Until now, they have stayed calm. The unwritten rule in football is that talking about winning the title is acceptable when discussing ambition, but quickly becomes outlawed when you find yourselves in front. The idea is that pride comes before a fall, and even admitting that your team are favourites to win the league allows complacency to fester.
Chelsea have stuck to the task admirably, rolling out the ‘every game as it comes’ line after each victory. Complacency does not feel like an option under the ever watchful gaze of Antonio Conte, but his players were taking no risks.
After hard-fought victory at Stoke, the reaction was different. Conte’s celebration after Gary Cahill’s late winner told you all you needed to know, the Italian swinging from the roof of the dugout in joy. The players rejoiced as wildly as the away fans in the Bet365 Stadium, and did so again in front of those same supporters after the final whistle. “We’re going to win the league,” they sang, and they’re surely right.
Seven victories from their last ten league matches will confirm a second title in three years for Chelsea, and that’s assuming Tottenham win every remaining fixture. More likely is that Conte becomes only the eighth manager to win the double, and only the third from outside Britain.
He has now won 64 of his last 77 league games as a club manager. Bit silly, really.
Six goals in league and domestic cups this season. That’s more than 18 of the other 24 members of Gareth Southgate’s latest England squad.
Finally moving up, as was always inevitable. The joke about Manchester United and sixth has been fun, but if you keep winning games then eventually rivals will slip. Beating managerless and toothless Middlesbrough is not an exceptional achievement, but winning five of your last six away games is. I’m still backing United to finish in the top four.
Sam Allardyce and Crystal Palace’s defence
Between losing to Liverpool in October and conceding four to Sunderland in February, Crystal Palace allowed more than five shots on target in nine of their 15 league matches, and faced shots on target at a rate of 5.7 per league game.
That shambolic Sunderland defeat has proved to be a turning point, for it allowed Allardyce to read the riot act to his squad. Their way, the old way, wasn’t working. They needed to spring clean Selhurst Park and the training ground of all remnants of the Alan Pardew era. The calamity against Sunderland convinced the squad that their manager was right. Listen to him and Palace would survive.
Since then, Crystal Palace have allowed only 11 shots on target in four league matches, and only three in total in their last two. For the first time since Tony Pulis left, Palace are playing with a safety-first mentality. That might not please all supporters in the long term, but it iss a necessity for survival. Allardyce the firefighter has used his hose wonderfully (and that’s a mental image that will never leave me).
Of course, Allardyce has not achieved this task alone; he was the beneficiary of Crystal Palace allowing him to improve the squad in January. Since arriving on loan from Liverpool, Sakho has been a revelation.
Salmon Rondon has not scored for 13 matches, but his replacement on Saturday changed the game in West Brom’s favour. Robson-Kanu left our radars after his tremendous Euro 2016 achievements, but he must surely now merit a run of starts in the first team. In 36 minutes he scored, had another shot on target and linked up play excellently despite often being left isolated up front.
Marouane Fellaini and a new-found discipline
Goals in three different competitions in 2017, so there.
Sarcasm aside, there is a positive development within Fellaini’s game. In 702 minutes up to the 1-1 draw at Goodison Park in December, Fellaini conceded 20 fouls and was booked six times in the league. You may remember him giving away the penalty that cost Manchester United two points against Everton, and being rightly lambasted for doing so.
In 288 league minutes since, Fellaini has conceded just five fouls. More impressively, the Belgian has not been booked in any of his last 21 matches in all competitions. Turned over a new leaf?
Seven assists and three goals in his last six Tottenham matches in all competitions. Forget Heung-min Son and Vincent Janssen, Eriksen is doing plenty enough to account for the absence of Harry Kane. And I love him so very dearly.
Five matches, five victories. This is like pressing ‘go on holiday’ on Football Manager and coming back to discover that your assistant manager is miles better at this game than you. The bastard.
My early winner, because I think I might have been wrong about him. The only question is whether Mourinho feels as inclined as Louis van Gaal and Alex Ferguson to keep Lingard in his plans.
The starting XI picked by Mauricio Pochettino against Southampton contained only one player signed for more than £15m. That was Heung-min Son, picked only as replacement for the injured Harry Kane.
By way of comparison, here is a breakdown of which teams started players who cost more than £15m this weekend:
Tottenham – 1
Everton – 2
Arsenal – 4
Liverpool – 4
Chelsea – 7
Manchester United – 7
Manchester City – 9
Tottenham’s home form
One home league defeat in the last 14 months; no team in England can match that record, and few can in Europe. In their last ten games at home, Mauricio Pochettino’s team have won all ten, scored 29 goals, conceded only six and created an absolutely outrageous 154 chances.
Antonio Conte, Jose Mourinho and defensive football
“Chelsea are a very good defensive team. They defend very well and with lots of players and I think in this situation a very defensive team wins the title with counter-attack goals and set pieces goals so I don’t think they will let it slip but football is football” – Mourinho, February 11.
“I am not surprised [by Chelsea’s success this season], I am surprised with the way they play. I am surprised because I thought they were demanding a different kind of football. I think Chelsea are phenomenal, but Chelsea are an amazing defensive team” – Mourinho, March 11.
Chris Smalling, Phil Jones, Eric Bailly, Michael Carrick, Marcos Rojo, Matteo Darmian, Ashley Young and Antonio Valencia, all on the pitch at the same time while Mourinho’s Manchester United guarded a lead. Against Middlesbrough. The point is not that Mourinho was wrong to hold his annual defensive gathering on the Riverside Stadium pitch, but that his talk of Chelsea’s defensiveness is cheap. Mourinho knows more than any other manager that you do what you have to do to win. Antonio Conte has just done it better than everyone else.
Updated table between the current top six clubs:
Liverpool – P10 – 20 pts
Chelsea – P8 – 13 pts
Tottenham – P8 – 9 pts
Manchester City – P7 – 8 pts
Manchester United – P6 – 6 pts
Arsenal – P7 – 5 pts
This means little given Liverpool’s struggles against other Premier League teams, but it does emphasise just how impressive Jurgen Klopp’s team have been against their rivals for a top-four place. With added investment to give strength in depth and a genuine plan B, there is real hope for the future.
Adam Lallana’s energy
From 16 Conclusions:
‘Lallana covered 13.51km against City, the most on the pitch by almost 1.5km, and he also sprinted 11 times more than any other player with 90. These are quite ludicrous energy levels.’
Masterminding a victory over Arsene Wenger thanks to an obsession with maximising set-piece plays. Find me a result that makes Tony Pulis feel sexier inside and I’ll find you a liar.
In 11th and level on points with Southampton. Don’t know what you (me; I mean me) were worried about.
And you can add 33 league goals in the Belgian league before he even arrived in England. Y’all convinced yet?
4 – Romelu Lukaku is only the 4th player to score 80+ Premier League goals before the age of 24 (Owen, Rooney and Fowler). Reputation.
— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) March 18, 2017
Just another win. Just another clean sheet. Just another good day for Ronald Koeman. Now for a result in the Merseyside derby.
Arsenal’s lack of management and a problem brought upon themselves
Every televised game, the same thing. Whether Arsenal are winning, losing or drawing, the camera pans to Arsene Wenger on the bench. “What does this mean for his future?” the commentator inevitably asks. And again the focus is away from the pitch.
Those commentators can hardly be blamed for asking. Their job is not just to pass comment on the match but pass comment on the story. Whatever happens in any Arsenal game until Wenger’s future is clarified, his position is the biggest point of interest.
And still it goes on. Asked after defeat at The Hawthorns for further information, Wenger’s only response was to say that he will announce his plans “very soon”. Until then, all Arsenal’s supporters (and players) can do is wait.
Were Arsenal in free-flowing form, you could forgive these delays. Instead, they have lost three consecutive league games and conceded 14 goals in their last five matches away from the Emirates. In the Premier League form table over the last six matches, Wenger’s team sit 16th. Now even optimistic supporters are accepting that Champions League football next season is unlikely, and the bookmakers give the same picture. You can get 11/4 on an Arsenal top-four finish.
Wenger is clearly addicted to Arsenal and desperate to stay and achieve a happy ending, of that there is no doubt. But that only makes the club’s decision to give the manager omnipotence over the timing of his exit and its announcement even more farcical. The latest rumour is that Wenger will indeed stay for at least another season.
For all the criticism of Wenger and the players, it is the woeful lack of management from the top down that has facilitated this slide into decline. It breeds a culture of complacency and a damaging gap in succession planning. How can Arsenal’s hierarchy plan for the future when they don’t know when that future truly begins?
So where does this non-management end? If, as is rumoured, Wenger would like to stay on, does the club not offer its own opinion or leadership? Is Wenger really allowed to take Arsenal lower and lower with no fear of losing his job or even having any pressure applied? Questions, questions, questions, with no answers offered by a club that is supposed to be part of the game’s elite.
The plane banners and pre-match protests contain misguided messages about Wenger ‘killing the club’, but they are also the direct result of a lack of management within Arsenal’s hierarchy. The absence of any pressure from above persuades those below to try their hand.
“We 100 per cent support Arsene,” said Ivan Gazidis in 2011. “I 100 per cent support him and feel he has done a fantastic job in a difficult period for this club. “Ultimately Arsene is ultimately accountable to the fans — they ultimately make judgement. If you are seeing the relationship between the fans and the manager break down over time that is unsustainable. But I don’t think we are anywhere near that.”
So there you have it – trial by jury, played out in front of a televised audience. The question now is whether Arsenal actually listen to those supporters, or plough on regardless. It doesn’t give any confidence in the club’s ability to put long-term succession plans in place, that is for sure.
Arsene Wenger, plan Bs and his final age
At their peak under Wenger, Arsenal were so talented and well-drilled that they didn’t need a plan B. As long as their best players performed to their potential, Arsenal would create enough chances and defend resolutely enough to win most games. There were odd exceptions, naturally, but Arsenal were perennial title challengers.
Then, Arsenal required a Plan B. The average level of talent in the first-team squad decreased due to a number of factors, including the building of the Emirates Stadium, and so Arsenal were forced to find a Plan B when up against both top-six sides and traditionally tricky opponents. This was Wenger’s first systematic issue in charge of Arsenal, and the first time he proved himself incapable of finding a solution to a problem. Many of his signings did not work, he lost his competitive advantage in terms of European scouting, individual training methods and nutrition, and Arsenal slipped from title challengers to top-four regulars. Not a catastrophic change, but a change nonetheless.
Now we are in the final age of Wenger, where the Plan B conundrum has been turned on its head. Certain opponents (or certain opposition managers) are so confident that Wenger will not have a plan to counteract the strengths of Arsenal’s opponents that the course of those matches is entirely predictable. Games against Liverpool will be open with chances and goals. Games against Manchester United will be lost. Games against Tony Pulis will comprise of Pulis’ team causing problems from set-pieces.
On Saturday, this final age found a new nadir (and I know I keep saying that). West Brom’s plan was so obvious that every one of us watching could predict it. Wenger predicted it. Give up the ball as much as possible to avoid being counter-attacked, before aiming to cause a threat from crosses and set-pieces.
And so it proved. When the corner came in for West Brom’s third goal, four Arsenal players were stood watching. None had picked up a man, none had reacted to danger, none had attempted to thwart a very obvious tactical plan. Craig Dawson and Jonny Evans were literally queuing up to head the ball past the abject David Ospina. You can criticise the players if you want, but that is the kind of strategical collapse that bleeds down from the top.
The job of a football manager is not to win every game, because that is fanciful. It is to prepare a team and a tactical plan to give your side the maximum chance of victory in any fixture. That is precisely what Pulis did on Saturday, and precisely what Wenger now seems incapable of doing. Answer me a question: When was the last time that Wenger’s tactics or in-game changes truly won a match for Arsenal? And when was the last time that you could really see the inner workings of Arsenal’s match strategy coming off successfully?
Moyes has now won nine of his last 49 league matches as a manager. Even more astonishingly, he has won only four of his last 24 home league games, stretching back to April 2015. The Championship is the only place that kind of record deserves to end.
Last week West Ham co-owner David Sullivan used the club’s official website to remind Bilic that the club’s current performances were not good enough, and that the team were conceding too many goals. This week, after a 3-2 home loss to Leicester, Sullivan publicly apologised to supporters. Bilic is far from the only one to blame for West Ham’s backward steps this season, but his inability to organise a defence beyond a shambolic level merits plenty of censure. I still think he might be out on his ear come June.
Surprisingly left out of the England squad by Gareth Southgate, Walcott was given an immediate chance to make his international manager look foolish. He completed 14 passes, had one off-target shot and failed to create a single chance before being substituted after 65 minutes. You showed them, Theo.
‘I think Mustafi has the makings of a top signing for Arsenal. Big statement and big day for the club. Very busy and good day’s work’ – The Daily Mirror’s John Cross, August 30, 2016.
‘Think Jonny Evans would have been a better buy than Mustafi’ – Cross, March 18, 2017.
And that sums up Mustafi’s career at Arsenal. Highly rated when he arrived and talked up by many who had seen him play, the defender has caught the Arsenal disease impressively quickly. On current form, he’s a £35m signing that isn’t fit for purpose.
Not a disastrous result given the victory over Swansea last week, but Hull City’s survival really will be decided by their home results. The only team Hull have lost to at home since October in any competition is Manchester City, and they face West Ham, Middlesbrough, Watford and Sunderland at the KC before the season is over.
Yaya Toure’s legs
Pretty good for the first hour, but dead on his feet thereafter. It’s so difficult for a coach to pick a player to start in big games when he knows he must bring him off after 65 minutes. Despite Toure’s return to the Manchester City fold, this will surely be his last season as a regular in the team.
The finishing in Manchester City vs Liverpool
How can you have 25 of your 26 shots from inside the penalty area, and yet manage only seven on target between you?
For much more on both clubs, go read 16 Conclusions. It was hard enough not to repeat myself without you giving up on me.
Consecutive defeats to relegation rivals. Is this the end of the new manager bounce?
Under Aitor Karanka, Middlesbrough didn’t score anywhere near enough goals or create enough chances. Under Steve Agnew, they forgot how to defend too.
Bernardo (vs Marcus Rashford)
Like watching a frightened badger stare into the headlights of a HGV lorry.
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