Leicester City’s defence…again
There really isn’t anything else to say. We can only shout the plaudits at a louder volume than before. This is happening.
‘Leicester’s first 50 league games since promotion brought 11 clean sheets,’ this column stated in its last edition. ‘Leicester’s 19 league games since have brought 11 clean sheets.’
You can make that 12 from 20 games. Our minds may still struggle to compute that Leicester are on a title march, but their defensive form is emphatic evidence.
Troy Deeney offered a wonderful insight on why Leicester are so hard to score against, but one name was missing from his quotes. Claudio Ranieri deserves enormous credit for instilling such discipline in his central defenders. Wes Morgan was singled out for praise on Sunday, but everything about Leicester is a team effort. When the fans are clubbing together to buy birthday presents for the owner, you know the mood is high.
There now remain six hurdles for Leicester to cross, starting with a difficult trip to Sunderland next weekend. Yet they can afford to drop six points and be guaranteed of the title, and that’s assuming one of Spurs and Arsenal take maximum points. Still we wait for Leicester to trip up. Still we look more and more foolish with each passing victory.
Dimitri Payet and his free-kick brilliance
I think Payet’s free kick against Crystal Palace might just be my favourite goal of the season so far. Let me explain:
Having scored a sublime free-kick for France during the international break (and other similar goals for West Ham), there was no doubt that Payet would shoot at goal. Yet he fooled every single person in the ground with his shot. So adept is Payet at curling the ball over the wall and away from the goalkeeper’s right hand that nobody thought he would do anything else. Least of all Wayne Hennessey, who had planted his weight on his right foot in order to dive for the ball.
For Payet to attempt something different showed intelligence, but to pull it off so perfectly demonstrated the incredible talent he possesses. The ball looked to be sailing over, but the topspin brought it under the bar and in.
“When he hit it as it went over the wall I thought that one’s going into row Z, I swear to God,” Damien Delaney said after the game, as re-told by the Guardian. “I think even someone in the wall shouted ‘See ya’ to Payet.” Payet had out-thought an entire stadium, and delighted the majority in the process.
“I still try to treat football as a game even if there are other considerations at stake, especially economic ones,” said Payet last month. “I try to put on a show, while being effective, because the fans come to be entertained by beautiful play. I didn’t expect things to go this well, so I try to enjoy every day because I know how hard it was to get to this point.”
Those wondering how Payet slipped through the net should realise that this purple patch is linked to the pressure being off. Payet is a luxury footballer – and that’s meant as a compliment – at his best when playing with a swagger and given the freedom to express himself. Success breeds confidence and confidence breeds success. Had Payet’s free-kick record this season not been so impressive, he would surely not have tried his party trick on Saturday.
We tend to focus too much on the explanation. Where has Payet come from? Why is he not at a big club? Where was this in his earlier career? Rather than obsess about the why, simply enjoy the how good right now. There is great joy to be found in unexpected brilliance. This bonkers season has shown us that time and time again.
Manchester United’s honourable exception. It’s becoming a regular thing.
On Sunday, United scored their 1,000th home goal in the Premier League era. It’s a fairly glib milestone, but the identity of the scorer was at least fitting. More than any other player, Martial represents the sunshine after the cold drizzle of United’s last three years. He is the bright future.
“Since day one that I have trained with him, I have felt that this guy has something special,” Mata told MUTV after the victory over Everton. “He has everything to succeed in football at this club. He is quick, has goals, he can beat players one on one and he understands football. I enjoy playing with him because we understand each other and we are very happy with him.”
Most importantly, Martial makes you smile. In an era of noodle partners and official urinal cake suppliers, there is still deep joy to be found in a young player succeeding on the biggest stage. The transfer fee may be a hallmark of a financially bloated sport, but the emotions Martial generates are as old as the game itself.
“I have already said in many press conferences after matches that Anthony Martial with his age is an exception,” said Van Gaal in his post-match press conference. “To play every match then you have to be very strong and consistent because every week I shall compare every player with his competitor. It is fantastic what he is doing.”
You won’t find us disagreeing with any of that.
Kevin de Bruyne, Manchester City’s ‘what if?’
De Bruyne has scored 12 goals and contributes 11 assists in his domestic matches this season; he’s only made 22 starts. If and buts are as useful as spending time racking your brains for something useless when you should be writing Winners and Losers, but it’s impossible not to wonder what might have happened to Manchester City’s season if the magnificent Belgian had stayed fit.
In 57 minutes, De Bruyne was back. There was no easing himself gently into City’s season after injury, for this was all killer, no filler. The moment of magic came with his goal, a wonderful volley guided into the corner after exquisite link-up play with David Silva and Sergio Aguero. It was like he’d never been away.
Those three City attackers, the jewels in their crown, have started only seven league games together this season. In those seven games, Aguero has scored 11 goals. You don’t have to be a statistician to work out that the Argentinean relies on the service they provide. The question is whether De Bruyne’s return is in time to save City’s season. A Champions League semi-final place would be cause for deserved celebration after four months of domestic woe.
Now aged 20, Chelsea’s 4-0 win over Aston Villa on Saturday represented the second 90 minutes of Loftus-Cheek’s senior career. The first was the 5-1 away victory over MK Dons in the FA Cup in January.
There were signs of real promise, too. Loftus-Cheek completed 53 of his 56 passes and scored his first ever league goal. As Matt Stead wrote after the game, the time for excuses are over now Jose Mourinho has left. Antonio Conte will give all of his players equal billing. Loftus-Cheek must persuade the Italian that he belongs in Chelsea’s first team.
Pedro’s first away goal since his debut, when Chelsea’s poor start was just a blip before their serious defence of the Premier League title. Long-lost days.
Take down the posters and call off the search, for the little duck has been found alive and well. Scoring a penalty against Aston Villa would be a fitting high of Pato’s brief sojourn in England. Still, it was lovely to see him celebrate like a lottery winner.
We doubted them. My goodness we doubted them. Yet Norwich have done exactly what Sunderland and Newcastle could not: Found form at a crucial time. They are not safe yet – and still face Sunderland at home – but seven points from three games has made Carrow Road believe. There’s nothing like a last-minute victory to breathe life into a survival fight.
It’s hard not to root for Norwich in their three-way battle for one Premier League place next season. Unlike Newcastle or Sunderland, you’d back those behind the scenes to organise a p*ss-up at the brewery without major hiccup. Weirdly, that helps.
If only all Newcastle’s players could show as much fight and passion as their Serbian striker. The most shameful element of Newcastle’s relegation is that very few people within the club demonstrably give a shiny sh*te.
A brilliant lesson in how to lead the line for a struggling team from a striker who has gone through an awful lot over the last fortnight. In 85 minutes, Mbokani created as many chances, had as many shots on target and scored as many goals as Cameron Jerome has managed in his last 12 matches. Alex Neil will not make the same mistake again.
Arsenal youngsters have a habit of breaking onto the scene with great promise before reverting to type (some of us still remember Nicklas Bendtner’s hat-trick against Porto in the Champions League knock-out stages). There is no doubt that Iwobi is feeling the benefits of being an unknown quantity.
That said, and as Matt Stead wrote here, there are reasons to think that this one might just be different. He’s already ahead of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Joel Campbell in the pecking order.
“It was more or less a stolen victory,” said Louis van Gaal. “We didn’t play so well, it looked like we were not fresh.”
The description of United’s 1-0 victory over Everton as a robbery is inaccurate, for it hinted at some modicum of tension or excitement. The reality was far different. This was a sluggish United team against an insipid Everton side, producing three shots on target between them in 90 laboured minutes. You probably turned over and watched the cricket.
Still, the conclusion can only be positive. Somehow, this limp United still have a fighting chance at a top-four place. Play like they did on Sunday and Tottenham will dent those hopes, but they’re still waving, not drowning.
‘Walcott now fighting for his immediate international prospects and his long-term club future. He must make count whatever time he gets,’ wrote Ian Watson in Friday’s Big Weekend.
One goal in 16 minutes. Can’t really argue with that.
League goal number 22 of the season for Kane was a meaningful one, taking him past his tally for last season. There are only four players in the last 50 years who have scored more goals than Kane in a Tottenham league season: Gary Lineker, Martin Chivers, Jimmy Greaves and Clive Allen. It is an astonishing feat.
“There was a lot of talk at the start of the season but I have a lot of belief in my ability and I work hard in every training session to get better,” Kane said after the game. “Whenever anyone tells you you can’t do something, or are not what you think you are, then you want to prove them wrong. I want to do the best for myself but when people are telling me I can’t do it it makes it even better for me when I achieve what I achieve.”
And fair play to you Harry. Because you’ve proved us all wrong.
Positive spin: On Saturday evening, Liverpool hassled and harried one of the contenders for the title. They forced Tottenham’s midfielders into more mistakes than any other side in the league for four months. They forced Dele Alli into passing errors. They outplayed Spurs for long periods, and created better chances. This is what Jurgen Klopp wants to see.
Negative spin: Liverpool are now nine points from the top four, that dream over. They are only one place ahead of Chelsea. Their league record since the beginning of December reads: Played 16, Won 6, Drawn 4, Lost 6. In that period they have beaten Manchester City and Leicester, but lost to Newcastle and Watford. Liverpool are a model of inconsistency, Spurs are not. That’s why they’re near the top.
With the Kolo Toure experiment now put to one side, Lovren is now Liverpool’s first-choice central defender. It’s quite the rise from comedy character.
The phrase ‘peak [insert proper noun]’ is prevalent in our culture, but never can it have been more appropriate than on Saturday at the Stadium of Light. This was peak Pulis. This was peak ‘peak’.
Firstly, the method. Pulis is notorious for his width-aphobia, but against Sunderland he took his narrowness fetish to unprecedented lengths. That team in full: Ben Foster, James Chester, Craig Dawson, Jonny Evans, Gareth McAuley, Claudio Yacob, Sandro, Darren Fletcher, Craig Gardner, Saido Berahino, Salomon Rondon. Absolutely majestic.
Importantly, the result was also perfect. West Brom drew 0-0 away from home, with three shots. None were on target. In fact, the only player in the starting XI to create a chance was Chester, an £8m central defender who Pulis is playing at left-back. Tuck in, James.
The stand-out statistic is this: West Brom have had two or fewer shots on target in 16 of their league games this season. That’s so horrible it’s come full circle to being brilliant. Performance art, even.
This column has bemoaned Pulis’ approach before, questioning whether it is sustainable in the long term given West Brom’s vastly increased revenues. There is only one certainty: He ain’t going to change for anyone.
12.10pm: Look at team news from Aston Villa vs Chelsea.
12.12pm: Think ‘Actually, Villa could get something here with those Chelsea changes’.
2.05pm: Laugh at my own foolish optimism.
Every week I assume that Villa’s drop into the abyss couldn’t get any worse. Every week they find a way to prove me wrong. It is a brave punter backing them to gain promotion from the Championship next season.
Ah Roberto, we meet again. Your usual seat?
There are those who may think Martinez’s inclusion for a 1-0 defeat at Old Trafford is unfair, but I would presume that most Everton supporters are not members of that camp. The reaction from the club’s fanbase after their third consecutive league defeat was one of mutiny, the boos from the away end ringing around Old Trafford. ‘Why are you still here?’ was the question posed by one popular fan blog.
Losing to Manchester United is not a disaster in itself, but this was a team there for the taking. This was the United that lost at home to Norwich and away at Sunderland, one which managed two shots on target in 90 minutes and looked shaky at the back. Martinez’s tactics wholly failed to exploit United’s weaknesses.
Louis van Gaal’s side would have been suspect against the quick counter-attack, but Martinez went for a vastly different approach. He played Aaron Lennon as a No. 10, allowed Ross Barkley to drop deep, played Tom Cleverley on the left wing, and was then surprised when he tucked inside. Rather than play with attacking fluidity, Everton launched the ball long to Romelu Lukaku. The Belgian looked isolated from minute one to minute 90. On that evidence, it’s no wonder that he wants to leave. Gerard Deulofeu won’t be far behind.
As ever with Martinez, it’s the wilful delusion that antagonises supporters most. Reacting to Lukaku’s comments about a desire for Champions League football this week, Everton’s manager gave us that same old smile:
“Rom wants to be important and he is important to our team,” Martinez said. “He is talking about aspirations and that is what we want at Everton – to be in the Champions League and win titles. We share our ambitions. The aspiration of Romelu Lukaku is the aspiration of Everton.”
It’s hard not to laugh as Martinez long jumps over the line between optimism and fantasy. Everton are closer in points to a rotten bottom three than the top six. Even more disconcerting is the club’s trend: Under Martinez, they’re getting worse, not better.
Nobody can deny that Martinez ‘wants’ Everton to be successful. It’s the ‘doing’ we’re all having problems believing in.
The contrast to the performance of Kane did not make for pleasant viewing for Liverpool supporters or Jurgen Klopp. Sturridge was once the great English hope but, three years later, Kane has danced past him in the queue.
Sturridge’s demonstrable anger when substituted was sold by his manager as a positive thing, proof of the striker’s hunger. Yet the flip side is that Sturridge was removed for Divock Origi because he was on the periphery of the game at a crucial time.
When Sturridge is not on song it looks very obvious, very quickly. He has created one chance in his last seven Liverpool matches, that first-half pass to Coutinho marking his first league assist since February 2015.
Christian Benteke may well be the first Liverpool striker sold by Klopp, but there must be worries too about Sturridge’s own place in the German’s system. Unable to rely on consistent fitness, he must instead offer an explosive impact whenever he takes to the field. At the moment, we just aren’t seeing it.
The worst Manchester United signing of the Louis van Gaal era? Perhaps. When you spend £16m on a defender, the least you might expect is that he can hold his line correctly and not over-commit to tackles, thus leaving his teammates exposed. With Rojo, both of these boxes are left unticked.
Sunday was a new low, Rojo substituted at half-time after a dire 45 minutes during which he lost possession 15 times and misplaced 11 of his 24 passes. He failed to make a single tackle, clearance or interception too. It’s an unwanted clean sheet.
Newspaper reports over the last week have linked Rojo with a move away from Old Trafford this summer, and the Argentinean’s departure would come as no surprise. He has become United’s unappetising second choice, back-up in two positions. Rojo has become United’s Jack of no trades, and he’s mastered none.
“He’ll need a little bit of time to understand the Premier League, with the tempo and all the new aspects of the league. But I wouldn’t expect too long because he is the type of player who can have an impact in any game. He is a strong, powerful striker who can play in different positions. He is going to be a terrific, fresh addition to a squad that will welcome his ability. The freshness Oumar Niasse brings is going to be very positive going forward” – Roberto Martinez, Feb 1.
“The adaptation period has been a little bit longer than we expected. He’s a player who needs to be 100% in order to be himself. He would tell you that probably he feels around 50 to 60% of his physical ability. The quicker we get through the adaptation period then the quicker we will see the real Oumar Niasse” – Martinez, April 1.
Niasse has played 26 minutes since his arrival at Everton for a fee of £13.5m, from ‘can have an impact in any game’ to ‘needs to be at 100% to be himself’ in two months. Martinez’s claims that Niasse cannot play yet are odd given that the striker appeared in both of Senegal’s matches over the international break, and scored in the first. The third most expensive signing in Everton’s history has got off to an inauspicious start.
Newcastle and their just deserts
I could rant for far too long about Newcastle fall into stagnation, but will limit myself to this: When you consistently leave your club out in the pouring rain, don’t be surprised when it goes mouldy.
The only hope is that, this time, relegation allows Newcastle United and its owner to swallow their medicine and create a functioning football club again.
One clean sheet in 18 league games. Do you know who have managed more than that in the same time period? Aston Villa, that’s who. Aston f*cking Villa.
The panel on Sky Sports’ Soccer Saturday did some tremendous PFM-ing before Sunderland’s game against West Brom, each explaining why Allardyce should be credited with a superb job if he keeps Sunderland up this season, but absolved of any blame should they be relegated. He did all he could, you see.
In fact, that’s a load of rot. Unlike Rafa Benitez at Newcastle, Allardyce was not appointed with the situation already looking forlorn. There were still 30 league games remaining, and Sunderland were five points from safety. They’re now four points from safety.
Allardyce was also give the added advantage of a significant January spend, a luxury not afforded to Benitez nor to Remi Garde, who paid the price for his own underachievement this week. Lamine Kone, Jan Kirchhoff and Wahbi Khazri were recruited at a cost of £15m.
So far, Allardyce has taken 24 points from 23 league games in charge of Sunderland. When it mattered most, Allardyce’s side have won one of their last ten league matches. They have four home games remaining, but three of those (Arsenal, Everton and Leicester) are against the best three away sides in the league this season. If Big Sam is the ultimate Premier League firefighter, the blaze is still burning.
Allardyce’s task at the Stadium of Light never promised to be easy, for this is a club in stagnation for at least three years. Yet if they are, finally, relegated this season, Allardyce must take his own share of the blame. That VIP pass to the PFM gentlemen’s club doesn’t work here.
During his early months at Liverpool, Sakho was handed an unfair reputation for mishap. In the space of 90 minutes against Tottenham on Saturday, he did his best to prove those critics right. When you’re accidentally nutmegging yourself, things aren’t going well.
As Hutton walked from the field following his sending off, some Aston Villa supporters on social media expressed the positive view: ‘At least he showed some fight’.
Note to those people: Showing fight is great, but only as an addition – not an alternative – to discernible quality.
Premier League survival may well be assured, but Watford are intent on discovering just how well a side can play in flip-flops, sunglasses and Speedos. They have lost nine of their last 13 league games, beating only Crystal Palace and Newcastle during that run.
Watford have also scored one goal in their last five matches, an 86th-minute consolation against Stoke City at home. Urgh.