Watford, breathing again
Congratulations must go to Nigel Pearson, who really has changed the mood at Vicarage Road in a matter of weeks. It’s poetic to believe that there is something deeply liberating about having nothing to lose, but the reality is markedly different. Repeated failure changes people. It forces them into their shells. Pearson’s task was to make Watford’s players believe again. He has already succeeded.
It’s one thing giving it a go and impressing against better opposition, but against Aston Villa Pearson was presented with a new challenge. Watford were expected to be progressive, to come out and play against an opponent with a wretched away record. Against Crystal Palace, the match that Pearson watched from the stands, Watford were given the chance to play on the front foot and spurned it. That 0-0 was as miserable as most of their defeats this season.
So here was something new: a Watford that played without fear. The return of Troy Deeney was always likely to give Pearson’s team an extra edge, but Ismaila Sarr’s endeavour was just as crucial. In the midst of a relegation battle, it’s vital to have one or two players who seemingly play without consideration for what is at stake.
A week ago, Ralph Hasenhuttl identified why Southampton’s form had improved. “We were playing like a relegation team,” he said. “Now we are playing like a Premier League team.” The same is true for Watford. Now time to make hay while the winter sun shines. Safety is within their grasp.
Leicester City against the rest
We criticised them for losing to Liverpool, so we must credit them in kind when they prove themselves elsewhere. Especially coming so soon after such a runaround, and with virtually an entirely new team.
Leicester have played 15 league games against teams currently outside the top five in the division. They have taken 41 points from a possible 45 in those matches. That’s why they’re heading for the Champions League.
It would be unfair on Calvert-Lewin and his previous managers to call him a striker transformed under Carlo Ancelotti. Calvert-Lewin has scored five times in five games since Marco Silva left, and has scored all five of his big chances (as defined by Opta). He is a centre-forward enjoying himself, and that matters.
But Calvert-Lewin’s fine work started long before Ancelotti and even before Silva. Being a young, domestic centre-forward for an ambitious Premier League team might just be the hardest job in the business. You must learn quickly on the job or risk losing your place, and even if you score goals there will be clamours from supporters for the club to buy an expensive replacement. Score 15 league goals in a season and there will always be a potential signing that ‘guarantees’ 20.
In that tough climate, Calvert-Lewin has improved markedly. He is by no means perfect, and Ancelotti has already spoken about wanting to make his striker more selfish and more focused on getting into the penalty area, but Calvert-Lewin has eight goals in 1,133 league minutes this season for a club that has often struggled to create clear-cut chances. His goals have won Everton five points in Ancelotti’s two games in charge.
“He is a fantastic striker in my opinion – fantastic with the head, clever in the box, and sharp,” said Everton’s new manager after the game. “I think he is going to be at the top in England and in Europe. He has all the qualities to be a top striker.”
That is extraordinarily high praise from Ancelotti, who is hardly known for being prone to hyperbole. Even if that prediction seems a little wild, there’s plenty enough to suggest that he will look to build his attack around Calvert-Lewin. Given his ability to hold up the ball, it won’t be long before Gareth Southgate comes to watch him as a potential back-up to Harry Kane.
I know they didn’t need to get any better to win the title, but they actually might have. Between August and December 4, Liverpool kept two clean sheets. Since then, they have kept four in a row. They’re going to win their last ten games of the season 5-0, aren’t they?
Chelsea’s away form
You can read far more about Chelsea in 16 Conclusions, including Frank Lampard’s mid-game changes, but a quick word on their away form. Chelsea have visited Manchester City, Manchester United, Tottenham, Wolves, Arsenal and Everton already this season, and only Liverpool have taken more away points. For a side that has often struggled defensively, only Liverpool and Sheffield United have conceded fewer goals away from home.
Two wins while enjoying the majority of possession, two wins against bottom-half sides and two wins with Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford starring. In the 15 games the pair have started together this season, they have scored 19 times between them.
Kevin de Bruyne
He’s averaging a goal or assist for every 82 minutes played this season. The only player in the league who can beat that is Sergio Aguero.
Arsenal’s first half
Some hope! The most damning indictment of Unai Emery’s Arsenal was not that they defended poorly, lacked creativity or suffered alarming slumps in form, but that they were bereft of any obvious identity. In the first half against Chelsea, we finally saw something to cling to.
Arsenal pressed high up the pitch, with wingers tucking in to shuttle the opposition into central areas where passing lanes were blocked. That led to Chelsea’s central defenders either losing possession with careless short passes or looking long for the low-percentage option. When Arsenal countered, they did so in pairs down each wing: Reiss Nelson and Mesut Ozil on the right, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette on the left. They got in behind Chelsea’s wing-backs and dragged the central defenders wide.
Behind them, Lucas Torreira had one of his best halves in an Arsenal shirt. He put out fires as needed, strode forward in possession and helped out the two inexperienced full-backs when required. Matteo Guendouzi is still raw and prone to positional error, but Torreira is fit for purpose now.
Mikel Arteta will be aware that being hailed for your performance in one half is damning with faint praise, particularly given the end result, but there were elements of this display to hold onto. With more time (both with his squad and between matches) there is at least a vision to work towards. Under Emery, even that was missing.
West Ham’s chronic lack of leadership
In May 2016, West Ham captain Mark Noble declared that he was relieved that the club had put their problems behind them. “This club isn’t run like a circus anymore,” Noble said. “This is run like a proper football club.”
Since then, West Ham have left their old ground to move to a stadium that very few supporters enjoy watching football in, sacked Slaven Bilic and turned to David Moyes as a short-term option, angered supporters so much that they stormed the pitch and directors’ box in protest leading to Noble wrestling with a fan on the pitch, sacked Moyes because they wanted to move away from him to a long-term progressive manager, appointed Manuel Pellegrini, sacked Pellegrini and the director of football and then turned back to Moyes. It’s fair to say that the acrobats are still stretching and the lion tamer is cracking their whip.
There are three explanations for re-appointing Moyes, a manager who is now in the almost unique position of taking the same top-flight post twice without another job in between. He has become a specific West Ham emergency service, presumably requiring you to dial 4-4-2. Or maybe a gruff Scottish Jeeves, who shouts at Bertie Wooster for his idiosyncrasies rather than tolerating them.
The first is that Messrs Gold, Sullivan and Brady believe that they made a mistake in letting Moyes go in the first place. But in that case why have West Ham only given him an 18-month contract and why are they making it clear that his task will be to take them away from the relegation zone because he knows the club? Nothing about this smacks of long-term thinking, only short-term, narrow desperation.
The second is that they are worried that West Ham are going down if they don’t turn to Moyes. If that’s true, why did they allow Pellegrini to continue for so long and why hasn’t any other club in the division turned to Moyes? He is a decent manager, but not some magic soothsayer that demands this level of unbridled attention from the club with the 20th highest revenue in the world.
The third explanation is that West Ham’s owners are guilty of an embarrassing lack of forethought and imagination, which has led them back to where they started in their latest bid to ward off self-inflicted crisis. A better management structure would not need a line of firefighters, but would have a long-term succession plan in place for this eventuality. A better management structure would not have a director of football who automatically loses his job because the manager has. But no, not these sorry three.
The likely result of Moyes’ appointment will be protest from supporters who have my utmost sympathy. There’s only so many times you can witness the same mistakes over and over while being asked to pay more for the privilege without getting angry. Of course those supporters could simply stop going to matches, but why should they? It’s their club. Anger is preferable to abandonment. Presumably those protests will lead to mea culpa interviews from one, two or three of the trio of doom, in which promises will be made about learning mistakes and moving on up.
At some point, Gold, Sullivan and Brady might realise that this insufferable cycle will only end when they make it end. They are entirely in control of this misery. If it is not in their power or expertise to stop it, delegate responsibility to those who are more able. Managers, players and seasons will come and go, but none will be successful until those in charge prioritise ambition over the balance sheet and crisis management. The circus only stops when the ringmasters leave the tent.
Aston Villa: Don’t mention Fulham
I gave Aston Villa the benefit of the doubt on the ‘doing a Fulham’ accusation because so much of their spending was enforced. At the end of last season they lost Kortney Hause, Tyrone Mings, Tammy Abraham, Anwar El Ghazi and Axel Tuanzebe after their loan deals ended, and they released or sold Glenn Whelan, Mile Jedinak, Albert Adomah, Tommy Elphick and Alan Hutton. Signing a raft of new players was inevitable.
Nor does the comparison really stand up to scrutiny. Fulham’s biggest problem was a total lack of cohesion between a group of players who barely knew each other, meaning they started the league season on the back foot. Fulham took four points from their first 12 matches. Villa actually started this season pretty well, taking 11 points from their first nine matches. Their worst run of the campaign – five defeats in six – has come in December.
That suggests a lack of cohesion isn’t the answer, but a lack of quality is. With John McGinn overworked and then injured and Tyrone Mings sidelined with a hamstring injury, Villa have lost two of their best players. This squad does not contain the depth to cope with two key absentees. Even within the first-choice XI there are two or three players who have not yet proved that they are up to Premier League life.
Without Mings or McGinn, Villa have become a team of one. If Jack Grealish doesn’t produce at least two pieces of wondrous skill to create or score a goal, Villa lose. Whereas once Smith’s side started quickly and then tailed off, now they are struggling to start at all. Their away record is pitiful: four points from 30 available.
It’s hard to be positive about the immediate future. With Mings not yet back and McGinn likely out for two months, the responsibility on Grealish to create and an inexperienced central defensive pair of Ezri Konsa and Kortney Hause to protect only grows. The New Year’s Day trip to Burnley provides the chance to address away concerns, but it also risks further setback.
Tottenham have conceded two or more goals in five of their eight matches under Jose Mourinho. They conceded two or more goals in six of their last 19 matches under Mauricio Pochettino. By that pretty simple measure, their defending is getting worse. That’s the opposite of what we might expect under Mourinho, a pragmatist who prides himself on defensive stability.
There are caveats to that conclusion. Spurs only scored more than once in one of their last seven games under Pochettino and have done so in six of Mourinho’s eight matches. Tottenham suffered for a lack of creativity in Pochettino’s final months, and to an extent Mourinho has eased those issues.
But it has come at a price. Tottenham are defensively shambolic, and should have lost at Carrow Road just like they should have lost at Wolves and did lose to Chelsea and Manchester United. It might sound deliberately uncharitable to Mourinho, but it is true: they have got better results than their performances have deserved.
Here come the caveats again. Paulo Gazzaniga is not a poor goalkeeper but the return of Hugo Lloris will give the central defensive pairing greater confidence. Serge Aurier is emphatically not a Mourinho right-back and will presumably be replaced on an ASAP basis, while Jan Vertonghen is only a stand-in left-back. In midfield, Mourinho is yet to find a sensible balance but Tanguy Ndombele’s performance against Norwich should make him an automatic pick. Having consistency in that position will help.
But Mourinho will be keen to find his groove quickly. A return of 16 points from eight league games is more than satisfactory, but the 5-0 win over Burnley represents the only complete performance of his tenure to date. Given their away record this season, a trip to Southampton takes on added meaning.
Slowly getting sucked into trouble. Bournemouth’s injury crisis might finally be easing, but those returning to the team find it shorn of all confidence. Some of the passing through midfield against Brighton was abject, and invited the pressure that the defence was not strong enough to repel. A gentle run of fixtures must provoke a change in form.
Arsenal’s second half
If we’re being generous we can put it down to fatigue, given that Arsenal had played away at Bournemouth and Arteta is demanding a far higher intensity than Emery did. If we’re being generous, we can say that Arsenal could have killed off the game in the first half, and that Jorginho should have been sent off.
But excellent teams don’t need to dwell on ifs, buts and maybes. Even before the break, Arsenal were dropping deep towards their own goal. The change of Chelsea shape made their passing out of defence easier, and Arsenal seemed spooked by the ease at which the ball was being played through midfield. Their response was one of fear: defend what we have.
After the break, even when Arteta was waving his arms to tell players to push up the pitch, they sank back. That low block is a valid strategy for plenty of teams, but not one that has David Luiz and Shkodran Mustafi as a central-defensive pairing. The mistake came from Bernd Leno, but he has done so much good this season that he deserves to escape heavy censure. And suddenly hope felt like hopelessness again.
The first half on Sunday was proof of what Arteta is aiming for. The second half was proof of how far he has to go to get there. This will take time and patience. There is no other option.