Sunderland and Sam Allardyce
When the moment of truth finally came, Sunderland were up to the task. While Newcastle laboured against Aston Villa, Sunderland showed all manner of mettle to twice come from behind and beat Chelsea.
This was an afternoon for Sunderland to break all their own rules. Before Saturday, Sunderland had conceded the first goal in 20 league games this season, and their record was four draws and 16 defeats. Here was the first win. Before Saturday, Sunderland had been losing at half-time in 13 league games this season, and their record was one win, two draws and ten defeats. Here was the second win. In the last few months, Sunderland have dropped points in the last quarter of matches. Here, they won them.
Sunderland’s safety is not yet secured, but Newcastle’s unexpected dropped points put Sunderland firmly in the driving seat. Victory over Everton on Wednesday would secure their tenth consecutive season in the top flight. After the salvo against Chelsea, you can’t say they don’t deserve it.
Was it exciting? F**k no. Did the job get done? Well, yes. Could Manchester United still finish in the top four? Yes again. Is Neil Custis in danger of having to live in a boot camp in the north-east (and tell us all about it)? Indeed.
The debate raised by Sarah Winterburn in her post-game piece on Saturday was whether Manchester United fans might want to miss out on the top four in order to be rid of the Louis van Gaal dirge and welcome in a new era? Any answer is purely hypothetical, but there is unlikely to be an overwhelming majority among a support with split loyalties.
Really, it comes down to one question: Which do you care about more – enjoying watching your team play or enjoying seeing your team face the best teams? A very modern football quandary.
Leicester and their celebrations
If you are going to mark a once-in-lifetime achievement, you might as well do it properly. Leicester’s pre and post-match celebrations were perfect, from Andrea Bocelli singing Nessun Dorma (no no, there’s just dust in my eye) to Wes Morgan lifting the Premier League trophy aloft. The bit in between was pretty good too.
Leicester could not have wished for a gentler opponent than Everton, but they revelled in the party atmosphere. Sometimes on such occasions the match itself can be lost amid the noise, but Leicester’s players are determined to bask in every second of this season. Establishing a ten-point lead at the top really was important.
Leicester making Europe would have been enough. Leicester making the Champions League was incredible. Leicester winning the title was unthinkable. Yet there is one more possible feat to come. Win at Chelsea on the final day, and Leicester could win the title by the greatest margin (13 points, or 12 points and a higher goal difference) of any team since 2000. Mental.
The injury to Danny Welbeck may have come at a bad time for Roy Hodgson, but fate at least gave back with the right hand after taking with the left. The return of Wilshere in Welbeck’s stead during a high-profile match could not have been timed better. Young Jack will be named in Hodgson’s squad for the Euros, and is likely to start if he can prove his fitness in the pre-tournament friendlies. However that makes you feel.
Arsenal playing opposites
Having spent most of this season spurning chances that Mesut Ozil has created, Arsenal promptly scored from their only two shots on target in the German’s absence. With a top-four place confirmed and Tottenham still within sight, this was a successful weekend for Arsene Wenger. Just a shame that efficiency in front of goal has become the exception rather than rule.
For far more on Manchester City 2-2 Arsenal, go read 16 Conclusions from Matt Stead’s fair fingers.
Wahbi Khazri (and not Martin Samuel)
‘Wahbi Khazri and his failed rabona summed up the attitude of someone just passing through…most failing Premier League teams have a list of players who are here today, gone tomorrow,’ read the headline on Martin Samuel’s Daily Mail piece on March 3. Sometimes a writer gets stitched up by the headline, but don’t give Samuel that get-out clause.
‘Khazri’s failed rabona cross against West Ham on Saturday,’ Samuel wrote again two days later after criticism for his original column. ‘I thought it summed up the attitude of a certain type of Premier League player: the ones passing through our game. Sunderland’s predicament does not matter to Khazri because he probably won’t be around next year if they fall to the Championship. So he plays for himself.’
One presumes that Khazri will receive his apology from Samuel in the next day or so after his sumptuous goal on Saturday, but he should be advised against holding his breath. Despite Khazri being brilliant in the biggest league game of Sunderland’s season, we can only assume that the player decided to play well ‘for himself’ rather than for the team. The bastard.
That’s the thing about these bloody foreigners. They find it impossible to care about anyone but themselves, but do have the technique to volley the ball from 20 yards into the corner of the goal. What utter arsewater of the highest order.
“Don’t tell anyone,” was Defoe’s joking reaction to being asked about crying in the aftermath of Sunderland’s victory over Chelsea, yet he should not have to ward off teasing from his teammates. Having played for six clubs and reached the age of 33, it is heart-warming to see a striker still care that much about the result of his team.
While the mood at Villa Park on Saturday was drab, at the Stadium of Light the team gave supporters cause to cheer. Despite getting caught up in the emotion of the occasion, Defoe remained calm at the vital moment to control the ball and strike it past Thibaut Courtois. He’s been making a living of that for 15 years.
Defoe and Khazri have and will continue to receive the plaudits, but it was Sunderland’s goalkeeper who was their man of the match. Nobody made more saves from shots taken inside the box than Mannone this weekend. Had Chelsea extended their lead to 3-1, Sunderland would surely still be in the bottom three.
A goal and an assist? Take that, haters. Who said Giroud couldn’t score when the title was on the lin… Oh. As you were.
Two goals against Everton to give him a chance of becoming only the seventh Englishman to score 25 goals in a 38-game Premier League season. Vardy will hope the penalty miss will not be crucial.
As an aside, Vardy may well be the big winner from Danny Welbeck’s injury. A front three of Vardy left, Kane central and Sterling right with Dele Alli, Wayne Rooney and Eric Dier/Jack Wilshere in behind must be high in Hodgson’s thoughts.
Firmino has now reached 17 goals and assists in his debut Premier League season. He’s only started 23 matches.
Since the turn of the year, Firmino has ten goals and six assists in all competitions. A flop, you say? Fir mi, no.
A second league goal of the season, first assist and majestic performance from Leicester City’s longest-serving player, all on the day they were presented with the Premier League trophy. Is there anything Leicester can’t turn to gold?
There have been very few reasons for Aston Villa supporters to do anything but rock back and forth while wailing about the slow death of their club, but on Saturday there was a ray of weak sunlight poking through the clouds. Eric Black has been largely unwilling to give youth a chance despite the club’s doomed situation, but on Saturday gave Kevin Toner his second ever league start for the club.
Having played on the left of midfield against Watford last week, Toner filled in at left-back against Newcastle. Despite having to deal with an in-form Andros Townsend, Toner was brilliant. The 19-year-old should be suitably proud of his efforts, and was given huge applause from the home crowd as he left the pitch.
When you see a 19-year-old rookie playing with such skill and heart, it makes you wonder why anyone would ever pick Aly Cissokho ahead of him. Selecting a side purely on experience and reputation is a foolhardy move. Toner and the like should be competing for first-team places next season, and Villa can hardly be worse off for it.
Tottenham’s 2015/16 league record when Dembele has started in central midfield:
Played 24; Won 15; Drawn 9; Lost 0. Points per game – 2.25
Tottenham’s 2015/16 league record when Dembele hasn’t started in central midfield:
Played 13; Won 4; Drawn 4; Lost 5. Points per game – 1.23
It’s all getting a bit silly now.
The best double save of the season? Probably, because you’re hardly going to go and prove me wrong. (Who am I kidding, this is the internet. Of course you will).
The painting carrier
Without doubt the best job in the world.
Nothing funnier is happening right now than this suited man holding this painting. pic.twitter.com/JB9mPTPwBF
— Miriti Murungi (@NutmegRadio) May 7, 2016
Newcastle United and a lack of urgency
Rafa Benitez’s Newcastle plan has been formulaic in recent weeks. His side aim to keep it tight during the first half, before an attacking assault in the last half-hour aims to take or seal the points. Benitez’s plan is to keep his side going until the end of matches having previously endured late heartbreak.
It’s worked, too. Newcastle sealed the points against Swansea and Crystal Palace in the second half, and also came back against Liverpool after the break. Since the 3-0 defeat to Everton in February, Newcastle have scored 14 league goals. Only three of those have come in the first half of matches, and six have come in the final ten minutes.
Against Aston Villa, Newcastle went for exactly the same approach. They allowed the home side to have the majority of possession in a dismal first half, during which there were only four shots in total from both sides combined. With 20 minutes remaining, Newcastle finally pressed forward in search of the goal they required. Yet this time, no goal came.
You can understand Benitez relying on the same plan that had worked against Palace, but Villa are comfortably the Premier League’s poorest side. Rather than sit back and wait, would Newcastle not have been better off searching for the early goal that would have once again made the Villa Park atmosphere mutinous and killed off the competition? Instead, the home support came into the game and urged on their team. After 11 straight losses, Villa had their point.
This is a familiar story for Newcastle, whose record against the worst sides in the league is appalling. They have taken more points against top-half sides than Bournemouth, Sunderland, Watford, Norwich and Aston Villa, and the same number as Everton. Yet Newcastle have taken 18 points from 18 games against bottom-half sides. Only Villa have been worse.
Just as they failed to beat Derby County during their 11-point season in 2007/08, Newcastle are the only club not to have beaten a rotten Villa side this season. Had they won those two games, safety would be in their own hands.
Papiss Cisse stopped being good enough two years ago. Aleksandar Mitrovic is full of effort but very little finesse. Siem de Jong was brought on in defensive midfield on Saturday, which tells you all you need to know. Ayoze Perez is guilty of holding onto the ball too long and looks short on belief. We’re not sure if Emmanuel Riviere will ever score again. We’re not sure if anyone at Newcastle even remembers Seydou Doumbia.
Newcastle’s forwards have been pitiful this season, summed up by their shooting accuracy: Mitrovic – 46.6%, Perez – 43.2%, Cisse – 42.9%, De Jong – 50%. None have got more than half their shots on target.
They also let down their side when it really mattered on Saturday. Cisse fluffed a shot and volley in the first half, and his replacement Mitrovic missed two glorious chances after the break. Having finally sorted out the defence (three goals conceded in five games), Rafael Benitez has been sold short at the other end of the pitch. That’s why Newcastle are going down.
Remained on the bench throughout a match that Newcastle needed to win and drew 0-0, while a forward (De Jong) was brought on in his position. Has the same reputation that Shelvey gained at Swansea already been established at Newcastle?
“A young player who could maybe have been caught by the occasion was Matty Pennington and he was the only player who played with intent, with meaning and desire and it is a shame no one else on the pitch could match that focus,” said Martinez after Everton’s abysmal 3-1 defeat at Leicester City. There was a worry that Leicester’s players might be playing with sore heads, but it was the visitors who gave their own supporters the sickness and headaches.
Martinez’ point is an interesting one, for Pennington was indeed Everton’s best player. The only member of Everton’s team to show fight was the one who has been least affected by Martinez’s own slump. Everton’s manager lost the supporters weeks ago, but this was emphatic evidence that the club’s senior players have lost faith too.
Three weeks ago, Ross Barkley stopped himself from storming down the tunnel after being substituted. At Leicester on Saturday, nothing could harness his frustration. The feeling among Everton’s first-teamers is that Martinez is not only damaging his own reputation, but tarring them with his brush. The announcement of his sacking cannot come soon enough.
West Ham and Slaven Bilic
West Ham’s manager is not a man I’d be keen on upsetting too regularly, but Bilic’s anger was palpable after his side’s capitulation at home to Swansea.
“Make no mistake, now I am crazy,” Bilic said. “I am fuming and I am angry to the pit of my stomach. But we have to put this game to bed. We have to forget it and prepare.”
Any insinuation that West Ham blew their shot at a top-four place is pretty unforgiving, given their budgets and pre-season ambitions, yet Bilic must avoid another humbling defeat against Manchester United on Tuesday. If the last match at Upton Park is as pathetic as the penultimate, supporters will be quick to grumble about the Croatian’s occasional tactical naivety and tendency to implode at irregular intervals, as harsh as that may sound.
West Ham’s defence and the Martinez conundrum
It will be Bilic’s primary summer task. He has accomplished defenders (and defensive midfielders) but not yet an accomplished defence. The accusation that Bilic is Martinez-esque in his insistence on his team playing aesthetically pleasing football holds some credence.
Only two Premier League teams have scored more times than West Ham this season, but only ten teams have conceded more. Bilic must find a way to improve one without compromising the other. If that can be achieved (with summer investment), West Ham really will be happy in their new home. As Martinez himself knows, it’s far easier said than done.
Tottenham and perception
When the dust finally settles on this Tottenham season, there is no doubt that it will have been the club’s finest league campaign in the Premier League era, and the closest they have finished to the champions (in points terms) since re-promotion in 1978.
Yet the old adage about how you finish being most important is ringing true. Tottenham’s end to the season is in danger of making the Lord Mayor’s show itself feel anti-climactic. Supporters should be thankful that the issues over insufficient back-up for key players has only reared its head with Champions League qualification assured, but it is impossible not to focus on what might have been. Mauricio Pochettino will be desperate to finish ahead of Arsenal and secure Tottenham’s first top-two finish since 1963. Then the upgrade begins.
Norwich’s record when scoring first: Played 10; Won 8; Drawn 2; Lost 0.
Norwich’s record when conceding first: Played 25; Won 0, Drawn 4, Lost 21.
Rarely in Premier League history has the first goal of a game been so instructive in the final result of a team. It was over on Saturday from the moment Juan Mata found the net. So too was Norwich’s stay in the top flight.
Tottenham and leads
There are plenty of reasons for Leicester’s success over Tottenham in the title race, but the contrast between the two side’s ability to hold onto a lead this season might be the most obvious. Leicester scored the first goal in 26 of their 37 matches, and won 21 (81%) of those games. Tottenham have scored first in 22 of their 37 matches, but won just 14 (64%) of them.
Too often this season, Tottenham have made things difficult for themselves by allowing the opponent back into the match. Stoke (h), Leicester (a), Arsenal (a), West Brom (a), Newcastle (h), Arsenal (h), West Brom (h), Chelsea (a), Southampton (h); a problem exacerbated when the going got tough.
Tottenham’s resilience cannot be questioned. No team in the Premier League has taken more points per game after conceding the first goal. Unfortunately, ten Premier League teams have taken more points per game after scoring first. That includes Swansea, Stoke and Watford.
Danny Welbeck and Roy Hodgson
“Danny Welbeck has a knee problem,” Arsene Wenger told Arsenal’s official site after the game. “I hope it is not too bad. We need to wait for a scan, I hope that it is not bad one and a meniscus. Danny is a strong boy, he is not a guy who moves out quickly. We tried to keep him on the pitch and straight away he tried to move on and he said it was impossible.
“At half time, I looked at him and he was very down so he must have pain. Lets hope we have good news tomorrow from the scan. When I say good, that means he will not be out of the Euros. The bad news would be if he is out of the Euros, but I don’t know. I’m an optimist. I don’t know if it is a lateral meniscus. Let’s wait until we get the real diagnosis.”
Oh bugger. While injuries to Jordan Henderson, Jack Butland, Luke Shaw and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain were hardly good news, Hodgson will have consoled himself with the knowledge that all had a like-for-like replacement in England’s Euro 2016 squad without causing too much negative impact. With Welbeck, there is no like-for-like.
Welbeck is still criticised in some quarters, but has been consistently crucial to Hodgson’s England. Not only was he comfortably England’s top scorer in their latest released squad, but he also scored six times in qualifying despite playing only 402 minutes.
Terry may not be a particularly affable man, but there is still something sour about laughing at him missing his own Chelsea send-off. His second yellow card against Sunderland, coupled with his sending off against West Brom in August, rules him out of the club’s final two league games.
You may not like Terry (hell, I don’t like Terry), but you cannot doubt his effect on the modern history of Chelsea. They have won 80% of their league titles, 71% of their FA Cups, 60% of their League Cups, 100% of their UEFA Cups and 100% of their European Cups during his time at the club. His presence runs like a seam through Stamford Bridge.
Still, at least people will get to make jokes about him being in full kit for his final game. Because four-year-old jokes are the best kind of jokes.
The likelihood is that Rodgers will take over at Swansea this summer, but the pressure will be on for immediate success. If taking over from Garry Monk’s struggling side looked inviting, the Swansea job looks far more testing now. Francesco Guidolin could leave the club having won his last three matches against Liverpool, West Ham and Manchester City. Crikey.
In Friday’s Big Weekend, I included Ryan Mason, for this was the opportunity to persuade Mauricio Pochettino that he was worth keeping beyond this summer. After 80 minutes against Southampton, Pochettino would be forgiven for taking a black marker pen out of his pocket and crossing through Mason’s name.
In 78 minutes, Mason passed the ball simply and quite well. He also failed to create a single chance, have a single shot, win a single duel (aerial or otherwise), make a single tackle or a single interception. Not so much Dembele-lite as Dembele-entirely-weightless.
Manchester City’s big-game record
Pep Guardiola’s to-do list at Manchester City might be growing with each passing week, but there is one aspect of Manuel Pellegrini’s performance that simply must be improved if City are to be successful. The below is a table of matches played between the current top eight. It is complete other than West Ham vs Manchester United on Tuesday:
Manchester United – 22
West Ham – 22
Leicester – 21
Southampton – 21
Tottenham – 20
Arsenal – 19
Liverpool – 14
Manchester City – 7
The accusation against Pellegrini is obvious. He’s just not charismatic enough to inspire performances from his side in their biggest matches.
The five seconds before Giroud’s equaliser epitomise Mangala’s Manchester City career: Spot the danger, react to the danger, promptly forget about the danger, ignore the danger and thus let it grow, re-react to the danger but not before it’s too late, increase the danger through your own incompetence.
Forty f**king million. Pound for pound, Mangala is the worst Premier League signing of the last five years, given the central defenders that have moved for less than 30% of the price.
When Lascelles came over to applaud Newcastle’s away support on Saturday, they assumed he already knew the results elsewhere. The image of Newcastle’s central defender seeing the Sunderland score flash up on the big screen and promptly crumple in two was powerful. Some players in that Newcastle squad may be guilty of coasting, but Lascelles is not one. Captain in the Championship?
West Brom’s penalty takers
Chris Brunt missed against Chelsea in August. Saido Berahino missed twice against Watford in April. Craig Gardner missed against Bournemouth in May. West Brom have been awarded five penalties in the Premier League this season, and failed to score four of them. The six points those failures have cost them would have Tony Pulis’ side in the top half rather than 15th.