Bad weather in England and the Premier League’s winter break cut into the weekend’s match schedule, but it didn’t stop Nick Miller from running the rule on the action we did see in our weekend review.
JUMP TO: The Ancelotti factor | Benteke back on form | Man City face fixture woe | Watford has concession issues | Brighton rallies, good or bad? | Some (kind of) good news for Bournemouth | Sharp still poaching after all these years
Pickford presents a problem for England
While not everything should be viewed through the prism of England, it’s impossible to look at Jordan Pickford’s performances this season and think Gareth Southgate will feel secure about his goalkeeper with Euro 2020 looming.
It wasn’t just the Crystal Palace goal that Pickford let squirm through his grasp in a 3-1 win for the Toffees — which the Everton keeper rather dramatically described as “disgusting” afterward — although that would be quite enough to set some alarm bells ringing. Before that, he was pretty lucky to get away with an error that ultimately resulted in Wilfried Zaha unsuccessfully appealing for a penalty, but could easily have donated another goal to Palace. This season, only Kepa Arrizabalaga and Southampton’s collective stoppers have a worse save percentage than Pickford.
But we also saw the flip side of Pickford, a terrific save from a Christian Benteke header that reminded you of what a fine goalkeeper he can be, and the reason he’s probably still the automatic No.1 for Southgate. Yet, the uncertainty, the inconsistency, the troubling sense that absolutely anything could happen between the sticks. It is, to say the least, not ideal, especially considering England’s defence is chaotic at the best of times.
The trouble is, whom do you replace Pickford with? The next-best English keeper is probably Ben Foster, and he retired from international football after the 2014 World Cup. Nick Pope is decent enough, and Sheffield United’s Dean Henderson is certainly an exciting prospect, but how comfortable would Southgate be picking a goalie with only a season of top-flight football to his name? Jack Butland has also been mentioned, but he was dropped earlier in the season by Stoke after a series of calamitous errors.
At the attacking end of the pitch, Southgate has what we’re obliged to call “nice problems.” In goal … not so pleasant.
Everton’s improvement under Ancelotti is undeniable
There were doubts over whether Carlo Ancelotti and Everton were a particularly good match when he was appointed in December, but you can’t argue with the numbers. In the time he’s been in charge, only the lot from across Stanley Park have gathered more points. Everton have gone from 15th and four points above the relegation zone to seventh and five points shy of the Champions League places. All hail the eyebrow.
The improving Christian Benteke
He’s getting better. Benteke’s last league goal was in May, before which he had gone just under a year without scoring. By that standard, nine months is an improvement, and if he continues like this, he’ll be in goal-a-game territory by about 2030. That’s probably needlessly glib: It was genuinely heartening to see a player whose goal scoring has so emphatically gone off a cliff in recent years find the net. Will this see him recover his touch? The last one didn’t, so there’s probably no reason to suspect he will, but we can only hope.
Manchester City scheduling woe
The postponement of Manchester City’s game against West Ham might have provided a little blessed relief for the visitors, delaying their inevitable hiding for a while, but it could prove extremely problematic for City and, more importantly, their Champions League bid.
Presumably, it’s too short notice to rearrange the game for the coming week — plus, that would also mean compromising both teams’ winter break. It can’t be in the following midweek because of UEFA’s silly guidelines about league games not being played at the same time as the Champions League, while the week after that, City are actually playing in the Champions League.
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Beyond that, it’s tricky to find a clear midweek in which to play this one. That’s compounded by the fact City are already struggling to find a time to face Arsenal in the league, a game postponed due to the Carabao Cup final. All of this will be complicated even further if City reach the FA Cup quarterfinals, which are scheduled for the weekend they’re down to play Chelsea.
Of course, none of this really matters in terms of City’s Premier League campaign: They’re not going to win the title, and they’re not going to finish lower than third. But this will firstly create a fixture pile-up at around the time City are hoping to be in Europe’s latter stages. Also, they’ll now go three weeks without a game, after which they’ll have to play the first leg against Real Madrid. This postponement could have achieved the unlikely feat of harming their Champions League campaign through both over- and under-work.
Watford can’t keep throwing away points
Here’s something that should concern Nigel Pearson: Watford have led in their past three league games but haven’t ended up winning any of them, their latest concession of points coming after Adrian Mariappa’s inexplicable own-goal allowed Brighton a 1-1 draw.
“It’s unfortunate,” said Pearson, a word that carries just a little more menace when coming from him. “I try to stress the importance of not becoming overly positive when things are going well or too pessimistic if things go negatively. You have a better chance of surviving if you keep your nerve.”
The problem is that these concessions imply they’re not holding their nerve at all. This was a chance to get out of the drop zone and reel in a relegation rival who have only won once in their past 11 games, but they didn’t take it.
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Are Brighton’s comebacks a good thing?
Conversely, this was the second game in a row in which Brighton have rescued some points, Graham Potter changing both personnel and system before the hour mark to good effect. But you could look at that one of two ways: Either it’s good that they’re coming back, or it’s bad that they have to. Potter is clearly a good coach, but it would only be fair to Chris Hughton to point out that Brighton’s record after 26 games this season is identical to their record after 26 games last season.
Reasons to be cheerful for Bournemouth
Maybe it’s stretching the optimistic point a little to suggest positives for Bournemouth to take after throwing away a lead against Sheffield United to lose 2-1, but Eddie Howe shouldn’t be too despondent. After all, their goal saw arguably their two most important players combine (in a roundabout way), as Ryan Fraser’s drive and cross eventually found its way to Callum Wilson for the striker’s second in the past three league games and third in seven overall.
Given that the former recently admitted that he hadn’t been playing for the team ahead of his expected exit in the summer, and before this scoring run, the latter hadn’t found the net since September, these are certainly reasons to be cheerful among the obvious gloom of defeat.
Billy Sharp: still poaching after all these years
If any young strikers need tips on penalty area movement, watch Billy Sharp’s for Sheffield United’s equaliser against Bournemouth. A corner comes over high to the back post, it’s half-cleared and makes its way to Enda Stevens, who fires back into the middle. All this time, Sharp is lurking around the 6-yard box, in the middle of a melee that has formed, but just as Stevens pulls his foot back Sharp shuffles backwards, out of the bunch and into a small pocket of space, knowing that he would only get crowded out in the middle and he needed to be in the best place to pick up any ricochets.
Eventually, the ball pops up just in front of him, and he’s in the right place to force it home. It’s almost certain Sharp didn’t really think about what he was doing: If it wasn’t a natural gift, he’s been doing this for 16 years now, so it has become instinct. That’s why, even aged 34, he’s a useful man to have around for a team such as Sheffield United: Sharp can smell goals, knowing exactly where to be and when to be there. Admittedly having played a game more than most, the Blades are now in fifth place, just two points off Chelsea in fourth. The two sides play each other in the closing weeks of the season, and who could’ve predicted that it might be a shootout for a top-four spot?