Spurred on by Sunderland’s surprise helping hand, and awoken by their own determination and desire to get themselves out of danger. There’s nothing better than playing a team coasting towards their summer break, but this was a resurgent Swansea whatever the opposition.
Paul Clement’s side are now in control of their own destiny. Supporters cheered as news of Hull’s defeat filtered through, but saved their most vocal joy for Fernando Llorente’s opening goal and Martin Atkinson’s final whistle. That followed a period of Everton pressure that caused pessimistic minds to remember Tottenham’s comeback on this ground a month ago. Yet Swansea did not buckle, Clement did not cover his face with his hands and Everton did not destroy Saturday morning’s unlikely ambition to be out of the bottom three by nightfall. Ynghyd cryfach.
Throughout this season, it has usually been one or both of Llorente and Gylfi Sigurdsson who have kept Swansea’s heads above water, but Saturday was different. Alfie Mawson and Federico Fernandez were exceptional in central defence, while Leon Britton produced one of his finest individual displays of the season. The veteran was snapping in the tackle and confident in possession, the example set for others to follow.
No fight has yet been won, but Swansea have given themselves a sporting chance. Victory over Stoke was followed by draw against Manchester United and then win against Everton. Perform like this against Sunderland and West Brom, and Swansea will surely get the points they need to survive.
Hardly a significant victory for Arsenal, given that they are still outsiders for a place in next season’s Champions League, but a symbolic win for Wenger. After years of trying, he finally has the better of Jose Mourinho in a Premier League game.
A victory too for a switch in formation than has now brought success over Pep Guardiola and Mourinho in two different competitions. Manchester United’s manager may have pre-planned his excuse in case of defeat, but Wenger was all to aware that an Arsenal loss would have caused another explosion of demonstrative disillusionment. That’s management speak for ‘Wenger Out’.
For a change, Arsenal dealt with the pressure. Aaron Ramsey was effective in central midfield, Rob Holding responded well after his first-half mistake, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain coped with Anthony Martial when he drifted wide and Danny Welbeck scored against his old club again. Even Mesut Ozil managed to temporarily silence the accusations of fraudulence. More important than the result was the sense that this was a team performance rather than one sealed purely through the brilliance of Alexis Sanchez.
“You play Man United in another big game and we could not afford to lose and we responded,” Wenger said after the match. It is easy to talk up the importance of achieved victory in hindsight, but Wenger is right. His subsequent suggestion that the Tottenham defeat was a “blip” is laughably optimistic, but that should not detract from Arsenal finally producing a big-game performance and result in combination. It was long overdue.
It is not easy managing West Ham. Amongst other things, you have to deal with badly managed stadium moves, best players being promised a certain level of investment by the owners, best players then wanting out when those promises are broken, the son of one owner talking about potential signings on social media, the club making paltry offers for unrealistic transfer targets and ending up with Simone Zaza, and media leaks about your future in the week before a massive game. And breathe.
On Thursday, the media was presumably briefed on the story that Bilic could lose his job if West Ham didn’t perform in their final two home games of the season. The shambolic management at the top of the club truly knows no bounds. Amid that pressure, Bilic inspired the best performance of the season from West Ham and the finest night at the London Stadium since the 2012 Olympics. Supporters will be wary of false dawns, for they have grown used to goodwill quickly dissipating, but finally West Ham rose to an occasion rather than shying away from it.
If the reports of ultimatum were accurate, Friday could also have been the night on which Bilic’s employment beyond the summer was secured. For all the doubts about his ability to organise a defence and tendency to pick players out of position, the Croatian has surely earned the opportunity to oversee a more balanced squad next season in a stadium that feels a little more like home.
The next West Ham player to realise that he might be better than the club around him?
Our early winner, because he is a truly special player. In 10, 20 and even 30 years, Manchester City fans will discuss Silva’s magnificence over pints in the pub, and consider themselves fortunate to have witnessed such majesty.
Silva hasn’t won a PFA Player of the Month award for five-and-a-half years, and hasn’t been named in the PFA Team of the year for five seasons. His is an underappreciated and overlooked brilliance, but that should not dull its lustre.
Football365 do not produce a ‘managers of the season’ list, but it is interesting to wonder just how high Shakespeare would register on that countdown.
Let’s deal only in facts:
– Leicester have taken more league points in nine league games under Shakespeare than in 25 under Claudio Ranieri.
– Leicester kept five clean sheets in 25 league games under Ranieri this season; they have kept four in nine under Shakespeare.
– Shakespeare took over with Leicester in 17th position, two points off the bottom. They are now in ninth position, 21 points off the bottom.
– In a Premier League table comprised of points per game since Shakespeare’s appointment, Leicester City are second behind only Tottenham.
Let’s deal now in an opinion: This has been an unlikely (and therefore sensational) turnaround, and one which means keeping Shakespeare in charge is the right thing to do.
Leicester City’s owners
Remember when Leicester’s owners were accused of ruining football, being snakes and sticking two fingers up at romance before holding Ranieri’s head underwater until he went blue? Presumably the apologies are in the post.
I omitted Burnley erroneously from the Winners list last week, and so cursed as they fell 2-1 behind to West Brom and thus did their best to ruin my chances of including them this Monday. Then Sam Vokes scored a late equaliser, and back in they came.
For Burnley to have one fewer point than Stoke, more points than Crystal Palace and have safety confirmed with two games of the season remaining is a wonderful achievement from Sean Dyche. I don’t agree with everything he says, but Dyche is right that Burnley were written off in August.
Scored more than once in a Premier League game for the first time in his career, and now has eight for the season. Not bad for a Premier League player I’d forget about even if he was standing in the corner of my bedroom.
God I love that boy. The world smiles when he scores.
Pep Guardiola, and Manchester City clicking
“There was a real deja vu feeling about this game, it was just like the ones against Chelsea and Everton. Tottenham had two chances on target and took them both. We missed a lot of the chances we created. We have to score more goals” – Guardiola, January 21.
“We have had a lot of chances but we were not able [to score]. I don’t like to say we were unlucky – we were not good enough. It is simple like that. That has been a big problem for the season” – Guardiola, April 2.
“Lack of goals. It’s as simple as that. We can accept the opponent scoring one goal, but we didn’t score enough goals. We didn’t score two, three, four goals enough times” – Guardiola, May 5.
You get the picture. These are just three of a number of examples, but Guardiola has made no secret of where he sees Manchester City’s problems lying. The manager is happy to accept conceding goals as a byproduct of an attacking style, but City’s attack have not pulled their weight.
Guardiola’s latest missive came on the eve of Manchester City’s game against Crystal Palace, in which they did not score two, three or four goals, but five. It has come too late in the season for anyone to be dazzled, but finally City clicked. In fact, a performance such as this can frustrate as much as it can impress. I was at the Etihad in September when City scored four times against Bournemouth and could have at least doubled that tally. That was Guardiola’s fifth straight league victory to start his tenure in charge, and City looked like champions-elect even then. The movement in the final third was exceptional.
It is unfathomable that the victory over Palace was the first time since Bournemouth than City have scored more than three in a home league game, but Guardiola will be holding on to the silver lining at the edge of that cloud. Add two full-backs and a central midfielder, and it is easy to see this attack clicking more often without the worries of defensive incompetence in the back of their minds. Then City really could be in business.
Yesterday’s manager showed that he is still fighting for his tomorrow. And you really should go and read about that right here.
‘Bottlers’ was the immediate and predictable accusation as Tottenham finally ran out of steam at West Ham on Friday evening. ‘Same old Tottenham’ was the follow-up. A few even said ‘Spursy’, because it is impossible for this club to lose a match without that word being misused.
Let’s get this straight: You cannot bottle something that you never had. The only reason that Chelsea have won this title race is because Tottenham’s form created a title race. Mauricio Pochettino’s side won nine straight league matches in a single season. Alex Ferguson only bettered that twice in 26 years at Old Trafford.
On February 11, Chelsea were nine points ahead of Tottenham with a game in hand. Two days later, Pochettino’s team were ten points off the top of the table with Manchester City two points ahead in second. Few saw Tottenham even meriting mention in the title race then.
So why the reaction? Perhaps it is a representation of football’s dearth of middle ground, where every victory makes you a success and every draw or defeat renders you a failure. An online media built upon giving away a product of value for free, and thus needing to attract readers, leaves little scope for measured opinions or ‘wait and see’. This is the age of hero and zero; you’re one or the other.
Tottenham will not win the title, just as they did not win it last season. Yet you can only be judged a failure at the end of the journey. Pochettino’s Spurs have not tread water for five years or struggled to improve despite a massive spend on their squad, and this is still clearly a work in progress. Whatever the reaction of some pundits, finishing second doesn’t have to make you the first loser.
Jose Mourinho and a growing problem
Sarah Winterburn was scathing enough of Mourinho’s team selection and wilful concession of Manchester United’s chances of finishing in the top four, but there is a point to make on his new-found inability to succeed in the biggest matches.
Here is a list of Mourinho’s results in all games away from home against the current top six, stretching back to January 2015:
0-0 vs Arsenal
0-1 vs Arsenal
0-3 vs Manchester City
0-0 vs Tottenham
0-0 vs Liverpool
0-4 vs Chelsea
0-1 vs Chelsea
0-0 vs Manchester City
0-2 vs Arsenal
By any measure, and even with Mourinho’s list of ready-made excuses for each one, that is a pathetic return. His last goal against a current top-six team away from home was Eden Hazard’s penalty in the League Cup at Anfield in January 2015. His last victory came two months earlier at the same ground. Fail to beat Tottenham next weekend and that run will be approaching three years by the start of next season.
Mourinho’s strategy in the big away games is hardly a secret. Were you to offer him a 0-0 draw at the beginning of each he would privately be grateful, as evidenced by his pride in his team’s performances against Manchester City and Liverpool this season. The phrase ‘parking the bus’, coined by Mourinho himself when discussing a Tottenham performance in 2004 (a 0-0, naturally) can be used against Mourinho according to his own definition.
There is nothing wrong with that approach, of course. This is football, not synchronised swimming or gymnastics; there are no points awarded for aesthetics. Yet that list above offers persuasive evidence that Mourinho’s famous tactic has been peppered with holes. Four draws and five defeats is an abysmal return for a coach who would consider himself one of the best in the world. It’s also a similar record to the one Arsene Wenger is roundly mocked for. Even Mourinho couldn’t resist a post-match dig at Wenger, but the schtick is wearing thin.
Manchester United will back Mourinho again this summer, presumably to the tune of more than £150m. Dealing with the increased pressure that comes with large transfer budgets is the hallmark of elite club management, but with it may well come a pressure upon Mourinho for United to be more expansive against their title-challenging peers. Winning an away match would be a start.
Amusingly bad. Watching Rooney stagger around the pitch surrounded by younger, fresher, hungrier talent both on his side and the opposition was cringe-worthy. It was like watching the older brother of a retiring professional footballer play in his sibling’s testimonial as a gesture of goodwill.
Our early losers, and the latest to suffer from the ‘hope that kills’ principle. By the time Hull face Crystal Palace next Sunday, they may have to avoid defeat to stave off the confirmation of relegation, and win to make it anything other than a virtual certainty. They picked the worst weekend to fluff their lines.
Sam Allardyce and Crystal Palace
“Thank f**k we won at Anfield and Stamford Bridge,” away supporters in Manchester presumably remarked to each other as they trudged out of the Etihad on Saturday. Sunderland’s surprise win at the KCOM will have eased the nerves, but Palace picked an awkward time to slip back into the Alan Pardew era.
Losing to Manchester City is no cause for root-and-branch review, but there are ways to make City’s task harder. Palace’s defending on Saturday lunchtime was virtually non-existent, aided by a central defence of Martin Kelly and Jeffrey Schlupp who performed exactly as everybody predicted when they saw the team news. Sam Allardyce spoke after the game about hopes of signing Jermain Defoe this summer, but ensuring Wayne Hennessey does not start in the Premier League next season should be his first priority.
Avoid defeat against Hull next weekend and Palace’s safety will be confirmed, allowing Allardyce to receive the due praise that comes with taking on a risky situation and achieving the goal. Palace are ninth in the Premier League for a table comprised of his spell alone; he has done his thing.
Yet there are also signs that the wounds within this Palace squad are not yet fully healed, the most obvious of which is their pitiful record against their struggling peers. In a table based on results against top-half teams, Palace rank eighth. They have only 21 points from 17 matches against the bottom half, and 17 from 13 against teams in the bottom seven.
Defeats to Burnley, Sunderland and Swansea at home and West Ham and Stoke away have all come during Allardyce’s tenure. It’s not outside the realms of possibility that this survival bid could yet come down to the final day.
Everton are going to finish seventh in the Premier League.
There are two ways of interpreting that fact. You can remark on the obvious improvement under Koeman after taking over from the tactically inept Roberto Martinez, or you can use it as proof that below the top six (or should that be top two?) exists a mush of Premier League mediocrity. The answer probably lies somewhere in between.
What is true is that few teams have a greater range in performance level than Koeman’s Everton. At their best the defence is resilient, the midfield full of energy and drive and Romelu Lukaku flourishing with service and support. At their worst, they are capable not just of losing to any team in the division, but being outclassed by them.
Saturday evening was a new low. Koeman is not the only Premier League manager struggling to convince his players that the season did not finish at the end of March, but the Dutchman must be able to extract more out of a team that has had five shots on target in their last three matches against West Ham and Swansea as well as Chelsea.
In 2014/15, Watford took 89 points from 46 matches and finished second in the Championship, earning promotion to the Premier League. They parted company with Slavisa Jokanovic.
In 2015/16, Watford took 45 points from 38 matches and finished 13th in the Premier League. They parted company with Quique Sanchez Flores.
In 2016/17, Watford have taken 40 points from 35 matches and are 15th in the Premier League. By their own standards of impatience, they will part company with Mazzarri. He can’t say he wasn’t warned.
Liverpool and Jurgen Klopp
I was too busy being nervous, celebrating and then getting drunk and toasting Britt Assombalonga, Chris Cohen and Jordan Smith to watch Liverpool’s miserable 0-0 draw with Southampton, so you should go and read Sarah Winterburn’s piece. I promise it’s less dry than the Anfield pitch.