Premier League winners and losers

Date published: Monday 9th April 2018 10:37

Winners

Joe Hart
It has been a bloody long time, but given the flak that Hart has come in for over the last six, 12, 18 and 24 months, it’s only right that he is also praised when appropriate. West Ham earned a surprise point at Stamford Bridge, but they would have lost by two or three clear goals were it not for the excellence of Hart, truly the player of this Premier League weekend. The save from Marcos Alonso was as good as anything this season.

 

Jose Mourinho, winning without changing
The most startling aspect of Manchester United’s comeback against City is that it was not provoked by half-time substitutions or a change in formation. Look again at the list of our great Premier League comebacks. Wolves vs Leicester – half-time substitution. Crystal Palace vs Liverpool – all three goals after a double substitution. Manchester United vs Tottenham – two substitutions before the start of the second half. This is the norm.

Mourinho is certainly usually of that same mindset. He famously made a triple half-time substitution when Chelsea manager in February 2005, bringing off Joe Cole, Tiago and Geremi at the break against Newcastle United. He apologised to Henrikh Mkhitaryan after taking him off at half-time against Derby County in January, and only ten days earlier had done exactly the same thing to Zlatan Ibrahimovic. At Chelsea during his second reign, Mourinho once brought on Nemanja Matic at half-time and took him off again 27 minutes later. He is unafraid to do whatever he feels is necessary to get a result.

Yet against City, Mourinho did something different. Rather than drag off any of his under-performers (and he could have removed any of five or six players), he challenged them to prove that they merited his continued faith. Presumably after reading the riot act to the whole team.

This victory might offer evidence of Manchester United’s ability to win the league title next season, but it is not definitive proof. Squads and moods will change too much to make such calls based on one comeback, and City should have been well clear at the break.

But we can conclude definitively that Mourinho still retains the respect of his players, and that those players are motivated to play for him. For periods of the last few months, when Mourinho was hanging players out to dry and United were tumbling out of the Champions League, that really did look in doubt.

Now run along and read Matt Stead’s 16 Conclusions

 

Sean Dyche, winning without changing
At the end of last season, Dyche had a problem: Burnley had been found out. His team took 11 points from their final 15 matches of the season, and were saved only by their early-season form. Their away record was appalling, and opposition managers had worked out how to counteract Burnley’s strengths at Turf Moor. They took five points from their final six home matches.

Only relegated Hull City took fewer points from their 19 away games than Burnley in 2016/17. Dyche realised that his team had to be more courageous away from home, given that the home form of August 2016 to February 2017 was unlikely to be matched this season.

So it has proved. Burnley took 1.73 points per home game last season when finishing 16th, dropping to 1.47 per home game this season despite them being seventh in the table. Watford, Bournemouth and Brighton have all taken more points at home.

The key to Burnley’s success, then, is surprising teams away from home rather than at Turf Moor. Only the current top four have taken more away points. They have three more than Chelsea, and 14 more than Arsenal.

Managerial courage is usually interpreted as a team being more expansive, leaving themselves open to counter attacks in favour of creating more chances. But again, Dyche has turned expectation on its head. His courage has not come in greater attacking impetus, but in doing precisely the same things and coaching his team to be far better at doing it.

Burnley have scored only 19 times in 17 away games, and are actually having fewer shots per away game than last season. They have also registered an almost identical possession figure in their away games of 39.6%.

The improvement has come in their defending, despite the loss of Michael Keane. They allow three fewer shots per game on the the road, but it is the amount of shots on target faced that is most instructive. Last season, only Sunderland allowed more shots on target in their Premier League away games than Burnley. This season, they have allowed fewer shots on target per away game than Manchester United. That is an extraordinary improvement.

They say that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. Perhaps the definition of managerial over-achievement is doing the same thing over and over but getting increasingly better results.

 

Newcastle’s January signings
Martin Dubravka and Kenedy: business at the back, party at the front. Have a pair of loan signings ever made such a short-term difference to a Premier League team?

 

Danny Welbeck
You might be focusing on the open goal miss from one yard out, or the fact that Welbeck is only starting Premier League games because Arsene Wenger has prioritised the Europa League, but neither actually matter too much. Welbeck was in Gareth Southgate’s last England squad, and scoring goals to get noticed is the only way he stays there now Harry Kane is fit. Good time to score the winner in a league game for the first time in almost two years.

 

Rafael Benitez
Points taken from last ten Premier League games:
Tottenham – 26
Manchester United – 24
Manchester City – 22
Liverpool – 20
Newcastle United – 16

One of those things is not like the other. From a position of strife and a backdrop of civil war, Benitez has taken Newcastle into the top half. He truly is the saviour.

 

Ryan Fraser
Eight chances created against Crystal Palace. That’s the highest by any player this weekend and one below the highest total by anyone in the Premier League this season (Kevin de Bruyne vs Southampton in November).

 

Tammy Abraham
A first league goal in 18 matches, and for almost six months. A promising season went south (Wales) very quickly indeed.

 

Harry Kane
“I swear on my daughter’s life that I touched the ball, but there’s nothing I can do,” said Kane. “If they turn it around, they turn it around. If they take my word, they take my word.”

People talk about elite mentality, but are you really committed to scoring goals if you aren’t prepared to swear on the life of your child just to get closer to winning the Golden Boot? We can only presume Kane got home to be treated to the following line from his fiance: “Erm, babe, can you not?”

 

Losers

Antonio Conte
If there is an apathetic air to Arsenal’s Premier League games over this final stretch, Chelsea’s aren’t a whole lot more exciting. If Liverpool’s Merseyside derby draw against Everton left the top-four door slightly ajar, Chelsea tripped over their own feet and fell head first into it, slamming it back shut. That’s that, folks.

This is a wretched run of Chelsea form. Since the start of the year, they have won three of their 11 league matches, against Crystal Palace, Brighton and West Brom. Their seven games against teams currently in the top 12 have returned two measly points, and they’ve lost their last five games against those sides. The only question is whether they finish fifth or sixth. Burnley might even fancy their chances; they are eight points behind.

“For sure, for sure, there is disappointment,” said Conte after the match. “I think this is normal. Because we must be disappointed with the final result. After a game like this, you have to get three points.

“Instead, we are talking about a draw. About one point, but this is not the first time. We are paying a lot this season for this type of situation. When this happens with regularity, it means you have a problem.”

The pertinent question is how much Chelsea’s failure taints Conte’s reputation? The Italian has attempted to absolve himself of blame with his semi-constant criticism of his club’s transfer market activity, and Conte has a valid case, but this 2018 collapse is on him.

Players take their lead from the head coach. Conte’s barbs, and transparency over a probable summer exit, have demotivated Chelsea’s first team. You can criticise their own lack of professionalism if you want, but it’s hardly unusual for a manager to set the tempo and the example.

By this point, Conte has exhausted any accumulated sympathy. He is right that Chelsea’s transfer dealings put them at a disadvantage compared to Manchester United and Manchester City, and Chelsea have lost home matches to both. But what of Bournemouth, Burnley, Crystal Palace, Watford and West Ham? Chelsea have taken ten points from nine matches against those sides this season. And that one’s on the manager.

So when Conte walks off into the Premier League sunset this summer, presumably chuntering about a lack of investment as he goes, how do we remember him? As the passionate coach who masterminded a Premier League title win in his first season, becoming only the fourth manager since 1986 to win the championship in his first season managing in England? Or as the manager who allowed goodwill to evaporate while he was picking fights inside his club and out? The answer lies somewhere in between, but even that is a shame.

 

Crystal Palace and late goals
88 minutes: Crystal Palace 0-0 Tottenham
90 minutes: Crystal Palace 2-2 Manchester United
83 minutes: Crystal Palace 1-1 Liverpool
89 minutes: Bournemouth 1-2 Crystal Palace

It has been a bad six weeks for Crystal Palace’s concentration. Had those matches finished a fraction early, Palace would have taken six points and be 13th in the Premier League, ahead of Brighton, West Ham and Swansea. As it is, they took one point. If Southampton win their game in hand, Palace are in the bottom three.

“It affects morale in the short term, directly after the game, when the dressing room is not a happy place,” Roy Hodgson admitted after Liverpool’s late winner. “I thought we were playing well and looking dangerous, and it is hard to swallow to come so close. You have to get over that quickly and you have to move on and think about the next one.”

The problem is that Saturday’s evidence suggests Palace’s players are struggling to get over it quickly. To concede late once or twice is careless, but to do so four times in six weeks suggests an issue in confidence or strategy. Are Palace going into ultra-defensive mode too quickly, given that attack is clearly their best form of defence?

 

Shkodran Mustafi
This is a crucial time for Mustafi. With Arsenal set for a clear-out overseen by Sven Mislintat rather than Arsene Wenger, those who cannot consider themselves as key players should be looking over their shoulder. If Mustafi had done exactly that on Sunday, he might have seen Shane Long running towards him. And then he wouldn’t have had to blame his goalkeeper for his own mistake.

 

Raheem Sterling
Missing chances in comfortable victories can be forgiven, and Sterling’s chance conversion rate has been far improved this season. But when you miss two presentable opportunities to make the score 3-0 and your team then gets turned over in the second half, flak is coming your way. The gaps in Sterling’s confidence remain when sent through one-on-one with a goalkeeper.

Now go read 16 Conclusions for far more on Manchester City. Didn’t you listen first time?

 

Wayne Rooney
If Rooney was demonstrably annoyed at being substituted by his manager in the 57th minute for the second successive home game in a row, goodness only knows what his reaction was to Sam Allardyce’s quotes that filled the Sunday papers.

“Our passing sometimes got a bit woeful. That is why we made the changes,” was Allardyce’s immediate post-match take. “He can say whatever he wants to me in the office but it has to be done between the four walls of the office between me and him. He’s an Evertonian through and through and he’s been brought off in a derby game. I’d expect a reaction because that’s how much he cares. That’s fine by me.”

If that intended to play down the problem, far worse was to come:

“I can agree with you, to a certain degree, that Wayne struggles against the very best opposition,” Allardyce said. “He didn’t play very well in the first half against Manchester City but, before that, he had been outstanding and we had been a little bit short in ­midfield in recent weeks anyway. We’re still playing Tom Davies at 19 and bringing on Beni ­Baningime at 19-years-old and we are without Gylfi ­Sigurdsson, who can play there.”

Allardyce is effectively admitting that Rooney is playing for Everton because there is nobody else available. Were there, he would be sat squarely on the bench.

That is an extraordinary admission for two reasons. Firstly, Rooney is Everton’s highest-paid player at around £150,000 a week, a significant drop from his Manchester United salary but still lofty. A jobbing 32-year-old Everton midfielder really is on more money than any Tottenham player.

Secondly, it suggests that Rooney’s career at the top level is finished. When Allardyce was made England manager, he famously said that he could not stop Rooney playing in midfield for the national team, because he had enjoyed such a decorated club career. Seventeen months later, and it is Allardyce who is hammering nails into Rooney’s coffin.

The expectation was that Allardyce’s arrival at Goodison was good news for Rooney. An English manager for an English player, and one who would have far more respect for Rooney than a continental coach might. They tend to prioritise little things like stamina and energy rather than reputation.

Rooney’s first-team place might well have been at significant risk anyway. Allardyce is likely to leave this summer having burned the few bridges that were in place when he took over. Would Paulo Fonseca have the same inbuilt respect towards Rooney?

As it is, one of Rooney’s closest cohorts has done more to damage his long-term reputation than anyone else. Insinuating that Rooney struggles against the elite when playing for a club who have designs on becoming part of that elite is to render him useless. Rooney may well outlast Allardyce at Goodison, but don’t expect the final year of his contract to be a grand hurrah.

 

Hugo Lloris
As defined by Opta, the list of those making the highest number of errors leading to goals or shots in the Premier league this season is unsurprisingly dominated by goalkeepers. Petr Cech sits top with 13, but next comes Lloris on 12.

Just because he does many excellent things does not mean that we should ignore Lloris’ mistakes. They are becoming a habit.

 

Jonas Lossl
And so are his.

 

Danny Ings and Dominic Solanke
This is not an attempt to lambaste Solanke or Ings. The former is a young player still learning his trade despite being given precious few minutes, and the latter has suffered enough injury misfortune for an entire career by the age of 25.

But this is not the time or place for sentiment. In a league where constant progress is expected, Liverpool will be asked to again challenge for a top-four place and Champions League glory next season, and perhaps even muster a meaningful title challenge. For those goals to be realistic, they need better back-up for their magnificent front three.

Liverpool now face the same problem that Tottenham wrestled with through Roberto Soldado, Vincent Janssen and Fernando Llorente. It is not easy to find a player good enough to fit into their brilliant front three if one of Roberto Firmino, Mohamed Salah or Sadio Mane are absent, but who is also happy to spend significant time on the bench.

 

Stoke City
Stoke City actually made three mistakes in one, which is pretty sterling work:

1) They kept faith in Mark Hughes long after it became clear that he would not turn around a situation of his own creation. That meant that all the firefighters were gone.

2) They limited themselves to managers with Premier League experience, a truly nonsensical move given the lack of options available.

3) They stuck with that limitation having chased and failed to catch Martin O’Neill, even when it meant appointing a man whose last top-flight experience saw him sacked by Aston Villa after overseeing miserable results and miserable football.

Honestly, why does experience of failure count more than inexperience? Why does “Paul greatly impressed us with his knowledge of our squad” mean absolutely anything of note to a club owner? They’re Stoke City of the Premier League for goodness sake, not Puerto Quito of the Ecuadorian second tier.

That lack of imagination will surely cost Stoke. Lambert has taken four points from his last nine league games, and Stoke will require at least seven from their final five to stay up. Three of those matches are away from home; Stoke’s away record in all competitions this season: Won 1, Drawn 5, Lost 12. Good luck.

 

Southampton
Positive signs at the Emirates, particularly in comparison with the nightmare on Green St (yes, it does work better when they played at Upton Park) last weekend. Shane Long actually scored, Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg is in form at the right time and Dusan Tadic looked like he cared too. Even if that did mean assaulting Reiss Nelson.

Mark Hughes spoke in the aftermath of the West Ham defeat about his courage to drop several under-performing players, and that too played out. Nathan Redmond and Sofiane Boufal were both omitted from the team, while Guido Carrillo failed to even make the squad. Complacency is a killer when a team is in this much trouble.

And yet the negatives must again outweigh the positives. Southampton have conceded six times in Hughes’ two league matches, will be without Jack Stephens for half of their remaining games, and have still only won once in the league since November 26.

It’s all very well focusing on the three home games to come, but if the cliche is that survival is achieved via strong home form, Southampton are buggered. They haven’t won in eight at St. Mary’s, and haven’t scored more than once in any of those games either.

Daniel Storey

 

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