This Leicester season has been a continued exercise in “Could they? Can they? Will they?” but as the games tick by there becomes less reason to think that they will simply slip limply away. From possible top-four challengers in November to probable title challengers in February. They have a three-point lead at the top with 14 games left.
So bizarre is Leicester’s achievement that the statistics bear repeating and re-reading just to sink in. Only Bayern Munich and Paris Saint-Germain in Europe’s top five leagues have lost fewer games than Claudio Ranieri’s side this season. That’s astonishing.
Only our disbelief stops Leicester from being title favourites. Change and difference is difficult to comprehend, and so English football’s most remarkable achievement since Nottingham Forest’s consecutive European Cups still feels like a fanciful pipe dream.
It’s time to alter our preconceptions. Leicester have one of the division’s in-form strikers, one of the division’s in-form midfielders and a defence that has conceded one goal in its last six matches. The conventional wisdom was that Ranieri’s side would fall away after Christmas. If anything, they’ve got stronger while others have stuttered.
On Tuesday, Leicester were not just better than Liverpool, they embarrassed Jurgen Klopp’s side. Simon Mignolet made tremendous saves, while some of Leicester’s passing play was as good as anything the Premier League has seen this season.
Of course there are still hurdles to clamber over. In their next two matches Leicester face Manchester City and Arsenal, the title favourites and one of the two teams to have beaten them in the league. Their last three games of the season are Manchester United away, Everton at home and Chelsea away.
Yet Ranieri’s side have not come this far to start playing with fear. To worry about Leicester missing out on first place is to spectacularly miss the point, because they were never meant to be in the same postcode as the Premier League title race.
As the Leicester supporter in Tuesday morning’s Mailbox wrote: ‘This is just getting so beautifully mad. Everyone, including us, keeps expecting the wheels to come off. But we now go into away games at Arsenal and Manchester City, where even losing both will keep us right in the title race. Europe seems a certainty now. I can’t wait, even if it is Europa League. Football is just brilliant joy at the moment.’
An absolutely outrageous goal, the type only scored by a player with supreme confidence. Every striker in the Premier League possesses the ability to score Vardy’s goal, of course, but most would not attempt it at 0-0 in such an important fixture. They would hold up the ball and wait for support, or bring it down and try and cut in from the right. Not Vardy.
Spectacular goals are the only thing missing from Vardy’s repertoire this season. Leicester’s magical moments of technical quality have typically come from Riyad Mahrez, but Vardy topped even the Algerian’s best effort. It was the first time the England striker has scored from outside the penalty area.
Had Vardy’s goal return dried up, he was in danger of missing out on a place in Roy Hodgson’s Euro 2016 squad. But if Danny Welbeck doesn’t get himself fit soon, there’s a seat on the plane for the Premier League’s top scorer.
The failure to purchase a back-up striker to Harry Kane is a huge risk on Tottenham’s part, of that there is no doubt. Having failed to persuade West Brom that they really would be better off selling a striker they don’t particularly want, a deal for Fulham’s Moussa Dembele also faltered.
Yet that disappointment should only be short-lived. The most positive aspect of Tottenham under Mauricio Pochettino is that their rise has been founded not on signing new players, but improving the ones he inherited. In the age of the transfer window, where Sky Sports News begs for more and more money to be spent, Pochettino’s strategy has almost become a lost art.
In previous seasons, supporters would have fretted about each fixture, convinced that the downturn was just around the corner. Yet there was a clinical and unsympathetic manner to their victory over Norwich on Tuesday. It was as if it was ludicrous that there should even be a question over the three points.
Kane is still the only answer for Tottenham’s attack, but this is a wonderful season built on far more than just their boy wonder. If Leicester’s rise is unbelievable, Tottenham’s is far more logical. Young, exciting footballers under a young, exciting manager playing high-tempo football, and a communal belief that makes the sky the limit. What’s not to love?
Premier League goals by the age of 19:
Dele Alli (7)
Frank Lampard (5)
Steven Gerrard (1)
Paul Scholes (1) pic.twitter.com/Vx4u0e6j6h
— Squawka Football (@Squawka) February 2, 2016
It really is easy to forget just how young Alli is. Can’t stop giggling thinking about an England midfield with him in for the next decade. No pressure.
Manchester United and Louis van Gaal
Given that Stoke were the side who supposedly hammered the final nail into Van Gaal’s coffin, it must have given the Dutchman great satisfaction to brush aside Mark Hughes’ side with such verve. That sacking and appointment of Jose Mourinho sure seems to be taking a long time.
In fact, The Sun’s Neil Custis was unusually quiet during and after the 3-0 victory, tweeting only his report without any added comment. Before the Derby game he tweeted how he fancied United to ‘scrape a 1-1 draw’ earned only via an own goal. Lost your tongue?
Van Gaal and United are a long way from redemption. This has been a season containing more fits than starts, and United have dealt readily in false dawns. Only avoiding defeat at Stamford Bridge on Sunday will persuade the doubters that yet another corner has been turned. But they have a start, something to cling to.
The early goal helped, as Van Gaal said after the game, but there was a penetration and intent to United’s play that has been AWOL for months. For the first game in a long while, there is no ‘but’ to follow paid compliments.
That ‘What a waste of money’ headline in the Daily Mirror looks more foolish by the week, as Martial continues to be the brightest spark in Manchester United’s season. He could still lead them back into the Champions League.
After the Frenchman’s glorious goal against Stoke, even Louis van Gaal admitted that he was shocked by Martial’s impact:
“It is very surprising. When you are 19 when he came and now he is 20 that is surprising to do what he has. You come from the French league and then you come to the Premier League and you can do this when you are that age is great. He has a lot of potential to give.”
It is not just Martial’s performances that United supporters are enjoying, but the hope that he represents. Despite a gloomy campaign, the potential in a player so exciting and so young offers belief of a brighter tomorrow. Even the ineptitude of Ed Woodward can’t pour rain on this parade.
Six goals in his last four matches, Aguero is returning to form just at the right time for Manuel Pellegrini’s extended leaving party. It might sound disrespectful to other challengers, but the title race may just hinge on the fitness of the league’s best player.
Harry Kane scored twice. Wayne Rooney scored. Ross Barkley scored twice. Dele Alli scored. Jamie Vardy scored twice.
Uncle Roy must be licking his lips. I feel a bit sick now.
Eddie Howe is engineering a survival bid, and that somehow makes me feel very happy. So there.
Crisis well and truly averted. Three wins and a draw have taken Southampton so far up the table that they’re now seventh, exactly where they finished last season. Maybe Ronald Koeman really does want the Chelsea job.
England’s forgotten goalkeeper might have returned from injury firmly behind Jack Butland in the international queue, but his form has offered Roy Hodgson a timely reminder of his qualities.
Since Forster returned to the Southampton side on January 13, they’ve played 360 minutes without conceding a goal. England’s No. 3, England’s England’s No. 3.
Three goals in his last three starts to take Bournemouth clear of the bottom three. Eddie Howe must be chuffed with his new striker.
The East Midlands
The last English club from outside the north west or London to compete in the Champions League or European Cup was Newcastle in 2003/04. The last match played by an East Midlands side in the competition was Nottingham Forest in 1980. Leicester are representing for the region.
Here we are again, then. Arsenal are not yet out of the title race, but they are heading in the wrong direction. Three points from four games is worrying enough, but no goals in three league matches at exactly the wrong time is alarming in the extreme. More importantly, the doubts that had begun to cease in 2015 are now back with a new year bang.
In fact, the slump is more extended than that. A table of matches since the beginning of November has Arsenal in fourth place, eight points behind Leicester and Tottenham. There is a reassuring warmth to see Arsene Wenger’s side back in their customary home. Arsenal are as close to Manchester United as they are to Leicester.
Arsene Wenger may have rejected talk of the ‘same old Arsenal’ after the draw with Southampton, but that’s exactly how it feels to the rest of us. Wenger’s insistence that his team have enjoyed “20 years at the top of the Premiership” only works if you stretch “top” to include third and fourth positions. It’s a decade since they finished higher.
On any other night Arsenal could have scored three or four goals, and found Fraser Forster in superb form. But again with Arsenal we are forced to consider the ‘ifs and buts’ of near success rather than the fulfilment of hope. Will it ever be otherwise?
“You need to look at the end and you need 86, 87 points to be sure and it does not matter which way you go to get those points,” Petr Cech told reporters on Wednesday. You do not need to be a mathmetician to know that to go from 45 points to 87 in 14 remaining matches, Cech’s team must win every single one.
It’s not that Arsenal can’t embark on such a run; that has never been the problem. It’s that supporters know, deep down, they won’t. Arsenal and Wenger are destined to be caught in their eternal cycle, always the prettiest bridesmaid but never the bride.
Arsene Wenger, new signings and a legacy
‘Wenger has piled all of his eggs into this basket,’ our transfer window winners and losers section concluded. ‘Having signed two outfield players (Mohamed Elneny and Jeff-Reine Adelaide) in the last two windows combined, Arsenal are going for the title his way.’ It was an inauspicious start.
Following the draw with Southampton, there were quotes from Wenger about Arsenal’s business in the transfer window, after which I forced fist into mouth to stop the screams coming out:
“If you know a world-class striker who could strengthen our team you should have told me before the transfer window was over,” Wenger said. “They do not walk in off the street and say ‘please take me’. They are all at big clubs and under contract.”
Firstly, Wenger’s quote hints that he would liked to have bought a world-class striker had one been available. It’s a small point, but crucial. Only in December, Wenger described Olivier Giroud as “among the best forwards in Europe.” I disagreed then and I’m disagreeing now.
Secondly, Wenger has created a straw man argument. It was not simply a striker that critics were asking for, but a powerful central midfielder and possible upgrades on Theo Walcott and Per Mertesacker. None of those questions were answered, and it’s about this time that someone shouts ‘MORGAN SCHNEIDERLIN’ and we all nod in agreement.
The obvious retort to that argument is that great players aren’t available in January, and with most clubs it’s a fair point. Yet Wenger’s inability to recruit a single outfield player last summer makes his ‘It’s tough in January, guys’ spiel fall on deaf ears.
Furthermore, if Elneny isn’t ready to play in Mathieu Flamini’s place almost three weeks after he signed, Arsenal might as well have waited until the summer. Flamini remains entirely substandard for a club with Arsenal’s ambitions, just as he always has been. The difference is that he is nearer to the first team now.
In addition, Wenger’s sarcastic “they do not walk in off the street and say ‘please take me’” line must really grate with supporters. They don’t need to be patronised Arsene, they know how transfers work. It’s just that other clubs with Arsenal’s cash reserves aren’t put off from signing a player just because they haven’t been made available for transfer. It is possible to have transfer sagas regarding players arriving at Arsenal, not just leaving. It just means that you sometimes have to pay over the odds in order to land your preferred targets.
It’s an interesting insight into Wenger’s view of the transfer market as a whole. Arsenal’s best three signings of the last five years (Petr Cech, Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez) were all unwanted by their clubs. They did not “walk in off the street”, but Chelsea, Real Madrid and Barcelona made it clear that all three could leave. When was the last time Arsenal bought a player that another high-profile club didn’t want to sell?
Until this season, there has been a stock Wenger response to this exact question. This is his insistence that Arsenal are a club that does things differently, often drifting dangerously close to guilt-tripping those who ask for new signings. “Cohesion” was the summer buzzword.
“I think to support the club and support the team is to stand behind the players,” said Wenger in September. “It is not always expecting someone coming down from heaven to sort out all your problems. Buying and selling is one way to strengthen your team but that’s not the only way.”
Yet even that argument is rendered ineligible by the identity of two of the three teams above Arsenal in the table. Tottenham and Leicester are operating under far smaller budgets than Arsenal, yet are performing at a higher level. Wenger is caught in the middle, not trying to ‘do a City’ but not able to realise Arsenal’s potential by ‘doing a Tottenham’.
It is Tottenham’s improvement under Pochettino that is potentially the most damaging for Wenger’s reputation. Should Spurs finish ahead of Arsenal, there is an argument to say that Wenger is finished at the club. Pochettino will have beaten Wenger at his own game, with half the wage bill. Wenger’s summer insistence of “cohesion” over transfers has come to define Tottenham’s own title challenge.
Pochettino is in the same position Arsenal’s manager was five years ago, with a stadium to finance but on-field improvement still expected. The problem is that Wenger has not moved on from that position, still hamstrung by his own sense of how the title should be won. Wenger wants to win the right way. The supporters just want to win.
The next four months are crucial in deciding Wenger’s legacy. Arsenal are not yet out of the title race, but their manager needs it more desperately than any of the club’s supporters. This one is not on Arsenal or their players. This one is on Arsene alone.
The warnings of Newcastle supporters to Crystal Palace fans about Pardew looked pretty foolish when Palace were flying high. They were judged by many as merely bitter towards a manager they never truly loved.
If Newcastle fans were bitter, there were reasons. Pardew was seen as a Mike Ashley man, a spokesperson for an unpleasant regime that had hung around St James’ Park like a suffocating smog. His own attitude towards the club’s supporters was imperfect, as was his approach to the cup competitions. That Newcastle have fallen away since is down to abysmal recruitment practices (John Carver and, yes, Steve McClaren).
However, Newcastle supporters’ biggest warning came regarding Pardew’s propensity to slide into a rotten run of form, from which he found it hard to escape. Having lost five straight matches as West Ham manager, he did exactly the same at Newcastle. You can now add Palace to that list.
Pardew enjoyed good times at St James’, just as he has at Selhurst Park, but Palace look like a side desperately waiting for summer in February. They have lost five consecutive league matches and not won in seven. Scott Dann’s goal against Bournemouth was the first scored by a Palace player in the league since December 19.
The other infamous Newcastle chant regarding their manager also sprung to mind on Tuesday evening: “Alan Pardew, it’s never your fault.”
Pardew claimed that players needed to “commit murder” against Palace to merit a sending-off, completely at odds with the events of the match. We have entered what Newcastle fans know as the ‘attention deflection’ stage.
“It’s an undefeated run we need, two wins, two draws,” said Sam Allardyce after Sunderland’s 1-0 defeat to Manchester City. “There will be a stage when we get to single figures of games remaining where we might have to look at the sort of finish we’ve had for many years, where we’ve had to string three or four wins together. I’ve been trying not to get to that. But as it comes ever closer it looks like that might be the case.”
So here we are again. The idea was that pulling the plug on Dick Advocaat’s reign so early in the campaign would give Allardyce time to do what Allardyce does, but it’s not gone quite to plan.
Since Allardyce was appointed on October 9, Sunderland have taken 16 points from 16 league matches. Enough to have a fighting chance, but wholly insufficient to move away from trouble. Allardyce talks of four undefeated matches, but he’s yet to get beyond two. Another great escape is needed at the Stadium of Light.
Big Sam the little Englander
“They make a big fuss about it and that’s what they do. That’s mostly foreign players, they do make a big fuss of it. That’s in their nature – I’m not saying it’s in the way they are brought up. They react in a more volatile way to incidents like that than we do.”
It’s difficult to imagine that the Proper Football Man brigade would have any interest in making a portfolio to recruit new members, but such a hypothetical publication would include Sam Allardyce’s quote from Tuesday evening.
It came after Jermain Defoe caught Martin Demichelis with his elbow (and there is no doubt that he did), but epitomised the little Englander persona that Allardyce portrays. It is a spectacularly ignorant view to hold.
There is an ideal scenario in response to such a quote, of course. On Saturday, when Allardyce picks the same team as the one that lost to Manchester City on Tuesday, Yann M’Vila, Fabio Borini, Jeremain Lens, Jan Kirchoff, Patrick van Aanholt, Lamine Kone, Whabri Khazri, Deandre Yedlin, John O’Shea and Dame N’Doye should shuffle out of the dressing room together.
“Where are you going lads?” Allardyce asks.
“We’re going home boss, they reply in unison.”
“Why are you doing that?” Allardyce asks angrily.
“Because Emre Can and Mamadou Sakho are playing,” they reply. “You know what us foreigns are like. They are physical players, and it’s in our nature to be volatile. We don’t want to risk getting sent off or rolling around on the floor. You’ll have to make do with Billy Jones and Wes Brown. Oh and boss…. quick word of advice. Don’t buy Ashley Young. You’ll hate him.”
Not a good day to bury bad news. Hours after Liverpool had announced the ticket pricing structure for Anfield’s new stand, the team put in a display to remind fans how long-term Jurgen Klopp’s project might have to be.
Klopp is struggling, limping to the summer and the chance to truly clear out his squad. His job is in no danger, for the club and its support see a midfield chronically lacking in pace, a defence chronically lacking in form and a forward line chroni… actually, there really isn’t a forward line.
With Christian Benteke unfit for Klopp’s purpose and Daniel Sturridge just unfit, Liverpool have no focus in the final third. Whereas Leicester could look for Jamie Vardy, Klopp’s side have no obvious focal point, save the occasional magic provided by Roberto Firmino. That makes it impossible to play with any concerted style.
Instead, Liverpool have round pegs squished into square holes, a mix of injuries, form and poor signings all combining to make any other scenario impossible. Firmino – an attacking midfielder – up front, Jordan Henderson drifting out right, Emre Can drifting out left, Adam Lallana as a No. 10. No, no, no and no.
Playing Leicester makes for easy and unflattering comparisons to this Liverpool squad. Hungry, quick and in tune with one another, Ranieri’s team are everything that Liverpool are not. They play with a fluidity and freedom that reflects the understanding between a group of friends and teammates who are loving every day of this season.
For Liverpool, the opposite is true. Klopp must be lacing up his boots, ready to kick a few high-profile underachievers firmly through the Anfield exit door.
Five straight defeats at the worst possible time, Norwich are falling short when it matters most.
Most worrying of all is Alex Neil’s defence, which has suddenly found a previously unknown level of ineptitude. Norwich have conceded four more goals in their last five matches as they did in the previous 12. Schoolboy doesn’t even cover it – we’re talking nursery level.
Stupid, stupid boy.
They lost again. They keep losing. Nobody really know when they’ll stop losing. Even a run of undefeated matches only acts as a prelude to more losses. It’s all so bloody bleak.
Look, I don’t get many things right.
Really looking forward to Steve McClaren's confusion when Newcastle concede three at Goodison. "But we bought all these attacking players??"
— Daniel Storey (@danielstorey85) February 1, 2016
So you’re saying that buying midfielders and strikers didn’t make Fabricio Coloccini and Paul Dummett defend any better? How odd.