What a crazy season this is turning into! Having started the season so horribly that they looked completely out of the title race, a return to form for City has seen them gone on a run of unbeaten games stretching back a couple of months to finish February overwhelming favourites for the title with a 12 point lead. Of course it hasn’t been just their good form, but also the stuttering form of their rivals, as the goals dried up for Liverpool and their umpteenth centreback combination of the season saw team go on a run of losses, while Manchester United will have wished that they had spread the goals from their 9-0 win over Southampton more evenly through the month and Leicester have had to adapt to a growing injury list that had claimed star attackers Harvey Barnes and James Maddison by the end of the month. Meanwhile at the bottom of the table, Fulham followed up a 0-2 loss to Leicester with an unbeaten run that puled them within 3 points of safety, but Sheffield and West Brom remain in serious danger despite both picking up a win during the month.
The race is on!
The race for the Golden Boot: Mohamed Salah (Liverpool) – 17 goals; Bruno Fernandes (Manchester United) – 15 goals; Harry Kane (Tottenham) – 14 goals
The race for Playmaker of the Season: Harry Kane (Tottenham) & Kevin De Bruyne (Manchester City) – 11 assists; Bruno Fernandes & Jack Grealish (Aston Villa) – 10 assists; Son Heung-Min (Tottenham) – 8 assists
The race for the Golden Glove: Ederson (Manchester City) – 15 clean sheets; Emiliano Martínez (Aston Villa) – 13 clean sheets; Édouard Mendy (Chelsea) – 11 clean sheets
Jesse Lingard became something of a joke figure at Manchester United, with his lack of goals and assists in recent seasons making a mockery of his role as an attacking midfielder at one of the biggest clubs in the world. With the way United have increase the quality of their attack in recent years, there has not appeared to be a spot for him, and he was understandably sent out on loan to West Ham at the end of February.
Since then, he has been revitalised in a new environment and will surely be looking to make the move permanent. He has immediately slotted into the West Ham midfield and been not just involved, but a key part of February’s success, scoring a brace on his debut against Aston Villa and another goal in their 2-1 win against Spurs, while he has also been heavily involved in many of West Ham’s best chances and won the penalty against Sheffield United.
We see it all the time that sometimes a player just needs a change of scenery, just look at how Mo Salah was a bust at Chelsea but then a superstar for Roma and Liverpool. Sometimes it is just a chance to reset and take the weight of a poor spell off your shoulders, while sometimes a drop to a smaller club can take pressure off you as there is less pressure away from the trophy hunt and less superstars overshadowing you.
Right now it feels like making the loan move permanent is a great result for everyone. United get a player off their books who was failing to produce up to expectations, West Ham get a player who has improved their attacking options and Lingard gets the chance to rebuild after a difficult couple of years. This deal feels like a matter of “when” rather than “if”.
If you want another example of a player whose career was revitalised by a move, look no further than Kevin De Bruyne. The Belgian midfielder was highly touted when moving to Chelsea but only made 3 appearances for the club, but was revitalised by a move to Wolfsburg and came back to the Premier League just a few years later to star for Manchester City. And during February’s 2-1 win over West Ham, he made it onto the Top 10 list for Premier League assists with a beautiful ball into Rúben Dias.
Obviously, having so many world-class players around you and a squad deeper than any other team in the league certainly helps you climb that high in just 6 seasons, but there is more to it than that. De Bruyne is one of those players that even as an opposing fan, you just can’t help but enjoy watching him play, with his range of passes meaning that he seems to have an answer for every situation.
And at just 29, there is no reason that this can’t continue for another 4 or 5 years – at least! On 77 assists at the time of writing, James Milner’s 8ᵗʰ place (85 assists) looks easily beatable by the end of the season given City’s current form. And by the end of his Premier League career, Cesc Fabregas’s 2ⁿᵈ-place tally of 111 looks a distinct possibility. Can he reach Ryan Giggs’ 162? Only time will tell.
Free kick farce
Another month, another absolute shambles of officiating.
The setting this time was Brighton’s trip to West Brom – a vital match with the Baggies in the relegation zone and Brighton dropping perilously close. West Brom led 1-0 but Brighton had just won a free kick on the edge of their opponent’s box. Brighton’s Lewis Dunk asked referee Lee Mason if he could take a quick free kick rather than wait for the wall to be set back 10 yards, to which Mason assented. Mason blew the whistle to allow play to resume and Dunk – having seen keeper Sam Johnstone still on his near post organising the wall – calmly slotted the ball in at the far post. It was a wonderfully clever goal… or should have been, except that Lee Mason also saw the keeper out of position at the last moment and – in a blind panic – took the law into his own hands, blowing the whistle again to stop play. Of course, by the time anyone accounted for the second whistle, the ball was in the net, so Mason chose to say that Dunk had taken the free kick before he blew to restart play, disallowing the goal and ordering the free kick be retaken. Someone involved with VAR must have jumped in to confirm that Dunk had waited until after the whistle, as Mason suddenly reversed his decision and awarded the gaol, but then VAR was forced to intervene and deny the goal as Mason’s second whistle stopped play before the ball entered the goal. With this whole shambles finally resulting in a retaken free kick, the chance unsurprisingly came to nothing and the Baggies held on for a 1-0 victory.
Now first things first, while Brighton were clearly wronged here, I have limited sympathy for them as both Pascal Groß and Danny Welbeck wasted penalties that should have given them a 1-2 victory despite the free kick shambles. However, this is yet another example of the best football league in the world being let down by inept officiating.
What I don’t understand though is why the game needs to be slowed down by having the free kick taker wait for the referee’s whistle. The other team has committed an act of foul play and yet they are given the chance for their keeper to arrange a wall to defend his near post and position himself to perfectly defend his goal – so what advantage are the team who were fouled getting here? Dunk’s quick free kick was a moment of quick thinking and exploiting an opportunity within the laws of the game, and that should not be discouraged.
As I write this, my mind drifts back to a disallowed goal for Manchester United against Chelsea in 2009, where Wayne Rooney placed the ball for a corner before appearing to leave it for Ryan Giggs, though just knocking it out of the zone. Giggs, knowing the ball was live, did not return the ball to the corner flag but instead immediately crossed it in for Cristiano Ronaldo to head home – only for the goal to not be given as the linesman was not paying attention and adjudged that the corner was never taken. Both of these were wonderful, inventive moments that will teach defences to stay on their toes. The big gripe about bringing in VAR was the way that it would slow down the game, so why are we OK with these quick set pieces being disallowed?
The quality of officiating needs to improve quickly, or else it may be time to start removing underachievers for their roles.
Team of the Month
It would have been easy to pick City again this month after they won all of their games, but that would just be boring. Instead, I have gone for West Ham. Despite a lack of big names, they are getting results, with 3 wins, a draw and a loss at the Etihad making up February’s Premier League schedule, with 9 goals scored and 4 conceded (2 of which were to City). Only City and Wolves had a better month, while Leicester matched them for results.
At a point in the season when many teams are going through a slump, West Ham are going under the radar while picking up points consistently, to the point that I was shocked to see they were up to 4ᵗʰ. While they are far from guaranteed European football next season – they are only 6 points ahead of Spurs and Villa in 8ᵗʰ and 9ᵗʰ, both of whom have games in hand – if they can keep up the performances, they are well on track for a best finish since the 2015/16 season.