I have to admit that I was torn when starting this column off as to whether I wanted to lead it off with the impressive resiliance that Spurs showed in winning at Turf Moor without a number of key starters or with Chelsea's struggles at home against a newly reborn Crystal Palace side. I'm going to try to keep things positive, go against my nature as a Gooner, and start off with some praise for Spurs.
If you'll recall, it was about this time last season where it all got to be a bit too much for Spurs. Dele Alli and Moussa Dembele both imploded a bit and the decline that led to them finishing below Arsenal in the standings was on. I'll grant you that finishing second vs third last season was really more symbolic than anything else given the rivalry between the two clubs. Ultimately, either place in the table meant Champions League football this season without the annoyance of having to qualify before convincing potential summer transfers that you'll be in the Champions League proper for the upcoming season.
This season, despite even more reason to start to fade with Harry Kane, Kyle Walker, and Danny Rose all out of action from the start of the match and Harry Winks and Victor Wanyama picking up injuries, Spurs seem to have learned how to cope. A trip to Burnley has been challenging for everyone in the Premier League this season. Despite their depleted line-up, Spurs found the necessary quality to take three points back home to North London. Given that Chelsea, Manchester City, Manchester United, and Arsenal all dropped points over the weekend, the result was both useful and symbolic.
As far as the symbolism of finishing above Arsenal, that seems all but assured at this point. Yes, the Gunners have a match in hand on their rivals but they're 11 points behind them and it would require a catastrophic collapse by Spurs combined with a crazy jump back up the table by Arsenal for Arsene Wenger not to be looking up at Spurs in the standings for the first time in his managerial career.
While that might statisfy the bloodlust of supporters for victory in a rivalry where they have been long-suffering, the more important separation came elsewhere in Week 30. Spurs picked up two more points on Manchester United, their nearest concern as it regards not finishing in the top four at all. United have a match in hand on Spurs but even if they win that match in hand, and that's no guarantee given what we saw on Saturday, Mauricio Pochettino and company still would have six points on Mourinho's Red Devils.
Obviously, Spurs would prefer to finish in the top three spots to ensure automatic qualification to the Champions League for a second straight season and picking up two points on Manchester City helped there as does the match in hand they have on Liverpool. Given the form of all involved, you have to like Spurs' chances. They should get at least Kane, Walker and Wanyama back in fairly short order and the balance of their Premier League schedule is really fairly light with only visits of Arsenal and Manchester United to White Hart Lane looking particularly daunting.
Could Spurs start looking above them and thinking that Chelsea aren't as invulnerable as we all thought they were? Certainly if Spurs secure victory in midweek at the Liberty Stadium while the Blues drop two or three points to Manchester City it isn't outside of the realm of possibility. I wouldn't start investing myself in a title run if I were a Spurs supporter but I would at least go into midweek thinking fanciful thoughts about it. The fact that you can say that about a team that has suffered significantly more injury absence than it did last season should be a tribute to the work that the club has done adding solid reserves even if their highest profile additions - Vincent Janssen and Mousa Sissoko - haven't panned out as hoped.
Conte Doesn't Adjust
We have gushed, and I think rightly so, over what we've seen from Antonio Conte this season. Earlier this season he did what so few managers do. He evaluated what was available to him and he adjusted what he was doing to fit the talent on hand. The 3-4-3 ideally fit the combination of the squad he inherited and those new players he added. The results were spectacular and he should take the credit for making the change where so many of his peers refuse to.
At the same time, it is our obligation to point out the errors even when they come from people doing an overall excellent job this season. Faced with the absence of Victor Moses due to a calf strain and an opponent blessed with fast, effective wings you'd have thought that Conte would have tried harder to compensate for the absence. The obvious move would have been to bring in Willian as a direct replacement for Moses based on the similarity in their work rates. Yes, Pedro has been in excellent form but featuring Costa, Hazard, Fabregas, and Pedro and asking Pedro to play the Moses Role meant Conte was either expecting a 3-3-4 formation with four natural attackers with none of the midfielders known for tracking back or a 3-4-3 where he was deploying a player significantly out of position where he wasn't going to use his attacking traits particularly well AND was counting on that player to neutralize a pretty good opponent.
My first thought was that Willian might not be up to speed after competing for Brazil in World Cup qualifying. A quick look eliminated that theory as Willian was a late-match substitute in Sao Paulo on Tuesday and only got three minutes of action. Maybe it was a particularly grueling flight back to London, I certainly had a couple of those over the past week due to weather. Maybe he picked up a knock and wasn't able to go the full ninety. He was, however, apparently able to go approximately thirty minutes against Palace. Unfortunately for Chelsea, all the goals in the match had been long-since scored by the time Conte got around to putting Willian in the match.
So, we're left with two possibilities. Either Conte didn't realize how important having a strong defender in the Moses spot had been to his earlier success and decided that Pedro should continue as a starter despite the odd fit or Conte didn't have Willian available for the full ninety minutes and he didn't think enough of the gap created by not having either Moses or Willian available and didn't make a significant shift in formation. Either way, it wasn't a great job of management from the leader in the "manager of the year" standings to this point.
And The Rest
Defending Mourinho? A lot of the narrative about Manchester United's nil-nil draw with West Brom is focused on Mourinho and him not owning up to his flaws in the wake of another disappointing result. As much as I like some good Mourinho criticism, it's hard to justify it given that United were missing Zlatan (suspended), Herrera (suspended), Pogba (injured), Mata (injured), Jones (injured), and Smalling (injured). That's an entire spine of a team. Given that West Brom, for all the criticism that Tony Pulis takes, is hovering in 8th place, that's not a terrible result.
Loving Sakho Mamadou Sakho has been everything that Crystal Palace supporters could have hoped for since his arrival at Selhurst Park. Given that he arrived on loan, the big concern now seems less whether he can help keep Palace up than whether Palace can afford to keep him come the summer. In addition to the cost, the worry would be, of course, that someone like a PSG would come in and offer not only the transfer fee that Liverpool presumably want but the profile of opportunity for league titles and Champions League appearances that might be more enticing than mid-table battles in South London.
The Dead Cat Bounce There have been a number of managerial changes that have led to improved results. In some cases - Leicester City and Hull City - the changes seem to be sticking well into the balance of the season. Others, specifically the much-ballyhooed arrival of Paul Clement at Swansea, seems to be sputtering. Since the victory over Burnley at the Liberty Stadium (and who doesn't beat Burnley at home?) the Swans had what looked like an attractive stretch of matches with @Hull City, @Bournemouth, and Middlesbrough. The result? One point from a possible nine and a single goal scored. There are still concerns about the level of talent at the club but if Clement was as good as his initial press clippings then these matches against clubs with similarly troubling levels of talent should have been the ones that the Swans were getting points from against the rest of the schedule that gets significantly harder starting with Spurs on Wednesday.
Speaking of Dead Cats Sunderland just keep falling further and further away. Eight points from safety albeit with a match in hand isn't a great spot and a mere point from the last possible fifteen means that there isn't any momentum to try to ride to safety. We never know for sure who is acquiring the talent at a given club but Sunderland seem to have a preternatural ability to do a poor job in the transfer market that seems to transcend each new manager. Perhaps getting that settled would be a great first step to returning to Premier League relevance after what promises to be at least one season in the Championship.
Setting Up For Anfield Frustration The Reds have been exceptional against big opposition this season. Jurgen Klopp has inspired his team to by far the best record in the "mini-league" at the top of the table. Whether you seriously consider Everton to be part of that group or not, the fact remains that when the occasion is big, Liverpool show up and win more often than not and almost invariably pick up at least some points. The problem is that we can't trust them to maintain the momentum in Week 31 against Bournemouth. Whatever it is that Klopp does or says to get his charges sky high for the big matches seems to fall short when the opposition resides in the table's bottom half. If wagering were legal here in Northern Virginia, I'd certainly consider running down to my local bookmaker and throwing a few bucks on Bournemouth for the upset on Wednesday and will certainly adjust my fantasy approach accordingly.
Additional Thoughts for Week 31 Despite Burnley's exceptional home record, I'm wary of them against Stoke on Tuesday as it feels like they may be fading against the rigors of a small squad, an exhausting style and a long season...All in on Leicester City against Sunderland for fantasy purposes...I expect a big bounce back from Zlatan against a depleted Everton defense at Old Trafford...Finally, I expect Southampton vs. Crystal Palace to be the most fascinating match-up of the mid-week pipping Chelsea vs Manchester City although the continued absence of Victor Moses could make things very interesting for Antonio Conte given how Raheem Sterling and Leroy Sane have been playing.
Good luck to all on the quick turnaround from Week 30 to Week 31. I'm off to manage all of my various fantasy teams - salary cap and draft leagues alike.