Liverpool were brilliant but aided by an awful Arsenal side. Mikel Arteta is in trouble; the entire club needs to pull in the same direction.
Round Liverpool pegs in round Liverpool holes
I was one of many who praised Fabinho for his role as an emergency central defender. His attributes – reading the game, aerial ability, comfortable short passing – made him the ideal candidate to step back at a time of need.
But there’s no doubt that Liverpool lacked something in midfield without their magnificent holding midfielder. It sold Thiago short at precisely the time that he needed comfort when settling into English football, preventing him from roaming forward to pick the right pass without fear of counter-attacking reprisals. It made life harder for both full-backs without Fabinho shuttling across to provide cover for their overlapping runs if possession was lost.
Liverpool were clearly aided by a wretched Arsenal display during which they were barely able to pass it through central midfield without making a mistake, but Liverpool played a role in exposing those deficiencies. They pressed with intensity across the pitch, maximised turnovers in the second half and justified victory by a greater margin than their three goals. It’s too much to say that this is all down to Fabinho in midfield, but goodness me it certainly helps.
Until this weekend, the only chance at season redemption for Liverpool appeared to lie in the Champions League, where a favourable path to the Champions League semi-finals (Sergio Ramos-less Real Madrid and Chelsea/Porto) really does make another European Cup possible. But any suspicion that Jurgen Klopp might sacrifice domestic results for European freshness can now be forgotten. Klopp sees the two as entirely interdependent: you can’t throw away one competition and hope to surge on in another so easily.
And a top-four place is a real possibility again. Partly because Fabinho and Diogo Jota are back where they should be, partly because their away form has remained pretty good throughout their slump (Liverpool have won five of their last six in the league on the road) and partly because Chelsea, Tottenham and Leicester all dropped points this weekend. The fixture list helps too: six of Liverpool’s remaining eight league games are against teams currently in the bottom half.
And this matters. Champions League qualification would evidently aid Liverpool in any desire they have to attract players this summer, but it also dictates the magnitude of the rebuild this summer. End the season with a strong run, Virgil van Dijk to return and Ibrahima Konate reportedly ready to sign and suddenly Klopp can justifiably look at next season with red-tinted glasses.
Now go and read 16 Conclusions before heading back.
West Brom’s verve
Of course everything went right; it had to. Thiago Silva’s red card (and he could easily have gone earlier) provided the platform for West Brom to throw caution to the wind, but they were still a little fortunate. Using expected goals as a measure on a single match comes with advisory caution, but Chelsea did lead it 1.97-1.50 and lost 5-2.
But this was certainly a new mood from Sam Allardyce’s team, perhaps because at 1-0 down they were almost certainly relegated and the man advantage gave them no choice. The defining moment of the match was when Branislav Ivanovic was forced to come off and Lee Peltier was the like-for-like replacement. Allardyce instead called upon Callum Robinson and the game almost immediately shifted in their favour.
First for the statistics of a remarkable win: This was the first time that West Brom have scored five times in a Premier League game since the 5-5 final-day draw with Manchester United in 2013. It is the first time that they have scored five goals in any away game since February 2012.
And now the lesson: West Brom have to stick with this approach. The safety-first mantra was fully understandable, not least because it is Allardyce’s natural habitat, but it has failed. West Brom scored as many times in 48 minutes against Chelsea as in their previous ten league games combined.
Attacking intention may not keep West Brom up either. They still have to face Leeds, Arsenal, Leicester and Aston Villa away and West Ham and Liverpool at home and probably need at least 13 points to have a chance of survival. But that’s not the point: It is their only hope.
And it might make a difference for Allardyce’s future too. He spoke this week to insist that he will not “mess about” at West Brom, by which he meant that there must be a clear plan for immediate promotion if the club are indeed relegated. That may well depend on the club’s ability to keep hold of their three scorers on Saturday. Robinson, Matheus Pereira and Mbaye Diagne (currently only on loan from Galatasaray) would be the best attack in the Championship.
The loss of Van Dijk came to define Liverpool’s title non-defence, but don’t underestimate the absence of Jota. Without him, Liverpool became formulaic in attack and Klopp had little choice but to keep picking the same front three because Divock Origi and Xherdan Shaqiri just aren’t good enough for Liverpool’s ambition. The front three must be fatigued after three years of constant pursuit of trophies and there is the lingering suspicion that Mohamed Salah believes his future may lie elsewhere.
Jota has scored in nine Liverpool matches this season; they have won eight of them and drawn the other. He offers a different threat and that difference alone is enough to make him valuable. Liverpool can use their front three in different ways and it is so often Jota who benefits from the space that creates. He’s surely now first-choice ahead of Roberto Firmino for their Champions League assignments, starting on Tuesday.
Arsenal’s young talents
It’s hardly something to cling to given the performance and result, but Saturday proved exactly why Emile Smith Rowe and Bukayo Saka are such a vital part of Arsenal’s future. With them, Arsenal at least have attacking energy and a vibrancy that can easily spread to other players. With both, they looked woefully lethargic.
These are the players that Mikel Arteta must look to build around, along with Thomas Partey and Kieran Tierney. The problem is that there aren’t many more and that these aren’t the players on the biggest contracts.
Picked a really good time to win their first game having fallen two goals down in over five years. At 0-2, Southampton and Ralph Hasenhuttl were in crisis with relegation becoming a distinct possibility. At 3-2, they got their second win in 13 league games and are now secure for another season.
You can doubt how well they are coached. You can see them as a testament to the power of individual talent rather than cohesive strategy. You can question why they fall behind so often in matches. You can suggest that they will finish second in the Premier League this season almost by default.
But you cannot say that Manchester United lack character. The average number of points that a Premier League team has won from losing positions this season is eight. They have won 25.
Leeds United, job done
Last season, Sheffield United recorded the ninth highest points total of any promoted club in the Premier League era with 54 points. Wolves set the recent standard with their 57 in 2018/19.
The win over Sheffield United means that Leeds have reached 42 points with eight games remaining. They will fall short of Wolves (and probably Sheffield United too) and they did spend £90m on new players last summer, but even that comes with two caveats: Leeds made a net profit on transfer fees of £20m over the previous two seasons under Marcelo Bielsa and their two most expensive signings (Rodrigo and Diego Llorente) have only been able to start 19 league games between them this season. All in all, mission absolutely accomplished.
Callum Robinson vs Chelsea
Callum Robinson against Chelsea in the league this season: 119 minutes, four goals.
Callum Robinson vs everyone else this season: 1,122 minutes, no goals.
To paraphrase the famous line from Brian Clough after a head injury – “Tell him he’s Pele and stick him up front” – Sam Allardyce just needs to make Robinson believe he’s facing Chelsea every week.
Arsenal and Mikel Arteta
This felt like a new nadir. That may well be recency bias, but the regular repetition of the backwards stumbles that inevitably follow Arsenal’s small steps in the right direction under Arteta do not make the hyperbole feel misplaced. It says everything about Arsenal that they have not won more than three league games in a row since October 2018, the nascent days of the post-Arsene Wenger era. Your enjoyment of every victory, however emphatic, loses its lustre when you know a setback is just around the corner. Death, taxes and a shambolic Arsenal home defeat to cause quasi-existential fallout.
So often under Arteta, losses have come through their commitment to the vision that their manager believes is the only route towards sustainable improvement. That doesn’t make them easier to stomach in the moment, but it at least provides an explanation. On Saturday, it was hard to even detect a strategy. Forwards were turned into auxiliary full-backs by the inability to pass through midfield. They clearly figured that touching the ball 60 yards from goal was better than not touching it at all, but both serve to make them feel glum. Arsenal’s front four (Aubameyang, Odegaard, Pepe and Lacazette) had one shot between them against a side supposedly low on confidence and missing several key players.
There were mitigating factors. Arsenal were without Smith Rowe and Saka, two players who at least make supporters believe in a brighter tomorrow. They were missing Granit Xhaka and David Luiz, two regularly maligned senior players who do at least give the spine of the team some organisation when playing well. But that’s not enough to relieve any fan of their gloom. If anything, it exacerbates it; how many in that starting XI would they be truly upset at losing?
If the tendency is to blame the personnel, Arteta should not escape scrutiny. Playing Aubameyang as a left-sided forward makes sense in a 3-4-3 shape that allow him to drift infield and stay high up the pitch, but in a 4-2-3-1 he is asked to work back more than he would like, more than he seems capable of and more than every supporter would wish. We’ve said it before, but what was the point of giving Aubameyang a £375,000-a-week contract at the age of 31 if there was no obvious inclination to build the team around him? Now Arsenal have a second Mezut Ozil problem brewing weeks after they finally cut their losses on the original issue.
We can probably reserve judgement on Arteta until after their Europa League campaign ends. They face Slavia Prague and Dinamo Zagreb or Villarreal for a place in the final that gives them what always appeared to be their best shot at Champions League qualification. If Artera succeeds where Unai Emery failed, he will reasonably sell this season as a qualified success.
But we are 18 months into Arteta’s Arsenal and he has won fewer Premier League games than Everton (and only four more than Burnley) over that period. We knew this would be a monumental task but we also expected a little steadier progress and fewer punches to the gut.
And that’s why we must look a little higher than Arteta; he doesn’t escape blame but he also doesn’t monopolise it. This Arsenal rebuild can only happen if everything and everyone is pointed in the right direction. Only then can the club attract players who have other options and give Arteta a mandate to compel the current squad to buy into the journey.
And right now (and not just because of Saturday), Arsenal are an uncomfortable blend of stasis and constant flux, where everyone is wrestling so much to try and allow green shoots of recovery that they end up stamping them further into the dirt.
Sorry, but I just don’t see it. We are rightly encouraged to give imported players time to settle in the Premier League, but Pepe has been here 18 months and he turns 26 next month. He’s also the fourth most expensive player ever signed by a British club. The odd flash of Europa League brilliance is nowhere near enough to justify that fee.
Everything that could have gone wrong did go wrong. Thiago Silva was sent off at 1-0 and Chelsea may well have seen out the game in their customary Thomas Tuchel manner if he hadn’t. Chelsea were profligate in attack (again) and surprisingly porous in defence. Sometimes such complete disarray can be spun into a positive by a manager. “This is what happens if you switch off,” Tuchel might well have told his players at full-time.
Tuchel’s selection – with one eye on midweek – clearly played a part. Jorginho produced his worst half of football in a Chelsea shirt and they badly missed N’Golo Kante. The last six times Silva and Kurt Zouma have played together have produced five defeats; that might be the last time we see that combination this season. Mason Mount was also rested after England duty; he will start against Porto.
I’m not quite going full Joe Cole levels of jingoism here, because I’m pretty sure Tuchel has not been surprised by the depth of talent or the intensity of the Premier League. But this was certainly a reminder that Chelsea cannot hope to coast to a top-four finish with one eye kept squarely on the Champions League. They are fortunate that Leicester and Tottenham both dropped points.
Fulham, just not doing enough
Fulham have earned plenty of compliments recently for their determined push for survival, but I’ve never quite understood it. Ademola Lookman, Ruben Loftus-Cheek, Andre Zambo Anguissa and Alphonse Areola would walk into most of the teams around them. They have scored 24 goals in 31 games. They have won two (West Brom and Sheffield United at home) of their 17 matches against teams outside the current top eight.
And their recent form seems to be something of a mirage, even if they did beat Everton and Liverpool. Fulham were three points inside the bottom three at the end of December, three points inside it at the end of February and are three points inside it now. The only difference is that they have now played an extra game than those above them.
Given a genuine shot at survival with Newcastle dropping like a stone, Fulham have lost three in a row, conceding eight goals. Perhaps they will make a fist of staying up from here onwards, but it hardly smacks of a team high on confidence who believe they can achieve their goal.
Tottenham, the Harry Kane team
Tottenham have become a thought experiment for how much having a wonderful centre-forward can do and how much having a declining elite-level manager can blunt it. For all the talk of Jose Mourinho summoning more from his players in a bid to achieve a top-four place, I cannot believe it will happen because every other starter on Sunday bar Kane and Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg look to be utterly bereft of confidence.
Tottenham went to Newcastle to play a team that were ripe for the taking, seemed to deliberately sit back (as per usual) in the first 30 minutes, did so again in the final 30 minutes and still somehow managed to allow Steve Bruce’s side to take nine percent of all their shots from inside the box this season in the space of 90 minutes and allowed Newcastle to record their highest expected goals figure in a league game for more than seven years. Look forward to Mourinho calling out his players and telling us that he told them to play differently. It’ll already have happened by the time…
…Ah yes, it happened. And this time Mourinho’s public haranguing of his players seems to have gone down particularly badly with his squad, while his explanation for Toby Alderweireld’s absence was inadvertently disproven by Tottenham’s own official Twitter account. We are smack in the middle of bridge-burning mode.
They could still go down, y’know. They won’t. But they could.
The record for the most defeats in a Premier League season stands at 29. Sheffield United have now lost 24 with eight games left and you would not bet against them surpassing that magic number. If Chris Wilder’s sacking came with some logic, removing him has done nothing for the mood. A horribly uneasy summer awaits.