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

Welcome to The Briefing, where every Monday this season The Athletic will discuss three of the biggest questions coming out of this weekend’s football.

This was the round in which Newcastle snatched victory from the jaws of defeat against West Ham, Liverpool became league leaders after an early scare against Brighton, Manchester United took a 1-0 lead on the minute 96 and still didn’t win. and Sheffield United threw away other two goal advantage.

After all that and more, we will wonder if Erling Haaland is playing badly at the worst time for him and his club, if Cole Palmer is the most valuable player in the Premier League and if Xabi Alonso rejected Liverpool and Bayern Munich to stay . at Bayer Leverkusen it is the real power movement…

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

It was 84 minutes into the Manchester City 0-0 Arsenal match when the ball fell to Erling Haaland at the far post. For a split second, the neutrals’ hopes rose: by then we had already 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 ruled it out. In fact, he barely touched it: he almost missed it completely. And the really strange thing, if you look closely: it looked like he was trying to send the ball to Rubén Dias, a center half, instead of trying to ram the ball himself.

This ruthless scoring machine, faced with an opportunity from four meters away, tried to pass it to a defender…

In some ways, it summed up the game perfectly. Not just an all-time snooze party made all the more acute by Liverpool’s entertaining 2-1 win over Brighton earlier in the day and the 29 goals scored in Saturday’s eight games, but a game with nothing similar to a quality ending. only three shots on goal combined from the two attacks.

You could also say that Haaland’s goal was a triumph for Arsenal central defenders William Saliba and (especially) Gabriel Magalhaes, who kept the big Norwegian quiet for the second time this season; In those two Premier League games, Haaland did not manage a single shot on goal.

But perhaps there is something broader at play. Haaland does not seem to be doing well since he returned at the end of January after two months out due to a foot injury.

In that time, he scored four goals in eight Premier League games; For a normal striker, a healthy return, but for Haaland, he’s off the pace. He has six goals in other competitions, but they were the five he scored in that bizarre FA Cup victory over Luton Town and one in the closing stages of a Champions League campaign against FC Copenhagen. Again, ruling out any goals at this level is harsh at best, but it is also valid and speaks to a concern about his form at a crucial part of the season.

The disheartening thing for the rest of the Premier League about City having Haaland is that, on the occasions when they are not quite on their game, he can be there to take an opportunity and hoover up those points that would otherwise be lost. they would have lost. Last season, he scored home and away against Arsenal, mercilessly bursting the balloon of their nascent title challenge. Not this season though.

(Justin Setterfield/Getty Images)

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

To clarify, this is not to say that Haaland is bad now. Nothing like it. Clearly, he remains, if not the best centre-forward in the world, then at least one of them. There is every chance he can last the rest of the season, score twice a game and lead City to a fourth consecutive title and successive trebles.

But at the moment it doesn’t seem to be the same, and it’s happening at the worst possible time for City.

Is Palmer the Premier League MVP?

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

There are many 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… everything is subjective, each one will have their options, none less valid than the rest.

Who is he more valuable player in the division, though? That’s a slightly different thing: “better” is self-explanatory, but “most valuable” has more to do with a player’s importance to his team. Which player would leave the biggest hole if he were eliminated from his side?

The answer has to be Cole Palmer.

There are a few ways to measure his importance to Chelsea. The goals and assists are the most basic: he has 13 of the first and eight of the second, which we do not need to tell you are the highest figures in the club.

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

(Glyn Kirk/AFP via Getty Images)

Another very crude way to look at it is if his goals are removed from Chelsea’s results. This is wrong, because it assumes that whoever replaced him in this thought experiment contributed absolutely nothing, but if we take away his goals he would have 10 points less. That would leave them at 30 out of 30 games: close to the relegation level in any other season.

But beyond these simple statistics, Palmer’s value is that he has given Chelsea something to get excited about in a chronically dismal season. Even with the penalty against Burnley on Saturday – a bold, floating Panenka when a more standard penalty would have been fine. It may seem like an unnecessary boast, but when there has been nothing else to arouse passions, those kinds of things become important.

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“We felt too comfortable,” Palmer said after the 2-2 draw at home against second-bottom Burnley, who were down to 10 men for 50 of the 90 minutes. “Same story, we commit suicide every week. We have to improve as players. “We need consistency.”

Palmer used “we” and “us” there, but he would have been within his rights to separate himself from the rest of the Chelsea team.

He is doing his work, and something else. How many other Chelsea players can say something like that?

Is staying in Leverkusen the real power for Alonso?

We already know that winning the Bundesliga this season will be an extraordinary achievement for Bayer Leverkusen, but there is another thing to highlight: even after their 2-0 home defeat against Borussia Dortmund on Saturday, champions Bayern can reach 81 points, 10 more than they did last season in claiming their 11th consecutive title, but they are still likely to finish second by a double-digit margin.

After the announcement that Xabi Alonso would stay at Leverkusen beyond this season, his alleged suitors have tried to style him as best they could: he was just an option, they are carrying out an exhaustive process, no approaches have been made, etc – but even if they knew what was coming, the news will have caused consternation at Liverpool, Bayern and anyone else who wanted a move this summer.

(Hesham Elsherif/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Some have mocked Alonso’s decision as “cowardly”; taking the easy option of staying where he is instead of showing ambition. Does rejecting Liverpool and Bayern show that he doesn’t have the balls, that he doesn’t trust their abilities, as has been suggested?

Well, in short: no. Quite the opposite, in fact.

Alonso’s stock, in all likelihood, will never be higher than it is now, amidst the glow of this small miracle that Leverkusen is performing. He will probably never again have to choose between two giants, with whom he has an emotional history.

But what he is doing is the real power move: a coach with the self-awareness to say he needs at least another season of experience after less than two at senior level, but with the confidence to think his reputation will be will keep high. enough in the future to attract a great job the next time one arises.

Alonso is doing things his way, in his own time. He has not ignored the attention of Liverpool and Bayern because he is afraid of occupying an important position. He has done it because he is not afraid that this is his only chance.

Going up…

  • Easter. A moment when English football has come together for years and absolutely washed its players for our viewing pleasure, as if they had boundless energy: today (Monday), there is a full round of EFL matches in all three divisions (apart from one each of the League One and Two matches tomorrow), as happened on Friday. Things to note: The extraordinary fight for automatic promotion from 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.
  • Then comes a full round of midweek Premier League matches. Tuesday’s list of five is not very interesting: although it will be interesting to see how West Ham United recover from the weekend collapse at St James’ Park when they host Tottenham Hotspur, while Nottingham Forest need a home win against Fulham. , Newcastle United host Everton, Bournemouth vs Crystal Palace and Wolves go to Burnley.
  • Wednesday’s group of three has a little more pep in its step: the highlight is City vs Aston Villa, but there’s also Arsenal vs Luton and Brentford vs Brighton & Hove Albion.
  • Then on Thursday the round is completed with leaders Liverpool hosting last-placed Sheffield United and a theoretically big one, but not really because they’re both a bit rubbish this season: Chelsea vs Manchester United.
  • Finally, in off-field fun, Everton should know the verdict on their second PSR breach of the season, which we all agree is exactly the sort of thing we got into football for.

(Main photos: Getty Images)