Sunday 17 December 2017

Paul Hayward: Premier League's year of the lost and found

Chelsea, Leicester, Managerball and 'King’ Zlatan all make mark in 2016

Eden Hazard’s performances reflect the change in Chelsea’s form from last year’s below-par standards to this season’s benchmark. Photo: Getty
Eden Hazard’s performances reflect the change in Chelsea’s form from last year’s below-par standards to this season’s benchmark. Photo: Getty

Paul Hayward

This is the season of the lost and found. There is surely no precedent for the English champions sitting 16th in the table approaching the halfway point while the team who finished 10th last time are now six points clear at the top.

In 2016, the year of shocks in politics, Leicester City and Chelsea have performed an escalator dance. Eight months ago, Leicester won the Premier League for the first time with 81 points - 10 more than second-placed Arsenal. Now they have lost nine of their 18 Premier League fixtures. Chelsea lost a dozen times in the 2015-'16 season but have won 12 in a row under Antonio Conte.

Ranieri has been assured of significant funds and is targeting at least three signings. Photo: PA
Ranieri has been assured of significant funds and is targeting at least three signings. Photo: PA

Awaiting the 19th round of games, you would hardly believe all this could happen in 12 months. Already the Leicester revolution looks like a brief local difficulty stamped on by the big city clubs.

Chelsea were lost and now they're found. Leicester were found and now they're lost. Manchester United were lost at first under Jose Mourinho but now they seem found again. And Arsenal are in their eternal state, somewhere between the two.

In all cases, the science of decision-making is the principle fascination, from Swansea City appointing a manager (Bob Bradley) with only Le Havre and Stabaek on his CV in Europe, to Conte's tactical masterstroke in switching Chelsea to 3-4-3: partly because his centre-backs were not good enough to play in a traditional pairing.

The collapse of the Leicester uprising is the starting point for all observations at the midway stage in a season that has sent tactical demagogues packing. No longer do we think football is on an unstoppable journey to sophistication, to a single style based on passing and possession (this is how it felt three years ago). If in doubt, consider the viral clip of Watford and Crystal Palace players belting the ball up and down the pitch on St Stephen's Day: a comedy of sky shots and miscues.

So, some half-time notes . . .

Leicester's problem with fame

Several gremlins can be spotted in Claudio Ranieri's operation, from poor recruitment in the summer to the loss of N'Golo Kante, who has made 1,090 Premier League passes for Chelsea. But the primary backslide has been human: the drop in intensity, work-rate and spirit that carried Ranieri's (pictured, right) perfectly balanced side past the big corporations between Christmas and May.

The fierce co-operative of ball-pressing and counter-attacking that drew praise across the football planet is no longer visible, or not often enough, as players perhaps relax into improved deals.

Leicester look like a team who never thought it possible to sustain last season's 5,000/1 title win. They had better jolt themselves out of this confused rock star pose. Their three-year history is now: relegation battle, champions, relegation battle.

Players lost, players found

Also tossed about on history's waves have been a host of big names, with good outcomes outnumbering bad. Eden Hazard was the lost soul of Premier League football last season: a player "made unhappy" by his manager, Alan Shearer and Ian Wright agreed on 'Match of the Day'. Now Hazard is zooming and zipping about the park again with precise, lateral and forward thrusts.

Also transformed are the outlaw, Diego Costa, no longer lost in a moody drama of his own making, and David Luiz, who, from his first game back at Chelsea, has been more serious and disciplined.

Liverpool, too, have raised players from potential to consistent delivery.

Adam Lallana has begun to hurt opponents regularly rather than just display interesting intentions, and Jordan Henderson has tightened his grip on games in central midfield, leading the league's passing stats with 1,518.

Liverpool's neighbours, Everton, have picked a jewel from the debris of Aston Villa's relegation season in Idrissa Gueye (a table-topping 82 tackles). Pedro and Victor Moses are also revitalised at Chelsea.

In deep winter, Yaya Toure and Henrikh Mkhitaryan have come in from the cold. Paul Pogba, the world's most expensive player, now looks worth roughly half his purchase price after settling in and lifting his performance level.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic

Let's face it, the Premier League was lacking a characterful, gnomic, physically imposing, artistically gifted, talismanic finisher with stats to compare with the greats of La Liga - Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo and Luis Suarez. Zlatan Ibrahimovic is that peacock, and far more effective still than many of us expected.

All the while Manchester United's players were stuck in the ambling rhythms of Louis van Gaal's time, Ibrahimovic was the one displaying the professionalism and intensity. And class.

The echoes of Eric Cantona are authentic. Ibrahimovic has committed more fouls than any Premier League player.

More, even, than Tottenham's Victor Wanyama, which is saying something. 'Zlatan' is not here to be pushed around. Nor was King Eric.

Tactical democracy

Pep Guardiola arrived with his very big idea at a point where prejudices about formations and styles were breaking down. The shame has lifted from direct play (within reason), and even Tony Pulis now escapes censure for playing six at the back at Arsenal, where West Bromwich Albion had nine players in the box to stop attacks.

The Premier League is now a menagerie of different methods and formations and nobody seems to mind. Guardiola remains a welcome adornment, but culture shock is apparent in his belief that Claudio Bravo is a Premier League goalkeeper, and that a mediocre group of centre-backs can play like Gerard Pique and Javier Mascherano.

Managerball

My suggestion for the rebranding of English football, with the calibre of incoming coaches exceeding that of players. After Monday, the top six generals were Conte, Guardiola, Jurgen Klopp, Arsene Wenger, Mauricio Pochettino and Mourinho. In the Champions League, where English clubs have fallen away, the Premier League must be tempted to ask: can we play you at managers?

Who is winning, among these distinguished ex-pats? The short answer: none of them are failing. Conte can claim the biggest resurrection and Klopp has improved the greatest number of individuals.

His forward four or five is the most exciting seen at Anfield since the glory days; certainly since Michael Owen, Robbie Fowler and Steve McManaman.

Manager-go-round

Students of the British manager deficit spotted that Sam Allardyce was paid £1m to leave the England job and then signed up for a "£4m" bonus to save Crystal Palace, who paid another England candidate, Alan Pardew, £5m to go away.

This faintly dispiriting and expensive mismanagement at board level does nothing to improve the prospects of English or British coaches, represented elsewhere in the top league by Eddie Howe, Sean Dyche, Mike Phelan, Pulis, David Moyes and Mark Hughes. Below the overseas elite, all these British managers have at least one eye on the relegation zone.

Some personal favourites

Kevin De Bruyne, Hazard, Costa, Thibaut Courtois, Philippe Coutinho, Saido Mane, Ibrahimovic, Hugo Lloris, Alexis Sanchez, Gueye, Hector Bellerin, Virgil van Dijk, Dimitri Payet, Michael Carrick.

Personal line in the sand

The repetition of an edgy idea by 'realists' will not make diving an acceptable part of the game. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

Telegraph.co.uk

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