The Premier League winners and losers could only start in one place – with Alisson.
It was the most extraordinary moment of this Premier League season. If it eventually secures Liverpool a place in next season’s Champions League, it will be the most sensational goal in England’s top flight since Sergio Aguero’s title winner in 2012.
There is something objectively joyous about a goalkeeper scoring. You see them lumbering forward, out of place like a punk dancing on stage at The Royal Ballet. You tell yourself that it probably won’t happen; they rarely practice this and they are there to cause a nuisance more than to score. But you know it just might.
And once in a blue moon, if you’ve been good all year and eaten your vegetables and called your mother every Sunday, it happens. If you didn’t let out an involuntary yelp as Alisson’s header hit back of Sam Johnstone’s net with impossibly good accuracy and power, football really isn’t for you.
But this goal was about more than three points, the Premier League and next season’s Champions League. We have grown too accustomed to seeing professional footballers as performing circus animals over the last year, there purely for our televisual entertainment as we ease the boredom of enforced social isolation. But footballers have been through stuff too. Their wealth and fame does not act as immunisation from the unspeakably awful shit life tends to throw at us.
In February, Alisson’s father drowned in Brazil at the age of just 57. Not only did that news shatter his world, he was also unable to return to Brazil for the funeral due to the travel restrictions imposed with Covid-19 raging in his home country. Being able to say goodbye in as personal a way as possible is a proven step in the grieving process. Alisson has many friends inside and outside of Liverpool’s squad, but nobody will have been able to cure his loneliness.
If you have a couple of spare minutes this Monday, watch Alisson’s post-match interview.
“I hope he was there to see it with God on his side celebrating” 👏
“I don’t know how to celebrate!” 😂
A fantastic interview with Alisson, who dedicates his sensational last-minute goal to his father who passed away earlier this year 🙌 pic.twitter.com/4w2HsbaO16
— Sky Sports Premier League (@SkySportsPL) May 16, 2021
I don’t want to quote sections from it because I could never hope to capture its emotions. But it shows a man forced to live in the public eye because he happens to be good at football, describing what scoring that goal meant to him. I don’t believe in a greater being, but Alisson does. And on afternoons like Sunday, when a game is falling beyond his team’s grip only to be rescued by the unthinkable, you can see why.
It didn’t seem inappropriate to wonder whether Leeds would tire towards the end of their first Premier League season in 15 years. They regularly covered the most distance and made the most high-intensity sprints of any team in the league. Promotion did mean that Leeds would play eight fewer league matches this season – and going out of both cup competitions at the first hurdle certainly helped – but Leeds would face opponents more adept at retaining possession and so have to press for longer.
There was concrete evidence for that hypothesis too. In February and March, Leeds lost four of a five-match run against Arsenal, Aston Villa, Wolves and West Ham. Perhaps the conclusion was too easy to jump to, but in those games Leeds did lack their usual zip with and without the ball.
But the last six weeks have evaporated that theory; Leeds have gone again. They have lost one of their last nine league games and on Saturday produced probably their best performance of the season to humiliate Burnley. Their attacking football was brilliant, but it was the way in which Burnley were hassled and harried into ceding possession – either by being dispossessed or forced to clear the ball long – that was most noticeable. And the numbers stack up: Leeds completed comfortably more sprints than any other Premier League team on Saturday.
There’s no doubt that Leeds could do with a break – and the low number of players that are likely to play regularly at Euro 2020 is a relief – but then so could every club in the division. With a small squad and a distinct lack of rotation, Leeds have continued to stay true to Marcelo Bielsa’s high-energy ethos without standards slipping. That is a monumental achievement.
This has been an odd goalscoring season for Manchester City. They are the top goalscorers in the division – no surprise there – but you would have got decent odds on Burnley’s highest league goalscorer matching City’s with two games of the season remaining.
That oddity reflects the new variety of City’s attack. The team selection in the Premier League has become Pep roulette, but so too is guessing which of their players will score. In all competitions, six different City players have 13 or more goals. With the more traditional centre-forwards often left on the bench, attacking midfielders take it turns to start the match as the false nine and take it turns to make late runs into the box during matches.
One of those players with 13 goals is Torres, a 21-year-old who only joined last summer for a comparatively modest £20m transfer fee. Torres has played only 1,275 league minutes and 360 in the Champions League and will have found it hard to acclimatise to his new surroundings with social activity hampered by lockdown conditions. He’s known as a quiet, reserved young man.
But Torres has done more than enough to suggest that he could be a spectacular bargain. Not only is he capable of playing in multiple positions to meet the Guardiola demand (central midfield, left side, right side and false nine in the Premier League alone this season), he’s also City’s most prolific goalscorer in terms of goals per appearance in all competitions (0.38, just pipping Ilkay Gundogan).
Torres’ contributions understandably get overlooked because City have another young attacking midfielder who a) has more potential, b) is producing better form now and c) is English, but scoring your first Premier League hat-trick helps. Torres is the third youngest player with seven or more Premier League goals this season, behind Phil Foden and Mason Greenwood. That’s pretty spectacular company to be in after your first season in England.
When Welbeck turned 30 in November, his top-flight career was badly on the wane, broken by injury and goalscoring drought. Welbeck had managed just four in the Premier League since April 2018, part of a Watford team that were relegated after barely being part of Arsenal’s team at all. He had only started two league games for Brighton since a summer move.
But Welbeck is enjoying an Indian summer. He has only scored five times since November, but his role in running the channels, holding up the ball and bringing Brighton’s attacking midfielders and wing-backs into play represents his best work since leaving Manchester United. As always, the principle perseveres: When Danny Welbeck is happy, we’re happy.
‘I thought he would be perfectly suited to the Premier League, but everything just looks a little broken. Hopefully after a full pre-season, West Ham can see the Benrahma they paid £20m for, because we certainly haven’t yet’ – Daniel Storey, May 10.
And by May 15 Benrahma was celebrating a late equaliser to give West Ham a chance of European football. I’m happy to provide my services to other Premier League attackers next season, at a price.
He’s scored three goals in his last three Premier League games, and his contract expires in the summer. My best advice to whichever club wants to sign Benteke is to give him a rolling one-month contract and wait for him to win the Golden Boot.
He’s clearly not back to his best yet, and we should be wary of patronising Dele just because he’s back in the team. But when you watch some of the glorious touches to beat his man and delay passes with perfect timing, it makes you yearn to have Dele back at full tilt next season. It has been a truly rotten year.
A first Premier League appearance in almost 10 years, on loan from Derby County to Manchester City at the age of 35. It’s like when Championship Manager 01/02 goes weird a decade into a save.
Top of the losers list because they simply will not learn. I started being a little amused by Everton’s dismal home form in comparison with their results on the road. It then got a little infuriating and now I’m downright angry.
This is unacceptable because Everton have proved that they are good enough. You do not beat Leicester, Liverpool, Tottenham, Arsenal, West Ham and Leeds away from home without having quality and self-belief. You do not lose at home to Burnley, Newcastle, Fulham and Sheffield United unless there is something badly wrong.
And this is on Carlo Ancelotti. If Everton had lost those home games in myriad different ways – high-scoring thrillers, red-card-affected defeats, constant dominance undone by a freak counter-attacking or set piece goal – we could probably use misfortune as an excuse. But every one of those defeats has followed the same pattern: lethargic passing through midfield that makes them easy to defend and games lost through haphazard defending and miserable midfield control that leaves them vulnerable. If I – and every Everton supporter – can spot it, Ancelotti clearly has too. But he has been unable to demand more even when there was something tangible to fight for.
And it has ruined Everton’s season. Had they taken even eight points from those four aforementioned home fixtures, Champions League qualification would remain in their hands with two games to play. As it is, they are favourites to finish eighth and miss out on Europe entirely. You can see why the locals are getting restless.
Fulham and Scott Parker
You can tell a lot about a team after their relegation has been confirmed. News that should be devastating loses its impact when it’s been in the post for a while, meaning that relegation can be liberating. Damocles’ sword falling allows for pressure-off football, particularly from those players who are aiming to make a statement ahead of next season.
But Fulham’s performance and result against Southampton suggests that they are not well-placed to bounce straight back and that it was not the looming threat of relegation that caused them to underperform. Scott Parker’s team have taken one point from their last eight matches. Their form was patchy before; now it’s fallen off a cliff.
Parker has earned plenty of plaudits this season, many of which I don’t really understand. They have a far better squad than West Brom (and arguably Burnley too) aided by the arrival of several loan players that Parker has struggled to build into a coherent team. We expected improvement to come through familiarity, but that just hasn’t happened.
And it’s hard to even tell what Parker’s preferred style is. They could still become the lowest home goalscorers in Premier League history, aiming to be defensively solid rather than expansive, but they create far too few chances to make winning tight matches likely and they have now gone eight matches without a clean sheet. Their defending has declined without any obvious improvement in their attacking output.
After Saturday’s defeat, Parker again spoke of Fulham lacking in the final third. But that is becoming a broken record and it is on Parker to solve the problem. Replies from supporters suggest that he is quickly losing the trust of those who believe this to have been a criminally wasted season.
In fact, Parker is fortunate that Tony Khan is – deservedly – getting most of the heat for leaving business so late in the summer transfer window and so missing out on several targets and forcing Parker to make do and mend. Those excuses will carry far less weight back in the Championship when Fulham have a clear advantage and should be one of the favourites for automatic promotion.
Four points from their last five games and ahead for a total of 61 minutes over those matches. West Ham’s Champions League dream always seemed a little far-fetched when injuries hit. But David Moyes’ side are now in serious danger of finishing eighth and missing out on Europe entirely. That would both feel like a huge letdown after significant progress and impact upon their transfer business this summer.
Turf Moor, ‘a difficult place to go’
“We do miss them,” said Nick Pope when asked about the absence of supporters at Turf Moor and how it may be to blame for Burnley’s poor home form. “It can be a bit of an intimidating place to come. I’ve been told that by a lot of different people, when I meet up with England or people who come to games. They make it really difficult for other teams. That’s a percentage of it.”
On first viewing, Pope seems to have a point. Only Fulham and Sheffield United have lost more home games than Burnley this season. They have taken 23 points from 22 home league games since the first lockdown was imposed, exactly the same number as they managed in the 15 immediately prior to it.
But then Burnley’s home record has faded badly during their time in the Premier League. They took only 23 home points from 19 matches in 2018/19 and 26 in 2018/19, when it was actually their away form that took them to seventh in the table.
Pope is right that Burnley’s fans can make a difference, but they must improve at Turf Moor next season. Otherwise, the natural ceiling will remain and Burnley will be aiming to stay up rather than trouble the top half.
The honeymoon is over. Lingard has created five chances in his last six matches, and not had a shot on target in either of his last two. That’s partly explained by Declan Rice’s absence forcing Lingard to offer a little more defensively, but Rice’s return this weekend didn’t make much difference.
That offers two obvious conclusions: 1) Lingard’s initial form was partly down to him having far more energy than tired opponents and being desperate to impress having not played much football in the 12 months previously, and 2) it’s becoming easier for Gareth Southgate to leave him out in favour of an extra attacker or central midfielder.