It’s very much on for Liverpool to rescue their Premier League season at the last, while Leicester and Tottenham really did cock things up this week…
Supporters! At games!
I was a little uncomfortable about the return of supporters to live matches. That was partly because I am naturally risk-averse (probably to a fault), partly because I’m in a situation where I’m continuing to shield as I have been for 14 months and am living with someone who may not be protected despite having the vaccine and partly because the beginning of next season just seemed like a natural starting point with Euro 2020 as the testing ground.
But my goodness this week has been good for the footballing soul. It’s not the roar of the goals, you understand, although they are wonderful. It’s the minutiae of audible fan behaviour: The light applause for the header back to a goalkeeper or crossfield pass along the floor, the ironic cheer after a miss or when a referee gives you an overdue decision, the “Fuck VAR” chants, the general murmur that reveals the excitement felt at being back at a familiar home you have wanted to visit for so long.
If this grim year, in football and in life, has any lasting positive effect, it is that we will never again take for granted those things that we deeply love doing. Our experiences and emotions will become super-charged by the intervening absence. I cannot wait until I am allowed to safely attend a football match again, and I’m deeply envious of those who have this week. Nature is healing, as the meme goes. Football is healing too.
It’s odd how these cycles go but, after effusive praise for Thomas Tuchel, the worm has turned over the last week. It is the inevitable churn of praise that fits the Goldilocks principle: Receive adoration and people will always wait with glee for you to fail, receive criticism and people will always wait for you to make the critics look silly.
Unless you’re a fan of a rival club (who obviously want Chelsea’s manager to fail), I don’t really understand that. Tuchel is an excellent coach who has made a demonstrable difference at Stamford Bridge. Losing the FA Cup final didn’t make him a failure, just as winning it wouldn’t have made him the best manager since geschnittenes Brot.
Chelsea performed below their best in the FA Cup final, but they probably did enough to count themselves unfortunate to lose it. Against Leicester on Tuesday, they were utterly dominant until a late period of sloppiness.
For all the criticism of Timo Werner – and the boy does love an offside – you can see too why he retains the trust of Tuchel and the support of Chelsea supporters. His running off the ball is tireless and his interchanges of play generally excellent. That might feel a little patronising to a a £40m centre forward, and Chelsea might just look to buy again in the summer. But Werner won one penalty and should have won another.
With Mason Mount now arguably Chelsea’s best player, a title challenge next season looks likely. More pertinently for this column, only a final-day cock-up would rule them out of the Champions League again next season.
It’s on. It’s very much on. Although Roy Hodgson taking something at Anfield on the final day of his managerial career would be delicious irony, you just can’t see it happening. Liverpool have wrestled back control of their Champions League destiny, and it might have huge ramifications for the size of their summer rebuild. Has Alisson scored the goal that kickstarts the third era of Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool?
Barring a bizarre collapse on the final day (they have a three-point and eight-goal advantage over Everton), West Ham will be playing European football next season. Take a point against Southampton on the final day (or if Tottenham don’t beat Leicester City) and West Ham will be in the group stages of the Europa League. That would be their first participation in the competition proper of a European competition since 2006. Well played, David Moyes.
Proof that this Premier League season has broken my brain (and I want it to break yours too): Over the last 23 games – more than 60% of the season – Arsenal are second in the Premier League behind Manchester City.
Brighton’s improved finishing
Over Brighton’s last four games, they have a shot conversion of 14 percent. Over the course of the season until that point, their conversion was 10 percent and included the comical three-match run in February when they had 66 shots and scored once.
This is what we always hoped would happen with Brighton without daring to say that they were “too good to go down”. Fifteen points from their last 10 games has put a deservedly positive spin on an enjoyable season. Now cross your fingers that Graham Potter is not poached.
Fatigue? What fatigue? No team in the Premier League has taken more points from their last 10 matches than Leeds. The only reasons that this section isn’t considerably longer are a) we covered them in some detail on Monday, and b) we’ll cover them in even more in the Season Winners column out next Monday morning.
Signed up and now in the rudest of health. Cavani has nine goals in his last 10 games. There may be mischievous Manchester United supporters who are happy that Anthony Martial got injured when he did. Without these regular starts and goals provoked by Martial’s extended absence, would Cavani have agreed to stay?
A home win. An actual home win. And just when it didn’t really matter. Perfect timing.
I’m so glad they didn’t end the season with a run of two measly wins in 14 league games, because Villa deserved better than that. They may still finish in the bottom half, but at least they will finish top of it.
He’s the best player of the relegated clubs by a country mile. I wouldn’t even dissuade a top-six club from signing him this summer.
The FA Cup was the big one. Leicester City played in the Champions League four years ago and they had never won the FA Cup, going to four finals and losing every one; that is a sufficiently persuasive argument. They may well have a good chance to get into the Champions League against next season, but FA Cup finals don’t tend to come around that often.
And the FA Cup is different because it is a standalone tournament. Qualifying for the Champions League is merely a conduit to another mission, one that is very unlikely to end in triumph. For Leicester City and their supporters, the FA Cup final was the end of the journey.
But that’s not how it works. When you have already experienced the joy of winning one of your aims, it becomes impossible to reason that the second doesn’t matter so much. Leicester could so easily have had both: Avoid defeat at Stamford Bridge and Champions League qualification remained in their own hands. If that all sounds a little greedy, that’s merely human nature.
And Leicester didn’t turn up. Whether it was a hangover (metaphorical or literal) from the cup final, a squad that has run out of gas or simply didn’t play very well, they were weak on Tuesday evening. Chelsea may have won by a one-goal margin, but the pattern of play warranted it at least being doubled and probably tripled. So now it is out of their hands.
This league season will not be for nothing (and of course they still have a chance of the top four). Leicester have made great strides under Brendan Rodgers and are a better club for it, whether they finish third, fourth or fifth. But after the heartache of last season’s collapse, it would be a huge shame if they missed out again.
It would also raise the chances of Rodgers being tempted by another job; moving slightly down the table to find bigger budgets is what brought him to Leicester in the first place after all. The reality is that he could maintain overperformance when injuries and fatigue took their toll and those around them had deeper, better squads.
And whether Rodgers stays or not (and I hope he does), this is really going to smart. There’s a good chance that Leicester end this weekend having been in the top four positions after 68 of their previous 71 league matches and not qualify for the Champions League once.
Tottenham, a broken club
– They’re still searching for a new manager, having seen a new name linked at the rate of almost one per week. The only thing that is abundantly clear is that Ryan Mason isn’t the answer.
– This week brought news that Harry Kane wanted out, something we half-expected when the initial leaks began a month or so ago. And honestly, who can blame him. He’s 27 years old, he’s never won a trophy, his club won’t be in the Champions League next season and he’s one of the three best strikers in the world (at least).
– They were one of a number of clubs to try and form a European Super League breakaway. With most of those clubs, the reaction was one of righteous anger. With Tottenham it was one of mockery. On what basis other than revenue do they belong at the top table?
– With that Super League plan, they burned the final bridges with supporters that Jose Mourinho had carelessly left standing. Those supporters have endured a dismal season with a manager they couldn’t warm to and an owner who put all his eggs into the belief that Mourinho would be successful.
– Wednesday saw the return of supporters to the stadium, but the club charged them £60 a ticket (Burnley, by contrast, let their supporters in free) and put them into the top tier to presumably keep their advertising banner in place.
– They lost 2-1 at home to Aston Villa, with the full-time whistle provoking protests from some supporters who refused to leave their seats and instead made their feelings clear about the running of the club.
Daniel Levy used his programme notes for Wednesday to try and make peace by admitting his mistakes, but it will take far more action than a few hundred words to convince anyone that he is still taking Tottenham in the right direction. Mauricio Pochettino knitted together every element of this club; he believed that only by doing so could they punch above their weight. Now it’s a wasteland of frayed edges and broken promises.
Manchester United’s home record
I’ll start with three caveats because I’m not stupid: 1) Manchester United have been brilliant away from home this season; nobody can doubt that. 2) Other clubs have also struggled at home this season, with the two Merseyside clubs the best examples. The lack of match-going supporters has clearly made a difference. 3) Eight of the points Manchester United have dropped at home came when it didn’t really matter. Their top-four place was confirmed and in one of the games they had a much-changed team. I don’t buy into the fact that United weren’t trying as hard in those games, but it offers an extra part-explanation.
Now that’s all out of the way, Manchester United’s home league record this season has been unacceptable. They have taken 31 points from 19 matches. The only campaign since 1990 during which their home record was worse was 2013/14, when David Moyes was sacked and the team was far weaker than it is now. Even then, Moyes/Giggs’ team took only one less league point at Old Trafford.
They really could have made a serious push for the title this season; it isn’t unreasonable to say so given the resources at Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s disposal. This home form must improve next season without the away record slipping too much. Solskjaer’s position depends upon it.
Marcelo Bielsa and Kiko Casilla
For all the brilliant things Bielsa has done this season, this really sticks in the throat. For those who aren’t aware, Casilla was given an eight-match ban in March 2020 after being found to have used racist language towards Charlton Athletic’s Jonathan Leko. In their written reasons for the ban, the Football Association explained that an independent regulatory commission formed of legal experts had proven on the balance of probability that Casilla had used the words “f**cking n*****” towards Leko. Those words had been heard by both Leko and Macauley Bonne, who both separately reported the incident to the referee. Casilla has never once contacted Leko to apologise, according to Leko himself.
That should have been enough to ensure that Casilla never played for Leeds United again. If sacking him may have been hard (it wasn’t really, but fine), he should have stayed at the club and never once taken the field. Instead, Bielsa has stood by him and this week stated his intention to play him during the final two matches of the season. It doesn’t matter if this is being used as a shop window to move Casilla on; that misses the point.
Leeds supporters have been brilliant on this. The overwhelming majority that I have encountered don’t want Casilla in the team and feel ashamed that the name of their club is being besmirched in such a way. And they should, because this simply isn’t right.