It is becoming harder to “trust the process” under Mikel Arteta at Arsenal. Fatigue has set in for Liverpool, while Everton still have a shot.
The doubts about Chelsea’s attack linger on. Thomas Tuchel is determined to persevere with Timo Werner, who at best takes one step forward and another back. Werner played a significant role in creating Chelsea’s winner on Saturday and was in the right place to score a tap-in, but he undid that with a horrible second-half miss. You suspect that largesse will haunt Chelsea at some point – maybe against Real Madrid this midweek.
But in the Premier League, it might not matter when Chelsea are so effective defensively. West Ham had scored 11 goals in four matches and last failed to score at home in any competition on the opening weekend of the season. Chelsea restricted them to two shots on target.
And that’s the defining characteristic of Tuchel’s tenure to date. Since he was appointed on January 26, Chelsea have kept at least three more clean sheets than any other team in the division, rank first for fewest shots on target faced and second for fewest shots faced. They have not confirmed their place in next season’s Champions League yet, but a) still have two routes into the competition and b) have a three-point advantage and a superior goal difference in one of them.
And, again, remember where they were when Lampard was sacked: 10th in the league and closer to the bottom half than the top six. No job can ever be considered miraculous at a Big Six club, but Tuchel looks more like a permanent Chelsea manager than Lampard ever did.
From last week’s column:
‘He’s Newcastle’s third top goalscorer from open play in the league this season and he’s played 612 minutes. I’m not quite sure why Willock hasn’t started a Premier League match since March 20 when Jonjo Shelvey continues to play every week, but that should now change.’
Well it didn’t change: Willock still started on the bench. But he’s now Newcastle’s second-highest goalscorer from open play and he’s only played 638 minutes. In the last three games alone, Willock has scored in the last five minutes three times and earned Newcastle five points. Now move heaven and earth to sign him for a reasonable fee and build your central midfield around him.
Chris Wood and Burnley
Premier League players with 10+ goals in the last four seasons:
Fair play fella, and fair play to Burnley for securing another season in the Premier League. The football can often be a little agricultural, but who bloody cares? They fully merit their place amongst English football’s elite.
Everton, still with a chance
It says plenty about the form of those teams around them – West Ham, Liverpool, Tottenham – that Everton had taken three points from a possible 15 before Friday and yet are still only six points off the top four with a game in hand.
But for all the justified moaning about their form at Goodison, Everton have become a ruthless team away from home. Only Manchester City have more away wins in the Premier League this season and only three teams have registered more away clean sheets.
Everton are still reliant on improving their home form, but fixtures against Sheffield United, Aston Villa and Wolves at Goodison provide hope of that happening in the nick of time. Their final two away games, at West Ham and a Manchester City side who will surely have won the title before the final day, will decide whether Everton qualify for Europe for only the second time in six years and finish in the top six for the first time in seven.
Chances created in the Premier League since the turn of the year, in reverse order even though the heading of the section rather ruins the surprise:
5) Pascal Gross – 37
4) Raphinha – 38
3) Bruno Fernandes – 42
2) Mason Mount – 43
1) Luke Shaw – 50
Not only that, but Shaw is defending as well as he ever has. He should walk into England’s starting XI based on current form. And he deserves huge praise for the manner in which he has turned around his Manchester United career after the treatment he received from Jose Mourinho.
Now the youngest goalkeeper in Premier League history to reach ten clean sheets.
Arsenal and Mikel Arteta
“Trust the process” has become the parodical punchline of Arteta’s reign. It reflects an insistence that things are steadily moving in an upward curve that allows for patience to be demanded when bumps in the road are inevitably encountered.
But at times that upward curve does appear to be flatlining. Since beating Tottenham in the north London derby on March 14, Arsenal have won one Premier League match – against Sheffield United. If Everton take even a point from their game in hand, Arsenal will be seven points behind the top eight. They are firmly a mid-table club, whatever the grim pipe dreams of their owners.
Defeat to Everton allows for unfavourable comparisons to be drawn with Arteta. He and Carlo Ancelotti were appointed on the same day, both sat in the stands at Goodison to witness a 0-0 draw between the two teams that was surely the worst Premier League game of last season. Since then, Everton and Arsenal have collected the same number of league points, Everton in two fewer games. It might be unfair to compare Arteta to other managers in the Premier League’s top six, but it is not unfair to compare him to Ancelotti.
You can reasonably suggest that Arteta has had to face a series of unhelpful challenges in north London: a club in various degrees of civil war; the Mesut Ozil situation; the departure and arrival of key figures off the field; an absent owner; a lack of investment; a squad that really isn’t very good.
But we were still permitted to expect more than this, not least because Arteta arrived with a buzz that suggested he was the right man to take Arsenal forward after the failed Unai Emery experiment, yet they are pretty much in the same position.
Arteta will escape serious internal pressure because of those aforementioned issues that lie outside of his control – there’s no doubt that winning the Europa League would help, too. But if Arsenal start next season slowly, whatever happens off the field over the summer, patience will and should evaporate quickly.
There’s nothing wrong with patience while something builds; that should be celebrated. But after 15 months in charge, the foundations of a new-age Arsenal under Arteta are barely even visible. Given the financial climate and the ever-growing gap to the top four, that cannot continue unchecked. Being eliminated by Villarreal and Emery would be a serious blow.
The Nuno project
Of course Nuno Espirito Santo is a victim of his own success. Any season that Wolves spend in the Premier League should be regarded as an achievement, whatever the intricacies of their relationship with Jorge Mendes. Wolves last spent four consecutive seasons in the top flight in the early 1980s; they are guaranteed to do that now.
But there have been telltale signs over the course of this campaign that things are going a little stale. Nuno’s football has never intended to be free-flowing or prolific and that can decrease the patience from supporters when results turn sour. But Wolves at least used to be resolute defensively. Conceding three or more times to Liverpool and Manchester City can be easily forgiven and forgotten; conceding three or more times to West Ham, Burnley, Brighton and West Brom cannot.
And things are certainly getting worse. Consecutive 1-0 wins over Sheffield United and Fulham do not mask the issues that lay in the winless matches before and after them. On Sunday, Wolves tried to defend in a low block but were bullied by Chris Wood and Burnley and barely offered a response to the emergency situation. That suggests all is not well.
There are two obvious reasons that jump out, one specific and one vague. Firstly, the loss of Raul Jimenez cannot be overstated because he dominates Wolves’ attack like no other striker in the league and because Fabio Silva (age, inexperience) and Willian Jose (still settling in) cannot hope to replace his presence. Pedro Neto’s season-ending injury decimated any hopes of improvement before the summer.
The vague reason is that Wolves’ players aren’t particularly proficient. Of the XI that ended the defeat to Burnley, the jury is out (or has decided its damning verdict) on seven of them: Vitinha, Leander Dendoncker, Rayan Ait-Nouri, Romain Saiss, Morgan Gibbs-White, Silva and Daniel Podence. Without Neto and Jimenez, this is not a top-half team.
Wolves clearly need investment over the summer, on key players and squad filler. That’s fine – and they certainly have the contacts book – but it’s an inopportune time for the manager’s own future to be in doubt. Like Ralph Hasenhuttl at Southampton, there must be a chance that Nuno believes he is doing more damage than good to his reputation in the lower reaches of the league.
Liverpool’s fatigue and late goals
Liverpool’s fixture list provided them with a seizable opportunity to save their season and claw their way back into the top four. It has started very badly indeed: four dropped points against Leeds and Newcastle. Any confidence that they will finally move up the gears having been provided with the carrot that was lacking for much of this season has now been lost. These supposedly gentle fixtures actually provide more chances for their current funk to be exacerbated.
Against Newcastle, Jurgen Klopp tried to cause a spark of energy by picking all four of his forwards. Liverpool did start the game brightly and scored early, but that quickly subsided to leave the flat, tepid football that has been commonplace far too many times this season, particularly post-7-0 win at Selhurst Park. Klopp’s side are letting games drift and being punished for defensive sloppiness.
Conceding late is becoming a worrying habit. Since Christmas, Liverpool have conceded in the last ten minutes against West Brom (game lost) and Burnley (game lost), conceded three times in the last 20 minutes against Manchester City (game lost), conceded three times in the last 15 minutes against Leicester (game lost), conceded in the last ten minutes against Everton (game lost), conceded in the last five minutes against Leeds (game drawn) and conceded a last-second equaliser against Newcastle having narrowly escaped one two minutes earlier. During that same period, Liverpool have only scored three goals in the final 20 minutes of their 19 league games.
That clearly suggests a physical and mental fatigue; Liverpool are now fighting a tide of preordained fate forged by their own incompetence at both ends of the pitch. And it’s getting to Klopp, who this week hardly publicly railed against the European Super League and told everyone to “calm down” about the proposals before kick-off on Saturday. We expected more from him than that.
Brighton’s finishing, again
They’re still not safe. And they’re still not safe because they refuse to take their chances. Brighton rank seventh for shots, seventh for chances created and 15th for goals scored. They’re very lucky that Fulham haven’t managed to apply pressure, and I’m sick of saying the same thing every week.
It was a tall order but after 91 minutes at Villa Park, West Brom really did have a realistic shot at staying up. Then they dithered and dallied at the back, Keinan Davis crept in, Sam Allardyce threw his chewing gum at the dugout with enough force to punch a hole in it and his players looked utterly broken. That might just be that.
It’s all falling apart due to the absence of several key players through injury and Lady Luck deserting them (the red card was a shambles and the non-penalty for handball very touch-and-go). West Ham’s top-four dream hasn’t died yet, but I reckon David Moyes would snap your hand off for sixth place right now.