Do not underestimate how fortunate we are, and do not take for granted how long it may take for a season like 2018/19 to be repeated.
With 12 games remaining, the title race promises to be absorbing. Whichever team finishes second is likely to set a Premier League points record for that position. Whichever team finishes third is likely to set a points record for that position too. I give you permission to flick the ear of anyone who claims that any of those three teams will or can bottle anything; the pace is just too fast for that.
The fight for the top four will also be intriguing, particularly if Chelsea make a managerial change to better their chances. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s impact makes Manchester United favourites to finish fourth, unthinkable two months ago. Arsenal and Unai Emery are hardly out of contention and Chelsea will surely improve from Sunday’s misery. Two clubs will miss out.
And then you have the relegation battle. Even if we consider that Huddersfield and Fulham have now gone, six clubs will be separated by three points with 12 rounds of matches to go. This is Russian roulette, with one of them receiving the fateful shot that can be the difference between brighter future and calamitous fall. Sit back and enjoy the ride.
The form player in the form Premier League team, having been the biggest under-performer for the crisis club. For all those who underestimate the difference that man-management can make, here is your answer. He and Anthony Martial were our early winners this weekend.
Pogba’s struggles and subsequent renaissance under Solskjaer may make some mutter the words ‘snowflakes’ and ‘millennials’ and moan about social media, but that’s entirely missing the point. This column will repeat the point until it is blue in the face, but employees will always perform better when they feel trusted and appreciated. That is particularly true for jobs in which employees rely upon instinct.
It is part – the biggest part – of a manager’s job to get those employees performing to the best of their ability. Manchester United’s poor results were not the disease, merely a symptom. The disease was Jose Mourinho’s archaic man-management that led to Manchester United’s players lacking the confidence they required to perform at their best. Pogba is not the only example of that, but he is the most emphatic and the most significant given his value – financial and professional.
Manchester United supporters who were calling for Pogba to be sold in January and backing Mourinho in that particular argument need not feel stupid, for this is all working out very nicely indeed. But they surely do now need to accept that they were lured in by the cult of Mourinho, and are far better away from its clutches.
12 – Paul Pogba and Marcus Rashford have combined to create 12 scoring chances for each other in nine competitive games under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer (692 mins). They only combined for five scoring chances in 17 matches under Jose Mourinho in 2018-19 (814 mins). Wavelength. pic.twitter.com/L3auTbZuC9
— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) February 11, 2019
You don’t have to like the man (and he cares not a jot whether you do or not). But you have to admire Warnock’s ability to motivate a team to be greater than the sum of its own uninspiring parts and to respond to adversity.
We have witnessed that ability in the macro and micro over the past fortnight. The macro picture is how Cardiff’s minds have remained focused on the relegation battle amid the most unlikely and tragic circumstances. The micro is how Cardiff conceded a 91st-minute equaliser in a vitally important away game and still won the contest in the final throes. Warnock’s fingerprints are all over both.
Cardiff could not have picked a more impressive nor more important time to register consecutive top-flight wins for the first time in 57 years. Warnock may still oversee the most unlikely survival bid. After the last three weeks, it’s hard to root against him.
Liverpool’s front three
Liverpool’s slight dip came as a result of injuries in defence and midfield, but also because of inefficiencies in the final third. When Jurgen Klopp most needed his front three to get the rest of the team out of a hole, they tripped over it.
Against Bournemouth, signs that normality might have returned ahead of a momentous contest at Old Trafford. That third Liverpool goal, with Roberto Firmino surging forward before backheeling it into the path of Mohamed Salah, demonstrates the type of understanding that is forged between friends who work every day alongside each other. It reminds me of that glorious Guti backheel – aka the greatest ever assist. Watch this eight times and then carry on reading…
Of course Chelsea were complicit in their own downfall. Ross Barkley is an Evertonian and really doesn’t want Liverpool to win the league, Marcos Alonso was beyond useless, Cesar Azpilicueta did exactly what Raheem Sterling wanted for the penalty and Kepa hasn’t made a save beyond ones you might consider regulation in weeks.
But this is what Manchester City do. They get under your skin and exploit your weaknesses. They work out that you are incapable of stopping one particular move and then they repeat that move until your supporters file out of the stadium before the final whistle. This is Pep Guardiola’s vision, football as Chinese water torture. The glorious bastard.
On afternoons such as those, you wonder how anyone can stop Manchester City. There is a simple answer: they can’t. Just cross your fingers, pray to all that you believe in and hope for an off day. The last team to score six against Chelsea? Nottingham Forest. Game recognises game. Greatness recognises greatness.
Remember that overrated player? You know, the flash, sulky one that spent too much and too little of his money like one of Goldilocks’ three bears? Well he’s now scored or assisted 50 Premier League goals since the start of last season. He’s too respectful to flick the Vs at those who doubted him and made him a scapegoat for England’s problems and their own preconceptions. But I’m not. *Flicks Vs*
A supreme goalscorer, despite the outrageous first-half miss. Aguero’s brilliance is manifested in many different ways, but it is his ability to score against the highest-profile opponents that makes him so special to Manchester City. The magnificent striker has now scored 43 goals in 64 games vs big six sides since joining City. Bloody hell.
Somehow, some way. Tottenham have found new and inventive ways of trying to trip themselves up at Wembley over the last month, but they keep on keeping on. Tottenham are now on course for 88 points this season, which is absolutely extraordinary given the circumstances of their season.
Since December 2, Son has only started one Premier League game and not contributed either a goal or assist. That’s absolutely mad given that he has shouldered the responsibility of leading Tottenham’s attack and was forced to bugger off to the Asian Cup for a fortnight.
Fair play you gruff-voiced magician. Two months ago, Burnley looked in serious trouble. They conceded shots at a faster rate than any team in Premier League history, and while Joe Hart was not wholly responsible for so many of them going into the net, he was certainly a little helpless.
Since then (and Hart dropping out of the team), a team has been transformed. Burnley are on a seven-match unbeaten run in the league, second only to Solskjaer’s Manchester United. If Dyche’s answer was to go back to basics and make a gritty and determined team more gritty and determined, it has worked a treat. Burnley are not safe from the drop but they’re moving in the right direction, which is more than you can say for some of the clubs around them.
Scorer of more than one goal in a game for only the second time in almost two years. Nice timing, big man.
I do have some sympathy with Maurizio Sarri, because this is partly on Chelsea. A club notorious for managerial short-termism courted and appointed a manager who had a long-term vision. They gave Sarri the honour of changing Chelsea; other managers had been changed by them.
Chelsea also appointed a manager whose style was so distinct that it was likely to take time and perseverance for the squad to grow accustomed to it, and take several transfer windows for the squad to be sculpted according to the manager’s vision. Let’s remember that Pep Guardiola finished fourth in the Premier League in his first season with Manchester City, and Guardiola had a far stronger squad with bigger budgets. To exacerbate that issue, Chelsea appointed Sarri less than three weeks before the Community Shield. Guardiola, you will remember, was lined up months in advance.
But if that is Sarri’s defence, he is quickly using up his goodwill. If there are periods of home matches in which the Italian’s style rises to the surface and you can almost believe that Chelsea might get there, they are easily overshadowed by shambolic, humbling defeats. It is not just that Chelsea are losing, but that they are suffering the type of collapse that any manager can only suffer once or twice before owners get twitchy and HR are asked to work late.
Manchester City have represented these two extremes of Sarri’s Chelsea perfectly. In the home fixture, Guardiola fretted and frowned like a man waiting for bad news as Chelsea out-passed the passers and out-thought the thinkers. But Chelsea’s capitulation on Sunday renders that virtually void. The abiding image was of Marcos Alonso being left with two men to pick up at the back post and opting for the brave option of marking neither.
Chelsea have not yet scored an away goal in 2019 and have conceded 13. If a trip to Malmo this Thursday should allow them to arrest that miserable statistic, they will do so in a competition that they don’t particularly want to be in and yet look increasingly likely to settle for next season.
Sarri may avoid the sack this week, but he should not get too comfortable. Having twice called out his players publicly and failed to get a reaction, it’s difficult to know where you go from there. It makes owners wonder whether it’s not them, but you.
He’s been involved in Chelsea’s two heaviest ever Premier League defeats, and he’s been at the club for a fortnight. Has he got a curse stuffed into those shorts?
— Simon Johnson (@sjstandardsport) February 10, 2019
It’s not how you start but how you end, and Brighton are getting sucked into trouble having taken six points from a possible 33. Chris Hughton’s team are not playing terribly, but they are being punished for defensive mistakes (including a ludicrously high line against Burnley) and their shot conversion has gravitated back to the mean.
Brighton’s next five home league opponents are, in order, Huddersfield, Cardiff, Southampton, Bournemouth and Newcastle, a gentle run that should be enough to see them keep their heads above water. But then we included Burnley in that same list.
Claudio Ranieri, already floundering
Losing to Manchester United in isolation, even at home and even by three clear goals, is not enough to dent Ranieri’s reputation. But Fulham supporters are getting restless. The inevitability of Fulham’s defeat on Saturday, coupled with another miserable performance and strange strategic decisions, hardly helped.
Ranieri has now had 15 matches in charge of Fulham, but won only three and drawn three more. If Slavisa Jokanovic was fairly accused of significant underperformance after gaining promotion, Ranieri has only taken Fulham closer to immediate relegation and he didn’t even achieve the good bit.
The assumption was that Ranieri would make Fulham more solid defensively, inevitably reducing some of their attacking invention, but he has managed the latter without improving the former enough to make a difference. Fulham have now gone seven games without a clean sheet, conceding 17 times in the process. In the 15 matches before Ranieri’s arrival, Fulham scored 16 times. They have scored 15 times in his 15. And so the obvious conclusion: nothing much has changed.
Just as worrying is the style of Ranieri’s football. Fulham supporters are not demanding marauding, vivacious football, but they are acutely aware that Tom Cairney and Ryan Sessegnon are two of the most talented players in the squad and that both have been pushed to the fringes of the squad as Ranieri has gone for long, direct passes that bypass a midfield that represents Fulham’s strongest suit. He is ignoring some of the strongest elements of the squad. When you do that, the results need to improve.
On Saturday, Fulham fans at Craven Cottage turned on Ranieri. They demanded Sessegnon and Cairney, booed the substitution of Andre Schurrle for Cyrus Christie and chanted during the second half that Ranieri didn’t know what he was doing. Whisper it quietly so lovely Uncle Claudio doesn’t hear you, but are they right?
On January 8, Everton’s majority shareholder Farhad Moshiri warned that the club’s league position and form was not good enough. Since then, Everton have lost to Southampton, Wolves and Watford in the league and tumbled out of the FA Cup to Millwall. They are five points behind Wolves in seventh having played two games more, and four points behind Silva’s former club. He could get sacked, y’know.
Jose Mourinho’s miracle
“We need to try to win as many points as possible and try almost the miracle to end in fourth” – Jose Mourinho, December 4.
Turns out they didn’t need a miracle, just to get rid of Mourinho and wait nine matches.
Claude Puel and those weird team selections
Claude, come into my office. No, you’re right, I’m not happy. Now sit down, take this pencil and write 1,000 times ‘I must not start Demarai Gray as a false nine while Jamie Vardy is left on the bench’.
And yes, I did note that you left Wilfred Ndidi on the bench and so he only started because Nampalys Mendy got injured in the warm-up. What do you think this piece of paper is for?
Go five games without defeat, including victories over Everton and Leicester, only to lose at home to Cardiff and thus fall back into the bottom three. Anyone betting successfully on the results of bottom-half Premier League teams beyond ‘Huddersfield and Fulham to lose’ is a soothsayer.