Johnny Nicholson: Is United's malaise a product of the commodification of football?

Weekend talking points in the Premier League
Johnny Nicholson: Is United's malaise a product of the commodification of football?

Manchester United's Jadon Sancho reacts after a missed chance to score during the English Premier League soccer match between Manchester United and Leicester City at Old Trafford in Manchester, England, Saturday, April 2, 2022. (AP Photo/Jon Super)

Brilliant Brentford batter the blues 

To win 4-1 at Stamford Bridge was no fluke, no lucky throw of the dice. This was earned by a superb, coherent performance. That Brentford came from a goal down to achieve it only underlined how well they played. Thomas Tuchel’s side did not know what to do when under the sustained Brentford press. Thomas Franks played a 5-3-2 and Chelsea could not find a way around or through it.

Brentford were content to surrender meaningless possession for impact possession. So while the stats show they only had the ball for 30% of the game, they really made that 30% count, scoring with four of six shots on target.

Vitaly Janelt was brilliant in midfield, scoring two and dictating play. Ivan Toney and Bryan Mbeumo bossed the Chelsea defence all afternoon, and while neither scored, they were crucial in setting up goals.

And then there was Christian Eriksen. The blues could not deal with his passing, nor his guile and precision. It was only right that he scored and won Man Of The Match too.

Chelsea didn’t lose this game, Brentford won it and were by some distance the better side. That win makes them almost certainly safe from relegation. As for Chelsea, with Real Madrid at home to come midweek, play like this again and the tie will be lost in the first leg.

Same old Liverpool

It’s striking how many Liverpool games follow a similar pattern to their match against Watford, with the opposition getting a couple of chances early on but failing to take them. Then Liverpool score and dominate most of the rest of the game, scoring an additional late goal for what looks like an easy win. Almost everyone has a chance to beat Liverpool, but almost no one ever does. Watford were not unadventurous and Pedro should’ve scored for them in the second half but failed to hit the target with the goal gaping. Roy Hodgson has made them harder to beat and Christian Kabasele in defence was a cut above, but they were beaten all the same. It was Jurgen Klopp’s 160th win in 250 games and it was their 10th consecutive league home win, setting them up nicely for the big game against Manchester City next week.

Aston Villa almost but not quite

In losing 2-1 to Wolves, Aston Villa went down to their third consecutive loss by the odd goal, coming on the back of three good wins prior to that. While this one step forward, one step back form must be frustrating for boss Steven Gerrard, it is indicative of a side that is almost a top-half team but not quite. Villa have only drawn three games all season and have scored as many as they have conceded: 42. A few more scored and a few less conceded, whilst easy to say, would be especially transformational for this club. Upgrading single goal losses into draws and draws into single goal wins would put them in the European places. Villa are a big club, it should not be beyond them.

Burnley living dangerously

They had threatened to recover their form at the start of the year. There was an uptick when Wout Weghorst was signed and briefly it looked like Burnley would be OK once again. However, that optimism has proven to be folly as they went down to an easy 2-0 defeat to Manchester City for their fourth consecutive loss. The old cliché that Turf Moor is a tough place to go is no longer true, if it ever was given they have only beaten City once at home since 1974. Their problems are multiple. There isn’t any creativity in the team, the 4-4-2 Sean Dyche’s team plays isn’t played very well. It should give them some solidity in possession if nothing else, but it doesn't as 23% possession and one shot on target against City showed.

Now four points adrift of Everton in 17th, three of Watford in 18th (but having played two games less than the Hornets), it is not yet a lost cause. On Wednesday they take on the Toffees at home. They’re living dangerously, but they’re not dead yet.

Brighton need a good front three 

Brighton notched up their 13th draw with a goalless game at home to Norwich. It’s the same old story for Brighton, every game similar to the last. Lots of nice play, plenty of creative use of the ball and some degree of organisation in defence, but quite useless in front of goal. This draw ended six consecutive losses for the Seagulls. Against the Canaries they had just four shots on target, Neal Maupay missed a penalty and later, a very good chance. Only Burnley and Norwich have scored fewer than their 26 goals. This isn’t mere bad luck or an accident, it is a failure of recruitment and a failure of development by the club. 26 goals in 30 games is downright poor and winning just two of the last 13 games in all competitions is a rotten extended run of form. They need to finish the season strongly or they’ll be under pressure from the get-go in the next campaign but lack of striking talent makes it unlikely. Brighton remains a club that needs a hero; someone to score 25 goals per season. But where do they find one that wants to play for Brighton?

Manchester United are frozen in aspic 

After the ridiculous booing of Harry Maguire by a section of the England fans, he took the pitch at Old Trafford to a much more positive welcome. However the one-all draw against Leicester was an unsatisfactory result for the Red Devils, as they chase with Spurs and Arsenal for fourth place, a race they look set to lose by some margin. It was everything that Manchester United have become, at times ponderous and uncreative, at other times wasteful and unable to take their chances when they come along.

Jadon Sancho missed the best chance of the game in injury-time, slicing wide from 10 yards. A little bit of composure was all that was needed but such is United’s malaise it has infected the whole of the United body politic, making everyone worse than they should be. Sancho would’ve buried that for Dortmund.

The really odd thing is that in some passages of play, they look quite good. They pass the ball well amongst each other and look busy, and yet they don’t do much with the ball for all that. Like a slowly deflating balloon, their form begins to deteriorate within the game. They fell behind against Leicester after an hour, got a goal back quickly but were just unable to push on for a winner until the dying minutes and could have lost the game had the Foxes not had a goal VAR-ed off. They’re currently seventh and could end the season eighth. That isn’t far short of disgraceful.

United cannot buy their way out of this, spending ever more lavish amounts of money on great players. But until someone at the club understands that you don’t get a great team just by buying great players, it will not end. I do wonder if this philosophy is a product of the commodification of football more broadly, where to be the best, you buy the best. If so, the folly of such thinking keeps being illustrated at Old Trafford. They seem old-fashioned and dated, frozen in the aspic of an age that has gone.

Everton have got worse under Lampard 

All of Everton’s stats are worse under Lampard than under Rafa Benitez on a macro, micro and granular level. He’s given them not so much the new manager bounce as the new manager depression. Even so, when Everton came out for the second half they were somewhat rejuvenated having gone in a goal down in a poor first-half performance where Jordan Pickford's good form prevented a worse fate. Had Frank Lampard at last given an inspirational team talk? If so, the effects lasted about 10 minutes, then wore off. They drew level on 53 minutes but conceded once again within five, thanks to an Alex Iwobi error and had Michael Keane sent off.

From there David Moyes, never a man to waste an opportunity to be conservative, just packed the midfield and saw the game out. Dele Alli, who has been, if anything, an even more disastrous signing than Frank Lampard, remained on the bench looking like a disinterested ex-footballer. It is unbelievable that Dominic Calvert-Lewin was recently a top international. He was all but redundant. And now Lampard has to go to Burnley for a relegation dogfight with Sean Dyche. Dyche must be rubbing his hands in anticipation of bullying the over-privileged rookie and escaping relegation in the process.

Suddenly, Spurs are in sizzling form 

They absolutely destroyed Newcastle United in the second half, turning around a deficit into a 5-1 thrashing. In Dejan Kulusevski, Harry Kane and Son Heung-min, they had a thrilling, liquid attacking trio which Newcastle could do nothing to stop. Since his first game in early February, Kulusevski has registered more assists than any other player in the competition with five (Kane is next with four). He’s probably been the best January transfer.

The Magpies hadn’t conceded more than one goal in any of their last 11 games but were gutted and filleted by a Tottenham side that exploited space so well in the second 45. Kane was especially wonderful working as a 10, spraying incisive long passes around with precision. Late in the game, Antonio Conte switched to a 4-2-4 to ram home their advantage and improve their goal difference advantage over Arsenal.

This win put Spurs into fourth with Arsenal due to play Crystal Palace tonight. They have played two more games than their rivals but have an easier run-in of six games against lower half teams and one tough game against Liverpool, ending the season with games against Burnley and Norwich. It would be typical of Spurs to fall at the last hurdle and the Gunners are also in very good form, but when Spurs play like this, they’re such a commanding, exciting side.

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