After a fiery two days of Premier League action, we look back at 5 things we learnt from the final gameweek of January:
Jose Mourinho is a sore loser, and even worse after draws
One would imagine Jose Mourinho would have a keen appreciation for a solid defensive performance by a team. He was, after all, infamous for setting up team to score a goal and then just hold the fort till the 90th minute. In fact, one of the reasons Chelsea FC and he parted ways in his first tenure was because Roman Abramovich wanted a more attractive brand of football. But, it turns out Jose only appreciates defensive football when he’s the one playing it. Relegation battlers West Ham, against all odds, managed to see out a goalless draw against their London rivals. And Jose Mourinho let loose a stream of complaints and insults: some were era linked (“19th century football”), some were questions on morality (“pretending injuries”, “cheating”), while others were a testament to the man’s rather vivid imagination (“…the only thing I could bring was a Black and Decker [tool] to destroy the wall”).
With Mourinho, there’s always a lingering suspicion that every word he utters is some sort of a ‘mind-game’, but this did feel like a bit of honest to god public moaning. In any case, Jose Mourinho wins our Moaning Myrtle of the Week award for his fantastic post game rant.
Steven Gerrard still the man for the big occasions
The more things change, the more they stay the same. Liverpool and Everton have been transformed this season, with managers Brendan Rodgers and Roberto Martinez shattering all expectations. And their respective philosophies were on show in this latest edition of the Merseyside derby – Everton held a majority of the possession (61%), but Liverpool used their sharp counter-attacks to create more chances (9 shots on target, against 4 by Everton).
But before the trio of goals by the usual suspects (read: Luis Suarez & Daniel Sturridge) it was Steven Gerrard who, as is his habit, stepped up and did what was needed to be done. Not only did he jump the highest in a 21st minute corner to score the game’s opener, but he also put in a massive performance in the defensive midfielder position. His masterful display is especially impressive considering that in Liverpool’s previous League fixture, a 2-2 draw against Aston Villa, Gerrard looked like a fish out of water in the same role. He admitted his own disappointment at his performance, and in the Everton game he did a much better job of sticking to his defensive duties. Lucas Leiva will continue to be Liverpool’s first choice defensive midfielder, but this was a wonderful testament to the versatility and mental strength of the Liverpool captain.
Toure-Fernandinho, not Aguero-Negredo the key for Man City
It’s almost funny the way there seems to be an almost unanimous agreement that Manchester City will go on to win this season’s Premier League title. Tottenham manager Tim Sherwood has lauded City as title winners after being at the receiving end of a 5-1 defeat. Interestingly, after Chelsea’s West Ham fixture, Jose Mourinho not only stated that City are likely to clinch the title, but went as far as to imply that they are even likely to serve Chelsea a “four, five, six goals” thrashing. All this reverence is largely stemming from the sheer volume of goals they have scored: 68 in 23 outings, miles ahead of any other club in the League (Liverpool have scored 57, Arsenal have 45 and Chelsea have 43). This has of course led to immense plaudits for the regular strike pairing, Sergio Aguero and Alvaro Negredo, with Edin Dzeko being a more than reliable backup. With Stevan Jovetic now back from injury and having scored his first goal for the Manchester club, City have a formidable forward-line indeed.
But injuries to one or more of these players at different periods have shown that none of them are really irreplaceable in the City side. That honor must go to the central midfield pairing of Fernandinho and Yaya Toure. The pair are incredibly versatile, with both being equally capable of shielding the defensive line as well as rampaging forward and joining attack. And it’s not just their individual brilliance that is impressive, their coordination ensures that they take turns pushing forward, making sure one of them is always available to break down opposition counter-attacks. Against Tottenham, they were again at the top of their game. It’s telling that Fernandinho had 88 touches on the ball, 75 passes (92% pass accuracy), 7 accurate long balls and 2 key passes: all these numbers are far higher than those of any Tottenham player. Toure may not have had as impressive a game statistically, but there is no doubting that he is one of the most influential midfielders in the Premier League. As long as Man City can keep these two up and running, their run to the title might just be as straight-forward as Mourinho and Westwood are implying.
Mata’s performances could force Robin van Persie onto the bench
Disclaimer time: In the absence of an accurate crystal ball, the conclusions derived here are purely on the basis of what has been seen so far in the Premier League. So let’s look at the hard facts witnessed so far.
Fact 1: David Moyes has shown a great fondness for playing a 4-2-3-1 formation so far this season, rarely straying from that format in the League. This involves playing a number 10 behind the central striker, with two attacking midfielders/ wingers on opposite flanks. Fact 2: Juan Mata has been far more effective a player in the number 10 role than on either of the flanks. This was, in fact, one of the reasons why he got cast to the sidelines of a Chelsea side that say newcomer Willian see more playing time than the two-time Chelsea Player of the Season. Fact 3: David Moyes was brought in with the intent of building a strong team in the long term, not immediate success this season. So, it makes sense for him to build a team around 28 year Wayne Rooney and 25 year old Juan Mata, rather than 30 year Robin van Persie.
In the match against Cardiff City, Juan Mata took the side like a duck to water, playing his usual neat passing game behind the striker, and involved in every move Manchester United made (he even got his first assist as a Red Devil). Somewhat conveniently, this game saw both forwards just returning to the side from injury, so Moyes could field a 4-2-3-1 where van Persie and Rooney both played in the striker role (for around 60 minutes and 30 minutes respectively). But in his next 2 outings against Stoke City and Fulham, and even more so in the subsequent game against Arsenal, Moyes will have to take a tough call. He can either play Juan Mata out of position, or rotate Rooney and van Persie in the central striker role.
There is a chance David Moyes may surprise folks, by pulling a formation out of his tactical hat that accommodates all three players in their preferred roles. But if we stick to the facts we know, the likelihood of van Persie’s time in the first time diminishing is highly likely.
Newcastle United need a replacement for Cabaye
Newcastle United are having a decent season, all things considered. Sitting in 8th place (with 37 points), they are just 3 points behind last season’s Championship winners Manchester United, and 5 points above Southampton. But the 0-0 result against Norwich City was the start of a new phase of Alan Pardew’s Newcastle United – the after-Cabaye phase. Yohan Cabaye has returned to his homeland with a move to Paris Saint-Germain. Newcastle United got a neat £19m for letting go of their star player, but there is little doubt that they would have been much happier to retain the player for some more time.
Cabaye’s influence in this Newcastle side cannot be ignored. This season alone he has scored 7 goals, making him the team’s second highest goal scorer after QPR loanee Loic Remy (11). He also has 2 assists to his name, and is the most frequent provider of defence cutting passes (0.4 accurate through balls per game).
For the time being, Pardew will make do by shifting Moussa Sissoko to the center (he usually plays as the right-attacking midfielder in Newcastle’s 4-2-3-1), and playing the likes of Hatim Ben Arfa and Yoan Gouffran in the wider positions. But this effectively means that Sissoko is now the only creative player who can play in the center of the park for the team. Should he suffer an injury, or have a dip in form, Pardew will struggle to formulate a Plan B. His bid for Lyon’s Clement Grenier has been made with filling just that gap, but as of now it unclear if the same will materialize. Pardew needs to make sure a signing is made in this area, else there might be a lot more 0-0s in Newcastle’s future.