There is a reason why Hughton has not received lavish praise until now. Managers of smaller clubs tend to come into focus when their teams either embark on a run of victories or upset one of the top six. It was not until February 24 that Brighton won consecutive matches this season, and not until Sunday that they beat a top-six team.
Brighton have bobbed along this season, albeit in a league where even their own fans assumed they would struggle. The full list of teams they had beaten before Sunday: West Ham, West Brom, Newcastle, Swansea, Watford. Hughton was quietly going about his business.
But Hughton has always quietly gone about his business. He is one of football’s gentlemen, polite and humble in every situation. He rules his clubs with warm hand rather than iron fist. There is no public censure of referees, other managers or his own team’s misfortune. If Hughton retains plenty of goodwill within the media and his peers, it is all deserved.
One aspect of Brighton’s (and therefore Hughton’s) season that does deserve more credit is their home form. The Amex is not a cauldron of noise nor a stadium in which the players can feel the breath of supporters on the back of their necks. Instead, Brighton’s wonderful home performances have come from a well-drilled team playing to the strengths that made them successful in the Championship. Only Chelsea, Manchester City and Liverpool have left with three points.
With 34 points already claimed and with Leicester and Huddersfield still to visit the Amex, survival from relegation is virtually secure in early March. If Pep Guardiola’s dominance of the league and Sean Dyche’s early-season wonder makes both candidates to be the Premier League manager of the year, Hughton fully justifies being on that podium. Good guys don’t have to finish last.
There are certain managers in the Premier League (and it does tend to be the English old guard) who are immune to accepting culpability. It’s understandable to an extent. With patience and job security so low, publicly admitting guilt risks inviting unwanted pressure.
Yet there is a benefit to honesty. After Swansea’s 4-1 defeat to Brighton a week ago, Carvalhal accepted that his substitutions had cost his team the match. Swansea’s manager had plenty enough accrued goodwill to ensure that he would not be placed under pressure, but it also took the spotlight away from his players and back onto the manager. The same principle applies to his use of wacky metaphors. Everything is calculated.
Seven days after a 4-1 defeat to one relegation rival, a 4-1 win against another. This time, Carvalhal’s tactics were spot on. He instructed his players to begin the game at a furious pace, pressing West Ham in possession and forcing them to clear the ball long, while using quick turnovers to cause panic in a defence playing in a new shape. Swansea also played with a front two, but gave both Ayew brothers licence to drift into the areas between West Ham’s back three and two wing-backs. They delighted in the space.
On Saturday, Swansea scored four times in a game for the first time since November 2016. It’s hard to believe that this is the same team that had four shots on target in total in November 2017. Carvalhal the magician.
He’s now scored more goals than Luis Suarez ever managed in a season for Liverpool. Even if the number of games played by both players makes the comparison slightly false, it’s still a bloody ridiculous thing to be writing in March.
Having been worried on Oxlade-Chamberlain’s behalf in the two months directly after his move to Anfield, it’s only fair to point out that he is now enjoying himself in Liverpool. Injuries to Georginio Wijnaldum and Adam Lallana have afforded him regular starts in midfield, and while his former club capitulate, Oxlade-Chamberlain is busy ensuring that he will play Champions League football again next season. None of which will do his World Cup chances any harm.
You ask him to play wing-back, and he does it. You ask him to play as wide forward, and he does it. You ask him to fill in as a central striker, and he does it. You ask him to harry and hassle opponents, and he does it. You need him to unlock a defence, and he does it. You ask him to score goals, and he does it.
Son could be a little peeved with life at Tottenham. While Dele Alli has a VIP pass to the first team despite a comparatively disappointing season, Son is regularly left on the bench and given 20 minutes or fewer to impress. Since joining Tottenham, he has been on the bench 38 times in the league and started only 57 times. His talent merits better than that.
Yet Son does not kick up a fuss, make pointed statements to his manager in the media or ask his agent to leak stories of discontent. Instead he simply gets on with every task set with the willingness of the most loyal servant.
“I think Son is one of the players from who you always expect amazing things,” Mauricio Pochettino said after the game. “He’s a talented player, consistent, very professional and of course when a player like him or Harry, they work a lot and that work pays back. He is another example of a model profession – Harry Kane and Son. But we have a lot of examples of what it means to be professional.”
Selling Son on his work ethic does him a disservice, but selling him on his personality should not. If his goal record doesn’t merit being mentioned in the same breath as Kane, there is a reason Pochettino links the two together. These are exactly the type of people you need when creating a squad greater than the sum of its parts.
Kurt Zouma and Stoke’s defence
Paul Lambert inherited the leakiest defence in the Premier League. He may not have solved all of Stoke’s problems, and they remain in deep trouble, but Lambert has at least made Stoke solid. They have kept three clean sheets in his six matches in charge, and conceded just four goals. That was enough to make them our early winners.
Manchester City’s defence
Just when you thought thy couldn’t get any more dominant, Manchester City have now conceded three goals in their last nine matches and the fewest goals per game of any Premier League club. Good luck, everyone.
Now go and read 16 Conclusions.
It’s easy to be a little cynical about Mahrez’s sudden rediscovery of his love for Leicester City, and summer actions may well prove more telling than anything that occurs between January and May.
Still, he remains Leicester’s most talented player. If Mahrez’s last-gasp free-kick proved his worth to his club, the joyous knee slide demonstrated that the winger is hardly down in the dumps.
Three points after conceding the first goal of the game for the first time in the Premier League under Sean Dyche. It took 54 matches, but the wait only makes victory taste sweeter. Burnley are now five points behind Arsenal, having won one of their last 11 games. Madness.
Only four players have more Premier League assists and only four have created more chances. None of those were signed for as little as £2.5m and none joined from the German second tier. I’m working on a Gross and net pun that is proving a little taxing, but until then let’s just say Brighton have found the bargain of the season.
A weekend during which they did exactly what was expected of them, and yet Tottenham are still winners because Chelsea and Arsenal both lost. For all the improvement in Spurs over the last three years, there is one thing they have been unable to boast, but even that may soon change. For the first time since 1994/95, Tottenham should end the season as the kings of London.
Arsene Wenger and the legacy
When Arsenal won the FA Cup in 2015, beating Aston Villa in the final, there were already plenty of supporters who believed that Arsene Wenger should no longer be the club’s manager. Wenger had lost his edge, they felt, no longer possessing the Unique Selling Point of his first eight years in charge. He had ushered in a new era of English football, but in doing so he had set a challenge for other coaches and clubs to catch up with him. Many had done that; a select few had even passed him.
What was never in doubt in 2015 was Wenger’s legacy. Had he walked into the sunset then, or even last summer, holding the FA Cup aloft to the adoring masses, the eulogies would have been written without the need to qualify any compliments. Even if the short-term history had been a disappointment, the long-term reputation was secured and safe.
Those supporters who wanted Wenger to leave in 2015 were less angry than they are now, but that’s hardly a surprise. Football is the same as any other business in that regard. Consistently and very obviously take your loyal customers for fools and treat them publicly as such, and bitterness will fester. Arsenal fans are not asking for a trophy every season, they’re asking their club to at least be pointed in the right direction.
Wenger’s own complicity in this downfall now threatens his legacy – how could it not? Nobody will ever forget how he hitched this great club and English football up and into a bright new dawn, but darkness has followed light. Wenger is now the manager who led the revolution and then stood and watched as civil war broke out in his kingdom.
Over time, we will hopefully be able to separate Wenger the discoverer from Wenger the deadbeat and choose to focus on the former. But every time Arsenal’s manager pleads that he is the best man to turn this situation around despite all evidence to the contrary, it chips away at the marble.
Wenger is, it is so sad to say, making himself look like an incompetent figure of the past. Once he was the man of the future.
An apt Arsenal metaphor
“When you have just the trousers on it’s easy to take the trousers off as well. But when you are naked completely you have to find the shirt to try to put it on again and dress normal again” – Wenger.
And that’s Arsenal, hungover on a Wednesday morning and desperately searching for a clean pair of boxers and socks in the dark while trying not to wake their partner (who has been awake the whole time, cursing your bumbling frame).
Of course the buck must stop with the manager, the coaching staff, the coaching systems and the hierarchy above the manager that allows for mediocrity to be championed. But my goodness some of the defending from senior international footballers is awful. Have a little pride, Laurent and Shkodran.
The title race…
The Premier League title race has been over for a long time. Manchester City held a five-point lead on November 1, an eight-point lead on December 1 and a 12-point lead on January 1 when they also had a game in hand. There has been no jeopardy.
Yet the impact of this title stroll will be felt most over the next few weeks. The matches that we would usually see as monumental in deciding the destination of the title, such as City hosting Chelsea at the Etihad, are now virtually meaningless for one side and barely watchable.
Seeing the fifth best team in the country, with the third biggest budget, having to resort to sitting deep, playing a 5-4-1 and sacrificing possession in a league game hammers home just how dominant Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City have become. The challenge is on every other club to bridge the gap, but it’s already widening to the point of chasm.
…and the top-four race
This was our back-up. With the title race over by Christmas, we reassured ourselves that the battle for the Champions League places would be enthralling right down to the final few weeks. People even spoke of the need to improve goal difference, with that a likely separator between a season of league success and failure.
Now, even that is hanging on by a thread. We were told that Liverpool and Tottenham would run out of steam, but those two clubs have lost one of their combined 17 league games in 2018. Arsenal and Chelsea, the established elite clubs and Champions League regulars, have lost nine of their combined 16.
Suddenly, the gap between Tottenham in fourth and Chelsea in fifth is five points. Given that Spurs have only dropped six points in almost three months and still have Bournemouth, Stoke, Newcastle, Brighton, Watford, West Brom and Leicester to play in their final nine games, that might be that. Tottenham are a 1/6 shot to finish in the top four.
By all accounts, Pardew will again survive the chop at West Brom this week. Not because he is performing at a level above wildly incompetent, but because the club believe there are no viable alternatives who would agree to take on the position with the club heading towards the Football League. That’s a situation that even Pardew would struggle to sell with a positive spin.
Forgive me for repetition, but from four days ago:
‘One thing that hasn’t changed is Southampton’s abysmal shooting. They rank seventh in the division for chances created, bettered only by the current top six. Southampton’s shot accuracy of 38.7% puts them 18th, while they only fare marginally better for shot conversion (8.5% – 16th).’
Against Stoke, Southampton had 18 shots, and got six of them on target. They failed to score for the tenth time in the league this season.
‘Southampton may be rewarded for their perseverance. They may be victorious in their must-win game over Stoke on Saturday. Pellegrino may survive, learn from this season and thrive in 2018/19. But Southampton have sacked managers for less emphatic underperformance. And we are talking in ifs and buts. Just as likely is that Southampton are suffering death by a thousand draws, suffocated by the passivity of their manager.’
Against Stoke, Southampton drew their seventh home game of the season and their 13th in total. They rank first in the league for both.
Everton’s ranking in the Premier League since Allardyce took over:
Total shots – 20th
Chances created – 20th
Shots on target – 20th
Dribbles completed – 19th
Possession – 16th
Successful passes – 14th
If the results were excellent, the above could be forgiven by Everton supporters. If the above was more promising, a run of poor form might be excused with the club at least looking to play an expansive, entertaining brand of football. As it is, both are awful.
Allardyce will continue to call out the performance of the club’s players, but this has now become an exercise in damage limitation of his reputation. Everton have lost six away games in a row for the first time since October 2005. Allardyce is no longer the man that never got his chance, but the manager who was given wonderful opportunities with club and country and blew them both.
A career that has fallen away rapidly having swapped south Wales for Merseyside, and proof that getting your big move isn’t always a reason to be cheerful.
If one top-six manager in London is enduring the most extended of divorce proceedings after a long-term marriage, Conte is doing something similar. The last time Chelsea beat a team currently in the top eight was November 5. Again, go read the Conclusions.
Our early loser, along with the pundit who insisted that Moyes had already done plenty enough to be given a new contract extension.
If Moyes was a tactician, he would not have used a wing-back system with a 36-year-old Patrice Evra and 33-year-old Pablo Zabaleta in the positions that require the most energy.
If Moyes was a motivator, West Ham would not have looked so utterly disinterested in a hugely significant league game.
If Moyes was a safe pair of hands, his teams would not concede four times to Swansea City, including twice from corners.
If Moyes was an inspirer of men, West Ham would not meekly accept defeat.
Which begs the question: Moyes, huh? What is he good for?