Roy Hodgson and Wilfried Zaha, men of Croydon
They are not an obvious superhero couple. Zaha was born in Abidjan, the capital of Ivory Coast, three months after the advent of the Premier League. Hodgson was born in England in 1947, less than two years after the end of World War II.
Yet despite the vast age gap and difference in background, these two men of Croydon have masterminded Crystal Palace’s great escape. In a club that has closer links to its local community than most in the Premier League, it really matters that Hodgson and Zaha are the talismen of this revival. These are two local boys made very good.
There are a fair number of candidates for the LMA Manager of the Year award, and Hodgson has understandably been omitted from the discussion. Pep Guardiola, Sean Dyche, Chris Hughton and Rafael Benitez all probably have stronger claims. Jurgen Klopp might too, depending on what happens in May.
But beware underestimating the transformation that Hodgson has overseen at Selhurst Park, both in the fortunes of Palace and of his own reputation post-Euro 2016. We assumed that Hodgson would drop from our radar to think long and hard about what he had done. Instead, he chose to answer his hometown club’s emergency call and step back into the firing line.
If Hodgson’s task was to re-organise the defence and convince Palace’s players that they were good enough to stay up, any concerns about his attack were alleviated by the presence of Zaha. While others around him might be stymied by the pressure of potential relegation, Zaha is the counterbalance. His confidence in possession has fuelled this renaissance. They have lost all ten league games which he has not started, and only three of the last 21 he has.
On Saturday, we saw Zaha at his best. A goal, an assist, two shots on target, four chances created and 57 touches of the ball despite playing as an attacker. Most impressive were the energy levels, as if Zaha was powered by the severity of the situation. He dropped deep and drifted wide to pick up the ball, pressing and harrying Leicester defenders.
For Palace supporters this was Zaha in excelsis, a player for whom every pass, dribble and goal truly does mean something. “I’m the most local footballer you’ll probably see,” he said in 2015. It’s on days like Saturday that rings most true.
Yet this is Hodgson in excelsis too. During a season in which the tried and tested Establishment of English managers have struggled to stay relevant, Hodgson has again been the antidote. Since the beginning of October, Palace have taken 38 points from 29 games and have secured their safety with a fortnight of the season remaining despite losing their first seven league games without scoring a single goal. If that points total sounds slightly underwhelming, look at where Palace came from and look too at their mid-season injury crisis.
When Palace needed Hodgson most, he has led them to 11 points in six games. Palace have still not lost to a current bottom-half team since his first match in charge.
Southampton’s improved attack
The bottom half of the Premier League, where a team can win a match after a run of one win in 21 league games and suddenly be in touching distance of survival. It has been a strange old top-flight season.
Listen to anyone at Southampton, and they will tell you that this change has been coming (something I struggled to believe). Mark Hughes has not solved the defensive issues, and Southampton retain their impressive ability to concede a goal from a set-piece at a moment’s notice, but this team’s biggest problem between August and March was their abysmal attack.
Those attacking problems were split into two issues: a lack of clear-cut chances created, and dismal finishing. Between August and the end of March, Southampton created more than two big chances (as defined by Opta) in a game on only four occasions. They had not managed more than six shots on target in a league match since April 2017.
Since then, improvement. Southampton have had more than six shots on target in two of their last four matches, and have created more than two big chances in two of those matches too. The shot conversion is still lower than Hughes would like – and Southampton still rank 18th in the Premier League by that measure – but this change is enough to provide green shoots of recovery. Is it too little, too late?
The only Premier League player to score more than once this weekend, and the only Premier League player who created five or more chances. Southampton supporters are desperately trying not to shout ‘WHERE THE SHUDDERING F*CK HAVE YOU BEEN HIDING THAT?’ in the gift horse’s face.
Manchester City’s attack
The first team in Premier League history to reach 100 goals on two separate occasions, Pep Guardiola’s team have now scored three or more goals in 20 of their 35 league games this season (Manchester United have done so 20 times since January 2016).
Most impressive of all is the variety in City’s attack. On Sunday, three different City players scored in the same match for the third league game in a row and the 23rd time in all competitions this season. That’s absolutely ludicrous.
Manchester United’s big game record
For a fair while at Manchester United, Jose Mourinho struggled to maintain his reputation as a manager who excelled in the biggest matches. United won two of their ten league games against fellow top-six sides last season, and between August and January took seven points from six league games against Tottenham, Liverpool, Manchester City, Arsenal and Chelsea. At this point, Mourinho boasted a similar big game record to Louis van Gaal’s.
The upturn in fortunes since has been stark. United have beaten Liverpool, Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester City in the league and overcome Tottenham in the FA Cup in the last two months. This is more like the Mourinho we know.
Was still told to f*ck off by Everton’s away support despite winning a difficult away game 2-0, but Allardyce will take the result rather than their assessment as justification of his aptitude. He spent his pre-match press conference insisting that Everton will keep him on next season. If that’s true, they will be the Premier League club to watch over the summer.
Stoke are still heavy odds-on favourites to be relegated (and Southampton’s home win didn’t help), but Lambert knows that the final few matches of the season may determine whether Stoke consider him the ideal candidate to lead them to promotion next season. After four straight league defeats, three straight draws. I suppose this is progress.
As an aside, Stoke have won one of their last 18 matches – having started that run only three points above the relegation zone – and yet are still not relegated with a fortnight of the season to go. It’s actually impressive.
‘Wow, Chelsea’s players really want Conte out,’ tweeted the Daily Telegraph’s Matt Law on April 14, as Chelsea fell 2-0 down to Southampton at St. Mary’s. Since then, Chelsea have scored eight times, conceded once and won four straight matches, including an FA Cup semi-final.
It is likely to be too little, too late, barring a collapse from Tottenham or Liverpool, but Chelsea are at least getting their money’s worth out of Conte. This does not look like a squad that has completely given up on its manager.
As many points earned in four matches as Alan Pardew managed in 18. That is a damning indictment of Pardew’s managerial aptitude and West Brom’s own recruitment processes, but also a tribute to the way Moore has transformed the mood in a few short weeks.
The temptation is to think that this does not matter. West Brom are still not mathematically relegated but that will soon come. If the club thank Moore for his service and then appoint a new manager in the summer, this last month will also count for nothing.
But if West Brom reward Moore with a two-year contract, and put faith in a popular man to (finally) take the club forward, these results will see West Brom in good stead come August. If Moore can beat two Champions League-winning managers in four matches, he can flourish in the Championship.
Most importantly, Moore gets it. “It’s not about me, but we,” he said when asked whether he believed that he had done enough to earn the job on a full-time basis. After the rampant self-promotion and self-absolution of Pardew, this is a mightily refreshing change.
The winner at Old Trafford, and a clear post-match message from Jose Mourinho that he is desperate to keep the Belgian at the club. You can make your own conclusions from Manchester United’s manager being more bothered about retaining Fellaini than Anthony Martial, but it’s hard to fault Fellaini himself for his growing importance.
Now go read 16 Conclusions from Matt Stead. He actually watched the game.
Three assists in the same match for the first time in his career, Sterling now ranks fourth in the Premier League for goals scored and third for assists provided. It’s a statistic that the Daily Mail considered so impressive they even turned a blind eye to Sterling having two Weetabix and a slice of toast on Monday morning.
Claude Puel, ‘Le Pompier’
You can go here to read about why Leicester City may be set for a long journey of introspection, but the most immediate conclusion from Saturday’s shambolic defeat to Crystal Palace is that Claude Puel is set to lose his job at a top-half Premier League club for the second season in a row.
The tendency here is to wonder whether Leicester supporters might be careful what they wish for (a feeling Southampton fans can certainly empathise with in a similar situation), and therefore whether Puel is being treated harshly. He was sacked by Southampton with a 37.7% win ratio; his current record at Leicester is 37.5%.
Puel certainly provided the stability that allowed Leicester to move away from serious relegation trouble. Remember that Leicester were below West Brom and Southampton when he was appointed. They are likely to finish ninth, and could still break into the top eight for just the second time in 40 years.
And yet repetition tells its own story; once is never, twice is always. Leicester is the second club in as many seasons where senior players have found Puel’s man-management abrasive and his training methods too demanding. Even if you consider those players to be embarrassingly mollycoddled and holding unmerited sway, that is the new reality. Clubs care more about the happiness of their most valuable assets than their dispensable coaches.
Puel has now dug himself into a hole, sculpting a reputation that he may not like. His training methods and abrupt personality can improve a team in the short term, but they lead to growing unrest after his honeymoon period. He only needs to look to the current situation at Everton, and a manager in Allardyce who shares his problem.
Puel is in a group of one, the foreign firefighter. Let’s start calling him ‘Le Pompier’.
Huddersfield Town, holding on and hoping
Of course, Huddersfield Town shouldn’t even be here. They have comfortably the lowest wage bill in the Premier League and were a club punching above its weight between August and December. Huddersfield were 11th at the turn of the year – those below David Wagner’s side should have felt embarrassed by comparison.
Since then, a struggle. Home victories over Watford and Bournemouth have stemmed the tide, as did three points against Alan Pardew’s West Brom at The Hawthorns, but Huddersfield’s biggest issue over the last four months is their lack of draws. They have lost nine of their 14 league matches in 2018, unable to grind out results against the odds.
With three games remaining, all against top-six teams, Huddersfield, Wagner and owner Dean Hoyle are desperately hoping that they accumulated sufficient points in the autumn to sustain this survival bid. If they do indeed lose to Manchester City, Chelsea and Arsenal, their miserable goal difference decrees that Swansea beating Bournemouth and Southampton beating Swansea or Everton would be enough to send them down. That hardly sounds particularly outlandish.
“I think ours is the hardest of all of them,” Carvalhal said in the build-up to Swansea’s game against Chelsea. “Why? Because when we arrived we were five points adrift at the bottom, no-one else was playing in this condition in this competition.
“The hardest job will be my job, I did not prepare the team at the start to win the title or to go to Europe. I accepted the challenge midway through the season when we were bottom in the relegation zone. There is no harder situation in the competition, absolutely sure.”
Carvalhal is probably right, and there is no denying Swansea’s extraordinary turnaround following his appointment in late-December. But the Portuguese should beware of congratulating himself over a job well done before Swansea’s safety is secured. Having led his team to 17 points in his first nine matches, Swansea have now taken three points from (and scored two goals in) their last seven matches. Lose their next two – to Everton and Southampton – and they will be favourites for relegation.
Swansea’s biggest issue is that their creativity and finishing has fallen off a cliff. They have created just one big chance (again, as defined by Opta) in their last six matches combined, with midfielders and strikers instead shooting from distance through desperation. Swansea have scored twice from their last 41 shots. Now is not the time to turn into Mauricio Pellegrino’s Southampton.
Twenty-six points from 21 league games, and three or more goals conceded in nine of those 21. And you want to pin your medium-term hopes on this manager while giving him greater power?
Conceding a last-minute goal to lose at Old Trafford, a ground where he has won once in the league in his last 16 years. There’s a reason why Alex Ferguson and Jose Mourinho were so happy to make pre-match gifts; they were merely returning the favour.
No player sums up Leicester’s fall back from grace into normality like captain Morgan. Having kept a clean sheet in his absence against Southampton, Puel dropped Aleksandar Dragovic to recall Morgan to his defence. It was an unpopular decision when the teams were announced, and that hardly improved after the concession of five goals.
Liverpool, being slightly careless
It should cause no long-term issue. Liverpool’s excellent goal difference means that even defeat to Chelsea next weekend would leave them only requiring home victory over Brighton to secure their top-four place. It’s worth taking a step back to remember that Champions League qualification for next season was the primary target for this season before Mohamed Salah happened.
Yet Jurgen Klopp will be irked by Liverpool’s carelessness. They have now drawn consecutive league games against the clubs 19th and 20th in the Premier League, and therefore failed to secure their top-four place with weeks of the season remaining.
This is proof that physical fatigue is only one potential issue regarding participation in multiple competitions so late into the season. Managing ‘after the Lord Mayor’s show’ syndrome is just as tough. Complacency is not an emotion that can be eliminated through repetition of the message.