Raheem Sterling, Manchester City’s difference maker
Raheem Sterling has always battled against a wave of opinion. It started when he dared to leave Liverpool for Manchester City in 2015, and was told by Jamie Redknapp, Phil Neville, Phil Thompson and others that he wasn’t good enough to make the move, and was demonstrating a misguided arrogance by wanting to leave Anfield.
Never mind that at the age of 20 he might improve. Never mind that Liverpool had just finished sixth, and Manchester City second. Never mind that we would all do the same as Sterling in our industry, and not expect criticism for making that choice.
It continued thanks to that great sage Joey Barton, who stated the following year that without his pace Sterling would not even be a professional footballer. Barton used the same tropes as others: ‘Imprecise’, ‘clumsy’, ‘limited technically’ and ‘very weak’.
As England crashed out of Euro 2016, it was decreed that Sterling must be made the country’s official scapegoat. The Sun’s campaign against a ‘footie idiot’ who bought his mum a house, spent too much money, spent too little money and once ate at Greggs was laughable, but that isn’t the appropriate reaction to such vitriol. This sh*t sticks in the minds of the paper’s readers. By splashing most of it on the front page, disappointment in the team became vitriol against the individual.
Since then, the accusation is that Sterling crumbles under pressure. When the going gets tough, he collapses. So when Manchester City signed Bernardo Silva and chased Alexis Sanchez last summer when already in possession of Leroy Sane, David Silva and Kevin de Bruyne as well as two excellent strikers, many jumped to the obvious conclusion as to who would drop meekly from the first-team picture.
As we enter December, De Bruyne has been Manchester City’s best player during this astonishing early-season run but Sterling has been their difference-maker. He has scored late winners against Bournemouth, Southampton, Huddersfield and Feyenoord and a late equaliser against Everton. Without those points, City’s lead would be slight.
In the crunch moments of crunch matches in a crunch season for Sterling, he has not shied away from the pressure but excelled because of it. He is currently the highest-performing English player.
Pep Guardiola obviously deserves huge credit for this transformation, but nobody merits more credit than the player himself. Sterling has achieved this success without goodwill and to a backdrop of people (who are hardly flourishing in their own industry) telling him that he wouldn’t amount to anything. Rather than asking ‘how good is Sterling?’, that question has now been altered: How good can Sterling be?
Yet there is something more than just football at play here. When first Sterling was questioned, he was 20. When he was vilified by a section of the national media, he was 21. When he was doubted before this season, he was 22. To cope with that pressure and to overcome it demonstrates a strength of character and maturity far beyond many of us (me included) at that age. It is that strength that has underpinned his rise at Manchester City more than his ability.
In Winners and Losers on Monday, I was surprised that Salah was enjoying a higher percentage of Liverpool’s shots on target than Luis Suarez managed in 2013/14. After his two goals from the bench against Stoke City, Salah is also now set to score more league goals than Suarez in that season. That’s even more phenomenal.
No player in the league has scored goals at a quicker rate per 90 minutes played. No player in the Premier League has had more shots on target. Only one Liverpool player (Roberto Firmino) has created more chances. This is an incredible start (or re-start) to Salah’s time in England and one that nobody saw coming, including Liverpool’s coaching staff.
A game-changer in the truest sense of the phrase. Last season ended with accusations that Ozil did not care, and this season began with suspicions that his form had tailed off so badly that no club had shown interest in signing him. By the end of November, Ozil has re-proven himself as a majestic attacking midfielder and there is reported interest from Manchester United and Barcelona. Against Huddersfield, when Arsenal were struggling, it was Ozil who stepped up.
Ozil has now created 22 chances in his last six league games. Only 12 Premier League players have managed more all season. His critics won’t know what Arsenal have until it’s gone.
Wayne Rooney and instinct
There are very few signs of the old Wayne Rooney left. The dynamism is fading, the legs are tired and the stamina is at a nadir, hardly surprising given the amount of football he played at such a young age. For Everton’s previous two league games Rooney hadn’t even made it off the bench, and in between he started in a 5-1 home defeat to Atalanta.
Yet on Wednesday evening, we saw a flash of the old Rooney. When Joe Hart’s clearance was directed into his path, Rooney acted on instinct. For a moment, his tired legs and fading force did not matter. His snapshot, taken first time and hit with perfect accuracy and weight, was a second of genius.
Rooney’s instinct has always been wonderful, right back to his magnificent volley against Newcastle seconds after arguing with the referee. Moments like those are not sustainable and will not appear with any regularity anymore, but they are deeply magical.
After the game, Rooney believed it to be the best goal he has ever scored. Age need not be a barrier to these brief flickers of wonder before the flame goes out.
Manchester United’s squad men
Our early winners. Ashley Young and Jesse Lingard are not ones to moan and gripe, but merely resolve to push those in the first team and make the most of any opportunities that come their way. Both players have their limitations, but you cannot doubt the hunger.
Liverpool’s squad men
A squad looks an awful lot stronger when you give your back-up players a chance and they impress you in potentially tricky circumstances. Now go read Matt Stead’s piece.
While the old guard continue to show their VIP passes and walk past the queue into Premier League clubs, Dyche remains the most over-performing manager in the division.
Burnley, with one of the smallest budgets in the league, are sixth in the Premier League after more than a third of the season played. It is extraordinary that clubs such as West Brom are not banging down the door at Turf Moor.
If even wandering into the stadium makes the team improve so markedly, what happens when Allardyce actually starts managing them?
In the space of two hours, Big Sam went from being appointed by the club one place outside the relegation zone to a club in 13th and closer in points to the top half than the bottom three. He is the firefighter called to rescue a cat from a tree.
Chunky’s back, and at a club that is crying out for a manager who prefers to play with a little panache. There is no guarantee of success, but this is an excellent gig for a manager who has won six of his last 36 Premier League matches.
Dominance at the top of the Premier League
This is getting a little silly now. The last 20 results of the current top five (Manchester City, Manchester United, Chelsea, Arsenal and Liverpool) against non-top-five teams:
Played – 20
Won – 20
Drawn – 0
Lost – 0
For – 49
Against – 9
A wonderful finish, on its own merit and because it displayed a Bergkamp-esque touch that we do not usually associate with Vardy’s tenacious style. His place at next year’s World Cup is now already guaranteed.
If the club is creaking thanks to a lack of investment – and Rafael Benitez was as candid as he has ever been on that subject this week – there remains a strong will among a core of players that has been harnessed by their excellent manager.
If that is the only thing keeping Newcastle’s head above water – and there are numerous Championship-level players in this Premier League team – that only makes Benitez more precious. The sooner he can be backed with a meaningful transfer budget, the quicker this club can move forward. Finally.
Having received a tidal wave of stick for picking Watford vs Manchester United over the first top-flight derby between Brighton and Crystal Palace since 1981, those in charge of choosing BT Sport’s televised games will have allowed themselves a smile as they watched six goals in one game and a 0-0 in the other.
When Moyes took over at West Ham, it was appropriate to ask what or who he now was as a football manager. This was a career neatly split into two parts, Preston and Everton on one side and everything else on the other. Was Moyes the manager who built a club and ensured they competed with the financial elite, or the one broken by his subsequent experiences? West Ham would be the job to discover the answer.
The problem is that Moyes perpetuated this uncertainty. Shortly after being appointed, he boldly stated that if things didn’t work out he would leave east London after seven months and we would hear no more about it. A fortnight later, presumably steeled by a home draw against Leicester City, Moyes talked up his chances of ‘doing an Everton’ and staying at West Ham for 11 years. It is as if even he is struggling to pinpoint his own identity.
Unfortunately, that uncertainty also gives off the impression that Moyes does not know how this will go. Exactly the same as at Sunderland, Moyes soon admitted surprise at how difficult this West Ham task was. That demonstrates not only that he did not do due diligence, but that he took the job because he was offered it rather than because it was the perfect fit. Here’s a question: How many Premier League jobs has Moyes actually turned down?
This West Ham job requires a person of strength. It requires a manager who can use his force of personality to persuade the players that they can overcome boardroom incompetence, fan disillusionment and stadium white elephant-ery. It absolutely did not require a manager unsure whether this was the right step for employee or employer.
This job has the potential to swallow Moyes and spit him out once and for all. Even in this depressing merry-go-round of the same managers, surely he cannot survive a fourth successive failure.
Moyes still has time. Perhaps he is playing the classic trick of past Sunderland managers in starting appallingly before engineering a great escape that was only required because of your own initial incompetence. But it has been a dreadful start: Three games, no wins, one goal, seven conceded. Manchester City, Chelsea and Arsenal are up next. By then, Moyes may be a manager ‘boasting’ a run of eight victories in his last 55 league games.
West Ham were congratulated for at least having a plan and implementing it quickly following the sacking of Slaven Bilic. That’s true, but it does also raise the quasi-philosophical question: What’s worse, a bad plan or no plan at all? Pretty sure this all ends with Trevor Brooking in charge for the last six games.
Davids Gold and Sullivan
You started this mess, and employing a manager who had failed at each of his last three clubs and seems to have all the motivational skills of second series David Brent only paints West Ham’s owners in a worse light.
But it goes further than mere decision-making. In 2016, David Gold boasted that a move to the Olympic Stadium would allow West Ham to become a bigger club, “one of the biggest”. This was done with an air of misplaced arrogance that makes the subsequent fall karmic: “I have a maxim: Big fish eat small fish.”
What Gold and Sullivan forgot is that a football club is only as strong as its team, and its team’s success is dictated to some extent by the demeanour and competence of its owners. By that measure, West Ham barely stood a chance.
There are 20 goalkeepers to play more than five Premier League games this season. Rank those 20 according to their save percentage and you get:
Ben Foster – 15th
Jordan Pickford – 16th
Joe Hart – 19th
Jack Butland – 20th
Thank goodness for Nick Pope (he ranks 1st).
I just don’t understand Mark Hughes. I can appreciate him taking Stoke City up to ninth in the Premier League in each of his first three seasons in charge, albeit with a surge of spending that his predecessor Tony Pulis was not afforded. But the continued patience in a manager who seems to be less, rather than more, effective in his role than before is unfathomable.
Last season, Stoke recorded their lowest points total in the Premier League since promotion in 2008. They started the season in wretched form (three points from seven matches), rallied and then ended the campaign feeling just as miserable (eight points from ten matches). The suspicion was that Hughes had come close to losing his job, and this season would be a test of his mettle.
So far, he has failed that test. Stoke are 16th, three points from the bottom three and having won three league games all season. In the bigger picture, they have taken 62 points from their last 59 matches. This is a team sleep-walking into a fight for their Premier League survival.
Crucially, for only Arsene Wenger has been a Premier League manager for longer concurrently, there is no identity to Hughes’ Stoke team. He began with a remit of altering the style of play from the dark ages of Pulis, but has only succeeded in creating a team that excels at nothing. The fanciful notion of ‘Stokealona’ has been lost on the cold wind that whips around the Bet365 Stadium.
Stoke do not bloody the noses of the big clubs as much as they did under Pulis, but neither do they ably dispose of the rest. Since the start of last season they rank 14th for home wins and yet have only five away wins, rank 13th for goals scored and yet have conceded the fifth most goals too. They have managed 13 clean sheets in those 52 matches.
Stoke rank 10th for dribbles completed over that period, 15th for crosses from open play and 13th for chances created, behind Bournemouth and Crystal Palace. Their top scorer in those 52 matches? Peter Crouch, with 10. Nobody else has more than seven.
For all the criticism of Pulis’ Stoke, take away the shirt colours and you could tell which team was his. Now the only way to determine which side is the one managed by Hughes is to plump for those struggling to put the ball in one net and struggling too to keep it out of their own. That’s not an identity, it’s a millstone.
Tottenham and fatigue
As I wrote on Tuesday evening, fatigue isn’t the only excuse for Tottenham’s failings. Yet it must surely play a part when an attacking front three has now started 491 combined matches since August 2014.
Harry Kane is still scoring but increasingly shooting from distance, Dele Alli is drifting alarmingly from last season’s form and Christian Eriksen has not scored or assisted a goal in six league matches. But can Mauricio Pochettino really give them a rest while every other top-four challenger is winning?
‘After the naivety displayed against Tottenham in September, this was proof that David Wagner has found a safer strategy for facing the best attacking teams in the Premier League,’ I wrote in Winners and Losers on Monday. ‘On this evidence, the newest club in the Premier League will not go down.’
Cheers guys. Now we all look like fools.
A defeat at his former club is nothing to be ashamed of, but Swansea’s attacking malaise is. Clement’s team have failed to score in nine of their 14 league games, but the most spectacular statistic is that Swansea managed four shots on target in the entirety of November. That’s fewer than Kurt Zouma.
Gary Megson and his whatsits
Our early losers. As Megson tried to justify his future employment on two promotions – the more recent of which happened 13 years ago – it was to witness a man desperate to stay relevant but who is aware that his brief time to shine has come to an end. West Brom throwing away a two-goal lead at home really could affect his chances.
“We were off it. They strangled us; we never got our passing game going and that’s credit to them, that’s how they play – and I think they were better than us. From our perspective we needed to use the ball better, get more tempo in our game.
“We were just flat and barely got going. We have to do better, individually we didn’t perform, we didn’t show our best selves today and that’s hugely disappointing.”
Eddie Howe doesn’t really do angry, but this is as close as he gets. Three weeks of good performances and promising results given up against Howe’s old club.