Premier League Winners And Losers…

Date published: Monday 31st August 2015 12:05

SWANSEA, WALES - AUGUST 30:  Manager Louis van Gaal of Manchester United watches from the touchline during the Barclays Premier League match between Swansea City and Manchester United at Liberty Stadium on August 30, 2015 in Swansea, United Kingdom.  (Photo by John Peters/Man Utd via Getty Images)

A bumper Winners and Losers that is dominated by some high-profile casualties. Serious questions must now be asked by four of last season’s top six. Which is mental…

 

Winners

Alan Pardew
“We were very good. It was a cracking game, and Chelsea played their part. They were very resilient” – Alan Pardew.

If there was one quote to best sum up Pardew, it is that. Describing the champions as “resilient” after his Crystal Palace team had just won at Stamford Bridge displays some extraordinary levels of thinly-veiled trolling. One imagines that, if accused, Pardew would look round with wide-eyed innocence before offering a wink to the camera. Jose, you just got Pard-ed.

Yet nothing should take away from Pardew’s performance level at Selhurst Park. His ambition to play with pace and attacking endeavour may be far removed from the last days of his Newcastle tenure, but Palace are a club on the up with him as its leader.

The manager surmised that Chelsea were scared of Palace’s pace on Saturday, and he is entirely right. Not many clubs in the Premier League will be able to cope with a trio of Bakary Sako, Wilfried Zaha and Yannick Bolasie, if all are on song. Those three (and Bolasie in particular) reflect their manager’s ambitions to play ‘the right way’. That concept may be widely mocked, but the conclusion is obvious: Palace are brilliant to watch.

It also matters to players, too. “When I met manager Alan Pardew I felt a good feeling between him and me and that’s why I chose Palace,” said Sako after his move. “He plays attacking, attractive football so it should be good to play here and score some goals. That’s why I came to join him.” Two goals in two games has been the immediate return.

Finally, it is important to note the togetherness within the Crystal Palace squad after the darker days of Neil Warnock. “The last two results have been for him really and for his family,” said Joel Ward after the recent death of Bolasie’s father. “We are a family, at the end of the day. When something like this happens it affects us all. We all stand side by side and that showed at Chelsea.”

The combination of Pardew’s optimism, a manager back at his favourite club and young, fast players makes not just for attractive, endearing football but also a basis for great success. At the moment, it’s a winning formula.


Bafetimbi Gomis

The lone striker role is an immensely difficult task. The modern forward is required to be all things to all men: Target man, finisher and creator of chances. On Sunday against Manchester United, Gomis offered one of the best displays in that role I’ve seen in a long time.

Compare Gomis’ performance against Christian Benteke’s against West Ham for a comparison:

Gomis (81 minutes): 46 touches, 22 passes completed, five fouls won, one chance created, one goal scored.
Benteke (90 minutes): 29 touches, 16 passes completed, one foul won, one chance created.

However unfair it may seem, even a lone striker will be judged on his scoring record, simply because that is how we are hardwired to judge forwards. It’s therefore worth pointing out that Gomis has become the first Swansea player to score in their opening four league matches since Harry Deacon in 1923.

With that in mind, the following is a list of goals scored by those playing in the role since mid-March (no. of minutes played in brackets):

Bafetimbi Gomis – 10 (718)
Christian Benteke – 9 (1,155)
Graziano Pelle – 6 (1,154)
Harry Kane – 5 (1,138)
Romelu Lukaku – 4 (880)
Olivier Giroud – 4 (975)
Diego Costa – 3 (559)
Wayne Rooney – 1 (1,033)

Not bad for a free transfer, and the perfect replacement for the £28m sale of Wilfried Bony. Swansea just keep on being Swansea, and making others look like fools in the process.


Andre Ayew

Ayew’s curled pass with the outside of his foot indicated not just a player with great skill and technique, but also one playing with huge confidence. It was a trick that he had also demonstrated during the first half, with Gomis slashing the ball wide of target on that occasion. Second time lucky.

Following the arrival of Gomis last summer, Ayew is the second free transfer signing firing Swansea towards even greater things. His move to the Premier League that felt like it had been on the cards for years – the Ghanaian has made up for lost time. Three goals and an assist in his four league matches so far, with both Manchester United and Chelsea both suffering at his hands.

“I looked left and right and I thought Swansea was the best choice for me to grow as player,” Ayew said after his move. “Not only football-wise but I heard about the squad, how the players live together and the team spirit. So I thought it was great to come to Swansea because I know how positive it is here.”

Whilst Ayew’s insistence is that Swansea was the best place for him to grow, there were no meaningful offers from higher up the Premier League. Given Manchester United’s pursuit of Sadio Mane, a player with attributes similar to that of Ayew, did English football’s elite miss a trick?

Two important questions, then:

1) Why was Ayew being swerved?

2) Ayew for Real?

I’m not sorry for either of those.


West Ham

A first win at Anfield in over 50 years as West Ham continued their bid to be this season’s weirdest Premier League team. ‘Crisis’ became ‘celebration’ in 90 glorious minutes.

This season was supposed to be an extended goodbye to the Boleyn Ground for West Ham, but supporters must be wishing they could play away from home every week. Without the pressure to attack teams and win games, Slaven Bilic can set his side up away from home exactly how he knows best; solid in defence, reserved in midfield and then lightning quick on the counter.

One should be cautious of getting carried away, of course. West Ham’s recent home defending was abject, and they cannot rely on the generosity of Liverpool every week. For now, simply bask in the first win at Liverpool since September 1963. Whatever happens, it will be fun to watch.


Manchester City

You could write off City’s home victory against Watford as an expected result and therefore deserving of no praise, but I would counteract that with four brief, but distinct, points:

1) A tenth league victory in succession – After the 4-2 defeat to Manchester United on April 12, I remember expressing my concerns for City’s top four place. Six wins on the bounce secured second place, but it is the four in a row at the start of this season that have been far more impressive. It’s one thing embarking on a winning run when the title is out of reach (*cough* Arsenal *cough*), but another entirely starting the season in such dominant manner.

2) Another clean sheet – City have now gone five league games without conceding for the second time under Pellegrini’s stewardship.

3) While Watford can be seen as one of the gentler Premier League opponents, City have actually struggled considerably against the weaker teams of late. They dropped nine points last season against the three relegated teams, the difference between them finishing adrift of Chelsea and winning the title by a point. A total of 11 points out of a possible 18 against the promoted trio is also less than stellar.

4) Have you not been watching the Premier League this season? ‘Expected wins’ seem to be a thing of the past, yet Manuel Pellegrini’s side have offered the perfect blend of efficiency, solidity and style. And they’ve still got Nicolas Otamendi and Kevin de Bruyne to come in.

Whilst all others around them are losing their heads, City are keeping theirs. That makes you heavy title favourites, my son.


Winston Reid and Angelo Ogbonna

A newish partnership in West Ham’s central defence, but already suggestions that everything might come up Milhouse. The manner in which Reid and Ogbonna marshalled Benteke is deserving of praise.

The Belgian managed just 29 touches against West Ham (five in the area), compared to 44 against Bournemouth and Stoke and 53 against Arsenal. He also managed only one shot on Saturday, compared to four against Arsenal and three against Bournemouth.

Reid and Ogbonna made 17 clearances between them on Saturday. Liverpool did indeed look toothless, but that was as much to do with the excellence of West Ham’s centre-backs as fault on the part of the home side.


Raheem Sterling

His opening goal for his new side in a victory that made it four wins from four. Another impressive display following his summer move. Another Sunday morning in which the words used to describe his fee were not ‘exorbitant’ or ‘wasteful’ but ‘understandable’ and ‘value for money’. So, a good day.

If it costs Manchester United more than £35m to sign Anthony Martial, who has no experience of the Premier League, £44m for Sterling doesn’t sound so silly. If City end up paying the extra £5m in add-ons they will do so with glee, for mission will have been accomplished.

As he discovered the other Premier League scores on Saturday teatime, one would have forgiven Sterling for the wryest of smiles. The manner of the move may still be questioned, but the decision itself is quickly becoming totally vindicated.


Ashley Williams

Another excellent performance from one of the Premier League’s most consistent performers. The reported £25m price tag may have been hung round Williams’ neck more as a deterrent than temptation, but it’s obvious why Swansea would be loathed to sell their captain.

Williams’ constancy in form and fitness at the Liberty Stadium is emphasised by this incredible statistic (and I’m not being hyperbolic). Since the start of 2008/9, Swansea have played 26,730 league minutes. Their central defender has been present for 26,002 of those minutes.


Dusan Tadic

After their European exit to FC Midtjylland on Thursday, Tadic took the unusual step of publicly criticising Southampton’s tactics: “We started playing too many long balls. This is not our football. I understand that you can play too much direct sometimes. But I know this team. We like to play football on the ground. We need to show more and play better as a team. It’s not good.”

A ballsy move, and one that demands a reaction from the player in question. It’s no good calling out your team-mates and manager if you then go missing yourself.

Tadic should therefore be congratulated for the nature and timing of his first brace in English football. He also created three chances as Southampton finally started their league season in earnest. Despite a stuttering start, they are ahead of Chelsea and only two points behind Manchester United, Arsenal and Liverpool.


Tony Pulis

With one point from three league games, expected defeat at the Britannia Stadium would have left Pulis’ West Brom bottom of the pile heading into the international break. Pulis may be grateful for the first-half stupidity and mindlessness of Charlie Adam and Ibrahim Afellay respectively, but he’ll take the wins however they come.

Now for Pulis to tie up Saido Berahino and hide him under his bed.


Andre Marriner

After being repeatedly taunted by Newcastle supporters that he would be “sacked in the morning” after their accusations of a diabolical performance, Marriner should have dipped soldiers into runny egg with gusto on Sunday morning.

The only decision that Marriner got wrong was the one not to award Arsenal a penalty for the foul by Florian Thauvin on Hector Bellerin, and replays showed that his view may well have been blocked. His assistant failed to meet up to that job description.

This was another occasion after which fans claim that ‘big clubs get all the decisions’. In this case the suitable headline was ‘referee applies the laws of the game correctly’.


Scott Sinclair

Five goals in his last 210 Aston Villa minutes. Early days of course, but has a wanderer finally found his home?


The Rest

I wrote before the start of the season about the rise of the Premier League ‘rest’, ably assisted by the enormous wedge of cash provided through television revenue in comparison with Europe’s other major leagues.

‘The value of the live broadcasting UK rights jumped from £594m per year in 2012/13 to £1006m the following season; it’s set to increase to £1712m a year from next season, a 288% rise in four years’, that piece said. ‘The financial gap between the Premier League and Football League continues to grow, but in the top flight there is plenty of space to swim in a vast ocean of cash.

‘The rich will continue to get richer, but those outside the elite few are enjoying the delicious scraps. Competition may be the real winner; after seasons of talking about the bottom-half dirge, things are about to get really interesting.’

Yeah, that.


Losers

Brendan Rodgers
The amusing return of Brendanitis, a strain of foot and mouth disease where the ‘and’ becomes ‘in’. Let’s run through Rodgers’ midweek quotes about his side:

On defensive organisation – “We are doing extra sessions on every aspect of our defending in terms of in-game static and moving positions and our set-pieces. We are putting in an awful lot of work into that organisation, it is one of the things I picked up on from last season. If you look at how I have always worked the pressing element and defensive organisation is crucial to that.”

Cue the worst defensive performance in the Premier League this weekend. And that was a keenly-contested award.

On Lucas – “Lucas is our best defensive midfield player. So when we play with the three in there, we want to control our defensive work, he’s the best we have at the club for that”

On Saturday against West Ham, Lucas looked lost. He was overpowered and outplayed by West Ham’s midfield, looking leggy and below par.

On Joe Gomez – “We know we have an outstanding talent. He’s a centre-half, but we asked him if he had confidence to play on the left side. You’ve seen from the three games, he’s a wonderful athlete. He’s fast, he’s a good size, but he’s also got a good football brain. He’s a very, very good personality to play at this level, he’s very humble.”

And on Saturday we saw why Gomez is more confident centrally. West Ham clearly had a plan to show the youngster onto his weaker left foot, and it repeatedly caused him problems. Gomez was switched into central defence at half-time, but it would seem unlikely that he can hold his own in that position just yet. Has the left-back experiment ended for now?

On Dejan Lovren – “There was a lack of stability in the group and it was a case of reassuring him that he was still a top-quality player. He’s much more patient in his game now, he’s got the stability of playing. He’s in the team and he’s in because he had a good pre-season so he’s in good condition. He’s focused but he’s also a bit more relaxed in his position.”

If comedy is about timing, Rodgers wins the Perrier. Two days after Rodgers lavished praise on his central defender came the sort of error Liverpool supporters became all too familiar with last season.

A reminder to Rodgers: Three games doesn’t indicate a redemption. If you can’t trust a central defender not to make the most basic of errors, don’t select him. And just whose chips at Liveprool did Mamadou Sakho urinate on?

Brendan Rodgers now surely boasts the worse Midas impression of all time. In Greek mythology, everything the king touched turned to gold. Everything Rodgers says soon turns to s**t.


Chelsea

Before the start of the season, Sarah Winterburn wondered whether Chelsea would struggle this seasonafter a lack of investment in a thin squad. The suggestion was that Jose Mourinho was asking lightning to strike twice by relying on an injury-free campaign. Last season, the champions had four outfield players who notched over 3000 minutes; the rest of the top four could only muster one between them.

However, it is obvious that nobody saw exactly this coming. Chelsea are not suffering because of injury crisis and therefore a lack of available options, but because across their team the output of every player has dropped by between 10% and 20%.

The increased competition in the Premier League means that such decline, even in the best teams, is exposed and punished. Such deterioration across the field, rather than one obvious issue, is also far more worrying simply because it is so much harder to cure. As Gary Neville said on Sky Sports, Chelsea’s players need to “give themselves a slap around the face.” That’s one remedy.

The list of underperformers is extensive. Branislav Ivanovic is digging his Stamford Bridge grave quicker than he has done anything else in the last year, whilst Eden Hazard too is struggling to make the same impact as last season (more on that later). Nemanja Matic has transformed from the dominant defensive midfield force in the Premier League to a player fractionally late to every moment.

The Serbian is not helped by Mourinho’s decision to persevere with Cesc Fabregas alongside him in that reserved role. It is a job which spectacularly fails to get the best out of the Spaniard, in contrast to the advanced central role he performed so successfully at the start of last season. In his first four matches this season, Fabregas has created five chances and contributed no goals or assists. After four games last season, those numbers were 16 and six respectively.

With two days left in the transfer window, surely Mourinho must look to strengthen Chelsea in defensive midfield? Fabregas is wasted there, whilst Ramires and John Obi Mikel are not fit for purpose. Ruben Loftus-Cheek has also failed to do enough to convince his manager that he is the answer for the here and now. Fail to do so, and the title looks lost already. Teams with pace are simply overrunning Chelsea.


Manchester United

“Write anything you want,” was Van Gaal’s angry snipe during his post-match press conference after the 2-1 defeat to Swansea. Thanks Louis, I will.

Van Gaal’s Manchester United tenure was never going to be a quick fix, but solutions are only attainable through measured plans, a club plotting its way diligently back to their perch.

Unfortunately, United don’t feel like a club with a plan. They look like a confused bluebottle, repeatedly banging into a window whilst looking for the exit. Occasionally they will land on a transfer target, but then soon fly off in order to continue their window-banging policy.

After years of gaps in central midfield, United can now boast a collection of good midfielders, but Van Gaal still seems unsure of his best combination. Bastian Schweinsteiger has struggled so far, whilst Michael Carrick and Ander Herrera have both come in and out of the side.

Further forward, Van Gaal’s constant tinkering may be intended to get the best out of his players but it is only serving to turn United’s attacking midfield into an incoherent mess. After only four league games, three different players have started in the No. 10 position and two have started on the left. The only constant here is Juan Mata on the right wing, and his lack of pace is slowing down United’s attacks chronically.

Yet this isn’t the most (or even second most) obvious flaw for United. The goalkeeping situation (described as “an absolute joke” by Peter Schmeichel) has been allowed to fester, with De Gea still hoping to join Real Madrid. The Spaniard is thought to be unhappy at the way Van Gaal publicly hinted that his goalkeeper wasn’t giving his all in training, and there is surely no route back into the No. 1 spot. This follows Van Gaal’s character assassination of Victor Valdes.

It is in attack where the majority of Van Gaal’s problems lie. “First you have to create chances, with scoring goals you need luck, that we don’t have at the moment,” the Dutchman said after the Swansea defeat. “You see the game today, we could have scored much more. I don’t think that’s the problem.”

Sometimes you just have to call something out as b**locks. If Van Gaal honestly thinks that United’s striking woes are down to simple luck, then United are in far more trouble than we first thought. It’s impossible to escape the feeling that his post-match comments were soaked in the Moyes-era of United.

Van Gaal took the opportunity of reaffirming his trust and faith in Wayne Rooney before the Swansea game, but United’s strikeforce looks weaker than it has ever been in the Premier League era. Even if Rooney was firing, having Javier Hernandez and Marouane Fellaini as the two back-up forward is a strategy based only in misguided optimism. Throwing around bids for Charlie Austin and Anthony Martial at totals approaching £50m for the pair with 48 hours of the window left add weight to the notion that Ed Woodward’s negligence has held the club back through the last two years.The big-money pursuits of Gareth Bale, Thomas Muller and Neymar acted as nothing more than distraction techniques to keep fans on side.

Yet Van Gaal must too take a fair portion of the blame. United have spent a vast amount of money in the last 18 months, yet the overwhelming impression is still of a collection of individuals rather than a team. Swansea hammered home the importance of the collective on Sunday, and that is the mantra to which Van Gaal must now aspire.

Having outcast some of his players and placed misguided trust in others, Van Gaal is going about that aim in unconventional fashion. We were promised a title challenge remember, Louis.


Branislav Ivanovic

At fault in some way for another for over half of the goals that Chelsea have conceded this season. Why oh why is Jose keeping the faith?

Still, look on the bright side. One more appearance in this list and Ivanovic qualifies for a free ‘Losers’ loyalty card.


Eden Hazard

In Big Weekend the weekend before last, I included Eden Hazard after a slow start to the season and immediately felt a bit guilty at such a knee-jerk reaction. On Sunday, Jose Mourinho relieved such feelings by publicly criticising his star player.

“If you are the best player in the league, I think it should be a good responsibility to have a similar season than in the previous season,” Mourinho said. “It is difficult to have a consistent performance when some of the players are not performing at a good level. When you have six or seven performing and three or four who are not at an acceptable level, it is hard for a team to be consistent in the performance.”

Hazard would be forgiven for being a little put out, his back presumably still aching from carrying Chelsea to the title for large swathes of last season.

Yet there is no doubt the Belgian has totally failed to fire so far. Mourinho’s shambolic defence is one headache, but the continued good form of Hazard was something the manager will have relied upon.

During Chelsea’s league campaign of 2014/15, Hazard had a shot on target every 102.2 minutes and contributed a goal or assist every 146.6 minutes. So far this season, he has had two shots on target and one assist. He is also dribbling past players with the ball at a slower rate, averaging fewer touches per game and fewer passes too.

There are plenty of candidates more deserving of criticism than Hazard for Chelsea’s sticky situation, but there is no doubt that the Belgian is currently falling far short of potential. Mourinho needs last season’s best player to hit those heights again.


Wayne Rooney

Imagine a hat-trick against Club Brugge not being the signifier that Rooney was back. Who knew?

Still, it was good to see United’s leader losing the ball with a poor pass before standing on the spot and moaning rather than tracking back. Six seconds later, Swansea were level. A captain’s role.


Sergio Romero

De Gea’s Real Madrid saga may be leaving an ever-increasing sour taste in the mouth, but absence certainly makes the heart grow fonder. Romero’s performance against Swansea hammered home the conclusion we were all thinking anyway: The Argentinean simply isn’t good enough to be Manchester United’s No. 1.

If there is an assumption among some that a team can get away with an inadequate goalkeeper, this was emphatic evidence to the contrary. A goalkeeper can make the difference between a team winning and losing, but more importantly gives belief to those playing in front of him. That was the air of invincibility De Gea provided last season.

With Romero, things could not be different. On multiple occasions on Sunday his kicking went awry, one shanked effort giving Jonjo Shelvey the chance to lob him. He also juggled with the odd cross, but saved his biggest error for Swansea’s second goal. Being beaten at your near post is one thing, but allowing the ball to squirm past you quite another. It will not do.

“Until now, we don’t allow a lot of shots or moments in our area,” Van Gaal said on Friday. “He has made very good saves, but until now, I think only maybe the save against Brugge at 1-0 was very important and he did also a save against Tottenham Hotspur and that was it. He has not been able to show what he can do.”

Well Louis, now you know. So get that executive vice-chairman you trust so much do something about it.


Philippe Coutinho

“It was extremely harsh,” said Brendan Rodgers after the game. “Kevin must have really good ears if he could hear what Philippe was saying for the first yellow card.”

Yeah Kevin Friend, why do you have such good hearing? You b*stard.

My rule: Sympathy for any player who is booked for dissent should be thin on the ground. Coutinho’s punishment for his ill-discipline is missing a match at Old Trafford when his creativity will be desperately needed.


Harry Kane

One chance missed, but a chance that seemed to say so much. When Kane was sent through on goal last season, you never thought that he’d miss. Against Everton, you were never convinced that he’d score.

It’s impossible to lay any of the blame for Tottenham’s abject summer and start to the season at Kane’s door, but talk of goal droughts won’t go away. It’s now one goal in 12 competitive games for club and country.


Aleksandar Mitrovic

“You have to take the good with the bad. We wouldn’t have been very happy if he’d got a red card for that, but it was just over-enthusiasm going for the ball. That’s the kind of player he is. We see it in training. We have to try to calm him down (and) try to channel it. He has to concentrate on playing football, but we can’t take away that devilish aggression” – Steve McClaren on Mitrovic, August 14.

Well Mitrovic can’t concentrate on playing football for three games after his red card against Arsenal on Saturday. Aggression is one thing, but one sending-off and two bookings in four matches is another entirely.

Newcastle supporters will claim that Mitrovic has become a marked man, but that’s an inevitability when his message on the eve of the season was “I’ll kick them back.” The Serbian striker must learn to curb his wild side if he’s to be a success in England.


Stoke City

One of last season’s over-achievers find themselves third from bottom with two points from four matches. A trip to Arsenal after the international break doesn’t promise immediate hope of an improvement.


Mark Noble

You can’t just go around tackling without your studs in the air and winning the ball these days. Noble should know that.


Roy Hodgson’s England strikers

League goals scored by the strikers named in the latest squad:

Rooney – 0

Kane – 0

Walcott – 0

Vardy – 4

Thank f**k it’s San Marino first, and thank f**k we’ve basically already qualified.

Daniel Storey

 

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