From eighth to first in two months. Make no mistake, another title challenge is being readied at Stamford Bridge.
Winning six league games in succession is not groundbreaking, but doing so without conceding is the mark of a team in complete control; the change in Chelsea is remarkable.
Having understandably taken some time to impress his own ideas upon the squad, Antonio Conte now has a team playing his football in his formation with his style. The players deserve credit for buying into the project, but Conte is in the somewhat fortunate position of following a disastrous season. He has maximised that advantage.
The following statistics are taken since the beginning of October and show Chelsea’s rank in the Premier League:
Goals – 1st
Chances created – 3rd
Shots on target – 2nd
Shot conversion rate – 2nd
Shot accuracy – 3rd
Dribbles completed – 2nd
Goals conceded – 1st
Shots on target faced – 1st
Fair to say that there aren’t many weaknesses.
Let’s take one of those statistics from above: Shots on target faced. In their last six league games since the 3-0 defeat at Arsenal, Chelsea have allowed just nine shots on target. Even if Conte’s side had conceded from every one, they’d still have won three and drawn two of those six matches.
David Luiz looks superb, stepping up when necessary, stretching into tackles and challenging in the air with impeccable timing. The Brazilian has conceded only six fouls in 720 minutes back in England. No wonder Gary Neville has changed his mind.
Gary Cahill is enjoying the support of two central defenders, meaning he is being stretched far less often, thus rarely caught out of position and forced to race back towards his goal. Cahill is the tackling central defender, making nine in his last two games. That’s five more than Luiz and Cesar Azpilicueta combined.
That leaves Azpilicueta as the spare man, drifting into his natural right-back position when Victor Moses ventures forward and temporarily creating a back four. Azpilicueta is the least natural in his position, but is improving week on week.
With John Terry as reliable back-up, Branislav Ivanovic as unreliable back-up, Kurt Zouma slowly closing in on fitness after serious injury and Nat Chalobah and Ola Aina as youthful options, Conte has enough in reserve to make his back three work for the duration of this season.
The first time they’ve scored more than twice all season, and their first league clean sheet too. Can we play you every week, Hull?
Premier League goals 2016 (yes, it’s a calendar year statistic. Sorry):
Sergio Aguero – 25
Harry Kane – 19
Jermain Defoe – 18
Diego Costa – 17
Sadio Mane – 14
Roberto Firmino – 14
As Sarah Winterburn pointed out in 16 Conclusions, Olivier Giroud has now scored more Premier League goals as a substitute for Arsenal than any other player (10). While he might not be particularly happy with the role of super-sub, Arsene Wenger must be delighted. Alexis Sanchez tires out the central defenders by dragging them out of position and gets them accustomed to dealing with a false nine, Giroud reaps the rewards as a traditional No. 9. When Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain’s cross came into the box, Giroud’s very different penalty-box threat was enough to upset United’s defenders and earn his team a point.
Giroud has scored three goals from seven shots in just 109 minutes this season. Wenger’s task is now to make him feel special enough in a supporting role (with starts whenever possible) that the Frenchman doesn’t decide to pack his bags in January. Do that, and Arsenal will earn many more points late in games. That’s now five gained in the 89th minute or later.
I’m not good at the technical side of things, so I’ll give the instructions and someone else can do the hard work. This is the John Lewis ad, with no Buster the Dog, penguin or man on the moon in sight.
SCENE ONE: David Moyes is sat in a darkened room, head in his hands. On a television in the corner, footage plays of Sunderland conceding goals and missing chances. Around Moyes, newspaper headlines talk of crisis. Moyes is broken.
* Music begins playing: A slow, sad version of Tears for Fears classic Mad World.*
‘Their tears are filling up their glasses
No expression, no expression
Hide my head I wanna drown my sorrow
No tomorrow, no tomorrow’
SCENE TWO: Moyes is lying in bed, head under the covers. By torchlight, he is drawing tactical plans and writing out line-ups. Every few seconds, a screwed-up piece of paper is pushed out from under the covers and onto the floor. Moyes turns the torch out. There is silence and darkness, darkness and silence. Six seconds go by. Nothing.
SCENE THREE: Suddenly, the lamp is turned on and the room is plunged into brightness. Moyes bounds out of bed, while Mrs Moyes rubs her eyes, confused. Moyes is seen turning out cupboards in the kitchen.
SCENE FOUR: Cut to the Vitality Stadium and Stadium of Light on match-day, interchanged with one another as Victor Anichebe takes to the pitch in both games. Crowd groans, opposition fans jeer, Moyes looks uncomfortable, unsure.
* Music begins playing: A twee, grating version of Tears for Fears classic Mad World (with words changed). Probably sung by Ellie Goulding, or that 120% Irish girl from the X-Factor one year who sung Your Song in audition.*
‘The dreams in which we’re winning are the best I’ve ever had
I find it hard to tell you,
I find it hard to take
When Victor starts off scoring it’s a very, very
Mad world, mad world, enlarging your world, mad world.’
SCENE FIVE: Anichebe scores against Bournemouth and twice against Hull City. He is unstoppable. Fans cheer as the players celebrate. The camera pans to Moyes, smiling with tears in his eyes. In his pocket, he flicks his torch on and off one last time.
SCENE SIX: A final message comes up on screen, line by line:
Enjoy what you get…
But cherish what you already have’
Our early winner, although Pep Guardiola deserves the assist for his magnificent man-management. Toure starting against Crystal Palace was surprising, but his ability to score and create goals shouldn’t be. The boy’s still got that spark.
There was vigour. There were chances created. There was movement across the pitch in the final third. There was some semblance of understanding between defence and midfield. There was Antonio Valencia marauding. There was Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford taking turns to drop deep – though both were ultimately disappointing where it mattered. There was Juan Mata finishing beautifully. There was Ander Herrera cementing his reputation as a cult hero.
Unfortunately, there was 1-1. Jose Mourinho was right to describe his intense disappointment after conceding late, because what came before Olivier Giroud’s goal was quite impressive. Three months into the season, and Manchester United are still searching for the combination of dominant performance and positive result.
A second clean sheet of the season, and the first away from Anfield since the 6-0 win at Aston Villa in February. Liverpool’s defending was impeccable, assisted by a midfield trio that restricted Southampton to three shots and one corner. The stand-out statistic is that this was the first time since that Liverpool have stopped Premier League opposition from having a shot on target on the road since Boxing Day 2014.
The dream continues. We worried about Kane at the start of this season like we worried about him at the start of the last, but there have been immediate signs that an expedited return from injury followed by a fortnight of comparative rest will be the perfect tonic for Kane’s form.
The striker’s record in London derbies is nothing short of outrageous, now 18 goals in 22 matches and 17 in his last 16. When Tottenham need a hero, one man raises his hand higher than most. The unbridled joy on Kane’s face is enough to make Tottenham fans weep with pride.
And talking of unbridled joy…
— Spurs News Today (@thfc_today) November 19, 2016
The highest-placed English manager in the Premier League again. Victory at Stoke took Bournemouth into the top half. Those predictions of Bournemouth doom look misplaced.
It’s late-November and only nine Premier League players have scored more goals than Capoue. Silliness.
Six chances created, Hazard’s highest total in a Premier League game since the final day of the 2014/15 season. He’s back.
Mike Dean has given a third of all the penalties in the Premier League this season. The man is a bonafide hero.
They drew at Old Trafford and, despite most supporters emailing in to express their disgust at the performance, I’ll get shouted at if I don’t point out that it was a decent result and thus put them in the winners list. I’m no fool.
Completed 12 dribbles against Chelsea, which the lovely folk at Opta say is the highest in a Premier League game since Eden Hazard in December 2011. Traore is still raw and regularly lacks an end product, but hot damn he’s exciting.
No Premier League player had more shots on target this weekend. Sigurdsson is Swansea’s one-man band, playing the cymbals with his arse and the triangle with his nose.
On Friday, Jose Mourinho was asked about the fitness of Luke Shaw, and responded with clarity.
“He worked well in this period where we had a very small group, which is not the best [situation], but he worked really well,” was Mourinho’s answer. “He is ready to play and I don’t have any problem with him.”
The next day, Shaw was left out of United’s squad to face Arsenal. The “ready to play” that was sold as a positive set the left-back up for a fall. You can understand why Shaw might not have started the game, but to leave him out of the squad completely makes it look like Mourinho really does have a problem with him.
Mourinho added on Friday that Shaw “will play in this period of many matches”, but that hints at him being used through necessity rather than choice. Having missed out on Shaw when Chelsea manager, and accusing the defender of greed, is a stubborn Mourinho finally making his point?
Perhaps that is an unlikely conspiracy theory, but Shaw must be disillusioned with life at Old Trafford. His mental spirit has been called into question after serious injury, Danny Rose has moved ahead of him in the England queue and now right-back Matteo Darmian is being picked ahead of him at club level. Mourinho is a manager whose reputation is founded on omnipotence, and Shaw is suffering as a result.
Riyad Mahrez and Jamie Vardy
It’s a statistic that is becoming as well-used as my boring guff about Ashley Williams’ league minutes, but there is still something interesting in there if you stick with it: Riyad Mahrez has completed one pass to Jamie Vardy in the Premier League since September 17. That’s a bit mad.
Pardew takes his customary position in the losers list. For those keeping count, and there are plenty of Palace fans among you, it’s now 22 points from his last 31 league matches.
“Anyone who knows the way I manage, I like my teams to be on the front foot and score goals, so clean sheets have never been the top of my priority,” said Pardew on November 8, so you’ll forgive us for updating you on another tally. Palace have not kept a clean sheet in the league for 17 matches, and have conceded two or more goals in six of their last eight games (and each of their last four). The defending is getting worse, not better.
Defeat at Swansea next Saturday would leave Palace – at most – three points from the bottom of the league. It should also push Steve Parish’s loyalty beyond breaking point.
West Ham’s calamity
One of the surefire signs of being in big trouble is finding increasingly creative ways to lose, so West Ham’s ability to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory at White Hart Lane is just another reason for Slaven Bilic to worry.
Either side of the 1-0 victory at Crystal Palace, West Ham have conceded 12 goals in four away games. Michail Antonio has done a sterling job, but is in desperate need of support from the club’s other forwards. West Ham have dropped eight points from winning positions, the most in the division, indicating a lack of resilience. West Ham have conceded the first goal in half of their games and taken just one point from those matches, indicating a lack of belief. Their stadium is still no closer to feeling like home. Their star player is making noises to suggest that he is looking for a way out. Any more bad news needed?
Arsenal and Manchester United’s big-game record
Points per game against sides currently in the top seven:
Liverpool – 2.00
Chelsea – 1.50
Tottenham – 1.50
Burnley – 1.40
Manchester City – 1.33
Arsenal – 1.25
Bournemouth – 1.00
Watford – 0.75
Everton – 0.67
Manchester United – 0.50
It’s a small sample, but a worrying one. Both Wenger and Mourinho will want far more from players used to the big occasions.
After three straight victories to halt the slide, one point from two relatively gentle fixtures to temper any growing optimism. Mark Hughes will be angry at a missed opportunity to reach the top half; the relegation zone is now only three points away.
“A difficult place to go”
Since the beginning of last season, Stoke have lost as many home games as they’ve won. In that time, Stoke have the 11th-best home record in the Premier League and have lost to Bournemouth, West Brom, Watford and Crystal Palace. Please don’t believe the hype.
Winners for the result, but not for the performance. If Arsenal were a cat (and initial examinations indicate that they aren’t), they’d have used three of their lives in 90 minutes at Old Trafford.
Arsene Wenger’s regular insistence that his Arsenal team do not struggle for mental strength could be taken more seriously if their manager was ever able to get the better of his nemesis Mourinho. His 12 league games against Mourinho’s teams have ended in seven draws and five defeats. Only the Community Shield provides any (light) relief.
Against United on Saturday, Arsenal were the personification of their manager. With no attacking cohesion or passing competence, it was as if Wenger’s team had been spooked by their own manager’s dire record against his foe. That has to change if Arsenal are to challenge for the title.
A fine performance, but still a disappointing end. Chelsea’s result on Sunday means that Manchester United are as close in points to the bottom three as Chelsea at the top. Mourinho will be given time (and if the club aren’t panicking nor should supporters), but being content with sitting six points from the top four after 12 games requires some hastily lowered expectations.
And so to Phil Jones, our official spokesperson for hastily lowered expectations: “It is crazy. If we had won today, then we would have been three points behind Arsenal. Arsenal have had a world-class season and we are supposed to have had an average season. That is just the way the Premier League works.”
- You didn’t win.
- Since when was being three points behind Arsenal, those perennial fourth-placers, a good thing for Manchester United?
- Find me anyone who says that Arsenal have had a world-class season. They’ve dropped 11 points in 12 league games.
- Forget the sarcasm, because United have had an average season. It may be no cause for panic, but let’s not pretend that anyone is happy at being one point ahead of Watford after almost a third of the season.
Just as Liverpool’s defence produces a display of competence, the attack misfires. Two of their 11 shots were on target, all three Philippe Coutinho shots were off target, most of their shots were from distance and Roberto Firmino missed a sitter. A temporary return to the bad old days, then – though Matt Stead is right to say there’s no need for concern. Adam Lallana’s importance increased in the course of 90 minutes.
If the win over Southampton before the international break was fortunate, the reality check hit hard on Sunday. Conceding three times to Sunderland is one of the horsemen of the Premier League apocalypse, and failing to score against them summons another.
David Marshall, Josh Tymon, Michael Dawson (at 33), Sam Clucas, Ahmed El Mohamady, Jake Livermore, Dieumerci Mbokani, Markus Henriksen, David Meyler, Jarrod Bowen, James Weir, Greg Olley, Harry Maguire; this squad has the hallmarks of a promotion-chasing Championship squad. A big January window approaches.
Even when they draw, they lose. Swansea City’s season reached a new low despite an excellent point at Everton. They are the newest team to prop up the Premier League, a position they’ve not occupied since August 2013.
Bob Bradley could hardly dispute the merit of Everton’s late equaliser, but he had the demeanour of a manager already pushed close to breaking point by a squad that simply isn’t up to scratch. Gylfi Sigurdsson is an excellent player, but must be questioning his own decision to stay in south Wales. Swansea had three shots on targets against Everton, and Sigurdsson accounted for all three. In defence, the loss of Ashley Williams has had a catastrophic effect; Swansea have kept one clean sheet since the opening day.
“Right now they are angry and disappointed, which is the way it should be when you give away a late goal like that,” Bradley said after the game. “But even though we know we should be able to know how to close games out, this was encouraging and the work to turn this around has to continue. We know that the road ahead of us is long and hard but it’s my job to make sure they keep believing and find the courage to keep going. We have to keep going together.”
It’s the right message, of course, but you can’t help looking through Swansea’s squad list and thinking that Bradley is being asked to turn water into wine. The January transfer window may decide their fate, but high-profile departures are just as likely as arrivals. A long, hard winter awaits with a squad that is significantly worse than Newcastle’s in the division below.
Win, loss, draw, draw, loss, win, loss, draw; it isn’t hard to see where Ronald Koeman’s progress at Everton is being undermined. Comfortable victory over Middlesbrough followed by defeat against Bournemouth. Draw away at Manchester City followed by defeat at Burnley. Comfortable victory over West Ham followed by embarrassment at Chelsea. Everton are seventh in the league and level on points with Manchester United, but have only played three of the six sides above them.
Still, at least the problem has been diagnosed, according to Ashley Williams. “It is frustrating for all of us,” Williams said. “We are trying our best but for whatever reason this inconsistency is happening. This week we will speak a bit more about that because I feel it is definitely something we need to work on in the 90 minutes and from game to game.”
Each one of Everton’s next five matches are against top-half teams, including Manchester United, Liverpool and Arsenal. By Christmas, we will know just how far Koeman has taken the club forward.
Our early loser. When is it OK to start worrying about Grandpa Claudio?
Daniel Storey – Daniel has been nominated as Writer of the Year by the Football Supporters’ Federation. Please go here and vote for him.