Billy Gilmour and the flipside to injury crises
We’re all a little prone to hyperbole and should never apologise for it. Hyperbole doesn’t necessarily reflect a desire to be controversial for its own sake, although that has become the standard set by some television pundits. It merely demonstrates a pure excitement at what you have witnessed. But yeah, I sometimes do it too. I once compared Lars Bohinen to Johan Cruyff.
Yet watching Gilmour on Sunday afternoon really did feel like watching the future (so apologies for guaranteeing that he will be playing in League One in three years). For an 18-year-old to start two games in central midfield in a week against Liverpool and Everton is unusual. For him to be named Man of the Match in both is silly.
And he deserved both accolades. Of course, those who selected the awards probably suffered the same jolt of hyperbole, but the way Gilmour demands the ball from senior players, protects it and either plays it simply or passes it through the lines makes him look like Toni Kroos but 12 years younger.
Gilmour isn’t the type of midfielder who will dash through the lines to create chances – at least not yet – but then Chelsea already have a couple of those. His ability to dictate the tempo of a Big Six team at such a young age and with such inexperience displayed a strength of character that will serve him well.
This also shows the potential benefits of an injury crisis, although no manager wants to suffer one. Just like Marcus Rashford, Trent Alexander-Arnold, Japhet Tanganga and so many more, Gilmour’s chance has only come through the misfortune of others. That is not to say he and those others were not already highly-rated, but when the line between success and failure is so thin and the financial rewards for that success so high, it is far harder to give young players starts when those ahead of them in the queue are available.
With Mateo Kovacic, N’Golo Kante and Jorginho out, Gilmour’s time to shine came earlier than he might have expected. All power to him for grabbing it – and then passing it to a teammate – with such style.
Manchester United’s resilience
This was not a Manchester derby of great quality, ending a weekend during which you could say the same about pretty much every Premier League match. The winter break was hailed as necessary to give players more energy, but the football has taken a notable dip since. More goals seem to have come from defensive errors, including both of Manchester United’s on Sunday.
But you just see if United care, and why on earth should they? Having suffered slightly in the early minutes, as Manchester City looked to control possession and territory, they seemed to spook Pep Guardiola’s team with one counter-attack and then maximised that to their advantage.
Most impressive was not United’s technical quality (although Scott McTominay’s finish was dreamy) but their resilience in the second half. Think back to the match against Liverpool at Old Trafford earlier in the season, when United seized the advantage but then were unable to keep their opponents at bay and actually could have lost the match.
This was different. Aaron Wan Bissaka was the game’s best player, shutting down Raheem Sterling and regularly playing balls down the wing to set Daniel James free. Harry Maguire’s movement is still sometimes suspect but he relishes the chance to repel crosses into the box. And credit to Ole Gunnar Solskjaer too, who immediately noticed that Brandon Williams was struggling against Riyad Mahrez and switched things to ease that issue.
Things are looking brighter for United, not just because of their run of results since losing at home to Burnley. We already know that Solskjaer is a manager whose team is likely to go on runs of good and poor form dictated by the power of confidence. The improvement in tempo has coincided with the arrival of Bruno Fernandes. It’s extraordinary that a club of Manchester United’s size should have to undergo such a revelation, but it is finally here.
This only counts for something if United reach the Champions League. The poor quality of this squad was grossly overplayed while United were struggling, but it is easily good enough for a top-four finish ahead of Chelsea and Leicester while they also have injury issues. Now they have a chance to reach out and grab it, starting with victory over Jose Mourinho’s Tottenham next weekend. Do not let this goodwill slip.
If things had gone to plan for Crystal Palace this season, Ayew probably wouldn’t be starting up front. Having scored once in 20 league appearances on loan from Championship Swansea City last season, clubs weren’t exactly falling over themselves to sign him on a permanent deal. Palace might have preferred Christian Benteke or Alexander Sorloth to come good, Michy Batshuayi to make his own loan deal permanent, or Cenk Tosun to hit the ground running in January.
Instead, Ayew has produced a brilliant season out of thin air. It is not so much the volume of Ayew’s goals that have made such a difference (although eight goals in this Palace team means Ayew is sitting comfortably) but the importance of those goals. They have been worth a total of 14 points. Since Christmas alone, Ayew has scored the winner against West Ham, equaliser against Arsenal, winner against Brighton and now winner against Watford.
But that’s not all. Despite suffering from a chronic lack of service, Ayew has been reliable in front of goal. His shot conversion rate of 17.4% is only just in the top 20 in the Premier League for players with five or more goals, but then he isn’t often provided with clear-cut chances. It’s still a better rate than Mohamed Salah, Raheem Sterling, Son Heung-min and Gabriel Jesus.
Ayew will not be named in any Teams of the Season, but at £2.5m he has represented astonishing value for money. That’s the same as Manchester United are paying Alexis Sanchez every two months for them not to play for them.
It seems unlikely that anything or anyone could go under the radar amid the constant hype of the Premier League, but Burnley are managing it again. Guess who has the second longest unbeaten run in England’s top two divisions? Oh yes. And guess who has played Arsenal, Manchester United, Leicester City and Tottenham across that unbeaten run? Right again. It’s everyone’s favourite gravelly prince.
Burnley probably won’t qualify for Europe again this season as they did in 2017/18, and their unbeaten run will probably end at seven games when they travel to the Etihad next weekend. But Sean Dyche does have a chance to achieve Burnley’s highest points total in a top-flight league season since the introduction of three points for a win. They need 15 from their last nine matches, including fixtures against four of the current bottom six. It would be some achievement.
Four goals in his last five starts. Martial has learned to play the split-striker role perfectly, but his duties are more onerous and come less naturally to him than Daniel James’. Against Manchester City, Martial held the ball up, brought others into play and still looked to play on the shoulder of the last man.
After 200 games at Manchester United, it still feels like we are working out how good Martial is. But the last month has proven that those supporters who gave him unfair flak (and did exactly the same with Marcus Rashford before him) deserve to consume another slice of humble pie. He’s not perfect, but then neither is this an ideal situation for him and perfection will not come while your own fans are calling you a lazy fraud. Someone pass them the Rennies.
Their best attacking performance of 2020, with their ‘weakest’ side. Chelsea’s first-choice front six next season might well consist of Kante, Kovacic, Jorginho, Pulisic, Hudson-Odoi and Abraham, but none of those six were available on Sunday. That’s how you cope with an injury crisis *cough* Jose Mourinho *cough*.
It’s hard to not to frame this as Olivier Giroud’s success, and I’m not about to try and do otherwise. Watching him at Stamford Bridge was to witness a man happy with his life again, merrily holding up the ball, playing passes and winning headers like it was the first day of spring. Chelsea have scored eight goals in Giroud’s three league games since returning to the team. They scored 16 in their 14 league games prior.
Newcastle United’s change of formation
Boy did they need that. After two points – and no goals – in four league games, Newcastle United were threatening to get pulled back into relegation trouble. A midweek FA Cup victory over West Brom improved the mood, and three points at Southampton probably confirmed their Premier League safety for another season.
Improvement has come through a change of formation. Before the home game against Burnley, Steve Bruce switched from a back five to a back four. If the worry was that Newcastle might lose some of their defensive organisation, Bruce reasoned that he needed to take a chance. The lack of goals was defining their season.
The new system is working much better. It allows the striker to be less isolated, even if Joelinton has lost his place, but more importantly allows Miguel Almiron to stay higher up the pitch. Suddenly Newcastle are creating more chances, albeit still not taking them particularly well. They have had 12% of their shots in the Premier League this season in their last two games.
Hodgson will never be hounded out of Croydon because Crystal Palace supporters appreciate his long history with the club, but some were beginning to wonder whether this marriage had run its course. Palace’s problems were not down to him – poor long-term transfer business, lack of revenue stream, ageing squad – but Hodgson was proving himself increasingly incapable of staving them off. More than anything, he just looked a bit tired.
But back comes the old man of the Premier League. Hodgson has led Palace to three consecutive league wins for the first time since August 2018, grinding out games in a style that annoys opposition supporters but makes complete sense given Palace’s strengths. They are *checks and then re-checks notes* four points off a European place. This Premier League season got a little tipsy before Christmas, and now it’s on the dancefloor with a bottle of wine in its hand asking people if they’ll do the lift from Time Of My Life.
Ndombele is not entirely blameless in this mess, and painting him as such to make an argument only serves to undermine it. There are rumours that he has been carrying an injury during this season, which mitigates some criticism, but he has struggled to get himself fit and that was one caveat in the praise given to him by Lyon supporters during his time in France.
But that doesn’t mean attacking him so vociferously in public was the right thing to do. The only possible reason to criticise him at all is because you think it will get a positive response, putting a fire under Ndombele to prove you wrong. But even then, the normal approach is to do that in private.
The fact that Mourinho chose to do so in front of the cameras must matter then, and it is worth pointing out that very few managers do the same. That Sergeant Major-style public shaming is rare because a) it is incredibly risky and b) it doesn’t often work. The suspicion – based on Mourinho’s own precedent – is that Ndombele has been thrown under the bus in order to deflect attention from, and provide an excuse for, his own underperformance. Tottenham support is already splitting into the two extreme camps of pro- or anti-Mourinho that happens at every one of his clubs. Media appearances like this only give more ammunition to both camps.
The only question that matters is whether this helps Ndombele to improve, and it’s hard to have any faith in that. Imagine how you would feel if your boss sent a company-wide email telling every employee that they were unhappy with your recent work. And then multiply that by ten, given the public scrutiny that comes with being a footballer and the inevitable media spotlight that now shines on every one of Ndombele’s actions for the foreseeable future.
Manchester City, infuriating again
Watching Manchester City play like this isn’t just infuriating; it actively makes me angry. They meander through matches, lacking any intensity to seize the initiative and wasting the talent at their disposal. There are far too many individuals and combinations on the pitch that have the potential to fire – Aguero and Sterling, Silva and Foden, Zinchenko and Sterling, Gundogan and Rodri – and yet all we see is tepid passing and a lack of penetration that eventually is eclipsed by defensive incompetence.
There are three explanations for performances like the one against Manchester United, if we can assume that it angered Pep Guardiola. The first is that the messages that Guardiola is trying to get through to his players have stopped working, or perhaps that the delivery of those messages has stopped working. Of the 14 players used against United, only Rodri and Joao Cancelo are in their first seasons at the club. Everyone else should be attuned to exactly what Guardiola demands.
The second is that they missed Kevin de Bruyne so much that they were unable to perform at a level above abject. De Bruyne is a marvellous player, but it’s unfair to ask him to carry an elite football team on his shoulders. There are others who should be capable of taking this team on in his absence. If City are dismal without De Bruyne, that reflects badly on his teammates as well as favourably on him.
The third explanation, and perhaps the most tempting, is that City’s players performed at half-pace because there is very little to play for in the Premier League. The success of this season will be defined purely on their Champions League performance, and the victory in the Bernabeu suggests an ability to turn it on when it matters.
But that’s just not good enough. City might have abdicated their Premier League crown with embarrassing meekness (they have lost more league games than bloody Arsenal), but you do not get to just pick and choose when you want to perform. This wasn’t just any league fixture; it was a Manchester derby against a rival that is aiming to get back into the Champions League. That makes such tacit acceptance of defeat particularly unacceptable.
Finally, Guardiola’s post-defeat insistence that he was happy with his team’s performance and that they were unfortunate to win are getting a little grating. Manchester City had an xG of 0.62 on Sunday, their lowest in a league game this season. David de Gea barely had a save to make.
Everton, an abdication of professionalism
The worst first-half performance I’ve seen from any team this season, the type that provokes a club into refunding the ticket price of those supporters who made the trip. In fairness, plenty of them left after the fourth goal in favour of getting home earlier with Euston Station closed. I don’t blame them.
Carlo Ancelotti is not a man prone to flying off the handle, but he was visibly angry watching on from the touchline. Bernard was substituted at half-time, but Djibril Sidibe, Gylfi Sigurdsson and Mason Holgate were just as dire. For all the improvements Ancelotti has made, Everton haven’t won away to a Big Six team since 2013. That failure was reflected in their fear.
It was the lack of energy and movement that were most disappointing. Every time an Everton player received the ball at feet, they spent two seconds looking for the best option. That suggests that their teammates were hiding, positioning themselves so as to be unable to receive the ball. A chastening afternoon that emphasises just how much surgery must be done on this squad in the summer.
Roberto Firmino at Anfield
Rarely has there been a first team in Premier League history in which the selections are so easy. Liverpool’s front three and defensive five (including Alisson) are set in stone, and the midfield is pretty watertight too. But you do wonder whether Firmino is feeling a little worried by his lack of goals and the constant flirtations of Timo Werner towards Liverpool.
Firmino clearly isn’t just about goals. His link-up play is generally excellent, and Liverpool’s goals predominantly come from their two wide forwards. But has only created two chances in his last four league games, and he has now taken 53 shots at Anfield this season without scoring. High time to put that right against Atletico on Wednesday and dispel any growing doubts.
Tottenham’s defensive disorganisation
The one area of the pitch in which Tottenham don’t have any injuries is also the most disorganised. Improvement came with the half-time switch from a back five – with five central defenders – to a back four and Eric Dier pushed into central midfield, but it really was alarming how lost Spurs looked in the first half against Burnley.
Mourinho has now managed 25 matches as Tottenham manager, and things aren’t improving defensively. The number of clean sheets in his first 25 matches at each club:
Chelsea – 17
Inter – 10
Real Madrid – 15
Chelsea – 10
Manchester United – 9
Tottenham – 3
The instant answer from some will be that Mourinho hasn’t been given the tools to carry out this task, but he always used to define himself by an ability to improve the defenders he inherited. Remember Chelsea in 2013/14, who looked a little washed-up the previous season? Mourinho led a defence of Branislav Ivanovic (30), John Terry (34), Gary Cahill (28) and Ashley Cole (33) to concede 27 league goals that season. He used to be able to do this.
Forget Harry Kane and Son Heung-min for a while, because that statistic is the most troubling. What happens when an excellent defensive coach loses his touch?
Watford and Norwich
You don’t stay up with one victory over a Big Six team, but an ability to string together results when you need them most. In a relegation fight, goodwill only lasts until your next defeat.