#1. Hull City Bottom of the league at Christmas
There won’t be too much joy around the K.C Stadium this Christmas, as Hull City find themselves bottom of the Premiership table this Christmas. On Saturday they were undone by Mark Noble’s controversial penalty, to lose the game at the London Stadium 1-0. One of the key issue for Hull this season is their lack of luck in front of goal, and they were the victims of this once again on Saturday.
Defeats do not come much harsher than this – and finishing the day rock bottom of the table, after such a display is going to be a huge psychological blow for Hull’s players to overcome. Hull, seeking a league win away to West Ham, for the first time since 1990, took the game to the hosts from the outset and created countless chances to score.
Dieumerci Mbokani had earlier hit the woodwork for Hull when one-on-one with Darren Randolph, before Noble struck his own post as he attempted to clear Andrew Robertson’s cross. Robertson made it a hat-trick of efforts off the post with a thunderous drive that beat Randolph but not the frame of the goal.
For Hull this was the 7th straight away defeat in a row, and they have lost 11 of their last 15 matches, and have only taken 6 points from a possible 45. Their goal difference is also pretty shocking, the worst in the league in fact, as they sit on -22. Having only scored 14, also the poorest in the Premier League.
However, there are some small glimmers of hope for the Tigers. They are only 3 points off safety, and the teams around them also find themselves in a similar position when it comes to getting results, and finding form. They are also playing a lot better than their current position suggests. Post-match Mike Phelan was in a positive mood when it came to the display
“It’s difficult when your team are doing ever so well, you feel for them because you want them to score the goals and get the credit. If we can play like that, we just need a stroke of genius or luck to get us goals.”
That genius, or at least the player to get the goals, maybe sought in the January transfer window. It’s no secret that Hull’s summer dealings were appalling to say the least. They entered the start of the campaign with no manager, and only 11 first team players. There were 1 or 2 moves towards the end of the window, but not the quality that is required to keep them in the league. One player that they have been linked with is Peter Crouch. He is not getting the game time at Stoke, and would relish one more challenge in the league. He has also scored goals wherever he has been. The only stumbling block would be his wages, but at the moment if Hull don’t do something, they will find themselves back in the Championship.
They play Man City on Boxing Day, and would do well to come away with a point. But in order to get that kind of a result, they will require some of the luck they have been missing so far this season.
#2. Zlatan Ibrahimovic, he is a Swedish Hero
One of the issues for Manchester United, last season, was they weren’t finding the net enough. One of the first things Jose Mourinho did to rectify this, was to sign Zlatan Ibrahimovic on a free transfer in the summer. One of the criticisms levelled against Ibrahimovic was his age, that at 35 it was too late for him to make his Premier League bow. In fact the build up to the West Brom again, Mourinho had voiced his concern that his star was being over-worked, having played 1440 minutes in 16 of United’s 17 Premiership games.
On Saturday against West Brom, Ibrahimovic took his tally to 10 goals, in his last 9 games in all competitions. With the brace, which earnt him the Man of the Match award, Ibrahimovic took his total of goals in the league to 11 for the season. Only Alexis Sanchez and Diego Costa have more goals. He is on 16 in all competitions for the season, which is 11 more than any other United player, and now has the same amount of league goals that United’s top league scorer, Anthony Martial, had in the entirety of last season.
It is easy to see why Mourinho has taken the option to extend the Swede’s stay until 2018, with even rumours of an extension until 2019. In terms of the goals he scored on Saturday, Jessie Lingard will take huge credit for the opening goal, after his sublime cross from the right landed perfectly for Ibrahimovic, who headed down past Ben Foster from eight yards out.
His second goal was teed up by captain Wayne Rooney and Ibrahimovic managed to worm his way into the box before striking with his right foot on 55 minutes. The way he took both goals, showed his confidence had returned. This following, what for Ibrahimovic, was a barren spell of 6 games without a goal. Despite having a number of chances. In fact, Ibrahimovic tops the shot league, in the Premiership, having had 74 shots on target this season, seven more than the next highest Christian Eriksen. With his brace on Saturday, he has now found the back of the net in United’s last 5 away games.
It wasn’t just the goals that won him the plaudits after the game, he was an all-round team player. No player on the pitch was involved in more duels, 17. Although one clash with Craig Dawson, may have seen Ibrahimovic ending his game early. when he threw himself at Craig Dawson, clattering the defender to the ground. There seemed no intent to win the ball and it was uncontrolled. As such he was fortunate referee Anthony Taylor produced only a yellow card, to howls of discontent from The Hawthorns. He also made the third most sprints for United in the game.
The problem for Mourinho is how to replace Ibrahimovic, in the press conference before the game Mourinho stated:
“But obviously he cannot play 60 matches. I must give him a rest. But as our target striker we can say that he is the only one and, the way we normally play, we need him.”
But for now it seems Mourinho will be hoping that Zlatan can continue to drink from the fountain of youth.
#3. The Arsenal choke has begun
For the last few years, it has roughly been around the December/January time where Arsenal’s league season starts to fall apart. When Arsenal beat Stoke City, coming from 1-0 down, at the Emirates on the 10th December they found themselves at the top of the league table (ahead of Chelsea on goal difference. 9 days later, and as regular as jolly old Saint Nick coming down the chimney, Arsenal find themselves stumbling following 2 losses in a row. As they sit down to their turkey dinner, Arsenal sit 9 points off the top of the table, and 1 point away from dropping out of the top 4 altogether.
For the 2nd time in a week, Arsenal squandered a 1-0 lead, going on to lose the game 2-1 against Everton on Tuesday, and 2-1 to Man City on Sunday. But the question is, is this just a stumble or the same old Arsenal?
Arsenal’s weakness under pressure, especially in the face of a Manchester City side that was simply too intense and talented for them to resist, was something that was supposed to have been cured this season.
Arsenal looked tired. They were subjected to a fierce physical test at Everton on Tuesday, but every other title contender has been playing this week and they quite simply have to meet these demands if they wish to end that title drought, irrespective of the fact they have Champions League football to factor in where the likes of Chelsea and Liverpool have no European commitments.
Once City went ahead there was, from an Arsenal perspective, an inevitability about the outcome. And, most worryingly of all for Wenger, it seemed like mentally his players knew it.
The gap to Chelsea is already nine points. Arsenal now have home games coming up against West Bromwich Albion and Crystal Palace. They cannot allow it to get any wider.
It also didn’t help that there most creative and influential player, Mesut Ozil performed a Christmas magic trick and disappeared from the game completely. Ozil is a World-Class footballer, he can make and score goals and influence games – but when Arsenal needed him as the chips were down at Manchester City, he went missing.
At Manchester City, when Arsenal were struggling to gain any foothold and their defence was being placed under constant examination, Ozil’s presence could best be described as peripheral. He was on the margins rather than a vital outlet.
Ozil is used by Arsenal’s critics, with justification, as the embodiment of the problems that always let them down. He flourishes when the sun is shining but takes shelter when it starts to rain.
As Kevin de Bruyne stepped forward to take the responsibility vacated by the suspended Sergio Aguero, Ozil failed to fill in as Arsenal’s other stellar performer, Alexis Sanchez, tired visibly and was starved of service in the second half.
Ozil won only 25% of his personal duels against City, lost the ball 14 times and played just one key pass, where that is rated as a pass that assists an attempt on goal.
The final straw of Arsenal’s frustration was a last-minute free-kick mix-up between Ozil and keeper Petr Cech that saw a short ball played rather than the obvious launch into the penalty area.
Wenger has the Christmas period to assess what has happened, it is only 2 defeats, and all the other teams have had a wobble at some point this season. They play West Brom at the Emirates on Boxing Day, and only a win will cure this Christmas hangover.
#4. Liverpool Leave it late
Round 17 of the Premier League was capped off by a potentially explosive match as Everton hosted Liverpool in the Merseyside Derby.
It was an event that coined a new Sky Sports hashtag as Monday Night Football became Mersey Monday, but beyond the broadcasting advertising there was a lot on the line for Liverpool who had to keep themselves within touching distance of League steamrollers Chelsea. For Everton it was an opportunity to kick on from the great result against Arsenal the previous week, a much needed rest spite from the recent slump.
Unfortunately for the neutral it was a match that didn’t really live up to the hype. You can’t discredit the Everton faithful, the atmosphere was amazing, the kind that Man City players must have heard of in folk legend. It was a frantic start for the Toffees who should have gone one nil up early on as Romelu Lukaku scuffed his shot from 6 yards out.
As the game went on however it was Liverpool who started to impose themselves, taking full control of the game. Everton had huffed and puffed too early and were hanging onto the ropes.
Everton had their backs against the wall completing 23 successful blocks to Liverpool’s 13. Everton also had more interceptions, 10 more than Liverpool in fact. They were brave but lacked the extra little bit of quality needed to really trouble Liverpool.
Liverpool had the greater threat going forward, creating 5 more chances, having 5 more shots and a whopping 18% better pass accuracy than Everton.
Yet it took until deep into the 8 minutes added on that Liverpool struck as Sadio Mane reacted first to a rebound off the post, breaking the hearts of the Everton players who had battled so valiantly.
But this win was more than just 3 points for Liverpool. It was a sign that in Jurgen Klopp, they have a manager who has instilled a belief and work ethic to keep pushing until the very final whistle.
This sets them up very nicely for their end of year run in taking on an inconsistent Stoke side on the 27th and the huge game against Man City on New Year’s eve.
It seems that perhaps the Liverpool title charge is here to stay.
#5. Referees take centre stage once again
The first Mid-week round of fixtures had many highlights of referee inconsistencies once again.
The Crystal Palace vs Man Utd game alone had at least 4 big decisions that the ref got wrong, from the Zlatan goal that was offside, the Mata goal that was disallowed as well as a penalty shout waved away.
But this was not contained to Selhurst Park, it seems the rulebook is as misunderstood as ever before.
But this continued into the weekend’s games where once again the refereeing decisions were more focused on than some of the results themselves.
In the huge Man City v Arsenal game, Leroy Sane’s goal was offside, albeit tight. The linesman gave the benefit of the doubt to the forward, perhaps the right thing to do in that situation much to the dismay of Arsene Wenger who had some choice words to say about the Premier League officiating after the match. Sour grapes on this occasion perhaps, but the weekend was inundated with more refereeing drama.
West Brom manager Tony Pulis bemoaned the hefty challenge by 6 foot 4 Swede Zlatan Ibrahimovic that saw him jump and bundle into Craig Dawson. It was again a challenge that toed the line, defenders would say a definite red as there was very little attempt to win the ball; Zlatan would say it was just an old fashioned sturdy challenge. But yet another incident that took headline, albeit in this case I agree with the outcome.
One incident in the West Brom game that was poor from the ref was the blatant slap by Salomon Rondon on Utd defender Marcus Rojo. Whilst the ferocity was far from the Zlatan challenge, you cannot raise your hand in football. It was an incident that took place near the ref and linesman so was very strange that Rondon got away with it.
Another big decision that sent twitter into meltdown, none more so than Gary Lineker was the sending off of England forward Jamie Vardy in the 2 all draw with Stoke. Vardy was sent off for an apparent 2 footed challenge of Mame Diouf, a straight red. Vardy argued that he was knocked off balance going into the challenge with no malice or intent to harm the player.
Vardy and Leicester appealed this decision to the FA, an effort that fell on deaf ears as the 3 match ban was upheld by the FA.
Considering some challenges that were worse than the Vardy challenge, the recent ‘2 footed challenges’ of Marcus Rojo, as well as the awful challenge by Ross Barkley on Jordan Henderson in the Merseyside derby, you can understand his frustration.
But it is the consistent inconsistencies in the refereeing decisions that cause frustrations in fans, players and managers.
Moussa Sissoko was also lucky not to see red for his high footed challenge on Burnley’s Stephen Ward, for which he was shown a yellow card. Whilst there was an effort to try and pull out, I would have expected a red card given the importance of ‘dangerous challenges’ being punished this season.
Have the rules been complicated too much? Whether it is a striker interfering with play in offside decisions, talking back or circling the ref and challenges from behind, it makes it hard to officiate, especially with the speed at which the game is played nowadays.
Or maybe these decisions have always been up for discussion but the extra camera angles and TV footage we are able to consume now means it is highlighted more?
Could it be time for further use of video footage as in other sports, or is this part of parcel of what makes football such a widely discussed sport. I mean what would the guys down the pub talk about if the refs got all decisions correct? One thing is for sure, it won’t be the last time that referees take centre stage this season.
By Rich Lee and Michael Thatcher