Consecutive league victories for the first time since November 2014, enough to take Newcastle ahead of Chelsea and up to 15th in the Premier League. After reportedly being given two matches to save his job, Steve McClaren has responded in a manner few thought possible.
In a similar manner to the victory over Liverpool, Newcastle rode their luck at times at White Hart Lane. They are finally earning their fortune. Fabricio Coloccini has at last begun marshalling his fellow defenders after two years of being captain in name alone, while Rob Elliot’s form since Tim Krul’s injury has been magnificent. McClaren’s side are, eventually, staying in matches past the 60th minute. That’s when teams can prey on the frustrations and limitations of the opposition.
Newcastle are not safe yet, of course; this is a club that has repeatedly lurched back into choppy waters just as the seas grow calm. But, just a fortnight after they looked doomed, at least McClaren has them facing in the right direction.
Newcastle’s young forwards
‘They could do with more of a British backbone to the team. They have bought loads of foreign forwards in,’ ‘wrote’ Harry Redknapp after Newcastle had beaten Liverpool 2-0 last weekend. ‘A couple came off the bench on Sunday and you are thinking: ‘Who is he, where has he come from?”
As we wrote here, only Redknapp could be ignorant to the identities of Ayoze Perez and Florian Thauvin. We can only presume that he would not have changed his opinion had Aleksandar Mitrovic also been introduced.
Sometimes fate and karma are lazy beasts, lying around in the sun when there is valuable work to be done and people to be made to look foolish. This time, both were gloriously prompt.
Newcastle’s two goals against Spurs were scored by Perez (foreign, 22) and Mitrovic (foreign, 21), the latter assisting the former for the winner at White Hart Lane. Both celebrated like happy idiots, delirious at their success in front of thousands of travelling Geordies. It turns out the foreigns might be alright after all.
One can’t imagine Ramsey being anything but polite, but he has made no secret of his desire to play as a central midfielder. “I like to be involved a lot more in the game,” he said in May. “When you are out wide you don’t touch the ball for three or four minutes and I like to be at the heart of everything, trying to drive the team forward.”
Fast forward seven months, and that chance has arrived. “I wish Santi a speedy recovery, and Francis [Coquelin] as well,” Ramsey said last week. “We have been hit hard by injuries this season but it gives players the opportunities to take. I have made no secret that I prefer to play in the middle and hopefully now I can stay there.”
As we wrote here, Ramsey offers a different skill-set to Santi Cazorla, but the Welshman is fabulous to watch when in his pomp. It is performances like the one against Aston Villa which prompted Steven Gerrard to (hyperbolically) label him the best attacking central midfielder in the country.
There will be far tougher opponents than Villa, of course, but early signs are good. The injuries may well be stacking up for Arsenal, but Cazorla’s long absence should now be considered low on the club’s list of crises.
After two goals in his first nine club games this season, Giroud is in a spell where everything he touches turns to goals. He has five in his last three and 11 in 13. Giroud remains one of the streakiest strikers in the Premier League.
Bournemouth and the power of morale
“I think when you look back at this week, it has just been a great week for the club and not the type of thing that has ever happened here so we are certainly embracing the good feeling,” said Eddie Howe after watching his team beat Manchester United. He’s not wrong.
There was a sense of disbelief in Howe’s voice as he reflected upon two of the club’s most important ever victories, achieved seven days apart. Yet he should not underplay his role in the success. It would have been very easy for Bournemouth to mournfully lick their literal wounds after Callum Wilson, Max Gradel and Tyrone Mings were ruled out with long-term injuries, but Howe’s reaction to adversity was admirable.
“I judge the team knowing what it is capable of from what I see, not because we’re missing players,” Howe said. “So for me, it’s not an excuse – that can be a state of mind that can be a real negative track that you can’t escape from, you could blame everything on that. The reality is we’re where we are at the moment because of ourselves, not because of players missing through injury. We haven’t performed well enough and we’ve made some individual mistakes.”
With Howe’s influence, Bournemouth felt capable of retaining morale through adversity. In a fight for Premier League survival, that can be the most powerful weapon. While Aston Villa look distraught, Howe is preaching the power of positive thinking.
There has also been an important tweak in Bournemouth’s style over the past few weeks. None of the pressing, running and hard work has gone, but Howe has clearly instructed his full-backs not to push as high up the field. Moving right-back Simon Francis to central defence has proved to be a masterstroke.
More importantly still, the form of Bournemouth’s goalkeepers have improved dramatically. After the defeat to Newcastle on November 7, we noted that Adam Federici (42.86%) and Artur Boruc (50.00%) had the two lowest save percentages of any Premier League goalkeeper this season. Since that game, Boruc’s save percentage has been 90.9%, the second highest in the league. Every little helps.
“I just felt coming in and trying to take my mind off things would make it a bit easier. My family would want me to play,” said Arter after Bournemouth’s victory. The midfielder had suffered the tragic loss of a child at birth only a few days earlier.
“While people maybe grieve in their own way, I found it easier to come in and play and try and do everyone proud. I said before the game that one reason I wanted to play was to dedicate the game to everyone associated with my family – my family that are here and not here.”
Sometimes football can be more than just a game, or just a job.
When West Brom were brushed aside by Manchester United at Old Trafford last month, there was concern expressed for Tony Pulis’ side. They sat 13th in the table, only six ahead of the bottom three with games against Arsenal (h), West Ham (a), Tottenham (h) and Liverpool (a) to come. Nervous glances were exchanged at the Hawthorns. Another relegation battle?
Fast forward five weeks, and Pulis will have eaten his breakfast on Monday with a satisfied smile on his face. His West Brom side may have conceded a late, late equaliser to Liverpool, but Pulis had wound up Jurgen Klopp something rotten. Getting under the skin is what he does best.
Moreover, Pulis’ team had beaten Arsenal, and drawn their other three fixtures. They are now four points behind Liverpool and three behind Everton.
“Man of the people, a man of south London.” The rogue’s rogue.
— Patrick O'Connor (@PatrickEagles15) December 13, 2015
A beautiful man doing beautiful things. Why can’t life always be so easy?
The Premier League’s form striker is a tag at least three forwards are fighting for, but Ighalo’s majestic run continues. His tenth goal of the season really should have been supplemented by his 11th, but Watford supporters will forgive such profligacy. The Nigerian now has 26 league goals in 2015.
Quique Sanchez Flores
Premier League experience as the key to survival? Pah!
Minutes are still hard to come by for Manchester City’s academy’s first potential star, but his impact has been exceptional.
Take out Iheanacho’s league goals and City would have four fewer points. Take out all the league goals scored by Sergio Aguero, Raheem Sterling, Kevin De Bruyne, David Silva and Yaya Toure and they would have five fewer points. Big goals from a young man.
Sarah Winterburn did it, either to save me the bother or because she can’t stand to read my love notes any longer.
Fact fans might be interested to know that Lukaku is now only eight career appearances behind Owen Hargreaves. Which makes my brain hurt.
Louis van Gaal and expectations
The question was always in which direction Manchester United would lurch from functional. Either the goals would begin to flow, as Van Gaal promised, or their mightily impressive shot conversion rate (whatever the manager may say about missed chances) would falter. Not only has the latter occurred, but United now seem incapable of defending too.
United’s defeat to Bournemouth could be explained away by an injury crisis which leaves Van Gaal down to the bare bones, but that squarely ignores Eddie Howe’s own issues in that regard. Excuses are wearing thin at Old Trafford. It has been a disastrous week for United’s manager.
It was no surprise that Van Gaal went on the offensive in midweek, for that is the style to which we have grown accustomed. Yet even those who are desensitised to the Dutchman’s bravado were shocked by the manner of his attack on United’s support.
“The problem is that we have to meet the expectations – and the expectations at a club like Manchester United are very high, and that’s our problem,” Van Gaal said. “You have to analyse the club as it is now. You cannot compare it with 10 years ago, because there is an evolution in football and in European football. Now we have many more clubs who have the money, who also have the structure to – and are able to – win something.
“The confirmation of that is evident every week. The bottom clubs can beat the top teams. There is no other league in which that happens as often as it does in the Premier League. So it’s very difficult for a Premier League club to match with the other clubs in the Champions League.”
Expectations work both ways, Louis. It may be difficult for Manchester United to match Paris St Germain, Barcelona and Bayern Munich in the Champions League, but PSV and Wolfsburg should not be a step too far. It might be hard to win the title with Manchester City and Arsenal both challenging, but no more so than in previous eras. It might be tough to win Premier League games away from home against clubs with more money than ever before, but that doesn’t explain either the manager’s own baffling substitutions or the fear that seems to be clouding United’s squad like a suffocating smog. If Van Gaal believes that exiting the Champions League at the group stage and going five matches without a win is due to “high expectations”, he’s in the wrong job.
The comparisons with David Moyes may be unhelpful and ultimately meaningless, but Van Gaal should be deeply embarrassed by the continued association. Having spent £250m, isolated some key players and controversially hung his hat on others, even his own arrogance must concede that his future is in question.
Van Gaal’s crown hasn’t so much slipped, as dropped to the floor. The subsequent clanging sound can be heard in all corners of Old Trafford.
United’s hierarchy and Pep Guardiola
Last week, Manchester United let it be known that they were fully behind Van Gaal, with the accompanying assumption that Ryan Giggs was being primed as his replacement. It’s difficult to think of anything less inspiring, particularly with Guardiola potentially available and eyeing United as the perfect next project in his career. There was even talk of Van Gaal’s contract being extended beyond its current 2017 end date.
Following the latest two defeats, the message has changed. Reports suggest that United will try and tempt Guardiola next summer. Quite frankly, they’d be stupid not to.
Yet the blurred party line and mixed messages epitomise a club that is being mismanaged at the top level. Ed Woodward remains an unconvincing negotiator and an even less convincing candidate to lead the club forward. The suspicion is that United have managed to let Manchester City steal the best (and willing) candidate to take the club forward through their own ineptitude. It would be Woodward’s greatest trick yet.
It’s hot take time: Roberto Martinez is underachieving at Everton.
Everton play some sexy football, of that there is no doubt. Football is at its most alluring when young players pass, move and interchange with one another. Martinez’s side do exactly that. They have the ability to make good teams look foolish.
Yet Martinez has been given the golden ticket. He has a squad containing three players who would move for £40m or more (Romelu Lukaku, Ross Barkley and John Stones), unique outside Europe’s elite clubs. He also has James McCarthy and Seamus Coleman as senior key players, Gerard Deulofeu maturing, Leighton Baines returning and young players (Brendan Galloway the prime example) emerging. The sun is shining; this should be Everton’s breakthrough season.
So why has Martinez’s side only taken 23 points from their 16 matches? Why have they only won two of their last nine Premier League games? Why do they sit as close to the relegation zone as the top three?
Everton are sculpted in Martinez’s own image. They are friendly, welcoming and play football ‘the right way’. That makes them likeable to the neutral, but also easy to ruffle. They throw away leads, concede goals and allow sides back into matches.
Since the beginning of last season, Everton have conceded two or more goals in a league match on 21 occasions. That’s the same number as Sunderland. In the last two weeks they have dropped four points from winning positions, both against promoted clubs. Last season, they squandered 19 points when leading. They kept as many clean sheets as Burnley and Hull.
After thwarting interest in their key assets, Everton have improved their league position by one place so far from last season to this. Martinez’s position should not be under pressure, but the club’s hierarchy should be pushing for an improvement. When a club’s weakness is so apparent, it only becomes easier to exploit and harder to solve. It is becoming Martinez’s blind spot.
Tottenham and a thin squad
If the performance against West Brom failed to push Tottenham’s players into a higher gear, the defeat to Newcastle should. The concern is that a few of Mauricio Pochettino’s first team are already half-knackered.
Tottenham could have extended their lead after half-time against Newcastle, but grew leggy as the game continued. Eric Dier and Dele Alli looked weary, Harry Kane a non-entity, Jan Vertonghen lacked in concentration and Danny Rose was caught out of position. The substitution to bring on Heung Son-Min for Tom Carroll was that of a manager showing intent, but he misread the situation. It only made it easier for Newcastle to find space and harder for Spurs’ players to cover it.
If this was the effect of fatigue, it would be no surprise. Nine Spurs players have already started 15 or more club games this season, with almost every one of those also playing in each of the international breaks. Pochettino’s decision to treat the Europa League seriously is admirable, but Tottenham’s squad is thinner than their top-six peers.
Pochettino must now look to rotate where he can over the festive fixtures. Six Tottenham players have started 15 or more league games this season – compared with three for Arsenal – but it is the ages of those players that is most crucial. Kane, Dier and Alli have played almost without rest over the last three months.
Having the exuberance of youth is a huge advantage for Tottenham’s high-intensity, pressing style. Yet it also dictates that burnout is a relevant danger as the season progresses. The return of Nabil Bentaleb, Clinton N’Jie and Ryan Mason could not come at a better time.
Having been unbeaten in the league since his return to the team, Tottenham promptly went and lost the first game Dembele missed. Pochettino’s Mr Nobody has become a key player.
It’s all very well blowing Chelsea and Manchester City away, but that positive effect is then diluted if you take one point from West Brom and Newcastle. If the loss last week was a blip following a fine run of results, Liverpool’s performance against West Brom was far less acceptable. Klopp will demand more if Liverpool are going to progress as quickly as many would like.
Liverpool and perennial outrage
“This moment was an explosion and it was the best atmosphere since I’ve been here,” said Klopp after the game. “I really enjoyed it. I don’t know if it’s normal in England but I wanted to say thank you. Together with the team, it was great.”
That was the Liverpool manager’s explanation of why his side went to the Kop after the end of the game. It also happened after every home game in Dortmund, win, lose or draw. ‘You paid your money to watch us so we’re applauding you for doing so,’ is the message. It is also a mechanism for conveying to the players just how much their performances mean to the people and the city.
After criticising supporters at Anfield for leaving early from matches, this was Klopp and his players thanking them for sticking with the team. Klopp used his pre-match interview to admit that his players would struggle to overcome doubt within Anfield, and the fans responded by dragging their team through.
Cue the melodrama. ‘Klopp and players celebrate in front of Kop’ reads the Metro’s headline. ‘Should Liverpool be celebrating a 2-2 draw at home against West Brom?’ asked the Daily Mirror.
Woe betide Klopp for trying to instil a bond between players and supporters, in an age where the gap between the two has never been greater. Woe betide him for ensuring that those supporters will again react in positive manner in the same situation. Finally, woe betide him for trying to eventually generate an atmosphere like this:
There were reasons to criticise at Anfield on Sunday, Liverpool’s inability to defend set-pieces the most obvious. A manager and his players saluting the crowd for their support comes way, way down on the list.
Truly appalling during the first 30 minutes, and now sinking without trace. Remi Garde looks helpless to turn around the mess Tim Sherwood left. Four points from 11 games – remember that when someone soon inevitably writes that Sherwood should have been given a longer opportunity.
If Garde is unable to save Villa from relegation, it should not be a stain upon his conscience or managerial CV. Arrigo Sacchi, Rinus Michels and Brian Clough would have struggled when the mood was this low.
Here is a list of players with more shots on target in the Premier League than Borini in 2015: Victor Anichebe, Emmanuel Riviere, Joel Ward, Charles N’Zogbia, Marc Pugh, Bobby Zamora, Tom Huddlestone, Ashley Westwood, Steven N’Zonzi, Hector Bellerin, Kevin Nolan, Craig Dawson, Eduardo Vargas, Joey Barton, Stephen Quinn, Dejan Lovren, Sam Vokes, Craig Gardner, Remy Cabella, Patrick van Aanholt, Wes Morgan, Stephen Ireland.
He’s a striker who moved for £8m this summer.
Three vital wins since joining Sunderland, but Saturday’s performance was a stark reminder that Allardyce has staked his reputation on keeping Sunderland up. He currently has nine points from eight league games in charge, with Chelsea, Manchester City and Liverpool to come in their next three.
After a run of six wins and two draws in eight matches, the tide is turning for Ronald Koeman. Southampton have lost four and drawn one (at home to Aston Villa) of their last five matches, and he left Dusan Tadic and Graziano Pelle on the bench on Saturday. January might be a busy month indeed.
He wasn’t a Premier League player in 2012, and he certainly isn’t one now. Hutton’s greatest contribution since joining Aston Villa is to be the answer to the following pub quiz question: Which Scottish international joined Real Mallorca on loan in 2013?
Forgotten that, hadn’t you? Mallorca are still trying.