Slaven Bilic the giantslayer
You can imagine Bilic going out to take on a giant. He has the deep-set eyes of a man who constantly has a 30% hangover and the lingering taste of last night’s fags on his breath, who would pick up his sword but turn down the chest armour. “If I’m going to beat him, it’ll have to be the first blow anyway,” he’d remark casually, making those of us not built for fighting go weak at the knees.
In their 11 games against sides in the current top eight, West Ham have taken 20 points, the best return in the Premier League. Their record against last season’s top six reads: Played nine, won six, drawn two, lost one. They have kept five clean sheets in those nine games, and scored at least twice in six of them.
West Ham have only lost twice in the league since November 22, and their total of 46 points is only one fewer than Sam Allardyce managed in the whole of last season. Supporters were told to be fearful of the Olympic Stadium becoming a white elephant host to Championship football, but Champions League is now more likely.
At the head of this powerful force stands Bilic, the manager with the rock star swagger and self-belief and energy in abundance. “He is positive crazy,” says Ivan Rakitic, who played under him for the Croatian national team. “He’s 100% in every moment.”
Bilic has a simple motto for his West Ham players: “If you offered me a point before a match, I wouldn’t take it. I would never take it.” And nor should he. West Ham may be an unlikely member of this sprint for a top-four finish, but they have demonstrated already their ability to kick the shins of the bigger boys and leave lasting bruises.
League victory against a miserable Manchester City will not atone for an equally dreary Capital One Cup final defeat, but Jurgen Klopp’s players picked the right time to breathe life back into their league season. It’s incredible that a club with Liverpool’s problems this season are only six points from the top four with ten games still remaining. Their remaining away games are against clubs currently ninth, 13th, 14th, 15th and 16th in the table. They couldn’t, could they?
Probably not, as it happens. Liverpool’s season has been hamstrung by their own inconsistencies, and Klopp will be keen to point out that this is a transition campaign for his team. There are still at least six players at Anfield who must be wondering what the immediate future holds. Yet the important aspect of transition seasons are to give home supporters moments to remember; these are what create the goodwill and patience. Against City, Klopp added at least another few months to his sell-by date.
For all the away side’s deficiencies, Liverpool did not let City settle. They swarmed over them in midfield, with Emre Can and Adam Lallana making 14 tackles between them and winning possession 29 times. Fernando and Fernandinho acted like small dogs stood in the sea when caught out by a big wave: Lots of panicked barking, but very little they could do.
“This has to be the role model,” was Klopp’s message to his players after the match. “Many people will say we cannot always play like this – that’s not interesting. The only possibility to save energy in a football game is when you have the ball. Then you have the energy to press and for the counter-pressing situations. I am too old to think from now on we’ll play like this all the time, but it was a very important sign for the boys.”
Liverpool’s season has been as unpredictable and inconsistent as the Premier League as a whole but, in 180 league minutes against Manchester City, Klopp has his blueprint. The odds-on title favourites of September and October have been beaten 7-1 on aggregate since.
Why are we even bothering with the last ten weeks of the season? What’s the point? Let’s just give the title to Leicester now.
As I made a preliminary list on Tuesday night, Leicester were tentatively placed in the losers section. Claudio Ranieri’s side had squandered a lead at home to a West Brom side whose relegation concerns had still to be put to bed. Tony Pulis’ side had scored more than once in an away league game twice in 11 months before Tuesday.
By 10pm Wednesday, Ranieri was tying up the laces on his dancing shoes. In a midweek when Leicester had stumbled, they had still managed to extend their lead at the top. As Iain Macintosh tweeted, ‘Has somebody p*ssed in the Premier League trophy? Why does nobody want it?’
Ranieri will still be perturbed by his side’s defensive unease without N’Golo Kante, but those issues can be rectified at Vicarage Road on Saturday. With Crystal Palace, Newcastle and Sunderland to follow in three of their four games thereafter, Leicester remain in the driving seat. In March. Ridiculous.
Louis van Gaal
Manchester United have now won only one of their last 16 Premier League games by more than a single goal, but you try telling Louis van Gaal that they are shuffling their way into top-four contention. The man just won’t give a f**k, and nor should he.
United were not good against Watford. Daley Blind was the least convincing member of a ragtag defence, while Juan Mata ended up playing in central midfield with Morgan Schneiderlin for the final 15 minutes. A 0-0 draw would have been a fair result, and yet United found a way to win. Two months ago, they were manufacturing similarly complex methods of achieving defeat.
It may only be a temporary respite, but United are again looking up, not down. Young players, academy graduates and pacy attackers have all helped to create a feelgood atmosphere. Unlike when chronically under-performing senior players are present, there is a meaningful reason to wish this team well. That can be powerful.
Given how close Van Gaal was – and still may be – to losing his job at Old Trafford, it would be wonderful if United pipped City for a top-four place. The manager’s first press conference would certainly be quite something. Maybe, finally, we’d get to see the balls.
When Hiddink was appointed on the morning of December 19, Chelsea were 16th in the Premier League, one point outside the relegation zone. Championship football next season seemed a distant possibility, but the house that Jose built was crumbling from the inside out. Chelsea had 15 points from 16 games.
Hiddink may not want the Chelsea job on a permanent basis, but he is making the task of his replacement all the more difficult through his masterful firefighting role. In a table calculated since his appointment, Chelsea sit second. They have taken six more points than Arsenal and two more than Leicester.
From looking down the table with unease, Chelsea supporters are now looking up with hope. Their team are seven points off a top-six place that virtually guaranteed European football next season. For the more ambitious, Chelsea are eight points off the top four.
“A few of our players have reached their best level again and we have started to win matches,” says Thibaut Courtois. “The atmosphere in training is very good, we train very hard with a lot of intensity.
“Maybe on the training pitch he has just helped us have confidence again. I don’t know about everyone else, but I had some talks with the manager. I guess he has with other players. Sometimes confidence can change things.”
The evidence is there for all to see. Chelsea’s 12-match unbeaten run is double that of any other Premier League side and the second best in the country behind Wigan Athletic.
There are obvious benefits to football management on an interim basis, with limits explicitly defined and politics and internal strife easy to avoid. Yet that should not detract from the exceptional job Hiddink has done. From a position of great adversity, Chelsea are flying again.
Chelsea’s young players
Kenedy, Bertrand Traore and Baba Rahman playing in the same fixture? Two players under the age of 21 starting a league game for Chelsea? This is unheard of (it has happened twice since May 2007).
One of the positive spins on Chelsea’s lousy form before Christmas is that it has afforded opportunities for the club’s young players in relatively pressure-free circumstances. Had Chelsea been in the middle of a fight for the title, you suspect Traore and Kenedy’s first-team appearances may have been fewer and further between.
Arsene Wenger’s treatment of Joel Campbell is bizarre. Having spent years preaching to the unconverted that the Costa Rican would come good, Wenger could have been rightly smug when Campbell finally proved his worth earlier this season. Then, just as supporters were convinced, Wenger cast him aside. Campbell started seven league games in January and December, and only two since.
Compare Theo Walcott vs Manchester United’s makeshift defence on Sunday to Campbell vs Swansea:
Minutes – 64
Touches – 58
Shots – 3
Goals – 1
Chances created – 2
Passing accuracy – 86.8%
Successful dribbles – 3
Lost the ball through poor touch – 1
Minutes – 45
Touches – 17
Shots – 0
Goals – 0
Chances created – 0
Passing accuracy – 66.7%
Successful dribbles – 0
Lost the ball through poor touch – 4
Against Swansea, Campbell was comfortably Arsenal’s brightest spark, his goal beautifully taken and his runs a constant threat during the first half. Quite what persuaded Wenger to take him off with over a quarter of the game remaining only the manager knows, but it was not a popular decision. Campbell should at least be boosted by the boos; the supporters are on his side.
Mark Hughes has now won three straight league games for the fourth time as Stoke manager. Before his appointment, they had only done so three times since promotion in 2008.
After four games without a win (and scoring only one goal), the perfect response from Eddie Howe’s team. The gap to the bottom three is now a whopping eight points.
Connor Wickham and his scoring bursts
Having teased Crystal Palace slightly for Wickham’s two goals against West Brom, it’s only fair to compliment him after the striker scored more than once in consecutive games for the first time in his career. Get him on the plane.
Wickham has a habit for scoring his goals in short bursts. He scored five in three league games in 2013/14, two in two in 2014/15 and four in two in the last week. Outside of those 11 goals in nine games, Wickham has only scored five times in 83 Premier League matches.
“It’s a weight off my shoulders personally but the gaffer has spoken to me individually over the past few weeks and said there’s no pressure on me to get goals,” Wickham said after the West Brom defeat.
“I always want to score goals and I’m pretty pleased that I’ve got two. It’s just me going back to instinct, I’ve thought to shoot every time and thankfully I’ve caught the second one sweetly and it’s gone into the top corner.”
If Palace keep defending as they have been, Alan Pardew will need those instincts over the next two months.
With 11 games of the season remaining, Lukaku has already set a record for the most goals scored by an Everton player in a Premier League campaign. Gary Lineker was the last player to score more in a league season.
From Big Midweek on Tuesday:
‘Mahrez received deserved plaudits for his magnificence against Manchester City but, actually, that has been the recent exception rather than rule. Take out that wondrous match (I know, if my auntie had balls), and the winger has no goals and two assists in his last nine Premier League games. More worrying still is how Mahrez’s creativity has dried up. In his first seven games of the season, the Algerian created 18 chances. In the last seven, he has created four.’
Way to answer those doubts in style. Leicester may have slipped up against West Brom, but Mahrez created two chances and produced an outrageous assists for Andy King’s goal.
One of my football fetishes is enjoying the way writers describe a piece of unusual skill that has no designated name. The Sun, Guardian and Times went for ‘flick’, the Daily Mail ‘backheel’ and the Daily Express ‘lay-off’. Last but not least, Daily Mirror went for ‘flying, cushioned, back-heeled assist’. Oh yes.
Arsenal: The ‘what if’ club
1-0 up at home to the team in 16th position. 1-0 up at home to a team with two league away wins since May 2015. 1-0 up at home to a team that made six changes, effectively prioritising the weekend fixture against Norwich. 1-0 up at home to a team without their manager, consigned to hospital with a chest infection. 1-0 to the Arsenal. 2-1 to the Swansea.
The most damning thing about Arsenal and Wenger is that there are no new words left to write. We have been here so, so, so many times before that the criticisms have become as predictable as Wenger’s continued insistence that his team are still mentally strong. It’s all so bloody tired.
Yet there is a key difference during this season: This failure will all be on Wenger. There are no mitigating circumstances or excuses to cling to, no stadium to pay for, no transfer budget to stare at and wish it was ten times larger, no players being tapped up. Wenger chose to go into this season with this squad of players and push for the league title. It is his wilful blindness to the issues that not only make this his problem, but threaten to ruin his Arsenal legacy.
Arsenal have now become the club of ‘what ifs’. What if Santi Cazorla had stayed fit? What if Jack Wilshere was available? What if that shot hadn’t hit the post? What if that foul on Ozil had been given? What if the Champions League draw had been kinder? What if Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Theo Walcott come good after we’ve sold them? What if Olivier Giroud gets upset about a new striker signing?
It’s an unacceptable position for a club of such magnitude, embarrassing for Arsenal, their manager and their angry fans. Winners turn ‘what if’ into ‘so what?’, overcoming adversity. Arsenal allow it to shape their entire identity.
There is now one ‘what if’ that is being shouted far louder than any other: ‘What if we had a different manager?’ Should they miss out on the league title again this season, it’s time to find out the answer.
‘Football is football, it is cruel,’ reads the current headline at the top of Arsenal’s official website, reflecting Wenger’s post-match thoughts after the defeat to Swansea.
Except that football isn’t cruel, because it isn’t sentient. Football is exactly what you make of it.
If you have better strikers, you take more chances. If you take more chances, you are more likely to hold onto leads. If you have better defensive midfielders, you are less likely to get caught on the counter attack. If you have quicker central defenders, opposition attackers are less likely to run in behind. If you have a manager who is prepared to spend money on his squad, admit and address the weaknesses within his team and his own management style, you are less likely to go a decade without a title.
Crucially, Wenger’s greatest strength has now become his weakness. He was a manager who established his reputation on making a group of Arsenal players greater than the sum of their parts. He’s now doing the opposite; Arsenal have wonderful talent within their squad, but Wenger is failing to get the best out them. When the reason to keep faith has gone, so too has hope.
Football is not cruel, Arsene. You are just making it seem so. As one fan in the Mailbox said: ‘It takes a special kind of manager to disappoint a fan base that had already given up all hope to begin with.’ Oh, Wenger.
Playing to the whistle
“The players stopped playing as they were sure the referee would blow for a foul” – Arsene Wenger.
Are Arsenal’s players f**king eight years old?
On Tuesday, Manchester City captain Vincent Kompany issued a warning to the club’s title rivals: “What we’ve learned in our recent history is that in moments like this, you just have to get your head down and start racing as much as you can. It’s what we call the hunting season.”
By Wednesday night, that rousing call-to-arms looked risible. If City were going hunting, they had staggered back home 20 minutes later, both legs bleeding having accidentally shot themselves. Forget the title race, City must beware missing out on a Champions League spot.
There is a certain level of underperformance that raises great anger from the Premier League neutral. As a fan of a Championship club, I’m used to strikers missing chances, midfielders failing to track their men and defenders missing tackles. I am used to baffling inconsistencies and a visible lack of effort. You get immune to it after a while.
Yet City should have been fighting at Anfield, with a title on the line and a squad packed with talented players. What they produced was the most insipid away performance I have seen this season, narrowly beating Liverpool’s own dire display at Watford.
It was not just that City were bad, it’s that they looked like they didn’t care. Sergio Aguero was non-existent, David Silva is morphing from slight and tricky to lightweight and ineffective, and Nicolas Otamendi is getting his Eliaquim Mangala impression down to a tee. At least Fernando is consistent, abjectly ceding possession more often than he wins it.
“The whole organisation – everyone at the club – has to have the knife between the teeth and know that now everyone needs to be as sharp and focused as ever,” was Kompany’s final public message to his players before the game. City’s captain better start banging a few heads together.
City have now lost three straight league games for the first time since November 2008, when Mark Hughes was manager against Middlesbrough, Bolton and Tottenham. A selection of City starters on that three-game run: Darius Vassell, Tal Ben-Haim, Richard Dunne, Gelson Fernandes, Ched Evans, Benjani and Javier Garrido.
The majority opinion regarding Pellegrini is that he has been harshly treated by the announcement that Pep Guardiola will be joining in the summer. Yet the opposite view must at least be considered: What if he’s just not good enough?
You can sympathise with Pellegrini that his future employment was discussed so publicly, but there is no doubt that he has underperformed as City manager. The Chilean’s inability to inspire his side away from home is laughable given the quality of players and budget at his disposal.
Pellegrini’s side have now taken ten points from their last ten away league games, falling ten points behind Leicester at the top of the table. If we are giving Wenger tremendous grief for potentially ceding the title to Leicester or Tottenham, Pellegrini must get an even firmer kicking. If you have many friends but no enemies, it probably means that people aren’t scared of you.
Tottenham, and a first half of genuine concern
“I think that we didn’t start the game in a good way. We made some mistakes and the team didn’t feel free to play the way they play,” Mauricio Pochettino told BBC Sport after the game. And the award for understatement goes to…
Oh, it was bad. Really, really bad. Look around at each other and wonder whether everyone was playing hungover bad. Doubt whether you have the stomach for the fight bad. Go back home and never talk of this day again bad.
In 90 minutes against Swansea, Tottenham managed 34 shots and 15 on target. In the first 45 minutes against West Ham, they failed to have a single shot of any kind or even force a corner. They touched the ball five times in West Ham’s penalty area despite having 62.8% possession, indicative of a team without the cohesion to create a flowing attacking move. At the other end, West Ham were rampant, harrying and hassling Spurs in possession. It was Bilic’s side who looked like title hopefuls.
One half of football is not enough to derail a title challenge, least of all in this bonkers season where the race for the Premier League trophy is part sack race, part egg-and-spoon and part It’s A Knockout on acid. But Pochettino must spend the rest of the week drumming into his players the need to make that 45 minutes the exception, not the new rule. Otherwise they can kiss goodbye to their dreams.
Kieran Trippier, Ben Davies and back-up options
The doubts about Tottenham’s title challenge focused on their inability – or otherwise – to maintain their high energy levels during the weeks when their fitness would be most tested. In fact, Pochettino opted for a proactive solution. With Pochettino’s full-backs covering at least 10km in every game, Kyle Walker and Danny Rose were rested. Both have been among the club’s best performers this season.
It backfired. Neither Davies nor Trippier were budget signings, but neither were they adequately able to replicate the effect Rose and Walker have on this team. Against Swansea, Rose and Walker created six chances, had five shots, made nine clearances, six interceptions, gained possession 15 times and lost possession on 33 occasions. Against West Ham, Davies and Trippier created one chance, had one shot, made three clearances, four interceptions, gained possession 11 times and lost possession on 54 occasions.
Evidently that was not the only reason for Tottenham’s defeat, but it is further indication of the lack of ideal back-up options within Pochettino’s squad. That said, this is not a Premier League season when ideal squad will end up triumphant.
– In the last two games, Newcastle have used players costing over £85million in transfer fees.
– Newcastle have now lost six consecutive Premier League away games.
– Under McClaren, Newcastle have taken seven away points out of a possible 42.
– Newcastle have scored more than once in an away game on just one occasion in all competitions this season.
– In the last year as a manager, McClaren has taken charge of 39 league matches. He has taken 36 points out of a total of 117.
It is increasingly baffling how McClaren remains in a job. If things were moving in the right direction, or if poor results were overshadowing bright performances, there would be reason for further patience. Neither are true. Inability to beat Bournemouth on Saturday will surely spell the end of another failed attempt at redemption.
Wenger has been very vocal regarding Mertesacker’s leadership qualities of late.
“Per Mertesacker is a great leader, a very respected one in our dressing room,” the manager said on February 12.
“He’s a very important leader in the dressing room, Per,” Wenger said on January 24. “And a respected one as well, and maintains focus he wants to do well. He’s one of the guys who can help us.”
Mertesacker is currently leading by example: Ponderous and indecisive. He looks less like a Premier League winner and more like a central defender struggling to cope with the pace of the league.
Find a video of Swansea’s equaliser, and just watch Mertesacker. As the ball finds the feet of Jack Cork, the defender is dragged up the pitch, but not into a position where he can look to intercept a pass or make a tackle. Instead he is no man’s land, his increasingly natural habitat.
At the moment Cork’s through ball is played, Mertesacker is actually the one playing Wayne Routledge onside. Rather than turn and sprint towards his own goal, the German instead breaks into a skip before falling back to walking pace. He never moves faster than 5-6mph throughout the entire move, flat-footed and unresponsive.
If Mertesacker is a “great leader” capable of dragging his teammates to the title, Theo Walcott is Lionel Messi.
This side kept a clean sheet against Manchester City. Football is weird.
The look on Alex Neil’s face said it all, followed by hands slowly placed on top of his head. Jerome had missed from six yards, ballooning the ball over the bar. Norwich’s chance of a home point had gone.
The presence of Jerome leading Norwich’s attack sums up their air of Championship team punching above their weight. The striker scored 20 times in 44 games in Norwich’s promotion campaign. In the Premier League since April 2010, his record is 15 goals in 142 matches.
Now officially behind Divock Origi in the pecking order. Liverpool’s £32.5m summer signing has not even started a league game since January 2. Would they take half their money back in June?