Liverpool and their attacking variation
If Diogo Jota’s injury provoked a few worried glances amongst Liverpool supporters about their strength in attacking depth, here was the emphatic response. It wasn’t just that Liverpool scored seven times from eight shots on target, nor even that they did so having left Mohamed Salah on the bench for the first hour. It was that Liverpool shared the goals and assists around their team with sensational ease. Never before had seven different players from the same team assisted a goal in the same Premier League match.
This felt like Liverpool throwing down a gauntlet to their title rivals, not least because Tottenham had allowed Palace back into the match the previous week by sitting back on a 1-0 lead and inviting pressure. If a congested top half of the table might provoke risk-averse football and a relentless schedule persuade teams to conserve energy, Liverpool ripped up that rulebook with a display of majestic, free-flowing attacking. They have been here before. They know what it takes. They are able to produce it when it matters.
Jurgen Klopp’s side were already clear title favourites before the weekend having beaten Tottenham on Wednesday evening, but the odds have now firmly shifted towards them retaining their crown. Despite losing Joe Gomez and Virgil van Dijk to serious injuries and despite suffering unpleasant autumnal surprises, Liverpool are on course for 84 points and 97 league goals. That would represent the second most prolific top-flight season in their history.
Most daunting for the sides around them is that Liverpool have played seven games against current top-half teams, winning five and drawing two. In the space of four days they have opened up a five-point gap to third place that may well be enough to see them stay in the top two all season.
Manchester United’s fast start
This is what we wanted. Manchester United had been painfully sluggish at Old Trafford in the league so far this season but blew away Leeds United with a counter-attacking verve that made us all sit up and take note.
Leeds were the perfect opponent, even if that is easier to say in hindsight. They were undone by Manchester United’s pace and their own naivety. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side have always been at their best when allowed to soak up pressure, avoid conceding goals (and Leeds did have chances) and then fly on the counter. Leeds waved the white flag with less than three minutes of the 90 played.
But let’s focus on Manchester United’s positives. Daniel James was an inspired selection, forming part of a front three that scared Leeds with their direct running and in doing so created space for the second wave of Bruno Fernandes, Scott McTominay and Fred. By the time a Leeds defender had spotted the late runs of those three players, Manchester United had forged overlaps that are so key to creating clear goalscoring chances.
This now needs to be the blueprint and Solskjaer must find a way to utilise this pace against teams that sit deep. Too often we have seen comprehensive victory (RB Leipzig) followed by miserable defeat (Arsenal and Istanbul Basaksehir). If Manchester United are going to forge a meaningful title challenge, their next two opponents (Leicester City and Wolves) are exactly the type of opponent that Solskjaer’s side must break down.
Finally, can this please the end of the odd narrative that Manchester United have a squad that is beset by flaws and a lack of strength in depth? Their nine substitutes on Sunday: Henderson, Bailly, Alex Telles, Matic, Pogba, Van de Beek, Mata, Greenwood, Cavani. You’ll struggle to find a team in Europe who had a more comprehensive collection of high-class players in reserve this weekend. This squad is good enough to challenge for the title. Now to prove that they can do so against all manner of opponents.
A wonderful week for Ancelotti. Just as it looked like Everton might undo their early-season work and fall back into the pack, their manager has landed upon a plan that might well give them a chance of breaking back into the top six. The absence of James Rodrigiuez forced Ancelotti’s hand, but by switching formation and getting Gylfi Sigurdsson closer to Dominic Calvert-Lewin, Everton look more dangerous in the final third.
Clearly it’s important that Everton have beaten three teams – Arsenal, Chelsea and Leicester – who were all expected to finish above them before the season started, but they have done so conceding only one goal. The defensive sloppiness that undid them against Liverpool, Manchester United, Newcastle and Southampton has disappeared with the wide midfielders offering cover for inexperienced full-backs.
But more impressive still has been the newly discovered variety in Everton’s attack. Their run of wins at the start of 2020/21 was fuelled almost exclusively by Calvert-Lewin’s goals; he scored in each of Everton’s first five league matches. But Everton’s last seven goals have been scored by seven different players. Sigurdsson looks so much more effective in a No. 10 role that also drags opponents towards him and creates space for Richarlison to drift in from the left.
Everton face a tricky run of fixtures between now and the end of January, including both Manchester clubs, Wolves, Leicester, West Ham and Aston Villa. Given their propensity to fall back into old habits we should take nothing for granted. But Everton are also guaranteed a place in the top four at Christmas for the first time since 2004. That alone represents real progress.
Leicester’s away form
They did lose 3-0 at Anfield in what is now becoming a customary comprehensive defeat, but that aside Brendan Rodgers’ team have been perfect away from home. They have won six of their seven games on the road in the league this season, including victories over Manchester City, Leeds, Arsenal and Tottenham.
Rodgers will be irked that Leicester have lost four of their seven home games (particularly given that only Tottenham, Manchester City and Liverpool won more home games last season), but correct that and the top-four dream is not dead.
Manchester City’s defence
Watching Manchester City remains a deeply frustrating pursuit as they try and walk the ball in by playing multiple passes in the penalty area without ever taking a shot, but they are at least getting it done.
For that, Pep Guardiola will thank his defenders (and it’s great to see John Stones getting regular minutes again). Southampton had scored at least twice in each of their last five home games but were shut out by a team that is, slightly counterintuitively, being led by its defence.
City now have the meanest defence in the Premier League. They have conceded one goal in their last eight matches and the 2-0 defeat at Tottenham was the only time in their last 18 games in all competitions that City have conceded more than once.
Of course this isn’t all on Willian. Arsenal are beset by a multitude of issues, not least their lack of creativity across the midfield and a defensive record that has slumped since late last season; it’s three clean sheets in their last 19 league games. But Willian is a handy personification of Arsenal’s ills because his signing and subsequent poor form covers most aspects of this broken club.
Why on earth did Arsenal commit so much money on such a long contract when it seemed so obvious that Willian’s best years were behind him? How did Mikel Arteta believe that a 32-year-old Brazilian possess the dynamism and pace that this team so obviously required?
And how much of a role did Kia Joorabchian have in the signing given that he is a de facto transfer guru at Arsenal and also represents Willian? There is nothing inherently wrong – strategically at least – in having a close relationship with a super-agent, but not if money is so tight that you have to make a spate of redundancies (including in the scouting department) and you get lumbered with the agent’s cast-offs. Cedric Soares also signed a new four-year deal in June, remember.
But if signing Willian was one thing, persisting with him when it’s so obviously not working out is damning on Arteta. Having left him out against Southampton, when Arsenal did look better until Gabriel’s red card, Willian was restored to the starting XI on Saturday and played 90 minutes despite never hinting that he would help break Everton down. In 889 league minutes this season Willian has had one shot on target. He has created 12 chances in 11 league starts since the opening day.
That dismal attacking output would be permissible if Willian was also mucking in and playing a pivotal role in Arsenal’s press, but that’s also clearly not happening. Fans know the pattern only too well: He either turns back and plays a safe pass or loses the ball and then wanders back while opponents surge past him.
Mesut Ozil was frozen out of Arsenal’s first-team picture because Arteta believed that his style could not fit with his own; there was no place for luxury. But he has committed at least £100,000 a week to a winger who both lacks the pace to stretch a defence and the desire (or maybe fitness) to harry and hassle opponents when out of possession. Those two decisions are entirely conflicting with each other, it is costing Arsenal – financially and literally – and Arsenal supporters deserve to have the thought process explained to them.
“We’ve been better than the opponent every single week but we are not winning football matches,” said Arteta after the defeat at Everton. In another post-match interview, Arsenal’s manager bemoaned his team’s misfortune.
I’m sorry, but that’s absolute nonsense and the insistence of anything else suggests that Arteta has run out of ideas. Arsenal have conceded more shots than they have taken in seven league games this season. They have trailed their opponents on expected goals in the same number of games.
Crucially, they are also criminally easy to play against. They don’t create chances against teams who sacrifice possession (they have lost six of the eight league games in which they have ‘enjoyed’ more of the ball). Savvy opponents simply sit back and either wait for Arsenal to make an individual mistake, lose their self-discipline, rely upon set-pieces or counter against them and create their own chances. Every match follows a similar pattern. Again, that repetition reflects badly on Arteta.
Perhaps Arsenal’s manager was merely trying to buy himself some more time with a little rampant optimism, but it should – and surely did – fall on deaf ears. Arsenal face Manchester City and Chelsea before a run of matches in which they are likely to dominate possession. Each of those opponents has a blueprint to frustrate and ultimately defeat Arsenal. Right now it’s hard to pick out a type of opponent that Arsenal will beat.
Tottenham’s only gear
Criticising Tottenham’s extreme counter-attacking approach when it works is a fool’s errand. You can point out that they have often ceded possession and territory and sometimes have barely touched the ball in the opposition box and left Harry Kane starved of possession, but that misses the point. Those are characteristics of the plan, not proof that it is not working. Your surprise weapon stops being a surprise if you use it all the time.
But the worry about Tottenham was that once Jose Mourinho went into his shell for the higher-level opponents, he would struggle to step out of it again. So it has proved. Spurs paid the price for dropping too deep too early against Crystal Palace and barely got going at all against Leicester City.
At times like these, it can be alarmingly easy to stop Tottenham with a deep defence. With Kane dropping deep and Son Heung-Min starting deep, there’s suddenly an awfully high number of things that need to go right just to create a clear goalscoring chance. Against Leicester, they never really managed it until they were 2-0 down.
It’s also a risky strategy in the age of VAR. With so many things that can go wrong, be it stupid challenge (goal one) or misfortune (goal two), Mourinho’s plan becomes harder to pull off. You wonder whether he has considered that fully, or merely ploughed on with Plan A regardless.
Tottenham’s other problem is that there seems to be an awful lot of responsibility for the starters to get it done. With Dele Alli not even on a nine-man substitutes bench, Mourinho turned to Gareth Bale and Lucas Moura. Spurs have only scored one goal in the league with Bale on the pitch this season and Moura hasn’t scored a goal as a substitute during Mourinho’s time at the club. It is as if the plan is so hardwired into the starting XI that their replacements can sometimes struggle to acclimatise.
After the game, Mourinho again insisted that Tottenham had been the better team: “With the result it looks like the opponent was better than us, but that’s not the reality.” Well sorry Jose, but we did watch the game and so did Tottenham’s supporters. You’d struggle to find one who believed they merited victory against Leicester City. That creation of alternate reality became a storyline during his bridge-burning at Manchester United, Chelsea, Inter and Real Madrid; there’s little benefit to it.
After all the promise generated before December, a reality check. Tottenham have only won half of their league games this season and are currently on course to earn 68 points – that total was bettered by Mauricio Pochettino in each of his four final seasons in charge. Spurs are also closer to 13th place than Liverpool in points terms. They must address this mini-slump quickly.
At Crystal Palace, Sam Allardyce’s last job at a club seriously threatened by relegation, he took over a club who sat in 17th having collapsed under Alan Pardew. Allardyce spent £30m in the January on three new players and finished the season one point above 17th place. Palace scored 22 goals in 21 league games under Allardyce. He left Selhurst Park after five months in charge, satisfied that he had done just enough to maintain his firefighter reputation but well aware that it had not come easy.
Slaven Bilic lost his job because West Brom limped over the line last season and started this campaign badly, but Bilic is keen to point out that he did not have it easy. A large proportion of West Brom’s squad is of Championship level and the manager was reportedly unhappy that the majority of the transfer budget was spent on two attacking players (Karlan Grant and Grady Diangana) for almost £30m that Bilic did not believe provided value for money. Perhaps West Brom will allow Allardyce to spend big in January, but it seems highly unlikely.
On Sunday evening, Allardyce’s task was put into alarmingly clear focus. West Brom had one long-range shot in 90 minutes, already clear second best before Jake Livermore’s red card. The team – Furlong, O’Shea, Ajayi, Livermore, Phillips, Sawyers – is filled with players who are of top-end Championship quality and no more. Callum Robinson was the intended game-changing substitute but he scored once in 16 Premier League games for Sheffield United last season.
Perhaps it was too much to ask to expect an instant change in West Brom’s performance, with Allardyce given three days on the training ground to prepare. But then Allardyce isn’t going to get much of that over a relentless next two months and the fixture list is daunting. West Brom face Leeds, Liverpool, Arsenal, Wolves, West Ham, Manchester City, Tottenham and Manchester United in the league before mid-February. They will be second favourites in every game.
Doubt Allardyce at your peril; that has always been the rule. He has a playbook that seems to create steel and grit out of thin air and uses the disillusionment at the clubs he inherits as fuel. But there is an automatic assumption that appointing Allardyce comes with a guarantee of the type of improvement that makes surviving relegation a strong probability.
At the Hawthorns, that assumption appears misplaced. There is no doubt that as Allardyce’s career winds down, he has taken on his hardest task to date. Having been out of work for two-and-a-half years, the suspicion is not that he has taken the right job but the first one to come up.
We have grown accustomed to a stereotype of successful promoted clubs in the Premier League. They are led by their defences, looking to keep it tight in almost every game and win matches through organisation and the odd sprinkling of individual magic. Over the last three years, eight of the nine promoted teams were involved in matches with a goal-per-game average of between 2.05 and 2.84. The one exception were Fulham 2018/19 (3.03 goals per game) and that was largely fuelled by a defence that conceded 81 goals.
Leeds are different. Their games this season have contained an average of 3.86 goals per game and they are likely to stay up. They have the eighth best attack in the league and the worst defence. It isn’t fawning over Marcelo Bielsa to conclude that, for the neutral, it is wonderful entertainment.
Nor will any reasonable Leeds United supporter feel too glum on Monday morning. If you’re likely to finish somewhere between 10th and 16th then you might as well have some fun on the way. They are here because of Bielsa and he isn’t likely to change now. Nor should he; Leeds have rarely felt such a deep affinity with their football team.
But there are still times when Leeds’ approach will end in calamity. One of the inevitable effects of employing a man-to-man-marking system across the pitch is that it will produce extreme results. If the majority of players win their individual battles then you can overpower an opponent. If the majority of players lose their battles, as on Sunday, you can be torn to shreds.
It stands to reason that this is more likely to happen against the best teams; they possess high-quality, technical players who will find a way to pass quickly and accurately around the press. Leeds have played three league games this season against the current top three and conceded goals at a rate of one per 19 minutes. In their four games against the Manchester clubs, Liverpool and Chelsea, Leeds have allowed 94 shots. Manchester United found so much space in the pockets left when Rashford, James and Martial stretched Leeds’ defence that they legitimately could have scored 10 times.
To repeat an earlier point, Bielsa is not going to change now. He isn’t about to embark on some bizarre journey of Allardycian enlightenment. For better and for worse, this is his Leeds. Supporters may have to learn to accept these results as a necessary strand of a storyline that they have delighted in over the last three years.
But it’s also true to say that when those supporters looked at the Premier League fixture list they will have circled games against Manchester United and Liverpool as a chance for their club to pit themselves against the best. Right now, there’s no contest.
Newcastle’s lack of ambition
There are periods of individual matches that can crystallise a season or a manager’s tenure, for better or worse. The final half-hour of Saturday’s home game against Fulham was Steve Bruce’s Newcastle United in excelsis.
Having been turgid in the first half and deservedly trailing at the break against a Fulham team that had 67% possession and registered eight shots in 45 minutes, Newcastle were given a golden ticket when Joachim Andersen was sent off and Callum Wilson converted the penalty. They had 34 minutes to atone for the first half and the midweek defensive shambles against Leeds. Win and mid-table security was virtually secured by Christmas.
But rather than stretch Fulham’s 10 men, Newcastle folded in on themselves. They managed four shots in those 34 minutes and were fortunate that Karl Darlow made an excellent save to secure one point. Even Bruce had to concede after the game that it had been miserable fare.
This matters. Newcastle have an excellent centre-forward who needs only six more to become the club’s joint-top scorer in a top-flight league season since 2012. But they are starving him of service and have dented the confidence of the attacking midfielders who carry the burden to do so. Right now this is Wilson’s team more than it is Bruce’s. Some teams are appointment television. Newcastle United are last-on-Match-Of-The-Day staples.
There isn’t much you can do on afternoons like these, when everything the opposition touches turns to goals. Throwing men forward at 4-0 and 5-0 was both particularly dim and surprising given everything we know about Roy Hodgson, but Palace were actually in the game in the first half despite conceding three goals. They allowed Bournemouth eight shots on target at Selhurst Park in May 2019 and Brighton and Manchester City both had 10 each last season. Palace conceded six goals in total over those three matches. They conceded seven to Liverpool’s eight shots on target on Saturday.
But this was still deeply chastening. It was the third-worst home defeat in Premier League history and the worst in Palace’s 115-year history. Hodgson spoke after the game about the ritual humiliation shared by his players in the dressing room after the final whistle.
What matters most now is that Hodgson is able to motivate his players to move on from such an experience, even using a heavy defeat as fuel for improvement rather than a body blow that will provoke a run of poor results that further diminish the players’ confidence. Were that to happen, it might well be the end of Hodgson’s time in charge. At least they are unlikely to face such a ruthless attacking unit until next season.
Lovely to have you back, fella.