De Bruyne is de leader of Premier League winners and losers as Leeds get both barrels

Date published: Thursday 12th May 2022 7:47 - Matthew Stead

Kevin de Bruyne celebrates with the match ball

Liverpool’s mentality monsters returned but Kevin de Bruyne is not losing this race. Leeds’ might be run; Marcelo Bielsa died for nothing.

 

Winners

Manchester City
In their last five matches, Manchester City have boosted their goal difference by 20. It’s always better to be safe than sorry. And while their armour remains susceptible in Europe, it is nigh-on impenetrable in the Premier League. The season started with every other game offering supposed proof they needed Harry Kane; it is ending with a rising body of evidence to suggest Erling Haaland will be the bespoke and brilliant hood ornament installed on a preposterously smooth supercar.

 

Kevin de Bruyne
The man could find the bottom corner of a circle. Kevin de Bruyne’s first, third and fourth finishes were things of remarkable beauty: shooting early across Jose Sa; thundering an effort in from outside the area; and feeding off scraps with malicious intent. The second owed plenty to a couple of deflections and yet more poor defending. Three strikes with his weaker foot were underlined by one with the nominally stronger right in a stunning display of mastery.

De Bruyne turns 31 in June but could be entering his peak years of efficiency. “We’ve spoken during the years,” said Guardiola after the Belgian deconstructed Wolves. “‘You have to arrive to the box, you have to be close to the box and you have to score.’ This season I think was the year that he has done better and better. Hopefully he can continue not just this year but for the rest of his career. I have the feeling that now he is starting to enjoy goals. Before it was just assists and now I have the feeling it is: ‘I like it when my teammates come to hug me because I scored a goal.’ I think it is good.”

The Belgian has long been a sensational player to watch but these past few months have seen his decisiveness become more streamlined. Eleven goals and six assists in 13 games since the start of March is a record any prolific striker would be proud of.

De Bruyne’s focus seems to have switched slightly, from effecting the entire game to simply dominating moments in the final third. He made one key pass and completed no dribbles against Wolves – his last start with such a low combined output on that front was against Liverpool in October, when he had five shots and did not score. Six shots produced four goals and one effort that hit the post at Molineux.

It is a change Guardiola will welcome. De Bruyne’s raw, statistical impact against Wolves could not properly quantify or capture his influence beyond the goals – no dribbles, no tackles, no interceptions, no accurate crosses, no accurate through balls and a passing accuracy lower than all but two Manchester City starters. But in confirming this to be the highest-scoring season of his career to date, with two fixtures remaining, he reached another level.

Many preternaturally gifted centre-forwards drop back into central midfield for their final years as a professional when the technical ability remains but the physical prowess has waned; De Bruyne is doing the opposite, just because he can.

 

Liverpool and a familiar self-fulfilling prophecy
A common misconception surrounding the Premier League’s last ludicrously tight title race in 2018/19 is that it involved precious little jeopardy between two elite sides who simply refused to blink first. Manchester City and Liverpool both ‘just won’ their final few games until time expired and a couple of points dropped by the Reds in March decided it, so the story goes.

But that run-in was far less straightforward than most seem to remember. Manchester City’s crowning 14-game winning run contained five 1-0 victories, four of which were secured with goals in the 55th minute or later. They had to come from behind in their last match to beat Brighton.

Liverpool’s sprint to the finish line over those final two months was even more fraught: they were drawing with Fulham and Tottenham in the 80th and 89th minutes respectively before winning 2-1; Chelsea and Cardiff were vanquished with a pair of second-half goals each; against both Burnley and Southampton they conceded the opener within nine minutes, only to eventually win by two; at Newcastle in their penultimate game the divine intervention of Divock Origi was required to salvage a 3-2 win in the 86th minute.

There is a similar feel about this current Liverpool sequence. Since the 2-2 draw with Manchester City they have hammered Manchester United, overcome Everton with two goals after the hour, beat Newcastle 1-0 and in the space of three days, salvaged four points from losing positions against Tottenham and Aston Villa. They are also likely to fall just short of a bar Pep Guardiola and his players only continue to raise.

But that potential disappointment can be compartmentalised and harnessed again. Those stirring wins from adversity against Burnley, Fulham, Tottenham, Southampton and Newcastle in 2019 did not deliver a league championship but they were not for nought. It was during that run that Klopp first declared the Reds to be “f***ing mentality monsters” – following the 3-1 victory at Southampton in which Mo Salah and Jordan Henderson scored in the final 10 minutes. That attitude, determination and collective resolve was crucial in winning the Champions League: three days after Origi’s dramatic winner against Newcastle, the Belgian scored twice in that remarkable semi-final win over Barcelona.

Winning breeds winning. Recovering to conquer Villa might not ultimately directly contribute to a league title but it sums up and adds to the character of a Liverpool team that has now earned more points from games in which they have conceded first (14) than any other side this season – a ludicrous stat considering how infrequently the Reds go behind in comparison to most of the rest of the division. It is a self-fulfilling prophecy that might tempt fate against Real Madrid in Paris, just as it did for European glory three years ago.

 

Alisson
Liverpool are not perfect but they are sodding belligerent and brilliant. No player encapsulates that better than Alisson. The Brazilian absolutely should have done better with Aston Villa’s opener, having made the foolish decision to actually save a shot from Ollie Watkins in the build-up after the striker had strayed marginally offside. Alisson handed the same player another opportunity in the 21st minute with an atrocious pass under pressure outside his area but he recovered then and thereafter. Forwards are starting to succumb to The Fear when facing the keeper one-on-one and Danny Ings got played just after the hour. As he glanced up when played through by Watkins, Alisson was retreating towards his line. The instant Ings put his head down to sprint and open up the angle, the Liverpool shot-stopper held his position and then advanced as soon as the forward took a touch, extinguishing the chance.

It was far from a faultless performance from Alisson, but Liverpool know they have a keeper to rely on in the moments they need him most.

 

Romelu Lukaku
If anyone consumes their seasons like a university lecture – that is to pay the utmost attention at the start, fall asleep for the entire middle portion and awaken for the key closing points at the end – then they might be convinced that Romelu Lukaku has been a resounding Chelsea success.

The Belgian’s first four appearances back at the club in August and September brought as many goals. So far in May, Lukaku has scored three times in two starts. The filling makes for a relative sh*t sandwich but those slices of competence either side have whet the appetite and suddenly a seemingly lost cause has found his feet. This road to redemption can stretch far into the distance provided Lukaku maintains that confidence, work-rate and link-up play, while Chelsea actually play to his strengths: on the transition with support in attack, rather than a hold-up merchant who never has a teammate within a 30-yard radius.

Chelsea beat Leeds United

 

Watford fans and Rob Edwards
A new manager
. With that, the promise of a change in a philosophy which had served Watford well but desperately needed to be rebooted. And 172 days after Hornets fans last ventured to Vicarage Road to witness anything other than a Premier League away win, Everton were held at bay with the sort of display Roy Hodgson was expected to instate as the norm.

“I think it was a sterling effort from the players,” said the outgoing manager, suitably satisfied by the absence of any shots on target at home to a relegation-threatened club. “They played with an integrity and honesty that was really encouraging. I was expecting a far worse performance.” The bar is practically on the floor for Rob Edwards to clear.

 

Manchester United
Michael Edwards wishes he was good enough to get £30m for Dan James.

 

Jamie Vardy
At least everyone had something to bring to the family chat over breakfast at the kitchen table on Thursday morning.

 

Losers

Leeds
Arsenal have spent more days in the Premier League relegation zone this season than Leeds. But like building a playground during lockdown, this slide has been timed terribly. And if the Whites do succumb to the drop, as now seems likely, supporters will be justified in questioning and bemoaning the circumstances surrounding Marcelo Bielsa’s exit.

He might well have taken them down. Leeds were two places and two points clear of the relegation zone when Andrea Radrizzani made his “toughest decision”. Everton and Burnley in 17th and 18th both had two games in hand and Leeds had just conceded 20 goals in five matches.

But dispensing with an iconic manager in that manner, depriving him and the fans of a proper farewell and switching philosophical tact in mid-season, had to pay off. As devastating as relegation with Bielsa would have been, that chapter would at least have been closed properly. Forcing a change of author has muddled the plot.

The chairman added in February that “a change is required now in order to secure our Premier League status as “recent results and performances have not met our expectations”. He doubtless had consecutive defeats with first-half red cards in mind.

Jesse Marsch has been fine and his results extrapolated over a full campaign – albeit from a small sample – would likely be enough to stay up. Survival might yet be achieved if Brighton can be navigated at home and Brentford overcome away. But if Leeds do drop into the Championship then Marsch starts at a disadvantage; the worm has not turned but it is thinking about glancing over its shoulder. There is a feeling of frustration at Elland Road, an annoyance that Marsch has either changed too much too soon or too little too late. His comments about Bielsa’s culture of overtraining were ill-advised and that fresh start he could have benefited from if he joined in the summer – regardless of division, as was the initial plan – has been muddied.

If Leeds had the chance to come to that same February crossroad again, they would surely take a different path to their seemingly preordained Championship destination. Not only has this route failed to effect anything this season, it stands to impact upon everything going forward.

 

Steven Gerrard
Jon Moss makes for a convenient scapegoat and no reasonable person connected to Aston Villa will have been worried at losing narrowly to one of the best sides in the world. But for a team which beat Liverpool, Chelsea, Arsenal and Tottenham over the course of last season, their record against a top eight they hope to break into has been abysmal.

Fifteen games against Manchester City, Liverpool, Chelsea, Arsenal, Tottenham, Manchester United, West Ham and Wolves have delivered four points, equal to Watford. Gerrard only secured one of those with that January draw against Manchester United, who Dean Smith beat in September. Only Norwich have done worse, collecting a single point. Gerrard has done a fine job against the rest and in general. But it is clear where the most obvious and understandable room for improvement lies at Villa Park. He will have one final chance to rectify that before the summer with a nice, easy fixture away at Manchester City on the final day.

 

Norwich
Across their last four Premier League seasons, Norwich’s record in the final two months is: W3 D2 L24 F25 A51. April and May – June and July in 2019/20 – tends to offer a small but stark window into the club’s struggles to find a top-flight foothold. Chris Hughton and Neil Adams could not manage with their combined powers in 2014. Alex Neil went down with his ship in 2016. Daniel Farke sank without a trace in 2020. Dean Smith is following suit and supporters should be forgiven for their scepticism as to what the 51-year-old has achieved in six months. An uphill battle from before the time of his appointment has been made to look even harder and the lack of a clear and coherent playing identity has bred understandable supporter disillusionment. Only the most naive will expect Norwich to bounce straight back from the Championship without proper introspection and course correction.

 

Everton
That learning curve continues to fluctuate. The glass is either half full with a point gained, half empty with two dropped or enough to sustain but not satisfy Everton. Optimists will be pleased with a first away clean sheet since August; pessimists will lament Watford’s first Premier League shutout at Vicarage Road since February 2020. Both are legitimate views.

Frank Lampard spoke of “tension” and “frustration” in his squad at the result and performance. The maintenance of that five-man defensive system, the decision to make only one change – enforced at that, with Michael Keane replacing the injured Yerry Mina – from the Leicester win three days prior, and the lack of substitutions contributed to a lethargic and uninventive display. It might simultaneously still be enough for survival while highlighting the vast work required beyond this season.

Everton boss Frank Lampard pulls a face

 

Bruno Lage
A season that was once bursting with promise only continues to unceremoniously deflate. Only Watford and Norwich have lost more Premier League games (11) than Wolves (9) since the start of February, with Leeds and Southampton joining the relegated pair to make up the four teams who have accrued fewer points than Bruno Lage’s side in that time.

The obvious mitigation is that Manchester City are both imperious and actually playing for something tangible, in comparison to a stuttering Wolves team which will finish between 7th and 12th. But the concession of five goals in a game for the first time since September 2019 is damningly predictable when one of your three centre-halves is natural wing-back Jonny and the other two demand constant supervision from Rayan Ait-Nouri.

Lage is thought to want to adapt the Wolves system and finally move away from a formation that predates him and informs the squad’s composition; six senior centre-halves is particularly excessive and the midfield sorely needs restocking even before taking into account the probable departure of Ruben Neves. But it increasingly feels as though he might not be the manager to see it all the way through. The undercurrent of friction with Raul Jimenez came to the fore with his angry reaction upon being substituted. Fabio Silva was furious not to even come on at all. Francisco Trincao’s reward for impressing at Chelsea was an 18-minute cameo spent trying to swim up a waterfall.

All this is before even considering the impending rise in season ticket prices; fans might not be thrilled to spend more for the privilege of watching a team in transition if the owners do not properly invest.

Lage has done a solid job since replacing Nuno Espirito Santo. But conflict in a squad which already needs repurposing and has slipped into a sustained negative spiral of performances and results over the past few months could severely limit any evolution. Once that glass ceiling is reached, the conundrum only becomes more complicated.

 

Mahatma Gandhi
His infamous quote
of ‘Get into ’em, f**k ’em up’ really backfired.

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