Premier League winners and losers

Date published: Thursday 31st January 2019 3:51

Rafa Benitez Pep Guardiola Newcastle Manchester City

Winners

Rafael Benitez
Not every manager needs to see managing a title challenger as their calling. Just as Sam Allardyce misjudged his own aptitude when he spoke of winning doubles with Real Madrid or Inter, nor too is Rafael Benitez best suited to the top of the league. He failed at Real Madrid, struggled at Inter and even his greatest achievement as Liverpool manager was secured as an underdog. Instead, Benitez is at his best when he can take a club down on its luck, bring a fanatical support into his vision and make the club far better than its component parts.

There is a photo of Benitez taken in front of the Angel of the North, and it’s a fitting pose. For Newcastle United supporters, Benitez has taken on that exact role. When there is nothing else to believe in, he has their backs. In that regard, Benitez is a distinctly old school manager. If he regular clashes with owners and is only too happy to play the politics game, it is because he drums up such passion from those who support him that he has a strong bargaining position.

Benitez is far from the perfect manager – who is? – but there are few better at organising a defence to frustrate high-ranking opposition. Late on Tuesday evening, a resigned Pep Guardiola admitted that his Manchester City team could not cope with Newcastle’s holding midfielders. Those midfielders were a £1.5m signing (Isaac Hayden) and academy graduate (Sean Longstaff).

In the age of hot takes, many will accuse Benitez of parking the bus. But that’s not quite true. Benitez’s plan is to frustrate the opposition with positional discipline and defensive unity. The attacking plan is to be highly efficient, making the most of every opportunity that comes their way. It was good enough to beat Manchester City, and Newcastle have also beaten Arsenal, Manchester United, Chelsea, and Tottenham under Benitez.

It may well be enough to keep Newcastle heads above water. Last season, Benitez took 14 points from their first 18 matches and used a quiet schedule without cup distractions to take Newcastle up to tenth in the second half of the season. Newcastle took 13 points from their first 16 league matches this season, and have taken 11 from eight games since with Huddersfield and Burnley the next two visitors to St James’ Park. It’s happening again.

One only hopes that Newcastle United’s hierarchy finally appreciate what supporters already realise: they are lucky to have him. If he can beat Manchester City with a starting XI that cost £40m, imagine what he might do with a little more faith.

 

Bournemouth
Before Wednesday, Bournemouth had played nine league games in the last 364 days against Big Six teams. Their results in those matches? Nine straight defeats, scoring five times and conceding a whopping 29. That’s some way to end the rut.

 

David Brooks
Quite possibly the Player of the Season amongst the Premier League’s rest. Quite definitely the bargain of the season. If the one black mark on Eddie Howe’s CV was his transfer market plunges, signing Brooks for £15m was a masterstroke.

 

Sean Longstaff
Newcastle’s triumph against Manchester City was a team effort, but bloody hell Longstaff deserves some praise. He had never started a Premier League game until three weeks ago, but has been excellent against Chelsea (a 2-1 defeat) and in victories over Cardiff and City.

On Tuesday, Longstaff handled Kevin de Bruyne and David Silva so well that Guardiola admitted he had no answer. Just another English kid impressing having been given a chance.

 

Aleksandar Mitrovic and Fulham
Mitrovic is a roll-the-dice footballer. You never quite know what you’re going to get, but you pick him every week in the hope of rolling a six. At a club higher up the league, where dependability and consistency are everything, Mitrovic would infuriate his manager.

But roll-the-dice football might be the only thing that saves Fulham. Claudio Ranieri’s grand plan was to make his team more secure at the back but inevitably lose some of their attacking potency. In defeats to Arsenal, Burnley and Tottenham in January, Ranieri learnt that Fulham are so poor defensively that nothing will stop them conceding goals.

So why not roll the dice, throw players forward and hope that the attack clicks? If it fails, Fulham will concede in twos and threes and occasionally lose heavily. But if it works, and Mitrovic gets the support around him that he craves, Fulham can take enough points to claw their way to safety. They certainly had too much for Brighton, who were flummoxed by an opponent surging forward.

For us neutrals, Fulham playing in a state of glorious chaos promises to be a wonderful watch. It’s a risky strategy, but what choice do they have?

 

Tottenham, still finding a way
Last week, UEFA released a report containing the wage bills of Europe’s biggest clubs. In that report, it was revealed that Tottenham have a wage bill equal to 44% of Manchester City’s and only €15m more than Crystal Palace’s.

Let’s put that in a different way: You could double the wages of every single Tottenham player and they could buy seven new players on £100,000 a week and Spurs would still have a lower wage bill.

Mauricio Pochettino is not perfect, but this is why he deserves to sit above the most vehement criticism that some still choose to throw at him. If his lack of craven desire to win the FA Cup or EFL Cup disappoints a few, you can see his point. Moving into a new stadium, it is vital that Tottenham have Champions League football next season. That has to be the priority.

For all the concern over Tottenham’s paper-thin squad, Pochettino has somehow managed to keep heads above water. They’re seven points clear of fourth, two points behind Manchester City, and on Saturday lunchtime could temporarily go four points off the top of the Premier League.

 

Liverpool
Can only be listed as winners after extending their lead at the top during this midweek programme, but Jurgen Klopp will wake on Thursday morning with regret nagging away at his good spirit. Generosity is inadvisable during a title sprint, and Liverpool passed up the opportunity to seize total control.

It’s hardly a disastrous state of affairs, but it’s now over a month since Klopp’s team won a game with any comfort. Faith will be tested. Nerves will be shredded. Repeat after me, one point gained.

 

Burnley
Eleven points in their last five league games, having taken 14 in their previous 24. Sean Dyche needed to find a way to stop the rot and take Burnley out of trouble. Recalling Tom Heaton seems to have done the trick.

 

Raul Jimenez
Jimenez is an interesting centre forward, one who can miss a gilt-edged chance one minute and then do something wonderful in the next. But while leading the line as a lone centre forward is not easy in your first season in English football, the Mexican deserves plenty of credit. Only 12 players in the league have contributed more goals and assists, and few strikers have created more goals than his five. Time to make that loan move permanent.

 

Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette
For all that is still not fixed in this long-term Arsenal rebuild, Unai Emery does have a potentially world-class front two. Aubameyang and Lacazette have 33 goals and assists between them in the Premier League alone.

“I think we did a lot of runs, a lot of efforts for the team, we worked a lot and of course we are happy when we play together because we have such a good feeling between us. It was cool,” said Aubameyang after the pair both scored against Cardiff.

“Why not [can’t we play together]? Sincerely, I hope so because when you have a striker like Alex near to you then he’s really good to play with. I hope we will play more games together.”

Make it so, Unai. Those two can cover a multitude of sins. And as for the Arsenal fans who criticise Aubameyang for missing chances despite him scoring 25 goals in 37 Premier League games, think on. This isn’t computer game football – perfection isn’t possible.

 

Marco Silva
Goodness me that was needed, with all the guts and grinding it took after the dismissal of Lucas Digne. Before Tuesday, Everton had lost their last three away games to Brighton, Southampton and Millwall. Their away record in all competitions under Silva: P12 W2, D3, L7. They had kept one clean sheet.

Now Silva and Everton are back up to eighth. Their next away opponents are Watford, Cardiff, Newcastle, West Ham and Fulham. Improvement must be maintained.

 

Leicester’s glorious nonsense
The worst sort of team for a weekly column, one who fluctuates between excellence against higher-ranked teams and chaotic disarray against those who they might reasonably expect to beat. The daft idiots.

 

Losers

Maurizio Sarri
In 2016, Antonio Conte read the riot act to his underperforming Chelsea players after a painful defeat to Arsenal. At that point, Chelsea’s new Italian manager was under significant pressure so early in his reign. Conte’s stern words provoked a rejuvenation in Chelsea’s form that took them to the Premier League title.

In 2019, Sarri read the riot act to his underperforming Chelsea players after a painful defeat to Arsenal. At that point Chelsea’s new Italian manager was under significant pressure so early in his reign. Sarri’s stern words provoked little immediate reaction. Chelsea lost their next league fixture 4-0 to Bournemouth.

Let’s not hold back: this was a humiliating defeat, Chelsea’s worst in 23 years at the hands of a manager who might well have been considered for the Chelsea job in an alternate reality. There is a lack of penetration to Chelsea in possession, stupor by a thousand sideways passes. If Eden Hazard doesn’t produce a moment of wonder, Chelsea do not win matches. The equation is becoming that simple.

The lack of midfield spark has a knock-on detrimental effect, because it forces Chelsea’s full-backs forward. That’s permissible in a 3-4-3 formation, but with a two-man central defence you risk leaving yourself exposed. Howe said after the match that that was Bournemouth’s exact plan. Keep it tight in the centre of the pitch, let Chelsea push forward through frustration and then pick them off.

After the game Sarri let rip again, keeping his players in the dressing room for 45 minutes with members of staff asked to stand outside. Sarri told the waiting media that his players had not even learnt the basics of his football and declared himself less than impressed with Higuain’s start.

If that’s true, this will be a test of Chelsea’s commitment to a long-term project after years of successful short-termism. This club have lurched between seasons of fallow and fortune, but have never finished outside the top four in consecutive seasons under Roman Abramovich’s ownership. That’s exactly where they sit now.

 

Manchester City, and those lulls
It seems a faintly ludicrous thing to say, given that Manchester City had won their last six matches by an aggregate score of 28-0, but these lulls in performance are really starting to wear down Pep Guardiola.

Against Huddersfield, when City eventually won 3-0, City scored early and then had a period of 30 minutes in which they were unforgivably sloppy. Passes went astray, players miscontrolled the ball, chances were snatched at. Guardiola was happy to admit that it deeply annoyed him, causing a half-time missive.

On Tuesday, the message didn’t get through. Manchester City scored after 25 seconds and should have extended that lead in the first half. But as the second goal failed to land, so too did Manchester City’s sloppiness increase. Guardiola will consider his team particularly unlucky to concede to from both of Newcastle’s two shots on target, but this shouldn’t have been left to chance.

There are two theories as to what is undermining City’s mid-game performance. The first is that City have been unnerved by the regularly changing cast thanks to the club’s injuries this season which, combined with the creep of complacency that is impossible to ward off after taking the lead against an inferior team, is causing the dip.

The other explanation is that City have suffered such lapses throughout Guardiola’s reign and even before that, but that their effect was offset by moments of magic usually produced by Sergio Aguero or Kevin de Bruyne. Evidence to back up the point lies in the number of points City won in the final minutes of league matches last season. And yes, I am criticising a team that earned 100 points.

 

Gonzalo Higuain
Shots – 0
Shots on target – 0
Chances created – 0
Headers won – 0

Chelsea supporters booed Higuain’s substitution on 62 minutes, but it was hardly a surprise. He looks heavy, he looks lethargic and he’s having to learn on the job in a new team, new league and new country at the age of 31. Not a good start.

 

Manchester United
The first misstep of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s reign
, but that wasn’t why the Manchester United fan in your life was sulky on Wednesday morning. Liverpool have never been a shorter price to win the Premier League title as they are now. The enemy are climbing up the f**king perch, and there might not be enough grease on the ladder to make them fall off.

 

Cardiff City
A truly terrible week. Football shouldn’t matter in the context of Emiliano Sala’s tragic death, but of course it does. Football is our escape from the rigours of life, and Cardiff City supporters travelled in their droves to the Emirates to pay tribute to Sala. The club and their supporters have dealt with the tragedy impeccably.

But sport carries on, and affords little leeway. If losing to Arsenal on Tuesday was expected, Fulham, Newcastle, Burnley and Southampton/Crystal Palace picking up ten points between them wasn’t. Neil Warnock’s team are deep in trouble.

 

Brighton
Suddenly in a little trouble, after a magnificent first half of the season. Since beating Crystal Palace in the derby on December 4, Brighton have taken five points from nine matches. They’re now only seven points ahead of Cardiff in 18th. The next five home games (Watford, Burnley, Huddersfield, Cardiff and Southampton) should see Brighton pull back clear. But take seven points or fewer and the nerves may yet jangle in April and May.

 

Liverpool’s set-piece taking
The first one hits the first man. The second one is overhit. The third is taken short, presumably to avoiding wasting it. The fourth hits the first man again. I’ve seen Liverpool live seven times this season, and each game contains enough poorly delivered set pieces to make you hopping mad about a team you don’t even support. Perhaps Liverpool’s throw-in coach could take over corners and free-kicks too.

 

West Ham’s glorious nonsense
The worst sort of team for a weekly column, one who fluctuates between excellence against higher-ranked teams and chaotic disarray against those who they might reasonably expect to beat. The daft idiots.

Daniel Storey


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