MONDAY'S BIG STORIES
Chosen 2-1 Special
Tottenham, Tottenham. Let's begin with the positives, shall we? One, that was probably Gareth Bale's best performance since returning to Spurs. Two, they hit the post, they hit the bar, Declan Rice cleared off the line… they did quite a lot of attacking, on the whole. And three, apparently Lucas Moura heads the ball now.
Of course there is one rather large negative, which is the fact that they lost. David Moyes' first ever win over José Mourinho, apparently, and it came in full Mourinho fashion: they scored early, they controlled the game, and they took the next big chance when it came.
For the Warm-Up's money, Spurs have played a lot worse this season. They've played worse this month. But this miserable run — now one win in seven — has rather brought home an uncomfortable truth. The Premier League has a handful of very good teams, which apparently includes West Ham. It does not, however, include Spurs.
Image credit: Getty Images
Since the turn of the year, Tottenham have been beaten by the teams in sixth, fifth, fourth, and first (and, er, 16th. But Brighton have an excellent xG). In fact they haven't taken a point off any team above them in the table since mid-November, a goalless draw against Chelsea. That point took them top! Tottenham had exactly one shot on target.
Now Spurs are eighth and they look good value for it. After the game, Mourinho denied that his team were in crisis, preferring "a bad, a really bad run of results", and reasserted his own qualities:
Mine and my coaching staff's methods are second to nobody in the world. I think for a long, long time, we have problems in the team that I cannot resolve by myself as a coach."
When your coach is second to none in the world but your team are eighth to seven in England, something doesn't quite add up. We are presumably supposed to conclude that the problem lies with the players, whether some of them personally or with the balance of the squad. It's tempting and almost certainly correct to chalk this up to the usual Mourinho judo — don't blame me! blame them! — but we should probably note that Mauricio Pochettino also felt the squad needed a rebuild.
The question, then, is whether Mourinho is the right person to oversee it; after all, the high achieving and much-admired Pochettino wasn't deemed worthy. And, if the parts of the squad that are worth building around will be happy to stick it out. They're a cup team for the rest of the season: first the League Cup offers a route into the history books, then the Europa League a path into the Champions League. And, perhaps, a chance for everybody involved to keep their jobs, just for a little bit longer.
One For Sorrow, And That's Your Lot
For a half and a bit of their game at Old Trafford, Newcastle United were pretty good. Energetic and well-organised, they harassed the other United's wobbly defence and looked good value for 1-1. Allan Saint-Maximin and Miguel Almirón were having fun: David de Gea was not.
And then United (M) scored their second goal, and their third, and United (N) gently subsided like a leaky balloon.
Dan James celebrates, Manchester United v Newcastle, Old Trafford, February21, 2021
Image credit: Getty Images
On the plus side, the arrival of Graeme Jones and the tweaking of the tactical set-up has made Newcastle visibly better. On the down side, Callum Wilson's injury means much of that visible betterness doesn't really go anywhere. Joelinton did force a decent save from David de Gea early on, but he needed a massive deflection to do it. It's hard to tell, but the initial shot might have been going for a throw-in.
But Newcastle's misfortune is the relegation battle's gain: another win for Fulham means that the gap between Doomed and Safe is just three points, and we're heading into six-pointer season. Dramatic rumble of thunder. Organ sting. Close-up on Steve Bruce's face. Close-up on Scott Parker's face. Close-up on Sam Allardyce's face.
Palace (14th, 29 points, not quite in proper trouble yet) play Brighton (16th, 26 pts, cracking xG) this evening. Next weekend, West Brom (19th, 14 pts, basically doomed) play Brighton, while Palace host Fulham (18th, 22 pts, getting better every game). Meanwhile Newcastle (17th, 25 pts, wobbling hard) have Wolves.
Of course, it won't just be the Magpies feeling nervous. Tilt your head to one side, and you can see Brighton dragged down into it; tilt back the other and it's Palace that get into bother. Close-up on Roy Hodgson's face. Even louder organ sting.
The week after all that, Newcastle are away at West Brom. With giddy disregard for mathematics or common sense, we're going to call that a relegation 12-pointer because we are allowed to mess around like that. Steve Bruce, however, has no such luxury. He'll be calling it something far scarier. "Must-win".
Da Doo Rom Rom Rom, Da Doo Rom Rom
Breaking news from Italy, and you may want to sit down before you hear this. Comfortable? Good. Brace yourself: Romelu Lukaku is really, really, really, really good.
It's a lovely goal, spectacular but also quietly clever. The obvious (and possibly correct) thing to do is to play the ball out to the wing and then steam into the box, but he clocks that the central defenders are weirdly close to one another. That means space. And then it's just a question of who's fastest, and who's the best at smacking the ball into the net.
The answer to both of those questions is, it turns out, Lukaku. That goal turned a comfortable 2-0 lead into a dominant 3-0 win, and that win sends Inter four points clear at the top of Serie A. It also moves Lukaku one clear in the race to become capocannoniere, which is so much cooler a name than "Golden Boot". Give the Warm-Up a head gunner over an impractical shoe any day.
IN OTHER NEWS
A theory: before he moved into refereeing, the hero of this moment was a striker. You can see the instincts. "Get into the six-yard box. Attack the front post. Oh wait, hang on, I'm a referee now. Drop ball!"
Over at the Guardian, Donald McRae has interviewed Fulham's (but really south London's) Ademola Lookman, who was almost missed by everybody on his way up and nearly ended up going to college instead of Charlton's academy. Seems he likes to play his eventual breakthrough pretty cool.
[Aged 16] Lookman was selected to play for London Counties in a friendly against Charlton’s academy team in 2013. "I started that game on the bench but someone got injured and they put me on. We lost the game 1-0 but Charlton liked what they saw and they invited me back." A less measured account is that Lookman dazzled that afternoon and Charlton were incredulous he had not been snapped up by any other club.
It's 30 years to the day since Kenny Dalglish resigned as manager of Liverpool, leaving the defending champions mid-season following a surprise result against Everton… huh. Interesting. Anyway, here's Saint & Greavsie looking back at it all a few days later. And if you ask us, Souness looks good value at 7/1.
It's the Premier League's most distant derby: Crystal Palace are off to the seaside to play Brighton. Winner gets to keep the Gatwick Express.
Close-up on Marcus Foley. He'll be here with the Warm-Up tomorrow.