A monumental victory, firstly because it guarantees Roy Hodgson’s job is safe for a few months yet, and secondly because it probably secures Crystal Palace’s Premier League safety on 22 points with 17 games remaining. Surprise away wins at Manchester City and Wolves have taken them out of the mush at the bottom of the Premier League and into the mush in the middle. That might not sound very sexy, but it will have put a spring in the step of many a Palace fan as they walk into work on Thursday morning.
Palace’s away form also merits unlikely praise. Whether opposition teams have become complacent, or whether Hodgson’s team just prefer playing as the underdog on the road, something is working. Palace have won as many away games as Arsenal this season, but only won twice at home where the Selhurst crowd is thought to be a huge advantage.
Consecutive league wins for the second time this season, the exceptions to the rule of long runs of poor form and poor defending. If that suggests that Burnley just need a little confidence to get them going, it should have arrived in the form of a comfortable win over West Ham and the gutsy, gritty away victory in Huddersfield.
Sean Dyche’s side are still only two points above the bottom three, but they have something to hold onto again. Six of their next eight league opponents are Fulham, Watford, Southampton, Brighton, Newcastle and Crystal Palace. That run may well define their season, and things look a lot more rosy than they did a week ago. They have demonstrated that they can beat those around them.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer
Sarah Winterburn has already written plenty about the difference that Solskjaer has made and the benefit of a united United. Following Alex Ferguson was touted as the hardest job in football when David Moyes floundered; succeeding Jose Mourinho might just be one of the easiest.
Look at the sudden depth in this squad that Mourinho castigated so freely. Ashley Young and Diogo Dalot are the second-choice full-backs, Romelu Lukaku is being used as a substitute and scoring, Fred and Jesse Lingard were on the bench on Wednesday and Marouane Fellaini didn’t even make the matchday squad. A team of one, the manager lambasting everyone around him, has become a team.
To repeat what we’ve said before: Manchester United will revert to the mean under Solskjaer. The change in manager coincided with a gentle run of fixtures that gave the club the chance to self-administer a shot in the arm. But you’re fooling yourself if you think Mourinho’s United would have achieved the same results with the minimum of fuss – and living in a dreamworld if you believe they would have scored 14 goals in the process.
For Solskjaer, a remarkable three-week period. He has gone from being the manager of Molde to the first Manchester United manager since Matt Busby to win his first four games in charge. He is now the clear second favourite to get the job on a full-time basis.
Marcus Rashford’s finishing
You can see the difference in any number of Manchester United players, but Rashford is the most interesting. His name was omitted from most of the rumours about key players falling out with Mourinho, although the manager’s angry reaction to Rashford missing a chance did gain notoriety. Under Mourinho, some supporters believed that Rashford was guilty of not kicking on.
A striker is reborn under Solskjaer. Rashford has scored three goals and provided an assist in 326 league minutes under the new manager. He had previously scored four league goals between March and December under Mourinho. It is also the first time all season that he has started as a central striker for three consecutive games rather than being farmed out on the wing.
But most notable is how cool Rashford’s finishing suddenly looks under pressure. He is no longer snatching at chances, confident and aware he will not be scapegoated for missing. United creating more opportunities has alleviated the pressure on the forwards, and Solskjaer’s coaching has benefited Rashford in particular.
“Maybe I can give him a little bit of the nous that I had inside the box,” explained Solskjaer before the Newcastle game. “I’m talking about the little moves you make to get free, that little bit of calmness in front of goal. Marcus is 21. He’s still learning. The most important thing I can see is to just settle him down in front of goal. I’ve seen him rush a few finishes. He thinks ‘I’ve got to get a shot off early’ when sometimes you just pass it past the keeper. I always say that the goal never moves.”
Watch Rashford’s performance against Newcastle back, and you will see Solskjaer’s fingerprints all over it. And what is good for Manchester United is good for England.
The middle clutch of Premier League teams are all frustrating, the type of sides who make you stare at a losing accumulator slip and vow to never include them again. Over this Christmas period alone, Leicester lost to Cardiff but beat Manchester City and Chelsea, Wolves beat Tottenham but lost to Crystal Palace, West Ham won away at Southampton but were outplayed by Burnley and Watford beat West Ham away but failed to beat Newcastle at home.
But Puel and Leicester deserve a little more credit than most, despite that Cardiff blip. The Frenchman constantly seems to be swimming against a tide of negativity, never more than three games from crisis and a clutch of Southampton and Leicester supporters remarking that they “told you so”. Puel has now reached 60 matches in charge, only 21 fewer than Ranieri managed, but he has never felt like a permanent option.
Over the festive period, the Premier League’s middle seven collected points as follows:
Leicester – 9
Watford, Brighton – 5
Wolves, West Ham, Bournemouth – 4
Everton – 3
That all makes Leicester the only team outside the Big Six with a positive goal difference this season, and the only team outside the top six with more wins than losses. After a particularly sticky patch, Puel should be back in considerable credit.
Surprising stat of the season, given the coverage: Lukaku has now scored one fewer league goal this season than Sergio Aguero, in 63 more minutes. God it’s been a while since I’ve been able to chirp up.
Their first clean sheet in the league since October 27. Timely and handy. Ralph Hasenhuttl is making a difference. Now to aid him in the transfer window.
Nine goals and assists in 1,177 league minutes this season. And now he’s fully fit for the start of the transfer window. Hold onto him, West Ham.
Arsenal with their two strikers
The first time Alexandre Lacazette and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang started together was away at Newcastle United in April, a match that Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal lost 2-1.
Since then, Lacazette and Aubameyang have started 13 matches together in nine months. Arsenal have won nine and drawn four of those 13 games, scoring at a rate of 2.16 goals per game and conceding at a rate of 0.77 goals per game. Which just makes you wonder why on earth they can’t start together more often.
Players ranked by goals plus assists over the festive period:
Son Heung-min – 8
Paul Pogba – 7
Mohamed Salah, Harry Kane – 6
He never causes any fuss, he always seems content and he never gives less than his all. Tottenham will miss him when he’s at the Asian Cup. Cheer Son, Pochettino’s crying. Nice one.
Key against Fulham, but still widely criticised. Will Arsenal fans ever truly love him?
A slow, frustrating start to 2018/19, but recent signs that Vardy is back. And not just because of that acrobatic celebration.
The next time you think that footballers don’t care enough, watch Ayew almost in tears after scoring his first goal for his loan club. This matters to them, the abuse hurts and the goals make such a difference. Good on you, fella.
Not waving, but drowning. David Wagner understandably insisted that all is not yet lost given Huddersfield’s unlikely survival last season, but the difficult second series is all proving a bit much for a team with one of the lowest budgets in the Premier League. They need an exceptional January transfer window to give the club a boost.
Huddersfield entered mid-December knowing it could define their season. The club had four matches against potential relegation rivals: Newcastle at home, Southampton at home, Fulham away, Burnley at home. They probably needed seven points to pull themselves out of the mire.
Huddersfield lost every one of those matches and have now lost eight on the spin. Reality is biting.
A manager potentially in a little bit of trouble. On November 24, after Everton had beaten Cardiff 1-0 at Goodison, they sat sixth in the Premier League. They had a positive goal difference, had lost only three of their first 13 matches and Silva looked to be settling in.
On January 3, Everton are 11th in the Premier League. They have won one of their last eight games, have lost their positive goal difference and have lost more league games than they have won. Everton have flunked Christmas.
That’s interesting because it matches Silva’s general pattern. He has now managed 23 matches as Everton manager, one more than he reached at Hull City and three fewer than at Watford. There is clearly a capable manager within, but at those two clubs Silva had an instant positive impact followed by a tough run.
Silva’s challenge is to convert a reputation for managerial short-termism into long-term progress. The locals are not yet getting restless, but nor too can they accept their team being outfought by teams with far smaller resources. That cruel late defeat at Anfield has started a rut that must quickly be overcome.
In raw figures, there is no problem. Since losing to Wolves on December 5, only Tottenham, Manchester United and Liverpool have taken more league points than Chelsea. They have beaten Manchester City and won three consecutive away games.
But there is a handbrake applied to this Chelsea team. Their attacking prowess is dependent on Eden Hazard producing something wonderful, and there is a stagnancy and lack of impetus going forward that is a world away from Maurizio Sarri’s Napoli, and thus presumably a world away from what he is trying to achieve at Chelsea.
Sarri predicted that it would take time, and he must be given that time. But when you hear the Stamford Bridge crowd booing Chelsea off the pitch at full-time, it does make you wonder.
With Manchester United now back in form and only six points behind Chelsea, Sarri faces a battle to keep hold of that precious top-four place. Two games in different cup competitions should allow for crucial time on the training ground at Cobham.
He’s started four league games since early November:
0-0 vs Everton
1-3 vs Tottenham (goal came after his substitution)
1-2 vs Wolves
0-0 vs Southampton
Put a fork in him; he’s done.
A really nasty, snide challenge that should have seen him sent off. Let’s be ultra-generous and say that Shelvey was just trying to make an impact having been left on the bench recently, but it’s still unforgivable. Those clamours for him to be in the England squad sure have died down recently. The ill-discipline argument against it was largely misguided, but then you look at displays of petulance like that and wonder.
They both said it, so I didn’t have to.
Wolves against weaker sides
Wolves vs the top six:
Played – 7
Points per game – 1.29
Goals scored per game – 1.43
Wolves vs the bottom eight:
Played – 9
Points per game – 1.44
Goals scored per game – 1.00
Wolves are no ordinary promoted club, but that record is almost unique. For a team to score goals at a better rate against the best than the worst is remarkable.
You can sell it both ways, of course. Wolves’ excellence against the Big Six this season has earned them significant praise in this column, and Nuno may well consider that dropping points against the weaker clubs is an easier problem to solve. But it suggests that Wolves struggle when they face a deeper defence and are unable to exploit space in behind.
It’s an issue their manager must solve. Beating Tottenham and Chelsea is brilliant, but goodwill is quickly lost in miserable home defeats to Huddersfield, Crystal Palace and Watford.