Premier League winners and losers

Date published: Monday 23rd December 2019 12:08


Danny Ings, the lifeline
The biggest individual winner of the weekend, because he carries the hopes of an entire club on his shoulders. There is no player – not even Jamie Vardy or Jack Grealish – who is more vital to his club’s success than Ings.

Look at the numbers: Ings scored once in his first six league games of the season, which ended with him being left on the bench against Bournemouth in September. Since then, he has scored 12 goals in 13 matches. Those goals have been worth eight league points to Southampton. Without him, they would be toast.

Of all the players in the Premier League to have taken 20 or more shots this season, Ings now has the second highest shot conversion rate, still behind Vardy but having moved ahead of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang this weekend. That’s particularly impressive given Southampton’s league position. They do not create as many chances as Ralph Hasenhuttl would like, meaning every chance comes with added pressure to make it count. Ings has dealt with the pressure consummately.

Ings’ ability to stay fit and stay in this form will be the difference between Southampton staying up and going down. Hasenhuttl bought Che Adams because he was worried about Ings’ physical resilience after two serious injuries, but Adams hasn’t scored and Ings has proven himself capable of taking on the added responsibility. His career redemption would be completed with an England call-up early next year.


Watford, a change of mood and a change of luck
There has been a noticeable change in Watford since Nigel Pearson took over. They are more resolute in defence and more aggressive in midfield. They have made 40 tackles in his two games, comfortably above their season average. They troubled Liverpool by disrupting their rhythm, and humbled a dismal Manchester United team.

Those are usual cliches when a new manager takes over, a determination to impress the new boss and to right the wrongs committed under his predecessor. That does a slight disservice to Pearson’s motivational abilities. After all, Quique Sanchez Flores failed where he has succeeded and everyone assumed that the relegation candidates were Watford plus two others.

But Pearson has also been the beneficiary of some good fortune; Sanchez Flores and Gracia may be bitter that they did not get the same luck. Watford’s biggest issue this season has been their shot conversion. They had 76 shots against West Ham, Burnley, Wolves, Crystal Palace and Brighton and scored only once.

On Sunday, a similar issue. Ismaila Sarr’s shot was badly executed and bounced kindly into David de Gea’s hands, and Pearson should have been cursing another missed opportunity. Instead, De Gea let the ball squirm through his fingers to give Watford the lead and then Aaron Wan-Bissaka clumsily bundled Sarr over in the penalty area and allowed Troy Deeney to extend it. Watford scored more than once in a home league game for only the second time in eight months.

Pearson was right to insist that nobody should get carried away by one win, not least because he will still want Watford to buy players in the January transfer window. But by instilling organisation and some passion in the team, Pearson has given Watford a chance. Everything starts with that organisation. To bastardise the well-known quote: the better you prepare and organise, the luckier you get.


Frank Lampard and the tactical switch
A seismic result for Chelsea and the best day of Lampard’s managerial career to date. The home defeat to Bournemouth raised significant questions about Chelsea’s form (four defeats in five) but beating Tottenham away and rubbing Jose Mourinho’s nose into the dirt means Lampard heads into Christmas in high spirits.

This was a Chelsea victory (you can read 16 Conclusions here) earned because Lampard out-thought Mourinho. Tottenham’s manager couldn’t help but be snide by suggesting that Lampard had relied upon the tactics of his predecessor to win the game, but what on earth is wrong with that? It takes some guts to shift formation for a crucial away game. In switching from a 4-3-3 to a 3-4-3, Lampard gave Chelsea the advantage.

It all fits perfectly. Antonio Rudiger played in the formation in which he was so successful under Conte. Marcos Alonso played as a left wing-back with far more licence to push forward, and left-back has been Chelsea’s biggest problem position this season. With Cesar Azpilicueta on the right, Alonso could maraud forward and the other four defenders shuffle across to cover him.

In midfield, one less position meant that Jorginho was relegated to the bench but those are the tough decisions for which managers earn their salary. N’Golo Kante had the opportunity to push forward, knowing that Mateo Kovacic and three central defenders were behind him. As the central man of the three defenders, Fikayo Tomori could step up when Chelsea were in possession.

But the greatest beneficiary of Chelsea’s change in shape was Willian, who produced one of the individual performances of the season so far. He and Mason Mount switched sides and were never quite picked up by Tottenham. The Brazilian danced between the lines, dropping deep to pick up possession and stretching the game on the counter but without the added responsibility to defend as a member of a front three.

Willian is desperate for a new Chelsea contract and may have been motivated by reports of Chelsea interest in Jadon Sancho. With Callum Hudson-Odoi, Christian Pulisic and Pedro all left out of the team on Sunday, Chelsea have competition for places on the wings.

The result was Chelsea dominating Tottenham in central midfield (the 2 vs 2 was an embarrassing mismatch for Sissoko and Dier), troubling the questionable full-back combination of Jan Vertonghen and Serge Aurier and having two defenders free to keep Harry Kane quiet.

For all the joy over scoring twice and winning the match, the defining football-related image of the game was Chelsea defenders high-fiving each other after thwarting a late Tottenham attack. Lampard is fully aware that Chelsea must keep more clean sheets if they are to keep a firm hold on a top-four place. The Tottenham Hotspur stadium is a wonderful place to start.



Sheffield United’s away record
As many away points in the Premier League in 2019 as Tottenham, despite playing their first game in the competition on August 10.

More away points in the Championship in 2019 than Derby County, despite playing their last game in the competition on May 5.

Jurgen Klopp may well end up being bestowed the honour of Manager of the Year for 2019/20, but Chris Wilder deserves it for this calendar year. Twelve months ago today, Sheffield United were sixth in the Championship. Now they’re fifth in the Premier League.


Miguel Almiron
Good thing comes to those who wait, as the advert for that other famous black and white told us. It isn’t that Almiron hasn’t tried hard enough, or that he wasn’t good enough; sometimes it just doesn’t quite happen. But boy that only makes the eventual release more emotional. If anyone needs me this Christmas, I’ll be watching videos of footballers celebrating with young kids in the crowd and reminding myself why football is the absolute best.


Kevin de Bruyne
Four more assists and 17 more chances created than any other player in the Premier League. The only other two players with 50 or more chances created in the division this season have scored once between them; De Bruyne has six goals. Despite Liverpool’s brilliance, he might just be the Player of the Season so far.

For all Pep Guardiola’s micromanagement and insistence that the philosophy and process beats everything else, when De Bruyne is in this form it’s as simple as playing with the shape and strategy that gets the best out of him and affords him the freedom to dominate. Over the last three months, De Bruyne has been a joy to watch.

Read more words about De Bruyne in 16 Conclusions from the Etihad.



Ole Gunnar Solskjaer
To some extent, simply more of what we already knew. Manchester United have become a bizarrely predictable football team. They excel when allowed to play on the counter-attack and immediately run out of ideas when they are expected to break down their opponents using any other means. United are unbeaten against the seven teams that sit above them, but have lost five times against the 12 teams below them.

That record might merit continued faith if things were improving, but that is evidently not the case. Against some stiff competition, the 2-0 defeat at Watford was the worst performance during Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s permanent tenure. There was no intensity, no creativity and, crucially, no evidence of what had been decided on the training ground as a plan to get past Watford. United’s best hope in these matches are opponent error or individual brilliance. They should not be relying on either.

Solskjaer was visibly angry after the game, accusing his players of playing with a ‘testimonial match’ intensity. But doesn’t the buck stop with him for that? If he isn’t able to motivate these players to be better or able to produce a Plan B for when counter-attacking isn’t an option after more than a year at the club, what does that say about Solskjaer? Isn’t this what we accused Unai Emery of?

It has been said a thousand times, but Manchester United’s problems do not begin and end with Solskjaer and would not be magically solved by removing him from his position. The decision-making structure lacks expertise and competence, and for half a decade that has dripped down into the playing squad. A culture of mediocrity exists which makes lame, limp defeats like the one at Vicarage Road predictable and regular.

But that doesn’t mean Solskjaer deserves to keep his job. The defence about a lack of quality in the squad loses all weight when you examine a list of opponents who have beaten Manchester United this year: Watford, Bournemouth, Newcastle United, Crystal Palace, Cardiff City. None of those have the resources or individual talent at Solskjaer’s disposal.

For all the relevant moans about the structure and lack of focus on football, Solskjaer is playing a leading role in holding Manchester United back. He has gained success against Big Six peers, but that is insufficient proof of his aptitude and we have no other persuasive evidence on his CV. Manchester United are in their lowest position at Christmas since 1989, and the manager has now had a year in charge. Clubs must be ruthless in their pursuit of glory and redemption. It’s time to take the old friend out for a long walk in the woods.


Tottenham and old Jose Mourinho
The biggest question about Mourinho’s appointment at Tottenham was whether he could inspire an instant improvement having been appointed in mid-season. We know the Mourinho pattern only too well: First season good, second season good with reservations, third season bad. But that always depended upon being appointed at the end of the season with a full summer to prepare his squad for the demands of his management. Could he do the same without that long run-up?

Until Sunday, Mourinho’s Tottenham had gained good results from satisfactory performances. They conceded late goals against West Ham and Bournemouth and early goals against Olympiakos, won at Molineux despite being outplayed and failed to perform at Old Trafford.

But Sunday marked a huge step in the wrong direction, not just because they lost at home to a top-four rival. All of the hallmarks of Jose Mourinho’s 2018/19 Manchester United were present: slow possession, a chronic lack of movement, creative midfielders getting frustrated (which played a part in Dele Alli’s booking and Son Heung-Min’s red card) and an excellent centre-forward left isolated.

Tottenham supporters might point out that at least two of those issues were also hallmarks of Mauricio Pochettino’s time in charge, but Mourinho promises immediate improvement and instant change; that is why he is paid the big bucks. And Mourinho did insist that he was happy with this squad and did not need new signings to improve the team.

If the general intensity in Tottenham’s team was badly lacking, Mourinho exacerbated that with some odd tactical decisions. He had previously suggested that Moussa Sissoko couldn’t play in a midfield two, so picking him in one with Eric Dier looked like a mistake before kick-off and our opinion never wavered – neither are progressive enough with the ball. Mourinho then shifted formation to leave Lucas Moura at left wing-back, enough to give any Spurs supporter a migraine.

Every new manager will suffer a blip, and a record of four wins from six league games is hardly disastrous. But Mourinho will know that Tottenham were highly fortunate to beat Wolves, and without that victory they would be at least eight points off the top four. If we really are in the middle of the Mourinho honeymoon period, the happy couple are already starting to have niggly arguments and snap at each other.

Seriously, read 16 Conclusions.


Leicester City’s blind spot
Points per game in matches between the Big Six plus Leicester City:

Liverpool – 2.67
Manchester United – 2.33
Manchester City – 1.67
Leicester City – 1.17
Chelsea – 0.80
Arsenal – 0.40
Tottenham – 0.33

Ordinarily, Leicester would be delighted to be fourth in that particular table. But such is the improvement under Brendan Rodgers this year, that points-per-game record should provoke some disappointment. For all of their ruthless brilliance against the rest – 31 points from a possible 33 against teams outside the top eight – Leicester have disappointed when given the chance to demonstrate how far they have come against the best.

The flaws in the teams directly below them means that bottom-half ruthlessness may well be enough for Leicester to finish in the top four, but that provides them with a challenge for the second half of the season (starting at home to Liverpool on Boxing Day). Rodgers must find a way to make Leicester dangerous against these opponents (they have seven goals in six matches vs Big Six teams) without leaving them defensively vulnerable.

In 2015/16, Leicester’s results against the Big Six propelled them towards their miracle. Now it’s the only thing holding them back.


Aston Villa
A team in big, big trouble. A run of five defeats in seven league matches was excused due to the standard of Villa’s opponents (they were beaten by five of the top six), it ramped up the pressure on Dean Smith’s side to raise their game against the rest. Having been outplayed by Sheffield United at Bramall Lane, Villa then suffered the same fate at home to one of the three teams below them. They go into Christmas in the relegation zone, and few supporters could disagree that they deserve it.

Saturday’s defeat was a microcosm of the season so far. Villa were vulnerable at the back without Tyrone Mings, and the defending for Southampton’s third goal was pitiful. Their only flashes of quality came from Jack Grealish, but his goal meant little in the context of another defeat. The general pattern is one of good intentions undermined by a general lack of composure and cohesion. At this rate we’re going to be able to recycle those Fulham pieces from last season after all.


Paulo Gazzaniga
Just catch the ball, fella. Normally giving technical advice to professional footballers feels a little cheap, but Gazzaniga apparently needs reminding that goalkeepers can use their hands.


More racism at English grounds
And again people will act surprised. From an article ten days ago:

‘Perhaps football cannot escape this creep of division; maybe nothing can. Perhaps that is the entire intention of those fuelling it. Division does not knock on the front door, it seeps in through cracks in the walls. But football must try. We must try. If we are only discussing a minority of ignorant people ruining it for the majority, we must not let them win.’


Daniel Storey

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