Every time you doubt Vardy, back he comes to make you look bloody foolish. After six games without a goal and three first-half chances spurned in particularly awkward fashion, Vardy promptly took both of his chances after the break.
Anyone predicting at the start of the season that Vardy would become the first Leicester City player to score 20 or more goals in a top-flight season since Gary Lineker in 1984/85 would have been rightly laughed out of town. Yet still he keeps on scoring.
Drinkwater would not publicly admit it, but the injury to Jordan Henderson must have filled the Leicester midfielder with a great deal of cheer. Even if Henderson can recover just in time for Euro 2016, surely Roy Hodgson cannot risk the fitness of both him and Jack Wilshere? Suddenly a place in the squad may be up for grabs.
Fabian Delph’s return from injury may not help Drinkwater’s cause, but his performance at Sunderland won’t have damaged it. He had more touches and made more passes than any other player on the pitch, and created two chances including the wonderful long ball for Vardy’s first goal. The pass looked like a sweetly-timed golf approach shot, such was the accuracy and backspin Drinkwater effected on the ball.
Just for good measure, Drinkwater also made four tackles and three clearances and won possession 17 times, six more times than any other Leicester player. He may be a deputy to N’golo Kante, but I’m obliged to add the prefix ‘able’ to that description.
Having run out of superlatives in this column for Leicester’s manner of grinding out victories, I went and wrote a piece about it. The least you can do is bloody read it.
Mousa Dembele and Tottenham
During the first 20 minutes at White Hart Lane on Sunday, Tottenham were overrun by Manchester United. In that time, Kyle Walker completed one pass, Erik Lamela two and Danny Rose one, Harry Kane touched the ball only once and Tottenham didn’t even make it into United’s penalty area. Louis van Gaal’s side may have arrived late to the ground, but they started with great intent.
In previous seasons, Tottenham would have surrendered the lead at that point. Yet not only did Mauricio Pochettino’s players dig in and show their impressive resolve, they forced themselves onto the front foot. The key to that was Dembele.
In the past, most Tottenham supporters would have had the Belgian towards the bottom of a list of those to be relied upon in a crisis, but this has been a season of revision on Dembele. From a lightweight, frustrating attacking midfielder has come a revelatory central midfielder who is almost impossible to shake off the ball. While others around were close to losing their heads, Dembele was busy keeping his. He’s become a man, my son.
‘The committee have yet to explain how they came up with the figure of £29million to sign Brazilian forward Roberto Firmino from Hoffenheim, who finished eighth in the Bundesliga last season,’ wrote the then-Daily Mail’s Neil Ashton in October. ‘Divock Origi, billed as ‘a world-class talent’ by Rodgers when he was signed from Lille, could not even come off the bench in the club’s last two league games. There are countless other errors.’
Firmino now has 15 league goals and assists combined in his first season in England, while at 20 years old Origi has eight goals for the season and is battling Daniel Sturridge to be Liverpool’s first-choice striker. Those pesky laptop gurus and their air conditioning, getting things right.
Erik Lamela and the Pochettino effect
A goal and assist in the same Premier League game for only the second time during Lamela’s time in England, the other being the 4-1 home win over Manchester City in September. The Argentinean sure does pick his moments.
Yet it is not Lamela’s attacking prowess that deserves the most praise, but his hard work. The reputation of fancy dan (which was not inaccurate) gained during his first season in England has been spectacularly reversed.
Lamela made nine tackles in 87 minutes against United – four more than any other player on the pitch – and only two players covered more distance. Lamela may not be exactly the player that Tottanham bought three years ago, but that’s intended as a compliment. He is the poster boy of the Pochettino effect.
When Eden Hazard was named PFA Player of the Year last season, he contributed 23 goals and assists, and created a chance every 33.5 minutes. So far this season, Eriksen has contributed 16 goals and assists, and created a chance every 24.4 minutes. He also works harder, runs further and presses more. Eriksen is not perfect, but he’s the closest the Premier League has to an all-action playmaker sculpted in Mauricio Pochettino’s own vision.
Perhaps it is because he was spotted as an immense potential talent at such a young age at Ajax (although Sarah Winterburn says it’s because he’s balding), but Eriksen’s comparable youth is often overlooked. Never mind the main gong, he’s still eligible for the Young Player of the Year award.
Can’t get on board the ‘Andy Carroll to France’ bandwagon I’m afraid, but that shouldn’t diminish from the striker’s effectiveness against Arsenal on Saturday. In the space of nine minutes he almost doubled his tally of league goals since January 2015.
In fact, this was only the second time that Carroll has scored more than once in a game of any sort since March 2013. It had to be Arsenal.
A first Premier League start since significant injury, and quite the return for Manchester City’s forgotten man. Nasri is not even part of Manuel Pellegrini’s Champions League squad, but created three chances and scored City’s winner in their 2-1 win over West Brom.
Nasri is not a popular figure in the media, perceived arrogance coupled with a sulky, moody demeanour. Rather like Nicolas Anelka, the worry (and accusation) is that he doesn’t care enough, exactly the character you wouldn’t want went the going got tough. Whether or not that’s true, it’s easy to forget that Nasri could still be vital to City’s plans.
“I am the type of player for his philosophy and the way he likes his team to play so we are just going to see,” said Nasri on Sunday. “On the first day of pre-season I will have a chat with him because I am going to be really hungry.
“When he starts I am going to be fresh so I hope that will help me – when you have been out for so long you are more hungry when you come back, you don’t want to waste your time. You want to be back with a bang and fit for my team. If I stay working with Pep Guardiola – if he wants me – he’s going to be a lucky man because I will be really hungry.”
Strong words said with feeling, but Nasri has a point. It’s difficult to compute, but at 28 he is younger than Joe Hart, Vincent Kompany, David Silva, Jesus Navas, Aleksandar Kolarov, Fernandinho, Pablo Zabaleta and Yaya Toure.
Pep might just find a place for his playmaker. Nasri might be considered by some as damaged goods, but really can look wonderful tonight.
Congratulations on consecutive league wins for the first time since October. What a way to damn Pellegrini with faint praise.
The win Palace needed to stave off an unlikely relegation threat. It has been a rotten 2016 at Selhurst Park, but Alan Pardew will hope to at least finish the season in something approaching style. The only surprise was that he didn’t mention ‘Palace DNA’ after the game.
More chances created than any other Premier League player this weekend (five), and more than Cabaye has in any other league game this season. Nice to have the real Yohan back.
Playing alongside Simon Francis (31), Charlie Daniels (29), Andrew Surman (29) and Marc Pugh (29), I assume that Steve Cook is also in his footballing middle age. He’s even got a middle-aged name: Steve Cook. He should be selling low-risk, low-yield pension schemes around the Home Counties, not taken Bournemouth close to the top half of the Premier League.
It therefore jars against your preconceptions to learn – or at least re-realise – that Cook is still 24 years of age. No younger Premier League central defender has started 30 or more games this season.
I’m also hereby touting Cook as the most underrated Premier League player of the season, consistently reliable throughout his first season in the top flight. His four league goals this season also put him one behind the club’s top scorers, Josh King and Callum Wilson. Which brings us to…
Wilson may have been on the pitch for less than a minute before the final whistle sounded at Villa Park, but you try and take the smile off his face this week. After more than six months out with a ligament injury, he’s back. And he’s still Bournemouth’s highest league goalscorer this season.
I’ll happily admit to being concerned for Swansea’s Premier League survival when Francesco Guidolin was appointed as their manager on a short-term basis. This was a kneejerk reaction to Alan Curtis’ own underperformance, the Welshman himself only chosen after other options turned down the gig.
Since Guidolin came on January 18, Swansea have lost only three of their 12 league games. From a position of 18th – and a point inside the relegation zone – Swansea are now 12th, 13 points ahead of the bottom three. Claudio Ranieri will deservedly get the most praise of any Premier League manager this season, but he’s not the only 60-plus Italian who has turned around the fortunes of an unfancied club.
“In the dressing room after the match, everyone was disappointed, not just for ourselves but for you as well, because 2,000 of you travelled long distances to the match and had nothing to cheer or sing about. I cannot apologise enough for that because it just wasn’t good enough” – Fabricio Coloccini, February 2015.
“On behalf of the squad we would like to apologise for the moment we are going through. Players and staff have come together in order to leave all past problems aside and to focus 100% on the three ‘cup finals’ that we have left” – Coloccini, May 2015.
“We don’t have words for them as it is a big disappointment for them as well. I’d like to say sorry and we will try our best in the next game, like we always do. We are all involved in this. We have to do more and be better than we are doing now” – Coloccini, November 2015.
“We don’t have time, now we have to improve as quickly as possible because we are in the middle of the season and we need points. We have to be careful and try to do it as soon as possible” – Coloccini, December 2015.
“We just say sorry about what’s happened – sorry from the team and everyone. It was very tough, totally negative. We lost the game in the first 10 minutes. We conceded two easy goals” – Coloccini, February 2016.
At a time of crisis, football supporters don’t want to hear glib soundbites, promises of improvement that sound an awful lot like the last promise of improvement. Newcastle fans must be more fed up than most, so it was refreshing to hear Lascelles, still only 22, criticise the desire of his teammates.
“We need bigger characters on the pitch, players who care and who are going to get after each other,’ Lascelles said. “We have lacked it this season and no matter how good you are, if you don’t have that fight and hunger and desire, it doesn’t matter. We’ve got flair players, tricky players, players with loads of talent, but we need more heart, we need more desire.” This comes two months after Lascelles reportedly shouted “none of them give a f**k” after being sent off late in a defeat to Everton.
In normal circumstances, a player would be advised against hanging his peers out to dry, but most of those to whom Lascelles is referring will surely depart Newcastle this summer. Those who remain face the marathon of a Championship promotion campaign. Lascelles has at least proved he deserves to be a key part of the mission.
Arsenal and…mental strength
I’m sorry to keep going on about mental strength, but blame Arsene Wenger if it’s getting boring; he started it. With Arsenal now virtually out of the title race, it is an opportune time to revisit the issue.
“I believe this team has the right mentality,” Wenger said after the victory over Watford. “They have gone through a bad period, but when they play like that it shows that, mentally, they are pure.” By pure, we can assume that Wenger meant strong.
Once again at West Ham, that was disproved. Arsenal had a 2-0 lead, but as soon as Andy Carroll scored his first goal, panic set in. That was the time for clear heads and calm minds. That was the time to display that mental fortitude. What followed was two more goals in eight minutes either side of half-time.
Knowing Wenger as we do, the private post-match focus may well have been on the way Arsenal battled back to draw the game 3-3. Yet that is just Arsenal in microcosm, and Wenger in excelsis. As soon as the title race looked dead and therefore the pressure off, Arsenal rallied. Just not enough to breathe any meaningful positivity back into their title challenge.
This is choking, by definition: Performing worse than your skill level dictates that you should or worse than you have performed in the past simply because you now find the situation presented to be stressful.
Most disconcerting of all is not that Arsenal are harmed by defeats, but that they fail to take advantages of the highs, thus failing to create momentum. Leicester’s draw at home to Bournemouth on January 2 saw Arsenal go two points clear at the top, but that was followed by four league games without a win. Late victory over Leicester in February sent them top of the league again, but they promptly lost to Manchester United and Swansea. At Arsenal, the effects of a negative result last longer than the positive impact of success whereas, at Leicester, the opposite seems true. Defeat hardens some and softens others. It leaves Arsenal wobbling like jelly in an earthquake.
Wenger’s regular insistences that Arsenal are mentally tough, despite vast evidence to the contrary, are important for two reasons. Firstly, it rubs off onto the players. Theo Walcott was among those in January who insisted that Arsenal’s past setbacks had actually made them stronger in their bid for the title this season.
Secondly, and more importantly, such wilful blindness to reality makes finding and effecting a remedy so much harder. In the words of Canadian psychotherapist Nathaniel Branden: “The first step toward change is awareness. The second step is acceptance.” Arsenal are close to neither.
Bought for the same price as Tottenham paid for Toby Alderweireld (although six months earlier), it’s impossible not to compare and contrast the two central defenders. One has been the backbone of a continuing title bid, the other struggling both to learn the language and cut out the mistakes that threaten to hamper his long-term reputation.
“You need to be stronger and arrive early on the cross. You can’t let them get a cross in easy because they have some good players on the wings. It is a job for everyone, not just the defenders. The guys on the flanks need to help their team-mates with defending” – Laurent Koscielny.
He’s talking about you, fella. As Sarah Winterburn wrote, whether it’s because Sanchez is knackered, p*ssed off or a mix of the two, the Chilean Duracell bunny hares back to help out an awful lot less than he used to.
He’s played at right-back. He’s played at left-back. He’s played on the right wing. He’s played on the left wing. He’s played in central midfield. And now he’s played up front, too.
Nothing sums up Manchester United’s miserable decline more than Young. Signed by the Premier League champions as an exciting 25-year-old winger in 2011, he’s now the second reserve in at least four different positions. A reminder that he was given a three-year contract last summer worth a reported £120,000 a week.
For more on Ashley Young and Louis van Gaal’s baffling tactical switches, go right here.
Left on the bench in favour of 18-year-old centre-back Timothy Fosu-Mensah, Darmian was given an unexpected chance to impress after the Dutchman was injured during the second half. What followed was three goals in the eight minutes immediately after Darmian’s introduction, all three coming down his side of the pitch. Ouch.
“Until the first goal we were at least the equal team,” Van Gaal said after the gaeme. “The better chance was for us with Anthony Martial, a big chance.”
To blame Martial for United not being ahead was a manager unfairly hanging a young player out to dry. Martial’s effort forced a diving save from Hugo Lloris, and the Frenchman had dribbled past two players just to force the chance. That’s what a striker has to do when they are picked on the left wing.
Martial’s chance was United’s first shot of target, coming an hour into the match. Rather than questioning why his forward didn’t score (and brushing over United conceding three times), Van Gaal should wonder why his team has had two or fewer shots on target in 13 of their 32 league games this season. Clue: Consistently picking attackers out of position doesn’t help.
Louis van Gaal
Manchester United will not sack Louis van Gaal until a top-four place is out of reach, but on Sunday’s evidence it won’t be long. Victory over West Ham on Wednesday would cement United as FA Cup favourites, but a first triumph in that competition since 2004 would do little to change a mood that sits somewhere between anger and dark humour.
I can only repeat the final two paragraphs of Sunday’s post-match piece:
‘“I think we were equal team,” was Van Gaal’s post-match claim, as laughable as the number of players picked out of position. The more realistic conclusion to make is that Mauricio Pochettino’s Tottenham have become everything that Van Gaal’s Manchester United should have been. There is only stagnation and confusion where pace and dynamism should be.
‘Jose Mourinho might not solve all United’s problems, but Van Gaal has certainly forfeited his own right to try. The Dutchman has turned an inviting opportunity into a failed experiment. The Iron Tulip needs dead-heading before more lasting damage is done.’
No Sam, they don’t play like you do. They really don’t.
Roberto Martinez and an air of mutiny
There is a rough eight-stage scale for the decline of a popular manager, and it goes something like this:
1) Murmurs of dissent
2) Small section of booing and chanting at away matches
3) Creation of ‘[Manager name] Out’ social media accounts, with requisite hashtag
4) Larger section of booing and chanting at away matches
5) National media questioning of manager
6) Displaying of ‘[Manager name] Out’ banners at matches
7) Flying of ‘[Manager name] Out’ banners attached to plane
8) Protest marches
On Saturday at Watford, Roberto Martinez reached level six. Unlike Arsene Wenger, he has no past glories to act as the evidence for the defence.
Over the last few weeks, questions have been asked as to whether Crystal Palace could go down, and Alan Pardew’s side are two points behind Everton. From a position of split opinion among supporters, Martinez has overseen a run of 13 points from 13 league games. If this is his performance during a probation period, there is only one answer.
The longest unbeaten run in the Premier League is over. How weird is that?
From playing in a World Cup semi-final to becoming one of the clumsiest right-backs in the Premier League in less than two years. Janmaat managed to injure himself while slipping over in the build-up to Southampton’s second goal on Saturday, which sums up his rotten season. Reports of summer interest from Juventus made me laugh for upwards of 30 seconds.
Right back in trouble, but at least others lost too. Next weekend’s fixture against Sunderland is the whopper.
A lot of Newcastle’s players will leave this summer because they don’t fancy the Championship. Taylor could leave because Newcastle don’t fancy him in it.
Georginio Wijnaldum away from home
Wijnaldum’s record in 15 home league games:
Chances created – 27
Shots on target – 15
Goals – 9
Assists – 2
Wijnaldum’s record in 17 away league games:
Chances created – 16
Shots on target – 9
Goals – 0
Assists – 2
Wijnaldum has the talent to be a magnificent Premier League midfielder, but is fast getting a reputation as someone who doesn’t fancy it away from the comfort of home sweet home. Does he stay in England when Newcastle go down?
The blessed relief of relegation is only one more week away. Just the eight consecutive defeats now, conceding 24 goals in the process.
Note to young goalkeepers: This is not how you make yourself big to stop a shot. Mannone compounded that attempt by flying out of goal and allowing Vardy to score his second. What happened to giving Jordan Pickford a chance?
Daniel Storey – ‘Like’ his Facebook page here. Pathetic.