Top of the winners as victory was ensured even before Leicester and Arsenal slipped up; there was a necessary pomp to City’s play in the final hour against Crystal Palace. City have too often looked hamstrung by a lack of confidence or cohesion in the final third. This was a reminder of just how dangerous they can be when it clicks.
City’s title challenge will not hinge on their home results, but there is something deeply pleasing about watching David Silva, Sergio Aguero and Kevin de Bruyne fizz and buzz around the final third. Manuel Pellegrini was even able to rest Yaya Toure, Raheem Sterling and Fernandinho.
For all their faults away from home, City remain a dominant force at the Etihad. In the last year alone, they have scored four or more times in a home match on nine occasions.
Goals in four consecutive club games for the first time since March 2012. Rooney was largely anonymous against Liverpool, starved of service and unable to influence proceedings when dropping deep. That he fired home United’s winner when presented with the opportunity provides plenty enough reason for him to stay in the team.
David de Gea
I wrote plenty about David de Gea, Manchester United and other, less complimentary words in 16 Conclusions, but it’s worth dwelling on the form of United’s goalkeeper. After the game, Louis van Gaal insinuated that De Gea was merely doing his job at Anfield. Given that he was one of very few in that camp, it’s worth piling on the praise.
For all the talk over Van Gaal’s relatively impressive record in the biggest matches (especially against Liverpool), his strategy relies upon De Gea’s excellence in keeping out the opposition. Time and again this season he has kept United level, repelling a series of shots as the defence and midfield looks shaky.
De Gea will never become unsung; the hordes of United supporters will see to that. Yet there is a danger that Van Gaal himself takes De Gea’s impact on United’s results for granted. If De Gea is simply doing his job, he’s doing it to the best of his ability over a sustained period. He’s also keeping you in yours, Louis.
As someone on Twitter (I forget who, sorry) said, Van Gaal was extremely fortunate that Ashley Young went off with an injury. Had Darmian stayed at left-back, Liverpool would surely have scored the first goal.
Darmian is another of those players who has been let down by Van Gaal. Watching a right-back in the right-back position and performing in a big game, you wonder what United would have achieved had the manager not picked players outside their most natural positions.
Manchester United’s record in the Premier League and Champions League since the 3-1 victory over Liverpool in September:
– With Morgan Schneiderlin:
Played 14, Won 7, Drawn 7, Lost 0. Goals per game – 1.43. Conceded per game – 0.64.
– Without Morgan Schneiderlin:
Played 8, Won 1, Drawn 1, Lost 6. Goals per game – 1.00. Conceded per game – 1.88.
Suddenly, Schneiderlin might just be Louis van Gaal’s most important player.
‘One league goal in his last six matches, and only six shots on target in that time. A world where Aguero isn’t being magnificent is a sadder one indeed’ – Winners & Losers, January 14.
Suddenly life feels better again. Easily done.
I feel quite sorry for Butland, a goalkeeper continuously talked about for what he isn’t. Stoke’s goalkeeper was again in supreme form against Arsenal, but all the post-match discussion focused on whether he should be England’s No. 1 ahead of Joe Hart.
It’s nonsense, of course. Roy Hodgson will not change his first-choice goalkeeper in the year of a major tournament, and nor should he. Hart has done very little wrong at club level, and even less wrong for England. He is Hodgson’s Mr Reliable. Butland will travel to France, be better for the experience, but stay on the bench.
Yet the constant discussion over Butland and England highlights the problem with being a goalkeeper. As plenty of others before him know only too well, a fine central midfielder, winger or forward can be fitted into a team, or at least given a chance to impress on rotation. For most positions in a team there are at least two places for you to fight for, but not a goalkeeper. Butland must simply sit and wait patiently, poking pins into his Joe Hart doll. Hart has at least protected himself against dandruff.
The mistake is to think that there is anything wrong with being England’s No. 12. Butland is still only 22, and enjoying his first season as a Premier League regular. He is England’s youngest ever goalkeeper, and in five years may be one of the best in Europe. That’s a cause for celebration, not upset or anger that he won’t start for England in June. Last month, the Daily Mail mooted an ‘all-out battle’ for the starting slot in goal in France. Sigh.
Thankfully, Butland himself is remaining humble. “Of course, it’s a target for me. I’m a long way from that, I’m a lot of experience short from where Joe’s at,” Butland told Sky Sports after being given the Man of the Match award against Arsenal. “He’s an established Premier League goalkeeper that rightly deserves to be where he is so, for me, it’s my first Premier League season, I just want to play as well as I can and give myself the best opportunity to play.” I’m a little bit in love.
After being below his usual level of reliability against Liverpool on Wednesday, Cech was right back to his best against Stoke. If Butland saved the home side in the first half, Cech did precisely the same for Arsenal as the game progressed.
“It is a hard fought 0-0. We have done better than years before at this ground and showed we can fight even when we miss certain players,” said Arsene Wenger after the game. “Petr Cech was outstanding, we needed a player like him in the air when Stoke played that kind of game.”
It’s not hard to imagine Arsenal losing that fixture without Cech in goal. Things are getting Petr all the time.
You should go read this by Matt Stead. Not only is it good, it saves me waffling on about Eriksen’s slightly odd reputation and, more importantly, you having to read it.
Five points off the top of the Premier League after 22 matches played, Tottenham have so rarely been in such a position before. The disappointment of Wednesday needed to be immediately put to one side, and it was. Teams cannot dwell on defeats in this unpredictable league season.
The performance against Sunderland was far from perfect, but after conceding first they got the job done with a flourish. Adding support for Harry Kane will be vital during this transfer window (is Shane Long so obvious that it won’t happen?), but Mauricio Pochettino truly is in a position to manufacture a serious title challenge.
An excellent debut. Some Newcastle supporters will be understandably unsure about the £12million paid for Shelvey, but his pass for the opening goal will have immediately convinced some doubters. Shelvey’s eye for a forward pass is an attribute missing from Newcastle’s central midfield. It made an instant impact.
Amid all the talk of Dimitri Payet and Yohan Cabaye’s arrival as indicative of the Premier League’s financial might, don’t forget gorgeous Geordie Georgie. In a rotten Newcastle team, Wijnaldum has been easily the brightest light. There are those in the Netherlands who rate him as highly as Memphis Depay.
There are only seven players with more Premier League goals than Wijnaldum this season, and only one of those (Riyad Mahrez) is not a striker. When you consider Newcastle’s dire form, the Dutchman’s contributions have been sensational. His goals and assists account for exactly half of the club’s league goals.
“He’s everything that we thought he would be,” said McClaren after Wijnaldum scored the winning goal against West Ham. “He’s our link. It’s important to get the balance right in the team and we allow him to make runs forward. He’s very effective, strong, he’s getting better and better. He’s got used to the tempo and he can score goals. He can work, he can play, he’s an intelligent footballer, he can play any position.”
McClaren is effectively describing the complete attacking midfielder, and you won’t find me disagreeing with any of his description. At £14m Wijnaldum was not cheap, but this time Newcastle really did get what they paid for. And more.
Bournemouth’s second home win since September, the second time they’ve scored more than twice in a match since October and their biggest margin of league victory since the 4-0 Championship win over doomed Blackpool in March 2015. It’s enough to make everyone very happy indeed.
Almost exactly a year after losing 2-1 at home to Norwich in the second tier, seven of the same side kept Bournemouth five points outside the bottom three. That’s a superb effort.
Jamie Vardy, Riyad Mahrez and N’golo Kante may take their deserved places on the Leicester City podium, but Okazaki is the unheralded member of Leicester’s front six. Hassling, harrying, working and worrying; he is a manager’s dream.
Okazaki’s determination and effort was epitomised by his reaction for Leicester’s goal against Aston Villa. Sensing that Vardy’s shot may strike the bar and rebound out, he sprinted past Joleon Lescott to stab the ball over the line. The phrase ‘right place, right time’ hints at good fortune, but Ozazaki made his own luck.
“I don’t know why I’m not playing,” said a confused Andrej Kramaric in October, Leicester’s record signing looking to leave the club. “The fans love me, they support me and they are sorry I get so few chances. I deserve to play more.”
I’m calling bullsh*t. When Kramaric has displayed the tenacity and desire to match that of Okazaki, he will merit a place on Leciester’s bench. Claudio Ranieri knows only too well that this mesmeric rise is built not on magic dust and dreams, but hard work and commitment. His Japanese striker epitomises the ‘can do’ attitude that make Leicester’s season so inspiring.
Patrick van Aanholt
More goals and assists combined (five) than Cesc Fabregas, Ander Herrera, Pedro, Jordan Henderson, Jesus Navas, Santi Cazorla, Adam Lallana and Memphis Depay.
2-0 vs Manchester City
2-0 vs Manchester United
1-0 vs Chelsea
0-0 vs Arsenal
Another excellent result to add to this weird Stoke season. Just how did they fail to take a single point from Watford, Liverpool, West Brom and Crystal Palace at home, and Sunderland and West Brom away?
There is nothing quite as infuriating as a team refusing to learn its lessons, blindly carrying on trying the thing that has never worked before. Step forward Liverpool and their shooting from distance.
Liverpool have taken 365 shots this season, compared to 387 by Manchester City and 333 by Arsenal. They rank second in the Premier League (behind City), yet 12th for goals scored. That is the problem.
It’s not hard to see why. Liverpool have taken 161 shots from outside the area, five more than City and 71 more than Arsenal. They have scored five times from those 161 shots. Only 35 of them (22%) have even been on target.
Shooting from distance is not something to be avoided at all costs, of course, but the strategy’s success depends entirely on the quality of shooting. Liverpool are simply not up to task. While Manchester City can boast Yaya Toure and Kevin de Bruyne, two of the finest finishers in the game from 20 yards out and further, Liverpool’s players’ strengths lie in different areas (he said, diplomatically).
Jordan Henderson, Adam Lallana, Jordon Ibe, Emre Can, Alberto Moreno, Nathaniel Clyne and James Milner have had 80 shots from outside the penalty area between them in the league this season. Of those 80, only 15 have been on target and just one (Milner vs Aston Villa) has actually resulted in a goal. Of the 36 attempted by Moreno, Clyne and Ibe, only two have been on target. Dangerous positions are being wasted by a desire to be the hero, and an overestimation of shooting ability.
Philippe Coutinho, missing against United, has attempted 48 shots from outside the area alone, with only two resulting in goals. That’s more than half the total that Arsenal’s entire squad has attempted (90). When it works it looks brilliant, but it’s also placing a ceiling on Liverpool’s potential.
If it is laughable to think that such a strategy could continue, the defeat against Manchester United must have made you giggle. The sight of Henderson in particular looking frustrated having sent a ball high and wide was a hallmark of the game, while Alberto Moreno continues to think that he’s John Arne Riise.
I have a theory on this issue: Liverpool’s midfielders (and Henderson in particular) are subconsciously trying to fill the void left by Steven Gerrard. Every Liverpool player feels the need to be a hero, and that means scoring from 30 yards in the biggest matches to gain the love of the crowd. We’ll call it “Youuuuu beauteeehhhh” syndrome.
Whether that’s true or not, it needs to stop. The only players who should be shooting from distance are those with the capabilities to make it a viable tactic (Roberto Firmino has three goals from ten attempts, for example). It’s not about the number of shots you take, but where you take them from.
There is no doubt that John Terry was in an offside position when the ball was played for him to score Chelsea’s late, late, late equaliser on Saturday, but Martinez’s “pure anger” reaction sticks in the throat.
On Wednesday, in the dying seconds of Everton’s 0-0 draw at Manchester City, John Stones clearly fouled Raheem Sterling in the penalty area, referee Roger East failing to award a deserved penalty. That time, Martinez’s reaction was slightly different.
“What you want as a manager is a referee who is 100 per cent when he gives that decision,” Martinez said. “The way I saw it, I see John Stones going to ground trying to block the trajectory of the ball. All of a sudden Raheem Sterling is quite happy not to play the ball and he wants to invite some sort of contact.
“It is impossible from that point to say if it is intent or if it is a penalty or not. I don’t think the referee could have done it any better. If you are not certain, you don’t want to gamble in a decision that could have been so damaging from our point of view. I felt Roger made the right call there.”
Martinez’s explanation can generously be labelled as wishy-washy. We can only wonder – but it doesn’t take much imagination – what his reaction would have been should that have been Gael Clichy challenging Ross Barkley at the other end.
Football managers reacting in a biased manner is hardly anything new, but at least make sure your hypocrisy is more than a few days apart. Perhaps Martinez should be focusing more on…
Everton’s inability to defend a lead
The circumstances of Chelsea’s equaliser were unfortunate, but this is nothing new for Everton. Just as pertinent was their concession of a two-goal lead at Stamford Bridge even before the offside mess. Even then, the defence had numerous chances to clear the ball.
A familiar pattern is forming. Since mid-November, Everton have dropped 11 points from winning positions. Two against Chelsea, Tottenham, Norwich and Bournemouth, all three against Stoke. Whether that is reflective of the soft underbelly that was a hallmark of other Martinez sides is open to interpretation, but Everton have a problem. Add on those 11 points and Everton would be fourth; only six of the current bottom seven have a more porous defence.
This is nothing new for Martinez either. When Wigan were relegated in 2012/13, they lost seven points from leading positions in their last five league games alone, and were relegated by three points.
Gaining a point at Stamford Bridge, even against *this* Chelsea, is not a cause for shame. Yet Everton’s position of 11th, as close in points to the relegation zone as the top four, should be. Their manager needs to add resilience to his squad and his own armoury if he is to be a success at Goodison.
Crystal Palace and the other side of Alan Pardew
Alan Pardew endured a fractured relationship with Newcastle supporters, who saw him as a puppet of the Mike Ashley establishment, and there is no doubt that Pardew’s reputation has been improved beyond measure and expectation at Selhurst Park.
Yet Newcastle fans would have had a little warning for their Palace counterparts. Pardew’s teams have an odd tendency to go on dire runs of form. Defeat away at Manchester City is nothing to panic over, but Palace have now gone five league matches without either a victory or a goal. Draws against Bournemouth and Swansea have been followed by defeats to Chelsea, Aston Villa and City. This used to happen at Newcastle too, even in the good times.
If the midweek defeat – and certainly limp performance – to Villa was unacceptable, this wasn’t exactly a battling response. Palace now have two home games (against Spurs and Bournemouth) to address the slump.
This has still been a season of great promise for Palace, but supporters will be aware of the danger in taking any more backward steps. In a tight Premier League, Palace are only four points above West Brom in 13th.
Liverpool’s England contingent
Henderson, Milner, Lallana, Clyne. All currently playing at 6/10 form, all likely to be on the ferry to France. Two of them will probably bloody start. Eeesh.
No Mesut Ozil and no Alexis Sanchez means no party. Arsene Wenger will consider a draw and clean sheet at the Britannia Stadium as a decent return, but a weekend during which Manchester City closed the gap can never be considered a success.
Nine points from four games against Manchester United, Tottenham, Aston Villa and Southampton looked to have taken Alex Neil’s side clear of safety, but they keep insisting on taking two more steps back to match the leaps forward.
Two defeats on the bounce and six goals conceded to Stoke and Bournemouth is not a good look, and big home games against Tottenham and Liverpool follow. Should Swansea win on Monday evening, Norwich will be just two points outside the bottom three.
Tough to criticise any Leicester player during their season of wonder, but Ranieri will rue Mahrez’s second penalty mishap in the space of two weeks. A failure to convert against Bournemouth and Aston Villa has cost Leicester four points.
“Yes, we lost two points,” Ranieri said. “We started very well and scored a goal but after the missed penalty the Aston Villa players took a new energy. If we score a second goal, we close the match.” The Italian will hope that those are not the margins on which Champions League football could have been secured.
Allardyce had been itching to get his ‘three at the back’ formation out for a while. He first tried it during the disastrous 6-2 defeat at Everton in November, before it worked in victories over Stoke and Crystal Palace. That was followed by losses against Arsenal, Watford and Chelsea, and suddenly the flat back four returned.
The arrival of Jan Kirchoff, an extra central defender, gave Allardyce another chance to try out his tactic. With Sunderland drawing 1-1 at White Hart Lane on Saturday, off came Danny Graham and on came Kirchoff. Half an hour later, Sunderland had lost 4-1. It looked as if the defence had no idea how to organise themselves with their altered shape.
Allardyce had no problem with criticising his players in public, lambasting them for going for an equaliser at 2-1 down. “Our lads in their wisdom, decided to go and open themselves right up and decided to go and score two,” Allardyce said. “You don’t use those tactics at Premier League level, because all it does is allow the opposition more room to score. I’d have expected them to hold on to the position we were in and at 2-1, made life extremely difficult for Tottenham.”
For Allardyce to not accept that his own tactical tweaks may have caused Sunderland’s downfall is pretty low. One wonders whether his favoured back three will again make an appearance against Bournemouth next Saturday.
A dreadful debut of Jonathan Woodgate-esque proportions for Sunderland’s new central defender, who entered the White Hart Lane pitch at 1-1 and left it 31 minutes later with a reputation already in tatters.
Although Kirchoff cannot be blamed for Mousa Dembele’s goal, that it occurred 55 seconds after he had entered the fray isn’t a great sign. The German’s attempt to block Christian Eriksen’s shot eight minutes later was laughable, hanging out a leg like a badly hungover can-can dancer.
The German then compounded that error by fouling Danny Rose in the penalty area, Harry Kane making it 4-1. “We all were to be honest,” said Sunderland assistant manager Paul Bracewell when asked if Kirchhoff was shell-shocked by his debut.
When Kirchoff entered the pitch, Darren Fletcher on BT Sport twice mentioned that Allardyce had signed a Bayern Munich defender. It’s a technically accurate description, of course, but misleading in the extreme. Kirchoff never actually started a league game for Bayern. Headlines can be deceiving.
All is still not entirely well. To show the belief to come back from 2-0 and 3-2 down is honourable, but Chelsea are constantly fighting against self-created adversity. A season hangs on a Champions League last-16 tie.
Those Stoke fans
Some parts of football fan culture makes you feel proud to be part of something that generates such emotion, both positive and negative. Other aspects make you wish you could rip your ears and eyes from your face.
In the eyes of Stoke supporters, Aaron Ramsey’s crime was to not reply to a text message sent by Ryan Shawcross – an apology for snapping Ramsey’s leg in two. In an ideal world perhaps Ramsey would have had given a quick ‘not to worry, mate’ in response, but that grossly underplays the psychological impact of an injury that really could have ended his career. For that alleged crime, Ramsey continues to be booed six years after the incident by Stoke fans.
To those Stoke supporters who taunted Ramsey by chanting “Aaron Ramsey, he walks with a limp”, have a look at yourselves. By the law of averages, presumably some of you have wives and children. I only hope you feel deeply ashamed when reflecting on your actions, but that’s probably asking too much.
Stoke have progressed markedly as a club under Mark Hughes, but as a Welshman (actually, just as a human) the manager must feel embarrassed by those supporters who are letting the club down in this bizarre campaign against Ramsey. It would be an opportune time for Hughes to say as much. Until these chants and boos subside, the minority will continue to spoil Stoke for the majority.