The Premier League In Review: Where Business As Usual Is Business As Unusual
A mixture of farce and rumoured subterfuge is starting make Manchester United’s season feel a little like an Ealing Comedy. At the end of last week, the club poured cold water on rumours that it had held a secret meeting with Pep Guardiola on the subject of its not yet vacant managerial position and on Saturday evening the agent Jorge Mendes was doing the same to a newspaper story – which was written with a level of detail which suggested that either there was more to this than idle tittle tattle or that somebody, somewhere has an extremely fertile imagination – which stated that Jose Mourinho has written a six page long cri du couer to the club outlining why he should follow dead man walking Louis Van Gaal as its next manager.
Sandwiched between this, another ninety minutes of schadenfreude broke out at Old Trafford on Saturday afternoon as the 2015 edition Manchester United reverted to type against a defiantly mid-table Southampton. It was, as has do often been the case there this season, a turgid ninety minutes of football – the eleventh in a row to feature United not scoring in the first half, a statistical curiosity that has come to symbolise Van Gaal’s team’s torpor – enlivened only by Charlie Austin, who was making his debut following his move to Southampton on loan, bundling in a winning goal for the visitors with three minutes left to play. A familiar round of boos rang around the Theatre Of A Good Night’s Sleep at full-time, and there is now a little clear daylight between United and one of the much coveted Champions League places. Not for the first time this season, an attempt at swagger on Manchester United’s part has quickly come to resemble drunken stumbling.
The only teams amongst the top six clubs who did enjoy a good weekend were Leicester City and Tottenham Hotspur. Leicester extended their lead at the top of the table with a comfortable swatting aside of Stoke City which featured Jamie Vardy scoring for the first time in seven matches whilst Spurs won a curious match at Crystal Palace by three goals to one. Palace had failed to score in their previous five games, and, what with Spurs being Spurs and all, this run continued with Jan Vertongen gifting them a first half own goal, but the show was comprehensively stolen by Delle Alli, whose second half turn and volley to give Spurs the lead after Harry Kane had brought them level fell quite firmly into the category of “goal of the season contenders.” So, Tottenham supporters continue to try and contain their excitement while Crystal Palace continue their recent downward drift.
All of this opened up something of an opportunity for Manchester City on Saturday evening, but it took fifty-five seconds to them to concede at West Ham United and an hour and three quarters for the idea that their 2015/16 vintage would be distinctly moderate were it not for the consistently jaw dropping talents of Sergio Aguero, who scored twice and hit the woodwork in an enjoyably knockabout two-all draw at the Boleyn Ground. Whilst Manchester City remain stodgy and inconsistent, though (they haven’t won successive Premier League matches since October), West Ham also deserve considerable credit for their role in it all. Dimitri Payet was outstanding in midfield, whilst Sam Byram’s debut performance hinted that the reported £4m that the club have spent on him from Leeds United may well turn out to be money very well spent indeed.
At the other end of the table, meanwhile, everything is more or less as we were. If defensive profligacy is a key indicator of one’s chances of avoiding relegation, however, then different clubs might be taking different positives and negatives from their teams’ performances. Should Norwich City slip through the trapdoor come May, all concerned will likely look back upon scoring four times against Liverpool yet somehow losing the match as having critical in this happening. Aston Villa, meanwhile, may still only have three Premier League wins this season, but at least another scoreless draw, this time at West Bromwich Albion, demonstrates that Remi Garde has started make some progress with his band of misfits. They’re still adrift at the bottom of the table, but are showing signs of heading in the right direction. The question is… has he left it a little too late to keep them up this season? Elsewhere, Sunderland and Bournemouth cancelled each other out, with Benik Ofobe scoring his first goal since moving to Dean Court for £9m from Wolverhampton Wanderers, and Newcastle United continued their enigmatic season in losing at Watford.
Sunday brought just the two Premier League fixtures. In the first, Everton were booed from the pitch following their home defeat at the hands of Swansea City, and it’s unlikely that this state of affairs would have changed that much had Seamus Coleman not blazed the ball high over the crossbar from inches out and with seconds of the match left to play. Everton remain simultaneously greater than the sum of their parts yet still not as strong a team as Roberto Martinez would have us all believe. The Premier League’s curate’s egg of a club. Swansea City, meanwhile, are nowhere near safe relegation, but are at least showing signs of life after several months in the doldrums. The annual Premier League relegation scramble looks like going to the wire, and the psychological effect on the team of this result may well prove to be significant.
And so to The Emirates Stadium, where Arsenal demonstrated that all that swaggers may not be gold in losing – again – against Chelsea. The story this match revolved around pantomime villain Diego Costa, whose eighteenth minute tumble resulted in a red card for Per Mertesacker which was probably warranted if only for the rashness of the Arsenal player’s challenge, and who popped up five minutes later to score what turned out to be the only goal of the match. It remains difficult to know what, exactly, to make of Arsenal this season. Every time they show signs of building up a head of steam they contrive to find a way to stumble, whether of their own volition or due to extenuating circumstances, and this season could yet either be their best or worst Premier League season in more than a decade. Even though it’s the ed of January, it’s too early to say. Three points for Chelsea, meanwhile, opens up a comfortable looking gap between that club and the relegation places. It’s been that sort of season.
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