The winners list this season has been dominated by top-six clubs, but Pulis deservedly takes his place on top of the pile for the first time. Nobody is boinging with quite so much bounce as a West Brom supporter wholly enjoying their team’s new identity.
This website has repeatedly asked whether Pulis has the versatility required for anything other than firefighting, and repeatedly offered its own answer. We doubted whether the Welshman was anything other than a short-term fixer, similar to Sam Allardyce but even more limited. Yet Pulis deserves immense praise for making those doubts look foolish. Not because his team have taken 29 points from their 20 league matches, which is only just above par, but because Pulis has at least partly shunned his safety-first approach and embraced fun.
Last season, only Aston Villa had fewer shots than West Brom and no team had fewer shots on target. The wretched Villa did score seven fewer goals than Pulis’ side, but watching West Brom became an endurance test. Their 38 matches contained 82 goals, the lowest in the league, but it was the travelling Baggies you felt most sympathy for. West Brom’s 19 away games contained only 36 goals, and the last six months of 2015/16 brought one away win. Across the entire season, West Brom had an average of 2.37 shots on target per away game.
A leopard is slowly changing its spots. The shots on target away from home may have only increased from 2.37 to 2.8, but at the Hawthorns Pulis has taken off the handbrake. Only the current top five have scored more goals per game than West Brom. In their last 15 league games, West Brom have scored three or more goals on five occasions. That’s as many as in their previous 96 matches, a run stretching back to January 2014.
Statistics can be misleading, and Pulis is hardly in charge of an all-dribbling, all-shooting attacking powerhouse. West Brom’s 19 home goals have come from only 86 non-blocked shots, easily the most efficient in the division, while they still rank 15th in the league for chances created in open play.
Still, supporters appreciate the effort. This is no longer a one-dimensional team, and its manager is no longer likely to walk or be pushed. Conceding the opening goal to Hull City does not result in boos and mutiny, but a second-half comeback. Slowly but surely, Pulis is altering the preconceptions of his style. That’s not a sentence I ever thought I’d write.
Manchester United and their response to setback
Comeback victories, late winners and opposition supporters crying foul about supposed bias from referees; you can see why this current run of Manchester United form offers a reminder of Alex Ferguson’s teams of seasons past. All we need now is for Mourinho’s son to become a middling Football League manager and we have the whole set. Shame Jose Mourinho Jr. is only 16 years old.
Aside from the easy comparisons, the victory over Middlesbrough was significant for United. Look at the previous occasions they had conceded the first goal of the game in a run stretching back to September 2015: West Ham (h), Watford (a), Manchester City (h), West Ham (a), Tottenham (a), West Brom (a), Sunderland (a), Southampton (h), Stoke (a), Norwich (h), Bournemouth (a), Leicester (a), Arsenal (a). In those 13 games during which United had fallen behind, they took just two points. That is a pitiful response to setback.
Middlesbrough was different. United’s response to conceding was not to fall apart, but stick together. When Anthony Martial scored the equaliser, Paul Pogba’s winner was only moments away. We learned more about the mental strength of Mourinho’s United in that 25 minutes than in 270 against West Brom, Sunderland and West Ham.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic and a superhuman level of fitness
Ibrahimovic has scored or assisted 16 goals in 19 Premier League games, and yet that’s still not the most impressive statistic.
Ibrahimovic has scored 35 league goals in 35 league games, and yet that’s still not the most impressive statistic.
Ibrahimovic scored more goals than any other player in all competitions in 2016 bar Lionel Messi, and yet that’s still not the most impressive statistic.
Ibrahimovic is 35 years old, and played 61 matches in 2016. No Manchester United player has played more minutes this season, including all 270 over the Christmas period. So has Ibrahimovic tired in the latter stages of games? Oh no – four of his last six goals have come in the last 15 minutes of matches. That is the most impressive statistic. The man is a machine.
59 – Harry Kane has now scored 59 goals in 100 Premier League games, the same number as Thierry Henry had at this stage. Updated.
— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) January 1, 2017
You’d take that.
Sixteen goals and ten assists in his first 50 Premier League games, and then two more goals in his 51st. When Alli is in form, Tottenham tend to tick.
The game-changer against West Ham, and thus our early winner. A great start to 2017.
If it sounds generous to make Chelsea winners just for beating Stoke, think on. A top-four table over the last week sees Liverpool and Arsenal on four points and Manchester City level with Chelsea on three. That makes Chelsea’s game in hand at White Hart Lane closer to a freebie than Antonio Conte could ever have believed, and an eight-point lead going into the FA Cup break a distinct possibility.
Christmas is a good time for miracles to occur, but you can shush with your talk of virgin births and full inns; Olly Giroud has an upgrade on your stories.
On Christmas morning, Giroud opened his presents as the highest-profile member of an unfortunate group, Premier League players still waiting for their first start of the season. By January 4, he had three starts, three goals and had scored possibly the best goal of the season.
And then he went and spoilt it all by doing something stupid like a planned celebration.
Baby steps, but four points from two games against bottom-half peers eases the talk of relegation. The freeform counter-attacking of 2015/16 may have been traded in for a mix of backs-to-the-wall defending, crosses into the box and a dose of good fortune, but needs must. Claudio Ranieri will be confident that the rot has been stopped.
Paul Clement and the new band of punditry
It took minutes rather than hours for the usual band of B-list pundits to write off Clement and Swansea, indicative of the new rule banning reserved judgement in favour of instant, punchy, unevidenced opinion. On BBC radio, Steve Claridge was angry that Clement had been given the job after a ‘farcical’ job at Derby County, while Stan Collymore wrote his thoughts in the Daily Mirror:
‘Paul Clement is a good coach and exactly the kind of man you’d want to come in and do the day-to-day coaching at your club. But for Swansea to hire him as their manager is a mistake. This is a completely different code of football – the bottom six of the Premier League. And he won’t have to dig into his coaching manual or what he learned taking his Pro Licence. He won’t have to recall the ideas he put forward of how Real Madrid should get the better of Barcelona, or Bayern Munich beat Borussia Dortmund. He will have to show what he knows about the dark arts, set-pieces and grinding out results.’
It is exceptional work from Collymore to sell coaching manuals and Pro Licence as a negative, the ‘don’t trust experts’ guff that has been festering across the world over the last year. It is exceptional too that Collymore believes that managing Swansea means that Clement can take nothing from his past experiences. They are not playing a different sport, for goodness sake. The personnel and ambitions may be different, but the principles remain the same.
There is no guarantee that Clement will succeed, of course; his task is incredibly difficult. Yet it was impossible not to smile as Swansea’s manager celebrated his side’s late winner at Selhurst Park, and think of Collymore and Claridge. Rather than writing somebody off, in public, using questionable logic, in order to gain notoriety, why not just wait and see? Or are people really that tired of insight?
Koeman has come in for plenty of stick this season, mostly from Everton supporters, but can make the quite reasonable point that he is not a miracle worker and never promised a quick fix to the problems that have haunted Everton for three seasons. The club’s wage bill is approximately £7m higher than Stoke’s and £15m higher than Sunderland’s.
The Everton team that beat Koeman’s former club 3-0 contained only two new signings (and one of those a replacement for a £47m centre-back), a back-up goalkeeper and two teenagers. While they sit in seventh, you really can’t grumble too loudly.
Taking penalties sure can help to massage a goalscorer’s statistics. Take away the spot-kicks, and Defoe only has the same number of goals as Fernando Llorente in 700 extra minutes.
Still, they need to be scored and there’s nobody in the Premier League who you’d back more right now. The list of players with more goals than Defoe this season consists of only three names, and Defoe has had just 32 shots. By way of comparison, Ibrahimovic’s two extra goals have come from 29 extra attempts.
As Sarah Winterburn wrote here, only Kevin de Bruyne has more Premier League assists this season. For a player who cost £5m, that’s exceptional.
If Gylfi Sigurdsson is the honourable Swansea exception, Snodgrass wins the same award at Hull City. The statistics are ludicrous: Snodgrass has scored 41% of Hull’s goals, created 28% of their chances and had 24% of their shots on target, yet four players have played more minutes for the club. His back must be aching from carrying the rest of the team.
The sixth league hat-trick of Gray’s professional career. To demonstrate his rise through non-league football, the previous five came against Solihull Moors, Hyde United, Nuneaton Borough, Hereford United and Bristol City.
Liverpool and margins for error
Only in 2016/17 could drawing away from home and beating Manchester City over two games be considered a backward step. This piece details the rise of the top six from last year to this, but the frustration over Liverpool’s dropped points at Sunderland is a more practical representation. From a title bid boosted to a top-four challenge dented in the space of three days.
The away form of the current top four is nothing short of sensational. In 2010/11, Manchester United won the title while taking 25 points from their 19 away fixtures, an average of 1.32 points per away game. In 2016/17, four of the top six has already reached 20 away points. The lowest points per away game in the top six is Tottenham, with 1.6 points.
The standards are impossibly high, and thus the margin frighteningly low. A foolish Ragnar Klavan challenge here and a Sadio Mane handball there, and a huge shift in a season. A fortunate red card to an opposition player here and an offside goal there, another huge shift. Every decision, mistake and moment of brilliance is worth more than ever before.
Our early loser, for moaning about an unfair fixture schedule and fatigue, to then make only one change and be surprised when his team underperformed. As the previous section details, on such mistakes seasons can change.
One of the points made about Arsene Wenger in my Portrait of an Icon piece is that divisiveness is the inevitable result of long-term familiarity. Familiarity breeds both contempt and contentment, but both camps’ views only become more entrenched. It makes writing about Arsenal difficult, or at least difficult if you want to avoid being called a c*** by lovely people on the internet.
Yet I cannot see how any supporter, Arsenal or otherwise, could read Sarah Winterburn’s piece from Tuesday evening and reasonably disagree. For Wenger to praise Arsenal’s mental strength after falling three goals down to Bournemouth rather ignores the elephant in the room, stood in the corner talking about a defensive sh*tshow. To repeat Sarah’s final, excellent line: ‘What message does it send? That once again Arsenal are celebrating being not quite good enough, and that may no longer be enough for some.’
Sam Allardyce and Crystal Palace
“We don’t have a lot of time to change things,” said Yohan Cabaye on Monday. “We have tried to work on the ideas of the new coach who is trying to give us back our confidence but the matches are coming thick and fast. We need a win, and nothing else, against Swansea. Because, if not, it is going to be complicated.”
So, complicated then. There is no cause for widespread panic about Allardyce just yet, you understand. This is the manager who took nine points from his first 11 league games at Sunderland before achieving relegation survival to much adoration, the escapologist breaking out of chains he helped to padlock. Crystal Palace’s players, just like those before them, will take time to take on board Allardyce’s demands and style.
Yet do not be in doubt about just how bad Tuesday evening was: A home defeat to relegation rival; three shots on target against a team that had allowed 29 in their previous four away games; your best striker taken off with suspected shoulder ligament damage; neither of your two wingers creating a chance; Cabaye involved in a row with supporters after the final whistle.
“It was a blatant penalty on Christian Benteke, outrageous that it wasn’t given,” said Allardyce after the game. “What went wrong? Not enough recovery time, no doubt about that. The energy of the players just couldn’t get us in the faces of Swansea. I was baffled with our first-half display, we were lumping the ball to Christian Benteke and who told them to do that?” Three excuses in one paragraph; it’s like Alan Pardew never left.
How to take the shine off a battling home victory in several awkward interview answers. If there was any doubt that this is the toughest assignment of Guardiola’s managerial career, here was emphatic proof. Prickliness gives away the game.
Guardiola does not merit widespread censure for his grumpiness. He is not the first manager to give petulant answers with emotions still running high and will not be the last. You may remember certain successful Premier League managers who refused to speak to media outlets. Nor does the media or interviewer need your sympathy; that it became so widely discussed shows that it was a successful interview.
Yet Guardiola’s curtness revealed plenty about the pressure he is feeling. Manchester City might be three points ahead of last season’s points total, but they haven’t been so far from the top at the half-way stage of a season since 2008/09. The manager’s insinuation that referees, pundits and the wider world are against him holds little to no resonance.
He’s been pretty crap for about six months now, hasn’t he?
Two fixtures that act as a barometer for where Southampton sit in the Premier League’s middle pack, a pack that really only contains only four established clubs: them, Everton, West Brom and Stoke. Two defeats from those two fixtures is enough to dampen the mood, and increase the feeling that the two League Cup semi-final ties against Liverpool are Southampton’s only big games in the next five months.
One team always gets dragged into the mire, and Watford are raising their hands and asking to be picked. I’ve seen (I haven’t really) groups of small kittens defend a goal with more organisation and resolve than Walter Mazzarri’s side against Tottenham, as the home support entered the dangerous ‘dark humour’ stage of your side being dreadful.
Watford’s next seven home league games – between now and April 29 – are against Middlesbrough, Burnley, West Ham, Sunderland, Southampton, West Brom and Swansea. Their Premier League survival could depend on them winning three of those. It should be easy.
Hull City’s owners deserve all the anger in the world for their abject treatment of the club’s supporters, but save your sympathy for them, not the departing manager. Believing Phelan was harshly sacked centres on a simple question: Is there anyone currently unemployed who could do a better job? If Hull can tempt Gary Rowett, their decision will be emphatically vindicated.
The only way of compounding the error of a poor managerial appointment is to give said manager too much time to prove you right. Was Mike Phelan good enough? Probably not. Was he achieving the necessary results? No. Could anyone else do better? Probably, yes. Decision made.
There is no doubt that Mike Dean’s demeanour invites criticism. Some people are flamboyant by nature and others are flamboyant for effect, and Dean falls into the second camp. The no-look yellow cards, the deliberate self-nutmegs and extravagant pointing may just be learned behaviour by now, but it is attention-grabbing in the simplest sense: Dean grabs attention.
At their best, referees are like smoke alarms, constantly working but rarely noticed, required at all times and vital at moments of crisis. Deliberately or otherwise, Dean subverts that principle. It’s exactly why we have our ‘Where is Mike Dean’ section in Big Weekend; everything he does is news.
— MailOnline Sport (@MailSport) January 4, 2017
It’s an established truth that those who attract attention leave themselves open to stronger criticism than shrinking violets. So when Dean makes a controversial decision such as the one to send off Sofiane Feghouli, people pile on. On Sky Sports, Gary Neville, Alan Smith and Niall Quinn each offered different levels of censure. Some of it was professional, some personal.
That said, some of the subsequent criticism Dean has received has been unacceptable. Accusations of bias are stupidly misplaced, and calls to ban him as a referee ludicrous. As ever, it is a result of a culture in which outraged is the default.
Referees have an incredibly difficult job. The best they can be is unnoticed and the best they can hope for is to have both sets of supporters hating them in equal amounts. Add in the task of controlling those who earn far more money and often treat you like sh*t, and difficult job becomes thankless task. Criticise incompetence if you want, but at least acknowledge that players and managers make just as many mistakes for far more money and far more praise.