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

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

This was the round in which Newcastle snatched victory from the jaws of defeat against West Ham, Liverpool went top of the table after an early scare against Brighton, Manchester United took a 1-0 lead at 96th minute and they still haven’t won and Sheffield United have thrown it away another two-goal lead.

Based on all this and more, we’ll ask whether Erling Haaland is playing badly at the worst time for him and his club, whether Cole Palmer is the Premier League’s most valuable player, and whether Xabi Alonso turned down Liverpool and Bayern Munich to stay at Bayer Leverkusen it’s the real power move…


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

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

But Haaland rubbed it. In fact, he almost rubbed it: he almost completely missed it. And the really strange thing, if you look at it closely: It looked like he was trying to direct the ball to Ruben Dias, a midfielder, rather than trying to ram the ball home himself.

This ruthless goal machine, presented with an opportunity four meters away, tried to pass it to defend…

In some ways it sums up the game well. Not just an all-time snoozefest made even more acute by Liverpool’s most entertaining 2-1 win over Brighton earlier in the day and 29 goals scored in Saturday’s eight games, but a match devoid of anything approaching the quality of the finish, only three shots on target combined from the two attacks.

You could even say that Haaland’s void was a triumph for Arsenal centre-backs William Saliba and (especially) Gabriel Magalhaes, who kept the great Norwegian quiet for the second time this season; In these two Premier League matches, Haaland has failed to have a single shot on target.

But perhaps there is something larger at play. Haaland hasn’t looked fully fit since he returned at the end of January after two months out with a foot injury.

In that time, he has scored four goals in eight Premier League games – for a normal striker, a good response, but for Haaland, it is well off the pace. He has scored six goals in other competitions, but the five he scored in that strange FA Cup victory against Luton Town and one in the closing stages of the Champions League march against FC Copenhagen. Again, writing off 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 bleak thing for the rest of the Premier League about City having Haaland is that, on the occasions when they are not fully in the game, he can be there to take a chance and pick up those points they might otherwise have lost. Last season, he scored home and away against Arsenal, ruthlessly popping the ball in the nascent title challenge. Not this season, though.


(Justin Setterfield/Getty Images)

Haaland was equally ineffective against Liverpool just before the March international break. He had scored against Manchester United a week earlier, but only after having missed a number of chances and his celebration had been characterized more by relief than joy.

To be clear, this isn’t to say that Haaland is bad now. Nothing like it. He clearly still is, if not the best center forward in the world, then at least one of them. There is every chance he could go on a tear for the rest of the season, score twice in a game and lead City to a fourth consecutive title and subsequent treble.

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


Is Palmer the Premier League MVP?

Now is the time when people start thinking seriously about which individual 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… it’s all subjective, everyone will have their own choices, none less valid than the others.

Who is the more precious player of the division, though? This is a slightly different thing: “better” is self-explanatory, but “more valuable” is more about how important a player is to their team. Which player would leave the biggest hole if he were removed from their team?

The answer to this question has to be Cole Palmer.

There are a few ways to measure his importance to Chelsea. The goals and assists are the most basic ones: he has 13 of the former and eight of the latter, which we don’t need to tell you are the highest numbers in the club.

The caveat is that six of his 13 goals have been penalties, but have yet 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 to remove your goals from Chelsea’s results. This is incorrect, because it assumes that whoever replaced him in this thought experiment contributed absolutely nothing, but took away his goals and would have 10 points less. That would put them 30 games out of 30: close to relegation 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: a bold, floating Panenka when a more standard penalty would have been fine. It might seem like a pointless display, but when there’s nothing else to arouse the passions, that kind of thing becomes important.

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“We got too comfortable,” Palmer said after the 2-2 home draw against second-bottom Burnley, who had 10 men for 50 of the 90 minutes. “Same story, we kill each other every week. It needs to improve on our part as players. “We need consistency”

Palmer used “we” and “we” there, but he would have been entitled to separate himself from the rest of the Chelsea squad.

He’s doing it his work, and then some. How many other Chelsea players can say that?


Is staying at Leverkusen the real power move for Alonso?

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

After the announcement that Xabi Alonso would stay at Leverkusen beyond this season, his supposed suits did their best to accommodate him: it was only ever an option, they are carrying out a thorough process, no approaches have been made etc – but even if they knew what was going to happen, the news would have caused consternation for Liverpool, Bayern and anyone else wanting a change this summer.


(Hesham Elsherif/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Alonso’s decision was derided by some as “indecent”; taking the easy option of staying where he is rather than showing ambition. Does the actual rejection by Liverpool and Bayern demonstrate that he doesn’t have the ‘cojones’, that he doesn’t have faith in his abilities, as has been suggested?

Well, in short: no. Take away the opposite, in fact.

Alonso’s shares, in all likelihood, will never be higher than now, after the small miracle that Leverkusen is 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 making is the real power move: a coach with the self-awareness to say he needs at least one more season of experience after less than two games in the seniors, but with the confidence to think his reputation will remain high enough in the future to attract a big job the next time one comes along.

Alonso is doing things on his own terms, in his own time. He has not ignored the attention of Liverpool and Bayern because he is afraid of a high-level job. He did it because he isn’t afraid that this is his only chance.


Arriving…

  • Easter. At a time when for years English football has come together and rinsed out its players for our viewing pleasure as if they had boundless energy: today (Monday) there is a full cycle of EFL matches in all and three divisions (apart from tomorrow one game each in the First and Second Leagues), just like Friday. Things to watch: Extraordinary tussle for automatic promotion to the Championship, with three teams separated by two points, but we’ve also reached the point where things can be decided. Rotherham United could be relegated from the second division, as could Carlisle United from the third.
  • Then there’s a full cycle of midweek Premier League games. Tuesday’s schedule for the five isn’t very interesting – although it will be interesting to see how West Ham United recover from their weekend collapse at St James’ Park when they host Tottenham Hotspur, while Nottingham Forest need a win at home against Fulham, Newcastle United host Everton, it’s Bournemouth against Crystal Palace and Wolves go to Burnley.
  • Wednesday’s three-man group has a little more pep in its step: the best match is City v Aston Villa, but there’s also Arsenal v Luton and Brentford v Brighton & Hove Albion.
  • Then on Thursday, the round is completed with league leaders Liverpool hosting bottom-of-the-table and a theoretically great, but not quite as they are both a bit rubbish Sheffield United this season: Chelsea vs Manchester United.
  • Finally, in the off-field 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 came into football for.

(Top photo: Getty Images)