There’s now so little jeopardy in the Premier League that a game that did not actually take place – postponed by the actions of Manchester United protestors – makes it to the top of the winners list.
Manchester United protestors
Firstly, anyone who caused any criminal damage at Old Trafford cannot, and will not, be applauded for their actions. That is unacceptable.
But those Manchester United supporters who kept their protests peaceful but effective have achieved exactly what they set out to. We live in an age (and I’m throwing shade at myself as much as anyone) during which people send a snarky tweet about something and sit back to watch the likes roll in, safe in the knowledge that they have done their bit without making an iota of difference.
If this protest was irresponsible, is that exactly the point of protest? Unless you push the envelope, cause a scene or ruffle some feathers you aren’t protesting, you’re politely complaining. Polite complaints tend to be ignored. That’s the appropriate response to those pundits who accused supporters of protesting “in the wrong way” just because they were looking forward to covering Manchester United vs Liverpool.
And these supporters tried polite complaints. They boycotted matches, set up their own phoenix club and waved their gold-and-green scarves. They asked the Government to protect their social institution and saw nothing done to protect their interests. They watched the club’s owners try to walk them into a European Super League without an iota of consultation or consideration to what they wanted. And still people like Graeme Souness are not able – or do not want – to comprehend the damage that this type of debt-leveraged ownership can do.
So what option is left other than non-violent protest? If they caused a scene, that was the entire point. If they have somehow besmirched Manchester United’s name or made it difficult for the club’s owners, it would be the first time anything has. If it’s the start of a brighter tomorrow, with concerted pressure placed upon that ownership, then they forced the door open.
These supporters have sent a message that they will not be dissuaded by PR gestures. No big summer signing will change their minds that the ownership of their club is toxic. They protested in 2010 when they were league champions and had reached consecutive Champions League finals, and they are still protesting. They will not be silenced.
And, more importantly, their protest worked. A Premier League game was postponed due to fan protests for the first time in the league’s history and will have to be rearranged for a time when protestors will presumably reappear. They have changed the conversation from banner-holding and sharp words on social media to the movement of the biggest fixture in the English league calendar. Will other supporters at other clubs be as vociferous? Has a movement been founded?
Manchester City’s dominance
They rested Ilkay Gundogan, Phil Foden, Riyad Mahrez, Kevin de Bruyne, Kyle Walker, Ruben Dias and Bernardo Silva and John Stones missed the game through suspension. They changed the formation, Pep Guardiola using two strikers rather than none and switching to a back three just because he can. They played lethargically in the first half, failing to have a single shot on target in the first half of a Premier League game for only the second time since the start of 2020. And still Manchester City were comfortable winners.
For all the talk of Ligue 1 being a ‘farmer’s league’ – no surprises that I absolutely hate the description – this was the perfect interim fixture for City between the two legs of their Champions League semi-final. Mauricio Pochettino was forced to leave key players on for the whole game this weekend as Paris Saint-Germain continue to play catch-up in pursuit of their own league title. Guardiola had the comfort to pick a reserve XI and still played the last 20 minutes at half-pace.
City have not won the league yet, but they stand on the verge of writing their own history. The title will come soon, making them only the second club since Liverpool in 1986 to win three English titles in four seasons. And they have done it by winning 20 of their last 22 league games without it ever taking focus away from their assault on the European trophy that this club have been aiming towards for a decade.
Kai Havertz (and not Timo Werner)
Thomas Tuchel made the point of praising Havertz for the manner of his performance against Fulham – scoring both goals in the process – having been left out against Real Madrid in midweek. He also did so as the most advanced forward in a front three, which might be bad news for Werner. Hakim Ziyech, Christian Pulisic and Callum Hudson-Odoi can also play that role, as can Mason Mount if Tuchel requires the security of a double pivot central midfield.
Playing Werner off the left flank reduces the onus on him to score the chances that come his way, but that can hardly be interpreted as a compliment or a justification for keeping him in the team. It might also make a difference ahead of a summer during which Roman Abramovich is likely to try and buy some goodwill from Chelsea supporters by further investing in the squad ahead of an attempted title challenge. Erling Haaland’s name keeps being mentioned; Tuchel would surely love to have him.
Until then, Havertz should keep his position as the central striker for Wednesday evening’s visit of Real Madrid. Chelsea can ill-afford to keep being quite so profligate. Mount on the left and Pulisic to the right of Havertz with N’Golo Kante joined by one of Mateo Kovacic or Jorginho in midfield makes the most sense.
A first Premier League hat-trick in more than eight years and a simple post-match message that was easy to translate into a pointed barb at Jose Mourinho, whether or not the Welshman meant it.
“I am happy,” Bale said. “When I am happy, I play well.” There may be several others in Tottenham’s squad who concur. If Spurs end the season strongly to just miss out on Champions League qualification under a novice coach, the mistake won’t have been sacking Mourinho but not sacking him quickly enough.
If it’s perfectly reasonable to describe Aston Villa as the Jack Grealish team, do not underestimate just how much Watkins’ arrival and success has transformed this side. Last season, Grealish carried the responsibility for creating and taking chances – he ranked first for shots and shots on target as well as chances created and completed dribbles. Now Watkins is easily their highest shot-taker and goalscorer.
When Grealish is available, Watkins focuses his runs down the left flank that allows Grealish to either double up with him on the full-back or drift infield and take that full-back with him. Without Grealish, Watkins tends to stay more central and plays as a target man centre-forward.
Either way, he has been incredibly effective as a goalscorer this season, needing one more to become Villa’s outright highest scorer in all competitions for a top-flight campaign since Christian Benteke in 2013. If Villa can buy an attacking central midfielder this summer (they will surely not be keen to make Ross Barkley’s loan permanent), Villa really could be in a better position for next season than this.
Earlier this season, Mount found himself subject to some nonsensical criticism. That was largely provoked by Gareth Southgate’s perceived favouritism towards him over Jack Grealish, interpreted as a mistrust of natural skill.
Since then, Mount has done his best to make that argument look utterly foolish. Nobody doubts that Grealish is a player of supreme innate talent, but at 22, Mount is close to the complete attacking midfielder and has produced the best form of his career to date.
Mount is disciplined enough to play as one of three central midfielders – as he might do for England this summer – and creative enough to operate as the number 10 in a 4-2-3-1, as he most often does for Chelsea. Either way, he has cemented his reputation alongside Phil Foden as the future of his national team. England are fortunate to have both of them and Grealish.
Watch the way that Mount took down that long pass on Saturday, and in half a second had demonstrated the vision and technique to create Havertz’s opening goal. He’s an absolute gem.
With Tottenham missing out on Julian Nagelsmann and Erik ten Hag this week, Graham Potter has jumped up the queue of their potential shortlist to replace Jose Mourinho. That has drawn a few snide remarks from Spurs supporters – why would they want a manager whose team has spent the season battling relegation?
Firstly, it’s not quite that simple: Brighton do not have the same budget as Tottenham. But Potter can also reasonably argue are far better than their league position suggests (and they are now up to 14th). Not only do they rank seventh in the Premier League for chances created and shots, scuppered by the inability of their attacking players to finish their dinner. But they also have brilliant defensive statistics: Only Chelsea and Manchester City have faced fewer shots on target this season. The obvious argument is that with better players who make fewer mistakes, particularly Tottenham’s clinical forwards, Potter could transform them.
There’s certainly an identity to Potter’s Brighton. We know how his teams play, we know that he maintains a commitment to it and we know that if Brighton had, say, Ollie Watkins they would be knocking on the door of the top eight. We can also see why that identity may be easily transferred to a bigger club. Potter may well miss out on the Tottenham job, but his star is rising and with good reason.
Only his third Premier League start of the season, a tragedy given his undoubted ability. Alli looked understandably rusty, but there were enough flashes of excellence to suggest that Tottenham’s next manager must look to rebuild Alli’s Spurs career. All together now: He could be like a new signing in August.
Of course he has his faults (we all do). Of course he is in a slightly hypocritical position (many of us are). Yes he could have spoken up earlier to demand that the Glazers sell Manchester United. But there’s nothing to be gained out of dwelling on all of that. At an opportune and important time, Neville has made his stand. And good on him for that.
If you’d all care to take out your tiny violins, it’s not easy writing a weekly Premier League review column at this stage of this season. The title race is over, even if it hasn’t yet been mathematically confirmed. The relegation battle is nothing of the sort, with neither West Brom nor Fulham showing any sign that they can take enough points to make it interesting. The Championship automatic promotion race was over before the final two weekends of the season, with both of the top two finishing in the bottom two in the Premier League last season.
For a while it appeared that the top-four race may provoke final-day drama, but even that now looks like a reach. Chelsea are 1/3 to qualify for the Champions League through their league position, Leicester even shorter.
With a major tournament coming next month and the attempted European Super League breakaway leaving a lingering hangover, the end of this league season cannot come soon enough. The final weekends of the season could be emphatically low-key.
Everton’s home form
Of course they blew it again. Everton’s home form has been wretched this season, and just not by the standards of a club trying to break into the top four. Everton have won five of their 17 home league games this season. Only Brighton and the bottom three have a worse points-per-game home record.
After the defeat to Aston Villa that effectively ended Everton’s top-four hopes, Carlo Ancelotti expressed his clear anger at the limp performance.
“Not good enough. Not good enough,” Ancelotti said. “It was completely different from the last game we played against Arsenal where we played with more concentration, more spirit and more attitude. There was no concentration, a lot of passes were wrong and there was no balance. We had opportunities we also conceded a lot and, at the end of the day, we deserved to lose.”
It’s Ancelotti’s job to find a solution to the issue, something he has failed to do all season, but the manner in which Everton’s application drops so alarmingly from one weekend to the next suggests that a few players may be looking for new clubs this summer. Everton really could have been in next season’s Champions League. Had they beaten Burnley, Newcastle and Fulham at Goodison, they would be level on points with Chelsea with a game in hand.
I understand why Sheffield United and Chris Wilder broke apart. There was a rising unease on the part of both parties on who wielded the ultimate power on new signings; the club’s sharp downturn in form meant that Wilder lost his strong negotiation position.
But it’s hard to fathom quite why the club felt that they needed to make a change before the end of the season when they seemingly had little intention of making an immediate appointment. Instead, Sheffield United have looked slightly more dismal than they did under Wilder this season.
Those in the boardroom may point to Norwich City, who have won the Championship title after finishing bottom last season. Meanwhile, the rest of us point to Huddersfield Town. Surprising first-season success after unexpected promotion, subsequent transfer market misjudgements, form dropping off a cliff, mastermind manager departing to much sadness; sadly, it’s all there.
The ‘Waiting For Godot’ Fulham survival bid continues apace, by which I mean it hasn’t even started and probably never will. For all the excitement that was accompanied by praise for Scott Parker, Fulham have taken five points from their last 27 available. That’s fewer than any other club in the league.
The nerves will continue because of last season. Leicester had the perfect chance to cement their top-four position, playing the majority of the match against an out-of-form opponent who were a man down, and they spurned it.
Beat Newcastle at home next weekend and it won’t matter, but Leicester’s last three league fixtures are against Manchester United, Chelsea and Tottenham. It isn’t over until it’s over.