Premier League winners and losers

Date published: Monday 4th November 2019 10:29

Winners

Liverpool’s late goals
There are certain telltale signs of momentous goals. Rather than the scorer’s teammates chasing them to congratulate and embrace, players swarm off in all directions with arms outstretched, making involuntary noises as if needing to quickly expel some of their own excitement. Dotted in between them are opposition players lying prostrate on the turf, broken by this game-changing moment. Aston Villa did so much for so little. Liverpool gave everything and got their reward. Eventually.

It is not melodramatic to talk up the importance of Sadio Mane’s late header. A 1-1 draw would hardly have been disastrous for Liverpool, but it would have meant four points dropped in three league games and a few sharp questions asked. With fellow early winners Manchester City their opponents next week, there might have been some mental trepidation. But in the final ten minutes at Villa Park, they seized back the momentum and evaporated all doubts. Boy, this club are good at getting it done.

Last week this column discussed Liverpool’s remarkable ability to gain points from losing positions, and they deserve more credit for the same thing. That record since January after conceding the first goal of the game – won six, drawn one, lost none – is better than anyone else in Europe. Over that period, Liverpool have gained more points from losing positions than any other team in the Premier League, and they’ve been behind far less often than many of their rivals.

But hand in hand with that record is Liverpool’s new habit of scoring crucial late goals. While rival supporters may call it lucky, and Pep Guardiola might cheekily accuse simulation, it is a sure sign of a team that believes in itself and refuses to give up. That is Jurgen Klopp’s personality projected onto his players.

In the last six weeks alone, Liverpool have scored late against Sheffield United to win the game, scored in the last minute against Leicester City to win the game, won the game late against Tottenham having come from behind, equalised late against Manchester United, equalised in the last minute against Arsenal before winning on penalties and scored twice late against Aston Villa to come from behind. Klopp’s side are not playing perfectly – few clean sheets, profligate in front of goal – but it’s a lot easier to address those issues while they’re still winning.

Next week’s result will go a long way to deciding the destination of the Premier League title, but Liverpool’s late goals can become self-fulfilling. If they trail Manchester City by a goal heading into the last 15 minutes, Klopp will be confident of another late salvo and Guardiola fearful of it. Just another useful weapon in the armoury of champions elect. Win next Sunday, and that’s exactly what Liverpool will be.

 

Steve Bruce and Newcastle
Newcastle were helped by West Ham’s atrocious first-half performance, but Bruce answered his critics at exactly the right time. Before this weekend Newcastle had a miserably low xG total and had scored only six times in ten league games. They scored half that in 51 minutes before their late wobble.

The biggest issue for Bruce is retaining the defensive organisation Rafa Benitez instilled without making Newcastle entirely blunt in attack, and he has struggled to get that balance right. Joelinton has been isolated, Allan Saint-Maximin and Miguel Almiron used as auxiliary wing-backs with the defence sitting deep. But on Saturday there was some attacking threat, even if two of their goals were scored by central defenders. Midfielders got close to Joelinton, and full-backs pushed on to stop the wingers having to drop deep.

Now Bruce must retain this goodwill until and through the next international break. Take four points from matches against Bournemouth (home) and Aston Villa (away), and Newcastle can begin looking up the league rather than down.

 

Sheffield United
The last thing Sheffield United had to tick off their list was improving their attacking prowess at home. Before Saturday, Chris Wilder’s team had scored three times in five home league games. Their recent results at home and away had been a binary exercise: 1-0, 0-1, 0-0, 1-0, 1-1.

Supporters who wanted a comfortable home win might have felt a little greedy, but they longed to enjoy the warm glow of victory without having to chew their nails down to the bone and whistle during stoppage time to try and persuade the referee to end the contest (surely the most futile exercise in football). Win, lose or draw, it had always been tense at Bramall Lane.

As with most other things at Sheffield United, Wilder answered their prayers. Lys Mousset started and shone, Sheffield United doubled their home goals total in 45 minutes and they registered their joint-largest margin of Premier League victory since beating Tottenham 6-0 in 1993. Suddenly Sheffield United are up to sixth in the top flight. And Wilder is the manager of the season so far.

 

Graham Potter
It’s supposed to be hard to turn a team around quickly, and transforming their entire style over the course of a month or two near impossible. But just take a look at Brighton under Graham Potter: the possession is up, the number of passes per game through the roof, the formation has changed, the central defenders are passing the ball out from the back, there are young players in the team and the shape of the side regularly changes mid-game.

Brighton are not safe yet; they have a run of tough fixtures to come. But they’re having fun, and they are eighth in the Premier League. For all the fretting over moving on from Chris Hughton, the club look to have played a blinder.

 

Lys Mousset
No assists in 65 Premier League games before Saturday for Mousset. Three in 45 minutes on Saturday. Shout out to Sheffield United’s Twitter account for the most tenuous announcement of a record I’ve ever seen. Fair play.

 

Kyle Walker
A rough few months for Walker, who has lost his England place, seen Joao Cancelo signed in his position and struggled to come to terms with his role changing at Manchester City. Walker is expected to tuck into midfield far more often, and overlap the winger far less. That doesn’t really suit his style.

Attacking contributions are hardly the most important part of Walker’s game, but a goal and assist to win his team the match from behind will help to convince Pep Guardiola that he still deserves his place. Good on you, fella.

 

Leicester City
Non-elite teams often go on winning runs like Leicester City’s current four-game streak (albeit not including a 9-0 win), but those wins come with uncertainty and tension that shreds the nerves of supporters.

For Leicester at the moment, it’s different. Crystal Palace had one of the meanest defences in the division, conceding three goals in five home league games. Leicester had lost their last four meetings between the two, conceding 13 goals. And yet I had no doubt that Leicester would win at Selhurst Park on Sunday.

Routine victories are the surest marker of a team at the peak of their powers. That perfectly describes Leicester City this season under Brendan Rodgers. Improve against Big Six clubs, and they will have a real shot at a top-four place. There are no reasons to be afraid of the clubs below them.

 

Chelsea
Five league victories in a row. Maurizio Sarri might wish to point out that Chelsea managed exactly the same feat at the start of last season, but Frank Lampard and Chelsea supporters would stress that this time it does feel a little more sustainable.

Their opponents over this run – Brighton, Southampton, Newcastle, Burnley and Watford – would further prove Sarri’s point; they are hardly the Premier League’s creme de la creme. Chelsea took 15 points from a possible 15 in the corresponding fixtures last season.

But you just see if Lampard cares. Chelsea have a good thing going with their young players flying. Their two summer signings only arrived on technicalities (Mateo Kovacic was already on loan and Christian Pulisic officially joined in January). They were probably Chelsea’s two best players at Watford.

 

Losers

Managers in crisis
We’ll get into the individuals themselves soon, but the Premier League is currently a mess of unhappy or uneasy supporters and underperforming clubs.

Manchester United are enduring their worst start to a season since 1987. Tottenham are winless away from home in the league since January and sit in the bottom half. Arsenal supporters have had enough of Unai Emery. Marco Silva is on thin ice at Everton. Manuel Pellegrini has been underwhelming at West Ham, despite significant investment in the squad. Newcastle United supporters are not convinced by Steve Bruce’s credentials. Ralph Hasenhuttl is struggling to keep Southampton heads above water. Watford have made their change, and yet nothing has improved under Quique Sanchez Flores.

Has there ever been a time when fewer Premier League teams are sure that their manager will be in place in three months’ time?

 

Unai Emery
No Granit Xhaka to save him this week. Without Arsenal’s useful lightning rod for abuse, nothing suddenly improved. With Mesut Ozil back in the team, nothing suddenly improved. No reasonable Arsenal supporter ever thought that it would. The problem is not one of individual players, but the system and culture. Emery has presided over a period of emphatic mediocrity.

This relationship has now run its course. Supporters are already convinced that Emery has used up his last life and should be replaced immediately. The club reportedly want this to work out, but cannot let Arsenal drift for much longer. Never before has there been a six-point gap between the top four and the rest at this stage of a Premier League season. Arsenal are not part of the elite.

Emery’s biggest crime isn’t making Arsenal dismal, a team without an identity. Gone is the passing football of Arsene Wenger’s late reign that became so frustrating without the final attacking flourish, replaced by nothing. We are 16 months into Emery’s tenure and nobody has any concrete idea of what Plan A is, beyond hoping that an individual produces a piece of brilliance.

Emery’s biggest crime isn’t making Arsenal blunt, leaving seriously talented strikers short of service and freezing out the most creative player in their squad and producing an unpleasant mush of defensively incompetent half-ideas.

Emery’s biggest crime isn’t passing up a golden ticket to Champions League football at the end of last season by letting Arsenal slip out of the top four with dropped points against Brighton and Crystal Palace. It isn’t even focusing on Europa League success instead of the Premier League, only to fall apart against Chelsea in the final.

Emery’s biggest crime isn’t the lamentable captaincy situation, which itself helped cause the Xhaka incident last week. Rather than take control of the situation, Emery allowed his players to choose their leader. The degree of misguided logic in that process backfired spectacularly and raises questions about Emery’s ability to lead.

Emery’s biggest crime is not the regular ceding of leads, despite Arsenal allowing two-goal advantages to slip in four of their last 12 matches (they did it twice in the previous 370 matches). The good news is that on Saturday Arsenal only allowed a one-goal lead to evaporate. But that’s only because they weren’t good enough to score twice.

No, Emery’s biggest crime is that his failure has become so unpleasant for Arsenal supporters that some of them are even prepared to welcome Jose Mourinho their club, the anti-Wenger and the antithesis of all that this club’s modern history purports to represent. Cheers Unai.

 

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer
Hello darkness, my old friend. That Manchester United bump in league form effectively comprised an away win at a team odds-on for relegation. Solskjaer described the defeat at Bournemouth – possibly United’s worst performance of the season – as a “step back in the wrong direction”. To the rest of us, it just felt like another defeat for a mid-table team.

The most grim aspect of Saturday was that losing didn’t even feel like a shock. It was certainly no fluke; Bournemouth had more shots on target. There were periods when United applied a little pressure, but like most away games recently that was the exception to the general pattern of play. Solskjaer’s team are simple to defend against, and easy to flummox in their own third. The defending for Josh King’s goal, including both of United’s big-money summer signings, was abysmal.

For all the criticism of the quality at Solskjaer’s disposal, they must be better than Bournemouth. More than half of Eddie Howe’s starting XI cost a combined £10m to sign. The reality is that Bournemouth had an obvious game plan and visibly cared about winning the match, and we can’t say the same for United.

That is deeply embarrassing for Solskjaer. His team were demonstrably hungry to unnerve and unsettle Liverpool last month, but that intensity has been absent for most games before and since. For a manager who sells himself on motivating players rather than his coaching, there are huge problems. If Solskjaer can’t even inspire his players to battle through adversity and move up the table, what is he doing there?

We are 11 games into a league season and United have lost more often than they have won. The list of teams they have failed to beat away from home in the last eight months is humiliating, to the extent that no away victory is a gimme. They are ten points off the top four and only five points above the bottom three, and things are not improving quickly enough to justify faith in this mythical long-term redemption of which the manager speaks.

Solskjaer is not the only one responsible for United’s regression into a mediocre mid-table team, but he has done precious little to avert the crisis. What possible reasons remain for believing he can achieve those lofty ambitions he set out during the early weeks of his tenure?

 

West Ham and Manuel Pellegrini
West Ham have long been the least favourite team of any weekend review column writer. The entire point is to react to the weekend’s events, but weave them in with long-term strands. But West Ham blow hot and cold like the wind. Just as you deem it appropriate to draw any conclusion, they make you look utterly stupid.

And so back to September, and this section after West Ham had beaten Manchester United 2-0 to go into the top six:

‘But most important is that West Ham finally look solid under Manuel Pellegrini. There was a six-game stretch in March and April when they conceded at least two goals in every game and those familiar aching doubts flooded back in, but four consecutive clean sheets has allowed positivity to reign again. Now comes a stretch of fixtures – Bournemouth (a), Crystal Palace (h), Everton (a) – where West Ham might make such optimism look foolish. There’s no club better at pulling the rug from under your feet.’

At least I caveated the effusive praise. If West Ham looked solid in September, they wobbled in October and melted entirely against Newcastle on Saturday at the start of November. Pellegrini conceded after the match that he didn’t know where such a defensive collapse had come from, but he should know by now that there is a tendency to implode that lies deep within West Ham’s psyche. Since that United win, West Ham have taken two points from five games and are now 13th.

This ludicrous capacity to fluctuate between excellence and incompetence might be amusing to us, but it is the cause of great strife to supporters and presumably also those in West Ham’s boardroom. Pellegrini was appointed as the wise old head and safe hands, but the club have dragged him down to their level despite a significant transfer market spend. If Pellegrini isn’t going to bring consistency to West Ham, there’s really no point in him being there at all. Odds of 20/1 on him to be the next Premier League manager to leave speaks more of the general crisis across the top flight than his own performance.

 

Burnley
The relegation sleeper team, pretty much out of nowhere. Since pumping Southampton on the opening day, Burnley have taken nine points from ten league games, lost at home to Sunderland in the EFL Cup and have conceded three or more goals in four of their last nine matches.

Burnley also have a long-term defensive issue. In 2016/17 and 2017/18, they conceded three or more goals in nine of 76 Premier League matches, pretty good for a team expected to struggle against relegation. Since then, they have conceded three or more in 14 of their 49 league matches.

 

Aston Villa and those leads
Losing to Liverpool is no disgrace, but a theme is appearing across Aston Villa’s season. In 11 matches, they have dropped 11 points from winning positions: three against Tottenham, three against Arsenal (where they led twice), two against Burnley (where they led twice) and three against Liverpool. And so to their other problem: in those four matches, Villa have conceded eight goals in the final 20 minutes.

Whether it’s resisting the temptation to make defensive substitutions, instructing his players not to fall further towards their own goal or just hoping that Villa take their chances to extend their lead when they come, Dean Smith needs to find a solution. There have been far more positive than negative elements to Villa’s season to date, but they are still 16th and only three points from safety. You have to make the good times count.

Also, in last week’s column I said that Aston Villa would stay up if Jack Grealish and John McGinn stayed fit. Sorry about placing that accidental curse.

 

Norwich City
It isn’t Daniel Farke’s fault that Norwich suffered an injury crisis, and not his fault that the club chose not to buy big in the summer in preference for making do with what they had. Wantonly spending money on transient signings would have been the wrong thing to do. Maybe there was no right answer.

But what is becoming increasingly clear, despite the magnificent Manchester City victory in September, is that Norwich are ill-prepared for their current situation. They have taken one point from a possible 18 despite facing several out-of-form teams, and next week’s home game against Watford has become a relegation six-pointer even before Christmas decorations have gone up.

 

Heung-min Son
A loser not because he was sent off, and certainly not because of the injury sustained by Andre Gomes (as terrible as it was). Son caught the Everton midfielder, but he could never have expected that it would end as it did and could not have been expected to.

Instead, Son is a loser because of his very obvious distress at seeing a fellow professional suffering in such a way, breaking down in tears while still on the field and presumably deeply troubled in the hours and days that follow the match.

There is no way that Son could have continued under such emotional distress, but Tottenham should have been afforded the chance to substitute him. He deserves to have his red card rescinded, and we should ask why Martin Atkinson upgraded his punishment purely based on the severity of the injury. Don’t hold your breath on either point.

Daniel Storey

 

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