His timing is as impressive as his vast improvement under Pep Guardiola. This week, widespread reports suggested that Sterling is close to signing a new contract worth £300,000 a week. Cue the tuts and sighs of those who still label this 23-year-old man a fraud, egged on by a strand of tabloid media that delights in victimisation and sensationalism.
Think I’m being unfair? This week, as the news of Sterling’s contract broke, one media outlet criticised Sterling’s choice of headwear as he travelled into Manchester City training. But when they’re having to focus on your hat, everything else is probably going pretty well. Three days after those contract rumours, Sterling scored twice and assisted three more against Southampton.
There will be those who believe Sterling undeserving of his pay rise, but Guardiola is not among them. Look at a list of Premier League players ranked by their goals and assists since the start of last season, and only Mohamed Salah is ahead of Sterling. No player has contributed more this season.
If Sterling is the beneficiary of Guardiola’s system, designed to get him as close to goal as possible in a dual winger-poacher role, he still deserves massive credit for maximising his potential under one of the most demanding managers in the game. Sterling has become undroppable within an attack that boasts more competition for places than possibly any other club in world football.
And yes, again, I have no shame in saying it: I’m bloody delighted. Sterling is an emblem of England, achieving despite the snide and at the top of his game having been stymied and suffocated by the pressure.
Rafa Benitez and Newcastle United
There had been murmurs of discontent. Nobody reasonable could conclude that anyone other than Mike Ashley is most responsible for Newcastle’s struggles both in the short and long-term, but for the first time, Benitez was not absolved of all guilt. His team selection and tactics were both questioned. The suspicion, some Newcastle supporters felt, was that Benitez had begun to give up hope. Who could blame him?
Saturday saw all the hope roar back, and it’s all thanks to Rafa. Newcastle were solid defensively and finally took the chance to win a game when it was within their grasp. Think back to Cardiff in August, when Kenedy had a late, late penalty to secure three points. This time they were victorious and they are out of the bottom three.
Here was more proof that there is no better manager for squeezing the most out of an undercooked squad than Newcastle’s current manager, and nobody better to unite a fractured and mutinous support. While Benitez still believes, so should they.
Did you get angry in the summer, when Everton paid £40m for Richarlison? Did you shake your head and remark that the “game’s gone”? Perhaps you could all club together and buy one massive card to send to Richarlison and Everton? This is a lesson to those who judge a player’s worth before he has even kicked a ball for his new team.
Richarlison has been the signing of the season so far. He now has two goals in four senior Brazil caps and has become the leader of Everton’s attack despite his tender years. He has scored six Premier League goals, bettered by only three players. He has learnt to play as a central striker rather than wide forward, holding up the ball and playing with back to goal rather than dribbling at a full-back.
Oh, and he doesn’t turn 22 until after the end of this season. Of those with more than three Premier League goals this season, Richarlison is the youngest by a full 18 months. He’s probably now worth £70m, for those who fancy getting outraged all over again.
Emery only needed to avoid defensive disaster to look good by comparison. Arsenal had conceded 17 times in their last five games against Liverpool. This was the most one-sided battle between the Big Six clubs.
But in snatching a 1-1 draw, even at home, Emery proved why he is deserving of faith and merited better than the criticism he received this summer for being an uninspiring choice. Arsenal have shown more resolve during his four months in charge than in Arsene Wenger’s final two years. If the water damage caused by Wenger’s decline will take years to reverse, Emery has already started the spring clean.
Now that’s what we’ve been missing. Part of the frustration with Xhaka is that he clearly possesses the characteristics that should see him thrive in the Premier League, but they are displayed too inconsistently and undermined by flaws in decision-making and positioning. On Saturday against Liverpool, he got it all right.
It clearly helps Xhaka to be partnered alongside Lucas Torreira, but he still merits individual praise. He hared around to put out fires, sliding in to win the ball rather than being caught upfield and having to commit fouls to snuff out danger. He drifted out wide to help Sead Kolasinac and dropped right to cover for Hector Bellerin’s forward runs. He protected Rob Holding and Shkodran Mustafi as a defensive midfielder should.
We might only be complimenting Xhaka for doing what he was bought to do (there is an element of damning with faint praise at play here), but it was still deeply pleasing to witness. Now please, please keep it up.
Manchester United’s resilience
Two league wins from behind in their last four matches. For all the deserved criticism for their dismal first-half performances, Manchester United and Jose Mourinho still have one trick up their sleeve. Since the beginning of February, United have come from behind to beat Chelsea, Crystal Palace, Manchester City, Newcastle United and Bournemouth.
Falling behind in each of those matches cannot be considered acceptable, but Mourinho will focus on the end result and is right to do so. While United are responding to adversity within the context of individual matches, belief will still reign.
Leicester City, and a win that meant nothing and everything
It is a statement of the obvious, but three league points could not make Leicester City happy after the week they have endured. One victory cannot erase the sorrow; one hundred victories could not. Leicester have suffered a loss that will take a long time to overcome, and sporting triumph is no consolation.
Even playing at Cardiff took great resilience. The squad flew to Bangkok on Sunday to attend Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha’s funeral, and would have been fully supported in any decision to get that out of the way before continuing their season. But the call was jointly made to play on in the memory of Srivaddhanaprabha and those who lost their lives a week earlier. Staff and players huddled in the centre circle before kick-off and they steeled themselves to take the first steps in the right direction.
Victory was dedicated to their former owner, but should be enjoyed by every player and member of staff. It took a huge amount of mental strength, and such fortitude will prove so invaluable in Leicester City’s recovery.
Another performance that came with reasons for concern, but another win too. For all the angst, Tottenham have now won 10 of last 13 Premier League away league games. That’s more than… erm, Manchester City.
Manuel Pellegrini needed an attacking midfielder to step up in the absence of Andriy Yarmolenko. Cut to Anderson scoring more than once in a league game for the first time in more than three years. Marko Arnautovic cannot do this by himself. It’s time for a special relationship to blossom.
Southampton, who stand for nothing
Southampton’s decline was precipitated by a series of poor decisions that undermined their grand vision. They looked to buy low, sell high and develop their own, relying upon clever managerial appointments that worked well in the cases of Mauricio Pochettino and Ronald Koeman. The key to it all lay in succession plans.
Claude Puel did not work out. He finished eighth in the Premier League and reached a domestic cup final, but the football was dreary, the league position flattered Southampton and the signings provided for him were largely unsuccessful. But at least Southampton still stood for something.
If appointing Mark Hughes on a short-term deal was not a mistake, giving him a longer deal surely was. In doing so, Southampton instantly became middle-of-the-road. There is no defined style to their football and no defined style to Hughes’ management. The academy pipeline is drying up and the signings made over the summer have again not clicked. The Southampton model has been replicated elsewhere, and bettered.
Three years ago, an elite club facing Southampton would be racked with issues that would take a week to solve. Now they are fodder that big clubs can brush aside – 12 goals conceded against Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester City. The only strategy when facing clubs around them is to be resolute and pragmatic. There is little to give comfort to the aesthete.
If Southampton had been relegated two seasons ago, their downfall would have caused great sadness. A club trying to do things a different way had failed in that admirable task. Now, Southampton’s relegation would barely cause a glimmer of sympathy or sadness.
That’s the most damning indictment of all. Southampton have become Stoke, another club that at least used to stand for something and now stands for nothing. Where did Mark Hughes last manage again?
From last week’s column:
‘Between November 21, 2016 and the end of April this year, Burnley went 62 Premier League games without conceding more than three goals in a match. For a club of their size and budget, that was an astonishing run. Burnley did not always trouble the best teams in the league, but they never capitulated.
‘Since then, in 12 matches Burnley have lost 5-0 to Arsenal, 5-0 again to Manchester City and 4-0 to Chelsea, also conceding four times to Fulham. Dyche will be wary of the lasting effects a drubbing can have.’
Make that conceding four or more goals in five of their last 13 matches. Burnley are only three points above the bottom three and have kept one clean sheet in their last 13 games in all competitions.
From the top of the world to the nadir of his Tottenham career. If the summer of 2018 gave Trippier the greatest moments of his career, Russia must now seem like a world away. There are doubts even about his merited place in Mauricio Pochettino’s first team, so quickly has Trippier’s form fallen off a cliff.
There are some Tottenham supporters who believe that Trippier has always been overrated, his attacking endeavours masking a defensive weakness that can cost his side dear. On Saturday against Wolves, with central defender Juan Foyth given his debut next to Trippier, a young man needed to be protected. Instead, Trippier left him entirely exposed. Foyth gave away the two penalties that threatened Tottenham’s chances of victory, but Trippier was his team’s worst player.
Perhaps this is part of a World Cup hangover. Trippier would be forgiven for suffering mental and physical fatigue after a long summer. He also excelled as a wing-back in Russia and is being asked to play as a regulation right-back at club level. Trippier is struggling to alter his game sufficiently to deal with that positional change, and opposition managers are exploiting the flaw.
But this is emphatic proof that being a footballer at the highest level is not easy. Rarely do you get a chance to stand back and admire the view without risking losing the form that earned you such effusive praise. Four months after scoring in a World Cup semi-final, Trippier may well be dropped for Serge Aurier, a full-back who struggles to take throw-ins properly.
In almost any other season, a draw away at a team with top-four ambitions would be a respectable result for any title challenger. Win your home games, beat the bottom-half mulch away from home and make sure you avoid defeat against your rivals. Liverpool have played Tottenham, Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester City – three of them away from home. They remain unbeaten and are only two points from the top.
But this is no ordinary season, and Manchester City are no ordinary title rival. If the suspicion was that Pep Guardiola’s team might struggle with the challenge of defending their title, there are more reasons to believe that they are stronger than weaker. City’s defending has improved markedly, and they have scored six more goals than any other team in the league.
That presents a problem for Liverpool and Jurgen Klopp, who have been cast as the closest likely challengers to City’s crown. Having finished fourth last season when fifth favourites for the title and unexpectedly reached the Champions League final, Klopp basked in his overachievement. Now even second place to arguably the strongest Premier League team in history will be cast as failure.
Therein lies the difficulty of managing a team tasked with matching expectations rather than one full only of hope. No longer are Liverpool judged as the little horse, to use Jose Mourinho’s analogy from his second spell at Chelsea. No longer can draws earned despite leading with ten minutes remaining be upsold as an important lesson learned. In this title race, the margins may well be more fine than ever before.
For all the positivity that stemmed from the 4-2 home win over Fulham, it was just one win. Cardiff have taken three points from their last eight league games, and will be relegated unless their performances improve or there is significant investment in the playing staff in January. The next three home games are absolutely crucial: Brighton, Wolves, Southampton. Fewer than three points would be a disaster.
People who think footballers must wear poppies
It may surprise those who abused Nemanja Matic and James McClean both in person and on social media on Saturday, but Premier League clubs have not always worn poppies on their shirts. In 2010, Manchester City and Manchester United played out a 0-0 draw on November 10, the day before remembrance day. Neither team had poppies embroidered on their shirts. It had not occurred to anyone to do so.
In the eight years since, English football has become a champion of poppy-wearing. Teams having poppies on their shirts is an entirely appropriate thing to do. It is a mark of respect to the fallen of the Great War, a conflict that decimated a generation which included many footballers.
Whether the official Fantasy Premier League game putting poppies on their kits for one week is necessary is far more open to debate. The suspicion is that remembrance – particularly in football – has become a competition to prove who has the most class and respect, which ironically only serves to erode the true meaning of the poppy appeal.
But wearing a symbol of remembrance must also be a choice. By attacking those who have their own personal reasons for not wearing one, critics are refusing those individuals their freedom of choice and expression. Those are precisely the ideals that our forefathers fought to protect.
Do not make the mistake, as many do, that those who choose not to wear a poppy cannot care about the victims of war; that is a nonsense. Instead, they do not agree with decorating their kit with a symbol (sold to raise money solely for the British Legion) which they believe represents a political matter, namely Britain’s actions in war. Unless you are remarkably one-eyed or overly patriotic, you can see their point.
By making the poppy an obligation, you make it meaningless. It becomes not a matter of remembrance but being seen to remember, and they are two very different things. Ultimately, it turns a symbol into an affectation.
So next year, can we please remember that forced remembrance is not remembrance at all? Can we give footballers – as we do doctors, lawyers, bricklayers and teachers – the freedom of expression to do as they see fit, not what is decreed by an angry mob?
Those who gave up their lives in conflict did so to fight for a world in which freedom of choice was a human right, not a luxury that was determined on a case-by-case basis. That tenet has been too easily forgotten in the race to shame those who to exercise that right.
I understood why Liverpool fans told me not to worry about Fabinho, because Andrew Robertson and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain had responded so well having been kept on a leash at Anfield for several months.
But you can’t help but worry. On Saturday Fabinho started his first Premier League game, but still looked pretty rusty. He dallied in midfield and lost the ball on several occasions, the only player booked after committing multiple fouls.
Jurgen Klopp is left with a quandary. Fabinho will only improve if he is given regular starts, but Liverpool cannot afford setbacks and Klopp has plenty of options in central midfield. Can he afford to take chances on the Brazilian?
And so come the newspaper reports in France, with Le Parisien saying that Fabinho is bored in Liverpool and regrets not pushing for a move to Paris Saint-Germain. PSG are still reported to be interested in signing him, and may push for a January move. Watch this space?
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