We will get to Jose Mourinho but first….
Ilkay Gundogan, elite goalscorer
Before this season, Ilkay Gundogan had never scored more than six goals in a league season in his career. He’s matched that total in his last five league starts.
Gundogan’s previous meagre attacking returns were partly down to his position on the pitch, a shuttling No. 8 passer who helped to protect a defence more than he featured in the opposition box. Between the start of the season and December 12, Gundogan had four shots and had five touches of the ball in the penalty area. Since then he’s had 32 shots, the most of any Manchester City player, and had 46 touches in the opposition box.
But even accounting for the change of role, this run is astonishing. Of all regular starters in the Premier League this season, only Mohamed Salah can beat Gundogan’s record of a goal every 125 minutes played. The way he took down the ball and left Davinson Sanchez slipping into thin air should provoke letters of apology to the Colombian’s close family.
This is Pep Guardiola’s perfect image, to make a team so comfortable in possession that midfielders can play multiple roles and take on the responsibility in each one to make the team non-reliant on star individuals. City were without their best defender this season (Ruben Dias), their best creator (Kevin de Bruyne) and their best finisher (Sergio Aguero) on Saturday and they didn’t miss a beat.
The most consecutive wins in Premier League history is 18, set jointly by Manchester City in 2017 and Liverpool last season. This City run only stands at 11 in the league, but we must place it into context. City have now won 17 straight matches in all competitions, they have also been without two key attacking players for part of it and they have dominated matches to an embarrassing degree. Liverpool’s penalty and Callum Hudson-Odoi’s late consolation are the only goals City have conceded in that 11-game run. The only team to hold a lead against them in their last 23 matches in all competitions were Cheltenham Town.
The title isn’t done yet, at least not to the extent that odds of 1/50 might have you believe. City face Everton and Arsenal away and Manchester United at home in their next four league games. Draw one of those and lose the last and the gap could be down to five points with 11 games left; easily surmountable with Champions League commitments to factor in.
But that doesn’t change our gut instinct that City will win the league with some ease nor our assessment of this stupendous run of form. After the loss to Tottenham in November, City were 13th in the Premier League and six points off a top-four place. They’re now five clear at the top with a game in hand and have won their last five matches in all competitions against Big Six teams by an aggregate scoreline of 16-3.
Leicester coping with their own adversity
Much is rightly made of Liverpool’s injury problems (and more on that later), but they aren’t the only club forced into rearrangement by multiple absentees. Of Leicester’s 24 league matches this season, Wesley Fofana has missed eight, Wilfred Ndidi 12, Ricardo Pereira 19 and James Justin is now out for the season. Jamie Vardy and James Maddison have only been fit enough to start 17 league games apiece.
Leicester do not have the resources of those around them, and that shows in their selections this season. In an ideal world, Nampalys Mendy, Kelechi Iheanacho, Luke Thomas and Daniel Amartey would not have started a combined 22 league games by mid-February and Brendan Rodgers would certainly want a back-up striker that was able to better replicate Vardy’s style.
But Leicester are coping and, still, flourishing. Every time they hit a roadblock, like the 3-1 home defeat to Leeds United, 2-1 home defeat to Fulham, 1-0 home defeat to Aston Villa or 2-0 home defeat to Everton, they respond with at least two positive results. Only Manchester United have picked up more points away from home in the Premier League this season.
Leicester’s position is in part down to the flaws of their peers. They have collected two fewer points than at this stage last season, when they were 24 points off the top. But they are also safely ensconced in the top four and have the experience of last season’s slump to fuel atonement for it this season. And good on them for it.
Fulham are one of those teams who always seem to play really well for at least half of every game and yet get punished for their slackness over the rest of the match. They produce attractive football through midfield but, like Brighton, have paid for the lack of a reliable finisher. Unlike Brighton, they are not usually defensively solid.
But Fulham might now finally have kicked the door hard enough for a small crack of golden light to appear. They outplayed a comically limp Everton at Goodison on Sunday night. Just as important is Callum Wilson missing the next six weeks. No player has scored a higher percentage of their team’s Premier League goals than Newcastle United’s No. 13.
Fulham play Burnley, Sheffield United and Crystal Palace in their next three league games. The flipside to that positive spin is the five matches against Big Six teams that follow in their final 11 league matches of the season, but Fulham host Newcastle United on the final day. They – and neutrals desperate for some tension to end a season that appears as if it may lack it in April and May – would take being two points from safety going into that.
Burnley, scoring goals again
On January 17, this column pointed out that Burnley were on course to score 20 league goals this season, which would be the joint-lowest in a top-flight season in English football history. So it’s only fair to point out that, since then, Burnley have scored three times against Aston Villa, three times against Fulham in the FA Cup and three times against Crystal Palace. That’s as many times as they had scored three or more goals in their previous 49 matches.
The good news is that Burnley haven’t even got the worst attack in the league anymore. The better news is that Saturday’s oh so comfortable away win means that they have surely secured yet another season of Premier League football. Never take for granted how impressive that is.
When Aubameyang dips inside a full-back and slots his shot into the corner with the minimum of fuss or slips away from a marker at the back post to guarantee himself an open goal, my reaction is double-edged. In one way I’m relieved, happy to see a genuinely elite goalscorer happy again. But Aubameyang makes it look so bloody simple (genuine shades of Thierry Henry when cutting in from the left) that I’m left disappointed he hasn’t done it every week.
Aubameyang’s record at Arsenal is excellent, 62 goals in a shade over 100 appearances. But when he glides past defenders with and without the ball as he did against Leeds on Sunday, I’m watching a striker who should be scoring 25 league goals a season and he’s only managed that once in his career. Now go on a little run and make me (and Mikel Arteta) feel much better. Arsenal are only six points behind Liverpool after all.
Pedro Neto and Bukayo Saka
List of players aged 20 or under with eight or more Premier League goals and assists this season:
Pedro Neto – 9
Phil Foden – 8
Bukayo Saka – 8
Good company to be keeping, fellas. It’s lovely to see teams being propelled on by their youngest players.
Aston Villa signed one of the best goalkeepers in the Premier League, just as he was entering his peak years, for a fee of £20m. A brilliant piece of business.
A circuitous route to his first Premier League goal, via the Championship and League One with Sunderland and occasional Ligue 1 starts with Bordeaux. His arrival hardly suggested that Fulham had found the regular goalscorer they needed, but it’s a helluva start.
Jose Mourinho’s familiar dance
There are five rough stages of Mourinho’s management. Each one is skipped through quickly or extended depending on the success of the job. Sometimes the second stage lasts two years, sometimes far less:
1) Mourinho is appointed. He embarks upon a charm offensive in which he praises the squad, implies that he doesn’t need many new players to make them champions and reinforces the club’s statement that he is the right man – perhaps even the best man – to achieve success. If he has had recent unsuccessful experience, he may suggest that he is a changed man.
2) Mourinho is successful. Here, all is well. Mourinho is chipper and smiley and gripes are kept to a minimum. His general air is of a successful local butcher, meeting customers with a wave and reminding them that he has the best produce in the business. The intimation (and it’s often fully justified) is that Mourinho has made the players realise that they were good enough to win titles and in doing so mande them as champion players.
3) Mourinho suffers a dip. He begins to blame individuals for their mistakes and, if the style isn’t pleasing, insists that he has told the team to play differently but that they are not listening. In this stage, Mourinho is spiky in press conferences and may make reference to other clubs as a means of managing expectations. He needs new players in key positions to complement the few champion players that he possesses.
4) Mourinho’s football falls in on itself. Mourinho’s sides become laboured in attack and are punished for their mistakes. He views this as deeply unfair, as if other managers are not forced to suffer such rotten luck or incompetence. Mourinho also changes tact: Rather than the players being good enough, they are now fully at fault and must own their mediocrity. This is where the initial insistence of their strength is key, because it presents the argument that they have previously proven themselves good enough and so are falling short of their own standards. The comparisons with other clubs increase; they have more money so what more can he do?
5) Mourinho enters self-protection mode. Everything and anyone that questions his own role in the slump is deemed guilty of failing to spot the real problems. Mourinho repeats his previous successes as proof that he is the champion and the players have not matched his standards. Individual mistakes, of which there are many, are treated with a reaction as if to say “You see what I’m having to deal with?”. The siege mentality established in stage two becomes a siege of one person: Mourinho vs the world.
On the surface, some of Mourinho’s defence stands up. Tottenham are making individual errors. Senior players are under-performing. But there are two things to explore here. The first is that mistakes at the highest level happen not because of a lack of talent but through a lack of confidence. And it’s reasonable to question whether that lack of confidence stems from players (either those who have made mistakes or their teammates) being harangued in public by their manager.
But it’s also about how Tottenham’s system that Mourinho has implemented (and if he says he’s asking them to play differently then it’s down to him to motivate them or communicate his concerns more successfully). They sit back so much and so often that individual mistakes stick out more because they are rarely atoned by attacking brilliance (see Ruben Dias’ mistake against Liverpool last weekend). If Tottenham attacked more effectively, the defensive issues would resonate far less.
And why are those mistakes happening so frequently? Might it not be because you’re more likely to get caught in possession if nobody has moved into space to receive the pass? And more likely to clear it long and cede possession rather than try and retain it because either way it just keeps coming back?
Tottenham have a pair of wonderful attacking artists who are being used to whitewash grey walls. Against Chelsea and Manchester City, just two recent examples, they have set up with a counter-attacking plan but barely bothered to counter. The only real chance on Saturday came from a free-kick.
There have been 233 matches in the Premier League this season, and so 466 ‘opportunities’ for a team to touch the ball in the opposition box. Of those 466 opportunities, only 12 times (2.6%) has a team had six touches in the box or fewer in a game. Here’s nine of those 12: Crystal Palace, Newcastle, Wolves, West Brom (twice), Southampton (twice), Fulham (twice). Tottenham account for the other three, more than any other club. No other club in the top half even features.
For a Big Six team with their attacking options (and general level of player), that’s simply not good enough. It has worked very well on occasion (Tottenham touched the ball in Southampton’s box eight times in a 5-2 win in September), but when it doesn’t it invites criticism partly because it’s not particularly good to watch and because it raises the question of whether Tottenham might be able to do a little more.
That’s exactly where Tottenham are now. Occasionally in his management he has been able to loop his typical career arc, adding in a bonus Stage 2) part way through we all believe he’s entered Stage 4). But not often. Even the Tottenham supporters who were happy to welcome a results-only manager were likely to lose patience when the results tailed off, because without them what evidence do you have that this way is the best way?
Liverpool’s defensive uncertainty
Everything starts with the defenders being injured. How could it not? On October 17, Liverpool’s best centre-back was injured for the rest of the season. On November 11, Liverpool’s second best central defender was injured for the rest of the season. Joel Matip, Liverpool’s third best central defender, has appeared in 10 of their 24 league games and is now injured for the rest of the season.
In their place, Liverpool have used 13 different central defensive combinations and none come close – nor could ever hope to come close – to replicating the composure and solidity that Virgil van Dijk and Joe Gomez usually provide in combination. That rotating cast has clearly damaged the confidence of Trent Alexander-Arnold and perhaps Alisson too. Leicester City’s second goal came down to miscommunication between two teammates that barely know each other.
And then see what the changes have done to Liverpool’s midfield. I don’t really blame Thiago (although he was awful against Leicester after coming on). It would have been far more preferable to parachute him into midfield alongside Fabinho and Jordan Henderson, sitting slightly higher up the pitch to play quick passes into the feet of the forwards. With Henderson and/or Fabinho in defence, half of Liverpool’s team and most of their engine has been changed by three injuries.
And then and then and then. Liverpool lost a few matches, confidence dipped and suddenly nobody could quite remember what made them so great and those that can remember are struggling to do it alone. Now every match feels like a restart, another attempt to begin from the start line. Last season they held significant psychological advantages over almost every opponent they faced. Now, quite the opposite.
That can all return next season in a warm wave of healthy defenders and a team that feels like home. But a) it isn’t quite that simple, and b) it doesn’t much help Liverpool now as they face a battle even to qualify for the Champions League next season. Leipzig and Everton to come in two monumental matches for Liverpool’s self-assurance.
Manchester United, backing up their manager’s claim
Nine days ago, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer rejected claims that Manchester United were in the title race. “We’re not talking about winning titles,” he told Sky Sports. “We’ve come a long way, this team. We shouldn’t even be considered as title-chasers.”
Perhaps that was merely an attempt at pressure deflection and mind games, albeit from a manager who does not have a long history of using them. Whatever, Solskjaer’s words have proved prescient to the point of self-fulfilment. They have now dropped nine points in their last four league matches.
This week Solskjaer spoke again about his happiness at having a few days on the training ground in a packed schedule. “We’ve had a rare opportunity to do a little bit of training and some recovery, because you’ve got Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday and not a game until Sunday, so that’s been a rarity for us really.” It gave United the chance to prepare properly for West Brom.
But where was the evidence for that? You beat West Brom by passing and moving quickly, pulling opposition players out of position against a deep-lying defence and you defend against them by being strong on crosses, defenders attacking the ball and the goalkeeper starting from a position some way off his line to come and claim them. Recent history suggests that you don’t actually have to implement the first part of that plan for long to score. West Brom had conceded 22 goals in their previous six home games.
On Sunday, United did neither of those things well. They were painfully slow in the final third for the first hour, relying upon Harry Maguire’s runs from deep to create an overlap (that did, in fairness, play a role in the equaliser). At the back, Victor Lindelof was flat-footed for the opening goal and David de Gea was stuck near his line when the cross was delivered.
After the game, Maguire said in his post-match press conference that “You’re not going to come here and create 10 chances against West Brom”, but that’s just not true. As journalist James Benge pointed out on Twitter, every team between November 8 and February 2 created 10 or more chances in Premier League games against West Brom. United dominated possession but West Brom were clearly dominant in expected goals.
Let me repeat what I said last week: ‘This wasn’t a disaster. But when you’ve not scored in open play against a Big Six team in 11 months, it only serves to increase the pressure on – and scrutiny of – your results against the other 14 clubs in the league.’ Except this time, in the context of the title race and West Brom’s home record, it was far closer to disaster.
There are more words on Palace here, but Hodgson is out of contract in the summer and there is little sign that it will be renewed. So why not give a new manager the chance to come in now, run the rule over a squad in a relatively pressure-free environment and make tough decisions over the various players whose contracts also run out this summer?
On expected goals (a rough measure of the quality of chances a team creates), Brighton rank eighth in the Premier League. They rank joint 14th for goals and the difference between the two makes Brighton comfortably the least efficient attack in the division. Or to put it in a different context, if Brighton had a clinical finisher they would be troubling the top six.
The new holder of the ‘most frustrating club in the Premier League’ title. West Ham looked after it well, but Everton’s new brand of half-paced football and haphazard defending just when I think they can push on for a top-six finish has ground me down.
Without wanting to sound pompous and self-important (Me? Never), in five years I can’t remember ever putting anyone outside the two headings. But it really didn’t feel appropriate to label Klopp as a ‘loser’, even if that term is only a broad cover-all term for what follows.
Klopp recently lost his mother. Not only could he not go and see her, he wasn’t even permitted to go to Germany to attend her funeral due to travel restrictions. Grief is a horrible process, but one potential step to recovery is through closure. Attending a funeral can – and only can – help with closure. Klopp is not alone and this is not a grief contest; we are all suffering in myriad ways during this pandemic.
But unlike me or others around me, Klopp is forced to try and cope while performing in a high-pressure, high-profile job in the epicentre of an eternal media storm and managing a team that is beset by issues, many of which are outside his control. If that means Klopp has reacted snappily on occasions, so be it. He will probably look back on those interviews and feel a little regret.
This is a handy reminder that sportspeople and celebrities are not immune to the rigours of everyday life and the tragedies and pitfalls that pockmark it. Money can help you be happy, of course, but that again isn’t an airtight safety blanket.
Rumours are now swirling about Klopp taking a break, either from his job or from media duties. I’m uncomfortable commenting on them and I don’t think they are particularly helpful to Klopp, Liverpool or the game in general. Whatever Klopp wants to do, he must do. If that makes it harder for Liverpool or for broadcasters desperate to interview him, so be it. Some things are far bigger than football.