Premier League winners and losers

Date published: Monday 14th January 2019 12:17

Winners

David de Gea’s legs
There are two distinct advantages to a goalkeeper using their feet to make saves:

1) It enables you to save low shots that would otherwise be difficult to reach with your hand. It takes far longer to dive and claw away a shot than it does to stick out a leg.

2) Feet and legs (particularly those with shinpads on) are harder than hands. When a shot is palmed away at full stretch, it is difficult to ensure that the ball is not simply pushed back into a dangerous area. With your foot or leg, it is more likely to travel further away from goal.

David de Gea has made saving with his feet his calling card. He is still excellent with his hands – of that there is no doubt – but when an attacker has a one-one-one there is no better goalkeeper in the world at making himself big. His legs play a huge part in that. Four or five times against Tottenham on Sunday, he repeated the party trick.

De Gea’s first trick is to make this look easy; if it were they would all be doing it. Sticking out a hand to make a point-blank save relies upon excellent reactions, but doesn’t necessarily require much preparatory body movement. But saving shots with your feet does. Give it a go yourself if you don’t believe me. See how long it takes you to go from standing to extending your leg perpendicular to the floor and see how easy it is to get it wrong and/or cause yourself a mischief. As Ben Foster tweeted on Sunday evening, De Gea’s greatest strength lies in his exemplary preparatory positioning. It makes so many of his saves look easy when other goalkeepers would not.

This positioning also has a knock-on effect: his presence. Opposition attackers know that their shooting has to be hyper-accurate to beat De Gea, and so pressure is immediately placed upon them. That pressure can cause them to thrash and snatch at shots. A part-explanation for Tottenham’s finishing on Sunday.

De Gea has not been at his best this season. A humbling World Cup experience probably hasn’t helped, and playing behind a shambolic defence certainly hasn’t. But on Sunday De Gea returned to his ‘thou shalt not pass’ best. He earned the lavish post-match praise that his manager bestowed upon him.

 

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and simple solutions
Manchester United rode their luck at Wembley. Mauricio Pochettino praised his side’s second-half domination, and it’s true that Tottenham created enough chances to win several matches. But it’s more than a throwaway platitude to conclude that United earned that luck.

In the first half United outplayed Tottenham, or at least saw the half play out exactly as they would have wished. They soaked up the home side’s possession and territory without Spurs having a shot on target and looked to hit their opponents on the counter attack. It was United who created the half’s best chances, and United who took the precious lead into the break to give them something to defend.

This paints Solskjaer in an excellent light, at least in comparison to his predecessor. Compare and contrast the counter-attacking verve and the defensive resilience with the limp, miserable displays at Anfield and the Etihad. In those matches, things happened to Manchester United. On Sunday, they made things happen.

Look too at the improvement in the individual attackers. Anthony Martial is running at defenders. Marcus Rashford is finishing chances superbly. Paul Pogba is playing the type of inventive passes with the accuracy and vision that we always knew was possible. It was only six weeks ago that Gary Neville was stating that Manchester United did not possess a midfielder who could pass it ten yards. Now Pogba is doing 30, 40 and 50 yards without any problem.

The difference, it goes without saying, is confidence. The great fallacy of leadership is that telling people they must not make mistakes and lambasting them when they do is the best strategy for eliminating errors. Criticism leads to fear and fear makes performing at your best ten times harder. Instead, Solskjaer has shown some faith. The good cop is doing better than the bad.

“Paul’s one of the best midfielders in the world going forward so you should release him forward,” said Solskjaer in his post-match press conference, and suddenly everything sounds so bloody logical. Give the players that thrive on freedom their freedom. Give the players who thrive on exact instructions their exact instructions. As Johan Cruyff said, “Playing football is very simple, but playing simple football is the hardest thing there is.”

Solskjaer has not guaranteed himself the job beyond the end of this season, far from it. But if his task was to put a smile back on the faces of supporters and players, ridding Manchester United of their Jose Mourinho hangover, he has already achieved that in more emphatic style than any of us predicted.

Now go and read 16 Conclusions.

 

Ralph Hasenhuttl and the kids
The big change at Southampton lies in their spirit. This team is fighting, grinding out results, battling against adversity and squeezing every last drop out of what they do well. It is ironic that these are precisely the qualities that we are so often told should persuade owners to call upon the tried and tested Brits. Equally as ironically, they are precisely the qualities that Mark Hughes proved himself unable to provoke in his team.

But more impressive still is how Hasenhuttl has achieved this feat. During Saturday’s win at Leicester, Southampton used six academy graduates and had two more unused on the bench. The Austrian has sent a message to his squad that nobody will be picked on reputation, price tag or past performance. Selection must be earned. It also generates an added competition for places that erodes any inbuilt complacency in senior players. Don’t play well? Fine, we’ll find someone else.

Young players will make mistakes – see Yan Valery’s two yellow cards on Saturday. But young players will never give less than their all, and that can count for more than ability in the heat of a relegation fight. Suddenly the Saints are marching in again.

 

Liverpool’s defence…
After the 1-0 victory at Brighton, Jurgen Klopp reminded the waiting press that his team were not the Harlem Globetrotters. He’s right, too. We have grown accustomed to Liverpool teams entertaining and exciting, but neither is a prerequisite of league champions. Liverpool’s duty is to win matches however they can, and there’s nobody better in the country this season than them.

Blowing teams away, as they did against Arsenal at Anfield, is the exception. Liverpool have become a rugged, swarthy title challenger, prepared to take you on in a street fight as well as in a dance-off. Their clean sheet record, three more than any other team in the Premier League, is remarkable. Liverpool have conceded more than once in one of their last 25 league games. You aren’t going to lose many games with that level of solidity and that front three.

 

…and a remarkable run
Having lost to Manchester City in their previous league fixture, Liverpool needed a response and got one. We need not have worried. The following shows the last time that each member of the top six lost consecutive league matches:

Manchester City – One month

Tottenham – Four months

Manchester United – Five months

Arsenal – Five months.

Chelsea – ten months.

Liverpool – 40 months.

Liverpool have never done so under Klopp. That’s quite a record.

 

Declan Rice
A first senior goal to win a London derby, achieved two days before his 20th birthday and a fortnight after signing a new six-year deal.

Dimitri Payets and Marko Aranutovics will come and go, but it’s the homegrown talents like Rice that clubs like West Ham really need to keep hold of. For all the bells and whistles that the first two provide, there’s no name that gets cheered louder than Rice and no player with whom supporters have a greater affinity. It’s a lovely bonus that Rice is also the real deal.

 

Samir Nasri
Our early winner.

 

Watford
Eight points in their last four away games. That’s one fewer than they managed in their previous 19. A corner turned on the road, and a club up to the heady heights of seventh.

 

Marco Silva
Hoo boy did he need that. Everton were bettered by Bournemouth during the first half, but there was a collective sigh of relief when Dominic Calvert-Lewin sealed victory in the final minute. Silva’s sigh was more satisfied than most. Now must begin a run of results.

 

Pure, unadulterated Burnley
Winners and scorers of two goals without managing a single shot on target. You magnificent, glorious bastards.

 

Losers

Tottenham’s growing injury list
Mauricio Pochettino will not be too concerned about the manner of defeat to Manchester United. His team created plenty enough chances to win two or three games. Their finishing was inexact, but these things happen.

Instead, Pochettino’s worries will focus on a growing injury list that really does threaten to derail their season. Eric Dier has appendicitis. Lucas Moura has a knee injury. So does Victor Wanyama. Moussa Sissoko pulled a muscle on Sunday. Harry Kane knacked his ankle at the end of the same game. You can add to those Heung-Min Son leaving for the Asian Cup and Mousa Dembele on the verge of a move to China.

This Tottenham squad is going to be pushed to its limits. There is a strong possibility that Fernando Llorente and Erik Lamela will start their next fixture with a central midfield of Harry Winks and Olvier Skipp. Suddenly Tottenham are paying the price for the lack of summer investment. This is no coincidence. The more you push players to play every week without rest, the more likely they are to pick up muscle injuries. Are Dele Alli and Christian Eriksen next?

 

Unai Emery and Mesut Ozil
Ozil has now started two away games in all competitions since September 15. Arsenal’s highest-paid player is now not deemed suitable for at least half of their matches, and that stinks.

But it’s one thing Emery not playing Ozil for 90 minutes because he believes he lacks positional discipline and defensive effort, and another thing entirely leaving him out of the 18-man matchday squad. Arsenal’s bench on Saturday contained three full-backs, a defensive midfielder and a 19-year-old striker who stayed sat down despite Arsenal’s desperate need for a goal.

It was hardly beyond the realms of impossibility that Arsenal might head into the last 20 minutes at the London stadium in need of a game-changer. Whatever Emery might consider Ozil’s faults, there is no doubt that he is a potential game-changer. Particularly given that Alexandre Lacazette and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang both started the match, hence reducing the options in reserve.

Emery’s behaviour is clear. He is sending a message to Arsenal’s hierarchy that he is suffering from the mistakes made before he joined the club. There is no money to spend on transfer fees, and Ozil has been given almost £1m per league appearance since signing his new deal.

But Arsenal’s manager is running the risk of cutting off his nose to spite his face. If he is indeed weighed down by an expensive attacking player that he doesn’t particularly want, that situation isn’t going to change any time soon. The best solution for all would be to at least attempt to integrate Ozil. he must be a better option when chasing a game than Hector Bellerin and Lucas Torreira.

 

Rio Ferdinand
There is nothing wrong with being wrong. Live television is hard, and pundits will make mistakes. Too often we (and I’m guilty of it) lambast them for a memorable gaff from the comfort of our own sofas. Errors happen when you’re under pressure to provide insight.

But there is a difference between getting it wrong and remaining wilfully blind to the truth even after being told. It gives the impression that you have a vested interest in your opinion, and that it might not be a perfect reflection of your true thoughts.

On Sunday morning, Rio Ferdinand tweeted a sarcastic ‘good morning’ message to Newcastle united supporters. ‘Ya clubs turning a profit, no debt, oh & playing in the PL!’ he said. ‘Terrible!’.

Let’s take that step by step. Firstly, Newcastle United are not debt-free. Their latest accounts indicated that they are in debt to the tune of £144m. That debt is owed to Mike Ashley.

Ferdinand’s claim on Saturday afternoon that Ashley put his own money into the club is also wrong. In actual fact Newcastle spent £63m on new players in that season, but raised far more than that in player sales. They used money that the club generated.

This is important because of what happened this summer, when Ashley publicly promised that Rafael Benitez would have “every penny” the club generated to spend on his team. In actual fact, Ashley took £10m out of the club and Newcastle made a profit on transfers thanks to the sales of Aleksandar Mitrovic, Mikel Merino and Chancel Mbemba.

It is those broken promises – time and time and time again – that anger Newcastle United supporters the most, because it proves both that Ashley is a liar with no interest in allowing the club to achieve anything near its full potential and that Benitez is being treated appallingly by his boss.

Finally, Ferdinand labelled Newcastle as a yo-yo club. That’s partly true. They have been relegated twice since 2009, the same as Norwich City. But then they have also only been relegated twice in the Premier League’s history, the same as Manchester City. Those relegations coincide with Ashley’s ownership and the toxic atmosphere he has since created. If Newcastle are indeed a yo-yo club as Ferdinand suggests, it is because of the owner’s wanton neglect.

For Ferdinand to suggest that Newcastle United supporters should be thankful to Ashley and cheer rather than castigate him demonstrates either that he has allowed his opinions to be shaped by his business interests (Sports Direct are the exclusive retail outlet of Ferdinand’s clothing brand) or that he is entirely out of touch with football supporters. Neither is a good look.

 

Newcastle United
Back in the bottom three and in desperate need of a striker.

 

Claude Puel
The man in charge of a bloody weird football team, whose performances and results appear to be decided by the rolling and re-rolling of a dice.

It might be damn interesting to watch as a neutral, but those in charge of running football clubs don’t particularly enjoy ‘dice’ football. At some point soon, Puel is going to face the chop. Half of Leicester City’s support will consider it an incredibly harsh call. The other half will believe it the correct decision.

 

Fulham
I cannot overstate just how much Fulham can ill-afford to offer their opponents – particularly those only a few points ahead – spectacularly generous gifts. After a couple of good results, losing at home to League Two Oldham and conceding twice to a Burnley side that didn’t even have a shot on target represents a huge jump backwards.

 

Huddersfield Town
One point just wasn’t enough, even away from home. Teams have been bottom of the league at this stage and survived before. But achieving points at a rate of exactly one every two matches for more than half a season does not equate to survival. Sorry.

 

Crystal Palace
They will be safe, but that’s where the positivity for this season ends. A 0-0 home draw against Cardiff followed victory at Manchester City. A 2-1 home defeat to Watford followed victory at Wolves. Both crippled any momentum. Without significant investment (that looks unlikely) this club is treading water.

 

Daniel Storey


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