The top six
After the miracle of Leicester City, the status quo returns. The current top six have played 57 matches against bottom-half teams this season, and the results are emphatic: W44, D10, L3. They have scored 136 goals in those games.
You can grumble about the lack of competition if you want, but the optimists among us have a different spin: The title and top-four races are going to provide five months of fascination.
Antonio Conte and the Chelsea steamroller
Such is the length of Chelsea’s winning run that we have reached the stage where pundits say that they cannot possibly be caught, even though they clearly can. Still, Antonio Conte’s team may only have a six-point lead at the top, but they are swatting away teams like champions do. Having matched Manchester United’s March-August 2000 effort of 12 straight league victories, only Arsenal’s 14 from February-August 2002 stands in their way. The last time Chelsea failed to win a league game was September 24.
Topping this list every week after winning without conceding, there is obviously less and less new to say about this astounding Chelsea run. Yet the victory over Bournemouth, as serene as it was, was achieved without both their best striker (Diego Costa) and best central midfielder (N’Golo Kante). Such is the morale within Chelsea’s squad, one or two key absentees will not derail their title challenge. Only an injury crisis would do that.
Look at the back-up options at Conte’s disposal: Cesc Fabregas, Willian, Kurt Zouma, John Terry, Michy Batshuayi plus a host of young players. That’s without spending the proceeds of Oscar’s £52m move to China in January, as the manager will surely be given licence to do. Anyone predicting that this Chelsea steamroller will be pushed off course is either hopeful, brave or foolish.
While the merits and improvements of Pep Guardiola and Jose Mourinho are discussed following three and four straight league wins respectively, Conte has made both look meagre. The last manager to enjoy such success in his first six months in England was Mourinho himself, 12 years ago at Stamford Bridge.
Deployed as a central striker, Hazard had five shots, created four chances, completed 48 passes and still had the most touches of the ball in the match. That’s ludicrous for a player operating so high up the pitch, and a clear indication of Hazard’s buoyant mood. The boy is back, and then some.
In his last 40 league starts, David Luiz has conceded 17 goals; imagine how good he’d be if he wasn’t a clown.
A reminder that Stan ‘the man who speaks his mind’ Collymore called him ‘one of the worst central defenders in Premier League history’ as recently as September.
For those who watch football semi-constantly, our brains are trained by experience to expect certain actions. As a cross is played into the box, through ball played forward or pass played back to a central defender under pressure, we could almost close our eyes and predict exactly what will happen next: The header into the bottom corner, the dink over a goalkeeper, or the body opened up and side-footed finish that curls just inside the far post, the pass back to a waiting goalkeeper. We may not know it, but we regularly watch football in a state of part-inertia, 70% concentrating and 30% elsewhere. It is this familiarity that makes football so warming, so reassuring.
Every now and then, something catches you off your guard. A player does something so unexpected that we rub our eyes in cartoon character style and hungrily wait for the slow-motion replays. The rabona cross, the extraordinary skill on the touchline, the Henrikh Mkhitaryan volley; our concentration is immediately turned back up to 100%. If we need the familiarity, we need the climactic moments too. It is in the combination of those two that football’s attraction lies.
Mkhitaryan’s was a goal of magnificent quality, the type you see once or twice a season in your own league. The athleticism, invention and execution all had to be near-perfect to avoid him looking stupid, let alone scoring. It was Rene Higuita’s scorpion kick with bells on: A flatter cross, one-footed, in a competitive match. If there was any doubt that Mkhitaryan can be one of Europe’s best, deserving of a place ahead of Wayne Rooney, Jesse Lingard and even Juan Mata, there should be no more. The Armenian earns £100,000 less than Rooney, too.
“It was the best goal I’ve ever scored,” declared Mkhitaryan after the match, as if there could be any doubt. Skill is used best not as an affectation but an instinctive means of achievement, whether it be beating a defender, rounding a goalkeeper or improvising a volley. Mkhitaryan’s goal was that in excelsis.
You don’t need me waffling on about things Matt Stead has already discussed. It may have only been Sunderland, but there are signs that Manchester United might just be starting a run of form that could see them establish a place in the top four. Working out which team loses out to them is tricky, mind.
Seven goals and six assists in 1,117 league minutes this season. We got grief for including Lallana high up our list of best players of 2016, and Jamie Carragher got grief for calling him England’s best player on form. It is difficult for any reasonable neutral to argue with either opinion.
A goal! The dance! The smile!
And further proof that Liverpool now have competition for places in every position. A bench containing Sturridge, Emre Can and Lucas Leiva with Philippe Coutinho and Joel Matip not present suggests that Jurgen Klopp is missing very few pieces from his jigsaw.
As I wrote here, Liverpool’s attack is so vibrant that a goal looks more likely than not when they win possession and counter at speed. Combine that with the belief in the collective that is preached by manager Klopp and you have an incredibly powerful tool for success. The table doesn’t lie: Liverpool are Chelsea’s biggest threat. Beat Manchester City on New Year’s Eve, and supporters will truly believe that a change is coming.
Answering the call with the physical strength and aerial prowess that will always give Giroud a special place in Arsene Wenger’s heart. And a place in our early winner column, too.
West Ham’s manager may have spoken of “training hard” and “never stopping believing”, but there is nothing quite like playing Hull, Burnley and Swansea to get a team back on track. From the jaws of unemployment, Bilic is slowly clawing back the goodwill that evaporated during a rotten four months to start this season. Should Southampton lose to Tottenham on Wednesday evening, West Ham will be just two points from the top eight. Crisis? What crisis?
The quality of West Ham’s three most recent opponents must be taken into context, but so too must the performances of Bilic’s team. Fears of relegation peaked after the 5-1 home defeat to Arsenal, but the Hammers showed fight to draw 2-2 at Anfield and have not looked back since. They have had more shots on target in their last three matches than in their previous seven combined.
While Swansea and Crystal Palace’s players evidently lost faith in Bob Bradley and Alan Pardew respectively, that wasn’t the case at West Ham. Mark Noble stressed again this week that Bilic was the man to lead the club forward even in lean times. When Bilic cancelled Christmas parties and brought the players in for extra training, the response was positive. They still believe.
Bilic still has much to do to arrest the decline following last season’s progress, but has at least earned the opportunity to try. With a crippling injury crisis finally showing signs of easing, there are green shoots of optimism among the cheeriest of West Ham supporters.
Burnley (at home)
The only Premier League teams to have taken more points per game at home this season are Arsenal, Chelsea, Tottenham, Liverpool and Manchester City. So far, 95% of Burnley’s league points this season have come at Turf Moor.
The beneficiary of Ilkay Gundogan’s injury setback. Toure had 23 more touches of the ball than any other teammate against Hull, made 28 more passes, created two chances and was trusted with penalty duties. Toure is no longer a key cog in the Manchester City machine, but remains a useful option when required.
Rumours of unrest among several Everton players at Koeman’s methods, but points are the most effective way of silencing dissent. For all the justified criticism from supporters, an Everton squad low on depth is still the closest challenger to the top six. End the season in that position, and Koeman’s 2016/17 can hardly be labelled as a failure.
Bullied Wes Morgan, made Marcin Wasilewski look stupid and Kasper Schmeichel look helpless. Seventy Premier League goals up for Lukaku; 134 starts.
A point earned away from home (and it should have been three) for only the second time since September, and an argument with an allegedly disrespectful mascot. Big Sam is back, guys.
You could argue that 11 games is insufficient time for a manager to implement their plans. You could argue that Swansea’s defence (having lost Ashley Williams) is Championship standard. You could argue that the media furore (which the manager chose to address) over his nationality and accent was a strong strand of football snobbery bordering on xenophobia. You could argue that this was a sitting duck appointment.
All of those arguments have merit. That there was even a discussion in some quarters about whether an American manager can truly ‘get’ English football only highlights the resistance to difference that threatens to hold back the development of our game. That Jamie Fulton, Modou Barrow, Stephen Kingsley and Mike van der Hoorn have shared 34 league starts this season indicates that Swansea’s squad is simply not up to Premier League standards. We’ve said it before, but there needs to be some sort of freedom mission to extricate Gylfi Sigurdsson from South Wales. Bob Bradley was dealt a hand of twos, threes and fours and asked to come up with royal flush.
Yet let’s not pretend that the American was blameless. Swansea conceded three or more goals in eight of his 11 league games, and the players never warmed to his methods. If that raises an accusation against them, it says plenty about the manager too. He was guilty of naivety in believing that Swansea could attack the opposition and be successful, rather than focusing on clean sheets and defensive solidity. Bradley’s replacement should not make the same mistakes, and will have January to bolster their options.
“I knew exactly what I was getting into when I came to Swansea and realised the hardest part was always going to be getting points in the short run,” Bradley said after his sacking. “But I believe in myself and I believe in going for it. That’s what I’ve always told my players. Football can be cruel and to have a chance you have to be strong. I wish Swansea the best and look forward to my next challenge.”
In glorious hindsight, Bradley was the right appointment at the wrong time. Given the chance to build a squad, and afforded transfer windows to do so, he could still be successful in England. Given a squad that needed an instant fix, he was helpless. Both club and manager will feel the lasting effects of that mistake.
The worry is that so too may Bradley’s countrymen, battling to be taken seriously by a footballing culture that struggles with open-mindedness. We can only hope that the failure of one does not tar all others, but the reality may be very different indeed.
The noises of discontent from sections of Stoke’s support (both at Anfield and on social media) suggests that Mark Hughes might just have a problem. In their 37 league matches in 2016, Stoke have taken only 43 points. That’s an extended run of poor form, not a blip. The only other ever-present team to score fewer goals this year is Watford, and the only other ever-present team to concede more is Crystal Palace. Add Sunderland and Swansea and you have the list of four clubs to have taken fewer points. Hughes will be well aware that all four have changed their manager.
Hughes has managed the impressive feat of spending money in attack and defence, while making both worse. He has added competition for places, and yet increased the mood of complacency that festers when a club is unlikely to be relegated and less likely still to break into the top six.
The raw statistics do not look good: Hughes took over a club that finished 13th, has spent over £80m on new players, added £20m to the wage bill and Stoke are currently 13th. The three consecutive ninth-place finishes should be viewed as success stories, but some supporters believe that Hughes has taken this club as far as he can.
It is Stoke’s defensive issues that are causing the most dismay. Against Liverpool, three of the four conceded goals were caused by individual error, and that is becoming a regular theme. Stoke have conceded four or more times in four league games this season, the highest in the division. That is unacceptable for a squad containing competent defenders, and points to systematic or tactical issues. From 3.74 shots on target faced per game in Hughes’ first season, that total has increased each year to an average of 4.89 this season.
That would be fine were Stoke’s attack firing, but the opposite is true. Joe Allen has been afforded a free role further up the pitch and is flourishing, but the team as a whole is not. Twenty goals in 18 games is not an effective enough return for a team who are leaving themselves open defensively.
Hughes endured a nightmare start to the season, but appeared to have overcome those problems. Their recent backwards slump offers evidence that he still has plenty to do to ensure that his Stoke tenure does not peter out as it did for his predecessor Tony Pulis.
A brave call to send Mahrez a pointed message, but one which backfired. Demarai Gray failed to create a single chance, and Leicester lost their ninth league game of the season. That’s three times as many as in the whole of 2015/16.
Yet while the form of Mahrez and Jamie Vardy will be troubling Ranieri, it is the defence that is causing this alarming decline. Romelu Lukaku’s late goal made it seven times in eight games that Leicester have conceded twice or more. The resilient back five is now creaking and splitting, unprotected after the departure of the magnificent N’Golo Kante. Leicester ranked first and second for interceptions and tackles respectively last season; they’re currently 11th and 13th.
Leicester now face Middlesbrough and West Ham before taking on Chelsea, two teams within one and five points of Ranieri’s side. The Italian desperately needs at least one win; fail to achieve that and the talk of relegation will only grow. All four teams below Leicester have changed their manager since August.
Our early loser, left on the bench with his attitude questioned as his team toiled once more. In five years, that summer promise to give Leicester one more season may be the greatest regret of Mahrez’s career.
The advice to promoted clubs is to invest in defence rather than attack, but Middlesbrough’s lack of goals must be worrying Aitor Karanka. Playing Adama Traore against teams like Burnley might be a start.
Middlesbrough have scored more than once in four of their 18 league games, and are averaging only 2.61 shots on target per game this season. That’s the lowest in the Premier League.
Bought for £30m, and doesn’t even play when Diego Costa is suspended. Batshuayi is now waiting for a collection of injuries just to get on the pitch. He hasn’t played more than 19 minutes in any league game this season.
No shame in losing to Manchester City, but you do wonder whether Hull’s board are having Bob Bradley-style thoughts over Mike Phelan. Since being appointed on a permanent basis, Phelan has taken five points from a possible 33. Bradley got 11 matches, so how many before Hull lose that lovin’ Phelan?
Marks gained for trying to find a way to curb Chelsea’s enthusiasm. Marks lost for the back three causing disorganisation and ultimately defeat.
He cost £18.3m. I still don’t think I’ve seen him have a good game.