Unai Emery and Arsenal’s top-four chances
This was a match played on a knife edge, and thus one that we should resist from using to make long-term conclusions (we, of course, make 16 Conclusions but sensibly refrain from reading too much into the game). If Manchester United had taken their chances, David de Gea had not been flummoxed by the swerve of the ball or referee Jon Moss had chosen not to award a penalty that was softer than marshmallow, Arsenal could easily have dropped two or three of their Sunday points.
But then Arsenal are not a club that needs to focus on the long term right now. Having been out of the Champions League for two years, finishing in the top four would be a superb achievement in their first season under a new manager. Particularly given the competition within the top six. That is the short-term goal and, with eight games remaining, they have a great chance.
Arsenal’s away form remains an issue, no longer a source of humiliation as during Arsene Wenger’s last season but still far from corrected. Emery’s side have taken at least six fewer points than any other Big Six team on the road. The soft centre and propensity to suffer extended periods of away games where everyone loses their senses remain. See Rennes just last Thursday for details.
But that is where the bad news ends. On Saturday, Soccer Saturday’s Charlie Nicholas stated that Arsenal are worse this season than they were under Wenger. Now Nicholas is fully entitled to his opinion, but that would seem to a be a view skewed by loyalty to Arsenal’s former manager.
Take Arsenal’s home form against their direct rivals. In their home games against Manchester City, Manchester United, Tottenham, Chelsea and Liverpool last season, Wenger’s team collected only five points and thus finished 12 points off the top four. This season, they have collected ten points from those same games. Emery has not always got his plans right in these fixtures, but there is at least some evidence that there is a plan. Under Wenger last season, you’d struggle to say the same.
Before Sunday’s game, Arsenal were 6/4 to make the top four but they have now surged to odds-on shots. And with good reason: Arsenal have now played each of their league fixtures against the Big Six. Having won nine consecutive league games at home, and with those around them still to play each other, Emery really does have a chance to pull off an unlikely achievement in his debut campaign.
Given the manner in which he has been lambasted by some Arsenal supporters, that’s a fine effort. If Sunday’s game was decided by fine margins, last season’s Arsenal weren’t getting close enough for fine margins to come into play.
A final statistic for those who remain unconvinced. Arsenal are currently taking points at a rate of exactly 2.0 per game in the Premier League. Extend that over their final eight matches (and, to repeat, their run-in is decidedly gentle) and Emery’s Arsenal will reach 76 points. They have beaten that total once in the last decade.
Rafael Benitez and the final part of the puzzle
The last Newcastle United manager to oversee a comeback from two goals behind to win a Premier League game? Sir Bobby Robson. No manager since Robson has captured the hearts of Newcastle supporters like Benitez. That’s all the more impressive given that he arrived as an outsider.
This column last week referenced Benitez’s tendency to perform better in the second half of the season, when he can issue his rallying cries and defensive organisation can come to the fore. But over the last six weeks Newcastle’s manager has added a new string to his bow.
Before January 29, Newcastle had lost all of their previous 15 league matches in which they had conceded the first goal. The suggestion was that once you scored first against Newcastle, heads dropped and spirit was broken. Since then, Newcastle have come from behind at home to beat Manchester City and Everton. No longer is resolve cracked by setback.
Those six points are the difference between 13th in the Premier League and being level on points with Cardiff City. Four points from their last eight games (they still have Bournemouth, Brighton, Crystal Palace, Southampton and Fulham to play) and Newcastle will be safe.
The relegation battle
An extraordinary weekend. Brighton, Southampton and Cardiff were the big winners, and yet their victories over higher-ranking teams merely felt like necessity when put into the context of results around them. The teams positioned 18th, 17th, 15th and 14th at the start of the weekend took maximum points, doubly punishing those who were unable to match them.
A month ago, it seemed that 34, or even 32, points might well be enough to avoid relegation. Fulham and Huddersfield may already have gone, but those above Cardiff will now be crossing their fingers that Saturday’s comfortable win over West Ham is not a sign that Neil Warnock is manufacturing another assault on Premier League safety. You have to go as high as 12th to find a team that will consider themselves safe.
I know I/we go on about him a lot, and maybe you’re getting sick of it, but I honestly don’t care. That rush of praise is a direct response to the rubbish that was written about Sterling’s supposed flaws as a person. A million compliments could not atone for that race-fuelled smear campaign.
But let’s be frank: These are not empty compliments. Many of us may well feel predisposed to defend Sterling after his media treatment, but he is not a player in need of a leg-up. Sterling’s hat-trick against Watford on Saturday means that he has scored or assisted 53 goals since the start of last season in the Premier League. Only Mohamed Salah can beat that.
So impressive and so extensive is Sterling’s run of form that he now merits serious discussion for this season’s Player of the Year award. If it goes to the player who made the biggest difference to his team, Virgil van Dijk still justifies his current favourite status. But if it goes to a player who has risen above the noise, improved significantly and embraced his status as role model, Sterling has no rival.
A difficult time with injury, but then that is the theme of Wilson’s career. The good news is that he actually timed his latest absence pretty well, returning and scoring shortly before Gareth Southgate announces his latest England squad. It’s easy to forget that Wilson was in the last squad and scored on his debut.
Brendan Rodgers and Jamie Vardy
Leicester’s young band of brothers filled with potential made them the perfect club for Rodgers. The starting XI against Fulham on Saturday contained six players aged 21 or 22, and they provided plenty enough evidence that the future is bright. Harvey Barnes and James Maddison dovetailed superbly, Ben Chilwell is a superb adventurous left-back (the closest thing we have in style to Andrew Robertson?) and Youri Tielemans’ protection of the ball and passing through the lines must be among the best in the Premier League.
But if those young players represent Rodgers’ long-term vision, he has the perfect quick win too. Claude Puel repeatedly insisted that his relationship with Jamie Vardy had not broken down, but Vardy might have an alternate view. Put an arm around the shoulder of Leicester’s best player (and Vardy still is that, despite everything) and they will move up the table between now and May.
On Saturday, Vardy produced a performance that any striker in the world would be proud of. He hung on the last shoulder of the last defender, showed wonderful composure to assist the first goal and then delivered two excellent finishes with right and left foot to seal victory. He was deservedly named in our Team of the Week.
No wonder Rodgers piled praise on Vardy in his post-match press conference. Leicester’s new manager. should be grateful to his predecessor for giving him such an obvious tap-in to kickstart his tenure.
Managers at the bottom of the league will lose games. This is not an environment in which perfection is possible. There will be setbacks and falls along the way. But what we do expect from managers at the bottom of the league is the ability to provoke a reaction, and a willingness to make changes to try and alter the course of a match.
That meek acceptance of defeat and inability to demand better was Mark Hughes’ undoing at Southampton. They became a team that stood for nothing, with no identity other than occasionally grinding out a result and usually meekly accepting defeat.
Hasenhuttl looks better; much better. At half-time on Saturday, with Southampton trailing 1-0 to a top-four team, it would have been easy to resist making early changes. The norm in that scenario is to keep it tight until the last 15 minutes, bring on two strikers and embark upon a late assault to nick and equaliser. But Hasenhuttl made two half-time changes, altered Southampton’s shape and then watched on as Josh Sims (one of those substitutes) shifted the match in Southampton’s favour. Looking at the results around them, they needed it.
Now don’t you ever pick Shkodran Mustafi at right-back again. Or we’ll have to have a serious chat.
Back and rather good.
The wretched away run ends. Huddersfield might have had a thoroughly miserable season, but at least every team in the Premier League but Wolves loves them.
WereWolves in London
West Ham (a) – won 1-0
Crystal Palace (a) – won 1-0
Arsenal (a) – drew 1-1
Fulham (a) – drew 1-1
Tottenham (a) – won 3-1
Chelsea (a) – drew 1-1
Tottenham, in a battle for a top-four place
The cockerels are coming home to roost. Some Tottenham supporters won’t appreciate Mauricio Pochttino’s post-match assessment, but their last four league games really have hammered home where this Spurs side really belongs. Potential title challenge has become top-four battle.
It is to easy to just blame fatigue, because that excuses some particularly poor performances over the last four games and an inability to cope with Southampton’s response on Saturday. But weariness and the lack of game-changing options in reserve are the themes that underline every Tottenham problem.
Harry Kane is showing his true self in glimpses but has been rushed back from injury again. The same seems to be true of Dele Alli. Christian Eriksen and Son Heung-Min are both just knackered, while Moussa Sissoko’s workload and responsibility over the last four months has been extraordinary. Lucas Moura has tailed off badly since the start of the season, and Fernando Llorente will never be fit for Tottenham’s needs. That’s their fault as much as his; he should be way down the pecking order.
It isn’t going to get easier. Tottenham must surely now be considered outsiders to finish in the top four, given that they still have to travel to the Etihad and Anfield and given that the Champions League must surely now become the priority having reached the quarter-finals. The time has arrived when energy levels dictate that Tottenham simply cannot fight on both fronts effectively. And Pochettino should be bloody angry with Daniel Levy.
Crystal Palace, dragged in again
I spoke too soon, naturally. Since mid-January, Palace have embarked on a run of inconsistent results designed entirely to make those of us writing weekly columns look stupid: L, D, W, D, W, L, W, L.
The worst element of Palace’s derby defeat to Brighton was that their players didn’t look like they wanted it enough. Perhaps the away win at Burnley persuaded Roy Hodgson’s team that survival had been achieved, but complacency is not a good enough excuse for an abject display in a grudge match.
Palace can feel aggrieved that results around them compounded a woeful weekend during which they went from 13th and eight points off the bottom three to 14th and five. Brighton have the same number of points with a game in hand, and Palace still have to play Cardiff away in May. Warnock to try and get one over on his former club? Hold onto your hats.
No disaster, as the Arsenal section says. Romelu Lukaku’s all-round play was good but his finishing was poor. Marcus Rashford was way off his game and probably needs a rest. Most disappointing of all was Paul Pogba, who had a rest in midweek and yet was completely ineffective on the left of midfield.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer probably got his tactics wrong. Pogba playing at the top of the diamond might have allowed Manchester United to expose Arsenal’s high defensive line and be more effective on the counter. Instead he had a jack of all trades system in which Pogba was strangled and United still failed to pick up Mesut Ozil in the first half.
But if the result was no disaster in isolation, it does damage United’s hopes of a top-four finish having gone from odds-on to odds-against. Their remaining Premier league fixtures (Everton (a), Wolves (a), Manchester City (h), Chelsea (h)) are going to test the theory that Solskjaer’s United have got particularly lucky with their Premier League form.
He might have a Joe Hart problem, in which the focus switches from his own performance to the demonstrations of passion and heart. Pickford allowed himself to get involved with what we must call ‘banter’ with Newcastle United fans on Saturday, and produced a catastrophic error to concede penalty. He was mightily fortunate not to be sent off (or even booked).
The issue would seem to be one of concentration. Pickford is a tremendous shot-stopper and commands his box well, but too often makes the wrong decision in crucial moments and the rare mistakes are becoming increasingly common. It would be a stretch to include England’s no. 1 in the top ten Premier League goalkeepers this season.
Pickford is still young and therefore has plenty of time to solve his issue. He will keep his England place because there is nobody else breathing down his neck, and a well-placed quiet words from one or two coaches might be enough to click him back into gear. But Pickford must concentrate on doing the basics right if he’s not to earn an unhelpful reputation that is far harder to shift.
Watford: you can’t have it both ways
On Saturday, Javi Gracia made a number of changes to his Watford starting XI for the trip to Manchester City and promptly lost. The immediate accusation was that City have defeated teams before the game even begins, getting a free pass.
But Watford have an FA Cup quarter-final next weekend. Having secured their Premier League safety by Christmas, they have the chance to prioritise silverware. Is that not exactly what people demand when they get so angry about weakened teams in the FA Cup? You can’t have it both ways.
Of course they brushed past Newcastle with the minimum of fuss to make us all excited and then promptly threw in the towel against Cardiff City. As a West Ham-supporting mate said on Saturday morning, ‘we have played okay recently, so we’re due a sh*tshow’. That’s West Ham, a club where good form makes the calamitous more likely rather than less.
Fulham getting bullied
Saturday was the first time I’ve seen Fulham in a while, and I was interested to observe how Scott Parker might have given them a little steel defensively. But no.
The regularity with which Fulham’s players are muscled off the ball is extraordinary. Dennis Odoi, Ryan Sessegnon, Calum Chambers and Ryan Babel were the guiltiest parties on Saturday, but it happened to virtually every outfield player. Leicester City, a team of young and hardly physically imposing players, bullied them.
That suggests either a lack of physical strength (raising questions of their training methods) or lack of belief that means players take an extra touch or delay their pass and thus invite pressure. Either way, it became difficult to watch.