With only 16 games to go before the end of the English Premier League season, the nagging feeling that the winners and losers of the 2018/19 campaign are already set in stone won’t go away.
After the glut of games, goals and drama that flowed across Gameweeks 18 through 21, and the pleasant distraction that is FA Cup Third Round weekend, the Premier League returned with not only a vengeance but also a plethora of stories.
Questions were asked from top to bottom, some of which were answered and others that ended with just more questions. And for one EPL manager, the latest round of games culminated in him leaving a club by “mutual consent.”
The top six had a mixed bag of results.
Wins for Liverpool, Manchester City, Chelsea and Manchester United merely stretched the points gap between the big hitters and the rest of the top ten. Defeats for Arsenal at West Ham (the first time in 12 years that the Hammers had beaten the Gooners) and Spurs at home to the revitalized United were further evidence that North London is not going to take home the trophy at the end of the season.
At the bottom, Crystal Palace, Newcastle United and Fulham all lost, while Huddersfield Town’s scoreless draw with Cardiff meant the end of the road for Town boss (and Jurgen Klopp’s best friend) David Wagner. Burnley and Southampton did themselves no harm with wins over Fulham and Leicester, respectively, although Burnley managed to take all three points without a single shot on target.
Elsewhere, Everton managed to see off a stubborn Bournemouth in a match that was notable for the inclement weather and the fact that the Cherries are falling down the table at just the wrong time. A flurry of late chances ramped up the tension inside Goodison Park, but the fact that the Everton manager said that his team “must improve in the second half of the season” speaks volumes.
With all of that in mind, here are the a few things that we learned from EPL Week 22.
Manchester United are back … probably.
Anyone who thought that Jose Mourinho was actually in charge at Old Trafford should now reconsider their position.
When United lost to Liverpool in Week 17, the consensus was that the players were either not good enough to wear the shirt or the manager’s tactics were not working. After six wins on the bounce since Jose was fired (including a home win in the FA Cup), it is blatantly obvious that the players had basically downed tools. Player power is nothing new in the EPL, and there have been several instances in recent years where a manager is working with footballers who don’t want to play for him.
However, players don’t get sacked. They might be benched or fail to get into the matchday squad, but they are the ones who hold all the cards. Jose lost the dressing room, plain and simple, and the appointment/success of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer as interim manager has woken these overpaid superstars up.
Prior to the game at Spurs, the general feeling amongst the media was that Ole had not really been tested so far. Games against Cardiff, Huddersfield, Bournemouth, Newcastle and Reading (FA Cup) were all matches that United was expected to win, even under Mourinho. Spurs at Wembley was another matter.
An added narrative was the well-reported speculation that Spurs boss Mauricio Pochettino is the first choice to take over at Old Trafford at the end of the season. Poch has been extremely coy about the job opportunity, but that might be moot if Ole continues to build on the temporary relationship that he has with his players and, it seems, with the United fans.
As a result, the recent run of victories has exposed player attitude/apathy as not only the underlying reason for Mourinho’s departure but also acts as a warning for the next permanent manager. Yes, United won at Wembley so it could be argued that Solskjaer passed his first real test, but they were under pressure for most of the game and had their keeper to thank for keeping Spurs out.
“United are working hard and putting the effort in. They did not do that under Mourinho,” said BBC pundit (and former England defender) Danny Mills during the game. “Forget about tactics, forget about anything else. That is down to the players themselves. It’s almost a bit embarrassing how, overnight, the United players went ‘actually, we’re not going to try that hard. Oh, the manager’s gone, now we’re going to put in every single effort’.”
As it turned out, the game was a fair reflection for both sides of their current aspirations and league position. United defended well, scored on the break and had keeper (and man-of-the-match) David De Gea putting in a shift that included 11 saves in the second half alone. Spurs, for their part, always looked the better team and racked up a 61 percent possession rate, with striker Harry Kane registering seven shots during the game.
The caveat is that if you don’t put the ball in the back of the net, you can’t possibly win and Spurs’ finishing was arguably the defining factor in United’s 1-0 victory. An added worry for Spurs was the news that Kane is going to be out until March with an ankle injury (picked up in the last minute!) and this alone may yet prove to be the defining moment in the North London club’s season.
Ignore Manchester City at your peril
While the media has had its focus on one side of Manchester, the blue half of the city has been getting on with being the closest challengers to league leaders Liverpool.
Consecutive defeats to Palace and Leicester at the tail-end of 2018 had put tiny doubts in the mind as to City’s chances of defending their title. A win against unbeaten Liverpool in Gameweek 21 was exactly what their season needed, and resounding cup victories (7-0 over Rotherham, 9-0 against Burton Albion) showed that the club were focused on adding more silverware to the trophy cabinet—the win over Burton in the first leg of the League Cup effectively put them into the final, where they will play either Chelsea or Spurs.
A home game against Wolves would seem to be the perfect way to further close the gap on Liverpool, but the visitors had pulled off a number of good results against the so-called Big Six, so a win was not guaranteed.
Happily for City, this was not the same Wolves that beat Spurs the other week, conceding a goal within 10 minutes and then having a player sent off after less than 20.
The rest of the game then became a training session, with City scoring two more and enjoying 76 percent possession. The only fly in the ointment was the fact that they missed out on the chance to register 100 goals for the season to date … a statistic that is likely to change when they visit Huddersfield in Gameweek 23.
Liverpool remain the ones to beat
Prior to City’s game against Wolves, Liverpool had opened up a seven-point gap at the top.
With only one defeat so far this season, Jurgen Klopp’s team has effectively turned the title into a two-horse race, with numerous pundits predicting that this is year when Liverpool ends its wait for a Premier League trophy. The team has kept 13 clean sheets so far and only conceded 10 goals all season, a concrete defense that has allowed them to benefit from the goals being scored by Salah and co.
In fact, only one team in EPL history has conceded less goals than Liverpool after 22 games—Chelsea in 2004/05, 8—and there is little doubt that the acquisition of a top-class defender (Van Dijk) and a goalkeeper (Alisson) in the last 12 months has been money well-spent.
Their latest win—1-0 away at Brighton & Hove Albion—offered more evidence that Liverpool are the real deal, with 70 percent possession and a sense that the team can get the job done when required. Losses to City and Wolves in the previous two games, the latter in the FA Cup, had made people question if Liverpool had the necessary cajones to win the league, but this victory was way more comfortable than the scoreline suggests.
According to the BBC, this match demonstrated the “efficiency and control of a side capable of winning while not at their best,” with a Mo Salah penalty securing all three points. Brighton did OK without ever looking like they were going to beat the league leaders, and their fight to stay up will not depend on the result of this game.
“I think it was the most mature performance we have made so far,” Klopp said, in an interview with the BBC. “There were a few situations where we could have been a bit more inspired, creative and cool. We know we can control the game and we are not that childish anymore.”
The relegation dogfight is coming
Away from the top of the table, the relegation battle is starting to simmer nicely.
Huddersfield are rooted to the bottom with 11 points from 22 games, scoring a meagre 13 goals in the process. Manager David Wagner left the club on January 14 after the goalless draw with Cardiff by “mutual consent,” which (for once) does not seem to be code for getting sacked.
Irrespective of whether or not that is the case, the team are in serious trouble and little things like being awarded a penalty away from home and then having it overturned by the assistant referee are normally a good indicator as to how your season is going. Huddersfield are three points behind Fulham and eight points from safety, so it is a safe bet to assume that (barring a miracle) they will be playing in the Championship next season.
Fulham must also be thinking that their luck must turn soon.
It takes a special set of skills to lose a match to an opponent that doesn’t have a shot on target in 90 minutes. After taking the lead within 90 seconds away at Burnley, the Fulham defense scored two own goals in the space of three minutes, which eventually resulted in a 2-1 victory for the home side.
Having spent a bunch of cash in the summer, owner Shahid Khan must have thought that mid-table obscurity was achievable, but his team have been fairly crap since day one, amassing 14 points and letting in 49 goals.The obvious answer is to raid the transfer market (again) in January, but there is no guarantee that new recruits will make the difference before the end of the season.
Despite the defeat, Fulham boss Claudio Ranieri was upbeat … losing the plot perhaps, but he certainly succeeded in hiding how annoyed he really was.
“Football is fantastic. We deserved more but that’s football,” he said, after the game. “They had three chances and scored two own goals. We are alive, we never give up and we continue to fight. I am satisfied with our performance. We knew it would be a battle, they won so they are right and we are wrong.”
The shot-less win saw Burnley move up to 15th spot, and there is now four points separating Palace in 14th and Newcastle in 18th. Southampton and Cardiff both have 19 points so far, with Newcastle dropping into the bottom three after their defeat at Chelsea.
If I was putting money on which teams would get relegated in May, then I would have to say that history is against both newly-promoted teams (Cardiff and Fulham) and Newcastle.
Since their “success” in the mid-90’s and the early naughties (defined as losing a double-digit lead to Manchester United in 1995/96 and finishing in the top five between 2001 and 2004), the Toon Army have struggled in the top flight and have suffered relegation twice in the last 10 years. Granted, they bounced back at the first attempt both times, but they are still considered to be one of the big clubs (by their fans, at least) and have a stadium that is on a par with most—if not all—of the Big Six.
With that in mind, there is a small gap beginning to develop in the bottom half of the table, with Brighton, Bournemouth and Everton sitting on 26, 27 and 27 points, respectively. To put that into context, Wolves are 10th with 29 points while West Ham (9th) and Leicester (8th) are unlikely to get dragged into a relegation fight this season.
Next up … Gameweek 23
To be honest, EPL Week 23 does not have a ton of must-see games.
The exception to this is Arsenal vs Chelsea, with both teams desperate to cement their places in the top five. Arsenal were very poor against West Ham, and fans will be hoping that the team is able to contain Chelsea’s Eden Hazard for much of the game. If not, then we can expect to see another round of fan-centric meltdowns on the always entertaining Arsenal Fan TV (required viewing after an Arsenal defeat).
As an interesting aside, EPL Week 23 will see the return of Jose Mourinho … who is expected to be one of the pundits covering Arsenal vs Chelsea for BeIN Sports. Sadly, a confidentiality clause inserted into his $20 million departure package from United, according to the Manchester Evening News, will limit the chances of the Special One telling the watching world what he really thinks of Paul Pogba and the other players that got him the sack.
The rest of the top six are playing teams in the lower half of the table. Liverpool take on Palace at home, while Manchester City should get their 100th goal of the season at hapless Huddersfield. Spurs—without the injured Harry Kane and a room full of walking wounded—will be at Fulham, with Manchester United looking to make it seven wins out of seven against Brighton.
West Ham will look to keep their momentum going with a trip to the South Coast to play Bournemouth, and Watford will take on Burnley, with the latter club hoping to have some actual shots on target this week.
Elsewhere, Wolves against Leicester could be a good game to follow, as both teams are largely committed to an attacking brand of football wherever possible. Southampton versus Everton is another one that might be less dull then it sounds, although Newcastle at home to Cardiff is either going to be a snoozefest or an error-strewn cracker.
Tune in next week to find out how EPL Week 23 turned out.
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