Chelsea, and defending a lead
If one swallow fails to make a summer, then one 3-0 away victory doesn’t constitute a redemption. Yet there were aspects of Chelsea’s performance at Selhurst Park on Sunday that shouted ‘2014/15 Premier League winners’ in a very loud voice. “That was the Chelsea of last year,” John Terry said. “Overall, as well as the goals, it was different class.” No arguments there.
Jose Mourinho’s title-winning side was far from perfect, but they triumphed by maximising their attacking opportunities before closing the door in the face of the opposition. Chelsea scored the opening goal 28 times last season (more than any other team), losing just once. Their record when leading at half-time read: P18, W17, D1, L0.
That had changed dramatically. Before Sunday, Chelsea had taken the lead in nine league games this season. They had drawn two and lost two of those matches, a worse points-per-game record from those situations than 14 other Premier League teams. Chelsea’s strength had become their weakness.
The most striking aspect of the performance against Crystal Palace is how the home side never looked like getting back into the match after conceding the first goal, something Guus Hiddink put down to his own tactics. “I don’t like to see a team drop back very far, to seek false security but to look forwards and to get the ball as soon as possible,” the Dutchman explained. Attack as the best form of defence, in other words. It’s something Chelsea have been guilty of shunning this season, hamstrung by their own lack of confidence.
Chelsea are not yet back in business, but they will surely now at least move towards the top half of the table. Hiddink has bigger ideas: “It’s very difficult to get there. It’s possible but there’s a long way to go.” He’s talking about the top four.
John Obi Mikel
When I wrote after the victory over Crystal Palace that Mikel was the new ‘starter, leader, role model’ for Chelsea, tongue was slightly inserted in cheek. It took less than an hour for Guus Hiddink to remove that tongue, which sounds a bit odd.
“He played very well but also in the previous game,” said Hiddink. “He’s the ideal player in my option to bring balance to the team. If the team is not willing to defend well, or hasn’t got the right balance, then you’ll concede a lot of goals. I think John Obi can be one of the key figures in bringing back that balance.”
There you go. Nemanja Matic may have been the flavour of last season, but he must now work to get back into Hiddink’s first team. There’s a new general in town. And he’s been there for sodding ages.
Let’s compare the record of Slaven Bilic in his first 20 Premier League games to Sam Allardyce’s last 20, shall we?
Points – 32 vs 16: Bilic ahead by 16.
Goals – 23 vs 15: Bilic ahead by eight.
Shots on target – 94 vs 74: Bilic ahead by 20.
Chances created – 206 vs 182: Bilic ahead by 24.
Bilic has spent less money than Allardyce in his final season, too. Despite a string of damaging injuries, West Ham have the longest unbeaten run in the Premier League, are up to sixth in the table, have the third best record in the division against top-half teams and have completed a league double over Liverpool for the first time since 1964.
Still, be careful what you wish for.
After 80 minutes of Saturday’s late afternoon game, Arsenal were at the top of this winners list. Manchester City’s comeback tempered their excitement slightly, but they are still the league leaders. Theirs to lose, and other such meaningless epithets.
Lose it they almost did, against Newcastle. Arsenal were below par almost from the first whistle, and Arsene Wenger will be grateful to Laurent Koscielny for his goal and Petr Cech for his continued majesty in goal. A more clinical side than Newcastle would have taken advantage of the home side’s sluggishness.
Only against the Manchester clubs have Arsenal registered less possession at home than against Newcastle this season. Only against the same two clubs did they complete fewer passes, and only against City did they allow more shots. No away team this season has allowed fewer shots on target at the Emirates than Newcastle (3).
Still, you know what we’re going to say. It’s the same thing that Arsenal fans will have been saying since 5pm on Saturday. It’s the same thing Arsene Wenger paraphrased after the match. It’s all about getting the job done.
For 80 minutes it looked like City’s away-day deficiencies would again trip up their title challenge. For ten minutes we saw why Manuel Pellegrini can still retain realistic hopes of landing a second Premier League title before he leaves.
When you watch City maraud forward and dominate teams as during those final stages against Watford, it’s impossible not to feel disappointed that it doesn’t happen more often. Four goals in seven away league games before Sunday from that attack makes me feel sad inside. Which brings us to…
City’s front five away from home
Before this weekend, the contrast between City’s home and away form was laid bare in the records of David Silva, Raheem Sterling, Kevin de Bruyne, Sergio Aguero and Wilfried Bony.
League goals and assists provided by those five at home: 37
League goals and assists provided by those five away: 5
One goal each from Silva and de Bruyne, one assist each from Silva, Bony and Sterling – the sum total of their away work. Urgh.
Aguero’s goal may have been the only telling contribution from that same quintet at Vicarage Road, but Pellegrini will hope that a new leaf has been turned. City will not land the title by simply winning their home games.
Louis van Gaal
While Van Gaal’s press conference ‘meltdown’ was not the most composed of reactions, the Dutchman’s grievances were valid. The Sun may have mocked Manchester United’s manager for his demand for an apology – (Oooh, sorry for you not scoring goals, Louis) – but that was not the reason Van Gaal was angry.
Van Gaal’s reaction was instead to the paper’s claim that Jose Mourinho was about to be unveiled as the new United manager, with Van Gaal himself about to be sacked. ‘B*llocks,’ said Van Gaal (I’m paraphrasing), and so it has proved. Two weeks later and Van Gaal is still in charge.
He is still a manager under enormous pressure, no doubt. Home victory over Swansea will not have changed that, particularly given the anxious manner in which it was secured. In their last 16 matches in all competitions, Manchester United have been leading for a total of 165 minutes, and almost half of those came in one game against Watford. There are still far more steps forward needed.
Yet it is hard not to want Van Gaal to save this situation, if only to make us all look foolish. With supporters, media and even (reportedly) players assuming he was a dead man walking, it would be a startling turnaround.
“We are still near the top of the league and the gap is less. So that’s football,” Van Gaal said on Saturday evening. “A season takes eight months, or something like that, and not one month. We are sitting on the bench in a more relaxed way… I hope this is a fantastic starting point for us.” Go on Louis, prove us wrong.
In our 16 Conclusions following Manchester United vs Chelsea, we mourned the standard of United’s crossing into the box. Overhit, underhit, looped or hitting the front man were the four alternatives, like a Goldilocks nightmare.
It’s only fair, then, to praise Young for his delivery against Swansea. One of his crosses found Anthony Martial for the opening goal, and they were consistently threatening throughout the win. That was matched by his ability to beat a floundering Neil Taylor.
Only one player in the Premier League attempted more crosses from open play than Young this weekend. None will have done so with greater quality and results.
‘Rooney, best player by some distance today, puts them back ahead with smart back-heel from cross by Martial,’ tweeted the Independent’s Ian Herbert on Saturday afternoon. “What about Martial?” a thousand people shouted in unison.
Excellence should not emgender surprise when it comes from a £36m player, yet there is something striking about the ease at which the 20-year-old Martial has settled in the Premier League. It may feel like damning with faint praise, but the Frenchman has been the brightest point in Manchester United’s season. He has achieved in spite of, not thanks to, the performances of his teammates. Whatever Garth Crooks says.
Among United’s players this season, Martial ranks first for goals scored, first for chance conversion (of those with more than one shot), third for chances created and second for assists. Louis van Gaal is fortunate that his biggest summer signing is developing far ahead of expected schedule.
Not quite the wonder goal it was hailed as being in the gleeful Sunday papers, but an important finish nonetheless. No better time to score your first league goal since October and your third since April.
Amazingly, this was Rooney’s first winner at club level since February 2015.
— Nick Sutton (@suttonnick) January 2, 2016
Costa’s 2015/16 league goals and assists combined:
Under Jose Mourinho (1,105 minutes): 4
Under Guus Hiddink (180 minutes): 4
Whether Costa’s frustrations have been relieved by the departure of Mourinho, the words of Hiddink or a mix of both, something has obviously changed. Suddenly he looks like a proper striker again.
Cesc, you must tell that awful lookalike to stop turning up for Chelsea matches. We know you want a rest, but he really isn’t very good. Nice to have you back.
He may take a lot of grief (more than his fair share, in my humble), but there is no player quite like Toure for making the spectacular look easy. Wrong foot? Leaning back? Under pressure? On the volley? No problem.
Consecutive Premier League victories for the first time since May 2013. The gap to the bottom three is now six points.
Norwich’s next six home opponents in all competitions are Manchester City, Liverpool, Tottenham, West Ham, Chelsea and Manchester City again. If they needed a lift before that run, they’ve got one.
The game Tony Pulis most wants to win every season?
Maybe that overestimates the former Stoke manager’s bitterness, but Pulis will have allowed himself a smile on Saturday evening. For all the fanfare over Mark Hughes’ Stoke renaissance, the gap to West Brom is three points.
‘See that’s why Tottenham won’t win the league, because they don’t win games like that.’
What’s the opposite of damning with faint praise? Praising with faint damnation?
His seat on the plane has already been reserved and his pillow plumped. Keep on like this and Alli will be a certain starter for England in France this (this! it’s now ‘this’!) summer.
Scorer of more than one goal in a Premier League game for the first time since December 1, 2012. Now Sunderland and Defoe must do it against teams that aren’t already condemned.
Aaron Lennon and Andy Carroll
What’cha gonna do
When you can’t say no
When her feelings start to show
Boy I really need to know
And how you gonna act
How you gonna handle that
What’cha gonna do when she wants you back
Just two more Cases Of The Ex.
If you’re going to go down (and they are), we’re all for Aston Villa abandoning thoughts of everything but the Goal of the Season award. Screw defending, screw winning and screw points, it’s time to give the fans some excitement.
1. Shoot from every set-piece, however far out.
2. If the ball is played to you in the air 30 yards from goal or fewer, attempt a volleyed shot.
3. Let Gil stay in the penalty area permanently if he keeps that up.
In a table of matches against the top seven sides, Bournemouth sit in seventh place. The three teams directly below them are Liverpool, Manchester City and Chelsea.
Having raised their game over the last six matches (only Arsenal have taken more points in that time), now Bournemouth must continue this form against the Premier League’s ‘lesser’ sides. It’s there where they previously came unstuck.
That Brite White smile widens with every Liverpool setback.
The message from Jurgen Klopp was clear: No more Mr Nice Guy. The German indicated that he had said just three words to his Liverpool players after the dismal defeat against West Ham. One presumes each were shorter and more sweary than ‘gegenpressing’.
Yet Klopp’s ire was not directly solely at his players. “It’s my responsibility,” he said after the game. “I’m angry about myself today.”
Liverpool’s haphazard form is indicative of a manager aiming to implement a new approach. When it has clicked, Chelsea and Manchester City were defeated away from home, but too often Liverpool have been let down by poor positioning, individual errors and fatigue. Their inability to defend from crosses and set-pieces was a hallmark of Brendan Rodgers’ own downfall. For all the changes, more things have stayed the same.
In some quarters the knives are already out for Klopp, the ‘hipster’ foreigner who took the job of a bright British prospect. That’s foolish, of course. Liverpool’s manager is working with Rodgers’ players, and some of the wounds left from the previous era are still leaking blood. The hyperbole of Klopp’s arrival only placed a thin veil over Liverpool’s structural problems. Many players are not good enough, new signings do not fit the system and the club’s defensive flaws remain. A new face in the dug-out does not instantly solve those problems.
For all the highs during Klopp’s early weeks, realism has caught up with optimism. Liverpool’s squad is in need of some fairly major surgery. Doctor, the scalpel.
A classic case of statistics clouding reality. Benteke’s two goals in his last three matches have earned Liverpool four points, and he is their only goalscorer in the last four games. Still the Belgian struggles.
It’s not just the missed chances. It’s not just his isolation as a lone striker. It’s not just the way Divock Origi has looked sharper. It’s not just the lost aerial battles. It’s not just the inability to hold the ball u… okay, okay, it’s all of those things.
Benteke may still come good at Anfield, but £32.5million always seemed a high price for a round peg to fit a square hole. It’s also £4m more than Everton paid for Benteke’s international team-mate Romelu Lukaku a year earlier. Younger, fitter, stronger, better.
Brendan Rodgers’ first act when joining Liverpool was to farm out an expensive striker who didn’t fit his vision of attractive, fluid, attacking football. On Saturday lunchtime, Andy Carroll did a far better impression of a physical lone forward than Benteke has all season.
As one Mailboxer wrote on Sunday morning, at least Barcelona won’t be sniffing around Coutinho for much longer. The combination of shooting wildly from distance and getting caught in possession is frustrating in a player with so much obvious talent. Coutinho is now without a league goal or assist since November 21.
Aston Villa chief executive Tom Fox
Said Fox on December 17: “It’s easy to look just at the table. It’s clearly not where went to be and it’s not good enough. We live and die by the results. But I look at everything. We’ve generated more revenue on both our shirt and kit deals and in our ability to control costs. We’re making progress there.”
Fox would presumably forgive fans for not giving a flying one about the revenue gained on shirt and kit deals. Since those comments were made, Villa have taken two points from four matches (against Norwich, Newcastle, Sunderland and West Ham). It may be “easy to look at the table” for Fox, but supporters will find it altogether more difficult. If Fox is pleased with the club’s revenue generation now, missing out on the increased Premier League broadcasting deal next season should pour cold water on his ridiculous positive spin.
Still, Fox could make some more money by betting on his club to be relegated. The odds are now 1/50.
Now a point ahead of Norwich and seven outside the relegation zone, having taken four points from the last 24 available. Thank goodness for the unfathomable triumph over Arsenal.
I’m not saying that Southampton will be relegated, but the 40/1 available is a big price (as is 28/1 on Ronald Koeman being the next Premier League manager to leave).
“A draw is not OK as it is only one point, but it is OK as we have 40 points which was the goal – it is champagne for my players!” said Claudio Ranieri after his side had drawn 0-0 against ten-man Bournemouth.
Ranieri’s point is perfectly fair given the pre-season predictions of doom over Leicester’s season and his own appointment, but it is impossible not to feel slightly disappointed by Leicester’s mini-slump. Title talk was always highly fanciful, but qualification for the Champions League was not. Despite Manchester United’s eight-game run without victory before this weekend, they are now only seven points behind Leicester.
This period of fixtures was always likely to test Ranieri’s squad to the limit. They have gone three games without a goal, Jamie Vardy has gone four without scoring (and is now out for a fortnight) and Riyad Mahrez missed the vital penalty against Bournemouth. They still have Tottenham (twice), Liverpool, Manchester City and Arsenal to come before mid-February.
Whatever happens between now and May, this has been a season of wonder for Leicester. It’s just that such fairytales are addictive. We’re not ready for Leicester to fall away just yet.
With Adam Lallana’s quasi-strike and Morgan Schneiderlin’s ‘six years of an amazing journey DESTROYED’, Southampton do a good line in star players trying to engineer moves away from the club. Sadio Mane might be the next cab on the rank.
Ronald Koeman explained the attacker’s absence from the side to face Norwich by referring to Mane’s late arrival to a team meeting, but also indicated that the Senegal international’s attitude had previously been unprofessional.
“You have to respect your team-mates, the fans and the club because they pay good money for the players,” Koeman said. Yes indeed, but we can’t imagine it will put Manchester United off.
“I’m quite a realist,” began McClaren. “I do know what is happening and I try not to pull the wool over too many people’s eyes.”
Quite right, Steve. Newcastle are in the sh*t. Your attacking, defending, overall performances and results haven’t been good enough. Glad you’re being hones…oh, you haven’t finished?
“We had a tough start, but since then we have collected points and shown we can compete with anyone on our day,” McClaren continued.
Well you’ve taken 11 points from the last ten games, Steve. If Newcastle are “competing with anyone on their day”, that day isn’t coming round often enough.
“It would worry me if they weren’t giving attitude, effort, weren’t being bright around the place, weren’t playing as committed as they were, weren’t creating chances as we are, playing the football that we are,” McClaren finished.
Now listen here, Macca. Newcastle have lost their last three matches without scoring a goal. If this is Newcastle while demonstrating attitude, effort, committment and brightness, what will happen when that form dips?
For a man who “tries not to pull the wool over people’s eyes”, McClaren sure seems comfortable holding a sheep over the faces of Newcastle fans.
Forty-six days after appearing for England in their victory over France at Wembley, Shelvey was left out of Swansea’s 18-man match-day squad at Old Trafford. Alan Curtis has been busy saying that Shelvey will not be leaving the club and is simply not justifying selection through his form. How the mighty-ish have fallen.
If Jorge Mendes gives you a gift horse, you’d be forgiven for not just peering inside its mouth but taking it to a dentist for a full check-up. The suspicion grows that Manchester City have been sold a dud.
Mangala spent the summer simultaneously explaining why he struggled last season and would improve during this campaign, but we’re still waiting. It’s not just the lapses in concentration but the misjudging of the bounce of the ball, the positional indiscipline and the lax marking from set-pieces.
Plenty of central defenders have struggled to deal with Odion Ighalo and Troy Deeney, but Mangala is the second-most expensive defender ever. We’re allowed to expect a lot, lot more.