When A Cock Crows. Premier League Week 13 Hitters & Shitters

The Premier League was somewhat overshadowed this weekend by the second leg of the Copa Libertadores in Buenos Aires, where fierce rivals River Plate and Boca Juniors were scheduled to resume hostilities on Saturday night after a 2-2 draw at Boca’s La Bombanera a fortnight ago. In scenes of civil disobedience that made Brexiteers’ threats of taking to the streets should they not get their precious, isolating, life-impairing ill-thought out shitshow of a deal look like the trash talk of a one-legged man in an arse kicking competition. The difference being that, in Argentina, the assailants that hurled missiles at the visitors team bus weren’t doing it for any particular political or ideological point, but rather more for the sheer bantz of it all.

With Boca’s players left needing urgent medical treatment thanks to cuts from the broken bus windows and excessive amounts of tear gas being released in their direction, management were understandably keen to have the game postponed and, despite FIFA president Gianni Infantino’s threat to disqualify Boca from the competition if the game didn’t go ahead, they eventually got their wish. A far cry from the Premier League, where fans are discouraged from creating anything approaching an ‘atmosphere’.

Back in the land of hot beef drinks and overpriced chips, England’s top flight resumed after the international break, as Manchester City did Manchester City things, and the performance art piece entitled Post-Ferguson Manchester United continued in its new tradition. Here are the Hitters and Shitters from Gameweek 13.

 

Hitters

ranieri

Tottenham Hotspur, Not Dead Yet – Besides Manchester United’s inevitable collapse in Jose Mourinho’s triennial sabbatical from being a competent football manager, one of the most widely tipped predictions this season was for Spurs to be the side that said its farewells and slipped quietly out of the top four. The lack of summer investment that commentators up and down the country have hung their hat since August, the never-ending issues with their new stadium, seemingly designed by Erwin Schrödinger, and a squad full of players that had so little time off after the World Cup they all turned up to pre-season still wearing ushankas – Tottenham are a club for which the word ‘transition’ requires translating into Latin and being etched upon their crest.

In spite of everything, though, they’re still flying high in the league off the back of their best start to a Premier League season, and on Saturday night they provided a timely reminder of their devastating ability to blow teams away. Having looked unconvincing in the home defeats to Liverpool and Manchester City, the visit of Chelsea hardly had Spurs’ fans arriving at Wembley brimming with confidence. All that changed eight minutes in, however, as Dele Alli cemented the hosts bright start by flicking Christian Eriksen’s free-kick beyond Kepa Arrizabalaga for his sixth goal in five games against the Blues.

Eight minutes later, Spurs were cruising, as Harry Kane picked up the ball 25 yards out, drove at the Chelsea backline, and caught Kepa out by driving an early effort into the bottom corner. In truth, 2-0 at the break flattered Maurizio Sarri’s team, as Kane, Alli and Son Heung-min all had glorious chances to extend Tottenham’s lead. Son would get his goal in the second half, outpacing Marcos Alonso and side-stepping David Luiz before sliding the ball into the bottom corner, in the kind of move that would have your opponent claiming their controller has been disconnected in a game of FIFA.

Though Olivier Giroud’s late consolation blotted Spurs’ copybook a little, it would’ve been a struggle to take anything away from such a dominant performance from Mauricio Pochettino’s side. While they look unlikely to trouble Liverpool and Manchester City in the title race, it’s going to take a lot more to wrench that top four place away from them this season.

 

The Tinkerman Cometh – Claudio’s back, like the adorable grandfather at the start of a film that you just know is going to end up the subject of a tear-jerking death scene towards the end. Since that impossible Premier League win and improbably sacking at Leicester City, Signore Ranieri has spent an underwhelming season in France with Nantes, before rocking up at the Cottage to lend a hand to the top flight’s basement boys. Upon arrival, Claudio may have been shocked to discover that his predecessor Slavisa Jokanovic (coincidentally Ranieri’s first signing as Chelsea manager) had taken a leaf out of the Italian’s book and spun it into a twelve volume epic.

Even by the Tinkerman’s standards, the Serbian’s thirty-three starting line-up changes across the first twelve games of the season seemed a little flighty. But it was Ranieri’s switch to a 4-2-3-1 formation, eschewing Jokanovic’s fluid and, let’s face it, suicidal 4-3-3 to offer a little more support to the league’s worst defence, that looked to give Fulham a boost against Southampton. Ryan Sessegnon, touted as England’s brightest young talent, had so far this season struggled to replicate his form from the Championship, caught in two minds between defence and attack, and failing to make any kind of difference at either end. On Saturday, freed from the burden of defensive responsibilities thanks to the pairing of Callum Chambers and Jean-Michel Seri in front of the back four, Sessegnon gave Cedric Soares the runaround all afternoon, laying on two assists for his teammates.

Aleksander Mitrovic, too, benefitted from being the spearhead of a four-man attack, scoring his first league goals since September with a couple of trademark finishes. Yes, Fulham conceded twice, but Ranieri will need to teach his players to walk before they can run, particularly given the lack of organisation evident from the opening months of the season. If he can instill the kind of defensive solidity that saw Wes Morgan and Robert Huth become Premier League champions, then relegation worries might soon disappear in West London.

 

Terriers outfoxing Wolves – Last week I spent an evening in the company of a Huddersfield Town fan who, over far too many pints of Stella Artois, forcefully insisted that ‘the Premier League is fookin’ shite’ and ‘us Town fans can’t wait to get relegated so we can play in a proper league’. Had he sobered up by Sunday evening, I’d daresay that his position on the whole thing might have changed somewhat, as David Wagner’s side travelled to the Black Country and darkened the mood of Wolverhampton Wanderers’ support.

It was arguably the Terriers’ most dominant performance since arriving in the Premier League last August, as Aaron Mooy reminded us of his ability to pull the strings at the highest level, and also provided the travelling Town supporters a little hope that their side might actually score a few goals this season. With 55% possession (their highest all season) and six shots on target, Huddersfield looked a cut above the Wolves side prematurely pronounced ‘the greatest promoted side of the Premier League era’ by Phil Neville and Jamie Redknapp towards the end of September.

In fact, since being championed following their 1-1 draw at Old Trafford, Nuno Espirito Santo’s side have picked up seven points from a possible twenty-one, falling into the bottom half of the league. Though unlikely to be drawn into a relegation scrap, this defeat provided another reminder that good sides have to do more than just turn up to win in the top flight. Huddersfield, meanwhile, are now a quarter of the way to forty points, and might fancy themselves to pick up a few more before Big Ben’s bongs bring in the new year.

 

Shitters

henderson

Manuel Pellegrini and the One That Got Away – Imagine a fucked up world where your ex and your current partner end up going head-to-head in some kind of dehumanising popularity contest, and you watch on helpless as your richer, more attractive and more successful former beau wipes the floor with your current squeeze. Now imagine you’ve got a lovely, if incredibly out of fashion, hairstyle and you’re some way to reenacting Manuel Pellegrini’s weekend.

West Ham in their current guise are an enigmatic beast. No longer a team that will puncture long-term struggle with a season of relative success thanks to some canny player purchases and a crafty man in charge, they’re a side that want to be seen to be going places, and as a result will post one or two standout results against top sides amidst a year of mediocrity. Should any Hammers fans have begun to get ideas above their station after the scintillating win over Burnley at the start of the month, they were quickly burst like the proverbial bubble in twenty short minutes by Manchester City, as Leroy Sane ran amok at the London Stadium.

There’s no shame in losing to Pep Guardiola’s team, and the 4-0 defeat here hardly came as a surprise given that City have won their last five visits to West Ham with an aggregate score of 20-1, but it does beg the question of whether that awful lot upstairs are getting their money’s worth with Pellegrini. Victory over Manchester United aside, the Hammers have hardly impressed in the opening few months, and the owners could be forgiven for thinking that the £103m spent in the summer might put an end to these regular humblings at home. Undoubtedly the Chilean deserves longer to prove his worth at the London Stadium, but Saturday provided another reminder that West Ham are still light years away from challenging at the right end of the table.

It’s been nearly three years since Manchester City failed to take all three points home from East London. City’s manager that day? Pellegrini, of course.

 

Jordan Henderson, In Too Deep – It seems odd to pick out the captain of a side that posted an impressive 3-0 victory away from home as someone that had a Shitter this weekend, but it feels like Jordan Henderson’s time in this section has been coming. Over the last year, Henderson has become the unspoken weak link at both domestic and international level, as pundits and journalists dissect England’s weakness in central midfield, and pointed to a lack of dynamism at Liverpool following Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain’s season-ending injury. Jurgen Klopp, too, shot a thinly-veiled warning the way of Henderson by splashing out on two central midfielders in the summer, though its becoming increasingly difficult to work out if Fabinho actually exists or is just the character from a Brazilian football drama.

Look, Jordan Henderson is a good footballer. Your honest, hardworking, 7/10 midfielder that would be welcomed with open arms by 75% of clubs in the Premier League. The uproar following his red card on Saturday – arriving minutes after being given his final warning and produced for a tactical foul on Etienne Capoue with the game won – was over the top, but the subtext of the thousands of tweets from Liverpool supporters was clear. There’s, at the very least, a large minority of Reds that don’t think Henderson is good enough to start in Klopp’s midfield, and certainly not captain the side. Is Jordan Henderson your typical league winning midfield fulcrum? No. But then neither was Tim Sherwood.

Missing the Merseyside derby next weekend would hurt any Liverpool captain, but for one whose position at the club looks increasingly under threat, its potentially a massive blow for Henderson. He could do with putting in a captain’s performance at the Parc des Princes this week.

 

Arsenal: Second-half good, first-half not so good – Again, picking out a team that posted an impressive win at in-form(?) Bournemouth for critcism seems harsh, but when you make an editorial decision to leave the Manchester United/Jose Mourinho digs at a minimum, you leave yourself with little wiggle room. Since a lot of this weekend’s results went to form, while others were the outcome of previously mentioned good performances, its about time we talked about Arsenal’s first-half form this season.

Having edged in front in a tight game on the south coast thanks to Jefferson Lerma’s own goal, Unai Emery will have been looking forward to giving a half-time team talk that consisted of less ‘show me some desire!’ and more ‘I’m pleased with that first half performance’. Sadly for Unai, he’ll have to wait at least one more week, as the Gunners went to sleep and allowed a Bournemouth counter to be finished off superbly by Josh King. All of which meant that Arsenal went into the break without a lead for the thirteenth time this season, a statistic that sees them in the bottom three for first half form alongside Cardiff City and Wolves.

Of course it’s the result at full-time that matters most, and the only statistic that Emery will care about is that Arsenal find themselves in touching distance of the top four and two points better off than this stage last season thanks to Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s winner. The worry for Gooners, particularly with the North London Derby on the horizon, is that sooner or later their team’s slow start to games will cost points. Given Tottenham’s frenetic first half against Chelsea, that harsh lesson might be just round the corner.

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