The next 6 games – Premier League top half contenders

International football is done for the year, which means we can now concentrate on club football for the next four months notwithstanding another COVID-related stoppage. The fixtures are going to come thick and fast, especially for top teams still competing in Europe. While there have been a lot of upsets and the tables are close so far, it is usually from this point onwards that the contenders are separated from the pretenders. With that in mind, I have decided to break down the season in different phases. This first phase consists of the next six rounds of fixtures. It may seem a bit arbitrary considering the league barely stops, but the weekend of December 19 seems a good point to pause, as its the last round before the even more hectic holiday schedule gets underway. For the purpose of this piece I have focused on the top 10 in the table plus Arsenal, United, West Ham and Leeds. How these 14 clubs navigate these six fixtures should give us a clearer picture of the ambitions and hopes of the teams as we head into the new year.

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Mourinho and Klopp meet along divergent paths

Was this really a Champions League final just seven months ago? In truth, it didn’t even feel like a replay of the final when the two sides met at Anfield at the end of October. More than anything else, it illustrated all was not well with Mauricio Pochettino, the dying embers of his reign characterized by tactical blunders not seen by the Argentinean in previous visits to Merseyside. And now another confused Spurs manager takes on Jurgen Klopp’s rampant Liverpool.

Mourinho vs Klopp was meant to be one of the apex managerial battles in England. Or at least that’s what everyone thought in the seminal summer of 2016 when Mourinho, Conte, Klopp and Guardiola joined Wenger and Pochettino to dine at the top table of managers in the Premier League. Three and a half seasons on from then, it is pertinent to ask — does Mourinho welcome Klopp as an equal?

Klopp’s irresistible inspirational qualities have only become stronger but he hasn’t rested on those laurels. There is a greater understanding of tactics augmented by an increasing variety to the way Liverpool play nowadays. Importantly, we see a transformation in Liverpool because Klopp knows how to connect with his players. The implementation of new ideas on the pitch have come about as a manifestation of excellent communication off it. Klopp continues to learn, looking for any and every marginal gain.

Exactly who is it that Mourinho now connects with? On taking the Spurs job, the famous anecdote about Mourinho was asking Dele Alli if it was in fact his brother who was putting on the Spurs shirt. Perhaps a case could be made for the Spurs dressing room to now ask their boss if there is an imposter managing them.

Mourinho’s greatest strength was his ability to organize a defence and make them watertight. We’ve seen none of that so far at Spurs. He loved working with experienced campaigners and reinvigorating them. Yes, Toby Alderweireld has finally signed a contract extension but has he shown anything under Mourinho to actually deserve it? Why has there been no upturn in the form of Jan Vertonghen or Eric Dier? For all intents and purposes, Christian Eriksen is not a Mourinho prototype. However, Jose used to rightfully delight in his ability to motivate playmakers and make them integral parts of his success. Think Mesut Ozil and Cesc Fabregas. Yet if anything, Eriksen seems even more distant from the cause than under Pochettino.

It also appears quite evident that Mourinho is trying his best to portray a new identity, both, on and off the pitch. Ostensibly playing with four attackers should result in a side that creates chances and thrills fans. However, his midfield two has been such a disaster, that the lack of fluency has completely nullified the threat of the quartet higher up the pitch. A Mourinho at his best would surely have reverted to a midfield three by now. Troubleshooting was his thing. To compound his woes, he has now lost both Harry Kane and Moussa Sissoko till April.

All this is not to say that Mourinho can’t throw a spanner in the works for Liverpool. Even when he was getting Manchester United to play uninspiring football, he somehow managed to rouse himself to his Machiavellian best to frustrate Klopp. (For what it’s worth, Klopp himself hasn’t got rid of the knack of overthinking such games, almost like teams without an identity confuse his teams into playing their worst football.) Coincidentally, Mourinho’s only defeat to Klopp was  his last game in charge of the Red Devils. There is also something about Liverpool that stirs the passion in Mourinho — a sort of acceptance that for all the nouveau riche, the Reds still have an aura about them that transcends, a sense of glory that the Portuguese probably admires and envies in equal measure. One need only go back to that fateful day in 2014, when his injury ravaged Chelsea side featuring Tomas Kalas at centre-back and Demba Ba upfront, stopped Liverpool from winning their first ever Premier League title, extending their wait that goes on till this day.

In truth, there’s a diminished sense of importance to this game. Yes, Spurs are still in the hunt for fourth. But Tottenham look the farthest thing away from a Champions League side right now. Mourinho has nothing to lose. If Spurs suffer a defeat, he can point to the injuries and say he lost to the best side in the land. If Spurs win, it won’t really affect Klopp or Liverpool’s seemingly inevitable march to the title. This is in a way, a credit to Liverpool and their excellent first half, but in another, a sad picture of how one of the league’s most exciting sides in recent times has hit a wall so quickly. That being said, the curious mind (and the media, lest we forget) can’t help but wonder if Mourinho and Klopp can after all, bring something to make this a memorable occasion.

The Villa Grealish Dichotomy

Considering they have just put in their best performance in a big game, it may not be the most opportune time to say this. I have not been impressed by Aston Villa this season. Many observers will disagree. The overriding narrative of their season has been one of playing good football without getting just rewards. Now, I can’t speak for others, but just because a team plays vertically doesn’t necessarily mean they are playing well. Some examples to illustrate my point further.

Earlier in the season Villa were 2-1 up against ten men at the Emirates. Remember, this was Unai Emery’s Arsenal. The Villains still ended up losing 3-2. It wasn’t a hard luck story. Arsenal actually dominated despite their numerical disadvantage and deserved the comeback win. A few rounds later, Dean Smith’s men were 1-0 up against Liverpool at Villa Park. Despite having the lead, it was alarming how many counterattacking moves the Reds were able to orchestrate, and while it is easy to say with hindsight, it really wasn’t a surprise that the table-toppers left with a late win.

Both cases were presented as heartbreak, but to my eyes both results were just and reflect a season-long pattern of Villa not really understanding the flow of the game. They have been tactically poor, not really understanding how to protect leads while also appearing a tad clueless when chasing games. Their attack hasn’t been good enough and their defence has shown varying levels of naïveté.

It is in attacking midfield that they have shone brightest and it is here that I bring in the nuance. Yes, I am not impressed with Villa, but I have thoroughly enjoyed watching Jack Grealish. To my mind, he has been one of the best midfielders to watch in England this season. I now get why Spurs were so interested in signing him during the summer they signed nobody. I now get why there was so much hype about this player and I can totally see what pundits were saying about him being the best player in the Championship, without having watched a lot of that division myself.

It’s no surprise that he is the Villains leading goal scorer, assister and passer this season. Grealish is a technical footballer’s dream. He has a varied passing range allied with easy dribbling and an excellent shot. He sees passes that nobody sees and is always an option for his teammates because he can be found in good positions, perennially drifting into open spaces. On a recent episode of the Totally Football Show, Michael Cox said he is an old-school midfielder who just knows how to run things. It is probably the reason that makes him such a joy to watch. Pass, move, pass, create, pass, shoot. All the while looking elegant and classy on the ball.

Then there’s the leadership. He is a boyhood Aston Villa fan. His passion for his team clearly shows in his game. His inspirational qualities are easy to see, without being an overtly chest-thumping heart-on-sleeve captain in the classic British sense. To Grealish, leading the team means being accountable. Need a moment of magic, Grealish is your man. Under pressure, give the ball to Grealish. He could have left when they were relegated from the Premier League. Yet he stayed and led them back to the top division. The actions speak louder than the words and that’s refreshing.

Make no mistake, Aston Villa are mired in an increasingly complex relegation battle. Arguably, a team — maybe even two — could be relegated this season without necessarily deserving it. As of one the big historical clubs in England, the pressure is even greater on Villa to survive. There is no question about who is the most integral protagonist at Villa Park. In truth, when people say Aston Villa have been good to watch, what they are really seeing, is that Jack Grealish has made them look good. Villa’s fate is inextricably linked with that of their captain’s.

The VAR “crisis”

Adam Crafton writing about VAR on the Athletic makes a lot of valid points about the prism through which we saw referee’s mistakes before VAR:

It suited players because it deflected from their own shortcomings and mistakes. It suited managers because it gave them somebody else to blame. It suited supporters because it gave them somebody else to shout at. It suited live television broadcasters, because it provided material to fill the post-match hour with their handsomely-remunerated pundits in the studio.  It suited highlight shows because these were isolated incidents easy to identify and scrutinise in a short, time-confined period. It suited newspapers, particularly for late games, as it was quick, easy copy for journalists filing on late deadlines.

It is important to remember this context when dealing with the maelstrom around VAR. Those who are shouting loudest against VAR are the same people who were shouting loudest against the competence of referees. I think if football media and perhaps more importantly football fans were just a bit philosophical, they would see that a referee’s mistake would very rarely be the underlying factor in a result.

Mark Ogden also wrote a strong piece on ESPNFC about VAR:

“Some people are saying it gets the right decision, but we’re the players on the pitch and it doesn’t feel right to me,” Wolves defender Conor Coady said after his team had lost 1-0 at Liverpool on Sunday following two key VAR decisions. The first, when referee Anthony Taylor’s decision to disallow Sadio Mane’s goal for Liverpool following a handball call against Adam Lallana was overturned, and the second, when VAR ruled out Pedro Neto’s goal after Jonny had strayed marginally offside in the build-up. Both decisions were correct, so what does Coady want? Decisions that keep everybody happy even if they are wrong?

I think Ogden hits the crux of the issue with his question. Whether supporters admit it or not, a vast majority of them can only see things through a tribal lens. It’s not surprising to me in the least, that footballers are now echoing the fans and playing to the gallery with such nonsensical and irrelevant quotes.

We can have a legitimate debate about how the Premier League has implemented VAR and why they have introduced barriers and elements that no other leagues and competitions use. We may even come across some good solutions as a result of said debate. In an ideal world, the football ecosystem would be a mature one and we wouldn’t need VAR. But unfortunately for inexplicable reasons tribalism and petulance is rampant. That’s why we have VAR now. The least we can do is accept it for what it is, celebrate the correct decisions and just be patient as VAR evolves.

Pellegrini’s time at West Ham

I like Manuel Pellegrini. The Chilean has always come across as a person with dignity and humility. When you consider the fact that he has riled even the best managers of this era with mostly unfancied teams playing good football, the sense of rooting for him only grows. Hence, I feel for Pellegrini being sacked by West Ham.

Have West Ham made the right decision? On account of what has transpired this season, it would be hard to argue against the logic of letting Pellegrini go. Very few managers, even those at clubs that regularly win trophies, have the luxury of handpicking their director of football. Pellegrini had that with Mario Husillos. The two Davids that own West Ham went all in on Pellegrini. They backed him in the transfer market and while some may say their summer spending wasn’t the wisest, I still think they actually bought well in the summer, and in due time we’ll see the value of Sebastien Haller and Pablo Fornals to name two of their new recruits.

Some may argue that Pellegrini was a victim of both, expectations and circumstance. Perhaps there is an element of truth to this. With the money spent on the squad, West Ham were considered candidates for sixth at the beginning of the season. The problem was that there were a few other teams also expected to gatecrash the European spots, and we’ve seen the consequences at some of those clubs. Then there was the injury to Lukasz Fabianski. Until that fateful day, West Ham were riding high in the table.

It is important to note that for attacking mid table teams, an injury to a proven goalkeeper like Fabianski is a serious blow. It was immediately evident that Roberto was nowhere near good enough to be a keeper in the Premier League. West Ham started leaking goals and their form fell of the cliff. Here comes the first serious question for Pellegrini. Once it was clear for everyone to see, why did the beleagured manager take so long to bench Roberto and give third choice David Martin a chance? When he finally did axe Roberto, West Ham got a clean sheet in the win at Stamford Bridge.

But that bounce wasn’t sustained. And perhaps this is where Pellegrini’s harshest and most justified criticism comes into play. When you have a goalkeeper like Fabianski who can win you points, you can afford to play creative players who won’t necessarily track back and do the hard yards defensively. Such an approach means you may suffer some embarrassing defeats, but you will also get to delight in thrilling wins and performances, including against big teams. For a team in mid table this is fine. 

There are two scenarios however where this approach backfires. The first is if you strive to be a team that finishes higher than a position between eigthth and twelfth. The second is when you’re battling relegation. West Ham started the season aiming for the former but the latter has taken over in the last two months. And yet Pellegrini stuck to his simple template, believing a variety of creative attacking players would get West Ham the results, while Declan Rice and Mark Noble were consistently getting overrun in midfield. A defence that was losing confidence with each passing game had no protection. Nothing changed. Pellegrini kept giving vague platitudes about playing football the right way and little else when it came to a sense of direction.

Maybe if Fabianski had never got injured in the first place, Pellegrini’s Hammers would still be in the top half of the table. We will never know. But a manager of Pellegrini’s experience should never have been in a position where one injury derailed a campaign so easily. Nor is too much to expect a manager to address issues and come up with solutions to problems with such an expensively assembled squad.

Does this mean Pellegrini was a failure at West Ham? I don’t think so. They finished 10th last season playing some good football, and over his season and a half the Hammers gained some excellent wins and draws against the big six. It’s just that expectations increased and circumstances changed. Pellegrini lacked the ability to inspire consistency from his players that could have taken the team to a higher level. He also lacked the gravitas to demand greater effort and discipline when things got tougher on the field. When change was needed, he seemed devoid of tactical ideas or creative solutions to address the slide down the table. Ultimately he had to go and while he may not be universally missed, for those who respect gentlemen in the game, his loss from the Premier League will be felt.