Premier League winners and losers

Date published: Tuesday 19th January 2021 8:30 - Sarah Winterburn


West Brom’s lifeline
At half-time at Molineux, West Brom’s season hung in the balance. They had again been defensively unsound, conceding goals at a rate of one every 31 minutes during Sam Allardyce’s short tenure to date and were behind again. Had they lost 3-1 or 4-1, which hardly seemed unlikely, questions would have followed about Allardyce’s meagre positive effect.

But back the Baggies boinged. West Brom were fortunate that Wolves’ own incompetence gave them two penalties, but they gained their rewards from pushing forwards in search of goals and then defending stoutly having regained their lead. They also scored three set-piece goals, sweet music to Allardyce’s ears.

That must be West Brom’s blueprint, however much it jars against our expectation of an Allardyce team. If they aren’t good enough to sacrifice possession and territory – let’s assume the Anfield draw was the exception to the rule – and repel opposition attacks then West Brom’s best hope of survival is surprising opponents with attacking endeavour. Otherwise sitting back becomes a doomed strategy.

The doubts about West Brom’s survival hopes have clearly not evaporated after one away win. They remain five points from safety having played a game more than the teams above them and face West Ham, Manchester City, Tottenham and Manchester United in their next six league fixtures.

But for now at least, West Brom and Allardyce have oxygen again. They must fill their lungs and use Saturday as fuel for what comes next. For the time since January 2014, they have scored three times in an away Premier League game. It’s the first time that an Allardyce team has done so since Sunderland’s 3-0 win at Norwich in April 2016.


Manchester City, sharing out the goals
In 2017/18 and 2018/19, there were far too many Manchester City matches that lacked all sense of tension and competition. Pep Guardiola’s side were in such rude health that opponents were psychologically beaten before they arrived at the ground, going through the motions and conserving their energy for games in which they had a better chance of success. On Sunday evening, for the first time since 2019, that mood resurfaced.

That’s worrying for the rest of the league, because no other team possesses that aura right now. City have been aided by a comparatively gentle run of fixtures in the league, but have now won eight straight matches and conceded three times in their last 15. And they have beaten Manchester United and Chelsea during that streak. Their next five opponents are Aston Villa, Cheltenham Town, West Brom, Sheffield United and Burnley. By the time the tougher games follow in February and May, City may well have a lead at the top.

Interestingly, City are also sharing out their goals (if not their assists) like never before. In 2017/18 and 2018/19, Sergio Aguero scored 21 league goals in both seasons and Raheem Sterling scored 18 and 17 respectively. This season, 11 Manchester City players have scored in the league but nobody has more than five. Ilkay Gundogan, with four goals in his last six, is their joint-second highest goalscorer.

Combine that with their ultra-effective defensive record, and this is a new version of Manchester City. Having lost Leroy Sane, David Silva and the perma-absent Aguero, City’s attacking personnel has shifted. By pairing John Stones with Ruben Dias, their defence has changed too. We wondered in autumn whether Guardiola retained the fight to create a second great team at City; maybe he already has.


Tanguy Ndombele
It hasn’t always been easy for Ndombele at Tottenham. Watching him purr over the last few weeks, dictating the tempo of Tottenham’s play in their most creative moments, you’d struggle to believe that he was ever a fringe player. But Ndombele started only 12 league games last season and only five of those came after Jose Mourinho’s appointment.

Ndombele’s confidence must have taken a hit during those fallow months, but now they serve to put this verve into full focus. There will still be some that see a black midfielder and subconsciously place Ndombele in the ‘pace and power’ bracket, but his protection of the ball is his best asset and the vision of his passing isn’t far behind. There was a pass in the first half on Sunday, played with the outside of his boot to send Serge Aurier clear down the right wing, that very few players in the league could pull off with such insouciance.

Yet that obviously wasn’t the stand-out moment. It’s one thing anticipating the potential for a chipped finish, flicking your eyes towards goal to see the position of the goalkeeper, but another thing entirely to pull it off when heading away from goal. This was something out of a video game, a couple of taps of a button belying the real-life difficulty of the action. This is a midfielder who has scored six top-flight goals in his career before Sunday.

Watching Ndombele is rollicking fun. He is the player who you tell a young child to watch to when taking them to the match for the first time, precisely the type of footballer who makes people fall in love with the game they play. Clubs only have one of those players every few years; perhaps Tottenham’s own lineage reads Berbatov, Bale, Ndombele.

But more important for Tottenham supporters is that Ndombele combines the fun with productivity, for that is the only way you stay in a Mourinho-managed team. The manner in which Ndombele chops the ball to the side and skips away from an opponent might look sensational, but it also aids the way Tottenham attack with Kane and Son making runs into space for the counter. A very different type of midfielder to Christian Eriksen, of that there is no doubt, but equally as vital when he’s in this form.


Brighton, finally getting it done
Watching Brighton this season has been a deeply infuriating experience, so goodness knows how their supporters must feel. There’s so much promise, but the bright lights of potential have been overshadowed by the consistent incompetence at both ends of the pitch that serves to undermine it. The two things seem tied to one another; the more Brighton convince you that they have turned a corner, along comes a damning piece of evidence to the contrary.

And it was getting worse. The early-season dominance of Manchester United and Chelsea – neither performance returned a win, naturally – had given way to sluggishness. A team and its manager can be forgiven for falling just short against those with title ambitions, but Brighton had gone nine league games without a win and won one in 16. They failed to score against Fulham and Burnley, failed to beat ten-man Sheffield United and conceded game-changing, sloppy goals against Southampton, Leicester City and West Ham.

Saturday was crucial, not only because Brighton actually won but because their goal resulted from a sumptuous attacking move and was followed by a display of defensive resilience that, finally, was not punctured by a lapse in concentration, marking or positioning.

Brighton’s home form remains abject under Potter – he must address that. Since his appointment in May 2019 they have won five home league games, one more than a Norwich City side who won their last one almost 12 months ago.

But Brighton’s away form could well see them safe. In the year since losing 3-1 at Bournemouth, Potter’s side have only lost to Everton, Tottenham, Manchester City and Leicester City on the road. That gives credence to the theory that there is something in his management that is worth keeping faith in. Afternoons like Saturday certainly help.


West Ham’s defence
“When was the last time a David Moyes team kept four clean sheets in a row?” I hear you ask across a crowded virtual bar.

“Good question,” I respond. “It was in September 2009. And I’m not saying that was a long time ago but Gordon Brown was Prime Minister, the iPad didn’t exist and Peter Andre was in the top five of the UK album charts.”

“Weirdly specific knowledge,” you say, but I can tell by the glint in your eye that you will pass off these facts as your own later in the night. It’s not a trick is it, knowledge… education?


Leicester City, still hanging around
Still bubbling away on the quiet, just as Brendan Rodgers will like it. In their last eight matches, only the two Manchester clubs have taken more points than Leicester. They’ve lost five league games, suffered a dip that raised questions of how they look to service Jamie Vardy against a deep-lying defence, and they’re sat snugly in the top four.



Wolves, stuck in a rut
In early August, Wolves were preparing for a Europa League quarter-final against Sevilla and celebrating finishing seventh in the Premier League for the second successive season. They had a wonderful collection of young wide forwards who played a supporting role to Raul Jimenez. They has proven themselves resilient against the best teams in the country and captain Conor Coady was on the verge of being picked for England.

Now they look a little lost. Wolves have already suffered nine league defeats, the same number as in the whole of last season. Should results go against them, they will sit closer to the bottom three than seventh.

It’s tempting to view this purely through the prism of Jimenez and his horrible head injury. Wolves have won one league game since and suffered from the lack of focal point in attack. Fabio Silva scored against West Brom, but the absence of a centre-forward to hold up the ball forces Wolves to push players further up the pitch to create chances and leaves them more exposed to the counter attack.

But that doesn’t quite fly, not least because Nuno has had several weeks to create an alternative attacking plan. Wolves succeeded last season through their wonderful second-half record but sit 14th by the same measure this season having played more games than almost every team below them. That suggests fatigue may be an issue after a gruelling 2019/20 that ended 34 days before this season began. The drop in ability from Wolves’ first-team to the fringe players, and the lack of depth in general, has been exposed.

Now Nuno must plot a route out of trouble. Wolves have to start making things easier for themselves. They earned great plaudits for their resilience in rebounding after falling behind, but that can never last forever. Concede first in your last nine games, as Wolves have, and you place a natural ceiling on your ambitions that sits several inches from the floor.

More generally, Wolves’ struggles offers insight into life for a non-financially elite Premier League club. When you are left uninsured by vast spending power, every year is season zero. There is no accumulated position of strength that overlaps campaigns. You really can fall from being the best of the rest to crossing your fingers that Fulham, West Brom and Burnley lose just to be on the safe side.


Roberto Firmino
You can see why Firmino continues to start. But with Divock Origi the next cab off the rank and Fabinho playing brilliantly in central defence, there’s a case to be made that Diogo Jota’s injury has hurt Liverpool more than any of those suffered by their frontline defenders.

What’s undeniable is that Firmino* is badly out of form. Finishing was never his strongest suit, but the Brazilian has scored six goals from his last 69 shots in the Premier League. His conversion rate over that period is a fraction lower than Lys Mousset, Aaron Connolly and Jordan Ayew’s.

For so long, Firmino’s creativity was the antidote to his finishing; no longer. In his last 13 matches he has created 10 chances. He ranks joint-68th in the Premier League over that period, creating as many chances as Ayoze Perez at Leicester. Perez has played 272 minutes, Firmino 1,074.

Jurgen Klopp has never been shy to extol the virtues of Firmino as the selfless centre forward, but his insistence that Firmino excels at the things we cannot see would fall on deaf ears if it were repeated now. Jota cannot come back soon enough, before this attempt to retain the title slips further from view.

Read 16 Conclusions as we took the time to write them.


Leeds United
How Leeds United behaved in hanging Karen Carney out to dry may have instilled a greater sense of unity in a fanbase that hardly needed the motivation, but it also invited further scrutiny of Leeds’ subsequent performances and results. They may consider that unfair but, sorry, that’s your lot; you die by the sword you live by.

Since then, Leeds have lost three straight matches without scoring a goal. Their defensive instability continues to haunt Marcelo Bielsa and their creation of clear-cut chances has dropped off too. And what about the energy, given that it became so topical? Leeds made just 13 tackles against Brighton on Saturday, their joint-lowest total of the season. They were missing Kalvin Phillips, but other than that this was virtually their first-choice set of outfield players.

Now Leeds need to put it right against Newcastle a week on Tuesday after the cup exit to Crawley earned them a rest next weekend. Lose that and questions will be asked. And they should be, too.


Burnley’s bluntness
Burnley’s 48 shots on target this season is the lowest total in the Premier League. Their 21 in nine away matches is the lowest total in the Premier League.

Low chance creation hasn’t always been a problem for Sean Dyche. He has flourished at Turf Moor by sacrificing some attacking intent in favour of keeping things solid. To some extent that remains true: Burnley have conceded fewer league goals than Manchester United this season.

But Burnley have become so painfully blunt that they have left themselves incapable of being solid enough defensively to make a difference. Scoring fewer goals than Patrick Bamford is not the way for a team to keep their heads above water.

Burnley’s failure to score this weekend took them on course to make history. At their current rate they will score 20 goals this season. No team has ever scored fewer in a top-flight season in English football history.


Manchester United’s lack of attacking ambition against the Big Six
We can only really judge whether this was one point gained (avoiding defeat at Anfield) or two dropped (failing to put pressure on a makeshift centre-back pairing with their own first-choice team) by what follows next. Manchester United certainly cannot be criticised too strongly. They had the best chances in the final 20 minutes. Had Bruno lifted his shot from Luke Shaw’s pull-back or Pogba aimed his wide of Alisson, we would be talking about potential title favourites.

But you do wonder whether Ole Gunnar Solskjaer needs to demonstrate a little more intent in United’s Big Six fixtures. They have now drawn four and lost four of their last eight in all competitions and it’s fair to argue that he has been spooked a little by the 6-1 home defeat to Tottenham. Since then, United have played Arsenal, Chelsea, Manchester City and Liverpool and failed to score a single goal. Perhaps Solskjaer merely believes that United can win the title through ruthlessness against the rest.


Donny Van de Beek
He’s played 251 minutes in the league this season and doesn’t even get on when Bruno Fernandes looks 99% goosed. It’s all a bit weird, really.


Daniel Storey

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