A look back at the weekend’s soccer news...
It is an entirely manufactured contest, of course, but there are reasons to compare the performances of Alvaro Morata and Romelu Lukaku.
There was a stage last summer when it looked like the former would be joining Manchester United and the latter Chelsea. That their eventual destinations swapped put their subsequent performance into focus.
Lukaku has trounced Morata. The Belgian suffered a goal drought as Manchester United played in a style that struggled to create chances for him, but has now responded with a run of form that has made his side’s top-four place secure. That’s also come at a time when Alexis Sanchez and Paul Pogba have both struggled. Who said he couldn’t be Manchester United’s leader?
Against Swansea, Lukaku scored his 100th Premier League goal. He is the fifth youngest player in Premier League history to reach that milestone, and the youngest ever foreign player. Given that 80% of those goals came while playing for West Brom and Everton, it’s a superb achievement.
Most impressive recently has been Lukaku’s conversion of shots into goals. He has scored five times from his last 18 shots, compared to five in his last 33 for Harry Kane. When the going got tough, Lukaku got going. The doubts about his flourishing at an elite club should be evaporating by the week.
When Southampton beat League One Wigan Athletic in the FA Cup, several pundits used the victory as evidence that Mark Hughes was the safe pair of hands this club needed to halt the decline. Yet we saw far more of Hughes in the shambolic loss at West Ham, themselves a crisis club.
Hughes was presumably appointed to provide the new manager bounce that Southampton so desperately required, but that has never been his bag. Hughes had indeed been appointed by Blackburn and QPR in mid-season and kept both clubs in the division, but he won only three of his first 20 combined matches in those spells. The clubs stayed up because Hughes slowly changed the mood, not because of some instant miracle cure.
Which raises the question of why Southampton appointed him at all. After seeing the Carlos Carvalhal effect at Swansea, surely an upbeat optimist from the Football League or abroad would have been better than someone with a slightly dog-eared reputation and a record of seven wins in his previous 33 league matches. He could play a role in taking two teams down to the Championship in the same campaign.
The notion that Hughes was given an impossible job also fails to hold credence having watched Southampton’s dismal defeat on Saturday. Even considering their slump this season, Southampton have never fully committed to disaster. This was their worst league performance of the season, in Hughes’ first game. That FA Cup win may just have been a dead cat bounce.
A great deal of the reaction to West Ham’s improved performance against Southampton focused on the lack of mutiny in the stands, as if supporters cheering the team on was the crucial factor.
This is a complete misnomer. Supporters react to the performance of the team, not the other way round. Had West Ham played at a level above total incompetence against Burnley, the protests would not have come.
There is something incredibly unpleasant about a football club calling for their supporters to get behind the team in a time of crisis, having misled and mistreated those same supporters over the previous two years. If fans are that crucial to the performance and results of the team, perhaps it’s worth making decisions that don’t actively hamper their support of the club. West Ham’s owners should understand that lesson more than most.
If there is usually one club that falls from relative safety into the mire in the latter stages of the season, 2017/18 has plenty of examples. Southampton were 14th on February 3, while Stoke were 13th on Boxing Day. Both are now stranded in the bottom three.
Huddersfield might be another club to suffer the same fate. On December 20, they were 11th in the Premier League with a four-point gap even to 15th. When they won consecutive league games against Bournemouth and West Brom in February, it again looked as if Huddersfield heads were being kept above water.
Now, David Wagner’s team look to have run out of steam. They have scored in only three of their last 12 league matches, and have kept two clean sheets in their last 16. Only one Premier League team has taken fewer points in 2018, only one has conceded more goals and only one has scored fewer. Their next two games (against Brighton and Watford) must produce four points or more. After that come Chelsea, Everton, Manchester City and Arsenal.
“We did not really engage them in the first-half,” said Alan Pardew after West Brom’s eighth straight league defeat. “We were so tentative in what we did, in closing the ball down, in possession. It was not the team I have seen in training this week. That is the situation we are in.
“We have to deal with Saturday afternoon when there are thousands of people here and a lot of pressure from the media. We did not cope with that very well today. We have another tough game next week here at home (against Swansea) and we have to be confident enough to stand up to the opposition and go and ask them questions, which we did not do in the first-half.”
Clever wordplay. Nine times Pardew used the word ‘we’, and yet this was an exercise in blaming the players for this mess. Really, he meant ‘they’.
West Brom’s players are clearly not blameless, but they have taken their lead from the manager. Pardew has now taken 34 points from his last 54 Premier League matches. It’s not only them, it’s you.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved