Premier League winners and losers

Date published: Monday 18th December 2017 11:24

Winners

David Moyes and Marko Arnautovic
The mood at West Ham when David Moyes was appointed was toxic, only partly fuelled by the uninspiring identity of their new manager. The club’s support was still unhappy at a mismanaged stadium move, and their frustrations with the club’s owners was clear for all to see. Davids Sullivan and Gold had organised a piss-up in a local brewery, but forgotten to put stamps on the invitations and overlooked the issue of car-parking.

No player epitomised that dark mood more than Marko Arnautovic. The Austrian had been publicly courted and then signed from a Premier League rival at no small cost, but had been dismal in his first few months at West Ham. He was sent off in just his second match, and his form after returning from that ban hardly made up for the initial stupidity.

Arnautovic’s work rate was his most obvious flaw, with Jamie Carragher and Gary Neville taking the chance to lambaste him on an edition of Monday Night Football. All criticism was justified.

“I have only ever played with one player that had an excuse not to track back and that was Cristiano Ronaldo,” Neville said. “He scored 40 goals in a season. Arnautovic is Ronaldo in his own mind. That’s the problem, he thinks he is better than he is.”

“It can be difficult to settle and show your true form at a new club but that performance was not one you think was desperate to show everyone what he can do,” Carragher added. “He’s walking about during the game, it was beyond belief.”

Having failed to impress in Moyes’ early games, West Ham’s new manager took the bold step of publicly calling out his player, leading to suggestions that Arnautovic would be sold in January, four months after joining the club. That kind of public censure will go one of two ways, but both options are extreme.

“I’ve told him this morning, the first time I’ve really had some time with him, and I said: ‘You’ll play in the team if you make goals and score goals, but if you don’t run for the team then you don’t play either,’” Moyes said in November.

“I can accept one or the other, if you are making goals and scoring goals and the team is winning then I might not need so much of the other. But he also has to be a team player. The clips I have seen, at times he has not looked a team player.”

The obvious response would be to drop Arnautovic from the team, but Moyes went for the opposite approach. Public bad cop was supplemented by private good cop, with Moyes talking to Arnautovic about just how good he can be and persuading him of his worth as long as he mucked in.

The results are astounding. Arnautovic has been West Ham’s best player in the last month, and against former club Stoke he delighted in showing Mark Hughes exactly what he was missing.

This is not just a question of motivation, but tactical inspiration. Arnautovic was used primarily as a left winger under Hughes and Slaven Bilic, but Moyes has utilised him as a central striker. His physicality allows him to hold up the ball and playing centrally permits him more time on the ball, which he craves.

Playing as a striker also reduces the requirement for tracking back. West Ham have their solution. Playing with Michail Antonio and Manuel Lanzini as a front three provides a fluidity in their attack that has been missing for far too long.

Do not underestimate the bravery of Moyes’ call. When under pressure following a rotten start to his reign, West Ham’s manager changed the formation and dropped star striker Javier Hernandez to incorporate an unpopular player into a new role.

Having mocked Moyes when he was low, it is only right to commend him for transforming the mood. This was a masterstroke.

 

Crystal Palace
Thirty-two days ago, Crystal Palace were a broken club. They had four league points, were stranded at the bottom of the table, their sole victory over Chelsea already feeling like a mirage.

If that win was the exception, the general rule was miserable. Few goals scored, far too many conceded. Even a brief EFL Cup run had been ended by dismal 4-1 defeat against Bristol City of the Championship.

If on that day, with Palace preparing to face Everton, someone had told you that this club was about to embark on the longest unbeaten run in their Premier League history, the reactions would have been worth filming for posterity.

Yet that is the Roy Hodgson effect, back at the hometown club he left in 1966 having failed to make a single appearance. More than 50 years later, this story could yet have an unlikely happy ending.

Hodgson has not over-complicated things. There have been tactical tweaks, such as moving Wilfried Zaha into the centre to allow him to drift onto both wings and thus make him harder to pick up and predict. But the running theme has been simplicity, much-needed after the confusion of Frank de Boer’s mini-tenure.

Hodgson’s chief strategy has been to make Crystal Palace’s players believe that that there is no reason to fear any team outside the top six. They have players with the individual skill to match any of their peers. But that skill can only be realised when accompanied by belief.

From that position of calamity, when discussion centred on whether Palace could surpass Derby County’s record low points total, a new dawn has broken. Hodgson’s side are now as close in points to the top half as the bottom of the Premier League. This has been an extraordinary turnaround.

 

Kevin de Bruyne
Probably in the top ten players in the division with his weaker foot alone; probably in the top one when using both. He is Kevin de Bruyne, and he is European football’s form player. My goodness we are lucky to have him.

 

Huddersfield Town
The first time Huddersfield have scored four or more goals in a top-flight away game since November 1954, when they beat Arsenal 5-3. Remember it well.

 

Liverpool’s front four
And it’s actually more of a front three. Liverpool’s ‘fab four’, as they have been christened, have actually been on the pitch together for fewer than 150 minutes in the Premier League. They form an integral part of Klopp’s rotation system.

They are also supremely good, a merry band of high-performing players who are led by the wondrous Mohamed Salah. He is busy showing off Arjen Robben’s best bits but without the injuries.

Those four players (Salah, Philippe Coutinho, Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mane) have scored more Premier League goals between them than 14 clubs. They’re only two behind Arsenal.

 

Christian Benteke
Our early winner. The best way to make Palace supporters forget the penalty fiasco is to score the goals that can act as the perfect memory wipe.

 

Jesse Lingard
He had already surpassed his best ever top-flight season in terms of assists, and now he has equalled his best ever top-flight goalscoring season too. Lingard may not be the big name that most Manchester United supporters (and Jose Mourinho) would like to see on the right side of midfield, but he is doing all he can to be an effective stopgap. Good on him for that.

 

Ederson
Last season, opposition managers realised that by blocking off the short supply available to Claudio Bravo you could upset City’s entire game plan. Bravo lacked the long-range passing to overcome this press, and so continued to try and play it short and got himself into trouble.

Ederson is the perfect upgrade. When Tottenham’s players cut off the short options, he simply knocked the ball to the feet of a teammate standing 45 yards away as if it were as simple as putting one foot in front of the other. Just another Manchester City player normalising brilliance.

Now go read 16 Conclusions from that game. Because they were very good.

 

Raheem Sterling
Proof that we continue to overlook the human side of footballers. As we watched Sterling miss two glorious chances before scoring his two goals on Saturday, we wondered whether the discussions over his composure under pressure would resurface.

And then you find out that, on the morning of the game, Sterling was subjected to a physical and verbal racist attack, and rather than criticise him for those finishes you applaud him for even having the resilience to take part in the game.

The kid is 23, for goodness sake. He’s been abused for wanting to leave a football club and he has been vilified by a section of the media that would prefer to ignore that their words and editorial stance play a part in incidents like the one on Saturday morning. The drip feeding of racially motivated treatment only emboldens those who wish to express their abhorrent views.

And now Sterling comes out the other side smelling of roses and as a key part of one of the greatest ever Premier League teams. It isn’t bias to want him to succeed and rub those mucky tabloid noses in the dirt; it’s human nature.

 

Mesut Ozil
A truly wondrous volley from a player bang back in form. Oh but he doesn’t care and he’s lazy. B*llocks.

 

Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain
The big winner of Klopp’s rotation policy, Oxlade-Chamberlain was excellent against Bournemouth. You will never convince me that paying £35m for a player with ten months left on his contract was a good idea when Liverpool desperately needed defenders, but at least he’s starting games now.

 

Losers

Mark Hughes
Even Hughes’ belief is eroding. Two days before Stoke’s crucial home game against West Ham, their manager hit out at the suggestion that he would be dragged into a relegation battle.

“I don’t do relegation,” he said. “There are a lot of managers who have a badge of honour that they’ve never been relegated. I’ve never been relegated because I’m too busy trying to get in top 10s. I’ve never been near it so I’m not going to start now, am I?”

Hughes might have been better advised to leave out those last two words. Even if his question was rhetorical, there were Stoke supporters queueing up to answer it. For a manager who supposedly has no experience of taking his team towards relegation, Hughes is certainly doing a passable impression of the type.

The thing is, that’s not how it works. Just because you haven’t been relegated before as a manager, it doesn’t protect you from ever being – and that is ignoring his part in QPR’s 2013 downfall. Stoke have lost five of their last six league games to opponents including Crystal Palace and West Ham, and have also lost to Newcastle United and Bournemouth this season. Having won their first two league games of 2017, Stoke have taken 33 points in 35 games since. That is, if Hughes doesn’t realise through his inexperience, relegation form.

Yet after shambolic home defeat against West Ham, Hughes was far less bullish having had “sacked in the morning” and “Hughes out” chanted at him repeatedly during the second half.

“My view is that we’re better than what we’re showing in terms of results,” Hughes said. “We’ve got to get ourselves out of this situation. We’re in a difficult situation, one that I haven’t been in since I’ve been here. I don’t intend to be involved in a relegation battle. It’s not what we should be doing but I think we have that clarity of understanding that actually we are in one at the moment.”

Finally he understands, although having watched two of Stoke’s last three defeats I cannot vouch for their performances being any better than the results indicate. Having taken 64 points from his last 62 league games, Hughes can hardly argue that this is a short-term problem.

Still, Hughes will at least be reassured that he will be able to extend his record of not being relegated. If this run continues any longer, he will suffer the same fate as he did at QPR four years ago: he’s going to be sacked long before it comes to that.

 

Bournemouth’s naivety
In drawing the Merseyside derby 1-1, Everton earned a point that was at best slightly fortunate and at worst thoroughly undeserved. But they earned a point. Liverpool may have missed a series of chances, creating their second highest total of opportunities in a league game this season, but Everton did at least stay in the game before gleefully accepting their only notable chance to score.

West Brom went further and better, Alan Pardew organising his team to sit back and thwart attacks. Liverpool created only seven chances, their lowest total in a home league game since January 31 against Chelsea. If Everton had demonstrated the blueprint, West Brom had perfected it. They too relied upon fortune, but needs must when the balance is tipped in the opposition’s favour.

So quite what persuaded Eddie Howe that Bournemouth’s best chance of success against Liverpool was to try and attack their opponents, thus leaving the defence exposed to a wonderful (and versatile) collection of attackers, is unclear. It was tantamount to football suicide, and Liverpool ran amok.

Unfortunately for Howe, this has become a theme. Bournemouth’s defence is largely comprised of those who served him in the Championship and League One, and they have earned their manager’s patience. Yet the lack of pragmatism from Howe leaves those defenders looking foolish. Optimism is no bad thing, but naivety is.

The suspicion, and it may be slightly sweeping, is that Bournemouth’s midfield is comprised of tidy passers and aesthetically pleasing players, but lacks the bite required to dig in and fight when the situation demands it. That issue is compounded by their manager’s happy-go-lucky outlook, but Bournemouth must find some pragmatism before long if they are not to become embroiled in a relegation fight.

 

Tottenham, who tried and failed
The answer might be that there is no answer, and that the only team who can beat Manchester City is City themselves, either through defensive brainfade or indiscipline. After 18 league games of this season, there’s certainly a case to be made for that conclusion. City have beaten teams playing every which way.

Tottenham tried to match them at their own game. They pressed and harried high, trying to effect the turnover that could lead to defensive uncertainty. They played short, intricate passing triangles too, and tried to get the ball into the feet of Christian Eriksen as much as possible.

This strategy does feel like it might eventually yield a result, for City’s greatest weakness surely lies in defence. Keeping them at bay with the low block, as Manchester United did, is unlikely to end in a thrashing, but eventually Pep Guardiola’s team will come good in a game of attack vs defence.

But Tottenham’s strategy also contains the most risk, for it is easy to be exposed if your team is not at their peak. Passes went astray in the final third, tackles were missed and City players delighted in the space afforded in central midfield. Going toe-to-toe with this team can easily make you look very silly indeed, and Tottenham sure looked silly at times on Saturday evening.

Tottenham were our last hope of engineering a title race. Not in the sense that they were likely to be City’s closest challengers, but because Mauricio Pochettino has come closer than most to upsetting Guardiola’s apple cart in the past. The 2-0 White Hart Lane defeat that ended City’s 100% start to last season felt seismic because, again, City were beaten at their own game.

Now that game has been nurtured and perfected to the point that it is untouchable. Tottenham were humbled in the same way that many other Premier League opponents have been and will continue to be.

 

Dele Alli
Another to add to the list of petulant outbursts, which are becoming a running theme of Alli’s early career. As soon as he gets frustrated, the chances of him lashing out increase inordinately.

After being charged and subsequently banned for an incident against West Brom last season, and then also banned in Europe for a disgusting challenge on Gent’s Brecht Dejaegere, Alli insisted that he had learnt from his mistakes, but would not be eliminating tackling from his game.

That’s absolutely justified, but Alli must learn to curb his frustration when tackling. Almost every incident of him crossing the line comes when Tottenham are struggling, evidence that Alli is allowing frustration to cloud judgement.

With a World Cup coming next summer, Gareth Southgate has to rely on players who can stay calm under pressure, and opposition coaches will instruct their players to wind Alli up.

We all remember David Beckham in Saint-Étienne and Wayne Rooney in Gelsenkirchen. These are moments that can end major tournament participation.

 

Critics of Liverpool’s rotation
Our early losers. Jurgen Klopp is not rotating his players for his own amusement, or to annoy those with fantasy football teams, but to reserve energy for the second half of a long season.

Liverpool played 47 matches last season, but will reach 28 by Christmas and are still in three competitions. Given the well-documented issues of squad depth, rotation is a necessity rather than choice.

 

Marco Silva and Watford
As Matt Stead wrote on Saturday, slipping and sliding away. Since being strongly linked with the Everton job, Silva’s result at Watford have nosedived. He must now correct issues that are of his own design.

 

Troy Deeney
Since accusing Arsenal of lacking cojones, Deeney’s side have lost seven of their ten league games, he has been charged with violent conduct for grabbing Joe Allen by the throat and was sent off for a tackle from behind against Huddersfield.

Maybe you’ve got too many balls, Troy?

 

Manuel Lanzini
“I would call it soft,” Moyes said. “Manu has ran 70 yards and probably ran his race at the end of it, I think the defender going to ground means the referee has a choice to make. If you take the whole action into consideration, I definitely don’t see it being a dive. I see it being tiredness at the end of it but I don’t see a dive.”

Ah yes, tiredness in the 19th minute of the match. It’s a wonder how players manage to run at all without falling over from the 70th minute onwards.

It was a dive, and Lanzini should be banned for two matches, just as Carlisle United’s Shaun Miller was.

 

Alan Pardew
Four games, two points, one goal. Having seen Moyes and Hodgson enact vast improvements after difficult starts, Pardew will be confident of doing the same.

But lose to Stoke on Saturday, and the doubts of that happening will only grow. On Sunday, West Brom’s only exciting player was Oliver Burke, a 20-year-old making his first ever Premier League start. It shouldn’t be that way.

Daniel Storey

 


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