We’ll get to Manchester United but first…
Ilkay Gundogan and a purring Manchester City
Much has rightly been written about Manchester City’s improved defence. Over their last 1,015 Premier League minutes, only one opposition player has scored against them – Callum Hudson-Odoi’s last-minute consolation goal for Chelsea at Stamford Bridge. That defensive record has clearly provided the foundation for everything else.
But it has also allowed for a change in City’s attacking vision. The loss of Sergio Aguero to injury for most of the season and the patchy form of Gabriel Jesus has persuaded Pep Guardiola that he can use a whirring, interchanging band of attacking midfielders to bamboozle opponents and create chances. Of City’s 36 league goals this season, only eight (Raheem Sterling six, Jesus two) have been scored by out-and-out attackers. Riyad Mahrez, Phil Foden and Ilkay Gundogan have 16 between them.
It is in Gundogan that we have seen the biggest change, already enjoying the most prolific goalscoring league season of his career. That has been facilitated by a change of position, used as a No. 8 with attacking licence rather than a No. 6 alongside Rodri. Before this season, the most shots Gundogan had taken in a Premier League season was 43. In just 14 games this season he has taken 28. He is arriving late into the box, often shooting with his first touch.
This plays into one of the principles of Guardiola’s management, a reliance on the Totaalvoetbal principles that Rinus Michels most famously utilised. Every player is expected to have the ability to play multiple positions and be confident in all areas of the pitch.
And just look at the evidence, for no team in England has the same variety: Sterling, Mahrez, Ferran Torres and Bernardo Silva have all started league matches this season on the right, left and as a false nine; Phil Foden has started right and left and in central midfield; Kevin de Bruyne has played in central midfield and as a false nine; Gundogan has seen his own midfield role altered; Joao Cancelo has become a playmaking right-back, so much licence does he have to get forward.
This isn’t just about being able to start games in multiple positions. It’s having the ability to switch several times within the context of the same game and even occasionally the same move. It develops an understanding that allows players to automatically drift into the pockets of space that their teammates have created with their movement. And it’s far too good for teams like West Brom to stop.
It’s also far easier said than done and its success reflects a team in peak confidence. That’s obviously been ended by a gentle run of fixtures that ends at Anfield on February 7, but City should have no fear about their approach in those intra-Big Six matches. Guardiola has found his groove again. And Wednesday night’s result ensured that they have a little breathing room.
Sheffield United and Phil Jagielka
A magnificent team effort, and the wringing of hands over Manchester United’s performance at both ends of the pitch should not overshadow it. Chris Wilder must have come close to losing his job this season, but he can reasonably protest that his players have never given up the fight. Surviving relegation will be a mighty difficult task, but produce this level of resolve and guts every week and it is not an impossible one.
Remember the players that were missing from Wilder’s team on Wednesday: Oli McBurnie, Ben Osborn, Jack Robinson, Jack O’Connell, Enda Stevens, Sander Berge. They could not even fill the bench at Old Trafford, but delivered the second most astonishing result of the season after Burnley’s win at Anfield.
Although this was an emphatic victory for the power of the team over individuals (and Chris Basham, Oliver Norwood and John Fleck were all brilliant too), can we take a moment to recognise the defensive performance by Phil Jagielka? At 38, he was the oldest outfield player to face Manchester United since Richard Gough for Everton in 2001 and the oldest to make a Premier League start this season by over 18 months. Jagielka is the canary down the mine for all our own evaporating youth.
Jagielka didn’t just play; he played magnificently. He will be disappointed to have let Harry Maguire free on the corner, but he marshalled Sheffield United’s back line and held both Anthony Martial and Edinson Cavani at arm’s length. The legs may be ageing quicker than he would like, but there’s nothing wrong with Jagielka’s ability to read the game and proactively snuff out attacks.
An Arsenal comeback
Tuesday was the first time in the Premier League this season that Arsenal have come from behind to win. That’s important because it hasn’t been their strongest suit for a while. In the two years before Tuesday, Arsenal had gained 19 points from their many losing positions – that’s half as many as Manchester United. The last 10 times Arsenal had conceded first in the league, they had lost nine times and drawn once.
Southampton are not a side that rolls over and allows their tummy to be tickled. It took resilience and resolve for Arsenal to overcome their early hiccup and end the game in total control of an opponent that was, until then, above them in the table. It suggests a confidence within Mikel Arteta’s team that simply wasn’t there two months ago.
The broader context is that Arsenal do look in finer fettle, albeit playing catch-up after their dismal autumn. The Mesut Ozil saga is finally over – Martin Odegaard’s arrival would be a fine way to celebrate that. They have won five of their last six league games. Their return to form has been marked by the progress of Bukayo Saka and Emile Smith-Rowe. They are back in the bottom half if those immediately below them win their games, but screw that pessimism because Arsenal are also five points off the top four.
Far from perfect in victory; that needs to be said. Leeds United allowed Newcastle (9.2 shots per league games this season, ranking 18th) to have 22 attempts and were fortunate that Islan Meslier produced some excellent saves.
But boy did Leeds need that win and those goals, after three games without either. Inevitably, it came away from Elland Road. Only Everton, Leicester and Manchester United have more away wins than Leeds this season, impressive given that they have played Chelsea, Tottenham, Manchester United and Liverpool on the road.
Six wins in a row for the first time since 2006 and – for two days at least – into the top four. This is a West Ham team finally being built in the image of its manager. David Moyes may not be an exciting name, but you only get into his team if you work hard for the cause alongside technical ability. That might sound like a back-handed compliment; it shouldn’t. Ask any Everton supporter about the power of that principle when it combines with a club that allows him to pursue it.
The crisis is over. Every season I talk myself into thinking that this time, finally, Burnley will be sucked into trouble. At least this year they had the good grace to wait a few months before making me look stupid. The gap to the bottom three is now nine points.
A case of chickens finally coming home to roost. Manchester United have been good over the last three months, but they haven’t been great. There have been times when deep-lying defences have frustrated them (Burnley, Sheffield United themselves at Bramall Lane, Fulham) for long periods) and others when their defending has been a little haphazard. They were never quite as ruthlessly efficient or as creative as their league position suggested. On Wednesday they came entirely unstuck.
But if there’s one thing that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s team have been excellent at it’s responding to adversity. They have now conceded the first goal of the game in exactly half of their league games this season, more than Crystal Palace, Brighton, Burnley and Leeds amongst many others. Before Wednesday, United had taken 2.33 points per game from those matches, an astonishing record. The next best in the Premier League was 1.43.
They were unable to continue that record against Sheffield United because, for arguably the first time this season, both of those problems detailed in the opening paragraph were present in combination. For all United’s domination of possession and territory, Aaron Ramsdale did not make a single save that was more difficult than regulation (David de Gea’s save from Billy Sharp was probably the second best save of the match).
When United did get their equaliser, they subsequently produced the worst piece of defending I’ve seen this season. From Harry Maguire dribbling the ball to De Gea and then standing in his way so he couldn’t clear it long to Alex Telles standing still while Sheffield United passed the ball on half-speed mode to players in space, this was shambolic in every way. It reminded of the famous scene in Kes, a collection of inappropriately dressed anti-footballing children shivering in the cold as they treat the ball like a pass-the-parcel prize making a worrying ticking sound.
There were some serious flaws – at least in terms of winning the title – exposed here. There is nothing wrong or even surprising about being so reliant on Bruno Fernandes, given his form since arriving in England, but United do suffer badly when Bruno is ineffective. Solskjaer has been at pains to ridicule the notion that his creative force may be tired, but he has started 47 matches in 12 months, regularly covers the most distance of any player on the pitch and constantly carries the responsibility for United’s attacking success. At some point the energy levels have to dip.
Solskjaer also got things wrong. Playing Paul Pogba in a deeper role alongside Nemanja Matic negated much of what has made him tick and click over the last few weeks. Pogba was generally tidy and recycled possession, but it’s a little like using an expensive vase as a bookend. Pogba had one shot and created one chance. His second-half header from a corner was his only touch in the Sheffield United box. Matic too was an odd pick, given United were always likely to face a deep defence and need to move the ball quickly through midfield.
And why does Solskjaer persevere with Anthony Martial as the central striker when it’s clear that he is badly lacking confidence, form or both? He waited 66 minutes to make his first change when it was clear the initial plan wasn’t working and unfathomably left Martial on for 90 minutes. If Cavani wasn’t fit enough to start (and that seems unlikely given what we’ve heard about his monastic approach to training and preparation), why not try Marcus Rashford or Mason Greenwood central? Martial jogged around the final third, barely laying a glove on Sheffield United’s central defenders. Four penalty box touches, one shot and no chances created was a dismal return.
This is not disastrous for United given the position of strength they had established over previous weeks, but it will be demoralising. They have been a streaky team under Solskjaer, for better and for worse. Unexpected victories seem to inspire a unity and belief that propels them over several weeks. The hope for them is that unexpected defeat does not do the same.
Sam Allardyce and West Brom’s defensive record
After Tuesday’s miserable home defeat to Manchester City, the latest in a line of miserable home defeats, Sam Allardyce chose to keep his players and staff in the dressing room for an hour before finally attending to his media duties. He insists that he didn’t get cross, but we can assume that Allardyce took care to get his point across firmly.
This has gone sour very quickly. Allardyce isn’t only a defensive manager, but he’s savvy enough by now to know that survival is built upon an organised defence. That’s particularly true at home, where grinding out victories is crucial.
There have been glimpses of the Allardyce effect – the draw against Liverpool and the set-piece assault on Wolves – but seem to be exceptions to the general rule. West Brom’s defence lacks any obvious organisation and, most damningly, the fight to change it. They are conceding a goal every 30 minutes during Allardyce’s tenure.
The positive spin is that this will get easier (six of West Brom’s next eight games are against six of the seven sides directly above and below them) and that plenty of those clubs are struggling to pick up regular wins themselves.
But that’s nothing more than a weak, watery ray of hope if Allardyce cannot make West Brom harder to break down. Continue at their current rate and the Baggies will ‘boast’ the worst top-flight defensive record (goals per game) in the last 55 years of English football.
This was better, to a point. In the second half Newcastle finally threw caution to the wind, with Allan Saint-Maximin and Miguel Almiron’s direct running at defenders unnerving Leeds. They had 22 shots and should have taken at least a point.
But they didn’t. Positivity – and least that really means something – can only come with hard results and points on the board. When you’re winless in 11 matches and have taken 21 points from your last 26 games, nobody celebrates a defeat.
Sources on Tyneside suggest that Bruce’s job is not yet in jeopardy given Newcastle’s continued presence outside the bottom three, but things do seem to be reaching a head. Newcastle’s next six league games are against Everton, Crystal Palace, Southampton, Chelsea, Manchester United and Wolves; they surely need to take at least seven points to keep their heads afloat.
Supporters will be mightily relieved that West Brom continue to toil and Sheffield United have effectively already succumbed to the inevitable. But that’s not really the – or their – point. Isn’t this club and its supporters allowed to dream a little bigger and better than cheering a Fulham defeat because it makes 36 points (the total Newcastle are on course to achieve) enough for another tepid season in the top flight?
Crystal Palace and a ticking time bomb
This summer, Wayne Hennessey, Stephen Henderson, Joel Ward, Mamadou Sakho, Scott Dann, Gary Cahill, Patrick van Aanholt, James McArthur, James McCarthy, Andros Townsend, Michy Batshuayi, Christian Benteke and Connor Wickham are all out of contract at Selhurst Park. So too is manager Roy Hodgson.
Does that affect how a team plays? Can you create a fighting spirit of communal unity if you don’t know if you’ll be playing together in seven months time, particularly at a time of uncertainty over Covid-19? It certainly stands up to scrutiny that the distraction cannot help, particularly that it seems unlikely Hodgson will stay. They don’t know their teammates and they don’t know their next manager.
Either way, Palace are experiencing an extended sticky patch. Since the second weekend of the season, they have only beaten either promoted clubs or Sheffield United in the league. There’s a sense that everything is just awkwardly drifting along at Palace. Drifting along is dangerously close to drifting away.
Chelsea and Thomas Tuchel
I didn’t really want to put Tuchel in either list given that he’s been in the job five minutes, but then I’m a slave to the format and they did draw 0-0.
It’s hard to draw any long-lasting conclusions based on one game after one training session, although some will try. Chelsea supporters on social media (I know, my fault) were already criticising their new manager. In fairness, he probably did get the team slightly wrong and definitely waited too long to make substitutions when it became clear that Wolves were going to put ten men behind the ball and defend ultra-deep.
But there were still some observations for how Tuchel will look to mould this Chelsea team. The wing-back system will be used, either with a 3-4-3 or slight hybrid 3-4-2-1 – this was the latter. That formation relies upon the wing-backs to overlap and create chances, which presents a problem.
Callum Hudson-Odoi did his job pretty well, but Ben Chilwell is more left-back than full-back. He has a frustrating tendency to turn back when he gets the ball, probably because he lacks the pace to take his man on. I think Christian Pulisic’s introduction for him was the right call, but it came too late to make a telling difference. That’s something to watch moving forward, particularly against lesser teams at home.
The other massive shift was Chelsea’s deliberate retention of possession. They completed 466 passes in the first half, the most by any team in the Premier League in a half this season and the most by a Chelsea team since they began collecting data (and, given how football styles have changed over that time, we can assume that’s an all-time Chelsea record).
There’s nothing wrong with that. It will probably serve them well against Big Six opponents, against whom Lampard struggled to the extent that it probably cost him his job. But against a deep-lying defence, possession needs to be accompanied by penetration. Too often Chelsea midfielders (Hakim Ziyech was most guilty) turned back when in possession and failed to make runs to demand the ball. Again, Tuchel waited too long to bring on Mason Mount and should have started him if not fatigued.
In Tuchel’s defence he was incredibly demonstrative on the touchline, demanding that players show into space and made the right calls. The obvious thing to say is that you cannot change a style overnight and expect it to work from the first match onwards; that’s why teams prefer to appoint new managers ahead of pre-season.
But Tuchel will not get that time, and that makes this a fascinating soap opera. The German is already playing catch-up with many supporters believing Lampard deserved more time. They had a deeper connection with the last manager than this one can ever hope to replicate in just a few months.
Picked the wrong time to make his latest half-mistake. Just hope Gareth Southgate didn’t also watch the highlights of Nick Pope being ruddy excellent against Aston Villa.