Top Of The League, Top Of The Winners

With eight wins on the bounce and moving top of the pile, who else could top Daniel Storey's Winners and Losers? It's fair to say Tim Sherwood's got both barrels...

Last Updated: 31/03/14 at 14:07 Post Comment

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Winners

Liverpool
The only reason for Liverpool to not now be considered title favourites is based on our assessment of the footballing 'norm' - it's not happened before in the Premier League era, so it couldn't happen now.

But it certainly could, as on every other level Liverpool are ahead of the rest, finally taking their place at the summit by matching this season's record for consecutive victories, equalling Manchester City's eight over December and January. Tim Sherwood may have spoken about exploiting nerves before Sunday's match (admittedly present during the midweek home victory over Sunderland), but Liverpool blew away a top-six side with emphatic ease. Spurs' resistance lasted just 100 seconds, and Liverpool were able to move down the gears after less than half an hour.

The obvious flaw in Liverpool's title bid has been their defensive shortcomings, but that seems to becoming a moot point given the club's attacking prowess. There is more than one way to skin a cat, and eight consecutive wins is evidently more pertinent than only six clean sheets in 21 matches. The most intriguing aspect of this season's title race is that each team has its own distinct weakness, as well as obvious strengths - Liverpool are not alone in that regard.

As Sarah Winterburn wrote after the match, the weakness of the opposition made this the smallest of hurdles to jump over, but there are now just six more of those hurdles to come. Overcome each of them and this will be their first title in 24 years, achieved through playing a brand of football amongst the most attractive seen in the Premier League era.

Whatever the results on this final stretch, Liverpool are a club transformed, stepping out of the shadows of underachievement and into the light. From finishing seventh last year, this is the team of the season containing the player of the season, coached by the manager of the season. That's a hell of an improvement in 12 months.


Jon Flanagan
It seems slightly churlish to single out a Liverpool defender for praise after a performance in which their opponents were entirely toothless, but the continued excellence of Jon Flanagan merits lauding.

Before November last year, Flanagan was very much a reserve within Brendan Rodgers' Liverpool plans. With just over 100 minutes of league football during his entire Anfield career, he had not made a Premier League appearance since April 2012, when he was substituted after 26 minutes against Blackburn when goalkeeper Alexander Doni was sent off.

Fast forward five months, and this is a career reborn. The injury to Jose Enrique and defensive fragility of Aly Cissokho gave Flanagan his opportunity at left-back, and he has taken his chance with resounding conviction.

Whilst Flanagan's positional sense has belied such inexperience (particularly as a left-back), it is his confidence with ball at feet that has been most impressive. His forays into opposition territory are not simply kamikaze gambles into attacking areas (as is the case with Cissokho) but instead measured dribbles, typically leading to a pass laid off to Jordan Henderson or one of Liverpool's front three. Against Spurs, Flanagan made 25 passes in the opposition's half, more than the adventurous Glen Johnson on the opposite flank and Luis Suarez wide left. He retains the defensive discipline and stamina to rarely be left caught upfield.

And then, like the sweet cherry atop a delicious cake, came the dummied turn, forward surge and pass to Philippe Coutinho for the third goal, sublime in its entire execution. Flanagan is probably England's fifth-choice left back behind Ashley Cole, Leighton Baines, Luke Shaw and Kieran Gibbs, but find me one in better form.


Luis Suarez
29 goals in 27 matches this season, Suarez is likely to become the first ever player in Premier League history to score at a rate of more than a goal per game over the course of a campaign, and the record of 34 goals set by Alan Shearer and Andy Cole looks in danger - the Uruguayan will play at least seven fewer matches than either of those two.


Everton and Roberto Martinez
Five consecutive league wins for Roberto Martinez, something his predecessor failed to achieve during his last decade at the club, as things now look more than rosy for Everton. The highest points total achieved under David Moyes was 65, but Everton need just six points from the remaining seven matches to ensure that such a total is surpassed in Martinez's first season in charge.

Martinez has silenced his critics (myself included) in astonishing fashion. Since losing the derby 4-0 at Anfield, Liverpool are the only side to take more Premier League points per game than Everton - this has truly been a Merseyside march in March with ten victories from ten matches between them.

The only fly in the ointment of Everton's weekend was Arsenal's resilience against City, but the gap to the top four is now just four points, and Martinez's side have a game in hand at home to Crystal Palace, while also welcoming Arsenal to Goodison next weekend. Everton have not beaten Arsene Wenger's side in 14 attempts, but overcome that form and they will be favourites to take a top-four place.

"I'll get you in the Champions League," were Martinez's words to Bill Kenwright in his interview for the Everton job, a bold claim the Spaniard reiterated following the win at Craven Cottage. But it's an assertion that looks more justified with each passing week.


Southampton's English contingent
Whilst there is little doubt that Adam Lallana will be part of England's World Cup squad, the potential for Rickie Lambert and Jay Rodriguez to join him on the plane seems markedly less certain. I wrote last weekend that Lambert was in danger of missing out on being England's 'big man' option, and Rodriguez failed to impress during his brief audition against Chile in November.

Four months on, however, and Roy Hodgson must be wondering whether he should take the entirety of Southampton's attacking trio, such is their obvious effectiveness together. The 4-0 demolition of Newcastle on Saturday was the third match in a row (and the tenth time this season) that two or more of Lallana, Rodriguez and Lambert have scored in the same game. Incredibly, these are the second, fifth and sixth top English scorers in the Premier League this season.

So how about it Roy? Building the attacking elements of your squad around the most exciting English performers this season in Liverpool and Southampton. Can you find space for Daniel Sturridge, Raheem Sterling, Lallana, Lambert and Rodriguez? Probably not, but that may be a crying shame.


Crystal Palace
After a significant wobble, a brilliant result to ease the Eagles' relegation nerves. These were the performances for which Tony Pulis was recruited.

A run of two points from five matches (and only one goal) had taken Palace to within three points of the bottom three and, with Sunderland having two matches in hand, the resurgence following the departure of Ian Holloway was threatening to skid to a halt. However, even considering that blip, the victory over Chelsea was Palace's sixth 1-0 win since Pulis arrived at Selhurst Park, and the club sits tenth in the form table since his appointment.

However, the stand-out statistic is this: since Pulis was appointed, Manchester City, Arsenal and Chelsea are the only teams to keep more clean sheets than Palace's eight - a phenomenal achievement given the defensive instability suffered under Holloway and the comparison in personnel with those three clubs.

Finally, they made John Terry do this. There are plenty that would deem that alone sufficient for inclusion.


Manchester United
Winners because they did what they had to do, and will gain a modicum of confidence before Bayern on Tuesday. As I insisted in Big Weekend, there will be no talk of corners turned simply because we have been here before, but a win's a win, and this was their first league victory by three or more goals at Old Trafford since April 2013 - the opponents that day were also a hapless Aston Villa.

It also continued a slight trend under David Moyes for resilience, and Saturday was the 13th and 14th points gained from losing positions this season. Without those, the defending champions would be level with Stoke in the table.

Evidently it would be nice if United had not had to come from behind in a league game yet again (Moyes' side have conceded first in exactly half of their 32 matches) but, given the mutinous mood of some home supporters, a victory will have been cherished.


Arsenal
As I discussed at length in 16 Conclusions after the match, a comeback draw that should provide evidence that Arsene Wenger is the right man to take Arsenal into his 'third era' at the club. Disagreeing with that is, of course, reasonable, but at least read my rationale first. There will be those that asked where this performance was at Anfield or Stamford Bridge but, without wanting to over-simplify the situation, when fully fit this is probably the fifth-best squad in the Premier League - it's likely to finish fourth.

Manchester City have the best squad in the division, and Arsenal were missing Theo Walcott, Mesut Ozil, Jack Wilshere, Aaron Ramsey and Laurent Koscielny from their first-choice XI. Put simply, Per Mertesacker is the only Arsenal starter from Saturday evening that I would select in Manchester City's side - a reflection of the gulf in quality.

Given the dominance displayed by City during the first half, Arsenal's ability to both get back into the match and then continue on the front foot was hugely impressive, and for that they should be congratulated.


Wilfried Bony
Three goals and three assists in his last seven matches. Given the fact that his side have won just one of those fixtures merely indicates the struggles that Bony is having in dragging the Swans out of relegation trouble.

Excellent against Norwich on Saturday, there is at least evidence his efforts will be rewarded.


Morgan Amalfitano
Filth. Pure filth.


Losers

Chelsea
Whether this was a defeat that proved Jose Mourinho to be correct, or in fact tarnished his reputation, depends largely on your club bias and estimation of the manager's character. But there must be no doubt of how damaging it was to Chelsea's title bid - it will take something special from here for Mourinho to wear his third Premier League crown.

The nagging concern for supporters (although many may not care to concede it) is that Mourinho's continuous statements that Chelsea are not good enough to the title have become a self-fulfilling prophecy. When a manager demands such commitment and respect in his philosophy, as with Jose at Stamford Bridge, does continuously ruling out a challenge eventually start settling in the minds of players?

Whatever the answer, Mourinho's excuses are starting to grate. Speaking after the defeat at Selhurst Park, the Portuguese again brought up the performance of Chris Foy at Villa Park, but also bizarrely spoke of his discussion with a ball boy.

"The kids are educated to do this," Mourinho said of Palace's 'time-wasting' tactics. "But if a player hits a ballboy, the person who educates them disappears. The player stays in trouble for pushing or punching or kicking the kid. I went to stop him and I told him if he does this, one day somebody will punch him. I told him."

Clearly Mourinho expects his players to feed off such an obvious siege mentality - the 'big bad wolf' persona he creates around Chelsea - but in making such statements in a reactive rather than proactive manner, it sounds less like mind games and more like sour grapes.

Of more concern to Mourinho should be the manner in which his players have taken their eye off the ball in the lesser games this season. Eleven points taken from five matches against other sides in the top four should have been sufficient to ensure that Chelsea would be title favourites when entering the home straight, but being wasteful elsewhere has cost them dear.

For Mourinho's repeated warning that his side are not yet 'ready' to ring true, Chelsea would have been found wanting during their toughest tests, but that is far from the truth. Instead, this is a title lost at Villa Park, Selhurst Park, St James' Park and the Britannia Stadium. That must be spectacularly disappointing for the manager, players and fans.


Tim Sherwood
"I didn't watch the game [5-0 home defeat to Liverpool] back. I was too scared too. You don't learn anything from games like that."

I could write 3,000 words alone on why such a senseless, lazy and ill-advised attitude emasculates any potential that Tim Sherwood had or has to be a success at White Hart Lane, but all you needed to know about the manager's lack of tactical or strategical preparation came inside two minutes at Anfield. Raheem Sterling wriggled free, and was not tracked by left-back Danny Rose. Glen Johnson then surged up from right-back, a run not tracked by Christian Eriksen, and was able to cross the ball unpressured. Younes Kaboul, rather than clearing the ball long with his left foot, tried to do so with his right, got both feet caught in the ground and sent the ball into his own goal.

A total of 45% of the goals Spurs have conceded this season have been due to individual error or own goal. The occasional gaffe can be put down to individual shortcomings, but complaints over consistent mistakes should be laid at the door of the manager. You can't just keep shrugging your shoulders when stupid mistakes keep being made, because your job is to address that and effect a change.

Sherwood's insistence that his public rant at his players ("I think it's evident they're on my side and on the side of the club. My little rant has done them no harm") has since been emphatically disproven by just one win in five subsequent matches. If a coach is hoping to work on inspiration and respect alone, it makes little sense to weaken the impact by calling out players in such a manner.

There is little doubt that Andre Villas-Boas' tenure at White Hart Lane became untenable, but displays such as the one at Anfield only make Sherwood look a significantly worse option. Put simply, Villas-Boas had a plan that was not suitable to the talents of his squad, whilst Sherwood has no plan at all. In his six biggest games in charge (Arsenal (a), Arsenal (h), Benfica (h), Manchester City (h), Chelsea (a) and Liverpool (a)), Sherwood's record is six defeats and 19 goals conceded. Top work.

"I like the defenders to defend, attackers to attack and the midfielders to do a bit of both. It's a simple game," was Sherwood's assessment upon taking over. It's a laughably simplistic assessment of management to match the manager's demeanor and seeming lack of ability. Sherwood is a charlatan who has been wonderfully exposed through his own bravado. Given an opportunity at a level higher than any novice for the last 20 years, the chance has been utterly undermined by an understandable lack of experience and a baffling sense of entitlement and 'I know best' mentality.


Manchester City
As I explained in 16 Conclusions following the match, a draw was not a disaster for City, but it does ramp up the pressure on their trip to Anfield in a fortnight's time. Had City held on to their lead at the Emirates, they could have afforded to lose to Liverpool and still be guaranteed the title by a point by winning the other seven remaining matches.

Now, however, a point is still required at Anfield for the title to remain in City's hands. Given Liverpool's recent home record (12 wins and a draw in their last 13 games), that looks a tricky proposition.


Norwich City
From Big Weekend on March 14th:

'Two 1-0 wins in their last 13 league matches, and six other points besides. Norwich might survive but there will be nothing glorious or even interesting about it.

They'll lose to Southampton on Saturday, Chris Hughton will suddenly be one game from the sack and then they'll beat Sunderland at home to keep one nostril above the water to allow them to breathe. Then they'll lose again.'

That it was so easy to predict Norwich's next three matches tells you all you need to know about Chris Hughton's management at Carrow Road. That the Canaries fell apart so readily at the Liberty Stadium on Saturday when victories are needed ahead of a difficult end to the season should act as a further nail in his coffin at the club.

Norwich have won eight times in the league this season, and the eight matches following such victories have returned two points. Such a lack of consistency may not be enough to cause Norwich's relegation, but it may well spell the end of Hughton's tenure at the club.


Fulham
The first team that we can surely deem as gone? It's now just one win in 12 Premier League games, and Fulham sit five points from safety having played at least more than one game more than three of the other teams in the bottom five.

What's more, they look rotten, a decline built on a squad bloated with last hurrahs - the ten oldest line-ups in this season's Premier League have all been named by Fulham.

Fulham's away form is traditionally dreadful - they have conceded 21 goals in their last seven matches on the road - but it is the results at Craven Cottage that have been particularly concerning. Two years ago, Fulham had the tenth best home record in the division, winning ten of their 19 fixtures. This season, their total of 13 points from 16 matches makes for the worst return in the Premier League (and better than only one club in Europe's top five leagues).

"We are all very disappointed with how it is going on," Felix Magath admitted after Sunday's defeat to Everton. "But I think if we go on and play as good as we did today, we will see." Whilst Magath is correct in his description of Fulham's performance, results under the German have simply not improved sufficiently - he has four points from his six matches in charge.

It seems likely that Fulham will need at least four wins from their remaining six games to stay up. That's as many as they have managed since the end of October.


Aston Villa
Losers not just due to a defeat at Old Trafford, but because things simply don't seem to be changing. Consecutive 4-1 defeats, and a growing sense that Paul Lambert is doing no more than treading water. Villa have now taken a grand total of 15 points in their last 17 Premier League matches. The surprising thing is that there are three teams to have taken fewer in that time, but all three (West Brom, Cardiff and Fulham) have changed their manager in a bid to halt such a decline.

"I don't think you'll need as many as 40 points with the way the league is," said Lambert following Saturday's defeat. "We'll try and win the next one and see what happens. We've got another big game next week against Fulham. I don't know how many it will take, but I'm not sure it will be as many as 40." Villa fans must be delighted to see such high aspirations.

In 2010/11, under the much-maligned Gerard Houllier, Villa took 48 points from 38 games at a rate of 1.26 points per game. During the woeful Alex McLeish season (recording the lowest win percentage of any manager at the club), Villa took exactly 1.00ppg. In the 69 Premier League games under Paul Lambert, that total stands at 1.09.

There may be other signs of progress at Villa Park but, on the field at least, improvement has been critically slow.


Flight Planners
As pitiful a stunt as it deserved to be. What started as an attempt to undermine David Moyes' authority as Manchester United manager ended up simply strengthening his position. In a choice between a man trying his best but failing to succeed and a group of self-important supporters attempting to court controversy and fame by resorting to d*ckishness, the PR contest has only one winner.

David Moyes may have got much wrong this season, but his suggestion that the reported £840 cost would have been better spent by making a donation to Darren Fletcher's charity was completely correct. His early arrival into the dug-out displayed both balls (not literally) and determination. He may not be good enough for his job, but those are at least two characteristics he shares with his predecessor.


Degsy Bilton
On West Brom v Cardiff: 'Unders. Unders. And again Unders. If this game produces more than 2.5 goals I shall gladly cook my own gonads with onions and Herbes de Provence in a George Foreman grilling machine.'

Thought we could smell something porky.

Daniel Storey - Follow him on Twitter.

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ven if United were to sign CR7 & Messi to play upfront, the fact remains Fletcher and Cleverly are playing in midfield. That's where the problem is. Fletcher is too slow with an awful pass, while Cleverly is simply rubbish

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