April 12, 2024

The Brief: Will Haaland’s form cost Man City? Cole Palmer: MVP? Xabi Alonso’s power move

Welcome to The Briefing, which you can visit every Monday this season The Athletics will discuss three of the biggest questions arising from this weekend’s football.

This was the round in which Newcastle snatched victory from the clenched teeth of defeat against West Ham, Liverpool went top of the league after an early scare against Brighton, Manchester United went 1-0 up in the 96th minute and still didn’t win and Sheffield United threw away another two goal lead.

Taking all this and more into account, we will wonder whether Erling Haaland is playing poorly at the worst time for him and his club, whether Cole Palmer is the Premier League’s most valuable player and whether Xabi Alonso is Liverpool and Bayern Munich rejects to stay at Bayer Leverkusen is the real power move…

Is Haaland’s poor form coming at the worst possible time for City?

There were 84 minutes on the clock at Manchester City 0-0 Arsenal when the ball fell to Erling Haaland at the far post. For a split second, the neutral side’s hopes were raised: by then we had endured an hour and a half of turgid rot, but at least we could be rewarded with a goal – any goal – for our heroism.

But Haaland put an end to it. In fact, he hardly did anything about it: he almost missed the thing entirely. And the funny thing is, if you look at it closely, it looked like he was trying to direct the ball to Ruben Dias, a centre-back, rather than trying to ram the thing in himself.

This ruthless goal machine, who had an opportunity four meters away, tried to pass it to a defender…

In some ways it neatly summed up the game. Not just an all-timer of a snoozefest, made all the more acute by Liverpool’s more entertaining 2-1 win over Brighton earlier in the day and the 29 goals scored in the eight games on Saturday, but a match without anything like comes close to a high-quality finish. only three shots on target combined from the two attacks.

You could also say that Haaland’s clean sheet was a triumph for Arsenal’s centre-backs William Saliba and (especially) Gabriel Magalhaes, who kept the big Norwegian quiet for the second time this season; During those two Premier League games, Haaland failed to put a single shot on target.

But perhaps there is something broader going on. Haaland has appeared to be unwell since returning at the end of January after a two-month absence with a foot injury.

In that time he has scored four goals in eight Premier League games – a healthy return for a normal striker, but way off the pace for Haaland. He has scored six goals in other competitions, but it was five he scored in that bizarre FA Cup win over Luton Town and one in the closing stages of a Champions League round against FC Copenhagen. Again, writing off a goal at this level is harsh at best, but it is also valid and speaks to concerns about his form at a crucial part of the season.

The deflating thing for the rest of the Premier League about City having Haaland is that, when they are not quite on their game, he can be there to keep away a chance and pick up the points they would otherwise might have missed. Last season he scored home and away against Arsenal, ruthlessly bursting the balloon of their emerging title challenge. Not this season, however.

(Justin Setterfield/Getty Images)

Haaland was also ineffective against Liverpool just before the March international break. He scored against Manchester United a week earlier, but only after missing a number of chances and his celebration was more one of relief than joy.

To clarify, this doesn’t mean Haaland is bad now. There’s nothing like it. It is clear that he is still, if not the best centre-forward in the world, then one of them. There is a good chance that he will be on a tear for the rest of the season, can score twice a game and lead City to a fourth title in a row and consecutive trebles.

But he doesn’t look like it at the moment, and it’s happening at the worst possible time for City.

Is Palmer the Premier League MVP?

This is the time when people start to seriously think about which individual player has been the best in the Premier League this season.

There are plenty of candidates. Declan Rice and Martin Odegaard at Arsenal. Mohamed Salah and Virgil van Dijk for Liverpool. Rodri and Phil Foden for Manchester City. Ollie Watkins, James Maddison, Lucas Paqueta, Ross Barkley, Bruno Guimaraes… it’s all subjective, everyone will have their choices, which are no less valid than the rest.

Who is the most valuable player in the division, though? That’s different: ‘best’ is self-explanatory, but ‘most valuable’ is more about a player’s importance to his team. Which player would leave the biggest hole if removed from his side?

The answer to that has to be Cole Palmer.

There are a few ways to measure his importance to Chelsea. Goals and assists are the most basic: he has thirteen of the former and eight of the latter, which we need not say are the highest numbers at the club.

The caveat is that six of his 13 goals have been penalties, but they are still yet to be scored, and Palmer has been flawless from the spot so far.

(Glyn Kirk/AFP via Getty Images)

Another very crude way to look at it is if you take his goals from Chelsea’s results. This is flawed because it assumes that whoever replaced him in this thought experiment contributed absolutely nothing, but if he took away his goals they would have 10 fewer points. That would put them on 30 out of 30 games: close to relegation form in any other season.

But beyond these simple statistics, Palmer’s value is that he has given Chelsea something to be excited about in an otherwise chronically dismal season. Even with the penalty against Burnley on Saturday: a daring, floating Panenka when a more standard penalty would have been fine. It may seem like unnecessary showboating, but when there’s nothing else to stoke the passions, that kind of thing becomes important.

go deeper


Panenkas, shootouts and action bias: the best place to aim a penalty

“We felt too comfortable,” said Palmer after the 2-2 draw at home to Burnley, who had played 50 of the 90 minutes with ten men. ‘Same story, we kill ourselves every week. We as players have to improve. We need consistency.”

Palmer used ‘we’ and ‘us’ there, but he would have had the right to separate himself from the rest of the Chelsea team.

He is doing are job, and then some. How many other Chelsea players can say something like that?

Is staying at Leverkusen the real power move for Alonso?

We already know what an extraordinary achievement winning the Bundesliga this season will be for Bayer Leverkusen, but here’s something else to emphasize it: even after their 2-0 home defeat to Borussia Dortmund on Saturday, champions Bayern can reach 81 points, 10 more than they won their eleventh title in a row last season, but are still likely to finish second by a double-digit margin.

After the announcement that Xabi Alonso would stay at Leverkusen after this season, his alleged candidates have done their best to shape it. He was always just an option, they run a thorough process, no steps were taken, etc. But even if they knew what was coming, the news will have caused a stir among Liverpool, Bayern and whoever else fancied a change this summer.

(Hesham Elsherif/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Alonso’s decision has been derided by some as ‘falling out’; choosing the easy option of staying where he is, rather than showing ambition. Does effectively dismissing Liverpool and Bayern show that he doesn’t have the ‘cojones’, that he doesn’t have confidence in his abilities, as has been suggested?

Well, in short: no. On the contrary.

Alonso’s share price will in all likelihood never be higher than it is now, amid the aftermath of this small miracle that Leverkusen pulls off. He will probably never again have the choice between two giants, both of whom he has an emotional history with.

But what he does is the real power move: a coach with the self-awareness to say that after less than two of those in the senior league he needs at least another season of experience, but with the confidence to think his reputation will remain high . enough in the future to attract a big job next time.

Alonso does things on his terms, in his own time. He has not ignored the attention of Liverpool and Bayern because he is afraid of a top job. He has done this because he is not afraid that this will be his only chance.


  • Easter. A time when English football has been coming together for years and its players are absolutely flushing for our viewing pleasure as if they have boundless energy: until today (Monday) there is a full round of EFL matches in all three divisions (bar one match tomorrow in Leagues One and Two, just like on Friday. Things to watch: the extraordinary automatic promotion battle in the Championship, with three clubs separated by two points, but we are also getting to the point where things can be decided. Rotherham United could be relegated from the second tier, as could Carlisle United from the third tier.
  • Then there’s a full round of Premier League matches during the week. Tuesday’s list of five isn’t mega interesting: although it will be interesting to see how West Ham United bounce back from the weekend’s collapse at St James’ Park when they welcomed Tottenham Hotspur, while Nottingham Forest need a win at home has against Fulham , Newcastle United host Everton, it’s Bournemouth vs Crystal Palace and Wolves go to Burnley.
  • Wednesday’s group of three has a little more spice: the standout is City vs Aston Villa, but there is also Arsenal vs Luton and Brentford vs Brighton & Hove Albion.
  • The round is completed on Thursday by league leaders Liverpool, who host last-placed Sheffield United and a theoretical grand round, but not really because they’ve both been a bit rubbish this season: Chelsea vs Manchester United.
  • Finally, off the pitch, Everton should hear the verdict on their second PSR violation of the season, which we can all agree is exactly the kind of thing we started football for.

(Top Photos: Getty Images)

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