Over the past week, EPL Extra Time has received some feedback from you, the readers, that we have been unnecessarily harsh on Manchester United lately, particularly with regards to not giving them enough credit for their resolute defensive efforts.
Looking back, I was reminded of that old adage of retail, that the customer is always right, and right you were, as we had been focusing too hard on United’s lack of attacking penetration and not enough on their outstanding defence that, leading into the weekend’s game with Bournemouth, had only conceded 10 goals in 15 games.
And we were all ready to heap worthy praise on that defence and their defensive record this week… right up to the point that that lost that game 2-1 on the South Coast.
Against the Cherries, United actually ceded more of the ball than they have in recent weeks, recording ‘only’ 57 per cent, whileregistering five shots on target, their most in a Premier League match for some weeks, but it mattered for nought as Bournemouth continued their recent giant killing ways.
Manchester United fans won’t put up with turgid, boring football at on the best of days, but they can be persuaded to if it brings results, and while 0-0’s are results and points in the bank, those fans will turn on a manager like a restless lynch mob if they have to sit through turgid, boring football and losses. For a man who has spent over £250 million in 18 months, Louis Van Gaal looked very calm sitting on the bench at the end game, following a loss to a promoted team with the joint-worst defence in the league.
Those looking to defend United further will likely point to the players they were forced to start in defence – Guillermo Varela, Paddy McNair, Daley Blind, and Cameron Borthwick-Jackson. But those same people would be wise to remember that Bournemouth are themselves experiencing somewhat of an injury crisis too, being without Max Gradel, Tyrone Mings (the two most expensive signings in the club’s history) and Callum Wilson (the club’s leading striker).
But enough about United and their issues, and onto more important questions, like is Eddie Howe a wizard? After beating Chelsea last week, the Bournemouth boss spoke of “using the win as a springboard to produce more magic days like this” – could he have known how true those words would ring a mere seven days later?
Since losing at home to Newcastle, a loss that doesn’t look so bad given the Geordies results the past two weeks, Bournemouth has secured back-to-back draws against Swansea and Everton, and now back-to-back wins against Chelsea and United. Howe’s men suddenly look like a team ready to stay in the Premier League.
Leicester v Chelsea analysis
The team top of the Premier League beating a side just above the relegation places isn’t really news, is it? The turnaround from last season to this has been astonishing for both Leicester and Chelsea, but for vastly different reasons – on 13 December last year, Leicester had just lost 1-0 to Manchester City to sit bottom of the Premier League, five points from safety having lost 10 of their 16 games. What a turnaround 12 months’ makes, as the 2-1 win over Chelsea took the Foxes’ back to the top of the table, having scored more goals than any other side in the division.
Since this column identified Leicester’s upcoming run as a yard stick for their staying power, the Foxes have won two and drawn one. Maybe they are here to stay.
As for Chelsea, the loss leaves them 16th, one point above the relegation places and now behind a Newcastle side that, until a week ago, looked like a headless rabble. The underlying theme when comparing the title-winning Chelsea to the current model – Mourinho took all the credit for the title triumph last season, and is laying all of the blame for this season’s dreck on his players.
The curious case of Eden Hazard
Speaking of Chelsea’s swift decline, has any player ever fallen off the face of the earth more than the reigning Player of the Year? I’m not 100 per cent sure of the date Mourinho made the comments, but apparently since ol’ Jose called Hazard the third-best player in the world, behind Ronaldo and Messi, the Belgian has played 23 games, missed two penalties and scored zero goals as his side continue to struggle without his influence.
Life at the bottom
They’re only one of seven sides to have played in every year of the Premier League, but things are looking bleak for Aston Villa. They’ve not won since the 1-0 opening day win over Bournemouth, are currently six points behind a pretty ordinary Sunderland side who are second from bottom, and sit an ever-growing eight points adrift of safety, having taken only six points from 16 matches.
As mentioned earlier, Leicester were bottom in mid-December last year, but at least they had 10 points to their name; they’d lost 10 of their 16 games, while Villa have lost 12 this campaign. Leicester proved last year that the great escape is possibly, but they required a historically-great escape. Villa currently require an even greater one.
Against Arsenal, they managed a mere two shots on target, both ‘easy-to-see-coming’ chances from Scott Sinclair and Carlos Sanchez, with neither truly troubling Petr Cech. At 2-0 up at the break, Arsenal had the cue in the rack in the second half, with only one shot on target in the second stanza, happy to cede the game to a side with little to no attacking threat.
Arsenal’s second goal shows exactly what Villa’s problems are, as they looked completely disinterested after losing possession while on the attack. Watch the lead-up to the goal back – as Arsenal win possession and break, they have four attackers facing up to four Villa defenders as the ball moves across the halfway line. As the action progresses, Walcott releases the ball from halfway, and suddenly it’s three Arsenal attackers streaking forward with only one Villa defender, Joleon Lescott, standing between them and the goal. Given the lack of resistance, it was all too easy for Mesut Ozil to draw Lescott and ‘keeper Brad Guzan before teeing up Aaron Ramsey to score. Incidentally, it was Ramsey’s initial tackle back near his own penalty area that won Arsenal possession.
Villa completely lacking in effort and desire, they only need to look to Ramsey for both, as the Welshman powered forward to support the attack, and reap the rewards for his efforts.
The Sack Race – late edition
Swansea started the season strongly, finding themselves in the top four early on, but one win since August was enough for manager Garry Monk to lose his job. The Swans could be forgiven for thinking they were cursed – we always talk about having luck at the bottom, but in football that sentiment is also true at the top, as Manchester City enjoyed an extraordinary slice of luck to take all three points in the game against the Swans. After Bafetimbi Gomis looked to have nicked a point for Swansea late on, Yaya Toure’s injury time shot deflected perfectly off Kelechi Iheanacho to cruelly evade Lukasz Fabianski and give City the luckiest of lucky 2-1 wins.
‘How to save yourself’ bonus: Newcastle hadn’t won consecutive games since November 2014, while Spurs hadn’t lost since the opening day of the season. Oh how that all went out the window as Newcastle secured a come-from-behind 2-1 win. Since apparently being given the Liverpool and Tottenham games to save his job, Steve McClaren has responded in the best way possible. Two wins later.
What to make of Everton?
Everton playing good football of late, particularly their attacking quartet, but that’s now three straight draws (two against promoted sides) and only two wins in their past nine matches. The Toffees defence is currently letting their deadly attack down, as Romelu Lukaku, Ross Barkley, Deulofeu et al. position Everton as the better side in matches, but Roberto Martinez’ men are currently not getting full return for effort. The match commentators in the 1-1 with Norwich remarked that Lukaku could have had six goals in the first half alone, with poor finishing, excellent goalkeeping, and some more slack defending resigning the Merseysiders to another two points thrown away.
Who is the form striker of the Premier League? Jamie Vardy grabbed another goal against Chelsea to take his tally at the top of the scorers chart to 15, but he is hardly the only striker in the league in red hot form. Lukaku scored again, becoming the first player to score in seven consecutive league games for Everton since the 1970’s. Odion Ighalo netted again for Watford, while Olivier Giroud scored for Arsenal, his fifth goal in three games (11 in 13) in all competitions.
Crystal Palace’s 1-0 win over Southampton, the Eagles’ first ever Premier League win over the Saints, made it five games without a win for Ronald Koeman’s men, and it’s easy to see why when looking at the marking for Yohan Cabaye’s winning goal. Southampton’s defence did well to pick up the run of striker Connor Wickham, but it was the midfield that didn’t pick up the Frenchman’s secondary run as he strolled into the six yard box unmarked and untracked.
Stupid defending too from Alan Hutton in the lead up to Arsenal’s opener from the penalty spot. After having Mathieu Flamini’s hopeful pass covered and well under control, Hutton a) allows Theo Walcott to get position on the ball, b) puts his arms around Walcott and hauls the winger to the ground, and c) just for good measure, once Walcott’s on the turf, throws his hands in the air. Footballers might think this gesture means “I didn’t touch him, sir” but refs only hear “yep, I fouled him and I know it.”
Ropey defending was also on display, surprise surprise, in the Sunderland v Watford game, specifically Sebastian Coates failing to keep goal side of Ighalo for the only goal of the game. Here is Ighalo, a player who, entering the game, had four goals and two assists in his previous six league games. Now make that five goals and two assists in seven games thanks in large part to Coates failing to sense obvious danger when the Nigerian is near the goal.
This instance of inept Sunderland defending led to a goal, but there was another stretch of action where the Black Cats didn’t concede, but were well and truly riding their luck. First, Ighalo beat John O’shea twice on the dribble before Costel Pantilimon blocks the shot but the Watford man has another go, only for his second shot to get cleared off the line by Coates. That ball falls to Almen Abdi, who is denied by a desperate, onrushing Pantilimon, before Jose Manuel Jurado hits the post and the danger is averted. More lucky than good from Sunderland, and a clear indicator of why they’re at the bottom end of the table.
Striker bonus: for those wondering, Fabio Borini continues to be completely rubbish. Makes you wonder how he ended up at Liverpool. Still, I can see him as a potential 20 goal striker… Next year. In the Championship. Once Sunderland are relegated.
For a few week’s now, we have lamented West Ham’s struggles since losing Dimitri Payet to injury, but he’s not the only Hammer’s player currently crocked. In addition to Payet, their treatment room currently houses Winston Reid, Diafra Sakho, Victor Moses, Enner Valencia, and Manuel Lanzini, which are probably six of West Ham’s seven best players. It’s easy to see how this week’s West Ham v Stoke City match finished goalless, especially when you add in the fact Xherdan Shaqiri, the mastermind of Stoke’s win over Manchester City last week, also missed the game through injury.
Worth their weight in goals #1
Credit to Newcastle for staying in the battle with Spurs long enough to come away with a 2-1 win, but they were certainly gifted the victory thanks to poor goalkeeping from the usually reliable Hugo Lloris. More a hit and hope chance from Ayoze Perez, forcing the save, but a pair of weak hands from Lloris allows the ball to get through him for Newcastle’s late winner.
Worth their weight in goals #2
We couldn’t do a goalkeeping howlers item without mentioning Liverpool’s Simon Mignoelt, could we? The Belgian again proved that he does not inspire confidence at the back and has extreme issues when coming off his line for a ball. For West Brom’s first goal, he came for the ball, didn’t get anything on his attempted punch, and then shows no urgency to get back near his goal line, resulting in the Liverpool ‘keeper’s eighth error leading directly to a goal since the start of the ’13-14 season.
Mignolet’s hesitance was again on display when Martin Olssen had a goal disallowed for offside right on the stroke of halftime – this time the ‘keeper was nailed to his goal line as the West Brom free kick was swung in, no doubt spooked from his earlier error. Not the kind of play the Reds would be looking for, especially with rumours that a goalkeeper is top of Jurgen Klopp’ transfer shopping List.
Worth their weight in goals #3
When you’re forced to deploy a makeshift backline, those players will look to the goalkeeper for inspiration and confidence in the rear guard action. The usually flawless David De Gea misjudging a corner and watching it sail into his own net barely two minutes into a game would not have inspired confidence as United lost to Bournemouth.
Miss of the Season (so far)
Norwich’s Cameron Jerome with a top contender this week, as good work from Russell Martin and Wes Hoolahan pulled the ball back for an unmarked Jerome to blaze over from six yards out. This is why Norwich have only scored 18 goals in 16 games.
A close second, Branislav Ivanovic failing to volley home a corner on the near post from literally a yard out. Unmarked.
Goal of the Week – Riyad Mahrez
The second goal to really sink the boot into Chelsea, it was just another highlight from a player who has arguably been the best in the Premier League this season.
Goose of the Week – Jurgen Klopp
No matter what happens on a football pitch, whether that be between players, managers, or a combination of the two, there is never, ever an excuse for not shaking your rivals’ hand. Klopp has hit all the right notes since joining Liverpool, but there is still no excuse for not shaking Tony Pulis’ hand, regardless of his opinion over the tackle on Dejan Lovren (after all, if West Brom were out to intentionally injure a Liverpool player, I can think of about nine they’d aim to injure before an accident-prone defender).
Gloveman of the Week – Paulo Gazzaniga
A quite stellar performance from the Italian on his Premier League debut. First, he saves the most freakish shot I’ve ever seen from Yannick Bolaise, which looked like it was going out for a throw in off the Palace man’s boot, before being caught perfectly by the wind and almost drifting into the far top corner before the ‘keepers intervention. Then, Gazzaniga saved a shot for Yohan Cabaye that was hit with such ferocity it almost knocked the ‘keeper into the goal, while he also saved well from Connor Wickham’s near post bullet header. There were more big saves in the second, as Gazzaniga first denied Wickham again before keeping out Bolaise’s venomous drive.
Stat of the week
Not the first time he’s featured here, but in teeing up Ramsey’s second goal against Villa, Mesut Ozil recorded his 13th assist of the season. The next best has seven.
Another tie, and these two tie after having the identical fantasy output – 13 points, comprised of taking home the three point bonus, scoring a goal, grabbing an assist and playing 2 points worth of minutes on the pitch. Step forward Liverpool captain Jordan Henderson and Leicester midfielder Riyad Mahrez.
We’ve spoken a lot this week about Bournemouth’s win over Manchester United, but one more point bears mentioning – please pause this week and spare a thought for Cherries player Harry Arter, who played 86 minutes against United mere days after the death of his infant daughter in childbirth. As fans, we ride the emotions of football but often it takes things like this to remind us that football is not a matter of life and death, despite what Bill Shankley famously said, and that there are far more important things in life than grown men chasing a ball up and down a pitch.