Liverpool’s fringe players
It was the one lingering doubt surrounding Liverpool’s title bid: what happens if a senior player gets injured? It’s a slightly pessimistic concern, given the consistent availability of Liverpool’s star players. Last season Alisson, Virgil van Dijk, Mohamed Salah, Andrew Robertson, Sadio Mane, Georginio Wijnaldum and Roberto Firmino only missed a combined 11 league games between them. But until Liverpool proved themselves in the absence of several key players, Manchester City and Leicester City supporters held hope that a lack of squad depth might undo their title rivals.
Tick that one off the list, then. Jurgen Klopp took a significant risk by leaving Salah, Firmino and Jordan Henderson out of the Merseyside derby starting XI, particularly given the enforced absence of Alisson and Fabinho. Liverpool’s manager watched on as his fringe players delighted during their chance to impress. Extreme competition for places gets the best out of those stood waiting in the wings. Every player wants to be part of this Liverpool success.
Divock Origi was rampant, his second goal a wondrous piece of control and finishing that may well have surprised plenty at Anfield who did not believe he was capable of such brilliance. Xherdan Shaqiri scored his first goal of any kind for Liverpool since Boxing Day 2018. Adam Lallana played more than 70 minutes of a Premier League game for only the fifth time since May 2017. Sadio Mane proved himself perfectly capable of being magnificent in the absence of his two front three mates. He might well be the best player in the country right now (or even on the planet).
Not only did Liverpool thrash their city neighbours on Wednesday night. Not only did their set a new club record for an unbeaten run in the top flight (now 32 matches). But they sent a sharp message to those hoping to catch them that nothing will push them off a path that they consider to be their destiny. After 40% of the season played, Liverpool have dropped only two points. They are on track to break the astonishing record that Manchester City set in 2017/18.
Manchester United and Marcus Rashford
Much, much better. On Wednesday Manchester United continued their theme of performing above expectations – or at least above our new expectations – against Big Six teams. They have won two and drawn two of their four matches against them this season, with a home win over second-placed Leicester City for good measure.
There’s an obvious reason for that. Manchester United have struggled most this season in matches where they have dominated possession, and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has not yet found a way to overcome teams that sit deep. Like Chelsea, their frustration can lead to them over-committing midfielders to the attack and then being caught on the counter.
Against teams that have attacked United, they have flourished by playing predominantly as a counter-attacking side. That fits the profile of their attackers: pacey, comfortable with ball at feet, keen to transition from defence to attack as quickly as possible. It’s not a dig.
Against Tottenham, it worked perfectly. The return of Scott McTominay – and Jose Mourinho’s team selection – allowed United to gain control of the midfield, and Fred plays better when paired with McTominay. They were hardly perfect defensively, but that does not always matter when you’re stretching your opponent on the counter. Jesse Lingard even got his first assist in a year; praise be.
But Marcus Rashford is the difference-maker in a streak of wondrous form having been ludicrously lambasted by a section of (mainly social media-based) United supporters. Rashford scored both goals, won the penalty, hit the bar with a dipping shot and was a constant threat from minute one to 90. You’ll forgive me for not remembering every game he’s played in detail, but it’s the best I’ve ever seen him play.
When Rashford is in this form and confidence, there is an air of Thierry Henry about him. He either makes defenders commit themselves and then glides past them, or makes defenders back off to protect against being dribbled past and therefore has time to attempt a shot. Rashford also tends to take his shots a fraction earlier than the goalkeeper is expecting. See Gazzaniga’s late reaction and subsequent error for the first goal for evidence of that.
Manchester United’s problems are not solved; far from it. But they do have a logical and realistic strategy to trouble the best clubs in the league. Now to see if it will be enough against Manchester City in the derby.
But first, read 16 Conclusions.
Roy Hodgson and Crystal Palace’s defending
The elder statesman just keeps on keeping on. Hodgson is the oldest manager in the Premier League by six years, and that gap will double if and when Manuel Pellegrini loses his job at West Ham. Having begun his managerial career in 1976, before six current Premier League managers were even born, you might expect Hodgson to be growing a little weary of a professional life lived under the constant threat of crisis. Not a bit of it.
Crystal Palace have been forced into comparative parsimony by a lack of funds at the top of the club. Since Hodgson was appointed in September 2017, they have spent just £27m on transfer fees and sold their most promising young player for almost double that entire expenditure.
Over the 27-month period of Hodgson’s tenure, only the Big Six and Leicester City have won more league games than Crystal Palace and only Manchester City, Tottenham, Chelsea and Liverpool have kept more clean sheets. What’s most remarkable about that second statistic is that Palace haven’t paid a transfer fee for a defender in that time.
It’s a thankless task but he is doing it well.
Southampton will not save themselves by beating the only two clubs worse than them in the division, but it’s a start. Had they even dropped two points in these two home games Ralph Hasenhuttl’s job would/should have been under pressure, but there are finally signs of the green shoots of recovery. Southampton now have a run of matches until Christmas – Newcastle, Aston Villa and West Ham – that give them a chance to fully charge this survival tilt.
If Saturday lunchtime raised doubts about his ability to replicate Sergio Aguero’s movement and finishing, Jesus rose again three days later. Bloody typical of the man.
In November 2015, Vardy broke Ruud van Nistelrooy’s Premier League record by scoring in 11 consecutive matches. His current streak is seven, meaning that Vardy could equal his own record against Liverpool live on TV on Boxing Day evening. You wouldn’t bet against it.
Wolves and their goalscoring variation
The only game they have lost since September 19 was an EFL Cup tie at Aston Villa for which Nuno picked a complete reserve XI. Given the difficulties some clubs have experienced in managing the Thursday-Sunday cycle, and the strong teams picked in the Europa League, that is some effort.
One thing that might particularly please Nuno is the way in which his team have eased the responsibility on Raul Jimenez to score a high proportion of their goals. Their last ten goals in all competitions have been scored by seven different players, including Joao Moutinho, Ruben Neves, Matt Doherty, Leander Dendoncker and Patrick Cutrone.
Not quite single-handedly keeping Southampton’s head above water, but not far off. Ings has scored 41% of their league goals this season. After serious injury and a failed move to Liverpool, he’s enjoying this challenge.
Everton and an uncertain future
Everton didn’t want this, and probably didn’t plan for this either. As soon as the news that the club were considering a return for David Moyes was leaked, they made Marco Silva a dead manager walking. If they didn’t want to appoint a new manager for trips to Leicester City and Liverpool, they’re going to have to pull the plug soon because this run is taking them deep into trouble. All together now: “They’re too good to go down.”
Everton’s fair excuse for being so ill-prepared is that they never considered this could go so wrong so quickly. Silva’s Everton are not a disaster in every area of the pitch, but they are getting punished for their mistakes and the investment afforded to the manager means that patience in his underperformance wore thin a long time ago.
That puts the club in a very awkward position. The rumours of Moyes’ return have gone down badly with supporters, as has the accusation that decision-makers at the club are struggling to agree on which path Everton should now take. The only way to move forward is with consensus and harmony.
The appointment of a short-term firefighter makes more sense as Everton get dragged further into trouble, and would allow the club to target a long-term option in the summer when they will find it easier to negotiate with targets and their clubs. But it would represent an acceptance that they got it badly wrong with Silva, and lurching from long-term manager to short-term fix is evidence of a leadership structure that isn’t getting enough things right.
Everton consider themselves to be a club with a strong identity, but what does that identity actually mean in 2019? There were and are obvious flaws in Roberto Martinez, Ronald Koeman, Sam Allardyce and Marco Silva’s management, but the inability of any of the four to keep Everton challenging for a top-six place that the club considers a realistic target reflects badly on Everton as well as those managers. They sign player after player and yet always seem to have two or three problem positions. They perennially look promising but get overtaken on the outside by clubs on lower budgets and with lesser wage bills.
Between them, Marcel Brands, Bill Kenwright and Farhad Moshiri must get the next call right. Everton simply have to be moving firmly in the right direction as they enter their new stadium, and they have to find a way of making the transfer policy, managerial recruitment and team philosophy fit together. Because the reality is that Everton don’t currently stand for an awful lot on the pitch other than wasted potential and an awful lot off the pitch other than wasted money.
Marco Silva’s reputation
As pointed out by Opta’s Matt Furniss, if Silva leaves the Premier League now and never returns he will have a lower win percentage than Claude Puel, Glenn Roeder, Christian Gross and Paul Sturrock.
Jose Mourinho and Tottenham’s lack of control
Against West Ham, Bournemouth and Olympiakos, Tottenham enjoyed some control that was almost matched by chaos, but not quite. They raced into leads in the first two, and completed a convincing comeback in the third. Against Manchester United, all of the chaos and none of the control. The luck finally ran out.
Mourinho has played plenty of his hits during his first three weeks in charge of Tottenham – talking up the fans, talking up his own CV, getting an instant improvement from a couple of key players – but his typical first priority is improving his team’s defensive solidity. Mourinho is often miscast as a defensive manager, but it is certainly true to say that he prides himself upon his defensive organisation. Look at his first seasons in charge: Chelsea in 2004/05 conceded 15 league goals, half as many as in the previous season; Chelsea in 2013/14 conceded 27 goals, 12 fewer than the previous season; Manchester United in 2016/17 conceded 29 goals, fewer than the previous season.
But in each of those jobs, Mourinho had a full summer and pre-season to imprint his demands on the squad and create their style in his own image. Tottenham was the first time since joining Porto in 2002 that Mourinho had taken a job in mid-season, and that raised questions of how he would cope in that unfamiliar circumstances. We have witnessed some of the usual quick wins, but the defending remains sketchy.
In his first four matches as Tottenham manager, Mourinho’s team have conceded eight times. At Old Trafford, Spurs conceded two or more goals in a game for the fourth time in a row. Astonishingly, that is Tottenham’s longest such run since 2007. Mourinho has managed something that Harry Redknapp, Juande Ramos, Andre Villas-Boas, Tim Sherwood and Mauricio Pochettino avoided, and he’s done it in his first four games in charge.
Mourinho got it badly wrong on Wednesday night. Jan Vertonghen at left-back didn’t really work, with Daniel James enjoying too much space on the right wing. Serge Aurier is better going forward than back, so pitching him against an in-form Marcus Rashford was a disaster. In both positions, Mourinho can reasonably argue that he didn’t have an awful lot of choice.
But he did have a choice in central midfield, and quite why he picked a combination of Harry Winks and Moussa Sissoko is beyond the comprehension of every Tottenham supporter. Sissoko is many things (some of them good) but he is absolutely not a central midfield protector of the defence alongside a pretty passer. With Sissoko pushing forward at will, Mourinho left Winks exposed to the counter against the most pronounced counter-attacking team in the league. He could hardly claim that he didn’t know what to expect from United.
For all the positivity generated by three wins on the spin, each came with flaws that were exposed at Old Trafford. Mourinho will be confident of instant response against Burnley on Saturday, but he must get the balance right in midfield and improve the defensive certainty if Tottenham are to haul themselves back into the top four. Work to do on the training ground, Jose.
A really poor run. Bournemouth’s Premier League life to date has been defined by their lurches between fine and foul form that combine to leave them somewhere between ninth and 14th by May, and they’re currently in the midst of a foul run. Eddie Howe’s team have lost four league matches in a row and won one of their last nine (against Manchester United, naturally).
There are a few mitigating factors. Ryan Fraser’s relegation from star player to squad player is unfortunate, and probably reflects the player’s desire to leave the club for greener grass; Liverpool are the latest reported suitors. No club in the Premier League currently has more players out injured, including Steve Cook, David Brooks, Charlie Daniels, Josh King and Junior Stanislas. Bournemouth’s squad lacks the depth to cope with that list of absentees.
But Howe knows that their current performance level is way below par, and must look to address it in daunting circumstances against Liverpool and Chelsea. Bournemouth played for 70 minutes against ten men at Selhurst Park and had just six shots in the match. That suggests some systemic issues of creativity and cohesion.
The Big Six and clean sheets
The most astounding theme of this Premier League season is the inability of the best clubs to keep clean sheets. Liverpool might be romping their way to a maiden Premier League title, but Van Dijk expressed his annoyance at his side’s inability to keep the opposition out.
In 2018/19, Manchester City, Liverpool, Manchester United, Chelsea, Arsenal and Tottenham kept clean sheets in 38% of their league games. This summer, those six clubs spent £280m on defenders. So far this season, that clean sheet percentage stands at 17%.
And that might just be that. There was always likely to be a reaction from Pep Guardiola to Manchester City’s stumbling 2-2 draw against Newcastle United, and the instant move was to drop Stones from the starting XI again.
Since starting in City’s 6-0 win over Chelsea in February, Stones has started 10 Premier League matches and been pushed to the fringes of Guardiola’s squad. City have actually kept clean sheets in five of those ten games, but Guardiola’s suspicion is that Stones’ lapses in concentration hurt City.
After the 3-2 defeat at Norwich, Stones was left out of the team for the next four league games and returned for the 3-0 home win over Aston Villa. Four games later, he’s out again. Stones is the regular scapegoat for setbacks. Each time the route back into the team becomes more difficult.
There we go, that same old West Ham dance: one step forward, one step back. Manuel Pellegrini claimed after the defeat at Wolves that his team deserved something from the game, but he must have either been watching through claret-and-blue-tinted glasses or trying to psychologically fool those in charge of his future. The problem with being responsible for a team that flits between good and bad form is that it looks an awful lot like you’re not in control at all.
Listen to the latest episode of The Broken Metatarsal as we remember the Rafa Revolution at Liverpool, featuring Neil Mellor and comedian Adam Rowe.