It’s nearly Christmas, and to stave off the interminable terrible songs that remain popular simply because they have the word “snow” in them, here are a few thoughts on the Premier League ‘til now.
Leicester aren’t going to win the title
Leicester have been brilliant this season. Propelled by Riyad Mahrez’s creativity and Jamie Vardy’s goals, and based on the excellent N’Golo Kante’s industry in midfield, they somehow, against all odds, are first in the table at Christmas.
They won’t be there come May.
In many ways, Leicester’s current predicament echoes that of Liverpool’s in the Suarez era. Like the reds, their current run is based on incredible speed on the counter-attack, with a couple of forwards in the absolute form of their lives and with belief coursing through the team, but with a small depth-lacking squad and a potentially leaky defence. Wes Morgan and Robert Huth have managed to hold it together so far, but neither of them are particularly mobile or skilful centre-backs, and good as Kante is he can’t hold a midfield together on his own indefinitely. Leicester have been lucky so far in the big games, not so much on the pitch but benefiting from matters off it (whether the breakdown of Mourinho’s Faustian pact or van Gaal’s attempts to keep possession against the backdrop of fans bealting about actually scoring goals occasionally). But a couple of heavy defeats, a real possibility once tiredness comes in and other teams start to work them out (i.e. start sitting deep and man-marking Mahrez), and they might find they start slipping back down the table.
They’ll still beat Liverpool on Boxing Day, though. And will probably beat them to fourth place, too.
City need a new manager
If Manchester City are going to be the ones to take over at the top, however, their manager needs to bit the bullet and be a bit more pragmatic.
City have fantastic forward players, but their defence is (still) incredibly shaky when Kompany isn’t playing. This isn’t so much a personnel issue- Otamendi, Kolarov, Sagna and Managala are perfectly adequate defenders, though admittedly Martin Demichelis is increasingly resembling a fan who’s won a competition to appear for his team- as a systemic one. Pellegrini likes his defence to keep a high line and play offside even on the edge of their own box, whilst aggressively pressuring the space in front. This only works if you have a ridiculously aggressive, strong centre-back like Kompany who can organise them; if not, they’ll make mistakes and let in space either in front (like for Walcott’s goal) or behind (for Giroud’s).
There’s a similar issue in the midfield. Whether it’s laziness or simply the ravages of time, Toure (the Ivorian Steven
Gerrard) can’t be trusted in a midfield two in the big games any more- he just doesn’t cover the space well enough any longer. Like most incredibly athletic players, Toure hasn’t developed the keen position sense of, say, a Pirlo; he’s always been able to use his pace and power to recover from this before, but now, well, he looks like a life-devastating slip is just around the corner. In the big games especially, he needs to be an impact player at best, with Delph and Fernandinho (ideally) providing some energy in the middle.
Of course, even if this season goes (relatively) tits-up, Guardiola will be at the Etihad next season. So really, this season is just a deep breath before the three consecutive league titles anyway.
Arsenal look better than ever
Well, OK, maybe not up to the Invincible standards, but still, Arsenal look very strong this season. They just beat Manchester City without four of their first-choice central midfielders and lacking their second-best forward as well, and what’s more, apart from about ten minutes at the end, didn’t really seem under any pressure. Olivier Giroud actually looks like a centre-forward at the moment, Theo Walcott isn’t letting him rest on his laurels, and the presence of Petr Cech means that, for the first time in about ten years, Arsenal have a goalkeeper who doesn’t look like he’s eyeing a role in an upcoming Three Stooges reboot. Add to that the absolutely incredible Mesut Ozil, probably the best proper Number 10 in the world at the moment (sorry, Philippe), and they look poised to, finally, win another league title to add to Wenger’s haul.
What’s really impressive about them, though, is their flexibility. It used to be that there was an obvious way to play against Arsenal: play deep, be physical, and exploit the space behind their full-backs on the counter-attack. Arsenal were, tactically, too naïve to deal with this; they only played one way, Barcelona-lite, trying to walk it in. But now…
Now there’s a physicality to the team that means, unlike a couple of years ago, simply being big and strong isn’t enough to beat them. Now, there’s a defensive solidity and an abundance of pace in attack that means they can, quite happily, play deep and counter-attack, like they did against Bayern Munich. Now, they can play with speed up front, or strength and height, or, as against Manchester City with Walcott pushed right up against Sagna, with a bit of both. Now, there’s a discipline in midfield that means Aaron Ramsey doesn’t just run around like a headless chicken and that they can deal with the absence of a defensive midfielder without immediately capitulating their next few games.
Two points off the top at Christmas, Arsenal should be looking up for the first time in a long time.
Same old issues at Liverpool
Liverpool’s game against Watford was depressing, and not just because of the scoreline. All of the Brendan Rodgers faults seemed to surface again; the goalkeeping errors (though Bogdan was a little unfortunate for the first goal, because the ball was kicked out of his hands), the mental collapse after going behind, the lack of composure in front of goal, the presence of Adam Lallana… The list goes on.
The difference, of course, is that the current manager is better than Rodgers, and should be able to arrest the slide.
I like Klopp, and he obviously has talent. In his brief spell, he’s already transformed Alberto Moreno into one of the
best attacking full-backs in the league, made Emre Can look like an excellent player in the making, and even turned Divock Origi into something resembling a footballer. The wins against Chelsea, City and Southampton were genuinely excellent, the loss against Newcastle undeserved, the comeback against West Brom encouraging. Of course, this being Liverpool, supporters of every other club decided the Liverpool fans thought they could win the title on the backs of the first three results, which is obviously absurd. The players haven’t been able to sustain the required levels of energy- their pre-season preparation was inadequate and they looked tired even in the first few games of the season- and the issues of the defence, the goalkeeper (oh my, there are issues with the goalkeeper) and the lack of speed and finishing ability in attack still need sorting. But with Klopp in the dugout, at least there’s some optimism that Liverpool will be able to turn it around, even if they have to wait until next season to do it.
Jose Mourinho and the Tale of Dr Faustus
I’m not usually one to indulge in schadenfreude but… Hee hee, hee hee, hee hee hee.
So, Jose is finally gone, allowed to prepare for the moment when Satan Himself comes to drag him back down to Hell*. His peculiar brand of successful anti-football obviously finally got to some of his actually talented players- I can’t imagine Pedro and Fabregas, for one, enjoying being told to sit in deep and waste time from the opening minutes against any of the clubs from the top ten in the league- though it’s also difficult to escape the feeling that the players themselves should have conducted themselves rather better. The poison atmosphere of the dressing room- “Why, this is Hell, nor are we out of it”- and Chelsea’s very own allegedly-racist thug Mephistopheles John Terry have done for several managers before this, and I even felt a little sorry for Jose before I remembered he’d pretty much bought this upon himself. Given that a lot of Mourinho’s tactics consisted of kicking the good players until they couldn’t play anymore, I don’t think he’ll be missed by any but the most signet-ringed members of Chelsea’s support.
The question now is, who next? I doubt many of the top managers are going to want to go to Chelsea now, not with the continued demonstrations of petulance and power from the players. It’s starting to look like Chelsea are going to have to take the punt on another Villas-Boas-like figure, and if that happens, well… it could be Pandemonium.
*I’m aware that I’ve grossly misrepresented the plot, morality and beauty of Marlowe’s play here, but I’m also aware that only one person ever reads this, so it doesn’t seem like that big of a deal.