Make no mistake, this was massive. With Chelsea, Liverpool and Arsenal all having dropped points, Tottenham absolutely had to beat Burnley. The prize? A position one place and one point outside the top four with kind fixtures against Southampton, Swansea and West Ham to come. The potential punishment? Being marooned between Arsenal and Leicester in a seventh-placed limbo belying their supposed status as a Champions League contender.
They were prepared to go to Burnley and fight, but in the end it was far, far easier than they could have imagined. The class and quality of Harry Kane proved far too much for a Clarets defence without the blocking machine that is James Tarkowski, with Dele Alli and Christian Eriksen looking far sharper for the week’s rest afforded by Carabao Cup failure.
It is clear that they need reinforcements – six players have played more than 1900 minutes of football for Tottenham this season – but Spurs could well have emerged from a blip in a one-point cluster with Arsenal and Liverpool. The race for that final Champions League place may have more than a whiff of World’s Tallest Dwarf but it is a race Tottenham are at least running.
Harry Kane and Dele Alli
We suspect Matt Stead just wanted to use that headline, but still…
After that unmitigated disaster against Manchester City, it must have felt bloody good to be back in midfield.
Manchester City’s goalscorers
“These guys are just hungry for more. ‘Kun’ has always been inclined that way but I think everybody else now up front has a feeling of scoring goals, what it means to be the main man,” says Vincent Kompany, who had a quiet afternoon at the back as both Sergio Aguero and Raheem Sterling moved onto 12 Premier League goals each against Bournemouth.
Astonishingly, Sterling is one of nine City players who have matched or bettered last season’s total goal haul by the half-way point. Could this be the first Premier League season where one team has three 20-goal men?
What is truly impressive is that insatiable hunger does not manifest itself in taking potshots from distance or making selfish decisions to ignore runners in better positions, but a collective will to get the ball in the net as often as possible. It sounds simple and it is starting to look that way too.
It was scrappy and it was ugly but it was a victory. And the good news for Stoke fans is that Hughes did actually make changes – to both formation and personnel – to make that happen. He didn’t just keep banging on the same door, but went around the back and smashed his way through a window instead.
Stoke changed to a 4-2-3-1, Joe Allen was pushed into a more advanced position, Geoff Cameron into midfield, and an actual teenager was found somewhere on the training ground to play at full-back. There were casualties – Xherdan Shaqiri moved out of the middle, Kevin Wimmer playing out of position, the willing Mame Biram Diouf pushed to the bench – but the end justified the means.
“A lot has been made of how Stoke and West Brom approached the game, but if you want to play ‘better’ football and lose then keep doing it,” said Lou Macari. “As far as I could see there was a winning style and a losing style.”
It still seems unlikely that Hughes will remain at Stoke beyond the end of this season as the marriage has clearly gone stale, but there is at least some respite from the open hostility. That’s what victory over an awful West Brom can do.
Recalled to start his first top-flight away games in two months and responds with an assist against West Brom and two goals against Leicester City. There’s life in the old handsome dog yet.
England’s No.1, England’s England’s No. 1.
Even if Everton appointing Sam Allardyce was the equivalent of calling out a firefighter to rescue a cat from up a tree, he still had to climb the ladder without losing his footing. And five Premier League games unbeaten with only two goals conceded means that cat is thriving.
Arsenal and Liverpool
Mo Salah, Sadio Mane, Roberto Firmino, Philippe Coutinho, Alexis Sanchez, Alexandre Lacazette and Mesut Ozil
Read 16 Conclusions.
Exactly as many goals and exactly as many points as Arsenal since his appointment at Leicester in October. It may not be the measure it once was, but we suspect it is far beyond the expectations of reasonable Foxes fans.
When you have a) the stingiest defence outside the top seven and b) Pascal Gross, there is always c) a chance.
Being 12th must feel nice, but what must feel nicer is that he has just edged into Football365’s top ten Premier League managers of 2017. For now.
He’s already in that list and there’s no moving him.
It’s easy to forget the scale of the achievement in taking Huddersfield Town into a place of relative comfort in the middle reaches of the Premier League. We have all got accustomed to seeing them there now, to the extent that a 1-1 draw at Southampton is now a shrug-of-the-shoulders result. It absolutely should not be. It should be the cause of massive celebration in Huddersfield and of widespread wonder elsewhere.
As much as Sean Dyche is overachieving at Burnley, Wagner is overachieving at Huddersfield. The German has been nothing short of incredible; he is no rampant self-promoter so somebody else has to do the job.
“The biggest surprise for a lot of people for sure is that we’ve overachieved so far with 22 points from 19 games. Every single of these 22 points, though, I think we’ve deserved,” said Wagner in Southampton.
Deserved and cherished.
Huddersfield Town fans
It’s a long way back from Southampton but it helps if you return with a point and a pint courtesy of Zanka Claus.
Even if it was for just one day, he gave the Swansea fans reason to be proud of their team again. Christmas Day might not be so miserable in south Wales after all.
The unbeaten run extends to eight games. Wonderfully, the man himself admits he did not expect to be out of the relegation zone at Christmas.
“We’ve brought ourselves into a pack of teams who have to look over their shoulders and be worried that the spectre of relegation is not leading them,” says Hodgson. “I expected it to take a lot longer to get ourselves into contention to the other teams.”
They are not only ‘in contention’; they have momentum. No other team in the bottom half has claimed more than a point a game in the eight matches which have brought Palace 14 points. Relegation now seems an awful long way away.
One swallow does not make a summer but if you can win a Premier League game with a central midfield of Henri Saivet and Mo Diame, then you have to be a bone fide genius. And if you can get that win by forcing West Ham to take the initiative and hitting them on the counter-attack, then you have found a way to make thousands of Geordies the happiest they have been in weeks.
The key to victory in London was the pace of Christian Atsu and DeAndre Yedlin, coupled with the willing running of Dwight Gayle. On paper, it did not look like a winning team, but they were facing a West Ham side who clearly believed the hype of their mini-revival and were vulnerable in a game they were actually expected to win.
It was scrappy and it was ugly but it was a victory. It feels like a theme.
Probably his best performance in a Newcastle shirt. After waiting since September for a goal or an assist, he got both.
The idea that this is a great Manchester United side that is so dang unfortunate to be operating in the same orbit as an extraordinary Manchester City team is losing credence by the week. City are indeed extraordinary but this United side is rarely anything more than good. Too often, they look bloody ordinary.
Amassing 42 points by the half-way stage of the Premier League is not even remotely noteworthy; last season it would have put them third in the table behind Liverpool. And we cannot remember anybody claiming that this was a great Liverpool side being foiled by the brilliance of an unstoppable Chelsea.
Those 42 points would have been enough to make them top in 2015/16 but that was 2015/16 and this is now. A year earlier they would have been third, joint-top in 2013/14 and in 2012/13, they would have been four points behind Sir Alex Ferguson’s belligerent rather than brilliant Manchester United.
Jose Mourinho has clearly brought about improvement at United – no fool would doubt that – but the ‘in any other season’ myth is exactly that; in any other season they would have been a title challenger. Nothing more, nothing less.
The Manchester United defence
How can United look so ‘childish’ in defence without their youngest centre-half?
Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford
Remember when Manchester United fans were clamouring for both this pair to start? Now it’s a case of picking the least worst option, and when that least worst option has produced neither goal nor assist in four Premier League games, it is pretty damning of the other.
Game gets stretched, opposition a man down, and you take off Lingard, your most intelligent and direct runner, for Herrera. What message does that send?
— Daniel Harris (@DanielHarris) December 23, 2017
We know exactly what message that sends.
If you are going to play a fluid front three of Eden Hazard, Pedro and Willian against a team that will basically let you have the ball, why would you not play Cesc Fabregas to make that lack of focal point a strength rather than a weakness? Against a packed defence, you need clever, and Conte left his clever on the bench for over an hour.
Just as against West Ham, there was no sense of Manchester City-like inevitability about Chelsea scoring against Everton. They would just keep moving the ball slowly around before eventually somebody took a pot-shot from distance. Chelsea did have 25 shots but over half of those were from outside the area.
Almost everything about Chelsea this season has been ‘not quite’. That they could still finish second owes more to the weakness of others than their own brilliance; any runners-up place will require an asterisk.
Arsenal and Liverpool
Petr Cech, Simon Mignolet, Dejan Lovren, Ragnar Klavan, Laurent Koscielny and Ainsley Maitland-Niles.
Read 16 Conclusions.
How does it feel to be the only manager in the bottom five whose club has not yet sacked a manager this season?
Nobody expected Bournemouth not to lose to Manchester City on Saturday, but they might have expected more fight and less defensive disaster. Even with the stacks of good will Eddie Howe seemingly has in the bank, back-to-back 4-0 defeats is worrying, though possibly not as worrying as a run of seven Premier League games without victory. Bournemouth may well be edging towards decision time.
Unlike Swansea, whose lack of goal threat is far more a problem than any lack of defensive organisation, there is a sense that Bournemouth could probably be improved in the short term by a more pragmatic manager. But do they want to take the decision to shoot their blue-eyed Bambi? And if so, at what juncture?
We are not yet there, but home games against West Ham and Everton have become monumental. They absolutely need to start picking up points or Bournemouth may have to decide whether they want to be a Premier League club or a model of how to nurture a young English manager. The two things may not be compatible.
Under him, Burnley have won none of the 46 Premier League games in which they have conceded the first goal. And it’s that kind of statistic that sees him stuck at Turf Moor. Which is excellent news for Burnley fans because this will not stop being an extraordinary season because of one off-day.
When Ben Watson is starting his first Premier League game since May 2016, you know you are down to the bare bones. When Jerome Sinclair is your first substitute off the bench, you know you are looking for old, spare presents in the loft. But if you want to cast yourself as a Champions League-standard coach, you have to find solutions to those problems. At Brighton, Marco Silva failed for the sixth consecutive match to find a way with diminishing resources.
“If you want to talk I’m here to find solutions and not excuses for our last results, but today we had one game to prepare with three players banned, with five or six players injured,” said Silva.
“Of course we are stronger if we have almost all the players available but at this moment we have big problems to find the solution for a starting XI and you need to find this solution as soon as possible because there’s a lot of games in a row and it’s not easy to make the rotation.”
Indeed. At what point do Watford wish they had taken Everton’s massive pile of money? When they drop into the bottom half? When they fall within five points of relegation? Both are now on course to happen in the next week.
His substitution was cheered by travelling Watford fans. Merry Christmas, fella.
Spend two minutes on the Southampton Daily Echo reading comments on the bottom of Southampton stories and it becomes immediately and abundantly clear – Mauricio Pellegrino is doomed. There are literally no dissenting voices amidst the appetite for his dismissal. This has not been a disastrous half-season but it has been so lukewarm, so forgettable, so lacking in entertainment, that Saints fans now want him gone.
“Football is efficiency to score goals and to convert,” is the kind of ‘soundbite’ unlikely to warm Southampton fans towards you when all they can see is their team sliding towards a relegation battle. “Still we have got 50 per cent of the tournament to bounce back and try to change this mood and it has to start on Tuesday.”
Southampton might have 50 per cent of the tournament but does Pellegrino? Unlike, say, Mark Hughes at Stoke, he has not been there long enough for fans to argue about whether he deserves the rest of the season. They have not had time to become invested in Pellegrino as a man or a manager; we are halfway through the season and nobody is any wiser about his philosophies or ambitions. He will not be missed. Indeed, his absence will barely be noted.
The world’s worst firefighter was our early loser.
Elsewhere, things get back to normal…
West Ham gone from 1-0 up, to 3-1 down, missing a pen, at home, against a team that hasn’t won in nine. Or going “Full Moyes”, to give it its proper name.
— Mark Evans (@Evs_Dubai) December 23, 2017