Pep Guardiola, doing what he promised he would
If Guardiola was surprised by anything in his first season in English football, it was not the nature of our game but the strength of the criticism that followed every setback. Manchester City’s manager was specifically mocked for revealing that he didn’t coach tackling, but the overarching theme of all this criticism was that Guardiola’s footballing philosophy had blurred into arrogance.
‘If Pep thinks he’s going to turn up and outplay everybody in the Premier League, and that team are going to let his side have the ball for 90% of the time and pass pretty patterns around them so they can get a result, then he is absolutely deluded,’ as one pundit wrote (and there were others).
The insinuation was clear. Nobody comes into the Premier League and succeeds without meeting English football half way. Last season was proof not of City’s journey to Guardiola’s Enlightenment taking longer than he had hoped, but that his way could not work in England without adaptation or dilution. Passing around the back? Pah. Full-backs pushing into midfield? Lunatic. More than 900 passes per game? Not here, son.
And yet he has been proven emphatically correct. Guardiola’s Manchester City have become a blend of Guardiola’s Barcelona and Guardiola’s Bayern Munich, the short passing triangles of the former and the extraordinary positional fluidity of the latter. Their league title has been virtually secured since November, and they may still set records for points and matches won, and goals scored. The competition in the Premier League is stronger than Guardiola faced at Bayern and Barcelona. That only makes this more impressive.
Of course Guardiola has had access to significant transfer budgets, but that is a reality shared by other elite managers too. Whatever Jose Mourinho’s media buddies may have you believe, the spends by the two managers do not equate to a 16-point lead. The same people who believe that the Premier League’s lack of depth has assisted City were telling us last week that City had flaws that could be exposed. You can’t have both.
Guardiola failed in the Champions League, at least according to pre-season hope. Combining domestic dominance with European glory outside of Barcelona remains his holy grail. But again, we must be careful of over-criticism. Real Madrid only managed the league and European Cup double for the first time in their history last season; there is a reason this is unusual. And if Guardiola’s City failed in the Champions League, so too did Barcelona, Manchester United, Chelsea, Paris Saint-Germain and Juventus. So too will one of Bayern Munich and Real Madrid.
So beware the tendency to re-write history, and beware those who tell you that this Premier League waltz was always a foregone conclusion. The internet is a magical place; one search brings up a queue of pundits, writers and ex-professionals who predicted a different title winner and warned Guardiola about his new signings and the new season. Most of those will be happy to stand and applaud what has followed, one of the most astonishing Premier League campaigns in which a side has dropped 12 points in nine months. The others should learn some grace.
This Premier League title, secured improbably early, is a victory for financial strength, a victory for long-term planning and a victory for free-flowing attacking football after the comparative pragmatism of Chelsea and Leicester’s recent title victories. But more than that, it is a victory for Guardiola; against Mourinho and against those who claimed he could not put up a paradise in this parking lot. They told him that he would have to change; he showed them why he refused to countenance changing. Now it is his peers who must adapt to compete with him.
There are very few (any?) good news stories to come out of this miserable West Brom season, but Moore deserved to be untainted by failure. Committed and honest professional became committed and honest coach, and one who works tirelessly to improve young players. When asked to take the reins at the Hawthorns following the latest managerial clusterf*ck, Moore stepped into the breach. In two league games, he has taken as many points as Alan Pardew managed in his last 11.
“Pride sums up my emotions,” Moore told Sky Sports after victory at Old Trafford. “It was important to come here and give a positive performance. Everyone at the football club, the players and the staff, put a real good shift in. There is a wonderful belief at the club and we showed that today. We’ve got faith in one another, the players and staff have got faith in each other, we believe in the club.”
It wasn’t always that way. It wasn’t even that way a fortnight ago. Perhaps if West Brom had leaned on those who knew the workings of the club and had its best interests at heart rather than just another managerial gun for hire, these last two results would not be as futile as they will ultimately prove to be.
A sensational run that shows no sign of abating, and proof that Benitez is the best in the business when it comes to organising a team to sit deep and exploit the flaws in better opponents. In their last 15 league games, Newcastle have taken 26 points – four more than Chelsea. In their last 15 league games, Newcastle have lost three times – the same as Manchester United.
The inevitable result of this overachievement is that Benitez will be linked to jobs further up the league table in England, Italy and Spain this summer. But after his difficult experiences at Inter and Real Madrid, Benitez knows where his talents lie. Given the right tools, what could he achieve at St James’ Park?
Taking a club in a non-capital city, where the love for football runs like a vein through everyday life. Becoming a leader of the club and the community to create a swell of goodwill that can make up for a shortfall in spending or individual talent. There are links between Benitez’s Newcastle, Benitez’s Liverpool and Benitez’s Valencia, but also to Bobby Robson’s Newcastle too. Benitez understands the responsibilities of his role, the difference he can make to a community. Like Robson, he becomes one of them: honorary Scouser, honorary Geordie.
All that is left is for Newcastle United to meet Benitez in the middle, the way its players and supporters have.
“I want to be competitive and I want to win,” he said before the Arsenal victory. “You have to have a mix of young players and players with experience – that means you have to spend some money because if not, you cannot compete now and win something.
“But you have to invest in your Academy and your training facilities, everything to improve the club and improve the project. I would like to stay a lot of years at any club, but if they want to be competitive and they want to progress, yes. But it’s very easy to say that and after, you have to do it.”
Don’t f*ck this one up, Newcastle.
Newcastle, winning from behind
The victory over Arsenal was the first time that Newcastle have come from behind to win in any home game since September 2016, and the first time in a Premier League home game since Everton in December 2014.
That was Alan Pardew’s final game in charge. Plenty has changed since…
When Hodgson was appointed at Selhurst Park, Crystal Palace had no points and no goals. After three matches of his reign, Crystal Palace had no points and no goals. At that point, the discussion centred on whether Palace would be the worst team in Premier League history; their relegation was assumed.
Twenty-seven games later, and it is Palace’s survival that now goes without saying. Victory over their closest rivals on Saturday has secured their second consecutive great escape, and this time there is no suspicion that their manager will walk away from the club. Continue on this trajectory, and next season will be far different.
Hodgson has masterminded an unlikely triumph, and simultaneously ensured his own professional redemption while his England successor flounders for goodwill at Everton. The oldest manager in English league football is enjoying his Indian summer.
From Friday’s Big Weekend:
‘Hodgson and Palace supporters know only too well that Saturday will shape the mood for the rest of the season. Lose to their most bitter rival, thus failing to produce a performance in the biggest home game of the season, and you could consider Palace as favourites to be relegated if other results went against them. Win, and survival would surely be virtually assured. Time for their talisman to step up again.’
And step up Zaha did, scoring more than once in a Premier League match for the first time in his career. Since returning from injury on March 10 against Chelsea, he ranks joint first for goals scored, joint first for assists, second for chances created and comfortably first for dribbles completed amongst Palace’s players. If the best players get going when the going gets tough, Palace should prepare for serious summer interest in the saviour of their season.
The biggest win of Huddersfield’s season, and their most important goal too, scored deep into the second half. Huddersfield have had six shots on target in their last two home games, and failed to score. Against Watford they had one in total, but in it went. A corner of West Yorkshire erupted as one.
Their debut Premier League season had threatened to go sour. Before Watford, David Wagner’s side had taken two points from five matches against opponents including Swansea, Crystal Palace, Newcastle and Brighton. After Watford, their final four fixtures were against Everton, Manchester City, Chelsea and Arsenal. It was all Saturday. In the crunch moment of the crunch match, Town came good.
“It was a very emotional moment for everybody who supports Huddersfield,” said Wagner after the game. “I am delighted for the players, I am absolutely over the moon. People who had much more experience of the Premier League said at the beginning of the season you need 10 wins and it looks like you need these 10 wins.” Nine may well be enough.
Europa League football at Turf Moor!
Forty goals. Forty bloody goals. It’s fair to say that at the start of the season, few people expected Salah to score more Premier League goals than Swansea, West Brom and Huddersfield. He’s currently on one fewer than Alexandre Lacazette, Alvaro Morata and Alexis Sanchez. Combined.
Seventeen goals and eight assists in 34 Premier League and Champions League games. Not being as impressive as Salah hardly merits being an insult.
Created more chances than any other player in the Premier League this weekend. Olivier Giroud grabbed the headlines for his goals, but it is Willian’s creativity that is dragging Chelsea on. Without him, their season would already be dead and buried.
Goals in each of his last five club games, and ten in his last 12. The swell of opinion that he could start England’s first game in Russia is growing by the week.
Arsenal’s away record
You might think that it doesn’t matter, and so might Arsenal supporters desperate to keep their heads in the sand. Last season, Manchester United sacrificed their Premier League form for the Europa League. Jose Mourinho made changes to his team, and United won only one of their last six league matches.
Now, Arsene Wenger is doing the same. The Europa League is Arsenal’s only route back into the Champions League, so why would results or performances in anything other than the Europa League matter? Who cares if Arsenal have lost their last five away league games? Who cares if no other team in English football’s top five leagues has failed to win a single point away from home in 2018?
But of course it matters. How could it not matter when this is Wenger’s audition to prove that he deserves to keep his job? How could it not matter when Arsenal’s away form has been so wretched for so long? How could it not matter when Arsenal’s travelling support have endured such dross over the last three months that anger has become sorrow has become apathy?
This Arsenal team away from home are its manager in excelsis: out of their comfort zone and out of ideas. He should be out of a job come June. Whatever happens in Europe.
Jose Mourinho and the lack of ruthlessness
All the focus on the flaws in Guardiola’s Manchester City team over the last week have surrounded the ability of opposition teams to spook them by getting into their faces. If that is indeed fair criticism (and it’s worth pointing out that City have comfortably topped an intra-top-six mini-league), it is counteracted by their form against the Premier League rest. Against the clubs in 10th to 20th, City have taken 49 of a possible 51 points.
It is this ruthlessness that most sets City apart from their Manchester neighbours. Manchester United’s struggles against the Premier League rest reflects worse on Mourinho than their lack of ambition against top-six teams. The argument that Guardiola has spent more than Mourinho and so Manchester United could not possibly have coped with City completely falls down when you consider the financially non-elite clubs that United have dropped points against. Mourinho’s team have only taken 41 of a possible 54 points against the teams in 10th to 20th. That’s fewer than Liverpool and Tottenham too.
Mourinho has made Manchester United better this season, but the 13 dropped points against Newcastle, West Brom, Huddersfield, Stoke and Southampton – the bottom three and two promoted clubs – is unacceptable. How can you argue that you need more investment in the playing staff in order to beat significantly weaker teams?
Most disappointingly, United hardly hammered those teams and merely fell foul of misfortune. They had four shots on target against West Brom on Sunday, three away at Huddersfield, four away at Newcastle and three at home to Southampton. Fourteen shots on target in total during four matches in which United dropped 11 points. For the record, City had 33 in the same fixtures.
Southampton conceded three or more in a league game five times under Claude Puel and four times under Mauricio Pellegrino. They have already done it three times under Mark Hughes. He’s been in charge for a month.
Impressively, Southampton have found three different ways to reach the same uninspiring denouement. Against West Ham they were abject throughout and deserved nothing better than heavy defeat. Against Arsenal they managed to both squander a lead and overturn one, showing plenty of promise before succumbing. Against Chelsea they dominated the first 60 minutes and built up a 2-0 lead, yet still somehow grasped defeat from the jaws of victory.
At times like these, you do wonder what Hughes is offering. If a team lurches between playing badly and losing and playing well and losing, unable to accrue any positive momentum while falling closer towards the drop, that’s generally the sign that a new manager is required. For all that to have occurred in Hughes’ first three matches in charge says plenty about Southampton’s recruitment process. At the moment, that £1m bonus for keeping Southampton up looks out of Hughes’ reach.
It is so unusual to see a Tottenham player regress rather than progress under Mauricio Pochettino, but that can be the only way of accurately describing the form of Lloris. Only Petr Cech has committed more errors that have directly led to goals in the Premier League this season. The Frenchman looks sluggish and uneasy, like a veteran with waning powers. That excuse isn’t available when you’re 31.
Against Manchester City, Lloris was at least partly responsible for all three conceded goals. Tottenham played with a high defensive line in the first half, which requires the goalkeeper to have a starting position outside the penalty area and be lightning quick to thwart danger. For the opening goal, Gabriel Jesus first touched the ball closer to the penalty area than halfway line. For the second, Lloris was slow to react and brought down Raheem Sterling just outside the box. A penalty was still awarded.
And then there was Sterling’s second-half goal, assisted by Lloris’ parried save that pushed the ball into danger rather than wide of goal or around the post. It really isn’t good enough. And nor is you not reading 16 Conclusions yet.
Gary Megson had two games in charge as caretaker manager and West Brom took two points. Darren Moore has had two games as caretaker manager and taken four points. In between, Pardew had 18 games as permanent manager and got eight points. Any Premier League club appointing him next season should be automatically relegated.
Shkodran Mustafi and Petr Cech
At half-time in Sky Sports’ coverage of Newcastle vs Arsenal, Nemanja Vidic was asked to offer his take on Mustafi’s defending. The Serbian took a deep sigh before explaining in detail how Mustafi’s stance was not good enough, his vision was not good enough, his anticipation was not good enough and his challenge for the ball was not good enough. This was a former international defender critiquing a current international defender as if he were a schoolchild.
Fortunately for Cech, there was no goalkeeper offering expert summaries in the studio. If Mustafi’s anticipation of Ayoze Perez’s run was lacking, so too was Cech’s dive to cover his near post. These might only be minor issues in isolation, but when they happen almost on a weekly basis, the suspicion grows that neither are up to task. And so the summer ‘to do’ list grows.
Everton and Sam Allardyce
Sam Allardyce is not the only reason for Everton supporters’ anger, but he is the perfect lightning rod. They quite reasonably believe that their club chose to move sideways rather than forwards when appointing a firefighter manager. Allardyce had demonstrated no evidence that he was a natural replacement for Ronald Koeman, particularly when the club had spent weeks chasing Marco Silva. Silva and Allardyce are not peas in the same pod; they’re not even the same food group.
And yet Everton’s manager has hardly helped himself. Allardyce has continuously antagonised supporters with his deliberate ignorance of their concerns, and has been in the game for far too long to be oblivious of the mood that will create. Talking up his own rescue job (Everton were actually 13th in the Premier League when he sat in the dug-out for the first time) hardly alleviates the disillusionment.
Against Swansea, Allardyce was booed by an away support who chanted for his summer exit. His only discernible impact on the game was to make Everton more defensive after they had conceded an equaliser that Swansea more than deserved. Allardyce’s team sat back and invited pressure against a team fighting relegation, and the manager then talked up how his team “dug in for a point”.
And that sums up this marriage of inconvenience. Rather than use this job as an opportunity to dispel the long-term beliefs most have held about his reputation, Allardyce has rubber-stamped them. Everton need change and coherence this summer.
Results around them mean that Brighton probably don’t need to pick up another point to survive relegation, but that might be just as well. Chris Hughton’s team face five of the top seven in their last five league games, and have taken one point from their last five matches. Brighton are suddenly limping over the line rather than sprinting over it.