The relegation battle
Of course it might all end with a whimper, as three teams collapse in the second half of the season and get cut adrift at the bottom. We have seen that before, and will see it again.
But for now, the relegation battle promises to be one of the closest in years and to involve the most clubs. Bournemouth, currently in 18th, are on course for 36 points. That would be the most by a relegated club by Newcastle in 2015/16.
Five points ahead of Bournemouth are Everton in 11th, and one point below them are a resurgent Watford in 19th. Nine of the ten bottom-half clubs are separated by just six points. Let battle commence.
There were elements of this performance against Chelsea, when Arsenal seized control of the game but then ceded it by dropping too deep towards their own goal and very obviously running out of energy with 20 minutes remaining. In the post-match interviews yesterday, David Luiz alluded to the players’ fitness needing work, another damning indictment of Unai Emery’s management.
This victory (read 16 Conclusions here) differed from the defeat to Chelsea in two aspects. Firstly, the first half was a more complete dismantling of the opposition, arguably the most successful execution of an identifiable game-plan since Arsene Wenger’s time in charge.
Arsenal pressed high in groups, closing down Manchester United’s passing lanes and unnerving their opponents. Against Chelsea, Lucas Torreira sat deepest to protect the defence, drifting wide to fill in as an auxiliary full-back when one surged forward. Against United, Granit Xhaka did that job while Torreira roamed the pitch looking for fires to fight. We also saw more intelligent tactical fouling than I can remember by an Arsenal team. Is that something else Arteta has brought from Manchester City?
Importantly, Arsenal were more efficient in the final third. Against Chelsea they dominated territory and possession without creating enough clear-cut chances. Here they created four or five excellent opportunities in 45 minutes. Alexandre Lacazette should have doubled the lead when slashing wide with his left foot. Nicolas Pepe hit David de Gea’s post, albeit from a chance created by Manchester United rather than Arsenal.
The second difference is how Arsenal coped with the inevitable second-half pressure. Against Chelsea it was too much for them. They dropped deep too early, eventually conceded, responded by trying to attack again but had run out of juice and so were caught on the counter. With a two-goal lead giving them some breathing room, Arsenal’s two central midfielders both dropped deep and Torreira attempted to cover every blade of grass in his own half. The attacking players did not stay high and wait for the ball; they tracked back and worked for it.
But if the strategic and tactical elements of Arteta’s Arsenal are starting to bear fruit, it is in a select group of individuals that we can see the most emphatic improvement. Four players who were floundering under Emery now appear instantly rejuvenated. David Luiz was stepping out of defence to make interceptions and spraying forward passes to the wings. Xhaka’s passing was much improved and – sit down for this one – most of them went forward. Nicolas Pepe scored once, hit the post and humiliated Luke Shaw.
And then there’s Mesut Ozil, who is dancing and delighting in spaces he is able to find at will and clearly feeling appreciated by his new manager. Ozil has never been the type of player to grab a game by its neck and shake it; he relies on the proficiency of his teammates to occupy their opponents and thus avoid him being guarded by two or three players. In the last two matches, Ozil has wandered freely and played the passes through the line that we always knew he was desperate to do.
There is much more to do. Manchester United were abysmal, Arsenal have only taken four points from three games under Arteta and they have a defensive injury crisis. But we have already seen enough to prove that this long-term project will provide hasty evidence of its worth. On Wednesday evening, Arsenal supporters on Twitter were actually happy; none of them sniped at each other or tried to bring down the mood. Behold the miracle.
And there we go. With Manuel Pellegrini’s grey cloud now lifted, West Ham played with the intensity that they always should and displayed the qualities that we always knew they had. This is not a poor team but a good team that was playing poorly. They have one of the Europe’s most potent strikers in 2018/19 and an embarrassment of riches tasked with servicing him. Manuel Lanzini was on the bench on Wednesday and Andriy Yarmolenko and Jack Wilshere were both missing through injury.
The missing element under Pellegrini was vigour. West Ham let matches pass them by without making any discernible attempt to grab them. The club allowing West Ham to drop into the bottom three was an act of cowardice; Pellegrini should have been removed from his position earlier.
Beating an out-of-form Bournemouth doesn’t prove that West Ham are back, or that David Moyes was an excellent appointment. They were always too good to have been sucked into trouble, and will now move back up to mid-table. Any competent manager should, could and would have overseen such progress, and this does not explain why West Ham have gone back to the short-term option they said they didn’t want.
But for now, those questions can be placed to one side. As with Carlo Ancelotti at Everton, one victory is enough to allay fears of relegation and have the club looking up the league table with some hope than down with nervous fear.
We often hear that the new manager bounce is a myth; there is no guarantee of improvement. Watford know that only too well. They appointed Quique Sanchez Flores and then watched as things got marginally worse.
But Nigel Pearson is proving that clubs are right to gamble, and might as well roll the dice when despair reigns. During his time in permanent charge, Manchester City and Liverpool (if they beat Sheffield United) are the only team with more points than Watford. Safety is now just two points away.
One of the contenders for Player of the Year, and that isn’t a patronising gesture. Ings has scored 14 times in his last 16 games. His goals in his last nine league games alone have been worth 10 points. He has carried Southampton to safety on his shoulders.
If the England squad for the European Championship was picked tomorrow, Grealish would simply have to be in it. There are understandable doubts about him needing play to go through him, the ‘big fish in a small pond’ argument that did for players such as Matthew Le Tissier, but Grealish has repeatedly proven himself to be a game-changer at Premier League level.
This week brought rumours that Jesus might be part of the big Manchester City summer clearout, so this was a useful and timely reminder of his ability to score goals. Over the course of his time in England, Jesus has now scored 35 Premier League goals in 4,341. Or, to put that into greater context, if he played every minute of a league season and scored at the same rate, he would end it with 29 goals. That’s not bad for a striker between the ages of 19 and 22 asked to play second fiddle.
Winners for not going backwards while not winning, again. On November 10, Chelsea had a nine-point lead on sixth place. Since then, they have won three of their nine league games. They still have a six-point lead on sixth place.
Does this mean Frank Lampard is doing well, or that Chelsea are simply doing less worse than their peers? And, just as importantly, does it even matter when league position is everything?
There is a shared characteristic between out-of-form teams that are shipping goals: it looks like they don’t care. It’s almost always untrue. It is extremely rare that players ‘down tools’ as if often accused. It’s more that confidence has been crushed by underperformance and that dulls the reaction time. Suddenly a team is late to every challenge and to spot every moment of danger. At elite level, those flaws will be exposed.
Bournemouth’s run is getting worse. They were brushed aside by West Ham on Wednesday and West Ham were one of the few teams below the in the league; not anymore. The defensive holes are obvious, and Eddie Howe’s team have also lost their attacking fluency too. The regularly changing cast enforced by the injury crisis has shattered the cohesion that Howe believed made Bournemouth Bournemouth.
The January window, now open, presents itself as a logical means of Bournemouth extricating themselves from this mini-crisis. But then the transfer market has never been Howe’s area of expertise. Do Bournemouth take a punt, or keep faith in Howe doing what Howe has always done? Answers to follow between now and February.
Jose Mourinho and Tottenham
This is obviously not all on Mourinho. Daniel Levy deserves censure for the abandonment of necessary squad management that has left key players either fatigued, overused, complacent, stagnant, keen to pursue a new challenge or a mixture of some or all of the above. Mauricio Pochettino deserves (less) censure for the away performances in 2019 that convinced some players that the bubble had burst.
But then there are reasons to appoint Mourinho. He promises the quick wins, the spring clean, the jolt in the right direction that is usually ensured with a swift kick up the arse for those who the manager believes needs it and an arm around the shoulder of the rest. You do not appoint Mourinho to build you a long, sustainable new era. Perhaps he convinced Levy that he had changed and that he now could do the big build, but it would have taken a leap of faith to believe it, given the reported salary he is being paid.
Mourinho’s established reputation sharpens the focus on his initial results; this is meant to be him in his element. And yet we can already see the signs of frustration in his yellow card on the touchline and his awkward, tetchy post-match interview. It might all still work out, but these are alarming early warning signals.
Tottenham’s record under Mourinho is not dismal. They have taken 16 points from his nine league games, and only four clubs – Manchester City, Liverpool, Leicester City and Southampton – have more. A host of clubs are tucked in behind Tottenham, but behind they sit.
Yet drill down into those results, as many supporters have, and a different picture forms. Tottenham have beaten Burnley, Brighton and Bournemouth at home, and Wolves and West Ham away. The Wolves result was entirely undeserved on the balance of play. Mourinho’s Tottenham have drawn at Norwich, who had taken one point from their last six home games, and lost to Chelsea, Manchester United and Southampton. After opening with two league wins, Tottenham have won one of their last four. They play Liverpool and Manchester City in their next four.
Mourinho was given a fine opportunity to take Tottenham back into the top four and in doing so earn significant praise for his season’s work. Chelsea, currently fourth, have won three of their last nine league games. You do not have to be consistently proficient to wrestle your way ahead of them.
Mourinho was appointed with Tottenham three points off fifth place and 11 behind the top four. That they have cut those gaps down to one and six points respectively may provide Mourinho with succour, but it’s hardly a roaring compliment given the teething issues of those around them.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer
A festive period in which Manchester United have dispelled two myths. It turns out that they can win when enjoying more than 60% possession, and it turns out they can lose when enjoying less than 50%. Solskjaer’s record against the Big Six is surely the only thing keeping in his job, but that record stood for little while United were busy being dismal at the Emirates.
Solskjaer’s side were beaten twice by Arsenal. In the first half, the home team exposed Manchester United’s defensive frailties. Pepe humbled Shaw, Ozil delighted in the ease in which he was able to wriggle clear of Nemanja Matic and Harry Maguire was again made to look painfully slow when defending in his own box. Arsenal scored twice and could easily have extended it further before the break.
Then came the second failure, Manchester United’s inability to break down one of the most haphazard defences in the division. At times like these, United show a frightening lack of imagination that makes you wonder what on earth they do on the training ground.
Last season, Mourinho was sacked by Manchester United for being 11 points off the top four; they are currently only five behind that mark. But then Mourinho’s United were collecting points that season at a rate of 1.52 per game. So far this season, that points per game figure is 1.47. United are only in touch because of the flaws of those around them. That strikes as an odd foundation for a financial superclub giving more time to an unproven manager.
For those who still defend Solskjaer, Manchester United have now taken 39 points from their last 30 league games. That’s fewer than Crystal Palace and Everton, and the same number as Newcastle United. For all the faith in Solskjaer building a new era, just as much is falling down around him.
Newcastle United and fragility
This is Mike Ashley’s true legacy: The positive impact of every Newcastle United victory is lessened and the negative impact of every defeat magnified. Those supporters who leave the stadium after a win caveat their own excitement. Those who leave before the end of a miserable defeat chastise themselves for ever believing it could be different before the owner leaves.
Steve Bruce has done a reasonable job – perhaps even more than that. His team have earned results that their performances haven’t merited, but then keeping the club’s head above water is an exercise in crisis management.
But nothing can really improve until Ashley goes. He is the brick tied around the leg of anyone and anything that tries to rise up above this misery. Wednesday was so dismal not because Newcastle United lost, not because they played so poorly and not because the defeat saw them tumble closer to the relegation zone, but because Newcastle United could so easily be Leicester City. All it takes is love, care, attention and ambition. None of those exist anymore at St James’.
Since the end of November, Burnley have had 10 shots on target. If you think that will improve soon, their next four league fixtures are Chelsea (a), Leicester (h), Manchester United (a) and Arsenal (h).