In the space of three days their title odds have been halved from 22/1 to 11/1. If it were any of the Premier League’s five more dominant forces sitting four points from the Premier League summit with the best defensive record in the division, those odds would be closer to 3/1. There is a cynicism about Tottenham but if ever a season should eradicate cynicism, it is this one. If Leicester can have reasonable hopes of finishing in the top four, if Crystal Palace can realistically target the top six, if Watford can rationally believe that the top half is not beyond them, then Tottenham should be viewed as title contenders. Without a snigger. Without a smirk. Without caveats.
They did not have to be brilliant against Norwich and they were far, far from brilliant against Watford. But when two games in three days produces six points, five goals and four different goalscorers, respect is deserved and should be handed over generously. Lads, it’s Tottenham, and they are really bloody good.
The real positive was that Mauricio Pochettino could change his full-backs and rest Christian Eriksen (though Mousa Dembele’s injury cut short that respite) and not significantly weaken his starting XI, and yet still have Eriksen, Nacer Chadli and Son Heung-Min come off the bench. Tottenham may have only one out-and-out striker worthy of the name but 12 Tottenham players have scored Premier League goals this season. For comparison, Arsenal (also with 33 goals against their name) have nine.
Should Manchester United cast their eyes around the Premier League for candidates to replace Louis van Gaal, they should probably look no further than Mauricio Pochettino. Tottenham have suffered only eight Premier League defeats in 2015; Manchester United have notched ten. You don’t need us to detail the difference in budget.
Against Watford, Pochettino again showcased his tactical nous and his ability to communicate his ideas to his players. Watford are the only top-flight side to consistently play direct football to two strikers, so Pochettino hatched a plan. Three at the back. For the very first time in his reign.
As Pochettino said on Watford: “They don’t elaborate too much or play from the back, they play forward and they are very strong. We worked on how to stop that.”
The result was just one shot on target from their hosts; it’s fair to say it worked.
It’s no surprise that Robbie Savage is backing one of his best friends for the Manchester United job; Robbie Savage would lend his last pair of clean pants to Mark Hughes. What is surprising is that any Manchester United fan is giving this idea the time of day. “He knows the club inside out.” Really? He last played for Manchester United 20 years ago. Whatever Manchester United he knows inside out, it is not this one.
Mark Hughes is doing an excellent job at Stoke, thriving on a minimal budget and treating both Potters fans and neutrals to a mouth-watering, incomprehensible side featuring Xherdan Shaqiri, Ibrahim Afellay, Marko Arnautovic and Bojan. But this is still the same manager who paid around £18m each for Jo and Roque Santa Cruz when handed almost unlimited funds at Manchester City, and inflated QPR’s wage bill beyond all comprehension when he thought Jose Bosingwa, Julio Cesar, Kieron Dyer and Park Ji-Sung were exactly the right sort of signings for a team fighting relegation. Some managers thrive under restrictions and Hughes has thrived at Blackburn and Stoke. There was a point early in his Fulham reign when he had drawn all but two of his last 15 Premier League games. Does that sound like the record of a Manchester United manager? Unfortunately it does – the current Manchester United manager. And the one before that. If you believe that Hughes is an upgrade on Van Gaal then you are in a tight, dark corner with Robbie Savage. Is that really a place you want to find yourself?
That said, Hughes deserves tremendous praise. As I wrote in my top ten managers of 2015, ‘consistency in the midst of slow revolution is to be applauded’. And we really like the way he sent out the same players who had beaten Manchester United to face Everton two days later. Momentum is the perfect antidote to fatigue.
The most bizarrely shaped man in the football but bloody hell, the square boy can play. Woof.
Three Premier League games unbeaten for the first time this season. What a magical time this is for the reigning champions.
Only victory against a rotten Sunderland side away from being on the same points as Manchester United. Given the problems at Old Trafford, that may sound like the faintest of praise, but this time last year that gap stood at eight points. United’s decline has been more marked than Liverpool’s improvement but it is nevertheless an improvement, seen in the most comprehensive of 1-0 wins over leaders Leicester. Jurgen Klopp asked them to play “simple football” and they responded, with the desire, energy and commitment that had been missing at Watford.
It was all about discipline and not allowing Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez the space to do any damage, and key to that was a compact, well-organised defence aided by the absence of Martin Skrtel. Emre Can and Jordan Henderson were excellent in a new central midfield partnership, providing endeavour and drive in equal measure; Lucas Leiva’s enduring affection for a rash challenge was clearly considered too great a risk.
Liverpool showed their versatility against Leicester, never being afraid to knock the ball into the channels for the willing runner that was Divock Origi, being careful not to fall into the trap of slow possession that the Foxes love to exploit. More purpose, more pace, more movement. The Anfield crowd got a glimpse of what life could be like under Jurgen Klopp. Let’s not take a step back now, fellas.
“I think I have to run more and I have to be there for my team-mates.”
It was August when Manchester United last lost a game started by Schneiderlin. We say ‘last’ but it has actually only happened once. Without him, they have lost to PSV Eindhoven, Wolfsburg, Arsenal, Bournemouth, Norwich and Stoke. Seriously Louis, what the hell were you thinking?
The flip side of course is that a midfield pairing of Schneiderlin and Bastian Schweinsteiger has returned six 0-0 draws from 11 matches. But is that better than the alternative of getting cut apart by Stoke? Oh yes.
“Chambers has been educated in that position,” said Arsene Wenger in November when Francis Coquelin inevitably succumbed to injury. Anybody who had seen Chambers face Southampton last season in defensive midfield would raise questions about his education. Has anybody seen the Ofsted report? Inadequate. Special measures.
The imminent arrival of Mohamed Elneny – and the fact that it took an injury to Mathieu Flamini to push Chambers forward as a last resort – suggests that Wenger was equally unconvinced. He may well have breathed easier after a regulation victory over Bournemouth in which the 20-year-old played with assurance. Chambers is never going to beat Coquelin in a bleep test but he played with intelligence and discipline, while looking confident and composed in possession. A pass completion rate of 91.4% is better than any Arsenal player’s average this season.
The answer? No. An option that probably means a potential loan move is shelved? Most definitely yes.
He played nine key passes against Bournemouth; his teammates mustered another three between them. He now has 16 assists for the season after only half the campaign has passed; the Premier League record is 20. As we repeatedly said back in 2013, Arsenal had signed Mesut f***ing Ozil. And for that we remain grateful. Wenger was coy when asked whether he was currently the best player in the Premier League. We’re not so shy: He is simply sodding brilliant and without peer. We are blessed. Enjoy him.
When you start a Premier League match with 11 players who have contributed just 10 goals in the first 18 games of the season (and none of those goals have come from your striker), you can have little hope of ending an eight-game stretch without victory. At half-time, as Slaven Bilic readily admitted, West Ham were incredibly lucky to be only losing 1-0 to a Southampton side seemingly invigorated by their victory over Arsenal.
Alhough Bilic was keen to hand credit to his players for their second-half revival, it is the slow return of the Hammers’ injury-hit attacking contingent that will pull the claret and blue trawler back onto its hull. Manuel Lanzini and Andy Carroll came on at the break to allow the Hammers to switch to a more direct approach, and Dimitri Payet, Victor Moses and Diafra Sakho will eventually follow to restore that attacking verve that thrilled us early in the season.
It might be pleasing for some West Ham fans to see two teenagers on the bench, but the majority would prefer to see three points on the board. You get the feeling that West Ham are now over the worst. And if the worst leaves you just a point behind Manchester United, life ain’t too shabby.
Daniel Storey has only just redirected blood around his whole body.
Concertina effect avoided. Miserably for the rest of us, who would now rather spoon out our own eyes than watch a West Brom side featuring four centre-halves, three central midfielders and Victor Anichebe.
Although his public ambitions would be to avoid a relegation scrap altogether, privately the Scotsman should be happy with the Canaries amassing more than a point a game in the first half of the season. His squad is limited in quality but he appears to have the nous to give them a fighting chance of survival.
Faced with a must-win game against Aston Villa, Neil brought in four players and made one other key change – moving Robbie Brady back to left-back. Nothing can please a manager more than watching two of his additions – Jonny Howson and Dieumerci Mbokani – score the game’s only goals. It was by no means pretty – a 70% pass completion rate at home cannot be a long-term plan – but pretty schmetty; in 90 minutes, Norwich practically condemned Villa to one of three relegation spots they are desperate to avoid. Job done.
Now 2/1 in places to be the next permanent Swansea manager. That’s what three straight clean sheets can do. And who knew Marvin Emnes was still a thing?
There were enough positives in 135 minutes of football against Arsenal and West Ham to suggest that this season may not entirely be a write-off, but Southampton need to heed warnings from Ronald Koeman that they cannot compete in the top half of the table if they continue to be the only Premier League club making a transfer profit. Sadio Mane must stay. Victor Wanyama must stay. And Koeman needs to be given better players than Maya Yoshida, Gaston Ramirez and unfortunately Jordy Clasie, who has been one of the biggest disappointments of a disappointing season.
But yes, there were positives. Winners. Just.
The Dutchman claims he is unworried by the media but for an old man, he is being exceptionally naive. Press briefings are emanating from figures of influence within Old Trafford and these stories are being gleefully gobbled up by a media increasingly starved of inside information. That Manchester United players are ‘dispirited’ and ‘baffled’, or bizarrely annoyed with dinner arrangements, is reported as fact. Then there is the utter nonsense of Ryan Giggs being somehow excused of all blame by a press pack still in awe of the Class of 92.
Ask Andre Villas-Boas if it is possible to turn things around once the mainstream media have decided that you are a dead man walking. Ask Rafa Benitez. Ask Roberto Mancini.
Van Gaal has made a series of bizarre decisions this season but it is still possible to feel a tad sorry for a man who now appears to have very few allies. That he is likely to be replaced by the only manager to have made a bigger cock of things this season must smart more than a little.
While Mark Hughes responded to victory over Manchester United by naming an unchanged line-up, Roberto Martinez thought it sensible to react to Everton’s first win and clean sheet in over a month by making four changes. Out went Leighton Baines, Newcastle match-winner Tom Cleverley, Aaron Lennon (most chances created v Newcastle) and Kevin Mirallas (most shots v Newcastle) and in came Brendan Galloway, James McCarthy (making his first start for a month), Gerard Deulofeu and Arouna Kone. Having finally given some of his fringe players a chance, victory was ‘rewarded’ with either a place on the bench or no place at all.
Martinez confirmed that neither Lennon nor Mirallas was injured, but that he was “looking after them”. Having made a total of five Premier League starts this season, we suspect they could have handled another game, Roberto. Add ‘terrible squad management’ to the usual accusation of ‘cannot organise a defence’.
The clusterf***s elsewhere in the Premier League have diverted attention away from Martinez but he is massively underachieving at Everton. If you have three players who could command a £40m-plus transfer fee, you absolutely should not be below Leicester, Crystal Palace, West Ham, Watford and Stoke in the Premier League. It is an inexact science, of course, but player valuation site transfermarkt puts Everton in seventh place in a list of Premier League clubs. In the real table they are an abysmal 11th.
If you were a 15-goal striker for a team in 11th, how long before you agitated for a move?
Crystal Palace strikers
We are now half-way through the season and yet no Palace striker has scored a Premier League goal from open play. Eight different players have tried and eight different players have failed. The dynamic form of Yannick Bolasie has masked the problem but in his injury-enforced absence against Bournemouth and Swansea, Palace mustered just three shots on target in 180 minutes. Only one of those was from a striker. If Palace have ambitions beyond settling into a credible mid-table position, action is required in January. Hello? Is that Papiss? Or Loic?
This is where stats let you down. After being told that Koscielny had made more interceptions in 2015 than any other Premier League player, the Frenchman then recorded another four against Southampton, along with three tackles and seven clearances. Those statistics – according to our friends at WhoScored – made him Arsenal’s statistically best performer against the Saints on Boxing Day. In truth he was absolutely f***ing sh*te.
Gabriel had been one of our five most underused players. Against Bournemouth he was used. The next question is whether he will be used again on Saturday when Arsenal face Newcastle.
Seven wins in the whole of 2015. A calendar year drop from 10th to 17th. And yet, I cannot shake the feeling that there is an excellent Newcastle side in there somewhere; I’m just not sure Steve McClaren is the man to draw it out.
“It will be a big test physically and mentally for the players after that because they have given it absolutely everything,” he said after late, undeserved defeat to Everton. “We talk about crawling off the pitch and they did.”
So why did the same 10 outfield players who had crawled off the pitch 46 hours before then start against West Brom? Literally nobody was surprised when the Baggies came flying out of the blocks against a side McClaren publicly proclaimed to be on their knees; the only surprise was that it actually took so long for West Brom to score.
Newcastle are blessed with a squad of far greater quality than teams above them in the table like Norwich and Bournemouth. At the moment excellent players like Moussa Sissoko and Georginio Wijnaldum are sleepwalking towards the Championship. Is McClaren really the man to wake them up? To wake anybody up?
Very much entitled to ask why they didn’t just sodding sell him in the summer.
No goals in two games. That their top scorer has not played since September should be a massive worry, but the good news is that all their problems could be solved with one very good January purchase. There’s precious little else wrong with this side.