Match-going fans may find it a slight administrative chore, but there’s nothing as exciting as midweek league football. Thirty-three goals, two red cards, comebacks, cock-ups and a general all-round tingling.
After ten months without a midweek evening Premier League programme, we can only hope that we don’t have to wait as long next time. We don’t – there’s one in three weeks’ time.
Another win to make the “be careful what you wish for” brigade look utterly foolish. Having come through an injury crisis, Slaven Bilic has steadied the ship and has West Ham powering forward in the right direction. Tottenham, Liverpool, Manchester United, Crystal Palace and even Chelsea have all been touted for a top-four finish recently, so why not West Ham?
The reasons to doubt Bilic are decreasing by the week. At the start of the season West Ham forged a reputation for raising their game against the best teams, letting themselves down against the Premier League’s ‘lesser’ sides. The concern was that those victories were the least sustainable element of that form, but that view was misguided. West Ham now have the longest unbeaten run in the top flight, but also the longest run of victories. The draws of November and early December have not turned into defeats, as many feared, but victories.
After a recent Winners and Losers, I was criticised for comparing Bilic’s opening 20 matches as West Ham manager with Sam Allardyce’s final 20. This wasn’t fair (apparently) because, like Bilic, Allardyce had started the season well and simply tailed off.
In that case, let’s compare again. After December 20, 2014 until the end of the season, Allardyce’s West Ham picked up only 16 points. From the same day onwards in 2015, Bilic’s West Ham are already on 11. This West Ham side might be the real deal.
Often a figure of fun, both in general and among West Ham supporters, but no longer. Collins has been superb since returning to West Ham’s side in mid-December. They haven’t lost in that time.
Aston Villa and the value of hope
A long, long, long way to go yet, but a victory to give Aston Villa and Remi Garde a glimmer of light. They are now eight points from safety.
More importantly, the win over Palace will give supporters hope. After the angry exchange between a number of fans and Micah Richards at Wycombe, those who confronted him must now be convinced that Richards’ “we’re trying” message was not mere lip service.
There may be no better time for Villa to face Leicester in a televised local derby on Saturday. Somehow manufacture consecutive victories for the first time since May, and suddenly those supporters will be mindful of a mini-miracle. Hope’s a funny bugger.
Leicester City and a new way of winning
Both of your two best performers of the season playing badly is rarely a good thing, but in Leicester’s case it was exactly that. Neither Jamie Vardy or Riyad Mahrez did anything of note against Tottenham, but Claudio Ranieri’s team still got the job done thanks to less-heralded contributors. The unlikeliest of Premier League title challenges has suddenly been given a reboot after two points from three games over the Christmas period.
This result was particularly important for Ranieri because it showcased a new way of winning. Leicester have won friends not just through their astonishing points total but through their style. Their happy-go-lucky approach is not quite at the level of Kevin Keegan’s entertainers, but it might be the modern interpretation. Only Manchester City have scored more goals than Leicester, only one top-half club has conceded more. One 5-2, one 4-2, three 3-2s; there’s little not to like.
Impressively for a team joint-top of the table, this was only Leicester’s fourth clean-sheet victory of the season in all competitions. It was also only their second 1-0 win, easily the Premier League’s most common score.
Before Wednesday, Leicester had managed five league clean sheets this season – 12 teams had recorded more – and only two away from home (against Swansea and Newcastle). Ranieri’s side demonstrated a previously unseen resilience and defensive solidity. They stayed in the game when under significant pressure, and then hit Tottenham with a sucker punch. Keep that up, and Leicester really could go far.
“It was a team win but Payet made the difference,” said Slaven Bilic after the 3-1 win over Bournemouth. “West Ham fans love that kind of player with a bit of magic and he has got more than a bit. What I admire most is his character, because that is what all true champions have got. When he makes a mistake – and I am talking about training here – he is crazy and angry at himself and that is what is makes him a leader.”
I don’t even need to consult my ‘esteemed’ colleagues, merely step up and shout it from the rooftops: Dimitri Payet is Football365’s favourite Premier League player. The goals, the free-kicks, the slight nod in the direction of chubbiness, the hint of former Manchester United midfielder Anderson in his eyes and the promise that there must be more players in Europe that will waltz over here and immediately start taking the p*ss in a good way. We’ve fallen for him big time.
After seven scoreless games following injury, Valencia returned to goalscoring form in style against Bournemouth. Pretty sure the Ecuadorian’s free-kick broke multiple laws of physics.
Arsene Wenger was understandably frustrated at the concession of a late equaliser, but he will have had a spring in his step on Thursday morning. Had you offered Wenger the same number of points as Manchester City and more than Tottenham from this midweek programme, Arsenal’s manager would have shook your hand so firmly it felt like Geoff Capes was doing the work.
Two of his goals were offside, but you just try and take the smile off Defoe’s face. This was his first Premier League hat-trick since Tottenham’s 9-1 win over Wigan in November 2009.
Defoe now has nine league goals for the season, a total bettered by only six players. If he can keep up this current form, he can be the backbone of Sunderland’s survival.
Two league games against the two worst sides in the Premier League on form, Sunderland would have wanted at least four points from Aston Villa (h) and Swansea City (a); they got six. Sam Allardyce’s side are now just one point from safety.
Not quite the sensational performance that some hailed, but a wonderful second goal to complement his early penalty. Rooney will never convince us that he was worth the £300,000-a-week contract United promised him over a four-year period, but a run of goals would at least justify his place in Manchester United’s starting XI.
Most Newcastle supporters would like to see a new striker arrive at St James’ Park during the January transfer window, but few would want Mitrovic to lose his starting place in the team. He might be as mad as a box of frogs (and even offered an impression of Temuri Ketsbaia’s famous celebration), but unpredictability, when harnessed, can be a powerful tool.
Mitrovic is the loosest of loose cannons, but his waspish hassling and harrying is incredibly infectious. When he plays well, so do Newcastle. And he only turned 21 in September.
A comfortable home victory over a side that Southampton really should have designs on finishing above. Such is the ultra-tight nature of the table, should Ronald Koeman’s side beat West Brom on Saturday, they will be only four points behind Manchester United.
‘Such is the lack of patience with new signings that some Liverpool supporters had already begun to write off the Brazilian as a waste of money at £28m,’ I wrote on Wednesday evening. ‘This was proof that, at his maximum, no Liverpool attacking player can rival him.’
‘It was not simply the splendour of Firmino’s second goal – although I could watch it on loop from now until Sunday – but the way his effervescence rubbed off on those around him. As the diagram (courtesy of Opta) shows, with Lallana as the nominal false nine Firmino was able to drift all over the pitch. Often isolated in his forward role, Klopp may have found a solution.’
To repeat a statistic from that post-match piece, Firmino’s league goals have come against Manchester City and Arsenal, and his assists against Chelsea, Manchester City and Leicester. The Brazilian is a big-game player.
A superb turn and finish to give Arsenal the lead, and adept at holding up the ball against a physical central defensive pair. Yet Giroud was also guilty of missing from 12 inches out and criticised by his manager as Arsenal failed to put the game beyond doubt. Repeat ad infinitum.
“You want to be surprised by the quality of your players and where he surprises you is in the intensity of this teamwork,” said Arsene Wenger before the game. “What is very interesting in Campbell’s case is that he looks like he has gained more confidence and authority in his game and in the final third he is a dangerous player and he has shown that.” Wenger is often reserved in his praise for individuals within his squad, but Campbell had provoked a positively gushing reaction.
Campbell did not falter after such a high billing, featuring as the heart of Arsenal’s attacking endeavour at Anfield. That final-third “authority” mentioned by Wenger was again at the fore, for Campbell has the ability to secure himself time on the ball in attacking areas by shielding it effectively. That gives him the chance to wait for an overlapping run, and his passing was more incisive than any other Arsenal player.
Solid, safe and sharp in keeping a clean sheet against Manchester City. Those three adjectives haven’t been used too often to describe Tim Howard this season, but the American deserves great credit for his display. Now keep it up.
Manchester United’s defending
It really is a farcical situation, like a practical joke where as soon as you run the hot tap in the bath, the plug automatically pops out. United are playing as if they have been given a finite amount of competence, and Louis van Gaal must choose whether to use it in either attack or defence. There is no doubt that United were infinitely more entertaining against Newcastle, but their defending for all three goals was abysmal.
Van Gaal’s defence has been give great praise this season, but the accusation is obvious: It’s a great deal easier to look good – and keep clean sheets – when the team is operating with a safety-first mentality. Manchester City (21) have conceded a similar number of league goals to United (20) this season, but their defence has been left far more exposed by the midfield. United’s attack showed they could play with vim and vigour; now the defence must show it can adjust to that development.
Lost Wijnaldum for the first Newcastle goal, gave away the penalty for the second and saw Paul Dummett’s shot deflect off him for the late equaliser. Just as we were content with Smalling at the heart of England’s defence, he gave us the willies.
Louis van Gaal
The entertainment factor may have increased ten-fold, but two more points dropped make it another bad week for Van Gaal. It’s now one win in his last eight Premier League games.
In the season when United finished seventh and David Moyes was sacked in March, United had 37 points after 21 matches; Van Gaal’s United have 34. The Dutchman’s survival owes more to the negligence of the club’s owners than his own success.
It’s worth pointing out that Van Gaal’s teams have rarely been known for eye-bleedingly boring football, so there must be a reason for United’s lack of attacking ambition since he arrived at Old Trafford. On Tuesday – as against Wolfsburg in the Champions League – we were given the explanation. Those two games, in which United were clearly told to attack with pace and commit midfielders forward, account for 18% of all the goals they have conceded in their 32 matches this season. United just can’t spin two plates without one crashing to the floor.
Van Gaal will say that results are the priority over entertainment, and might well take United back into their shell against Liverpool, but there is a valid retort. It shouldn’t be a case of either/or after the Dutchman has had 18 months in charge.
No United supporter is expecting – nor asking for – gung-ho adventure, but Van Gaal has to find a happy medium if he is to survive this onslaught. It doesn’t look good, of course, but we’ve been writing that for weeks.
In what promises to be a busy transfer window for those clubs haunted by the threat of relegation, it was Bournemouth who rolled the dice first. Benik Afobe and Lewis Grabban have already arrived from Wolves and Norwich respectively, £17m spent on two players with one Premier League goal between them. It’s a huge gamble on both thriving at a higher level.
While there is nothing wrong with the strategy, it’s hard not to think that Bournemouth’s transfer dealings are being made with at least one eye on the ‘what if’ of relegation. There is little point buying jobbing Premier League strikers who will then inevitably leave should the worst occur. Afobe and Grabban, along with Callum Wilson, would be a formidable strikeforce in the Championship.
Bournemouth are far from doomed, which therefore raises a large question over their January business. The club’s investment has been notable, but the type of players recruited obvious. The positions of players Bournemouth have bought for fees since promotion are as follows: Left-back (out for the season), attacking midfielder, forward, forward, forward, forward. The spend on those six players was £40m, yet the most defensive of them who could still play a part this season is Max Gradel.
Yet Bournemouth’s problem this season has not been scoring goals. Before Afobe and Grabban arrived they had as many as Crystal Palace and more than Liverpool and Stoke. Only Newcastle and Sunderland have conceded more.
Every season, strugglers buy attackers in the hope of survival, every year the same mistake. The team that has scored the fewest goals has regularly avoided Premier League relegation. The team who has conceded the most has gone down every single time.
If there is a silver lining to shipping three goals to West Ham, it’s that Eddie Howe must surely now see the priority. A new goalkeeper and at least one central defender are needed post-haste.
Now four league games without a win or even a goal, Alan Pardew and Palace are fortunate that the Premier League did not adopt our idea of relegating any side that lost to Aston Villa. This was Villa’s first win in the Premier League since the opening day, and only their second clean sheet.
For all the excellence of Palace’s season to date, the performance of their strikers has been shambolic. Connor Wickham is the only one with a league goal so far, and that was a penalty. Wickham, Patrick Bamford, Dwight Gayle, Frazier Campbell and Marouane Chamakh have all been different types of underwhelming. If there was any further evidence needed that Pardew would like a new forward, his false nine formation revealed all. Bakary Sako is many things, but a central striker he ain’t.
The most concerning aspect of Palace’s defeat on Tuesday was that they managed only one shot on target. In their previous eight league games, Villa had allowed an average of 5.1 shots on target, and never fewer than four.
There is a long way to fall until the gloss is taken from Palace’s successful league campaign, but Pardew will be aware of the need to stop the rot. Since mid-October, they’ve picked up 16 points from 13 matches. That’s not quite a party with Pardy.
Even if Wayne Rooney continues to improve, he will never have blistering pace. Therefore, if United are going to accommodate him in the team behind Anthony Martial, Van Gaal may have to provide pace on both wings in the form of Jesse Lingard, Ashley Young or Memphis Depay. Suddenly lovely Juan’s place in the team looks very insecure.
Tottenham and the summer mistake
One defeat will not change the buoyant mood at White Hart Lane, and Mauricio Pochettino was keen to point out the domination that Tottenham enjoyed for long periods against Leicester.
“Schmeichel was man of the match,” Pochettino said. “See the stats, it was positive. Difficult to explain why we didn’t take three points.” Were this a manager under pressure, that “see the stats” line would be derided in the tabloid media, but Spurs’ manager has earned the right for his quote to be taken as read.
That said, there is one point on which Spurs have sold themselves short this season. Harry Kane has scored two non-penalty goals in his last eight league games, and drifted in and out of proceedings against Leicester. To be frank, he looks half-knackered.
To have entered this period of five matches in 14 days with one frontline striker was a foolhardy move that could yet cost Spurs a top-four place.
“If you have two unbelievable strikers, then I am not stupid. Why not [play them together]?” said Pochettino before the game. That it’s still an ‘if’ is the Achilles’ heel of Tottenham’s season.
Manuel Pellegrini will point to the late penalty that Raheem Sterling should have been awarded after a lunge from John Stones and scowl, but it really shouldn’t have come to that.
Since October 17, City have dropped points in seven of their 12 league games. It’s impossible to shake the suspicion that the next four months could be overshadowed by an extended production of Waiting For Pep.
One league goal in his last six matches, and only six shots on target in that time. A world where Aguero isn’t being magnificent is a sadder one indeed.
‘Apologised to all the lads & the staff @ Ncfc. Massive apology to all fans as well! Made a big mistake. Out of character. Won’t happen again,’ was O’Neil’s tweeted apology on Wednesday night, but he should be made to do lines after the stupidest red card you ever will see.
Lunging in two-footed, from behind, on a player 50 yards from goal and on the touchline, with the score at 0-0. Why, why, why and why?
Football club owners are not judged on their good decisions, but the bad ones. Jenkins may well have facilitated Swansea’s rise through a series of savvy recruitment decisions on managers, but it is his mistake that could cost the club their Premier League status.
Alan Curtis has had two matches in full-time charge, a loss to League Two Oxford and another to 19th-placed Sunderland. Continue as he is, and Swansea will need a caretaker for the caretaker. More care should have been taken in the first place.
Carroll being fit is more newsworthy than him being injured.
Included in Big Weekend for needing to make an impression with Eden Hazard returning to full fitness, Pedro was substituted at half-time by Guus Hiddink. Presume he isn’t a regular reader.
Horrible red card, horrible own goal, horrible third kit. The worst sort of hat-trick.
Graham Scott and his assistants
Incorrectly awarded a penalty, incorrectly sent off a player and awarded two offside goals in a crucial game in the fight for relegation. Go team!
One goal in his last seven league matches. Still a fabulous season, but remember when Roy Hodgson not starting him centrally was a thing to get p*ssy over?
A truly rotten performance at St Mary’s, but a marker of how far Watford have come that dropping to tenth caused such frustration.