MONDAY'S BIG STORIES
Meet The New Boss
Something is definitely shifting. There was no other explanation this time. No post-quarantine cooling off, no lingering injury, no well-deserved rest. No meaningless cup competition. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer looked at his goalkeeping options, thought very hard, and then picked Not David De Gea. Again.
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Dean Henderson has now started seven games in a row for Manchester United. Dean Henderson is now — probably? maybe? definitely? — Manchester United's no. 1 goalkeeper.
And how did the new man celebrate his promotion? Well, first he made a blinding close-range save from Danny Welbeck. Unfortunately he made that save directly back into Welbeck, setting him up nicely for the rebound. Then he endured some mild bullying at corners and had the ball knocked out of his hands by Harry Maguire. You know, standard stuff.
After the game, Solskjaer said… exactly what you'd expect him to say. Although it's quite fun to imagine the last line in a cold deadpan. Almost sounds like a threat.
I’ve got two great keepers, two No 1s. It is something that will create headlines and fish-and-chip wrapping paper. David will definitely play football for us again.
If this is the end of an era, or at least the beginning of the end of an era, then let's get a head start on the writeups. For a while, for a couple of seasons at least, De Gea was one of the best goalkeepers in the world and almost certainly the best shot-stopper, and there isn't a Premier League fan in the country that hasn't cursed his elastic presence at some point or other. Which isn't bad going for a career at Manchester United, even when numbers two through 11 haven't quite delivered the titles.
Speaking of which, what did the new man see unfolding in front of him? Well, this may not come as a shock, but for the first half Manchester United were largely outplayed by a much cheaper, much better organised football team. United were ponderous in possession and Brighton hustled them into blind alleys, then mugged them and ran off with the ball. Although Welbeck did need two point blank shots to score one goal, which probably counts as some kind of live action joke about xG.
At half-time Solskjaer reminded his players that they were supposed to be playing in some kind of formation, and also asked them nicely if they wouldn't mind passing the ball a bit quicker, and that seemed to work. So did the replacement of Edinson Cavani: that put Mason Greenwood in the middle to score the winner. Perhaps there's a pattern here: a manager unafraid to turn to youth ahead of seniority. Henderson in for a man with hundreds more appearances, Greenwood into the middle when Cavani's misfiring.
As the final act of this short, overstuffed, utterly knackering season begins, it almost feels unfair to criticise a team for looking, well, knackered. Particularly when the three teams below United all lost, leaving them four points clear of Leicester in third and 11 clear of Spurs in fifth. Circumstances call for getting the job done: anything else is a bonus.
The problem, of course, is that United are the second best team in the country by a little bit, and the second best team in Manchester by a quite lot, and of those two gaps, it's a lot easier to see the former closing than the latter. But that's a problem for next season. For Henderson, apparently. And Greenwood.
Squeaky Bum Time (I)
Speaking of all of which, we have a race for the top four. A proper one. Where everybody's quite good and everybody's also a bit rubbish. And all it took was one totally inexplicable coupon-buster at Stamford Bridge.
Obviously, losing a player after half an hour is a problem for any team, and all of what follows has to be marked with an asterisk. But West Brom scored five. Five! Five. Some of them rather beautiful, too. The day afterwards, Antonio Rüdiger was sent home early from training after scrapping with Kepa Arrizabalaga, and as such we have no choice but to announce that Chelsea are formally In Crisis.
Spurs, of course, have been in crisis all season, even when results have been good. Turns out, when you multiply Spursiness by Late Mourinho, what you mostly get is a headache, and a lot of points dropped. Drawing with Newcastle isn't quite as peculiar as shipping five — five! — to West Brom. (West Brom!) But the circumstances were far more predictable.
Tottenham. The last ten minutes. A narrow lead. What could possibly go wrong. Oh yeah, that. Still, at least Mourinho came out and, when reminded that his teams used to be good at defending leads, calmed things right down.
Same coach, different players.
This is all particularly awkward because Liverpool are good again. Or perhaps Arsenal are bad again: honestly, it's kind of hard to tell. But Liverpool looked like defending champions, which hasn't happened much this season, and Arsenal looked thoroughly mid-table, which has happened a lot.
The upshot is that three of the Big Six are camped in fourth, fifth, and sixth, separated by just two points and each with their own problems to solve. If you'd asked us last week, we'd have said Chelsea. We might even have said it quite confidently. But ask us now and we'll probably say "... Liverpool? No, Chelsea! No, Liverpool!", then need a sit down. Ridiculous, of course. Ten men with an hour to go. But still...
And if Everton and West Ham both win their games in hand, then things get even tighter. A win tonight will send the Hammers soaring over everybody into fourth. And if Chelsea, Liverpool and Spurs all get beaten into the Champions League by David Moyes' West Ham, we're not sure we'll ever stop laughing.
Squeaky Bum Time (II)
Remember all those games in hand Atletico Madrid had? The ones that were going to turn their decent lead into an insurmountable one? Yeah, they've all gone now. And their lead at the top of the table is… [counts on fingers] yep. Thought so. Three points. One, if Barcelona win tonight.
There's no shame in losing to Sevilla, of course, who are fourth and pretty decent. But Atleti were clearly second best, and while they were quite aggrieved about the goal — a handball about ten minutes earlier — it's hard to make a case for the result being unfair. Also, Sevilla get extra style points: the full-back to full-back goal is always a good look.
And yet Atleti could have burgled a point late on. All Mario Hermoso had to do was hit the target: instead he winged a passing weather balloon. All Ángel Correa had to do was miss the goalkeeper: he did not. Obviously it's hard to read anything into Diego Simeone's calm exterior, but under that unflappable Zen-like exterior, we reckon he might be getting just a little nervous. Nine games to go. What's the Spanish for Devon Loch?
IN OTHER NEWS
What do you reckon, then? Duck or goose? Our first thought was "goose", but we've since revised our guess to "really big duck". That's neck's a bit short for a goose. And no, we will not be "checking". Confident, blind guesswork is the Warm-Up brand.
Happy birthday to Thomas Hitzlsperger. Let's celebrate with a couple of minutes of him kicking the ball extremely hard past a selection of the Premier League's most confused looking goalkeepers.
Over at the Guardian, Barney Ronay looked at Erling Braut Haaland's agent-led tour of Europe, thought about big sums of money, and found himself equally compelled and revolted by the whole spectacle.
Transfers themselves are said to be in crisis. In 2019 the big five leagues spent a record €5.5bn on player deals. This dropped by 40% in the first year of Covid. How, you wonder, will anyone survive on such thin gruel, so few spare millions? If you’re holding the most valuable bauble in the room, this is the moment to cash it in.
West Ham have the chance to reclaim fourth spot, but face a tricky journey to Wolves. And if Everton beat Crystal Palace then they'll go level on points with Spurs and Liverpool, though they'll need to win by 17 to actually overtake them.
Assuming our negotiations with his agent have been successful, Ben Snowball will be here with the Warm-Up tomorrow.
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