Premier League winners and losers

Date published: Monday 19th March 2018 10:58

Winners

Mohamed Salah…
At his current rate of 0.93 goals per Premier League game, Salah is on course to score 35 league goals this season. There is good reason to think that he might hit and move past that target, too. Liverpool still have to play Bournemouth, Stoke City and Brighton at Anfield, and Crystal Palace and West Brom away from home.

Should Salah indeed reach that figure of 35, it would be a landmark achievement. The Egyptian only needs four goals to surpass the highest-ever goal total in a 38-game Premier League season, but 35 would make him the highest goalscorer in any English top-flight season since Ron Davies for Southampton in 1966/67.

Salah is not quite there yet, but the compliments need not be watered down. A player signed as a wide forward has not just scored goals at a surprising rate, but a rate above anything we have seen in 50 years of English football.

Jurgen Klopp’s post-game summation of Salah understandably generated plenty of headlines:

“I think Mo is on the way. I don’t think Mo or anybody else wants to be compared with Lionel Messi – he is the one who has been doing what he’s been doing for what feels like 20 years or so. The last player I know who had the same influence on a team performance was Diego Maradona. But Mo is in a fantastic way, that’s for sure.”

You can’t really doubt that assessment, although Klopp knows as well as anyone that saying the M-word will inevitably lead to Messi comparisons. Salah has produced a ‘Messi season’, one in which everything he touches turns to gold and one in which at times he has been simply unplayable. There is no possible defence for this.

To judge this success story, we have to look at where it came from. Salah’s fee looks remarkably cheap now, but there was a reason. He was a creator as much as a finisher, but also a player who was prone to inconsistency. Liverpool were not fighting off interest from dozens of other clubs.

“It’s a lot of money for Liverpool to buy a player, who, if everybody is fit, I don’t think starts,” said former Liverpool player (and now pundit) Steve Nicol, and it was hardly an outrageous suggestion at the time with Philippe Coutinho, Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino in place.

From that place of doubt, Salah has potentially made himself the best single-season goalscorer in the last 50 years of English football. Kevin de Bruyne might have been the Premier League’s best player and thus deserving of the PFA’s award, but Salah has produced the single most astonishing achievement of the season.

 

…And Jurgen Klopp making an exception
The typical Jurgen Klopp mantra is that nobody gets a free pass. For his tactical system to work, every player must be prepared to sacrifice for the cause, and that includes attackers tracking back to defend.

Roberto Firmino is the perfect example, a player Klopp inherited and has revitalised to make him ideal for the system. Firmino runs and runs and tackles and runs and runs until you take out his batteries at full-time. That what makes judging the Brazilian on his goal and assist tallies so pointless.

When he arrived, Salah was expected to do the same. Luciano Spalletti, his manager at Roma, talked up his work rate:

“If you like, I will show you an example of fantastic, brilliant habits. It’s very simple and it’s not just that the player in question went to recover a lost ball. You’ve made fun of me for years about this concept of the right habits.

“The example that I will show you is when the score was 4-0 in the 75th minute after Salah had already scored two goals. This is what I understand as heart and tremendous behaviour. If every player in our squad applied the same level, we’ll get so much satisfaction.”

Yet one of the keys to Salah’s extraordinary goal record this season is that Klopp has relaxed his demands of Salah’s defensive work to allow the Egyptian to be more effective in the final third.

“Roberto [Firmino] loves running in that direction, and chasing the players. If I said to him, ‘Stop it’. He couldn’t. That’s why I took him off because he will never rest,” Klopp said after the Watford victory.

“He runs all the time but then Mo didn’t stop as well tonight in the other direction. He took each sprint like the 100 metre final in the Olympic Games. That’s what I mean, the team adapts to the strengths. Nobody is talking and saying, ‘Mo but you have to…'”

That is not to say Salah works less hard than Mane or Firmino, merely that he does his hard work in a smaller area of the pitch, which concentrates his impact. Against Watford, 49% of Mane’s touches came in the final third, and 56% of Firmino’s; Salah’s figure was at 73%. He is the exception in this Liverpool forward line.

By turning Salah into a striker rather than winger or wide forward, Klopp has recognised that to ask him to track back could blunt his attacking influence. When you have a player in this kind of goalscoring form, why would you put that under threat?

 

Liverpool’s home potency
They’ve scored two or more goals in nine of their last ten home games, and the only exception was the virtual dead rubber against Porto.

In the Premier League this season, Liverpool have scored 38 goals at home and only allowed 34 shots on target to create a difference of +4 (only City join them in the black). By way of comparison, Tottenham’s difference by that spurious measure is -8 and Manchester United’s is -20.

 

Wilfried Zaha
Crystal Palace’s Premier League record with Zaha starting:
Played – 21
Won – 7
Drawn – 9
Lost – 5
Points per game – 1.43
Goals per game – 1.24

Crystal Palace’s Premier League record without Zaha starting:
Played – 10
Won – 0
Drawn – 0
Lost – 10
Points per game – 0.00
Goals per game – 0.40

Sometimes those statistics can be a little misleading as to a player’s influence. Here, they tell the full story. Zaha is Palace’s champion and their difference-maker. He belongs in the top half of the Premier League, and will surely do his utmost to take Palace there if they stay up. If he stays fit, it shouldn’t be in doubt.

 

Roy Hodgson and Crystal Palace’s endeavour
There are two ways to approach a relegation battle. You can play the role of firefighter, making a team more solid in defence and hope to use clean sheets as your strategy to gain draws and the odd 1-0 win to move up the table. Or you can make the team more expansive, and surprise opposition managers not used to adventure from struggling sides.

Appointed by Palace in September, 14 months after his England team collapsed so miserably against Iceland, Hodgson would have been forgiven for opting for the first option. After all, that is far less courageous. Make a team resolute and be relegated, and people remark that there was nothing you could do. Make a team more expansive and be relegated, and you are accused of naivety.

Hodgson deserves lavish praise if he keeps Palace up following a shambolic June, July and August when the club tasked Frank de Boer with transforming the playing style without giving him the players. But Hodgson’s greatest achievement is that he might achieve this – and his – unlikely redemption with a team that attempts to play creative football. If Zaha is the difference-maker, it still takes a brave manager to give him such a free role, given what is at stake. It also rails against the image Hodgson created of himself during his tenure with England.

Since Hodgson has taken over, Palace rank seventh in the Premier League for shots and ninth for chances created. Given their injury crisis over the last two months, that is a mightily impressive commitment to a certain way of playing. Adversity usually forces managers into a safety-first mentality. With Hodgson, the opposite has occurred.

 

Cenk Tosun and Duncan Ferguson
“I am very happy because of the two goals and the three points,” Tosun said after his fourth goal in three Everton games. “It was very important to win so I have to thank my teammates. They were great in this hard weather, which made things really difficult, especially in the first half. But it improved in the second half and we played better as well.

“I work on my game after training with Duncan Ferguson. He was a legend of Everton and he has helped me a lot. We work together on my physique and on my shooting so I can do better on the pitch.”

Perhaps I’m reading a little too much into Tosun’s post-match praise for teammates and Everton coach, but there were certainly no kind words for Sam Allardyce. Allardyce regularly left Tosun out of the team after he joined, saying that the Turkish striker was struggling to adapt to the Premier League.

Understandably, Allardyce was keen to stress that it was his decisions that have caused this upturn in form from Tosun:

“I think his confidence is gained by us taking him out early doors when everyone was going: ‘Why aren’t you playing him?’

“You know, it’s the usual rubbish you get from outside the football club. They say: ‘You pay all that money and don’t play him, why not?’ That’s because they don’t know. I do, they don’t.”

Whether Allardyce, Ferguson or Tosun himself is responsible, Everton fans won’t care. They probably think he’ll be at Goodison longer than the manager anyway.

 

Bournemouth
On Christmas Day, Bournemouth were 18th in the Premier League with 16 points from 18 matches. Since then, Eddie Howe’s team have taken 20 points from 12 games, a total beaten only by Manchester United, Manchester City, Liverpool and Tottenham. Bournemouth are also the fourth top scorers in the Premier League over that same period.

This is a club with the fourth lowest wage bill in the top flight. Howe is a bloody genius.

 

Wayne Rooney
Created five chances against Stoke, the highest of any player in the Premier League this weekend and the most Rooney has managed in a game since August 2016.

 

Junior Stanislas
Four goals and an assist in his eight games after returning from injury. The only four English non-strikers with more Premier League goals this season are Dele Alli, Jesse Lingard, Raheem Sterling and Wayne Rooney. Three of those will be in England’s World Cup squad and the other has retired.

 

Losers

Alan Pardew
Pardew’s greatest trick is making you believe that this West Brom situation was already a lost cause when he arrived. Such is his emphatic under-performance since joining the club, you might assume that three-quarters of the ship was already underwater, and the rest was sinking fast.

That’s actually completely untrue. Pardew was appointed on November 29 with West Brom outside the relegation zone and with 24 league games remaining in their season. The greatest damnation of his reign is that the three clubs below West Brom and in the bottom three on November 29 are all now outside it.

Pardew was supposed to transform the mood, and on that score he can at least claim success: Under Tony Pulis, monotony and tedium reigned; now the only talk is of disaster.

Pardew’s record of eight points from a possible 51 is sensationally bad. This is the realm of the over-promoted and inexperienced, the Terry Connors, Ricky Sbragias and Steve Wigleys of this unforgiving world. Pardew has won one of his 17 league matches. Pitiful.

Pardew’s biggest failure lies in his inability to maintain morale even when West Brom have taken a step in the right direction. His entire managerial ethos surrounds the generating and cherishing of high team spirit, but that has been absent.

Take the lead against Leicester; lose. Take the lead against Bournemouth; lose. Take the lead against Southampton; lose. Take the lead against West Ham; lose. In their last 10 league games, Pardew’s West Brom have scored the first goal of the game six times and yet somehow managed to take just four points from those games. That’s relegation confirmed in one statistic.

Pardew has now won seven of his last 55 Premier League matches with two different clubs. He should now be finished as a Premier League manager, and would be were it not for the unfathomable lingering goodwill that comes with ‘knowing the league’. A plea to owners of struggling Premier League clubs in this and any other season: experience of failure is less useful than inexperience.

 

Huddersfield’s defending
A team that looks very much like it has run out of steam.

There has been little secret to Huddersfield’s success this season. They have scored just ten goals away from home and only three sides have taken fewer away points, but their home goal scoring has hardly been much better. Instead, David Wagner has relied on a resilient home defence.

It worked, too. In their first eight home games of the season, Huddersfield allowed their opponents an average of just 10.2 shots per home game. That was virtually identical to the record of defending champions Chelsea.

But that solidity has fallen apart. In their last six home games, Huddersfield allowed Stoke seven shots on target, West Ham six, Liverpool seven and Crystal Palace six. Before then, the only time they had allowed more than five shots on target at home was against a rampant Tottenham in September.

On Saturday, Huddersfield allowed Crystal Palace to have 18 shots. That’s the highest total of shots they have faced in any home game all season, and it came against a fellow relegation struggler in a crucial fixture. Wagner must rediscover this hard shell quickly if Huddersfield are to survive. Home games in April against Everton and Watford might just decide their fate.

 

Watford’s away form
Watford’s last ten away league results:
0-1 – L
1-2 – L
0-1 – L
1-3 – L
0-2 – L
0-1 – L
0-0 – D
0-2 – L
0-3 – L
0-5 – L

They last scored away from home on January 2. Still, only Manchester United and Tottenham to come in two of their final three away games. Be fine.

 

Charlie Adam
Just a stupid, stupid boy. Stoke City needed discipline, and one of their most senior players cost them the match at the most inopportune time.

 

Paul Lambert
He cannot legislate for the sending-off of Adam, but Lambert is learning that turning around a reputation in the middle of a Premier League relegation fight is mightily hard. He has drawn four and lost three of his seven games since beating Huddersfield Town in his first game.

Stoke face Arsenal (away) and Tottenham (at home) in their next two league games, and still have to travel to Anfield in the league. The bookmakers make them favourites to join West Brom in the Championship. That would surely cause Lambert to leave his fourth different club in four consecutive seasons. If his next job is as a Premier League manager, then I give up.

 

Miguel Britos
The good news is that it’s Monday morning. So Britos has probably just about stopped feeling dizzy.

Daniel Storey

 

More from Planet Sport: Kevin Pietersen’s top 10 Test knocks (Cricket365).

 


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