Thirteenth beating second. Twelfth beating seventh. Eighteenth beating eighth. Tenth beating first. Eighteenth beating 11th. Sixteenth drawing with fourth. Twelfth beating first. Nineteenth beating sixth. Eighteenth winning away at the reigning champions.
You always expect odd results to crop up during a Premier League season, but that list of surprises have all occurred in the last 16 days.
Any team really can beat any other in this bonkers campaign.
For those of us who like their good news stories to be a little more moral, you don’t have to look far from Jamie Vardy for the hero of this Premier League season.
Growing up on the outskirts of Paris, Mahrez lost his father (and mentor) at the age of 15. For any other child in a tough neighbourhood, that would have been enough to push him off the rails. It simply drove Mahrez harder.
“My dad was always behind me, he wanted me to be a footballer,” Mahrez told the Guardian in October. “His death maybe was the kickstart. I don’t know if I started to be more serious but after the death of my dad things started to go for me. Maybe in my head I wanted it more.”
Mahrez’s route to the top has been alternative. Rather than join Paris St Germain or Marseille, who were both interested in his signature, he joined Ligue 2 Le Havre instead. In January 2014, Leicester City came calling.
Watching Mahrez’s form this season, it’s difficult to see how a then-Championship club were able to sign him for just €450,000, surely one of the greatest bargains in recent history. Only Vardy has more Premier League goals this season; only Mesut Ozil has more assists.
Although Mahrez describes his close relationship with Nigel Pearson, it is Claudio Ranieri who receives the plaudits for this dramatic upturn in form: “He helps us a lot tactically so I’m getting better tactically. We needed that. And he has given me a lot of responsibility and confidence. He gives me the key of the game.”
Modern football’s inevitable reaction is for Mahrez’s name to be linked with moves to the biggest and best, with Barcelona and Manchester United both mentioned. Ranieri has been keen to stress that his winger is not yet ready for that step up.
“I think it is important for him to continue with us and to learn more,” Ranieri says. “It is one thing to play for Leicester and another to play at the highest level. When you arrive at the top, when you play well it is normal, so you must do something more. It is another very important step so it is important he grows up with me.” Well you would say that, Claudio.
Whatever Mahrez’s destiny, he has already achieved his main ambition. His father, an amateur player with various clubs in France, would have been immensely proud of his son.
Leicester and momentum
The answer to the ‘Why not?’ question that nobody dares ask possibly lies in the fixture list. Leicester’s next 11 league games include matches against Manchester City (twice), Liverpool (twice), Chelsea (h), Arsenal (a), Everton (a) and Tottenham (a). Only then can we truly test their title, top four and top six credentials.
But why shouldn’t Leicester dream? Why should they hold any fear about facing any team in this ludicrous Premier League season? It’s easy to state that Leicester have beaten the smaller clubs and will struggle against the rest, but that ignores the inability of the typical title challengers to maintain consistency.
Leicester won 3-0 away at Newcastle; Liverpool lost there.
Leicester won 3-0 at Swansea; Manchester United lost there.
Leicester won 3-2 at West Brom; Arsenal lost there.
Leicester won 2-1 at West Ham; Manchester City, Arsenal and Liverpool lost at home to them.
Since the end of March, Leicester have taken 54 points from 24 league matches. Manchester City have 47. Arsenal have 45. Manchester United have 40. Tottenham have 37. Chelsea have 35. Everton have 34. Liverpool have 31. Now try and tell their supporters that this run isn’t sustainable.
The joy of counter-attacking
The arrival of Jurgen Klopp in the Premier League has raised the profile of a high-pressing strategy that many clubs already utilised. But there is only one club that has perfected counter-attacking as their weapon of choice.
The average possession of the current top five positively correlates with their league position, with one obvious outlier:
5th – Tottenham: Fifth highest average possession
4th – Manchester United: Highest average possession
3rd – Manchester City: Third highest average possession
2nd – Arsenal: Second highest average possession
1st – Leicester: Eighteenth highest average possession
Under Ranieri, Leicester have found a different way. Rather than hassling and harrying high up the pitch, they invite the opposition onto them before attacking with the speed of Vardy, Mahrez and Marc Albrighton. Only Sunderland and West Brom have had less of the ball, but only four sides have had more shots and three managed more shots on target.
The comparative quality of Leicester’s defenders mean that goals will be conceded (only the bottom seven have allowed more), but Ranieri’s entertainers operate on a ‘we’ll score one more than you’ policy. Importantly, it’s worth pointing out that their defending is improving. Having conceded 17 times in their first nine league games of the season, it’s four in six since.
It is this alternative strategy that makes Leicester so attractive to the neutral, and so effective against their peers. Ranieri is acutely aware that beating teams at their own game would be immensely difficult, thus the element of surprise is crucial.
Leicester are forcing every opposition manager to tweak their style or risk humbling defeat. There could be no bigger compliment to Ranieri and his team.
A win against Sunderland does little to allay fears but, with consistency a rarity in the top half, every victory is worth more than the sum of its parts. Arsenal were nervy and unsure for long periods against Sunderland, but they got the job done. Largely thanks to…
Only Bournemouth’s Artur Boruc made more saves in the Premier League this weekend. That will not be a statistic that pleases Arsene Wenger, but Arsenal’s purchase of Cech looks more valuable by the week.
It’s not that any of the goalkeeper’s saves were extraordinary, more that you never backed the ball to get past him. Plenty more will be required over the next three months.
Up into ninth, a wonderful achievement. Watford have carried out the sensible approach of a promoted club; beat the struggling teams and don’t worry too much about the rest. Quique Flores’ team have taken 13 points from a possible 15 against the current bottom six, and three out of 18 against the eight teams above them.
Despite the signing of
Champions League winners Barcelona ‘B’ team players over the summer, the emergence of sexy Stoke has been less accelerated than many hoped. The opposite, in fact – no team in England had scored fewer goals than Mark Hughes’ side before Saturday.
What better time to click into gear than against Hughes’ former employers? Stoke were rampant, fizzing around the pitch and swarming over Manchester City. Xherdan Shaqiri demonstrated what he can do when in the mood, and Marko Arnautovic twice thanked the Swiss winger for his service. They could have been out of sight by half-time.
Stoke’s quick starts
Hughes’ side have scored six times in the first 15 minutes of matches this season, more than any other side in the league. They are also one of only two teams not to concede a goal in the opening 15 minutes.
Eddie Howe and Bournemouth
“I think it’s at the very top,” Howe said. “We’ve never been in the Premier League before so when you come to the champions and beat them it must rank as the best individual result in our history. I thought we were magnificent. We had to be to win here. I’m incredibly proud of the players. This result has been coming.”
Howe’s insistence that this result has been coming may be slightly rose-tinted, but Bournemouth must be congratulated for a magnificent defensive display. Chelsea were emphatically below par (or at least below last season’s par), but that should not detract from Bournemouth’s work. Their defence included two back-up full-backs and a right-back playing in central defence.
“It gives the players some reward for how hard they’ve worked,” Howe continued. “We’ve been hit with a lot of things – the injuries and dominant performances that haven’t won games. It’s been tough. The players have kept going – they’ve not lost their honesty.”
Fillip has come at the perfect time, ahead of a tough Christmas period. If Bournemouth can stay in the survival picture until mid-January, the club can finally look to address the impact of such debilitating injury misfortune.
Manchester United’s defence
Before negativity reigns, a word for United’s defenders, who have not conceded a home goal since September 30. The country’s most miserly defence has been assisted by Louis van Gaal’s safety-first approach, but deserve praise for their displays.
Now if one of them could just pull a Steve Bruce and score 19 goals in a season.
Jurgen Klopp’s honesty
Asked what went wrong, Klopp said: “Nearly everything, I would say. The start, the middle and the end. I don’t know.”
On the disallowed goal: “We got this goal – it was something like a Christmas present or whatever. We made our goal, but because we weren’t good enough today, the linesman thought, ‘Don’t make world-class goals if you play this sh*t.’”
There’s a reason that he’s box office.
Newcastle and questions raised
A fine performance and victory, but one that merits only one response: Why the shuddering f**k can’t Newcastle play with that passion every week?
If one wanted to be cruel, you could surmise that Newcastle are taking the surefire approach to being relegated. Turn up for one in every five matches, enough to keep an inadequate manager in a job but insufficient to pull away from trouble.
A magnificent footballer. After 14 league goals for PSV Eindhoven last season, Wijnaldum has seven already in the Premier League. He is one reason for Newcastle fans to be confident that they can pull away from danger.
Wijnaldum’s role in the opening goal owed much to fortune, but the second was exceptional. Only five minutes earlier, Martin Tyler had remarked upon his obvious fatigue. To show the composure to lift the ball over Simon Mignolet after 93 minutes of hauling his side to victory takes something very special indeed.
Data analysis and happy marriages
“I am fortunate in the sense that I believe I have achieved credibility in the eyes of the people that I work with, so bringing an analytical perspective to the work we do in the recruitment department has been possible. Although nothing will replace the need to see a player live before being convinced that he may be the right fit for your club, there is a significant analytical element to our profiling.
“A statistical approach is pivotal. In many cases, clubs are able to gain statistics from the game in question (which can use as an initial benchmark/guide) whilst also being able to compare that data to how they have performed previously. Moreover, if done properly, I believe you are able to then make inferences into how a player reacts to different situations if you look across a number of different scenarios.
“For example, if you analyse his performance against the top five sides in the league, the bottom five, when they play at home, when they play away, when he scored a hat-trick and when gets pulled off after 59 minutes for having a nightmare, you are able to generate a profile of the player. Yes, you could send scouts out to watch all of these games (if you have the resources) but a statistical approach combined with video analysis can do this in days as opposed to weeks.
“As such, an approach that encapsulates statistical analysis combined with live observations in my opinion has to be the most cost effective, efficient and accurate way to assess a player.”
These quotes, taken from an interview with Opta, are from Leicester City’s former Head of Technical Scouting Rob MacKenzie, who is now at Tottenham. Last week we heard from Tim Sherwood why the ‘boffins’ wouldn’t have found Jamie Vardy. Here is the definitive response – they did. And Riyad Mahrez. And N’Golo Kante.
After the use of data analysis and statistics in scouting has received several high-profile jabs to the ribs, it’s interesting to read about the reality: A happy marriage between eyes and numbers. Don’t suppose you’ll hear as much about this side of the story in the tabloids, however.
Thirteen points from a possible 15 against Arsenal, Liverpool, Manchester City, Manchester United and Chelsea.
Two points from a possible 12 against Watford, Bournemouth, West Brom, Norwich.
The poster boys of this Premier League season. Completely unfathomable.
Ozil skill against Sunderland. Divine. https://t.co/y8Mx24wBbv
— Ifreke Inyang (@Ifreke) December 7, 2015
There were ten Premier League hat-tricks in 2014/15. We’ve already had nine in 2015/16.
Chelsea supporters may continue to vocally support their manager, but there is only one man at Stamford Bridge whose decision matters. Roman Abramovich’s trigger finger must be quivering.
On Saturday, the champions lost their eighth match of the season, and sit three points above the relegation zone. Next Monday, Chelsea travel to Leicester City, currently a fixture between the teams in 14th and first in the Premier League. In any other season, Chelsea’s collapse would be the subject of every back-page story.
By every possible marker, Mourinho is fortunate to still be in a job. His CV is littered with success stories, but the Portuguese has never sunk so low. When he left Chelsea in 2007, the club were in fifth position, two points from the top. Now Mourinho has resorted to ambitions of squeaking into the Europa League. How the mighty have fallen.
Last week, the mood in Chelsea’s camp was one of defiance, a belief that they had turned a corner. Against Bournemouth, they promptly turned right again and walked straight into the wall. Even in a season of calamity, this was the lowest moment. They have scored one goal in their last 446 minutes of league football.
There are almost too many problems in Chelsea’s squad to list. Nemanja Matic has turned from lion into pussycat, Diego Costa adding an extra air of petulance to that same transformation. Eden Hazard has had bright moments, but that is merely damning the Player of the Year with the faintest of praise. Cesc Fabregas and Branislav Ivanovic look close to finished at Stamford Bridge, such is the length of their form vacuum.
Yet above all that, it is Chelsea’s reaction to adversity that is most depressing for supporters and most concerning for the manager. Mourinho’s modus operandi is built around a team spirit and unity that takes his team harder, better, faster and stronger than they previously thought possible. Softer, lesser, slower, weaker has been this season’s mantra. It’s difficult to see how the manager rides this out.
Chelsea’s home form
As many home league defeats in the last 14 weeks as they suffered in the previous 173.
Manchester City’s resilience
No Premier League team is able to fall flat on their face from a sprinting position quite like City. As Sarah Winterburn wrote on Saturday, ‘at any given moment, City are closer to an omnishambles than any other potentially great club side’. Oh yes.
It is the Achilles’ heel that threatens to eventually render Manuel Pellegrini lame. The Chilean has lasted longer in the Manchester City job than many predicted, yet significant achievement is undermined by his side’s propensity to lose all organisational sense.
The best club sides count resilience among their strongest attributes. Conceding an early goal is not cause for disaster, but response. Under Pellegrini, City are yet to demonstrate this attribute often enough.
When they’re good, they’re very, very good. But when they’re bad, they’re abysmal. And still they remain the most likely winners of the division.
On his day, Fernando can be a useful addition to Manchester City’s central midfield. On other days, he looks like the worst midfield player in the Premier League. That’s an inconsistency on which no title-challenging manager should rely.
Louis van Gaal and a terminal problem
The absence of Wayne Rooney was never going to be a magic cure for Manchester United’s ailments, although Van Gaal’s side did play with more freedom and verve. The top line conclusion is clear: United just can’t score goals.
It is difficult to see how Van Gaal wriggles himself out of this web, too. United’s league matches this season have contained 2.20 goals per game, the second lowest in the division. They have now had fewer shots on target than Swansea City, and one more than Sunderland. They are a functional side aided by the dearth in consistency of their peers.
Van Gaal again blamed the finishing of his forwards after the game, and Anthony Martial in particular was guilty of profligacy. Again though, this is no fluke. United may have had 21 shots against West Ham (of which only one was on target), but 11 were from outside the penalty area. The sluggishness of their attacking play affords teams time to position themselves accordingly and thwart the threat. United’s midfielders are left seeking the perfect pass, or shooting from distance.
This week, the mood has changed at Old Trafford. Stories have emerged regarding the potential identity of Van Gaal’s replacement, an indication that all is not well. It doesn’t matter how well the defence plays when Manchester United only win three of their last ten games. The list of opposition teams in those ten in full: CSKA Moscow (twice), Middlesbrough, Manchester City, Crystal Palace, West Brom, Watford, PSV, Leicester, West Ham.
Failing to beat Wolfsburg on Tuesday will leave the Premier League as Van Gaal’s only meaningful chance to prove that he deserves more patience and, more importantly, more spending from the board.
On Friday we wrote that this was an opportunity for Oxlade-Chamberlain to hold down a starting place on the right side of Arsenal’s midfield. On Saturday, Oxlade-Chamberlain showed why Wenger has made him the jack of several positions but the master of none.
Most young midfielders fluctuate between highs and lows, fraught with inconsistencies but capable of the sublime. Oxlade-Chamberlain is the opposite. He’s becoming a regular 6/10 player, and that’s intended as a stinging insult.
I could write 500 words on why Benteke must now be fearful for his long-term Liverpool future after again failing to impress from the start. But Matt Stead saved me the trouble.
It really hasn’t gone well.
Really wouldn't be bothered if I never saw James Milner play for us again.
— The Anfield Chat (@TheAnfieldChat) December 6, 2015
Now up to second on the list of the Premier League’s top scorers of own goals. It’s a compliment to Skrtel’s acting skills that he still looks surprised every time. Perhaps it’s time to stop trying to intercept crosses with your wrong foot.
Consistency and seizing the advantage
Whether or not you care about how well England’s biggest clubs are playing probably comes down to the importance you place on European performance, but there will be plenty of supporters delighted at the craziness of this Premier League season. Competition is the key to enjoyment.
The abject inconsistency of the typical elite has made the title and top-four race more intriguing, but there is something inherently dissatisfying about watching supposedly good teams play badly. The increase in transfer budget of the Premier League rest has aided the squeeze, but the underperformance of the league’s supposed best players cannot be overlooked.
There is no blanket reason for this deficiency, but the inability of Arsenal, Chelsea, Manchester United and Manchester City to play proactive football is infuriating in the extreme. Too often those clubs are guilty of waiting for something to happen in matches, rather than making it happen. Their opponents are good enough to avoid catastrophic errors, learning to keep things tight, let the home crowd will grow restless and then force the issue themselves.
Even Liverpool under Klopp, until now the only side bar Leicester to understand the importance of dominant, high-tempo football, fell flat on their faces at Newcastle. They played the new United way, ponderously passing the ball and hoping opposition cracks would appear.
There is a strange separation forming this season, whereby the overarching picture contains intrigue aplenty but the individual matches themselves have often been less then edifying. There are honourable exceptions (Tottenham, Leicester and Everton the three most obvious), but the bigger clubs have all fallen short of expectation. And so to…
Goals and the ‘big’ teams
Seventy-three percent of Leicester City’s league games this season have contained three or more goals, and 40% have contained four or more. Claudio Ranieri’s side are a breath of fresh air.
Comparing that to the other sides at the top makes for grim reading. The following indicates the percentage of games with three or more goals (Figure from previous season in brackets):
Liverpool – 40% (2014/15: 53%)
Tottenham – 40% (71%)
Manchester United – 47% (55%)
Arsenal – 53% (63%)
Manchester City – 60% (58%)
Just because the bigger teams aren’t playing as well, don’t make the mistake of thinking that suddenly makes things more interesting. Certainly not when their games are televised more often.
Don’t say anything
“Haha, I thought Liverpool were going to win the league,” was the predictable response after their defeat to Newcastle.
Maybe they will and maybe they won’t, but if this season has taught us anything it’s that mocking any long-term prediction is foolish. The one rule of a mad campaign is that every team will have its clusterf**k days. It’s a) minimising their frequency and b) making hay while the sun shines that will decide the order of the top six come May.
“The reason why we have bought Schweinsteiger is because he’s a player who can lead and guide a team,” said Van Gaal. “It’s not just because of his football abilities that we bought him. Until now we haven’t seen the best of Schweinsteiger, the player I saw at Bayern Munich. I believe that in every match we have played he could have played better.” Ouch.
“I think I have to discuss with Bastian Schweinsteiger and not with you,” Van Gaal continued. “Otherwise we have a tactical article about Bastian and then the reaction of the legends to that article so I don’t think that is wise. But I know he can be better.”
Because United needed another problem.
The darkest day of Monk’s Swansea career. Many are wondering if the sun will shine again on the Liberty Stadium while he is in charge.
“It was a very bleak performance, in the first half especially,” said Monk after the 3-0 defeat to Leicester.. “I could debate their first two goals. I thought the first was handball and the second was offside, but there is no point. It is very frustrating and it is hard to put a finger on it. We were extremely poor, the results are not acceptable for the players, myself or the fans. The club deserve better than what we are giving them.”
So soon after the match, Monk looked a broken man. Swansea are growing increasingly concerned about his ability to turn round a worrying run of results, with very few of the club’s players in any form. A new manager would surely stave off the threat of relegation?
“No one knows the principles of the club better than myself and no one will work harder and fight for this club more than myself,” Monk said later on, clearly reinvigorated after a bout of soul-searching. “It’s as simple as that. It’s never, ever a question. I will fight as hard as I can because I want the club to do well. I’m fully aware it’s my responsibility.”
Talk of fight and hard work are the staple buzzwords when a manager’s back has been forced against wall, but it’s a vain plea of strength. Swansea travel to Manchester City next Saturday. Heavy defeat could mark the end of a fall as rapid as Monk’s rise.
Koeman picked a bad time to publicly urge Southampton to invest in him and the playing squad. A 6-1 cup defeat to Liverpool was followed up by a 1-1 draw at home to the Premier League’s worst side.
Still only nine points from second place, Southampton have slipped to 12th in the table. With three tough games to follow against Crystal Palace (a), Tottenham (h) and Arsenal (h), Koeman will demand improvement from a group of players giving the impression of coasting through this season.
Four points from their last eight league games, with Everton, Manchester United and Tottenham to come in their next three. A few honourable exceptions aside, the squad just isn’t strong enough to cope.