Mark Robins’ eye-catching Coventry deserve their headlines, Liverpool have a bargain in Andrew Robertson and Wolves are already good enough for top flight.
1) Coventry and Robins deserve plaudits
Amid all the hoopla over the departing Mark Hughes, it is right to take a moment to praise Coventry City. They were deserved winners of the third-round tie at the Ricoh Arena, despite giving up the greater number of chances to the visitors. The Sky Blues played with a determination and energy you might expect of a team assuming the David role in a Goliath encounter. But they were also calm on the ball and often quite cute on it, too. Their play was all the more striking, given the starting XI had an average age of 24 (and that is including the 36‑year‑old midfield warhorse Michael Doyle). Especially eye-catching were the rangy 18‑year‑old midfielder Tom Bayliss and the full-back Jack Grimmer, whose sweetly hit 25-yard strike decided the game. With a combination of youth-team graduates and free transfer signings, Mark Robins has built a side with a sense of promise about them and some of that was translated on Saturday.
2) Frustration continues for Iheanacho
It was Uwe Rösler who raised the matter of Kelechi Iheanacho’s price. The chances are that Claude Puel would have preferred not to mention the £25m man at all. Certainly not when Iheanacho was restricted to 10 minutes even as Puel named a second-string side against League One opponents. Islam Slimani, whose own future is shrouded in uncertainty, was preferred in attack. Both expensive additions have been unable to break up the title‑winning partnership of Jamie Vardy and Shinji Okazaki but Iheanacho has fared worse. He has been granted two league starts this season and not played a minute in Leicester’s past 10 top-flight games; a bit-part player under Craig Shakespeare has been a forgotten figure since Puel’s appointment. Yet he averaged a goal every 106 minutes in the Premier League for Manchester City and got what proved the winner in a Manchester derby. A fine finisher is looking ever more unfulfilled.
3) Raised voices over Pellegrino’s negative football
Criticizing supporters for voicing displeasure during games rarely goes down well. Followers of Newcastle United, for instance, react angrily when they are told that their treatment of Alan Pardew was impossible to justify. They are the people who pay their money to go home and away, after all, and that loyalty brings with it certain expectations. More than anything fans want to see some heart, style and excitement and can usually accept not winning trophies, so it is too basic to call them spoilt children when they rebel against what they are watching. Which brings us to Southampton fans booing Mauricio Pellegrino’s decision to replace Pierre‑Emile Hojbjerg with Mario Lemina near the end of the 1-0 win against Fulham. It was a startling response. But before piling in on the mutineers, it is worth first finding out why they are so unhappy with Pellegrino – negative football is the likely answer.
4) Ipswich’s FA Cup glory days firmly in past
Forty years ago this May, an exhausted Roger Osborne was helped from the Wembley pitch after scoring an FA Cup final winner for Ipswich against Arsenal. That day will never be forgotten at Portman Road but the same cannot be said for what passes there nowadays. Ipswich’s limp third‑round defeat against a second-string Sheffield United team brought their eighth successive exit at this stage, many of them avoidable, and what a disservice this seems to a club that used to gleefully exchange punches with anyone. Those days are long gone. They have little chance of re-entering the Championship play-off pack and it is verging on open-secret status that Mick McCarthy, who has gone from local hero to figure of disproportionate vitriol, will depart in the summer. The club are dogged by a lack of money and imagination; their shocking form in a competition that brought them international renown is a handy analogue for their decline under Marcus Evans’s ownership.
5) Robertson emerges as bargain for Liverpool
Virgil van Dijk’s debut winner may have been the big story on the pitch, and the FA investigation into the Firmino-Holgate incident continues to dominate headlines from Friday’s Merseyside derby but the best player on the night was Andrew Robertson. Since Alberto Moreno’s injury a month ago, the Scot has been superb and kept Everton’s main attacking threat – Yannick Bolasie – deathly quiet at Anfield. Nobody had more touches than Robertson and he won 81.8 percent of his duels, winning the ball back eight times. It is the 23-year-old’s defensive instincts and decision-making that set him apart from most other full-backs, including Moreno, and going forward only Ashley Young is a better crosser of a ball from left-back in the Premier League. After a slow start to life at Liverpool since his summer move from Hull City, that £8m is starting to look like a bargain.
6) Guardiola displays magic touch again
The latest illustration of Pep Guardiola’s enhancement of Manchester City players came in Oleksandr Zinchenko’s accomplished display at left-back in the win against Burnley. The 21-year-old is an attacking midfielder yet Guardiola’s ability to move footballers into differing positions was evident. “Zinchenko has never played left-back before,” the manager said. “But [Benjamin] Mendy is injured, Fabian Delph is always with problems – he plays one game, has to rest for the next one and Kyle Walker was not fit. And for this you need the squad.” The Premier League leaders remain in contention for an unprecedented quadruple. And given his ability to alchemize performances from wherever his players operate suggests he may be able to rotate successfully in all of these. “The important thing is to be involved in all competitions. We have to be involved in everything,” he said.
7) Lingard continues to show big-game mentality
To bill Jesse Lingard as Manchester United’s new game-changer illustrates the forward’s upward trajectory. José Mourinho’s side were sleepwalking into an FA Cup third-round replay against Derby County when, with six minutes left, the 25-year-old intervened with an eighth goal in 10 games. It was a spectacular finish, a 20-yard shot that gave Scott Carson no chance. Yet as recently as three years ago the Warrington-born player was a peripheral figure, allowed by Louis van Gaal to go on loan to Derby. He had also been loaned to Leicester and Birmingham City. Lingard was sent to Derby following a serious knee injury on his United debut and to bounce back and score the winning goal in the 2016 FA Cup final, plus finishes in the EFL Cup final and Community Shield final victories, shows mental fortitude and a big-game mentality. Precisely what is required of any X-factor United footballer.
8) Sunderland left to beg or borrow
Just before a post-match drink with Tony Pulis, Chris Coleman was asked if he might see if the new Middlesbrough manager has any players spare. The most telling aspect of Coleman’s response was that he did not laugh it off. Eight months after relegation from the Premier League, this is where Sunderland are: ready to borrow off neighbors, who were also relegated. “We’ve got interest in a lot of players,” Coleman said. “I can’t say it’s Middlesbrough [players] or it’s Chelsea [players]. Our market is a certain market.” Chelsea’s 20‑year‑old defender Jake Clarke-Salter is due on Wearside but Sunderland need more if they are to prevent a second consecutive relegation. Years of budget mis-management have left Sunderland scratching around for loan players. Questioning some players’ attitude, Coleman said he needs to “quickly establish who wants to be here in a relegation dogfight”, adding: “We’re not financially strong.”
9) Jones’ reputation enhanced despite defeat
Some shaky kicking emphasized just what a huge step going from being the goalkeeping hero of England Under-20s 2017 World Cup win to Newcastle’s first team really is. There were moments when the 20-year-old debutant Freddie Woodman showed off undeniable talent but his pathway to Premier League stardom will clearly need to first take a detour in the form of a Championship loan. Meanwhile, much commendable attacking play and intelligent organization not only highlighted that the 3-1 scoreline reflected a little harshly on the League Two leaders Luton but underlined Nathan Jones’s immense managerial potential. Yet if Woodman’s expected route to the top is already mapped out will there ever be sufficient opportunities for British managers to enable this impressive 44-year-old Welshman to work with elite players and test himself against the best coaches? Rafael Benítez appreciates how good Jones is but will club owners?
10) Vibrant Norwich display may prove to be bittersweet
Amid Antonio Conte’s post-match combustion it was easy to forget a football match had just been played at Carrow Road. Norwich’s performance should be acknowledged and, watching them work the ball neatly around their more exalted opponents, it was tempting to wonder why they are lodged in the bottom half. Daniel Farke’s side have nine points to make up if they are to reach the play-offs and it is a long shot; that is all the more frustrating for their fans, given some of the burgeoning talents in their ranks. In James Maddison and Alex Pritchard they have two deft playmakers and the 19-year-old Jamal Lewis looks a fine prospect at left wing-back – but Norwich are paying for poor financial decisions in their Premier League days and may have to sell the family silver if promotion is not achieved.
11) Mertesacker past his expiry date
Per Mertesacker’s time is up. The German will hang up his boots at the end of the season to take over Arsenal’s academy but it appears his expiry date is at least six months too late. Time and time again in Nottingham he was at fault, orchestrating a ridiculously high offside line, ruthlessly exposed by 18-year-old forward Ben Brereton. Never fast, now Mertesacker appears to be running in treacle, particularly when he allowed Armand Traoré to gallop through and win the second of Forest’s penalties. It was in the FA Cup – last season’s final – where Mertesacker last looked like his old self, and it is sad now to see such a player corrode, although he was hardly helped by the performance of his defensive partner Rob Holding on Sunday. Mertesacker was a fine player and his experience should make him a brilliant coach, but days like these are not the way to end things.
12) Wolves are already good enough to compete in Premier League
As they showed in the FA Cup tie with Swansea, the team assembled by Wolves is already good enough to compete in the Premier League next season should they go on to seal promotion as expected. The question is what are the long-term ambitions of the club’s Chinese owners once that objective is achieved? Having already signed Real Madrid target Rafa Mir from Valencia, they are now looking at adding striker Lewis Grabban from Bournemouth this month as further proof of their commitment. And with Jorge Mendes playing an increasingly influential role in recruiting the best young talent in Spain and Portugal, there is every chance that they could become the first promoted team for several years to trouble the top 10.
The Guardian Sport