Manchester City’s defence
We have gasped and wowed enough times about Pep Guardiola’s sumptuous attack in recent weeks, so now’s the turn of the defence. After all, it wasn’t deficiencies in the final third that undermined Manchester City’s 2016/17 season.
The change in City’s defending since last season is remarkable. There are new additions, of course, and both Kyle Walker and Ederson have been almost faultless since joining the club, but it is the improvement in John Stones, Nicolas Otamendi, Fabian Delph and Fernandinho that should stand out most. City have conceded just 14 shots on target all season. Even if they had picked Stuart Pearce’s toy horse in goal and allowed every one of those shots on target to go in, City would still be fourth and only four points behind Manchester United. As it is, they are five clear.
Stones is the obvious poster boy of this improvement. Gone are the lackadaisical stumbles in possession and passes to colleagues without checking if they are under pressure, replaced by some superb passing and, more importantly, better decision-making under pressure. Stones is a proper defender again, and that comes first.
Yet Guardiola will urge that this is a collective defensive effort. It does not even end with Fernandinho and his fantastic protection of the back four, but still higher up the pitch. Guardiola’s fantasy is that possession is not won in Manchester City’s own half, but the opposition’s, but this is also a question of possession. You struggle to allow shots on target if your opponent rarely gets the ball, and you struggle to create a fluid style of play when your only choice is to kick the ball long and clear the semi-constant danger.
City are not quite at total domination yet, for that will only be sealed if they beat Manchester United or Tottenham, but we can only judge them on what we have seen rather than what is yet to come. Guardiola’s team have now won five of their last six league games by a margin of three or more goals, and the exception was a single-goal victory at Stamford Bridge. Teams aren’t just failing to leave lasting bruises on City, they’re failing to land a punch.
Newcastle United supporters
There were two interviews this week with people who should know better about Newcastle United and their fans. Firstly, former Crystal Palace chairman and now part-time Twitter rent-a-gob Simon Jordan (if someone has the word ‘opinion’ in their Twitter handle, be very afraid) said that Newcastle supporters never took to Mike Ashley because he was a southerner. Then former Newcastle player Kieron Dyer claimed that supporters believe Newcastle are a Champions League team.
Both are myths. Newcastle supporters initially backed Ashley after his takeover, and he even stood in the away end on numerous occasions. Things only went sour after Ashley starved the club of investment, made a series of ludicrous staff appointments and changed the name of the stadium for cheap advertising for his own company. Newcastle supporters seemed to do okay with southerners Rob Lee and Les Ferdinand.
Newcastle fans don’t expect to be in the Champions League, or even expect to be in the top half of the Premier League. What they expect is an owner who is prepared to channel the unique goodwill their club creates in its city, delegate responsibility to experts in their fields and therefore give the team the best chance of achieving sustainable progress. If that brings high league finishes and cup success, then more fool the owner who doesn’t operate by those simple rules.
Huddersfield Town and passion
Huddersfield could never hope to match Manchester United for quality, but they could resolve to outdo their opponents for hunger and passion. Those two abstract qualities have been ruined by a special type of Little Englander who believes that John Terry should be the next Prime Minister, but it would be stupid to overlook the impact of a team pulling together with a support behind them. Huddersfield were magnificent against United, to a man. It is the only way they could achieve such a monumental result.
Christopher Schindler and Chris Lowe from the German second tier. Danny Williams from Reading. Jonathan Hogg from Watford. Thomas Ince from Derby County. Jonas Lossl and Elias Kachunga from struggling Bundesliga clubs. Laurent Depoitre rescued from FC Porto’s reserves. David Wagner has forged together an unlikely band of brothers, and somehow created a team that works as a unit as if it they have known each other for years.
The assumption was that Huddersfield would be picked off by the Premier League’s best, a suspicion that came to pass in the 4-0 home defeat to Tottenham. Wagner’s style of high pressing and turnovers in the opposition half works effectively against lesser clubs with lesser players, but a fine passing team will be good enough to cope with the pressure and make the most of the space in behind. Again, that’s exactly what Tottenham did.
Yet Manchester United didn’t do that. Rather than passing quickly through midfield, they were laboured on the ball and invited pressure and biting tackles. Neither Nemanja Matic and Ander Herrera are in their natural habitat playing the quick passing triangles that overcomes such a press. Instead, Huddersfield made Manchester United’s passive attack look like something they faced in the Championship last season. The end result was the same.
Tottenham’s strength in depth
It seems odd that I could have left out any possible points from 16 Conclusions given how much I waffled on, but there is one more thing to say on Tottenham. Look at who wasn’t there.
A list of players that didn’t start the match against Liverpool: Ben Davies, Danny Rose, Victor Wanyama, Eric Dier, Moussa Sissoko, Mousa Dembele, Juan Foyth, Erik Lamela, Fernando Llorente, Georges-Kevin N’Koudou. That is suddenly some sexy strength in depth.
Most impressive was the central midfield. Even a year ago, the thought of going into a big game without any of Dembele, Wanyama or Dier would be enough to give home fans kittens. Now with Pochettino’s match preparation of his players and the rise of Harry Winks, even that isn’t an issue.
His 54th and 55th goal for Tottenham and England since the start of last season. He doesn’t stop getting more and more ridiculous.
Plenty enough words on Pochettino’s magnificence in 16 Conclusions, but an example of what good management and coaching can do:
When Pochettino took over at Tottenham, they had just finished three points and one point behind Everton. In the time since then, Everton have spent £168m more than Tottenham on new players. Last season, Spurs’ wage bill was around £30m higher than Everton’s, but Ronald Koeman’s summer splurge will have closed that gap significantly. Wayne Rooney’s basic salary accounts for more than a quarter.
Our early winner. Batshuayi can probably forget about ever starting league games regularly for Chelsea, but he has rubber-stamped his status as an excellent super-sub. Seven of Batshuayi’s eight Premier League and Champions League goals for Chelsea have come from the bench.
His first Premier League goals since December 2015, and only the second time he has scored more than once in a top-flight match. I’ll remain unconvinced that he and he alone can lead a strikeforce that survives relegation from the Premier League, but this was still a memorable night for a jobbing centre-forward.
Win your first few games, get appointed as a result even though the club’s owners don’t think you are a particularly capable manager, start of excellently before tailing off and then get sacked and collect a wonderful pay-off. Don’t pretend that wasn’t your plan when you agreed to become assistant manager, Michael. Although you’re right, I won’t be saying it to your face.
Downed tools, you say? Told his team-mates this week that he’s joining Manchester United, you say? The club want to get rid of him, you say?
You can keep your well-timed club leaks. When Mesut plays like that, the blame lies with Arsenal for not keeping him happy. Selling him in January might be sold as a club cashing in, but Ozil’s exit would only weaken an already creaking squad.
Hey, you can go read Matt Stead’s piece on Arsenal being good with their best players playing, including Ozil being lovely. I implore you.
Or perhaps Bilic should be a winner, for somehow squeezing another two games out of West Ham’s owners? We shall save the evisceration for the eventual sacking, but needless to say Bilic is suffering from the same issue as Ronald Koeman at Everton: he isn’t a very good coach and those chickens are coming home to roost.
There is something intrinsically West Ham about this club’s ability to commit to neither total disaster nor pulling away from danger. Their run of results in all competitions since the opening day: L W L W D W L W D L. There is an indecisiveness even to West Ham’s incompetence.
‘For all the talk of Everton lacking pace up front, any coach would have identified that issue and used the players at his disposal differently,’ wrote Matt Stead yesterday. Isn’t he a busy boy? ‘But four months into the season, Koeman has no system, no plan, no support from the fanbase and, potentially, no job rather soon. Moyes would be a step back into the past for Everton, but a long-term future under Koeman is difficult to envisage.’
I couldn’t agree more.
If even the opposition players don’t want to catch your eye as you come off the field for fear of feeling incredibly awkward, it’s fair to say your afternoon has not gone well. Not only did Lovren miss the last 59 minutes at Wembley, but he can hardly be recalled to the side for Liverpool’s forthcoming games after such an embarrassing departure. Ragnar Klavan, come on down.
Jurgen Klopp and that summer transfer business
We did this in 16 Conclusions but, very briefly, let’s play a game. You have £35m. You actually have more than that, but are saving it for that one special central defender who will cost almost double that price. But you have £35m to spend right now.
Do you buy:
a) A goalkeeper. Neither the goalkeeper you inherited nor the one you bought are fit for purpose, and are comfortably the worst in the top six. Three sides above you (Tottenham, Manchester United and Manchester City) have demonstrated just how a reliable goalkeeper can breathe confidence into the defenders in front of him.
b) A right-back. Your first-choice right-back suffered an injury in May that would keep him out for seven months. You didn’t actually tell anyone about it until the start of the season when he was left out of your Champions League squad. Instead, you will rely on an 18-year-old or a 20-year-old central defender.
c) A centre-back. Of course you want to wait for Mr Right rather than Mr Right Now, but this is still a crucial season. Furthermore, it would hardly be a disaster to have two new central defenders by January, given than three of your current four are the 20-year-old you might play at right-back, a struggling central defender who has to have painkillers to get through matches and Ragnar Klavan.
d) A player with no set position, who wants to be a central midfielder but you consider to be a wide attacking player. He’s available for a free in nine months and will only ever be back-up in whichever position you eventually agree is his best.
If you chose d) then congratulations, you are Jurgen Klopp. Enjoy all the pressure and flak that is coming your way.
Still reliable for his country, at least outside of major tournaments, but almost unfit for purpose for his new club. Of the 20 Premier League goalkeepers to have started five or more games this season, Hart has the lowest save percentage.
“I think what we have here is people that have been in game for a long time,” said Hughes in his pre-match press conference. “They’ve seen the high, the lows, what’s in-between, they understand that football isn’t a straight line in terms of success and failure. There’s ups and downs, peaks and troughs – you have to navigate your way through those. If you’ve been in the game a long time, as our owners have, then they’ve seen that and they understand that.
“Sometimes when clubs have new ownership or sometimes when clubs have ownerships that are maybe a little bit more emotional, I think people can make mistakes and press buttons to get rid of good people, people who have proven themselves over a decent period. They bow to the immediate thinking rather than actually looking at the quality of people that you have in the building and back the quality that you have.”
Congratulations to Hughes for the most eloquent thank you card to the owners for not sacking him that we’ve heard in a long time, but he should probably be careful of counting his chickens. Stoke are enduring a weird season win which half of their league points have been won against Arsenal and Manchester United.
Hughes’ issue is that this is the third successive season where Stoke have started their campaign in wretched form. Three points from the first six games in 2015/16, three points from the first seven in 2016/17 and eight points from nine games this season. There’s nothing quite like having all joy for the season extinguished before the clocks go back.
We ask the question of whether West Brom supporters can ever truly be happy with life on Pulis every season, but it’s not normally until February or March that it becomes truly relevant. That’s the moment when Pulis’ team click over the 40-point mark and promptly down tools.
It’s getting asked a lot earlier this season. Not only have West Brom gone eight games in all competitions without a win, but six of their opponents during that run were Brighton, Stoke, West Ham, Watford, Leicester and Southampton. It’s one thing being dismal against the best teams in the division, but another entirely enduring disappointing results against your peers.
Even over the longer term, there are valid questions over Pulis, for he has overseen a run of away form that makes West Brom look like relegation candidates. A team with their quality should not have won only five of their last 38 away league games. Their opponents in those victories: Burnley, Southampton, Leicester, Everton and Palace.
Is this it – is this where the ceiling of reasonable ambition lies? Five wins in two seasons’ worth of away games and a team whose only aim is to do just enough before doing as little as possible? Fair play to the West Brom supporters who travelled to Southampton and back on Saturday. I think my will to live would have been lost a long time ago.
Between January 2010 and August 2016, Gold and Sullivan signed off on temporary or permanent deals for Ilan, Benni McCarthy, Mido, Freddie Piquionne, Victor Obinna, Demba Ba, Paul McCallum, Robbie Keane, Brian Montenegro, John Carew, Sam Baldock, Nicky Maynard, Andy Carroll, Wellington Paulista, Sean Maguire, Marouane Chamakh, Modibo Maiga, Danny Whitehead, Mladen Petric, Carlton Cole, Marco Borriello, Jaanai Gordon, Mauro Zarate, Diafra Sakho, Enner Valencia, Nikica Jelavic, Emmanuel Emenike, Toni Martinez, Ashley Fletcher, Simone Zaza and Jonathan Calleri. Of those 31 players – signed in seven years – 20 scored three goals or fewer for West Ham.
Javier Hernandez was meant to change all that, but the dildo brothers are in charge of a powerful hex. The Mexican has scored three goals in 11 games back in the Premier League, and has failed to have a shot on target in five of his last six games. He’s presumably a little peeved.
Our early loser. When Mourinho’s famous siege mentality becomes a circle of one, you know he’s feeling the pressure.
Injury creates opportunity. Without Marouane Fellaini, Paul Pogba or Michael Carrick, Ander Herrera has finally been brought in from the autumn chill and given a chance to impress in Manchester United’s midfield. It hasn’t gone well.
Herrera was Mourinho’s teacher’s pet last season, but his decline has been spectacular. Having lacked position discipline and composure against Liverpool, Herrera lacked obvious intensity and desire and then admitted as much in his post-match interview to annoy his manager.
It’s a simple piece of advice, but criticising your team for lacking the very thing you were put in the team to provide is probably worth avoiding. Herrera doesn’t start when Mourinho has a fully fit squad, and will be sent to the naughty corner again if his performances don’t improve soon.
He gives his all and shows flashes of excellence, but the fact remains that Lingard isn’t good enough for a title-challenging team. Every supporter wants local players in the team, but birthplace shouldn’t trump ability. Lingard would stand out at West Ham, Stoke or Swansea, but at Manchester United he goes missing far too often to be reliable. Sorry.
Either Manchester United paid £30m for a defender who can’t head the ball, or Mourinho’s enforced sabbatical at the beginning of his Old Trafford career has badly damaged Lindelof’s confidence. Whichever answer is the right one, United have an expensive central defender who isn’t fit for purpose. These are the transfer mistakes that only the wealthiest clubs get to make and avoid disaster.
Swansea City, a team reversed
Last season, Swansea won six of their nine home games under Paul Clement to complete an unlikely escape from relegation. Swansea lost six of their last seven away games before final-day victory at doomed Sunderland.
This season, Swansea have lost four of their five home games, but lost only once away from the Liberty Stadium. On Saturday they were beaten by managerless Leicester City.
The problem for Clement is that, right now, it’s easy to pick out which of those records will change any time soon. With Renato Sanches wretched and the No. 2 on Wilfried Bony’s shirt neatly describing his form over the last two years, Swansea’s survival hopes are being piled on the shoulders of a 20-year-old loan signing.
Daniel Storey – Enjoyed this? Then buy this. I’m trying to raise £35,000 for the Sir Bobby Robson Foundation.