Ayoze Perez, the worker bee
If we piled the praise on Salomon Rondon last week for making this Newcastle system work, Perez can probably claim to be Rafael Benitez’s perfect player. He’s Spanish, he didn’t cost much, he’s an incredibly hardworking forward and, most crucially, he’s desperate to learn. If Benitez had ten Ayoze Perez’s, he’d probably pick seven or eight of them.
Perez tops this list because he scored a hat-trick and reached ten league goals in a season for the first time in English football. At 25, he is wiser than his years. The finishing and final ball can be frustrating, a point on which many Newcastle fans would agree, but both are improving all the time. In any case, those flaws can also be overlooked when you drill down into Perez’s contribution to Benitez’s style.
Here are the top five attacking players in the Premier League ranked by tackles made:
Ayoze Pérez – 59
Richarlison – 47
Wilfried Zaha – 38
Junior Hoilett – 35
Jordan Ayew – 34
And here are the top five attacking players in the Premier League ranked by interceptions made:
Ayoze Pérez – 42
Junior Hoilett – 30
Raul Jimenez – 23
Pedro – 18
Theo Walcott – 18
And let’s do the tackles and interceptions combined:
Ayoze Pérez – 101
Junior Hoilett – 65
Richarlison – 62
Raul Jimenez – 50
Sadio Mane – 49
The gap between Perez and second place is equal to the gap between second and 19th. No wonder Benitez loves him so.
Newcastle United suffered a rotten start to 2018/19, with Rondon not fully fit and the mood of gloom that tends to follow every unpleasant summer transfer window affecting their autumn. But since the beginning of November, only Manchester City, Liverpool, Tottenham, Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester United have taken more league points. Given the size and strength of their squad, that is a remarkable feat.
So give Benitez what he wants, Newcastle, or risk alienating the club’s support even more than you already have. Benitez is perhaps not blameless in this cat-and-mouse game of politics, but he at least has the mandate of the people and the corroborative evidence that he deserves the trust and financial support of his club.
The myth is that Benitez wants hundreds of millions of pounds; that’s a nonsense. What he wants is enough money to improve this squad and thus give them realistic hope of challenging for the top seven. It’s less about the amount of money, and more about the power to bring in players that he wants if he is to commit to the long term rather than having Lee Charnley choose them. You can see why he might be wary of signing up for something and seeing it shift in front of his eyes before the ink is dry. This is Mike Ashley, after all.
If Newcastle get this wrong, they deserve their supporters to leave in droves – and they will. Benitez has proven that he can keep Newcastle’s head above water despite being thrown in at the deep end with his hands and feet tied together. That has only opened the eyes of supporters to what he could make of this club if everyone was pulling in the same direction.
Of course it was only Cardiff, who have now lost all 11 games against top-six opposition this season. Manchester City’s victory over Tottenham means that even three points away from home makes this weekend a backwards step for Liverpool in their pursuit of the title, which demonstrates just how ridiculous this two-way fight has become.
But this was still a landmark victory for Klopp, because it took Liverpool to their highest ever Premier League points total with three games still remaining. Now all thoughts turn to Old Trafford on Wednesday, and their hated rivals potentially doing them an extraordinary favour.
Love him, love him, love him. Kevin de Bruyne’s latest setback, just when he was back in full stride, is a bloody shame, but if it means we see more of Foden then I’m still happy. It doesn’t matter that he’s still only 18; he’s good enough to play at this level and therefore he needs the regular minutes that will ensure his development. A second Premier League start and first goal are good steps, but I’ll make no apologies for demanding more.
Now go and read 16 Conclusions from the Etihad.
The home victory over Chelsea was Marco Silva’s watershed victory as Everton manager, but it has given him a taste for humbling the big clubs. The supporters are firmly back on his side.
After scoring four times against a ‘big’ club (loose-ish definition, but 4-0 vs Manchester City in January 2017 and 4-4 vs Leeds in October 1999, who finished third that season) for the third time in almost 20 years, you might think that the focus would be on Everton’s attack. Indeed, you would struggle to find a team that scored three better goals in a game anywhere in the world this weekend than Everton’s first three.
But given that the doubts over Silva lay in his defensive organisation, that is where we must direct our praise. In their last four home games, Everton have kept clean sheets against Liverpool, Chelsea, Manchester United and Arsenal. That has been achieved not through defensive grit, but playing on the front foot and using Lucas Digne and Seamus Coleman to pin back opposition full-backs.
For too long Everton were passive against the biggest and best, as if spooked by their quality. Now, it is Everton who have given the opposition something to think about. Improve their sloppiness against the bottom half, particularly away from home, and they can make a move on the top six next season.
The first Fulham manager to record consecutive Premier League clean sheets since Martin Jol. The first Fulham manager to win consecutive Premier League games since Felix Magath. The first Fulham manager to win an away Premier League game since Felix Magath.
It’s fair to say that Parker will hope to leave a slightly better legacy than a lingering cheesy smell on Brede Hangeland’s thigh, but he is certainly maturing on the job.
Brighton, who went back to what works
A hard-earned point that might just stop the Brighton rot, but one gained in interesting circumstances. There have been rumours both that Chris Hughton will leave at the end of this season and that the players have been unhappy with Brighton’s negative tactics. At Wolves on Saturday, Hughton doubled down on his own plan and finally got some joy.
What was most striking about Brighton’s draw was the team that Hughton picked to start the match. It was a complete 2017/18 XI, with Yves Bissouma not even on the bench and none of Alireza Jahanbakhsh, Bernardo, Florin Andone or Jurgen Locadia starting.
Given the heart and fight displayed to grind out a vital point, Hughton will consider that his plan worked perfectly (although Wolves did merit victory). But it does raise questions about the players who joined the club last summer, and gives weight to the theory that there are cliques within this squad that have dragged down their performance level this season. Confirm their survival, and those issues must be addressed.
Wilfried Zaha, moving on up
A bad week for Crystal Palace, given Zaha’s interview in which he made it clear that he is seeking the Champions League football that Palace will be unable to provide.
You can’t really blame him. Zaha has played 300 career league games, 286 of which have been for Palace. His style might be more suited to being the big fish in small pond, where he can get plenty of the ball and responsibility and play on the counter, but he deserves the chance to test himself at the very highest level. Watching him give Mohamed Elneny and Shkodran Mustafi twisted blood was a sport in itself.
Crystal Palace’s away form
A weird old season. Palace rank 19th in the Premier League for their home record, but sixth for their away record. They have now won twice as many games on the road than at Selhurst Park this season and scored more than twice as many goals. The number of times Palace have scored more than twice at home in the league this season? None. The number of times they have done it away? Five, and that includes Manchester City, Leicester City and now Arsenal.
Forgive me for the cynicism, but you do wonder whether Deulofeu might try and engineer a move to a bigger club this summer, and whether this run of form coincides with that mission.
Deulofeu has eight goals and two assists in his last nine matches in all competitions, making him one of the form players in the Premier League. Still only 25, and having started matches for Barcelona last season, he may have an eye on Champions League football in 2019/20.
His first goal of any kind for 358 days. Truly a Christian resurrection on Easter Sunday that people of any faith can get behind.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Manchester United
The worst performance ever by Manchester United in the Premier League? Perhaps. There must be an honourable mention for the 5-0 defeat to Newcastle in 1996, but the Magpies were a very good side and the same applies to the 6-1 defeat to Manchester City and 5-0 shellacking by Chelsea in 2000. The 3-1 and 6-3 defeats to Southampton were humiliating, but at least United scored. The 4-1 loss at Middlesbrough in 2005 was awful, as were the losses to promoted teams last season.
Let’s settle for calling this dismal, wretched and miserable. When David Moyes was asked in the studio for his take on the defeat at Goodison, he could not resist a jab to the ribs. “Folk might go back to some of my performances with United, but I’ve got to say I hope I wasn’t as bad as that,” he said. Ouch.
Firstly, those who will use this as a means of absolving Jose Mourinho of blame are mistaken. After all, it was he who damaged the morale of many of these players and he who spent £360m on a squad that still looks painfully light on quality. Solskjaer admitted after United’s Champions League exit that his squad were two levels below Barcelona, but it is defeats against the likes of Everton that paint a far more depressing picture. On this evidence, United are miles below the quality required to compete at the very top domestically.
The players deserve plenty of censure too. Solskjaer promised after the game that there had to be an improvement in the basics and in the fitness of his players, and it is likely that plenty in his squad must suffer a period of introspection or risk being left behind. There will need to be tough decisions made on those who have been loyal to the club but are simply of insufficient quality to stay.
But Solskjaer will also know that, even this early into his permanent tenure, the pressure is on him and the tide of opinion is shifting on his credentials. Having succeeded as a caretaker with a double dose of positivity and a large sprinkling of nostalgia, the Norwegian is learning the hard way that succeeding at an elite club requires managerial techniques that are a little more tangible. The ‘I remember in 1999’ schtick carries no weight anymore. We said it with Mourinho and we’ll say it with him: these are not all bad players, just ones who succeeded elsewhere and look lame at Old Trafford. It is the manager’s job to address that.
Part of Solskjaer’s success depends on the strength of his character in motivating senior players and forcing through the necessary change of structure at the top of the club; fail in either and he will fail on the pitch. But we also need to see a tactical plan that involves United playing on the front foot, digging in when necessary and getting the best out of highly-paid key players.
Solskjaer deserves until next season for us to make our definitive judgement on his suitability for this job. It would be unfair to call him a dud based on such a short period and without a transfer window to address some of the obvious flaws in the squad.
But at this rate, Solskjaer will be starting next season in deficit and in the Europa League, and United seem to be a club without a long-term manager or long-term plan. If you’re a superstar footballer looking for a big-money move this summer, how many clubs in Europe would appear above United in your list of attractive destinations?
Fred, truly Mr Manchester United
You could not paint a better picture of United’s last five years than a £52m central midfielder signed at a grossly inflated price just to stop their rivals buying him, who then turns out to be entirely unfit for purpose and thus becomes a fringe player within six months, meaning they need to buy another player in a similar position for a similar price a year later. That’s what happens when you don’t plan properly.
I don’t want to get all Proper Football Man here, but he just never, ever looks arsed. That’s fine when he’s doing beautiful things in the final third, but on Sunday Martial might as well have not been on the pitch.
For the first goal, Mustafi left Christian Benteke in five yards of space from a simple free-kick cross rather than tracking him. For the second goal, Mustafi saw that Bernd Leno wasn’t coming for the ball and must have felt Zaha putting pressure on him from behind, yet still decided to stop running and thus allow Zaha to run past him and score. For the third goal, Mustafi was one of three Arsenal players who failed to pick up their man at a Palace corner, and was left appealing for offside after the visitors scored.
He’s just not good enough, a bad joke that only gets less funny through the sheer number of times that you see it performed. The sooner Arsenal can move him out of the team, the quicker they will find the defensive resilience to facilitate sustainable progress. Until then, the timebomb will continue to tick.
It’s an anecdote I’ve used elsewhere this weekend, so apologies for the repetition, but after 85 minutes on Sunday Mustafi was shown a yellow card for diving, having overrun the ball when stepping out of defence. One Arsenal supporter in front of the press box stood up, as if to harangue referee Jon Moss. But no.
“Send him off ref,” the fan shouted.”Show him a red; get rid of him.” There’s your perfect 12-word review.
Unai Emery, sending the wrong message
I understand why managers rest players, but sometimes they really do over-think it. Lucas Torreira, Ainsley Maitland-Niles and Alex Iwobi might be fatigued (though they haven’t played much recently), but it was surely better to pick them for the visit of Crystal Palace than to call on Mohamed Elneny, Carl Jenkinson and play a back three including Mustafi and Konstantinos Mavropanos?
Arsenal are poor away from home, so this was the banker. Beat Palace and, with Tottenham and Manchester United both losing, Arsenal had one hand on Champions League football next season. But by picking a second string team and handing the initiative to Palace, Emery has given Arsenal a headache. They must now win at Wolves in midweek to wrestle back that crucial momentum.
A season now in serious danger of petering out, largely thanks to some dreadful away form. Since beating Bristol City in the FA Cup in February, Wolves have played Bournemouth, Huddersfield, Chelsea, Burnley, Watford and Southampton away from Molineux. They have drawn two and lost the other four.
That run increases the pressure on Wolves’ home form, and reduces the margin for error. Before Saturday, they had won seven of their last eight at home, atoning for the problems experienced on the road. But by failing to take their chances against Brighton on Saturday, Wolves drifted to 15/8 to finish in the top seven. Watford are now considered far more likely to pip them in the final straight, just as they did in the FA Cup semi-final. That will leave Nuno irritable for most of the summer.
Bournemouth, drifting again
We need to do little more than echo the post-match thoughts of Ryan Fraser:
“When we’re good we always say ‘let’s back it up’ – and then we lose the next week. We need to get to grips with it. I think it’s mentality, I think we go into games thinking it’s too easy. That’s our season summed up: good one week and then a shambles the next.”
If Fraser is right, and Bournemouth are indeed going into matches believing they are too easy, Eddie Howe must spend the summer ridding the club of that unacceptable attitude. Bournemouth may well be a consistent Premier League presence now, but things can quickly change if complacency festers. They can and should take nothing for granted.