The negative connotations of the Marco Silva story are coming towards the bottom of the loser list, but for now let’s focus on the happy side of a quite brilliant start to a manager’s time in England. Draw against Manchester United, beat Manchester United, beat Liverpool and win all of your first four home matches.
When Silva arrived in England, he admitted that he needed a miracle if he was to keep Hull in the Premier League. The home form was appalling, the supporters were at war with owners who had burned their bridges, their best player was engineering a move away from the club, a key central midfielder was doing the same and Silva’s predecessor had frozen out other senior players. The odds on Hull’s relegation were 1/6 and getting shorter.
For Silva to have turned around Hull’s fortunes so quickly indicates both his managerial aptitude and his preparation for life in England. This is a man who became fluent in the language in anticipation of a move, who has increased the regularity and intensity of Hull’s training sessions in order to avoid the concession of late goals and who has evidently impressed every player. Silva is a micro-manager and a pedant, insistent that his team are given meticulous instructions for when they lose the ball and aware that his players must play to their potential in almost every game if they are to be victorious. It’s working so far.
“’When I came the atmosphere here was not the best,” Silva said after the victory over Liverpool. “The squad were in last position in the table. Many, many people didn’t believe. During the first match I didn’t see our supporters in our stadium. Today I saw a fantastic atmosphere. Our supporters now play with us. If I believe, I want my players, my supporters to believe too.”
Marco Silva is unlikely to make Hull fans love their club or its owners – there is far too much water under the Humber bridge – but he’s got them falling back in love with the players. That seemed unthinkable a month ago, and even less likely after Robert Snodgrass’ departure. Inspiration is a powerful ingredient in the recipe for survival, and Hull have theirs in the shape of a new manager in a new league on a six-month contract. Not all heroes wear capes.
Here is your list of Premier League players with more goals than Lukaku since 2012/13:
Here is your list of young (under-24) players in Europe’s top five leagues to have scored more goals than Lukaku this season:
Here is your list of Premier League players with more goals than Lukaku this season:
If only he wasn’t so lazy, eh.
Henrikh Mkhitaryan and his dribbling
There is a cliché that some players run faster with the ball than without. It’s not true, of course, but some do have a wonderful ability to never break stride when they are dribbling. Eden Hazard is one and Sergio Aguero another, but the Premier League’s greatest exponent is Mkhitaryan.
Watch his goal against Leicester on Sunday, when from the moment he nipped the ball past Robert Huth there was only one likely result. The key to this dribbling speed is to push the ball in front of you with the exact power so that it rolls at the same speed as your sprinting speed. As the ball inevitably loses pace, you catch up with it and do exactly the same again until you are ready to take a shot or cross.
If it sounds easy – and Mkhitaryan makes it look so – the reality is very different. Raheem Sterling is just one winger – and there are many more – who struggles with ball location when dribbling. Occasionally he knocks it too far ahead and allows his opponent to make a tackle, or too short and thus has to break stride and slow down. Get it right, and an attacking midfielder becomes almost impossible to stop.
The boy’s a bit special, and also our early winner.
Hull’s victory over Liverpool may have kept Sunderland bottom and taken some of the shine off a fabulous result, but David Moyes finally has reason for faith just as everyone else was losing theirs. Sunderland’s only home games until mid-April are against Southampton, Manchester City, Manchester United and Burnley, so they picked a good time to win away for only the second time since April 2016 and score four on the road for only the second time since January 2014.
The title race is over, honest. The top six are indeed as strong collectively as they have been in years, but none of Arsenal, Manchester City, Manchester United, Liverpool or Tottenham deserve to be mentioned in the same breath as Antonio Conte’s purring machine.
For much more on Chelsea, go read 16 Conclusions. No, I insist.
A beautiful goal by a beautiful player, and the type of brilliance we wish Hazard would show more often. There is an element of the caged beast to his play at times, preferring to play a supporting role and create chances rather than taking on central defenders and shooting. This was emphatic evidence that he can – and should – have more belief in his ability to make lots of players look silly in the same move.
Score once or twice more this month, and Carroll has a better case than Daniel Sturridge, Wayne Rooney and Jamie Vardy to be in Gareth Southgate’s next England squad. After so many injury frustrations, that is seriously impressive.
This column expressed sympathy with Koeman amid serious pressure after Everton’s defeat at Watford in December, with some supporters calling for the manager’s head less than six months into his Goodison tenure. Since then, Everton have won six and drawn two of their nine league games, have scored 13 in their last three at Goodison and now sit only six points and two places behind Liverpool. It’s almost as if it was worth waiting a while before writing off a manager.
Three or more goals in consecutive away league games for the first time since Blackpool and West Brom in 2011, don’t you know. Slaven wants to know what the fuss was all about?
Three more tackles than any other Premier League player this weekend, on debut. Take that, Patrick van Aanholt.
A brilliant individual performance from a player who has been bang in form since joining Watford. Cleverley created four chances – a total bettered by no Premier League player this weekend – and dominated Burnley’s midfield. Loan moves don’t motivate every player, but Cleverley deserves credit for taking his chance and going some way to answering those questions.
The relegation zone
Six teams separated by two points, and the three above the relegation zone are in worse form than two of those below. The top-four fight might be the most televised, but the battle to stay in the top flight looks just as intriguing. It includes two promoted clubs, Sam Allardyce, David Moyes and the Premier League champions.
Keep scoring goals like that and eventually I’ll stop thinking of Marco Gabbiadini’s blond mop every time I read your name.
A scrappy win against a struggling side, but see if Mauricio Pochettino cares. By Sunday morning he was charge of Chelsea’s closest challengers, and talking about Tottenham being ‘ready’ to win a title. Even if that is only a consolation prize, it’s also mightily impressive from a manager for whom a top-four place should be considered a success.
Jurgen Klopp and Liverpool possession
Examining where Liverpool have dropped their points this season, it would be easy for an optimistic supporter to suggest that their team should really be in the title race. Three points gone at Bournemouth, three points gone at Burnley, three points gone at Hull City and two points gone at Sunderland; had those 11 points dropped even been reduced to just six then Jurgen Klopp’s side would be in second place. Their results against the top-six teams indicate an aptitude to compete with the best, but against the rest, Klopp has a significant blind spot. Easy to solve, then? Well, maybe not.
The first reason for Liverpool’s stumbles this season has been the well-documented individual errors. The travails of Loris Karius certainly accounted for the Bournemouth defeat, but in general Liverpool have been architects of their own downfall. Only West Ham have conceded more goals this season directly resulting from individual errors – Karius, Simon Mignolet, Lucas Leiva, Nathaniel Clyne, Dejan Lovren and Ragnar Klavan have all been guilty.
In addition, plenty have been keen to render Liverpool’s recent poor form on proof that Klopp has over-worked his players, with weird fitness egg Raymond Verheijen clearing his throat at opportune moments over the last month. In fact, the explanation may be slightly different: Teams have simply worked out how to nullify Klopp’s Liverpool.
As well as individual errors, the other significant trend in Liverpool’s defeats is their high possession statistics. Three of the five games in which Liverpool have had most possession this season are the loss to Hull, the loss to Swansea and the loss to Burnley. The three away games in which they have had the most possession: The Hull loss, the Burnley loss and the draw against Sunderland.
To put it simply, you can’t get pressed if you don’t have the ball and you can’t get caught on the counter if you don’t attack. Hull, Swansea and Burnley have used the Leicester City template from last season when facing higher-quality opposition: Allow Klopp’s team to have the ball, defend deep to stop Philippe Coutinho, Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mane creating one-on-ones with space in front of them and thus have a realistic hope of thwarting the attack.
Having achieved stage one of undermining Liverpool, stage two then takes over. No team in the Premier League have allowed fewer shots on target than Liverpool, but eight have a better defence. The explanation for this is that Liverpool possess two under-performing goalkeepers and have a defence that allows more presentable chances than their rivals. That’s indicative of a team which deals with attacking frustration by over-committing midfielders to the final third and is then left one-on-one in their own half.
Klopp’s biggest issue in trying to combat this problem, something we’ve mentioned before, is the lack of Plan B. Daniel Sturridge and Divock Origi are too similar to Firmino to force an opposition manager to change plans. The reality is that, with positional discipline and stamina, Liverpool can be thwarted. The longer you frustrate them for, the more your chances will come. And there’s not an awful lot the manager can do about it.
Hello darkness my old friend.
It’s at times like these that it is hard to believe Wenger can stay on for two more years. Such was the predictability of the dismal defeat, the resignation among supporters even before another loss at Stamford Bridge, it is unfathomable that the offer remains on the table. This was the script that wasn’t just easy to write, but has been read so often that the pages are thumbed and the spine is coming away.
Football struggles to resist its urge to kneejerk. Players and managers are all judged too hastily, and we are all guilty to some extent. The 24-hour coverage of the sport dictates that opinions have to be formed and aired before being considered, and nothing sells quite as badly as ‘let’s just wait and see’. Yet Wenger is not just the antidote to that, but the other extreme. His last 22 away matches against the current top six have produced no wins, seven draws and 15 defeats. How long until a record of seven points from a possible 66 is deemed unacceptable? How many times does Arsenal’s soft underbelly have to be pierced before a change comes?
I understand the counter-argument, I really do. On commentary for Sky Sports, Gary Neville praised Wenger for his consistency in achieving Champions League football in every season, and criticism is not intended to render that worthless. Yet the truth is that nobody knows what happens post-Wenger. For every claim that ‘you don’t know what you’ve got until its gone’ there is a counter-claim that a different manager could instil greater mental resilience, better performance in the biggest away matches, deeper runs into the Champions League’s latter stages and a more realistic hope of a successful title challenge. Arsenal can at least be sure that they would have the pick of candidates given the cash reserves, stadium, academy and likely salary the new manager can expect to find on arrival.
The question for Arsenal is whether to gamble on the roll of the dice, if you’ll forgive the simplistic analogy. This might be the season that Arsenal require a five or six just to guarantee a top-four position, given the improvements in clubs around them. They have a manager for whom rolling fours has become the ceiling.
Except that it isn’t really a question for Arsenal at all. All noises coming out of the club suggest that it will be Wenger’s decision when he leaves, not Arsenal’s. It may sound disrespectful to such a wonderful servant, but is now not the time for Arsenal to show that they are bigger than one individual? The saddest aspect is that, in showing such a weakness of conviction, Arsenal are putting their greatest manager’s reputation at risk.
Arsenal, a team without a USP
Talking of rolling fours brings us to Arsenal themselves. After so long in charge, how could they be anything other than a team sculpted in their manager’s image?
A title winner does not necessarily have to be the best at everything, but they have to at least be the best at something. In Wenger’s most dominant seasons Arsenal were indeed the best at most things, but that cupboard is now bare. There is nothing that Arsenal do at a higher level better than every other Premier League team.
Three teams have a better defence, Liverpool have scored as many goals, three teams have kept more clean sheets, four have more shots, four have more shots on target, four create more chances, seven shoot with more accuracy, three complete more dribbles, two complete more passes, 16 attempts more crosses. Not every one of these is instructive to league position, but they are instructive to a specific style.
Whereas old Arsenal teams were founded on their back five or an attack that created more chances than any other team, they are no longer. This Arsenal are a team without a USP other than to hope Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil, two players whose contracts are running down, play to their full potential.
For all Wenger’s success at Arsenal, and please let’s remember those times when he does leave, he has become a specialist not in failure, but in doing just enough to cling on. Arsenal are a good team, but whether they can ever become a great one again under this manager is open to intense debate. It’s a battle Wenger is losing with each passing month.
Nine defeats in 15 league games. Twenty-five goals conceded in their last nine games in all competitions. A January transfer window in which one of their best players left and none arrived. Now only seven points above the bottom club in the Premier League.
Do not doubt the severity of Bournemouth’s situation. Howe is under serious pressure for the first time in this fairy tale.
“We could have gone under but we didn’t. We showed real fight and on another day we could have nicked a third and it would have been a totally different game. For 25 or 30 minutes of the second half I thought we showed the real us. We showed desire, determination and real character” – Marc Pugh.
Alrite, Brendan Rodgers. For the avoidance of doubt, Bournemouth lost 6-3.
Claudio Ranieri and Leicester City
There is no defined set of characteristics to describe a relegation-haunted side. Some cannot score enough goals, some can’t stop conceding them, some have insufficient quality in their squad and some have a clueless manager. For some the supporters are behind the team, and for some they scream that their former heroes are not fit to wear the shirt.
Yet every team heading towards the abyss shares the same characteristic: The ‘heads down’ principle. Every goal conceded provokes a negative change in mood not equivalent to the lift that scoring a goal provides. As soon as the first goal of a game is conceded the players, manager and crowd all groan internally as if to say ‘We know what happens now’. 0-1 doesn’t just mean setback, but game over. It is a contagious disease.
That’s precisely where Leicester are now. In 24 league matches this season, they have gained three points from losing positions. Unlike last season (when they gained 14 points), conceding the first goal does not provoke a steely response of unity and togetherness, but a collective submission to the opposition. They have now lost four consecutive league games without scoring.
“It has been terrible, embarrassing,” as Kasper Schmeichel said after the game. “It is time for each one of us – from the top to the bottom of this club – to stand up and be counted. If we don’t, we will be relegated.” Identifying the severity of the situation is one thing; rectifying it is a far tougher task.
“At the moment I have to watch what he does, to learn,” said Aguero of Gabriel after Manchester City’s victory over Swansea. “I have spent a lot of years in Europe playing the same way.”
You are permitted to intake breath sharply, for those are the passive-aggressive quotes of a star striker not happy at being left out of his team.
Ashley Young was brought on for Marcus Rashford. If you think that isn’t a pointed message from Jose Mourinho to Martial, you don’t know the Portuguese at all. Is Anthony ever going to get back into Jose’s good books?
Our early loser. This one will take longer to get out of Sam Allardyce’s system than one of his special pie suppers.
Burnley’s away record
Quickly becoming the Premier League’s greatest statistical quirk.
Eight points above the bottom three becomes six above the bottom three. Surely not? Surely, surely not?
Counting the days on the contract, Mesut?
Phil Thompson and Paul Merson
I truly hope that somebody takes Merson and Thompson to task live on television for their misplaced and misjudged xenophobia – is there any other kind? – but, if not, Hull beating Thompson’s beloved Liverpool will do quite nicely instead.
For those of you that still don’t know what I’m talking about, go here. We can be accused of labouring this particular point, but Silva’s initial success only underlines how foolish the words of the Sky Sports pair were.
More importantly, Merson and Thompson are not alone. Instead they are the poster boys for a group of pundits, ex-players and coaches who threaten English football’s progression with their jingoism. When you believe that foreigners are being given more value than their worth, you believe that English managers are hard done to. When you believe that English managers are hard done to, you believe that there is no point even trying. When you believe that there is no point trying, English coaching only suffers more while you stand on the soapbox and moan about ‘others’.
Merson and Thompson’s views were ill-judged, but they are hardly unusual. The rest of us are taking great delight in Silva proving them both wrong so both quickly and emphatically. The only hope is that, next time, both may take the time to think before engaging in the rhetoric of the little Englander.
You have no idea how long I’ve been waiting for him to click onto 15 league goals.