Wolves, raising their game again
A wonderful win. Having conceded the opening goal to Chelsea to seemingly extend a run of dire form, Wolves could easily have allowed their heads to drop and lost by two or three goals. Instead they responded with a gutsy, gritty second-half performance that shows why they will not be relegated.
Were Wolves to only play top-half teams they would be laughing. No club has caused the Big Six more problems. Nuno’s side have drawn with Manchester City, Manchester United, Arsenal and Everton, caused Tottenham significant problems and beaten Chelsea. They have an ability to reduce games against lofty opponents to a version of chaos, with the 3-2 Tottenham defeat as the perfect example. Those matches become 50:50 coin tosses played on the edge. Given the strength of those opponents, that’s the best they can hope for.
Now Nuno must eliminate the sloppiness against bottom-half sides. Do that, and Wolves can again look up towards the top six with hope rather than wild optimism.
He’s 18, he’s English and he plays with the composure and confidence of a veteran pro. Wolves’ project might be built around Gestifute talent, but in Gibbs-White they have one of the most exciting domestic talents and will surely now provide him with regular opportunities. Bugger me it’s hard not to get giddy about England.
Winners partly because they kept up their unlikely pace in pursuit of Manchester City, but mainly due to the style in which they did it. Jurgen Klopp picked a front three more surprising than the Sugarbabes circa 2010, but still eventually delighted in victory.
The list of players absent from Liverpool’s starting XI on Wednesday: Roberto Firmino, Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mane, Fabinho, Trent Alexander-Arnold, Adam Lallana, Andrew Robertson and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. There is a strength in depth, when all are fit, that supports Liverpool’s improved ambitions.
But Liverpool also did something fairly unusual on Wednesday: They won from a losing position. They had won just once after conceding the first goal of a league game since December 2017, and must continue to show that resolve if they are to hang on to City’s coattails. It seems faintly ridiculous given City’s dominant start, but Liverpool will go top of the Premier League with a win on Saturday lunchtime.
The potential saviour of Newcastle’s season on the pitch, while takeover talk again teases supporters with hope. Three goals in his last four matches have earned his team four points. That’s the difference between being 14th and level on points with the bottom three.
Just another Harry Kane season, in which every other Tottenham player gets a rest and Kane merrily carries on like he’s a bloody robot. He has looked slightly fatigued at times – how could he not? – but the output barely drops below consistent brilliance. Nine goals makes him the second top scorer in the Premier League, and on Wednesday he added his second assist too.
Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette
From Monday’s Winners and Losers:
‘Since Aubameyang joined in January, the pair have spent 1,026 minutes together on the pitch in all competitions. In those 1,026 minutes, Aubameyang and Lacazette alone have scored a goal every 60 minutes.’
That average has dipped slightly after Arsenal’s second goal at Old Trafford was eventually awarded to Marcos Rojo, but the point stands.
We’re desperate for Unai Emery to find a place for them both in his regular starting XIs. Without Lacazette, Aubameyang can sometimes become isolated when the team is sitting back. With him, the pair dance and delight like new lovers.
Do read 16 Conclusions from Old Trafford, by the way.
Still Manchester United’s best central defender when everyone is at their peak. Bailly has been firmly placed outside in the cold by Jose Mourinho, but fully justified his selection by keeping pace with Aubameyang in one-on-one sprints and winning a series of towering headers. Now give him a run in the starting XI and let him build up that confidence.
There must be something in the festive air, because we are witnessing a series of Christmas miracles. On Sunday, Divock Origi scored having spent so long in the cold at Liverpool that he is being treated by the physios for frostbite. By Tuesday, Lucas Perez scored his first Premier League goal since January 2017 and scored more than once in any league game for the first time since September 2015. Crikey.
It has been a difficult year for Sane. He has so far only started 21 Premier League games in 2018, and missed out on a place in Germany’s World Cup squad over concerns about his attitude. The challenge after a brilliant start to his career is to ensure that standards do not slip.
But Sane remains an extraordinary talent, a full-back’s nightmare and potentially a significant leading actor in Manchester City’s title defence. When Benjamin Mendy is available, Pep Guardiola is less inclined to start Sane because the two tend to operate in the same areas high up on the left wing. Playing Raheem Sterling or Bernardo Silva makes more sense, because they prefer to drift infield and create space for Mendy to overlap.
But Mendy’s injury creates an opportunity for Sane. Fabian Delph is far more likely to move into central midfield than up the wing, meaning Sane becomes crucial in dragging out a central defender to create space in the penalty area and arriving late into the box to apply the finishing touch. See City’s first goal at Vicarage Road for details.
Eight goals from ten shots on target in the league this season. Just because it’s all come too late – and in the wrong style – for an England call-up doesn’t alter the fact that Murray is playing at his peak at the age of 35. The opening goal against his former club in a derby only makes Brighton fans love him more dearly.
Mid-table never felt so good for our early winner.
Scored his first goal for his new club against their hated rivals with his first touch, 25 seconds after coming off the bench. Buy a lottery ticket this weekend, fella.
Bournemouth may have moved up to sixth in the table on Tuesday night, a remarkable achievement given where they started under Eddie Howe, but boy were they wretched. Huddersfield had almost four times as many shots and three times the number of shots on target as Bournemouth, and David Wagner’s side attempted exactly double their number of passes.
If Howe will be pleased to witness his side winning while playing badly – Bournemouth have excelled at the vice versa over the last 18 months – he will be grateful for a superb display from Begovic. The Bosnian has made mistakes this season, but on Tuesday he was more responsible than anyone for a much-needed three points to stop a run of defeats.
Thirteen goals and assists in 15 Premier League games, a total beaten only by Raheem Sterling. Wilson’s run of telling contributions is quickly becoming the landmark season of his career.
The first non-Big Six team in over three months to only lose by a single goal to Manchester City in the Premier League. At the moment, that feels like a victory.
One step forward and two more back. Palace’s victory over Burnley at the weekend proved their ability to dominate the worst defences in the league, but it also highlighted Roy Hodgson’s problem. Palace have won three games this season, beating the teams currently in 17th, 19th and 20th. Victory against the absolute worst and general misery against the rest might just be enough to squeak their way to Premier League survival, but the intention was that 2018/19 would see Palace move away from trouble rather than cling to it grimly.
Worse news came after the game, with Hodgson confirming that money to improve Palace’s squad would not be forthcoming in January. The club’s wage bill is eye-watering considering their output; high-profile statement signings are failing to pull their weight. Palace have the worst conversion rate in the Premier League. The plan to play wingers as strikers given the lack of centre forwards is not working. As soon as Wilfried Zaha gets isolated and the supply chain to him suffocated, Palace are in trouble. The damning indictment is that goalkeeper Wayne Hennessey has probably been their best player this season.
Hodgson will soon be in trouble if this form continues. He eased the pressure with the Burnley win, but Palace were out-fought by Brighton on Tuesday evening, even after the dismissal of Shane Duffy. That is unforgivable in the eyes of supporters. No fight, no point keeping the faith. If Hodgson has been dealt a tough hand, the board spooked by the Frank de Boer debacle and reticent to invest heavily, he is still playing it badly.
Palace probably do have enough quality to stay up, particularly if Christian Benteke can get fit, stay fit and become a goalscorer again. But the squad is painfully thin, and a long winter will test it further. It would be no surprise if Palace dialled 999 in January and appointed a firefighter to save them from trouble. Sean Dyche, perhaps?
If common wisdom dictated that Maurizio Sarri would need a little time to implement his philosophy at Stamford Bridge before settling into things and taking Chelsea up the table, the opposite has occurred. Chelsea looked supreme in the early part of the season, but have taken several steps backwards in recent weeks.
The defeat to Tottenham was no disaster, and the home draw against Everton can be filed under ‘one of those things’. But losing at Molineux having taken the lead will irk Sarri. It was the third time this season that Chelsea have dropped points after scoring the first goal, having done the same against Liverpool and Manchester United. These are the stumbles that make a massive difference come the end of the season.
With Manchester City to come on Saturday teatime, Chelsea supporters would be forgiven for being a little spooked by the thought of Pep Guardiola’s band of attacking midfielders dancing around their defensive midfield. The conundrum remains: Does the deep-lying playmaker offer enough defensive protection for the Premier League’s blood and thunder, counter-attacking style?
If scoring first against Liverpool offered hope that Burnley could pull off a shock to turn around their season, the last 35 minutes reinforced just how much their defensive incompetence is undermining everything else Sean Dyche tries to do. Burnley are on course to concede a record-breaking number of shots in a Premier League season, a statistic that sticks out more given their solidity last season. The growing suspicion is that what made Burnley great has slipped through their fingers.
Jose Mourinho’s signings
Not present in Manchester United’s starting XI on Wednesday:
Alexis Sanchez: The highest-paid player in the history of British football, injured but also unwanted. When Sanchez struggled post-January, Mourinho insisted that he was a signing for 2018/19 more than last season. He’s now a white elephant, presumably photographed with Atom and Humber sat on his back.
Romelu Lukaku: The most expensive striker in the history of British football, who looks forlorn and shorn of all confidence. Lukaku is not blameless in that, but he has also been worn down by a lack of service and lack of support from a team barely firing on any cylinders.
Paul Pogba: The most expensive player in the history of British football, left on the naughty step after losing the faith of his manager. Again, Pogba must take some blame for that, but when so many key players are underperforming as one cohesive unit it does make you wonder whether the problem lies in their management.
Fred: The second most expensive midfielder in the history of British football, who now looks to have been cast aside by his manager less than six months after joining the club. Mourinho pushed to sign Fred and delighted in pipping Manchester City to his services, but has never really tried to fit him in to his system.
For all the faults of Ed Woodward and his seniors, can you see why they might not be ultra-keen to give Mourinho vast swathes of additional funds to spend?
Ranked by order of most expensive:
Man United's bench (£244.9m)
Man United's starting XI (£209m)
Arsenal's starting XI (£167.9m)
Arsenal's bench (£61.5m)
Actual reserve Fred (£47m)
If only Jose Mourinho received financial backing.
— Football365 (@F365) December 5, 2018
Manchester United’s defending
There were signs of improvement from Manchester United on Wednesday evening, even if that sounds like damnation through faint praise. United started the game with an intensity that Jose Mourinho demanded, and again came back from behind to take something from the match. Marcus Rashford held the ball up well and Eric Bailly and Ander Herrera were excellent. Anthony Martial scored again, and seems to have got over his manager’s summer punishments for now. At times, and say it quietly so you don’t jinx it, a Manchester United match actually felt like fun.
But there’s always a but with United these days. For much of this season, the focus has been on their sluggish attacking and long, direct balls to an isolated Lukaku. But if the attack is stumbling, the defence is creaking too. United have now conceded two or more goals in six of their last nine league games. The full list of Premier League clubs to have conceded more goals, along with their league position:
Cardiff City – 16th
Huddersfield Town – 17th
Southampton – 18th
Burnley – 19th
Fuham – 20th
That must be deeply embarrassing for Mourinho, a manager who has always prided himself upon defensive resilience. After 15 league games, United have dropped more points than they have won. They are currently on course to accumulate 58 league points, six fewer than in the disastrous David Moyes/Ryan Giggs season. Mourinho’s greatest achievement at the club is persuading supporters that being eighth in the league in his third season does not justify mutiny against their manager’s continued employment.
Again, read 16 Conclusions. Be a dear.
A missed penalty and a booking, Ralls was an own goal away from the imperfect hat-trick. Given how quickly his side capitulated in the second half, Ralls’ profligacy cost his side victory. Neil Warnock may be changing his penalty taker in training this week.
A defeat at Anfield that should have been a draw, and a draw at Goodison that should have been a victory. Marco Silva’s side have let three points slip in the space of four days. Sixth place would be a massive achievement for this season, but chances to form a cushion above the sides below has been lost in sloppy circumstances.
The smudge on an otherwise spotless Manchester City season. Jesus, what’s the matter?