Manchester City and Pep Guardiola
You must go and read 16 Conclusions if you have not done so yet, but Sunday praise does not stop Manchester City from topping the winners on Monday. How could it when City are now the champions elect with less than half of the season played.
In only two Premier League seasons has a team won the title by a greater points margin than the one Manchester City currently hold over second place, and could you really back Pep Guardiola’s team being hauled back at all from this point onwards? My favourite statistic is that City have already collected enough points to finish eighth in last season’s Premier League.
Over-achievement can easily and quickly become normalised. We now expect City to win every game so that when they falter it is sold as disappointment and when they win again we take it in our stride. Yet this run is unprecedented. The highest ever points total was achieved By Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea in 2004/05, a team that pulverised the Premier League. Continue as they are, and Guardiola’s City will beat that by 14 points. We are witnessing a new bar being set for Premier League performance.
A smile as wide as the Mersey as his team eked out a point from a match in which they barely deserved none. But having watched Liverpool sweep aside all and sundry in recent weeks, you cannot blame Allardyce for digging in and doing what he does best. When your back is against the wall, the end result rules all. Welcome to the good ship Big Sam, now go and read 16 Conclusions.
Our early winners. Had Huddersfield lost at home to Brighton to record a fifth successive Premier League defeat, they would have dropped to 16th in the Premier League and been only two points above the relegation zone despite a highly promising start to the season. As it is, David Wagner’s side are back in mid-table, and seven of their next nine home league opponents are Stoke, Burnley, West Ham, Bournemouth, Watford, Swansea and Crystal Palace.
Scorer in consecutive Premier League games for the first time since December 2014 for Swansea against West Ham and Tottenham. Since then, Bony has left Swansea for Manchester City, played in two major international tournaments, moved on loan to Stoke City and then rejoined Swansea again. Fair to say it was overdue.
Claude Puel and perception
How quickly a reputation can change, and proof that a manager is so often reliant on the proficiency of his players. Claude Puel is persona grata again.
At Southampton, Puel earned a reputation for dismal attacking football, critics pointing to a poor record of goals scored. Yet Puel suffered because of the underperformance of Southampton’s strikers. That is not to say that there were not issues with Puel’s style, nor that he should not share part of the blame, but those selected to take chances and score goals failed to do so.
In Leicester’s seven matches under Puel, they have scored at a rate of 1.6 per game. Last season under Puel, Southampton scored at a rate of 1.1 per game, a clear difference. Yet dig down a little more, and the results are surprising.
In 2016/17, Southampton created chances and took shots at a rate of 10.4 and 14.5 per game. Under Puel in the last seven games, Leicester have created chances and taken shots at a rate of 7.8 and 9.7 per game, a comfortably worse rate. The difference is that Leicester’s shot conversion rate over that period is 20.8%. Last season, Southampton’s shot conversion rate was 10.1%.
That can be sold in two ways. Either you say that Puel is not a better coach than at Southampton, more that he has got lucky with Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez (although it’s worth pointing that both are performing better than they were under Craig Shakespeare). It would be more accurate (particularly given the struggles of Mauricio Pellegrino) is to say that no manager could deal with the abysmal shooting that Southampton produced last season. Under Pellegrino the shot accuracy has improved only marginally, still under 11%.
Away from Southampton, Puel is flourishing again, albeit in a short sample size. Since arriving at the King Power, only Manchester City, Liverpool, Chelsea, Manchester United and Burnley have taken more points than Leicester.
Heung-Min Son, and a change in Tottenham formation?
It sounds a little tenuous at first, but Heung-Min Son is only in the Tottenham team because of the injury sustained by Toby Alderweireld. It led to Mauricio Pochettino switching back to a four-man defence that creates the extra midfield role. In Tottenham’s usual 3-4-2-1, the front three places are reserved for Dele Alli, Christian Eriksen and Harry Kane. Son’s only hope is to be an impact substitute or start as a wing-back.
Yet Son is arguably Tottenham’s most in-form player, instrumental against Liverpool, the match-winner against Crystal Palace and Borussia Dortmund and a goalscorer in each of Spurs’ last three matches. Against Stoke on Saturday, he was irresistible (and makes our team of the week) on the left of a 4-2-3-1 formation, comfortable interchanging positions with Eriksen and Alli. Son is the perfect teacher’s pet, hard-working and constantly willing despite never being a fixture in the first team.
In fact, Son’s form gives Pochettino something to think about. The assumption is that Alderweireld’s return will see Tottenham switch back to a three-man central defence, but that leaves the manager with a selection headache. Can you really argue that Alli is offering more to this team than Son on current form? The alternative is to stick with the central defensive pair and rotate Alderweireld, Jan Vertonghen and Davinson Sanchez.
A list of teams in the Premier League with more clean sheets than Burnley this season:
Burnley’s defence against Watford on Saturday:
Nick Pope, Phil Bardsley, Kevin Long, James Tarkowski, Stephen Ward
Hojbjerg has struggled since joining Southampton from Bayern Munich, and came close to leaving Southampton in the summer. Yet against Arsenal the 22-year-old produced a display in central midfield of superb quality, and was understandably picked as the game’s best player (see Team of the Week).
Moyes played down expectation by turning to the issue of facing Arsenal in midweek, but there was no hiding his delight at beating Chelsea and winning his first Premier League game in far too long. Very few of us saw a victory for the downbeat Moyes, but the meagre fare at the bottom of the Premier League means that a few more like it will soon see West Ham head clear of the bottom three. Then suddenly Moyes is a proper Premier League manager again.
A win to keep the wolf from the door. It might not have been pretty, but aesthetics were abandoned a long time ago in this attempt at survival. The fear is that there will need to be better days even that this if Clement is to keep his job and Swansea City are to stay up.
He now has to score more than one brilliant goal to get more than a single line. See what you’ve done, Mo?
As many league goals in his last three games as in his previous 21. We’ll gloss over the fact that the could have had a hat-trick.
Half as many goals in 252 minutes as Lacazette has managed in 1,111.
Chelsea’s limp performances
Mauricio Pochettino had already ruled out Tottenham. Arsene Wenger had said that Arsenal were never in the race to start with. On Sunday, Jose Mourinho said Manchester United were no longer challengers. A day before, Antonio Conte admitted Chelsea were done too. This has been another rotten title defence.
There is no huge shame in losing to this City side in a single match or over the course of the season, but Chelsea should at least have been good enough to compete. The most disappointing aspect of their limp title defence is that they have been effective against their peers, sitting second in a ‘big six’ table for the season having beaten Tottenham and Manchester United and drawn against Liverpool and Arsenal.
And yet Chelsea have lost four league games, three of which were against Burnley, Crystal Palace and now West Ham. I’m in danger of placing a pair of balls on my auntie, but had Chelsea won those three games they would be five points behind City.
Where do these abject performances come from? There are valid reasons for doubting the quality of a few Chelsea players, including plenty of those the club has recruited for Antonio Conte, but that would explain defeats to the best in the Premier League, not the rest. They should have been good enough.
One theory is that the players have been tainted by the mood of their manager, potentially prepared to leave next summer after a season beset by frustrations. If that is indeed the case, Chelsea are unlikely to dissipate this fog that occasionally such miserable performances. If only the best players can rise above it, Eden Hazard, N’Golo Kante, Cesc Fabregas, Cesar Azpilicueta and (occasionally) Alvaro Morata are the only ones who look likely. Five players do not make a team.
Newcastle United, waiting for Godot
‘Nothing happens. Nobody comes, nobody goes. It’s awful.’
The issue with Newcastle United supporters hearing early news of a potential takeover is that they were always likely to cling on to such hope after entire years when they believed that hope was lost. Amanda Staveley was the saviour, and the end of the Mike Ashley era was in sight.
Yet takeovers of football clubs are not necessarily a smooth process, particularly when Ashley and Staveley’s valuation of Newcastle United are at least £80m apart. Newcastle’s current owner has not made his fortune by giving in to silly things like goodwill. The latest estimates suggest that, if the deal will go through at all, it may not be until February.
A delay of a few weeks would not otherwise be calamitous, but the timing could not be worse. Rafael Benitez is crying out for investment in a squad that contains a clutch of Championship-level players. The strikers are not good enough and the defence looks increasingly shaky as the defeats roll in. Newcastle have lost six of their last seven matches and required a late comeback in the other. They are sinking like a stone towards the bottom three.
If Ashley is still in charge for the duration of the transfer window, is he really likely to dip into his pocket to improve a squad that his successor will benefit from? And if he does, is that going to change the goalposts of the sale? Questions and headaches to ponder and endure over the festive period.
Jose Mourinho, who didn’t even try
You can go here to read many more conclusions from Sunday’s Manchester derby, but the most pertinent point is that Mourinho got this badly wrong. His pragmatism is too often sold as pure defensive football, but that is not the case. Pragmatism is doing whatever is required to give yourself the best chance of success, and Mourinho is usually better at it than most.
Yet against City, Manchester United surely played into their opponent’s hands. Throwing players forward to join the attack would indeed have been suicide, but there should have been a middle ground. During the first half, United played as if this were a training exercise of attack vs defence. The problem with that plan is that, eventually, the attack tends to score.
Manchester City hadn’t exactly been flying in recent matches. They had won each of their three previous league games 2-1, had fallen behind in three of their last four matches and had kept clean sheets in two of their last nine games. With Kyle Walker booked after three minutes and a defence of the occasionally unreliable Nicolas Otamendi, a half-fit Vincent Kompany and natural central midfielder Fabian Delph, surely City’s defence was their weak link.
Again, this was not a question of overloading the attack, but surely Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial could have stayed high up the pitch and Jesse Lingard been instructed to stick on Fernandinho and stop the supply. By sitting so deep, Mourinho allowed City to dictate the game.
‘Why’d you have to stick the boot into Mourinho?’ read one reply to 16 Conclusions on Twitter. ‘Simple fact is City are just better and no amount of tactical wizardry would change that.’ That may be true (although I don’t believe it is), but to leave the opponent’s greatest weakness virtually untested was a mistake for which Mourinho paid the price. It’s better to have tried and failed than never to have given it a go at all.
There is an obvious argument against sacking Mark Hughes. Stoke are three points above the relegation zone now, they finished ten points above the relegation zone last season and 14 points above the relegation zone the season before that. If they ask him to clear his desk, they must have a succession plan in place that sees them attract a candidate with greater aptitude than him. The tendency is then to be risk averse given the financial damage of relegation, and so you are left with a group of potential replacements who all look an awful lot like Hughes.
Yet it’s hardly a glowing endorsement of Hughes that the best reason not to sack him is not his own quality but a lack of obvious other option. The Welshman was appointed to take Stoke out of the Tony Pulis years and into the light, but the bulbs have blown at the Bet365 Stadium.
It’s not just that Stoke have now only taken 65 points from their last 60 league matches, although that would be grounds for divorce. It’s that this Stoke team has no identity, no discernible on-pitch strategy. They are incapable of defending stoutly against the better teams and incapable of killing off the worst. When Stoke win, it is as if they have fallen into each victory. And another miserable defeat will come along shortly.
This idea of identity is important here, and you only have to look to West Brom for evidence. It is unlikely that the Baggies would have been relegated under Pulis had he stayed in employment, but supporters had grown weary of a team that was meandering through entire seasons with no obvious direction. The football might be slightly more watchable at the Bet365, but the same sense of treading water pervades this club too.
If you have little chance of moving up the league and only a slight chance of being relegated, one of your responsibilities as a manager is to ensure that those who pay their money to watch the team enjoy themselves, and by that measure Hughes is falling woefully short. If it seems unfair to judge a manager on anything but results, Hughes can hardly point to them as a defence either.
He may have apologised afterwards, and managers doing a ream of post-match interviews may get frustrated, but there really is no excuse for Klopp asking for an interviewer who “knew about football”. It may have been a soft penalty decision, but Lovren shouldn’t have put his hands on Calvert-Lewin. Just as important to the result was Klopp’s own decision to rest key players.
I honestly can’t understand how a central defender who must have been in that position umpteen times before can be so thick?
Two points in their last five matches, and Tottenham at Wembley in midweek. When Pascal Gross doesn’t perform at his best, Brighton look toothless. A potentially cold winter awaits…
Arsenal’s away form (and their back three)
Our early losers. Before Giroud’s late equaliser I was preparing to tweet that only Stoke, Watford and Swansea have lost more away games in the Premier League than Arsenal in the last 12 months. That nugget will have to be saved for a future date, but it hardly changes the mood. Losing 11 of their last 20 away league games is a pitiful record for a club of Arsenal’s size.
Six shots on target in 502 away league minutes this season. Whether it is an issue of form, confidence or service, that is just not good enough for a striker who was intended to solve plenty of Arsenal’s problems.
Let Matt Stead tell you why.
“I am frustrated, especially when you see a penalty missed in the last minutes of the game, by someone who has not been designated as a penalty taker, but has decided at the last minute that he is the man to take the penalty,” said Roy Hodgson after Crystal Palace missed the chance to climb out of the relegation zone and instead fell back to the bottom of the Premier League.
After a weekend during which players were criticised for wearing gloves and keeping warm on the bench it’s worth remembering the ludicrous lengths some people will go to lambast footballers, but Benteke deserves all he gets from Palace supporters and the club.
There is nothing that annoys a manager more than a player stepping out of line to put the individual above the team. Had Benteke scored his penalty, there would have been disciplinary words. Having missed it, he should expect a spell out of the team. It is nothing less than such wanton individualism merits.
Fewer points in his first two matches than Gary Megson, which might not be an issue had Pardew’s first two games not been against the clubs 19th and 20th in the Premier League.
As the eternal optimist, Pardew will insist that patience is needed to lift the lethargy of Pulis’ reign, but managing only one shot on target in 90 minutes against Swansea City is almost a sacking offence in itself. Work to do.