Mauricio Pochettino and the Tottenham swarm
On Saturday, Sarah Winterburn quite reasonably asked whether Tottenham had the best XI in the Premier League. I’m going to ask a slightly different version of that question: Do Tottenham have the XI capable of producing the most complete performance? I’m going to answer it too: On current evidence, yes.
When Tottenham click, they are a force like no other. Ask Manchester City, humbled in October. Ask Chelsea, brushed aside a week ago. Ask West Brom, eviscerated in potentially the most complete performance of the lot. Spurs had 21 shots and allowed only three. They registered 73% possession and yet were never vulnerable to the counter-attack. Anyone who accuses me of praising a team for only beating West Brom should go back and watch that display. There was nothing the opposition could do.
West Brom have been Tottenham’s bogey team in recent seasons, but were blown away by an attacking performance that started with the central defenders and ended with Harry Kane’s magic right boot. Competent defenders like Gareth McAuley were made to look like bumbling amateurs. Spurs did not allow West Brom either a shot on target or corner, restricting them to a 58% first-half passing accuracy that reflected a team clearing the ball anywhere just to temporarily stem the tide.
“When you play against such a good team like Tottenham they punish you,” said Pulis after the game. “And they punished us. Today we were off it and they deserve all the credit – full stop.”
Tottenham do indeed punish you. More than any other team in the Premier League, they can swarm over you like a line of army ants destroying anything in their path. The central defenders are rock solid, the full-backs the best in the league, the attacking midfielders full of energy without the ball and full of invention with it and the striker on top of his game again. Even more than Chelsea seven points above them, if Tottenham play to their full potential nobody can stop them. Chelsea have the edge on consistency.
Even if Hugo Lloris had conceded every shot on target he faced in the last four league games, Spurs would still have taken 10 points from a possible 12. In their last eight they have created 127 chances, 23 more than their nearest rival and 50 more than Chelsea. They have had 61 shots on target, 13 more than their nearest rival and 24 more than Manchester City. They have faced only 18 shots on target, two fewer than their nearest rival and 13 fewer than Arsenal. By any measure, they are the team in form.
While both Sarah and I asked questions regarding the ability of the players, the obvious answer is that it is Pochettino playing the role of teacher to perfection. While the star pupils receive adoration and adulation, the Argentinean smiles to himself and prepares lesson plans for the next week. They are gauche comparisons, but Tottenham’s XI against West Brom cost £7m less in transfer fees than one Paul Pogba.
This is not to label Tottenham as title favourites, or to mark any mission as accomplished. They may have won seven matches on the spin by an aggregate of 21-3, but this is an unforgiving race for top-four places and title glory. Spurs only have the sixth best away record in the league, and face Manchester City and Liverpool in two of their next three on the road.
Yet the astonishing thing is that Tottenham are here at all, ahead of the Manchester clubs on merit. They tailed away last season, beset by fatigue, and yet vowed to work even harder. The majority of their players took part in major tournaments last summer (where most of them failed), and yet are full of bounce again. They flunked in the Champions League, and yet it made them stronger domestically. They bought badly in the summer, and yet the squad looks more complete.
The starting XIs of the top six clubs this weekend contained 30 players bought for more than £15m How many did Tottenham contribute to that number? None.
Now 22 goals in his last 26 league starts, and a hat-trick in the week that his partner gave birth to their first child. Since the start of 2015, the list of Premier League goalscorers reads as follows:
Harry Kane – 54
Sergio Aguero – 47
Romelu Lukaku – 34
Diego Costa – 33
Jamie Vardy – 33
Alexis Sanchez – 33
Olivier Giroud – 32
Jermain Defoe – 31
He actually is real, and he actually is really good.
Eriksen is often the first Tottenham player to be criticised and the last to be praised, his languid demeanour mis-selling him as an uncomfortable fit within Pochettino’s pressing army. I’m biased because he’s one of my favourite players to watch, but this might just be the best run of form of Eriksen’s career. In his last eight games, the Dane has created 32 chances, four more than any other player in the league and 15 ahead of any teammate.
Kyle Walker and Danny Rose
Over that same eight-game period, the list of the top 25 chance creators in the Premier League contains only three full-backs. No prizes for guessing the identity of the top two.
The relegation battle
It might not have the glamour, the coverage or the world-renowned managers of the title and top-four races, but this season’s relegation battle should be intriguing. After 21 games, the bottom six are separated by just six points. Three of them have new managers, one of them are the current champions and another have the fourth-best defence in the league.
Importantly, this is not just a war of attrition. Last season, matches played by the bottom four clubs in the Premier League contained 2.86, 2.78, 2.67 and 2.89 goals per game respectively. This season, those figures are 3.42, 2.85, 3.09 and 3.33. Everyone wants to attack! Nobody can defend! Hurrah!
No Costa, no problem. Defeat at Tottenham immediately becomes a blip in Chelsea’s title challenge rather than the start of the decline. After Hull at home comes Liverpool away and Arsenal at Stamford Bridge. Bar a tough three-game stretch in April, it’s plain sailing from then on.
For a while there, you had us dreaming of Steve Watson. That’s always a lovely place to be.
The energy levels are outrageous. At Old Trafford, Lallana made 84 sprints and covered 13.66km. Not only were both comfortably the highest on the pitch (19 more sprints than any Manchester United player), but the distance covered was again the highest in the league this weekend. Nobody else made it beyond 13km.
Tom Davies and Ademola Lookman
Three years ago it was Raheem Sterling. Two years ago it was Harry Kane. Last year it was Dele Alli and Marcus Rashford. For all England’s struggles in major tournaments, there are signs that the country is producing talented footballers, whether in lower league or through academies. Everton might just have the next two to progress.
Davies is exactly the type of young player who is so easy to love. With his socks rolled down, he tears around the midfield like an excited puppy chasing a stick in the park for the first time. He also has the technique to pass the ball beautifully and the discipline to hold his own against more senior opponents. Only turning 18 in the summer, there are reasons to believe in a player born on the same day Michael Owen scored his wonder goal against Argentina.
Lookman’s journey is very different, as this piece details. Three years ago he was playing Sunday League football, but on Sunday scored on his Premier League debut after moving for an initial £7.5m from Charlton Athletic. Has Romelu Lukaku found his support striker in a surprising place?
Ronald Koeman and the positive spin
A roaring win for Everton, and one that should keep the wolf from Koeman’s door for another fortnight at least. This column has been criticised for its praise of the Dutchman this season but, when the top six teams are streaking away, seventh is a fine improvement upon last season and the foundation for success.
Part of the frustration with Koeman has been Everton’s form against the league’s lesser lights: They have taken three points from games against Bournemouth, Crystal Palace, Burnley, Watford, Swansea and Hull. The positive spin is that fans can reasonably expect improvement in those games, and that Everton have won four, drawn three and lost one of their eight games against last season’s top six. Manchester City were torn apart.
Our early winner. Silva is an appropriate name for everyone’s new second favourite manager.
Harry scored a hat-trick but Hernandez scored two; very much a weekend tale of Kane and Abel. Let’s just hope it doesn’t end in human sacrifice, envy and wrath (it probably won’t).
Beating this Swansea is hardly something worth cherishing, but Arsene Wenger will be mightily pleased to halt the short run of away games without a win. Six points from the final two games of their gentle run of six league fixtures, and Arsenal will still be clinging on to a title challenge before the trip to Stamford Bridge.
Seven goals from his 16 non-blocked shots in the last three months, for a conversion rate of 43.75%. That’s the best in the Premier League in that time, bar none.
The most important result of Slaven Bilic’s West Ham tenure, whatever he achieved last season. The Croatian was praised for publicly calling out Dimitri Payet for engineering a move, but the real proof of that pudding was in the eating. If West Ham had lost at home to Crystal Palace and former manager Sam Allardyce, plenty would have called for hammer, nails and coffin.
As it was, West Ham achieved their most convincing victory – by scoreline at least – since pumping Southampton 4-1 in October 2012, when a certain B. Sam was in the home dug-out. That not only strengthened Bilic’s job security, but allowed him to issue a call to arms after the match.
“I can call it almost the perfect result. Well done to the lads and to the crowd,” he said. “Payet is a great player so you are losing quality, but the team showed it is about the team and not individuals. This is a great example for that. Let’s talk about Carroll, or Darren Randolph, or Mark Noble, for f**k’s sake. Michail Antonio had flu and a temperature of 38.4 last night.”
Bilic is right, too. Payet has been a wonderful performer for West Ham, but Leicester demonstrated last season that the power of the collective is far greater than the individual. Hearing Andy Carroll’s pointed message to Payet after the game told you plenty about the mindset of West Ham’s players: We’ll do it with or without you.
Plenty of West Ham fans will continue to look down rather than up the Premier League table, but the gap is now comfortable. Everton in seventh are closer in points than Crystal Palace in 16th; crisis may have been averted.
A sensational finish. While Olivier Giroud and Henrikh Mkhitaryan’s goals contained strands of good fortune, Carroll’s overhead volley demonstrated sensational technique. Better than any dipping free-kick, Dimi.
Burnley have the third best home record in the Premier League. While the temptation is to use that statistic as a stick with which to beat plenty of stronger, richer clubs, let’s instead just praise Sean Dyche for a magnificent job. He’s currently second only to Antonio Conte in the running for Manager of the Year.
It was the image of the weekend. Pep Guardiola was not angry but broken, slumped in his seat at Goodison with the look of a man whose divorce went through two days before his ex-wife won the lottery. Manchester City’s manager was not looking from side to side at the game unfolding, his gaze instead fixed as he stared grimly at the same patch of grass. And that was only at 2-0.
After the game, Guardiola conceded that his team would not win the title this season. The gap to Chelsea is too big and their title rivals threaten to streak away. The Champions League is now the golden egg kept safe in its basket until February.
There is no huge failure in that per se. City’s full-backs belong in the Premier League’s bottom half, while their central defenders look bereft of all belief. The squad that faced Everton contained eight players aged 30 or over, and that’s without Vincent Kompany, Fernandinho or Nolito. This squad, ageing and peppered with holes, is in serious need of surgery.
Yet Guardiola must also take his fair share of the blame, for both the shambles at Goodison and Manchester City’s slump after early-season excellence. For all the flaws in the squad, it contains far more talent in its component parts than the collective is currently displaying. Since the beginning of October, Manchester City sit seventh in a Premier League table. They have collected one fewer point than Stoke City, and two more than West Ham.
The accusation is that Guardiola’s team selections are hampering, rather than aiding, a recovery. John Stones’ confidence has been dented by being in and out of the team. Aleksandar Kolarov is a wretched defender. Yaya Toure is not up to the task of leading a title challenge. Pablo Zabaleta is not a central midfielder. I’ll say that again: Pablo Zabaleta is not a central midfielder.
Nor do Guardiola’s tactics cause anything but panic in defence. His insistence on passing out from the back is admirable, but the line between principles and false optimism is blurred. Opposition crowds and players sense the panic when the ball is played across City’s penalty area. Neither Zabaleta nor Toure are mobile enough to create triangles and move City up the field. Instead, both drop deep leaving a huge gap between attack and defence that eventually causes a defender to hit the ball long to three players (David Silva, Kevin de Bruyne and Raheem Sterling) who you would pick last for an aerial duel.
The Zabaleta selection is the one that sticks most. Is a 32-year-old, half-knackered full-back really a better option than Aleix Garcia or Fabian Delph, both on the bench at Goodison? Even Zabaleta himself wouldn’t argue his case.
In buying into the Guardiola project, City were always prepared to give him years rather than months to bring an era of success to the blue side of Manchester. Backward steps are not a barrier to long-term success, and the truth is that City have simply stood still while others improved. They do still have two more points than at this stage last season.
Yet the most frustrating aspect of City’s slump is that you can see the issues coming like beacons shining through the mist. ‘A midfield of Toure and Zabaleta, is it? Yeah, that’ll probably struggle to keep up with an 18-year-old kid and Ross Barkley.’
“There are decent stats to show some form of progress and to show that we’re trying,” said Moyes on Thursday. “When we came here we knew we had to try and win more games at home. If we didn’t, then you very rarely win that many games away from home. I think the record of actual wins at the club over the years is still not good enough. We’ve only got four this season, I think. So we’re nowhere near enough. But we know at the Stadium of Light recently, we’ve done well. We have to try to see if we can use it to get us up the league.”
When you follow that with a 3-1 home defeat to Stoke, all optimism dissipates. Sunderland have no money to spend, injuries affecting the squad, have lost Wahbi Khazri, Lamine Kone and Didier Ndong to the Africa Cup of Nations and are incapable of putting a run together. Moyes is reliant on three clubs being worse than his own rotten team or the sack, whichever comes first. Relegation has been in the post for a while, and there’s a man walking up Sunderland’s drive holding a pile of letters and whistling a tune.
Our early loser, for making Swansea, Bolton and now West Ham look good. Forced marriage has started with a non-existent honeymoon.
So bad that it became a rich source of comedy for anyone other than Manchester United supporters. I wrote plenty enough on both United and Liverpool in 16 Conclusions, but it is worth repeating Pogba’s statistics from Old Trafford:
Shots – 2
Shots on target – 0
Big chances missed – 1
Chances created – 0
Passing accuracy – 72%
Passing accuracy (opposition half) – 67%
Tackles – 1
Interceptions – 0
Possession lost – 22
Quite why Jose Mourinho refused to take off the midfielder is unclear. Pogba never improved beyond miserable.
From bad to worse to worse still. Guardiola can take his share of the blame for Stones’ latest cock-ups, but the defender must take responsibility too. Stones has started two Premier League wins (against Hull and West Brom) since September.
Three shots on targets in his last three Premier League matches. That’s the same number as Jack Rodwell.
Bravo might well be an excellent goalkeeper, but he’s also one low on confidence, form and faith in his role. Joe Hart may not be a better sweeper-keeper than Bravo, but City would be doing no worse with him in goal right now.
13 – Claudio Bravo has conceded from 13 of the last 21 shots on target he has faced in the Premier League. Update.
— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) January 15, 2017
Four straight league defeats and an FA Cup replay for Claude Puel, as Southampton drop to 13th in the league. It’s all very well leaving out Jose Fonte on principle, but it sure weakens that central defence.
The saddest thing for Leicester is that the defeats aren’t even surprising any more, and Claudio Ranieri looks powerless to stop them. Still, at least Riyad Mahrez scored twice for Algeria.
Howe has done a magnificent job at Bournemouth, but being young and English gets you a comfortable ride from certain sections of the media. Every time Bournemouth win, Howe is hailed as Arsene Wenger’s rightful heir. Every time Bournemouth are picked off by the opposition, everyone goes quiet.
The truth is that Bournemouth’s form is beginning to really annoy their supporters. They have conceded three goals in eight of their last ten games, and the self-assisted FA Cup suicide last week hardly helped. Those 11 rested players were abject against the Premier League’s bottom club.
Does he know the Premier League, Jeff? It’s like manna from heaven for him to get this job. He’s never played or been a manager in this league, Jeff. He was sacked by Derby the only other time he managed, Jeff. What does he know about digging in, Jeff?