1) Hull’s Silva lining glitters brightly despite defeat
The Marco Silva bandwagon may have stalled but the sheen has yet to come off the young Portuguese manager. Arsenal, just about, deserved to beat Hull on Saturday lunchtime but onlookers could not fail to be impressed, shocked even, by the cohesion the visitors showed. Starting the match with no fewer than six January signings in the XI, Hull were organised, efficient and looked tailor-made for Premier League football. With pace throughout the side, particularly on the left with Andrew Robertson and the Poland international Kamil Grosicki, and muscular down the middle (with Alfred N’Diaye cast in that most English of roles, the box-to-box midfielder), the Tigers were more Tony Pulis than André Villas-Boas, and that is intended as a compliment. After facing top-six sides in each of the past four games, Hull now take on Burnley, Leicester and Swansea in their next three. It seems unlikely they will be intimidated by the prospect.
2) Buoyant Burnley beating a clever survival path
Thirty points from 25 games and being 10 points above the drop zone is an admirable achievement for Burnley, the latest fine effort being Sunday’s 1-1 drawwith champions-elect, Chelsea. At the close Antonio Conte’s men could count themselves lucky not to have been beaten due to the brand of fierce and tough football Sean Dyche has his team playing. The naysayers can criticise Burnley for their agricultural approach but, as their manager said: “If we went into the Premier League and did what everyone else does, I don’t think we would do it is as well as them. So we do things that are different and strange. The brand of football I want to play is the one that wins. Every footballer wants to win.” This is smart stuff from Dyche and the best compliment is that the scare they gave Chelsea at Turf Moor was no surprise: 29 of those points have now come at home and, barring disaster, Burnley will survive, which will count as a superb achievement.
3) Chelsea can take a leaf from F1’s professor
They used to call Alain Prost “The Professor”, particularly when set against his more flamboyant and risk-taking rival Ayrton Senna. Whereas Senna would try to win every race, Prost just did what was necessary: if he required five points from a race, then he’d get himself in the position for those five points and defend them like a town trying to repel a siege. Chelsea can be similar for the rest of the season, having now established a 10-point lead at the top of the Premier League, with a set of nominal challengers that are far too inconsistent to catch them. Therefore, Sunday’s 1-1 draw at Burnley represents an excellent result, rather than the “disappointment” Conte was almost obliged to declare it afterwards. Not just because Burnley have the fourth-best home record in the league, but because of the fearful barrage Chelsea took at Turf Moor, from both the elements and various flailing Claret limbs: that they withstood it only underlines their status as the best team in the league.
4) Will another ‘pre-season’ help Liverpool recapture early form?
“At one point we lost the flow,” Jürgen Klopp had said before this game. It was rediscovered on Saturday in an aggressive, relentless performance that stifled Tottenham Hotspur and took full advantage of their mediocre offering. Liverpool now have a fortnight before their next game and will travel to La Manga on Wednesday for a five-day training camp. The levels that returned against Spurs, Klopp hopes, can be maintained following what he considers a welcome and necessary “pre-season” programme. He said: “These boys are really able to do some outstanding, fantastic things but obviously we have to do them more consistently. That’s how a top team needs to think. At this moment we are in the top of the league, or around it, and that’s good. Now we need to carry on. We are in pre-season. We will use this and we will go again and again and again.”
5) United’s young guns paper over Ibrahimovic’s inefficiency
See the scoreline against Watford and this may appear a regulation, uneventful home win. Yet it could have been a hiding. That it was not owed something to Zlatan Ibrahimovic. The Swede set up Anthony Martial’s goal but of his own eight attempts only two were on target and none found the net. Persistence is a recurring theme and no one in the league has had more than his 103 shots this season, but in between prolific runs, it is notable Ibrahimovic has days of profligacy. This was one: the home draws with Stoke, Burnley and Hull were others but the welcome difference for Manchester United was that others compensated on this occasion. Ibrahimovic has been invaluable when shouldering a heavy burden this season but a 14.5% chance-conversion rate seems low for a player with 474 career goals. It is pertinent that his rivals for the Golden Boot are taking a greater share of their opportunities.
6) Valdés showing his pedigree as he begins to embrace Teesside
Víctor Valdés had to be persuaded by Aitor Karanka to join Middlesbrough, the former Barcelona goalkeeper and Real Madrid coach making an unlikely match on Teesside. If Valdés was initially reluctant, he seems to have turned a corner now and is an integral part of the side. Having endured a difficult spell at Manchester United, he is finally making his mark in England. “He’s improving a lot,” said Karanka after the 0-0 draw with Everton. “It’s not the same to play at Barcelona as it is at Middlesbrough, so he’s improving on things he never had to do there,” referencing the disparity in concentration required as a goalkeeper at a club where one or two saves are required each game compared with being under pressure on numerous occasions. Boro have not won a league match since 17 December but Valdés’s recent form can give them much encouragement.
7) Are Palace’s saviours simply more of the same?
Sam Allardyce said after the defeat at Stoke that his four January recruits would have a key role to play in “breaking the mould” at Crystal Palace because, having just arrived, their mentalities have not been shaped by the gloom at Selhurst Park. But just how sunny is their mentality? Patrick van Aanholt came from the perpetually struggling Sunderland, Jeffrey Schlupp was unable to get into a Leicester side putting up one of the worst title defences in history and Mamadou Sakho has been banned, pardoned, rebuked and ostracised since he last played for Liverpool nine months ago. All the positivity may have to come from Luka Milivojevic, a league winner in each of the past three seasons (at Anderlecht and then Olympiakos). The Serbian midfielder made his Palace debut at Stoke and spent much of the match keeping tabs on Joe Allen. But he was nowhere to be seen when Allen scored the winning goal.
8) Moyes feeling the chill as same old questions go unanswered
Sunderland embark on cold-weather training in New York surrounded by horribly familiar dashed hopes. Players – and managers – have come and gone but for six years now the Wearsiders have struggled to win successive games. Such chronic inconsistency dictates that shipping four goals to Southampton a week after scoring four at Crystal Palace is entirely typical. “When the expectation’s on we seem to fluff our lines,” acknowledged David Moyes on a day that emphasised that for all his side’s manifold technical, tactical and physical flaws, their biggest weakness is mental. Is it, as the former manager Sam Allardyce diagnosed, primarily down to fear, or is because of the “arrogant complacency” identified by another of Moyes’s predecessors, Paolo Di Canio? When Seb Larsson was recently questioned about the syndrome, the midfielder said: “I’m not interested in the reasons why we’ve always struggled. They’re for others to look for, not me.” With that attitude it is small wonder Sunderland keep struggling.
9) Should Ranieri revert to a simpler, trusted set-up?
Leicester have passed the 10-hour mark without scoring in the league and perhaps, given Claudio Ranieri’s uncertainty over his best attacking structure, that is not such a big shock. Last season, with Shinji Okazaki partnering Jamie Vardy and doing much of the dirty work to create him space, the Leicester strike force functioned superbly; this time, with Islam Slimani and Ahmed Musa on board while Demarai Gray gets more of a look-in, the options are numerous but Ranieri cannot find a system that clicks. Vardy looks isolated without an orthodox partner and was subdued in the first half at Swansea with Gray floating around him; there was a slight improvement after Slimani’s introduction but Okazaki, substituted at half-time against Manchester United, remained on the bench. It was little surprise when Ranieri sought to bolster his attack but he has not picked the same front four in consecutive games since mid-December. The thinking seems muddled, the selections scattergun; perhaps in fraught times it would be wise to revert to a simpler, trusted setup that has come spectacularly good before.
10) Bilic’s mic drop is no cause for outrage
Slaven Bilic will be charged with misconduct by the Football Association after being sent to the stand against West Bromwich. That’s the game and West Ham’s manager knows it. He may even receive a touchline ban after slam-dunking a furry TV microphone in the comedy style and visibly calling Michael Oliver a “disgrace” (expletive removed) once, twice, three times for clarification. Yet we should probably have some sympathy for, and empathy with, Bilic. Oliver is a superb referee but he and his team had a nightmare on Saturday. But for refereeing mistakes West Ham would have been 3-0 rather than 2-1 up when Gareth McAuley equalised in injury-time. That goal was controversial, too. After a stream of injustice, and in the heat of the moment, Bilic’s human reaction was inevitable. What was he supposed to do: smile sweetly and sing C’est la vie?