Tom Davies and Everton’s tempo
It has been a rotten 2019 for Davies, who before Saturday had not started a Premier League match since February 6. The issue seemed to be one of circumstance rather than failure of effort or ability. Marco Silva describes him as an excellent box-to-box midfielder, but with three attacking midfielders behind a striker, Everton’s manager has preferred two more defensive midfielders to hold the fort.
Saturday was evidence of why Davies could be so vital. So far this season, Everton have looked stunted in possession. Fabian Delph and Morgan Schneiderlin, with 11 league starts between them, might be effective screens for the defence but they are far less mobile and tend to both play safe, sideways passes. It’s all very well having four attacking players on the pitch, but if they have to drop so deep to pick up the ball that the opposition can easily get organised then it becomes counter-productive.
Judging Everton on one performance would be hasty, particularly given how poor West Ham played, but Silva deserves credit for the success of his plan. Richarlison, Bernard, Theo Walcott and Alex Iwobi were told to press high up the pitch to win possession, meaning that Everton stopped inviting their opponents onto them as they have at times this season. Richarlison, Bernard and Walcott made nine tackles between them. Gylfi Sigurdsson was dropped, but still made the difference coming off the bench.
Silva still needs to get the balance right. Andre Gomes and Davies were both booked and both are more progressive midfielders than holders. The loss of Idrissa Gueye and subsequent injury to Jean-Philippe Gbamin at least partly explains Everton’s poor form, and Gbamin is likely to be out until January. But there’s no doubt that Davies’ intensity gave Everton a lift, and his league start was long overdue. Would Silva consider switching to a 4-3-3 and playing three midfielders and wide forwards (Bernard and Iwobi) who had licence to drift infield and allow the full-backs to overlap?
Jack Grealish and John McGinn
Given the rise in broadcasting revenues across the Premier League, it is no longer unusual for lower-half teams to have midfielders of wonderful technical ability. But what makes McGinn and Grealish so special is that they both came up from the Championship and are a homegrown academy kid and a player signed for less than £3m. If that sounds a little patronising, let’s address it with effusive praise: this is one of the best pairs of technical midfielders outside the Big Six.
Against Brighton, who were brilliant in the first 30 minutes and would surely have taken at least a point had Aaron Mooy not been sent off, Grealish and McGinn dictated the tempo of the match and ultimately decided its outcome. They shared nine chances created, 11 dribbles and nine shots. If Grealish understandably took the plaudits after his goal and assist, McGinn’s direct passing from central midfield is the perfect platform for Grealish to drift centrally and pick up possession in dangerous areas.
But that’s nothing new. Grealish and McGinn account for 45% of Aston Villa’s complete dribbles this season, 38% of their chances created, 37% of their shots and 25% of all the passes in the opposition half. Keep those two fit – and the man who gives them freedom – and Villa will stay up.
Manchester United’s intent
‘The best Manchester United teams over the years have played with courage, resilience and have taken risks and this is the perfect game to show that,’ Ole Gunnar Solskjaer wrote in his programme notes. It’s a self-evident truth, in that any manager could say the same about any club because that’s how all the best teams have played. The test was whether Manchester United action backed up those words. And they did. You can read 16 Conclusions here.
Solskajer got his tactics spot on. By playing with wing-backs he succeeded in neutralising Liverpool’s best chance creators. He was given a huge dose of good fortune with Salah missing the game – Liverpool’s usual front three against three centre-backs would have been a massive risk – but exploited that fortune very well.
They also played with intensity through midfield, snapping into tackles and used Marcus Rashford and Daniel James as split strikers to good effect. With Liverpool’s full-backs pushing on, that strategy forced Joel Matip and Virgil van Dijk to be dragged out of position. Van Dijk was his usual excellent self, but Matip did regularly struggle to cope with the movement.
Even if their goal was controversial and United eventually ceded their lead by falling in on themselves and defending deep, Solskjaer comes out of the weekend with a stronger hand than he entered it. Given that they had fewer shots and only 32% possession that might constitute damning with faint praise, but Solskjaer will take all he can get now. Nobody has troubled Liverpool like this for some time.
But what is most important is that United move onwards and upwards from Sunday, or else it counts for nought. Jose Mourinho said in the studio before the game that United could only match Liverpool with “heart not quality”, but there is no excuse for this intensity to have been absent in so many of their recent matches. Being so focused against your bitter rivals only puts into sharper focus their previous ignominy. United are still only two points outside the bottom three.
United and Solskjaer now have five league games against teams around them in the table: Norwich, Bournemouth, Brighton, Sheffield United and Aston Villa. Take fewer than 13 points from those five games and this result will be worth far less than it seems in immediate hindsight. This must be a platform for a strong run, not the exception to a grim new rule.
Since the beginning of last season, conceding the first goal of the match has been a Leicester City theme. In 2018/19, only Fulham, Cardiff City and Huddersfield – the three relegated clubs – conceded first more often than Leicester’s 23 times.
It is a problem that Brendan Rodgers has so far proven himself incapable of addressing. Leicester may be third in the Premier League, but only four clubs (Norwich, Watford, Wolves and Southampton) have allowed their opponents to score first more times.
The difference lies not in avoiding going behind, but how Leicester have responded to setback. Last season, Leicester took only 14 points from the 23 matches they went behind, 0.61 per game on average; they won three, drew five and lost 15.
So far this season, a complete change. Leicester have conceded first in five league games but have won two and drawn one of those matches, taking 1.4 points per game on average. The only team that averages more in such scenarios are Liverpool, who beat Newcastle 3-1 and drew with Manchester United in the only two games that they conceded first.
That record goes against the grain, because one of the general patterns of this Premier League season is the incapability of teams to haul themselves back into matches. Between them, Manchester City, Manchester United, Chelsea, West Ham, Everton and Norwich have conceded first in 20 different matches this season. Their combined record in those 20 games: won 0, drawn 0, lost 20.
Rodgers will stress to his players that prevention is better than cure, but he also knows that strong response to adversity is a telltale sign of a team with high morale. His greatest strength as a manager is persuading his team that nothing can stand in their way. Leicester’s players are learning the trick.
Oh look, just go and read this piece again because it made people very angry but I thought it was perfectly fair.
Manchester City’s midfield defence
Oh Pep, you cheeky monkey. We should know Manchester City’s manager well enough by now to not be surprised by his tactical quirks, but even by usual standards this was something out of left field. City’s starting XI at Selhurst Park contained a goalkeeper, two full-backs, seven midfielders and a striker. Need more intrigue? He picked two central midfielders in central defence, flanked by two attacking full-backs.
There will be times when that plan won’t work, of course. Christian Benteke is in wretched form but his physical presence might have made more sense against two makeshift central defenders who are far happier with the ball at their feet than ten feet in the air. Jordan Ayew failed to have a shot on target or create a chance, and Jeffrey Schlupp was so anonymous in his 54 minutes that City could double up on Wilfried Zaha. By the time Schlupp was removed for Andros Townsend, the game was over.
But given the amount of possession Guardiola expected City to have, midfielders as defenders made perfect sense. While Rodri sat deeper, Fernandinho’s heatmap shows that he effectively played the match in the middle of the pitch anyway. Rodri was the only City outfield player to have the majority of his touches in the opposition half. Between them, the triangle of Rodrigo, Fernandinho and Ilkay Gundogan had 329 touches of the ball. The 14 players Palace used only had 467.
Guardiola was evidently coerced into the change by circumstance, but you wonder whether he might repeat it against weaker opposition. He has always prioritised a central defender’s passing ability more than his tackling and heading, and Fernandinho is a master of all trades anyway.
Jamie Vardy, using banter as fuel
In November 2017, Leicester City played Tottenham at the King Power. Jamie Vardy’s wife Rebekah had recently entered I’m A Celebrity, and the away support delighted in chanting “F*cked in the jungle” to the tune of The Sandpipers Guantanamera.
Midway through the first half, Vardy ran onto a lofted through ball from Marc Albrighton, chipped Hugo Lloris from 25 yards and aprinted over to Tottenham’s support to goad them about their chant. Even those who screamed abuse at Vardy in response must have secretly been impressed by the brass balls of the man.
On Saturday, Burnley supporters chanted that Rebekah Vardy was “a grass”, a reference to the sensational social media spat between Vardy and Colleen ‘Columbo’ Rooney. After Vardy scored Leicester’s equaliser he ran over to the away support and cupped his ears, delighting in silencing them.
You absolutely, categorically, love to see it. There are better strikers in Europe than Vardy, but surely no better grifters.
Still winless, but they will feel like winners after ending one of the longest streaks in the Premier League. Since January 2017, Watford had played 16 league games away at Big Six clubs and lost all 16. In that run, Watford had scored nine goals and conceded 53.
A run of blunt goalscoring form continues – it’s now one goal in four games – but Daniel Farke will be mighty pleased that Norwich ended their mini-run of defeats and shambolic defensive performances. This was their first clean sheet in any game since April 6, and their first for 16 Premier League matches.
You can read about them here.
A first Liverpool goal since May 2017, following a series of frustrating injuries and a club that had grown up around him. Good on you, sport.
Wolves’ lack of creativity
It’s hardly a disaster given that they beat Manchester City 2-0 before the international break with two pieces of wonderful, ruthless counter-attacking football, but Wolves seem to have turned back into the side of last season that succeeded against the best clubs in the league but struggled against the rest. Against opposition that sits back and frustrates them, Wolves can quickly run out of ideas.
On Saturday against Southampton at Molineux, Wolves had four shots and created only two chances. In terms of chance creation, it was their joint-worst performance since their promotion. The only two times they have managed fewer shots in a league match over that same period was against Chelsea and Manchester City. Last season, they managed 31 shots in two games against Southampton, who had conceded 10 goals in their last four league games. However you paint it, that’s not good enough.
The more general worry is that such a disjointed display is the result of growing fatigue on a small squad. Ryan Bennett and Ruben Neves were both substituted with injury concerns, and Romain Saiss was injured before the international break. On this and other evidence, Jesus Vallejo is not ready to fill the breach.
It isn’t going to get any easier. Wolves now face four away matches in 12 days in three competitions. They will travel to Bratislava this midweek before going to Newcastle next weekend, then face Aston Villa in the EFL Cup and Arsenal in the Premier League. Nuno’s resources will be pushed to their limits. Wolves could have done with the shot of energy that only dominant victory can provide.
The most frustrating non-Big Six club in the division, as likely to make supporters scream in anguish as cheer for the future. Having beaten Manchester United at home to make it six games unbeaten, West Ham were thrashed by Oxford United, secured a late draw at Bournemouth having taken an early lead, ceded a lead to lose at home to Crystal Palace and flunked at Goodison.
More worrying for Manuel Pellegrini is the message sent to the rest of the league by Saturday’s defeat. If West Ham are going to start Declan Rice and Mark Noble with four attackers and two adventurous full-backs, they are vulnerable to the press high up the pitch and the counter-attack.
Everton exploited that weakness adeptly, but they were ably assisted by their opponents. Roberto Jimenez was West Ham’s best player and they lost 2-0. On only three occasions since the start of last season has a goalkeeper made more saves in a Premier League game, and two of those were by goalkeepers relegated in 2018/19.
Mauricio Pochettino and Tottenham
Further disaster might have been averted by Dele Alli’s late equaliser, but the grim mood has hardly been lifted. Watford couldn’t quite believe how meek Tottenham were in the first half, and fully merited their early lead. Their defensive uncertainty was slightly less noticeable than against Brighton, but then Watford are bottom of the Premier League and have only beaten Cardiff and Huddersfield away since January. If we expected a second-half onslaught, Tottenham applied pressure without ever clicking.
Evidence for that lies in the game’s statistics. Tottenham only had 26 touches of the ball in Watford’s box, fewer than six Premier League teams on Saturday. They resorted to crossing the ball into the box in vain hope rather than expectation. Their 31 open-play crosses was six more than any other Premier League team this weekend.
Pochettino might also consider that he got his team selection wrong. The 3-5-2 can work and might even be a route out of the mess, but not with Moussa Sissoko as one of two central midfielders, not with the wing-backs in their current form and not without Heung-Min Son in the team. Leaving out Tanguy Ndombele was equally unfathomable.
That’ll do for now, but Tottenham go to Anfield next weekend. One way or the other, that is a match that will provoke far many more words…
Liverpool’s Old Trafford mental block
Jurgen Klopp will be both enormously frustrated and mighty relieved after Liverpool’s worst league performance of 2019, and might also consider that a draw at Old Trafford being viewed as a backwards step is a measure of how far his side have come under his management. This is why the tight, edgy victories matter so much. At some point your team will play badly or be neutralised. At some point a key player will be injured. At some point you will believe that VAR has conspired against you. You do what you can, take your point and move on.
But Klopp will also be concerned at how capably a team in dismal form shut down his key threats so effectively, and how ineffectively the rest of the team was able to take on the creative responsibility. With Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andrew Robertson unable to push much beyond halfway before being closed down, Liverpool needed to be far quicker and more exact through midfield. Bar Georginio Wijnaldum twice breaking free in the first half, it just didn’t work. The default plan became crossing from narrow and deep into a penalty box that normally had two Manchester United central defenders against one attacker.
Roberto Firmino was probably the game’s most disappointing player, creating no chances and wasting two opportunities with a thrashed shot with his left foot and a tame one with his right. Klopp’s hope was that Firmino and Sadio Mane would step up in Mohamed Salah’s absence, but it’s equally likely that all three need to be present for the front three to click. Divock Origi remains a decent option off the bench, but nothing more.
The other question – at least partly mitigated by the late equaliser – is whether Liverpool have a mental block at Old Trafford given that Klopp has never won there and that they have now scored only four goals in their last five matches at the stadium. Any sense that Liverpool were spooked and thus played the occasion rather than the opposition adds a little weight to the theory that leading the league for the whole season while Manchester City chase will be damn hard. It’s only going to get tougher.
Newcastle United’s metrics
I copped some (probably merited) flak last week for not giving Newcastle due praise for beating Manchester United, and Steve Bruce et al certainly can’t be included here solely for losing to Chelsea at Stamford Bridge.
But the reason the Manchester United victory wasn’t necessarily indicative of great progress is because Bruce and Newcastle are posting some troubling metrics that suggests a relegation battle is likely:
Goals – Joint 19th
Shots – 18th
Shots on target – 19th
Expected goals – 20th
Touches in the penalty area – 20th
Bruce can hardly be blamed for prioritising making Newcastle hard to break down, but he must be careful that he does not completely blunt their attacking potential in the process. Between January 1 and the end of the season only five Premier League teams scored more goals than Newcastle, and they have signed a new striker and exciting winger. Bruce must get the balance right against weaker opposition.