Manchester City are different but back. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is owed an apology. But Chelsea really need to consider ripping up their project.
Harry Kane and Son Heung-min
This is a partnership like nothing the Premier League has seen in recent seasons. It’s not just that Kane and Son have scored 76 per cent of Tottenham’s league goals and roughly shared them out between them. They have contributed 66 per cent of Spurs’ league assists, created 42 per cent of their chances and had 53 per cent of their shots on target.
There is a flipside to the obvious praise that provokes. Kane and Son are working so well together as a partnership that it creates doubts about Tottenham’s ability to create and score when even one of them is absent. They have both started every Premier League game this season, but that is unlikely to sustain.
Tottenham’s other forwards have struggled to contribute; again that’s probably partly because Kane and Son have been so dominant. In 1,317 combined league minutes, Gareth Bale, Steven Bergwijn, Lucas Moura and Carlos Vinicius have had eight shots on target at a rate of close to one every two completed matches. Perhaps one or some of them might step up in case of any absence, but given how Kane and Son complement each other it takes a dose of optimism to be confident of that fact.
Still, let’s focus on the positives for no pair of forwards in the country are doing what Kane and Son do so brilliantly. After damaging draws, this run of fixtures always provided the opportunity for Tottenham to hit their straps again and put them back in top-four contention. With Kane and Son combining again against a makeshift defence (more on that later), they are a cheat code for Jose Mourinho.
That old Manchester City spark
Over the last few weeks, Manchester City have been something of a paradox. They have earned some of their most consistent results over the last 18 months, yet achieved them with an entirely different style to the one we have come to expect. Given how much influence Pep Guardiola has over City’s style, that was a little worrying. If they’re not playing like a Guardiola team – went the theory – what’s the point in them being a Guardiola-managed team?
On Sunday we saw a glimpse of old Manchester City and our hearts skipped a beat; they really could have scored six or seven times. They took advantage of a high Chelsea defensive line that was exacerbated by the lack of pressing from their three forwards and caused the midfield to be swamped. Phil Foden, Kevin de Bruyne and Raheem Sterling drove directly at goal when appropriate, interchanged quick passes when appropriate and made runs inside and around the full-backs when appropriate. Foden even got to the byline on the left wing and pulled the ball back into the box on several occasions. Nobody at City has done that as effectively since Leroy Sane left.
Perhaps this was all a deliberate ploy; Guardiola may have reasoned that you can’t win the title defending as badly as City were and so instructed them to go back to basics to iron out those deficiencies. Perhaps Sunday was a temporary episode. City will still play more functional football but simply saw the opportunity to expose Chelsea’s obvious flaws. Or perhaps this merely reflects the shifting nature of confidence. When your mind is beset by doubts you will err towards risk-averse functionality, particularly if that produces results. But it only takes one passing move, one rapid attack, one sumptuous goal and it all comes flooding back.
If that last theory holds true, the rest of the Premier League should worry. I’m not sure if Manchester City ever left the title race or simply were never part of it until a fortnight ago, but between now and their trip to Anfield on February 6 they play Brighton, Crystal Palace, Aston Villa, West Brom, Sheffield United and Burnley and four of those fixtures are at the Etihad. They mean business again.
Now go and read 16 Conclusions before meeting back here.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer
I’ve hardly been shy with my opinion that Solskjaer is not the right manager for Manchester United. I strongly believe that he is at the best club for him, but think that a club with their wealth and stature should have the best manager. And Solskjaer isn’t that.
There are two caveats to that. The first is that, obviously, I might be wrong; it’s happened many times before and will happen many times again. Football would be infinitely more dull if everything that we expected to happen happened and everyone we expected to struggle struggled.
Secondly, and far more importantly, you cannot cast much doubt on Manchester United’s current run of form. The run of Old Trafford disappointments that spanned the end of last season and the beginning of this pushed Solskjaer close to the point of no return: they failed to beat Southampton, Crystal Palace, West Ham, Tottenham, Arsenal and Chelsea in succession and lost three of those games. Since then, they have improved markedly, winning four of their last five home league games and continuing their imperious away form.
Whether that’s down to the manager or simply the result of an excellent group of players making it work is open to interpretation, but that’s slightly beside the point. We can’t criticise Solskjaer when Manchester United lose and then fail to give him any praise when they put together a fine run of results. Doing that would only undermine the validity of the original opinion.
This squad is deep; that must not be in doubt. It contains flaws, but then so does every squad during this weird, relentless season. But United have options in multiple positions (particularly attack) like almost no other team in the country and in Bruno Fernandes they signed a game-changing, mood-shifting, potentially season-defining attacking midfielder. He has linked together the disparate strands of United’s often haphazard attack and weaved them into something wholly effective.
Maybe it won’t last. As mentioned, United have ironed out some of their nagging issues but they have still to play Liverpool, Manchester City, Chelsea, Tottenham and Arsenal away from home and failed to win any of the four matches they played against the same opponents at Old Trafford. Solskjaer earned this job through his record against the toughest opponents. That ability has tailed off a little since.
But maybe it will last. Throughout the bleakest times of Solskjaer’s permanent reign, one thing held true: the players never gave up. There was rarely any evidence that Manchester United’s manager had lost the dressing room. Tottenham aside, the problem was never that United were shambolic but that they lacked the spark that a squad with this depth and quality should possess.
That spark is back. And fair play to Solskajer for finding it. Because, even given the quality of the squad, I’m happy to concede that I didn’t think we would see United in a title race this season.
Mikel Arteta didn’t really have much choice but to pick the kids against Chelsea. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang was unfit and he was without other senior players. But he had a choice since and, as we hoped, Arteta has kept faith in those who impressed against Chelsea and have continued to shine since. The bench against West Brom on Saturday contained David Luiz (left out for Rob Holding and Pablo Mari), Mohamed Elneny (left out in favour of a more creative, front-foot player in Dani Ceballos), Willian (for Emile Smith Rowe) and Nicolas Pepe (for Bukayo Saka).
Only through this meritocracy can Arteta hope to establish the competition for places that is his only hope of sustainable improvement. Suddenly Alexandre Lacazette is scoring goals, knowing that Gabriel Martinelli might take his place. Suddenly Ainsley Maitland-Niles and Joe Willock are pushing to be part of the new mood. Suddenly Gabriel Magalhaes isn’t guaranteed to walk back into the team. This is the ground from which the green shoots of recovery grow.
And all the while, Arsenal move up the league. From looking nervously down at the bottom three, Arteta’s team are six points off the top three. What a nonsense season. And what a nonsensically brilliant season.
West Ham’s away form
Fair bloody play. West Ham lost seven away league games in a row, something David Moyes worked on during lockdown (that began after six of those defeats). West Ham subsequently improved considerably, winning two and losing two of their next seven away league games. Moyes then used the international break to continue working on it. West Ham have since won three and drawn one of their five away league games, the only defeat coming at Chelsea.
West Ham ranked 16th in an away league table last season. They currently rank sixth and need one more win to match last season’s away points total. That’s proof of good management.
It’s very unusual for a team to lose and be in this list, but watching Aston Villa is exciting. Their games are intriguing, they were unfortunate to lose and even when they do they always bring something to the party.
And that’s worth praising. It stems from the same argument as why Leeds United get plenty of praise from broadcasters and pundits when they lose. They are approaching the argument not from a tribalistic point of view (“Why does their manager get praised and not ours?”) but a neutral one. As neutrals you watch matches for entertainment, and Villa’s games are entertaining. The Premier League’s ‘rest’ is often clogged up with risk-averse teams looking to grind out enough victories – usually achieved at home against bottom-half peers – to survive.
The priorities of club supporters can sometimes be different, but if you can keep your heads above water while producing football that is aesthetically pleasing then good on you; the league’s success depends on others like you.
Tierney hasn’t found life at Arsenal easy, largely because of managerial changes and a spate of niggling injuries. But when you watch him in full flow you become convinced that he’s the left-back Manchester City should have signed over Benjamin Mendy, Chelsea should have signed for less than half the price of Ben Chilwell and ultimately a better option for Manchester United than Luke Shaw.
There are some players you watch in the Championship and believe would struggle in the top flight despite significant interest from Premier League clubs. There are some that you just aren’t sure about. There are a few that take to life surprisingly well, creating something far more – and far different – than the obvious potential you saw develop (as a Nottingham Forest supporter, Michail Antonio is a fine example of this).
Very occasionally, you watch a player who almost from first viewing convinces that they were made for life in the Premier League. And Eberechi Eze is one of those. The boy’s a bloody star.
Chelsea shifting to a ‘project’ model made plenty of sense. They saw clubs around them – most notably Manchester City and Liverpool – flourishing under a manager they believed could create a modern dynasty and wanted some of the same. No manager stays for a decade anymore, but they do still stay for five or six years. Chelsea were tired of paying off managers after 18 months, constantly scouring Europe for their Mr Right Now. They wanted to settle down with something more comfortable.
But there are two obvious issues with that. Firstly, Chelsea had actually been extraordinarily successful with their short-termist model. Impatience may be seen as a scourge of the modern game but it had its advantages and produced results. Over the last 10 years, Chelsea have won two league titles, the Champions League, the Europa League and three domestic cups. Almost every club in England would swap their own haul in that time for Chelsea’s. That created undue pressure on the new era. Chelsea were fixing something that arguably wasn’t broken.
The other issue is that being a ‘project’ club makes getting the manager right absolutely crucial. In the past, Chelsea did not feel that pressure. You appoint Maurizio Sarri or Andre Villas-Boas, it doesn’t work out exactly as you would like so you move them on. Get the ‘project’ manager wrong and it undermines the validity of the strategy as a whole.
And that might well be where Chelsea have fallen down. Liverpool appointing Jurgen Klopp was a gamble and took 18 months to click, but he had demonstrated at Dortmund that he had the tactical acumen and personality to merit faith. Guardiola took a year at Manchester City to create a team in his own image but again the CV offered persuasive evidence that patience was justified.
And Lampard? Did Chelsea watch Derby County in 2018/19 and see something special that they believed could change them in the same way that City and Liverpool have been transformed? Or did they see a club legend taking his first steps in management and believe that the mystical connection between player and club could outweigh the inexperience?
Either way, it isn’t really working. Lampard did a fine job last season but Chelsea certainly benefited from other clubs being in a state of flux. He struggled to find a balance between attack and defence that allowed one to thrive without the other being exposed too much and he still hasn’t established it. And he’s being found out against the best in the Premier League. Chelsea have played six games against the clubs above them this season, taking three points and scoring two goals. City were indeed brilliant on Sunday, but Chelsea made it oh so easy for them.
Lampard is reportedly under significant pressure, and you can see why. Perhaps it would be helpful for him to lose his job now and thus generate the sympathy of those who would believe Chelsea to be guilty of impatience. But we’re almost halfway through a campaign in which Chelsea were reasonably expected to improve on last season’s performance and they’re 11 points behind where they were at the same stage under Sarri in 2018/19. If Liverpool or Manchester United win their games in hand, Chelsea will also be closer to Burnley in 16th (who have two games in hand themselves) than the top. And that’s not good enough.
Sam Allardyce and West Brom’s home form
You know what Allardyce guarantees. He tightens up your defence instantly. He brings organisation where there was disarray. He makes games attritional, particularly at home, frustrating opponents who occasionally fold in on themselves to allow you to earn those precious points that take you away from danger. Even at Crystal Palace, where Allardyce’s job was only satisfactory and he left after five months, his team only conceded more than twice in three of his first 18 league games.
And that’s simply not happened at West Brom; not yet. There were Allardyce fingerprints all over the gutsy draw at Anfield, but even that followed Slaven Bilic achieving an identical score at Manchester City in his last game before leaving. At The Hawthorns, Allardyce’s West Brom have conceded 12 times in 270 minutes. They are further from safety than when he joined and the much-craved defensive organisation has been wholly lacking.
Perhaps this is all a little unfair. I stick by my point that Allardyce took this job because it came up rather than because it was a perfect fit or a presentable opportunity to repeat his ‘Great Escape’ trick, but West Brom do not possess a crop of Premier League players and he hasn’t had much time on the training ground. Was it a coincidence that Allardyce publicly pushed for a fortnight Covid-19 break that would give him a full run at their next fixtures? I’ll let you decide.
But that doesn’t absolve Allardyce of the concerns that now hang heavy around West Brom’s neck. The worst Premier League home defensive record since 2013 is currently owned by Cardiff City, who conceded 38 in 2018/19. West Brom are currently on course to concede 50 at The Hawthorns this season. They look fragile, prone to individual mistakes and communal lapses of concentration that impact even the basics of organised defending.
And there’s a question here about the age of the firefighter. Tony Pulis was recently sacked by Sheffield Wednesday, with reports suggesting that the players did not take to his emphatic pragmatism as Plan A. If West Brom’s players always knew that it would be hard to stay up with this squad, maybe they would rather have a little fun on the way?
Those stupid players
None of us have found this easy (and if you have I salute you). Footballers’ wealth doesn’t make them immune from the frustrations and angst provoked by 10 months under social limitations or lockdown. We ask them to train hard and entertain us without socialising, and that can be hard. That’s particularly true for foreign players who may lack a support network in this country and so form a bond with players of the same nationality at other clubs. It can be lonely place anyway when you’re thousands of miles from home.
But that’s no excuse. We have all been forced to live in limiting conditions, some of us forced to avoid contact with those we love for months. The part of role model is unrealistically foisted upon elite sportspeople, but we’re not asking them to play that role. We’re just asking them to stick by the same rules that have governed our own lives during this grim period.
The unacceptable action is to break those rules; the last week produced various reports of Premier League players doing just that. The stupidity is to post the evidence on social media. It gives ammunition to those who believe that footballers live in their own bubble (if you’ll pardon the pun) in which they believe themselves exempt from the rules that govern the rest of us. The minority really is spoiling it for the majority.
And that potentially extends to the league as a whole, for their actions put the sanctity of the season under threat. The Premier League should have made more wiggle room in a calendar that was always likely to be adversely affected by the Covid-19 crisis and was already shortened by the late start to the season, but players must play their role in ensuring roadblocks remain limited.
I’d like to see the governing bodies given additional powers to penalise the rule-breakers. If players can be banned for their posts on social media – which sit outside the action – then they should also be permitted to impose bans on those who break the rules and threaten to ruin the running of the season. It is not enough for the clubs to manage them internally. That is why we have a governing body in the first place.
Leeds’ makeshift defence
In goal was a 20-year-old still learning on the job, but one who seems to have a clear defect in which he dives backwards rather than directly sideways. That can lead to him presenting to the ball with weak hands or sending it backwards if he spills it.
In the full-back positions were two converted wingers. Both do a job, but lack the defensive awareness and can occasionally be too easily dribbled past. At centre-back was a full-back filling in and the fourth-choice option, who can also play in defensive midfield.
Forgive me for the searing analysis, but against Kane and Son that was just never going to work.
Newcastle, just not Leicester City
In an alternate universe, one where Newcastle United have an owner who is determined that the club fulfils its clear potential, this team is in the same position as Leicester City. Everything is in place or should be: the support is there, the stadium is there, the status is there. That is not to demean Leicester’s own achievements – quite the opposite – but Newcastle could be a Leicester and more.
That they aren’t says everything about the difference between a historically provincial club that has become the greatest version of itself in the last decade and a historically significant club that has become the most pitiful version of itself in the last decade. And nothing epitomises that more than Leicester winning five straight league matches at St James’ Park since 2015 having won five in total there during the previous 87 years.
Wolves’ slipping ambitions
No talk of crisis and no suggestion that Nuno has taken Wolves as far as he can; just where would they be without him?
But Wolves have a lower points total at this stage of the season than in both of their previous two and have taken five points from their last seven games. So far, the lack of Europa League workload hasn’t really had a positive effect. Time to turn to Uncle Jorge and Diego Costa to replace Raul Jimenez?
Why do you always let me down just as I’m beginning to believe that you might be firmly moving in the right direction? It’s like watching 11 versions of myself.
Sorry, but I do have to keep including them.