* Jose Mourinho described Zlatan Ibrahimovic as a “gift” for Marcus Rashford in August 2016. “People can say he is not going to play every game from the start, like in the second part of last season, but this is a gift for the kid, too,” said the Portuguese.
Rashford will have learned plenty from Ibrahimovic about attitude and mentality, but the two are different players on the pitch. Rashford is not and never will be a similar player to the immobile but brilliant Swede; he will have picked up tips about movement, defensive responsibility and decision-making from Ibrahimovic, but nowhere near enough to properly develop.
Rashford needed a roaming, versatile forward example to follow, and Alexis Sanchez is the perfect teacher. Many have again expressed fears that the Chilean’s arrival could restrict Rashford’s chances of playing, but this is an invaluable opportunity for apprentice to learn from a more fitting master. That his first goal or assist in nine games coincided with Sanchez’s debut was no accident.
* Three points and one place separate the two sides in the Championship table, and the difference was again negligible between Sheffield Wednesday and Reading on Friday evening. The Hillsborough hosts emerged as 3-1 winners, but this was a far closer game than the scoreline suggests.
Both clubs have failed to recapture the form of last season. Reading came within a penalty shoot-out in the Championship play-off final of reaching the Premier League in May, while Wednesday also fell to Huddersfield at the semi-final hurdle. The clubs have dropped from third and fourth last campaign to 17th and 18th this.
But it was fitting that Wednesday reached the fifth round at Reading’s expense. Jos Luhukay is unbeaten in four games since being installed as Carlos Carvalhal’s replacement earlier this month, and the Owls are on the up. Reading are heading in the opposite direction, and must be considering following the same path. Jaap Stam has won one of his last 11 games, and a crucial visit to bottom side Burton awaits on Tuesday. His job is surely on the line.
It's mad to see the turn around of Reading in under 12 months. They were a penalty kick from the Premier League last season, now mired in a relegation battle under Jaap Stam.
— Kristan Heneage (@KHeneage) January 20, 2018
* “Dull” and “boring” were the two most evocative words Southampton legend Matt Le Tissier used. Stan Collymore went much further, saying he was ‘baffled’, ‘saddened’ and ‘angered’ at such an ‘underwhelming’ appointment. But it was Gary Lineker who summed up the general mood most succinctly, albeit with tongue inserted firmly in cheek having said the same about Claudio Ranieri: ‘Claude Puel? Really?’
Three months later, the critics are conspicuous by their silence. A 5-1 victory over a League One side is to be expected for a Premier League club, but then look at West Ham. Kelechi Iheanacho led the way as the Foxes cruised into the last 16.
It is an accepted wisdom in any relationship that one is punching above their weight while the other is settling, but Puel and Leicester are the exception. The former is not using the latter as a stepping stone in his managerial path, and the latter does not see the former as a quick fix or temporary measure. With the top-flight’s elite concentrating on matters in the Premier League and Europe, Puel would be forgiven for eyeing a second Wembley appearance in two seasons.
* Paul Merson was right on one thing: Leicester are in a group of one. They are fighting Burnley for a possible Europa League qualification place and are in absolutely no danger of relegation, so the FA Cup provides an outside chance at glory.
But that is where Merson and common sense parted ways. He described Puel’s starting line-up – which featured two Premier League-winning full-backs, a £17m England international centre-half, a £34m pair of central midfielders and a £25m striker – as “disgraceful”, “unbelievable” and “a joke”. The 5-1 victory was a statement, and the attitude of the players deserves the utmost credit. Premier League clubs resting players in the FA Cup will always be a point of contention, but not when those who are called upon actually take the chance.
* Welcome to West Ham, Joao Mario. The Euro 2016-winning central midfielder was introduced as a half-time substitute for the visitors when 1-0 down away at Wigan. His debut ended in a 2-0 defeat for the ten-man Hammers.
Arthur Masuaku deserves censure for spitting at Nick Powell, and an automatic six-match ban should suffice. Dean Saunders was quick with the questionable claim that he would “rather be punched in the face” than spat at, but this was a kick in the teeth for West Ham. The club already have 12 players out injured, and Masuaku’s suspension makes it an unlucky 13 unavailable against Crystal Palace in midweek. A player who was becoming something of a cult hero might never rebuild that reputation with David Moyes.
* Plenty foresaw Wigan’s victory, their commanding form in League One combining well with West Ham’s injury list and differing priorities. But the nature of their victory was surprising. The Latics outclassed and outfought the Premier League side with relative ease.
Nick Powell was undoubtedly the man of the match and – much to the chagrin of Wigan supporters – was given the full Match of the Day highlight reel treatment. “Arrogance” was the word Danny Murphy used – in a wholly positive way – before correcting himself with “confidence”.
Powell fell on the wrong side of that delicate line at Manchester United, where injuries also derailed his development. Still just 23, a place at the heart of the League One leaders is the perfect platform to banish any and all memories of his Manchester United spell in the most emphatic way possible.
— Cal (@CalWafc) January 27, 2018
* There was gallows humour galore from both sets of supporters at St Mary’s. Watford fans booed and mocked Southampton for only beating them by one goal, while their Saints counterparts expressed surprise at having won a match in the same week as spending a club-record fee on a striker.
“We’re Watford FC, we’ll sack who we want,” chanted the travelling Watford faithful in the first half of their 1-0 defeat; how numerous Southampton fans wish their club had the same courage of conviction.
Even FA Cup progression was used as a stick with which to beat Mauricio Pellegrino. The Spaniard was derided for changing to a defensive formation in the second half, bringing Maya Yoshida on for Sofiane Boufal in the 67th minute and inviting pressure from the visitors. Saints held on to advance, but it feels as though Pellegrino is wearing roller skates in his constant uphill battle to win supporters over. He will be sure to wear a helmet and kneepads too of course, such is his safety-first approach.
* Since his appointment as manager on Boxing Day, Tony Pulis has not drawn a single match at Middlesbrough. Perhaps more incredible is that he has not yet won 1-0. There have been a 2-0 win, a 3-0 victory and a 3-2 classic, with a few defeats littered in between.
The late loss against Brighton was unfortunate, but there were yet more signs of positivity under Pulis. Boro held their own throughout before Glenn Murray’s 90th-minute winner, with Ashley Fletcher and Adam Clayton impressing in their first starts under the Welshman. The only real negative was the non-existent performance of Patrick Bamford.
That Adama Traore has played in each of Pulis’ first six games in charge will come as a surprise to many. The former Barcelona youngster is a skilful winger, the type that never thrives under Pulis. Yet he forms a crucial part of the manager’s game plan. Credit to Pulis, for he has embraced managerial relegation to the second tier as an opportunity to at least try something new.
* Many managers, when asked about their prospects in the FA Cup, fail to disguise their desire not to be in the competition. League form understandably takes precedence almost every time, but countless bosses would rather exit the competition in the early stages rather than have to contend with it into the later months of the season, regardless of any potential glory.
Not Nigel Adkins. His FA Cup outlook was refreshing, but also absolutely necessary. “I want to win this game. I want a Cup run,” stated the Hull City manager, and his side promptly dispatched the same Nottingham Forest who dumped out Arsenal in the last round.
Adkins had won just two of his first nine games in charge prior to their 2-1 victory, but is looking to use the competition to build some momentum and confidence as the Tigers fight to preserve their Championship status. They still have their fate in their own hands – on the pitch, at least.
* Billy Sharp scored the goal and George Baldock impressed at right-back, but it was arguably Simon Moore who was Sheffield United’s most impressive player in a 1-0 win over Preston. He made a number of smart saves to secure the Blades’ place in the last 16.
It has been a difficult season for Moore, who missed the first half of the campaign with a knee injury sustained in a pre-season friendly. It was the latest blow in a stop-start career which has taken in Basingstoke and Brading Town, as well as Premier League Cardiff.
Before joining United in summer 2016 he had started just 89 games in seven seasons. But he has finally settled in Sheffield, and is a crucial part of their unlikely promotion push. Thanks to him, the Blades have an FA Cup run to enjoy too.
* Even with five defenders and three deep-lying midfielders starting against a League Two team, Tottenham looked defensively weak against Newport. The absence of Toby Alderweireld continues to take its toll, while Davinson Sanchez also had his stock raised by simply watching on from the bench.
In his place was Eric Dier, a player who is perhaps Tottenham’s most important, yet would likely not get into a full-strength starting XI. Injuries maintain his standing in this stretched squad, because his performances certainly do not. Newport targeted him from the start and Dier never looked comfortable under their aerial assault. “I’ve told Eric he has what it takes to be the best English centre back but he has to be convinced of that himself,” Mauricio Pochettino said last October. Us neither.
The law of Eric Dier states once one player who is able to play in one of his positions comes back from injury then another must then become injured so that Dier retains his starting place
— Decky (@mchdecky) January 23, 2018
* “I have known Daniel now for one week, and for six days he was perfect in training,” Jurgen Klopp began in October 2015, before going on to detail how Daniel Sturridge had suffered an injury in a collision with Jordon Ibe. “Perfect” for six days means little when you are perennially injured for the seventh.
Over two years on, Sturridge has reached the point of no return at Liverpool. He was rumoured to be in line to start against West Brom, but did not even make the bench as Klopp named a strong side. Sturridge is now left waiting for an unlikely exit this month.
The England international has played fewer games under Klopp (63) than Lucas Leiva (65). He has scored as many goals as Divock Origi (21). As painful as it may be to admit, Liverpool’s attack has moved on without him.
* Sturridge’s departure is even more damning considering that Liverpool are lacking game-changers. Klopp this week insisted that his squad did not need further investment in the January window, but the three substitutes introduced when behind against West Brom were James Milner, Danny Ings and Jordan Henderson.
That trio hardly inspires fear in opposition defences. Klopp has shown admirable patience in Ings’ recovery but he will take time to reach a performance level that might still not be good enough for Liverpool’s requirements. The other two are more likely to produce mediocrity than magic.
Liverpool’s back-up options in attacking areas are Ings, Dominic Solanke and Adam Lallana, when fit. It is astonishing that Ings, after such a long time out, could have any responsibility placed upon his shoulders. Klopp had better cross those fingers and hope that his front four stay fit until May.
* Yet the most resounding conclusion from Liverpool’s defeat does not concern their team or manager, nor too Alan Pardew or West Brom, but the use of technology during the game.
I am not wholly against the use of VAR, but only to remove the ‘howler’ decisions that can very quickly be sorted out, such as mistaken identity and handball on the line. But that could happen with an extra official watching the game and just speaking in the referee’s ear without any obvious referral from the official. Players would not need to demand that referees ‘go upstairs’, as has already started. Nor would managers be miming a television like they were starting a game of angry charades.
There are two obvious issues here. The first is the ludicrous scenario where fans in the ground don’t know what is going on while those watching on television do. The argument is that playing controversial moments in the stadium could cause crowd problems, but if that’s the case then don’t use it at all. You can’t have tens of thousands of supporters just waiting with no information.
But the biggest gripe is saved for the introduction itself. This has not arisen because of a huge swell to fight injustices in football, but because managers won’t stop moaning about decisions and because football quite likes a new initiative that can be sponsored and whored out by advertising executives.
It also doesn’t relieve any pressure on referees, merely increases a blame culture that is causing a dearth of officials at grass roots level upwards. Now not only is an official for making mistakes (players and managers never do, you see), but their decisions about whether to refer incidents are also being analysed. All the while, the ‘respect’ campaign that sees players scream obscenities in the faces of officials continues to fail in its attempts to improve behaviour.
It threatens to make for a messy, staccato watch, all because people can’t deal with minor adversity in a philosophical way.
* Coventry City supporters won’t consider a memorable cup run as even part-recompense for the misery they have been forced to swallow from their owners over the last decade, but light relief is always welcome.
For those of you who aren’t aware, a potted history. Coventry were bought by hedge fund SISU in 2007, saving the club from administration and aiming to get them back into the Premier League. They refused to invest in the squad, sacked managers and then got the club kicked out of their Ricoh Arena home by refusing to pay rent in a battle with the stadium’s owners and have now effectively left the club to rust in the rain. Relegation to League Two came as no surprise.
Coventry took 8,000 fans to Milton Keynes, more than their average home crowd this season. While refusing to give money to SISU has become a badge of honour for many, celebrating a manager and players trying to battle through unprecedented adversity is something to cherish. A repeat of their famous 1987 final at Wembley against Tottenham in round five is the romantic’s dream draw.
* It’s not hard to detect Antonio Conte’s distaste for Michy Batshuayi, and Chelsea’s manager will push for his loan exit should Edin Dzeko arrive in west London over the next four days.
Yet the Belgian will leave Chelsea with an extraordinary goalscoring record. It has been falsely inflated by his participation in cup competitions against weaker sides, but Batshuayi has now scored 17 Chelsea goals in 1,699 minutes in all competitions. You don’t have to be a mathematician to work out that he averages one goal for less than every 100 minutes played.
Just because it hasn’t worked out in England does not mean that Batshuayi cannot be successful elsewhere. Still just 24, this is not a career on the wane.
Matt Stead and Daniel Storey