Leicester City, efficiency and building something special again
“Ruthlessly brilliant” was how Brendan Rodgers described Leicester City after they broke the all-time English top-flight record for margin of away victory, and he’s absolutely right. Fifteen Premier League teams have a chance conversion rate of between 8.5% (Manchester United) and 15.0% (Manchester City). A full 3.2% above City in second lie the Foxes. Five teams have created more chances and six have had more shots on target, but only one has scored more goals. None have conceded fewer. Add those numbers together and you have a side with genuine top-four aspirations.
There are two ways of interpreting this overachievement. The first is to reason that if Leicester continue creating at their current rate then they will revert closer to the mean. No team has managed a chance conversion rate of higher than 16% in either of the last two seasons, and they’re currently over 18%.
But the second and more persuasive theory is that Leicester are just getting going. If it is indeed too much to ask for them to maintain their current conversion rate, we might reasonably expect their chance creation numbers to increase. Ayoze Perez is still settling in, Jamie Vardy is being refined by Rodgers and James Maddison is yet to find his best form this season – even though he’s been pretty excellent. The core of this Leicester side is aged 23 and under, and they have no European commitments. Their comparative late-season energy levels will surely be high.
What is certainly true is that the nature of this Premier League season mirrors 2015/16, when multiple Big Six clubs are either in transition or suffering from a slump. Were you to remove the badges from the shirts and judge this squad with this manager against others in the division, it would hold its own. It has the meanest defence, the most exciting young core, the second best full-backs, one of the most reliable strikers and one of the most impressive man managers. We’ve been burnt by the ‘it’s only Leicester’ thing before. Don’t fall into the same trap again.
Nobody reasonable is predicting another title challenge, and Leicester have taken only four points from four matches against Big Six teams so far this season. But the more you watch them and see how they dovetail in attack and stand firm in defence, the more you become convinced that a top-six place should be Leicester’s minimum aspiration.
A first away hat-trick since he scored three times away at Alfreton Town in 2011, and now the top goalscorer in the Premier League at the age of 32. Vardy clearly struggled to maintain a positive working relationship with Claude Puel, but he is thriving again under Rodgers. He has scored 19 league goals in eight months since Rodgers was appointed.
Pulisic might just have had a harder task than any summer Premier League signing. Firstly there was the timing of his move, completed in January but held off until June. Those transfers can often cause problems, because players have to spend six months at a club with which they have lost their connection and so it is easy to get phased out. That in turn can mean it takes a while to get back up to full match fitness after their move. Naby Keita suffered a similar problem, but for Pulisic it was worse as he had been pushed out of Dortmund’s starting XI by Jadon Sancho and was arriving at a club that had changed manager between his signing and arrival.
Then there was the environment into which Pulisic was dropped. Frank Lampard had a mandate to bring through a new generation of Chelsea players, but that policy was always likely to focus on the club’s academy graduates and returning loanees. In such company, Pulisic had no USP. Particularly when he plays in the same position as England international Callum Hudson-Odoi.
Pulisic’s transfer fee had weighed him down. Becoming the third most expensive signing in Chelsea’s history brought with it certain expectations and pressure that the academy graduates avoided. That price tag overshadows all else. It’s easy to forget that Pulisic is younger than both Fikayo Tomori and Tammy Abraham.
Finally there’s Pulisic’s nationality. With a struggling national team and a domestic league that still relies upon ageing stars for its strongest PR, Pulisic has been thrust into the role of saviour of the USMNT without asking for the unhelpful pressure that brings. The demand for him to succeed has led to him being melodramatically championed by some US pundits, leading to some snark in this country. Pulisic has enough on his plate being the best player that he can be, let alone the player the US needs him to be.
In such circumstances, Pulisic can only do his best. If league starts are rare, he must snatch them. If chances to impress are restricted by the crop of young domestic players around him, then Pulisic must feed greedily when allowed to sit at the top table. That in turn creates its own pressure that has long haunted young players. When chances are limited, every action is assigned added importance. That can easily cause a player to crumble.
On Saturday, Pulisic was afforded his first league start since August. Even then, it was only because Hudson-Odoi needed a rest. Every play would be analysed, every pass, cross and dribble scrutinised. And in that high-pressure situation, Pulisic scored more than once in a game for the first time in his club career and ended the match with a perfect hat-trick. Fair play, young man.
Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial
Forget the missed penalties for now, because that’s easier to solve by stopping both players taking them when Paul Pogba returns (even if his own record is hardly faultless). Over the last few months, Rashford has come in for angry criticism from a section of Manchester United’s support. Most of it borders on the unacceptable. This season he has been lambasted for missing chances and poor link-up play.
So here’s a statistic: Rashford has as many Premier League goals and assists as Raheem Sterling and Mohamed Salah this season and more than Sadio Mane, Harry Kane and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang.
That’s not to pretend that he is better than all of those strikers listed, nor that he has been in the form of his life this season. But Rashford is 21 and has been playing in a team with a stagnant midfield and forward line plagued by injury. He merits continued faith, not wild criticism.
He also merits the presence of Martial beside him, allowing him to drift in from the left with Martial as the central striker. For all Manchester United’s misery at times this season, those two have the makings of an excellent partnership.
In the 340 league minutes this season during which Martial and Rashford have both featured, United have scored eight goals at a rate of one every 42.5 minutes. During the 560 minutes that they have been apart or both missing, United have scored at a rate of once every 112 minutes. Keeping them fit is the only route to saving this season.
Liverpool did not bottle the Premier League title last season, and anyone who says they did is either being wilfully blind or wllfully provocative. But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t doubts about their mental resilience. In fact, those doubts are inevitable. The biggest barrier to Liverpool winning the league this season is that they have never won it before. Successful experience, glory earned despite setback and roadblock, provides confidence.
But there is persuasive evidence that Liverpool have enough resilience to justify faith in their title bid. Since losing to Manchester City in January, Liverpool have conceded the first goal of the game on six occasions. They have won five and drawn one of those matches, an extraordinary unbeaten run.
Over the course of the last three completed seasons, the average for points gained from losing positions in the Premier League is 9.9 per team per season. In their last 27 league games alone Liverpool have gained 16. Every time they’re tested, they have a response.
Ably assisted by the VAR wheel of fortune, but another step in the right direction under their impressive new manager. Saturday was the first time in 2019 that Brighton have won a game having been behind, and the first time they have done it at home since November 2016.
The difficult assignments keep coming, and keep being sidestepped. Since losing to Leicester City at home in August, Sheffield United have played five matches against teams that finished in last season’s top ten and taken eight points.
Sheffield United are also the holders of the most unlikely run in English football, just pipping Liverpool’s unbeaten home record in my entirely fictional list. Chris Wilder‘s team have now gone 58 matches in all competitions without losing by more than a single goal. That’s ridiculous.
Now 261 minutes without conceding a league goal, Bournemouth’s longest run since October 2018. My ‘Steve Cook for England’ club has fallen on hard times due to a lack of mainstream interest, but the army is reassembling and putting its badges back on. Make us dream, Gareth.
The boy just keeps on rolling. In 18 matches for club and country this season, Sterling has scored or assisted 25 goals.
Southampton and Ralph Hasenhuttl
“The performance was a disaster today and I have to apologise and take 100% responsibility,” said Hasenhuttl in his post-match interview. It was deeply awkward to watch, like sitting in on someone being sacked for negligence or a patient being delivered terrible news. This was a private humiliation, played out in public. “I’ve never seen a team act like this, there was no fight for anything,” Hasenhuttl continued.
In that final line, Hasenhuttl both deflected plenty of responsibility and owned some. The buck always stops with the man in charge, but there comes a time when professional responsibility must kick in. Every team can be humbled, but there are ways of losing and ways to avoid losing. This was a self-inflicted catastrophe.
It is hard to imagine a worse 30 seconds of football for a team than conceding a goal and having a player sent off in the same move. Before VAR, Southampton would have allowed Leicester to establish an early lead but at least have kept 11 players on the pitch They have excelled at suffering mid-game setbacks in clusters of twos and threes this season, but two simultaneous problems was new even for them.
But where was the reaction to ignominy? Where were the players who rolled up their sleeves and vowed not to let a silly situation get worse? The second most remarkable statistic after Leicester’s nine goals was that Southampton only committed three fouls. Being penalised for indiscipline is hardly a positive thing, but surely we might have expected a little more fight? They barely laid a finger on Leicester’s attackers. Give any confident and capable team this much space, and you cannot plead surprise when they hurt you.
How misplaced any pre-season optimism now seems. We expected Hasenhuttl to slowly change Southampton, as he did in the second half of last season. The start to this campaign – and we are now more than a quarter of the way through it – suggests it is Southampton that have dragged Hasenhuttl down.
The manager is not blameless. The variety in team selection suggests that he still doesn’t know his best starting XI and the defensive organisation is virtually non-existent. The team shape changes from week to week and that is causing its own confusion. There are also reports that players are unhappy with the high intensity of training sessions.
But these issues go way beyond the manager, just as they have since Ronald Koeman started struggling. Southampton have lost their way off the pitch during Gao Jisheng’s ownership and he has exacerbated existing problems. This summer, Jisheng insisted that Southampton “were not a pig to be fattened” but must be self-sustainable. That’s damn hard when you’ve consistently sold your best players and failed to replace them. This summer, Che Adams and Moussa Djenepo were the only two new permanent arrivals. One has struggled and the other is a raw winger.
Even when the club has invested in the squad, it has gone terribly. Guido Carrillo, Wesley Hoedt, Mario Lemina, Mohamed Elyounoussi and Fraser Forster are all out on loan this season and were signed for total fees of £80m and handed significant wages. A club of Southampton’s size cannot afford to make that many missteps without falling off the edge of a cliff.
Off the field, the future looks no brighter. Les Reed was forced out of his role as vice-chairman in November 2018 as a reaction to transfer market mistakes, but his replacement Ross Wilson has already left for Rangers. Assistant manager Danny Rohl left before the start of the season, and chairman Ralph Krueger stepped down in April.
Southampton succeeded because they had a plan that ruled everything else. Players were sold and managers left, but that didn’t matter because the idea was king: scout effectively, buy sensibly, develop and sell. Trust the process and the process will thrive.
But that process only works if you have experts in position to cherish and treasure it. Like Swansea City before them, Southampton have become a club that doesn’t stand for anything at all. Rather than experts, they have a power vacuum. If Manchester United can’t hold back the tide of their own structural incompetence with their financial might, Southampton certainly can’t.
Everton’s away form
Marco Silva is right that his Everton team were hugely unfortunate to lose to Brighton. They were in control of the match before the late penalty award, and Silva was left understandably confused that the VAR high bar seems to have suddenly dropped to the floor without any club, manager or supporter being informed.
But as with everything surrounding Everton this season, they doubled down on their own bad news with a sprinkling of incompetence. And there’s only so many times that you can claim misfortune before people start asking why you aren’t making your own luck.
Everton have played five away league games this season, and taken just one point. That would be unacceptable whoever the opposition, but this wretched return has been achieved against Crystal Palace, Aston Villa, Bournemouth, Burnley and Brighton. Everton have Leicester, Liverpool and Manchester United away from home before Christmas. Something’s going to have to give.
I don’t blame Xhaka for reacting, as much as taking off his shirt and telling supporters to “f**k off” was probably a bit much. Footballers are asked to perform at high intensity and give their all, and that often leads to emotions boiling over. Being so widely and loudly booed and jeered by your own supporters must feel bloody awful. Given that I have a mini private meltdown every time someone tweets something mean about a piece I’ve written, I’d probably cry and hide in my house for a week.
For all the frustrations about Xhaka’s lethargic performances, he has become an easy lightning rod for a multitude of Arsenal anger. He did not ask to be named as one of the club captains, and would have got far more grief had he turned it down. He does not ask to be picked repeatedly, and would be lambasted if he requested to be rested. Xhaka’s continued selection is nonsensical, but that’s not his fault.
After the game, Unai Emery added to the criticism by implying that Xhaka would be disciplined internally for his outburst. But that helps nobody. Perhaps the punishment will be for Emery to tell us that Xhaka is training well for the next six months while repeatedly leaving him out of the matchday squad?
The best course of action would now be for Xhaka to leave in January, preferably to move back to the Bundesliga where he established a reputation as an excellent central midfielder. That’s true whether or not Emery makes it beyond this current slump that is now defining his time in charge. The relationship has been trodden too deep into the dirt. It is now unsalvageable.
Losers because they lost, and in doing so slipped further back in the back. Losers because the difference between their full-backs and Liverpool’s is night and day. Losers because they lack the truly elite holding midfielder that they need to facilitate the intense press high up the pitch. Losers because Tanguy Ndombele must surely start in matches like these.
This was not a defeat to provoke more alarmist investigation. Tottenham relied upon good fortune, poor Liverpool finishing and the excellence of Paulo Gazzaniga, but they led the match for more than half of it and were at least level until the 75th minute. Had Heung-min Son scored after rounding the keeper rather than striking the bar, they might have ended Liverpool’s unbeaten home record.
But then damning with faint praise only makes things worse. Tottenham were not thrashed. They are losers because even losing by a single goal feels like a cause for some relief. And they are losers because these two clubs have moved in opposite directions during the five short months since the Champions League final.
Now 314 minutes without scoring a league goal. That’s their longest run since December 2017. Steve Cook can’t do everything, guys.
The implementation of VAR
I promised myself that I’d stick to the football in this column and so ignore VAR. So let me just make this noise and I’ll say no more: Eeeeeeuuurrrrffffff.