Premier League update
Were Leeds right to dismiss Marcelo Bielsa?
Unusually in the modern age, Bielsa’s sacking came not amid acrimony but sadness. Over the first three years of his reign, he had elevated fairly ordinary players to produce a thrilling side that had taken Leeds back to the Premier League. By the end, though, the defence had fallen apart with 40 goals conceded in his final12 league games, and14 in the last three. There was criticism of his man-to-man pressing system, but that is how he has always played; it’s unrealistic to expect him suddenly to change. More importantly, it was that approach that had brought his success, and made Leeds so good to watch. Bielsa’s fundamentalism has always had its critics, but the fact is that if you have the second-lowest wage bill in the division and then lose a raft of players to injury, it’s always going to be difficult.
Perhaps Bielsa’s approach has exacerbated the situation. He had never been at a club that long before. Perhaps the sustained intensity of his approach is in part responsible for the injuries, particularly given the recent compression of the calendar because of COVID. Perhaps opponents have begun to work out how to combat his philosophy. If he wasn’t going to extend his contract beyond the summer, it may make sense to shake things up, to make the sacrifice to stop a slide that had seemed inexorable. But it is a gamble: it was Bielsa and his system that made Leeds what they were, and as some of those injured players return, a new manager may find it difficult to organise or motivate them in the same way.
Will Newcastle United’s January transfer window save them from relegation?
Based on squad alone, Newcastle should never really have been in serious relegation trouble: they had the11th-highest wage bill in the Premier League even before the January signings. The new arrivals have had an impact – before he fractured his metatarsal, England international Kieran Trippier offered real authority at fullback added to a dangerous set-piece delivery, Dan Burn has added solidity, while Chris Wood is a necessary focal point in the absence of Callum Wilson – but just as significant is the sense of them marking a new beginning. The FA Cup defeat to Cambridge United was the absolute low, but it was when new signings began to be made that the
new era truly began. Concerns remain about the source of the money but relegation at least should not be a serious threat this season.
Who is best placed to finish fourth?
The situation remains volatile, but with Wolves losing to Arsenal and West Ham United in the space of four days, it now looks like a battle between four clubs. Manchester United probably have the best squad, but Ralf Rangnick is struggling to impose his vision and they have problems both in conceding soft goals and in taking chances. Arsenal have a youthful intensity and are in impressive form, especially at home, although questions remain about their capacity to get results against the best sides. Tottenham are as inconsistent as ever, but the Harry Kane-Son Heung-min partnership has begun to fire again, while West Ham continue to over-perform (although their wage bill is actually slightly higher than Tottenham’s), but lack depth, particularly at centre-forward.
Is Frank Lampard the right fit as Everton manager?
In the short term, the most significant aspect of Lampard’s appointment at Everton is that he is a manager the fans want – and it’s been a long time since that has been the case. The atmosphere in the win over Leeds was noisy and supportive and, after years of Goodison as a grumblers’ ground, with frustrated home fans always just one bad pass from an outbreak of booing, that is a clear positive.
Performances have been more mixed and essentially fall into two categories: good at home, including in the defeat to Manchester City, but poor away. Given that Lampard struggled at Chelsea to get the balance right between defence and attack, his team often looking vulnerable to the counter-attack, that must be a concern. But in truth the issues at Everton are only partially to do with the manager. A club of their stature, which is to say a tier below the very elite, can only really survive in the modern game by developing youth and selling it on at profit. Yet Everton have made a habit of buying players who have not quite made it elsewhere. Some bargains are to be had, but their squad is stuffed with high-earning players in the second half of their careers with next to no resale value and that is not a sustainable long-term strategy.
By the end, though, Leeds’ defence had fallen apart with 40 goals conceded in Bielsa’s final 12 league games, and 14 in the last three
How do you explain Burnley’s struggles this season?
After the draw with Crystal Palace, Burnley boss Sean Dyche made the point that the Clarets tend to come good in the second half of the season – which is, presumably, partly to do with how he structures their fitness work. They had been playing better than their results suggested before Christmas, but after their COVIDrelated break they seem to have renewed energy and, in Dutch No.9 Wout Weghorst, they have a dangerous centre-forward who is more mobile than Chris Wood. Survival suddenly looks very possible.
With Real Betis and Sevilla flying high in La Liga, is Seville the new capital city of Spanish football?
Simply put, Betis and Sevilla are very good – possibly better than ever before. The last time both teams won something in the same season was before the civil war – in1935 Betis won the league and Sevilla the cup – but that could just happen again.
Madrid may dispute this: it is the only city to have provided both European Cup finalists, and has two sides still in the Champions League. But there’s nowhere like Seville right now. Led by Julen Lopetegui, Sevilla are the only team that can realistically challenge Madrid for the title, while Manuel Pellegrini’s Betis are playing the best football in the country and are in the cup semi-final, having beaten Sevilla en route.
Both are in the last16 of the Europa League. The final of which is being played…in Seville. As is the Copa del Rey final.
So, yeah, Europe’s hottest city may well be the capital city of football too.
Can anybody stop Real Madrid from winning the league title?
“Hay Liga” is the line they like to use in Spain. Literally it means: “There is league”. Game on, in other words. But is there?
Not so very long ago, the answer looked like a pretty clear “no”. In mid-December, it looked done. Real Madrid had just beaten last year’s champions Atletico Madrid 2-0, their seventh win a row – a run that also included Sevilla, Athletic Bilbao and Real Sociedad – and were eight points clear of Sevilla, nine ahead of Betis, and13 above Atletico. The team was settled, and no one could touch them.
“Is it over?” Carlo Ancelotti was asked, to which he replied: “We have to play six more months and I don’t know what can happen next.” What happened next was a 0-0 draw with Cadiz, the start of an eight-match run in which they failed to win back-to-back games.
In the meantime, they were knocked out of the cup and beaten by PSG in Europe, a previously unseen glimpse of vulnerability.
A chance had been handed to the rest. Sevilla went11 games unbeaten, starting with a run of five wins in six. “Fans keep telling us: ‘You have to catch Madrid’,” Ivan Rakitic admitted.
Trouble is, they didn’t: the midfielder missed a late penalty against Osasuna, which would have taken Sevilla within a point of top, their third draw in a row.
So, is there league? There is, for now – but it’s Madrid’s to lose.
At 34, is Karim Benzema better now than he’s ever been?
“He’s the best striker in the world,” Carlo Ancelotti said, which the Italian coach didn’t say last time he was at the Bernabeu.
It is not true – as much as Benzema suggests so – that it’s all about people taking too long to appreciate what he does. There has been a shift, serving others and scoring now. “Calling him a forward falls short,” the Madrid coach insisted. “He’s very complete, more complete than five years ago.” In part that may be because he is now allowed to be, or because he has to be. Taking on responsibility and in a central position, he is just better than anyone else.
Is there league? There is, for now – but it’s Real Madrid’s to lose
Is Rayo Vallecano’s story the fairy tale of the season?
Yes, but there’s a plot twist at the end of the story, and possibly no happy ending.
For the first half of the campaign, Rayo’s home record was not just the best in La Liga, but in the whole of Europe. Winning every week and scoring loads of goals, a wild, unleashed team where players went at opponents from everywhere, there was no place in Spain more fun to watch football. They got to the edge of a Champions League place and into the cup semi-final.
Which was a miracle, because this is a club in crisis that has no money, a stadium that’s crumbling, and where the supporters and the president are at war over far too many issues to be able to list here.
All that is catching up with them: home defeats did eventually arrive, including in the cup semi-final, and it all looks in danger of coming apart.
How is life under Xavi going for Barcelona?
“I see things that make me think we can do big things,” Xavi said after Barcelona had scored four in Naples, and he wasn’t alone. This wasn’t an ideal time to take over and it hasn’t been an easy start – the manager admitted he was surprised at some of the simple things his players couldn’t do – but it’s starting to fall into place.
They were laughed at for taking comfort from a Clasico defeat because they had played well, but it turns out they were right: something has shifted and results followed. A nine-game unbeaten run took them into the top four, and president Joan Laporta says they’ll try to fight for the league. It may be too late for that, but it’s not too late for a little optimism to be allowed back in.
Have Internazionale got even better since Simone Inzaghi replaced Antonio Conte?
For much of the year, Inter have led the title race, looking as if they were going to pull off the unlikely feat of winning a second successive title with a squad which had lost coach Antonio Conte, plus key players like Romelu Lukaku, Achraf Hakimi and Christian Eriksen. Thus far, coach Simone Inzaghi and former Roma striker Edin Dzeko have done a more than reasonable job of replacing Conte and Lukaku. However, at the time of writing, an Inter title win is far from a done job.
Following a 3-1 defeat to Lazio in October, Inter set off on an impressive 14-match unbeaten run (including only three draws) which, however, crashed to an unexpected halt in February when they were beaten 2-1 by city cousins Milan in a derby that they had dominated for 70 minutes.
If they regain the vim and vigour of that14-match run, then all is well and Inter will win the title, largely because they have the strongest squad in Italy.
How many horses are in the race for the
After a decade of Juventus dominance (nine titles out of ten), this year’s title race was still wide open after two thirds of the season. At least four clubs, namely Inter, Napoli, Milan and Juventus could still win it.
Defending champions Inter remain favourites, given the overall quality of their dominant performances. However, two draws (Napoli and Genoa) and two defeats (Liverpool and Sassuolo) in late February introduced a serious note of uncertainty, making them look a tired side, and seeing them knocked off the top of the table.
Can Milan step in to lift the title instead? A 2-1 win in the Milan derby at the start of February – decided by two goals from Frenchman Olivier Giroud – certainly was a monstrous morale boost. Yet late February draws with Udinese and Salernitana suggested that, like Inter, they were running out of puff. Then too, despite a brilliant coaching job by Stefano Pioli, it remains hard to envisage a side led by “Golden Oldies” Zlatan Ibrahimovic (when injury free) and Giroud going all the way.
Whichever of the Milan club coaches, Pioli or Inzaghi, can inspire a mind-body revival from their exhausted troops will have the best chance.
Which leaves us with the intriguing question of whether, 32 years after the Maradona era, Napoli can win their third title. At the end of February, they clashed with Lazio at the Stadio Olympico in what may prove to be one of the key encounters of the season.
In a game of fluctuating fortunes, Napoli pulled off a spectacular 94thminute winner (from Spaniard Fabian Ruiz) to go joint top of the table with Milan. Can coach Luciano Spalletti ride out the tsunami tide of Neapolitan enthusiasm that will grip Naples between now and the end of the season?
Just how good is Juventus new boy Dusan Vlahovic?
Juventus are going through
something of a revival, having started off the pace. The Old Lady spelt out their intentions loud and clear by making by far the most significant purchase of the January transfer window, namely Dusan Vlahovic from Fiorentina for € 75 million.
The 22-year-old Serb, arguably the most potent striker in Serie A this season, soon underlined his matchwinning quality by scoring on both his club debut (a 2-0 win against Verona) and on his Champions League debut (a1-1 away draw to Spaniards Villarreal). Big, bold and fast with piedi buoni (good feet), Vlahovic seems destined for a glorious career at Juventus.
Rest assured, you will be hearing plenty more of this lad.
Is Jose Mourinho following his usual routine at Roma, or has he changed?
When Roma attacker Nicolo Zaniolo controversially had a 90th-minute goal disallowed at the end of a 0-0 home draw with Genoa in early February, the player lost his cool, protesting so vigorously to referee Rosario Abisso that he got sent off.
His coach, Jose Mourinho, commented on the incident to the media: “Well, the lad only said three times to the referee: ‘What the f*** did you blow that for?’...I mean, if it had been Chiellini at the Juventus Stadium or Ibrahimovic at the San Siro, would they have been sent off?”
Mourinho has doubtless changed many of his methods over the years but there is one thing he still does very well. Namely, defending his club and his players.
Big, bold and fast with piedi buoni (good feet), Dusan Vlahovic seems destined for a glorious career at Juventus. Rest assured, you will be hearing plenty more of this lad
Which of Serie A’s English imports have been the most impressive?
Of the seven English footballers currently playing in Serie A, there is little doubt that the man to have made the biggest splash this season has been former Chelsea striker, Tammy Abraham. Nineteen goals in all competitions by the start of March tells the tale of a talented player whose skill, allied to his work ethic, have seen some suggest that Gareth Southgate should call him up for the Qatar World Cup.
For a country not generally respected in Italy for the quality of its defenders, two players currently buck that trend, having both established themselves as automatic first-choice players in central defence - namely the Canadian-born Fikayo Tomori, now with Milan, and former Manchester United star, Chris Smalling at Roma.
As for the rest – Ainsley MaitlandNiles, also at Roma (on loan from Arsenal), Ronaldo Vieira at Sampdoria, Axel Tuanzebe at Napoli and Luis Binks at Bologna – the jury is still out, given how little they have played.