Liverpool: The Premier League's Real Success Story

Nine wins on the spin means that Liverpool again top Matthew Stanger's Winners and Losers. Arsene Wenger shouldn't stay on just for reasons of 'legacy'...

Last Updated: 07/04/14 at 14:42 Post Comment

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Winners

Liverpool
Who would have thought that this Liverpool side could win nine matches in a row? The 2-1 victory over West Ham marked the best run that any team has achieved in the Premier League since Manchester United's 11-game winning streak in 2008/09. Liverpool were also top with five games to go in that campaign, moving into first place on goal difference following the 4-4 draw against Arsenal. But United won both of their games in hand on the way to claiming the title - an opportunity that also presents itself to Manchester City in the coming five weeks.

However, Liverpool have an advantage this year that they lacked in 2008/09. With City and Chelsea yet to visit Anfield, the run-in is very much in their own hands. They are capable of beating both to win their first title in 24 years, with Brendan Rodgers eyeing a tenth consecutive victory in the potential title-decider against City on Sunday lunchtime.

"The mentality is to be fearless, it doesn't matter who we play," said Rodgers. "We have to respect them because they've got world-class players, but it's about ourselves and the confidence we have to play.

"For the youngsters, they will embrace it and enjoy it. There is no pressure - just go out and play."

We commented in this column recently that Rodgers is saying all the right things at the moment, and his ability to take the pressure off his players has grown exponentially as the title race goes to the wire. In truth, after only three seasons managing in the Premier League, it wouldn't have been a surprise if the manager was struggling to control the situation, but he has remained calm while both Jose Mourinho and Arsene Wenger show signs of buckling under expectations.

'Make Us Dream' reads the banner that travels around the country with Liverpool's away support, and Sunday was the sort of result to do exactly that. As with the scrappy 3-2 win away to Fulham in the second match of this winning run - when that banner was being waved frantically at the end - the Reds performed below their best against West Ham, but still fought to a 2-1 win despite conceding an equaliser in controversial circumstances. Winning ugly - supposedly, that's the sign of champions.

It was also the first time that Liverpool have won in the Premier League this season when neither Luis Suarez or Daniel Sturridge have been on the scoresheet. Suarez won the first penalty by drawing James Tomkins into a handball, but overall his influence was not as significant as usual, with the Reds forced to display their defensive resolve. West Ham, playing their 19th century football, were intent on hoofing the ball into the box and rushing Simon Mignolet - a tactic that worked on one occasion, owing to Anthony Taylor's failure to spot Andy Carroll's foul, but was largely dealt with by the visitors.

Rodgers deserves great credit for building a team that is greater than the sum of its parts, and he should be named manager of the year even if Liverpool fall at the final hurdle. Manchester City have played some wonderful football in Manuel Pellegrini's first campaign but, considering their enormous investment, it would not be a surprise if they win their second title in three seasons. Liverpool are the real success story this season, along with Everton, while United obviously take the wooden spoon.


Everton
Only their second win against Arsenal in 16 Premier League meetings, earned in a fashion that suggests they ease to victory over the Gunners every season. Everton were by far the stronger team on Sunday, oozing confidence and playing "with an arrogance that was pleasing", according to Roberto Martinez.

While the real significance of the Toffees' win was its impact on the race for fourth, the result was also another feather in Martinez's cap as he out-thought Arsene Wenger for the second time this season. Arsenal may have thrashed Everton 4-1 in the FA Cup in March, but the Blues have been the better side in both league encounters and fully deserved the 3-0 scoreline at Goodison.

As I wrote here, Martinez assessed the fixture perfectly. With error-prone duo Nacho Monreal and Thomas Vermaelen starting on the left side of the Gunners' defence, the Everton manager moved Romelu Lukaku into a wide position on the right from where he exploited the weakness to devastating effect with the second goal.

Martinez also recognised the pattern to Arsenal's performances when Theo Walcott, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Aaron Ramsey are all missing from the starting line-up. By instructing his team to sit deep and remain compact, not only did the manager suffocate the Gunners' attacking threat by placing the focus on their lack of players who can run in behind the back four, but he also set up to break on the counter-attack.

This system yielded seven attempts on target in the first half - as many as Everton have managed in an entire game since the 4-1 win over Fulham on December 14. With Leighton Baines and Seamus Coleman supporting the attack, Arsenal were simply overrun, playing with an arrogance that certainly wasn't pleasing as they underestimated the threat of the hosts.

Despite the result, it is still difficult to see Everton claiming fourth place given their remaining fixtures. Since losing to Liverpool, Tottenham and Chelsea in the space of four matches over January and February, the Toffees have recovered to mount a remarkable run of six straight top-flight victories. However, it will be an enormous task to maintain that momentum with home matches against Manchester City and Manchester United still to come.

They have the belief and form to do it; Arsenal lack both, but have the favourable fixture list.


Tony Pulis and Crystal Palace
If Brendan Rodgers and Roberto Martinez lead the running for Winners and Losers' manager of the year - the award they all really want - then Tony Pulis isn't far behind for his wizardry at Crystal Palace.

The Eagles still need a couple more results to be sure of safety, but their emphatic 3-0 win over Cardiff opened up a reassuring seven-point gap to 18th with only five or six (or eight for Sunderland), matches remaining.

The Premier League table since Pulis took charge (he was appointed on November 23, but Keith Millen managed Palace to a 1-0 win at Hull that evening) certainly makes for interesting reading. The Eagles had lost seven of their last nine matches before Pulis' first game, but have won eight of 20 matches since to stand eighth in the form table over that period - only nine points behind Arsenal, who were top until February 8.

The foundation for this success has been Pulis' transformation of a defence that previously wouldn't have looked out of place in League One. Under Ian Holloway, Palace conceded 17 goals in eight matches; they have shipped just 18 in Pulis' 20 games in charge. Only Manchester City and Chelsea have conceded fewer - Tottenham have let in 20 more goals, Arsenal 12 and Liverpool nine. Despite leading the division, the Reds have conceded one more goal than Palace (40 to 39) and kept the same number of clean sheets (10).

It is quite a phenomenal achievement from the manager and it looks as though he will lead the Eagles to survival despite all hope being lost at the end of November. When Pulis was appointed, Palace were 1/3 to be relegated, now they are 14/1. He really must be a wizard.


Manchester City
One down, seven to go, after City cruised to victory over Southampton thanks to Yaya Toure's third-minute penalty and a missed offside call. We're looking forward to City really being tested against Liverpool on Sunday. Other than the second half of the 1-1 draw with Arsenal, it's all been too easy for them of late.


Fulham
Suddenly a real chance of survival after closing the gap to Norwich to five points before hosting the Canaries on Saturday. What a game that is going to be.


West Brom
A victory to underline their recent improvement after rumours that Pepe Mel was facing the sack eventually disappeared. The Baggies will be confident of getting a result against Tottenham on Saturday and certainly need one ahead of tough away trips to Manchester City and Arsenal.


Manchester United
A confident, stylish (!) performance that suggests that David Moyes has rather overplayed fears about the lack of quality in Manchester United's squad this season. With Juan Mata continuing to pull the strings as the champions' No 10, and Shinji Kagawa complementing the Spaniard, Moyes has a tough decision to make over how to squeeze his most talented players into the first XI. Perhaps he should aspire to be like Liverpool.


Losers

Jay Rodriguez
A cruel blow to a striker who had convinced this column that he was worthy of a place in Roy Hodgson's World Cup squad. Rodriguez scored four goals before an underwhelming England debut in November, but has played himself into contention with 13 strikes since, including five in four matches in March - more than Wayne Rooney and Daniel Sturridge. Hopefully his knee injury won't wreck his dream but, at 24, Rodriguez should get many more chances for England.


Chris Hughton
Being, by all accounts, a thoroughly decent person isn't enough to hold on to your job as a Premier League manager. Not when you have guided your team to only 18 wins in 71 matches. Not when you oversaw a run of two wins in 19 games last season, invested heavily in the squad during the summer, and now boast only three victories in the last 18 fixtures.

Norwich have gone backwards under Hughton this season. He had already lost the fans and, judging by Saturday's defeat to West Brom, he could also no longer inspire the players. The timing is odd, but only in the sense that Norwich should have made this decision much earlier. They are no worse off with Neil Adams in charge as they head into Saturday's six-pointer against Fulham and the daunting final four matches against Liverpool, Manchester United, Chelsea and Arsenal. Gulp.


Equality in English football
While Hughton's sacking is justified, it raises a incredibly worrying issue as currently there isn't a single black manager in the top four divisions.

When Oliver Holt first raised the idea that English football should adopt the 'Rooney Rule' - a stipulation introduced to the NFL in 2003 that requires teams to interview minority candidates for head coaching positions - we picked apart his column in Mediawatch. It was not the basis for his argument that was the problem - it was the way it was presented, specifically Holt's suggestion that Paul Ince wasn't given a fair shot at Blackburn because of the colour of his skin rather than the perilous situation into which he had guided the club. "Maybe it (the job) came a little bit early for me," admitted Ince, who had previously only managed in League Two.

But Holt has started a necessary debate, which deserves far more attention than it has thus far been given. Sean Ingle also wrote a column in the Guardian advocating the Rooney Rule at the start of the season but, despite the efforts of several organisations, the landscape for managers from ethnic minorities is bleaker than ever. Something surely has to change and, given its success in the NFL, it is difficult to think of an argument to oppose the Rooney Rule. Both the FA and Premier League have a duty to put the issue on the agenda immediately.


Ole Gunnar Solskjaer
Another manager whose first top-flight role perhaps came a little too soon. Cardiff were struggling before Solskjaer's arrival, but they sit joint-bottom of the form table with Fulham in the 13 matches since his appointment. If a manager is left "hoping for a miracle", you know they are out of their depth. Sadly for Solskjaer, that has proven to be the case.


Arsenal and Arsene Wenger
If you want to compete, you can't keep a manager simply because of his legacy. Legacies are for those who have already left, not the person who is required to take the club forward here and now.

So perhaps Wenger should be judged on his achievements this season alone. As I wrote here, the predictable nature of Arsenal's collapse - and his personal failure to prevent the Gunners losing crucial games in the Premier League - presents a strong case for the manager to leave in the summer, hopefully with an FA Cup victory and his head held high.

However, as is perennially the case with Arsenal, there has also been plenty of encouragement in this campaign, prompting the hope that has eventually killed so many Gooners' faith in Wenger. They may have fallen well short, but Arsenal have been in the title race this year and, at times, they have played better football than their rivals and themselves in recent seasons.

The biggest problems have stemmed from the manager's failure to adequately strengthen the squad last summer. But in signing Mesut Ozil for £42.5m, and pursuing Luis Suarez, Wenger has certainly suggested that he isn't afraid to spend to acquire the sort of talent that can take the team to the next level. Were he to maintain that intention and not leave the club's transfer business to the final week of the window, perhaps Arsenal can take another leap in the right direction next year.

Injuries are another issue - and one that the manager finally needs to address after the most frustrating season to date in that respect. However, when everyone is fit, Arsenal possess a brilliant team and, more so than any other manager in the top flight, one that Wenger can claim is entirely his own.

It is an enormously difficult decision, and one that should perhaps remain with Wenger as he ponders whether to sign a new two-year deal.


Flip-flop salesmen on Tyneside
Three successive defeats for Newcastle to an aggregate score of 11-0. That they remain in the top half is an embarrassment to the clubs below.

Matt Stanger - he's on Twitter.

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