Firstly, Pearson deserves praise for his tactical changes because they may well have saved Watford’s season. Quique Sanchez Flores mainly used a 3-5-2 formation that was intended to give Watford more defensive numbers, allow Jose Holebas to play as a wing-back and field Troy Deeney as part of a front two (which seemed to suit his strengths). That plan fell flat on its face.
Pearson decided that Watford needed a change of shape. He opted for a 4-2-3-1 because he believed that Gerard Deulofeu – who had been playing centrally – and Ismaila Sarr were the key to Watford’s improvement. Removing a central defender from a team conceding too many goals was a risk, so Pearson brought in Nathaniel Chalobah to partner Etienne Capoue and gave Abdoulaye Doucoure more licence to push forward. If leaving Troy Deeney as a lone striker risked leaving him isolated and frustrated, Sarr and Deulofeu had licence to drift infield to support him.
It’s working a treat; the results prove that. Pearson lost his first league game in charge away an Anfield and since then Watford have taken 13 points from a possible 15 including three clean sheets and two wins over teams currently in the top seven. They have now moved out of the bottom three, and on this evidence will not be returning. The change is remarkable.
But this goes beyond tactics. If the change of tactics has given Watford a fresh start, the change in attitude has ensured that they have maximised their last shot at saving their season. Pearson repeatedly spoke of the need to show the supporters how much the terrible run of form had hurt the players, and thus show them how determined they were to address it. Pearson urged them to prove people wrong.
It’s not hard to make the connection between players and manager. After overseeing Leicester City’s great escape in 2014/15, Pearson believed that his role in the Leicester miracle had been unfairly scratched out of history. His return to English football, having been turned down for the Middlesbrough job in the Championship and forced to head abroad, was Pearson’s chance to prove his own aptitude. It’s fair to say we’re all convinced after only six league matches.
Danny Ings, England striker
That description is already correct, by the way. Ings is already a senior England international, having made his debut against Lithuania in October 2015. Three days later, in Liverpool’s first training session under Jurgen Klopp, Ings tore his anterior cruciate ligament injury and was ruled out for seven months. Then followed another serious knee injury, more rehabilitation, a loan move to Southampton and eventually a permanent departure from Anfield. Ings has experienced enough for an entire career.
Do not underestimate the mental strength required to come through that adversity and perform at your peak at the highest level. Ings has wrestled the narrative of his career back from the grasp of misfortune and has made it his again. He has scored 10 goals in his last 11 Premier League matches, taking Southampton quickly towards the relative bliss of the Premier League’s mid-table.
That run will bring Ings back full circle to the England team again, almost four-and-a-half years after his first cap. Harry Kane’s injury creates a potential space in the starting XI for one of the March friendlies. Callum Wilson’s form makes a squad place at Euro 2020 a strong possibility if the goals keep coming. There’s nobody that deserves reward for their perseverance like Ings.
In early October, I wrote a piece in which I insisted that Rashford deserved an apology not grief for his current form. At that time, Rashford was struggling. He had scored two goals from open play in his last 20 Premier League games, a run stretching back seven months.
I didn’t believe that Rashford deserved blame for that form, because he was a product of his environment. He was suffering from poor service from a midfield that lacked all creativity and intensity, and was having his confidence trampled on by a club mired in a dreadful mood. It goes without saying that these are not the conditions in which a young player is likely to fulfill their potential.
And yet Rashford is fulfilling it. Despite everything going on – or not going on – around him, and despite his club stuck in the glitch of one step forward and one more back, Rashford has carried the responsibility of leading Manchester United’s attack at the age of 22. He has escaped the potential watermarks of decline and flourished. So now he doesn’t deserve grief; he deserves a thank you.
Liverpool were hardly watertight in the final 20 minutes against Tottenham, but they had already won the game psychologically by persuading Jose Mourinho that he must sit back for the first 60 minutes.
It is that now-established psychological advantage that is making Liverpool’s defensive job easier, because they possess the defensive excellence to deal with most short-term attacking assaults. Jurgen Klopp’s team have now kept six clean sheets in a row in the Premier League for the first time in over 13 years. They’re actually getting stronger, not weaker.
Now read 16 Conclusions.
The most goals by an overseas player in Premier League history, and the most hat-tricks of anyone. Aguero’s brilliance gets easily overlooked because of the service he receives, but he averages a hat-trick for every 21 games played in England. That’s not normal.
After his man-of-the-match performance against Nottingham Forest in the FA Cup, Hudson-Odoi finally scored his first Premier League goal. With Christian Pulisic injured for three weeks, he will now get the chance to stake his claim for a place in Frank Lampard’s team. Given his obvious potential, it is long overdue. Now cross your fingers that your club doesn’t decide to splurge on another winger.
Boring, boring Everton
Between August 2017 and Carlo Ancelott’s appointment, Everton won four of their 46 home league games 1-0. They have won both of their home games – against Brighton and Burnley – under Ancelotti by that scoreline. Everton supporters may clamour for attacking, vivacious football, but they also understand that their club was in a pickle. The key was to solve the crisis without having to appoint another firefighter. They might just have nailed it.
Liverpool are sensational, relentless and ruthless, and Manchester City carry doubts on at least two of those adjectives, but my goodness there is something deeply enjoyable about watching them in their pomp. Unless you’re Dean Smith, of course.
Bournemouth and Eddie Howe
Now entering full-blown crisis. Bournemouth have taken four points from their last 11 league matches. This season’s relegation battle might well require a team to achieve close to the magic 40 points barrier to stay up, and right now Bournemouth will not be hitting that mark. They are porous at the back and blunt in attack. Eddie Howe doesn’t need me to tell him the problems with that combination.
Howe’s alleged weakness as a manager lies in the transfer market, and that hasn’t helped Bournemouth. Dominic Solanke started again on Sunday, and his signing already looks to be a total waste. Solanke may well come good, but he is being forced to learn on the job and Bournemouth don’t really have the resources around him to be carrying a non-goalscoring goalscorer.
But this goes far beyond just transfer market mistakes. The team Howe picked to face Watford did not contain many new signings. It included many of those responsible for getting Bournemouth to the Premier League and keeping them there. It is those players who are suddenly under-performing and thus pushing Bournemouth closer to grave danger.
Captain Simon Francis’s quality has been dented by age and injury. Dan Gosling is a Championship central midfielder. Adam Smith is a jobbing full-back but was easily bettered by Gerard Deulofeu on Sunday. There’s an argument to say that no player has tailed off more from last season to this than Ryan Fraser. Callum Wilson last scored a league goal on September 28.
Add to that an injury crisis. Only one outfield player has been able to start more than 18 of Bournemouth’s 22 league games this season, and none of Francis, Fraser, Josh King, Harry Wilson, Smith, Chris Mepham, Charlie Daniels and David Brooks have started more than 15. That kind of upheaval decimates a squad like Bournemouth’s.
Bournemouth surely won’t sack Howe; at least not yet. He is the greatest manager in the club’s history, and they are not a club that is likely to be able to attract a big-name replacement. Bournemouth’s best chance of staying up is Howe finding the solution. But that brings with it a leap of faith that their recent performances do not justify. Fail to beat Norwich or Brighton in their next two matches, and Bournemouth’s perilous situation will only look worse.
Wolves, down to the bare bones
With the game level at 1-1, and Wolves looking for a winner against a team well below them in the table, Nuno looked towards his bench and surveyed his options: goalkeeper, defender, defender, defender, defender, central midfielder, striker. The central midfielder has nine career league starts. The striker has never played a league match.
That makes a tangible difference to Wolves’ season. They have already played 37 competitive matches, plus EFL Trophy games, and are likely to play another 20 at least. You can make a reasonable argument about asking elite players to perform too frequently over the festive period, but this problem is entirely of Wolves’ own making. They are down to the bare bones.
“It’s obvious that we must bring players,” said Nuno after the Newcastle draw. “It was not the best game, it was difficult, not many spaces, but the final delivery should be better. We are working and hopefully things work out and we can solve it. We need solutions, we need more than specific positions, players that can bring us different situations, that can help us in these kind of games.”
Nuno has every right to be fuming with those above him. He has used only 19 players in the league this season, and has seen Patrick Cutrone and Ivan Cavaleiro sold during this window before replacements were sourced or signed. Wolves are now winless in four matches, and that’s no surprise. The players must be half-knackered.
Wolves now owe it to Nuno to address this situation on an ASAP basis or risk demotivating their manager at precisely the time when bigger clubs might be considering making a move for him. Wolves need at least one striker, another wide player and another central midfielder, even if they are loan deals and Jorge Mendes clients. Failure to recruit effectively could place a handbrake on Wolves’ season. That would be a spectacularly dim thing to do given the strides made over the last three years.
Newcastle United’s injuries
Fabian Schar – thigh; Yoshinori Muto – groin; Deandre Yedlin – knee; Ki Sun-Yeung – knock; Jamaal Lascelles – calf; Allan Saint-Maximin – thigh; Javi Manquillo – thigh; Jonjo Shelvey – thigh; Jack Colback – knee; Emil Krafth – knock; Paul Dummett – thigh; Dwight Gayle – thigh; Joelinton – groin. Newcastle – a bit buggered.
“I’ve been going 40 years and never really seen a situation like what has unfolded in the last couple of weeks,” Steve Bruce told Sky Sports on Saturday evening. “Are we just unlucky or is there a reason why? I’ve got my own ideas, I keep telling everyone it’s the amount of games we play and when you play people fatigued you risk that trouble.”
But here’s the thing:
“I’m sure most of the supporters are absolutely fed up to the back teeth and think ‘why’. Are we just unlucky or is there something underneath it all? When you see the problems the club have had, it is really obscene” – Steve Bruce, Sheffield Wednesday manager, April 2019.
“It’s b******s but when can you do? It [the injury crisis] is what it is. It’s your world’s worst but what can you do? You have to get on with it. It was never going to be easy at this club. I have learned that in 12 months. Someone is going to have to come to the party” – Steve Brue, Aston Villa manager, November 2017.
“It’s not time for excuses but big players have been missing for too long. Too often we’ve got big players out who we’ve paid big money for and there is the problem. Over a period of the season we’ve not been able to cope with the loss of the big players” – Steve Bruce, Hull City manager, May 2015.
“I messed up. I played too many players who weren’t match fit or were only half-fit. Mido was only half-fit, Brown had been sick before the game and wasn’t right, and Valencia had only had two or three training sessions. I put Hugo Rodallega in from the start and then Ben Watson came on after only 19 minutes, yet both hadn’t started for six or seven weeks. With hindsight I wouldn’t have picked the team I did. The one thing you can’t do in the Premier League is play lads who are below their best” – Steve Bruce, Wigan manager, February 2009 after Wigan players sustained a series of injuries in a match.
Bruce has vowed to investigate why Newcastle are suffering so many muscle injuries, and that must include some introspection about training methods or picking players who are not fully fit. If this run continues, Newcastle will be dragged back into trouble.
Lukasz Fabianski and West Ham
Season-defining? Perhaps. The last time Fabianski got injured, Manuel Pellegrini put far too much trust in the calamitous Roberto and it cost him his job. This time we had to wait an hour for the first catastrophic mistake, David Martin passing the ball straight to the feet of John Fleck for Sheffield United’s winner.
West Ham supporters will be reassured to know that they have re-signed Darren Randolph from Middlesbrough. They will be less pleased – but no doubt unsurprised – to learn that they signed Randolph while he was carrying an injury. Get well soon, Lukasz. Or this could get messy.
Against Aston Villa in the EFL Cup last midweek, Leicester City were far too timid in possession against a low block. Brendan Rodgers picked too many defenders to deal with no recognised striker, and then watched on as his team struggled to pass around a packed midfield. Too many passes were played sideways and backwards. Short passing is fine, but only as a prelude to something quicker. This was passing for its own sake, with no purpose.
So it will annoy Rodgers that his side did exactly the same against Southampton, who also sat back but did an awful lot more on the counter-attack than Aston Villa and thoroughly justified their victory. The visitors had more shots, created more chances and displayed far more intent when in possession. Gone was the extra defender, but still there was the ponderous, sluggish football.
Leicester’s other problem is that their defensive record has fallen off a cliff. In their last ten matches, the only two opponents who have failed to score against Leicester are Newcastle United and Wigan Athletic. The lack of clean sheets has increased the onus on the midfield to create more chances, and so far they are failing to meet the demand. Rodgers will be desperate to put that right and avoid a mid-season wobble, particularly in the domestic cup competitions.
Tottenham’s first-half intent
You can – and should – read plenty more words on this in 16 Conclusions, but I’ll add my own frustrations that Tottenham only started putting Liverpool under pressure in the final 20 minutes on Saturday evening. With Giovani Lo Celso and Erik Lamela playing on the front foot and forcing turnovers in possession high up the pitch, Tottenham created enough chances to score.
But they allowed Liverpool to have the lead. Playing with a low block and three central defenders was a perfectly valid plan, but it should have come with some pressing in midfield rather than a prestigious game of attack vs defence during which Liverpool were always going to score eventually.
As an aside, Jose Mourinho was appointed with Tottenham three points off the top six and 11 points off the top four. They are currently two points off the top six and nine off the top four. If this is the manager who guarantees a quick shove in the right direction, we’re yet to see it.
As Riyad Mahrez’s second goal in the back of the net, Drinkwater turned his back to the goal and threw up his arms in frustration as if to say “What more can I do?”. The question was probably rhetorical, but let’s give him an answer anyway: ‘Not expect to have two seconds in which to turn on the ball in your own penalty area against Manchester City, champ’.