Safe again, thanks to a superb recent spell in which Burnley have again made all of our preconceptions look foolish. A month ago Burnley were on a run of seven defeats in nine league matches and the locals were getting a little itchy. Cue ten points from four matches away at Southampton and Manchester United, and at home to Arsenal and Leicester City.
After the match, Dyche poked fun at the critics who describe his side as ‘long ball’. “What a fine pass,” he said, describing Jeff Hendrick’s ball to Matej Vydra that assisted the winner. “That is a 35-metre ball, so that will be classed as a long ball. When people talk about long balls, they say that derogatorily.”
But Burnley did play direct, and should feel no shame for their approach. It regularly caused Southampton problems in the driving wind and rain that earned their own assists for Burnley’s first goal. Dyche may not like the suggestion, but he should own it and revel in it as others have done before him. Burnley have found a way that works and thrived in the top flight as a result. There is enjoyment to be found in variety.
Jose Mourinho’s entertainers
There are certain things we expect from a team when Jose Mourinho is appointed manager as their manager. Key members of the squad will talk up the mood in the camp to the press. The club will be given a jolt up the league table. Their defensive record will quickly improve.
But so far at Tottenham, only two out of three. Tottenham sit fifth in the Premier League and only Liverpool have taken more points since Mourinho’s arrival, but the manner of their improvement is entirely counter-intuitive. Tottenham have become the Premier League’s entertainers.
On Sunday, Tottenham played their 19th match under Mourinho and won 3-2 for the fourth time. In 14 of those 19 matches both teams have scored at least once. In six, both teams have scored at least twice.
It’s not just the scorelines. Since Mourinho was appointed, only Bournemouth, Newcastle, Aston Villa, Burnley and Norwich City have faced more shots in the league but only Manchester City and Liverpool have scored more goals. Matches are played out like basketball games, both teams taking it in turns to attack and the midfield far more open than we would ever expect from a Mourinho team during any stage of his managerial cycle.
The pertinent question is how much of this is deliberate, how much is inevitable due to circumstance and how much will perturb Mourinho despite the improvement in results. The victories over Wolves, Manchester City and even Villa on Sunday owed much to a dollop of good fortune that Mourinho will know cannot be relied upon ad infinitum. Are they open in midfield because he has changed his managerial philosophy or because he doesn’t yet have his ideal holding midfielder?
Either way, Tottenham fans should enjoy it while it lasts. If the theory that Tottenham needed some fresh air and fresh faces to revamp the mood post-Pochettino slump, the faces arrived in January and the results have been kind enough to keep any staleness at bay. Friday night’s events make the Champions League more probability than possibility.
Remember when we were a little worried about Liverpool’s defending? It is easy to forget amidst this ludicrous run of form, but Jurgen Klopp’s team only kept two clean sheets in their first 20 Premier League and Champions League matches of the season, a run that took them well into December. This was down to sloppiness rather than calamity – in 15 of those 18 matches Liverpool conceded exactly one goal – but it must still have irked their perfectionist manager.
Since then, improvement when Liverpool’s rampant form barely required it. Since beating Everton 5-2 on December 4, they have played 12 Premier League and Champions League matches and conceded once. The reintroduction of Joe Gomez alongside Virgil van Dijk has made Liverpool complete.
Liverpool’s record against the rest
It’s all very well them smiling and hugging and looking like they’re having the time of their lives, but do not be fooled: Liverpool are a team of relentless bastards who delight in trampling all over the weak.
Since losing to Swansea City in January 2018, Liverpool have played 48 matches against non-Big Six teams. They have won 42 of those 48 games, and drawn the other six. That’s what Jurgen Klopp thinks of your plucky underdogs.
Mikel Arteta’s Arsenal vision
Nobody falls in love straight away. They might believe, with the benefit of hindsight and romanticism, that it was love at first sight, but that’s never how it works. There’s an initial spark of attraction and a rush of adrenalin that some may misinterpret for love, but love instead fills the cracks in your life over time. It comes through continued contentment and with regular reminders. It is evidence-based more than it is instant and automatic. Over time, things happen when you least expect them to remind you why this is all worth it.
Things like Arsenal’s fourth goal against Newcastle on Sunday. The first half at the Emirates was uninspiring fare, Arsenal either playing things too safe or going too direct and over-hitting their passes, a team simultaneously trying too hard to make things happen and not doing enough to ensure they would. But then this was always going to take time. Those 35 passes for the fourth goal, starting slowly and ending in several quick bursts and the final finish, made Arteta and Arsenal supporters wow. I’ll let you make the comparison to love-making.
This is what Arteta wants, that slow-slow-slow-quick interplay in the final third that lulls opponents out of their area to pressure the ball before slicing through them. That is what he learned as a young player at Barcelona, a senior player at Arsenal and a coach at Manchester City. It will take time. Arsenal don’t have all the right pieces to play the perfect game, and the hangover from Arsene Wenger’s final years and Unai Emery’s tenure is likely to live on in dark corners. Not every opponent will be as accommodating as Newcastle.
But at least they have a vision. It may not end in Champions League football, and it has not produced an instant run of victories, but Arsenal are still unbeaten in 2020 and they are unbeaten while attempting to be something. The same was not true under Emery, and it is enough to keep Arsenal supporters believing that they can grow to love this team under this manager. That’s all everyone’s looking for.
Champions League hopefuls
It probably shouldn’t have been my instant reaction when I heard that Manchester City had received a Champions League ban, and it might say plenty about the lack of title race this season, but my first thoughts turned to the frantic scramble for the Champions League places. If City are not there next season (and that is still an if, despite the verdict), the club that finishes fifth will qualify for the Champions League next season.
That creates something distinctly mouthwatering. As it stands, Burnley are only six points off fifth place with 12 matches remaining. Suddenly those clubs who have spent much of the season looking over their shoulders have greater reason to look up with a little more hope.
Clubs like Sheffield United should be delighted by the news. Rather than hoping that Chelsea lose ground and allow them to pass, they can instead hope to be the best of the rest above Tottenham, Wolves and Manchester United. Leicester City too are given an added safety net.
We also have a situation in which uncertainty could rule all. If City appeal their ban to the Court of Arbitration for Sport, which seems likely, the result of that appeal could well extend some way into the summer. That creates the unhelpful scenario of the club that finishes sixth having to execute a recruitment plan without knowing which competitions they will be playing in the following season. How do you sell the dream to potential signings if you don’t know what the dream is?
His first goal owed everything to Steven Bergwijn’s surging run and a dose of good fortune having had his penalty saved, and the second took an awful defensive error, but you just see if Son cares. He might ask Bjorn Engels if he fancies travelling the country as a two-man entertainment show, given the Belgian’s two assists on Sunday.
But good strikers do get lucky. They maximise their fine fortune and opposition mistakes and punish them fully; that is why that mistake and good luck is so remembered. When Tottenham needed someone to step into Harry Kane’s breach, Son was always going to be the likeliest candidate. Six goals in his last five games suggests that he is up to the task of taking Spurs into the Champions League.
A first goal of any kind since September 2018, and Vydra’s second Premier League goal since April 2014. There was something wonderfully honest about Burnley’s match-winner being asked to describe the goal in his post-game interviews and simply saying: “I closed my eyes and just smashed it.”
Aston Villa, pretty but pretty flimsy
Aston Villa are an entertaining, absorbing team to watch. Jack Grealish might just be the best player outside the Big Six, and so much of Villa’s play goes through him that it creates vast swathes of space for his teammates. Watching those teammates waste the wonderful service Grealish provides time and time again is a spectator sport all of its own.
But no manager in the bottom half will be happy with being described as ‘entertaining’; it is a back-handed compliment. Enjoyment does come with style of play, but results must follow. No Premier League team manages to find inventive ways to throw away points and waste good performances quite like Villa.
The most obvious issue with Dean Smith’s team is their repeated tendency to let things slip in the final throes of their matches. Villa have dropped nine points in the final ten minutes of their matches this season, the difference between keeping their heads above water and struggling for breath. Whether that’s down to fatigue or concentration isn’t totally clear, but mistakes like Engels’ for Tottenham’s winner kick a side square the balls when they are down. It’s happened too often to be a coincidence.
When Son scored the winner on Sunday, the groan at Villa Park was audible on the television, followed by a horrible hush. Supporters know only too well that these are the moments that decide whether a side stays up or goes down. Villa are pretty, but pretty flimsy. That doesn’t provide much comfort over the summer while you’re waiting for Championship football.
Newcastle United, passive and pathetic
You can forget the Rafa Benitez comparisons, because they do not stand up to scrutiny. Newcastle United had an awful first half of 2018/19, but over the second half of the season Benitez revolutionised their football. Between mid-January and the end of the season, only four Premier League teams scored more goals than Newcastle.
Under Steve Bruce, it’s often hard to work out what the point is or whether there is any aim at all. Newcastle defend deep, sacrifice possession and ostensibly seem to hope that they get lucky on the break or rely upon set-pieces. The two attacking midfielders pick up the ball as auxiliary wing-backs and are therefore asked to carry it 50 yards and beat three players to create a chance, while the striker is left chronically isolated.
Newcastle’s attacking numbers are abysmal. They rank 19th for goals scored, 20th for expected goals, 20th for shots, 20th for touches in the opposition box and 20th for possession. Their strategy for survival is hoping that their early season upsets against bigger teams carries them through a long winter and spring. That might well prove to be enough, and Bruce can reasonably insist that his only task was to keep them up, but bugger me it’s horrible to watch.
If the quality of Newcastle’s squad was a fair excuse for this eye-bleeding fare in August, that doesn’t really apply now. Nobody made more signings in January. The team that started at the Emirates included arguably the best goalkeeper outside the top seven, two international full-backs – both new signings – and two international central defenders, an international central midfielder and a young player wanted by Manchester United, two exciting attacking midfielders and a striker signed for £40m last summer. Joelinton has struggled badly and looks bereft of confidence, but he flourished in Germany with strikers around him. Lumping the ball long to him and expecting him to cope is nonsensical.
Bruce took plenty of stick when he was appointed, and there are some Newcastle supporters who seem to actively want him to fail as a result, but this is on him. The supporters who travel the country to watch their team will have been embarrassed by their collapse on Sunday, but when you sacrifice possession and territory this becomes the norm. The only Newcastle player with more than two league goals this season is a central midfielder who has missed more than 40% of their matches.
Maddison isn’t playing badly, and it would be unfair to suggest so. But if there is a scramble to be at the front of the Euro 2020 queue, Jack Grealish is now standing two or three yards ahead of the Leicester playmaker with his socks rolled down and his ticket shoved deep into his pocket.
Maddison has one goal or assist in his last 12 Premier League matches. He is still creating chances regularly, but his form is being impacted by him regularly dropping deep to pick up possession and doing far more defensive work than at the start of the season. That is reducing Maddison’s attacking influence and simultaneously leaving Jamie Vardy short of service. No panic yet, but Leicester have scored more than once in two of their last eight games in all competitions.
The poor bastard has had fewer shots on target than Christian Benteke this season. Benteke has started six matches.