Bournemouth and Eddie Howe
It inevitably flies slightly under the radar because it hasn’t been provoked by a change of manager, but Bournemouth have turned a corner. Since the home draw against West Ham on Boxing Day, which made it four points from their previous eight league matches, Bournemouth have embarked on a five-match unbeaten league run that has produced victories over Arsenal, Chelsea and Everton. It’s isn’t just Swansea who are beating the better teams to get themselves out of trouble.
Bournemouth were the only Premier League club not to sign a player in January. Howe reasoned that his players had proved last season that they were capable of better than their performance levels in the first half of 2017/18, so short-termist thinking and expensive gambles were best avoided. He has got a better tune out of Jordon Ibe, has Callum Wilson firing again after injury and has transformed Ryan Fraser into an effective Premier League winger. The defence is still a worry, but at Stamford Bridge Bournemouth did at least keep their first league clean sheet since November 25.
“When we won here in our first season in the Premier League it was an historic day but it was backs against the wall,” said Howe after an astonishing win and display. “But there was no luck connected to today. It was a very strong performance throughout and a huge moment for us this season. The best performance that we’ve had at this level and a result to match.”
From 18th and one point inside the relegation zone to tenth and five points clear. The short-term improvers and famous firefighters tend to take the headlines, but Howe merits far greater praise. This is a Football League club in budget and infrastructure holding its own in the Premier League. Howe has chosen to improve what he has rather than bring in ready-made replacements, and is reaping the rewards of his motivational qualities and attention to detail in training. It’ll never catch on.
If the injury nightmare is finally over, then so too are Wilson’s problems. Since his Premier League return on October 28, only Mohamed Salah, Harry Kane, Sergio Aguero, Raheem Sterling, Eden Hazard and Roberto Firmino have scored more Premier League goals. None of those six play for Bournemouth, you might notice, and none of them have had to fight back from two career-threatening injuries. My campaign to get Wilson on the plane to Russia began a while ago, but I’m now prepared to make it public.
Further proof that it is foolish to dismiss any managerial appointment until they have been given time to demonstrate their aptitude for the task. Claude Puel was doubted at Leicester and is doing a fine job. Roy Hodgson was doubted at Crystal Palace and is doing a fine job. David Moyes was doubted at West Ham and is (just about) doing a fine job. Paul Lambert was doubted at Stoke City and is doing a fine job. Maybe these club owners know what they’re doing after all.
Carvalhal was not just doubted, but almost written off. His time at Sheffield Wednesday was not without success, but had petered out. The results were dire, and the Portuguese left Hillsborough on Christmas Eve with his team 15th in the Championship and closer to the relegation zone than the play-offs. Few saw Carvalhal jumping up a division within four days, and fewer still thought he would be a success, me included.
Yet Carvalhal has transformed the mood in south Wales. Swansea have lost one of his eight matches in charge, and consecutive victories over Liverpool and Arsenal have taken them out of the relegation zone. Another extraordinary escape is eminently possible.
As Peter Goldstein wrote on Wednesday, the improvement in Swansea is mostly down to confidence. Carvalhal was fortunate that Swansea were not stuck in the defensive rut that haunts most relegation candidates, and would consider himself a motivator and man-manager. The individual improvement in Jordan Ayew, best described as a confidence striker, is strong evidence.
The great thing about the bottom half – if you’re in it rather than watching it, at least – is that it contains plenty of dross. An improvement of 10% in your performance is enough to beat those around you. Those clubs are in touching distance because they’re also losing more than half their league games.
Swansea have done that and more, beating two Big Six teams in their last two matches. Carvalhal will repeatedly tell his players that if they can do it against Arsenal and Liverpool, they can do it against Brighton and West Brom. Suddenly the sinking ship is bobbing along on the surface again.
A scorer of more than one goal in a Premier League game for the first time in 15 months, and a first league goal of any kind since April 2017. The assumption was that Walcott would profit from leaving his goldfish bowl at Arsenal and getting regular minutes at Goodison, but the effect has still been striking. A more interesting statistic, given Walcott’s reputation as a goalscorer who applies the finishing touches rather than scoring important goals: this was only the second time since October 2016 that he has scored the first goal of a Premier League match.
And now for the snidey aside: Walcott’s three goals and assists in two league games at Everton is one short of Alex Iwobi’s total for Arsenal in the last 12 months.
We have reached the stage of Manchester City’s dominance where victories by three clear goals and allowing your first shot on target in the 92nd minute are barely even registering. To put it in some perspective, City could lose three and draw one of their last 13 league games and still break the Premier League points record. More likely is that they become the sixth team in history to reach 100 points in a European top flight. Barry Town’s record of 105 points – set in 1996/97 – can even be beaten if City win every remaining game.
You can – and must – go to 16 Conclusions to read more on just how brilliant Tottenham were at ruffling Manchester United’s midfield feathers on Wednesday evening, but this was a mammoth result for Pochettino. Had Tottenham lost, as was expected, they would have been five points from the top four and 11 behind United. The gaps are now two and five respectively, and Tottenham tails are up once again.
On Wednesday, Lucas Moura became the seventh player in Tottenham’s history to be signed for a fee of £20m or more, and they have still only signed one for more than £30m. Manchester United have made 13 £20m-plus signings since the start of 2014, and seven of those cost more than £30m. The conclusion: Tottenham have a higher ceiling of individual performance than their budgets should allow. That is testament to Pochettino’s fine work.
Clucas might have been a little worried when he signed for Swansea. Having arrived on August 24, a week before the close of the transfer window, Clucas joined Roque Mesa as a new midfield signing. With Leroy Fer, Tom Carroll and Ki Sung-yueng already in place, a starting spot was no guarantee. Seven days later, Swansea signed the best young player at Euro 2016 on loan from Bayern Munich.
Mesa has already gone, Renato Sanches has flopped and Ki has drifted in and out of the team. Clucas started slowly, making only seven league starts before the beginning of December, but has since improved and is now a mainstay.
Measuring a midfielder’s contribution in terms of goals is reductive, but it’s certainly one way to get noticed. This was the first time Clucas has scored more than once in a game since the two he managed against Colchester United in Chesterfield’s 6-0 win in April 2015. Arsenal represent a (slight) step up.
Liverpool and their crisis
What crisis? People will forever question Liverpool’s progress every time they concede or drop points, but nobody at Anfield panics. Liverpool have an eight-point lead over sixth place and the opportunity to reach the Champions League quarter-finals for the first time since 2009. No season is without setback, but there is no doubt that this is progress.
A home draw against Crystal Palace hardly sounds like cause for celebration, but West Ham were down to the bare bones and at least ground out one point. They are by no means safe yet, but there are supporters of at least six other clubs who should be more worried.
Jose Mourinho, Paul Pogba and Alexis Sanchez
Part of the nonsense in the eternal ‘if he wants to prove himself as a manager why not go to Dagenham’ argument against elite club management lies in the difficult decisions over big-name players. While reductive pundits may see life at the top as easy, that’s far from the case; it’s just different.
Take Jose Mourinho, for instance. If we assume that Manchester United’s manager will stick with a flat back four, Mourinho has six positions to fill in front of the defence. He is tasked with finding places for… deep breath… Alexis Sanchez, Juan Mata, Jesse Lingard, Marouane Fellaini, Ander Herrera, Paul Pogba, Romelu Lukaku, Anthony Martial, Marcus Rashford and Nemanja Matic.
Mourinho’s issue is that he has at least three undroppables. Matic has to play as the holding midfielder, Pogba has to play as their record signing and Sanchez has to play as their newest signing. And yet finding roles for Pogba and Sanchez is actually the most difficult balance of all.
Against Tottenham, Mourinho gambled on the quality of the individuals overcoming the flaws in the system, and it backfired spectacularly. He hoped that Sanchez’s attacking qualities would cover for the lack of defensive work (and running back to halfway just to pick up the ball doesn’t count). He hoped that Pogba’s skill and passing ability would counteract the lack of protection for Matic. He was wrong on both counts. We will surely not see that in a big game again.
Yet that raises the question of what we will see, and what that means for Manchester United’s star pair. Is Sanchez going to have to swallow pride and play on the right, still one of United’s problem positions? Is Pogba going to have to adopt greater defensive responsibility, at least until another central midfielder can be signed in the summer? And is Mourinho able to add a layer of gloss to 2017/18 as he did last season? The gap to City is growing.
Phil Jones and Chris Smalling
In 2011/12, they started 15 games together.
In 2012/13, they started seven games together.
In 2013/14, they started 14 games together.
In 2014/15, they started 10 games together.
In 2015/16, they started seven games together.
In 2016/17, they started nine games together.
In 2017/18, they have already started 11 games together.
It is not that Jones and Smalling are bad defenders, but that their club can do better. Manchester United are the richest club in the world. Why is this still a thing?
Chelsea and dampened expectations
“I think the difference between Chelsea and Tottenham is this: if you stay in Chelsea and win it’s normal,” said Antonio Conte in April 2017. “If you stay in Tottenham, if you win it’s great, great, but if you lose…it’s not a disaster, no? Not a disaster. Because you find a lot of situations to explain a good season.”
It was a well-timed put down, Conte questioning Tottenham’s heritage as a Premier League giant and also pointing out that it is very easy to be a gallant loser but far more difficult to succeed when the expectation is to win every game.
Words can come back to haunt managers. As Chelsea lost their fifth Premier League game of the season (20% of their title defence to date) and their third at Stamford Bridge, Conte moved to explain why, actually, this was a good season.
“I am repeating what I have said since the start of the season,” he said. “I think the players are starting to understand that this season we are going to struggle for a position in the Champions League.
“If we want only to dream and not see the reality, in this case I could tell you we can fight to win the title this season. But it is important to look at the reality and to know that it will be a great success to reach a place in the Champions League.”
If what was “normal” last April has become “a dream” by the following January, Conte must accept his own role in this decline. The Italian has some pertinent points to make about his bosses’ role in Chelsea’s limp title defence, but he struggles with introspection.
For all the transfer market issues, Chelsea have signed nine players this season and spent around £240m. If Conte’s retort is that he has added back-up but few standout first-team players, his argument falls down when you consider four of the five teams Chelsea have lost to in the league: Burnley, Crystal Palace, West Ham and Bournemouth. This season hasn’t fallen over because of a lack of purchases; that is a smokescreen put in place by Conte to cover up his own failings.
A truly rotten display. On Monday, Conte claimed that Barkley’s physical condition was actually better than he had expected when he arrived at Chelsea. Either the manager was mistaken, or Barkley has declined badly as a player over the last 12 (or is it 24?) months.
Failing to have a shot on target is no disaster. Failing to make a single tackle or interception or gain possession in any way is no disaster, although hardly promising. But having only 26 touches of the ball in 54 minutes and completing just 15 passes in that time really is. Huge improvement is needed if Barkley is going to avoid Stamford Bridge splinters.
The promoted clubs
We’ve been here before, but little changes. ‘Huddersfield have won one of their last 13 league matches. Brighton have won two of their last 13 league matches. Newcastle have won two of their last 15 league matches,’ this column read in its last edition. That’ll be, 14, 14 and 16, then.
After 12 games, the promoted clubs were 9th, 10th and 11th. After 25 games, the promoted clubs are 14th, 15th and 17th. It doesn’t promise to get any easier after January, with those around them doing more business.
Arsenal and the top four
It was not until March 7 that Jose Mourinho conceded that Manchester United had given up on finishing in the top four and were instead prioritising the Europa League as the most likely route back into the Champions League.
Arsene Wenger is unlikely to be so candid, but Arsenal might well be entertaining precisely the same thoughts over the next month. Now eight points behind Liverpool and six behind Tottenham in the race for fourth and with Ostersunds in the Europa League last 32, victory in that competition may be their best bet. It’s certainly what the bookmakers believe, for Arsenal are 12/1 to finish in the top four and half that price to win the Europa.
It’s not that Liverpool, Chelsea and Tottenham are necessarily in majestic form (although two of those look far better than Arsenal) but that Arsenal simply cannot be trusted to find the consistency away from home to mount a significant challenge. They do indeed have a wonderful collection of attacking players, but the flaws in defensive midfield and central defence offset that January improvement. Time to go all out for the Europa, even without Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang.
Arsenal’s away form
Points from last 25 Premier League away games:
Manchester City – 54
Chelsea – 53
Manchester United – 49
Liverpool – 45
Tottenham – 43
Arsenal – 29
They are doing their best to make the Big Six a Big Five.
As one wag in the Mailbox said, John Terry only said that Cech would be worth 12 points a season to Arsenal, not that it would necessarily be 12 points more. Wojciech Szczesny is taking over from Gianluigi Buffon, by the way. Fine work all round.
He has all the positional discipline of a drunken antelope, even if that assessment will annoy the type of supporter that has a player name and photo as their social media profile. Xhaka is unfit for purpose, unless that purpose is passing the ball tidily from side to side while giving insufficient thought to every other aspect of the game.
More from Planet Sport: Read Degsy’s Davis Cup betting tips. (Tennis365)