Liverpool, and that long wait
It could be over in November, you know. Liverpool have an eight-point lead, with the extra half-point that their goal difference provides. They have dropped 13 points in their last 39 league games. We are a third of the way through the season and it would take the combination of Liverpool implosion and one of their peers managing perfection to stop them.
Liverpool win games from behind. Liverpool win games when scoring early. Liverpool win games when they are playing well and win games when they have to summon up every last ounce of resolve to get the job done. And Liverpool keep winning games. Call it luck if you like, but it’s a tough sell.
Most importantly, Liverpool are still getting better. Even with a 45-match unbeaten run at home. Even after coming so close to equalling the all-time record for consecutive top-flight wins. Even after winning the European Cup. Because where once they relied upon individual brilliance, now the team is their greatest asset. Fabinho scores from long range, Jordan Henderson provides the cross that kills off the match. The full-backs combine like never before. Two of the front three score goals, while the other is the selfless fulcrum. Thwarting this Liverpool is an exercise in futility. Stuff up one of holes in the dam and two more appear while your attention is elsewhere.
Liverpool would deserve this title. Not because they have waited so long because time alone is no medicine for mediocrity, but because they have taken on the financial might of Manchester City and the coaching might of Pep Guardiola and made both look inadequate. Jurgen Klopp’s side fell short last season, pushing City all the way despite added Champions League assignments. But while we were busy wondering whether Liverpool had the resolve to go again, Klopp concentrated on making them better. This astonishing run is the result. City have been left in their wake.
The one doubt – and it is still relevant – about Klopp’s management was how he might cope with being in a position of dominance. He has flourished as the underdog, but is not used to such a gap at the top of the table. There will be plenty more challenges to come, not least the potential impact of injuries to key players.
But Klopp is revelling in this job, and there are no signs of wobbling yet. He promised to do all in his power to take Liverpool back to where they and he believe they belong. On Sunday, another huge step forward to succeeding in that mission.
Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andrew Robertson
They were, without any doubt, the best moments of the match. After 13 minutes, Liverpool had the lead but Manchester City had the control. The away team were pushing Liverpool back and threatening to overpower them. Alexander-Arnold received the ball to feet but immediately had two City players pressing him. With the ball on his left foot and with no time to change that, Alexander-Arnold delivered a 60-yard crossfield pass on his weaker foot that landed perfectly in the stride of Robertson.
Three seconds later, after scampering down the left flank as if full of the joys of spring and playing for Liverpool, Robertson delivered a gorgeous cross. It wasn’t so much in the corridor of uncertainty as the corridor of ‘Oh f*ck there’s literally nothing I can do about this because it’s so good’. Fernandinho tried to contort his body to kick the ball away, but succeeded only in lying flat on his back while Salah wheeled away to score.
That is Liverpool under Jurgen Klopp in excelsis, an entire managerial philosophy in six seconds. You watch the manager hug his players, laugh in press conferences and pump his fists to the Kop and get sucked into the image of manager as motivator.
Think again, because he made this happen. He created the strategic plan to use full-backs as creative influences, sacrificing the midfield as a creative force and allowing the front three to concentrate on their combination of pressing without the ball and scoring goals with it. He gave Alexander-Arnold and Robertson the confidence to believe that they could be the best full-back combination in world football, and created the environment in which they could realistically achieve it.
In that environment, players don’t just attempt 60-yard passes with their weaker foot without fear of being lambasted should it go wrong; they nail them. And in that moment, Sunday’s match turned on its head. It’s hardly overly hyperbolic to say that we might look back on Liverpool’s season and identify it as one of the defining actions.
A bad day for the ‘But what does Henderson even do?’ brigade. Not only did he produce one of the crosses of the season to put the game beyond doubt, but just look at how the pattern of the match shifted after he was removed from his role on the right side of the midfield three. Suddenly Raheem Sterling had more space. Suddenly Alexander-Arnold had problems coping with him.
Now go and read 16 Conclusions because they are brilliant.
Of all the remarkable things about Vardy, and there are many, it is his perseverance that is most impressive. He makes a couple of runs that don’t end in completed passes, but applauds the effort and next time makes the same run. He takes heavy knocks to the elbow and ankle from defenders who are desperate to keep him quiet, but grimaces before running both off. A few more runs are made without success, including a missed chance that would erode the confidence of other strikers.
And then, when Leicester City need him most, Vardy is there. He’s always there. There to guide home a first-touch finish that he made look stupendously easy, and there to assist James Maddison’s second goal when a more selfish player might have tried to shoot.
Brendan Rodgers has done many excellent and sensible things since arriving in Leicester, but getting Vardy in the perfect frame of mind was surely his quickest and most obvious fix. Since Rodgers was appointed, Vardy has scored four more goals than any other Premier League player.
More impressive still is the conversion rate from shots into goals over that period. Vardy’s figure of 36.2% is almost five percent higher than any other player in the league. He is a superstar, world-class striker.
I’m running out of things to say about Wilder that weren’t already detailed at length here, but the normalisation of Sheffield United as a club that can unnerve, frustrate and at times outclass established Premier League clubs is quite sensational.
Sheffield United are one of only two teams still unbeaten away from home. They are one of only two teams to restrict Liverpool to one goal. They have the second-best defence in the division. They have stopped Sadio Mane, Mohamed Salah, Harry Kane and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang from scoring. They are resilient and organised, but anyone that thinks they are a long-ball, back-to-basics team has watched them play with both eyes closed and must have missed their equaliser on Saturday.
Sheffield United are the blueprint for every EFL team, proof that ambitions of grandeur need not be delusions. And Wilder is the manager of the season so far.
A win! An actual win! And a clean sheet too!
Being stronger than Norwich might not be a reason for huge cheer by the time this season is out, but Watford’s beggars are not choosy. They finally have their first league win in almost seven months, and their first away from home against a current Premier League team since January 12.
With Burnley at Vicarage Road and a trip to Southampton to come immediately after the international break, Watford really do have a chance to get their heads above water again.
The helpful thing about most clubs outside the current top four being beset by problems is that what looks like a calamity can quickly change with a couple of results. After a horrible home draw against Tottenham and win against Southampton, Everton are are three points off fifth.
Silva and Everton this week received an apology from the Premier League for the penalty that was awarded against them at Brighton to scupper their hopes of a first away league win since March. They atoned for that with a dominant performance against a Southampton team who deserved to lose by a greater margin.
Silva is hardly out of trouble. Everton face – and must beat – Norwich at Goodison immediately after the international break, and then have a run of five league games against teams who were either in last season’s top six or are currently in this season’s top six. Silva must prove that Everton do not look out of place in such company.
Rashford has scored the same number of Manchester United goals in the last three weeks as he had in the previous eight months. If his confidence could easily have been destroyed by some pretty embarrassing treatment from supposed Manchester United fans on social media, Rashford has drawn on his reserves and hopefully come out better for the experience. The free-kick against Chelsea in the EFL Cup was a sure sign that the belief remains.
It is also interesting that Rashford’s return to club form began after his excellent goal on England duty in Bulgaria. Historically we decried the England team for failing to get the best out of players performing excellently at club level, so it is refreshing to see the opposite occur with Rashford.
Playing in this young England team around peers desperate to be part of something potentially special might well have given Rashford the bump in confidence he needed at Old Trafford. Now to use the same environment to maintain his good form.
Chelsea without Jorginho
Our early winners.
Exactly the type of player that can bring a disillusioned supporter closer to their club. Saint-Maximin is great fun on social media, he helps out at the food banks organised for the local community and he runs at defenders without the fear of failure that has haunted many of those around him. He can be the catalyst for a change of mood.
Wolves and Raul Jimenez
A season firmly back on track. Wolves aren’t quite in top gear, but they are getting it done in the Premier League and have virtually guaranteed qualification from a tough Europa League group. Nuno’s team are unbeaten in seven league matches – albeit with one too many draws along the way – and now sit eighth. The problems within the clubs around them means that Wolves have not paid a high price for their slow start.
A word too for Jimenez, who is quietly getting on with being brilliant. The Europa League workload has helped his figures, but Jimenez already has 13 goals in all competitions this season. That’s only four fewer than in 2018/19.
Manchester City’s defence…
Predictable failure is the worst kind. It proves that your team has an obvious issue, but also that the manager is struggling to solve said issue. Manchester City’s defence was majestic throughout 2017/18 and through most of 2018/19, but one injury to Aymeric Laporte and City have been plunged back into the defensive incompetence that has haunted them for long sections of their decade in the sun. This defeat was so disappointing for City because we saw the worst elements of it coming over the hill.
City weren’t awful at Anfield; far from it. Pep Guardiola – presumably while squawking and holding up two fingers like a boastful child announcing that it can count – will reason that City merely lost out in the moments: penalty calls, marginal offsides, the failure to connect with the ball in front of goal on two separate occasions, Ederson’s injury. These matches, and therefore these title races, are played on a knife edge.
But if you can’t defend properly then you don’t deserve to win the title and you won’t win at Anfield. For all the talk of defensive absentees, Laporte was the only member of the back four missing through injury. Joao Cancelo and Nicolas Otamendi were on the bench, Benjamin Mendy left out entirely after falling foul of Guardiola’s high demands. Guardiola is rightly peeved that the club failed to replace Vincent Kompany in the summer, but he can hardly plead a paucity of options.
What was most disappointing about City’s defending at Anfield is that they seemed to play straight into Liverpool’s hands. Not only did Guardiola not attempt to counteract Liverpool’s brilliant full-backs, he also instructed City to play very narrow thus giving Robertson and Alexander-Arnold complete licence to surge up the pitch without too much fear of being caught out of position.
There were so many potential options: Cancelo at left-back instead of Angelino, who will have nightmares about Mohamed Salah and Alexander-Arnold during the international break. Otamendi at centre-back, allowing Fernandinho to step up into midfield alongside Rodri. A three-man central defence including Fernandinho, who could have stepped into midfield when City had possession. Wing-backs, who could have tried to pin back Liverpool’s full-backs.
It isn’t just Liverpool, of course, whose front three and full-backs can make any team look defensively flimsy. Manchester City have conceded more than once in a league game four times this season: two against Wolves and Tottenham, three against Liverpool and Norwich. That’s the difference between the two teams right there. Liverpool have conceded more than once in a league game four times since April 2018. Fail to shore up their defence, and Manchester City cannot win the title. It may already be too late.
…and their inability to come from behind
There is another huge difference between the current champions and the champions-elect. The last seven times Liverpool have conceded first in a Premier League match, they have won six and drawn one of those matches. Setback doesn’t necessarily spell disaster, merely a chance to prove their mental strength all over again.
The last eight times that Manchester City have conceded first in a Premier League match, they have won two, drawn one and lost five of those matches. This season alone they have conceded two goals in eight minutes and twice conceded two goals in ten minutes. Setback is as likely to bring mini-meltdown as it is to provoke a wholehearted response.
Unai Emery, somehow still in his position
Had Arsenal sacked Emery this weekend, they could have seized control of an unhappy situation. Admit the mistake, reason that you had given the manager more than enough rope and then talk up the pursuit of a manager who can reinvigorate what is becoming another lamentable season.
Instead, Arsenal let it be known that they have continued faith in Emery turning around this ship and that they will not be persuaded by the catcalls and jeers of Arsenal supporters. That pitches the fans who pay to watch this much in direct battle with the club, and ill-advised move that will only backfire on them. The only way that a Big Six club can truly be stripped bare is when those in positions of power embrace mediocrity. That is exactly the scenario at Arsenal.
Under Emery, Arsenal are a mess. They have tried to attack but merely look like a series of component parts that make you wonder what on earth happens on the training ground. They try to pass it out from the back but then the opposition merely waits for them to make a mistake and crosses their fingers that it will be a catastrophic one.
Against Leicester, Emery clearly instructed his players to sit deep behind the ball and guard against the counter-attack. They challenged Leicester: ‘Come and break us down if you think you are good enough’. So Leicester did. Because they are good enough, and Arsenal aren’t.
Emery’s team have all the resilience and structure of a newspaper left out in the rain. They are the personification of the meme where a raccoon drops a cube of sugar in some water and then looks perplexed because it has melted into nothing.
It is a phrase used before in this column, but this is not a bad Arsenal squad. That was once a reasonable excuse for Emery’s predecessor, but not now. There is no injury crisis, no calamitous transfer market failing being laid bare. It is a talented group of players performing well below their best and rarely performing as a team. And that one’s on the manager.
The mood was made infinitely worse by the Granit Xhaka episode, now permanently placed on the naughty step and presumably to be sold in January. But Emery could have avoided that issue by seizing control of the captaincy issue and not placing Xhaka in the eye of the storm by picking him every damn week. Just another self-inflicted wound. Just another mess of Emery’s own making.
The top four has not yet gone, but it is careering off into the distance while Arsenal stand still. Would you trust them to improve enough to make it? Would you trust Emery to take them there? And are there other managers who could do a far better job with this squad? No, no, yes. Any delay in correcting this mistake only makes Arsenal’s decision-makers collaborators in this mediocre mess.
Last week I wrote that West Ham were so frustrating because you didn’t know what you were going to get from week to week. The good news is that West Ham have finally found some consistency. The bad news is that they have become consistently terrible.
The defending is awful (and the attacking not much better). Since beating Manchester United at home, West Ham have allowed their opponents to have 44 shots on target. That’s six more than any other team in the division, and at least double the figure of six Premier League teams. Most worrying is the list of West Ham’s opponents over that run: Bournemouth, Crystal Palace, Everton, Sheffield United, Newcastle United, Burnley. Only one finished above West Ham last season. They spent more than all of them on players over the summer.
In their next four league games, West Ham have three London derbies (Tottenham, Arsenal and Chelsea) and an away trip to Wolves. Surely they must be considering a managerial change before another season is laid to waste. What do they have to lose?
Ten games, no goals at Anfield. If that is partly a historic problem, there are signs that Aguero is struggling in the present too. It jars when witnessing a usually prolific and instinctive striker twice missing the ball completely when in an excellent position to score. If Manchester City can consider themselves unfortunate not to be given a penalty for Alexander-Arnold’s handball, why did Aguero concentrate on appealing when he had the chance to take a shot and score?
So far this season, only 40% of Aguero’s attempted shots have been on target. Of the 44 players who have attempted 20 or more shots in the Premier League this season, Aguero ranks 38th for accuracy. Just as worrying is that Aguero has created only 10 chances all season, fewer than Sebastian Haller, Joelinton and Teemu Pukki.
From Winners and Losers, after Norwich beat Manchester City 3-2:
‘This magnificent result will only define Norwich’s season if they progress from it. The moments enjoyed by those fevered, jumping supporters who hugged each other in celebration of what they thought could never happen will mean more if Norwich make them commonplace.’
Since then, Norwich have taken one point from a possible 21, scoring twice and conceding 16 times. Lose at home to the team bottom of the table and winless, and relegation begins to look more probable than possible.
The image: Southampton supporters throwing away the free scarves they were given by the club as an attempt to harness some goodwill.
The statistic: The last time Southampton kept a clean sheet against a current Premier League team at home was in October 2018.
The reality: They’re going down unless something changes soon.
If you enjoyed this, feel free to give us some love in the the FSA awards. Head here to vote…