West Ham, shaping the mood
There was a noticeable irony in West Ham’s players, manager and owners issuing desperate pleas to the supporters to get behind the team against Southampton. If the support of the fans is apparently so crucial to a team’s performance, it might be worth not ignoring the needs of those supporters over a period of 18 months. Like mismanaging a stadium move and lying to them about investment in players. Just a thought.
After all, that is why the protests were so vociferous against Burnley, because the team produced a performance so dismal that it brought all of the accumulated resentment to the fore. Those protests did indeed go too far, but for West Ham’s owners to feign surprise at the anger their actions have provoked is a little rich.
Against Southampton on Saturday, West Ham’s supporters did indeed get behind the team, cheering each goal and applauding each substituted player. But then the team also played at a level above wretchedly incompetent in every area. It’s far easier to cheer your team when ten-yard passes are finding feet and opposition midfielders paid considerably less than your own don’t waltz towards the penalty area as if on a Sunday morning stroll. No football supporter wants to dislike their own club.
The entirely opposite nature of the Burnley and Southampton matches cannot be ignored. All six goals were scored in the same end, but the second three were met with relieved first-half cheers rather than disgruntled second-half boos. In the directors’ box, Karren Brady cheered and hugged her daughter and none of the three co-owners sneaked out early. Nobody had a bottle of piss thrown at them, either.
But what could be more fitting for this bonkers football club than two such performances separated only by a three-week break and a much-criticised team trip to Miami? This is a club that prides itself on snatching crisis from the jaws of progress, only to escape the sharp teeth in the nick of time. Still, at least it’s never dull. Crisis next weekend?
Newcastle United and Rafael Benitez
On December 16, Newcastle United lost 1-0 to Arsenal at the Emirates. The result itself was hardly a disaster nor a surprise, but it marked nine league matches without a win. The only point Newcastle had gained across those nine games came at the home of West Brom, the worst team in the league, via a late own goal from Jonny Evans. Newcastle were in the bottom three of the Premier League.
Just as worrying as the result was the dark cloud hanging over the club. With the January transfer window a fortnight away, the long-awaited deal for Mike Ashley to sell had fallen through. Both parties blamed each other, but the supporters were the children caught up in the divorce. Apathy and atrophy reigned.
In the midweek that followed, the job done by Benitez was also called into question for the first time. Despite being in charge of a largely Championship-level squad crying out for investment and having to deal with the warring factions above and around him, some suggested that Benitez was under-performing.
‘I’ve often wondered how a ‘Super Coach’ would manage at the wrong end of our league – and it looks like I might be getting my answer,’ wrote Bantersaurus Rex Richard Keys on his blog. ‘The run Newcastle are on is NOTHING to do with Mike Ashley and EVERYTHING to do with what’s happening ON the pitch – or rather isn’t happening on the pitch. No Rafa, this one is down to you.’
An extreme view, but a diluted version was shared elsewhere. The club were forced to leak news that Benitez’s job was safe, despite the wretched run. The manager himself again spoke out to demand funds to improve the squad in January. It never came.
Since then, Benitez has demonstrated his mettle and his class. In the 13 subsequent league games, Newcastle have taken 20 points and lost only to Manchester City and Liverpool. The only teams to have earned more points per game over that time period? Manchester City, Manchester United, Tottenham and Liverpool.
That is a truly extraordinary achievement from Benitez. He will not permit talk of relegation survival until it is mathematically secure, but Newcastle are now six points above the bottom three with West Brom still to play at home. Their current total of 35 points would have been enough to keep them up in three of the last four Premier League seasons. They are closer to the top half than the relegation zone.
Victory over former manager Alan Pardew in late April – assuming he still has his job – would be the perfect way to celebrate the excellence of their current boss. To have created this buoyant mood despite a chronic lack of support from above is one of the stand-out managerial accomplishments of the season. No Newcastle supporter takes Rafa for granted; they know they are lucky to have him.
He’s sculpted a young squad with a comparatively small budget, and got them playing wonderful football. He could provide six of England’s 23-man World Cup squad. He does not use his stooges in the media to leak self-serving information, and does not personally attack other managers. He will be the only manager to finish in the top four in each of the last three seasons. Honestly, what’s not to like?
Perfect timing to remind Gareth Southgate what he can do, although the England manager is well within his rights to claim that his treatment provoked the response. More impressive still is that Sunday marked the 100th Premier League game of Alli’s career at the age of just 21. His record in those 100 games: 36 goals and 25 assists. There are mid-career strikers who would be happy with that record.
Goals in first 100 Premier League games:
36 – Dele Alli
35 – Eden Hazard
32 – Robert Pires
25 – Juan Mata
20 – Mesut Ozil
— bet365 (@bet365) April 1, 2018
Jamie Vardy and that shot conversion
Nine goals in his last 11 starts for club and country, and a brilliant last five days. Of all the players with five or more goals in the Premier League this season, none have a better conversion rate than Vardy.
Our early winner and up front in our Team of the Week, but I’ll take my chance to add an unnecessary layer of praise. Forget for a second the 100-goal milestone, although it is mightily impressive, and focus instead on the more recent past.
Along with the form of Jesse Lingard, it is Lukaku’s goals that have secured Manchester United’s Champions League qualification. Both goals against Huddersfield, goal and assist against Chelsea, goal against Crystal Palace, assist against Liverpool, goals against Brighton and Swansea. The last six weeks have been majestic.
Crucially, this form has come at precisely the time that United’s other supposed leaders have been absent. Alexis Sanchez’s form has been way below-par and the same is true of Paul Pogba. Eric Bailly’s injury issues continue to be a problem.
In December, there were doubts raised about Lukaku’s ability to retain his role in Manchester United’s team. Not only has he made those look foolish, but Lukaku has been the team’s leader at a crucial stage of the season. It’s now 26 club goals for the season.
Mohamed Salah, for not being very good
There was a pride in Jurgen Klopp’s voice, even when criticising the performance of his star player:
“That’s what makes him a proper striker. If you only score when you have a perfect day, you can’t score all the games he has. He is outstanding. This game was hard work. Both teams were not at their best, so it was a question of who will shoot one more goal. It was us.”
Liverpool are not used to winning ugly, but it is in the tightest moments of the tightest matches that the impact of star players is most noticed by managers. Scoring four goals against a half-arsed Watford side is all well and good, but scoring the winner away from home having come back from a goal down? Now that really is the golden egg.
Salah has now scored in 21 different league games this season, equalling the Premier League record. He could break that in the Merseyside derby next weekend, and then break the record for goals in a 38-game Premier League season against Bournemouth. With four bloody games remaining.
Saturday was only the second time since April 2017 that Liverpool have won a match in any competition having trailed. Their record over that period in games when they conceded first: Played 10, Won 1, Drew 4, Lost 5.
Given Klopp’s motivational ability, the inability to respond to initial setback is a little surprising. Liverpool’s players picked a good time to prove their fighting spirit. A top-four place now looks secure.
Of course Mo Salah will grab the headlines, and well he might. But Robertson was Liverpool’s best player against Crystal Palace, and has been their second-best performer behind Salah for a number of weeks. It is a long time since a Liverpool left-back has managed to blend defensive solidity with attacking endeavour, but Robertson has been one of the bargains of the season. Now sell Alberto Moreno this summer so you aren’t tempted to start him again.
His first league goal since returning from injury, and just his fourth of the season in total. Now faces a fight to start league games. He hasn’t managed one since December 17.
Manchester City’s passing
The most successful passes completed by Premier League players this weekend:
Fernandinho (Manchester City) – 164
Kevin de Bruyne (Manchester City) – 127
Nemanja Matic (Manchester United) – 113
Nicolas Otamendi (Manchester City) – 108
David Silva (Manchester City) – 97
The most successful passes completed by Premier League teams in a game this season:
Manchester City (vs Everton) – 905
Manchester City (vs Chelsea) – 902
Manchester City (vs West Brom) – 843
Manchester City (vs Bournemouth) – 825
Arsenal (vs Swansea) – 824
Manchester City (vs Stoke) – 814
Liverpool (vs Huddersfield) – 809
Manchester City (vs Watford) – 784
Manchester City (vs Swansea) – 763
Manchester City (vs Stoke) – 762
Manchester City (vs Newcastle) – 736
Manchester City (vs Burnley) – 723
Manchester City (vs Newcastle) – 723
The top two on that list, far beyond the rest, have both come in March. Guardiola has perfected Pepball.
The phrase ‘sends a message’ has been rendered virtually meaningless by an online media desperate to find controversy where none exists. But we can concede that Arnautovic ‘sent a message’ to Mark Hughes with his goal celebration. The magnificently grumpy bastard.
The only three English players aged under 30 with more goals this season are Jesse Lingard, Harry Kane and Raheem Sterling. Get him on the plane? And no, that Austria Under-20 cap won’t be an issue.
No Premier League player created more chances this weekend. No Premier League player completed more dribbles this weekend. Even when he doesn’t appear to be at the top of his game, Hazard is far better than most. He holds all the cards in his discussions with Chelsea this summer.
Read through Pardew’s post-match assessment after West Brom lost their eighth successive Premier League match, a club record. See if you can pick out his favourite word:
“We did not really engage them in the first half. We were so tentative in what we did, in closing the ball down, in possession. It was not the team I have seen in training this week. That is the situation we are in.
“We have to deal with Saturday afternoon when there are thousands of people here and a lot of pressure from the media. We did not cope with that very well today.
“We have another tough game next week here at home (against Swansea) and we have to be confident enough to stand up to the opposition and go and ask them questions, which we did not do in the first half.”
Yes that’s right: ‘We’. A word that indicates a group mentality and the suggestion that all are in it together, used by a manager calling out his players while deflecting attention from his own ineptitude. Pardew is a clever boy. He knows what he’s doing.
The problem is that Pardew has overseen this calamity. Even during Gary Megson’s two-game stint, when draws were earned against Newcastle and Tottenham, West Brom showed signs of life. Under Pardew, they have rolled over and waited for the blessed relief of relegation. A supposed motivator sucked the life out of the fight to survive.
The only reason that Pardew has not been sacked is because the club do not want to give him a pay-off and have little hope of tempting anyone to take over from him. Now he is talking of ‘rewarding’ the fans by staying on as manager next season. This might be the most serious recorded case of a lack of self-awareness.
It is risky to predict the demise of any ageing British Premier League manager. The Amur leopards and Javan rhinoceroses must wish for the type of protection afforded to Pardew and his cronies. All it takes is another owner of a struggling Premier League club to open his small book of ‘managers who know the league’, and the bell rings in the last-chance saloon for the umpteenth time.
But surely this is it for Pardew? Because if a run of 34 points from 54 league matches at two different clubs isn’t enough to stop the phone ringing, nothing ever will.
* UPDATE: That was it. He was mutually consented an hour after this was published.
You should go and read Matt Stead’s excellent piece now, but there is a section of it that bears repeating:
‘[Hughes] has been appointed by Premier League clubs twice before in mid-season, first by Blackburn in September 2004, then by QPR in January 2012. He won just one of his first ten games with the former, and two of his first ten with the latter. Hughes guided both to survival, but was afforded considerably more time to work with.’
Given that fact, surely Hughes’ recent record of seven wins in 33 league games at Stoke was more instructive? What on earth were Southampton playing at? Did Hughes really convince them that, having lost the faith of almost every senior player at Stoke, he was the man to inspire Southampton’s?
Hughes might just keep Southampton up at the end of a relegation battle in which being a little bit less sh*t than three other clubs will probably be enough. But it is still ridiculous that he was given this shot at instant salvation. What has happened to the imagination of Premier League owners?
You can be forgiven for being outclassed by this Manchester City team; there is no shame in that. But there is shame in not even bothering to try. And in picking a midfield pair that could never hope to compete. And in telling Everton supporters that this is all they can expect.
Allardyce was given a bolt out of the blue, a chance to establish himself as a top-half – and perhaps even top-six – manager after years of fighting fires. Rather than rising to that challenge, Allardyce has proven exactly why he isn’t suited to an Inter or Real Madrid, whatever that chip sitting on his shoulder might tell him.
There were boos at full-time from a Goodison crowd who had seen their team ‘boast’ the lowest possession ever recorded in the Premier League, but Allardyce dismissed those while pointing out that Everton are in the top half. They are indeed, but the only teams Allardyce has beaten as Everton manager are Brighton, Stoke, Newcastle, Swansea, Crystal Palace, Huddersfield and Leicester. That cannot be sold as overachievement.
Given that the football has also been more agricultural than Everton supporters were promised and are used to accepting, Allardyce cannot be surprised if this unhappy marriage ends in June. He’s been sleeping in the spare room and subjected to passive aggressive comments for the last two months.
There’s the difference between a manager fully behind his club, and one who has been attacking his employers on a regular basis in public. There’s the difference between a squad fully motivated by the example set by their manager, and one going through the motions just like their boss. One can respond to adversity; the other accepts it meekly.
For more on Conte’s impending exit, read 16 Conclusions.
If winning when playing badly is the sign of champions, getting humped 3-0 despite holding their own must be a sign of a relegated team. Paul Lambert has taken four points from his last eight matches, and they face Tottenham next. It’s just not good enough for a new manager tasked with bringing about a change.
Our early losers, and rightly so. Morgan Schneiderlin took until the 36th minute to complete a pass, while Wayne Rooney completed five in his 57 minutes. Picking him in a midfield two against Manchester City is akin to sending a sleepy labrador into a heavyweight title bout.
Southampton were 14th on February 3 and Stoke 13th on Boxing Day, but are Huddersfield the club that gets dragged into trouble late in the season? David Wagner’s team have scored in only three of their last 12 league matches, and have kept two clean sheets in their last 16.
Their 2018 form is abysmal. Only one Premier League team has taken fewer points in 2018, only one has conceded more goals and only one has scored fewer. The only clubs below Huddersfield in those particular statistics are already stranded in the relegation zone.
“It was no dive. Diving is without contact,” Jurgen Klopp said after the game. “There was contact, 100 percent. The player wants to carry on, and then you see you can’t, so you go down. He didn’t wait for the contact, he felt it. Everybody saw it.”
And everybody saw the ludicrous way Mane jumped into the air after a short delay and screamed out as if his leg was broken. It was embarrassing, and you only hope that Klopp told his player so in private.
For Mane to feign injury to try and earn a penalty is one thing, but for him to then handle the ball to try and claim another is doubly dim. He is lucky not to be suspended for the Merseyside derby.
A young man who has enjoyed a wonderful few weeks just got his bump back to earth. I’m not quite sure how he managed it, but in 88 minutes on Saturday Wan-Bissaka completed just four passes.
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