Premier League winners and losers

Date published: Monday 25th February 2019 10:00

Winners

Miguel Almiron and Newcastle United supporters
There is an enormous amount of pressure on Almiron (our early winner) to be Newcastle United’s on-pitch saviour. His is a deal that represents far more than simply a player moving to a club for a relatively modest transfer fee by modern standards. Newcastle’s transfer record had long hung around the club’s neck, indicative of the rust and decay of this grand old club. Almiron therefore stands for a brighter future. If there is little joy to be found in the present, find it in potential.

Initial signs suggest that Almiron has plenty enough character and ability to cope. The cheer from the away end that greeted his arrival to the pitch at Molineux was a release of their relief and pent-up frustration. But the standing ovation as Almiron left the St James’ pitch for the first time after his substitution on Saturday was all for him. On his home debut, the Paraguayan created six chances. No Newcastle player has created more in a match since the club got promoted.

We must add the caveat that this was only Huddersfield, a club counting down the days until the blessed relief of relegation. But Almiron is already improving the players around him. Beat Burnley at home on Tuesday, and Newcastle will have taken two mighty steps towards Premier League safety.

Supporters at St James’ have long been crying out for a cult hero. In Almiron and Sean Longstaff (in our team of the week), and in the space of two months, they have their local boy done good and their sexy foreign import.

 

Roy Hodgson
On Saturday, Hodgson set a new record by becoming the oldest manager to take charge of a team in a Premier League match and watched his team deliver a performance that must have made him feel 21 again. Having been given a useful leg-up by Michy Batshuayi’s loan signing, there is now no doubt: Crystal Palace are staying up again.

For Hodgson, a job being done brilliantly. No veteran manager deserves to end his career in ignominy, so you wonder if he might choose to walk off into the sunset at the end of this season to enjoy his retirement having saved his beloved club’s skin. Since losing at home to Tottenham on November 10, Palace have taken 22 points from 15 matches. That puts them ninth in the Premier League, with one of the thinnest squads. Well played, old boy.

 

Arsenal
A cracking weekend, not least because Chelsea entered a weird new wave of crisis and Manchester United suffered no fewer than five injury setbacks. Arsenal are now back in the top four and have won four of their last five league matches. Given that the exception was Manchester City at the Etihad, that’s a decent run. They haven’t given up on either route into the Champions League yet.

 

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer
Another step closer to earning the job on a full-time basis. You can easily imagine Jose Mourinho in his post-match interview at Old Trafford, bemoaning Manchester United’s injuries after Liverpool’s victory and blaming the difference between Jurgen Klopp’s permitted investment and his own. Solskjaer is the antidote to that negativity, continuously talking up his players and in doing so inspiring them.

If the Paris Saint-Germain defeat was a misstep, it does not deserve to ruin Solskjaer’s long-term prospects. He has remained undefeated against Chelsea, Arsenal, Tottenham and Liverpool, but most impressive is how he has simultaneously made Manchester United more dangerous in front of goal and more defensively sound. Had Jesse Lingard rounded Alisson after Romelu Lukaku’s through ball – the best chance of the match by a distance – United may have taken all three points in the most testing circumstances imaginable.

Now go and read 16 Conclusions on that match.

 

Scott McTominay
Thrust into a difficult position in a crunch match against a crunch opponent, and flourished. McTominay’s cause was helped by Liverpool’s lack of drive from every player not called Georginio Wijnaldum, but he still deserves plenty of credit. Manchester United received multiple offers in January to take McTominay on loan for the rest of the season. Solskjaer will be mighty glad that they refused all of them.

 

Luke Shaw
The greatest compliment you can pay to Shaw is that every performance is no longer analysed to the nth degree to determine his physical fitness or mental state under Jose Mourinho. For almost all of this season, a young man who missed a year through injury has quietly gone about his business with the minimum of fuss. Manchester United surely need a right-back this summer, but Shaw has made the opposite flank his own. Is that one transfer question answered?

 

Gerard Deulofeu
The first non-Big Six striker to score a Premier League hat-trick away from home since Romelu Lukaku in September 2016. That answers the question of whether I can crowbar in Lukaku’s name even when he’s gone off the boil.

 

Watford
Twenty-six passes, each one perfectly placed and weighted. Twenty-six passes, each designed as part of one attacking move. Twenty-six passes, ending in Watford’s fourth goal. Twenty-six passes, the longest passing sequence ending in a goal from any club outside the Big Six since September 2014 (thanks to Opta for that last one).

That is proof of a team in rude health, and a club operating in total harmony. Watford are having a truly magnificent season, and they deserve it.

 

Robert Snodgrass
Eight chances created against Fulham. Only once this season has that total been surpassed in a Premier League game. Given that Snodgrass was loaned out to Aston Villa in the Championship last season and was called out by vice-chairman Karren Brady in her Sun column, that’s a damn impressive salvage job on his West Ham career. He also makes our Team of the Week.

 

Harry Kane

And now one goal in one game. What is he sodding made out of?

 

Losers

Claude Puel and Leicester City’s unique problem
The longest-serving short-term manager in the Premier League finally collects his P45. As with Southampton, there are elements of Puel’s management that merit a staunch defence. As with Southampton, this relationship had come to its natural end and the majority of Leicester City supporters will applaud their club’s decision.

Puel was doing his thing, keeping Leicester in mid-table while attempting to push through a changing of the guard that saw ageing senior players nudged to the fringes of the first-team squad and replaced by youth. That is not an easy task politically, and it seems pretty clear that Puel faced some resistance.

But that is where the defence ends. Puel leaves Leicester with a lower win percentage than Craig Shakespeare, they overshadowed victories at Chelsea and Manchester City with limp, lethargic defeats to lower-ranking clubs and the home form was particularly miserable. Puel paid for his own gravestone when he picked weakened sides against Manchester City in the EFL Cup and Newport County in the FA Cup.

If the argument is that Leicester’s senior players hold too much sway – perhaps more than at any club but Chelsea – you can see why the club’s hierarchy might afford them such luxuries. Puel reportedly fell out with Jamie Vardy, a striker whose goals won the club the Premier League title before he turned down a lucrative move to Arsenal. Vardy may not be an expert capable of selecting Leicester’s next manager, but he is more entwined into the fabric of this club than Puel.

Puel will surely now retreat back to France with a reputation that has somehow simultaneously been dented several times and yet remains virtually intact. His face, tactics and lack of big personality did not fit, but his record stands up in forthcoming interviews.

The more intriguing question is where Leicester go next. This club is in a virtually unique position, where they have already experienced the greatest campaign in their club’s history and so are destined to wrestle with Groundhog Season syndrome. Under those circumstances, Leicester City supporters – and possibly the club too – reason that they might as well try and enjoy the journey.

Brendan Rodgers matches that preference for fun, but may well be difficult to get out of Celtic Park. Rafael Benitez would be a pragmatic choice, an upgrade of Puel, but has been regularly linked with Leicester. David Wagner would be an excellent long-term option, and is obviously out of work. The answer to the conundrum will answer questions on Leicester’s ambition, expectation and budgets.

 

Claudio Ranieri
What is the point of a Claudio Ranieri? A managerial appointment that was described as “risk-free” at the time by Fulham owner Shahid Khan has already turned sour. That assessment stuck in the throat at the time and it sticks in the throat now as Fulham career towards relegation.

Ranieri has improved Fulham’s record. They had taken five points from 12 league games under Slavisa Jokanovic, and were conceding goals at a rate of 2.6 per games. Since the Italian was appointed, they have taken 12 points from 15 matches and have conceded goals at a rate of 2.0 per game. But that improvement hardly represents the leap Fulham needed to avoid the drop, and we might reasonably expect them to have improved under Jokanovic anyway.

Just as important is Ranieri’s style of play since arriving. Fulham have become a team that bypasses midfield too often. If reducing the club’s attacking threat was necessary in order to make them more defensively resilient, it has not been worth it. Fulham have become a team without an identity. They have a far greater hand in the goals they concede than the ones they score.

With a Premier League season now almost entirely wasted, Fulham should go for the nuclear option and sack a second manager in four months. Ranieri would leave over the summer anyway, so why not give the job to a longer-term option – Scott Parker has been mentioned. Reduce the outrageously inflated ticket prices for the rest of the season, and Fulham might even be able to claw back some of the goodwill they have thrown away since promotion.

 

Liverpool and missed opportunities
Of course it isn’t a disastrous result. How could any draw at Old Trafford be a disaster? How could any result that takes your team clear at the top of the table cause great angst?

But if Jurgen Klopp and Liverpool journeyed to Old Trafford on Sunday morning knowing that avoiding defeat was the first priority, those expectations must surely have shifted during a first half in which Manchester United lost three players to injury and had another limping and hobbling. In that scenario, a 0-0 draw and David de Gea not needing to make a save of note can only be viewed as intensely disappointing.

Klopp said after the game that United’s injuries affected Liverpool’s rhythm. He was predictably mocked on social media for the suggestion, but it carries some weight. You set up your team to deal with identified threats, and that included United playing on the counter at pace. In fact, after the substitutions United understandably sat back and challenged Liverpool to break them down. And that’s where Klopp may really be getting a little concerned.

Liverpool’s front three has been stuttering for a while, but they’re getting worse. Daniel Sturridge – in this condition and form – and Divock Origi are not suitable back-up options for a title challenger, and that demands that Klopp pick the same forwards every week and hope something clicks. Mohamed Salah looks badly jaded, so ineffective at Old Trafford that Klopp eventually gave up screaming at him from the touchline and substituted him. Sadio Mane can be brilliant and frustrating within the same five minutes, but he was poor against Bayern and poor again against United.

Liverpool may well click again. The sheer importance of the situation can take over and provoke previously hidden energy reserves to be discovered. But after ten days of warm weather training and relaxation, it is not a good sign that Salah, Mane and Firmino – who left the stadium on crutches – look in need of a rest.

 

Tottenham’s title challenge
If we were never completely sure whether they could, we know with some certainty that they won’t. Tottenham had the best away record in the Premier League before this weekend, but were beaten by Burnley’s steel and resilience. If Mauricio Pochettino’s tem have displayed plenty of that during nervous wins over Burnley (home), Newcastle United, Leicester City and Watford, their luck ran out.

At Turf Moor, Tottenham badly lacked inspiration. Christian Eriksen was unable to be the difference-maker and Son Heung-min’s fantastic run had to cease at some point. They missed the guile of Dele Alli but also of a skillful option in reserve. Fernando Llorente has made a difference in the last month, but bringing on a big man against Burnley is enough to make Sean Dyche’s central defenders giggle. “So you’re going to cross it into our heads? You’re absolutely sure?”

With a top-four place almost certain, Tottenham’s season now hinges upon their Champions League performance. A semi-final spot would be a magnificent achievement; the title was a bridge too far.

 

Huddersfield Town
Sinking without a whimper. Huddersfield had improved in Jan Siewert’s first few games in charge, but that came tumbling to the ground against Newcastle before and after Tommy Smith’s reckless challenge. They’ve taken one point from their last 42 available. Cripes.

 

Cardiff City
Teams in the bottom six will lose matches, but there are ways to do it. A 5-1 pumping at home to a non-Big Six team is not the way to do it. Goal difference dented, and so too the mood. Lose to Everton this midweek, and panic might set in.

 

Javier Hernandez
Last summer, the Football Association introduced a new law to cover ‘successful deception of an official’, designed to deal with cases of simulation. West Brom’s Dwight Gayle was banned for two games last week after being charged. Oumar Niasse suffered the same fate earlier in the season.

Hernandez did not dive, but why should he get away with deliberately handling the ball to score West Ham’s equaliser on Friday? If there is an argument that the ball merely hit Hernandez’s hand, the Mexican’s subsequent celebration makes that defunct. You naughty little pea.

 

Fred
Now confirmed as being behind Paul Pogba, Nemanja Matic, Ander Herrera, Scott McTominay and Andreas Pereira in the Manchester United midfielder queue. Fred is basically level with Marouane Fellaini in sixth place, and Fellaini has been living in China for a month.

 

James Maddison
Since scoring Leicester’s equaliser against Fulham on December 5, Maddison has attempted 30 shots in the Premier League without scoring. Only nine players in the division have taken more shots that Maddison this season, but 41 have scored more goals. He’s clearly an excellent young player, but the decision-making process does need some work.

 

Daniel Storey

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