Tottenham and chances created
Now with a firm grip on a top-four place, Tottenham and Mauricio Pochettino should be hosting far loftier ambitions. They really can win the title.
Tottenham’s defence makes most of the headlines, the arrival of Toby Alderweireld and a lack of injuries allowing Pochettino to boast the Premier League’s tightest back line. Manchester United may only be two behind, but Tottenham have scored 13 league goals more.
Yet Pochettino’s attack deserves great credit for its improvement, and offers evidence as to why their current run of form can be sustained. Over the last ten games, Tottenham have had 65 shots on target, ten more than any other side. Manchester City have managed 55, Arsenal and Leicester 42 and 39 respectively. Tottenham have also created significantly more chances than all but Manchester City, and only City have scored more goals in that period.
Crucially (and unlike Liverpool), Tottenham’s shots tend to come from dangerous areas. Over that same ten-game period, they have had more shots on target inside the area than any other club. Harry Kane will need support from a back-up striker, but he can have no complaints over his service from midfield. Add that extra striker, and why shouldn’t Spurs dream?
With only one of the current top five still to play away from home, talk of a title bid is not grossly premature. More importantly, the youngest squad in the league has a five-point gap to fifth. Pochettino is truly getting things done.
Leicester City and a new-found solidity
And again Leicester swat away a team that looks almost complacent. ‘It’s only Leicester’ is a mindset – even if it is subconscious – that is allowing Claudio Ranieri’s side to flourish. Stoke have performed excellently against the division’s biggest clubs this season. They were entirely rotten at the King Power on Saturday.
Backing Leicester for the title feels unrealistic, despite their three-point lead, but they have shown plenty enough to be confident of Champions League qualification. Leciester have taken 71 points from their last 38 matches, enough to finish inside the top four last season. They have lost one home league games since April 2015. They have a ten-point lead over Manchester United.
Leicester have also developed over the course of the season. Their form of August to November was built on a vibrant attack scoring one more goal than they conceded. A table taken when the November international break arrived showed only the bottom six with a defence as porous as Leicester.
Since that international break ended, it’s all change. Over the subsequent period, Leicester have comfortably the best defence in the division, conceding six times in 11 matches (Arsenal have conceded 13, Manchester City 14). They have conceded once in their last five games.
Six teams are still meaner in defence than Leicester, but Ranieri deserves extra credit for this transformation. The goals may have slightly dried up for Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez, but that is a result of the manager’s strategy of placing a greater focus on solidity. It’s working.
The most glowing compliment is this: Leicester are no longer playing like plucky underdogs, excited by the thrill of unexpected success. They’re playing like title challengers.
What a goal. What a bloody goal. One entrant to Sunday’s Mailbox described Alli’s strike against Crystal Palace as Gascoigne-esque, and you won’t see me arguing.
“It was a fantastic goal; it shows his quality and the moment he is in,” Pochettino said after the game. “You expect players you sign to be able, professional and good quality, but I cannot lie, I think he has surprised everyone with the way he has played and his maturity.
“We knew he was a player with unbelievable potential but I think today he showed unbelievable quality and maturity, it is great to see him play and keep his feet on the ground as well.”
If Pochettino admits his surprise at how well Alli has adapted to Premier League life, we can all do the same. He’s still only 19, for goodness sake.
The only question is how far this season of wonder can take Alli. If his form continues, he simply has to start in Roy Hodgson’s midfield in France.
Recognising that Firmino looked a fine player in Germany didn’t exactly take a great deal of scouting, but when you eye up a player and tout him as a success, you inevitably take him under your wing. That love becomes almost parental, having to let players make their own mistakes but willing them to come good. The first three months of Firmino in England were not an easy watch.
The lack of Premier League patience is such that Firmino was written off by some Liverpool supporters, already labelled a waste of money. His recent performances are a reminder that settling at a new club in a new city in a new country isn’t easy. That really shouldn’t need explaining.
Now Firmino is back. It is as if it took only one performance to persuade the Brazilian that he’s not just good enough to survive in the Premier League, but thrive in it. In his last three matches Firmino has scored four goals, contributed an assist and been Liverpool’s best player.
There is now a surge of anticipation when Firmino gets the ball at feet, as there should be with skilful attacking players. He seems able to offload the ball simply, dribble past a player or play a more probing pass at will, each achieved with an insouciance that persuades those watching that he’s having fun.
The only fly in Jurgen Klopp’s ointment is that Firmino’s rise to form has coincided with Philippe Coutinho’s absence from the team. Liverpool’s manager must hope that mere coincidence can be offered as explanation.
There are plenty of words in 16 Conclusions on Chelsea’s return to form under Guus Hiddink. Plus nice things about Diego Costa, Cesc Fabregas and John Obi Mikel. Go read them.
A perfect example of just how weird this league can be. From a terrible run of results – pierced only by a bizarre 4-0 victory over Arsenal – Southampton have now recorded three consecutive wins without conceding.
Three weeks ago Ronald Koeman looked to be edging nearer crisis. Now Southampton are one position behind where they finished last season. Daft little game.
“Why didn’t my club go for Austin at £4million?” complained supporters of at least five clubs after the striker’s move to Southampton was confirmed.
The answer was simple: Your club isn’t on the south coast. Austin’s family and friends all live in the area, he used to play for Poole Town and train with Bournemouth. Sometimes we forget that football doesn’t exist inside a bubble where nothing else matters.
Now playing where he wants to be, Austin could not have dreamed his Southampton debut any better. Having been substituted on with 12 minutes remaining, he had one chance, and scored one goal. The run from Jose Fonte took two defenders with him, Austin took advantage of the space. The winner at Old Trafford.
Before kick-off, Graeme Souness dismissed Swansea’s appointment of Guidolin has nonsensical. “He won’t handle the Premier League,” said Souness, presumably using his own experience of not handling the Premier League as evidence. That 29% win record at Southampton makes him an expert, you see.
It was therefore not hard to be happy for Swansea’s new manager, victor in his first game in charge. Guidolin was an unexpected appointment but, as an alternative to the gross inexperience of Alan Curtis, he was a logical option.
Rather than writing Guidolin off before he had even started, it might be worth just seeing how he gets on. Remember how we all wrote off the last 60-plus, Italian appointment in the Premier League? Ranieri doesn’t seem to be struggling quite as many expected.
Eight league goals for the season, which have earned Swansea nine points. Ayew, sitting comfortably.
“I don’t think our team is just Sergio Aguero. We are fighting for the title and involved in other competitions with a lot of injuries. But we have a squad which is the reason why we are fighting for the title” – Manuel Pellegrini, January 23.
“Sergio is playing here for about four or five years and every year he is the best striker in the league. I hope now that he is 100% fit and he does not have any problem and it is very important that the team plays with him in every game” – Manuel Pellegrini, January 24.
Glad you corrected yourself, Manuel.
He only turned 19 in October. This kid looks the business.
Continued their fine run against the Premier League’s biggest clubs. Slaven Bilic will be disappointed to twice let a lead slip, but West Ham are holding their own in lofty company. Only two clubs have lost fewer league games this season.
If Alli scored the goal of the season, Mahrez has wrapped up the award for contribution towards a goal. It made you purr.
This is the reason why assists are such an inexact measure. Christian Eriksen rolls the ball to Alli, who performs something astonishing. Yet that assist is ‘worth’ the same as Mahrez’s outrageous flip-flap and cross to Leonardo Ulloa. Philipp Wollscheid is still taking paracetamol for his headache.
‘What does he do?’ we asked last week. Score last-second winners with scuffed shots into the ground before going absolutely sodding mental with his manager, seems to the be answer.
His first goal in four league games, to end both his and Watford’s drought. Saturday was the sixth time this season Ighalo has scored the first goal of the game.
Lewis Grabban might not have looked a clever purchase for £7m but, at £10m Afobe really did.
Goals in two of his first three Bournemouth starts do little to change that opinion. His first against Norwich was a tidy volleyed finish, the opener on Saturday a brilliant diving header. Bournemouth’s season-saver?
Louis van Gaal
One of the constants during this grim Manchester United season has been Louis van Gaal’s insistence that the supporters and players are behind him. After their latest miserable defeat, even that chippy confidence had disappeared. Having damaged the resolve of the fans long ago, United’s form looks to have finally broken the spirits of their manager. Van Gaal is a dead man walking the corridors of Old Trafford.
“I’m very disappointed that I cannot reach the expectations of the fans,” was Van Gaal’s post-match message. “They have – or they had – great expectations of me, and I cannot fulfil them, so I am very frustrated because of that.” It was as good as a goodbye message.
In fairness, Van Gaal enjoyed more patience that his predecessor David Moyes. There were logical reasons for that, of course, namely the Dutchman’s previous success, regular injury crises and having to integrate new players. If Van Gaal is to leave this week, he can hardly plead hastiness.
Unfortunately, Van Gaal has failed on every count. Moyes was sacked after achieving 57 points in 34 games, a total of 1.68 per game. This season United have managed 1.61 points per game; they’re going backwards. While supporters have little reason to mourn the money spent by dislikeable owners, there is an extreme disappointment at the slight effect signings have had on team performance.
It’s not even as if United supporters’ expectations were set at an unreasonable height. They do not expect to win every game and score three times every week, but they do expect to score in the first half of any one of 11 straight home games. They also expect more than one shot on target per match. They do expect to avoid defeat against Southampton, Bournemouth, Norwich, Stoke, Swansea and PSV Eindhoven.
The gap to the top four is now five points, another season close to being wasted. United cannot afford to miss out on the Champions League again, and drastic changes will be considered to achieve that goal. If that was to be Van Gaal’s final curtain call, it was a fitting denouement. Lacklustre, lethargic and laboured: the new United way.
Manchester United and ‘roll the dice’ football
Van Gaal’s principal issue is that, 18 months after his arrival, United are still playing ‘roll the dice’ football (you could call it ‘knife edge’ football, but that creates an inaccurate image of excitement).
During the entire 90 minutes against Southampton, the ball was touched in both penalty areas 21 times. Compare that with Sunday’s matches at Goodison Park (39) and the Emirates (60) by way of example.
Compare too United’s own number of touches in the penalty area this weekend with their title rivals (if that’s even still a thing):
Manchester United (vs Southampton (h))- 11
Tottenham (vs Palace (a)) – 20
Leicester (vs Stoke (h)) – 22
Arsenal (vs Chelsea (h)) – 33
Manchester City (vs West Ham (a)) – 37
The sterile possession and lack of clear-cut chances created determines that the result of each United match is decided by very few individual moments. When the vast majority of the match is played outside both penalty areas, missed chances and defensive mistakes become more important, for they have such a great impact on the final scoreline.
The problem with United’s ‘roll the dice’ style is that it inevitably produces inconsistent results. Sometimes it will work, as against Watford and Swansea, and sometimes it won’t, as against Southampton. Sometimes United will register fortunate victory, as against Liverpool, and sometimes they’ll be slightly unfortunate in defeat, as against Norwich.
The ultimate conclusion is that Van Gaal is doing far too little to cause a positive impact on United’s results. Rather than affecting their own destiny, United’s miserable style is a game of wait and see. Given the money spent and the patience afforded, that’s wholly unacceptable.
If Van Gaal is to leave this week, Fellaini will be used as damning evidence for the prosecution of a second successive Manchester United manager. The Belgian eventually did for the man who bought him, and he’s doing for the man trusting him beyond belief.
Van Gaal’s explanation for substituting Fellaini at half-time on Saturday only incriminated himself further.
“It is difficult to create chances when you are so tactically busy with pressing each other and putting pressure on the ball,” he said. “Because I want to change that I put Mata in because then we keep the ball much easier.”
So if it’s harder to create chances and keep the ball with Fellaini on the field over Juan Mata, why on earth was he starting at all? In fact, why has he started nine of United’s last 11 matches?
For Van Gaal to then explain why Fellaini’s withdrawal was the reason United lost the game is comical: “I knew in advance that when we had a set play we have a problem. When you change Fellaini then you have lost a header and we don’t have a tall team. With the changes I realised that but I hoped for more.”
If that defence means that Fellaini will start United’s next game under Van Gaal, it is justification enough for his immediate sacking. The Belgian has become the unfunniest of jokes for United supporters. They are growing weary through its constant repetition.
Arsenal’s mental strength
Having criticised Arsenal for their “naivety” during September’s defeat to Chelsea, Arsene Wenger and Sunday’s captain have been happy to boast recently about the club’s new-found mental strength.
“The mental strength in our dressing room is the strongest it has ever been,” said Theo Walcott after the draw at Stoke last week. Perhaps in your time at the club, Theo.
Wenger stated his own case earlier in January after beating Newcastle 1-0: “We showed the mental aspect of our team and we will need that. On our side, we’ve shown qualities that are more mental today – organisation, dig deep, wait for your chances and score a goal. It tests your team on different aspects, more on a mental front than on a footballing front.”
Unfortunately, mental fortitude is not proven against Newcastle, but against your toughest foe. Had Arsenal beaten Chelsea on Sunday, or even drawn level with ten men, doubts about their title challenge would have dissipated. Instead, they are here to stay. Stop me if you’ve heard this one bef…
This column has made its feelings perfectly clear on Roberto Martinez, who until now has largely remained free from pressure over his continued employment. It sure helps to have a reputation as a friendly manager who welcomes the media and plays football ‘the right way’.
On Sunday, Everton lost their tenth home league game since the start of last season, matching their number of victories. Garry Monk was sacked by opponents Swansea for winning one of his last 11 league games in charge; Martinez has won one of his last ten.
Even over the longer term, Martinez is fortunate to still be in charge. His Everton team have now taken 82 points from their last 66 league games, an average of 47 over the course of a season. They managed 63 in the season before Martinez took over.
The conventional wisdom is that Martinez has suffered through a chronic lack of investment at Everton, but even that doesn’t stand up. He has spent £60million in the last 18 months, with the £1.5m recouped for Shane Duffy the only departure for a fee until Steven Naismith left last week.
With Romelu Lukaku, John Stones, Ross Barkley, Gerard Deulofeu, Leighton Baines, Seamus Coleman, James McCarthy and Ramon Funes Mori, among others, Everton have their most exciting squad in a decade. They are three points away from the top half, a place behind where they finished last season.
Most damning of all is Martinez’s complete inability to organise a defence, despite having talented defenders. They have conceded more home goals than any other side, three clean sheets in their last 17 league games. It isn’t caused by a lack of coaching ability, but mindset. Unfortunately, that’s far harder to change. Those telling John Stones last summer that he would be better staying put should be questioning their logic.
“We’ve accumulated a terrific mixture of players, with probably the most talented group of young players in English and European football,” said Martinez earlier this month.
Indeed Bobby, and you have led that group to 12th in the table, below squads of far less quality. Tuesday marks nine months since Everton last won consecutive league games. That’s nowhere near good enough.
One step forward, before taking another two back. McClaren is leading Newcastle further into trouble. He’s now won consecutive matches once in almost a year as manager at Derby and Newcastle, 39 matches of grim under-performance.
Newcastle are carrying out the perfect accidental strategy to relegation, winning just enough matches to keep a bad manager in a job but not enough to ever move away from danger. They are two points inside the bottom three.
Now firmly on the slide, closer to the bottom three than the top four. The last time a Palace player scored a league goal was December 19.
Still fancy Alan Pardew for England?
Tony Pulis and entertainment
West Brom will probably stay up under Tony Pulis, but it must be a slightly vacuous existence for supporters at the Hawthorns. They’ve now scored more than twice in a league game once since September 2014.
On Saturday, entertainment levels hit a new low, as West Brom failed to have a single shot on target against Aston Villa. That’s something nobody else has managed since New Year’s Day 2015.
West Brom now have two massive games, against Swansea and Newcastle. Fail to win either and they are right back in trouble. A reminder that Pulis spent £32m last summer on Salomon Rondon, Rickie Lambert, Jonny Evans and James Chester.
Sunderland and risk
Their next four opponents are Manchester City (h), Liverpool (a), Manchester United (h) and West Ham (a). Sam Allardyce’s side needed to beat Bournemouth to avoid the risk of getting cut adrift. They’ll now have to do it the hard way.
Given that run of fixtures, you might have expected Allardyce to try and beat Bournemouth, but no.
“Why? Why gamble when we have done it before and lost every single game?”Allardyce said after the draw. “You don’t gamble on situations like that, particularly when you have gambled before and ended up losing three and four and not gaining any points whatsoever.
“This is the first point we have gained from going a goal down since I have been here. Winning a game from going a goal behind is something that this club doesn’t do very, very well if you look at the history of it, so to actually get a point is a good achievement from going a goal behind.”
Allardyce has set out his stall; Sunderland will aim to 1-0 their way to survival. Despite the manager’s own aversion to risk, it’s a precarious strategy.
Stoke’s adventure away from home
A dire, dreary away performance to end a positive run of form. Despite the (inaccurate) Barcelona ‘B’ comparisons, Stoke have scored two more goals than at this stage of Pulis’ last season in charge. It’s not all ‘oles’ and Total Football, y’know.
In fact, Stoke’s away support are used to a lack of glamour. The following is a list of clubs Stoke have beaten away in all competitions by more than a single goal margin: Aston Villa, Tranmere, Rochdale, QPR, Crawley, Derby, Gillingham. That’s your lot since April 2011.
Manchester City and consistency
City last won consecutive league games on October 17. Their brilliant start to the season feels a long, long time ago.
Arsenal are still the Premier League’s most infuriating team, but Manuel Pellegrini is running them close. Can someone at City please cover up that soft belly?
Dreadful. Abysmal. Dire. Miserable. Appalling.
They are all adjectives you could choose to describe Norwich’s defending in their last two matches, where they have conceded eight goals. I’ve settled on w*nk.
Jeering an individual player
Booing off the players and/or manager is one thing, but sarcastically cheering and jeering your goalkeeper every time he catches a cross or makes a save is another entirely.
Presumably the Everton supporters mocking Tim Howard would like their goalkeeper to improve his performances. Head up, guys: Jeering him is likely to have the opposite effect. It’s so completely moronic.