Kevin de Bruyne
‘The Player of the (next) Year?’, I asked on Saturday evening. Quite possibly, at that rate. Against former club Chelsea, De Bruyne was the kind of good that makes you wonder if anyone in world football could have stopped him. John Obi Mikel was not that man.
That Manchester City looked so dangerous is one thing, that they did so without David Silva, Raheem Sterling and with Yaya Toure in a deeper role quite another entirely. De Bruyne might just be the best player in the country.
Still the best striker in the league, whatever the English pretenders to that throne might be doing. Aguero is now one goal behind Harry Kane and Jamie Vardy in the scoring charts, having played almost 1,000 fewer minutes.
On Saturday, Aguero became the fifth player to score 20 goals in three different Premier League seasons, with Shearer (7), Henry (5), Van Nistelrooy (4) & Les Ferdinand (3) the others (cheers Opta). He now has 99 league goals since arriving in England, and only 128 starts. Purr.
Not just a hero for saving two penalties in a Premier League game for the second time (the first person to do that), but for disproving his reputation for calamity in some style at Watford. After a wonderful hiatus where Gomes played 13 games in three years until summer 2014, the 35-year-old has enjoyed the most remarkable of Indian summers.
Lee Cattermole tackled and urged on. Fabio Borini ran the channels. Lamine Kone and Younes Kaboul headed away long balls. Jan Kirchoff shielded his back four. Jermain Defoe made exciting runs forward. Funny what happens when you play to your strengths.
Jermain Defoe’s conversion rate
The third-highest English scorer in the Premier League this season, and only Riyad Mahrez and Harry Kane have scored more away from home.
While Kane’s 22 goals have come from 104 shots (a conversion rate of 21.2%), Jamie Vardy’s 22 from 86 shots (25.6%) and Aguero’s 21 from 82 shots (also 25.6%), Defoe trumps them all. His 13 league goals have come from just 46 shots, a conversion rate of 28.3%. Feed the veteran striker, and he will score.
Talked the talk, and then promptly walked the walk. By the end of Saturday’s victory over Swansea, Newcastle fans were talking up Lascelles as their next captain. At least one of their players is prepared to lead by example.
The calls in some quarters to take Rashford to Euro 2016 are misguided, but there is no doubting the impact Manchester United’s young striker has made. The contrast between him and United’s returning captain could not be greater. While one lumbers around the pitch, the other fizzes.
Rashford’s current streak cannot continue. He has scored four goals from just six shots in the Premier League, a remarkable achievement, and will be better judged when falling back to his average. Yet you cannot blame any United supporter for their excitement. Those who would get more joy out of Zlatan Ibrahimovic in place of a firing Rashford want their heads checking.
Nineteen clearances, the most in the Premier League by a distance of four. Sunderland must be mightily relieved that they managed to resurrect a transfer deal that had twice broken down.
Managers’ reputations are earned and burned on the big calls in the big moments. On Saturday at St James’ Park, Benitez risked his own standing among Newcastle supporters. Out of the team went Jonjo Shelvey and Aleksandar Mitrovic, into the team came Papiss Cisse and Cheick Tiote, both of whom will leave this summer whatever Newcastle’s standing.
Most ballsy of all was Benitez’s decision to give Moussa Sissoko the captain’s armband, a player who had been booed by his own supporters during most games over the last two months. Most filing into St James’ would have been happier to see Sissoko out of the matchday squad than picked as captain.
Yet it worked. Sissoko played brilliantly, the extra responsibility inspiring both him and his team-mates, Andros Townsend and Jamaal Lascelles the other notable performers. Newcastle were excellent value for their lead, suffered predictable shaky moments and then killed off any lingering Swansea threat. It was only the second time that they have kept a clean sheet since December 6, and the second time they had scored more than once in a match since January.
This Newcastle improvement may have come too late to save the club from relegation. They probably require ten points from their last five matches to stay up, and fixtures against Liverpool (a), Manchester City (h) and Tottenham (h) make that an incredibly tough ask. But at least, finally, Newcastle’s players showed some fight. Benitez deserves acclaim for finding an unlikely winning formula.
Since making his home debut against West Brom on February 6, Townsend has created a chance every 29 minutes for a Newcastle teammate. That’s a rate not far below Mesut Ozil, Christian Eriksen and Dimitri Payet, and better than most wingers and playmakers at clubs higher in the league.
In that time, Newcastle have scored 11 league goals. Townsend has scored three and assisted two of those. We’ve been hugely critical (fairly) in the past, but the winger should be congratulated for his reaction to being sold by Tottenham.
“We spoke a bit about it on Thursday, but I told the boys that before the game it was a nice night on Thursday but if we’d played with the same team we would have had no chance today, absolutely no chance,” said Klopp after the win over Bournemouth. “This is the team that had a chance, if we played our best of course.”
And play their best they did. Some clubs wind down towards the end of the season, but with Klopp’s Liverpool you can sense a squad realising that they must take every chance to impress ahead of a busy summer. The manager has a group of players hungry to make an impact, and the belief that creates is obvious. Liverpool have now won eight, drawn four and lost one of their last 13 matches. Forget what Arsene Wenger says, Liverpool really are going the right way.
I asked Matthew Stead for his summation of the game:
‘Joe Allen was good. Sheyi Ojo was good. Daniel Sturridge was Daniel Sturridge. The defence was still rather error-prone. Martin Skrtel has no future.’
Thank goodness he writes a lot more eloquently.
Any Tottenham supporter left deflated by Leicester’s late penalty will have been re-energised by Arsenal’s dreary home draw against Crystal Palace. Beat Stoke on Monday evening and Spurs will close the gap to five points ahead of Leicester’s tricky run-in. As a wonderful bonus, St Arsenalingham’s Day could come as early April 25.
Created eight chances in 90 minutes, three more than any other Premier League player this weekend. Ozil has now created 131 chances in the league this season, the gap between him and Christian Eriksen in second the same as the gap between fourth (Willian) and Marko Arnautovic in joint-32nd. At what point does Ozil fancy playing for a truly elite club with a truly elite attack?
Sturridge took ten shots against Bournemouth, double the number of any other Premier League player this weekend. The fact that only three were on target might not make Sturridge a winner, but his goal certainly did. Opportune timing with plenty of his international rivals scoring.
“Now it’s confirmed maybe it’s a weight off the shoulders and we can give these fans what they deserve – some performances” – Joleon Lescott.
Quite possibly the dimmest thing done by a Premier League footballer since Joleon Lescott tweeted a picture of his sports car. Lescott sure knows how to p*ss off a set of supporters.
Part of me feels for Lescott. His comment was evidently not intended to antagonise, and the Sword of Damocles has indeed been hanging over Aston Villa’s heads for at least the past two months. Yet describing the club’s first relegation since 1987 in anything approaching positive terms was an extraordinary faux pas.
When grey clouds have gathered and p*ssed down on fans’ heads, standing inside and pointing out the silver linings isn’t a clever idea. Lescott and a few other senior players may see relegation as a relief, but tell that to those who have been buying tickets for the last few months. Tell that to the 100 staff that will reportedly be made redundant over the summer.
Every aspect of Aston Villa feels detached from every other, a club where the left hand never even acknowledges the right. When 1,000 people are each pulling in a different direction, the only conclusion is that a club gets ripped apart at the seams.
Arsenal, in one Arsene Wenger quote
“It is much more about that and to look behind us because everybody is playing well and winning games. For us it could be a fight until the end to get the place in the top four. If we can do more, we will do more but let’s not dream and focus on the next game” – Arsene Wenger.
“”It is much more about that and to look behind us because everybody is playing well and winning games.”
They are indeed, Arsene. Despite 14 Premier League clubs having more injuries than Arsenal, most are playing better and winning more often. Wenger’s side have won three of their last 12 matches. Despite the manager’s own protestations to the contrary, when the going got tough, Arsenal sh*t their pants.
A table based on 2016’s results has Arsenal ninth in the Premier League, level on points with Swansea and Bournemouth. On a points-per-game basis, they are behind Leicester, Tottenham, Manchester United, Southampton, Manchester City, Chelsea, West Ham and Liverpool. Even by their own standards, this has been an abject failure.
“For us it could be a fight until the end to get the place in the top four.”
It’s like catching sight of an old friend when meeting them off a train, a warm feeling of familiarity rushing over you and tucking you in at the sides. Forget the title push, for that was lost in a fog of incompetence along the way, Arsenal head into the last month of the season with a fight for fourth spot. All that’s left is for Wenger to remind supporters of their consistency in qualifying for the competition when they finally stave off the threat of the dullest Manchester United side in 25 years.
“If we can do more, we will do more but let’s not dream.”
Oh yes, the killer line. The epitaph on Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal old age: “Let’s not dream.”
The problem for Wenger is that, this season, the title was not a dream but a reality. With Manchester City, Chelsea and Manchester United in various stages of disarray or transition, this was Arsenal’s big chance. Amidst the perfect storm, Wenger capsized the boat at the first sign of rain.
For Arsenal to finish below Leicester and Tottenham, as they surely will, is the final nail in a coffin that’s already comprised mostly of steel. This season was Wenger’s chance to prove the doubters wrong, and prove right his own claims that Arsenal did not need to strengthen significantly last summer and in January. To use a line from a previous column, their title hopes were washed away easier than candy floss in a rainstorm. It has been a pathetic attempt at success.
During the build-up to the game against Crystal Palace, Wenger explained why it would be difficult to improve Arsenal’s current squad.
“We have to strengthen, but it is not obvious, despite the money the English clubs will have, to find the players who will strengthen your squad,” Wenger said, instead talking up the effect Alex Iwobi and Mohamed Elneny could have. “We will of course work very hard to do that and we are already working, but we have to find the players. It’s not easy.”
And so it begins again. Anyone thinking that this leopard is suddenly going to trade in his spots for stripes should think again. Wonder what the odds are of Arsenal finishing fourth next season?
Your weekly ‘Arsenal mental strength’ report
“Honestly after the game today I am not in that kind of mood to dream about the championship, I am more in the kind of mood to repair the mental damage and prepare for the next game” – Arsene Wenger.
Look forward to being told how mentally strong Arsenal’s players are after beating West Brom 2-0 on Thursday.
The best you can say is that Jamie Vardy exaggerated the contact in a bid to convince the referee that he deserved a penalty. The worst you can say is that Vardy deliberately manufactured that contact by tangling his own legs with that of his opponent. The answer probably lies somewhere in between, but far closer to the latter than the former. The point on which most agree is that Vardy has been performing that trick all season.
The biggest issue was not Vardy’s ‘dive’, but his reaction. Shouting “you’re a f**king c**t” in the face of a referee may not only land him an extended ban, but will also seriously concern Roy Hodgson. We’ve already got that angle covered in the England squad with Wayne Rooney.
It’s performances like that which make us worry about England this summer.
In the latest England Ladder, we declared Ross Barkley a sufferer of Alli-itis, an affliction whereby the progress of young English midfielders was compared against a Tottenham midfielder who was putting the rest to shame.
If Barkley is a sufferer, Loftus-Cheek is raddled. Alli is three months younger than Chelsea’s midfielder, but light years ahead in his development. While one has cemented a starting role in England’s midfield, the other is struggling to grasp his opportunities in Chelsea’s.
On Saturday, Loftus-Cheek started just the sixth league game of his career. He was not awful against Manchester City, but still looks incredibly raw and gets caught far too often on the ball. Having impressed Guus Hiddink enough (or just been non-Nemanja Matic enough) to start Chelsea’s last few matches, Loftus-Cheek must now do the same thing to Antonio Conte. The rumours of incoming midfielders at exhorbitant prices have already begun.
To repeat, Alli is three months younger than Loftus-Cheek. He has played 120 more senior games, has 101 more starts and scored 31 more goals. The contrast is stark.
Showed guts to take the second penalty, showed a lack of composure to miss it. That valuation is dropping every week, as Daniel Levy’s smile widens.
From last week’s Winners and Losers, on the eight stages of manager decline:
‘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’
Can’t believe I missed out ‘supporter running onto the pitch to remonstrate with the manager’. Let’s call that stage 6.5, and Martinez has ticked it off.
Since Everton’s new majority shareholder Farhad Moshiri was announced on February 26, the club have taken six points from seven league games, and the only win was against Aston Villa. Way to impress your new boss, Roberto.
Courtois actually made some excellent saves in the first half to stop Chelsea’s embarrassment, but they will be lost on the wind after the Belgian’s stupid foul on Fernandinho to concede a penalty. Courtois is one of only four Premier League players to be sent off more than once this season, and accounts for two of the three red cards issued to goalkeepers.
The joy on the faces of Norwich supporters as they celebrated a last-gasp winner over Newcastle told the story. Those supporters weren’t just rejoicing in a goal or even a win. They were celebrating survival.
A fortnight later, and things look very grim indeed. Norwich have failed to score in their last two games, losing to the clubs directly above and directly below them in the process. Should Newcastle beat Manchester City on Tuesday, Alex Neil’s side will be back in the bottom three for the first time in a month. Sunderland would still have a game in hand.
Between now and May 11, Norwich’s only two league assignments are Arsenal (a) and Manchester United (h). In that same time period, Newcastle play Aston Villa and Sunderland play a Stoke team with little left to compete for. This three-team mini-league, in which only the champions survive relegation, has many twists and turns to come.
– Did Jamie Vardy exaggerate or manufacture contact? Yes.
– Was the incident worth of a yellow card? Yes, in my opinion, and the subsequent social media disagreement suggests that plenty share that view.
– Did Wes Morgan commit a foul on Winston Reid in the penalty area? Yes.
– Were there other incidents in the penalty area that could have been punished? Yes.
– Did Andy Carroll commit a foul on Jeffrey Schlupp in the penalty area? Yes.
– Does it say anything in the laws about ‘soft’ decisions? No.
By that reckoning, Jon Moss’ only mistake at the King Power Stadium was to commit that cardinal refereeing crime: Inconsistency.
Our holding of Premier League officials to far higher standards than we ask of ourselves continues unabated. A striker misses a chance, it is forgiven. A defender misses a tackle, it is forgiven. A midfielder commits a foul, it is forgiven. A referee misses a foul in the box, it is not forgiven. The first three are paid far more handsomely than the fourth, but the fourth receives the most post-match bile. In Moss’ case, he had Jamie Vardy shouting “you’re a f**king c**t” in his face as a lovely little bonus.
At every set-piece, there is holding in the box. A referee does not have six pairs of eyes or X-ray vision, so he can give only the decisions that he can see clearly and make a definitive judgement on. One presumes Moss did exactly that, especially having warned the players first. Once the replays had been played to the television audience, the damning verdicts came.
“The game became too much of a pressurised situation for him. He could not handle the pressure and I think that clouded his decisions,” said Alan Shearer on Match of the Day 2. In a discussion over pressure clouding people’s decision-making, he failed to mention Vardy’s outburst at the referee. Sure.
‘Ogbonna has arm round Huth’s neck. No offence, apparently. Jon Moss is a really poor referee. So inconsistent,’ tweeted The Times’ Henry Winter. ‘Moss (King Power 2016) goes into the top 3 worst refereeing displays I’ve covered along with Collina (Goodison 2005) & Ovrebo (Bridge 2009),’ he continued. Take a look at this search for the patience Winter has in John Stones, for example. Players are persevered with, referees are publicly persecuted. One has it easier than the other.
The irony in all of the coverage of Jon Moss is that the outrage only came because Leicester are top of the league. ‘Very harsh decision by referee on Vardy,’ the Daily Mail’s Oliver Holt tweeted sarcastically during the game (now deleted). ‘So he’s proved he’s not been swayed by the fairytale. Congratulations.’ Would that have been the reaction to the same incident in Watford vs West Brom?
‘Another mistake from Moss for that last ditch Leicester pen, which wasn’t close to being a pen. Ref seemed to have gone at all levels,’ Holt continued, before tweeting later on on Sunday: ‘Feel a bit for Jon Moss at Leicester-West Ham. Horrifically difficult match to referee.’ Officials aren’t the only ones blighted by inconsistency; we all are.
On Saturday lunchtime on BT Sport, Robbie Savage advised Norwich’s players to chase and hound the referee, making the most of every contact to try and get a penalty after Andre Marriner had (correctly) awarded Sunderland one in the first half. That’s a national broadcaster effectively advocating cheating. If Marriner had indeed fallen for one of these tricks, the Sunderland player would have been ‘clever’ and the referee at fault. In what world is this fair?
When players stop cheating, diving, exaggerating and appealing for decisions they know they don’t deserve, you can criticise referees. And only if you saw it on first viewing. Until then, no.
I counted 12 Premier League referees name-checked. Surely they can’t all be the worst? Or maybe, just maybe, you might be a little biased.