After the weekend results I have to conclude that the 37 points that we have on the board will be enough to ensure Premier League football at the London Stadium next season. Looking at the remaining fixtures Sunderland would need to win their six remaining games to reach that figure, and that is an impossibility. Middlesbrough have a tough run-in and would need to win at least four and draw a couple, and that is not on either. The only teams with a chance of overhauling us are Burnley (possible), Bournemouth (yes, possible), Palace (again, possible), Hull would need two wins and two draws from their last five (very unlikely), and Swansea would need three wins and a draw from their last five (almost impossible). All of the teams who might possibly overtake us would have to do so, and that will not happen.
We sit in thirteenth place, nine points clear of a relegation place (ten, if you include the likely goal difference factor), yet it could, and should, have been eleven points, except that we find it amazingly difficult to retain a winning position in a game of football. Twice we led, and twice we were pegged back, including the almost obligatory concession of a goal in the ninetieth minute. OK, I realise that the referee had to add on ten minutes to that time, but surely we must learn to see out a game when we are ahead.
That is now 22 points that we have lost from a winning position in a Premier League game this season. If we had retained the lead in all of those games (yes, I know that would be unlikely, but some teams can do it) then we would now be sitting on 59 points, and in fifth place in the table. Considering how we have failed to perform in so many fixtures, I think we would have settled for fifth, or even a place in top seven or so, as last season. But no, we contrive to throw away lead after lead.
In this game we scored two goals taking our total for the season to date 26 goals away from home. Only Man City with 36, Arsenal with 30, and Liverpool with 28 can better our tally in this respect. Even the top two teams in the table, who are likely to finish the season in those places, cannot better our goals scored away from home. So, although some will believe we don’t have a strategy to break down opposition defences, or the pace to hit them on the counter, as we frequently did last season, nobody can argue with the figures that show our ability to score away goals.
The real problem is with our defence, where the 32 goals conceded is only exceeded by Hull (41), Bournemouth (37), Leicester (35), Swansea (35), and Burnley (33). Defending at home is perhaps, even worse, and 27 goals against is only beaten by Swansea (33) and Sunderland (31). You cannot solely blame a goalkeeper for this, but it is generally recognised that Randolph has had a poor run lately. Both goals were down to him, although the first was arguably a foul against him. However, he allows himself to be dominated by the opposition and does not command his six-yard box like a top goalkeeper in English football needs to. Adrian was left out of the team after a few errors, and perhaps it is time for Randolph to suffer the same fate. Both are not bad goalkeepers, but if the talk is about “moving up to the next level” then I’m not sure that either of one of them is the right custodian to enable us to do this.
We have height and experience in central defence, but lack pace, which is such an important ingredient in the modern game. We have two left backs who are OK, but right back has been a problem area for some time. And we will be without Byram now, after his two yellows led to him being sent off. The partnership of Kouyate and Fernandes gave our defensive midfield pace, but neither has tackling as their forte, and we badly miss Obiang, who is, of course, out for the rest of the season.
We are now three points away from the top half of the table, with an inferior goal difference in comparison to the other teams in contention for a ninth-placed finish, so it will take a good run of results to achieve that (looking increasingly unlikely) position. But three home games against top-six opposition and potentially tricky away fixtures at Stoke and Burnley give the players quite a challenge in the run-in, and many will need to do so to prove their value for a position in the squad next season.
I believe we will need a much better recruitment campaign this close season to enable us to move upwards from our current “fighting for a mid-table place”. But whoever is in the team there are some basics that need to be mastered, especially defending set pieces, and retaining a winning position. Even with our current squad, we would have been in a much healthier position in the league table if we had performed better in these two areas.