Premier League winners and losers after north London derby

Date published: Monday 15th March 2021 12:50 - Daniel Storey

Another weekend of Premier League football can be crudely divided into winners and losers…which is absolutely what we saw in the north London derby with Arsenal coming out on top. But first…

 

Winners

Burnley, staying at the party
In early September, in our pre-season predictions, I picked Burnley to go down. They had only signed one first-team player over the season break, and Dale Stephens was only replacing Jeff Hendrick and that probably represented a downgrade.

And Burnley did struggle. They took two points from their opening seven matches and neither of those points were particularly inspiring – 0-0 draws against Brighton and West Brom. Goals looked to be a massive problem – Burnley scored more than once in two of their opening 19 league matches and one of those was a 4-2 defeat to Leicester City on the opening day.

But just when you think that you have Burnley nailed, back they roar to make you look foolish. Burnley have lost one of their last eight league games (away at Tottenham). They have taken 17 points from their last 12 matches and that surely means that they will record six straight top-flight campaigns for the first time since 1971.

But then this is what Burnley do. They took 19 points from their last 16 games of 2018/19 to move away from trouble, four fewer than Tottenham who finished fourth. They took 30 points from their last 16 games last season, putting them fourth over that period; relegation battle became mid-table comfort. No manager outside the Big Six is quite as good at Dyche at rallying his players to fight deep into the season so consistently.

And this is where Dyche deserves huge credit. Look through that squad; it is Championship level with a few defensive exceptions. Burnley’s five most-used players in the Premier League this season cost the club £11m to buy, which in such a financially engorged division is absolute witchcraft.

Chris Wilder’s demise (more on that later) demonstrates just how hard it is to keep a non-financially elite club (and even a club that sits outside the group directly below that) swimming in the top flight season after season. Every year becomes year zero with no insurance policy created by past performance.

Opponents have had a long time to work Burnley out. There is no great secret to their formation or their style and there has been no obvious move from Dyche to alter them or create a surprise Plan B to unnerve opposition managers. They work hard, they hassle you, they look to go direct, they use Dwight McNeil as the exception.

And still Burnley flourish. In the last four seasons they have achieved between 40 and 55 league points, comfortably enough to survive relegation. This season has been mightily difficult and the goals have dried up, but with nine games to go Burnley are only seven points from their magic number again. All power to Dyche for this normalised overachievement.

 

Brighton
Following Brighton over the last few months has been so deeply frustrating that it went full circle and became entertaining again (unless you are a Brighton supporter). Almost every game has followed the same pattern, domination of possession, territory and chances, all overshadowed by a profligacy in front of goal that was eventually punished, often in the last throes of the match. Brighton have lost 11 matches this season, eight of them by a one-goal margin.

Just as we were giving up hope of Graham Potter’s team ever making it count, there they go and drag themselves over the line. I’ll reserve full judgement until next week because they have a monumental match against Newcastle to come, but this represents a huge step in the right direction at a time when Steve Bruce’s team are treading water.

 


F365 says: Potter will welcome glitch in Brighton narrative


 

Mikel Arteta
It’s hard to quite know what to make of Arsenal after that (16 Conclusions here). They were brilliant in the first half when they pushed forward and set the tone, but then fell apart in the final 10 minutes when they were given a numerical advantage and held a lead. Passes went astray, panic set in, sloppy fouls were given away and Arsenal seemed unsure whether to push on the counter to take advantage of the space Tottenham left or just defend for their lives.

But make no mistake: This was a big day for Arteta. It began with Arsenal’s manager disciplining his captain for turning up late, which clearly would have backfired (and become a bigger story) had Arsenal lost the game. Even before kick off, supporters castigated Arteta for choosing this game to punish Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang when it clearly mattered so much.

But without Aubameyang, Arsenal won. We cannot know which player would have been sacrificed from the starting XI for him, but it would probably have been one of Emile Smith-Rowe (Arsenal’s best attacking player), Martin Odegaard (scored the first goal) or Alexandre Lacazette (scored the second). That gives Arteta a greater mandate to reinforce to Aubameyang the need to lead by example.

Arsenal also won after conceding first; that’s becoming a lovely habit. In their last 11 games alone they have come from behind to beat Southampton, came from behind to draw with Benfica, came from behind to beat Benfica, came from behind to beat Leicester and came from behind to beat Tottenham. That suggests a steel to this team that has been absent for far too long.

Finally, Arsenal are also on a mighty fine run, easy to miss with the clangs of crisis and sloppy defensive mistakes that tend to steal the headlines. Since Christmas, Arsenal have taken 27 points from 14 league games. Only Manchester City (48), Leicester City (29) and Manchester United (31) have taken more, and both of the last two have played more games than Arsenal. They couldn’t reach the top four, could they?

 

Roy Hodgson
This has not been the most enjoyable season for Crystal Palace supporters (or, probably, their players too). Many of the squad is out of contract this summer, although some of those have been extended since Christmas. Roy Hodgson is out of contract too, and it seems reasonable to assume that deal won’t be extended.

If that’s the case, this may be the end of Hodgson as a football manager – he will turn 74 by the start of next season. And he will end his career having been relegated only once, with Oddevold in the Swedish second tier in 1982. This has not been a career without notable failures – honestly, who can boast anything different? – but he has guided Palace away from trouble this year under difficult circumstances and they still have a realistic shot of a top-half finish.

Do not underestimate the comparative austerity under which Hodgson has been forced to operate at Selhurst Park in recent seasons. Over the last three years, he has spent just £35m on new players and £16m of that was spent on a player (Eberechi Eze) who has already doubled in value. Over the same period, Palace have sold two players for £65m.

To repeat, this hasn’t been a great season. The football has often been aesthetically displeasing and Hodgson stands accused of an overreliance on holding midfielders that has occasionally caused pockets of mutiny to emerge amongst supporters. But if he is to end his career this summer in the palace that it all started 55 years ago, he leaves behind as stable a platform as anyone inside the club and in the stands could have wished for.

 

Kelechi Iheanacho and Jamie Vardy
It’s something that was covered here last week, but the new strike partnership between Iheanacho and Vardy might just keep Leicester in the top four until May. Brendan Rodgers’ change of shape was probably intended to get Vardy scoring again, but he has actually played as the second striker, dropping deep and linking play while Iheanacho gets closer to goal.

But Rodgers also won’t care as long as it works. Iheanacho now has five goals in three games including his first Premier League hat-trick; Vardy has seven league assists for the season, more than in any of his last five.

 

Leeds United
Turns out you get a point for drawing as well as three for a win – who knew? Saturday’s draw with Chelsea was only Leeds’ third of the season, meaning they cannot equal the record low set by Tottenham and Manchester City in 2018/19.

 

Erik Lamela…
Ra-boner, more like (now skip to the end for the punchline and meet me back here)

 

Losers

Chris Wilder and Sheffield United
Maybe it makes me a hopeless romantic that Wilder’s demise at Sheffield United makes me sad. He’s not a man whose opinions I share on any level – “I’m not bothered in psychologists or do-gooders or lefties, I don’t know what you’re allowed to say” – but this was a guy who loved his club deeply and took them to places that even the most optimistic supporter never thought they would see. His departure makes Sheffield United a lesser club than they were before.

You can see the club’s point. Their transfer business since promotion has been sketchy at best, not least the signings of Aaron Ramsdale and Rhian Brewster for £40m, both of whom Wilder was insistent on. If they feel that there needs to be a delegation of duties with the manager focusing purely on on-pitch matters, Sheffield United’s performance this season makes that an easy argument.

And there were signs that Wilder’s performance faded badly this season. Many of the results were indeed marginal (14 league defeats by a one-goal margin this season vs nine league wins by a one-goal margin last season), but Wilder’s response was too often to blame his players and simply tell them to work harder when it was pretty obvious that their chance creation was way below reasonable standards of teams trying to survive relegation. We have never really seen a Plan B in response to the Plan A disaster.

But the reality is that Sheffield United were not made for the top half of the Premier League. Not yet anyway. The training ground is in need of investment, the wage budget was never likely to attract the club’s top targets last summer. If there was anyone who thought that the team might get a boost from the uncertainty of this week (which must be unlikely), a 5-0 humping by Leicester must put an end to it.

And there’s the disconnect. This is a Championship club that achieved rapid success and has been largely unable to react quickly enough to it to make it sustainable, and one that punched above its weight largely because of one person. Now that person has gone (whatever your opinions on Wilder’s departure), Sheffield United are facing reality once again. Wilder’s replacement cannot be expected to re-bottle lightning, but his overachievement has created expectations that few will find easy to match unless the club is able or willing to make changes behind the scenes. Appointing a director football only works if it is part of wider systemic changes.

 

Tottenham Hotspur and that defensive strategy
You could be very generous and say that the last 15 minutes were pure chaos football. Tottenham – a man down and a goal down – had no option but to throw players forward in search of a goal, and they were as likely to concede as score. That type of approach, in Jose Mourinho’s view, is not sustainable over the course of the match.

But Tottenham caused Arsenal problems in those last 15 minutes, and were unfortunate not to force an equaliser. They exposed frailties in Arsenal’s defending and lead management that we all knew were there to start with. This was no surprise.

And that’s why Tottenham’s strategy to sit back and defend with little counter-attacking threat felt so flawed. They did succeed with that approach in the reverse fixture but they were fortunate that day. Recently, Spurs have looked far better when playing on the front foot, trying to control possession and pressing opponents high up the pitch. In the first hour on Sunday, that was all absent. It was as if Mourinho preferred the warm familiarity of his big-game approach. Unfortunately (see next section), that approach has largely stopped working.

The injury to Son Heung-Min can be used as an excuse if you want, but I’m not really having it. Yes it did probably limit Tottenham on the counter, but then Son had only had four touches in 19 minutes before being substituted and his replacement scored Tottenham’s goal anyway.

But if Mourinho’s strategy was foolhardy, it was made worse by the team selection. Mourinho effectively picked the team for front-foot football, with the front three and Lucas Moura all starting, but then implemented a different strategy. There’s very little point sitting deep and defending if Gareth Bale is going to stay high up the pitch and leave your worst defender (Matt Doherty) to cope with two players in Smith-Rowe and Kieran Tierney. Arsenal’s equaliser came from that part of the pitch and Lacazette should have scored from a similar move before that.

After the game, back to *that* Mourinho. He accused “important players” of “hiding” and blamed them for the lack of pressing and attacking in the first hour of the match. As we’ve said before, that suggests one of two things: Either Mourinho is fibbing and the players were told to sit back, or the players didn’t listen and, apparently not for the first time in a big game, played a totally different style to the one the manager demanded. Neither is a good look for Mourinho, whatever his protestations.

 

 

Jose Mourinho vs the Big Six
Mourinho’s last 20 matches against Big Six teams, stretching back to his time as Manchester United manager: Played 20, Won 5, Drawn 3, Lost 12.

That’s not fair, you say. Mauricio Pochettino wasn’t brilliant in the big fixtures and Tottenham don’t have the resources to compete with those teams on a level playing field.

Okay, I say, although snidely pointing out that Mourinho prides himself on such occasions. But since Spurs won the north London derby in December to go top of the league, they have played seven league games against top-half teams and they have lost every one. Haven’t they shat the bed rather if they fail to make the top four?

 

Everton’s infuriating inconsistency
This season really could have been brilliant, to the extent that, in hindsight, any progress will be caveated by sighs of exasperation. Everton have taken 29 points from their 14 away league games, comfortably the fourth best record in the country (Chelsea are fifth with four fewer points from one extra game). That has been undermined by the home form, losses to Newcastle, Fulham, West Ham, Leeds and now Burnley. Everton are 15th in a home Premier League table.

Most infuriatingly, that dismal home record is largely due to defensive underperformance, something Carlo Ancelotti prides himself on resolving. It is unfathomable that a team that beat Tottenham, Leicester and Liverpool away from home without conceding a goal could play five home matches against the current bottom six and conceded 10 times.

There are factors behind those issues: The rollercoaster form of Jordan Pickford, the lack of match-going supporters, the drop-off from first-team starters to fringe players that have made fatigue a factor and ill-timed injuries to Allan and Abdoulaye Doucoure. That pair have started one game together since December 16 and Everton have won one home league game since.

But that won’t alter the perception of Everton supporters that a potentially brilliant season is becoming merely a satisfactory one. Particularly as Doucoure might well miss the remainder of the season with a broken foot.

 

The Allardyce experiment
And that’s probably that. If West Brom are to survive relegation now, they’re probably going to need at least 16 points from their remaining nine games. Given that they have taken 18 points from their last 29, it’s a tall order.

The Allardyce experiment has failed. He has taken 13 points from his 16 matches in charge, more points per game than Slaven Bilic managed but nowhere near enough to suggest that even over a full season he would have kept them up.

And it’s all down to a lack of balance between defence and attack. Split Allardyce’s time in charge into two halves of eight matches and you can easily see the issue. In his first eight, West Brom were far too open defensively; they conceded 24 goals. That led to Allardyce changing strategy, attempting – and succeeding – to make West Brom tighter at the back; they have only conceded seven goals in his second eight matches.

But defensive resilience comes at a cost. West Brom have only scored three goals in their last eight games, the worst attacking record in the league. They actually have the joint-fourth best defensive record over that same period, but that doesn’t matter if you aren’t creating enough chances for non-elite strikers to score regularly.

This is clearly not all on Allardyce. West Brom’s squad is not Premier League standard and they were not able to mimic Fulham by investing heavily on permanent and loan deals late in the summer transfer window. But then that only proves the initial suspicion that Allardyce took this job because it was the first to come up rather than being the perfect fit. Does he have the stomach for a season in the Championship (no body shaming please).

 

…Erik Lamela
Ra-goner, more like. (Sorry, wasn’t worth it. Go back to where you were. Unless this is the second time you’ve read that awful pun; I don’t want to keep you all day.)

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