Premier League winners and losers

Date published: Monday 15th January 2018 9:31

Winners

Jurgen Klopp
There are many excellent words on Liverpool from Matt Stead in 16 Conclusions, but if you thought I’d miss the chance to double down on the F365 Says piece from this week then you 1) are mistaken and 2) don’t know me at all.

Liverpool’s ability to move on and move up from Philippe Coutinho will not be determined by one victory, even considering the opposition, but it should at least give those Liverpool supporters who believed that their club had committed a heinous mistake some reassurance. 

In midweek, Klopp reiterated the message that Liverpool had no choice but to sell Coutinho. The Brazilian had made it perfectly clear that he no longer wished to stay at Anfield. Klopp could not be sure that Liverpool would see the best of their midfielder if he stayed until the summer, and Barcelona had offered the second biggest transfer fee in history. Look at it logically, and this was a no-brainer.

Klopp’s other midweek statement was also important, insisting that if anyone should be upset and worried about Coutinho leaving, it should be him. And yet Liverpool’s manager was relaxed, discussing how Coutinho’s departure could actually make Liverpool more unpredictable and thus harder to defend against. It also allowed for other players to step out of the shadows.

Of course it is far easier to say that than make it so, and this was the party line of every manager in the same situation. Yet there was reason to believe that this was more than just an easy and empty promise. Do not forget that Liverpool changed Coutinho’s position over the summer in order to accommodate him in their team. For all his brilliance – and there was plenty – he was never a natural fit for a Klopp team. Klopp likes his artists to also hold down regular 9-5 jobs.

On Sunday, Klopp got the perfect response from his players. With Coutinho previously playing as the most advanced midfielder on the left, Klopp gave Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain that role, but on the right. That in turn allowed Andrew Robertson to press and harry high up the pitch without fear of leaving the defence exposed, for Georginio Wijnaldum or Emre Can could more easily tuck in. Oxlade-Chamberlain immediately produced his best performance in a Liverpool shirt. If that is a coincidence, it is a happy one.

There will be days when Liverpool miss Coutinho’s propensity to magic a match-winning moment out of thin air, but his departure does not leave a gaping hole that nobody can fill. Klopp’s rule at in Germany was that the team would always be more important than any individual, and he repeatedly proved himself capable of maintaining performance while selling his better players. We have seen nothing in England to suggest that that ability has disappeared.

 

Liverpool and their sky blueprint
I have no intention of making comparisons between Liverpool and Manchester United, because I can leave that to dull Twitter accounts that have a breathtaking ability to get huge Twitter numbers on equally dull takes. But one thing is certainly true: the best way to beat Manchester City is to attack them.

“You have no alternatives to beat City,” Klopp said after the game. “You could win the lottery, hope they tackle each other and then you can stand deep in your own box and hope nothing happens but that it is not really likely.

“Being Liverpool we should not try this way. Then you don’t have a lot of alternatives, you have none. You need to be brave and you need to play football.”

Crystal Palace tried it, Bristol City tried it and Liverpool achieved it.

‘Lottery’ is an interesting term for Klopp to use, because his football often feels kamikaze in style, a mad melting pot of pressing and shooting that sometimes clicks wonderfully and sometimes ends with egg on the manager’s face. But five victories in 12 matches against Guardiola’s teams suggests it is the only way to go against them.

Yet slowly, Klopp is refining the madness. An 18-match unbeaten run, including eight clean sheets, indicates that the German has learned that mania is not sustainable, but get the right balance and his team can fly. It is the same balance that Brendan Rodgers came so close to mastering, but ultimately fell short.

Klopp’s meticulous man-management provides the platform, but the attacking freedom he hands to his players allows them to enjoy themselves in every game. If that is blended with the right amount of defensive stability – enter Virgil van Dijk, stage right – the sky really could be the limit. Liverpool have won their last five matches, scoring 15 goals. Ask yourself this: would you want your team to face them over two legs in the Champions League?

 

Andrew Robertson
A piece written nine days too early. We should have waited until a second consecutive man-of-the-match performance.

 

Eddie Howe
This has been one of the toughest runs of Howe’s career, as Bournemouth fight to avoid the inevitable lull after fairytale progress. With lower budgets than most of those clubs around them, it would be very easy for Bournemouth to slip back into the Championship and avoid scrutiny. After all, they were never supposed to be here.

And yet Howe continues to make this team greater than the sum of its parts. The Bournemouth players that appeared in the match against Arsenal made 319 appearances in the 2014/15 season for the same club. Bournemouth spent that season in the Championship. They should not be competing with Arsenal, let alone beating them.

The focus will always be shifted onto the beaten team in these contests, for that is how these things work. And yet Bournemouth, a team currently enjoying the third top-flight season in their history, came from 1-0 down to beat Arsenal for the first time.

It’s hardly any surprise that Bournemouth have struggled against the best teams in the Premier League, but nine straight losses against the ‘big six’ narrows the margins for error against the rest. This was their first win in 15 games against one of the Premier League’s elite clubs. Yes I know, I said Arsenal and ‘elite’.

“We will enjoy tonight, that was a famous win for the club,” said Howe after the game, and he’s right. In the rat race of the Premier League relegation battle, it’s easy to assume that all are equal. Bournemouth are a small club achieving huge things. Their heads are above water again.

 

Harry Kane
A scorer of two goals against Everton for the third league game in a row to make him Tottenham’s record Premier League goalscorer at the age of just 24. “He’s just a one-season wonder,” rang around Wembley, and that sarcasm will never get old. This remains a truly astonishing career trajectory, and one without any tinge of negativity to spoil it.

 

David Moyes
Becoming the fourth manager to reach 200 Premier League wins points to longevity as much as excellence, but the two clearly at least bear some relation. Moyes could not have wished for a better performance with which to reach such a milestone from a team that suddenly have their tails up. A top-half finish is now a realistic aim.

 

West Ham’s attacking gems
Marko Arnautovic and Manuel Lanzini were our early winners. Moyes has got his two mercurial attackers firing, and West Ham are unsurprisingly better for it.

 

Crystal Palace
Taking their customary place in this list are Roy Hodgson’s Crystal Palace, who are now 12th in the Premier League and looking likely to press on further still. In their last 12 league matches, Palace have taken 21 points. Before that, they had taken 28 points in their previous 47.

 

Claude Puel’s Leicester
Another staple of the section. The biggest compliment that you can pay to Puel is that his team will be bitterly disappointed not to have won at Stamford Bridge. Leicester sat back and were put under pressure following Ben Chilwell’s second yellow card, but before then had taken the game to the defending champions and caused them significant problems.

The doubts over Puel surrounded his supposed defensive mindset. Despite the second 0-0 draw in succession, you won’t find any Leicester City supporters complaining now.

 

Watford’s resilience
On Saturday morning, The Times’ Oliver Kay wrote an excellent piece on why things were going downhill for Watford and Marco Silva. Kay’s information was that Silva wanted the job and expected that Watford would agree to his exit, and that a number of his players wanted to follow him to Goodison. You can probably guess the names.

If that is indeed true, it would explain the slump since that interest became apparent. And yet Watford have not quite run out of fight yet. Despite conceding the first two goals of the game and looking abject in the first half, they battled back to a 2-2 draw to stop the rot, if not quite alleviate the growing frustration amongst supporters.

It is becoming a pattern. Watford have now taken eight points after conceding the first goal of the game in the league this season. That total is bettered only by Manchester City, Crystal Palace and Everton. While their stomach to rally remains, Silva will hope to turn around the slump.

 

Jordon Ibe
We’ve pointed out plenty of times when Ibe has failed to perform since his move from Liverpool, so it’s only fair to also point out that the winger has improved massively over the last couple of months. It might sound like a back-handed compliment, but he performed better than any Arsenal player on Sunday.

 

Losers

Arsenal
I need to do little more than repeat the words of Matt Stead, for they are spot on:

‘Arsenal offer nothing unique, and will be feeding off the scraps thrown down by the top table. For they have been removed from their seat, escorted from the premises and had their membership revoked. The big six will be a big five for as long as Wenger’s reign unfathomably continues.’

And it will continue. Wenger spoke this week to deny that he will walk away from the club before the end of his two-year contract. He is addicted to the light that blinds him.

If that puts the ball in the court of Arsenal’s decision-makers, you haven’t been watching properly if you think Ivan Gazidis or Stan Kroenke will push for change. Not when you can make money out of mediocrity and wilfully mislead supporters over the club’s grand designs.

 

Arsenal’s goalkeeping situation
If you’re after a metaphor for every one of Arsenal’s issues combined, hear this:

– Arsenal loaned out Wojciech Szczesny in 2015 and let him stay at Roma for two years.

– Over those two years, Szczesny transformed from a boy (with occasional disciplinary problems) into a man. So, the loan worked perfectly.

– Over that same time, Petr Cech’s form declined badly to the extent that David Ospina was occasionally picked. Ospina was also largely terrible.

– Rather than welcoming Szczesny back into the arms of the club and making him their No. 1 goalkeeper, Arsenal sold him to Juventus. Juventus made it clear that Szczesny would be the heir to arguably the greatest goalkeeper of all time, Gianluigi Buffon.

– The fee Arsenal commanded for Buffon’s heir? £10m. That’s less than West Brom paid Southampton for Jay Rodriguez in the same summer. Rodriguez is a year older.

– Cech has got worse. Szczesny has got better.

 

Manchester City without David Silva
There is no great panic after defeat in one game, but for all the majesty of Kevin de Bruyne (and he was superb at Anfield), Manchester City badly missed Silva. Which team wouldn’t?

Ilkay Gundogan is an excellent midfielder, but being without Silva is to miss two players and replace him with one. City played with 11 men at Anfield; they’re used to having 12.

 

John Stones
He made a mistake against Burnley upon his return from injury, and we pointed out in a Big Midweek column that Manchester City needed his best as soon as possible. He gave a penalty away against Bristol City, and we worried about Liverpool’s fluid attack dancing around him.

With good reason. Stones was wretched at Anfield. His two-month injury seems to have set him back two years, and Pep Guardiola will be desperate for a return to form. When Stones isn’t performing at his best, those around him look a lot less secure.

 

Antonio Conte and Chelsea’s attack
I won’t be the one to point out to Conte that he hasn’t won a match since his very public feud with Jose Mourinho began, but if somebody does feel brave enough to mention it then go ahead. Chelsea are in danger of putting their top-four place in doubt.

I wrote a piece on Wednesday evening after Chelsea’s last 0-0 draw about a misfiring attack with Alvaro Morata the guiltiest party, and Saturday replicated the same mood. Morata looks lost, leaving Eden Hazard with the responsibility of being creator and finisher.

The Spaniard’s disconsolate air has bled into those around him. Hazard was quiet and substituted after less than hour played, Tiemoue Bakayoko was as anonymous as has become customary and Antonio Rudiger looked sluggish in possession. Three of Chelsea’s summer signings are just about their most unconvincing players.

The groans are now starting to be directed not just at Chelsea’s players, but their manager. Conte’s response to setback is to pick the same (or very similar) attack with players in the same (or very similar) roles and hope that something clicks. If there is little fluidity in the team selection or strategy, there is little change in performance either.

Conte used his post-match press conference to insist that Chelsea’s problems are all down to fatigue, something else on which he is staying resolute, but that doesn’t quite fly. Chelsea do indeed have a busier schedule than last season, but not enough to account for this gap in average quality. The chances of Conte leaving in the summer grow all the time.

 

Sam Allardyce, again
Our early loser for the second consecutive Premier League edition of this column. It is worth repeating the truly outrageous statistic: Everton have failed to have a shot on target in three of their last five league games. Before Allardyce was appointed, they had done the same three times in 222 league games.

 

Newcastle’s strength in depth
Newcastle’s starting XI against Swansea on Saturday contained 11 players who appeared for the club in the Championship last season. If Mike Ashley refuses to invest in this squad over the next fortnight, he is taking the risk that a squad fit for promotion will also be fit to survive relegation. Get it wrong, and there will be mutiny.

 

Burnley
The first definitive signs that a great season is becoming a good one. Burnley are now without a win in seven matches, and have failed to score in four of their last six league games.

Having never been particularly prolific at creating chances, Sean Dyche’s team have now had only 14 shots on target in their last five league games. Dyche will want to address the mini-slump soon.

 

Huddersfield Town
The second time this season that Huddersfield have been outclassed by a non-elite Premier League team and West Ham have twice been their conquerors. Wagner’s side suddenly looked distinctly average in defence; if Christopher Schindler and Aaron Mooy don’t perform, are Huddersfield then stuffed?

 

Granit Xhaka
At some point Xhaka will realise that receiving mild applause for spraying a pass out to the wing doth not an effective central midfielder make. Reputations are forged when in tough times. Xhaka is usually nowhere to be seen when Arsenal are capitulating.

 

Southampton’s slackness
There is something that happens to this Southampton team after taking the lead. They have scored the first goal of the game nine times in their 23 matches, and won only four of those games. They have lost 11 points from winning positions.

It is difficult to imagine that Southampton could ever get complacent given their league position and the pressure on their manager’s continued employment, but the answer may lie in Mauricio Pellegrino’s own struggles. Too often after scoring the first goal, Southampton sit back and invite the opposition on. They are frightened of being caught on the counter-attack, or perhaps they just lack the conviction and belief to continue to attack.

The result becomes inevitable. A central defence of Jack Stephens and Wesley Hoedt is not good enough to withstand semi-constant pressure without cracking. Particularly if opposition players are permitted to use their hands to score.

 

Daniel Storey

 


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