Premier League winners and losers

Date published: Monday 25th April 2022 10:05 - Matthew Stead

Sean Dyche was holding Burnley back. Liverpool and Manchester City have peripheral squad options more committed than Man Utd’s starters.

 

Burnley
It was in April 2011 that Fulham unveiled their statue of Michael Jackson outside Craven Cottage. By May 2022 it could be that Burnley erect a Turf Moor tribute to their Jackson Four: caretaker manager Mike, academy director Paul Jenkins, Under 23s goalkeeping coach Connor King and captain Ben Mee.

The decision to appoint a coaching team with no front-facing senior experience as replacement for a survival specialist and the club’s longest-serving manager since the legendary Harry Potts departed in 1970 was derided. The call itself seemed controversial but the timing was particularly contentious. The snap judgement was that Burnley had f**ked it. The more considered take was that Burnley were f**ked. It was almost universally condemned but Burnley rolled the Dyche and have been a missed Maxwel Cornet penalty away from landing a maximum thus far.

Perhaps their dismissed manager would have delivered two wins and a draw in a week against a distracted West Ham, a volatile Southampton and a disinterested Wolves; Dyche might protest that the bounce has simply been timed to coincidental perfection, rather than this mini-run reflecting any loss of the dressing room or downing of tools under his watch. But Burnley equalling their second-longest unbeaten run of the entire season in the first three games since his departure is no mistake.

This was the finest vintage of Claret. Every outfield starter bar one made a tackle; the only exception was Nathan Collins, who blocked the most shots (2). Matej Vydra both scored the decisive goal and put in the most challenges (4). Wolves had as many shots outside the box as they did in. Jackson hailed Burnley’s “character”, “togetherness” and “team spirit” and those facets provided the foundation for a crucial victory.

But these were not the lingering fumes of pure Dyche. Burnley have had 14 shots or more in only nine Premier League games this season, with two of those matches coming in this transformative week. Burnley have restricted opponents to 11 shots or fewer in only seven Premier League games this season, with two of those matches coming in this transformative week. Wolves had only 10 attempts, which is the joint-lowest any team has managed against the Clarets all campaign – level with Norwich in October.

Dyche overachieved for years at Turf Moor but Burnley are playing better and with more ambition since his departure, delivering instant results. Him being the man holding them back all campaign is quite the storyline twist.

 

Gabriel Jesus
Liverpool have conquered the transfer market but Manchester City are grand masters of 4D chess in the window. They made Manchester United blink first over Alexis Sanchez, Fred and Harry Maguire, baiting the same club into overriding years of delicate planning by signing a simultaneous problem and solution in Cristiano Ronaldo. They routinely receive eight-figure fees for players who have never featured for them. They encouraged seasonal improvements in both Bernardo Silva and Raheem Sterling by threatening to sell them to Tottenham. And Manchester City have returned to the well of teasing a north London sale to inspire four goals out of Gabriel Jesus.

Arsenal might have been both heartened and frustrated to see their latest apparent strike target bask in a rare limelight. Jesus usually operates in the shadows but with intrigued eyes focused on his every touch at Watford, the Brazilian more than doubled his goal tally for the campaign, justified Arsenal’s interest, boosted his value and perhaps even planted a seed of doubt in Manchester City minds.

It was only Watford, the third-worst defence in the Premier League and an opponent against whom Manchester City had won their previous 14 games by an aggregate score of 53-7. But when the standards of certain teammates slipped, when Joao Cancelo was sloppy in possession and his fellow forwards erred, Jesus made a necessary difference.

The only variable in his displays seems to be his finishing; the work-rate, link-up play and selflessness is predictable. Pep Guardiola made a post-match point of extolling the consistency of Jesus – the Spaniard twice repeated the line that “always he is there”, praised his “incredible positivity” and added “he is always thinking what is the best for the team” – and it is difficult to imagine a more ideal player to manage. If his only crime at the Etihad is not being Sergio Aguero at the start nor Erling Haaland at the end, that is a success by any ordinary measure.

Still, it is probably time to go.

 

Divock Origi
The role of perennial back-up forward for an elite side in a title race with no margin for error has rarely looked so easy. Jesus roused Manchester City on his 22nd start in the club’s 50th game of the season; Divock Origi now has more goals (6) than starts in all competitions (5) for Liverpool this campaign.

Jurgen Klopp said he “probably will never, ever miss a player more than” the Belgian were he to leave upon the expiration of his Anfield contract this summer. The continued use of players expected to leave at the end of this season has been used as a stick to beat Manchester United this season, but Origi showed the virtues of having a fit, motivated and collaborative squad.

He was the first player Klopp called upon against Everton, introduced in a 60th-minute double substitution at 0-0 before contributing to the first goal with a delightful touch for Mo Salah’s cross, then scoring the clincher. He was brought on in another combined change at 1-0 down on the hour mark against Norwich in February; Liverpool equalised within two minutes and won 3-1. And in December, Origi was called upon in the 68th minute at 0-0 against Wolves, rewarding that faith with the stoppage-time winner.

In each of those three games, Origi was the first substitution Klopp called upon. That ability to rely on a player to frequently come in cold to key matches in difficult circumstances is priceless. With two goals in the League Cup and one in the Champions League to go with his direct hand in crucial Premier League points, the Belgian has contributed as much as anyone to this latest shot at history.

Do go and read 16 Conclusions.

Virgil van Dijk, Divock Origi, Fabinho and Jordan Henderson

 

Arsenal
After zero points from successive games against Crystal Palace, Southampton and Brighton, a maximum return in back-to-back fixtures against Chelsea and Manchester United. From a squandered position of authority in the Champions League race, to a renewed vigour and control of their own fate. Arsenal have taken a characteristically convoluted route, yet their course remains true.

For a team whose character, hunger and mental strength is disproportionately questioned because prior reputations are difficult to shed, and for the youngest side with one of the most inexperienced managers in the entire Premier League, Arsenal have shown remarkable resilience and fortitude. Twice they have recovered from chastening runs of three consecutive defeats this season. They rallied after an abhorrent August and could surge after their substandard start to April.

Do go and read 16 Conclusions.

 

Granit Xhaka
Those two games featured instances after which supporters feared and neutrals anticipated a personal capitulation. Not only did Granit Xhaka keep his head above such choppy waters, he carried Arsenal on his back while doing so.

Against Chelsea, the midfielder was unfortunate to deflect a Timo Werner effort past Aaron Ramsdale, but he atoned with an excellent performance typified by his composed nutmeg on Marcos Alonso in the build-up to Arsenal’s second goal. At home to Manchester United, the Switzerland captain was foolish and naive enough to receive a needless booking for kicking the ball away with his side under immense pressure, before securing victory with a sublime strike three minutes later.

In both cases, Xhaka displayed a maturity many would have considered beyond him. The absence of Thomas Partey – and arrival into the team of stability personified in Mo Elneny – has reinvigorated a player leading by example more than he ever did with the armband. Arsenal must be grateful for his renaissance, although no-one has ever been more relieved about anything ever than Cedric Soares was in that moment.

 

Eddie Howe
This is already the third-most clean sheets an Eddie Howe team has ever kept in a Premier League season. Newcastle’s seventh shut-out of the campaign equals Bournemouth’s 2015/16 and beats their 2017/18 and 2019/20. The Magpies have four fixtures – each admittedly remarkably difficult – remaining to beat the 10 clean sheets Howe oversaw in 2016/17 and 2018/19. Considering much of the widespread scepticism surrounding his appointment was centred on his apparent inability to organise a defence, the 44-year-old has already overcome the first of many hurdles at St James’ Park. And this one cannot be put entirely down to that winter investment, unless everyone is willing to accept Dan Burn should be England captain.

 

Brentford
Do not underestimate just how substantial their unbeaten April was. Remove the ten points amassed by Thomas Frank’s side this month – harsh but necessary in these hypothetical circumstances – and Brentford would be sandwiched between Everton and Burnley, a point and a place above the relegation zone.

It has been a phenomenal run even before taking into account the standard of opposition: Chelsea, West Ham and Tottenham, with Watford at home as a fine palate cleanser, should not be navigated so well by a promoted team. The focus was understandably on Christian Eriksen, who remains unbeaten when starting since he signed. But Brentford have been a picture of unified excellence since that run of seven defeats and one draw from eight between January and February. They have masterfully avoided being dragged into trouble by shoring up the defence. It’ll never catch on.

 

Christian Pulisic
Jorginho owes someone a drink. Christian Pulisic claimed that Thomas Tuchel “just said to make the difference” when bringing the American on with a quarter of an hour left to play against West Ham. A goalless draw would have dropped Chelsea to within an Arsenal win of sinking to fourth and suddenly being demoted to a Champions League qualification race most assumed they had already won. Pulisic’s late goal grants them some breathing space in this suffocating end to the season.

Tuchel will surely consider it worth using Pulisic for these last Premier League games, with a view to deploying him in the FA Cup final. Liverpool often struggle with his pace, movement and combination play and no Chelsea player will be more motivated to prove a point.

 

Steven Gerrard
Aston Villa sacked the last manager who followed consecutive Premier League defeats to West Ham, Arsenal, Wolves and Tottenham by losing one more game. Dean Smith was rather unwisely beaten by Southampton after such a run in November. Steven Gerrard is practically a genius for stopping that particular rot by drawing with Leicester.

 

Kevin Pressman
Don’t seem to remember him hopping.

 

Losers

Frank Lampard
Well that can’t make for comfortable reading.

 

Everton
Anthony Gordon didn’t dive for this, if indeed he did at all. Everton can feel aggrieved with some of the decisions made at Anfield but equally they have no time to. Complaining about contentious referee calls is an entirely futile exercise and energy probably ought to be spared for a relegation battle in which, for the first time this season, they are no longer favourites.

The Toffees were better at Anfield. They had a logical gameplan that was carried out competently and did far better than most onlookers expected. And they still lost 2-0 with one shot on target.

This was never the yardstick by which their survival hopes would be measured. Yet there was a stark difference in their intensity and spirit in comparison to previous games, a change simultaneously encouraging and maddening. If those levels had been replicated in a fraction of the preceding fixtures they would be safe. The challenge now is to carry the performance, if not the result, into the coming games. And this time they will have to escape without the help of Kevin Campbell.

 

Manchester United
The problem was Ronaldo, until he was absent for a Liverpool humbling lacking in attacking coherence. The issue was Harry Maguire, before he sat out an Arsenal defeat underpinned by defensive incompetence. Identifying the points of concern and complication at Manchester United has become the most expensive game of green and gold Whac-A-Mole imaginable: no sooner has one dilemma been addressed that five others have cropped up across the pitch, in the dugout and throughout the boardroom.

It feels like a fever dream, remembering Manchester United finished above Liverpool in the Premier League last season. While the Reds have recovered from that calamitous and inexplicable run of six Premier League home defeats from January to March 2021, embarking on their current sequence of 12 straight league wins at Anfield by an aggregate score of 35-2, Manchester United have done the opposite. That unsustainable 29-game unbeaten away run was snapped by Leicester in October and their only victories on their travels since have come at Norwich, Brentford, Leeds and Nuno’s Tottenham. The Arsenal setback confirmed this to be the first time they have ever lost four consecutive Premier League away games.

The low bar of improving on the Liverpool humiliation was cleared, yet being on level terms with a vulnerable Arsenal side for no more than three minutes of 90 was arguably just as damning. Manchester United stopped trying beyond a certain point at Anfield and instead resorted to kicking their opponents. This, at the Emirates, was them actually giving it a go and still losing by two to a side they really ought to have beaten.

Those caveats of a missed penalty, Diogo Dalot testing the structural integrity of post and bar and penalty decisions Rio Ferdinand is presumably still seething over are valid, yet equally they are a part of the game and Manchester United failed to control the variables. The entire team just feels disjointed and the dressing room, much like Paul Scholes’ journalistic etiquette when it comes to his sources, “is just a disaster”.

Manchester United have four games remaining. They have won 15 matches and lost 10. Their Premier League low for victories in a season is 18, and their high for defeats is 12. The last time they finished a league campaign with a negative goal difference was 1990, yet their current record stands at +2. Many are advocating they surrender European competition altogether next season to guarantee a clean slate and afford Erik ten Hag the maximum amount of time in training. Perhaps it is a route worth considering, but Manchester United will set a number of new club lows if they take it. After this abhorrent campaign, that is fitting.

Bruno Fernandes
As someone who felt the mild backlash over the decision to extend Bruno Fernandes’ contract was peculiar, it must now be said that it represents yet another counter-intuitive decision at Old Trafford. The Portuguese has started defeats to Everton, Liverpool and Arsenal since extending his deal, with a Leicester draw and Norwich win temporarily halting the misery. In the last two matches in particular, he has set an appalling example for a player once held as a future captain.

Against Liverpool and Arsenal, Fernandes resorted to awful tackles out of desperate frustration. His missed penalty against the Gunners was laughable but even worse was his concession of the ball on the edge of his own area minutes later at 2-1. Xhaka’s subsequent goal sealed the result.

The remonstrations, flailing arms and moaning at referees is still there, but Fernandes has been dragged down to Manchester United’s level after spending a solid two years or so pulling them up. Ten Hag thankfully has four years to figure out that conundrum.

 

Tottenham
Antonio Conte was right to point out that “the big trouble” Tottenham were in by the time of his appointment should not be overlooked. In a Premier League table comprised of results since the Italian replaced Nuno Espirito Santo, Spurs are third and have the highest goal difference outside the obvious top two. The improvement he has engendered is clear.

But it similarly cannot be ignored that Tottenham have two of the best forwards in Europe and have just produced successive performances completely devoid of attacking flair, imagination or ideas of how to overcome an organised defence. Brighton and Brentford shut them down and Conte’s weekend response against the Bees, bringing Davinson Sanchez on as his first substitution in the 74th minute, was lacklustre.

There has been an undeniable improvement at the back and for that the manager deserves credit. But those PSG rumours come as no surprise and that vague sense of a promising but currently flawed work in progress being undermined by his professional restlessness remains, much as it has throughout his reign.

 

David Moyes
A fine performance that perhaps deserved more in a game low on the list of West Ham priorities. But David Moyes has now visited Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester United as an away manager in 67 Premier League matches and failed to win any of them.

 

Wolves
Nine 1-0 defeats and 11 single-goal wins neatly highlight the difficult balancing act Bruno Lage has introduced at Wolves. They are rarely thrashed but even less often do they hand out hammerings. They will inevitably fall on the wrong side of those fine margins relatively frequently.

 

Roy Hodgson
It was Sam Allardyce last campaign and now Roy Hodgson this. The wait to see which former England manager will get bored enough in the middle of next season to drink from a poisoned chalice and painstakingly eviscerate their reputation is thrilling. It must be why Manchester United are so reluctant to bring Steve McClaren back.

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