United Progress Stifled By Bottom-Half Record

Date published: Monday 24th August 2015 1:19

United Progress Stifled By Bottom-Half Record

Winners
John Terry
I’ve said plenty about Chelsea’s title victory right here, which includes namechecks for Eden Hazard, Cesc Fabregas, Diego Costa and Nemanja Matic. There are still a few more who merit mention though, starting with the captain.
In his interview following their title victory, Terry made the point of raising a verbal middle finger to Rafa Benitez for his suggestion that the defender could no longer play two games in a week. Having been led down that path by the interviewer, Terry was understandably keen to mock such an inaccurate assessment. He is one of three outfield players to appear in every minute of the Premier League season so far, and you can add every minute of Chelsea’s Champions League campaign to that figure.
However, it is not Terry’s mere presence that is most startling, but his supreme form. It is as if the limitations of age have forced him to abandon the hare-um scare-um strategy of last-ditch tackles and glorious blocks. Those elements have not been eradicated from his game, but Terry now prefers to rely on positional discipline and an expert reading of the play.
His style of defending has become prevention, not cure. Terry is responsible for 10.0% of all Chelsea’s Premier League outfield minutes, but just 5.4% of their tackles and 3.5% of their fouls. Entire seasons of perfection are an impossibility, but he has come closer than most in 2014/15.
This may be the autumn of Terry’s career, but he’s spending it joyfully kicking through the leaves. He’s enjoying defending and winning like never before. The Jose Mourinho effect.

Gary Cahill

Cahill has been deservedly criticised for his form at times during this season; as first choice for the Premier League champions and his country, he’s unlikely to lose any sleep.
Less than three-and-a-half years since Cahill was playing for a Bolton side rooted to the bottom of the Premier League, he has completed the set at Chelsea. Premier League? Tick. FA Cup? Tick. League Cup? Tick. Europa League? Tick. Champions League? Tick. The big five accomplished.
Alongside his club captain, Cahill has been part of the Premier League’s most parsimonious defence. Since the beginning of last season, the goals conceded by teams to play in both campaigns reads as follows:
Chelsea – 54
Arsenal – 73
Manchester City – 73
Southampton – 74
Manchester United – 78
Everton – 85
Liverpool – 88
West Ham – 93
The gap between Chelsea and Arsenal in second is one fewer than the gap between Arsenal and West Ham in eighth.
Furthermore, only Eden Hazard has matched Cahill’s achievement of being named in the PFA Team of the Year in both of the last two seasons. You’d forgive him for being immune to the criticism.

Thibaut Courtois

Three league titles in three different countries, Courtois is the first Belgian in history to achieve that feat. He also has three other domestic trophies, two European trophies, nine individual awards and 29 international caps.
Some players are hastily judged to be their club’s best option for the next five years. With Courtois you can double that figure and add a couple for good luck. He’s still 22, for goodness sake.

Jose Mourinho

Now follows Jose Mourinho’s career league finishes:
Porto – 1st, 1st
Chelsea – 1st, 1st, 2nd
Inter – 1st, 1st
Real Madrid – 2nd, 1st, 2nd
Chelsea – 3rd, 1st.
If last season was the low point, the first time Mourinho had ever finished outside the top two, this was his redemption. It’s also important to point out that at only one of those clubs did the Portuguese join the reigning league champions. It’s a hell of a legacy.

Liverpool

After 85 minutes of their home game with QPR, Liverpool were on 59 points. They had allowed Leroy Fer to equalise, and were facing the prospect of Manchester United moving nine points clear. Spurs would also have the chance to overtake Brendan Rodgers’ side.
How things change. Steven Gerrard’s quickfire atonement for his penalty failure narrowed the gap to United to four points, and Boaz Myhill did the rest. Liverpool now have a squeak of a chance of Champions League qualification again. How Rodgers must be cursing that limp defeat at Hull last Tuesday.

Leonardo Ulloa

Talk about coming good when it matters most. After 782 minutes without a Premier League goal, Ulloa has three in his last four games as Leicester attempt to pull clear from trouble.

Marc Albrighton

Before last Wednesday, Albrighton’s contribution to Leicester’s season totalled three yellow cards and one assist, in the 80th minute at Old Trafford when his side were 3-0 down. Since then the winger has scored against Chelsea and provided two fine deliveries from which Leicester scored their first and second goals against Newcastle.
Albrighton has only started seven league games for Leicester this season. In that time they have collected 44.1% of their points total. At worst he’s a lucky charm, at best a key part of their revival.

Sunderland

The most crucial victory of their season to date. Results elsewhere meant that the victory over Southampton failed to take Sunderland out of the bottom three, but failure to win would have all-but sealed relegation.
After beating their bitter rivals last month, Sunderland were saved by a different type of Jordi on Saturday. The gap to Newcastle is now just two points.

Christian Benteke

If there was any doubt about the power of Football365’s Big Weekend column, they can now be extinguished. Benteke is basking in his resurrection.

Sergio Aguero

Goal No. 28 of the season for the best striker in the Premier League, and yet still nobody bats an eyelid. As I wrote on Sunday, Aguero is paying for his ability to make the magnificent seem mundane.
Since arriving in England, Aguero has 74 league goals. Sunday’s game at White Hart Lane was only his 100th start.

Swansea

Beating a rival for eighth place may not seem hugely important, but think again. Swansea’s victory over Stoke means that Garry Monk is likely to achieve the club’s second-highest finish in their history in his first full season in charge after losing their best striker in January. That’s worth standing to applaud.

Losers

Burnley and QPR
Two narrow defeats to confirm what we already knew: Neither Burnley nor QPR are quite good enough for the Premier League.
They have attempted survival in starkly different manners of course, Sean Dyche relying on hard work and commitment whilst QPR threw Premier League experience at the problem. Neither has worked.
Whilst Burnley will re-group with the aid of their parachute payments, QPR face an uncertain financial future. Matty Phillips, Charlie Austin and Leroy Fer will all leave, three of the club’s most effective performers this season. The fees QPR gain for their prize assets might account for half of the Football League fine that awaits them.

Manchester United

It has been the story of Manchester United’s season. Every time you think it’s going downhill they embark on a run to make you feel very silly. Every time you consider their problems solved, Louis van Gaal’s side engineer a way to shoot themselves in the foot.
“Fantastic, fantastic attack,” was the simple message from Van Gaal on April 12, only three weeks ago. United had just won the Manchester derby 4-2 against City, and things were looking rosy again. They were 11 points ahead of Liverpool, four points ahead of City and one point behind Arsenal in second. United were back, baby.
Van Gaal’s tendency to snatch despair from the hands of joy is as impressive as his ability to achieve the vice versa. United have followed up their four goals against City with a run of three consecutive league defeats without scoring, the first time they have ‘achieved’ that feat since 1989.
That previously “fantastic” attack was roundly criticised by Van Gaal on Saturday: “It’s also a concern now [a lack of goals] because it’s not a coincidence. In spite of the way we have played against Chelsea, Everton and now against West Bromwich Albion, we have created a lot of chances and still we don’t score. So you can say, as manager, we were not unlucky in every match. It’s also that you have to finish these chances.”
As Tony Pulis alluded after the match, West Brom were fortunate to beat Manchester United. Boaz Myhill’s brilliance kept them in the game, and Chris Brunt’s free-kick cannoned off Jonas Olsson to leave David de Gea with no chance. Ander Herrera completed 113 passes, West Brom’s 11 players completed 99 combined. That indicates United’s domination.
But for all their misfortune, the inability of Van Gaal’s side to kill off the ‘lesser’ sides is far more than a one-off. The Dutchman has been praised for his record against the top-six clubs, but United’s performances against the bottom half are a great deal less impressive.
United have gained 2.06 points per game against bottom-half teams this season, putting them fifth (and behind Southampton) in that regard. Since 2007, United have never dropped below 2.35 ppg. Under David Moyes and Ryan Giggs last season, United took 2.5ppg. That’s a difference of nine points over the course of a campaign from last year to this.
Judging the benchmark for United’s success this season was impossible because they were a blank canvas. Never before had we seen them spend this much money under a new manager, and there is a strong line of argument to suggest that finishing in the top four was the only requirement. That may be true, but defeats to Swansea (twice), MK Dons, Leicester, Southampton, Arsenal, Everton and West Brom add an air of uneasiness to any celebrations. You can put the bunting away.
I’m still not sure whether Van Gaal should be congratulated for finishing fourth or chastised for it ever being in doubt. If they’d have matched their record against the bottom-half teams under David Moyes, United would still mathematically be able to catch Chelsea. Match their record from Fergie’s last season and they’d be three points off top spot. Too many points against too many teams have slipped out of Van Gaal’s grasp.

Louis van Gaal
Van Gaal has enough experience and success to be trusted on matters of tactics, but that doesn’t make his substitutions any less bizarre. With United chasing the game and in desperate need of assured finishing, the manager chose to play Marouane Fellaini as the central striker with Robin van Persie and Wayne Rooney in midfield.
Imagining the reaction from United supporters if David Moyes had done that in a home defeat to West Brom makes me giggle for longer than I should.

Angel Di Maria
An appalling half-hour from United’s record signing. When they needed creativity and the ball moved quickly around the final third, all they received was a(nother) laboured, sluggish display.
I’m struggling to remember the last time Di Maria beat a man at pace. A summer offer from Paris St Germain of £50m+ should be warmly received.

Robin van Persie

During 2012/13, Van Persie’s first season at Old Trafford, the striker scored a goal for every 4.5 shots he attempted. On Saturday he had ten shots, as Manchester United were able to dominate West Brom with possession and territory. Van Persie not only failed to score, he also missed a late penalty to give Manchester United breathing room in the race for fourth place.
Van Persie is not alone in his profligacy this season but, turning 32 before the start of next season, his time may be up. The Dutchman achieved what Alex Ferguson bought him to do, but it’s now time for the changing of the old guard.
“No, he is now at the end of the road,” was Van Gaal’s response to whether Van Persie would continue to take penalties for United. Those words sounded sadly symbolic.

Tottenham

Tottenham losing at home to Manchester City is nothing new, but emphasises the lack of meaningful progression the club have made this season. Mauricio Pochettino’s side now have 58 points from their 35 league matches. Their points total at this stage of the last three seasons read 63, 65 and 62. If this is progress, it should be measured in baby steps.
Of course there are caveats to such negativity. Pochettino has been attempting to instigate a new style at White Hart Lane, he has been critically short of striking options and has been let down by a number of expensive midfielders he inherited from his predecessors. I’m looking at you Paulinho, Moussa Dembele, Etienne Capoue and Erik Lamela. This was never the summer to make definitive judgements of Pochettino’s reign.
The infancy of Spurs’ squad also plays a part. Of the club’s ten most regular starters in the league, eight are 25 or under. The two exceptions (Jan Vertonghen and Hugo Lloris) could be the two high-profile departures this summer.
The pressure is therefore on Spurs to recruit experience effectively. The last five signings aged 26 and over were Federico Fazio, Michel Vorm, Roberto Soldado, Emmanuel Adebayor and Clint Dempsey. The attractive core of young players is present, but the club’s inability to bring in reliable experience is what has held them back.
The pressure will also be on Pochettino to hit the ground running next season after a second pre-season with his squad. A disappointing end to the campaign has raised the stakes for 2015/16. The Argentinean can ill-afford another season of just-not-quite.

Newcastle

Things just go from bad to worse to dire. As Ian Watson wrote after Saturday’s defeat at Leicester, this is a pathetic Newcastle side. They lack fight, they lack energy, they lack concentration, they lack positional sense, they lack discipline and they lack quality. The players have even stopped their public battle cries; supporters stopped listening to such vacuity months ago.
In Big Weekend on Friday I mused as to whether Newcastle could be relegated, but possibility is nearing probability with every insipid display. If Newcastle take one or fewer points in their final three matches, a Sunderland victory at home to Leicester and Leicester beating QPR would leave Hull requiring just one point from their remaining four games to send John Carver’s side down.
The question for Newcastle is whether anything can be done to halt the decline, or if relying on the inadequacies of others is the only option. Derby’s final-day capitulation in the Championship may make Steve McClaren a less appealing prospect as a manager, but it also means he could be available to start work as early as this week. It must be worth rolling the dice?
As an aside, I have read columns suggesting that relegation could be a good thing if it cleanses the club and forces Mike Ashley to put up or sell up. I’d be careful what you wish for. Two years in the Championship with no extra money invested, and Newcastle could be broken for the long term, if they aren’t already.

John Carver

When I wrote the words ‘John Carver experiment’ on Thursday afternoon and likened it to an elaborate reality TV show, I didn’t expect that the next episode would be so surreal. Whether or not Carver is the worst manager in Premier League history is open to debate, but this is most certainly the most bizarre reign.
Carver’s continued insistence is that he cannot be blamed for the ineptitude of his players, an excuse repeated after the shambolic defeat at the King Power stadium. “I asked if everyone understood their roles and responsibilities. I can’t go and mark men on the pitch myself,” was his reply to questions over the goals conceded. It’s an admirable stance, but the buck has always stopped with the manager. That’s a status quo Carver is unlikely to alter by himself. Can he honestly claim another coach would not do a better job?
That was the easily forgettable part of Carver’s post-match interview, with his claim that Mike Williamson got himself sent off deliberately plunging Newcastle to even lower depths. Even if Carver’s accusation was accurate, and Williamson has strenuously denied the claim, such a public chastisement of a senior player is unlikely to sit well with any member of the squad. Honesty may be a virtue but, when talking to the media, privacy and squad morale are of greater importance. Carver must beware of alienating himself from his squad.
Perhaps the horse has already bolted on that front. “If I’m honest, I have to admit there’s a chance they’re just not listening to me,” Carver said on Sunday. “That might be one factor of many, and you have to consider it.” Another bizarre admission.
“It wasn’t easy, but I had to try to stay calm and focused because even 3-0 down away from home, I still thought we had a chance,” Carver continued. “We might have got a goal from somewhere.”
That last line epitomises Carver as a manager. He is the fan who fell into the dressing-up box and came out dressed as the boss. He has the fight and the front, but none of the qualities. All the gear, but no idea.
Carver’s bizarre confessions and honesty are not just talking him out of Newcastle, but football management entirely.
Daniel Storey

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