The Premier League in Review: Incrementally, Nearer They Step

by | Apr 10, 2016

We don’t live in a perfect world. A truism, perhaps, a truism that football supporters know all too readily, nevertheless. We accept that all football clubs and all football teams are not created equally, that some are bigger than others and that some are better than others. But we have a trade-off to make. We expect – or hope – that our leagues will be competitive, and that our teams will try their hardest. It doesn’t feel, considering the financial, emotional and time commitments that we put into our football clubs, like too much to ask.

It’s set against this contextual background that the recent performances of Aston Villa and Newcastle United should be judged. Neither team in particularly good. That much has been evident since the very beginning of the season, though. What’s galling is that, at a point of the season at which the gravity of their specific situations should have finally have begun to hit home, it remains too easy to see their performances as being those of players who simply don’t care. Perhaps the manufacturing of silk purses from sows’ ears is too far beyond the boundaries of possibility for most clubs. Getting the players to at least offer a pretence that they give a shit for ninety minutes on a Saturday afternoon should most definitely not.

Aston Villa are sliding from the Premier League with a whimper rather than a bang. On Saturday they were beaten at home by a Bournemouth team that had itself already started to look as if it was  on its summer holidays, and the replacement of Remi Garde withe Eric Black until the end of the season doesn’t seem to have made any appreciable difference to the players. This club is now only in the Premier League in name only. Anything else at this stage would be a surprise on a par with the possibility of Leicester City winning the Premier League this season… more of which shortly. Bournemouth are safe. Villa are down. This much we know almost for certain.

Newcastle United still have something to play for this season, but this is a team that seems stuck in an aerodynamic stall, with the apparent decision to play the Keystone Kops in defence yesterday being taken advantage off with efficiency by a Southampton team still chasing a place in next year’s Europa League. It was another lackadaisical performance which hinted at the likelihood that the arrival of Rafael Benitez at St James Park could only provide a transient and broadly ineffectual spike in the performances of most of their players. It’s probably still better than it was under Steve McClaren, but the scope for this was always going to be very great, it isn’t better by that much, and it certainly isn’t to an extent that would be required over the course of the remainder of the season in order to keep Newcastle United in the Premier League, come the end of the season.

Villa’s survival chances would have been zero rather than mathematical only had Norwich City beaten Crystal Palace at Selhurst Park yesterday afternoon, but the bottle of celebratory anti-champagne will stay on ice at Villa Park for another few days at least after Palace finally recorded their first Premier League win since December, yesterday afternoon. They’re probably now win from safety, after a goal from Jason Puncheon midway through the second half ended their horrendous streak without a win. After last week’s win against Newcastle United, meanwhile, it might have looked as though Norwich City had one foot in a lifeboat, but this result demonstrates that they still have work to do if they are to stay in the Premier League come the end of the season.

“Heart” and “determination” count for little of their own accord alone, but they count for something at this stage of the season. Consider the difference between Sunderland and Leicester City earlier this afternoon, for example. Sunderland gave this game a go. In comparison with the supinity of Newcastle United and Aston Villa, Sunderland gave it everything at home against the division leaders and will consider themselves somewhat unfortunate to have come away from this match empty-handed. Leicester City looked similarly limited to Sunderland, but a five star performance from Danny Drinkwater, which peaked with a delicious forty yard pass to tee up Jamie Vardy for the only goal of the game, tells a story of its own.

In recent weeks, each Leicester match has thrown up such a performance, whether from Drinkwater, N’golo Kante, Wes Morgan or Riyad Mahrez. And that performance has been enough to keep grinding Leicester towards this most unlikely of Premier League title wins. To a point, the ball wasn’t rolling for Sunderland today, as best evinced by a glaring miss from Jack Rodwell with less than ten minutes to play. Leicester were well-organised and, after having grabbed that second half lead, reasonably composed in holding onto it, even forcing two excellent saves from the Sunderland goalkeeper Vito Mannone as the game ticked over ninety minutes before Vardy added a second with seconds to play. And now we probably do believe them. Sunderland, on the other hand, have to play Norwich City next weekend in the new bulwark for end of season relegation avoidance importance.

The weekend had started more than twenty-four hours earlier with a match between West Ham United which demonstrated fairly elegantly why Leicester City are in the position that they are in today. Arsenal, for whom a corner seemed to have been turned over the last couple of weeks or so, rushed to a languid two-nil lead against West Ham United before suddenly to the other default Arsenal – colloquially known as the “Headless chickens who haven’t been introduced to each other” Arsenal – made a surprise cameo appearance. It wasn’t for long, but it didn’t need to be. Andy Carroll, a player for whom outstanding performances seem to fall in line with the waxing and waning of the seasons, needed less than ten minutes to score a hat-trick before somebody realised, threw some coins in the meter, and switched Arsenal back on. It ended three-all, a result which did neither team many favours with their respective ambitions.

This time of the year being what it is, of course, increasing number of matches are now finding themselves falling into the category of being eligible to join the 200% Dead Rubber Consolation Cup. Swansea City beat Chelsea by a goal to nil, a result which ends any lingering suspicions that Swansea might be relegated come the end of this season or that Chelsea might have much of a chance of playing European football next season, whilst Watford and Everton cancelled each other out with a one-all draw which leaves the FA Cup as being both teams’ best chance of achieving anything that might be described as meaningfully successful this season. Manchester City, meanwhile, finally broke their run of inconsistency. Their win against West Bromwich Albion – and this came following a less than stellar performance in front of a somewhat flat-sounding crowd at the City of Manchester Stadium – may have eased some nerves regarding their position near the top end of the season, but this felt like the performance of a team that is now saving its best for the Champions League.

Whilst Liverpool and Stoke City played out an entertaining match of little to no Premier League consequence – Liverpool’s win fired a poison dart into Stoke’s chances of getting into next season’s Europa League without the munificence of others becoming a significant factor, but nothing has been finally decided once and for all – all eyes were on White Hart Lane, where issues with the traffic caused a delayed kick-off between Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester United. Spurs supporters have come to terms over the last couple of weeks with the fact that Leicester City are showing few signs of surrendering their lead at the top of the table, and the delay to kick-off seemed to unnerve their players, leading to a skittish first twenty-five minutes against a Manchester United team which seemed more comfortable in its own skin than it has done for most of this Premier League season.

They did begin to warm up, most notably with a close range header from Erik Lamela that fizzed wide of the post when it probably should have gone in to give Spurs a scantly-deserved lead, but it didn’t and the two teams got to half-time goalless and still giving the impression that they were sparring rather than engaged in anything like all-out war. Of course, the very nature of the 2016 edition of Manchester United is to give this impression most of the time, but as the second half of this match wore on, it began to feel as if this was spreading to Spurs, who were clumsier and less compact than they have been or much of this season, as well. With a little over twenty minutes to play, though, Spurs did break the deadlock when Harry Kane swept the ball wide to Christian Eriksen, whose low cross from the left was converted from seven yards out by Delle Alli.

And with that, the dams broke. Four minutes later, an Erik Lamela free-kick from the left was glanced in by Toby Alderweireld to double their lead. Two minutes after this, Lamela added a third goal to put the result beyond any reasonable doubt. It was a match which demonstrated by Spurs are in second place in the table whilst Manchester United are down in fifth. United dominated possession in the first half and continued sparring as equals until well into the second. But they seldom looked like scoring, and once Spurs got over their opening sixty minutes skittishness, they broke from the straitjacket of expectation and visibly defrosted beyond our very eyes. It’s probably too late for Spurs to win the Premier League this season, but their fluidity this afternoon once they finally got into gear was something to behold. This weekend, as have so many over the course of the last few months, belonged to Tottenham Hotspur and Leicester City, who were guaranteed Champions League football next season with this weekend’s results. And as for the title… it still looks like being Leicester’s season, somehow.

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