It’s a bonus midweek Winners and Losers, taking in games from Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday. Lovely…
Thirteen shots, five shots on target, four goals, four chances created and a dreadful miss that can be forgiven in the context of such a wonderful evening. Look out Leicester, Alli and Kane are coming for you.
Anyone not tingling about the European Championship is advised to start doing so sharpish. Of course the hope may kill you but, without hope, only disappointment reigns.
Tottenham and ‘tactical fouls’
Tottenham’s blend of attacking play and young, dynamic players might be all sorts of sexy, but there is a dark side to their success under Mauricio Pochettino. Spurs are the best in the league at what we can call ‘foul management’.
Firstly, Tottenham have conceded the third most fouls in the Premier League this season, and received the third highest number of yellow cards. The two teams above them in that second category are Watford and Aston Villa. The top five is comprised of teams in 20th, 17th, 14th, 12th and…second.
To avoid suspensions, therefore, Tottenham hunt in packs and spread their fouls around. In a list of the top 15 individual foulers, four are Spurs players: Erik Lamela, Dele Alli, Eric Dier and Mousa Dembele. Stoke are the only other side with more than one representative: left-back Erik Pieters and winger Marko Arnautovic.
While the rest of that list is comprised of central midfielders, for Tottenham it is the job of the entire midfield. It’s also an almost no-lose tactic, Pochettino’s demand to press high up the pitch leading to four possible eventualities in each situation:
1) Win the ball back, and immediately switch onto the counter to overload the opposition
2) Make a foul in an area of the pitch where the resultant set-piece is not likely to be dangerous.
3) Force a pass. Sideways or backwards means a teammate will take over the press. A pass launched forward is likely to be swept up by the defence.
4) Are dribbled past. The least appetising of the four eventualities.
This all-tackling, all-fouling midfield is doing its job emphatically, namely protecting Tottenham’s defence and instigating attacks high up the pitch. Pochettino’s side may have conceded 411 fouls, but only 24 of those have been given away by their first-choice central defenders – 16 fewer than Harry Kane alone. More than 60% of the 411 have been committed in the opposition half. It is a vital part of the best defensive record in the Premier League.
Of course, the success of that tactic relies on stamina and fitness so late in the season. Which brings us to…
Eight of Tottenham’s 11 starters covered more than 10km against Stoke on Monday, Jan Vertonghen, Mousa Dembele and Hugo Lloris the exceptions. Vertonghen fell 80m short and Dembele 50m short, substituted in the 87th minute. The lazy b*stards.
The stamina of these Tottenham players might not make headlines, but it is the most impressive part of their title tilt. While other squads with less demanding strategies have fallen away, blaming fatigue for their slumps, Tottenham keep on keeping on. Their next fixture will be their 50th of the season.
I need not to waffle on about Eriksen’s excellence, for Sarah Winterburn has done so in far more succinct manner.
A few nuggets to take out of that piece, however:
– ‘The Guardian did not rank him amongst the best 100 players in the world at the end of 2015; we should tell you at this point that Memphis Depay was no. 86.
– Eriksen was still eligible for the PFA Young Player of the Year award this season.
– Eriksen has played a part in 69 of Tottenham’s 72 league games since the beginning of last season, and 106 for club and country.
The creative force in the Premier League’s unfairly unheralded XI.
The last time Alderweireld committed a foul was on March 2. Since August 15, 2015, he’s committed six in the Premier League, 2,880 minutes of playing time.
Liverpool and creativity
A list of the biggest chance creators in the Premier League this midweek:
James Milner – 8
Philippe Coutinho – 6
Adam Lallana – 5
Erik Lamela, Andy Carroll – 4
Dele Alli, Alberto Moreno, Dimitri Payet, Nathaniel Clyne, Anthony Martial, Christian Eriksen, Lucas Leiva, Giannelli Imbula – 3
Some teams struggle to break down an opposition with ten men. Liverpool made it look like they were playing against seven.
Whether or not Sturridge wants or gets Liverpool’s fourth goal against Everton, on Wednesday he reached 50 Liverpool goals. What’s more, only Fernando Torres, Roger Hunt and Albert Stubbins reached that milestone in fewer games in the post-war era.
Considering that only 67 of Sturridge’s 87 Liverpool matches have been starts, it’s a magnificent achievement. We just wish his legs weren’t made out of PVA glue and sawdust.
Divock Origi and the enthusiasm of youth
After 43 minutes of a Merseyside derby, Origi’s name was being chanted around Anfield. The Belgian, who only turned 21 this week, would have been forgiven for stopping to pinch himself. Sarah Winterburn might have picked five players who have risen like phoenixes from the flames this season, but Origi was the inspiration. Suddenly, air conditioning and laptops are back en vogue.
“He’s a humble guy,” said Brendan Rodgers on Origi in September. “He knows where he stands and that he’s here to develop. It’s a big step coming to such a prestigious club.”
This was Rodgers asking for patience in Origi, but also explaining why the Belgian had only played 16 minutes of league football under his management, and even that on the left wing. Six months later, Origi is a vital part of Klopp’s plans.
The player himself has no doubt who is responsible for that rise: “When you look at the coach, he sends out a very strong feeling, a very powerful feeling. You can see it through the team. He believes in everybody – the young players, the old players, we’re all here because we have quality.” Those words came just 19 days after Rodgers’ own opinion on Origi, the Liverpool manager losing his job in the interim. I think we can describe them as ‘pointed’.
Klopp’s message to Liverpool’s players is simple: If you’re good enough, you’re old enough. There is no magic formula for the development of young players, but the rise of Marcus Rashford at Manchester United shows that there is nothing so precious as first-team minutes in your preferred position. In a season of breakout Premier League stars, Origi and Rashford are the unlikely poster boys for their own clubs’ bright futures.
James Milner, the new Mesut Ozil
The following is a list via those lovely folk at Opta, of the top assist providers in the Premier League in 2016:
James Milner – 8
Dimitri Payet, Christian Eriksen, Dele Alli – 6
Roberto Firmino, David Silva, Diego Costa, Riyad Mahrez, Erik Lamela – 4
There are plenty of Liverpool players who have improved under Jurgen Klopp, but the increase in James Milner’s creative output is one of the most striking. Look out for @AssistingMilner on a social media site near you.
Another excellent performance, and Rafa Benitez’s side can count themselves unfortunate not to have beaten Manchester City on Tuesday. Yet the suspicion grows that a squad of players has started performing when the fat lady had already finished her scales and was warbling her way through act one. Newcastle will probably need at least seven points from their final four matches to survive.
Since making his debut on February 3, Townsend has ranked in the following positions among Newcastle’s squad:
Shots on target: =1st
Chances created: 1st
Dribbles completed: =3rd
Successful crosses: 1st
Shooting accuracy: =2nd
Bobby Madley and Peter Kirkup
While the back pages on Monday and Wednesday focused on alleged mistakes by officials in Leicester vs West Ham and Newcastle vs Manchester City, Thursday’s offerings focused on the players and managers instead.
There is no surprise in that, of course. ‘Referee gets decision wrong’ is big news, for it allows those players and managers to avoid introspection, the lightning rod for all post-match anger and resentment. ‘Referee does brilliant job’ is as likely a headline as a story about the HABs of the England women’s team.
However, it does seem a little unfair. While Jon Moss cops all the flak, the excellence of Madley and Kirkup will go unheralded. On first viewing, the red card issued to Ramiro Funes Mori looked harsh, both commentators on Sky Sports declaring their surprise at the decision even after the first two slow-motion replays. After the third, they vindicated Madley’s decision.
An incident seen and a situation diffused in a high-profile fixture. Communication between a referee and his assistant to create a full picture of the incident. The correct decision made, with a minimum of fuss. Yet you probably won’t read columns about Madley and Kirkup three days later, even if they do sound like gruesome Burke and Hare copycat killers.
Six goals in six games for a striker who had three in 22 games before this run. Carroll’s goals have come at just the right time to bring him into Roy Hodgson’s contention, but it’s surely all too little, too late. Plus, every other English player is scoring too…
‘Of the 220 players who started for their clubs at the weekend, only 73, or 33.2 per cent, were eligible to play for England,’ read the headline statistic from the opening day of this season. England had more reason to be glum.
If that was the bad news in statistical form, now for the good. The 14 Premier League games since the beginning of the weekend have contained 37 goals (discounting Damien Delaney’s own goal at Old Trafford). Over half were scored by English players. It’s coming home.
The top-four race
Even if Arsenal win on Thursday evening – and that is by no means guaranteed – the gap between third and ninth will be only nine points. Should Liverpool win their game in hand, it would be seven with four games to play each. It is not just the title race and relegation battle that promise to go down to the last day.
A wonderful strike with his left foot, one which might have made the notoriously one-footed Antonio Valencia treat Darmian like a new deity. “What, you can kick with it too?”
Manchester United’s second goal against Crystal Palace was only their fifth from outside the penalty area this season. Darmian has moved level with Jesse Lingard, Ander Herrera, Juan Mata and Wayne Rooney on one.
One hundred Premier League goals, achieved in fewer games than all but Alan Shearer. Just a shame about the dive later in the game. We saw you, fella.
This column has been pretty vocal in its opinion that Martinez is simply not up to task, but anyone left unconvinced must surely now agree. This was the type of performance and result that gets a manager sacked.
I said plenty enough in this post-match piece on Martinez’s decline, so instead let us be content with this, from the handsome Adam Bate:
Wigan (having just finished 11th): 16th, 16th, 15th, 18th.
Everton (having just finished 6th): 5th, 11th, 11th..
Progress, Martinez style.
— Adam Bate (@ghostgoal) April 20, 2016
He’s very, very right.
It took all of Barkley’s resolve not to lose his sh*t. His number had been displayed on the electronic board, replaced by Tom Cleverley in the 58th minute. Barkley sighed so obviously that Martinez must have seen it. He counted to three, clapped the away supporters at Anfield and then sat on the bench without catching the eye of his manager. Liverpool supporters jeered his departure.
Like Romelu Lukaku and John Stones before him, Barkley must be getting seriously peeved with this Everton malaise. With Lukaku isolated up front, holding midfielders who rarely ventured forward and wingers in Aaron Lennon and Kevin Mirallas who prefer to dribble rather than pass, Barkley regularly had two men marking him at all times. At their best, Everton are fluid and versatile, players showing for the ball, pass and move played on repeat. This was Everton at their worst, 11 disparate individuals.
Unlike Stones and Lukaku, there is no obvious destination for Barkley to escape to this summer. Manchester United have other priorities, Manchester City have Kevin de Bruyne, Arsenal are sorted for attacking midfielders and Chelsea’s new manager would surely prefer to avoid a very obvious English premium. Perhaps that’s why it was such a big sigh.
Quique Sanchez Flores
The stories that surfaced on the day of Watford’s trip to West Ham cannot have helped Flores’ pre-match preparation, but defeat will only have strengthened their validity. If those sources are to be believed, Watford are preparing to sack their manager after their post-Christmas slump.
It is true that Flores has won only three of his last 17 league games, but that followed a run of four straight wins. Even in the current climate of impatience, surely a manager of a promoted team who ensures survival by Christmas deserves some leeway?
The most infuriatingly inconsistent side in the business. A team that score four at Bournemouth, three at Chelsea and two at Paris Saint-Germain managed only one against Newcastle. Even that was outrageously offside.
There are those who have already spoken, insisting that England must start John Stones whatever his form. Their faith is being severely tested.
Stones looks like a defender playing without any confidence, playing for a manager incapable or unwilling to focus on his defence. Having allowed Divock Origi to outmuscle and outjump him for Liverpool’s first goal in the derby, Stones promptly played Daniel Sturridge onside for the third after his own poor pass. No player in the Premier League is given an easier ride by our media.
It is evidence to suggest rather than damn, but Everton’s 2016 record with and without Stones makes for grim reading:
With Stones – W1 D6 L5 Conceded 1.58 gpg
Without Stones – W7 D0 L2 Conceded 0.44 gpg
How he must wish he’d got a move away from Everton. Despite the flak we received for the suggestion, how much Everton must wish they’d taken that £40million.
On March 2, Stoke sat seventh in the Premier League, five points from the top four. Mark Hughes was talking about European qualification, with Champions League ambitions still not abandoned. Stoke had won three consecutive league games. All was well.
On April 21, Stoke sit ninth in the Premier League, as close in points to 15th as they are to the top seven. European ambitions have been shelved, and Mark Hughes’ side have taken five points from six matches. On Monday evening, Tottenham showed Hughes just how far Stoke have to go.
“I’m disappointed with what we produced obviously,” an angry Hughes told Sky Sports after the 4-0 defeat. “We had some moments but defensively we were a million miles away from where we should have been, and good teams will pick you off. It’s a given in the Premier League.
“Defensively we need to tighten up a hell of a lot better than the last few games. We know what we need to do and we’ll address that and be better next time out.”
Stoke have enjoyed a fine season, one in which they have strained their necks to look up, not down. Hughes must ensure the campaign does not end in lingering disappointment.
Ramiro Funes Mori
A grim, senseless tackle on his opponent, for which Mori was rightly dismissed. The Argentine then followed that up with a bizarre chest-beating ritual, presumably to try and persuade Everton fans that he was one of them.
“Number one, he has only been here for two minutes and number two, why is he playing to the crowd because he has injured a Liverpool player?’ asked Jamie Carragher after the game. “Are they going to be happy with that? They were getting battered in the game and he’s now going to miss the biggest game of the season when they’ve got Jagielka out. It’s embarrassing. What is he doing? Everton fans won’t fall for that nonsense.” Quite.
Incidentally, if you translate ‘Mori’ from Spanish it means ‘I died’. Never has a name been such a hostage to fortune.
“My time at United has gone and I don’t mind if I get booed,” said Zaha before the trip to his old club. “I still have Man United followers on Twitter. They might wait until I make a mistake in a game or something, and they’ll come out with something like ‘that’s why you got sold’. I am just trying to progress in my career, so going back to Old Trafford will be like playing at any other stadium. I am just going to do my best as usual.”
Whatever Zaha may claim, there is no doubt that he will have wanted to impress on his return to Manchester United. The success of Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial must surely give the winger a dull ache of ‘what might have been’.
In a Crystal Palace side that might have well brought a sign that read ‘We’re happy to lose, just don’t hurt us’, Zaha was powerless. He had one shot (off target) and completed ten passes in 90 minutes, despite having 53 touches of the ball. The temptation is to say that he’s found his level.