“Leicester City, we’re coming for you,” chanted Tottenham supporters during their 4-0 victory over Stoke. That’s fine, but Leicester can only be caught if they slow to a snail’s pace. As their own fans reminded Tottenham’s on Sunday at the King Power: “Tottenham Hotspur, we’re waiting for you.” Even that isn’t true; Leicester are far from “waiting”.
Another weekend with further questions answered with a big red tick next to each. Concerns over how Leicester would respond to dropped points and the absence of Jamie Vardy were diluted by the performance of a coasting Swansea team, but there were certainly no signs of nerves at the King Power Stadium. This was the first time since the opening day of the season that Leicester have led by two or more goals at half-time of a home game.
By the final whistle, the comfort of Leicester’s victory almost accounted for one of their dropped points against West Ham. Beat Manchester United next Sunday, and anything other than a Tottenham victory at Stamford Bridge the following day would confirm the unlikeliest league title in English football history.
Our Big Weekend column on Friday pointed out the drop in Mahrez’s form, but he was still a deserving winner of the PFA Player of the Year award. A year ago, Eden Hazard was honoured for his status as the creative influence and second highest goalscorer for the Premier League champions-elect. Twelve months later, and Mahrez takes over that mantle. At Leicester and Algeria, he is the fantastic Mr (Desert) Fox.
“Without my team-mates I wouldn’t get this award,” Mahrez said, with typical humility. “And for my manager and the staff – without them I wouldn’t receive this award and I wouldn’t score. It’s the team spirit, and I want to dedicate it to them.”
Mahrez may stress the importance of the team over individuals, but he has stood above all others this season. Twelve months ago he was an unused substitute as Leicester clawed their way out of the relegation zone with a victory over Burnley. Mahrez’s transformation into the best player of the following season is truly incredible. The opening goal on Sunday demonstrated his tendency to flourish when it really matters.
Finding a bargain
2010 – £30m; 2011 – £10m; 2012 – £3m; 2013 – £10m; 2014 – £22.8m; 2015 – £32m; 2016 – £350,000.
The above list shows the transfer fee of the PFA Player of the Year, and highlights the most remarkable aspect of Mahrez’s progression. Even Robin van Persie in 2012, the obvious exception, had been signed more than five years previously.
For Mahrez to have been recruited for such a small fee in January 2014 and have reached this elevated status in two-and-a-half years is a little piece of football magic, for he cannot be the only one out there. With the right combination of scouting and data analysis (and Leicester used plenty of both), diamonds can be found in the rough.
While the biggest clubs continue to keep their eyes on expensive prizes, these advances in scouting techniques give the rest the opportunity to find success using a very different strategy. If that is the lasting legacy of this majestic Leicester season, it is warmly welcomed.
No Vardy, but still a party. Ulloa has been little but a back-up actor in Leicester’s production, but he stepped into the breach perfectly when required.
Rather than recite Vardy’s own lines, the Argentinean had plenty of his own. Ulloa scored his third Premier League brace. One in 2014, one in 2015 and one in 2016.
There may be fewer worries about Pep Guardiola’s development of young players at Manchester City than Jose Mourinho’s at United but, as Matt Stead wrote here, City have their own version of Marcus Rashford. It would be a great shame if Kelechi Iheanacho wasn’t given the chance to flourish under Guardiola’s tutelage.
All the ingredients are there for Iheanacho to be the break-out star of next season. In his nine Manchester City starts he has provided six goals and four assists, with the fine folk at Opta calculating that his ten goals in all competitions for City have come from just 14 shots on target. In 518 Premier League minutes, the Nigerian has taken 12 shots. He’s scored with five of them.
Guardiola is likely to upgrade this City squad in a number of different areas, but in six months Iheanacho has progressed from raw talent to one of the club’s untouchables. If Guardiola chooses to play a 4-2-3-1 (or a Pep-esque variation of that formation), the 19-year-old will have eyes on being Sergio Aguero’s direct back-up. We have seen nothing to suggest that he does not deserve such trust.
Iheanacho’s first assignment could be a role against Real Madrid in the Champions League this week. “I think I should dream about that, because it’s a great team to dream about,” he said after the victory over Stoke. “It would be a dream come true to play against them.” Can you tell he’s in dreamland?
Two goals! Two actual goals! What better time for the reigning PFA Player of the Year to open his account in the Premier League than the day before the next ceremony?
Unfortunately, Hazard’s contribution to the away win at a coasting Bournemouth in April came just too late to see him officially honoured.
43% of Cesc Fabregas's Premier League assists for the whole season have come in 66 minutes against Bournemouth today
— Ali Tweedale (@alitweedale) April 23, 2016
Not quite at Hazard levels of turning up after the season is over, but tarred by the same brush. It’s not difficult to see both Hazard and Fabregas being bloody brilliant again next season.
Newcastle, Rafael Benitez and resilience
For three months this column was urging Newcastle to sack Steve McClaren, far from the only dissenting voice against a coach who simply wasn’t good enough. Had Newcastle appointed Benitez a fortnight after his Real Madrid sacking in January, they would surely be safe by now.
Benitez is more tactically astute than McClaren, but crucially he is more inspiring too. Newcastle’s squad share much of the blame for the slump under their former manager, but they have been visibly motivated by Benitez’s arrival. The battle to survive is still on, despite Sunderland being clear favourites to finish ahead of their fiercest rivals. Benitez has made players, fans and city believe. You can feel in it the air.
Ludicrously, Newcastle have now gone three games without defeat for only the second time since February 2015. More ludicrously still, on Saturday Newcastle came back from two goals down for the first time since Club Brugge in the Europa League in November 2012. The last time they did so in the league away from home was in March 2010, against Bristol City in the Championship. This was their first away point since December 13.
If surviving relegation is the battle that may be lost, persuading Benitez to stay on as manager would feel like victory in the war.
A slightly disappointing season for a winger who looked excellent last year, and made me tingle at the thought that he could kick on.
Still, Ronald Koeman’s happy: “Dusan is growing. He has been playing very well in the last few games. He’s an important player – he’s very strong on the ball, he keeps the ball and he was scoring. He’s one of the players what makes a big difference on the pitch. He’s strong with good movements.”
Now do it every week next season. And against teams better than Aston Villa.
Westwood’s accused mediocrity has made him the target for plenty of Aston Villa vitriol this season, but against Southampton at least one player stepped up. You go 69 games without a goal, and suddenly two come along in an hour. Like meaningless buses, arriving after you’ve been sacked for being late for work again.
There is still plenty in Sturridge’s play to frustrate Liverpool supporters (and one was vocal in this morning’s mailbox), with his tendency to hold on to the ball forcing audible groans from the Anfield stands on more than one occasion on Saturday. Yet that touch, turn and finish just 67 seconds after kick-off are what make him so dangerous. Roy Hodgson’s impact substitute?
The Premier League may be a 38-game season, but several teams did not got that memo. On Saturday, Stoke City became the first team since Wigan in August 2010 to concede four or more goals in three consecutive league games. Swansea have now conceded seven goals in their last two games and are visibly coasting towards the summer break. Around a 2-1 win over Aston Villa, the league’s ultimate gimme, Bournemouth have conceded 13 goals in four games since securing survival.
We are not talking about players completely downing tools, but a drop of only 5% in effort is enough to make a tangible difference. Players who would run that extra yard or make that extra tackle with European qualification or survival on the line inevitably lose a little focus when those missions have been accomplished. Complacency is an undeniable part of human nature.
The impact is obvious. Leicester were able to brush past a limp Swansea side on Sunday, while Manchester City barely got out of neutral to beat Stoke on Saturday lunchtime. For Manchester United, chasing a top-four place, Stoke’s performance must have been galling. The cliched “there are no easy games at this level” requires amendment in the last month of the season.
This is not to lambast players of those guilty teams. It has been a long, hard domestic season, and with Euro 2016 less than eight weeks away, players will understandably have one eye on their summer assignments. Yet it does leave a slightly sour taste in the mouth of those who have paid for individual match or season tickets to see such a drop in effort from highly paid players.
Fans aren’t the only ones annoyed. “The last three games have been extremely poor,” Mark Hughes told Sky Sports after the City defeat. “It’s been more of the same from the game against Tottenham. I thought we were in the game during the first half, but even then it was very low key and I think Manchester City were quite happy to have a game where there wasn’t too much intensity.”
I bet they were. Players may be tiring and looking forward to white sands and sunshine, but there is no excuse for a lack of effort when each place in the Premier League is worth over £1.2m.
Jurgen Klopp’s regular boosts to Mignolet’s confidence might be getting Liverpool’s goalkeeper through to the end of the season without a complete meltdown, but allowing the Belgian to retain his place as Liverpool’s No. 1 goalkeeper beyond the summer would be tantamount to negligence. It’s not an issue of belief or form – he’s just not good enough.
It is Mignolet’s decision-making that leaves most to be desired, highlighted by his vain attempt to claw away the cross from which Papiss Cisse headed Newcastle’s first goal on Saturday. These are mistakes – when made regularly – that you would expect of a novice goalkeeper. Mignolet turned 28 last month.
Of the 30 goalkeepers to start more than five Premier League games this season, Mignolet ranks 27th by save percentage and 29th for save percentage from shots inside the box. Nobody has made more errors directly leading to goals this season, and only four goalkeepers have dropped more crosses.
Liverpool would not necessarily be a top-four club with a more able goalkeeper, but defensive solidity starts from the back and moves forward. Mignolet is leading by poor example, and it’s time for a change.
Arsene Wenger and that striker need
“I could not understand the frustration of the fans. Giroud has the confidence. I have said that many times. He has the mental stature to play in this position. We had Giroud, but we also had Theo Walcott who I believe is a world-class striker, we had Alexis Sanchez who is a world-class striker, and we had Danny Welbeck who is a world-class striker. You have to spend a huge amount of money to improve on that four” – Arsene Wenger, December 26, 2015.
“It’s very simple. We all feel guilty and we are all looked at like it’s a shame we are not winning the league because Leicester are at the top. We don’t have anybody with 20 goals in the league, so that is a handicap” – Arsene Wenger, April 24, 2016.
Can you understand the frustrations of the fans now, Arsene?
Olivier Giroud and Arsenal’s attacking strategy
When Theo Walcott or Danny Welbeck start in a central role and play badly, that can be offset by Alexis Sanchez or Mesut Ozil drifting infield or forward, Arsenal’s style not need to shift markedly to account for the problem. Yet the presence of Giroud in Arsenal’s team forces a style change. Without the pace of Welbeck and Walcott, Giroud understandably prefers to stay in central areas rather than run the channels. Arsenal’s attacking unit inevitably becomes more structured than fluid.
As the constant in the central forward role, Giroud therefore becomes a focus for Arsenal’s passing more than Welbeck or Walcott. The recent fixture against Crystal Palace is a prime example of that: In 75 minutes, Welbeck received 18 passes from teammates; in 15 minutes, Giroud received ten.
When that works there is no problem, but when Giroud struggles, Arsenal can very quickly look blunted, reliant on a moment of brilliance from Sanchez or Ozil and also reliant on keeping a clean sheet to improve their chances of victory. Put simply, without Giroud firing, Arsenal end up trying too hard to force the issue without him. There is no Plan B, just an unideal fall-back option.
Again, the evidence is in the statistics. Against Sunderland, Arsenal attempted 11 shots from outside the area, two higher than their previous ‘best’ this season and five more than in any league game since August. For only the second time this season, Arsenal had more shots from outside the box than inside. Without a reliable finisher or a striker capable of moving into space effectively, Arsenal were constantly playing 25 yards from goal.
It is precisely these issues that make Giroud’s tendency to perform in bursts so unsustainable. Arsene Wenger described Giroud as a “boom, boom, boom” striker last month, but (as I wrote here) it’s the silences in between that are damaging. A title-winning club simply can’t afford to endure such slumps.
At his best, Ramsey is the perfect link between Arsenal’s midfield and attack. His is a simple role, but vital. He takes the ball from a defensive midfielder, moves forward and either plays a pass to an attacking midfielder or into the box for a striker.
The success of Ramsey’s game depends on three things:
1) The accuracy of his passing.
2) His ability to drive forward and past opposition players.
3) The speed at which he moves play on.
Against Sunderland, requirements 2) and 3) were awry. Ramsey made more passes than any other player in the Premier League this weekend and had more touches than all but one player, but volume alone is not enough. Too often he was forced to pass sideways and backwards by the pressure placed upon him by Lee Cattermole and Yann M’Vila. Ramsey should pride himself on being able to evade such pressure.
The speed at which Ramsey is able to dictate possession and progression up the pitch is key to Arsenal’s success against a team happy to sit back and defend their goal. On Sunday, Sunderland suffocated his ability to make time, and therefore space, for those higher up the pitch. That quickly makes Ramsey look unfit for purpose. If Santi Cazorla and Jack Wilshere are fit for the start of next season, the Welshman could easily find a first-team spot difficult to hold down.
Liverpool’s top four hopes
Now only the Europa League can grant Liverpool access back into Europe’s premier club competition. With players rested again for the draw with Newcastle, there’s no doubt which route Klopp viewed as the more likely. Now to sink (or do you float?) a submarine.
The victory over Borussia Dortmund may have been one of those ‘special European nights at Anfield’, but Klopp would much rather be playing with the bigger boys.
“Throughout the game we showed a level of pride that there’s probably not been enough of throughout the season. 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, April 16.
I saw your defending against Southampton, fella. Given the way Shane Long outpaced you and Dusan Tadic got away from you in the penalty area, I’m suspicious that you’ve just taken that weight off your shoulders and tied it around your middle.
Genuinely one of the most careless backpasses I’ve ever seen. And I’m someone who relived Stuart Pearce against San Marino in my nightmares as a child.