Leicester are profiting from falling standards in the Premier League, while Roberto Martinez is on borrowed time at Everton.
Leicester deserve credit – but standards are slipping
With a seven-point lead and with just six games left to play, it’d take a fairly unlikely turn of events for Leicester not to go on to win the Premier League title this year.
Their achievements this season have been, quite rightly, lauded from all corners. And their accomplishments over not just the last 12 months, but also the last eight years (it’s easy to forget the club were promoted as League One champions in 2008/09) give hope to supporters of pretty much every club outside the (established) top four.
Yes, Tottenham are playing well and could yet ensure Leicester’s dream heads south (literally, and metaphorically) – and I dare say there’s few who would begrudge Mauricio Pochettino’s men their moment in the sun if they were to hunt down the Foxes and claim the Premier League title for themselves.
And then there’s Arsenal. Yes, that Arsenal who Mesut Ozil himself admitted had “screwed up” their big title chance this season. Oddly, Arsenal are a club well capable of going on a now-typical late season surge and there are some out there (Wenger included) who still believe the Gunners could nick the Premier League crown for themselves.
However, when Wenger branded Ozil’s comments “not welcome” , I can’t but feel the German was merely echoing exactly what every one else was thinking. Yes, it might have touched a nerve with Wenger, and yes, criticising one’s own club is not really the done thing – but there’s a massive part of me that believes what Ozil said touched a massive nerve of Wenger’s.
Arsenal’s campaign this season befits not just one we often associate with the Gunners (promise so much; deliver so little), but one which sums up the Premier League title race as a whole.
Let’s not discredit Leicester for what they are on the brink of achieving, but let’s make one thing clear: this season has been odd to say the least, and one that underlines the falling standards in the Premier League.
Take Manchester City: a squad that, yes, might yet go on to reach the latter stages of the Champions League and ensure Manuel Pellegrini’s departure isn’t the damp squib many feared it would become. But have they underachieved in the Premier League? Hell, yes.
Take Chelsea: a slump few (if anyone?) would have predicted at the start of the season. The Blues, now on a 15-game unbeaten run in the league under Guus Hiddink – a seasonal-high for any side this season – are living proof, if ever it were needed, that they’ve massively underachieved this season.
Then, there’s Man United and Liverpool. Yes, they may not have ever been touted as strong title challengers, but underachieved in the league? Too right.
So, all things considered, while Leicester are now odds-on to finish the most unlikely season as Premier League champions, they do so by profiting from not just their own amazing form, tactics, togetherness and good fortune, but also from the fact that standards in England have taken one helluva serious nosedive. Not that Leicester will care – and quite rightly so.
Martinez on borrowed time
Despite acknowledging the disgruntlement of the Everton supporters following a defeat at Old Trafford that leaves them sandwiched between West Brom and Bournemouth in 12th place in the Premier League table, Roberto Martinez still refused to be anything other than relentlessly positive about the future.
“Incredible talent… incredible young talent… outstanding footballers… outstanding young talent…”
Everton fans, though, are not stupid. Almost three years into his reign at Goodison Park, the supporters are now seeing through Martinez’s relentless positivity. The evidence they witness on the pitch simply does not tally with the Spaniard’s outlook and many have had enough.
Martinez is right about one thing: Everton do have some “outstanding young talent”. But the manager is failing to get the best out of it for the Merseysiders and the feeling always lingers that other clubs – bigger clubs – will reap the benefit of the development of Romelu Lukaku, Gerard Deulofeu and John Stones if the Toffees continue to dwell in mid-table.
The Toffees boss pointed to the absence of Gareth Barry as mitigation for his team’s poor performances in defeats to Arsenal and United, saying: “Incredible young talent needs knowhow and lessons to develop.”
Is that not the manager’s job? And in any case, none of the players who make up this “outstanding young talent” are rookies. The average age of Everton’s XI at Old Trafford is 25.6 years, with only Stones aged under 22 and he’s got 85 first team appearances under his belt having been around the first-team at Goodison for over three years.
If someone made a parody Martinez twitter account, I wouldn't be able to tell the difference between that and real quotes. #EFC
— Royal Blue Everton (@RoyalBlueEFC) April 3, 2016
Martinez points to participation in two cup semi-finals as an indication of progress but their Premier League form is a far more telling indicator. An 11th-placed finish last season was seen as inglorious underachievement but Everton are struggling this term even to match those low standards.
The former Wigan boss talks about Everton challenging for the Champions League places, as they did two seasons ago, but they are slipping further away. Given the struggles of the established top-four competitors, like Chelsea, Manchester United, Manchester City and Liverpool, this campaign was the Toffees’ opportunity to push on, but Martinez has blown it.
Leicester’s achievements have put everyone in the shade, but Tottenham, with a younger squad and a more inexperienced manager, have shown Martinez that it is possible to win while developing. Next season will be even tougher for the Toffees to make tangible progress in the Premier League, especially since Lukaku seems to believe he has served his time at Goodison.
Only an FA Cup win would give Martinez’s claim that he is the right man for Everton a shred of credibility. As the Spaniard will tell you, he’s done it before, at Wigan, but they were also relegated in the same week. After taking the Latics into the Championship, many say Martinez was fortunate to get the Everton job, but he will be even luckier to keep it this summer.
Newcastle down but not out
“We have seven games to go and we have to keep pushing. If we start winning games we still have time.”
Hardly the most insightful thing to have been uttered by Rafael Benitez, but the Newcastle boss has a point. All hope is not yet lost for the Magpies.
The manner of Saturday’s defeat at Norwich was almost as damaging as the outcome itself. Martin Olsson’s last-gasp winner leaves Benitez’s side six points adrift of the Canaries in 17th, though Alex Neil’s side have played a game more.
Benitez admitted morale was low in the dressing room, but there have been reasons for optimism since the Spaniard replaced Steve McClaren, not least in that some of the fight seems to have returned to St James’ Park.
Following his international exertions, Aleksandar Mitrovic started on the bench but came from it to grab another couple of goals to drag Newcastle on level terms twice. The combative Serbian can lead the fight from the front for the Geordies and unsettle opponents in much the same way they were hurt by Steven Naismith’s determination and appetite for a scrap.
Benitez’s biggest problems are at the back. Chancel Mbemba, who was also late returning from international duty in Africa, had one of his poorest game sin front of third-choice stopper Karl Darlow, but Fabricio Coloccini and Paul Dummet could be back for the trip to Southampton next week to at least offer some familiarity to the back four.
So far, Benitez has only had one full week to mould his defence into something resembling a cohesive unit. With returning players and time to work on the training ground, this is a huge week for the Toon boss, who simply has to arrest a run of eight away defeats when they fly south next week.