Last week we did the worst, this week it’s the best. Because we’re all about that balance (bout that balance)…
10) Bringing Peter Crouch back into the fold (Stoke City)
Prior to January, Peter Crouch had started one Premier League home game since March 2015, a relatively meaningless 1-1 home draw against Sunderland towards the end of last season. The striker had been pushed out of the first-team picture by Mark Hughes. In late October, Crouch joked on social media about his lack of action – would January bring a move?
At least I'm getting a game somewhere ?? https://t.co/QabJ6HW3Ia
— Peter Crouch (@petercrouch) October 22, 2016
Well no, actually. By December, Crouch was in from the cold and starting games for Stoke. The striker has three goals in his last four Premier League games and, at the age of 35, is closing in on his 100th top-flight goal.
“He’s been playing really well and fully merits his place in the team,” Hughes said in January. “If you put balls in the right areas you know he’ll take chances as he has done that his entire career. He’s done that in the three games he’s played. We’re pleased for him.”
‘So why not earlier?’ every Stoke supporter would like to know.
9) Borrowing Jack Wilshere (Bournemouth)
I included the lack of recall clause in Wilshere’s loan as one of the top ten mistakes last week, but there’s no doubt that Bournemouth pulled a blinder in getting the deal over the line. Milan and Roma were both mentioned, but Eddie Howe took advantage of Wilshere’s desire to stay in England. Having been roundly mocked for that call, Wilshere is owed an apology: How many times have you watched Joe Hart live this season?
Do not underestimate the risk Bournemouth took in bringing an established England international, and the media attention that comes with it, into a settled, low-key squad. They were tacitly accepting that for at least three months they would have their name officially changed to ‘Jack Wilshere’s Bournemouth’.
Yet all has worked out well. Wilshere has demonstrated the consistency in fitness that may be enough to get a second chance at Arsenal, while Bournemouth have enjoyed the presence of a player worth £30m in their midfield: No player has created more chances or completed more dribbles.
8) Sacking Mike Phelan (Hull City)
The only thing worse than making a poor judgement call when appointing a manager is exacerbating the mistake by persevering beyond the point of reason. Under Phelan, Hull City were a mess. They were firm favourites to finish bottom of the Premier League and had taken six points from their previous 16 league games.
Marco Silva may or may not be the miracle worker Hull City need, although he has at least earned enough respect to be given a chance. Yet Hull are in a better position without Phelan in charge than with him. The club’s owners haven’t made many positive decisions over the last two years, but the certainty shown in dismissing an under-performing manager after three months was the right call for all.
7) Backing Tony Pulis (West Brom)
I’m happy to hold my hands up and admit that I thought Pulis was finished at West Brom. I believed that he was a baseball-capped leopard incapable of – and probably unwilling to – change his spots. If West Brom wanted more than resolute defending away from home, edgy home wins and semi-comfortable Premier League survival, they would have to risk being headbutted by a gruff, naked Welshman.
Fair play, then. The sound of the Pulis has not quite been shifted from groans and moans to oohs and ahs, but change is afoot in the West Midlands. In their last 17 league games, West Brom have scored three or more goals on five occasions, as many as in their previous 96 matches. They have scored twice or more in eight games this season; they managed nine in total during 2015/16 and ten in 2014/15.
6) Selling John Stones (Everton)
In hindsight it sounds like a no-brainer. Having been offered £20m, £26m and £30m from Chelsea for Stones, Everton were informed by the player that he wanted to leave the club. A year later, after Stones had received criticism for his form and occasionally drifted out of the Everton first team, they received an offer of £47.5m. Congratulating Everton for accepting the sixth-highest fee ever received by an English club sounds like unnecessary praise.
Yet Everton did take a chance. With rumours of Romelu Lukaku seeking a move away from Goodison and a new manager already trying to work with a thin squad, Everton risked angering both their new manager before the season had even begun and a support getting sick of seeing their best players sold.
Instead, it has allowed Koeman to begin his rebuild. The Dutchman has bought Yannick Bolasie, Morgan Schneiderlin, Ashley Williams, Idrissa Gueye and Ademola Lookman for a spend of only £25m and the loss of one player. After 22 games, Everton have conceded nine fewer goals than at this stage last season.
5) Playing Roberto Firmino as a false nine (Liverpool)
If Daniel Sturridge saw the sales of Christian Benteke and Mario Balotelli and long-term injury to Danny Ings as personal victories, Jurgen Klopp had other ideas. While Sturridge and Divock Origi pass the tag of first reserve between them, it is Firmino who has been used as Liverpool’s first-choice centre-forward. With Sadio Mane and Philippe Coutinho swapping positions with Firmino as well as each other, this is the most fluid attack in the Premier League.
In honour of Andy Townsend, if anything the formation has worked too well. When all of Liverpool’s attacking triumvirate have started, they look close to unstoppable: Eleven starts together have returned eight wins and three draws, with Liverpool scoring an average of 2.55 goals per game.
The 18 games without them all playing in tandem has returned ten wins, four draws, four defeats and Liverpool scoring an average of 2.0 goals per game. When one of the boyband is missing, the harmonies just don’t click. And equally, Liverpool’s title hopes have taken a huge hit, according to Bet365.
Firmino is : TOP player ?
— Antoine Griezmann (@AntoGriezmann) January 21, 2017
4) Playing Alexis Sanchez as a false nine (Arsenal)
Anything Liverpool can do, Arsenal have done better. Olivier Giroud’s goalscoring record may have forced him back into Arsene Wenger’s starting line-up in recent matches, but before then it was Wenger’s inspired decision to use Sanchez as his central striker that kept Arsenal in the title hunt.
Ranking joint first in the league for goals scored and fourth for chances created, Sanchez might just be the most complete attacking player in the country on current form. With supremely high energy levels, Wenger gauged that Sanchez would not lose that comic book hero, do-it-all edge that makes him so powerful just by operating as a false nine. The space left when Sanchez roamed was filled by Theo Walcott and Mesut Ozil, who have scored 13 league goals between them.
With Sanchez back on the left wing the experiment may be over, but that does not render it anything other than a categorical success. Wenger finally has an attacking Plan B that is at least as effective as his A.
3) Buying the best midfielder in the country (Chelsea)
It sounds so simple, doesn’t it? Yet when Chelsea declared their interest in N’Golo Kante at the end of last season, they faced no serious opposition. Now that might be because Kante always had his heart set on joining the team that had just finished tenth in the Premier League, but it seems unlikely.
So where were Manchester United? Where were Manchester City, with gaps in central midfield even after the arrival of Ilkay Gundogan? Where were Arsenal, who spent more money on Granit Xhaka than on a player one year older who had already proven himself instrumental in a title-winning campaign?
The odds are now 4/9 that Kante becomes the first outfield player to win consecutive Premier League titles with two different clubs. Brilliant Leicester City player has become brilliant Chelsea player, and nobody can say that they weren’t warned.
These six stats prove N’Golo Kante is better than Chelsea legend https://t.co/uXBMmlEJF9
— The Sport Review (@TheSportReview) January 11, 2017
2) Pushing Dele Alli further forward (Tottenham)
“Dele Alli, for me, he’s a killer — because he’s very aggressive when he runs forward. He’s desperate to go to the box and to get the ball and score,” said Mauricio Pochettino earlier this month. “When we use different formations sometimes he’s more into the box than Harry (Kane) or another player like (Heung-Min) Son that are very offensive players. That is an unbelievable mentality. He can play like an offensive player and he can play like a midfielder because of his characteristics.”
A quote which explains it all, really. The combination of Victor Wanyama’s arrival as a true holding midfielder and Pochettino’s occasional use of a 3-4-2-1 formation has allowed Alli to operate higher up the pitch than last year. It is a tweak rather than wholesale change, but Alli is feeling the benefits. At times, he has operated almost as a second striker off Kane.
If Alli is enjoying this altered role, so too are Tottenham. The 20-year-old – you really do have to stop and remind yourself of how young he is – has assisted fewer goals and has actually created fewer chances per game, but there are plenty of others in Spurs’ midfield who can help out there. Instead, Alli has supported Kane ably, scoring 11 league goals and having 24 shots on target. His totals from the whole of last season were 10 and 28.
1) Switching to a back three (Chelsea)
A tactical change so effective that it persuaded several other Premier League managers to do the same. A tactical change so effective that it didn’t just stop Chelsea’s rot, but transformed them into Premier League title favourites. A tactical chance so effective that it precipitated the joint-longest winning run in Premier League history.
Given that Conte used a 3-4-3 formation so effectively at Juventus, it was something of a surprise that he didn’t adopt the formation as soon as the signings of David Luiz and Marcos Alonso had been confirmed. Instead we had to wait until after calamitous defeat at Arsenal to see a change in shape from the 4-1-4-1.
‘The formation will still take some getting used to, but there are promising signs,’ I wrote in Winners and Losers after that first victory over Hull City. ‘Luiz has licence to step out of defence without causing gaps to appear behind him, Nemanja Matic can surge forward (as he did for the second goal), N’Golo Kante can snap at heels further up the pitch and Eden Hazard and Willian can play far more centrally, with wing-backs overlapping. Six of Chelsea’s 17 chances were created by Alonso and Moses.’
They haven’t looked back since.