Premier League winners and losers

Date published: Thursday 28th February 2019 12:48

Winners

Maurizio Sarri
A manager justifiably under pressure, but also one who must be commended for his work over the last week. Sarri managed a horrible situation well, playing down Kepa’s actions in public but then dealing with them appropriately in private. Anyone criticising him for not coming onto the pitch and dragging his goalkeeper off are guilty of ignoring a) the laws of the game, and b) that Sarri would have lost his moral high ground – and potentially the support of some players – in doing so.

It also overshadowed the fact that Chelsea competed excellently against Manchester City in Sunday’s final, and continued that work against Tottenham. There is a valid question to answer about Sarri moving away from his ideals in both matches and therefore making his own position more vulnerable (if you aren’t going to be Sarri anymore, why should they want you?), but they can be postponed while Chelsea are on the up.

Sarri will also be mightily pleased by the display of Jorginho, a player who now apparently is in line for criticism when things go wrong but not praise when they go well. No-one made more interceptions. No-one made more tackles. No-one regained possession more often. Jorginho and Sarri’s reputations have become entwined. This was a good night for both.

I’ve said before that I feel a little sorry for Sarri, a long-termist manager appointed by a club soaked in short-termism three weeks before the first game of the season and given one permanent first-team transfer to make it work. Under these conditions, and given Chelsea’s impending transfer ban, Sarri is doing just fine. The worst defeats have indeed been shambolic, but there are senior players who deserve just as much censure for those.

Hopefully, victory over Fulham on Saturday will stop the “f*** Sarriball” chants from Chelsea supporters that don’t help matters. They have a good chance of European progression and have five games against non-Big Six opposition before the trip to Anfield in mid-April. It will take some doing, but Sarri can turn around this sad, sad situation before it gets more and more absurd.

 

Liverpool
So much better. Watford were a malleable and generous opponent as soon as the opening goal had been scored, but it would have been easy for Liverpool to sit back and coast through the second half. Jurgen Klopp had clearly demanded that his players push on for more goals in a bid to blow away the cobwebs that had been gathering in Anfield’s corners.

It’s amazing what difference having a front three back on form does to the team as a whole. Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane fizzed again, while Divock Origi filled in wonderfully. While Watford struggled to contain them, it created space for those behind and those who overlapped. And so you get five goals assisted by full-backs and two scored by a central defender

Liverpool’s dismantling of Watford will count for little if they fall back into their shell at Goodison on Sunday (they beat Bournemouth 3-0 before two 0-0 draws), but this was a necessary answer to pundits (hi!) and supporters who were growing mightily worried about the staganance of their attacking. For only the second time in ten months, Liverpool scored five. Sunday afternoon is set up beautifully.

 

Leicester City and Brendan Rodgers
You can go right here to read a fine piece by Matt Stead on Rodgers’ appointment, but I’ve never known to avoid chucking my own two cents in.

Firstly, this is a coup for Leicester City. Rodgers’ highly unusual reputation (left a very big English club but nobody quite agrees how good he is) meant that it was never clear at which Premier League club side he would land next. He was talked about in passing for the Arsenal and Chelsea gigs, but the suspicion was always that Rodgers would need a mid-table stepping stone.

If some Leicester supporters resent that description, they shouldn’t. If Rodgers does indeed leave for bigger and better things, it will be because he has revitalised this club.

It was also slightly surprising to see Rodgers leave Celtic in mid-season, particularly having professed his love for the club so regularly and so fervently. That has understandably left a sour taste in green-and-white mouths, but it merely reflects Rodgers’ failing relationship with Celtic chief executive Peter Lawwell. Lawwell suspected that Rodgers was touting himself for jobs down south. Rodgers believed that he deserved more backing in the transfer market. Leicester, who by all accounts have been very keen for some time, stepped in.

Leicester might just be the perfect fit for Rodgers on his journey back to the top of the English game. They have a young squad (eight starters on Tuesday evening were aged 25 and under) desperate for a manager to unlock their potential. They have significant transfer funds if the owners believe in said manager, and several very high-value assets. They have a new training complex being built that will be among the best in Europe. They are also ready to have a little fun after the tedium of Claude Puel.

For a year, Leicester City have just existed. Now they want to live a little. It sounds like exactly the sort of message that Rodgers might have stuck to the dressing room wall before his first match in charge. For once, that is no bad thing.

 

Rafael Benitez, when his back is against the wall
In mid-December 2017, Newcastle United supporters were worried. It’s worth pointing out that Newcastle United supporters are always worried, but that’s inevitable when the thing for which you are most desperate to succeed lives under the shadow of an errant owner.

But at the time, they were more worried than normal. They had just been beaten 1-0 by Arsenal to extend their dismal league run to one point from their previous nine matches. The single point was earned against West Brom via a late own goal from Jonny Evans. West Brom would finish bottom of the Premier League. The defeat to Arsenal took Newcastle into the bottom three. Questions were asked about Rafael Benitez’s ability to keep the ship afloat.

Newcastle won their next league game, a bonkers 3-2 victory over West Ham. They then lost only two of their next nine league games to move clear of relegation trouble and, improbably, eventually ended the season in the top half. The worries of those supporters were not wasted or misguided, but Benitez’s defensive organisation helped allay them. In their final 20 league matches of the season, Newcastle conceded more than two goals only once (away at Manchester City).

In late October 2018, Newcastle United supporters were worried. It’s worth pointing out that Newcastle United supporters never stopped being worried, but that’s inevitable when the thing for which they were most desperate to succeed continued to live under the shadow of an errant owner.

But at the time, they were more worried than normal. Newcastle had just been beaten 1-0 by Brighton to extend their dismal league run to two points from their previous nine matches. The two points were earned against Cardiff City and Crystal Palace. The defeat to Brighton took Newcastle to the bottom of the Premier League. Questions were asked about Benitez’s ability to keep the ship afloat.

You think that we would have learned to trust him by now, or at least put aside our personal relationships with Sam Allardyce to have an unbiased opinion. Newcastle drew their next game away at Southampton, and then won eight of their next 18 league matches to move clear of relegation trouble. The worries of those supporters were not wasted or misugided, but Benitez’s defensive organisation helped allay them. In those 18 matches, Newcastle conceded more than two goals only twice (and one of those was away at Liverpool).

Benitez is not the perfect manager, but he is averting a Newcastle United crisis once again by steeling his team for the fight and making a defence and central midfield far greater than the sum of its parts. The improvement in Javier Manquillo, Fabian Schar, Florian Lejeune, Sean Longstaff and Isaac Hayden is astonishing. And look what difference it makes when you give Benitez a capable counter-attacking talent like Miguel Almiron.

Newcastle are not safe just yet, but they are moving in the right direction while others around them start to flounder. That should be no coincidence; this is what their manager does. If you can keep your head while other managers are losing theirs, you probably deserve to avoid the ludicrous criticism that some pundits offer up.

 

Mesut Ozil
Unai Emery might not be convinced, and the German has still only started two away league games since September, but I’m fully subscribed to the opinion that a strong Ozil makes for a strong Arsenal. With his monstrously high wages making a sale difficult, Arsenal and Emery are left with a playmaker that nobody is quite sure is still wanted.

But surely the answer is to make the best of it? If Ozil deserves flak for his litany of knocks and a persona that hardly screams ‘we’re all in this together’, that is merely his style. But when he drops deep to pick up the ball, protects it before playing a pass through the lines to an onrushing teammate, he melts your heart all over again. Enough to justify a start in the north London derby?

 

Trent Alexander-Arnold
One helluva response
. On Sunday, Alexander-Arnold suffered the biggest blow of his short Liverpool career when he was dropped by Jurgen Klopp for the visit of Manchester United. Klopp preferred the solidity of James Milner to Alexander-Arnold’s attacking adventure, and Trent had suffered the inevitable blip in form that follows rapid rise.

But there are ways to deal with disappointment. Immediately recalled to the team to face Watford, Alexander-Arnold produced three assists and played with the confidence of a man who is being looked after perfectly behind the scenes. Against Bayern Munich, Alexander-Arnold’s crossing was aimless and often overhit. Against Watford, four of his nine crosses created chances.

 

Southampton
A necessary victory after four league games without a win that included two points from three fixtures against Crystal Palace, Cardiff and Burnley. Southampton are not yet purring under Ralph Hasenhuttl – they must at least wait until next season for that – but only results matter as they try and move out of trouble.

In the midst of a relegation fight, periods of serenity are hard to find. But during the second half at St. Mary’s on Wednesday, Southampton were able to coast in second gear against an opponent in dismal form. Given that three of Southampton’s next four games are against Manchester United, Tottenham and Liverpool, Wednesday evening was must-win. Win they did.

 

Romelu Lukaku
A goalscoring double just when his team needed it most. Despite everything, Lukaku has still reached double figures for Premier League goals for the seventh consecutive season between the ages of 18 and 25.

 

Gylfi Sigurdsson
Suddenly the joint-eighth top scorer in the Premier League – when did that happen? (Answer: Tuesday, in Cardiff). More important than the individual totals is that Sigurdsson and Everton have found some form before Sunday’s Merseyside derby. It’s a biggie.

 

Jan Siewert
It won’t keep Huddersfield Town up, but that’s not the point. If Siewert is going to mastermind a promotion back to the Premier League without gutting the first-team squad, Huddersfield have to use the next three months as an exercise in improving morale.

Nobody likes losing football matches. Now to go on a little run and bring back the camaraderie that underpinned Huddersfield’s sensational two years in the sun.

 

Sean Longstaff
Two months to the day after his first ever Premier League minutes, Longstaff scored his first Newcastle United goal, again led his team from central midfield and was talked up for a senior England call-up by his manager. The stuff of boyhood fantasy, once you pushed all the muck to the side.

He was our early winner.

 

Losers

Tottenham, now starting to fade
The question on the mind of every Tottenham supporter this season was when the luck and energy would finally run out, and they might finally have their answer. Tottenham have lacked a spark in each of their last two matches, even with Harry Kane back. They have not had the sheer force of will to haul themselves on in the final minutes of the match as they did so successfully against Watford, Burnley and Newcastle. Suddenly things are now happening to Tottenham rather than them making them happen.

These are the nights on which supporters are so angry and frustrated their manager has been shortchanged by the club. Let’s take one example: Christian Eriksen’s form has tailed off over the last few weeks, failing to either grab a game by the scruff or produce the moment of magic that decides it.

Now you can either criticise Eriksen for that, or point out that Saturday will be his 250th start since August 2014. That’s the equivalent of starting a competitive match every 6.5 days for a period of four-and-a-half years. In a high-intensity style and as a crucial attacking player who is rarely substituted early, that is an insane workload.

But what choice does Pochettino have? His bench on Wednesday contained Lucas Moura – a wide attacker – and Fernando Llorente, plus five defensive players. There is no secondary creator at Tottenham when Dele Alli is injured, so Eriksen must play on and on. It’s no surprise that they all look knackered; they are probably all knackered.

Saturday’s north London derby is huge for Tottenham. Their title challenge always felt like a pipe dream, but their odds for a top-four place have now lengthened considerably. There is a five-point gap to Manchester United in fifth, and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side are in rude health. It might be the worst fixture give the current rut, or it might bring the best out of Tottenham’s players. Only Saturday will tell.

For now, read 16 Conclusions on Wednesday.

 

Kieran Trippier
From the unthinkable heights of Russia last summer to an astonishing low. Trippier’s season can be defined by the lack of awareness to check where Hugo Lloris was and the lack of fortune that he was punished in full for his error. Nobody other than rival supporters take pleasure in a player’s demise. Trippier’s rapid decline is very sad indeed.

 

Claudio Ranieri
You might as well go back and read the long-ish section in Monday’s losers list, because nothing has changed after another limp and miserable defeat. The only difference was that on Wednesday Fulham supporters actually protested against their manager and owner. This is hardly a fanbase famous for their frothy-mouthed, reactionary anger.

 

Cardiff City, sliding at the wrong time
There are very few golden rules for Premier League relegation, but conceding goals at home at a rate of over two per game might be one. Having been thrumped 5-1 by Watford last Friday evening, Cardiff conceded three times to a badly out-of-form Everton on Tuesday. Suddenly they are the club that every team wants to face.

It might sound difficult to believe, but Neil Warnock’s answer is apparently to trust his own principles even more. Warnock spoke disparagingly about “Tom, Dick and Harry” foreign physios who he believes turned the head of Victor Camarasa. In his post-match interview after the Everton defeat he said that certain first-team players had lost his trust. The consequence will be a team going further back to basics having barely left them in the first place.

It’s worth a go, because something needs to change. Wins against Bournemouth and Southampton offered hope of an unlikely escape from the relegation mire, but defeat at Wolves on Saturday would make it seven points from their last nine league games. They’re slip-sliding away with the worst possible timing.

 

Brighton
Relegation will be decided not on the road but at the Amex, where Brighton are still to play Huddersfield, Cardiff, Southampton, Bournemouth and Newcastle. But this run has to end soon if Chris Hughton’s side are to avoid getting so stuck in a rut that their feet become glued down. It’s now six points from the last 36 available.

They were indeed our early losers.

 

Bournemouth’s away form
Bournemouth have now lost ten straight away matches in all competitions, the club’s longest run since 1934. Playing in the Premier League rather than the Division 3 South makes such a run more likely, but it will still annoy Eddie Howe. Bournemouth have a soft centre when playing away at the biggest clubs that other small Premier League clubs manage not to display so regularly.

In their last seven away league games at Big Six clubs, Bournemouth failed to take a single point, scored three times and conceded 25. Howe’s next challenge is to make them compete.

 

Riyad Mahrez
In his last eight league appearances, Mahrez has scored no goals, had three shots on target and created one chance. In a team as good as Manchester City’s, that simply isn’t good enough. Pep Guardiola looked visibly annoyed at having to bring on Raheem Sterling and Bernardo Silva to change the game, and you can see why.

 

Wolves
Huddersfield Town have taken 14 points this season, and six of them (43%) were earned against Wolves. Had Wolves won those two games, they would be seven points off the top four. But if ifs and buts were sweets and nuts, it would be Christmas every day.

Daniel Storey

 


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