Everton will do well to remember that ritual again this season. Wilfried Zaha gets praise but Norwich, Watford and Jesse Marsch do not.
Any Everton supporter with a proclivity for ritualisation might find these last few weeks of the season particularly taxing. It is basic human nature to superstitiously recreate certain behaviours and practices – wearing a supposedly ‘lucky’ item of clothing or following a specific morning routine – in the hope of capturing that same positive energy. Fans might not be able to control what the players do, but if setting off early morning fireworks outside the opposition hotel, carrying an incredibly tranquil dog aloft through a raucous crowd, noisily welcoming the team bus, playing a game of catch with Richarlison and a flare and hiding the match ball up your jumper during stoppage time preceded a crucial victory over the reigning world and European champions, it might be worth trying again for the last five fixtures.
Everton will be petrified of changing anything, considering how long it has taken to stumble upon a formula that works. After three wins and a draw in their opening four games, the longest unbeaten run the Toffees have been on in the Premier League this season is two matches. That surely has to change at some point before the end of the campaign for them to survive.
But after watching that gap to safety extend to five points before kick-off on Sunday, Everton finally produced under pressure against Chelsea. It was a dogged, determined performance typified by Jordan Pickford’s brilliance, Yerry Mina’s snide and the industry of Demarai Gray and Richarlison, who combined for the winner. The only negative is that Frank Lampard’s side have two fixtures remaining at Goodison Park in comparison to three more trips away. Stock up on sparklers, prepare the calm canines and wear the baggiest clothes possible for that four-day period in which Brentford and Crystal Palace visit Merseyside, because Everton are 10th in a home table – and bottom, at least three points behind every other team in an away one – for a reason.
While there were 5,787 days between the amassing of Michael Jackson’s seven UK number ones, the accrual of ten Premier League points has taken Mike Jackson barely a fortnight. Burnley have won three consecutive Premier League games for the first time since April 2019.
That same sequence of results – 2-0 against Wolves, 1-3 at Bournemouth and 2-0 against Cardiff – just so happens to contain the previous instance of the Clarets coming from behind to win away in the league. An Ashley Barnes own goal gifted Eddie Howe’s Cherries a fourth-minute lead but the striker rounded off the scoring early in the second half to complete a fine recovery. Three years later, James Tarkowski handed Watford the advantage after eight minutes by accidentally rebounding a shot into his own net. Barnes was central to their revival again, an inspired substitute for Wout Weghorst with half an hour remaining. It changed the angle and method of attack and Watford could not sustain the pressure.
This unorthodox caretaker reign has reignited a fading survival bid but also reinvigorated a squad which looked quietly fractured and bereft. The Clarets have scored six goals in four games since Sean Dyche’s departure, each from different players in Wout Weghorst, Connor Roberts, Nathan Collins, Matej Vydra and now the unlikeliest double act of Jack Cork and Josh Brownhill. That the result effectively relegated Watford, barring a miracle, could have a further uplifting effect on one of the most tightly-knit squads around; seeing the pain of the drop first-hand sharpens the collective focus to avoid it. Burnley are finally on course to do just that.
Michael Jackson has only been in charge of Burnley since 15 April and already has more Premier League points (10) than any Watford manager has taken this season (Munoz 7, Ranieri 6, Hodgson 9).
— Richard Jolly (@RichJolly) May 1, 2022
Wilfried Zaha and Patrick Vieira
The situation could hardly have been managed any better. Patrick Vieira noted that Leeds wanted to have their cake and eat it, targeting Wilfried Zaha and fouling him four times before Kalvin Phillips tarred the Crystal Palace forward with a familiar brush. “For someone who dives so much, he has an awful lot of bruises on his ankles,” his manager said, explaining why Zaha started on the bench against Southampton.
There was a time when that would have been an automatic signal of defeat for Palace. Zaha was their talisman, without whom they had little hope of operating functionally. He remains integral but this is a solid side that is adorned by his brilliance, rather than solely reliant upon it.
Four minutes after Eberechi Eze’s equaliser against Southampton, Vieira threw Zaha on for the final half an hour with the express intention of occupying the home defence as a centre-forward – “We put him in the No.9 because of his mobility and the fact he can hold the ball and run in-behind” – and the results were resounding.
Southampton are Zaha’s most frequent opponent. He has faced them 20 times. But his last few visits to St Mary’s had ranged from forgettable to a frustrating exhibition of his main weakness. The 29-year-old constantly toes the line and while he crossed the wrong side in rising to the provocation of James Ward-Prowse and being sent off in February 2019, Zaha somehow resisted the temptation to celebrate in the Southampton midfielder’s face upon his sublime stoppage-time winner. This is already the highest-scoring season of his career and it is no coincidence that he no longer feels the burden of constantly having to drag Palace up to his level. Vieira has built a team worthy of their crown jewel.
Five changes from midweek delivered a fifth 1-0 win of the Premier League season for Liverpool. The nature of those victories sum up Jurgen Klopp’s impeccable squad management, with each delivered by a different scorer: Naby Keita against Newcastle; Sadio Mane against West Ham in March; Fabinho against Burnley in February; Mo Salah against Aston Villa in December; and Divock Origi against Wolves the prior week. Extend it to all competitions and a sixth 1-0 win came from Diogo Jota’s effort against Nottingham Forest in the FA Cup quarter-finals. It is an enduring testament to both their strength in depth and of character.
One of the key fulcrums behind Manchester City’s unexpected set-piece dominance has been Rodri. They look far tighter defending free-kicks and corners with the midfielder in place, and much more threatening attacking them with him lurking.
Perhaps behind only Ederson, it feels like Rodri is the player Pep Guardiola staked his reputation on the most. For a holding midfielder, his defensive instincts were initially poor and that counter-pressing role often proved beyond his capabilities and speed. There were few more polarising Manchester City players at one point: some saw enough to suggest he could eventually provide the necessary foundation for success, while others feared that dominance of the English game might always be just out of Rodri’s reach.
He epitomises Guardiola’s reign in that way, by rising above preconceptions and changing the game to his whim instead of the other way around. His teammates have stood out at certain points, but Rodri has been a model of consistency.
Marc Cucurella was outstanding. Yves Bissouma was excellent. Moises Caicedo looks like an absolute Premier League natural. Enock Mwepu’s versatility has been a welcome addition to his game. Leandro Trossard has that air of a player who could raise his levels to suit the standard of most teams. Robert Sanchez matched his tally of clean sheets from last season. Those six players were signed for combined fees equivalent to the sales of Benjamin White, Anthony Knockaert and Aaron Mooy over the last two years. It is a neat party trick to master, particularly as it does not rely upon a specific manager, although the influence of an excellent coach undeniably helps the process.
“We sold Ben and we’ve managed to improve. That’s the challenge in the Premier League for teams like us. It’s impossible to think you can keep hold of everybody. But we can sell at the right time, at the right price, then carry on trying to improve,” was Graham Potter’s message after the win over Wolves. Acknowledging that role in football’s food chain is important; embracing it is crucial.
Marc Cucurella is unbelievably good every time I watch Brighton. So technically proficient on the ball, rounded defensive game, and can run the whole flank for the full 90
— Aaron Moniz (@amonizfootball) April 30, 2022
Patson Daka was the amuse-bouche that only intensified Cristian Romero’s appetite for his main course of Turkish affright. The halfway second challenge that directly preceded Heung-min Son’s first goal did not resemble a halfway line clash between hardened centre-halves, only because Caglar Soyuncu was entirely consumed by his counterpart. It was a comprehensive clattering.
Tottenham would rise to fourth only temporarily, but even if they do eventually miss out on the Champions League there is solace in Romero’s presence. “The difficulty is, what top players are going to go to Spurs?” Roy Keane asked in January, suggesting that qualification for Europe’s premier competition was a prerequisite for attracting the best talent. Romero disproves that
Arsenal are another step closer to the ultimate justification. By the close of the January transfer window, Rob Holding had started four Premier League games and Mo Elneny just one. Eddie Nketiah’s only appearances outside of the League Cup by then had lasted no more than 19 minutes off the bench. Yet Mikel Arteta trusted all three to deliver when the inescapable time came that he had to call upon them. The Spaniard will be mocked and criticised by many onlookers but harnessing that sort of squad harmony is a delicate balancing act that only the two coaches competing for the title have managed better. The excellence of youth has underpinned this Arsenal season – Bukayo Saka and Gabriel Martinelli assisting the goals was apropos – but this is far more of a team effort than it ever has been a case of individualism.
There are deeper reads to be had on Norwich’s demise, but describing it as inevitable is misleading. In this particular season they had every chance of avoiding relegation, armed with a solid budget and the painful lessons of previous failures, with hindsight showing that other clubs could have been pulled further into danger. They should have had every advantage on Brentford, for example, yet 19 points separate the reigning second-tier champions from last season’s play-off winners. The sale of Emiliano Buendia was both predictable and early, yet the Canaries used neither the windfall nor the time nearly well enough.
Most importantly, there was once an understanding and acceptance from the supporters, who long put their faith in the project and were sold The Norwich Way as the only way. That self-funded model has felt like a pre-prepared excuse all season. Other clubs have navigated those financial constraints much more convincingly. And unless the culture indelibly changes, even promotion next campaign will come with an undercurrent of trepidation from three successive top-flight relegations. Stuart Webber and his time have a few mountains to climb, not least in terms of getting supporters back onside.
The feeling at Vicarage Road will be similar, albeit their fate has not been officially confirmed and the route by which it will surely be reached is vastly different. There have at least been suggestions that Watford intend on changing their ways by arming a younger manager with time and patience instead of whittling down the never-ending list of names on the combined Pozzo-Duxbury contacts book. But the jury will not expect to reconvene on that anytime soon.
The next challenge will be to retain certain portions of the squad, because for all their flaws this is not a team which should be setting records for consecutive top-flight home defeats. Ismaila Sarr, Joao Pedro and Emmanuel Dennis are among those who have been gradually dragged down by an atrocious defence, despite the opposite being true last season when Xisco Munoz built upon a solid backline to gain promotion.
There should be more optimism at Watford than Norwich, even if the Roy Hodgson appointment has been an unmitigated disaster for all involved. But Duxbury in particular will have questions to answer, considering he spent last May painstakingly listing all the mistakes the Hornets had learned from ahead of this season. Same again.
Imagine being a #WatfordFC sub today and your manager not believing in you enough to bring you on. I hope for Duxbury’s sake the club aren’t relying on any of those subs for next year.
— Rob Ezekiel (@Rob_Ezekiel) April 30, 2022
It was notable that Frank Lampard and Jesse Marsch echoed similar lines. The former described Everton’s fans as “the 12th man” and thanked them for helping “get us over the line late in the game”. The latter said that “the best part was the fans’ response” and “there was so much passion and love for the team from the fans”.
The Leeds manager did stress that “that isn’t pandering to our fans” but it is a tough balance to strike. He and Lampard have both perhaps visited that well a little too often. But the key difference there is that Everton fans – rightly or wrong – welcomed their boss as the replacement for an unpopular figurehead, while Marsch started at a natural disadvantage due to the nature of Marcelo Bielsa’s relationship with the support.
Few could blame him for leaning on that aspect of a 4-0 defeat in which Leeds had their chances. And in truth, they are losers mainly because of the worst possible results elsewhere. That five-game unbeaten run immediately before the Manchester City loss is keeping heads barely above water and a run-in of Arsenal, Chelsea, Brighton and Brentford has its pros and cons. Pandering or otherwise, Marsch and his players will need the fans to be in full voice.
Jose Mourinho, in combination with Steven Gerrard, successfully tricked the world into forgetting Chelsea led the Premier League table as late as April 2014; it was not only Liverpool who capitulated in that title race. On a far lesser scale, Thomas Tuchel might be accompanying his players on a slow slide down this table. The German ought to be thankful that the league season is both over soon, and will require Arsenal to face Tottenham in its penultimate week.
Chelsea sit three points ahead of Arsenal and five above Spurs, all having played the same number of games. But only two of those sides have momentum currently in their favour. The Blues are finding it difficult to generate that and after a run of five consecutive Premier League wins, their form has been: L, W, L, W, D, L. Tuchel increasingly looks incapable of rousing them from this slump and preventing the individual mistakes that continue to undermine any hint of progress.
The season could yet end with Wembley glory and Tuchel’s strength at Stamford Bridge thus far has been in managing those one-off games. But his reign will ultimately be measured by Premier League progress and that is a nut he still seems unable to crack.
That unavoidable sense of flux has returned. Bruno Lage has completed a hat-trick of three successive Premier League defeats. Wolves emerged from that stuttering August start to establish their Champions League credentials, which were firmly ended by losses to Arsenal, West Ham and Crystal Palace in March. That cushion to 9th and below should be substantial enough to prevent goalless setbacks against Newcastle, Burnley and Brighton doing lasting damage, but it is demoralising for a season that promised so much to deliver so little.
The European semi-finalists
Considering how delicately those Europa League and Europa Conference League semi-finals are poised, West Ham and Leicester’s respective seasons hang in the balance. Both are without a win in their last four Premier League games, starting from the match after their quarter-final second-leg heroics and bleeding into the final matches of their semi-finals. If either progress then that drop-off will be forgotten but it will be difficult to gather anything tangible from the season if they are knocked out in midweek.
A ludicrous football club. Between December 15 and February 25, Southampton went on a run of one defeat in 10 Premier League games. From March 5 to April 30, that has become a sequence of one win in nine.
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