Premier League winners and losers

Date published: Monday 22nd January 2018 11:35


Mesut Ozil
The new king of Arsenal’s attack, and there are many supporters who believe that the coronation took place a fair few months ago. For all the previous criticism of Ozil and praise for Alexis Sanchez, it is the German who has coped and behaved better with his contract ticking down. If Arsenal can persuade him to stay, they will retain one of the best creators in world football.


Sergio Aguero
The thing that stands out about the Premier League top three scorers is the sheer volume of shots that each of them take. Harry Kane (6.1), Mohamed Salah (4.7) and Aguero (4.5) are not just the three highest goalscorers, but also the three Premier League regulars who have the most shots per 90 minutes. Romelu Lukaku, the next highest-scoring striker, averages just 2.9 shots per 90 minutes. His chance conversion is higher, but that’s largely irrelevant here. More shots, more goals.

Aguero is the perfect example of this ‘try, try and try again’ striker style. Against Newcastle on Saturday teatime, Aguero had seven shots; only one other Premier League player this weekend managed more than four. On 14 occasions this season, a player has had eight or more shots in a Premier League match; Kane and Aguero account for eight of them.

Yet it works. It barely matters that Aguero missed two presentable chances because he also scored three times. Kane and Aguero are also the only two current Premier League players with more than four hat-tricks in the division. They account for six of the last nine.

While Kane is the king at Tottenham, Aguero endures a slightly different status. Gabriel Jesus’ injury has afforded Aguero ample opportunities in recent weeks, but his return may well relegate Aguero back to the bench. For a player with 138 goals in his 200 Premier League matches it is an astonishing demotion, and yet also one that makes some sense. If Aguero is to leave Manchester this summer or next, he will make someone a wonderful pet.


A necessary statement made. Arsenal will struggle to find a house guest as accommodating as Crystal Palace, but an attacking salvo is exactly what the doctor ordered. If the rumours that certain first-team players will be very happy indeed to see the back of Sanchez are true, a performance with such freedom and verve is strong evidence. Now to display the desire and resolve that Sanchez also provided before his six-month-long goodbye.


Paul Lambert
A first win since December 23, but a first clean sheet from October and a first clean sheet at home since August. It might only have been Huddersfield, but Stoke are no longer in the relegation zone. Remarkably, they were the only team outside the top seven to win this weekend.

The suspicion was that Stoke had kept the faith for too long in the failing Mark Hughes. The team had no identity and the results were appalling, and yet Stoke’s hierarchy believed Hughes’ repeated insistence that he would turn the ship around. With all other obvious firefighters taken and at least three managers turning Stoke down, Lambert was appointed through necessity rather than choice.

At least Lambert owned that uneasy reality. It would have been very easy to ignore the questions about whether even Stoke believed that he was the right man for the job, but instead he fronted up and said that he didn’t care if he was “15th or 50th in line”. Sometimes honesty can help.

Saturday was damning evidence of Hughes’ under-performance as much as proof of Lambert’s impact. In Joe Allen, Eric Choupo-Moting, Xherdan Shaqiri and Mame Biram Diouf, Stoke probably have the best front four in the bottom half, with only West Ham really challenging them for that honour. In Jack Butland, Kurt Zouma, Erik Pieters, Ryan Shawcross and new signing Martin Bauer, they certainly have the best back five. Kostas Stafylidis has already joined as competition for Pieters.

Still, that only makes Lambert’s role more appetising. Keep Stoke up – and the team is certainly good enough – and Lambert will improve his reputation from failed Championship manager to Premier League candidate again. This is potentially a piece of outrageous good fortune.


Manchester United’s defence
The football is not particularly pretty, to the extent that I was able to watch their first half against Burnley on double speed to save time, but Manchester United do keep getting it done. It’s now four consecutive clean sheets in the league.

After the three-game blip in December, when United allowed 30 shots on target in three league games and yet somehow only conceded three times (see De Gea, David for details), Jose Mourinho’s team have shored up again. They have allowed 16 shots on target – the same number as Arsenal managed in 90 minutes against them – in their last six league games. Even if it rarely looks convincing, results are king.

United are on course to concede 25 goals in the league this season. Only twice in the Premier League era (2007/08 and 2008/09) have they conceded fewer. In those two seasons they won two Premier League titles, the Champions League, the League Cup, the Club World Cup and two Community Shields.


Michy Batshuayi
Our early winner. While Chelsea inexplicably chase giant strikers who are significantly worse than the target man they already have, Batshuayi proved on Saturday that Chelsea actually play better when they use a fluid front three. If Eden Hazard playing as a false nine means that he has to do everything, using Batshuayi there allowed Hazard and Willian to dance around Brighton as if they were playing for fun. So will Conte swallow his pride and give it another go?


Claude Puel
This is getting silly. Leicester appointed Puel on October 25 with the club one point above the relegation zone. Less than three months later, they are in seventh. Since Puel arrived, Leicester have taken as many Premier League points as Tottenham, scored three fewer goals than Manchester United and conceded fewer than Arsenal. More OGC Nice than Southampton.


West Brom
Alan Pardew is not a man who you suspect has any struggle in keeping faith in his own work. Having seen West Brom create significantly more chances than they did in Tony Pulis’ final weeks, Pardew insisted that they would come good.

And come good they have. Home victory over Brighton was followed by draw at Goodison. The upturn in form of those around them means that West Brom are still three points from safety, but their home form can keep them up.

If we reasonably assume that 36 points will be enough to secure safety, West Brom need 16 more. They have home games against Southampton, Huddersfield, Leicester, Burnley and Swansea to come. Add away trips in the final weeks of the season to Newcastle and Crystal Palace, former Pardew stomping grounds, and the great optimist will back himself to inspire an escape.


Riyad Mahrez
While I continue to theorise that Mahrez would already be at an elite club had he changed his agent two years ago, he continues to score goals and enjoy his football. The Algerian now has six goals and four assists in his last 11 league games.


Ashley Barnes
Like those wonderful 90s memories of England players joking that they mistook their international call-up for a piece of practical japery on the part of a friend, it would have been wonderful to see Barnes’ face when he was told of Chelsea’s interest on Sunday.

He’s 28, he hadn’t even played top-flight football before 2014/15 and he’s started eight league games for Burnley this season. I can’t even pretend to understand.



Sam Allardyce
Big trouble, not just because Marco Silva is now suddenly on the market. Having been prepared to pay up to £15m for Watford’s manager, giving Allardyce a chunky pay-off won’t smart quite so much if Everton can now get Silva for free. That’s if they still want him, of course.

There are many at Goodison who don’t want Allardyce, that is for certain. Everton did finally pull themselves out of their attacking lethargy to manage four shots on target against West Brom (as many as they had managed in their previous five games), but Alan Pardew’s side still had more. If Everton at least attempted more shots, the performance level did not improve. Everton were wretched.

As Ian Watson wrote after the game, Allardyce is now at a crossroads. Everton have now taken three points from their last six league games, and two of those were draws against the team 19th in the Premier League. Big Sam can carry on doing exactly what he is doing (and has always done), but it will only lead to the relationship with fans souring further and his stay ending prematurely. Surely now is the time to at least try and learn a few new tricks. Otherwise, what was the point?


Marco Silva, Everton and Watford
Watford initially showed some resolve, but soon learnt that keeping hold of your manager is only half the battle. They have now missed out on a substantial compensation fee, seen results slump badly and are yet again looking to bed in a new manager. None of Watford’s last seven appointments have reached their one-year anniversary.

Marco Silva was wanted by Everton and must have believed that his naked ambition would end in another rapid promotion. Yet his inability to draw a line under the incident and keep his players focused on their league performance puts a black mark against his name and reputation. The suspicion is that Silva will retain plenty of goodwill with owners in the Premier League and abroad, but in three months he has gone from Next Big Thing to a manager sacked by Watford.

Everton made no secret of their desire to appoint Silva, and were coerced into turning to Allardyce due to a lack of other options and a concerning league position. Three months later, the manager they wanted is available and the unsuitable Allardyce is struggling to convince many supporters that this wasn’t all a mistake.

We hear plenty about transfers that supposedly work out for all parties. Here was the saga in which everyone lost out.


Tottenham and the small margins for error
The margins for error have never been smaller. Over their last ten league games, Tottenham have collected 21 points. That’s the same number as Manchester United and Chelsea, seven more than Arsenal and the joint-third highest in the Premier League. Yet if Liverpool beat Swansea on Monday evening, Tottenham will be five points from a top-four position.

Liverpool are unbeaten in 18 matches. Manchester United haven’t conceded a goal in over 500 minutes in all competitions. Manchester City have lost twice in their last 41 matches in all competitions, and one of those was a dead rubber. Even Chelsea, with Antonio Conte apparently engineering his own exit, have lost one of their last 16 in the league. Having assumed that the top-four race would at least go down to the wire even if the title race would not, a significant gap is forming.


Mauricio Pochettino and the lack of proaction
As Matt Stead pointed out in his post-match piece, Pochettino has gained one goal and one assist from his last 99 substitutions. That can be partly explained by Tottenham more often than not being ahead in their league matches and thus happy to close out a game with defensive options, but not fully.

Pochettino will say that the lack of squad depth at Tottenham means that his game-changers will always start matches when fit. His critics might point out that leaving Erik Lamela on the bench until the 70th minute and even then leaving Moussa Sissoko on the pitch erodes away that part-excuse.

As well as the meagre impact of Pochettino’s substitutions, look at their timing. In the last four league games that Tottenham have failed to win, their first substitution of the game has come in the 64th, 70th, 74th and 77th minutes. I would wager that of all Premier League managers, Pochettino makes his first change at the latest average point of the match.

Again, Pochettino’s argument might be that his first team is significantly better than the options on the bench. Again, the flipside to that is the accusation that Pochettino is not proactive enough. As ever, there are strands of truth in both.


Manchester City’s defenders
Identifying issues within Manchester City’s squad does feel a little uncharitable. They still have a 12-point lead in the Premier League, and are still participating in four competitions too. Win their next three league games (West Brom, Burnley and Leicester) and Pep Guardiola’s team could lose three and draw one of their final 11 matches and still be guaranteed a third Premier League title.

Still, paper-thin cracks are appearing. City have now gone five matches without a clean sheet. Four of those opponents were Bristol City, Burnley, Watford and Newcastle. The only one in the top seven, Liverpool, scored four times. This might not make much difference in the Premier League, but it could in Europe. Domestic dominance and early exit from the Champions League would not make this season a failure by any stretch and it would be foolish to say so, but Manchester City’s owners have always viewed the Champions League as the biggest prize.

Defensive unease cost City quarter-final qualification against Monaco last season. Continue as they are, and Europe’s biggest and best will be confident of causing a repeat. Now is the time for John Stones to re-find his form, Vincent Kompany to re-find his fitness or Guardiola to recruit another central defender.


The promoted clubs
Huddersfield have won one of their last 13 league matches. Brighton have won two of their last 13 league matches. Newcastle have won two of their last 15 league matches. Three of the five favourites for Premier League relegation are now those who came up from the Championship. All are feeling the pinch.

This is partly a question of squad depth. Brighton and Huddersfield in particular are reliant on the excellence of two or three key players. When they, and others, suffer the inevitable fatigue that comes with chasing games, performances suffer. Other clubs have options who can step into the breach and produce a similar level of performance. None of the three promoted sides have that luxury.

There is also something unusual about the promoted clubs. Despite recent lapses in form, all remain happy with managers who have over-performed in their roles. The clubs know they could not upgrade. While eight of the 14 clubs outside the top six have already changed manager this season (and Southampton could predictably follow that lead), Brighton, Huddersfield and Newcastle will keep faith with theirs and hope that less drastic measures can halt the slide. If two of the three stay up, it would be a superb achievement.


Marcus Rashford
Daring to suggest that Rashford might be pushed from centre stage at Old Trafford risks causing anger amongst an element of their support who detect negative connotations in compliments and take criticism as a personal affront. Yet the evidence is there. Sanchez has not joined Manchester United to sit on the bench, and his arrival should give Mourinho’s team an explosiveness that has been missing of late.

We picked out Juan Mata as the biggest loser of the Sanchez move, and that feeling remains. Yet what of Rashford? Sanchez played predominantly from the left at Arsenal. Romelu Lukaku’s presence in the centre and Mourinho’s usual preference for a traditional centre forward means that the Chilean won’t play as a false nine. He could play from the right, but that would significantly alter his most successful Arsenal role. He could play as a No. 10, but that might make for overcrowding with Paul Pogba venturing forward. So the left it may well be.

If that is the case, Rashford really should start to worry. Even before Sanchez’s arrival, he has failed to start a league game since Boxing Day. Anthony Martial has been the pacy wide forward of choice, and the Frenchman has three goals in his last three league games. Rashford has four in his last 30.

Rashford’s problem is that he has been neither fish nor fowl for United this season. He has had five shots on target in the Premier League since the end of October, evidence of both his difficulty in getting into dangerous areas and his slightly wayward finishing, but he has created only 19 chances in 1,309 league minutes this season. Martial has created six more in 200-plus fewer minutes. It might sound harsh judging a 20-year-old against fully-formed, ready-made signings, but that is what his manager will do.

With Jesse Lingard providing plenty enough good news stories for Manchester United academy graduates by himself, Mourinho is easing Rashford aside. Six league starts by the end of September; seven more since. The arrival of Sanchez does not make that any easier.


Crystal Palace
Truly shambolic, and a defensive collapse to remind Palace’s squad that relegation survival has not been assured just yet. On the morning of the game, Roy Hodgson was interviewed by the Guardian’s Dom Fifield and he described coaching as a “sadistic pleasure”. There wasn’t much pleasure on Saturday.


Wayne Hennessey
He’s just not a Premier League goalkeeper. There were mistakes made by plenty of his teammates in the first half on Saturday, but Hennessey could have come for the corner to prevent the first goal and should have saved Alexandre Lacazette’s shot too. Hodgson will be shopping for a goalkeeper in the next ten days.


Daniel Storey


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