Taking their place in this list for yet another week, but what can you do? Not talk about leads over multiple clubs or use the phrase ‘cumulative points’, apparently.
Just another round of matches in which Chelsea kept a clean sheet and their probable title rivals failed to do so. Antonio Conte’s team now account for 48% of all the clean sheets kept by the current top four. They have already beaten their total from last season.
One of the most impressive things about Chelsea’s winning run and the defence’s role in that (if two goals conceded in 11 games isn’t impressive enough) is the manner in which they have stopped previously free-scoring or in-form opponents. See the list below:
Crystal Palace: Won 1-0 – Had scored 15 goals in their previous seven games.
Sunderland: Won 1-0 – Had scored nine goals in their previous five home games.
West Brom: Won 1-0 – Had scored ten goals in their previous four games.
Manchester City: Won 3-1 – Had scored 12 goals in six home games, and were unbeaten at home for nine months.
Tottenham: Won 2-1 – Were unbeaten home or away in the league for six months.
That list could go on. It’s not just that Chelsea have beaten some of the best teams in the division during their streak, but that they have stopped so many different clubs in their tracks. In a division where the standard of defending is widely accepted to have dropped, Chelsea are the exception. No team in the last seven seasons has conceded so few league goals at this stage of the season.
Along came that fifth booking of the season, but one that gives Costa the chance to eat turkey aplenty and miss Bournemouth’s trip to Stamford Bridge on Boxing Day. Conte will consider that an opportune fixture for his striker to sit out.
More importantly, along too came a 13th league goal of the season, eclipsing his total from last season by mid-December and extending his club’s incredible winning run. As Sarah Winterburn wrote on Saturday, stopping Eden Hazard is no foolproof way of stopping Chelsea when they have European football’s in-form centre-forward.
Plenty was written by Matt Stead in 16 Conclusions, but it is impossible to overstate just how crucial that second-half comeback was for Guardiola’s immediate future. As the half-time whistle blew, Monday morning’s headlines were already written in pencil by those who had spent the last fortnight sharpening them. Guardiola’s position, his entire reputation, would have been questioned. As the full-time whistle blew, those headlines joined a pile on the cutting-room floor.
Manchester City’s pre-match gesture to Ilkay Gundogan was widely derided on social media (RIP Gundogan, lol), but it was a public demonstration of the team spirit that clearly still exists within Manchester City’s squad. Offering your wishes to a brilliant player whose career has been put in doubt due to serious injury is hardly the crime of the century, and is something regularly done in Spanish football.
Most importantly, that team spirit was then displayed by the bucket-load during the second half. A team missing its best striker, two best central midfielders and two best central defenders not only matched Arsenal but bullied and eventually outclassed them. Guardiola, slumped in his seat for most of the first half, summoned his players to produce. Produce they did; City aren’t drowning, but waving again.
Leroy Sane and Raheem Sterling
Two young, expensive wingers, criticised as much for what they’re not than what they are or what they could be. Both Sane and Sterling have picked up negative reputations as players who will thrive in an in-form, firing team but with a tendency to wilt like cardboard in the rain when times get tough.
And so to the second half at the Etihad on Sunday. David Silva and Kevin de Bruyne were glorious facilitators but, in the absence of a recognised striker, it was Sane and Sterling who scored the most vital two goals of Pep Guardiola’s brief tenure in Manchester. Just pray the tabloids don’t find out what you have bought your Mum for Christmas, Raheem.
Just as August’s form didn’t solve every issue and October’s form didn’t render Jose Mourinho as finished, three successive victories do not mean that Manchester United are the all-singing, all-dancing side that many wish them to be. The deliberate overreaction to success or failure in order to sell papers and attract clicks is understandable in a climate when times are tough and the audience demands controversy, but overreaction it remains.
Yet there is a feeling that, slowly but surely, United are finding their feet. Tottenham and Crystal Palace were edged past with some degree of difficulty, but West Brom were swatted aside by a dominant defensive display and an attack that has, for now, stopped being so wasteful. This may not be seen as vintage United, but it’s not far off vintage Mourinho.
Most pleasing for supporters will be the growing certainty in Mourinho’s team selection. A midfield three of Michael Carrick, Ander Herrera and Paul Pogba is now penned in when possible, with Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Henrikh Mkhitaryan (finally), Antonio Valencia and David de Gea automatic picks. With fine competition for places in central defence and wide left, only left-back stands out as a problem position. Luke Shaw’s fitness woes continue to give Mourinho headaches.
Mourinho’s media leaks of a ‘broken squad’ look deeply pessimistic in hindsight when you consider the form of back-up central defender Phil Jones and the list of those who did not even play a minute on Saturday: Mkhitaryan, Shaw, Juan Mata, Anthony Martial, Daley Blind, Eric Bailly, Morgan Schneiderlin, Memphis Depay, Bastian Schweinsteiger. Most managers would yearn for those options.
It is a great shame that United’s miserable autumn has altered the realistic end-of-season aim to a top-four place rather than title victory, but very little is gained from crying over spilt points. With fixtures against Sunderland, Middlesbrough and West Ham to come before the home game against Liverpool in mid-January, Mourinho has the opportunity to increase the unity between his players that proved so crucial in each of his success stories. It came as no surprise when he revealed United’s players giving their shirts to the crowd after the game was his idea; this is a club intent on recovery.
Our early winner. Ibrahimovic was rightly criticised during his goalscoring drought, but the response has been majestic. In his last six matches, Ibrahimovic has scored seven goals from just 12 non-blocked shots. A miserable conversion rate now looks healthy again.
A battle past a Burnley team who are typically miserable on the road, but an important victory nonetheless. After the travails of the last six weeks, Mauricio Pochettino’s side are now one point behind Arsenal in fourth. Cool that talk of a crisis.
Ugly? Yes. Unmerited? Yes. Enough to change the mood? F**k no. Will Bilic care? No, no and no.
West Ham were rotten against Hull on Saturday just as they were rotten against Burnley on Wednesday. But Bilic can enjoy consecutive 1-0 league wins for the second time this season, and know that those fine margins are the only thing keeping him in a job. Beat Swansea on Boxing Day, and the growing fear of unlikely relegation will surely be extinguished. The greater task of re-affirming his acumen then begins.
Even as a neutral, there are some players who you instinctively want to do well. Jay Rodriguez, with three league starts in two-and-half years due to injury, is one of those players. His career has been decimated by misfortune.
On Sunday, Rodriguez scored an away league goal and more than once in a league game for the first time since March 2014. The joy after his second against Bournemouth, a wonderful dipping finish, made you feel warm inside. That’s the real spirit of Christmas right there.
David Moyes’ mood may have been deflated by the news that he will not even have enough transfer funds to bring in loan players in January, but that need not be the end of Sunderland’s battle against relegation. There is enough dross in the bottom half of the Premier League that winning your home games and battling for points away may be enough to survive.
Sunderland are at least achieving half that job, the 1-0 victory over Watford their third in four home games. A shambolic defence has at least tightened up at the Stadium of Light, and Sunderland will head into Christmas just one point from safety. That looked a distant dream in October.
Calendar year stats are like my tweets: occasionally mildly interesting but ultimately vacuous. Yet there’s no doubt that this is a doozy: This year, Southampton have collected just three fewer league points than Manchester United, Arsenal and Manchester City.
In Ronald Koeman, Sadio Mane, Graziano Pelle and Victor Wanyama, Southampton lost their manager, two top goalscorers, second and third most regular assist providers and top tackler in the summer. But so what? This is a club apparently immune to upheaval, the Premier League’s kings of keeping on keeping on.
Scored more than once in a home league game for the first time since the final day of 2012/13. Since then Negredo has moved to Manchester City, Valencia on loan, Valencia permanently and Middlesbrough on loan. It’s tough to sell that as an upward journey.
Came from two goals down to at least draw for the first time in any competition in 14 months, and were named Team of the Year at the BBC Sports Personality of the Year award. It’s a niche double, I grant you.
When Arsenal win, Sanchez is key. When Arsenal lose, Sanchez is typically their honourable exception and still does something wonderful. Those are two mighty fine bargaining chips to hold in contract negotiations.
Hands up who had a Hull centre-back for the player with the most shots on target in the Premier League this weekend?
More completed dribbles than any other Premier League player this weekend, and more league starts in his last three months than in the previous two-and-a-half years. Arsenal do need a replacement for Santi Cazorla…
Sixteen more conclusions to follow much later on Everton vs Liverpool, because we know how much this working week will drag. Don’t say we don’t love you.
Arsenal’s away record
Arsenal’s away record against the strongest sides in the Premier League over the last five years should be of deep embarrassment to Arsene Wenger, no matter how much he attempts to spread the blame for defeat to officials, scheduling and injuries.
Using a rough estimation of the strongest teams over that five-year period gives us seven opponents to examine: Manchester United, Manchester City, Chelsea, Tottenham, Liverpool, Everton and Southampton. Arsenal’s away league record since 2011 against that septuplet is:
Played 33, Won 5, Drew 11, Lost 17. They have taken 0.79 points per game.
So when we said Wednesday’s defeat was two steps back after two forward, that’s what we meant. It was so predictable that setback at Everton would be followed by setback at Manchester City, because we’ve seen it so many times from Arsene Wenger’s side before. Arsenal are the only elite club who can be criticised in anticipation rather than hindsight.
Beating Stoke, Swansea, Burnley and Bournemouth cannot be sniffed at, but these are not the contests in which we learn anything new about Arsenal. These are not the matches in which we discover whether they have actually changed, or just placed another pretty tablecloth over the pile of mess. That tablecloth was pulled away by an under-strength, out-of-form Manchester City team.
So, look forward to Arsenal winning their next six league games against West Brom, Crystal Palace, Bournemouth, Swansea, Burnley and Watford, to provoke talk of magnificent response from Wenger and a squad that is ready to challenge and has displayed its teeth. That will be followed by defeat at Stamford Bridge in February. Will it be own goal, red card or conceded penalty this year? Or an inglorious combination of all three?
That is why Arsenal are so damn frustrating, why they can make a non-supporter angry on their behalf at 7.15am on a Monday morning. The better the squad gets, the more you believe. The more you believe, the more they let you down and the further the fall.
Matt Stead wrote in 16 Conclusions about how close to ‘the man just don’t give a f*ck’ end of laissez-faire Ozil has come in crucial moments in each of his last two matches. The ‘big game bottler’ accusation is at best reductive and at worst absolute nonsense, but that doesn’t excuse that lack of effort. Nor too does all the magical skill in the world.
It’s also what makes Ozil’s contract negotiations easier for Arsenal than Alexis Sanchez’s. While the latter’s skill set is virtually irreplaceable and his attitude close to unique, that is not quite the case with Ozil. Jurgen Klopp is just one Premier League manager who would sacrifice some of the creativity for more application and desire.
In years gone by, Ozil’s casual approach to pressing and set-piece marking would have been easily forgotten. Away from the live television cameras, only his greatest hits would be played on repeat to an adoring audience. Now attacking players are not afforded that luxury. There is plenty of guff written about the strength of the Premier League, but it is an environment in which intensity and hard work are obligatory, not optional.
If there is a danger of stifling Ozil’s creativity by making him muck in, Wenger must find a solution to the problem that doesn’t involve his playmaker standing in central midfield while the opposition pass around him. If Ozil’s excuse is that he’s half-knackered after starting 56 matches in the last year and carrying Arsenal’s attack for long periods, that’s another issue to solve.
Bournemouth’s league results since the opening game of the season: L D W L W D W D L L W L W L W L.
The positive spin: Bournemouth are able to overcome the impact of defeat, which is testament to Eddie Howe’s man-management.
The negative spin: Why in the name of all that is holy can’t they win consecutive matches? It’s now over nine months in all competitions.
Also, can commentators please stop saying “Oooh, Bournemouth do love a comeback” every time they fall behind? The last time they came from even one goal down to win any match before Liverpool was in February. It’s not a thing because they did it once.
Hull City away supporters
Wretched. Since beating Swansea in August, Hull have taken six points from a possible 45, but it’s their away form which is the most abject: They have lost seven straight away games by an aggregate scoreline of 20-2.
So, who are Hull’s away opponents between now and mid-April? West Brom, Chelsea, Manchester United, Arsenal, Leicester, Everton and Manchester City, that’s who. You can still get them at odds against to finish bottom.
Our early loser. There’s no doubt that Bradley has managerial aptitude, but his ability to turn around this rickety ship and avoid the iceberg of relegation is in serious doubt. They need defenders in January, and fast.
Boufal clearly has the ability to be several kinds of wonderful, but must learn to keep his frustration in check. Having been generally pretty rubbish against Bournemouth and booked for an embarrassing dive, the winger then spat out his dummy at Claude Puel after being deservedly substituted. Ben Stiller’s Dad is unlikely to react well to that.
When Watford were seventh in the league in October, and again, bizarrely, as late as nine days ago, supporters were happy to point out that their team had actually only played well in three or four games all season. Walter Mazzarri’s side had taken advantage of playing West Ham, Manchester United, Leicester, Middlesbrough and Everton at somewhere close to their lowest respective ebbs, and they had taken full 15-point advantage.
Now the same is happening to Watford, whose victory over Everton represents their only points in the last five matches. From sitting eight points from top (and three from the top six) as November dawned, Watford are now two points closer to the bottom three than the top six, and they are fading.
Still, beat Crystal Palace at home on Boxing Day and all this will be forgotten in a cloud of Alan Pardew being sacked. Which brings us to…
If losing to Chelsea was a crime then the prisons would be full, but there is an inevitability to Crystal Palace’s defeats. A large percentage of supporters have begun to accept an impending relegation battle that simply should never be on the cards for a club with these resources.
Here’s an experiment: Write out Burnley, Hull, Swansea and Sunderland’s teams on a piece of paper, and then write out the one at Alan Pardew’s disposal. How many from each club get into Palace’s XI? Michael Keane and Steven Defour at Burnley, perhaps. Robert Snodgrass at Hull. Fernando Llorente and Gylfi Sigurdsson at Swansea. Jermain Defoe and Patrick van Aanholt at Sunderland. Not many more, that’s for sure.
Yet these are now Palace’s direct rivals, thanks to Pardew’s under-performance. Burnley have two more points than Palace, Sunderland one less and Swansea and Hull three fewer. That should be an embarrassment for a club who bought Christian Benteke, Steve Mandanda, James Tomkins and Andros Townsend this summer.
Here’s another, slightly easier, experiment: Imagine how much more Sam Allardyce, sitting in the wings coughing pointedly at opportune moments, could do with this squad. While relegation was no danger, Palace supporters could afford to turn up their noses at Allardyce’s pragmatism. With relegation a growing possibility, there is no counter-argument to the logic.
Blowing a lead is annoying. Blowing a two-goal lead is bad. Blowing a two-goal lead at home is really bad. Blowing a two-goal lead at home to a team without an away win all season is awful. Blowing a two-goal lead at home to a team without an away win all season and reduced to ten men is sodding rotten. Commiserations to anyone who spent Saturday evening with Mark Hughes.
He doesn’t deserve this. Such a lovely boy just doesn’t deserve this.