Paul Clement’s persona does not scream ‘passion’, so it was both surprising and enjoyable to see him hare around the Liberty Stadium pitch after Swansea’s late, late victory over Burnley. The home fans responded in kind, cheering their manager’s every step.
Do not underestimate the Clement revolution in south Wales. Swansea were bottom of the Premier League with 12 points from 19 matches, four points from safety and careering down the mountain side towards their doom when he took over. Since his arrival, Tottenham are the only Premier League team to have taken more points, and the only league games Clement has failed to win were against Arsenal, Manchester City and Chelsea. Swansea have now lost only one fewer league game than Southampton and Stoke, and are five points ahead of Middlesbrough in 18th. Clement is keen to stress that Swansea’s escape mission is not yet complete, but seven more points from their last 11 matches should suffice.
There is no great secret to Clement’s transformation of Swansea. Sources inside the club reveal that scouting reports on upcoming opposition have significantly increased in detail, with the club’s data scientist Alex Thomas saying that the pre-match report has lengthened from five to 30 pages. If you don’t have great players, you have to have great preparation.
Clement has also preached continuity with his team selection, one of the key issues under Francesco Guidolin, but it is the physical demands of Swansea’s players that have changed most. In the seven matches for which he has prepared the team (since Arsenal at home) Swansea have covered an average of 114.9km. In their seven previous games, Swansea’s average distance covered was 109.7km.
In an attacking sense, Clement has not reinvented the wheel. Swansea are actually creating fewer chances, taking fewer shots, having slightly fewer shots on target and attempting fewer crosses than before. Yet defensively, they have clearly improved. Swansea are allowing more than three fewer shots per game, and the shots on targets faced per game has dropped from 5.21 to 3.88. Having made ten individual errors leading to shots in their first 19 games of the season, they have made just two in eight games under Clement.
One word is repeated every time a Swansea player is now interviewed: Belief. Players now have the confidence to express themselves, and with Gylfi Sigurdsson and Fernando Llorente they have two of the finest teammates in the bottom half. For Clement, proof after Derby County that the supporting actor can make the step up to the leading role.
A victory that caused more late panic than the overall performance merited, but an important one all the same. Tottenham have now won nine consecutive home league games for the first time in the Premier League era. They still, just, have Chelsea in their reach, which is more than can be said for Liverpool, Arsenal and Manchester United.
You really do have to remind and re-remind yourself of Tottenham’s progress to avoid taking it for granted and thus making Mauricio Pochettino a victim of his own success. This is a club whose wage bill is close to £100m less than Manchester United’s and Manchester City’s, with a small squad insufficiently improved upon last summer and comfortably the youngest group of players in the division.
Two years ago today, Tottenham were seventh in the Premier League, two points behind Southampton and 16 behind Chelsea in first place. They had already dropped 18 points at White Hart Lane and had an overall goal difference of +6. Keep pinching yourself as you look at the current Premier League table, Spurs fans.
No squad or manager in the Premier League is perfect, and the flaws in Tottenham’s strength in depth bear repeating. But any negativity should be swept away in a wave of positivity. Six of the outfield players used against Everton are aged 23 or younger. When Pochettino’s side attack with the pomp seen in their last two league games, they are a joy to watch.
The in-form player in the division. Kane really can boast some ridiculous statistics.
“Suddenly he wants to be a manager. It doesn’t sit that comfortably with me,” said Martin Keown this week. “If you’re assistant manager to Ranieri and he’s walked, why is it you suddenly want to be the manager? You have personal ambition, but I think it’s almost out of order that he wants to jump in for that job.”
It’s an opinion, I suppose. Yet I would ask Keown to walk the streets of Leicester on Monday morning and ask a sample of Leicester City supporters whether they believe Shakespeare to be “out of order”.
It really is an odd stance to take. After the departure of Claudio Ranieri, Shakespeare was asked to take the team on a caretaker basis, something that happens regularly across the country. When subsequently asked after a fine start in charge if he would like the job on a permanent basis, why shouldn’t he say yes? Or must assistant managers know their place?
What is true is that Shakespeare is at least partly responsible for inspiring a response from Leicester’s players. If the job of a manager is to motivate his players to perform better, Shakespeare now needs no interview. He can point at Riyad Mahrez, Jamie Vardy, Marc Albrighton, Shinji Okazaki, Christian Fuchs, Danny Simpson and more too; each are resurgent.
The assumption (me included) was that Leicester would find Hull City a more difficult opponent than Liverpool due to the weight of expectation after that victory. Another 3-1 win not only makes Leicester’s decision to make a managerial change the right one, but also takes Leicester even further away from danger. As with Swansea, seven more points should do it.
Liverpool and Jurgen Klopp
‘The question for Klopp is where the change comes, but the suspicion is that Liverpool are more likely to get worse against the best teams than better against the rest. That really would be a cause for concern. Beating Arsenal would not only buy him more patience from those beginning to feel uneasy, but prove that Liverpool can match up to the best in the league while climbing back into the top four. Roberto Firmino scoring would be nice, too’ – Big Weekend, Friday.
Question answered, suspicion disproved and Firmino scoring. You can read far more on Liverpool here, but this was another stirring victory for Klopp. As the manager said after the game, he is enjoying the rollercoaster but the focus must be on the longer term.
Not Liverpool’s most talented player, but on this form their most important and certainly their hardest-working. If Jurgen Klopp’s team flourish in the biggest matches, Lallana is the personification of that rule.
Our early winner. That’s what he can do, and what many clubs this summer may try and take a gamble on him doing regularly again next season.
Actual words: “And the lads deserve to enjoy what they have done here.”
Rough translation: “The lads are enjoying what I have done here.”
You could not blame Allardyce for his broad smile as he looked back at Palace’s last two victories. His players have finally bought into his physical demands, and are reaping the rewards.
On Saturday, Palace allowed West Brom only one shot on target. That’s something they have not managed in any league game since October 2015 and any away league game since the start of 2014/15.
A three-point gap to Middlesbrough in 18th means that nothing is certain, but Palace are finally moving the right way. I’ll freely admit to doubting whether their manager had lost his touch.
More league clean sheets in the space of seven days at Crystal Palace than in his last 11 months at Liverpool. I’ve always had a soft spot for Sakho, a defender whose style undermines his ability. Now with his head down and given a fresh start, he has been superb.
Four straight league wins and the concession of only one goal. Beat Stoke on Wednesday and Guardiola will head into a Premier League break with his side in second and nine points ahead of his old foe. Those championing Jose Mourinho while questioning Guardiola might have picked the wrong corner.
He’ll keep beating his man, creating chances and a scoring goals while people accuse him of having no end product. Crystal Palace supporters couldn’t give a stuff; they love him.
24 – Most Premier League goals before turning 24.
Owen – 110
Fowler – 106
Rooney – 86
Lukaku – 78
Ronaldo – 77
— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) March 5, 2017
Plus the 33 he scored at Anderlecht, of course.
The type of result that can change the course of a season, just as the lead slipping against Arsenal seemed to do. Howe can take great pride and hope from the resilience demonstrated during the second half at Old Trafford.
Maybe he will just score every game between now and the inevitable apocalypse? If so, decent signing.
“He is a big guy with lots of power, and he should do it more often in fairness – get in those situations and create probably more chances and score more goals,” said Mark Hughes of Arnautovic after Stoke’s 2-0 win over Middlesbrough.
Hughes might well have a point, but he can hardly be disappointed by Arnautovic’s return. He ranks second for goals at Stoke, first for assists, first for chances created, second for shots on target and first for successful dribbles.
After Harry Kane, the highest-scoring English striker in the country not aged 34 or over. If Andy Carroll isn’t fit, is there any reason why Deeney shouldn’t be hopeful of an England call-up later this month?
Jose Mourinho, Manchester United and those draws
1-1 vs Stoke
0-0 vs Burnley
1-1 vs West Ham
0-0 vs Hull
1-1 vs Bournemouth
There is no secret to Manchester United’s struggles to break into the top four, what should have been the minimum achievement for Jose Mourinho’s first season in charge. In a Premier League table based only on home results, United sit ninth. They are comfortably behind every other club in the top six, with Everton, Burnley and West Brom thrown in for good measure.
Drawing once against a bottom-half side could be blamed on misfortune, refereeing incompetence or inspired goalkeeping, but to draw twice hints at carelessness. Drawing five times creates an Achilles’ heel that may well put paid to United’s ambitions. Fail to win the Europa League and United could be without Champions League football for consecutive seasons for the first time since 1993.
The worst thing about those five draws comes in the away records of those who have left Old Trafford with a result. In a table based on away games, West Ham are 8th, Stoke 12th, Bournemouth 16th, Hull 18th and Burnley 20th.
Manchester United’s success under Alex Ferguson was founded on blowing away poor teams at Old Trafford; Mourinho’s United has barely mustered a breeze. Fail to address the issue, and meaningful league progress will continue to be crippled. Unbeaten runs tell only half of the story.
Manchester United’s profligacy in those draws
Q: What do the following four teams all have in common: Swansea, Leicester, Watford and Bournemouth?
A: They have all scored more home league goals than Manchester United this season.
In those five aforementioned matches (1-1 vs Stoke, 0-0 vs Burnley, 1-1 vs West Ham, 0-0 vs Hull, 1-1 vs Bournemouth), Manchester United had 115 shots, created 95 chances and had 219 touches of the ball in the opposition box. They scored just three times.
Against Bournemouth, United were rushed with panic. Given 45 minutes to score against a team with ten men and defending for their lives, Mourinho’s side played every minute as if it were the last. Crosses were taken too early, shots were attempted from long range and chances were snatched at. From a team with United’s quality overseen by a manager with such experience, you would expect much, much better. Only winning every other home game this season would begin to offset the disappointment in their profligacy.
Arsene Wenger and Alexis Sanchez
Sanchez was in the wrong when storming out of Arsenal training early. No player is bigger than the club, and there is a suspicion that the Chilean is using Wenger’s own perilous situation to improve his own lot.
Yet it’s easy to understand why Sanchez might be a little p*ssed off. He has scored 33% of Arsenal’s league goals and assisted a further 25%. He has created 21% of all their chances this season and taken 27% of their shots on target. If Zlatan Ibrahimovic is the individual most crucial to his team’s success, Sanchez is at least challenging him for that title.
Sanchez has given Arsenal and Wenger almost three years, three years to prove that progress is not just probable but even possible. What does Wenger have to show for those three years? What evidence can be used to show Sanchez that promises have been kept and ambitions realised? Nothing.
Sanchez should not have reacted as he did, but this is an anger and frustration that has been building for some time. The Chilean looks back and sees Francis Coquelin. He looks across and sees Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. He looks abroad and sees clubs with realistic ambitions of league title wins and Champions League challenges that would love to have him.
If Wenger was trying to punish Sanchez, even that backfired. All we saw was a team who improved markedly after the introduction of its best player, and a team whose lethargy jars against Sanchez’s own style.
You’re not going to believe this, but Arsenal went away to one of the stronger teams in the league and produced a poor performance in defeat. I was as shocked as you are.
For much more on Arsenal and Wenger, go read 16 Conclusions and meet me back here.
On Saturday, Middlesbrough’s away support truly turned against Karanka. There were chants against his continued employment at regular intervals during the second half as ‘Boro again failed to score away from home. They are a team sleepwalking towards the drop.
So what was Karanka’s response to another dismal attacking display? Blame the players, of course.
“I thought if we played in the same shape that we could be better,” Karanka said. “But with the attitude of some players in the first half we couldn’t. Every single player has to play 150 per cent and when someone isn’t the team is not strong enough. Something has to change.”
If a manager needs every player to play at “150 per cent” just to avoid losing 2-0 at Stoke, he’s probably right that a change is needed. Time to pack up your desk, fella.
Whether you blame the ‘snakes’ in the Leicester squad or take a more rounded view of Ranieri’s sacking, you cannot deny that Leicester’s improvement since the manager left justifies his sacking. Anyone believe that Ranieri would have inspired these last two performances is deluding themselves.
They needed calm in the final 20 minutes. They got Paul Pogba. He got the tag they all want to avoid: Early loser.
No shame in losing to Manchester City, but Sunderland have now lost three games without scoring since the victory at Crystal Palace. After a weekend during which the three teams directly above the relegation zone all won, relegation has never looked closer. David Moyes has lost 67% of his league games in charge.
Lost at home to his former club, and was subject to regular reminders of the money he still owes Crystal Palace. The sound of the Pulis on Saturday afternoon was an unsatisfied grunt.
On the beach in February? There’s nothing quite like a bit of winter sun.
There’s also nothing so damning for the standard of the Premier League’s bottom half that Watford sit above seven other teams. Deeney aside, it’s a bit of a mess.
Everton away from home
Everton have the eighth best away record in the Premier League, only slightly below their actual position, yet that is a slightly false statistic. Ronald Koeman’s side have won just once at a club in the current top 14 this season, West Brom. They still have to go to Liverpool, Arsenal and Manchester United.
A tremendous servant to both Everton and the Premier League, but watching Barry try and marshal Dele Alli and Christian Eriksen was like watching a grandfather monitor three-year-old triplets. Only when James McCarthy was introduced in his stead did Everton’s midfield gain a foothold in the game.