After a cracking game-week 30 that brought more clarity on the final shape that the league table will take in eight weeks’ time, we take a look at the winners and losers in the Premier League.
Louis van Gaal
Pundits around the world fawn over the fact that Jose Mourinho sets up his teams in such a manner against the bigger clubs that they seldom give anything away. Van Gaal is cut of the same cloth. With just the one loss to Manchester City earlier in the season a blot on his record, he has masterminded a draw against Chelsea where Marouane Fellaini’s utilization was lauded, won against Arsenal and Spurs, and has just now completed the double over Liverpool in his first season in-charge. If this does not endear him to the Old Trafford faithful, not much else will.
Wisely enough, Van Gaal persisted with the same 4-1-4-1 formation he put up against Spurs, that won the game so convincingly at Old Trafford the previous weekend. He went attacking against Liverpool. Knowing that avoiding defeat would be considered a success at Anfield, with the kind of form Liverpool were in, he could have opted for a safer 4-2-3-1 double pivot in midfield, but the man has shown cojones. He put up the same attacking formation against Liverpool and reaped the rewards of his bold move. Mourinho probably would’ve gone the defensive way had Chelsea been in a similar situation.
Credit should also go to him for swallowing his pride and seeing reason. He has realized that four at the back works much better for United than his much propagated three. For all his publicized arrogance, Van Gaal has done what is best for the team and himself by being sensible. This result must have won over a lot of the skeptics in the United camp, although we do not know how much Ryan Giggs appreciates the half slaps Van Gaal dishes out while celebrating goals.
They were in control. For the majority of the match. The passing, movement, finesse and chemistry in the first half was superb and Liverpool could not get going. It was like the match against Spurs where United simply would not let the opposition play. Blind was winning tackles on the left deep in Liverpool territory, Carrick was being his usual prudent self, Ander Herrera was always ready to be involved, calling for the ball at all times, and Marouane Fellaini did give Emre Can a torrid time in the air.
All in all, a fantastic performance, one of those rare Anfield performances where they completely dominated. The only criticism would be that they slacked off a little and allowed Liverpool back into the game once Steven Gerrard was dismissed, but overall an extremely satisfying performance that sort of cements their place in the top-four and sees them just two points off second placed Manchester City.
Staying with the North-West derby, Juan Mata underlined his class with a stand-out performance on Sunday. Both his goals were extremely well taken. The first was a cool finish with his weaker foot in the far corner even as he was coming under pressure from a Liverpool defender. The second however, will go down in Manchester United folklore, mentioned in the same breath as Wayne Rooney’s against Manchester City or Dimitar Berbatov’s against Liverpool, both for the quality of the goal and hatred felt for the opposition.
What an amazing run of form in the Premier League for the Frenchman. Giroud has scored six goals and created one in his last five games, and had a dominant performance against Newcastle on Saturday. Giroud will be crucial to Arsene Wenger’s plans in this last phase of the season. Wenger might have sensibly discounted Arsenal from the title challenge, but they look to be in pole position to overtake City and claim second position this season – and with Olivier Giroud’s form, few would bet against them.
An England call-up has certainly not fazed the youngster, as Harry Kane got his first hat-trick in the thrilling 4-3 win over Leicester City. The 21 year old was as cool and clinical as ever in front of goal and has now scored 11 goals in his last 8 matches in the Premier League. His goals tally for Spurs in all competitions this season is a whopping 29. It remains to be seen if he can carry on this form for the national team, but at the moment it is Kane carrying Spurs on his back in the fight for European football next season. Somewhere, Tim Sherwood must have a wry smile on his face even with Aston Villa’s defeat to Swansea.
Champions do what champions must, in whatever way possible – they win. Chelsea took a two goal lead against Hull City, shot themselves in the foot then and allowed Hull back into the game, and at 2-2, found a goal from somewhere that gives them a 6 point advantage at the top, with a game in hand. It was definitely not pretty and it was most definitely unconvincing, but they got the job done, and at this time of the season, it’s the results that matter, not how you get them, and Chelsea showed the kind of resilience it takes to win the Premier League.
What a moment. The manager sends on the club captain at half time to rescue his team in his last massive game for his club, and he lasts all of 37 seconds on the pitch. Having watched the first half from the bench as Manchester United dominated his Liverpool, Steven Gerrard was sent on to win the midfield battles against Herrera and Carrick. Understandably frustrated by the lack of tackles made by his team-mates in the first half, Gerrard made a forceful challenge on Juan Mata as soon as the ball was kicked-off and then as Ander Herrera came in to take the ball away from him, Gerrard passed the ball and stamped studs on into Herrera’s shin in a deliberate attempt to leave a bit of afters on the Spaniard.
Gerrard later apologized for his reckless behaviour and admitted to stamping Herrera on purpose, but he left the ground in disgrace, the Anfield crowd stunned by the sudden turn of events. It was a shameful act as club captain and an icon for the club to resort to such petulance in a big game against a big opponent in a match of big consequences. The image of Gerrard leaving the pitch is perhaps only second to Zinedine Zidane’s walk of shame past the World Cup trophy in 2006.
Both Liverpool and Manchester United had got convincing wins over their opponents before this big game, and questions were being asked who between the two managers would blink first tactically. Perhaps Rodgers thought Van Gaal would change his system to a more defensive setup and so, Liverpool need not address the triangle of Ashley Young, Blind and Fellaini that terrorized the right side of the Spurs defence the previous weekend.
Van Gaal didn’t blink and Liverpool suffered. Emre Can was left to be overpowered by Fellaini aerially, and Blind ran circles around the Liverpool defence on the right. The other flank was not protected as well, with both United goals by Mata coming from Liverpool’s left where Moreno had a terrible game, riddled with two key mistakes. Ita s clear Rodgers underestimated the threat United posed on the flanks, or maybe he was thrown by Van Gaal’s comments before the game saying he did not want to lose, implying a defensive setup that avoids defeat. Rodgers stubbornly went with the formation that worked for his team in previous matches without much cognizance of the threat United posed from the wings. He tried to change things around in the second half, putting four at the back, but we all know how that turned out (see above).
Full marks for Leicester City for their all attacking ethos and they have been a joy to watch in the Premier League, with their high tempo gameplay. But this is at the end of the day a results business. Even with their expansive football, they lie bottom of the Premier League having conceded 48 goals this season, the second most in the league. Nigel Pearson has brought entertaining football to Leicester, but with eight games to go and seven points from safety, it’s time for pragmatism to stay in the Premier League. Otherwise, they might end up doing a Blackpool – adored for their style of play, but not around in the Premier League anymore.
It took a Harry Kane hat-trick for Spurs to see off bottom club Leicester in one of the better matches over the weekend. Spurs seemed not to have recovered from their defeat to Manchester United and were average against a side fighting to stay in the Premier League. Nacer Chadli in particular was woeful, looking out of place on the football pitch. Spurs need to pick themselves up. Despite the win, they looked jaded and worn out and should look to improve if they are to stay in the hunt for Europe.
For a striker as prolific as the Argentine, not having scored in the last four games is a bit of a concern, especially given how much Manchester City rely on him. They have lost half the games they have played during Aguero’s mini-drought and Manuel Pellegrini must be a nervous man as the owners look elsewhere for replacements come the end of the season. Manchester City’s title challenge looks to have fizzled out and has not surprisingly co-incided with Aguero’s drop in form. It just goes on to underline the Argentine’s importance to the team, and though Pellegrini would be happy Wilfried Bony scored for his new club, Aguero’s lack of goals will be real concern for him.