Premier League winners and losers

Date published: Monday 31st December 2018 10:35

Winners

Jurgen Klopp and Liverpool
Liverpool have been here before. In 2008/09 and 2013/14 they held a handsome lead at the top of the Premier League and were unable to get themselves over the line. In 2013/14 under Brendan Rodgers, Liverpool had the same rampant forward line and the same feeling of inevitability enveloped around them. That eventually came crashing to earth, and the fall-out was spectacular.

That is why Jurgen Klopp is so keen to play down expectation, or at least demand that his players do not take their focus off what lies at the end of this road. No trophies are handed out in December and January, and what might appear to be a comfortable lead  can quickly evaporate.

But that does mean that Liverpool supporters should not enjoy these moments and revel in every sumptuous performance from their team. They are on course to break Manchester City’s points record from last season and are the most potent attacking force in the country on current form. That might even extend to the whole of Europe.

That should be a sufficient riposte to those who tell Liverpool supporters not to get excited because they haven’t won anything yet. Of course lifting the title will give them a huge surge of joy, but so too should the fun they are having along the way. Dynasties may be measured in trophies by outsiders, but they are measured in memories by supporters. The memories that stick are not restricted to trophy lifts, and certainly extend to 5-1 home victories over supposed top-four rivals. There is an electricity in the air at every Liverpool home game.

But even away from that, this Liverpool title bid does feel different. We must be careful not to hand them the title now – not least because we almost did the same to Manchester City two months ago – but there is a sustainability to this Liverpool side that was not present in 2013/14. There is less chaos, infinitely more defensive resilience and an added depth to the squad. If Luis Suarez was the leader by example under Rodgers, Klopp has at least four of those in his team.

Most importantly, Liverpool succeeded despite early setback against Arsenal. Pep Guardiola spoke about the scoreboard pressure that would now be placed on Klopp’s team, but they were hardly perturbed by Ainsley Maitland-Niles’ early goal. Conceding first to Burnley, being pegged back by Manchester United, nothing seems to cause panic.

The Liverpool mantra is simply to believe in their own power to achieve whoever the opposition and whatever the situation. They are relentless in attack and robust in defence. Survive Thursday’s massive test, and they should have no fear of this long, long finishing straight.

 

Liverpool’s front three
Simply supreme. The biggest problem for Liverpool’s chasing pack is that their front three didn’t even hit top gear during the first three months of the season and yet Liverpool remained unbeaten and prolific. In Liverpool’s first eight league games of the season, Mohamed Salah, Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mane scored nine times. In their last eight league games, they have scored 14.

Sat in a pub in Nottingham watching the game, it is interesting seeing the faces of neutrals when Liverpool attack. People smile, get excited, strain forward to see what will happen next. The notion of neutrals’ favourites has been lost in a climate of football tribalism – love my team, hate everyone else – but Liverpool are great fun. As football increasingly becomes a Very Serious Business, the importance of fun is too easily overlooked.

There is a joy in watching their forward line interchange passes as if sharing an unbreakable understanding – receive the ball, play the pass, make the move. When Salah gives his penalty to Firmino to score his hat-trick goal, you can be sure that all three enjoy each other’s company and delight in helping each other thrive.

 

Manchester United, smiling again
Of course tactics are important in football. Every manager worth his salt has a strategic plan to try and exploit the flaws of their opponent and disarm their opponent’s star players. But just as important is creating a working environment in which players are motivated and content.

There is a crossover here, too. Players are likely to be happier if they feel the team gets the best out of individuals and the collective, and individuals are likely to be happier if they’re asked to perform roles in which they feel comfortable.

Which brings us to Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. Solskjaer is not necessarily a brilliant coach, and he might not even turn out to be a particularly good manager, but he clearly understands the necessity to get Manchester United’s players smiling again. That is why United’s hierarchy considered him the perfect temporary option.

I’m labouring the point made previously in this column, but Manchester United do not have bad players. All of them have previously performed well at Old Trafford or elsewhere – that is how they arrived at one of the biggest clubs in the world. But they had a group of players who were unhappy. Some felt that Jose Mourinho’s man-management was poor, others felt that his tactics caused United to stagnate.

Solskjaer has benefited from being the good cop succeeding bad cop. He is not letting United players play without instruction, but has given them a freedom and arm around the shoulder which has provoked an immediate reaction. United have scored 28% of their league goals this season under his guise.

To those who will say that Manchester United have not played anyone difficult yet, fair enough. Cardiff, Huddersfield and Bournemouth are three of the more gentle Premier League opponents, and Newcastle United may well be similar on Wednesday. But anyone using that as a reason not to make conclusions didn’t watch much of United between August and November. The difference in attitude and intent is marked.

Look at Paul Pogba, who has scored or assisted seven times in three games under Solskjaer. Look at Marcus Rashford, flourishing as a No. 9 and suddenly with the confidence to make defenders look foolish. Look at Nemanja Matic, suddenly an effective defensive screen after months of misery. Look at Romelu Lukaku, scoring with almost his first touch back. Look at the supporters, chanting louder and with more feeling than they have all season. And now try and tell me that the players and not Mourinho were to blame. They take their lead from their leader. And their leader set a terrible example.

United will probably revert to the mean under Solskjaer, and are still outsiders to finish in the top four. But this five-month spell gave them a chance to re-energise and recoup some much-needed PR goodwill. That process has already started.

 

Burnley
A huge victory, having seen Fulham and Cardiff win on Saturday. Just as we were beginning to wonder whether Sean Dyche could turn around this ship, Burnley dominated a West Ham side that looked more flaky than a Cadbury’s Flake wrapped in puff pastry.

 

Manchester City
A victory that Pep Guardiola believes was necessary to keep the title race alive. There’s little doubt Manchester City’s manager was intending to play mind games with Liverpool, but you can see his point. City needed to claw back some form before taking on Liverpool on Thursday evening. They can now go into such a monumental fixture with confidence that the attack is clicking again.

It was no surprise that City were better at St Mary’s. Fernandinho was back to offer solidity in midfield, while David Silva, Bernardo Silva, Raheem Sterling and Sergio Aguero had a far better understanding than against Leicester City. The defensive weaknesses have not disappeared, but Fernandinho is a wonderful security blanket for that front four.

But when Guardiola said after the game that it could have been 7-1, he was not exaggerating. City remain too profligate, repeatedly spurning chances to extend their lead before allowing Southampton back. Liverpool will not give them the same volume of chances.

 

Cardiff City
Every time you write them off, back come Cardiff City to keep their heads above water. It’s like this entire season is a practical joke that Neil Warnock is playing on us. They will survive on the final day of the season, Warnock will come onto the pitch to celebrate and promptly announce his retirement.

A word too for Cardiff’s unheralded stars. Neil Etheridge was an unfamiliar name to many Premier League supporters before this season but has been one of the best in the league, Sol Bamba’s career has been reborn under Warnock and Callum Paterson might just have the weirdest career arc in the division. Pound-for-pound, Cardiff have the weakest squad in the Premier League. In Warnock, they have a manager who excels in punching above his weight.

 

Wolves against the Big Six
Now emphatically over the blip that threatened to take the shine off an excellent start to Premier League life. Wolves’ ability to unnerve the best teams in the Premier League bodes particularly well for their ambitions of breaking into that cabal.

In a table composed of matches between the Big Six teams and Wolves this season – a mini seven-team Premier League – Nuno’s side rank in fourth with 1.29 points per game. That is level with Spurs and more than Arsenal and Manchester United. You better believe this manager and his players consider that they belong in such company.

 

Chelsea
The Leicester defeat was an annoying blip, but it has still been a fine festive period for Chelsea. They’ve now won three consecutive away league games, cut the gap to Tottenham and Manchester City and extended their lead over Arsenal. Maurizio Sarri’s side are now as short as 1/6 to finish in the top four.

 

Claudio Ranieri
Ranieri understood that Fulham had no hope of survival if they didn’t tighten up the defence, and initially found that task difficult. But there are signs that Fulham’s new manager is finally winning the battle against defensive incompetence without blunting their attack.

In their last four games, Fulham have faced 38 shots and had 45 of their own. In their previous four games they managed nine more shots (54), but faced a ludicrous 68. Now just to stop players missing penalties that they weren’t even supposed to take.

 

N’Golo Kante
Our early winner. Up to five goals and assists for the league season, matching his highest total of any campaign since moving to England. He’s adapting to his new role.

 

Jurgen Locadia
Looked out of his depth in plenty of Premier League appearances, but has now scored two goals in two games that have been worth three points to Brighton. Given the financial benefits of staying in the top flight, Locadia has almost paid back that £14m fee already.

 

Alex Iwobi
One of very few in Arsenal blue (turquoise? aquamarine?) to come away from Anfield with any credit. There is an excellent player in Iwobi, if Arsenal manage him right.

 

Losers

Arsenal’s defending
I can understand why Arsenal fans are feeling glum. A new manager was intended to bring in a new era, and many will have persuaded themselves that some of the club’s problems might change overnight. Unai Emery’s brilliant unbeaten run only allowed for wool to be double-layered over eyes.

But Emery is not a miracle worker. He arrived at a club down on their luck and in need of serious surgery, yet spent less than most of his peers. If he has indeed added a new buzz to Arsenal’s attack, the defensive problems that have beset the club over the last few years were never going to leave with Arsene Wenger.

Shkodran Mustafi is a wretched option, yet still amusingly the sixth most expensive central defender in the history of the game. Stephan Lichtsteiner was good three years ago, but dropping him in the Premier League at the age of 34 was the worst idea since David Cameron thought it might be nice to settle the EU debate once and for all and in doing so increase his mandate as Prime Minister. Sead Kolasinac is more comfortably going forward than backward, and Sokratis is the tallest dwarf.

They are also incapable of learning from their mistakes, which makes them so ripe for moving on as soon as possible. There was a wonderful moment on Saturday when Mustafi appealed for offside against Roberto Firmino having literally kicked the ball against his own teammate to put the Brazilian in on goal. That’s the sort of pure, natural incompetence that you cannot teach.

Emery is not blameless, of course. But when you look at how rusty Koscielny is post-serious injury, and look at the lack of options at his disposal, you wonder quite what those disheartened supporters expect him to do. Klopp felt that neither goalkeeper nor central defender were good enough and spent £14om on the pair.

It may take Emery another year to get that sort of investment to spend on his entire squad, and that’s without Aaron Ramsey leaving and Mesut Ozil left in No. 10 man’s land. Arsenal have long-term problems that will require long-term fixes, and there will be days when calamity reigns.

 

Huddersfield Town
Really worrying times in West Yorkshire. There is a strong case for Huddersfield Town overachieving even by being in the Premier League, and last season’s survival was a mini-miracle. But reality has set it over the second half of 2018. David Wagner was unable to attract high-level players in the summer and Huddersfield have paid the price in autumn and winter.

This column mentions their goalscoring woes almost every week, but it really is a crisis. Huddersfield strikers have taken 63 shots in the Premier League this season and failed to score once. Their top goalscorer is Zanka, a 28-year-old central defender who has scored fewer than 20 league goals in his entire career.

Huddersfield’s defending is far from abject, but it isn’t good enough to account for a team that scores in 0s and 1s. They have now lost seven straight matches. You suspect that if they take fewer than three points against Burnley and Cardiff in their next two league games, that might be that.

 

Tottenham’s title bid and the lack of rotation
A title bid that was over before it begun, proof of the media’s over excitement at Tottenham’s goalscoring form than any huge flaw in Mauricio Pochettino’s management. In August the question was whether Spurs could feasibly finish in the top four. If any Big Six manager deserves the goalposts to remain in the same place, it is Pochettino. Especially considering that they have the best away record of any team in England in 2018. Daniel Levy should be embarrassed by the stadium catastrophe.

But that does not mean that Tottenham and their manager should be impervious to criticism. We knew that fatigue could be a problem given the size of Pochettino’s squad and their heavy Christmas workload, so why did the manager not make a series of changes across the festive period? Particularly given that Wolves were always likely to be a tougher opposition than Bournemouth – their respective records against the best in the division tells us that.

It was most obvious in central midfield. Harry Kane spoke after the game to express his frustration at the lack of intensity to thwart Wolves’ counter-attacks, but Harry Winks and Moussa Sissoko – the central midfield pairing – were two of the three Tottenham players to play 180 minutes between December 26 and 29 and they played 83 minutes together against Everton. To be blunt, they looked absolutely knackered.

Pochettino will argue – and he has a point – that the options are not there behind that pair, given injuries to Eric Dier, Mousa Dembele, Erik Lamela and Victor Wanyama. No team in the Premier League would deal well with four first-team absentees in one position. But as Oliver Skipp sat on the bench for the entire 90 minutes against Wolves, you did wonder whether Pochettino stuffed this one up a little.

 

Everton, West Ham and Leicester, infuriatingly inconsistent
Three naughty boys, clubs who should have their heads banged together and told sternly to go to their rooms until they learn to find some bloody consistency. Everton, West Ham and Leicester all share the same ambition, to be the best of the Premier League rest. All three are undone by maddening slumps in intensity from one game to the next.

Everton spank Burnley for five before being wholly miserable against Brighton. Leicester beat Manchester City and Chelsea before losing at home to Cardiff. West Ham win four on the bounce and win away at Southampton but lose at home to Watford and are outclassed by Burnley. All three take one step forward and another back, an infuriating line dance that sees them back where they started, half out of breath and with the audience grumbling about the price of entry.

 

Roy Hodgson
“I thought we worked as hard as we could have,” said Hodgson after Crystal Palace had been wholly miserable against Chelsea. “We kept them in front of us and they had the ball, but they were creating goal chances. When they scored we had two options; either fly at it and risk conceding another three or four, or keep it tight and try and win an undeserved point in the last 15 minutes.”

Sure, but that doesn’t excuse the lack of impetus at 0-0 or the lack of pressure applied in the last 15 minutes. Chelsea had lost at home to Leicester because Claude Puel’s side sat deep and attempted to cause havoc on the counter-attack. Palace only attempted the first half of that plan.

 

Bournemouth against the Big Six
Played – 7
Won – 0
Drawn – 0
Lost – 0
For – 4
Against – 22

Bournemouth are punching way above their weight, but landing blows on the noses of big clubs remains their final frontier. Eddie Howe will point out that taking 26 points from their 13 games from non-Big Six teams merits being the story. And he’s absolutely right.

 

Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang
Thirteen touches, of which six were kick-offs. Aubameyang is a brilliant goalscorer for a team playing well, but left isolated and ineffective when the team struggles. On Saturday at Anfield, Aubameyang was reminiscent of Romelu Lukaku under Jose Mourinho, a striker on the periphery of the game because he relies upon decent service and is getting none.

 

Aboubakar Kamara
“He did not respect me, the club, team-mates and crowd. I spoke with him, it is not right. I said to Aboubakar Kamara to leave the ball to Aleksandar Mitrovic, he is the man who shoots the penalties. It is unbelievable what he did. I wanted to kill him” – Claudio Ranieri.

Probably wasn’t worth it just to miss a penalty.

Daniel Storey

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