Premier League winners and losers…

Date published: Monday 26th November 2018 9:49

Winners

Mauricio Pochettino
A majestic performance, probably the best this season by any team not called Manchester City. You don’t need me to tell you that Tottenham are operating on a different financial plane to Pep Guardiola’s side. But when Tottenham click, only City have a higher ceiling of single-game performance. You can read 16 Conclusions here.

With apologies to both the Tottenham supporters who shudder to think of the prospect and Manchester United fans who must feel awfully glum, it is impossible not to point out the contrasts between Pochettino and Jose Mourinho, not least because one is the apparent favourite to replace the other.

Tottenham and Manchester United both had difficult summers, and both managers must feel slightly let down by their superiors. But after a total lack of investment, with the stadium issue rumbling on longer than he was promised and a squad already running on empty in August, Pochettino has produced the second best start to a season in Tottenham’s Premier League history.

Spurs look well-drilled in training, and approach every game with a distinct plan. Pochettino has improved the players he inherited. Tottenham’s key forwards (Harry Kane, Dele Alli and Christian Eriksen) have suffered from injuries and fatigue but continue to make the best of the situation and produce moments of brilliance even when backs are against the wall. They also enter games against top-four rivals and attempt to impose their own system onto their opponents rather than passively waiting to see what happens. Right now, Pochettino is everything that Mourinho isn’t. It is his and Tottenham’s performance level that paints Mourinho in the worst light.

There were significant doubts as to whether Pochettino could keep Tottenham in the top four at a time when overcoming financial disparity has never been harder. Three months into the season, those doubts are decreasing even though the new stadium is still under construction and may well not be ready until next season.

And therein lies the difference between Mourinho and Pochettino in 2018. One is a manager who upsells problems as a method of self-preservation, but is only succeeding in isolating himself in the process. The other understands and reluctantly accepts the roadblocks, but understands the need to ignore them in pursuit of the greater good. On Saturday, we saw Pochettino at his peak and Mourinho at his miserable worst.

 

Moussa Sissoko
On Sunday morning, excellent Tottenham blogger Chris Miller tweeted the similarities between Sissoko and Gareth Bale. It was intended to be taken with tongue slightly inserted in cheek, but he’s absolutely right. Both were bought with the intention to play in one position, and struggled badly in that position to the extent that supporters would have accepted their sale with a shrug. Then both players were moved to a new position, and immediately thrived.

I’m not saying that Sissoko is going to move to Real Madrid for a whacking great transfer fee (I’m really not saying that), but he deserves massive credit for his reinvention as a central midfield destroyer. There was a moment in the second half on Saturday when he charged 40 yards back towards his own goal to slide into a meaty, magnificent tackle. In the roars that greeted his challenge, you could sense 10,000 minds changing in unison.

Sissoko may not be the counter-attacking winger that Tottenham paid £30m for, but if he can adapt to the demands of a new role at the age of 29 then he can still offer plenty to this Pochettino project. Joke figure is slowly becoming cult hero.

 

Claudio Ranieri
A welcome win that still had a strong whiff of Slavisa Jokanovic’s Fulham, but a win all the same. Solving defensive tomfoolery will take all Ranieri’s experience, but those concerns are for another day. Ranieri is a football addict in the autumn of his career who was desperate for another challenge to fill his days and his mind. Returning to a city that he loves to help a free-flowing, expansive team is the perfect project to keep him happy. And when Uncle Claudio is happy, we should all be happy.

 

Aleksandar Mitrovic
Painted as a guilty party in Jokanovic’s fall. A struggling team must defend from the front and Mitrovic was accused of not working hard enough to stop the opposition getting over the halfway line with ease.

But when you score twice to drag your team to three points in a relegation-haunted fixture, you prove that you are worth persevering with. Only Sergio Aguero and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang have scored more Premier League goals this season.

 

Huddersfield Town
It’s happening again. We all assumed – with some disrespect – that Huddersfield would not trouble the Premier League last season, but David Wagner manufactured a mini-miracle. We all assumed – because learning from your mistakes is for losers – that Huddersfield would be found out in their second season, and their start to the season offered precious little evidence to the contrary.

But Wagner is conjuring up yet more overperformance. Huddersfield won only their second away league game of 2018 on Sunday, but they humbled Wolves at Molineux and have now taken seven points from their last three games. From 20th to 14th in the space of two glorious hours.

 

Philip Billing
Head and shoulders above the rest. And not just because he’s really tall.

 

Second-half Arsenal
It is the most astonishing statistic of this Premier League season: the team that sits fifth in the division has not yet been ahead at half-time as we head into December. But if Arsenal’s slow starts are causing Unai Emery a headache, he must be mightily impressed by their response to such sluggishness. Arsenal have scored 21 second-half goals, more than any other Premier League club, and have conceded only six. It’s enough to maintain their dream of breaking back into the top four.

 

Dele Alli
Carried out the perfect spoiling job on Jorginho, which is no mean feat. We may think of Alli as an attacking midfielder, but it takes tremendous discipline and selflessness to perform such a role on a passing master. Alli’s victory in the duel – alongside his goal – was the principal reason for Tottenham victory. Jorginho was humbled. We predicted it.

 

Raheem Sterling
Yes, we’re doing this again. Because Sterling now has 25 goals and 17 assists in 44 league games since the start of last season. These are the numbers of the highest-performing attacking player in the league right now.

 

English right-backs
Imagine being told in October 2016, when Kyle Walker was the only right-back named in the squad, that England’s right-back position would be one of the most competitive positions in world football a little over two years later.

Walker is still excellent, a reliable performer for one of Europe’s best teams. Kieran Trippier – more on him later – is struggling for club form but was England’s standout performer at the World Cup. Trent Alexander-Arnold scored a free-kick against Watford and is an integral part of Liverpool’s and England’s bright future. Joe Gomez can play there too. Aaron Wan-Bissaka is a strong candidate for a PFA Young Player of the Year nomination given his rise to prominence at Crystal Palace; he spent Saturday afternoon shackling Anthony Martial. Gareth Southgate is spoilt for choice.

 

Marco Silva
Back to the top of the completely meaningless Portuguese Premier League manager league that I’m determined to hype up. But also, and probably more importantly, the winner of four consecutive home games having conceded a single goal in the process. Having faced accusations of being a sunshine manager that struggled to organise a defence, these things matter.

 

Manchester City’s defence
Manchester City’s dominance has become entirely normalised, but next Saturday will mark three months since City last conceded a goal from open play in the Premier League. Silliness.

 

Jurgen Klopp
Our early winner for good reason.

 

Losers

Chelsea and Maurizio Sarri
There are Chelsea supporters who will happily admit that this has been in the post for a while. Against Arsenal, Chelsea afforded their opponents six or seven presentable goalscoring chances. Against Everton, Jorginho was suffocated and stopped from playing the quick passes forward that Chelsea rely upon to unsettle the opposition. Against Tottenham, both happened. Chelsea were eventually humiliated by Heung-min Son’s wonderful third goal, but they were knocked to the canvas in the opening exchanges of the game. You really should read 16 Conclusions.

Sarri was not foolish enough to make excuses post-match, and his honesty is refreshing. Having only been in the job for four months, it’s hardly a disaster for Chelsea to be in fourth place. But Saturday’s heavy defeat does raise a couple of questions for Sarri to wrestle with this week.

The first is the form of Alvaro Morata, whose continued place in the starting XI is baffling. Morata extended his lead in the ‘caught offside’ charts and spends more and more of matches striking the floor in frustration. Given Eden Hazard’s public praise of Olivier Giroud, who he believes draws out the best of his own game, Morata must surely now drop to the bench. His place in the team is harming Chelsea.

But Sarri also has a midfield problem. N’Golo Kante is rounded enough to play at left-back or as a false nine and still make it work, but playing him as the most advanced of three central midfielders emphatically fails to showcase his best. When Jorginho and Mateo Kovacic win their own personal duels it isn’t a massive issue, but when Jorginho struggles – as on Saturday – it does make you yearn for Kante’s omnipotence and omniscience. Both issues will need resolutions before Manchester City visit Stamford Bridge on December 8.

 

Jose Mourinho and that top-four place
“I know it’s a big gap,” said Mourinho. “But I also know until the end of December we have eight Premier League matches to play, and with eight matches we are speaking about 24 points. I believe we are going to be there.”

It was faintly ridiculous that Mourinho even had to insist in November that Manchester United could get back into the top four of the Premier League. Nothing epitomises their fall from grace quite like a ‘we can do it’ missive about something that used to be the minimum expectation.

But on this evidence, Mourinho’s assessment looks far from secure. If Old Trafford used to be a fortress, there is no such thing as a gimme anymore. Not when the attacking is so miserable, the striker is so isolated and almost every single senior player is out of form. Top tip: When every player is performing below their level, it suggests either the system is broken or they are being mismanaged. Or both.

The latest damning statistic is that Mark Hughes’s Southampton have created more chances in the league this season, and Saturday was a dirge. No matter how far you drop your expectations of this Manchester United team under Mourinho, they still manage to surprise you. Again, Mourinho can reasonably claim that his bosses have made competing with Manchester City difficult. But he cannot claim that he does not have the tools at his disposal to brush aside a Crystal Palace team in wretched form. A list of clubs that United have failed to beat at home in the last 12 months includes them, Derby County, West Brom, Burnley, Southampton and Wolves.

For those Manchester United supporters who still defend their manager’s output, this week hammered another nail in that coffin. An interview conducted a month ago was released in which Mourinho accused Anthony Martial, Marcus Rashford, Jesse Lingard and Luke Shaw of not being mature enough to play well for Manchester United. By Saturday evening, Manchester United’s manager used his post-match press conference to accuse players of lacking heart.

What they actually lack is motivation to perform at their highest level because they have been consistently downtrodden by their manager in public. It is not that United’s players have downed tools – that massively over-simplifies the issue – but would you run through walls for a boss who is so obviously only interested in protecting his own reputation and prepared to hang you out to dry in that mission?

The question is how long this can be allowed to carry on. United need Champions League football, and right now Mourinho looks incapable of achieving that bare minimum goal. The best reason for keeping the manager they have is the uncertainty over who might take over. But the growing mood is that, as long as Mourinho’s replacement brought a little fun back to Old Trafford, it’s worth the risk. The alternative is death by the apathy caused by a thousand slow attacks.

 

Mark Hughes
A manager who has now taken 31 points from his last 39 matches at two different clubs, who described the chants from his own club’s fans for his sacking as “predictable”. Hughes believes those supporters are frustrated at Southampton “doing OK but not getting it over the line”, but that’s wrong. They’re frustrated that Southampton have become Stoke City, standing for nothing but middle-of-the-road misery. They might end up in the same division as them if they don’t make a change soon.

 

Henrikh Mkhitaryan
He really was shite.

 

Wolves
Hoo boy. Every promoted team should expect to lose matches in the top flight, but Wolves are no ordinary promoted team and this was no ordinary defeat. In the freezing cold of Molineux, Nuno’s side produced surely the worst 90 minutes of his entire reign. They were out-fought by Huddersfield, but also entirely undone by their own incompetence.

The last few weeks have been chastening for Wolves. They have taken a single point from their last five league games, changing perspective significantly. Rather than looking up towards the top six, they are looking down to the bottom three. Having lost to Watford, Brighton and Huddersfield without scoring a goal, you can see why.

Did Wolves get a little carried away? Perhaps. In June their owners made it clear that finishing in the top six was the realistic aim, while by September managing director Laurie Dalrymple stated that the ambition was to win the title, not merely exist in the top flight. That’s all lovely, and there’s nothing wrong with lofty ambition, but Wolves had played only six league games.

Now, Nuno must fight to ensure that his goodwill is not quickly lost down the cracks. Wolves do indeed have higher prospects that any typical promoted club, but you should expect nothing to come easy in the Premier League nor without a fight. Just ask David Wagner.

 

West Ham
No shame in losing to Manchester City – we’ll say that a lot this season – but Pep Guardiola’s team are good enough without being given a helping dose of defensive incompetence. Unfortunately, that has become West Ham’s calling card over the last two years.

 

Jorginho
Clearly brilliant when permitted to be a passing metronome, but in consecutive league games Jorginho has been put off his stroke by an attacking midfielder instructed to snap at his heels. If failing in both of those battles is worrying, the sight of Heung-Min Son taking the long route around Jorginho and still thrashing him in a foot race will haunt his manager’s fag break daydreams this week.

 

David Luiz
A dreadful day at the office for Luiz, not least because he chose to move out of the way of a Harry Kane shot that then beat his goalkeeper. As a 24-year-old keeper at a new club and in a new league, Kepa Arrizabalaga needs stability. On Saturday evening, Luiz was as stable as a jelly left out in a tornado.

 

Kieran Trippier
Not only is he struggling for form back in a flat back four with added defensive responsibility following his World Cup escapades at full-back, but Serge Aurier has stopped playing like a children’s party clown.

 

Daniel Storey

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