“We are the only team who do not need to win the league,” seems a pretty simple explanation from Claudio Ranieri when asked by the BBC about Leicester’s remarkable run but it certainly struck a chord. Technically he is mistaken as Tottenham are in a similar expectation vacuum, but the underlying sentiment is certainly true: The Foxes can (for now) play without pressure or stress from fans, media or owners. For just how this manifested itself in a magnificent performance against Manchester City, read Matt Stead’s excellent 16 Conclusions on the game.
But while that sentiment is likely to carry them through next weekend’s clash with Arsenal – for which the early odds put them at bigger than 3/1 despite being the Premier League pacesetters – the real test of their credentials will come when they face teams who prepare themselves to play title favourites. Nobody has parked the bus against Leicester; nobody has put nine men behind the ball and said ‘let’s what you’ve got’ like they would when facing the Manchester clubs or Arsenal; they have benefited from the rest of the league still – even at this stage – thinking ‘it’s only Leicester’. The only games Leicester have been truly expected to win in recent weeks – against Bournemouth and Aston Villa – have seen them drop points.
Over the next eight games, Leicester will face Norwich, West Brom, Watford, Newcastle, Crystal Palace and Sunderland. They will be favourites for all of those matches against the other teams around them at the ‘bottom’ of the tables for pass completion and possession. Those teams will not be taking the game to ‘only Leicester’. Tony Pulis will play six centre-halves, all will opt to ‘go long’ rather than fall into Leicester’s signposted and yet irresistible trap of sitting deep and hitting fast.
There have been plenty saying that Leicester would be ‘found out’ in a run of games against Liverpool, Manchester City and Arsenal, but the real ‘finding out’ may come against similar-sized clubs with identical but less effective tactics. What happens when you play this Leicester side at their own game? What happens when you leave them no space behind your defence? We may be about to find out.
We just don’t know what to think anymore. By almost all common statistical measures, Riyad Mahrez had an absolute mare against Manchester City. He touched the ball only 28 times, registered a woeful 46.7% pass completion rate, had only one shot, created only one chance and made no tackles or interceptions. And yet he scored one goal and made another. I have not felt this discombobulated since finding that VHS video behind the TV on babysitting duty.
We’re not sure we can say it better than Watford boss Quique Flores: “For me, it’s the best [team we’ve played]. We played twice against [Manchester] City, twice against Tottenham, twice against Chelsea, and I think this is the more complete team. It was impossible [to deal with them] We try to train a lot and try to take care a lot what happens in transition. We know perfectly what we want to do when we [recover] the ball, we try to play, but it was impossible.”
Twenty-five shots. Twenty-bloody-five shots. There were no outfield starters for Tottenham who did not have at least one attempt on goal. Christian Eriksen – playing centrally in the absence of Dele Alli – made eight key passes. It was relentless. After Manchester City utterly failed to deal with Leicester on Saturday, how the hell will they cope with the Tottenham tsunami?
Unlike Leicester, Tottenham’s style (as close to Jurgen Klopp’s Dortmund as we currently boast) does not need a compliant opposition. Watford were by no means compliant, but they were powerless against a Tottenham side Flores went on to call “animals”. Good luck to an ageing, vulnerable City; it’s difficult to envisage anything other than a mauling.
Phew. There was a win and there were goals. We are already a little bit moist about Sunday.
The 13th player to score for Tottenham in the Premier League had not even started a top-flight game before Christmas. He must now be dreaming of a Premier League winner’s medal just 12 months after being relegated.
This Tottenham side is a nirvana for attacking full-backs, with Eric Dier nominally playing in midfield but actually dropping back into defence to form a three-man safety net. Enjoy this Trip(pier).
As I have written elsewhere (you probably didn’t read it because it was about Southampton), there are few Premier League managers who have proved that they can recover from a mess of their own making, or at least a mess that has happened under their noses. Jose Mourinho failed, Louis van Gaal is narrowly failing and it is Alan Pardew’s greatest failing as a manager. Ronald Koeman is succeeding in career-defining fashion.
In charge of a Southampton side that had won just once in eight Premier League games, Koeman did not talk about hoping for a change of fortune but instead effected changes. You might say the manager actually managed. One change was gifted to him in the form of the returning Fraser Forster but the Dutchman deserves extensive credit for switching to a three-man defence. Five clean sheets have followed and on Saturday they were so well drilled that they survived the 54th-minute sending-off of Victor Wanyama.
Koeman recently denied that he had asked Guus Hiddink to recommend him to the Chelsea board, but does he really need nepotism?
From Friday’s Daily Mirror: ‘Andros Townsend sat in the Newcastle home dressing room and pointed at the names on the back of the shirts. “Look, some fantastic players….”‘
That Newcastle have some very good (‘fantastic’ may be going a tad too far) footballers – Cheick Tiote, Jonjo Shelvey, Townsend himself, Moussa Sissoko, Daryl Janmaat, Georginio Wijnaldum, Aleksandar Mitrovic – is not in question, but too often Newcastle have played like a disparate collection of very good footballers looking for excuses and inspiration, rather than a team. On Saturday against West Brom, they were the latter.
It helps that Shelvey was allowed space in midfield to do his best impression of Steven Gerrard (remember how good he looked against San Marino?) and it helps that Townsend was up against non-full-back and professional forgotten man James Chester, but there were impressive performances across the park – particularly from a rejuvenated Tiote, tackling like it was 2012.
Tits on the block time: Newcastle will survive with relative ease.
First back-to-back wins of the season. First back-to-back clean sheets of the season. Roberto Martinez will undoubtedly publicly bemoan injuries to John Stones and Tim Howard, but they have been a blessing in very thin disguise for the Spaniard. He could not have dropped Stones after basically anointing him as the second coming of Jesus Christ/Rio Ferdinand – and crowbarring him in at right-back was patently not a solution – but injury has allowed him to partner Phil Jagielka with Ramiro Funes Mori in a no-nonsense partnership big on clearances and long balls (they both reached double figures for both against Stoke) and low on p***ing about with the ball and poor positioning.
Much has changed since Everton’s last Premier League defeat against Swansea – only one of the back five from that 2-1 defeat remained in the same position for the 3-0 win over Stoke. Equally important have been the return to fitness of James McCarthy and the use of Aaron Lennon, with Everton utilising his pace – and Romelu Lukaku’s – with quick, long balls into the channels. It was telling that Seamus Coleman praised the English winger’s ‘work rate’ and effort off the ball. Do you not get the same support from Gerard Deulofeu, Seamus?
Roberto Martinez has attracted a fair amount of criticism on these pages for his underachievement with a team of heralded youngsters but he has – aided by injury – found a solution to the Toffees’ defensive problems. We promise our respect will increase if he has the stones to stick to his guns when Howard and Bobby Moore return to fitness.
“I was a bit hesitant about training yesterday (Friday) but I just went outside and went through the pain. I’ve done it several times throughout my career. It’s not the first time. I think even at 80 per cent I was able to help my team-mates – not the way I wanted to, but I did a fair amount of hard work like everyone does in this team. I’m happy to have scored as well so it’s all positives for me but I want to get back to 100 per cent so I can deliver more for the team.”
We probably don’t need to tell you which other striker sprung to mind on reading those quotes. Lukaku is an extraordinary professional and an extraordinary footballer; £65m no longer seems an extraordinary price.
The frightening thing is that he is actually going to get better.
Eight points in their last five games. Extrapolate that across the rest of the season and Villa will pick up another 20 points to take them to 36. In the last two seasons, that would have been enough to survive. Matt Stead is starting to squirm in his seat.
The manager of 2015 gets his first point of 2016. Who says he cannot arrest slumps?
Five goals in six games and the beginnings of a promising partnership with the lively Alberto Paloschi. Swansea once again have reasons to be cheerful.
“If we are the dominant side on the pitch, looking for the winner, we can’t be too harsh on ourselves,” said goalkeeper Lukasz Fabianski.
A team with an average age of 29 against the fastest team in the Premier League. What could possibly go wrong? It’s not that Manuel Pellegrini necessarily picked the wrong team against Leicester – though picking two bomber-oners at full-back was the equivalent of nonchalantly dropping your guard against Prince Naseem at his peak – it’s just that his squad is not fit for purpose when playing against a side this devastating on the counter-attack.
Being two injuries away from the 35-year-old Martin Demichelis at centre-half is unforgivable from a team with City’s resources. As much as I like Pellegrini – and I really, really do – he has been almost as guilty as Arsene Wenger of allowing sentimentality and loyalty to cloud his judgement. When Fernando is your first option for more pace in the centre of midfield, you know you have an incredibly flawed squad. Extensive surgery is required.
We have reached peak Pulis. Four centre-halves, four central midfielders, one sh*thouse winger and a big bloke up front. And they really were sodding awful at Newcastle.
We keep saying it but what the shuddering f*** was the point of keeping Saido Berahino at the club if you are not going to play him? Is there a point at which pride and stubbornnness will be set aside and Pulis will play his most talented and, more pertinently, effective goalscorer? Even an unmotivated, surly Berahino is far, far better than Victor Anichebe, whose last Premier League goal came in May.
“We know the number of points we have to get, and we need a couple of players back,” said Pulis after a performance he described as his worst away from home as Baggies boss. West Brom’s injured players are currently Jonny Evans, James Morrison, Chris Brunt and Callum McManaman but the player he really needs to restore is as fit as a fiddle. It’s a bloody hard life at West Brom if you’re a full-back or a striker under six foot.
It seems highly unlikely that West Brom will do anything other than flirt with relegation but – as Daniel Storey asked last week – how long will West Brom fans put up with this kind of managerial pragmatism if they finish the season with 39 points and f*** all entertainment?
Maybe being one of four central midfielders means that you leave the hard work to others. Surely Tony Pulis would have pointed out that the one thing you cannot give Jonjo Shelvey is space. Well, space and difficult questions with more than two clauses.
Louis van Gaal
One defeat in seven never felt so bad. For 16 Conclusions on Chelsea v Manchester United click here.
“Everything is there but we concede one goal and it felt like the end of the world.”
That was Jurgen Klopp back in October. Four months, a dozen steps forward and a dozen steps back later, Liverpool still find themselves in exactly the same place. They are so very fragile – inextricably-linked defensive shortcomings and mental weakness combining to leave any victory uncertain until the final whistle. They feel vulnerable because they are vulnerable.
They dominated for 82 minutes and then Simon Mignolet failed Goalkeeping 1.1 in the relatively simple task of lining up his wall, which was expertly placed to protect the photographer beyond the Belgian’s left-hand post. Having allowed Sunderland to score with their first shot on target, those left inside Anfield would have known that Liverpool would panic, retreat and there would be at least one more Sunderland chance before the end of the match. And so it came when Mamadou Sakho unforgivably allowed himself to be turned by Jermain Defoe.
Over the last six games, only Norwich have conceded more goals than Liverpool; only four teams have picked up fewer points. The turd remains unpolished.
After the very first weekend of the season, I wrote this: ‘The hackles of Norwich fans have been raised this week by many in the media (including us) writing off Norwich as basically the same squad that went down two seasons ago and thus lacking in true quality. While taking the point that Alex Neil is a more inspirational manager than Chris Hughton, Norwich have basically the same squad that went down two seasons ago and thus lack true quality. They will go down.’
Even with pretty extensive reinforcements, I see no reason to change my mind. As Daniel Storey will tell anybody who will listen (and many who really would rather not), the team with the worst defence will always get relegated. Right now, Norwich really do have the worst defence, and nowhere near enough goals to challenge the statistics.
The most worrying aspect of this weekend for Norwich fans was the lack of fight. As manager Alex Neil said when asked if his side had shown enough character: “Not until we were 2-0 down. If you watch the Premier League they shouldn’t need building up. That’s motivation in itself. Nobody wants to feel the pain of relegation. I’ve got two promotions back-to-back and the last thing I want to do is go back.”
The problem for Neil is that six of his starting XI from Saturday have been relegated from the Premier League with either Norwich or other clubs. Do they fear the drop as much as their manager? One more question: Does Patrick Bamford still think that Norwich play ‘total football’?
When was the last time a Hammers striker scored more than ten Premier League goals in a season? We will help you out: Bobby Zamora in 2006/07. With 11.
That record doesn’t look in a great deal of danger this season either, with Enner Valencia their most potent striker with four goals. On Saturday against a Southampton side reduced to ten men after 54 minutes, he had six attempts on goal and hit the target just once.
The Hammers will be playing pretty football under a glass ceiling until they find a goalscorer to compliment the supreme stylings of Dimitri Payet.
Ryan Shawcross cannot return quickly enough.
Mark Hughes for Manchester United? Alan Pardew for England? There are now no British managers in the top half of the Premier League. No wonder Sam Allardyce is arguing for a version of the Rooney rule – they need all the help they can get.