Was Saturday 29 February the turning point ?
Author: Emily Pulham. Published: 5 March 2020 at 6:44pm
Written by: Jonathan Lee
How refreshing to be discussing a victory following a league game. The last time this was possible was back on New Year’s Day which feels a very long time ago (probably ‘cos it is !), but on Saturday, despite having way less possession according to the Opta stats, we used the possession we did have intelligently and, critically, converted the chances that came our way. It is no co-incidence that in the starting XI there was no Fredericks, Anderson, Arthur or Lanzini. But there was pace in Bowen and Antonio, power in Haller and trickery in Fornals, while the back four for the main part remained steady, although early second half pressure from Southampton nearly drew them level.
After a brave outing at Anfield, it was important to get 3 points with 4 big games now on the horizon, and it would be hard to argue for the exclusion of any player that started on Saturday – the team appeared to have a nice balance to it. Bowen was equally effective both going forward and when taking the ball off Ryan Bertrand’s foot when set to shoot in the second half, Haller looked more like the player we saw back in August and early September. He really is s a solid unit and was nice to see him enjoying the goals that he didn’t score even if he does continue to look a little underwhelmed when he does score. With Bowen and/or Antonio supporting him he finally looked a whole lot better than he has done for the majority of the season (which eventually led to him being benched).
Antonio gives you what you expect, raw effort – plus a very tidy finish at the weekend, the only concern being he is liable to breaking down so will need careful managing in training and in between games; Fornals appears to have finally worked his way into Moyes’ plans and it was noticeable for both the first and third goals how quickly he was aiming to get the ball forward (not backwards and sideways, skipper take note). He clearly has a decent footballing brain and appears to have taken a stride in front of Lanzini in the pecking order.
The difference on Saturday between the two teams, least in terms of the final scoreline, was very much these four players – behind them there is still a sense that if you are the opposition and have numbers and attack us we have the capacity to be cut wide open, Southampton’s goal being a prime example. In the lead up to that goal it was 6 v 6 in and around our penalty box, which would be fine except Ogbonna and Diop were marking the same player, and Ngakia didn’t know whether to stick or twist on the spare man he suddenly had down his side and in fact ended up marking neither to allow a free shot on goal. Noble meanwhile was caught some way back in the play while Rice’s retreat was gallant but to no avail. It is here that possibly provides more of a worry when we come to play our next 4 games as the key to winning games from now on is to not concede cheaply, as we know the attacking four that started on Saturday will surely cause teams trouble.
As to who didn’t on start on Saturday, that maybe deserves consideration going forward, the obvious shout would be for Soucek (once fit) to come in for the skipper Noble. The Czech has shown that he can cover a ridiculous amount of ground and as a big unit can also assist at set piece situations at both ends of the pitch. Snodgrass has played quite admirably thus far this season, but like Noble time is not on his side, and coming on and giving us a whole hearted twenty minutes or so towards the end of a game is probably more suited to him. Anderson has seemingly confirmed over his last handful of appearances that despite being a clear talent, he is also a luxury and the type of player you cannot afford to carry in a relegation scrap. It is doubtful whether Sanchez, Yarmolenko or Wilshere will be seen again, and even if fit, they would struggle to get up to pace quickly. Lanzini, sadly, has not found the form we saw pre that injury but hopefully a decent summer work out and pre-season will see him get back to somewhere near his best again, as he is a likeable lad by all accounts and we know how good he can be.
It is hard to argue for the inclusion of Zaba, Balbuena or Arthur above the defensive players currently wearing the shirt other than to fill in for injuries or fatigue in a game, while Fredericks’ injury may have seen him play his last game this season and, with the emergence of Ngakia and impending return of Ben Johnson, maybe for good.
The results at Arsenal and home to Wolves will be a key indicator as to whether last Saturday’s starting XI (presuming they are fit and selected again of course) is the real deal and we can start slowly pulling away from the bottom, or whether this relegation scrap really is going down to the wire.