Sam Allardyce, constantly surprising
Two goals from three shots on target. A total of 229 completed passes in 90 minutes. Winning while enjoying just 27.1% possession. Oh Sam, you beautiful b*stard.
There are caveats to this Crystal Palace improvement. They were fortunate to beat Chelsea on Saturday, Allardyce’s net spend in January was more than any other Premier League manager and he has only moved them from 17th to 16th since taking over, but see if Palace supporters care. The mood at the club is transformed – although it did take some time. Is this a mid-table team next season?
One interesting aspect of Palace’s tactics under Allardyce on Saturday is that they were not as formulaic as we might have expected. The presumption was that Big Sam would pick Andros Townsend and Wilfried Zaha and tell both to get as high up the pitch as possible before crossing the ball into the box for Christian Benteke. That would be supplemented by long balls up to the striker for him to either chase down or win in the air. The classic Allardyce away performance, if you will.
That did not happen. To Ed Taylor, Football365 Mailbox regular: ‘Palace lined up in a Christmas tree formation, something El Tel was partial to using. It also enabled the Eagles to use a tactic they’ve employed previously, where the lone striker drifts wide and can out-muscle a full-back, while the wide men target an overmatch on speed against the centre-backs.’ Benteke was asked to compete in the air when Palace were relieving pressure (15 aerial duels), but this was far from ‘classic’ Big Sam.
Allardyce is an easy manager to parody and pigeonhole. First he was Mr Prozone and a lover of data, an assessment which was diluted over time. Then he was Mr Back-To-Basics, a manager who cared not for aesthetics but instead the pragmatic, if ungainly, solution to frustrating an opponent. Now that too looks an inaccurate evaluation.
While we marvel at Wilfried Zaha and enjoy Mamadou Sakho showing that he is a very good central defender despite the doubters, Palace fans have their own new cult hero to love. His name is Luka Milivojevic, and he’s the best Premier League central midfielder you’ve never heard of.
Our early winner, to be added to the list of players that we love more because they are so regularly written off and derided unfairly.
Jurgen Klopp’s big game record
Klopp has been told that he is in crisis by sections of the media at least twice since his appointment at Anfield in October 2015, but his record against his peers at the top of the Premier League demands that he will retain the patience of the Liverpool board. Klopp’s results against Arsenal, Manchester City, Manchester United, Chelsea, Tottenham and Everton in all competitions since taking over reads as follows:
Played – 25
Won – 13
Drawn – 11
Lost – 1
For – 45
Against – 21
It is, should it even need clarifying, the best of any manager in the Premier League, and achieved on a far smaller budget than many of his rivals. Nobody quite motivates players for the big occasion quite like Klopp.
Liverpool’s midfield, but mainly Lucas Leiva
You can read plenty on Liverpool and Everton in Matt Stead’s excellent 16 Conclusions, but it’s worth giving Liverpool’s central midfield extra praise. I worried in Big Weekend about the absence of Adam Lallana, but Klopp’s midfield three breezed through.
Liverpool’s dominance was assisted by the underperformance of Tom Davies and the abject Ross Barkley (more on that later), but also in the quiet excellence of Georginio Wijnaldum, the discipline of Emre Can and the… well, magnificence of Lucas Leiva.
Picked to start in central midfield for the first time in the league since the same fixture almost a year previously, Lucas played as if released from the shackles of central defence. He mopped up superbly, protected his central defenders, won headers against Romelu Lukaku, made more passes than any other player on the pitch, more tackles than any other Premier League player this weekend and covered the most distance of any player in the Merseyside derby. Amazing how much better a midfielder looks when picked in midfield.
Of course, it didn’t get him in Garth Crooks’ team of the week.
Hull have now taken 52% of their league points for the season in the ten games since Silva took over, and have a sporting chance of staying up. The Portuguese was rewarded for his bravery in sticking with his two-striker plan against West Ham despite falling behind, and victory over Middlesbrough on Wednesday could well see them climb out of the bottom three for the first time since October.
A reminder too that Hull sold two of their key players in January, with Robert Snodgrass and Jake Livermore leaving for West Ham and West Brom respectively. On the back of that and some rushed business, Silva has engineered a remarkable survival bid. To those who considered his nationality as a hindrance to his success in England, think on. The only shame is that Hull did not appoint ‘the foreign’ sooner.
Far from the perfect weekend given the injuries sustained by Harry Winks and Victor Wanyama, but Mauricio Pochettino would have taken that weird deal had it been offered on Saturday morning. Tottenham are now nine points ahead of Manchester United having played a game more, and they gained points on every other team around them bar Liverpool.
More importantly, there is a sliver of light where the door to the Premier League title is now slightly ajar. Victory at Swansea on Wednesday will have players and manager rushing to watch the last 15 minutes from Stamford Bridge.
A step backwards in the bid for another season of Champions League football, but baby steps forward in some areas at least. Sure the central midfield options look terrible, there is a problem with both full-backs, David Ospina isn’t good enough, balls are played through the central defenders too easily, the fans are split on the future of the club, Danny Welbeck does not look the same player as before his injury and the two star attacking players may well leave, but at least they came back from behind. Twice!
I’ve not sold that well, have I?
Has any other top-flight manager begun his managerial career with six straight victories?
Take into account the win when caretaker manager at West Brom, and that’s exactly what Shakespeare has done at Leicester. Plenty predicted an upsurge in form after the departure of Claudio Ranieri, but few believed that Shakespeare would inspire the type of form that produced the unthinkable last season.
If Leicester win their game in hand, they go above Stoke in ninth. Win on Tuesday against Sunderland, and they might just be there anyway. Mad.
More shots on target than any other player this weekend. Some players need motivating to perform, whether that makes you angry or not. Shakespeare has got Mahrez in the mood, and Leicester look infinitely better for it.
Created seven chances (three more than any Premier League player at the weekend) and scored Chelsea’s goal. It’s not always been said during Fabregas’ career, but if everyone performed as well as him…
Still only 21, but the scorer of crucial goals against Sunderland, West Ham and Everton in the league this season. Origi has the confidence to be a success and, in the absence of Sadio Mane, he’ll get the chance to show Klopp that he merits far more faith than Daniel Sturridge.
Another Premier League campaign secured. I look forward to tipping them for relegation again in August under a new manager who looks out of place, only to look stupid again.
Eleven completed dribbles on a weekend when no other Premier League player managed more than seven. I’m not saying Traore is a one-trick pony, but…
It’s his world. We’re just renting a space.
Mike Dean. The man, the myth, the legend. pic.twitter.com/oJX7xvKAUS
— Joe (@jawtonloe) April 2, 2017
Slaven Bilic, West Ham and votes of confidence
‘To end speculation once and for all, the West Ham United Board feel it necessary to announce that we have 100 per cent faith in Slaven Bilic’s ability to lead West Ham United,’ West Ham’s statement on Sunday read. ‘Despite press speculation to the contrary, the manager’s position is not under threat.’
And there is the folly of the vote of confidence. Quite why football club owners feel it necessary to issue a statement reiterating their faith in a manager is unclear, but they are at best meaningless and at worst counterproductive.
We know that you have not lost faith in your manager’s ability, because he is still in a job; that’s how it works. We know that the words ‘to end speculation once and for all’ are vacuous, because West Ham are not in control of that speculation. There is an entire industry based on football rumours, one which West Ham have benefited from via the ridiculous transfer ‘Insider’ section of their website.
We also know that votes of confidence expire the moment they are issued. If West Ham lose each of their next five games 5-0, Bilic will be sacked. There is no benefit to announcing how the owners feel now when those feelings may well change in the short or medium term.
‘In light of recent speculation, Leicester City Football Club would like to make absolutely clear its unwavering support for its First Team Manager, Claudio Ranieri,’ read Leicester City’s statement on February 4, almost identical in style to West Ham’s. Ranieri lasted another 16 days. So why bother?
Yet the biggest crime committed by these senseless PR declarations is that they actually invite the pressure that they are designed to relieve. So cliched is the vote of confidence in professional football that it is widely derided as an indication that a manager’s days are numbered. Rather than removing the scrutiny of Bilic’s next tactical and strategical decisions, those decisions will now be analysed in far greater detail. A brighter bulb has been put in the spotlight.
Bilic is far from blameless for West Ham’s depressing season, but it is the club’s owners who deserve the majority of supporters’ ire. It is they who made Dimitri Payet promises of investment in the squad only to let him down. It is they who approached unrealistic transfer targets and were then left with the last limp bouquet of flowers in the petrol station. It is they who mismanaged the difficulties of moving to the London Stadium. It is they who have publicly criticised the performance of the team and urged Bilic to improve twice in the last three weeks. You can’t deliberately attract criticism, act surprised when that criticism causes speculation and then fudge an attempt to dampen that speculation.
Actually, if you’re West Ham’s owners, you can.
Left out of the match-day squad yet again, Shaw’s days at Manchester United were already over before Mourinho chose to hang the left-back out to dry.
“I cannot compare the way he trains and commits, the focus, the ambition. He is a long way behind,” he said. So not only does Mourinho not want to pick him, he has also effectively advised other clubs against signing him. It is quite the character assassination, and one that cannot possibly have come without (some) good reason.
Marcus Rashford can plead his case as a teenage academy graduate who cost his club nothing. Martial, on the other hand, cannot. He arrived for a fee of £36m and hit the ground running in England. This season has only brought backward steps.
Three goals in 982 league minutes is abject for a player who has already had time to settle in the Premier League. Martial’s conversion rate of 14.3% ranks joint 145th of all Premier League players this season.
Three times as many shots and almost four times the number of shots on target as Crystal Palace means that we won’t read too much into Chelsea’s fourth league defeat of the season (well, we won’t), but the jitters truly will come if they fail to beat Manchester City on Wednesday.
Ronald Koeman’s faith in youth
It is the impossible balance for a manager. We urge them to put trust in young players, yet criticise them when those young players do not perform. So if the next few paragraphs sounds overly critical, I’m probably guilty of overreaction.
Everton’s squad was decimated by injuries over the international break. Seamus Coleman suffered a leg break, Ramiro Funes Mori was ruled out for the season, James McCarthy sustained another muscle injury and Morgan Schneiderlin failed to recover from the calf twang he picked up against Hull. That left Koeman to search for replacements. His solution was to pick the kids. Mason Holgate started at right wing-back, Matthew Pennington in central defence and Dominic Calvert-Lewin as a wide forward. In midfield, Tom Davies predictably kept his place for his first Merseyside derby. Their ages were 22, 20, 20 and 18.
Unfortunately, all struggled. Davies was booked early in the game and was a virtual passenger from then onwards, Holgate was beaten time and time again by Philippe Coutinho and James Milner, Pennington was AWOL for Liverpool’s first two goals and generally suspect despite scoring the equaliser, while Calvert-Lewin looked like a young child playing with the bigger boys for the first time.
The key to most successful teams is balance, but Everton’s XI on Saturday was dependent on both extremes of the age spectrum. Idrissa Gueye was the only one of the ten outfield players older than 23 and younger than 32. The youngsters lacked experience and the elders lacked dynamism and pace.
Those are the drawbacks to having a small squad, for which Koeman cannot be blamed. Yet seeing Kevin Mirallas, Enner Valencia and Gareth Barry on the bench, you wonder whether Koeman placed too much faith in the exuberance of youth. In an atmosphere as testing as the Merseyside derby, the gamble failed.
Guilty of a disgraceful tackle, after which he had the temerity to argue against his booking, but that is the least of Barkley’s problems. This is a player whose talent is high but whose game intelligence ranks worryingly low on the scale.
Barkley could have been booked twice even before his late challenge on Dejan Lovren’s shin but, having been given a stay of execution, he chose to fall asleep with his head still resting on the block. Some choice game statistics:
Chances created – 1
Passing accuracy – 65.2%
Fouls conceded – 4
Tackles – 1
Interceptions – 0
Possession gained – 2
Possession lost – 28
Times when he took too many touches of the ball and slowed down a move – ∞
This was Barkley’s chance to stick it to Gareth Southgate and show the England manager that he was wrong not to pick him against Germany or Lithuania. Instead he only augmented his reputation as a fair-weather midfielder, with bags of ability but without the capacity for decision-making in the crunch moments beyond a level that makes him impossible to trust.
Really poor, just when people were really watching to see if this talk of £70m moves was mere fancy. There is an argument that strikers are only as good as their service, and Calvert-Lewin and Barkley were both woeful, but Lukaku also lost headers and possession too easily. He can probably blame his teammates for failing to create him a single chance, however.
Jose Mourinho, who shares the blame
Our early loser. You can blame individuals in August and September, and avoid scrutiny. You can blame individuals in October and November, and most will accept the excuse. You can blame individuals in December, January and February, and while a minority will question your culpability, you will remain relatively unscathed. But when you are still blaming individuals in March and April, it’s only right to ask the same questions of the system you have designed and the mood that you have created. Right back at you, Jose.
It’s a crucial game to win in the fight against relegation, and your team is 0-0 against another struggling team. Your best striker is injured before the game, meaning you select Jordan Ayew as a lone centre-forward. Ayew is many things, but a lone centre-forward he is not.
a) Change the shape, perhaps playing Gylfi Sigurdsson as a false nine, put Ayew out wide and allow the three forwards to shift positions?
b) Bring on Borja Baston, your club record signing? Baston has struggled this season, but you need a goal.
c) Bring on Jefferson Montero and instruct him to get close to Ayew, interchanging positions with him in a way Luciano Narsingh failed to?
d) Bring on Oliver McBurnie? He’s young and raw, but perhaps the surprise option could spark an improvement
e) Make no changes in shape or substitutions, but send in cross after cross to a tiny forward.
If you picked e) then congratulations, you are Paul Clement.
“It was getting a wee bit naughty at the end there so just watch yourself,” said Moyes to BBC Sport reporter Vicki Sparks. “You still might get a slap even though you’re a woman. Careful the next time you come in.”
F*cking hell, David. Oh, and your team is buggered too.
Now lost five and drawn three of their last eight matches in all competitions, and they sit five points clear of the relegation zone with eight games remaining. Beating Stoke on Tuesday would relieve the pressure, but fail to do so and by the time Manchester United come to town, Turf Moor will have gone almost three months without witnessing a home victory.
For all the merited praise, Defoe has now scored in four of his last 15 league matches. The caveat ‘for a struggling club’ is used every time Defoe’s record is compared with those strikers higher up the league, but the flipside to that is that all of Sunderland’s attacking moves are designed to end at his feet. Nine goals from 61 shots is a strong-ish return, but far from extraordinary.
Unpopular statistic: Theo Walcott now has as many non-penalty league goals this season as Defoe, from five fewer shots.
Stoke have 36 points from 30 matches, and are ninth in the Premier League. Stoke have won 30% of their league games, and are ninth in the Premier League. The only teams Stoke have beaten away from home in the last 14 months are Watford, Hull and Sunderland, and they are ninth in the Premier League. The last time Stoke beat a team currently in the top half was December 2015, and they are ninth in the Premier League.
You can read far more about Manchester City (and Arsenal) in 16 Conclusions, but it’s that time of the year where I begin to worry whether City’s flaws will cost them a place in the top four. Lose at Chelsea on Wednesday evening – hardly an outrageous presumption – and Pep Guardiola’s team could be two points ahead of fifth place having played an extra game. That Manchester derby on April 27 could be massive.
Down? Down, and we will not miss them. Middlesbrough have failed to scored in 48% of their league games this season. Bring back Newcastle.