It’s easy to understand why Tottenham supporters are still refusing to accept that their side can win the league. Their title challenge feels like the anti-Santa Claus: As soon as you start believing, it fails to exist.
They will not waver in this mindset. There are too many hurdles to jump and pits to fall in. Supporters of every club believe that their side is capable of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory like no other, and Spurs fans are no different.
Yet believe it or not, Tottenham are real contenders. Spurs have scored one goal fewer than the top scorers, and have comfortably the best defence. No side has lost fewer games, no side has had more shots on target and no side has allowed fewer shots on target. They now don’t have to face any member of the top six away from home.
Spurs entered the weekend as fourth favourites for the title and ended it second only to Arsenal. As I wrote in 16 Conclusions, in this upside-down Premier League season, morale and belief trumps experience. Mauricio Pochettino’s team may not be able to walk in their own footsteps, but that doesn’t mean they can’t follow the path.
Now watched this five times and still can’t stop smiling, and not just because of the questionable hand gesture near the end. I don’t even bloody support Tottenham.
— Tottenham Hotspur (@SpursOfficial) February 15, 2016
The Daniel Sturridge effect
There is a pleasing symmetry to Liverpool’s two biggest away wins of this season, against Southampton in the Capital One Cup and Aston Villa in the league. Daniel Sturridge starting in both, Sturridge scoring the opening goal in both, Sturridge leaving the pitch after an hour with the score at 3-0 and the game won in both, Liverpool scoring six times in both.
Jurgen Klopp was keen to preach calmness after Sunday’s thrashing of a rotten Villa side: “It is not a day to sing songs and that is partly out of respect for Aston Villa, a great club in a difficult situation.”
While his gracious nature should be applauded, the German was mightily impressed by Sturridge’s impact on this Liverpool team.
“Of course we need the goals of Daniel and he needs the goals – that’s clear,” said Klopp. “But for me it is not [just about being] a striker, he can score of course, but how in tune he is with the team, his movements. He’s a real striker, that’s really good to see.”
It hints at a really interesting point on Sturridge. Despite being a striker, and therefore the typical finisher of Liverpool’s attacking moves, Sturridge also acts as the pivot around whom his teammates thrive. He is an effective striker, but also far more than that. ‘When fit’ is the necessary caveat.
Against West Ham in January (his last league start), only five of Christian Benteke’s 40 touches were in wide areas (loosely defined as outside the confines of the far edges of the penalty area). On Sunday against Villa, ten of Sturridge’s 34 touches were. He only played 61 minutes.
If Sturridge drifts left, somebody fills the space. If Sturridge drops deep, somebody fills the space. If Sturridge leads the line, others work to service him. The most impressive thing about Liverpool against Villa is that their attacking players were immediately in tune, yet this was the first time Sturridge, Roberto Firmino and Philippe Coutinho had all started together.
It is exactly this flexibility that Liverpool miss in Sturridge’s absence. Christian Benteke is an aerial presence who prefers to lead the line, while Divock Origi is most effective on the shoulder of the last defender. Sturridge somehow manages to combine both.
Benteke would be at his best in a regulation 4-4-2, with wingers to cross the ball and a support striker to feed off. Sturridge is at his best with buzzing attacking midfielders who want to play one-twos and exploit the space. It is obvious which type of play suits Liverpool best. It was only Aston Villa, but it was also brilliant to watch.
The importance of availability
It’s a statement of the bleeding obvious, but nothing hampers a club’s progress quite like injuries. Let’s take roughly the most important ‘spine’ of each of the title challengers:
– Manchester City (Hart, Kompany, Silva, Aguero): Started four league games together this season.
– Arsenal (Cech, Koscielny, Coquelin, Ozil): Started nine league games together this season.
– Tottenham (Lloris, Alderweireld, Alli, Kane): Started 20 league games together this season.
– Leicester (Schmeichel, Morgan, Mahrez, Vardy): Started 24 league games together this season (replacing Mahrez with Kante takes it down to 22)
Tottenham and Leicester’s title challenges are obviously huge surprises, but Pochettino and Claudio Ranieri have both been able to call on their dependables for the majority of the season. It really, really helps.
By way of comparison, here are Liverpool and Manchester United’s:
– Liverpool (Mignolet, Henderson, Coutinho, Sturridge): Started one league game together this season.
– Manchester United (De Gea, Smalling, Schneiderlin, Martial): Started 11 league games together this season.
You can go here to read the 16 Conclusions from Arsenal’s victory over Leicester, but something unusual happened at the Emirates on Sunday. For the first time since October 2011, Arsenal won a Premier League game after trailing at half-time. What a time to find their resilience.
Those long legs, that impressive leap, the glancing header and explosion of joy that met the goal. When you are tired of Welbeck, you are tired of football.
Welbeck’s winner and celebration was reminiscent of Michael Owen’s against Manchester City in September 2009, full of weird jumps and skips as if unable to stop the happiness bursting out of his body. Lovely stuff.
Awful between August and Christmas, then slowly picking up form to give themselves a chance of survival. End the season by beating the big clubs and losing to the rest, but surviving by the skin of their teeth. Sunderland’s seasons are like old episodes of Fawlty Towers: You’ve seen them all before and know the endings, but still appreciate the slapstick along the way.
At some point it needs investigating as to why Sunderland are having exactly the same campaign played on continuous loop. For Gus Poyet, read Dick Advocaat. For Dick Advocaat read Sam Allardyce.
Can we try with a small chimp in charge next season, just to see whether the manager actually makes any difference? No, not Peter Reid again.
The only mention of Dembele in 16 Conclusions was to take the official Man of the Match award off him and give it to Danny Rose, but that’s not to say that Dembele was not excellent. In fact, exactly the opposite. Dembele’s brilliance in Tottenham’s midfield is just no longer surprising. I never thought I’d be writing that.
A victory to stop the rot, achieved via the purest form of Tony Pulis.
“It’s really nice to come here and get a victory in a game where Everton were the better team in lots of respects,” said Pulis after the game, not even trying to hide his smirk. Another season of Premier League football at the Hawthorns beckons.
Ronald Koeman and Southampton
Sarah Winterburn paid deserved dues to Koeman for his ability to turn Southampton’s grim form on its head in last week’s column, and their resurgence shows no sign of stopping. The last time the Saints conceded a Premier League goal was January 2.
Since then, Southampton have climbed from 13th to sixth, and Koeman is just one point behind his old foe Louis van Gaal. Only two sides in the country have now conceded fewer away goals.
Plenty gets written about the lack of domestic talent towards the top of the Premier League, but far less is said when the picture looks a little rosier.
Here is a list of English players aged 26 or under who played for a current top-six club this weekend: Cameron Borthwick-Jackson, Chris Smalling, Jesse Lingard, Will Keane, Ryan Bertrand, James Ward-Prowse, Matt Targett, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Calum Chambers, Danny Welbeck, Danny Drinkwater, Marc Albrighton, Demarai Gray, Raheem Sterling, Danny Rose, Kyle Walker, Eric Dier, Dele Alli, Harry Kane, Tom Carroll.
Throw in four more in a team who won 6-0 away from home and a return to action for Sturridge, and Hodgson will have allowed himself an extra sprinkling of cocoa powder on top of his Sunday night hot chocolate.
Whatever Hiddink has given Costa for breakfast (THIS IS NOT AN ALLEGATION), it is working a treat. The Spaniard has eight goals and four assists in his last ten matches in all competitions. The animal is still there, but it’s now more prize stallion than raging bull.
Somehow Chelsea’s joint second-highest league goalscorer this season, level with Willian and behind only Costa. Odd.
I wonder whether Wayne Rooney looks at Anthony Martial’s brilliance and consistency and sheds a silent tear, like an old lady thumbing through black-and-white photos of dinner dances and cocktail parties of times long past.
Martial is the second youngest player to start for Manchester United in the league this season, and he’s been comfortably their best outfield performer. He is the port that supporters are clinging to as they try to ride out this sorry storm.
Only two players younger than Martial have scored Premier League goals this season, a fact that is damn easy to forget amid his excellent displays. In a dull, dour campaign, United have at least found one star.
“It feels fantastic,” Toure told the Liverpool Echo. “Finally, my first goal for Liverpool. It has taken a long time but I am very happy. It means so much to me. Nearly three years I’ve been at this great club and it had been five years since I last scored. I hope goals more will come now.”
Watching Toure slide along the turf to celebrate the sixth goal in a 6-0 win, you couldn’t help but smile. The Ivorian was an unlikely cult hero when he left Arsenal in 2009, but the transformation is almost complete. As his brother’s reputation continues to slump, Kolo’s is only improving. Liverpool’s best central defender?
“I knew Manchester United needed to qualify for the Champions League,” said David Moyes on Sunday. “They are a club of status and want to be at that level, if not more. They want to be winning it if they can, never mind qualifying for it.”
‘Cheers Dave,’ Louis van Gaal must have thought to himself. The last person I need piling on the pressure is the guy who f**ked it up before me.
Louis van Gaal
When David Moyes was sacked in April 2014, he had taken 57 points from 34 league games in charge, a total of 1.68 per game. He guided the club to the quarter-finals of the Champions League. Sacking him was the correct call.
This season, Louis Van Gaal has taken 41 points from 26 league games, a total of 1.58 per game. He exited the Champions League at the group stage, has had a year longer than Moyes in charge and spent almost £200m more on players. The argument against sacking him was that his record suggested he could turn around a grim situation. Does anyone actually still believe that? Does he?
So when will Van Gaal be sacked? If Jose Mourinho is the club’s choice, then there is no need to wait until the summer but instead appoint him now. If Mourinho is being overlooked, United might as well give Ryan Giggs until the end of the season to gain some much-needed experience. If he guides the club into the top four, he might even get the gig on a full-time basis.
Van Gaal’s tenure at Old Trafford has been four different types of failure. He has (1) spent money badly, (2) produced aesthetically displeasing football, (3) achieved unsatisfactory results and (4) failed to inspire any fight in his players at a time of crisis. Six points off the top four and with 12 league games remaining, captain Wayne Rooney admitted that Champions League qualification would not be happening. Tools have effectively been downed.
The answer to why Van Gaal still remains in a job comes in the bumbling, mumbling, tumbling shape of Ed Woodward, who stands at the epicentre of United’s on-field mess. Woodward has an aptitude for sealing deals with business partners, but noodles, red wine and Indonesian plastic straws can do little to defend a Sunderland set-piece. Nor too could United’s players on Saturday.
Every advancement of United’s commercial success only widens the chasm between the fans and their club. United now face a mammoth PR task in order to win back those who have reached the ‘dark humour’ stage in their mourning.
Manchester United and quickly stunted ambitions
“Michael Carrick said to me, and I had the same feeling, that the competition is not finished yet, not for Manchester United or the other teams. We have the feeling [that we can still win the title] because we have won twice in a row with sparkling football, scored six goals, only one conceded and against opponents who were in great form. I have that feeling also because only Crystal Palace and Arsenal this season were better than us” – Van Gaal, February 5.
“I have told the players the top four will be very difficult now. You cannot close your eyes to that. It’s still possible but very difficult. We needed the points so much, everybody is very sad” – Van Gaal, February 13.
What a difference eight days (and playing rotten football) makes.
“It is an ambition of mine. I won’t ever let it rest until I’m done, to get to one of the big clubs, because I want a bigger percentage chance of winning. I think the England job is a job that’s unique in that it brings a certain pressure. I’ve experiecned some of that at pressure the clubs I’d been at. If Roy (Hodgson), and after Roy somebody else, if it ever turned up at my doorstep I would say to the FA, I’ll have one tournament. Let me have one tournament – win, lose or bust. And my money ends when that ends. I’d be happy with that” – Alan Pardew, October 2015.
You suspect that Pardew is a man who easily believes his own hype. Perhaps he has got caught up in it, tied up in knots by Palace’s good form and his publicly-stated ambitions of bigger jobs. To steal a line from former American football coach Joe Paterno, publicity is like poison; it doesn’t hurt unless you swallow it.
If that is the case, Pardew’s throat must be burning. Palace have taken three points from their last 27 available and are now only eight points outside the relegation places. On December 19, Pardew’s side were level on points with Tottenham; they’re now 19 behind.
Some supporters are beginning to fear the worst, given Pardew’s reputation for falling into a slump. Emmanuel Adebayor’s goal against Watford was the first from open play by a Palace striker this season, and they have managed just 24 shots on target in their last nine league matches. Palace allowed 11 on their own goal in one game alone against Spurs last month.
“This was everything for us,” Pardew said after the draw against Swansea last week. “We had to sit ourselves down at half-time and take away the tyre that we were dragging behind us after five defeats. Make no mistake, it was Crystal Palace DNA which got us home by getting blocks in at the end.”
Unfortunately, the tyre is back, along with a few other dire metaphors. Let’s hope Pardew can find another strand of that “Crystal Palace DNA”.
1 – Man City have won just one of their 10 Premier League games against sides currently in the top eight this season (D3 L6). Problem.
— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) February 14, 2016
Maybe we’re giving Pellegrini the benefit of no doubt over the impact of Pep Guardiola’s arrival. Maybe he’s just not good enough.
We’ve all been there. You’re driving along in your sports car with your phone in your pocket, when your backside accidentally leans on your phone, unlocks it by entering the password, accesses your photos, chooses one of the car you are sat in, and chooses to share it on Twitter just after you’ve just been booed off the pitch.
Forget Kim Kardashian, perhaps it is Lescott’s rear that will truly break the internet. It appears to be sentient, for starters.
I could bore you all with hundreds of words about why I don’t believe McClaren is good enough to manage in the Premier League, but it really comes down to this quote, taken the day before Newcastle’s 5-1 loss to Chelsea:
“We are going there to win, and that’s what we have always done all season. Maybe that’s to our detriment that we have gone for the win. We can’t sit back, we can’t soak up pressure and hit teams on the break, we have to be quite front foot. That’s how we play. It’s not got us results and we are hoping to turn that around, starting tomorrow.”
‘That’s how we play, it’s not got us results’ should be the words written at the top of McClaren’s P45 one day this week. It’s an embarrassing admission of his inability to find a solution to this crisis.
Everton’s home form
From their brightest point to their lowest ebb. There’s nothing quite like losing at home to Pulis’ West Brom to make a Saturday evening glum.
Of course Everton should have won the game, with their 427 shots and 99% possession. But it’s worth pointing out that Roberto Martinez’s side only had six shots on target, a total matched or bettered by six other Premier League sides this weekend. Everton were dominant in terms of possession and territory, but West Brom held them at arm’s length for long periods.
Importantly, this is nothing new for Everton. They have scored the second-most home goals in the Premier League, and had more shots on target at home than Arsenal this season. The problem is not their ability to create chances, but their inability to keep clean sheets. It’s now two at home in the league since April 2015, against Newcastle and Aston Villa.
“[I like to see players] Taking risks, and getting on the ball and relying on the talent of the players to score goals rather than systems and dead ball situations, keeping clean sheets and not taking risks,” said Roberto Martinez last year. “Unfortunately you get too many managers achieving success with another type of football.”
A Premier League manager name-checking keeping clean sheets as a negative thing is madness. Until that mindset changes, I’ll remain unconvinced of Martinez’s potential to make a team greater than the sum of its parts.
Newcastle’s January business
Eight goals conceded and two scored since the close of the transfer window. Newcastle struggled at both ends of the pitch between August and January, so what was the solution? Buy lots of midfielders, of course.
The four worst defences in the Premier League now make up the bottom four spots. Norwich may have climbed outside the bottom three with Newcastle’s defeat to Chelsea, but Alex Neil’s side were again hamstrung by their own defensive deficiencies.
“It’s disappointing,” Neil told Sky Sports. “Certainly based on how we played in the game and the opportunities we had, we should have seen the game out and got the three points. Sometimes you just have to calm yourself down, play the game and not worry about picking points up at the end of it. There were times in the final stages where we needed to put our head on the ball, and times when we didn’t. It’s about game management and trying to see the game out.”
It’s also about having an attacking midfielder playing behind a forward on the left flank, Sebastien Bassong in central defence and Gary O’Neil as your holding midfielder.
“John has been there, seen it, done it and I think that can help us now at this stage of the season,” Neil continued. “His experience in this type of situation and his presence within the group is going to be important for us.”
Norwich are pinning their survival hopes on John Ruddy, a goalkeeper who was dropped in November.
A run of two defeats in 12 league games seemed to have taken Eddie Howe’s side well away from the bottom three, but they have developed an unwelcome Stockholm syndrome to the relegation zone. As soon as Bournemouth look to have pulled clear, back they come again.
“I can only put it down to confidence,” said Howe after the game. “Football is a strange game and it can only take one moment to lose your way.”
It’s a point from Howe that rings true. Bournemouth have conceded the opening goal in 12 of their 26 league games this season, but collected only four points from those games. Their ability to respond to setback is hampering their survival hopes.
Howe must look for a solution, and add some steel to his squad’s in-game morale. In their final 12 matches Bournemouth face Southampton, Tottenham, Manchester United, Manchester City, Liverpool, Chelsea and Everton. Gulp.
If you’re having to argue against your side being the worst in Premier League history, things really haven’t gone well. Villa’s defending on Sunday was like a pretentious modern art piece entitled ‘No, after you’.
“Don’t shout at me”
Whatever you do this week, make sure you don't touch Mike Dean.#CelebrityRefs
— Celebrity Refs (@CelebrityRefs) February 15, 2016
You know who you are
‘Mediawatch readying an apology to Lawro Regarding the West Ham prediction I’m guessing??’ read one of a number of tweets on Saturday afternoon.
Tip: We look like idiots often enough without you getting it arse over tit. Wait until the fat lady has finished singing before you clear your own throat.