The fat lady is not yet singing, but she can be heard practising her scales in the dressing room as the scent of flowery perfume wafts under the door. For Chelsea to miss out on the title now, they would need to drop at least three times as many points in their next 16 games as their last 16. Take four or more points from their next two games against Liverpool (a) and Arsenal (h), and the engraver can get to work.
There are some weekends on which playing in Sunday afternoon’s late game means pressure has been mounting, but others on which you can take full advantage of the incompetence of your peers. Antonio Conte must have watched Saturday’s results with a broad smile, safe in the knowledge that a professional job against Hull would bring his end goal even closer. Did anybody really expect Chelsea to fall short?
Liverpool and Arsenal will provide far sterner tests than Hull, but Chelsea’s run has created the breathing space that is so vital in title races. Add in the lack of European football that only Liverpool can share, and it’s difficult to see how Chelsea can be swayed from their course.
An awful lot of words were written about Costa’s probable departure from Stamford Bridge, and the summer will bring another chapter in the saga. Yet there is no doubt that some of the reporting crossed the line between fact and fancy. The Sun’s Neil Ashton wrote that Costa was ‘hell-bent’ on leaving Chelsea, and ‘would do anything he can’ to move during the January transfer window because he ‘hates English football’.
So when Costa scored his 15th league goal of the season on Sunday and chose to celebrate by mocking those who talked of China crisis, it isn’t difficult to guess who the striker had in mind. That a disagreement happened between player and fitness coach is not in question, but Costa being sold as a money-driven egomaniac who despises English football certainly is. For now, he’ll just keep doing what he does best, helping Chelsea’s title odds with Netbet.
It is possible to applaud and congratulate Rooney on his achievement while still believing him to be a faded force. It doesn’t make you fickle to laud a player who joined the biggest club in the country at the age of 18 and went on to break scoring records at both club and international level.
In fact, quite the opposite. Focusing only on what Rooney is now or will be does a disservice to what he once was. This landmark does not celebrate the present so much as cherish the past, and Rooney’s past is worth cherishing.
Rooney may not be particularly bright, but that does not matter. He may have made bad decisions, both professionally and personally, but who among us hasn’t? He may never have led England to the major tournament success that we so craved, but he is hardly alone in that regard. He may never have been as great as Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, but history will judge this era of individual brilliance like no other. There is no true shame to be found anywhere on that list.
So well done Wayne Rooney. You were as good as many thought you could be, but not quite great enough to account for the flaws in others around you. Only in the modern day could a record of 320 career goals by the age of 31 come with negative connotations.
As recently as mid-December, a section of Everton supporters were offering their forthright opinions that Koeman was not able to take Everton forward. Even in a footballing climate where patience spans are understandably shortened, it’s worth waiting more than four months before dismissing a manager’s ability.
Koeman has not yet proven himself capable of the task, but you cannot deny that he is matching initial expectation. Having spent minimal money in the summer, Koeman has been allowed to loosen the purse strings in January. Taking Everton within five points of Manchester United is a testament not just to Mourinho’s stuttering season, but Everton’s upward trajectory. Despite the improvement of the top six, Everton have seven more points than at this stage last season.
The frustration with Koeman stemmed from Everton’s results against the Premier League’s lesser lights, with losses against Bournemouth, Burnley and Watford and dropped points against Swansea and Crystal Palace. Yet since Christmas they have reversed that trend, beating Leicester, Southampton and Palace without conceding and thrashing Manchester City 4-0.
Everton will not challenge for a top-six place – they still have to travel to Tottenham, Liverpool, Manchester United and Arsenal – yet nor should they. Having finished closer in points to the bottom three than the top eight last season, the least Koeman earned was a season of rehabilitation. When your net transfer spend over the last five years is less than Sunderland, Stoke, Watford, West Brom, West Ham, Bournemouth and Crystal Palace, seventh is a lofty glass ceiling.
We thought we had it sussed. We looked at Manchester City’s midfield and laughed. We looked at Yaya Toure on his own in central midfield and envisaged Guardiola’s team being dismantled. We imagined Dele Alli and Christian Eriksen dancing between the lines.
Only one point further away from Manchester United in sixth than the relegation zone – what was all the fuss about? Remarkably, West Ham are only seven points behind their points total from this stage last season.
Our early winner. More than any other Premier League striker, a run of goals quickly pushes Carroll up the international queue. After acrobatic overhead kick came regulation header and a poacher’s tap-in. Lovely work.
Five chances created and two assists in a game for the first time in England. ‘Dimitri Payet who?’ as some people unfathomably continue to write. It’s just ‘Dimitri who?’ folks.
What a way to answer the critics, myself included. Clement must build on the result an Anfield, but should be warmly congratulated for it.
Now eight league goals for the season, not bad for a striker who doesn’t take free-kicks or penalties. Llorente’s total of eight goals from open play is bettered only by Diego Costa, Alexis Sanchez, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Romelu Lukaku, Harry Kane, Dele Alli and Sadio Mane. Six of those seven have had at least 15 more shots, and all of them play for clubs in the top seven.
By hook or by crook, a vital win. Sarah Winterburn asked whether Arsenal’s late goals actually ‘mean’ anything other than their immediate effect on results, but there is no doubt Arsenal are just about hanging around in the title race. Until Stamford Bridge in a fortnight’s time?
Cometh the hour, cometh the wonderful man. Panenka penalty in the 98th minute to rescue victory, is it?
Manchester United again fail in Carrick’s absence. Their record with and without him in 2016 is astounding:
When Carrick starts :
Played 26, Won 22, Drawn 4, Lost 0. Win percentage – 85%
When Carrick doesn’t start :
Played 31 Won 16, Drawn 7, Lost 8. Win percentage – 52%
Two weeks ago Yoshida couldn’t get a game, and most Southampton fans agreed. Now Jose Fonte has joined West Ham and Virgil van Dijk is injured, leaving Yoshida as the first-choice central defender for a Premier League club with top-half aspirations. Feel it, as his old friend The Tamperer would say.
Disaster for the collective, but triumph for the individual. Firmino’s chest, swivel and shot was a sensational exhibition of his technical skill, without an ounce of fortune included. What a delight he can be.
Sam Allardyce and bad to worse
The problem is not that Sam Allardyce has failed to address Crystal Palace’s form or performance level, but that he’s making them worse.
Compare Allardyce’s five league games in charge with Alan Pardew’s last ten matches before being sacked. Allardyce’s totals first:
Points per game: 0.2 vs 0.4
Goals per game: 0.4 vs 1.3
Conceded per game: 1.8 vs 2.4
Goal diff per game: -1.4 vs -1.1
These are the simple measures, but even delving a little deeper doesn’t bring many signs of progress. Again, these are per-game statistics:
Shots: 8.4 vs 11.2
Shots on target: 2.8 vs 4.2
Chances created in open play: 4.4 vs 6.9
Shots faced: 14.8 vs 14.7
Shots on target faced: 5.0 vs 5.9
Of the nine measurements above, Allardyce has only engendered an improvement in the goals conceded and shots on target faced statistics. Yet as the goal difference per game indicates, the improvement in this area does not account for the regression in attacking areas. In simpler terms, Pardew’s Palace were entertaining but deeply flawed defensively. Improving that defence was hardly a Herculean task, but in doing so Allardyce has blunted the club’s attack.
When you consider that four of Pardew’s last ten opponents were Liverpool, Manchester City, Manchester United and Chelsea, it is a worrying situation for Allardyce. This is not intended as a defence of Pardew – anything but – but the new manager has not enjoyed an initial, and expected, positive effect. A reminder that Palace face Chelsea (a), Southampton (a), Arsenal (h), Liverpool (h), Manchester City (a) and Manchester United (a) in six of their last nine league games of the season.
Manchester United and their profligacy
It is the handbrake on Manchester United’s form, a flaw that doesn’t just render a title challenge null and void but also threatens to undermine their hopes of Champions League qualification. Make no mistake, that would be a huge dent to Jose Mourinho’s reputation.
The first evidence of United’s attacking issues comes in the ‘goals for’ column. Despite an array of forwards including Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Anthony Martial, Marcus Rashford, Juan Mata, Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Wayne Rooney, Mourinho’s team have scored at least ten goals fewer than any other team in the top six and are scoring at a rate of almost one goal per game fewer than Liverpool. Bournemouth, with Callum Wilson, Benik Afobe, Josh King and Junior Stanislas, have one goal fewer.
Digging a little deeper only paints a bleaker picture of United profligacy. Excluding blocks, only Tottenham have had more shots in the Premier League, but one interesting statistic is to rank the top six according to the number of non-blocked shots needed for each goal scored this season:
Arsenal – 4.86 (1st in Premier League)
Chelsea – 5.15 (2nd)
Liverpool – 5.16 (3rd)
Manchester City – 5.98 (6th)
Tottenham – 6.31 (7th)
Manchester United – 8.39 (18th)
The gap between United and Tottenham in fifth is bigger than between Tottenham and Arsenal in first, and United rank 18th in the Premier League by this measure. Manchester City, criticised again for their finishing against Spurs, rank sixth.
Ardent Manchester United fans might argue that the issue has been one of inspired goalkeeping, and it is certainly true that Darren Randolph and Tom Heaton are only two of a number of keepers who have enjoyed successful afternoons against United. Yet the cliché still holds: The best find a way.
In their six league games against Stoke, Burnley, Middlesbrough, Hull and Watford this season, United have scored six goals from 163 shots, including those that were blocked by defenders. The nine points dropped in those six matches could be the difference between success and failure this season.
Our early loser. Arsenal squeaked home and were big winners for doing so, but Xhaka has some lessons to learn. You could detect the impatience in Arsene Wenger’s post-match interview.
Football’s attitude to head injuries
In the same incident that saw Ryan Mason given oxygen before being taken to hospital, Gary Cahill also suffered a blow to the head and played on. After the game, Antonio Conte spoke about Cahill’s well-being:
“It was a bad accident with Gary. After the first half, it wasn’t really good with Gary, but we decided to continue with him. It was very bad, this accident.”
It’s time football demonstrated some maturity over head injuries. New rules were introduced in 2014 to try and curb the practice of allowing players to continue after receiving knocks to the head, but it still continues. Guidelines state that if a player is even suspected to be suffering from concussion, he should be removed from the game. By Conte’s own words, how could that not be the case with Cahill?
This is putting players’ safety at risk. As brain injury charity Headway referenced in a statement in September, had Cahill suffered a second blow to the head after being allowed back onto the pitch, the damage to his brain is likely to have been severe.
The effects of head blows may not be known until years later. Dawn Astle, daughter of Jeff and head of the Justice for Jeff campaign, believes she knows of 250 former footballers with degenerative brain disease linked to their playing careers, and yet still the problem stays under the surface.
The reality is that three points are more important to many players and managers (and fans) than the well-being of the players. Just because you cannot see or feel a problem does not mean that it is not there. Things must change.
Liverpool and Jurgen Klopp
Matt Stead wrote the piece and Sarah Winterburn wrote the feature, so there’s no point me waffling on much further. With injuries likely and the AFCON inevitable, January was always going to be a month that tested Liverpool’s credentials to last the pace. So far, the return is one victory from six games in three competitions, and that achieved in a replay against League Two Plymouth Argyle.
Second place on January 4 became third place on January 15 became fourth place on January 22. Can you consider Liverpool as title challengers when they’ve dropped twice as many points in the last three weeks as Chelsea in the last four months?
Harry Kane in the biggest games
It’s hardly a surprise that Kane’s goal record might be better against lesser teams, for the same is true of all strikers. Those wishing to demean Wayne Rooney’s England goalscoring record point out the figures against San Marino and Kazakhstan while ignoring that Gary Lineker scored twice against a Malaysian Select XI.
Yet there is a slightly curious pattern to Kane’s record in Tottenham’s biggest games. In six fixtures against Chelsea, Manchester City, Manchester United, Liverpool and Arsenal this season, Kane has scored one goal. That was the penalty against Arsenal won by Mousa Dembele. Of more relevance than the goal record is how those teams have managed to keep Kane quiet. In those same six matches, the Tottenham striker has had just five shots and only two on target – one of those the Arsenal penalty.
Most worrying of all is that in 515 minutes across those six games, Kane has manged just 17 touches of the ball in the opposition penalty area, or one every half an hour. In 523 minutes against the equivalent opposition (swapping Chelsea for Tottenham), Diego Costa has managed 37 touches in the opposition box. In 450 minutes (he didn’t play against Arsenal), Zlatan Ibrahimovic has 32.
One goal in five league games and six in 12 since September. It’s hardly panic stations, but nor is it the form we have come to expect from the Premier League’s best striker.
Pushing a fourth official is not a good move, particularly after a week in which grassroots referees threatened to strike over the abuse of officials in the amateur game. Wenger is old and experienced enough to know better, and at least issued an immediate apology. He should expect a lengthy touchline ban, and accept his punishment with grace.
No fight. No spark. No belief. No creativity. No urgency. No organisation. No communication. No pride.
Leicester are playing like a relegation team, make no bones about it. They have not won consecutive league matches all season, and their away form is enough to suck them into the bottom three. Particularly when their next two home games are against Manchester United and Liverpool.
All, or at least most, of the above. But Sunderland are five places lower with six fewer points.
“We didn’t play in the way we have to play, in the way we know how to play and it was because the atmosphere was awful today,” said Karanka after the home defeat to West Ham. “The fans demanded a lot of the players. We don’t know how to play in that way. Playing in that way, we didn’t create one chance, and the team was broken on the pitch.
“That’s something I don’t like at all. We have to improve. The fans need to understand where we were last season or two seasons ago, and I think these players deserve more respect. When you don’t have the experience, and I don’t know how many thousand people are asking for long balls, at the end you have to play long balls. It’s a style we don’t know how to play.”
Oh wow. Asking for more support from the stands is one thing, but blaming supporters for the team playing long balls and for not showing the players enough respect another entirely. They’ve paid their money and they will continue to do so long after you have left, Aitor.
The flip-side to Karanka’s argument: If your players are taking their tactical leads from the supporters, your managerial methods probably aren’t working. Middlesbrough’s manager is playing with fire.