Burnley and Manchester City
This has been an incredibly unusual title race. We expect these finales to come with twists and turns, nips and tucks. One team drops points, feeling the pressure that comes with an advantage at the top. The other team fails to seize the initiative before the vice versa happens. The lead changes hands regularly before a winner is crowned.
Liverpool and Manchester City have ripped up the rulebook. The only twists and turns have been whether they kill the game off during the first or second half and whether they win by one goal or more. There is something distinctly clinical about this title race, like walking into a pristine, contemporary flat that shines white. You can appreciate the quality of the build, but the flawlessness actually becomes a criticism rather than a compliment.
So congratulations to Burnley and Manchester City. To Burnley, for providing the league leaders with a greater challenge than Manchester United and giving us all a match that contained actual jeopardy like every game on the home straight really should. And to Manchester City, for coming through the test and getting it done again. Do the same twice more, and they will be champions.
Liverpool and the 90-point barrier
It might mean next to nothing if they don’t win the Premier League, because disappointment will be the overwhelming emotion. But the highly unusual nature of this title race produces highly unusual conclusions. Having held a lead and lost it, Liverpool should be gutted by second place. But the constant assault of consistency that they and Manchester City have managed over the last three months must temper that dejection.
Liverpool’s sauntering, swaggering victory over Huddersfield on Friday evening means that they have now taken more points than ever before in a league season. They are also level with Manchester United’s record points total in a Premier League season with two matches remaining. In the context of fierce rivalry, that means something too.
Liverpool are on course to concede the second fewest goals in any 38-game league season in their history. They will fall well short of the 101 goals that they managed in 2013/14 under Brendan Rodgers, but this is a team with far better balance, while still retaining its ability to put teams to the sword.
More importantly for Jurgen Klopp, the strengths within this team feel sustainable. It will be in Klopp’s interest to stress that sustainability if Liverpool don’t win the title in order to deflect disappointment, but he’s also right.
What reasons are there to think that Liverpool will drop away badly in 2019/20? There is no major international tournament to tire out players, no ageing players who will decline badly. They have already combined a strong league campaign with the physical demands of Champions League football. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Joe Gomez have missed large spells of this season and will come back stronger.
Look at Arsenal, Manchester United, Tottenham and Chelsea and you can easily identify summer issues. Each of those has work to do in the transfer market, and all but Arsenal could lose a key player this summer – David de Gea/Paul Pogba, Christian Eriksen/Toby Alderweireld, Eden Hazard. Not only are there precious few weaknesses in Liverpool’s starting XI, none of their players are likely to push for moves and they are an attractive proposition for potential signings.
The greatest compliment to pay to Klopp and Liverpool is that this season need not be a one-off. And that should really scare Manchester United supporters.
Harry Kane’s replacement in the UEFA Nations League? It would take a leap of faith from Gareth Southgate, because Wilson is nowhere near Kane’s quality, but it would also avoid the need to change the shape and style of England’s attack.
Wilson is certainly making his case. He has six goals and four assists in his last nine Premier League matches, despite Bournemouth struggling for form. That puts to shame some of the strikers plying their expensive trade higher up the table.
A list of Premier League players ranked by goals and assists this season, in descending order: Eden Hazard, Mohamed Salah, Raheem Sterling, Sergio Aguero, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Callum Wilson. One member of that top six – and Wilson is younger than three of them – is gatecrashing a high-end party.
It is Wilson’s creativity that can drift under the radar. He has more league assists than any other centre-forward in the top flight. Will a bigger club come calling this summer?
Wolves, who deserve seventh place
Seventh place almost secured, with a gap of three points to Leicester and four to Watford with two games remaining. Wolves are likely to appreciate Europa League football more than any other club in the mix, and they have secured it (barring a Watford win in the FA Cup final) with splendid performances against Arsenal and Watford.
This column has focused plenty on Wolves’ success against the top six this season, but Sky Sports writer and professional Wolverine Adam Bate made an excellent point on Twitter this weekend. If you took out results against the bottom four in the table, only Manchester City and Liverpool have taken more points this season. That is astounding.
Brilliant by Wolves. Been lots of talk about their record against the top six but just take out results against the bottom four and only Man City and Liverpool have more points. Remarkable really.
68 Man City
49 Man Utd
— Adam Bate (@ghostgoal) April 27, 2019
As a perfectionist, that statistic might well frustrate Nuno as much as it makes him proud; with a little surgery Wolves could have broken into the top six. But there’s little benefit in focusing on anything other than the huge positives. Wolves will be an attractive club to transfer targets this summer. Next season could be better still.
Jamie Vardy vs the top six
Tottenham – one goal
Manchester United – one goal
Arsenal – three goals
Liverpool – two goals
Manchester United – one goal
Chelsea – one goal
Liverpool – three goals
Manchester City – three goals
Arsenal – three goals
Tottenham – three goals
Chelsea – two goals
Liverpool – two goals
Manchester City – one goal
Manchester United – one goal
Arsenal – two goals
Manchester United – one goal
Chelsea – one goal
Tottenham – one goal
There are whole clubs who would be happy to score that many goals against the best clubs in the country. You don’t have to like him (and he doesn’t care either way), but Vardy is a phenomenon.
He’s got them playing, but this is what happens when you forge a team with some defensive resolve. Given that Claudio Ranieri tried and failed to implement the same plan, it demonstrates that there is a connection between Parker and Fulham’s squad. Fulham have kept three consecutive clean sheets in the Premier League for the first time since February 2010.
Parker will surely now be given a chance in the Championship. Allow him to strip off the fat in this squad, place someone not biologically related to the owner in charge of recruitment and Parker can turn this disaster around.
What a debut season. Jimenez has now reached 20 league goals and assists. His permanent signing means Wolves will hit the ground running this summer.
Arsenal and Unai Emery, losing all goodwill
Until ten days ago, Emery’s season had been broadly positive. Arsenal had made progress in the Europa League, the manager’s forte, and looked like stick-on favourites to make the top four even if their away day blues continued. Win home games against Crystal Palace and Brighton, and even one point from trips to Wolves and Leicester would likely be enough.
And yet somehow Arsenal have let it slip. They lost to Palace because Emery made too many changes and picked a limp central midfield that was overrun, and lost to Wolves and Leicester because they simply cannot defend properly. The dismissal of Ainsley Maitland-Niles changed the game, but any Arsenal supporter who thought they would have won with 11 men is guilty of grossly misplaced optimism. Their team have conceded more away league goals in the last five days than they have scored in 2019. For those keeping count, it’s now two away league clean sheets in 28 attempts.
At the King Power too, Emery got things badly wrong. There was little choice but to pick Maitland-Niles, but playing Shkodran Mustafi when Laurent Koscielny is on the bench is an error akin to professional negligence. Make no mistake, this was an away performance as wretched as anything under Arsene Wenger. If Arsenal are closer to the top four than last season, that is in part due to a slump from Manchester United and a widening financial gap to the bottom half allowing them to register more easy points.
But this goes beyond Emery and to Arsenal’s hierarchy. No manager can make a silk defence out of such a grubby sow’s ear, and Arsenal are crying out for some tender, loving cash to be spent. Part of the issue of their away form is mental (bad results cause scars that increase the chances of bad results), but the team just also isn’t very good. The bench contained a goalkeeper, two central defenders, two defensive midfielders and two 19-year-olds who aren’t yet ready to make an impact on the Premier League.
And this is when Arsenal supporters really get grumpy, because there is very little trust that Stan Kroenke will release the funds required to pay for the requisite surgery on the squad. Emery deserves censure for potentially blowing Champions League participation, but Kroenke is the overarching villain. Spend some f*king money, as Arsenal supporters chant.
The ‘chasing’ pack
Since Wednesday, the clubs currently occupying third to sixth in the Premier League have dropped 16 points. Since the turn of the year, Manchester City and Liverpool have only dropped 14 points. The relentless consistency of the top two only makes the chasing pack look worse, but they do not need any help to stink the place out.
What should have been an intriguing race for the top four has become an It’s A Knockout-style contest in which each competitor lurches between mishap and stumble. If Tottenham merit absolution for their smaller budgets and Champions League semi-final participation, the rest should be thoroughly ashamed of themselves.
It’s no coincidence that all three have question marks regarding their leadership at boardroom level. Chelsea, Manchester United and Arsenal must all have positive summers to avoid being left behind. Do we really have any faith that they will help themselves?
David de Gea
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer said after the game that De Gea’s wretched mistake was “one of those things”, but more accurate would be to conclude that it was one of those five or six things. Manchester United’s goalkeeper has been their most reliable performer over the last five years, but ‘has’ is veering worryingly close to ‘had’.
Solskjaer was also keen to insist that United are not sixth because of De Gea, but this week they patently are. Had United beaten Chelsea 1-0, they would be outside the top four only on goal difference with two gentle opponents to come. Having started the game brightly, De Gea’s latest error took the wind out of their sails.
De Gea is still in the black thanks to his previous brilliance, and it is more likely that he is suffering from a slump in form rather than a Fernando Torres-like decline. Taking any goalkeeper out of the team is a difficult thing to manage; it sends a message that isn’t the case when an outfielder is relegated to the bench, and also tends to feel a little more permanent. The importance of confidence for a goalkeeper is paramount. Taking them out of the limelight is as likely to damage, rather than improve, that confidence.
But the ongoing contract situation and Manchester United’s proficient second-choice goalkeeper do add a layer of complication. It’s not blasphemous to suggest that Manchester United would have won on Sunday with Sergio Romero in goal.
Now read 16 Conclusions.
And that’s probably that. Nothing damns Manchester United quite like the lack of Champions League football that this club has suffered recently. Between 1993 and 2014, United played in Europe’s premier club competition in all but one season. Since then, they have been absent from it in 2014/15, 2016/17 and now most likely 2019/20 too.
Only a freak set of results will see United through. If Chelsea or Tottenham win either of their remaining games, they can do nothing. Even if Chelsea slip up badly, Arsenal will take that place with wins over Brighton and Burnley. United must win both matches and cross their fingers, but it will surely be in vain.
And yet during the final moments at Old Trafford on Sunday, there was so little fight. United started strongly before fading, but the board reading seven extra minutes would have provoked a late surge in seasons past. Instead it was Chelsea pushing for the late winner. United’s last shot on target during a must-win match was by a central defender in the 54th minute. That’s absolutely miserable. So is the fact that Manchester United are closer in terms of points to Burnley than the top two.
So, so lucky not be sent off for crashing into Willian’s shins with a ludicrously wild tackle. As careless diving into challenges as he is when making toast.
The abiding Chelsea image from Sunday was not of their players celebrating the equaliser, but of Eden Hazard holding his arms out in frustration, begging for some movement from Higuain. It’s enough to make any superstar player want to leave the country.
Higuain’s movement is poor, and he’s slow enough that he needs to set off early to have any hope of winning the race to a through ball. But setting off early means that he gets caught offside. That sequence of events was repeated so often at Old Trafford that it became comical. Only twice since the beginning of last season has a player been caught offside more times in a Premier League game.
What’s weirder than Higuain’s poor form (new league, ageing player,not ideal system for him) is Sarri’s loyalty. Hazard has spoken about loving playing with Olivier Giroud and is clearly frustrated by Higuain, and the Argentinean is only on loan anyway. Maybe he has incriminating photos of just where Sarri has been sticking nicotine patches to try and mainline the chemical.
Either way, it has to stop. Both in the Premier League until a top-four place is secured and in the Europa League if Chelsea are to win it.
Tottenham and those bench options
You are third in the Premier League, and have reached the Champions League final. Victory over West Ham at home will guarantee you a Champions League place, but you trail 1-0 and have played poorly. You turn to your bench in hope of Saturday lunchtime salvation. And then you see your options.
This weekend, Liverpool brought Joe Gomez, Xherdan Shaqiri and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain on as substitutes. Chelsea called upon Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Pedro, leaving Olivier Giroud where he was. Manchester United introduced the highest-paid player in the country, and kept Anthony Martial in reserve. Even Arsenal, that thin, messy squad, brought on Laurent Koscielny and Matteo Guendouzi.
Mauricio Pochettino was searching for a goal and was forced to turn to Vincent Janssen and Fernando Llorente. That pair of strikers have scored seven league goals between them since August 2017. Not sure Ajax will be sh*tting bricks about either of them.
Cardiff City, too passive
It’s no disaster that Cardiff will likely be relegated after a weekend on which they hoped to claw back points on Brighton and ended up losing ground. This is by far the weakest squad in the Premier League created for by far the least money and paid by far the lowest wages. Their chances of staying up probably went with the horrific tragedy that befell Emiliano Sala in January. Neil Warnock’s reputation as a manager should not be altered by relegation.
But having given themselves a chance with three rounds of matches left, Cardiff are right to feel bitterly disappointed by their performance on Saturday and should not be immune from criticism – nor should their manager. The visitors did indeed give it a good go in the final 20 minutes at Craven Cottage, but why on earth were they so passive in the first half when they needed to be proactive and take the game to Fulham.
Scott Parker has improved their resilience, but had Cardiff scored first they might have backed themselves to hang on and put the pressure firmly on Brighton. Instead they attempted just a single shot before the break, which was blocked. Not good enough.