Liverpool, still fighting
As you watched Manchester City pass the ball with such consummate ease, having beaten Fulham even before the game began and then doing it again mid-match just for fun, Liverpool’s title chances came into full focus.
It isn’t outside the realms of reasonable possibility that both sides will win each of their remaining league games, Manchester City sealing the title and leaving Liverpool stranded in second on 97 points. That would represent the third highest points total in Premier League history, beaten only by Manchester City in 2017/18 and Manchester City in 2018/19.
Perhaps that would be a fitting way for this duel to end, not in a fog of disappointment and missed opportunities but with both sides trading blows as they have all season. Pep Guardiola’s team have taken 33 points from their last 36 available and will still not top the league until they inevitably beat Cardiff on Wednesday evening.
Liverpool are no longer playing with the swagger of City or that they managed in early season, but they are finding a way to win and leaving their opponents a little confused as to how it happened. A reminder that Jurgen Klopp’s team were 11.7mm from closing in on an Invincibles season. And still it might not be enough.
For supporters of both teams (but particularly those of a Liverpool persuasion), it must be unbearable to know that one draw, or one mistake, will likely cost you your shot at the title. But for the rest of us, this title race is something to be cherished after last season’s canter. This level of efficiency from the top two is truly unprecedented. Drink it in.
Now go read 16 Conclusions…
Marco Silva and Everton’s defence
Silva’s biggest problem in winning over Everton supporters is that he has allowed goodwill to dissipate too easily. Everton followed an excellent performance in the first Merseyside derby of the season with two points from their next four games. They followed a 5-1 win over Burnley with consecutive defeats without scoring. They finally won their second away game in three months in January, then lost three on the spin. That gives the impression that good results were happening to Everton, rather than Silva masterminding them.
So the first landmark league win of the season, over Chelsea at Goodison, came at the wrong time. The last thing Silva needed was a fortnight off during which his squad went to all four corners of the world. That vacuum could so easily have allowed momentum to drain away once again.
Now, Silva will have been warmed by Everton’s comprehensive victory over West Ham and supporters will have greater faith that a corner has been turned. Everton had nine shots on target to West Ham’s one, and produced a performance that would not have looked out of place from a top-four team. Finally.
The other thing to say in Silva’s defence is that he seems to have got to grips with Everton’s defence, particularly important given that defensive organisation was his apparent blindspot. Everton have kept four clean sheets in their last five games. Remarkably, only Manchester City, Liverpool and Chelsea have kept more clean sheets in the Premier League this season.
Brendan Rodgers and Jamie Vardy
Rodgers was appointed at the perfect time to establish some short-term momentum, the beneficiary of both a gentle fixture run and not being Claude Puel. If his Celtic exit was accelerated by a faltering relationship with the club’s hierarchy, Rodgers must have looked at Leicester’s run of games and reasoned that he would be foolish to pass up the opportunity.
And so it has proved. Leicester have now won three matches in a row for the first time since December 2017. The Puel-inspired funk feels an awfully long time ago for supporters who have embraced Rodgers and will spend the summer in anticipation of what next season might bring.
Rodgers also understood that getting Jamie Vardy onside was the easiest way to spark a Leicester improvement. Vardy has scored five times in as many matches under Rodgers, as many as he managed in his final 18 under Puel, but it is his shots total that is most instructive. In Rodgers’ five matches in charge, Vardy has had four or more shots in three of them. Before Rodgers, Vardy had four or more shots three times in 13 months.
You remember odd things from your childhood. One of my standout memories is watching an episode of Match of the Day one Sunday morning in which the pundits poured praise upon Coventry City midfielder Gavin Strachan. Strachan was commended not for his use of the ball, but his constant movement without it. They showed several periods of play where he never once received the ball, but literally never stopped jogging into space and dragging players out of position.
Watching Bernardo Silva play live reminds me of that Strachan segment. He’s probably a little more comfortable on the ball, but that’s not the point – he never stops moving. Silva can pop up on the edge of either penalty area, on the right wing, in the centre circle or anywhere in between. He is never afraid to take possession, no matter how tight the marking and how dangerous the situation.
Manchester City found things too easy at Craven Cottage on Saturday. They were gifted both goals and proceeded to play at half-pace. Raheem Sterling, Sergio Aguero, Kevin de Bruyne and David Silva were guilty of sloppiness when presented with the chance to extend City’s already comfortable lead.
But Silva was the exception. He is a constant option for whichever Manchester City player has the ball at feet, and that makes him a dream to play with and a dream to manage. There is no hyperbole in Pep Guardiola’s lavish praise. Silva has become undroppable.
Burnley, who finally took their chance
Consider that a wrong righted. Against Leicester before the international break, Burnley were handed the early initiative by Harry Maguire’s red card but wholly failed to take advantage. Against Wolves, Burnley were handed the early initiative by Conor Coady’s own goal and this time made it pay. Cardiff’s cruel defeat made it a wonderful weekend for Sean Dyche, who spent most of the international break recovering from back surgery.
Burnley will also consider themselves fortunate that Wolves face Manchester United and a first FA Cup final in 21 years this week. Nuno’s decision to leave his two best players this season (Raul Jimenez and Matt Doherty) on the bench set the tone. Burnley were in no mood to inspect any gift horses.
Most people will consider that Burnley’s season changed when Joe Hart was dropped and Tom Heaton returned to the team, but that’s not true. Instead, Dwight McNeil became the first teenager to start a Premier League game for Burnley in December, which coincided with the home win over West Ham.
Since then, McNeil leads the stats for dribbles completed and ranks second for chances created at Burnley. At 19, he has been the leader by example and the saviour of his side’s season. Just another reason to be excited about young English players.
Southampton were a rabble in December. Mark Hughes had won three of his 22 matches in charge, tasked with addressing their decline but only assisting it. Had Hughes stayed in charge, whatever he may insist, Southampton would surely have been relegated.
Hasenhuttl has added a steel to Southampton. The lazy stereotype is that British managers make teams fight while foreign managers make them play, but under Hughes Southampton were far too easy to brush aside. Now they grind out results.
But this is not just a mood change engineered by greater resolve; Hasenhuttl has also added a tactical flexibility that was entirely absent under Hughes. On Saturday against Brighton, the Austrian switched formation to a back four and bolstered midfield. His players were told to press Brighton in the middle of the pitch and created their goal from a turnover. Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg is not the only player who looks revitalised, but we are now seeing the qualities that he promised in the Bundesliga.
Hasenhuttl might insist that Southampton are not yet safe, but you’d be a fool to bet on their relegation. Now the Saints have a fighting chance of swimming near the deep end again, rather than desperately treading water just to stay afloat.
Huddersfield Town and Jan Siewert
The confirmation of what we have known for months, that Huddersfield’s achievement in staying up last season was sensational and that they have been found out in 2018/19. Having taken four points from their last 19 league games, only Derby County’s wretched points total 11 years ago provides any solace.
It’s hard to know what Jan Siewert can do to stop this rot, or whether he will become collateral damage. Obviously playing a far lower class of opposition in the Championship next season will give Huddersfield a leg up, but the mood in the squad must be so low that it will take a man-management masterclass to clear their heads before August. And what of the players who seem to have downed tools over the last month? Will they engineer for moves away from West Yorkshire?
Therein lies the problem with unanticipated success. Huddersfield supporters wouldn’t change the last two years, but Siewert is left to pick up the pieces and clear up the debris left strewn after the Lord Mayor’s show. It would be no surprise if that task chewed him up and spat him out.
Manchester United without a firing Paul Pogba
Plenty of Manchester United supporters will scoff at their place in the losers section, and any victory in pursuit of a top-four place is clearly to be welcomed. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer will be delighted with Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial scoring United’s two goals. They represent United’s present and future.
But United must find a way under Solskjaer to play on the front foot rather than wait to expose teams on the counter, simply because it turns games against lesser teams into an unappetising mush when Pogba is not at his best. With Pogba firing, he can pick the lock of any defence and play passes through the lines that the space United’s attackers crave. When he’s off his game, United are lethargic. There’s the first thing on Solskjaer’s summer to-do list.
Manuel Pellegrini and the consistency problem
West Ham spent £100m on new players last summer. They also added the not-inconsiderable wages of Samir Nasri, Ryan Fredericks and Jack Wilshere, who have all joined on free transfers this season. Given that investment, Pellegrini is underperforming. There should be no doubt about that.
It is the maddening inconsistency that annoys supporters most. Against Newcastle last month, West Ham played with a composure and authority that was enough to persuade you that a corner might have been turned. But Pellegrini’s team are now only seven points ahead of Newcastle, who have a game in hand. That is unforgivable given the gap in spending and squad quality between the two clubs.
This is not a bad team. It has an England international left-back and central midfielder, an excellent goalkeeper and a central defender in Issa Diop who could be absolutely brilliant. The attacking third contains too many enigmas, but it is Pellegrini’s job to harness their obvious ability and that isn’t happening often enough.
Two steps forward and two more back; that has always been the West Ham dance. Pellegrini should be under pressure if he continues to oversee such predictable unpredictability rather than cure it.
Of course Chelsea supporters are entitled. Their regular angry chants against Maurizio Sarri and the cheers when Jorginho was substituted say as much. Chelsea are one point behind third place in the Premier League and their fans are in mutiny.
But then these supporters have been hardwired into short-termism. Chelsea spent more than a decade reasoning that if a manager failed in any season he would be removed from his position and replaced by somebody who might guarantee instant success. If Sarri was supposed to be different, Chelsea’s first dance with long-termism, it is too much to expect supporters who have enjoyed league title success to suddenly sit back and wait patiently for this grand vision to unfold.
And Sarri could hardly plead that his team are learning the tenets of his philosophy and improving with each week. Rarely can an away win have come with a longer list of ‘yeah, but’ caveats. Chelsea were rotten at Cardiff, fluking victory thanks to refereeing error and a late burst of resolve. They won in spite of themselves.
These really do feel like the last days of Sarri. Jorginho isn’t quite working out. Gonzalo Higuain is a wretched misfit. The stubbornness to keep Callum Hudson-Odoi in reserve despite all evidence pointing to him lifting those around him is bizarre. If Eden Hazard is to leave this summer, he will not have enjoyed his last season in England, and that’s partly on his manager.
But it is worth asking where Chelsea go next given the impending transfer ban, potential lack of Champions League football and owner whose willingness to throw money at new players appears to have stunted. If Sarri has indeed failed at Stamford Bridge, he has had one of his hands tied behind his back. If Chelsea cannot now attract the very best (and there are few obvious, available options), doesn’t yet another new manager represent an expensive gamble with less chance of instant success than ever before?
Fulham and an alienated support
Some teams fight against relegation, and others meekly accept it. If Fulham had nothing to lose against Manchester City, they somehow still lost. When your own supporters are cheering your goalkeeper catching the ball and your defenders completing a pass, you get a sense of City’s farcical dominance.
Fulham fans might give their club a little leeway had it not spent the season exploiting their loyalty. Before Saturday’s game, some handed out flyers protesting the ticket price hikes that Premier League football has brought. Supporters chanted their anger in the 55th minute in response to the £55 cheapest match ticket for the City game.
Those prices actively alienate families, punish those fans without season tickets who followed the club en route to the Premier League and attract tourists and one-timers. Good luck persuading those to watch Championship football. Maybe it’s time to drop prices for the rest of the season and claw back some goodwill.
An expected defeat against a better opponent, albeit one that Tottenham coped with for large spells and should have earned at least a point against. It could have been three if Moussa Sissoko had not stuffed up a two-on-one with minutes remaining.
But the headline news is that Tottenham have now lost four consecutive away league games, are only one point ahead of Chelsea in sixth and still have to play Manchester City at the Etihad. Their grip on their top-four place is loosening.
Still, at least they got a gentle draw in the Champions League…
A picture tells 1,000 words. This video tells you five: “Are you fookin’ kidding me?”
Neil Warnock's stare down with the officials at full time 😨😨
Glad we're not the referee or linesman right now 😬 pic.twitter.com/026qLMpgL5
— Soccer AM (@SoccerAM) March 31, 2019
Played like a team that has already stayed up. Cardiff’s defeat on Sunday might make that overwhelmingly likely, but Chris Hughton will not appreciate the complacency.
Another of those rare Hugo Lloris mistakes in big ga…yeah, we’ve been here so many times before. It’s just not good enough anymore.
We don’t think about that, we only look at the Burnley game and how we want to play and the things that we want to do against a very tough team,” said Nuno in midweek. “The best way to compete is that you look at the next challenge ahead of us – you don’t think about anything else. Game by game. Training session by training session. This is how we work and we have to continue like that.”
Nice try, big man. But on Saturday’s evidence you didn’t convince the players. And leaving your best players on the bench set the tone (not that the decision wasn’t completely understandable).