Arsenal, who finally have a big-game spirit
The biggest disappointment of Arsene Wenger’s final few years in charge was his inability to get Arsenal to respond to crisis. When the sun shone, Wenger’s Arsenal could still wow, but as soon as the clouds rolled in, they wilted in the rain. How can any club hope to move forward when it can’t lift itself up from the canvas?
Arsenal are far from perfect under Emery. How could they be when the watermarks of Wenger’s decline will take so long to fade? How could they be when Emery does not have a vast pot of money to spend? After all, doesn’t Jose Mourinho think that spending is the only way to keep up? For what it’s worth, Arsenal have gone from being 18 points behind Manchester United to eight points ahead. If Mauricio Pochettino’s performance counts against Mourinho, so too does Emery’s.
But back to Arsenal, who are finally moving in the right direction, not least because they have so regularly started off matches slowly, still not led a game at half-time and frequently fallen behind. Arsenal have gained 12 points from losing positions this season, three points more than any other Premier League team.
If the pessimist might suggest that Arsenal have given themselves more opportunities to come from behind thanks to their poor first-half performances (and Cardiff City are second on the list), it has at least given a traditionally weak-willed club the chance to display new-found resilience. On Sunday, they showed it in spades.
Now go read 16 Conclusions.
I don’t want to get too excited here, but with his diminutive size, omnipresence, endless stamina and tendency to rip off his shirt just when Arsenal supporters feel like doing the same, Torreira might just be the easiest player in the Premier League to love. It’s like a mad scientist sat down in February 1996 and designed the perfect midfielder for English football.
An unfathomable success story, to the extent that I laughed outwardly in surprise at seeing Origi climbing off the bench because I had basically forgotten his existence as a Liverpool player. The Belgian managed to hit the crossbar from two yards out and still found time to have the Kop singing his name at full-time. The only reason he’s even still at Liverpool is because nobody would the pay the asking price for a striker whose loan spell at Wolfsburg was almost entirely miserable.
Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette
I’m sure Henrikh Mkhitaryan is a lovely bloke, and he actually performed pretty well in Sunday’s derby, but I’m going to start writing letters of complaint to Emery if he doesn’t start playing both Aubameyang and Lacazette in the same starting XI.
The stats are a little ridiculous. Since Aubameyang joined in January, the pair have spent 1,026 minutes together on the pitch in all competitions. In those 1,026 minutes, Aubameyang and Lacazette alone have scored a goal every 60 minutes. They have the potential to be the best strikeforce in the league. So let us see more.
Liverpool, still achieving despite themselves
In an interview with Sky Sports this week, Jurgen Klopp refuted the suggestion that Liverpool have gone off the boil this season. His explanation was that Liverpool have been forced to play a less explosive brand of football, partly to save energy and partly because teams are sitting back against them to avoid being counter-attacked. If there was a problem, Klopp felt, it lay in his side being more profligate in front of goal.
Amen to that last point, brother. Liverpool did not have a monopoly on the chances at Anfield and Everton fully merited the point that they somehow failed to secure, but Klopp must have burnt 300 calories just by waving his arms at spurned opportunities to score. Sadio Mane missed at least four presentable chances, while Mohamed Salah continues to snatch at shots and is playing far below last season’s level. Roberto Firmino just looks a bit lost, dropping far too deep to get involved but hampering attacks on Sunday as much as he helped them.
And yet Liverpool did win again, somehow and some way. If there is great joy to be sourced from cruising past your city rivals, sneaking a win despite playing poorly and finishing appallingly is damn satisfying too. For all the assumption that Manchester City will win the title, Liverpool are still only two points behind that unstoppable machine. Six points dropped in 14 matches is some going for a team not hitting their straps.
16 more conclusions is it? Go on then…
As my freelance kingpins tweeted on Sunday afternoon, ‘he’s shone on loan, played at a World Cup, scored a hat-trick in Europe, and bagged a goal from the bench in each of his last two league games. Yet Ruben Loftus-Cheek’s last Premier League start for Chelsea was in April 2016. What more does he need to do?’
As you go and read the piece that attempts to answer that question, two words come to mind: Leave Chelsea.
In trouble at the end of September, when they had taken five points from seven league games. The home win against Manchester United in August was superb, but it was the exception to Brighton’s general rule. Chris Hughton was struggling to integrate the long list of summer signings.
Since then, Hughton has overseen another mini-miracle to leave Brighton looking up rather than down. They are one place off the top half and only four points behind Manchester United with almost 40% of the season played.
Brighton are hardly rampant. They do not have the quality or resources for that. But there are few better teams in the Premier League at making the most of their opportunities. Since beating Swansea City in February they haven’t won a single game in all competitions by more than a single goal, but you just see if Hughton cares. In the clutch moments of clutch matches, there is a resolve and hunger that makes Brighton far better than the sum of their parts.
For Hughton, more goodwill added to a bank that is already bursting at the seams. The way the Premier League is panning out this season, three more wins and a few draws might be enough to confirm a third straight top-flight season. Arise Sir Chris.
At the age of 70 and presumably comfortable financially, Warnock may have struggled for present ideas to mark his landmark birthday. You can be pretty certain that a home win from behind against a team being labelled as the greatest promoted side in Premier League history, and against a manager with whom he had a public spat last season, would have been top of that list. Cardiff are now only five points behind Wolves and have moved outside the relegation zone for the first time since September. We’d sort of assumed they would be stranded there.
But then that is Warnock in his element, underestimated or written off. You do not have to like the man or his methods, but you cannot deny the consistency of his success.
He’ll keep being included as long as he keeps scoring crucial goals. Now the joint-second top scorer in the Premier League, and the joint-top assist maker in the Premier League. Which should make him favourite to be named PFA Player of the Year. He’s currently joint-sixth favourite at 20/1 behind Eden Hazard, Mohamed Salah and Harry Kane, among others.
A first league win and home clean sheet since September. More importantly, given their problems creating and scoring goals, was that Palace had 29 shots on Saturday. That’s five more than they have managed in any league game since the start of last season. How Roy Hodgson wishes they could play Burnley every week.
The scorer of more than one goal in a league game for the first time since August 2017, his second appearance for West Ham. The Mexican’s goal return since then has been hugely disappointing, but here was at least enough reason to justify faith in a partnership with Marko Arnautovic.
Only a sixth away league win since February 2017, which is both ridiculous and proof of West Ham’s long-term malaise. Manuel Pellegrini has found more roadblocks than Grand Theft Auto V in his mission to take the club forward, but wins like these sure help.
Now watch them lose at home to Cardiff City next weekend In the five matches directly following their last five away wins, West Ham have conceded 15 times. Consistency does not live here anymore.
In the wake of Chelsea’s Wembley nightmare, there has been an awful lot of talk this week about Sarri getting his central midfield strategy wrong. There’s clearly a case to be made for N’Golo Kante playing deeper, but when he wins the ball high up the pitch and assists Pedro for Chelsea’s opening goal against Fulham, you do see Sarri’s point.
Whether or not you believe that Jose Mourinho deserves to lose his job (and I can’t fathom why anybody still believes that he is the right man), Pogba is giving ammunition to his boss and now apparent enemy.
Reports on Sunday morning suggested that Mourinho had called Pogba a “virus” in front of his teammates, and doubled down on the insult by accusing him of sapping the energy out of honest, hard-working players. If true, it is the type of dressing down that marks a new low in the pair’s relationship.
Pogba can – but probably shouldn’t – point out that it is Mourinho’s tactics that are doing most to suck the joy out of United’s attacking fluency. Nemanja Matic’s slow recycling of possession at the base of midfield has been a problem all season, and yet he somehow escapes the Mourinho wrath. Pogba is perfect for a team that plays with dynamism through midfield rather than sluggish, slow passing – see France’s World Cup win for details.
But Pogba also merits some blame. If he has the natural talent to rise above Mourinho’s limiting management, Pogba is doing very little to garner support from fans who believe he is coasting until a new manager arrives.
That said, it’s very easy to blame the players that ‘down tools’ in this scenario. The reality, a la Eden Hazard at Chelsea in 2015/16, is that it’s very hard to drag a team on when you feel that those around you aren’t helping and your manager is blaming you for their – and his – problems.
Pochettino has done very many things right over the last two years, but he got Sunday’s north London derby very wrong. Juan Foyth over Toby Alderweireld was a gamble that didn’t pay off, but it was Pochettino’s mid-match tactical changes that undermined his own team’s chances of victory. Leaving a midfield of Moussa Sissoko and Christian Eriksen to deal with two Arsenal strikers dropping deep to pick up possession and Aaron Ramsey dancing between the lines was madness.
This is the biggest criticism of Pochettino, namely that his substitutions are too often ineffective at best and counterproductive at worst. He might argue that he lacks game-changing options, but in the case of Sunday that does not provide a permissible excuse. He just got it very wrong.
He will survive, y’know. Despite Manchester United now sitting eight points behind fifth place and ceding points to Liverpool at a rate of exactly a point per game this season, Mourinho will keep his job. His continued employment has become a game of jenga, with a 0-0 home draw against Crystal Palace and 2-2 draw with a rotten Southampton team the latest bricks removed that somehow fail to cause the tower to topple over.
League fixtures against Brighton, Wolves, West Ham, Crystal Palace and Southampton have produced a grand total of three points, so this has long passed the point where United and their manager should be embarrassed. Even those predisposed to defend Manchester United’s manager, and Mourinho does demand a level of emotional investment that can lead to a messy divorce, have run out of excuses. Mourinho spent so long attacking his club as an explanation for why he can’t compete with Manchester City that he lost control of even the most modest ambitions.
Having claimed that United would be back in the top four by the end of December – which should hardly be a bold shout for a Manchester United manager – Mourinho has already seen that prediction fall away. United need to make up eight points in their next seven fixtures, and that includes a trip to Anfield that must make supporters feel a little sick.
The biggest frustration is Mourinho’s continued refusal to accept any culpability. After United beat the bottom seed in their Champions League group on Wednesday, he went on the attack, telling the waiting media that the result was a message to his critics. But then when Manchester United flounder in the Premier League, the blame is passed on only to the players. How would that make you feel at work?
The uncomfortable truth for Mourinho is that only the incompetence of those above him is keeping him in a job. The lack of succession plan put in place by Ed Woodward is the biggest factor in Mourinho’s retention, far beyond any realistic hope that he will address the current slump and take the club back to where they were last season.
Tottenham, losing their heads
Teams lose derbies; it happens. Tottenham have a thin squad that has played three huge matches in a week, and they looked low on energy. That is hugely disappointing, but not unforgivable.
But what is a long-term concern is the manner in which Tottenham’s players seem incapable of avoiding falling into disciplinary disarray as a high-profile match gets away from them. It happened in the Battle of the Bridge against Chelsea, it’s happened again since and it happened at the Emirates.
Feistiness comes as expectation in a local derby, and nobody is expecting or asking Tottenham to play passively. But there is a difference between aggression and wild anger fuelled by frustration. The latter hampers performance rather than aids it. That’s a lesson Spurs’ players must still learn.
The more times I watch Liverpool’s winner, the more certain I am that Virgil van Dijk’s shanked shot would have hit the bar and gone for a goal kick. In the last breaths of the Merseyside derby, I can understand why Pickford was not prepared to take that risk, but in that case just tip the ball over the bar and defend the corner. Liverpool’s set-piece delivery had been rotten anyway.
Instead, Pickford did the worst of both worlds, parrying the ball forwards and into the only area that created more danger rather than less. At that time of that game, it was a horrific mistake by England’s No. 1.
They came to Anfield to prove that they can now go toe-to-toe with Liverpool, and they did exactly that. Andre Gomes was the best player on the pitch, controlling play in midfield better than any Liverpool player. Gylfi Sigurdsson played two or three slide-rule passes that make you want to marry an inanimate object like that woman who shacked up with a ferris wheel. Bernard is a fantastic addition to any counter-attacking team. Idrissa Gueye puts out fires across the pitch.
But having played many times better than their Anfield average over the last five years, Everton cannot shake their haunting failure on this ground. Defeat only hurts harder because it came so close to being avoided.
Wolves’ attacking threat
In an interview with Adam Bate of Sky Sports that was published this week, Nuno insisted that he did not need to look for a plan B. He had a strategy for how Wolves would succeed in the Premier League, and had no intention of deviating away from it.
While Wolves were troubling the top six that was entirely reasonable, but they have now taken one point from their last six matches. That includes defeats to Watford, Brighton, Huddersfield and Cardiff. Their performances in the last two of those defeats, out-fought in midfield by teams intent on ruffling Portuguese feathers.
More concerning still is the lack of fluidity in the final third, best demonstrated in Raul Jimenez’s laboured, sluggish displays as an isolated centre forward. Having created 21 chances against Burnley in September, they created 19 against Huddersfield and Cardiff combined. The understanding between attacking players was supposed to improve, not regress.
Burnley’s abject defending
A team that has fallen off a cliff defensively, enough that relegation will be the only eventuality should it continue.
Burnley have always conceded plenty of shots. Their total of 570 faced last season was the second highest in the top flight. But that was all part of Dyche’s plan. He relied upon central defenders who blocked shots (ranking first in the division for that) and a defensive system that tried to push the opposition out wide and force the cross that defenders could clear. It ended in the opposition often shooting from long range. Fifteen teams conceded more goals from inside the penalty area, and nine faced more shots on target.
This season, Burnley have faced an extraordinary number of shots. They have allowed 298 – 62 more than the team in second place on that list. Extend that record over the course of the season, and Burnley will allow 809 shots. That’s 230 more than the worst record last season, held by Stoke. Burnley are still doing what they do – they still rank comfortably first for blocked shots, but the number of shots faced is crippling their hopes of holding firm.
Burnley are only conceding from 10.3% of the shots they face. Only seven clubs in the league require more shots faced per goal conceded but Burnley have the second worst defence. The worry is that if they continue at this rate, they’ll actually get worse.
Rafael Benitez will insist that it was a one-off result that does not undo the good work of the previous three matches, but boy Newcastle United know how to pop their own bubble. If the first half was characterised by a series of missed chances, with Ayoze Perez the most guilty party, Newcastle fell into disarray in the last quarter of the match. Just when you think they have managed to lift themselves above the grim cloud that hangs over the club…
It feels an awfully long time ago that newspaper columns were wondering whether Watford could muster a challenge for a Champions League place, to the extent that the idea itself now feels entirely ridiculous. Javi Gracia’s side are clinging on to their position in the top half for now, but the mood is turning. Since winning their first four league games, Watford have taken eight points from a possible 30. Give it a couple of months, and that sprinting start might be used as fuel to keep them warm during the winter.