Ole Gunnar Solskjaer
As close to a no-lose situation as you could wish to find at the top level of elite sport. If Manchester United perform badly under Solskjaer, it merely backs up the opinions of a predecessor who was the highest-paid manager in the world. Solskjaer’s temporary status and existing relationship with the club affords him an extraordinary amount of goodwill. So as long as the football is entertaining (and how could it be any worse than under Jose Mourinho?) he will have succeeded.
Expectations are low, pressure is off and the initial run of fixtures is gentle. Solskjaer’s job, without it sounding quite so patronising, is to put smiles on faces that have been frowning and wincing over the last five months. He is the perfect person to do that.
But you do still have to take a step back to appreciate his good fortune. A man who was initially available at 100/1 to be named Manchester United’s manager – even on an interim basis – has got the job. A manager who last left English football having taken Cardiff City to 17th in the Championship after squandering considerable funds on poor signings has returned to take over the biggest club in the land. There should be red marks on Solskjaer’s legs and arms from where he has spent the weekend pinching himself.
Of course Manchester United were playing a team who were more accommodating than you could expect of any host over the Christmas period. Of course it was only Cardiff City. Of course it was only one game. But this was different.
It was not just the majestic timing of them scoring more than four goals in a game, a feat that Mourinho failed to manage during his entire reign. It was the manner in which they played, as if released by the shackles placed upon them by Mourinho’s management. It was how they continued to push for goals when the game was won, a bullishness that Mourinho’s team lacked.
There was a greater intensity to United’s work off the ball and some excellent one-touch passing with it, but most obvious was the manner in which the full-backs pushed higher up the pitch to support the attack. That allowed Anthony Martial and Jesse Lingard to drift inside and let their full-backs overlap.
The big winner of that shift was Paul Pogba. Martial and Lingard moving inside occupies defensive midfielders, creating space for Pogba behind them. Suddenly he had the time to pick the passes we know he can, and players demanding the ball ahead of him we know he craves. Pogba provided two assists in 90 minutes after managing three in the previous 1,197 in the league this season.
There will be United supporters who believe this improvement is proof that fickle players have finally started trying after weeks of giving up, and the #snakes hashtag was prevalent at 7.30pm on Saturday evening. But really, it isn’t that simple. This was the result of altered tactics, added freedom and players who weren’t haunted by the fear of being publicly lambasted if things went wrong. It all matters.
Following a mediocre football team away from home can be a wearing business. It is expensive, time-consuming and regularly depressing. As Palace supporters set off toward Manchester on the Saturday before Christmas, having seen their team take one away point in three months, a familiar feeling washed over them. The constant preparation for disappointment can erode the spirit and good cheer.
But this is why you do it. This is why you examine the fixture list and apportion higher percentages of your salary to traipsing after a football team than your bank manager would care to imagine. This is why the thousands of miles and hundreds of hours spent cramped in cars and on trains are worth it.
For that feeling of jumping, dancing and crowing from an away end to a stadium rendered silent by shock. For that sense of pride when your players applaud your support at full-time and you get a lump in your throat that can only be eased by happy tears or a bloodcurdling roar of exaltation. For the moment when you wake up groggy on Sunday morning and momentarily forget the previous day’s glory.
And you know that you never will stop going, because you never can stop going. How could you, when you might miss out on the magic moments that become ‘I was there’ memories in years to come? The less often these days of wonder occur, the more you persuade yourself that they will never come again and the greater the wonderful surprise when they do. If pride comes before a fall, so too does despondency come before joy.
Oh Andros, why do you always shoot from distance with such a low chance of scori…Ok, fair enough pal. You carry on.
Liverpool have a wonderful knack of winning matches despite you never quite being convinced that they are in top gear: Huddersfield in October, Fulham in November, Everton, Burnley and Wolves in December. It is not necessarily that their opponents have Liverpool under the cosh, more that Liverpool seem to play and win with something in reserve and without ever being totally efficient in the final third. It is a wonderful habit to have.
Wolves have troubled every other Big Six club this season. They have drawn with Arsenal, Manchester City and Manchester United, beaten Chelsea and somehow contrived to lose a bonkers home game 3-2 to Tottenham. But Liverpool were able to cruise past them while barely breaking sweat. They made Wolves look like Cardiff or Huddersfield.
This new-found ability to coast revolves around a defence that is performing at a higher level than any other team in Europe. Liverpool are currently on course to match Chelsea’s 2004/05 record for the fewest goals conceded in a Premier League season (15), but that Chelsea team only scored 72 goals. Liverpool are on course to score 82, and there are signs that the attack is starting to purr again after a slightly sticky start. Twelve goals in their last four league games equals their most prolific run since March.
Manchester City’s Saturday slip-up gives Liverpool a lead that they can cherish over the mini-Christmas break. Beat Newcastle and Arsenal at Anfield and they will head into the league game at the Etihad on January 3 knowing that they cannot be knocked off top spot regardless. That is a huge psychological advantage.. They should also be more confident than City, given their respective form.
Virgil van Dijk
A leader by example, presence and personality. £75m is an awful lot of money, but it might just have bought Liverpool the best central defender in the world on current form. Most importantly, Van Dijk is perfect defender to fit what Jurgen Klopp needs.
There are billboards outside St Mary’s that advertise the wares of shirt sponsor Virgin Media that display one simple message: ‘Welcome to Ralphampton’. And that’s exactly how it feels. The mood at this club has been transformed in the space of a fortnight by a new manager who understood the need to bring everybody together at Christmas.
On Saturday against Huddersfield, Southampton did something extraordinary: They won a game without the biting of nails. The last time that this club has entered the last ten minutes of a league game with a two-goal lead? November 2017. Supporters could actually enjoy themselves. What is this madness?
Southampton are not yet safe from relegation – only three points above that mark – but it’s now harder to envisage them falling back into trouble than coasting away from it. That is the Hasenhuttl effect. “He’s a foreigner and it will take time for him to understand our game,” said Graeme Souness, who knows a thing or two about managing Southampton badly. You nailed it, Souey.
Tottenham’s away form
No team in England have collected more points per away league game than Tottenham in 2018. Which is absolutely outrageous given their comparative resources. At least now Manchester United supporters can’t take part in the ‘Oh give him the away points trophy now lmao *laughing crying emoji*’ guff, because most would love to call Mauricio Pochettino theirs. Don’t worry, other clubs’ fans will carry on.
Twenty-three Premier League goals in 2018, bettered only by Mohamed Salah. Kane will end this year as he started it: as the best centre forward in world football. His all-round game has been honed to near-perfection by Pochettino.
Digging in, standing firm, playing on the counter and making substitutions that helped to secure a wonderful result. Leicester supporters who had only seen their team win at Southampton, Newcastle and Cardiff since March might wonder where this has been, but nobody is going to inspect the mouth of such a magnificent gift horse too closely. Had this festive period gone badly, Puel might well have been in some trouble. Then he produced an away masterclass at Stamford Bridge.
Twenty-nine Premier League goals and assists in 2018, fewer than only Salah. Not bad for a new signing in a new league whose age meant that he needed to hit the ground running. An Arsenal masterstroke.
Might have a future at Arsenal, is it?
He’s scored five goals in his first 16 matches in the top-flight, and he’s only 21. Eddie Howe’s transfer dealings are often cited as the one reason to doubt his managerial aptitude, but he’s got bloody loads right too.
The full list of players in Europe’s top five league with more assists than Ryan Fraser this season:
– Lionel Messi
– Eden Hazard
Manchester City, and careless lulls
From Tuesday evening’s piece on Manchester City in the EFL Cup:
‘Seven games, no clean sheets. It won’t quite be keeping Pep Guardiola up all night just yet, but there is a newly-discovered defensive sloppiness to Manchester City. Nothing to rival the leaky defence across their fair city, but Guardiola has preached a mantra of defensive certainty that enables attacking fluidity. One can easily be undermined by the other.’
Make that eight games.
‘Control can just as easily be ceded as grasped. Guardiola twice held his arms out in perturbed disbelief, as if coming back home to discover that the dog had destroyed the lounge furniture. Guardiola’s other dance move was turning his head in disgust, as if unable to stomach such panic in possession.’
Those same moves were repeated in the final 60 minutes at the Etihad on Saturday.
‘But it is that general lack of intensity that gives opposition sides hope that is most annoying to Guardiola. It will linger at the back of the manager’s mind like a stinging credit card statement that is due to drop on the mat in early January.’
The statement has landed.
I cannot pretend that I saw this defeat coming, but Manchester City have been winning in spite of themselves in recent weeks. If Guardiola wanted to address the complacency that had crept in before the Chelsea defeat, he has not done so yet. Losing at home to Crystal Palace should send a shock through the system. If City could afford to stumble (but still managed not to) last season and retain their lead, they do not have that same room to manoeuvre with Liverpool in such rude health.
The Premier League’s competitiveness often gets overstated – the ‘anyone can beat anyone’ principle falls down when you actually look at Big Six vs non-Big Six results – but every team is good enough to take advantage of significant lulls in opposition performance. Crystal Palace had been in miserable away form and rode their luck, but they also defended stoutly and took their chances superbly. This was proof that nothing can be taken for granted. Manchester City should not need to have been told that lesson again.
A rotten day for Silva’s reputation. The accusation – at Hull City, Watford and Everton – is that the manager’s optimism can sometimes stray into tactical naivety. Picking a team to face Tottenham with full-backs that demand to push on and a central midfield consisting of passer Andre Gomes and the stylish Tom Davies was akin to strategical suicide.
If Harry Kane takes care of the two central defenders, who picks up Christian Eriksen and Dele Alli? Nobody. Tottenham scored six times and could quite feasibly have scored two or three more times, so imbalanced was the midfield battle played out in front of Everton’s penalty area.
If Silva’s task was to eventually take Everton back into the top six, this season has emphasised the gulf that he must bridge. In Everton’s six league games against those sides, they have taken a single point, scored four goals and conceded 14. Is the gap closing or widening?
Everton have also now gone five league games without a win to sit 11th in the Premier League. If that’s hardly a disaster – they’re five points off Manchester United in sixth – being four places behind his former club Watford must sting a little for Silva. A must-win game at Burnley on Boxing Day approaches.
Chelsea’s sterile domination
Pass, pass, pass, pass, pass and eventually pass out. Chelsea registered 75% possession against Leicester City and dominated territory, but the away team fully justified their victory. They sat deep, watched Chelsea pass the ball ad infinitum and then snuffed out danger when the ball came close to the penalty area. Of course Leicester rode their luck (Chelsea hit post and bar), but Puel’s side created enough chances of their own and delighted on the counter attack.
Maurizio Sarri has to find a solution to this problem, and it surely isn’t Eden Hazard as a false nine. The Belgian is a wonderful player and easily Chelsea’s MVP, but asking him to play creator and finisher risks him being spread too thinly. Hazard leads his teammates on shots, assists, goals, chances created and dribbles, but he can’t do everything on his own. In this system, Chelsea’s results depend on Hazard playing at his absolute best all the time while being kicked across the pitch.
The answer must surely be to start Olivier Giroud, given that Alvaro Morata is widely reported to be leaving the club and Hazard has been so effusive in his praise for the World Cup winner. Without a focal point centre forward, Hazard is liable to get fed up with the responsibilities weighing heavily on his shoulders.
Sorry lads, but you know the rules. Fail to have a single shot on target at home to this Fulham defence results in automatic relegation.
England’s World Cup defence
Jordan Pickford has made a series of mistakes this season, Kieran Trippier is so far out of form that he could feasibly be dropped, Harry Maguire’s Leicester have been inconsistent (although were brilliant on Saturday), John Stones is playing in defensive midfield and I’d forgotten that Ashley Young was even our left-back in the summer. The World Cup hangover lives on.
A weekend of absolute, pure, distilled, 100% West Ham. Given the chance to record five consecutive league wins and leave supporters feeling swell heading into Christmas, of course West Ham had 18 shots without scoring, defended shambolically and lost 2-0 at home to Watford. It’s like you don’t know this club at all.
I’m not saying that Huddersfield are struggling to score goals at home, but only one player has done so more often than Joe Lolley in the Premier League in 2018. Lolley signed a permanent deal at Nottingham Forest on January 31.
The problem with the chronic lack of goals is that it reduces the margin for defensive disorganisation below the point that Huddersfield’s defenders can stick to. Losing five games in a row is one thing, but four of them being against Brighton, Bournemouth, Newcastle and Southampton is quite another.
Get used to your manager being constantly linked with the Manchester United job over the next five months while he continues to overachieve. It’s a compliment, even if it makes you understandably angry.