A first Premier League win in 13 games, only the third time Southampton have scored more than two goals in a game under Mauricio Pellegrino, and a crucial three points in the fight for survival. Victory over bottom club West Brom is less keeping the wolves from the door and more distracting them by offering them slightly fresher meat, but Saints have marched straight into 15th.
While not necessarily the start of a new dawn, the signs were promising at The Hawthorns on Saturday. Mario Lemina was reinstated to the starting line-up and was excellent, by far the game’s best player. Shane Long was finally dropped to the bench for record signing Guido Carrillo. The under-performing Steven Davis and Nathan Redmond were both relegated to the bench for the more hungry Dusan Tadic and James Ward-Prowse. For only the seventh Premier League game this campaign, Tadic played as a No. 10 instead of wide on the right. Southampton’s subsequent improvement was no coincidence.
This was also the first time Saints had come from behind to win a Premier League game since April, and a sixth game unbeaten in all competitions. These may be baby steps for a club that finished eighth last season, but it is at least a hint of progress.
“We needed this victory, for many reasons, but the most important one is to believe what we can do on the pitch,” Pellegrino said after the game, and it is a pertinent point. It is impossible to encourage players or fans to invest in you if there is no proof your business can prosper. The manager has said the right things but has too often failed to back that up with his tactics or team selection. Losing just one game in eight is finally a forward step – although fans are forgiven for anticipating two backwards ones to follow.
For now, Southampton and Pellegrino can breathe. The Argentinean would likely have paid for failure to beat West Brom with his job. To stare down the barrel of conceding an early goal only to emerge with victory thus deserves praise.
Someone wants to be a little higher on this list. And deservedly so.
One can only hope Arsenal have learned their lesson. After allowing Arsene Wenger’s contract to dominate the discussion last season, the Gunners repeated the mistake with Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil this campaign. The distraction and uncertainty might well have cost them a Champions League place.
The list of Arsenal players whose deals expire in summer 2019 is slightly more underwhelming. The club might well have outgrown Danny Welbeck, while there will be no tears shed for the eventual departure of David Ospina. The rapid decline of Petr Cech suggests that the club should concentrate on signing an upgrade.
The other two individuals who will have 12 months remaining on their contracts at the Emirates at the end of this season are Nacho Monreal and Aaron Ramsey. The former has established himself as key to the cause, yet that is a fight Ramsey is constantly and unfathomably having to contend with.
Ramsey has played less football than Ainsley Maitland-Niles and Rob Holding this season. As is often the case with the Welshman, injuries have played their part, but it is often difficult to find one consistent role for the midfielder when fully fit. In terms of midfielders, Granit Xhaka is the most expensive, Jack Wilshere the most naturally gifted after Ozil, and Mohamed Elneny is the most tactically versatile. Ramsey is more difficult to place.
The answer is in rotation. There need be no panic about a lack of game time for any player. Competition is both healthy and necessary, and Manchester City have found success by having Gabriel Jesus and Sergio Aguero battle for one place. Ramsey and Arsenal can benefit from a similar situation.
Against Everton, the 27-year-old put on a masterclass of movement, anticipation, timing and finishing. The space created by Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Henrikh Mkhitaryan required an intelligent player to exploit, and Ramsey was more than up to the task. His reward was a first career hat-trick.
Even having missed a chunk of the season, no Arsenal player has scored or assisted more Premier League goals than Ramsey (12) this season. He has a crucial role to play in this squad, and is an underrated asset when available.
Has he finally found something approaching ‘balance’ at Arsenal? Ian Watson thinks so. And Ian Watson is a wise man.
Part victory, part vindication. Hughton was criticised in midweek for not putting Southampton to the sword when Brighton found an early lead through Glenn Murray. The Seagulls opted to sit back instead, Southampton equalised just after the hour and it felt like two points dropped as opposed to one gained.
Try four crucial points won in one week. The response to perceived disappointment was emphatic, with Hughton describing the 3-1 victory over West Ham as the “most satisfying performance” at home this season. “It was maybe as good as we’ve been with regards to threatening and looking like we could get more goals,” added the manager; 21 shots is comfortably their highest ever tally in a Premier League game.
In a game with the most consistent standard of excellent finishing seen in some time, Brighton’s former most expensive player raised the bar highest. It will take something special to outdo his latest wonder strike.
Many thought it would be Marcus Rashford, but many more felt Juan Mata would be the fall guy. ‘It’s all very well having a friendly smile and writing a mean blog, but neither of those things fly with Jose Mourinho,’ wrote Daniel Storey in mid-January. ‘If Alexis Sanchez arrives at Old Trafford, someone is going to lose out. With Henrikh Mkhitaryan already persona non grata, it will probably be lovely Juan.’
The Spaniard has started two of the club’s three Premier League games since, missing only the 2-0 defeat to Tottenham, when United looked horribly unbalanced with Anthony Martial in his place on the right-hand side. Upon reclaiming that spot against Huddersfield, Mata laid on his first assist in nine matches for Romelu Lukaku. It was a delightful goal.
‘His arrival is great news because a player of his level always raises the competition within the team and our competitiveness,’ was Mata’s assessment of Sanchez’s arrival last month, obviously via his blog. ‘He’s a great player and I’m sure that he will help us a lot.’ If extending his contract was not enough evidence, then Saturday ought to do it. Lovely Juan is here to stay and fight for his place.
“I suppose I hark back to the days when maybe people watched football matches, they talked about what happened over 95 minutes and not what had happened within 40 seconds of the 95 minutes because that’s all my interviews ever seem to be, you know? Was it a penalty? Was it not a penalty? Should the referee give a free-kick? Was it handball? And I would sometimes like to get back to discussing how well we did in the second half, how well Newcastle did in the first half and the way they tactically and we tactically used our tactical knowledge to produce the performances we did.”
Bravo. Although you had to laugh when Match of the Day 2 showed those comments then immediately cut to pundits in the studio debating whether it was a shirt pull. For fu…
On Boxing Day, Bournemouth drew 3-3 with West Ham. That result left them 18th, and without a win in eight Premier League games. The Cherries were then the only top-flight club not to sign a single player in January, and yet they have been 2018’s most improved side by far. Only Liverpool (16) have picked up more points in the last seven matches than Bournemouth (15), and only Tottenham (8) are on a longer unbeaten run. Plus Josh King and Lys Mousset scored; perhaps Eddie Howe isn’t too bad in the transfer market after all?
“Arsenal’s attacking force has always been what you have to manage. They haven’t scored as many goals as they have done in recent years at this stage of the season which gives us an opportunity to try and shut them out. It’s about being able to nullify the strengths of Arsenal and then, I’ve always felt, that defensively they are weak because of the amount of players they commit forward.”
No-one does quite as successful a line in blowing their own trumpet as Sam Allardyce. This is man who unveiled his ‘Premier League survival blueprint’ back in September, including points such as ‘keep clean sheets’, ‘quality in final third’ and ‘exploit the opposition’s weaknesses’. ‘Win matches’ was presumably deemed a step too far into parody.
Everton supporters will hope said blueprint is still fresh in the memory, because Allardyce may have to call upon it soon. The win over Leicester in midweek was the exception to a drab and dreary rule which saw Arsenal rip the Toffees apart in half an hour on Saturday. It turns out Everton were not “able to nullify the strengths of Arsenal”.
They did at least nullify their own. Allardyce was eager to apportion blame to his players post-match, but he must take his fair share. The manager pleads for consistency, yet changed his tactics to essentially copy the game plan Swansea executed to perfection to beat Arsenal last week. The back four which had thwarted Leicester was abandoned so Everton could mirror the back three that Swansea used to great effect against the Gunners.
“I think that while it was away from home the other night, we studied the Swansea performance where Swansea managed to get a result against them but the Emirates is a different kettle of fish,” Allardyce said before the game, highlighting the major flaw in his own plan. Only Manchester City had won more points at home than Arsenal before this weekend, yet they ranked ninth in an away Premier League table.
Allardyce embarked on an unbeaten run when he was given the keys to the Goodison Park castle. He based gradual success on defensive improvement, conceding just two goals in six matches. In that time, he made four changes to a settled starting defence. In the six games since, they have made 13 changes to the backline, and conceded 17 goals. The ‘keep clean sheets’ part of that famous blueprint appears to have been forgotten.
Of course, the former England manager maintained his 100% completion rate of passing the buck. “I was angry. I’m still angry. I think accepting an instruction is part of a player’s responsibility at the level required. The whole team played crap.
“There were clear instructions today because there was a good performance from Swansea against Arsenal that gave them a good victory and we based our plan on that,” Allardyce added, the student admitting that he had simply copied his friend’s work in the hope of matching his grades, not realising they were on different projects – a point that he must have forgotten to include on his survival blueprint.
Is this what Everton wanted? A cheap imitation of a team seven places below them in the table?
The most damning aspect of Allardyce’s reign thus far is that Everton were five points clear of relegation when he was appointed; that gap has been extended by just two points. The Toffees have by far the strongest squad in the bottom half, but a manager who has yet to learn how best to use them.
Our early loser. And proof, were it ever needed, that Sean Dyche is a genius.
The desperation to play Daniel Sturridge was understandable. The decision to drop Jay Rodriguez was unfathomable. The latter had scored five goals and assisted one in his previous six matches, while the former had started one game since November.
Most alarming is that Pardew took over an hour to actually react against Southampton. Ahmed Hegazy opened the scoring for the hosts after three minutes, but Southampton were ahead before half-time. “Maybe we scored too early,” was the manager’s lament, adding to an increasing and hilarious list of excuses. The tide had turned, but Pardew simply adorned his swimming trunks and held his breath in the hope it would sweep over him.
The battle was won and lost in midfield, and anyone reading the teamsheets could see that was the likely outcome. Gareth Barry and Claudio Yacob lined up for West Brom against Lemina and Oriol Romeu. It was a mismatch of epic proportions, and the foundation upon which the visitors built.
The damage was done ten minutes into the second half when Ward-Prowse put Southampton 3-1 ahead, and by then it was too late. A double substitution seven minutes later was sticking a plaster over a gunshot wound, and a self-inflicted one at that. West Brom are now four points adrift at the foot of the table, with a manager failing to find answers to simple questions.
Only Christian Eriksen (173) and Harry Kane (171) have featured in more of Mauricio Pochettino’s 199 games in charge than Dier (169). But in a fully fit Tottenham side, he would not feature ahead of Victor Wanyama or Mousa Dembele in midfield, nor Jan Vertonghen or Toby Alderweireld in defence. Pochettino has found a balance that he will not want to disrupt in attack; Dier might well be the sacrificial lamb.
Just as there must always be one runner in the race for the Champions League places declared as the ‘crisis club’, there always seems to be one team who pulls clear of the Premier League relegation battle each week. Bournemouth are the current owners of a baton passed between Crystal Palace, Brighton, Southampton, Newcastle and Swansea.
In truth, any side below Leicester is looking down instead of up. Seven points separate ninth from 19th, and just as one good run of form can see teams drag themselves towards the middle, a bad run can see them slip back into trouble.
Take West Ham, for instance. A 4-1 win over Huddersfield on January 13 left them 11th in the table, within one point of the top half and daring to dream. The Hammers had gone back to basics under David Moyes, and were reaping the benefits.
Less than a month later, they have dropped just one place but momentum has swung. Moyes has won just 26% of his Premier League games in charge, and while an ever-growing injury list and an underwhelming January transfer window are mitigating factors, excuses will fall on deaf ears if the slide continues. Next weekend’s visit to Watford is massive.
‘In a game with two potential goal of the season award contenders, discussion is still centered around decisions made by officials,’ I wrote in 16 Conclusions. A lot of that is down to his d*ck move.
Protest or not, Manchester City are without a win in their last three Premier League away games. Bloody fraud.
Arsenal producing their best, most cohesive performance while you sit on the bench is not a particularly good look, nor is your new contender for a place up front scoring as many goals on his debut as you have in your last ten Premier League games. Let’s hope the competition invigorates him.
Where were you when Manchester United dropped their most expensive player ever for Scott McTominay?
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