Premier League Takeaways – GW 35+

Gameweek 35+ blew both the top four race and the relegation battle wide open, with Chelsea and Leicester suffering losses and Bournemouth and Aston Villa picking up massive wins in their quest for survival. Manchester City also capped off a five star performance at Brighton with the news that they would be allowed to compete in the Champions League next season.

Jamie Braidwood – Leicester’s slump hits a new low as Champions League football hangs in the balance

Leicester City’s miserable post-restart form slumped to a new low in Sunday’s 4-1 collapse to relegation strugglers Bournemouth. The Foxes are now clinging onto fourth place by their fingernails and their hopes of Champions League qualification, which looked so certain at the turn of the year, are fading fast, especially now that Manchester City’s two-year ban from European football has been overturned.

leicester 1-4 bournemouth.jpg

Leicester completely imploded in Sunday evening’s loss to Bournemouth, with Caglar Soyuncu further reducing Brendan Rodgers’ defensive options as the Turkish defender was sent off.

Of course, with a one point lead over fifth-place Manchester United and just three fixtures remaining, Leicester’s fate is still in their own hands. But the team’s slide, which includes just two wins in their last 10 Premier League games, is alarming and will take a stunning final effort from manager Brendan Rodgers to reverse it.

Rodgers can count himself unlucky that Leicester’s thin squad have been hit by injuries to key players such as James Maddison, Wilfred Ndidi and fullbacks Ricardo Pereira and Ben Chilwell during their dire run, but the former Liverpool and Celtic boss prides himself on his pragmatism and ability to solve problems through clever tactical tweaks, but has so far been unable to conjure a solution.

The switch to a 3-4-3 formation to counter the loss of Pereria and Chilwell has exposed centre backs Jonny Evans and Caglar Soyuncu, while neither system nor personnel changes have been able to replace the creative void left by Maddison, which has often left top scorer Jamie Vardy starved of service.

Maddison and Chilwell could return for Leicester’s run-in, which is formed of tricky fixtures against Sheffield United, Tottenham, and then a crunch clash against Manchester United on the final day of the season, and that would certainly be a boost. But for all the praise that Leicester and Rodgers have received this season, it would be an embarrassing end to their season if they were to lose out on Champions League football given the 14-point lead they had on United at the turn of the year. It could also leave the club in a vulnerable position with Premier League rivals circling for some of their star players. Rodgers needs to find a solution, quickly.

 

Jack Donnelly – The North London Derby has lost its stature and importance

I’m anticipating this to be a fairly controversial opinion. The North London Derby has been one of the biggest, most hotly-contested fixtures in English football for decades and has produced some timeless moments – Danny Rose’s thunderbolt of a debut goal and Theo Walcott’s “2-0” gesture spring to mind. However, with both clubs languishing in mid-table with very little left to play for, it seems as though both the reputation and relevance of the fixture seems to be fading. But why is this the case?

spurs 2-1 arsenal 2020

Very little came from Spurs’ 2-1 victory over Arsenal in Sunday’s North London Derby, with the match lacking its usual fire and severity.

For me, the steady decline of both clubs is the main reason that this derby doesn’t scream “high-profile” anymore. For starters, Arsenal have been in disarray since before Arsene Wenger departed the club in 2018. Long gone were the days of the Invincible season and competing for any sort of trophy was uncommon – if not for a few good years in the FA Cup in the mid-2010s, Wenger would have left the club a scorned man. Regardless, Wenger would almost always finish within the top four of the Premier League, with Arsenal fans being able to celebrate ‘St. Totteringham’s Day’ – the day that Spurs were mathematically unable to finish above their red rivals – every year.

However, the pendulum has swung Spurs’ way for the last few years. Mauricio Pochettino assembled a squad that could comfortably compete with not only Arsenal, but the rest of the league’s biggest players. Instead of stepping up to the challenge, Arsenal took several steps back. Unai Emery’s tenure in North London was, in a word, disastrous. Furthermore, Arsenal haven’t competed in the Champions League since 2017 and haven’t found success in the Europa League, coming closest in 2019 before losing 4-0 in the final. Now, sat in 9th, Arsenal could miss out on European football altogether for the first time this decade.

With Spurs, the steady ascension into a rapid decline has been like that of a rollercoaster. As mentioned previously, Pochettino seemed to breathe new life into a fairly innocuous Spurs side by introducing players such as Dele Alli, Heung-Min Son and Harry Kane. Players like these three have allowed Spurs to solidify themselves as challengers, pushing Leicester City the entire year in the Foxes’ miraculous title-winning season. Spurs had also established themselves as Champions League regulars and reached last season’s final through some of their own miracle, producing some of the most memorable European clashes of the last decade.

However, following last season’s success was always going to be a challenge – a challenge that Spurs simply haven’t been up to. Pochettino was sacked in November 2019 following a poor run of results, with Daniel Levy turning to Jose Mourinho in order to save their season. In short, it hasn’t worked. Knocked out of the Champions League by RB Leipzig, sat in 8th and having to fight for a Europa League place – things have deteriorated quickly for Spurs.

Realistically, Sunday’s North London Derby could have been absolutely huge. The first derby in Spurs’ new stadium at the business end of the season would have been massive in seasons gone by. Now, it seems as though the players themselves are caring less about this rivalry – in an interview with Copa 90, Dele Alli said: “As players – the way things have been going with the league and the games – the rivalry with Chelsea is bigger than the one with Arsenal.” While I don’t necessarily agree with Alli, it does back up my point – without anything to play for in the league table, the fire behind this derby seems to be fizzling out.

Struan Garvie – Can Wolves still chase down the pack?

After a couple of defeats to Arsenal and Sheffield United, Wolves were able to find their momentum again with an impressive 3-0 win over Everton. 

Wolves now sit in sixth place, four points behind Leicester City in fourth. Wolves’ final three games of the season are against Burnley, Crystal Palace and Chelsea on the final day. To even get four points from these fixtures will be an incredibly tough job for Nuno Espirito Santo and his side, especially with teams like Manchester United, Sheffield United, Arsenal and Spurs also competing for the top four. However, to even be in the race for top four after just over two years of playing in the Premier League is a credit to this Wolves side. Their name is actually quite fitting, as Wolverhampton have fairly wandered up the table these past two seasons.

wolves vs everton.jpg

Wolves’ dominant victory over Everton on Sunday kept them in with a slight chance of breaking into the top four and all but confirmed their position in the Europa League next season.

Another interesting point is that Wolves have only used 20 players in the Premier League all season. This is pretty incredible, considering 11 players will start and a further 3/5 will be substituted on. Wolves have also played more games than any other team in the league through various cup competitions, which is a true testament of the fitness of the squad. 

Although earning Champions League football through the league now seems very difficult, Wolves still have a “get out of jail free card” in the form of the Europa League. By winning the Europa League, Wolves could earn a spot in the Champions League for the 2020/21 season. If they did win this competition, then the Wolves will undoubtedly be over the moon.

Jamie Mcintosh – Norwich’s style of play promised so much but delivered so little

Try to cast your mind back almost an entire year, to 9th August 2019 – the opening game of the new Premier League season. Newly-promoted Norwich were opening their campaign at Anfield against Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool. It seemed like a walkover on paper and it transpired to be exactly that. Liverpool were 4-0 up at half time and eased their way to a 4-1 opening day victory. Little did we then know that there would be 72 points between the two sides with three games of the season to play.

Despite the result, Norwich finished that game with plenty to be optimistic about. They received a lot of praise at the time, if my memory serves me right, due to their attacking brand of football. Okay, yes, they conceded four goals in the first half but I think the attitude many people adopted after that opening game was that Norwich might concede a few, but they would attempt to outscore their opposition.

It’s also worth mentioning that very few teams would’ve punished Norwich as severely as the top quality Liverpool side they faced that evening. So, despite conceding four goals that night at Anfield, it was widely expected that it wouldn’t be as challenging for Norwich to adopt this style of play during every game. So, despite being brushed aside with relative ease, Norwich weren’t too disheartened and walked away with a bit of confidence.

norwich relegated

Despite some entertaining football earlier in the season, Norwich’s minimal recruitment and sheer lack of quality lead them to dropping straight back into the Championship.

This was only increased the following week after Norwich thumped Newcastle 3-1, with Teemu Pukki scoring all three. That game really did have the feel of a relegation six pointer at the time, despite only being the second game of the season. Newcastle were fancied by many to be in the bottom three when the season began, due to a really hectic summer window – those same people will have been wiping the egg off their faces for weeks now.

So Norwich were off the mark and Pukki had scored four goals in the opening two games. His goals were already being tipped as the reason Norwich would stay up. A harsh 3-2 defeat to Chelsea and a 2-0 defeat to West Ham (the first league game where they didn’t score) followed, before a famous home victory over title chasing Manchester City in September, with Norwich running themselves into the ground to secure a 3-2 win. Norwich were looking decent but it was becoming evident that they were relying heavily on Pukki’s goals to survive – should they dry up, the Canaries would be in trouble. This next spell was where the wheels probably fell off for Norwich.

In their next seven games, they only picked up a single point out of a possible 21, conceding 16 goals and only scoring two. Again though, Norwich rallied and picked up four points from their next two games, with victory at Goodison Park against Everton and a draw at home to Arsenal. It was clear Norwich were in a relegation scrap, but you still fancied that they had the goals and the fight to possibly survive by the skin of their teeth. They scored in six of their next seven games but couldn’t manage to pick up three points in any of them. The “outscoring the opposition” plan wasn’t working at this stage of the season and manager Daniel Farke seemed to have no plan B. The defence simply wasn’t good enough considering the style of football they were attempting to play. 1-0 victories over Bournemouth and Leicester provided encouragement and confidence to a relatively young and inexperienced defence.

However, when the pandemic struck and the season was halted, Norwich were rooted to the bottom of the table six points from safety. They’ve lost all six games since the resumption, only scoring a single goal. Despite having that energy and fight at the beginning of the season that others such as Watford at the time were lacking, Norwich haven’t really put up as much as a whimper in their fight to survive. Ultimately, as damning as it might sound for Farke, his inventive and creative style of football that worked so well for the Canaries in the Championship was their downfall this season. They have conceded the most goals in the league, have scored the fewest and that’s why they’re bottom of the league, it’s really that simple.

In many ways, it is a shame to see a team that tried to stick with their squad that actually got them to the Premier League go down so tamely. However, that has clearly been their downfall, as the players just simply weren’t good enough. I’m sure Norwich, as well as other newly promoted Championship clubs, will learn from that going forward.

 

Seán McGill – Everton and Inconsistency: The Premier League’s Greatest Love Affair

Over the past number of years, Everton have seemed to be in a perpetual flux between a promising outfit with high aspirations, to a side performing well below the sum of its parts, to downright mediocre. 

New players, new managers, and new tactical styles have all been put to the test, with none truly sticking for the Toffees. New manager Carlo Ancelotti looked to have injected a fresh sense of confidence and cohesion at the start of his tenure, but Sunday’s 3-0 defeat at the hands of Wolves meant his side have won just two of their last nine games in the Premier League. 

pickford vs wolves

Jordan Pickford has hit a serious slump since returning from lockdown, looking very unconvincing as many have began to suggest that Nick Pope or Dean Henderson could soon snatch the starting goalkeeper role from him in the England squad.

Of course, a bad run of form doesn’t automatically mean there is a systemic issue, but when these poor spells seem to happen so frequently, and under several different managers, you have to wonder if the problems may have become engrained in the club itself. 

Club captain Seamus Coleman claimed he and his teammates need to have a “long hard look at ourselves” and questioned why they lacked attitude and desire in their performance at Molinuex. 

The Irishman also said the squad “can’t keep hiding behind managers”, suggesting that some Everton players have escaped sufficient criticism while the manager pays the price with their job. 

A manager as experienced and as decorated as Ancelotti will be confident he can weed out the players who aren’t pulling their weight and create a more diligent culture within the club, but if that doesn’t ring true soon, the Italian may face the same unfortunate fate as many of his predecessors.

 

Cameron Wanstall – How far can Nick Pope go?

Liverpool were left frustrated after a 1-1 draw at home to Burnley ruined their hopes of having a 100% record at Anfield this season. The Reds created plenty of great chances, but one man alone snatched a point for the visitors. “There were moments when it was Liverpool against Nick Pope” Jurgen Klopp admitted. Pope had already made two spectacular stops to keep out Mohamed Salah before Andy Robertson superbly headed home the opener. Sadio Mane, Curtis Jones and Salah, again, were all denied as Jay Rodriguez grabbed Burnley’s equaliser. Sean Dyche labelled his man of the match winning ‘keeper a “monster” and called his shot-stopping “spectacular.”

pope vs liverpool

Nick Pope further built on an excellent season with a standout individual performance against Liverpool, quite literally saving Burnley from defeat.

After missing the entirety of the 2018/19 league campaign through injury after a superb breakthrough season in 2017/18, Pope has burst back onto the scene this season. With the help of James Tarkowski and Ben Mee in front of him, he currently leads the league in clean sheets (14). His exceptional reflexes on show on Saturday are backed up by his confidence and commanding presence – he also leads the league in ‘high claims’ (48). His emergence as a team leader, marshalling the well-drilled defence ahead of him, and the ability to step up when it matters most shows a maturity necessary for bigger, better things.

The only problem for Pope? He is already 28 years old, a real late bloomer. How far can he really go from here? Perhaps not so high at club level, but at international level? He can be massive.

Being homegrown with three years left on his deal means his astronomical value will deter potential buyers. However, being first-choice in a solid top-half team will satisfy Pope for the rest of his career. His brilliant performances have surely impressed England boss Gareth Southgate ahead of next summer’s European Championship. With current number one Jordan Pickford’s slump only getting worse (he shipped three to Wolves this weekend and so nearly fumbled in a fourth), and Dean Henderson not quite ready, it appears it is Pope’s time to impress on one of the biggest stages in world football. Tarkowski and Mee too? Possibly.

 

 

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