A 1-1 draw at Stoke City might not be typical cause for celebration, but this weekend marked a significant achievement for Burnley. Chelsea and Manchester United’s progress to the FA Cup final means that seventh place in the Premier League will be enough for them to qualify for the Europa League. Even if Leicester win their game in hand, Burnley will be six points clear of eighth with three games remaining.
Burnley’s only dalliance with European football in the last 50 years came in 2010/11, when there was a chance of them making the Europa League via the Fair Play League despite being relegated, only for Fulham to fail to win the Europa League and the Premier League to slip down Europe’s Fair Play table. It’s fair to say that this is a slightly more meaningful achievement.
To put Dyche’s achievement into perspective, Burnley had the 19th highest wage bill in the Premier League last season, and estimates suggest that only Brighton’s and Huddersfield’s are lower this season.
“While tiny margins can affect the final league positions of Premier League teams, the reality is the Premier League is effectively three mini-leagues, by wage bill – the top six, the middle seven and the bottom seven,” said Chris Brady, Director of the Centre for Sports Business at the University of Salford, last May.
“Only two clubs, Sunderland and Bournemouth, for entirely different reasons, managed to finish outside of their mini-league. Sunderland finished 10 places below that of their expected position by wage bill; Bournemouth finished eight places above their predicted position.”
Eddie Howe’s achievement last season was therefore commendable, but there is a clear difference between rising from 17th in the wage bill table to ninth in the actual league table and rising from 18th in the wage bill table to seventh. Particularly given that Burnley lost both Michael Keane and Andre Gray last summer and actually made a profit on transfers.
Pep Guardiola may well be named LMA Manager of the Year, but it is Dyche who has overperformed most significantly. Europa League participation – and a season starting in July – presents its own challenges, but is just reward for an extraordinary season.
We can all see how this pans out. At the end of the season, West Brom thank Moore for his work, praising his efforts in prolonging the club’s Premier League status for a few extra weeks. They then appoint a tried and tested Football League manager (Dean Smith and Mick McCarthy are the current favourites) to take them back up. That strategy might well work.
But this is also the chance for West Brom to do something different. Having twice had their fingers burnt by the tried and tested option, why not branch out? Or, to be more blunt, when your last appointment was Alan Pardew, the next one should move as far away from him as possible.
It’s hard to overstate how much of a mess Moore found when he took temporary charge of this squad. West Brom had had two failed managers in the same season – one failed at resilience and the other at expansiveness. The club were marooned at the bottom of the table, desperate for the sweet relief of Premier League death. Senior players had been guilty of off-field ill-discipline, and the supporters were quickly falling out of love with a club that they had found it impossible to like for some time.
Amidst all that, Moore has made progress. A home draw against Swansea ended a club record run of nine successive defeats. Since then, Moore has taken four points from two games against Manchester United and Liverpool. There’s no doubt that managing on a temporary basis and in a forlorn situation – with nothing to lose and little to plan for – is easier, but this jump in form is still striking.
On Saturday, West Brom took something out of a league game having fallen two goals behind for the first time since February 2015; that requires resilience. Given the fragility of West Brom under Pardew, we can only assume that resilience arrived with Moore. So rather than spending the summer pursuing tried and tested managers, why not see if Moore can extend that resilience into next season? It is too long since West Brom’s owners generated some goodwill amongst their supporters. This might just do it.
It is probably the biggest collective blind spot in our treatment of footballers. We see injuries as damaging for the team, an annoyance, but barely stop to think of the impact on a player. Those who are prone to injury are mocked far more widely than sympathised with. That’s pretty rotten behaviour, given the potential impact on the individual’s mental health.
Nottingham Forest midfielder Chris Cohen, who suffered three separate career-threatening ligament cruciate injuries and spent so much time with the club’s physios that he invited them to his wedding, spoke of the psychological difficulties in playing the game after such a long break. You need to trust your body not to fail again, and that momentary thought process causes a slight delay when going into every tackle, making every pass and attempting every shot. Ironically, that delay to consider your well-being actually makes injury more likely. It also makes success harder to come by. Even momentary delays make you easier for an opponent to thwart.
Rather than laugh at players for their physical flaws and persistent injuries, we should laud those who do manage to fight back after such significant setbacks. Imagine turning up every day knowing that, at best, you have no hope of doing the thing you have always dreamed of for another 12 months. The mental strength to keep going is extraordinary.
And so to Ings, who scored his first goal for 930 days on Saturday, and a simple message: Well bloody done, fella. You’re a stronger person than I.
Kevin de Bruyne
He might not have been named PFA Player of the Year, but I still firmly believe that De Bruyne is the best all-round player in the Premier League. On the basis of this season, he’s the third best player in Europe.
On Sunday against Swansea, it was as if De Bruyne was restating his case over the course of an hour. The pressing and passing that comes as standard with every De Bruyne performance was there, as was the ability to hold off the two opponents that every manager now uses to try and babysit him. But there was the goal too.
And what a goal. There is something wonderful about a shot that is hit so purely that you can see the sponsor’s logo all the way into the back of the net, but even more so when it comes from 25 yards out and slightly wide of goal, so that the ball moves past the goalkeeper’s eyes and into the corner of his goal.
But the greatest thing about De Bruyne is his insouciance. There is no affectation to his brilliance, no skill for skill’s sake. De Bruyne does the simple things brilliantly and the brilliant things simply. If that makes him easier to take for granted, keep reminding yourself that we’re so lucky to watch him do it.
Six goals in his last 379 club minutes. Or, more significantly, Lacazette has scored 40% of his season goals in less than six-and-a-half hours of football.
The arrival of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang in January laid down a gauntlet to Lacazette. Having disappointed during his first five months in England (not disastrously, but certainly accordingly to pre-season expectation), he must have taken Aubameyang’s signing as competition for his own first-team place rather than support. He had four months in which to prove that he was worth a starting role next season.
That has surely now been proven. Arsenal have an array of problems to consider over the course of this summer, but a forward line of Lacazette (drifting left) and Aubameyang (drifting right) with Mesut Ozil in behind should not be one of them.
Ramsey might not be Arsenal’s most important player or their most talented – those awards must surely go to Aubameyang and Ozil. But given the paucity of other reliable central midfield options at the club (and Jack Wilshere’s possible departure), Ramsey should have the midfield built around him.
Since the beginning of February, Ramsey has scored eight goals and assisted two more in nine matches in all competitions. If Arsenal are alleviating their crisis, it is down to Ramsey more than most. Now work on resisting reported interest from Manchester United and Juventus.
Since the February international break, Mohamed Salah is the top scorer in the Premier League, with eight goals; no surprise there. Second on that list is Barnes, whose six goals have been worth six points to Burnley. How far is he from an England call-up, then? I’m only half-joking.
You have to be good to stay untainted during this Stoke City campaign, but Ndiaye merits being left out of this tale of woe. Having arrived in January and done his best to drag this miserable team forward, he can expect to get a move this summer.
James Tomkins and Mamadou Sakho
Crystal Palace have never lost a game they have started together. We made them our early winners.
West Ham’s propensity to collapse
You know what, West Ham played okay against Arsenal for the first 75 minutes. Not brilliantly, but okay. Marko Arnautovic was chosen as virtually their only attacking player, with David Moyes leaving Manuel Lanzini, Javier Hernandez and Andy Carroll on the bench to shore up the defence and attack on the counter, relying on creating chances from set-pieces. Arnautovic scored, and while West Ham barely deserved their equaliser they were at least level as the game entered the final 15 minutes.
But playing well for 75 minutes isn’t good enough, particularly if your defence then crumbles and collapses. West Ham conceded three times in nine minutes, and could have conceded twice more in the interim. A 1-1 draw quickly becomes a 4-1 defeat when you stumble into calamity.
Were this the first time that this had happened, against an Arsenal attack that has scored three or more goals in each of its last six home games in all competitions, there would be little blame attached to West Ham’s own flaws. But Moyes’ team also conceded three times in 31 minutes against Swansea and three in 16 minutes against Burnley, both of whom have far less prodigious attacks.
If Moyes is going to be given the keys to West Ham’s longer-term future, he must spend wisely on the defence and make his team harder to beat. They have conceded three or more goals in 35% of his league games in charge. If Slaven Bilic was sacked due to his inability to organise a defence and Moyes appointed at least partly due to his success in that domain, there is precious little difference between them so far.
Swansea City and, well…trying
There are different measures of competition within a domestic league. The fact that only Manchester United and Chelsea have ever retained the Premier League is evidence of meaningful competition. So too are the six teams who had reasonable expectations of mustering a title challenge at the start of this season. That is the positive spin.
Manchester City might not be the best ever Premier League team – surely we are all sick of a debate with no right answer – but they are threatening the element of competition within the league. If not necessarily across the course of a whole season, then certainly within individual matches.
On Sunday, City registered 83% possession against Swansea and attempted 1,015 passes – both are records since Opta started collecting data in 2003/04. From the moment Pep Guardiola’s team took an early lead, both teams might as well have shaken hands on a 4-0 or 5-0 scoreline and gone home early.
Some of the statistics were comical. Andy King played 90 minutes in Swansea’s central midfield, and completed 11 passes. Ilkay Gundogan played 90 minutes in Manchester City’s central midfield, and completed 138 passes; that’s two fewer than Swansea’s entire team. Seventeen year-old Phil Foden was introduced with 19 minutes remaining and had more touches of the ball than any Swansea player.
We are repeatedly told that anyone can beat anyone in the Premier League, and West Brom’s recent victory over Manchester United is proof of that. Yet that can only happen when a team tries to win. Against Manchester City at the Etihad, some clubs are arriving already in damage limitation mode.
You can’t blame Swansea for this; that’s not the point. Their survival may not depend on the home game against Southampton in ten days’ time, but it’s pretty obvious why they might save themselves for that, and other, matches. It’s about playing the percentages.
You can’t blame City either. Guardiola’s mission this season was to make them as dominant as he possibly could in the Premier League, and he achieved that. Are champions really supposed to go easy on smaller clubs?
But there is still a valid question regarding competition, and thus interest. Watching a team walk through an opponent might be fun to watch once or twice, particularly when the victor has players like De Bruyne and David Silva. But over time, interest wanes as competition wanes. Hopefully next season, bottom-half sides will have a plan to thwart Guardiola’s team.
At home in the league this season, City have scored 58 goals. Even if they had replaced Ederson with a piece of paper with the words ‘Claudio Bravo Ultras’ written on it, placed on the goal-line for the entire season, City would only have conceded 34 times at home. If every shot on target they have faced at home this season had gone in, City would still be top of the Premier League.
He played really well for 80 minutes. But Hart is an international sportsman, so praising him for part-performances feels like the ultimate backhanded compliment. And when you’ve reached the stage where you’re being praised for part-performances having conceded three times in ten minutes and looked pretty shambolic for two of them, you really shouldn’t be going to the World Cup. Even if you’re a good tourist.
Stoke City, missing their chances
In their last ten league games, Stoke have scored the opening goal four times against West Ham, Burnley, Bournemouth and Leicester. Had they won those matches, they would be 12th in the table. As it happens, Stoke took three points from those four games. They drew with Burnley, Leicester and West Ham, and lost to Bournemouth. They are 19th in the Premier League.
Stoke have taken a 1-0 lead as many times as Huddersfield this season (12), but have taken 1.67 points per game from those matches while Huddersfield have taken 2.42 points per game from their 1-0 leads. That is the difference between staying up and going down, and it’s killing Stoke.
Andrew Robertson has spent the last three months showing why he is better than Moreno. On Saturday, Moreno spent 90 minutes showing why he is worse than Robertson.
I can only repeat what I wrote in our player-by-player assessment of what Arsene Wenger will leave behind:
‘The year is 2023, and the world is a nuclear wasteland following the Cold War II. One of the few survivors was found in a cellar in north London, and has joined a band of fellow nomads who must travel the world in search of new life. To pass the time on the long summer evenings, they play football with a ball fashioned out of tin cans welded together. The leader of the group turns to his assistant after one such game. “Who is he?,” he says, pointing to the north London survivor. “Alex,” comes the reply. “Alex Iwobi.” “Do you reckon he’s any good?” the leader asks. “F*ck knows,” is the assistant’s reply.’
Mame Biram Diouf
In his last 18 league matches, Diouf has taken 27 shots while playing as a right winger or striker, and scored two goals. When you see his finish against Burnley on Sunday, you realise why Stoke are going down.
More from Planet Sport:
Tennis Tales: The disastrous Monte Carlo comeback of the original King of Clay, Bjorn Borg (Tennis365)
Nine things we loved this weekend: Salah, De Bruyne, Lacazette, Giroud (Planet Football)
Hamilton: My goal is to push Merc far and upset Ferrari (Planet F1)