A new breed
There is an argument to say that the rise of the Premier League rest is exclusively down to so many of the bigger clubs suffering from their own individual weaknesses. Manchester United and Chelsea are in crisis, Liverpool have slumped, Manchester City’s away record is mediocre at best and Arsenal are… well, Arsenal are still Arsenal.
Yet it would be immensely patronising to Leicester, Crystal Palace and Watford to ruffle their hair before reminding them that the bigger boys will be back in a minute. In Claudio Ranieri, Alan Pardew and Quique Sanchez Flores, those clubs have managers who have proven themselves adept at identifying the strengths of their own squads and flaws in the opposition.
More importantly for the neutral, all three clubs are incredibly entertaining, more so than most of the elite they are embarrassing. Leicester play the best counter-attacking football in the league, Palace use the pace of wingers to unhinge teams and Watford play with two strikers in an era when that tactic is somehow deemed uncouth.
Rather than mourn the catastrophic mess that the Premier League’s biggest clubs have made of 2015/16, let’s instead congratulate three managers for exploiting those failings. Intrigue and entertainment have formed the staple diet of a startling last four months.
Last 6 matches form league table in the Premier League 1 Leicester 2 Crystal Palace 3 Watford 4 Bournemouth
— Richard Kaufman (@KaufmanRichard) December 19, 2015
Leicester City and efficiency
Top of the Premier League at Christmas, the opposite position to exactly 12 months ago. Leicester supporters must be getting red raw from the pinching as they wake each morning. No, this isn’t all a dream. Leicester have now won seven and drawn three of their last ten matches, and have a five-point lead until late on Monday evening.
Neither is it a Christmas miracle. Leicester did not play particularly well against Everton, yet Ranieri and his staff have consistently attacked the opposition’s weakest area and exploited it for their own gain. The best way to beat Everton is to pass them the gun and let them take aim at their own feet. Saturday was a perfect example.
It is Leicester’s efficiency that is their most impressive attribute. Five shots on target and 33% possession produced three goals and three more points. They have at least five points more than any other Premier League team and yet rank 18th in terms of possession and 19th for passes completed. Leicester have stuck to their counter-attacking strategy and maximised it to the full. Who needs a Plan B when Plan A is so damn effective?
This efficiency is also demonstrated by their shot conversion rate, the highest in the division at 20.9%. In fact, the gap between Leicester and third place in that list is greater than the gap between third and 14th.
For now, Leicester’s key performers are refusing to get carried away. Riyad Mahrez spoke after the game of the 40-point mark, comical given that the club have already reached 38. “If it is the end of April and we are still there I will think about the title,” said Ranieri. “Right now I will just enjoy it.”
And why shouldn’t he? This magical run may well not last (Leicester face Liverpool (twice), Manchester City (twice), Tottenham and Arsenal before mid-February), but Ranieri and his players have earned the right to banish any negative thoughts.
If Leicester can go from last to first in 12 months, so can every other team too. They are the feelgood story of the season, the inspiration for every other non-elite club.
Norwich City, fear and big games
“Those worries from earlier in the season creep back in towards the end of the game. We need to eradicate it, we need to get rid of that fear factor” – Neil, January 19.
‘Norwich boss Alex Neil to tell his squad to play without fear in their play-off final clash against Middlesbrough at Wembley Stadium’ – MailOnline, May 21.
‘Norwich City manager Neil promises that his team won’t show any fear’ – ITV, August 5.
“We’ve got to go to Anfield believing that we can win. I think that’s the biggest bit. The thing I say to the players is that the worst thing that can happen is that you’ll lose the game. Why be scared?” – Neil, September 18.
“We’re a good side and we don’t fear teams. We’re going to go and try and do as well as we can in every game” – Neil, September 27.
“If you are working on the basis that you are fearful for your future then that is only going to hamper you” – Neil, December 18.
‘Fear’ is very much Alex Neil’s buzzword, but it was Louis van Gaal who was left fearing for his own job after Norwich beat Manchester United 2-1 at Old Trafford. The obvious temptation is to focus on the shortcomings of the home side, but Norwich themselves deserve immense credit for the victory.
“Arguably it is the biggest win of my career,” Neil said after the game, “Looking at the gulf between the two clubs and the resources that Manchester United have, you could say that. But on the pitch it is eleven against eleven. We always take strength from the team, while bigger teams can have individuals that they try to make the difference.
“I always thought if we didn’t make silly errors, we would have enough quality to make chances. They had all their big hitters and we knew they would press and try to get in our faces. We decided not to risk anything early doors. Then we got the opportunity to hurt them later in the game. You always believe you have a chance. Our performances against other big teams suggested we wouldn’t get turned over. But this time we also limited our mistakes which gave us a chance.”
Neil is right to focus on Norwich’s performances against the Premier League’s best, and right too not to be fearful ahead of such fixtures. Six of the club’s 17 points have come against Everton, Manchester United, Liverpool and Arsenal. Norwich have conceded goals at a rate of 1.2 in their five matches against last season’s top six, and 1.9 per game against the rest. They have shown that they can rise to the occasion, but too readily slip up away from the spotlight.
Now Norwich must build on this performance. After visiting Tottenham on Boxing Day they have five consecutive league fixtures against bottom-half teams. Having banished fear against the Premier League’s best, Norwich must have the wherewithal to match that bravery against the rest.
Goals against both Manchester clubs in the last two months. Jerome now has as many goals in his last seven Premier League games (two) as his previous 28.
Odion Ighalo and Troy Deeney
Deeney and Ighalo might just be the most effective strike pairing in a division obsessed with 4-2-3-1 or a variation thereof. They cost a combined fee of £650,000, largely thanks to the murky nature of the latter’s arrival from Italy. Watford supporters couldn’t give a damn.
Not only did Watford’s two forwards combine to score the second goal, they bullied Liverpool’s players. Shoulder barges, aerial challenges and tussles for the ball left Mamadou Sakho, Martin Skrtel, Emre Can, Lucas and Jordan Henderson helpless. It became cringeworthy to watch. There was also time for the ‘Iggy Chop’, Ighalo’s now famous drag-back. Poor Sakho had twisted blood.
Between them, Ighalo and Deeney have provided 58 league goals and 19 assists since the start of last season. It seems unfair on their largely ignored teammates, but Watford’s strike partnership has taken them to heights supporters never thought possible.
Watford sit one point off the top four at Christmas, exactly as they were a year ago. Just in a higher division. A remarkable story.
Eden Hazard was named PFA Player of the Year last season after 14 goals and nine assists in the Premier League. Mahrez has managed 13 goals and seven assists by Christmas. Oof.
Oscar and freedom
Watching Oscar pull off a rabona cross and three backheels in the opening 20 minutes at Stamford Bridge was like seeing an orca re-released into the wild. These were tricks of joy, a celebration of long-awaited freedom.
I wrote plenty here about Jose Mourinho’s suffocating effect on his squad during his final few weeks in charge, but never was that more evident than in Oscar on Saturday. The Brazilian was the game’s best player, thriving in a new-found freedom.
A first league goal since his debut four months ago. A lot has changed since.
For a man who ranks PR just behind oxygen and ahead of water in a list of life essentials, Saturday provided the perfect cure to a dented ego. Mourinho’s name was sung by three sets of fans in two hours. He will not be out of work for long.
Tottenham and Mauricio Pochettino
Welcome relief after a three-game wobble. The flaws in those around them mean that Tottenham have moved from fifth to fourth by taking just five points from four league games. Consistency is not a requirement in this season of shocks.
Another superb finish to end a mini-drought of three league games without a goal. The fanfare of last season’s majesty may have been tempered, but Kane’s ability and form remain. Only four Premier League players have more goals this season.
A victory assisted by the stupidity of an opposition player, but no less valuable than those against Chelsea and Manchester United. Having taken ten points in the first four months of the season, Bournemouth have taken nine more in the last 16 days.
More away league wins in 2015 than Manchester United, Manchester City, Liverpool and Chelsea. Two more than Juventus and Atletico Madrid, the same number as Real Madrid, one fewer than Bayern Munich and two fewer than Barcelona.
Reckon Alan Pardew will take that.
Six penalties scored on Saturday. As the lovely Matt Furniss of Opta revealed, there has only been one day in Premier League history with more. February 5, 2011 was a special day indeed.
64% of the way to Jamie Vardy’s record. Be still my beating heart.
8 – Romelu Lukaku is the 1st Everton player to score in eight successive matches in all comps since Dave Hickson between Jan-Mar 1954. Great
— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) December 19, 2015
Swansea and West Ham
Due to resource shortages in Christmas week, this Winners and Losers had to be written on Sunday. With that in mind, Swansea and West Ham should both be heartily congratulated for producing a match on Sunday afternoon containing almost nothing of note.
Manchester United and Louis van Gaal
Nobody likes listening to a broken record, so go here for thoughts on why Van Gaal will surely soon be out of a job.
A fortnight ago, the paucity of available options made making a change risky. Now that problem has been answered. Even if Jose Mourinho isn’t considered the right option, United must act soon to halt this slide. Another season out of the Champions League would be a PR disaster.
Last week, this column nervously suggested that Martinez was underperforming badly at Everton. A week later, and those thoughts were replicated in a bonus Sunday Mailbox. One match-going Everton supporter thinks it’s time for the Spaniard to move on.
Everton’s ability to keep hold of their star assets in the summer was a great coup for the club, but piled the pressure on Martinez. No longer could he reason that a constant stream of departures had placed a ceiling on Everton’s ambition. This was their breakthrough season, empty pockets filled by bigger broadcasting deals.
The achievements of Leicester and Watford this season have highlighted the inadequacies of the biggest clubs, but also those below the elite. Everton supporters can look at Watford’s team and ask why they have gained only one place on last year’s position. “We’ve got Barkley, Lukaku, Delofeu, Stones, Coleman and Baines,” they would no doubt remind their manager.
The answer lies in Martinez’s inability to organise a defence. Everton are wholly inadequate when defending set-pieces and constantly vulnerable to the counter-attack. Their flair players are wonderfully useful members of the squad, but leave the central midfield area exposed. Gareth Barry and Tom Cleverley are not sufficient protection for a defence, particularly when both full-backs are permitted to surge forward.
Martinez quickly needs to find a solution. Both his Wigan and Everton teams have been entertaining, but ultimately flawed. When assessing other managers with less capable squads, Everton’s manager suffers badly by comparison.
Whole books could be filled with just how abysmal Liverpool were against Watford at Vicarage Road. To save me the effort and you the boredom, let’s break it down:
– Adam Bogdan is a back-up goalkeeper for a Championship club, not one with top-four aspirations in the Premier League. Did nobody learn from Brad Jones, Diego Cavalieri, Charles Itandje, Scott Carson, Paul Jones, Chris Kirkland or Pegguy Arphexad?
– See below for Skrtel’s roll of dishonour, while I clean up the sick.
– Let’s be generous and say that Mamadou Sakho looked rusty after coming back from injury.
– What was Lucas doing as a central defender?
– What has happened to Emre Can? He got bullied by Watford’s midfielders, and lost possession 26 times. Knackered, perhaps?
– Jordan Henderson was again limp and lacklustre, offering a note-perfect impression of Joe Allen. He lost possession more than any other player on the pitch, and had a passing accuracy of 67%. Cheers captain.
– Why do Liverpool players possess such a magical ability to cross with such poor accuracy and weight that it is impossible to discern that they are professional footballers?
– Adam Lallana is fluff. He may play up to a level where he is useful to Jurgen Klopp, but is yet to show consistency in his 16 months at Anfield. Sorry, but that £25m was silliness.
– Alberto Moreno might be the Premier League’s most frustrating player.
– Actually, on current form Philippe Coutinho is.
– Or is it Roberto Firmino? No shots or chances created from the Brazilian. A false nine with the emphasis on the ‘false’. Won’t somebody pick him in his best position (which is exactly where Coutinho plays).
– Firmino also loves an offside. I mean head-over-heels, marriage, babies, happily ever after loves an offside. He got caught four times against Watford.
– In fact, Liverpool set a record for the most offsides in a Premier League game this season against Watford. Top work.
– Christian Benteke really is in trouble if he’s left on the bench until the 74th minute in favour of a false nine formation that so obviously wasn’t working.
– Liverpool have earned some tremendous results under Jurgen Klopp, but the squad is in need of major surgery. Following the early upturn in form, one point from matches against Newcastle, Watford and West Brom has poured cold water on Kloppmania. As the German himself said, this is a long-term project.
– Here ends the bonus fun-size 16 Conclusions.
Rather like Branislav Ivanovic at Chelsea, Skrtel’s dire form has drifted under the radar of late. It was therefore awfully good of him to play so appallingly against Watford that you couldn’t help but notice his ineptitude.
The only saving grace is that Skrtel’s afternoon was cut short after 40 minutes. Add a new central defender to Jurgen Klopp’s growing shopping list.
Mata has created 12 chances in his last nine league games. For a senior player, that’s inexcusable. Louis van Gaal sure isn’t helping, but Mata’s also guilty of not helping himself.
The return of Smalling to United’s defence was supposed to bring about an improvement in their defending. If anything, it’s made them more uncertain. Playing with Phil Jones will do that.
Since announcing that Southampton’s squad needs more investment, Koeman has led the club to five defeats and a home draw with Aston Villa. His point may well be valid, but the Dutchman wants to be careful that he is still in charge to spend any afforded funds. Southampton have only won one more league match than West Brom and two more than Swansea in 2015.
Still can’t get a game. The only two options for Herrera under Van Gaal seem to be misuse or ignorance.
Bogdan’s presence as Liverpool’s No. 2 goalkeeper has always raised a titter, but on Sunday we got the full stand-up show. His handling for Nathan Ake’s opener was a piece of performance art, the punch into his own player later on the perfect encore.
Chelsea have Asmir Begovic. Arsenal have David Ospina. Manchester United have Sergio Romero. Manchester City have Willy Caballero. Tottenham have Michel Vorm. In Bogdan, Liverpool have a cartoon character goalkeeper.
Rather than be too harsh, let’s instead judge Bogdan by this line from his Wikipedia page:
‘During the 2014–15 season, Bogdán only made 10 appearances for Bolton, after being displaced as the team’s first-choice goalkeeper by Andy Lonergan.’
It’s not a line that screams ‘immediate move to Liverpool’.
Graziano Pelle – No goal and two shots on target in five matches.
Dusan Tadic – No goal and two shots on target in five matches.
Sadio Mane – No goal and four shots on target in five matches.
To add to that misery, Jose Fonte registered a passing accuracy of just 46.2% against Tottenham. Going more direct really isn’t working.
Saying that Chelsea were there for the taking is a bit strong, but Sunderland had an opportunity to feed off the mutinous atmosphere inside Stamford Bridge. They passed up the chance with their worst 30 minutes of football this season. That’s saying something.
After the game, Allardyce’s mood was low. “I think we made it really easy for them, giving a goal away from a corner,” he said. “That lifted their confidence and we then never competed in the areas we should have done. The more we gave them space, their confidence grew further. For me, it was really disappointing from my team to have played and performed like we did in the first half.”
Allardyce was heralded as a saviour, but Sunderland have taken nine points from his first nine matches in charge. Victories over Crystal Palace and Newcastle were noteworthy, but he has lost six of his nine games. Having taken over with Sunderland five points from safety, they are now sat…five points from safety. A reputation hangs in the balance.
Another bafflingly inconsistent Premier League team. Since April, Stoke have beaten Liverpool, Tottenham, Chelsea and Manchester City at the Britannia, scoring 12 times and conceding only once. They’ve also lost to West Brom, Watford and Crystal Palace at home, conceding five times and scoring once.
Gomis has been caught offside more times this season than Everton, Manchester City, Leicester, Watford, West Brom and Aston Villa. Amazing work.
The sort of brainless challenge which makes you want to shake footballers until they learn. But they never learn.