At the Premier League season’s halfway point, we look at what 2016-17 has offered up so far, and make predictions for the second half.
It’s been a double bluff season for the Premier League in 2016-17. Having convinced the world that everything was unpredictable, the top 6 have marched on create a clear gap to the rest of the league by this mid-way point; the biggest difference between any two teams going into the weekend of 14th Jan being the 9 points between 6th and 7th. I’ve personally spent a couple of months not daring to look at the news such was the shaky phase endured by Man United. Now that things are slightly more reassuring, I’m emboldened to write this piece.
Save the refs
Irrespective of whether your team’s doing well or not, it’s safe to say most fans hate referees. They are, simply put, the easiest meat on the planet – everybody gets to have a pop at them, but they have no voice and little help in fighting what is after all an unfair battle. It is difficult enough having to follow every action in a Premier League match that can see the ball and players cover every blade of grass, without adding the factor of their every decision being scrutinised in slow motion from half a dozen angles, and plenty of pundits just waiting to point out how wrong they were. Now, you would think it’s reasonable that they get 5-10% of their decisions wrong, given that they make some 20-30 decisions in real time, often while running at full tilt every game. That works out to roughly 1-2 mistakes per game. And let’s say one in 10 mistakes lead to a match-altering event; we should expect to see a bad refereeing decision impact at least one game every week.
Why is this surprising then? Sure, some refs are worse than others but the averages probably play out anyway. And yet it appears that the quality of refereeing is on a perennial nosedive. A mythical rollercoaster from hell with no ups, just downs. Are they solely to blame? With the amount of money riding on decisions and being spent in marketing and analysing the games, it’s astounding that refs get so little technical support. The goal-line technology gives us one good outcome almost every weekend now. How difficult would it be to have a 5th ref who has the footage available to view and gets 5-10 seconds to review and suggest an outcome?
In the West Ham v United Game – he / she would have been able to get their opinion across to Mike Dean even before Phil Jones had finished rolling around. It would also be interesting methinks to submit the pundits and journos to the same yardstick though. How would it work if we had a panel of 6 people watching a journalist write a match report in real time and pick out all his errors and gaffes? Frankly, we need to cut refs some slack and give them more help.
United: Second-gear football is fine for the first half of the season
Meanwhile, I’m happy to note that the Dark Lord is gathering his forces. Jose, as he likes to be known, is finally filling those Ferguson-sized boots. There was a story earlier about how he has invited Sir Alex into training sessions and onto the team bus and that Fergie has encouraged him to be himself. Just like players, managers need to play off their confidence as well – to back themselves to make the right decisions in the heat of the moment. Seems to be working for him now. Man United have been playing at second gear for much of the season. On the 9th of November, they were the lowest in the league for distance covered as a team. The very opposite of the high pressing style in vogue. But it also means that they will have arguably fresher players come the end of the season.
Mourinho also has the deepest squad at present. For the 3 places behind Zlatan, he has Mata, Martial, Lingard, Mkhitaryan, Rooney and Rashford. He has cover in almost every position without even having to play Depay, Schneiderlin (now departed) or Schweinsteiger. His key challenge will be to rest Zlatan and Carrick and keep the momentum going, as well as improving results against top teams. There’s still an element of game management that needs work, as well. Mourinho is all about game control and intervention. Yet after West Ham went down to 10 men, United bizarrely dropped their level of play to worse than pedestrian. Almost as though they felt guilty about the red card.
They went languid rather than quickly try and win the game. A gazillion back passes were played, and until Rashford got onto the pitch, nobody showed any urgency to run at the West Ham defence or try and beat a man. United need to improve their final ball; the number of chances created is still below what it needs to be for their level of play and dominance. And the defence continues to be good for at least a couple of mistakes every game. Oh and for God’s sake, stop hitting the post! A top 4 finish is definitely achievable, though. And I would back United to finish in 3rd or 4th place come end of the season.
Chelsea: Why 3 at the back is the formation of the year in the Premier League
Let’s face it, Chelsea have, bar few spells, looked irresistible. Chelsea, with the wizardry of Hazard and the controlled belligerence of Costa have been seemingly unstoppable; Conte making a massive success of the 3 central backs formation with a surprisingly excellent David Luiz in there. My theory is that the 3 at the back model counts on leaving spaces on the wings and most football teams nowadays have lost the art of good wing play. The tendency to cut in from the wings is strong.
You see it in Arsenal, or Liverpool or even United – with no real out-and-out wingers. This is the natural ebb and flow or the ‘rock paper scissors’ of football tactics. Wingers that cut in, with overlapping full backs worked well against the 4-2-3-1 formation. I see 3 at the back becoming more popular until wingers become the natural counterpoint. Chelsea need to be given credit for exploiting this formation so ruthlessly though. Conte’s man management and his media handling are exemplary. His challenge will be to manage the second half when first team players get tired, the fixtures come faster with the FA cup and he needs to dip into his reserves. Or if Costa goes through a barren spell. As I write this, Costa has been disciplined for his tantrums, allegedly following a big money offer from China. Can Chelsea hit the same high notes without him? Let’s see.
Liverpool: Journeymen pros make up the foil of champion teams
Liverpool are the most entertaining team at present. Every attack feels threatening. Fast, incisive passing in the final third marks their game. They would give Chelsea a real run for the money if they could be more consistent. And that’s the big if. Liverpool don’t do the win ugly thing. They typically win by a big margin or they drop points. And every five or six games, they drop points to lower teams. Klopp has also struggled to balance his matchday squad with Mane away and cup games peppering the schedule. He has already paid a price for playing the same team in 48 hours against Sunderland.
A word here for Milner though. I have always been a fan of the professional footballer who is good enough to play for a top team but not good enough to star. Yet makes up with attitude and commitment. United’s great seasons of the past were always garnished with contributions from John O’Shea, Jee Sung Park and Phil Neville. Milner is this type of footballer – versatile, non-complaining and highly reliable. In fact, Jordan Henderson is arguably a similar player. He’s not the fastest, most technically proficient or the most visionary. But the graft and drive he provides in the middle of the pitch is probably worth the armband and more. The presence of Milner and Henderson is a great blessing for Liverpool to allow players like Mane or Coutinho to shine. If Liverpool win titles, their flair players will undoubtedly coruscate, but their workhorses will be right there, pulling the team along on all the uphill bits.
City: Is managing a job for introverts?
Is Pep Guardiola’s fatal flow his introverted character? He has a lot going for him – incredible attention to detail, passion, a truly visionary view of how the game should be played and an eye for good attacking players. Man City certainly have the means to build a great squad for such a manager. Yet, they seem to lack a few key players and alternate between iridescently brilliant to just good enough. That should be enough for them to challenge for the title, except for the combined excellence of Chelsea and Liverpool at present.
Yet the biggest cracks seem to be appearing not on the pitch, but in Pep’s make up. His post-match interviews are increasingly tetchy – he reacts negatively to every question – and I’m not sure if this is a phase or a terminal problem for somebody in a football management role. Handling the media and the world in general is a very critical part of the manager’s job. Using tactics ranging from deflections, to smoke screens, to downright mind-games – managers need to play the media just as they need to get things right for the 90 mins on the pitch. For the sake of his team, Guardiola needs to step up, or appoint an assistant coach for handling the media and get on with what he wants to be doing.
Will Arsenal ever stop being Arsenal?
Arsene Wenger is at risk of being consecrated as the Saint of the Third or Fourth Place finish. They might as well be given the rank at the start of the season and save everybody a whole lot of sweat, pain and heartache. Many things can change – Arsenal can buy good defenders and even have options for defensive midfielders. They can have a great goalkeeper. They can have a proper centre-forward, ridiculously fast and technically proficient attackers, and overall, a well balanced and nicely aged squad.
Yet, you have this vision of Arsenal spiralling into 4th place come the end of the season like a heat-seeking missile. Yes, I know they surged to second last year, but that already seems like a blip. Shame, because they are probably every neutral’s favourite team, and I would be happy if Arsenal won the league – much of their football deserves it. But somehow they seem to have lopped off the part of their footballing brain (heart?) that provides the booster charge to go from nearly there to there. The shadow of departures for Ozil and Sanchez is unnecessary and should be dealt with quickly, with focus shifted to life beyond Wenger – as that can’t be too far away now.
Spurs: Is exhaustion a thing?
The argument trotted out by apologists for English football every year is about the Premier League being too tough. And while there is a modicum of truth in that – Premier League players as a category don’t do well at international football tournaments – the answers are probably more complex. Spurs are still providing us the best petri dish for examining this at close quarters. Probably as reliant on a set of core first-teamers as Chelsea or Liverpool, Spurs are also playing European football of the Thursday variety. My bet is on them running out of steam in the last 10 games of the season.
It may manifest itself in different ways – for example, how they react to setbacks and bad decisions. But that’s where your energy levels, and even your ’emotional energy’ levels start to play a part. Consider a team of Vorm, Trippier, Carter-Vickers, Wimmer, Davies, Dyer, Winks, Carroll, Lamela, Sissoko, Janssen – this is effectively Spurs’ second 11. Compare it to the one at Mourinho’s disposal – Romero, Blind, Smalling, Rojo, Darmian, Schweinsteiger, Fellaini, Mata, Rooney, Lingard, Rashford. That is why I worry about Spurs in a season where the sprint will seemingly be on till the end for the top 6.
There are two defining things about this season, as you know. This is the super league of coaches, so the mind games and the management battles will continue. The other is, with 6 teams on form, the number of ‘significant’ games will be very high. This in turn has two key outcomes.
First, it is not difficult for a team to gain or drop up to 8-9 points on another team. Second, this will require stamina and managing the long race. The ebb and flow of forms and moments will continue, but managing the marathon rather than the sprint is what I suspect will define the ultimate winners.