Liverpool, taking it to the final day
As neutrals, we must rejoice that this extraordinary title race will head into the final day. Had the run of supreme consistency from Liverpool and Manchester City ended at St James’ Park, Manchester City would have the chance to virtually seal victory on Monday evening. This race has contained precious few twists and turns; the least we deserve is final-day tension.
The method of Liverpool’s victory was fitting too. Jurgen Klopp’s team wowed with their attacking verve in 2017/18, but flair has given way to guts and grit as this season has progressed. They needed immense belief to keep pushing against Newcastle United despite missing Mohamed Salah and Roberto Firmino. Newcastle supporters will point out that they needed plenty of good fortune too.
Klopp would presumably prefer Liverpool to win every game 4-0, but this method of getting over the line will serve his team well in the long run. The stereotype was that Manchester City’s run of exemplary form would eventually wear Liverpool down. For their part, Liverpool would stumble and crumble under the weight of their potential achievement. Ten thousand Twitter users with professional footballers as their avatars lined up to call Klopp a serial loser and fraud.
But no. Rather than crumbling under the pressure between February and May, Liverpool have embraced it. They have not been perfect over that period, but nor should perfection ever be our expectation. Manchester City, with their incredible financial might and incredible manager, have normalised unprecedented consistency. And Liverpool have matched it.
This run of victories might not be enough to take Liverpool to the Premier League title, and that will hurt. But that doesn’t mean that the run was all in vain. No season should be taken in isolation, particularly when Klopp usually stays at his clubs for seven years. With the four clubs directly below them in disarray, there are few reasons to believe that Liverpool will slip away in 2019/20.
Divock Origi, redemption man
It is extraordinary that Origi is still a Liverpool player, let alone a crucial part of their potential Premier League title triumph. Before December 2, Origi had played nine league minutes in a Liverpool shirt in 20 months. Last August, Belgian media reported that the striker would be allowed to leave permanently if the price was right, and allowed to leave on loan if it wasn’t. Nobody stumped up enough cash for the former and nobody stumped enough interest for the latter.
Being so categorically relegated to the fringes of a squad can quickly erode a player’s belief. It’s very easy to opine that highly-paid professionals have a duty to make sure they are ready in case their manager needs them, but human nature complicates things. Training with no prospect of competitive football has the obvious potential to be soul-destroying.
So fair bloody play to Origi, who has played 302 league minutes this season across 11 appearances and yet has scored two of Liverpool’s most important goals in the dying embers of massive matches. Everyone else might have written him off, but there’s nothing wrong with being a lucky substitute who finds himself in the right place at the right time.
The caveats are so numerous and so significant that they should be mentioned first. Sarri’s Chelsea have often won despite themselves. They have regularly been carried by Eden Hazard’s individual brilliance rather than tactical or strategic wizardry. And they are top of a four-team mini-league in which every competitor has been dismal for all, most or some of the league season.
But look at the raw figures, and it’s hard to defend the Chelsea supporters who believe booing the team so regularly and chanting for the manager to be sacked is an appropriate or helpful way to behave. Fans pay their money and have every right to voice an opinion, but it’s clearly not helping the team.
Chelsea are third in the Premier League and are favourites to win the Europa League. They have already confirmed their participation in next season’s Champions League. They have surpassed last season’s points total. They also appointed one of Europe’s most dogmatic managers three weeks before their first game of the season, signed one player on a permanent deal who fitted his system and then asked him to take the club forward while it exists in a state of flux off the pitch.
Sarri is not blameless, and is the beneficiary of Chelsea’s peers also stumbling, but he deserves both another season in charge (at least) and a little more faith. Chelsea’s hierarchy should be delighted that he has become a lightning rod for fan ire that takes the pressure off them.
Wolves, the best of the rest
Wolves needed something to hang this season on. Nuno’s team have entertained and impressed after promotion, but this is a club with more ambition than any other outside the top six. An FA Cup final appearance might have done, but that chance was lost through collapse against Watford. Wembley failure only made securing seventh place more vital.
The Europa League will matter to Wolves – owners, manager and supporters. It will increase their transfer market ambition and increase their chances of landing players who sit outside of the Jorge Mendes network. Given the spending power of clubs outside the top six, players may consider being a star at Wolves, Leicester or Everton to be a more attractive prospect than uncertainty over a starting place at Chelsea or Arsenal.
Wolves are not yet guaranteed European football next season. A shock Watford victory in the FA Cup final would render this work redundant, and only cause more regret that a semi-final lead was ceded. But Wolves are halfway there, and they have quickly got over the little lull that threatened to derail an excellent (not ‘decent’) season. Now Operation Top Six commences…
Everton’s defensive improvement
Another team hopeful of breaking up the top-six cabal next season, and a season saved by Marco Silva. There were periods of this season when Everton’s public pursuit of their manager looked to have been a foolish and expensive mistake, but Silva has proven himself worthy of the club’s patience.
Beating a Burnley team who demonstrated an almost admirable lack of fight is nothing to get excited about, but it is notable that Everton kept another clean sheet on Friday. That makes it six in their last seven and 14 for the league season. Only the current top four have conceded fewer goals than Everton.
That matters. The doubts about Silva before and during his Everton tenure was that he was a sunshine manager, capable of producing sparkling attacking play but defensively vulnerable. That criticism has at least been answered categorically.
There’s no way to say it without sounding patronising, but it was great to see some fight from Siewert’s team after eight straight defeats. Huddersfield conceded early again thanks to defensive calamity (this time from Jonas Lossl), but rallied and seriously troubled Manchester United. Siewert is adamant that he can turn around this form and bring Huddersfield back stronger. All power to him.
More league assists this season than Lionel Messi. I’d still say that Messi just about shades it on natural ability, but it has been a heck of a season. Now for the big move?
Palace’s away trick
Since mid-December, when Crystal Palace went away to the Etihad and won, a table based on away results reads as follows:
Manchester City – 24
Crystal Palace – 22
Liverpool – 21
Manchester United – 18
Leicester – 14
Watford – 14
As the season closes, there are two disparate potential conclusions. Sort out the home form (and buy sensibly this summer) and Palace will be safely ensconced in the top half next season. But fail to do that – and there is not thought to be a big budget available – and a likely drop in away form could cause nervous times at Selhurst.
West Ham and a quiet party
Our early winners. Now to push on.
Manchester United, plumbing new depths
First came the damning lack of urgency. Manchester United knew that they needed to beat Huddersfield Town and Cardiff City to have a chance of breaking back into the top four at the best possible time. They also knew that goal difference could well be crucial, with four teams so tightly bunched. Score early, score well and score often against a team low on confidence, and the unlikely dream could still be saved.
But they were not urgent. They ummed and ahhed their way through the first 70 minutes as if they assumed that comfortable victory would fall into their lap just because they are Manchester United. The most bizarre element of United’s slump over the last half-decade is that the performances have got more complacent as the situation has worsened. That indicates the presence of a rotten culture that allows mediocrity to fester. No United supporter needs persuading on that front.
Then came the damning lack of composure. After Huddersfield equalised, Manchester United’s players finally realised that they must spark into action. But United are not in good enough form to go from first gear to top gear, and not exact enough to take chances that come their way. Marcus Rashford enjoyed a wonderful rise, but he’s scored two goals from open play in his last 16 matches and confidence looks shot in front of goal. Still, at least he isn’t Alexis Sanchez.
The end result was spectacular cock-up, dreadful result in the most comical of circumstances. Missing out on the top four is one thing, but having it confirmed by failing to beat Huddersfield another entirely. Their opponents had just lost eight straight matches and hadn’t taken a point art home having conceded first since August 2017.
Just another symptom of this Manchester United disease is their misery against struggling clubs. Since the start of last season, they have dropped league points against Stoke City, West Brom, Southampton (twice), Brighton (twice), Burnley (twice) and Huddersfield (twice). That’s 24 points dropped. Over the same period, Manchester City have dropped 30 points in total.
For Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, seismic issues to solve and the growing suspicion that he’s already moving into expectation management mode. The honeymoon is over and the niggly arguments about meaningless matters have begun.
Read the above section and change the Manchester United details for Arsenal, and it stands up almost perfectly: The inability to make the most of an early goal handed generously to them, the pitiful lack of urgency when given the chance to build confidence, the defensive frailties and the embarrassing lack of composure in the final 15 minutes. And, to end, the overwhelming likelihood of Europa League campaigns next season during which they can sit quietly and think about what they have done.
It is as if their title tussles in the 1990s and 2000s persuaded these two great clubs that nostalgia was a trump card that rendered hard work, long-term planning and logic useless. ‘We’re Arsenal and Manchester United, so we’ll find a way because we always have’. That principle is built on nothing but sand and nostalgia. Being good ten years ago doesn’t mean anything now. Opponents are as rich, smarter and better prepared.
It isn’t controversial to conclude that Unai Emery has more aptitude than Solskjaer and is working on considerably lower budgets (Stan Kroenke is killing Arsenal more than any manager ever will), but he has also had longer to stamp his own authority and expertise and is failing to do that.
Watch Arsenal and you struggle to discern any identity to the team. Trying to implement your style and struggling is one thing (*Sarri klaxon sounds*) but not having an obvious style is less appealing still. For much of this season, Arsenal’s end justified the means. Having missed out on the top four, the end was miserable too. It’ll be a big summer at the Emirates, and Emery reportedly has only £40m to spend.
I’m limbering up to go full throttle in season Winners and Losers next week, so let’s keep the powder dry. For now, congratulations go to Sanchez for making it through the first 53 minutes of the match before getting injured. Number of shots? None. Number of crosses? None. Another £400,000 (plus £75,000 appearance bonus) banked.
Two misplaced passes in the first four minutes that set the tone for the rest of the match. Xhaka gave away the penalty and regularly lost possession, but just as frustrating is his tendency to look backwards or sideways for a pass when the responsibility lies with him to add a little penetration.
Being booed off by your own supporters after being substituted in the final home game is a pretty punchy way to round off the season. Were Xhaka sold this summer, he would not be badly missed.
Cardiff City, who failed to grasp their chance
Of course Cardiff shouldn’t be gutted by relegation. They were promoted against the odds and without significant investment, and their one big push into the transfer market this season ended in horrific tragedy. Neil Warnock got them within touching distance of survival and he should be congratulated for that.
But having got there, it’s fair cop to be disappointed that Cardiff wilted and ultimately slumped. Brighton’s wretched form in 2019 created a window of opportunity for Cardiff, Warnock and his players, but they proved themselves unworthy of pipping them. Having demonstrated guts and grit, Cardiff collapsed far too easily against Fulham and Crystal Palace.
Tottenham’s wasted energy
Our early losers. Not a disaster, given that Tottenham somehow lost again away from home and yet strengthened their grip on a top-four place. But in the context of a Champions League semi-final second leg, an Arsenal fan could not have designed a worse 95 minutes for Tottenham than the ones they experienced on Saturday lunchtime.
While Ajax were winning the Dutch Cup 4-0, Tottenham’s players will have woken up on Sunday morning feeling like they played two matches. With a top four place not yet confirmed, Mauricio Pochettino was forced to pick a strong team and Spurs’ lack of squad depth didn’t give him much choice anyway.
Then came the red cards, meaning that Dele Alli and Christian Eriksen were forced to cover more ground in a bid to keep Bournemouth at bay and secure a vital point. Both will be knackered for Wednesday evening after long, hard seasons and long, hard Saturdays.
And then, just to twist the knife, Tottenham conceded a late goal that rendered all that previous effort worthless and added a layer of psychological damage. Completing a comeback in Amsterdam this week would be a monumental achievement, given the energy levels.
Juan Foyth and Eric Dier
A player brought on at half-time to replace a teammate seemingly determined to get himself sent off, who lasts less than three minutes before he himself is sent off. That’s some pretty impressive slapstick.
Foyth is young, raw and will improve. Dier is 25, and is becoming a jack of all trades in positions that require a master. If Tottenham invest well over the summer, he will drop down the pecking order. That £50m bid from Manchester United feels a long time ago.
I fully understand that Cahill feels let down by a lack of communication from his manager, and Sarri may well have mishandled the situation. But there’s also evidence to suggest that Cahill turned down a move to Fulham and had it made pretty clear to him that he would not be part of the manager’s first-team plans.
Also, it’s pretty rich to give an interview for publication the day of a crucial fixture in which you denounce your club’s manager and then spend said interview talking about respect. As Chelsea’s club captain, Cahill should have waited to air his dirty laundry.