- An astounding underdog story last season, Leicester City could be on the verge of going from champion to relegated. Plus, more notes from the weekend's action.
Chelsea’s relentless excellence is having an impact on the teams fast disappearing in its slipstream.
The ripples differ according to the hopes and ambitions of the clubs. At Arsenal, the loss at Chelsea on following from the midweek home defeat to Watford has only intensified talk of Arsène Wenger’s future. The same debate suddenly seems to surround Jürgen Klopp at Liverpool, as the team’s sparkling early form evaporated in January under the pressure Chelsea is exerting and because of the structural flaws Klopp inherited and has not been able to correct.
Meanwhile, two of the other pursuers plod on in determined pursuit of lesser goals. For Tottenham, which eked out a 1-0 home victory over Middlesbrough with a Harry Kane penalty, even second place would represent the best finish since 1963. It would also mean Spurs ending the season above Arsenal for the first time since 1995. That might explain why Tottenham is displaying a dogged determination in adversity that Arsenal lacks.
Strangely the other club that is content with fighting for the Champions league crumbs is Manchester United.
On Sunday, United recorded the biggest victory of the weekend of any of the top six, 3-0, away to Leicester.
It took 42 minutes and a moment of ruthless inspiration by Henrikh Mkhitaryan for United to impose itself against a lackluster and demoralized opponent. For all the stars in its team, much of United’s attacking play is often dully drab. Yet once it had its teeth into the Foxes, it would not let go.
United is not really chasing Chelsea. It is in sixth and pursuing a place in the top four and the Champions League. While City and Arsenal might have become blasé about Europe’s top club competition, United has failed qualify in two of the past three seasons.
Returning would not just be a sign of progress, it is financially important. When Adidas signed a 10-year £750 million sponsorship deal with United in 2014 it could see the warning signs. If United misses the Champions League this year, the value of the contract drops 30 percent. United is still carrying a heavy debt load from the Glazer leveraged take over. Sponsorship is a key element of its financial strategy. The club has persuaded more than 70 businesses to pay to ride on the shirt-tails of its global reputation for success. Repeated failure is bad for business and if Adidas enjoys a reduction, what will the other sponsors say?
Furthermore, for José Mourinho, missing the Champions League a season after his Chelsea team collapsed would dent his carefully nurtured image as a serial winner. Zlatan Ibrahimovic also cherishes his reputation as a man who turns teams into champions. And Paul Pogba can expect to be trolled by former teammates in Turin if United finishes outside the top four while Juventus wins another Scudetto.
For United’s stars, every point and every place matters. While they are still not quite meshing as a team, that desire showed on Sunday.
THE FUTURE NOW At Manchester City, Pep Guardiola seems to have decided to risk building for next year.
On Sunday, against Swansea, Guardiola again left the Premier League’s most reliable goal-scorer, Sergio Agüero, on the bench and played the 19-year old Gabriel Jesus alongside the 21-year-old Leroy Sané and 22-year-old Raheem Sterling.
In the first half, prompted by the more experienced David Silva and Kevin de Bruyne, the pacey, skillful trio tore Swansea apart. Yet City only scored once, when Jesus pounced on a loose ball and finished sharply.
In the second half, as Swansea pressed and pushed with more belief, the City attack looked lightweight and punchless. Gylfi Sigurdsson scored for the Swans.
Anyone who watched the Brazil play in the Olympics will know that Jesus mixes brilliant goals with horrendous misses. Two minutes into added time on Sunday, with the game still tied, he cleverly eluded the Swansea defense as a City attack built on the right. When the ball came across, Jesus was unmarked as he leaped to meet the ball two yards from goal. He wasted the chance, heading straight at Lukas Fabianski. Perhaps the goalie was surprised. He dropped the ball. Jesus, creating a variation on an old soccer joke, scored from the rebound. Given a second bite, he won the game for City.
The potential of City attack is clear, the more experience they gain, the quicker they will reach their potential. But youth is inconsistent, and Jesus may never be as reliable a finisher as Agüero. If Guardiola continues on fast-tracking tomorrow, City will have some frustrating todays.
CLEAR AND PRESENT DANGER It looks increasingly as if the last third of the Premier League season is going to demand 14 different insights into why Chelsea is so good. The dominating, 3-1, victory over second-place Arsenal on Saturday on Saturday put Chelsea nine points clear with 14 rounds left. That’s a huge cushion for a team that’s dropped just five points in its last 18 league games.
Finding elements to praise probably won’t be a problem. There will be time to analyse a system that is functioning so consistently well in both attack and defense and the team’s commitment to making it work. There is the rebirth of David Luiz, the dominance of Thibaut Courtois and the wing backs, often more wing than back, who are vital to that system. N’Golo Kanté remains the best player in the league. Yet for the second year in a row, he is likely to lose out in the Player of the Year awards to a more attacking team-mate.
Last year Jamie Vardy won the sports writers’ award and Riyad Mahrez the players’ award.
On Saturday, in 20 seconds early in the second half, Eden Hazard, who won both those awards in 2015, may well have done enough to recapture them.
Hazard won the ball deep in the Chelsea half, poking it to Luiz. By the time the Brazilian lofted the ball toward Diego Costa, Hazard had spun and started scurrying forward. Costa nodded the ball into Hazard’s path. As the Belgian crossed the halfway line to start his long and winding run to the goal, there he was the only Chelsea player in the Gunners’ half. He was facing six Arsenal players. It was a Diego Maradona moment.
Hazard doesn’t beat players with blazing speed or dazzling trickery. His masterly ball control, constant subtle shifts of direction and uncanny instinct for how the players around him will react allows him to create space to keep moving forward. Defenders surrounded Hazard, but only Francis Coquelin even managed to touch him, lunging in from a weak angle. Hazard who is powerful for his size and has superb balance, skipped away from the challenge without losing momentum.
The last man was Laurent Koscielny, who has emerged in the last couple of seasons as one of the best center backs in the league. He was a backpedaling rabbit caught in the Hazard lights, turning this way and that as the Belgian stepped right, left, left and right again. Koscielny ended up facing his own goal and, as the old soccer saying goes, with twisted blood. Hazard dodged behind the defender’s back and casually popped the ball past Petr Cech.
Genius is an overused word in sport, but Hazard’s magical ability to out-maneuver the whole Arsenal defense deserves the accolade. Intelligent tactical systems are good. They work better with brilliant players.
THE HOLE IN THE HEART Arsenal fans on-line ingratitude toward the most successful manager in their club’s history is a source of endless joy to supporters of other clubs.
Yet Arsène Wenger’s stubbornness is a problem. Two of his earliest purchases as Arsenal manager were midfield heavies Patrick Vieira, the best player in Premier League history, and Emanuel Petit. But since adopting a data-driven approach based on swarming and passing opponents to death. It’s a system that often works brilliantly and perhaps has encouraged Wenger to ignore the fault line in the middle of his team and the chasm that can open in the space where Vieira once dominated.
At Chelsea, Wenger’s team once again fell into the void. In the run-up to the match, Wenger said he could have signed Kanté. Instead he paid slightly more for Granit Xhaka. Xhaka is definitely bigger than Kanté and he is, perhaps, a better passer, yet he is lack of pace and judgment means he is a walking red card. Xhaka was suspended, again, on Saturday.
Maybe Wenger could have signed Kanté. He might also have been able to sign Morgan Schneiderlin, assuming José Mourinho would do business with his old buddy. Wenger could definitely have had three other players who moved in the summer, Victor Wanyama, Didier N’Dong and Joe Allen, perhaps the archetypal Wenger player. Indeed, for the money he spent on Xhaka, Wenger could have all three and maybe still had enough left to buy Etienne Capoue too.
Until Arsenal address that problem, it will remain a talented also-ran. Perhaps the disgruntled fans are right and it’s time for a change. Bruce Rioch is probably available. The Arsenal faithful must remember him, and what life was like before Wenger arrived.
THE WALKING DEAD Less than a month ago, the question for the bottom six teams was if any were good enough to stay up. Suddenly, the issue is which is bad enough to go down.
Changes of manager seem to have revived Hull and Swansea. David Moyes, busily signing up former Everton reserves, seems to be leading the annual Sunderland revival. Middlesbrough can defend, usually the key to survival, but it cannot score. All four know what they have to do and, despite their limitations, are busting a gut to do it.
Hull followed a mid-week draw at Old Trafford with a home victory on Saturday over Liverpool. Swansea, which had won its previous two, came within two minutes of its first ever point at the Etihad on Sunday. Middlesbrough hung in against Spurs at White Hart Lane but was unable to see through the plan as it wasted two late chances to steal a point. Sunderland scored four in the first half at Selhurst Park. That might suggest the Black Cats have suddenly become a devastating attacking force. The truth is that Crystal Palace has turned into Jell-O.
After the match the Palace manager and master escapologist, Sam Allardyce, told the BBC: “I am in shock.”
He is not the only manager having to cope with collapsing morale and belief. So is Claudio Ranieri at Leicester.
Two minutes after allowing Mkhitarya to run straight through the heart of its defense to give United the lead on Sunday, Leicester stood and watched as Ibrahimovic rolled in a second from the middle of the penalty area.
“Unacceptable,” goalie Kasper Schmeichel told Sky Sports after the game.
The defending champion has lost four straight in the league. It has not scored a league goal in five matches. It never looked like ending either run on Sunday.
“We’re the reigning champions. It’s been terrible. It’s been embarrassing,” Schmeichel said. “It’s time for every single one of us….to stand up and be counted, because if we don’t we’re going to end up being relegated.”
This weekend showed the danger is growing. After 24 matches, Leicester is on 21 points, level with Swansea and ‘Boro, just above the bottom three but only two points ahead of last place Sunderland.
After 24 games last season, Leicester had 50 points. But just 12 months before that it had only managed 17 points. It did not reach 20 until the 30th round in 2015 when it began its Great Escape. That pre-Kanté team collected 22 points in its last nine games.
Perhaps Leicester can turn it on again when it matters, as it has the last two years.
“Low on confidence but not low on fight,” Schmeichel said on Sunday.