This was a day on which so much could have gone wrong for Newcastle United. They faced a six-pointer against a relegation candidate amid entirely unsurprising reports that the proposed sale of the club by Mike Ashley had fallen through. Ashley was to be present, Rafael Benitez had significant injury problems, Newcastle had taken two points from their last five matches and they had played 120 minutes on Wednesday night. An early conceded goal would have engendered an incredibly toxic atmosphere.
But – and afternoons like these don’t happen often enough at St James’ Park – everything didn’t go wrong. There were widespread protests at Ashley’s continued neglect of the club from the stands, but the team finally gave supporters reason for hope that last season’s survival can be repeated. Before Saturday, Rafael Benitez was the current manager with the worst home record in England’s top four divisions this season. No longer.
Salomon Rondon held the ball up majestically, allowing midfielders to overlap. Fabian Schar stepped out of a three-man central defence like a modern-day Franz Beckenbauer. Sean Longstaff tired towards the end, but has played three matches in a week and already looks at home in the first team. Without Kenedy, Ki Sung-yueng, Federico Fernandez, Jonjo Shelvey and Mo Diame, Newcastle battle on.
Had Newcastle lost on Saturday, they would have gone odds-on for relegation. Now they have a seven-point gap to 19th and a two-point lead over Cardiff, also dragging Crystal Palace and Burnley back into trouble. Game on.
Watch the celebration. Watch the screaming, the jumping, the grab-anyone-that’s-within-reach-and-shake-them reaction. Pochettino is not usually one for raucous exuberance, but that only emphasises the importance of a last-minute winner that dismisses talk of possible crisis.
Had Tottenham dropped points in their first game without Harry Kane, Pochettino would have fielded questions about a flimsy squad creaking and cracking. More pertinently, Spurs would have been looking down rather than up, five points ahead of Manchester United in sixth and seven behind Manchester City in second.
Tottenham were not impressive at Craven Cottage. They were troubled by Ryan Babel’s trickery and Fulham’s general verve, wasting the chances that came their way. Erik Lamela and Fernando Llorente look as naturally suited to one another as Donald Trump and Germaine Greer. Their options off the bench seemed dismally unappetising. But they got it done. And getting it done is all that matters when injuries have set in and the doubters are clearing their throats.
It is to Pochettino’s credit that he has rolled up his sleeves and got on with business during this injury crisis, rather than called out his club and demanding transfers in the final ten days of this month. Now, this week takes on a more more rosy complexion. The latest injury concern – Dele Alli – might cause a sleepless night or two, but Tottenham have three league games at home in succession against non-top-six teams and a ten-day cup window until that run begins. Now to push on for silverware against Chelsea.
A massive win to dissuade the growing camp of Emery critics. Arsenal’s manager admitted before the game that defeat to Chelsea would end the club’s chances of finishing in the top four, but he used that as motivation for a team that produced its best performance since beating Tottenham 4-2. Those victories are proof that Emery can build an Arsenal side that has the resilience and quality in individual matches to match Arsene Wenger’s 2014-2018 model. Now they need the consistency.
Emery has copped flak ever since Arsenal were dismantled at Anfield in late December. Daily Mirror chief football writer John Cross wrote that ‘If Arsene Wenger was still in charge now, there would be planes flying overhead calling for him to be sacked. As it is, much of the positivity around successor Emery has eroded away in the space of just five games’.
The difference is that Emery has not engineered the problems that will continue to haunt Arsenal, but is tasked with ridding them. That will take some time, particularly given the financial constraints that the Spaniard is forced to work under.
And yet Emery is working against a tide of opinion, the sense that a proportion of Arsenal supporters and media are waiting for him to fail. Perhaps that’s to paint Wenger’s final years in a more favourable light. When Alexandre Lacazette was substituted on Saturday, the decision was openly booed by the home crowd. Your team is winning 2-0 against a top-six rival, and Manchester United await on Friday. Has the manager not earned a little leeway?
This is a task that will not be completed in one steady line but in spurts and falls – everyone needs to remember that and keep remembering it. Just as defeat to West Ham did not make Emery unfit for purpose, nor too does this make him perfect. Judging a manager given such a daunting long-term project on a match-by-match basis does nobody any favours. Manchester United will provide another tough test.
Now go and read 16 Conclusions. Then come back.
Tottenham’s away form
An absolutely ludicrous record away from home. Tottenham have dropped 15 points in their last 23 Premier League away games. By way of comparison, Manchester United have dropped 29 points and Chelsea dropped 30 over the same period.
Clubs to have taken more points than Southampton since Ralph Hasenhuttl sat on the bench for the first time: Manchester United, Chelsea, Liverpool, Tottenham, Manchester City.
If Mark Hughes didn’t shoulder all the responsibility for Southampton’s problems, the leap in performance level since Hasenhuttl’s arrival proves that Hughes had lost the dressing room.
The biggest winner of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s arrival at Old Trafford. There is no possible proof that Rashford would not have skipped past the defender and finished that same chance under Jose Mourinho, but we can make an educated guess.
After the victory over Brighton, Solskjaer told BBC Sport that Rashford could be the best striker in the Premier League in Harry Kane’s absence: “No-one beats him on work-rate. No-one beats him on attitude. At the moment he is very confident in front of goal. He finishes. He tries to shoot. He doesn’t think twice about it. He is so calm and assured when he is finishing.”
“When we talk about Luke Shaw, about Martial, about Lingard, about Marcus Rashford, we’re talking about boys with great potential but who still are lacking – a word I can’t say but you like to say a lot – having that courage. They’re lacking a bit of this,” said Mourinho in November.
Mourinho was right, but Solskjaer has taken it upon himself to give Rashford and others that courage. It comes from praising rather than chiding, preparing a team that intends to play on the front foot and allowing them the room to make mistakes. That’s how United have won seven consecutive matches for the first time since January 2017.
He’s not Wayne Rooney and Ronaldo combined, mind.
A hat-trick that provokes a couple of wonderful pieces of trivia. Jota joins Cristiano Ronaldo as the only Portuguese players with Premier League hat-trick, but is also the first player for a non-Big-Six club to score a Premier League hat-trick since Wayne Rooney in November 2017.
Liverpool, winning despite the chaos
There is a difference in Liverpool. The 5-1 victory over Arsenal in December was the last time they won a game by more than a single goal, and the defensive resilience has also tailed off – one clean sheet in five games. That run has been fuelled by a spate of injuries.
But Liverpool can only be considered winners for passing another test, and Jurgen Klopp will be ruddy delighted that his team have no game for ten days. The semi-deliberate domestic cup sacrifice felt logical at the time. Now Liverpool will feel the benefit while Manchester City play Wednesday and Saturday.
This weekend, Liverpool became only the third team in Premier League history to reach 60 points at this stage of a season. Chelsea in 2004/05 and Manchester City 2017/18 were the others – both won the title.
Premier League assists since the start of last season:
Leroy Sane – 24
Christian Eriksen – 18 (started 10 more games than Sane)
Raheem Sterling – 18 (started six more games than Sane)
Mohamed Salah – 17 (started 14 more games than Sane)
Paul Pogba – 17 (started two more games than Sane)
Not bad for a kid who is still doubted by his national team manager and who was not in the Manchester City team every week at the start of the season. If there were concerns about the attitude, they seem to have been resolved.
Not only is he alive and still a Tottenham player, but he assisted a league goal for the first time since Marseille vs Paris Saint-Germain in February 2016. Fun fact: Steven Fletcher played for Marseille in that match. Football’s weird.
The rule of thumb is that you don’t let people see behind the curtain. It is far more normal – and far easier – for a manager to give the waiting media platitudes about disappointment and frustration, only to then go ballistic behind closed doors. Players are far more likely to prefer this method.
To choose the opposite route is risky. Sarri said nothing that was inaccurate in his post-match rant – limp performance, lack of intensity, lack of fight – but this is still early in his tenure. He needs buy-in from his key players. It was therefore extraordinary for him to let rip at them in such a caustic fashion.
Nor too is Sarri exempt from the criticism. It would be a good deal easier to get behind the Italian’s withering assessment of Chelsea’s lame performance against Arsenal if Eden Hazard hadn’t again been playing as a false nine, if N’Golo Kante hadn’t again been trying to learn a box-to-box role on the job, if David Luiz hadn’t struggled in a two-man central defence, if the substitutions hadn’t been so utterly predictable and if Callum Hudson-Odoi had got more than the last ten minutes to impress. As we’ve said before, philosophy can quickly become dogma when things aren’t working.
There is form for this sort of outburst. When Antonio Conte lost at the same stadium in September 2016, he criticised Chelsea’s for having the wrong attitude from the first minute of the game and called them “a great team only on paper”. That defeat was the catalyst for a winning run that would eventually see Chelsea crowned as champions. But it also caused a shift in tactics from Conte, the switch to a 3-4-3 formation.
Now Sarri must get a similar response, albeit presumably without the formation switch. Chelsea’s season is far from over given that they fight on four fronts, but a top-four finish was always the priority. Supporters were spoiled by Conte causing a vast improvement over the course of a single season. Suddenly this seems to be a longer-term project.
4 minutes – Job in jeopardy.
12 minutes – Sacked in the morning.
47 minutes – The players are still fighting.
51 minutes – Look at that resilience. And people keep doubting Puel?
64 minutes – Just too leaky in defence when they try to be expansive. Something has to change.
87 minutes – A double comeback that takes guts and character. Fair play Claude.
93 minutes – That lingering feeling of frustration.
Talk about an entire managerial reign in the space of one match.
I think Jorginho might be a fairweather player. That’s not intended as an insult, merely a reflection of his style. Some players drag those around them on to be better, others thrive within a successful unit. Jorginho is the latter.
When Chelsea are purring, he looks imperious. The ball is passed and passed and passed and passed, possession recycled with the dependability of the old grandfather clock that has ticked for 300 years. Eden Hazard, Willian and Pedro appreciate the supply. Behind Jorginho, David Luiz appreciates the opportunity to offer a contrast. The Italian passes short, the Brazilian goes longer.
But when Chelsea are struggling, Jorginho can quickly look unfit for purpose. Suddenly the short passes clag up midfield, a continuous procession of sideways and backwards that the opposition finds easy to defend. Rather than offering a perfect passing pivot, we cry out for the energy and intensity of Kante.
A wretched performance. For all Newcastle’s purpose, Cardiff City had a golden opportunity to make the most of a foul mood on Tyneside and push a relegation rival into outright mutiny. That was lost through a lethargy that left Neil Warnock hopping mad on the touchline. Brexit Dad was left moaning to fourth official Martin Atkinson with increasingly optimistic qualms about refereeing decisions.
Cardiff started brightly, but soon allowed themselves to be penned in by a Newcastle team who are hardly renowned for free-flowing attacking invention. They were too timid in central midfield and passive too on the flanks. If Sol Bamba wrestled with Salomon Rondon, he had far too little support from those around him.
If this was Cardiff’s worst performance of the season, it came at an inopportune time. Since winning away at Leicester to alleviate relegation concerns, Warnock’s team have failed to score in four matches, three of which were against Gillingham, Huddersfield and Newcastle. The arrival of club-record signing Emiliano Sala must give them an instant lift.
Given the chance to bow out with one last hurrah, but Premier League doesn’t allow Hollywood endings to come easy. Speroni is one of the greatest servants in Crystal Palace’s history, but he had a torrid time at Anfield. That’s a bloody shame.
Fulham after taking the lead
Fulham have scored the first goal in eight of their 23 league games this season. That’s one fewer than Watford and Bournemouth and five more than Cardiff. In those eight matches, Fulham have lost three and drawn three. Their record of 1.13 points per game from matches in which they have scored first is the lowest in the Premier League.
The moral of the story is this: If you’re struggling, the only way to get out of trouble is to make the most of every good thing that comes your way. You can buy every bright, quick and skillful attacking midfielder in the world, but if you can’t defend properly you won’t stay up. Now sign another central defender for good money and tell Denis Odoi that it’s not you, it’s him.
An own goal, two missed chances, abject link-up play and he’s still probably going to be in the team for the next two games because Dele Alli is now injured too. This Tottenham season is becoming a Crystal Maze-style test of Mauricio Pochettino’s ability to get more out of less. The final challenge will be Llorente playing in central midfield to service Vincent Janssen.