Steve Bruce deserves his fun. That’s what David Moyes does – win. There is no case for Chelsea’s defence. And Man United have a fine third wheel.
Before the Premier League paused, Newcastle had scored three goals or more twice in their previous 30 league games. Less than a fortnight into football’s return, the Magpies have already matched that achievement in sweeping past Sheffield United and Bournemouth.
The former was hardly a show of domination; John Egan’s red card came five minutes before the first of three second-half goals as a Sheffield United team low on confidence and momentum crumbled.
But Wednesday evening felt different. Newcastle tend to save their best performances of the season for a final-day flourish, probably by order of Mike Ashley to generate excitement and increase season-ticket sales. Perhaps they were simply fooled by the time of the year on the south coast.
Bournemouth has not suffered such wanton destruction since people decided to go to the beach and relieve themselves in McDonald’s boxes because it was a tad warm. Adam Smith certainly shat himself at the mere sight of the irrepressible Allan Saint-Maximin and the hosts had absolutely no answer even when he went off.
Steve Bruce is contractually obliged to be disappointed with his side’s inability to keep a clean sheet, but there is something powerful about a man enjoying being able to live his dream, even if only for a few weeks.
That is an under-reported aspect of his past year. Managing your boyhood club is supposed to be the apex of your career, the thing any coach works tirelessly to accomplish. Bruce was given that opportunity unexpectedly and has had to defend and justify himself ever since. In many cases, that was a battle he could never win: the opinions of some fans and pundits were too deep-rooted to ever change meaningfully.
But few managers have done a better job respective of the circumstances. A relegation battle was forecast for the lowest-paid coach in the Premier League, appointed less than a month before the season began; a comfortable mid-table finish beckons.
It has taken seven years and the forlorn expiration of his initial six-year contract, but David Moyes might finally have helped deliver Champions League football to Man United.
But what a result. Two victories in 12 Premier League games made a mockery of his claim that “that’s what I do, I win”. West Ham looked likely to survive only due to the fallibility of the teams below them, and even coming from behind to lead Chelsea was tinged with the disappointment of Willian’s late equaliser.
Moyes faced a decision in that moment: settle for a hard-earned point or ensure snatching all three remained a possibility. Jarrod Bowen could have been replaced by a defensive-minded player but Andriy Yarmolenko came on to maintain that attacking threat.
The introduction of Jack Wilshere – a player who had not featured since October – might have been even braver, and just as effective in asserting more midfield control. That is the sort of change that does not scream ‘David Moyes’.
West Ham were 17th, one point above the relegation zone when he was appointed. The rise to 16th with a three-point cushion is hardly stratospheric but Moyes has almost earned the right to oversee his first full pre-season at any club since 2015.
No-one plans to be a third wheel at 31, but Nemanja Matic is turning that thankless task into an efficient art form at Man United. He has been sure to make Bruno Fernandes and Paul Pogba aware of their social boundaries while giving them the platform to express themselves.
Scott McTominay and Fred have their strengths but neither exude quite the same calm and class as Matic. His defensive positioning and awareness has rarely been called into question throughout his career, yet there seems to be more energy and intent in the Serbian’s game now.
Without him, that Fernandes and Pogba axis would not have been nearly as effective. One or both would have to drop too often to offer more midfield protection, thus blunting the true strength of Man United: one-touch counter-attacking. Matic is the designated driver, the parent that checks all the appliances are turned off and the doors are locked before venturing out of the house, by which point the kids are already wreaking havoc.
It is a remarkable renaissance for a player who was seeking to leave over a lack of opportunities in January. A regular first-team chance has presented itself and Matic has controlled it with typical ease. Man United will need a long-term solution but his emergence as a credible starter allows them to concentrate on improvements elsewhere for now.
It feels as though a different kind of player would earn much more praise for continuing to perform at a high standard during protracted contract negotiations and an uncertain future at a club in transition.
Not even a fortnight has passed since Tony Cascarino stated that Danny Ings “does far more for the team” and “has given a lot more to Southampton” than Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang to Arsenal, with the pundit suggesting “one of the problems” Mikel Arteta will encounter is “with players like Aubameyang and Ozil”.
The latter is subject to often-unjustified scrutiny but there is absolutely no justification to question the former. And as good as Danny Ings is, the comparison to Aubameyang is non-existent.
Only a fool would accuse the striker of looking “totally disinterested” and a player who “doesn’t want to be at Arsenal”, much like only a fool would take the words of Tony Cascarino seriously. Watch that first goal against Norwich again and ask yourself whether that is the tenacity, determination and work-rate of someone who can’t be arsed.
The thing is, Aubameyang would have every right not to give his absolute best for a club that has threatened to consign his final elite years to the mid-table. That he is leading by consummate example is testament to his character.
David de Gea
Sheffield United and Brighton might have mustered only three shots on target between them but David de Gea will be happy to thrive in the shadows instead of wilting in the spotlight. While Roy Keane would undoubtedly have caught Aaron Connolly’s effort, mere goalkeeping mortals among us can appreciate a stop that preserved his tenth clean sheet of the Premier League season. Nick Pope leads those stakes and is only three ahead…
Only four clubs have earned more Premier League points than Everton since Carlo Ancelotti’s appointment. Their 26 points in 15 games under the Italian is the same as Leipzig have managed in as many Bundesliga matches. That isn’t bad company to keep after seven months.
Still scoring Premier League goals in 2020. Still only 29. What a delight.
Pub quiz fodder as the first player ever to score a Premier League goal in each month. Shame about the result, mind.
West Brom 2004/05
Their record low points tally for Premier League survival of 34 will stand for six more games but surely no more.
Kepa Arrizabalaga is statistically the worst goalkeeper in the Premier League, and by quite a margin. Cesar Azpilicueta clearly has his uses but they do not include marking players five or so inches taller than him at set-pieces. Andreas Christensen has all the concentration of watered-down orange juice and the awareness of someone wearing a VR headset. Antonio Rudiger is a better agent than he is a centre-half. It should shame humanity that Marcos Alonso was once voted the Premier League’s best left-back.
When even N’Golo Kante looks as susceptible as he did for West Ham’s third goal in this, by far his worst season in England, then the problem is systemic and entrenched.
So while Chelsea assemble one of the finest collections of attacking weaponries across Europe as they try to add Jadon Sancho or Kai Havertz to Timo Werner, Hakim Ziyech and Christian Pulisic, it matters little until some money is spent on that defence. Jurgen Klopp realised that coaching the deficiencies out of Liverpool was pointless when the cheat codes of Alisson and Virgil van Dijk were readily available. Frank Lampard would do well to follow that same path.
Wins over Jose Mourinho, Carlo Ancelotti, Pep Guardiola, Jurgen Klopp and Erik ten Hag. Losses to Steve Bruce, Duncan Ferguson, Albert Celades and now two separate West Ham coaches. Lampard’s second season as a manager has peaked and troughed wonderfully.
The worrying thing is that certain problems have been allowed to fester. Chelsea have conceded nine goals from 109 corners this season and have been hit on the counter more times than a concierge bell. What did Lampard do with that three-month break?
If, as some claim, it is harsh and disappointing that Chelsea are already replacing the young players that served them so well during their transfer ban, Tammy Abraham is hardly making a compelling case for the defence. One off-target shot, a single chance created and 11 passes completed in 62 minutes against one of the league’s worst defences is abysmal.
Any modicum of sympathy is tempered by two goals in his last 15 games and his last assist coming in December. Olivier Giroud has overtaken him for now, never mind any future signings.
“The last two games have been great benchmarks for us,” said Brendan Rodgers, the sort of eternal optimist who would see his house and most precious belongings ablaze and be thankful for saving on the heating bill.
Leicester had just been crushed by Liverpool, five days after a painful lesson from Manchester City. They had two shots on target across that pair of games, conceding 18 and keeping an average of 39% possession.
It is a week that might have well crushed them, derailing the train completely instead of simply causing a delay. Leicester had won 12 of their 17 Premier League games before, and just four of 13 since.
Jamie Vardy has two goals in 13 matches. Caglar Soyuncu and Jonny Evans look poor. Ben Chilwell’s valuation ought to have halved. Even the normally imperious Wilfred Ndidi has struggled, while Rodgers seems entirely incapable of stopping the rot.
He made four attacking changes on Wednesday against Everton, but Ayoze Perez, James Maddison and Demarai Gray created one chance between them and their four combined shots were all off-target. Kelechi Iheanacho at least made an inadvertent impact with his fortuitous goal and general energy, yet Everton never looked particularly fearful of losing their lead.
A triple substitution is generally the mark of a manager desperate to send a message to under-performing players and inject a new-found purpose and direction in the team as a whole. It is the most drastic roll of the tactical dice. What, then, two double changes that propagate stagnation instead of prompting improvement? Leicester are approaching a crossroads with a driver who knows only how to accelerate.
Seriously though, Leicester
Second at the start of 2020, 14 points clear of fifth.
Third with six games remaining, but 13 points clear of Newcastle.
Only five clubs have earned fewer points since Boxing Day.
For an insight into how far Eddie Howe’s stock has fallen, consider this: a week that began with the revelation of him being named on a three-man shortlist to replace Brendan Rodgers at Liverpool in 2015 will end with Bournemouth in 19th, having lost six of their last seven games, as they become the first Premier League side since Cardiff in February 2014 to concede four goals at home to a Steve Bruce team.
It all feels a little Owen Coyle: the patchy transfer record; the style of play and faith in youth; the inability to evolve from underdog to established force; the burden of being Britain’s bright young coaching thing, with the accompanying links to jobs far beyond them.
Coyle, current coach of Indian Super League team Chennaiyin FC, was 45 when he managed his last Premier League game in May 2012, just over a year after being tipped to take over at Arsenal. Howe turns 43 later this year and does have more about him than constantly wearing shorts and referring to the ‘Barclays Premiership’, but therein lies a reminder of how fickle this business can be.
Howe would have no trouble in getting another Premier League club if Bournemouth are relegated and he so wishes. The Liverpool and Manchester United ships have long since sailed but he has earned the right to be considered for more modest projects. Still, this has been a chastening season that has dented and scratched a previously pristine reputation.
Our video losers for being knocked out of the FA Cup in extra-time by Manchester United, so bona fide dweebs for making Arsenal look positively competent. Norwich failed to have a shot inside the box against the Gunners for the first time in a game under Daniel Farke. That ain’t good.