After Leicester’s victory over Watford, Ranieri finally allowed himself to publicly talk up Leicester’s title bid after weeks of avoiding the issue. “We are running for something special,” he said.
It was only a temporary blip, and within seconds the Italian had resorted to his party line: “Every match in the Premier League is a battle. Five points is nothing.”
Five is also the number of points that Leicester have dropped in their last seven league matches, and if they repeat that feat over the next seven games they will surely be crowned as champions. It’s worth pointing out that until the end of April, Leicester have comfortably the easiest run of fixtures. That starts against Newcastle next Monday evening.
Everything is falling perfectly into place. Leicester have avoided the long-term injuries to key players that Arsenal, Manchester City, Manchester United and even West Ham have suffered. They have avoided too the ruts that each of their title challengers have succumbed to. Only once this season have Leicester gone more than two league games without victory, and even that was marked by a 0-0 draw against Manchester City.
Leicester and Spurs are the only two teams in the league to have avoided consecutive league defeats. Having drawn 2-2 with West Brom last Tuesday, Leicester could have lost their place at the top the following evening. Four days later they had established a five-point lead. When Leicester drop points, so do the rest. When other teams drop points, Ranieri’s team takes advantage.
Over their last 38 Premier League matches, Leicester have picked up 82 points. Disbelief and a difficulty in shifting our perceptions of the Premier League’s elite are the only reasons to doubt them now.
Leicester’s incredible defensive improvement
On Boxing Day, Leicester lost 1-0 at Anfield. They remained top of the table, but at that point had the 14th best defensive record in the Premier League. Ranieri’s side had kept just three clean sheets.
Since then, Leicester have kept seven clean sheets. The 14th best defence in the league has transformed into the best, conceding just six goals in 11 games. Don’t be fooled into thinking that this title bid is founded on magic and gold glitter; it’s far more impressive.
Slaven Bilic and the best of both worlds
While Roberto Martinez was busy bringing on a striker for a winger at 2-0 up and with ten men, desperate to achieve victory with a swagger, West Ham’s manager took a completely different approach.
“I said at half-time: ‘We are one down but we are going to do it,” Bilic said after the game. “We have to be less sexy and more lethal in front of the box’. To come back like this nobody can deny we didn’t deserve it. We showed our quality, we showed our stubbornness and we got a great win.”
Pragmatism is not an attribute you immediately associate with Bilic, the rock star manager who sees 100% as minimum expectation rather than upper limit. Take his pre-season view on formations, for example: “Fluidity is much more important – you want your lines to remain close to one another, so they can flow over.” It sounds like Beat poetry.
For all West Ham’s beauty this season, they have shown brains and brawn too. Only Southampton, Arsenal and the two Manchester clubs have kept more clean sheets than Bilic’s side, and only Tottenham have taken more points after conceding the first goal of the game. West Ham supporters worried that their manager would offer plenty of talk but a little less action have been proved spectacularly wrong. Bilic has given them the best of both worlds.
West Ham are one point away from the top four with nine games remaining, Champions League qualification still in their hands in March. The victory at Everton was startling for multiple reasons, but also symbolic for West Ham: They are now two points ahead of their final total last season. Big Slav > Big Sam.
Three goals in as many matches, each of them crucial to West Ham collecting Premier League points. If Dimitri Payet is the jewel in West Ham’s crown, Antonio is the diamond found in the Championship rough.
The wingers used by Roy Hodgson in the 12 months are Jesse Lingard, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Theo Walcott, Andros Townsend and Raheem Sterling. Is there any reason why Antonio shouldn’t be ahead of at least three on that list for the upcoming friendlies?
Jurgen Klopp and a changing mood
Having suffered his first Premier League defeat to Crystal Palace, a limp, dour performance in November, Jurgen Klopp should consider Sunday’s victory a perfect indication of Liverpool’s progress under his management
Crucially, Klopp also played his own role in the victory. Rather than go into their shell and slow down the tempo after being reduced to ten men like Louis van Gaal and Manchester United at the Hawthorns, Klopp instead surprised Palace by switching to a 3-4-2 formation and continuing to put the emphasis on attack. He who dares wins, Rodney.
“It was an incredible performance from all of us, especially after the red card,” said Dejan Lovren. “We stepped up and showed our skills and our character and I think it was a deserved win today.” This was the sort of victory that can truly change the mood. As a bonus, Liverpool’s Selhurst Park hoodoo has ended.
There are still substantial flaws in the squad, of course, and Liverpool’s victory owed much to both fortune and incompetence on the part of Palace. Yet Klopp would surely focus on an improved belief among the players that means every goal conceded doesn’t immediately provoke a ‘here we go again’ mood.
Liverpool have now won their last three league games by an aggregate score of 11-1. It’s surely too late for a top-four surge, but it’s a useful shot in the arm ahead of Manchester United on Thursday evening.
Seven league goals and four assists in 2016; Firmino has had a greater effect by those two measures combined than any other Premier League player. He had me worried for a while.
The only thing missing from Harry Kane: Spurs Superhero was the striker wearing a comedy costume. Kane might have looked like a hedgehog with its face caught in a plastic beer can holder, but it failed to detract from another wonderful performance and goal against Arsenal. Sarah Winterburn isn’t convinced, but I’d start him in France.
Winners for coming back from the edge to gain a point, but losers for falling another two points behind in the title race. Arsenal must now claw back a point per game on Leicester and have gone five games in all competitions without a win. The mood has improved slightly, but it could hardly have got worse. Now go read a bloody excellent 16 Conclusions.
There is an argument to say that Saturday brought the Premier League’s two most starkly different clubs in opposition.
Newcastle are the most northern club in the league. They are the sleeping giant, crippled by foreign players with big reputations and fees who are underachieving badly. Fans go to a huge stadium in the town centre, but feel a disconnect with a club and owner who they feel have none of their interests at heart. They are managed by an ageing coach seeking redemption but failing badly, desperately unpopular with supporters.. When faced with a run of defeats, the squad’s response was to roll over and effectively throw in the towel. Newcastle still have 24 points. They look doomed.
Bournemouth are the most southern club in the league. They are also the smallest club, vitalised by home-grown players with smaller reputations and fees who are overachieving. Fans go to a small stadium on the outskirts of town, but feel a huge connection with a club and owner who they feel have their interests at heart. They are managed by a young coach trying to enhance his reputation and succeeding, hugely popular with supporters. When faced with a run of defeats, the squad’s response was to pull together and fight. Bournemouth now have 35 points. They look safe.
Who did you think would win?
Last season, no Premier League player managed to score ten or more goals and contribute ten or more assists. Eden Hazard came closest (14 goals, nine assists) and was named PFA Player of the Year. Mahrez currently has 15 goals and 11 assists.
In eighth place (and seven points off fourth) having scored 31 goals in 29 league games. That’s four fewer than Sunderland and the same number as Norwich. Over a third of Stoke’s league matches have contained one goal or less, and 59% two goals or fewer.
Mark Hughes’ greatest achievement is making people think this is sexy. Perception is everything.
All the love in the world for the way a professional footballer can tw*t the ball with all their might and it still go in exactly the place you’d have aimed for with a delicate curl.
Having looked out of his depth when in solitary charge, Swansea supporters must have been worried when Curtis was again given responsibility after Francesco Guidolin was taken into hospital. What has followed is four points in two matches to take Swansea to the verge of confirmed survival. Curtis deserves applause.
Williams made 15 clearances against Norwich on Saturday, the most of any player this weekend in the Premier League.
Every now and then I like to marvel at the consistency and fitness of Swansea’s captain, and this gives me the perfect opportunity. Since they were promoted to the Championship in May 2008, Williams has played 28,252 of Swansea’s 28,980 league minutes. He is a modern phenomenon.
If Newcastle fans’ opinion was split on whether McClaren deserved more time before Saturday, the capitulation at home to Bournemouth was the final straw. Chants of “Steve McClaren, you’re taking us down” and “Steve McClaren, get out of our club” were sung loudly and proudly from those who had previously harboured hopes that the manager would address the dire situation. When Bournemouth supporters mocked McClaren for being “sacked in the morning”, they were soon joined by home fans. The atmosphere was mutinous.
McClaren’s post-match interview was almost impossible to watch, a broken man who just wanted to be at home, the duvet pulled over his head. The only thing Newcastle’s manager could say with any conviction was an admission: “If we keep playing like that we will go down.”
Spanning 13 months as a manager and time in charge of both Derby County in the Championship and Newcastle in the Premier League, McClaren has now taken 36 league points from his last 123 available (W8, D12, L21). Talk of David Moyes, Rafa Benitez and Brendan Rodgers is inevitable, but there should be only one certainty: McClaren must be sacked immediately. It will be a long time before another Premier League club backs him to succeed.
There is an unfair accusation of Newcastle supporters that they have unrealistic expectations of their club, as if they are demanding a top-four or top-six finish. They are not angry that their team is not replicating the fine form of Leicester or West Ham. That couldn’t be further from the truth.
On Saturday afternoon, 52,000 people walked from the town centre up the hill to St James’ Park, the fourth-highest attendance in Europe this weekend. This is a city that lives for Saturday 3pm (and Sunday 1am), the entire weekend mood determined by the performance of its club. All Newcastle fans ask is that the players show some fight. They do not crave success more than any other set of Premier League supporters; they crave effort and passion.
The most damning indictment of Newcastle’s capitulation on Saturday is that (Jonjo Shelvey and Jack Colback aside) no player looked like they even cared. Not only should that be the final nail in McClaren’s coffin, it is a sure fire way to be playing Championship football in August.
Spends the months in between transfer windows talking about his ‘Champions League dream’, only to stay at the club when no such offers are forthcoming. That’s mainly because Sissoko has been phoning it in for the best part of six months.
“Champions League, you’re having a laugh,” Newcastle fans chanted as his withdrawal was actively cheered by all four corners of the ground.
Roberto Martinez and damaging optimism
It might be the most Martinez-esque anecdote imaginable. At 2-0 up at home to West Ham but down to ten men, Everton’s manager chose to take off winger Aaron Lennon for a forward. Not only that, but Oumar Niasse had only experienced two minutes of Premier League football prior to his introduction. Fifteen minutes later, 2-0 had become 2-3.
Martinez seems a lovely man with a sunny disposition, but his managerial optimism has already strayed far into the grounds of naivety. This is the top-flight coach who said in January: “Would I base the performance on wanting to keep a clean sheet? No… My philosophy is winning games, not keeping clean sheets.”
Until Martinez learns – or accepts – that the two are not mutually exclusive, he will never fulfil his, or Everton’s, potential. Everton have now lost 45 points from winning positions under his management, and 14 since late November. That’s the difference between 12th position and third, success and failure.
“I thought tactically we were outstanding,” said Martinez after the West Ham defeat. “If you look at the way we got set up in the second half, we were the better side and I think we showed an incredible tactical understanding and character.” Alrite Brendan Rodgers.
It’s a drum this column has been banging for some time, but still there is no improvement. If Martinez sees the style of Everton’s football as something to be prioritised over results, the club has a new billionaire owner who would beg to differ. When a squad with “the most exciting group of young players in Europe” has fewer points than Tony Pulis’ West Brom, aesthetics begin to lose their pull.
“With the seven defeats we can analyse every single one and, apart from Manchester United, in every one we performed in an incredible manner and deserved a lot more,” said Martinez after the game, his head still chilly from being left in the clouds.
No Roberto, you have deserved what you’ve got, especially when you blow three two-goal leads in the space of four months and concede more goals at home than any other Premier League team. Martinez may truly believe that the pressure on him has not increased with Everton’s new-found riches, but he is so very wrong. The last ten games of the league season act as an extended probation period.
“We can’t wait to get good wins, good performances and build something special,” were Martinez’s post-match words on Saturday, again spectacularly unaware of his own underachievement. The Spaniard is digging his own grave with a spade in each hand.
Alex Neil and Cameron Jerome
“You have to look at what he offers and if you do take him out of the side what you are losing,” said Neil on Friday. “Look at the last few good performances from us and he has been involved in all of them.
“The one thing Cameron does give us is his work rate is excellent and he keeps the ball well at the top end of the pitch. He gets himself into really good goalscoring opportunities and I would be much more concerned if that was not the case. He is creating chances for himself.”
At 34, Neil’s reputation will not be severely tarnished should Norwich be relegated, but he must beware allowing himself to be tarred with Jerome’s brush. Do the two paragraphs above sound to you like a striker who has had eight shots on target and created five chances in almost 1,500 league minutes this season?
Fewer shots on target than Leandro Bacuna, fewer chances created in 1472 minutes than Stephen Ireland has managed in 191. Cameron’s Britain.
Whatever Pardew’s feeling on the penalty awarded against his side (there was contact), the image of a 54-year-old man throwing his coat to the floor like an angry toddler not allowed a second packet of Quavers was hugely enjoyable.
Crystal Palace are still the only side in England’s top four divisions without a league win in 2016. Despite holding a 1-0 lead against ten men for the last third of the match, Pardew’s side somehow transformed victory into defeat. It’s becoming a party trick.
Newcastle supporters are not feeling happy about much these days, so forgive them for their smugness. Pardew is an excellent manager when the sun is shining, but has repeatedly proved himself incapable of turning around a decline. When the rain starts pouring and the thunder rumbles, he’s left struggling to put up the umbrella.
“The appreciation today of the quality of a player is just down with the money you spend,” said Arsene Wenger last May. “If we had bought Coquelin at Christmas for £40m, everyone would say ‘What a signing.’”
And if that £40m signing had dived into a challenge when already on a yellow card, everyone would say “what a silly c*ck”. The surprise is not that Coquelin got sent off for two dim tackles, it’s that it took so long to happen. A red card has been in the post for some time.
There was no doubting the mood. When Kane’s goal hit the back of the net, Tottenham had won the match. The crowd thought it, the players thought it and everyone watching at home thought it. Arsenal were on the canvas, reduced to ten men and hit by two goals in three second-half minutes. St Totteringham’s Day was being consigned to history.
Arsenal deserve great credit for manufacturing a draw out of likely defeat, but Tottenham facilitated their own downfall. Perhaps it was natural after such a high-intensity first half, but they relaxed far too much after taking the lead. Conserving energy is one thing, but a one-goal lead is never sufficient to allow such a luxury.
“We should have gone on to get a third and a fourth to finish the game off,” Kane said after the game. “We maybe dropped off a little bit too much and gave them space to play, and we got punished for it. We all know it was an opportunity missed. You have to learn and move on.”
Pochettino’s young squad cannot be criticised too harshly for their inexperience, but such mistakes are crucial. The only true winners in the north London derby were sat watching less than 20 miles away in Watford.
“I believe that I told you many times in these press conferences that I rate him [David Ospina] as a top class, world-class goalkeeper,” said Arsene Wenger after the game.
Smug and condescending when he feels he’s proved right, dismissive and patronising when proved wrong. It’s really not endearing.
Just as handsome Juan was winning over the doubters with several excellent (and dominating) performances, he gave up all of his goodwill with the dimmest of red cards. If that is an indication of Mata’s intelligence, the blog must be ghostwritten. He might just have ended his team’s hopes of Champions League qualification.
Louis van Gaal
“You can give the two bookings according to the rules but I think the referee needs to know the player who is doing that,” said Van Gaal. “The referee has to decide within one second but you know that Mata never hurts another player.
“That’s why an experienced referee is always better because he knows the players better, he knows the game better and so on. I think you take that into account.”
No, no and no. If Van Gaal wants character to be taken into account when referees issue punishments, he might as well sell Marouane Fellaini now and avoid the inevitable suspensions. What utter rot from an experienced manager.
Van Gaal has disappointed in many ways since his arrival in England, but he has reached a new nadir: United’s manager just made me side with Mike Dean in an argument. Cheers Louis.
Matthew Stead is right; Carrick doesn’t deserve to stay on. There’s a reason that no contract has been forthcoming.
Inconsistency: A disease
Take Arsenal, Manchester City, Manchester United and Liverpool, four clubs who have mounted title challenges in the last two years to varying degrees of failure. Yes, I’ve included Arsenal.
There is no one reason for the apparent failure of each club to match Leicester’s achievements this season, but the shared inconsistency between four clubs with the strongest squads in the league has acted as an effective handbrake on progress.
Compare the longest unbeaten runs of Arsenal, City, United and Liverpool this season to other campaigns:
2015/16: Arsenal – 6 matches, Manchester City – 7, Manchester United 7, Liverpool 6.
2014/15: Arsenal – 10, Manchester City – 12, Manchester United 10, Liverpool 13.
2013/14: Arsenal – 9, Manchester City – 12, Manchester United 7, Liverpool 16.
2012/13: Arsenal – 10, Manchester City – 15, Manchester United 18, Liverpool 8.
2011/12: Arsenal – 8, Manchester City – 14, Manchester United 12, Liverpool 8.
2010/11: Arsenal – 16, Manchester City – 7, Manchester United 24, Liverpool 6.
Leicester have been excellent and deserve their lead at the top but, should they win the title, there will be several owners looking at their managers and players with distrust and annoyance.
It can’t be nice to see your team playing better with ten men without you than when you were on the field.
Since Christmas, Watford have gained as many league points as Aston Villa.
They lost 4-0 in a league game and the natural reaction was ‘Oh, they’d probably have taken that before the game’. That’s not good.