.
Klopp may deny the fact, but momentum is building. With six victories in their last seven matches, Liverpool are hitting their straps while rivals cough and splutter. With many of their toughest away assignments already completed, there is good reason for Liverpool supporters to enter the Christmas period with plenty of festive cheer.
A contribution of 13 goals (two goals, 11 assists) in his last 12 Premier League games.
One hopes that Arsenal’s physiotherapists are getting Ozil to work on his back muscles in training this week. He’s going to be carrying that Arsenal attack for the next few weeks.
Kevin de Bruyne
Since Kevin de Bruyne started his first Manchester City league match on September 19, City have scored 19 league goals; De Bruyne has scored or assisted 10 of them.
Robbie Savage’s “I wouldn’t pay to watch him” is becoming the 2015/16 version of ‘nicking a living’.
Consistency is the only thing that stops Bolasie reaching the very top of the game. On his day, he is utterly unplayable. Saturday was that day.
While the rest of the country said “it’s only Newcastle”, Pardew prepared for a night out on the tiles.
The man from Del Monte may have had an extra rasher of bacon on Sunday morning. Business is good.
Odion Ighalo and Troy Deeney
Two forwards sharing 12 goals and five assists between them in 14 league games would be great for a top-four club. For Ighalo and Deeney to have that record at a promoted team is an exceptional achievement.
Allowed to leave West Ham in 2011 after a chronic lack of minutes, Stanislas looked set for a career in the Football League. Now 26 (which makes you feel old), the winger arrived back in the top flight in August after a four-year absence.
On Saturday, Stanislas rescued a point for Bournemouth, and did it twice. It was the first time in his career that he has scored more than once in a league game.
It’s one thing coming through a Premier League academy to make it in the big league, but another entirely to make it, drop out and then make it back again. Well done, young man.
Still believe he’s heading for a muscle injury after a run of 81 matches since last June, a ridiculous amount of football for a 22-year-old. But he’s lazy, remember.
Yet before the rain, dance outside in the sun. Lukaku now has eight goals in his last eight Premier League games. His business is goals, and business is booming.
In his absence, Tottenham missed someone to drive between midfield and attack. They also missed someone to win tackles and intercept the ball at will, a reflection of his all-action importance to Mauricio Pochettino. As 16 Conclusions said, junior in age but senior in importance.
Captain of a Premier League club in the year of our lord 2015. Almost fell off my chair.
Let’s leave the elephant in the dressing room waiting outside for now, and concentrate purely on another disappointing result. From a position of great promise, Arsenal have now won two of their last seven matches and one of their last five. It’s also three Premier League games without victory – Spurs (h), West Brom (a), Norwich (a).
Arsenal may only be two points behind Manchester City, but it already feels like the title is slipping away. Against Norwich they were worryingly weak, defensively unstable after Laurent Koscielny’s departure and entirely lacking in sharpness in the final third. They managed one shot on target after scoring in the 30th minute.
It was in 2009 that Arsene Wenger first described Arsenal’s November struggles. Like many other things at the club, bugbear has become slight issue has become significant problem has become inevitability. Arsenal’s November form has become a curse from which Wenger seems unable to escape. But you can’t shrug your shoulders and say “well, that’s just the curse” when such a thing does not exist. This is incompetence, not witchcraft.
Arsenal’s title chances are not dead, but they are hugely fortunate that their challengers and rivals are also struggling. Extrapolating their current points total over the entire season gives them 73 points. In the last 12 seasons that total has been enough to finish in the top three on three occasions. Two years ago, Everton finished fifth with 72.
The most worrying thing for Wenger is that Mesut Ozil, Petr Cech and Hector Bellerin are Arsenal’s only three players in fine form. A vast improvement is needed, and quickly.
Arsene Wenger and Alexis Sanchez
Thanks for waiting outside Dumbo, you can come in now.
On Wednesday, Wenger described how Sanchez had suffered a slight hamstring strain against Dinamo Zagreb: “I will have to assess that a bit later. Spontaneously it might not be the best moment to rest Alexis but I don’t know. He had a little hamstring alarm but we will see how he recovers from that.” Wenger also claimed that “a break makes him tired”.
By Friday, Wenger was likening Sanchez to a hungry lion, but come Sunday teatime and the Chilean was confirmed as human. During his 90th match since signing for Arsenal in July 2014, Wenger had finally broken Sanchez. If you keep ignoring the alarm bells, don’t complain when you get burnt by the fire.
Forget Wenger’s talk of a rest doing harm, for that is lunacy. Sanchez is a strong, athletic player, but not superhuman. Like everyone else he is prone to fatigue, and is more likely to suffer muscle injuries when energy levels are low. Wenger is like a man wearing a pair of new pants for six months, washing them daily, only to look surprised when the material wears through.
The retort in Wenger’s defence is obvious: ‘Imagine the media frenzy if Wenger had rested Sanchez and they had drawn 1-1.’ Yet there are three responses to that:
1. Wenger himself has repeatedly said that Sanchez was in need of a rest.
2. (…and this is the big one) If Sanchez is so important to Arsenal that he is the difference between the side winning at Norwich or otherwise, that is a sad indictment of Wenger’s transfer policy last summer. If there is no player to step into Sanchez’s breach – not necessarily of the same ability, of course – then perhaps they should have bought an outfield player last summer when the money was readily available.
3. Why did Sanchez not come off on Tuesday night against Dinamo Zagreb, when Arsenal were 2-0 up and cruising?
The weakest defence was offered by Wenger himself: “Players are there to play, not be rested when the media says so.”
*Takes deep breath and counts slowly to ten*
Indeed Arsene, and managers are there to manage. Management is not blindly giving in to the demands of a player who is desperate to play in every minute of the campaign. Management is not leaving a squad so short of options that key players are worked to the point of exhaustion. Management is not telling Wales manager Chris Coleman to rest Aaron Ramsey when you show no sign of doing the same with your own jewels.
Whatever the stance on Wenger’s gross mismanagement or otherwise, there is one conclusion on which all will be in agreement. Sanchez’s absence will have a greater impact on Arsenal’s mentality and style than any other player. If only we could have seen this coming.
Santi Cazorla and that position
After a week in which there was great competition, this on Santi Cazorla wins the ‘best Arsene Wenger quote’ award: “In the first half he got a kick on the knee and it got worse. I don’t know if he has jaded his knee ligament or if it was just a kick on the nerve but the worrying thing was it got worse during the game.”
So Cazorla got injured, and it got worse. Didn’t think about taking him off, Arsene?
No, why bother. Calum Chambers, COME. ON. DOWN.
If I’m obsessed by Romelu Lukaku (and I am), Nick Miller is infatuated by McClaren’s fall into the managerial abyss. And rightly so, for it’s a shocking recent record:
Update to this: P28, W4, D10, L14 GD -26. And counting.
— Nick Miller (@NickMiller79) November 28, 2015
Sergio Aguero, frailties at the top and January spending
Talking up Liverpool or Tottenham is a dangerous game, but there is method to what many may call madness. The increased competition across the Premier League makes this a potentially unusual season, whereby a lower points total than normal may be sufficient for title challenges to be sustained. Manchester City are currently on course to reach 79 points. The lowest points achieved by a title winner in Premier League history is 75 by Manchester United in 1996/97.
The increased spending – and therefore increased quality – of the mid-table clubs tells only half the story, however; the title challengers also each have significant flaws. Manchester United are not creating enough chances, Chelsea’s race is already run, Arsenal have their customary injury problems and a lack of back-up, while Liverpool and Tottenham have no experience of a successful title challenge.
For City, Sergio Aguero’s fitness is their Achilles’ heel. The striker limped off with a foot injury against Southampton, having already missed seven matches this season with a hamstring tear. We’re not quite at Daniel Sturridge status yet, but exception is becoming rule for Aguero.
As with other clubs, City’s biggest issue is a lack of back-up for their main man. In 2013/14, when Aguero missed 15 league games through injury as City won the title, Yaya Toure and Edin Dzeko scored 36 league goals between them. At their current rates, Raheem Sterling and Kevin de Bruyne are set for 11 each. No other City player has more than two league goals.
The January transfer window is typically a time when clubs in danger can give themselves a leg-up in surviving the drop. This season, the club who spends best might gain the advantage in a tight, unpredictable title race.
Football’s ready acceptance of immorality
There has been a clamour to label Jamie Vardy as an English hero by a media and public desperate for role models to whom they can relate. He is the boy who done good, football’s new darling. “Play him through the centre, Roy.”
Amid all the compliments, one aspect of Vardy’s personality has been swept firmly under the rug. In August, the striker racially abused a man of East Asian origin at a casino. “Jap. Yo Jap. Walk on. Walk on. Oi, walk on. Yeah you, Jap. Walk on,” were Vardy’s disgraceful words.
Over the weekend, Daily Telegraph writer Jonathan Liew wrote a piece in which he described in detail the abhorrence of Vardy’s words and the glib, PR-spin apology that followed. Go read it, and the responses to the predictable defence of Vardy’s words. Read the comments for a sad insight in to English culture.
Vardy’s own description of the incident as an “error of judgment” is laughable. We’ve all done it, of course, got drunk and then mistakenly had a shot of racism thinking it was vodka. A drunk person’s words are a sober person’s thoughts, as someone once said.
The point about football’s prioritisation of talent over morality is worth reiterating. In June, three Leicester players were sacked for making racist jibes during a video of them having sex with three Thai girls. The players offered a similar apology to Vardy.
“Leicester City Football Club is acutely aware of its position, and that of its players, as a representative of the city of Leicester, the Premier League, the Football Association and the Club’s supporters,” the club’s statement read. “It is committed to promoting a positive message of community and family values and equality, and to upholding the standards expected of a Club with its history, tradition and aspirations.”
Fast forward to August, and Vardy was not sacked for his own racial abuse. “The situation is everything is OK, Jamie apologised to everyone, it was a mistake,” said Claudio Ranieri. “The relationship is OK. We go on and forward. The club has said it is OK.” Where were those commitments then? What about upholding those standards?
We can only guess why Leicester “said it is OK” for Vardy, but sacked James Pearson, Adam Smith and Tom Hopper, but none of those three players were in the club’s first team. None of them were likely to be vital to Leicester’s success this season.
Football’s (and footballers’) place as role model(s) is an impossible issue to solve, but Vardy’s pre-season behaviour leaves behind a bitter taste. Those labelling him a hero would do well to at least recognise that there is more to a reputation than an ability to score goals.
Louis van Gaal and creativity
“We missed big chances in the second half – when your dominance is so great you have to make profit of it and we haven’t done that,” said Louis van Gaal after Manchester United’s 1-1 draw at Leicester.
Van Gaal’s frustrations with missed chances are becoming a broken record, but he is a long way off-kilter. A manager cannot expect every chance to be taken.
Last season in the Premier League, the best shot conversion rate was champions Chelsea with 17.55%, while United registered 16.85%. This season, United are up at 19.61%. If that rate is sustained, it would be an impressive achievement. United are more likely to miss more chances than fewer.
The problem for Van Gaal is not missing chances but creating them, becoming Winners and Losers’ own broken record. Against Leicester, United recorded only two shots on target; their opponents managed three. United now rank 14th in the Premier League for shots on target (behind Norwich, Bournemouth and Swansea). They rank 17th for total shots (behind everyone bar Sunderland, West Brom and Newcastle).
Until Van Gaal accepts that embarrassing statistic, progress will not be made. Last season’s top six mirrored the top six in terms of shots on target per match. Manchester City had 6.03, Arsenal 5.97, Chelsea 5.53; United are currently at 3.78. Southampton in seventh last season were also seventh in shots on target terms with 4.45. Even that’s a 17% increase on 2015/16 United.
Yet Van Gaal’s most frank admission was still to come: “We are a good team that’s difficult to beat for every opponent.” Precisely, Louis; United are hard to beat. They are solid at the back, but uninventive in attack. Van Gaal has spent north of £250m to create a side that is functional, but close to unwatchable.
This is no catastrophe yet, but Van Gaal’s United legacy depends on the direction in which they lurch next. Either goals will come, as the manager insists, or the results will dry up. The Dutchman is walking along a thin red line.
No player has the right to start in every league match, and a striker who has only scored against West Brom, Norwich, Aston Villa, Maccabi Tel-Aviv, Sunderland, Hull and Southampton in his last 29 club games can certainly have no complaints. Being dropped is part of every footballer’s career.
Nobody could have expected Costa to be pleased at being on the bench, but his petulant reactions only undermine his position in a battle against Jose Mourinho. Throwing away his bib was a fitting action from a particularly childish public display.
The good news: Villa scored more than once in a home league game for the first time since August.
The bad news: Villa conceded more than twice in a home league game for the first time since April.
The worse news: Villa have taken two points from their last 13 league games.
The worst news: To reach 40 points, they need to take more points in their next 24 matches as they have done in their last 48. Can you see them doubling up?
Most of us were guilty of looking at Newcastle’s summer signings this and last season and thinking “yes, this could be sexy”, but on-field quality is only one element of recruitment. Newcastle ignored the importance of a player’s mentality. Sometimes you have to ask why a club is happy to let them go.
McClaren’s squad seems to be largely comprised of can’t be arsed and can’t be arsed anymore. That’s the simplest recipe for relegation.
Has now had one shot on target and created two chances in his last four Premier League matches. By way of comparison, left-back Aleksandar Kolarov has amassed seven chances created and four shots on target in the same time.
Is it not worth even considering a change, Louis?
Football is bloody silly sometimes. Red cards are given for violent conduct offences which constitute nothing more than push or light tap, yet Bennett can do something objectively dangerous and nothing is done.
Pushing Sanchez when already off the pitch was stupid, but doing so in front of a camera pit and cameraman risked serious injury. He should – but won’t – be charged.
Without a win in four games, and quickly sinking back to whence they came. The worry for West Ham supporters is that winning away at the biggest clubs is a lot less sustainable than dropping points against the rest.