Man United’s costly defeat at West Brom, why the run-in might not suit Leicester, and Newcastle’s badly-timed statement feature as James Marshment reviews the weekend’s major talking points.
One step forward; two giant ones back for United
Manchester United’s form since the turn of the year has been nothing short of astonishing, given everything that had gone on before in the club’s ‘Black December’.
From crashing out the Champions League, the failure to win a game of any description for an unprecedented eight matches and speculation over Louis van Gaal’s job reaching fever pitch – it seemed the club were lurching from one crisis to another – and even the most optimistic of fans would not have foreseen their remarkable recovery since the turn of the year.
Yes, there’s been bumps along the road in 2016 – the home defeat to Southampton and the poor display in defeat at Sunderland the obvious ones – but the feelgood factor looked as though it had returned to the club in spades. Four straight wins prior to Sunday were proof in the pudding: Had Van Gaal turned the corner? Was his job no longer in jeopardy? Even Jose appeared resigned to accepting he’d not be taking the United job after all. The kids were alright too….
But as unfathomable as their return to form and genuine Champions League contention had been (some in TEAMtalk Towers were even contemplating the club having a late say in the title race – I won’t name names!), so too was Sunday’s 1-0 reverse at West Brom.
Van Gaal admitted after the game that the defeat was a “big blow” in their efforts to finish in the top four – I’d go a step further and actually say this one defeat alone might be the death knell for those hopes.
Arsenal, themselves now winless since Valentine’s Day – look the club they’ll most likely catch if they are to reclaim a place among the elite. But Arsenal hold a five-point cushion over United, and they’ll surely take heart from bouncing back to claim a difficult point with just 10 men away to Spurs.
There’s also the teams in and around them in the race for fourth to consider too.
Think West Ham: playing with confidence, freedom, and with little to lose as that emotional farewell to the Boleyn draws ever closer.
And Liverpool: inconsistent, perhaps, but arguably showing now that Jurgen Klopp is getting them playing his way and finding ways to get results. Can we really rule them out of the top-four equation just yet? Their Europa League foes remain one winnable match in hand away from drawing level on points with their rivals….
Momentum is very much key at this stage of the season, and with the ascendancy lying with their opponents, it’ll be interesting to see how their confidence has been affected, if at all, in coming matches.
But I do think Van Gaal will be left to look back on this one defeat to West Brom as the result that pains United, and ultimately costs the club, the most.
Leicester’s run-in not as easy as it seems
Leicester deserve all the praise they’ve had this season, and no-one would be happier than me to see them lift the Premier League title in May. As a supporter of a club who once dined at the king’s table but now linger shamelessly at the back of restaurants begging for scraps, Leicester’s rise this season has given fans of all Average Joe football clubs everywhere the gift of ‘hope’. Bottom last season, five points clear at the top this, Leicester’s surge to the brink of greatness and the hope they have provided all is probably the biggest thing they have bestowed upon the game this season.
The gritty win at Watford has put them in a great position, and with just nine games left, it’s certainly theirs to lose now. And with matches against sides in the wrong half of the table, such as Newcastle, Crystal Palace, Sunderland, Swansea and Everton, the Foxes will find themselves in the unusual position of being ‘strong favourites’.
That, of course, brings with it a new kind of pressure – how will they cope when facing sides who’ll likely pack players behind the ball and ask Leicester to break them down? So many of their wins this season have come from hitting sides on the break and by exposing the pockets of space the more attack-minded sides have left behind them.
But in many of these upcoming games for Leicester, it’ll now be about finding ‘new ways’ to win. Can they find that additional determination? Can they deal with the pressure that hits all sides when closing in on glory? As it goes, it might just be their other fixtures (against Man United, Chelsea, Southampton and West Ham) actually lets them scratch that title itch a bit more.
Siege mentality? No mentality at Newcastle
Newcastle probably thought, that when issuing a statement three hours before kick-off against Bournemouth on Saturday saying the players were fully behind Steve McClaren, they’d be helping generate a siege mentality, which would in turn lead to a positive result against the Cherries.
In truth, it had the opposite effect. In fact, it focused the spotlight even more keenly on the club, how the players would respond, and whether – as the statement claimed – they were prepared to show “fight” for the manager and the football club.
But all Newcastle served up was a performance and result befitting of a side heading for relegation; “going down material” as McClaren so eloquently put it.
So what next for Newcastle? Well, one thing’s for certain and that is that the players are most definitely not playing for their manager. Surely the time for change is needed? Why not roll the dice, get in another manager (David Moyes for example) and give the club a genuine chance of avoiding the drop.
That Newcastle squad – on paper at least – should not be where they are in the table. The same might have been said about champions Chelsea in December. Maybe Newcastle could learn a thing or two from their swapping of Mourinho for Hiddink to know that sometimes, a change can be for the better. Especially when, as is in Newcastle’s case, you have a squad of players who are not delivering the results they should be capable of.