Last week, John Nicholson wrote his column on the lack of ‘soul-lifters’ in football. Whilst I fully agree with that sentiment, this was a weekend for two ‘socks-rolled-down maverick talents, the rock ‘n’ roll footballers’ to respond.
For Southampton, Mane is an incredibly attractive player for the neutral to watch. He is equally capable of shanking a shot out for a throw-in as arrowing the ball into the top corner. His pace, trickery and unpredictability dictates that he will never be dull.
Mane’s record-breaking hat trick on Saturday owed much to Aston Villa’s catastrophic defending, but the Senegal international punished those mistakes emphatically. Scoring three times in two minutes and 56 seconds is a Premier League record that will surely remain unsurpassed for many years.
“It’s not normal to score a hat trick in three minutes, not in the Premier League and not in Holland. It was fantastic,” said Ronald Koeman after the match. “I speak a lot to Sadio, he has to know what his best quality is. He is a scorer and today he demonstrated what we expect. He is a great player, it his first season in the Premier League, he is a young player and he will learn and get better because I believe in the talent of the player.”
I’ll admit to not knowing what to expect when Southampton paid £10m to take Mane from Red Bull Salzburg. The greatest compliment I can pay him is that I still don’t fully know, but the finding out is damn enjoyable. There are now only 14 players with more Premier League goals this season.
And so to our second ‘soul-lifter’. At Crystal Palace, Bolasie is growing a reputation as one of the country’s most exciting players.
After another effervescent performance against Liverpool at Anfield, Alan Pardew had no intention of talking down his winger’s talents. “He showed where he is in his world,” Pardew said. “This is a man with fantastic power, pace and he’s a real dangerous threat … and yet the final moment didn’t arrive for him until the second goal, really.
“He’s just scary, he’s got that scare-factor,” Pardew continued. “He’s a guy that the top clubs could well be looking at but he needs to get that end product sorted out. If he can get that sorted out then the world of football will look at him. But he’s not the finished product by any stretch of the imagination – and he’s 25, not 21.”
Having played for Plymouth and Bristol City before arriving at Selhurst Park in 2012, Bolasie’s rise owes much to the work he has done on the psychological aspect of his game. I interviewed sport psychologist Dan Abrahams in February, who has worked extensively with the winger.
“I have worked with Yannick for the past few seasons, and my remit was to help him establish himself as a Premier League player, to help him feel comfortable in a position that he hadn’t been in before,” said Abrahams. “It’s been a very, very interesting journey that we are still on.”
“It’s about helping players get that balance between relaxation and staying calculated because you can’t run around like a headless chicken. You have to stay disciplined, but also have the right intensity and playing freedom. It’s the challenging paradox of performance. Yannick has really taken to that. He’s not great all the time and there are areas he can improve with his crossing and final ball and his shooting, but he has really picked up on things. He’s been a great student of the game and of the mind.”
That gives a glimpse of the hard work that goes on behind the scenes for a player to improve, but also reflects well on Bolasie’s desire to achieve that improvement. Too many young players would have lost their way after loan spells at Rushden & Diamonds and Barnet, but his commitment and open-mindedness sets an excellent example. It may take him all the way to the top.
Only 18 players have contributed at least five goals and five assists in the Premier League this season. Thirteen of those have started 30 matches or more.
Shane Long, now on that list, has started just 15. Don’t tell me even Koeman’s supposed transfer flops are going to work out well.
The crushing 6-1 victory over Aston Villa means that 38% of Southampton’s home goals this season have come in two matches.
Southampton have done many things very bloody well this season, but their ability to brush aside the league’s lesser teams is the most striking aspect of this wonderful campaign. Their home league record against the teams outside the top eight reads: Played 12, Won 10, Drew 2, Lost 0, For 31, Against 2.
A Premier League team has scored six or more goals on four occasions this season. Chelsea and Manchester City account for two of those, whilst Koeman’s side make up the rest. It’s an astounding achievement for a club that caused so much negative pant-wetting before the start of the season.
As Matthew Stead wrote on Saturday, Leicester’s survival may not have been achieved via Hollywood ending in the final minutes of the final day, but that makes their achievement no less striking.
Since the beginning of April, no team has taken more points in the Premier League. Their draw at the Stadium of Light on Saturday made it 19 points in Leicester’s last eight Premier League games. They’ve doubled their points total in the space of 720 minutes. A stunning effort.
Alan Pardew receives plenty of teasing from this site, but this week he made the point of praising the impact of, and example set by, Puncheon at Crystal Palace.
“You mustn’t underestimate the influence he has over young players here,” Pardew said of his winger’s new contract extension. “Our academy, and I don’t have a problem saying it, is 80% black. We need some black players here setting the right example. And Jason, he’s fantastic, and they need to look up to him and see that you can reach the heights of the Premier League here.”
It’s an often overlooked issue, but all credit must go to Puncheon for his transformation from Football League regular to Premier League role model. Three years ago he had never played in the top flight. Now 28 and playing the best football of his career, there is no doubt that those within Palace’s academy system will look to the club’s No. 42 as a source of inspiration and aspiration.
As if to cement that reputation, Puncheon scored a free kick at Anfield on Saturday. That made it goals against Liverpool, Manchester United and Manchester City since the beginning of April. Are we looking at the (entirely hypothetical) Most Improved Player of the Season award winner?
Another performance of supreme quality. Hart certainly gets plenty of practice in front of Eliaquim Mangala, Martin Demichelis and Vincent Kompany.
After Mangala had been robbed by Nathan Dyer, Hart’s fingertips kept the score at 0-0 during the first-half. An outstretched left hand kept out Jonjo Shelvey after the break.
However, Hart saved the best until last. Federico Fernandez’s header looked bound for the top left corner, but the goalkeeper somehow got a hand to it and clawed it over the bar. It was the best save I’ve seen this season.
A brace to take Toure to 30 league goals since the beginning of last season. That’s one more than Wayne Rooney in the same period. Only one of them is roundly criticised for an unforgivably poor season.
Five league assists for the season now for Young, more than he managed in the last two campaigns combined. The concern for him will be the arrival of Memphis Depay. Has Young been any more than a surprisingly effective stopgap?
Every striker has a favourite opponent, and Lukaku must smile as he wakes on the morning of a match day against West Ham. The Belgian has faced the Hammers six times in an Everton shirt. He has scored one goal in each of those six matches.
A wonderful goal from a midfielder suffering relegation for the second successive season. After going down with Norwich and now Queens Park Rangers, can we now suggest that Fer moves to a club less likely to be entering the Champions the following May?
Fail to do so, and you’re going to start getting sick of our ‘Fer f**ks sake’ headlines.
It is becoming the hallmark of Brendan Rodgers’ Anfield tenure: When the going gets tough, Liverpool fall flat on their face.
Liverpool’s last ten games in all competitions have returned three victories, over Blackburn Rovers, Newcastle and Queens Park Rangers. In that time they have lost five times, and have eight points from their last eight league games. On the cusp of challenging again for Champions League qualification, they have tripped over the final hurdles again.
A league based on the last two months sees Liverpool in 16th place, level on points with QPR and West Ham and ahead of Hull, Burnley and Newcastle. Given the deep funks into which those five clubs have sunk, that should be deeply embarrassing for Liverpool.
It’s also exactly the same time period since Rodgers talked up Liverpool’s chances of finishing second. “The aim is to finish as high as we can. Everyone talks about fourth, but it’s the same every year for me; we do the best that we can do,” he said. “I think Manchester City’s result at the weekend gives us an opportunity to finish second. So, our mentality, and the confidence we have during the run we are on, we’re just going to take that into every game and see where it takes us.” That man sure loves pride before a fall.
It should have been an afternoon on which to put a comparatively miserable season to one side in order to bid the fondest of farewells to a departing legend. Instead, Saturday simply hammered home Liverpool’s inadequacies with or without Steven Gerrard. The sideshow of his goodbye was a weak facade for some alarming deficiencies at Anfield.
“Overall, our performance, in particular in the second half, was nowhere near what we expected,” said Rodgers after the home defeat against Crystal Palace. “Individually, in certain situations, we defended very poorly. We weren’t aggressive enough and certainly not good enough in those moments. It wasn’t anything to do with the occasion or anything like that. We just didn’t defend well enough.”
I’d agree with that Brendan, but would also add a couple of issues. By using the term “individually”, Rodgers is passing the buck onto his players for the defeat, but that fails to accept his own culpability in both this poor run of form and Saturday’s defeat.
A team playing two wingers is rare in the Premier League, but Palace are a team that thrive on width. Yannick Bolasie was nominally selected as a central striker, but he moved wide whenever possible, assisted by Lee Chung-yong. On the opposite flank Puncheon also stayed close to the byline. With only seven minutes of the second half played, Alan Pardew chose to introduce Wilfried Zaha for Chung-yong, giving the visitors even more of a threat in wide areas.
With that in mind, why on earth did Rodgers persist with his wing-backs formation? The first role of wing-backs is to venture forward and support the attack, particularly at home. That simply made Liverpool ripe for the counter attack, left with three central defenders forced to cover both centrally and wide.
Rodgers’ decision looked even more foolish when considering his team selection. Alberto Moreno has consistently looked uncomfortable defensively, and hadn’t played for over a month. Putting him next to the out-of-form Dejan Lovren must have filled Pardew’s heart with joy, and so it proved. Puncheon had more shots than any other player on the pitch and more touches than any other Palace player. He was able to utilise the space in behind Moreno with ease.
On the opposite flank, Jordon Ibe was asked to cope with the duel threat of Chung-Yong and Bolasie when he drifted wide, and was again given a torrid time. Within two minutes of Zaha’s introduction, he had been found at the back post free of any marker. Ibe was 15 yards outside the penalty area in no man’s land.
Rodgers’ switch to a 3-4-3 formation worked wonders initially, but the plan has to match the opponent. Leaving Emre Can (a central midfielder) and Lovren to cover Palace’s wide threat alongside two inexperienced wing-backs was tantamount to neglect. Liverpool paid a heavy price.
After the match, we finally saw Rodgers’ mask slip. After weeks of claiming that Liverpool will challenge again next season, the manager offered a more realistic assessment of the job on his hands.
“Absolutely we will challenge,” Rodgers said on April 27. “We have great hope we can really push on again. I have absolutely no doubt it will happen. It will be a big summer for us to find the right type of player that can come in and do that. Then we can go and work how we’ve worked for a lot of the last 18 months.”
“There is a big job to be done in the summer,” was Saturday’s admission. “There are areas that we need to improve on a lot if we are going to push on, but that is something we will assess. It’s not the time for it now, but certainly over the course of the summer we have work to do.”
If Rodgers is going to keep faith with his current formation he needs two strikers, a right wing-back, a left wing-back (unless he considers Moreno good enough), a central midfielder and at least one central defender. There are also widespread reports of a new goalkeeper too. And that’s assuming that Sterling doesn’t leave.
That’s an enormous task given the difficulty in recruiting top-class players last summer even with the lure of Champions League football. We saw how tough it was to assimilate multiple new players into the squad this season. Does another groundhog season await?
A bizarre weekend for Sherwood, on which his side’s Premier League safety was confirmed after an abysmal 6-1 defeat.
Last week’s victory over West Ham was ten times more important than the shambolic loss to Southampton, but it still leaves a sour taste in the mouth. Sherwood’s managerial reputation takes a further step into the ‘impossible to judge’ category.
“We’ve got to beat Man United and I haven’t done that in 17 years. I’ve got to turn the tables. Maybe there’s a twist in it. Maybe Man U owe me something after wrecking my knee, my hip and my ankle.”
One presumes that Hull supporters enjoyed their manager joking about the unlikelihood of his team pulling off the result they need to have any chance of surviving relegation.
When Hull most needed their manager to effect an improvement, he has fallen far short of satisfactory. Eight points from their last 11 matches has almost sealed their miserable fate.
“The owners wanted me to stay – they were convinced we were going to be a Premier League team and I think that’s why they rewarded me with a new contract,” said Bruce on Sunday.
“I haven’t really thought of myself just yet but I’ve got no thoughts of quitting or walking away – nothing like that. I will tell you in a couple of weeks because it is out of my hands.”
If Hull’s relegation is confirmed, they will either have to keep faith in a failure or hand a handsome pay-off to a manager who spent £65m and took the club back down. They only have themselves to blame. After Paul Lambert and now Bruce, is it maybe time to stop generously rewarding managers for barely achieving the minimum expectation?
“We didn’t give up on it, we had a go and I can’t fault the lads for their effort again in a hot, warm climate. They were hot conditions and we kept going and going and going, but it wasn’t good enough. Next week is a huge game for this football club.”
Oh John. You really don’t make it easy on yourself.
Unless Hull beat Manchester United next weekend, Newcastle will survive relegation. That is the thinnest of silver linings to the ominous grey clouds building above St James Park. Finishing eighth in a mini-league of themselves, Everton, West Ham, Crystal Palace, West Brom, Leicester City, Aston Villa, Sunderland, Hull, Burnley and QPR is no cause for celebration.
As Alan Shearer tweeted on Sunday: ‘Everyone’s down on poor John Carver but I’ve got a lot to thank him for…he’s making me look like Bob Paisley.’ When nothing else remains, only black humour reigns. It’s time to add an ‘s’ to Gallowgate.
A bore draw against a relegated team which means that Sunderland could still be relegated. Lose to Chelsea and Arsenal in the next week, a draw or win for Newcastle and a win for Hull City would see Dick Advocaat’s side go down.
The best odds you can get on those events happening is 7/1. The final day still promises to be nervous for Sunderland.
Surely Allardyce’s last home match as a West Ham manager, and a reputation deflating like a week-old balloon with each passing dire performance. The question of where he ends up next remains unanswerable, provided Sunderland stick with Dick Advocaat.
Some clubs have been playing in flip-flops for the last few weeks, but West Ham’s players and manager have taken the analogy to its limits. They’ve packed their bags, had a leaving party and sodded off to find themselves in India for four months. They keep sending s**t Facebook messages in which they seem to think getting a Henna tattoo and dreadlocks makes you ‘at one with nature’.
In his last ten Premier League matches, Sterling has contributed one goal and no assists. He has had seven shots on target in total.
So, is this a young player who has lost his way after deciding that he would like to move on from Liverpool, his head turned by reported glamorous interest? Or, is Sterling a young winger forced into an imperfect central striking role, the fall guy of his club’s pitiful transfer dealings and his manager’s broken relationship with Mario Balotelli?
Your answer probably in part depends on your allegiance to Liverpool and Brendan Rodgers.
Logic dictated that it was Vlaar who was allowing his contract to run down in order to move on a free transfer this summer. On the evidence at St Mary’s on Saturday, perhaps it’s Aston Villa’s call. The Dutchman turned in a defensive performance that was as bad as bad could be.
You can read more on Falcao (and plenty else) in 16 Conclusions, but it’s worth emphasising the severity of this fall from grace. The Colombian has gone from one of the most feared forwards in the world to a risible striking option.
It is not simply Falcao’s finishing that is awry. Every aspect of his game has been blunted, from first touch to strength to aerial ability, and most things in between. Two years ago he was scoring goals like this; now he struggles to go ten minutes without losing control of his legs and falling to the floor.
As we have previously noted, therein lies the risk when buying players shortly after serious injury. This was a £24m gamble from Manchester United that has spectacularly failed to pay off. Like Fernando Torres, a move to Atletico Madrid may be the only way to rediscover the love.