Late goals. If matches ended after 80 or even 85 minutes then the story of Week 24 would have been much different. Both Manchester clubs would have suffered catastrophic losses. Southampton would have dropped two additional points. Arsenal would have clawed out a great point despite being on their heels for nearly the entire match against Spurs. Even the Newcastle vs. Stoke City match, which means just about nothing in the grander scheme of the Premier League season, would have ended much differently had it been cut off at the 85 minute mark.
Instead of the above headlines, we have the following:
Manchester City rally for a late point – This is a bit silly because sure, in the context of a match that they were losing until late, picking up a “late point” is better than not doing so but dropping any points to Hull City at the Etihad is both embarrassing and catastrophic to City’s title hopes.
Manchester United rally for a late point – Not QUITE as catastrophic as City’s outcome because West Ham are a good team and the match was at Upton Park but United will be flattered by any positivity coming from the headlines associated with this match. United continue to be bad against all but the poorest of Premier League sides and they seem to have no idea how to utilize the fantasy team full of talent at their disposal.
Southampton pull out a huge win – What a goal from Sadio Mane. His solo effort might not have been quite as impressive as Cheikhou Kouyate’s against Manchester United but it was certain impressive in its own right and much bigger in determining the fortunes of his own team. It also makes you wonder what sort of training was going on at the African Cup of Nations because both players were making their first starts after returning and both scored wonderful goals. (OK, Mane didn’t actually make it to the tournament due to injury but he missed an equivalent amount of time)
Arsenal is overrun by Kane and Spurs – That Arsenal held the lead going into halftime of the North London Derby on Saturday is misleading. From the opening whistle, their neighbors were the aggressors and clearly the better team. Harry Kane’s second goal didn’t change the fact that Spurs outplayed Arsenal, it just changed the narrative associated with that fact. If Arsenal had held Spurs to a 1-1 draw then Wenger would have been praised, as Mourinho generally is, for fighting a strong holding action on a day when his charges weren’t at their best while their opponents were. Instead, there are certainly corners of the media/internet where Arsenal’s new-found commitment to playing counter-attacking football is being questioned and even harshly criticized.
Spurs are really in the Champions League race – On the flip side of the Arsenal story line is the fact that Spurs will be feeling much better about their Champions League chances with Manchester United dropping points and the win over Arsenal. It isn’t so much that Spurs are now favorites to move forward but a draw with Arsenal would have dented their chances in the same way that City’s draw with Chelsea dented their chances of winning the title. In other words, it would have been a big opportunity lost. Harry Kane’s late goal ensured that Spurs didn’t lose out on their chance.
Stoke City spoil a Newcastle win streak late – Not that anyone outside of Stoke City and Newcastle support really cares in the context of the title race/Champions League races/relegation race but Peter Crouch’s late equalizer probably took a little air out of the John Carver revolution that looked to be gaining steam as it was on the precipice of two consecutive wins.
This wasn’t the last weekend of the season so it wasn’t that the late goals and drama were unfolding simultaneously but it was still remarkable to see how so many of the big teams in the league saw their fortunes change to at least some extent as the headline writers were quickly rewriting their stories just before the final whistle.
[NOTE: Because of the quick turnaround with the Premier League in action again on Tuesday and Wednesday, this will be an abridged MMM, we’ll be back with a full version after the mid-week matches]
The Title Race
Chelsea – Position: First Place, Points: 56, Form: 10 points from past 5; Upcoming Schedule: Moderate (EVE, BUR, @LEI, @WHU, SOU) While City struggle without their best attacking player, Yaya Toure, Chelsea are grinding out wins without two of their best attacking players (Diego Costa and Cesc Fabregas). It wasn’t a thing of beauty but it got the job done and put Chelsea firmly back in the driver’s seat after City choked against Hull. One call out on Branislav Ivanovic who is rarely called out as one of the stars of the Chelsea side. Maybe it’s because he isn’t the typical attacking outside back (short, pacy, tricky and not particularly adept at defending) but he combines tenacious defense with a significant attacking contribution. His threat at the attacking end really gives Chelsea an advantage as the defense frequently fails to account for him.
The Race for Europe
Manchester City – Position: Second Place, Points: 49, Form: 6 points from past 5; Upcoming Schedule: Light (@STO, NEW, @LIV, LEI, @BUR) With the gap between 2nd and 3rd half that of the gap between 1st and 2nd and City’s recent form being closer to relegation form than title form, they have been dropped down a tier by the committee (that’s me, just to clarify). Yaya Toure and Wilfried Bony will apparently not be back from their successful African Cup of Nations campaign in time for the match with Stoke City this week. That’s not good news for a club without a win since Toure left.
Southampton – Position: Third Place, Points: 45, Form: 12 points from past 5; Upcoming Schedule: Difficult (WHU, LIV, @WBA, CRY, @CHE) A big step forward in their bid for a Champions League spot. A late win. Manchester United, Arsenal and City all dropping points. The worst thing that happened to the Saints this weekend was that Spurs scored late to insert themselves in the conversation. The only lingering doubt is whether Southampton have a clinical enough attack to see things through. The defense has been exceptional and there’s a lot of “pretty good” on the attacking end but the Saints lack that Hazard/Sanchez/Aguero/Kane/Eriksen-like presence there to take over when Plan A isn’t working. As a side note, it’s crazy that Kane and Eriksen are both worthy of inclusion here but no one from among Manchester United’s constellation of huge names has been even close to worthy this season.
Arsenal – Position: Sixth Place, Points: 42, Form: 9 points from past 5; Upcoming Schedule: Light (LEI, @CRY, EVE, @QPR, WHU) It wasn’t a good performance against Spurs. There’s sitting back and absorbing pressure and then counter attacking and then there’s sitting back and getting battered by pressure. Arsenal did a poor job of passing out of the back when they broke up a Spurs attack which just led to even more attacking. On the rare occasions they broke past midfield the counterattacking was reasonably dangerous, there just weren’t enough times it happened. No one is blameless in this but Aaron Ramsey was particularly poor and after what we saw from the combination of Cazorla and Rosicky against Manchester City, Arsene Wenger might have been smart to give that duo a chance rather than replacing Cazorla with Rosicky. Cazorla, so impressive for so much of the past few months, wasn’t his usual self under duress from the Spurs pressure though so it might not have helped. Of greater concern though, is Ramsey who isn’t close to the player he was at the beginning of last season. With Coquelin having nailed down the defending role of the deeper-lying duo, critics are going to have to start looking at the more attack-oriented of the two as the next weak link.
Tottenham Hotspur – Position: Fifth Place, Points: 43, Form: 12 points from past 5; Upcoming Schedule: Difficult (@LIV, WHU, @QPR, SWN, @MAN) A huge win for Spurs. Unlike the usual story line when Arsenal lose, it wasn’t a high profile error by an Arsenal player, it was Spurs collectively playing better (well, other than Lamela who was a bit of a disaster). The Harry Kane story is a fantastic one and one that even this Arsenal supporter would have to be blind not to enjoy a little bit even if it didn’t make me particularly happy this past weekend. It isn’t often that we get a chance to see a youth player burst on to the scene at a club the size of Spurs that he grew up supporting. He seems like a solid human being which helps too. Spurs have the momentum right now but they are a spot below Arsenal in this ranking because despite their momentum they have the more difficult schedule down the stretch. Arsenal have Liverpool and Chelsea at the Emirates and Manchester United on the road while Spurs have to go to Anfield, Old Trafford, and St. Mary’s over the balance of the schedule and also host Manchester City with Yaya Toure and Wilfried Bony available. The momentum right this minute is with Spurs but the schedule is in Arsenal’s favor.
Manchester United – Position: Fourth Place, Points: 44, Form: 8 points from past 5; Upcoming Schedule: Light (BUR, @SWN, SUN, @NEW, TOT) We covered how poorly they are playing in the intro and that doesn’t help their Champions League case. To make matters worse, they have the most difficult run-in of the serious contenders for the third and fourth spots. United’s current cake-walk schedule eventually gives way to matches with Spurs, City, and Arsenal at Old Trafford and Liverpool and Chelsea on the road. For a team with a one point cushion over Spurs and two points over Arsenal and struggling against all but the poorest sides in the Premier League, this looks like a bridge too far for Louis Van Gaal and his mismatched side.
Liverpool – Position: Seventh Place, Points: 39, Form: 11 points from past 5; Upcoming Schedule: Difficult (TOT, @SOU, MAC, BUR, @SWN) On the positive side, Jordan Ibe looked very good in his first Merseyside Derby match. On the negative side, he was Liverpool’s best player on a day that Daniel Sturridge, Raheem Sterling, Philippe Coutinho, Jordan Henderson, and Steven Gerrard all played a part. It was an exciting draw but one that Liverpool needed to be a win if they were going to continue to stay afloat in the race for a Champions League place. Now they need more than one victory from the upcoming trio of TOT, @SOU, and MAC (again, with Yaya and Bony back). If that were it for the tough matches for Liverpool, we might look more kindly on their plight but after a brief respite they still have to contend with Manchester United at Anfield, Arsenal at the Emirates and Chelsea at Stamford Bridge. That’s an even more difficult schedule than Manchester United face and with a five point deficit to make up to United’s spot in fourth, Liverpool supporters should probably start looking ahead to a great send-off party for Steven Gerrard, some summer transfer targets, and maybe, just maybe, a shot at the Europa League.
The Relegation Zone - where we examine events at the other end of the table as established clubs flounder and newly promoted clubs reveal who they are going to be this season. Like the sections above, I’ve reordered with the most likely to be relegated being first and the least likely of the group last.
Burnley – Position: Seventeenth Place, Points: 21, Form: 5 points from past 5; Upcoming Schedule: Difficult (@MAN, @CHE, SWN, @LIV, MAC) The story of Burnley’s downfall will apparently be that they couldn’t hold some key two-goal leads against beatable teams. First it was Crystal Palace in Alan Pardew’s league debut. This week it was West Brom and for good measure they threw in a bonus performance of a similar type against Spurs in the FA Cup. Burnley supporters will rightly say that they were unlucky not to get a late penalty for a Gareth McAuley hand ball in the box but it shouldn’t have come to that with a two goal lead at home against an adequate-but-not-good West Brom team who saw their preferred choice at center forward limp off before they started scoring. They’re not currently in the relegation zone but with a brutal upcoming schedule they will be soon enough.
Leicester City – Position: Twentieth Place, Points: 17, Form: 4 points from past 5; Upcoming Schedule: Difficult (@ARS, @EVE, CHE, @MAC, HUL) That run of seven points from three matches is looking more and more like a mirage with each pointless week that passes. A home match with Crystal Palace was a perfect opportunity to pick up a few points and it went begging. Throw in some post-match chaos over the status of manager Nigel Pearson (apparently he’s still “in”) and a gap of four points to draw even with Burnley outside of the relegation zone and you’re looking at a bleak picture. It gets even bleaker when you look at the next four fixtures - @ARS, @EVE, CHE, @MAC – before Hull City comes to town for some potential relief.
Hull City – Position: Eighteenth Place, Points: 20, Form: 4 points from past 5; Upcoming Schedule: Moderate (AST, QPR, @STK, SUN, @LEI) So close to a huge win at the Etihad. Allan McGregor made one beautiful save to preserve the lead and the cross bar made another but James Milner’s free kick was too much and a huge three points turned into only one. Granted, it has to be viewed as a bonus point given the location and opponents but in their current spot in the table that free kick is the difference between 18th and the relegation zone and a tie for 16th with Villa on points.
QPR – Position: Nineteenth Place, Points: 19, Form: 2 points from past 5; Upcoming Schedule: Moderate (@SUN, @HUL, TOT, ARS, @CRY) Like Hull City, they were OhSoClose to a big outcome. Even a point against visiting Southampton would have been big in the relegation battle as it currently stands. With trips to Sunderland, Hull City and Palace over the next five there are certainly opportunities to improve their position but it will require actual points from a road match and it’s well documented that there haven’t been any of those so far this season. The positive here is that it took a great save by Fraser Forster from a Charlie Austin attempt to preserve the draw and eventually enable the win for Southampton. With a new manager hopefully in place soon, perhaps Austin’s excellence will be just enough of a bump to allow the Rs to take advantage of Burnley’s brutal upcoming schedule.
Aston Villa – Position: Sixteenth Place, Points: 22, Form: 1 points from past 5; Upcoming Schedule: Light (@HUL, STO, @NEW, @QPR, @SUN) Well, at least they scored. Oh, and the schedule isn’t nearly as brutal for Villa as it is for a few of the other relegation candidates. That’s not a big list of positives, is it? Seriously? One point from their last five matches? Do they need to be paying a manager for results like that?
Sunderland – Position: Fourteenth Place, Points: 24, Form: 4 points from past 5; Upcoming Schedule: Light (QPR, WBA, @MAN, @HUL, AVL) A point at the Liberty Stadium is a solid result for the Premier League’s kings of the draw. With a light schedule coming up including three home matches with relegation strugglers in their next five matches and Jermain Defoe on hand to provide some goals, Sunderland appear to be getting safer by the moment. It isn’t unreasonable to think they could put together somewhere between seven and nine points out of their next five matches which should confirm them as officially safe.
West Brom – Position: Fifteenth Place, Points: 23, Form: 6 points from past 5; Upcoming Schedule: Moderate (SWN, @SUN, SOU, STK, CRY) It wasn’t so much the result, an away draw for a relegation-threatened team can’t be considered a bad result, but the manner in which they got there. They were terrible for the opening portion of the match and allowed a bad team to be completely dominant. After that they relied on set pieces to make their way back in a match where they couldn’t generate much from open play. Then they had to rely on being lucky and not being called for a pretty clear penalty. Not exactly the defensive solidity that we’ve come to expect from Tony Pulis teams. Maybe there’s still some work to be done before they start stringing together 1-0 wins.
Crystal Palace – Position: Thirteenth Place, Points: 26, Form: 10 points from past 5; Upcoming Schedule: Moderate (NEW, ARS, @WHU, @SOU, QPR) The only team in the bottom half of the table to win (in fact, they were the only team outside of the top five to win in Week 24) which, given the bunching at the bottom, is pretty huge. Alan Pardew doesn’t have to get much fancier than winning the games against teams he should beat and he should see his new side safe from relegation. They have a six point gap plus goal differential between them and the relegation zone with four other teams between them and that spot. Hard to see a set of circumstances where that many teams below them start playing well enough to jump past the Eagles. Maybe not quite time to send in your 2015-16 season ticket renewals at Premier League prices but you should at least start thinking about being ready to write that check.
Everton – Position: Twelfth Place, Points: 27, Form: 6 points from past 5; Upcoming Schedule: Moderate (@CHE, LEI, @ARS, @STO, NEW) The only reason Everton are still here is that the balance of their schedule is pretty brutal. Of their 14 remaining matches, here’s the list of nine where they are unlikely to be favored: @CHE, @ARS, @STO, NEW, SOU, @SWN, MAN, @WHU, TOT. Maybe they’ll be favored against Newcastle at home but, if so, only just. That means that there are only five matches from the remaining schedule where the Toffees will be expected to pick up points. Their form has been such that we have to allow for the fact that they won’t take full points from even those five. It’s still a stretch to see them in a legitimate relegation battle but it’s hard to miss the fact that they keep dipping closer and closer to the pack. They could legitimately finish 15th or 16th which can’t be what anyone had in mind after last season and the purchase of Romelu Lukaku.
I’m going to cut the MMM short here, we’ll be back later in the week with a full column including the mid-week matches and a new section for fantasy managers updating them on what’s going on with various fantasy game platforms.