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

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

This was the round when Newcastle snatched victory from the clamped-shut jaws 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.

Off the back of all that and more, we will ask if Erling Haaland is playing poorly at the worst moment for him and his club, if Cole Palmer is the Premier League’s most valuable player and whether Xabi Alonso turning down Liverpool and Bayern Munich to stay at Bayer Leverkusen is the real power move…

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

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

But Haaland scuffed it. Actually, he barely even scuffed it: he just about missed the thing completely. And the really weird bit, if you watch it closely: it looked like he was trying to square the ball to Ruben Dias, a centre-half, rather than attempting to ram the thing home himself.

This merciless goalscoring machine, presented with a chance four yards out, tried to pass it to a defender…

In some respects, it summed up the game neatly. 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 across the eight fixtures on Saturday, but a match devoid of anything approaching quality finishing, just three shots on target combined from the two attacks.

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

But perhaps there’s something broader at play. Haaland hasn’t seemed quite right since returning at the end of January from two months out with a foot injury.

In that time, he’s scored four goals in eight Premier League games — for a normal striker, a healthy return, but for Haaland, it’s well off the pace. He has six goals in other competitions, but they were the five he got in that freak FA Cup win over Luton Town and one in the closing stages of a Champions League stroll against FC Copenhagen. Again, writing off any goal at this level is harsh at best, but it’s also valid and speaks to a concern 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, on the occasions when they’re not quite on their game, he can be there to stick a chance away and hoover up those points they might have otherwise missed. Last season, he scored home and away against Arsenal, bursting the balloon of their nascent title challenge ruthlessly. 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 a clutch of chances and his celebration was more informed by relief than joy.

To clarify, this is not to say Haaland is bad now. Nothing like it. Clearly, he’s still if not the best centre-forward in the world, then one of them. There’s every chance he could go on a tear for the rest of the season, score twice a game and lead City to a fourth straight title and successive trebles.

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

Is Palmer the Premier League’s MVP?

Now is around 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, none less valid than the rest.

Who’s the most valuable player in the division, though? That’s a slightly different thing: “best” is self-explanatory, but “most valuable” is more about a player’s importance to their team. Which player would leave the biggest hole if they were removed from their 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 13 of the former and eight of the latter, which you don’t need us to tell you are the highest numbers at the club.

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

(Glyn Kirk/AFP via Getty Images)

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

But beyond these simple statistics, Palmer’s value is that he has given Chelsea something to get excited about in an otherwise chronically bleak season. Even with the penalty against Burnley on Saturday: an audacious, floating Panenka when a more standard penalty would have been fine. It might look like needless showboating, but when there’s been nothing else to stir the passions, that sort of thing becomes important.


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

“We got too comfortable,” Palmer said after the 2-2 home draw with second-bottom Burnley, who had 10 men for 50 of the 90 minutes. “Same story, we kill ourselves every week. It’s got to improve from us 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’s doing his job, and then some. How many other Chelsea players can say anything 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 another thing to emphasise it: even after their 2-0 home defeat against Borussia Dortmund on Saturday, champions Bayern can reach 81 points, 10 more than they achieved last season in taking their 11th straight title, yet are still likely to finish second by a double-digit margin.

After the announcement that Xabi Alonso would be staying at Leverkusen beyond this season, his putative suitors have tried as best they can to style it out — he was only ever an option, they are conducting a thorough process, no approaches have been made et cetera — but even if they knew what was coming, the news will have caused consternation at Liverpool, Bayern and whoever else fancied a change this summer.

(Hesham Elsherif/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Alonso’s decision has been mocked by some as ‘wimping out’; taking the easy option of sticking where he is rather than showing ambition. Does effectively turning down Liverpool and Bayern show he doesn’t have the ‘cojones’, that he isn’t confident in his abilities, as has been suggested?

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

Alonso’s stock will, in all likelihood, never be higher than now, amid the afterglow of this minor miracle Leverkusen are performing. He will probably never again have the choice between two giants, both of whom he has an emotional history with.

But what he’s doing is the true power move: a coach with the self-awareness to say that he needs at least another season of experience after less than two of them in the senior game but with the confidence to think that his reputation will stay high enough in the future to attract a big job the next time one comes up.

Alonso is doing things on his terms, in his own time. He hasn’t ignored the attention of Liverpool and Bayern because he’s scared of a top job. He’s done so because he isn’t scared that this will be his only chance at one.

Coming up…

  • Easter. A time when English football has for years come together and absolutely rinsed its players for our viewing pleasure as if they had limitless energy: to whit, today (Monday), there is a full round of EFL fixtures in all three divisions (apart from one game each in Leagues One and Two tomorrow), just like there was on Friday. Things to keep an eye on: the Championship’s extraordinary automatic promotion tussle, with three clubs separated by two points, but we’re also getting to the point where things can be decided. Rotherham United could be relegated from the second tier, likewise Carlisle United from the third.
  • Then there’s a complete round of midweek Premier League games. The Tuesday slate of five isn’t mega-interesting: although it will be interesting to see how West Ham United bounce back from the weekend collapse at St James’ Park when they welcome Tottenham Hotspur, while Nottingham Forest need a win at home against Fulham, Newcastle United host Everton, it’s Bournemouth vs Crystal Palace and Wolves go to Burnley.
  • Wednesday’s group of three has a tiny bit more pep to in its step: the standout is City vs Aston Villa, but there’s also Arsenal against Luton and Brentford vs Brighton & Hove Albion.
  • Then on Thursday, the round is completed by leaders Liverpool hosting last-placed Sheffield United and a theoretical big one, but not really because they’re both a bit rubbish this season: Chelsea vs Manchester United.
  • Finally, in off-pitch fun, Everton should find out the verdict for their second PSR breach of the season, which we can all agree is exactly the sort of thing we got into football for.

(Top photos: Getty Images)

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