Premier League Review: The Eyes Have It
There was a monent during last Sunday afternoon’s Premier League match between Everton and Manchester City when a single shot of the Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola spoke a thousand words with regard to the issues with consistency that are currently causing such a glaring issue with his team’s chances of winning a title which many considered to be well within their reach at the start of the season. As Everton strolled to a more than comfortable four-nil win, the amelioration provided by City’s five-goal win at West Ham United fell away like leaves shedding a tree during the autumn.
Given the nature of the recent white noise surrounding Everton, we might have considered that it would be they who approached this match with the whites of the players’ eyes so clearly on show. As things turned out, though, Ronald Koeman’s team played with a degree of verve and confidence which may have been forthcoming as a result of their recent Premier League form, but which was conspicuous only by its absence from last week’s tame FA Cup home defeat at the hands of Leicester City. But with the gap between seventh and sixth place in the table trimmed again, Koeman must feel vindicated over his team’s recent form. For Guardiola, however, there seem to be two available options at present – to walk away from the club altogether, or to write this Premier League season (at least) off as a transitional year and begin the job of rebuilding for next season.
Leicester City’s win at Goodison Park would seem to have been something of a false flag operation, in terms of form. The champions are five points above the Premier League relegation places, but their Saturday evening home defeat at the hands of Chelsea was about as comprehensive as results come. Leicester have won just two of their last twelve Premier League matches, and on Saturday evening they were outplayed in just about every department by a Chelsea team who have an object lesson in how to put off the field ructions behind a team and continue to deliver on the pitch. Diego Costa was conspicuous by his absence from Antonio Conte’s team, but on current form it isn’t even clear that they would particularly miss him if he wasn’t there, at the moment.
Leicester’s best chance of avoiding relegation at this point in time would appear to be the hope that there are three worse teams in the Premier League this season than they. At this stage of the season, the answer to that question is inconclusive. Swansea City don’t seem able to stop shipping goals. They were okay for the first half an hour against Arsenal, but they capitulated with the first goal and ended up conceding four, which took their goals against tally for the season to forty-nine, more than two per game and the most in the division. New manager Paul Clement has two weeks to bolster his side ahead of the closure of the January transfer window, but doing so without resorting to a state of panic will be no easy task.
Another club that continues to offer very brief glimpses of what could be before reverting very solidly to type is Sunderland, who were beaten at home by Stoke City with a degree of finality that is difficult to positively spin. Sunderland remain in touch with the rest of the pack, but this is primarily because those around them are continuing to fail to pick up points rather than because they are themselves. Finishing up the mini-list of teams likely to be worse than Leicester City this season are Crystal Palace. A five-goal home defeat in the FA Cup last weekend and ructions concerning Dimitri Payet and his interest in leaving the club altogether might have meant that West Ham United were there for the taking on Saturday afternoon, but instead the home side powered past a Palace team that is still grasping for its first win under Sam Allardyce. The vast majority of Planet Football seemed to have decided that Allardyce’s arrival at Selhurst Park would be enough for them to pull clear of the relegation zone in and of itself, but there has been little tangible yet to indicate that this will be the case.
One team that has given itself an unlikely but most definitely fighting chance of survival is Hull City. Was their win over Bournemouth at the weekend solely a matter of new manager bounce coming into play? Possibly, but Silva must feel that he has something to work with after a comfortable win lifted his team from the bottom of the table to parity with Crystal Palace, who sit one place above the relegation places. Many have been sceptical of Silva’s appointment as manager of the club, but the early signs from this game is that Hull may yet have a chance of avoiding the drop come the end of this season, and that is more than many have been giving them since before was even kicked in anger, last August.
On Saturday lunchtime, meanwhile, it felt difficult to believe that West Bromwich Albion could possibly be a team from the top half of the Premier League. This isn’t a reflection, however, upon Tony Pulis or his team. This is a reflection on the quality of the performance that Tottenham Hotspur managed in disposing of his team by four goals to nil. Spurs have now won six Premier League matches in a row whilst scoring nineteen goals in the process. Such is the nature of the top end of the table – especially when combined with Spurs’ long-running reputation for flakiness and dragging defeat from the jaws of victory – that, even being in second place in the table and bang in form may not be enough to take them to the top of the table this season. Chelsea’s seven point lead looks as daunting as ever. But make no mistake about it, they’re where they are in the table on merit, at the moment.
Just below Spurs, meanwhile, Manchester United and Liverpool cancelled each other out once again. Between Paul Pogba’s moment of brain-melt, which led to the penalty kick from which Liverpool took the lead, to the late second half equaliser after Liverpool had arguably had chances to kill the game off altogether, the likelihood is that neither Jose Mourinho nor Jurgen Klopp will have been particularly happy at the match ending in stalemate, but Liverpool maintain third place in the table and remain five points above United as a result of their performance at Old Trafford.
Manchester United, meanwhile, saw their run of six successive league wins come to an end, and it remains a fact that they have scored notably fewer goals than any of the teams around or above them in the league so far this season. Jose Mourinho has been grinding results out and perhaps Manchester United’s support-base, which has been feeling pretty neglected over the last three or four years or so, will accept the Mourinho modi operandum if it results in the team regaining a little of the poise that was such a defining characteristic of the club under the tutelage of Alex Ferguson. There remains, however, little sense of whether there is a coordinated plan beyond grinding out wins going on at Old Trafford at the moment, and not being David Moyes or Louis Van Gaal is likely to only get Mourinho so far in this particular position.
Burnley’s home form seems to be their passport to Premier League survival, at the moment. A one-nil win against Southampton on Saturday lifted them to tenth place in the table on Saturday, a return on this season that few would have predicted and which will undoutbedly fill Clarets supporters with considerable satisfaction. With a gap of ten points between them and the relegation places, a further couple of wins will all but ensure their survival for another season. If they could replicate their home form away from Turf Moor, they would surely be capable of scaling even greater heights. Southampton, on the other hand, have now lost four games in a row, have dropped to thirteenth place in the table, and have scored just nineteen Premier League goals all season. It is starting to feel as though this could be an underwhelming season at St Marys.
At Vicarage Road on Saturday afternoon, Watford and Middlesbrough played out a goalless draw of little distinction. The minds of most, if not all, Watford supporters were surely elsewhere, and a fulsome and heartfelt tribute to their recently-departed former manager Graham Taylor was always likely to overshadow whatever took place on the pitch following it. This goalless draw left the Hornets seven points above the relegation zone, but without a win in their last seven Premier League matches. Perhaps, it might be argued, Watford’s players had an excuse for being a little distracted on Saturday afternoon, but this won’t be the case indefinitely, and if there’s one thing that we know for certain, it’s that Taylor himself wouldn’t have stood for the timidity of some of their recent performances.
This week’s Twohundredpercent Podcast was a memorial to the former Watford, Aston Villa, Lincoln City, Wolverhampton Wanderers and England manager Graham Taylor. Click here to listen to it.