Olivier Giroud, Bruno Fernandes and Mikel Arteta had decent Premier League weekends. But Newcastle and Jose Mourinho…
This has probably been the most frustrating season of Giroud’s career. He has been fit for all of it, his club had a striker shortage due to a transfer ban, his manager has moaned about his team missing presentable chances to win matches and there is a major international tournament in the summer that he is desperate to be a part of. Before Saturday, Giroud had started one league game since August.
Throughout January, Frank Lampard spoke of his desire to bring a new striker into Chelsea. Tammy Abraham started the season in supreme goalscoring form, but that has tailed off and he has suffered injury. Both are always likely to afflict a young striker, but Chelsea could ill afford it. Yet Giroud was never the option. Lampard gave strong hints that he would be allowed to leave if a replacement came in, but nothing arrived and Giroud was left in limbo. Even Michy Batshuayi started over him against Manchester United last Monday.
Giroud has never been a prolific goalscorer. Only three times in his career has he managed more than 15 in a league season, and he has never scored more than 16 in England. But then he has other qualities that Batshuayi and Abraham lack. Eden Hazard said he was the striker that he most preferred playing with, given his ability to hold up the ball and bring others into play.
On Saturday against Tottenham, Giroud started, scored the opening goal and played a significant role in Chelsea’s second. The link-up play that was so obviously absent against United clicked against Tottenham. Mason Mount had his first shot on target in five matches. Ross Barkley had four efforts, as many as in his last five appearances combined.
Even if starting Giroud requires a shift in Chelsea’s style, their form before Saturday justifies twisting rather than sticking. Giroud is motivated to keep his France place and is a far better option than Batshuayi. Against a back three or higher-class opponents, he might even be a better option than Abraham. Lampard must let this new plan run its course.
He should read 16 Conclusions, too.
Shane Long and Southampton
Danny Ings has been the headline story of Southampton’s redemption this season, and it’s pretty clear why. Since the shambolic 9-0 home defeat to Leicester City, no player has scored more Premier League goals than Ings and no player with five or more goals has a better conversion rate over the same period.
But Ings’ success is only part of a process, albeit the final, defining part. After that miserable November run left Southampton facing likely relegation, Ralph Hasenhuttl changed the system from a back three to a 4-4-2 that gave Ings more support. That also brought Shane Long back into the team.
Long came on after 57 minutes of the fixture against Watford on November 30 when Southampton were 1-0 down; they won 2-1. He then started his second league fixture of the season, which Southampton also won. The Irishman has rarely scored goals regularly across his career, but has three and an assist in his last seven matches.
More important than the goals is Long’s impact off the ball. He has always been a willing runner, stretching the game with sprints beyond the last defender and forever prepared to hassle opponents in possession. It is this high-intensity pressing that has transformed Southampton’s season.
“He showed again that he can score for us and that he works hard for us,” said Hasenhuttl after the victory over Aston Villa that took Southampton to the verge of safety. “He is a guy who is going quick behind the last line and this is what you need against this opponent. This is why it’s so important to have a player like him. It’s so important to have players that are focusing on the game plan we have, and he did that in a fantastic way.”
And that sums up Long, the selfless team player who will never be the one to take the headlines or adoration. Don’t be surprised if Hasenhuttl pushes for a new contract for a 33-year-old who doesn’t ever seem to lose his dependability. He’s in love.
Bruno Fernandes, changing the mood
It might well be coincidence that Fernandes’ arrival has sparked a change of form. Manchester United were a little fortunate at Stamford Bridge last Monday, and they will have been mighty relieved that Troy Deeney’s equaliser was disallowed for a hand/shoulderball on Sunday. But United have earned that fortune. They have recorded consecutive league wins for only the third time this season.
But more importantly, there’s a new attacking spark. Before Chelsea, United had scored four goals in five league games; all of those were against a desperate Norwich City team. They’ve now scored five in two league games and had 30 shots in the process.
Fernandes is the key to that improvement. He demands and protects the ball like his midfield teammates, but is far more penetrative in possession than them. No other player in this squad – now Paul Pogba seems like a permanent absentee – is as confident with the ball at their feet.
“He has come in and given everyone a big boost – not just the team, the supporters too,” said Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. “He felt from the first minute like a big personality in our group. He was confident straight away and is like a mix between Scholes and Veron.”
Steady on old bean, but it’s impossible not to be impressed. The hope is that, unlike Manchester United’s other signings over the last five years, Fernandes can finally be the one to drag the club up to his level rather than them dragging him down to theirs.
Bukayo Saka and Eddie Nketiah
Arsenal were probably fortunate to beat Everton. They survived a late onslaught that was partly due to the excellent movement of Richarlison and Dominic Calvert-Lewin and partly due to Arsenal inviting pressure and panicking. On another day 3-2 could very easily have been 3-3, and Mikel Arteta will be keen to iron out the disorganisation from set pieces that led to both of Everton’s goals.
But the defining moment of the match was Arsenal’s equaliser, which came from Saka crossing for Nketiah. It might not have made any more of a difference to the match than either of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s goals, but there is something extra to be found in one academy graduate assisting another.
Arteta is attempting to welcome in a bright new dawn at Arsenal, and young players succeeding when given opportunities is a sign of a club that is healing. The supporters agree – the cheers when Saka was brought on indicate their emotional investment in him and Nketiah’s name was chanted more than any other player.
It may be that neither player is still in the Arsenal starting XI in a year’s time, but that’s not the point. For too long Arsenal players kept their place in the team whatever their performance level because there were precious few other in-form options. Arteta’s first task was to make the first team a meritocracy – if you’re good enough then you’re old enough. He’s already achieved it.
There is no great triumph in beating this Newcastle United team, but it did at least cause a wave of merited relief to sweep over Selhurst Park. A first win in 2020 and a first clean sheet in any competition since December 7.
Their longest unbeaten league run in a year at exactly the right time. It’s taken them up into the top half. And Dwight McNeil doesn’t look half bad, either.
Now on 21 goals in all competitions this season. Just as impressive is how many bloody games he seems able to play without a break. Strikers have dropped like flies during this Premier League season, but Sacapuntas keeps on trucking.
Three top-flight clean sheets in a row for the first time since… 1981.
Dean Smith: No more Mr Nice Guy
Dean Smith probably didn’t want to launch a tirade against his players in front of the waiting media. His success at Aston Villa has been founded upon a sense of togetherness that is established by his own deep personal connection with the club. Smith has operated as a ‘good cop’ manager.
But needs must. After another limp, lame performance in which Villa struggled to create chances and left themselves far too open defensively, Smith felt like he had no choice but to change the record. His private conclusion might be that his players are making him look bad, and no manager near the relegation zone can avoid doubts about their own position. Perhaps this was the Hail Mary pass from a manager looking to save a season.
“Being 1-0 down you’re always in the game, but I just wanted to see more fight in the players – just show me that you care,” Smith told reporters. “”Show a little bit of passion about what you’re doing. That’s the responsibility of any professional footballer and we never did that.”
He’s not wrong, really. Far too many of Villa’s players have seemed happy to let Jack Grealish carry all responsibility in midfield, but even he can’t do it all by himself. The new signings have not worked out, and the existing Championship performers have proven themselves incapable of stepping up.
Villa are highly fortunate that there have been three teams worse than them in this patchy Premier League season, but that will not last for much longer if their own performances don’t improve. An EFL Cup final might ordinarily allow for a break from Premier League misery, but the thought of facing Manchester City is daunting. Leicester City and Chelsea are their next two league assignments. Something must change quickly.
Jose Mourinho, managing expectations again
Jose Mourinho is right that his attacking plans have been ripped up. Losing Harry Kane was highly unfortunate, but Son Heung-min’s broken bone doubled down on the bad luck. It will be hard to cope.
But that doesn’t excuse Saturday’s performance, which was only made more lamentable by the fact that it was so predictable. It’s one thing setting up defensively and looking to play on the counter attack, but another entirely to sacrifice all control in midfield, launch the ball long to short attackers and still not be able to defend adequately. Steven Bergwijn did well in the circumstances, but those circumstances were made more difficult by his manager.
Mourinho’s problem is that he has become the manager who cried wolf. He can say that Tottenham were not able to attack because they didn’t have either of their two best forwards, and ordinarily we might accept that argument. But can we be confident that it would have been different even if Kane and Son were available? When was the last match in which he attacked against a member of the Big Six?
That Big Six record is also concerning. In his last ten league matches against those clubs, Mourinho’s teams have won one (the victory over Manchester City earlier this month that came with plenty of fortune), drawn two and lost seven. There is no shame in losing to Liverpool or Manchester City, but matches against Arsenal, Chelsea, Tottenham and Manchester United in that run have produced two points from five games. Again, the patience in defensive football in these games dissipates when it doesn’t actually produce acceptable results.
Mourinho’s post-match comments were more than a little disturbing too. Tottenham’s squad is beset by weaknesses, but they have spent £160m on new players this season and Mourinho is the third-highest paid manager in the world. Hearing him wishing the rest of the season away and admitting Tottenham are in trouble as soon as the opposition scores first does make you wince a little. Particularly given that they are still in two cup competitions and four points off the top four.
It all sounds like more expectation management from Mourinho, the same strategy of proactively deflecting criticism that became a staple of his tenures at other clubs. It is on him to find an attacking plan that works in the Champions League and Premier League. Bergwijn, Dele Alli, Giovani Lo Celso and Lucas Moura isn’t nothing.
Leicester City’s early-season stars
It’s a testament to Leicester’s early-season form that they are still miles clear of fifth place. Their likely rivals for a Champions League place have struggled to find any consistency, but that isn’t Leicester’s fault. Finish fourth, and this season will have been a huge success.
But that doesn’t avoid the fact that Leicester are in a slump. Brendan Rodgers’ team have taken 12 points from their last 11 league matches and have won once at home in the league since December 4. That breathing room remains only because others have failed to take advantage.
Jamie Vardy has gone eight games without a goal, James Maddison has one goal or assist in 12 matches and Youri Tielemans is also failing to dictate the tempo of Leicester’s passing as effectively as he was in the autumn. Ben Chilwell’s confidence looks shot when going forward, and he’s making a number poor decisions defensively too.
The loss of Wilfred Ndidi might explain most of those individual dips in form other than Chilwell’s. Without his brilliant, all-action defensive screening, Maddison and Tielemans have been forced to drop deeper and that has left Vardy isolated. Leicester looked much better with Kelechi Iheanacho starting against Manchester City, but his half-time substitution brought the same issues back.
Leicester now have a favourable run of fixtures – Norwich, Aston Villa, Watford and Brighton – but they must use that run to play their way back into form. Having streaked ahead between August and December, it would be foolish to allow a third-place finish to slip away.
Newcastle United, and chickens coming home to roost
This is Newcastle United’s reality: misery as standard that is occasionally alleviated – temporarily – by a run of half-decent results or victory against a better team achieved in spite of all logic or laws of averages.
That bigger picture tragedy isn’t on Steve Bruce; he is merely one thread in a pitiful show. I don’t believe that he is good enough for this job, and his CV didn’t merit the appointment, but then he is only a symptom of Mike Ashley’s managed decline. Ashley has starved a wonderful club of all ambition and nothing will change until he leaves.
Even so, Bruce could – should – be doing more with the tools at his disposal. The last couple of months have seen his chicken coming home to roost. Newcastle’s results had always outweighed their performances, and now the results have caught up. No team has had fewer shots. No team has a worse expected goals total. No team has had fewer touches in the opposition box. No team has scored fewer goals. It’s now six points from their last ten games.
On Saturday they faced a Crystal Palace team that has had far less money spent on the squad and was in chronically bad form. Newcastle allowed them to have 16 shots and had only two on target of their own. This was Palace’s first win since Boxing Day.
It’s almost impossible to work out what Bruce’s plan is, other than hoping three clubs remain worse than his own. They don’t attack with any cohesion, rely upon defenders scoring their goals and have ruined a £40m centre forward. Joelinton excelled in Germany surrounded by other attackers. Bruce described him as having everything a striker needs to be successful, left him entirely isolated for six months and then insisted he wasn’t a natural goalscorer. It’s a how-to guide for failing to get the best out of an expensive signing.
Apathy is growing in Newcastle. The club had to give away 10,000 half-season tickets to ensure that the stadium remained full on matchdays. Supporters are sick and tired of having the piss taken out of them and are sick and tired of the constant cycle of takeover soap operas that coincide with transfer windows or season-ticket renewal dates.
It would be beyond many managers to succeed in an environment as toxic as that. But Bruce’s problem is that his predecessor managed it and he is failing to do so. The best they can hope for is limping through until May and hoping the summer brings structural change at the club. Without it, Newcastle United are slowly dying.
Signs you’re having a bad time of it: you score an equaliser and it literally ends in you going 2-0 down.
Quietly going about their business. Unfortunately, their business is losing football matches.
Daniel Storey is on Twitter
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