Last season, getting 34 points and avoiding a shambolic goal difference would have been enough to survive relegation. But the stuttering form of every top-half club bar Liverpool has changed the game in 2019/20. Bournemouth are on course to achieve 33 points and they sit second bottom, three points from safety.
Norwich, bottom and winless for far too long, had still not been cut adrift like Fulham and Huddersfield Town last season. But Daniel Farke knew that his side were likely to require an unusually high points total to stay up. And that meant they needed wins fast.
Beating Bournemouth might ultimately do little for Norwich’s hopes of survival. They face Tottenham, Newcastle, Liverpool, Wolves and Leicester over the course of their next five league games, and will surely need to take at least six points from those matches to keep in touch with those above them.
But they can only do their best. If this weekend’s fixture was emphatically must-win, Norwich’s response to that challenge offers evidence that Farke and his players haven’t yet given up the ghost. The manager must now convince those above him to take a couple of risks in the transfer window and help him complete a remarkable escape.
Wolves, the comeback kings
Wolves have one of the most obvious flaws of any Premier League team. Nuno’s side have conceded the opening goal in 16 of their 23 league matches this season. Not only is that the highest number of any team, it’s four more than bottom-placed Norwich City. It is a statistic that we would normally associate with a team battling bravely – but unsuccessfully – against relegation.
Yet Wolves are now sixth, level on points with Manchester United and only five behind Chelsea, having made up ground on them both this weekend. If Nuno will be irked by his team’s slow start to matches, he must be delighted by their responses. On Saturday, they battled back from two goals down against a Southampton team with their tails up. Wolves never know when they are beaten.
Wolves have now taken 17 points from matches in which they have conceded the opening goal. That accounts for exactly half of their points. Such a record would be astonishing in any normal season, but is particularly remarkable given Wolves’ workload. Saturday was their 39th competitive game of the campaign.
In those circumstances, it would be easy to give in to fatigue. Two goals down away from home? Accept defeat, conserve energy and focus on future assignments at home and abroad. But Nuno has instilled a fighting mentality, and it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Conceding first doesn’t dent Wolves’ confidence; it merely allows them to repeat their favourite trick.
Nuno will still be urging his superiors to invest in the squad. Wolves have used the fewest players of any Premier League club this season, which is faintly ludicrous given their Europa League assignments. Having sold Ivan Cavaleiro and lost Patrick Cutrone and Jesus Vallejo, the squad is weaker than it was in August. You cannot keep ignoring fatigue in the naive belief that the tide can be held back ad infinitum.
But until then, Nuno will keep doing his thing and Wolves will keep doing theirs. Their run of three difficult league games to come – Liverpool, Manchester United and Leicester – might cause pessimistic supporters to wince, but it also gives Wolves a chance to prove once again that they merit mixing in such esteemed company. Have a fruitful fortnight in the transfer market and the top-four dream is not yet over.
There was a deeply comedic element to Newcastle’s victory over Chelsea, and I’m not talking about the poor bloke who took a corner flag in his gentleman’s agreement. Each win seems to have a counter-intuitive nature: the more Newcastle are under pressure, the more likely they are to snatch three points.
That pattern will make the xG advocates itch, and you can see why. Chelsea pinned Newcastle back in their own penalty area. Steve Bruce’s team defended – as they so often do – as if they were protecting a one-goal lead rather than a 0-0 draw. In their three victories and a draw against Manchester City, Tottenham, Southampton and Chelsea, Newcastle have faced 79 shots. They beat Tottenham with 19.8% possession. This shouldn’t be possible, and it may well be unsustainable.
But it doesn’t need to be sustainable for much longer for Newcastle to secure their Premier League status for another season, and Bruce will not care how ugly any victory is. Supporters will continue to grumble – quite reasonably – that the potential of their club remains stymied under Mike Ashley’s lock and key, but in those circumstances gritty, grim doggedness is a logical approach. Three more wins and Bruce will have already fulfilled his remit.
Georginio Wijnaldum and Jordan Henderson
A weekend during which the last iota of doubt evaporated. Liverpool will be champions in May. They might well be champions in March and April too, if they continue their relentless march and those below them squander points and stumble through matches. Jurgen Klopp might not wish to tempt fate by celebrating his champions-elect, but on Sunday even their supporters basked in what is surely to come. Liverpool can now commence the longest victory lap in English top-flight history.
As with any brilliant team, the eye is immediately drawn to both ends of the pitch when detailing Liverpool’s majesty. Virgil van Dijk is the best central defender in the world and was at his dominant, imperious best against Manchester United. The two full-backs remain the creative forces but their threat is now a latent as well as potent one. Manchester United changed their formation to account for Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson. The pair created only two chances from open play, but engineered space for Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane between the central defenders and wing-backs.
Up front, Salah and Mane both squandered chances but their relationship with Roberto Firmino means they can afford to. Against a team set up to stop the creation of clear-cut opportunities, Liverpool’s front three had 11 shots between them and created eight chances. With those numbers, your finishing does not need to be perfect.
Yet this was a game won not at either end of the pitch, but in midfield. Georginio Wijnaldum and Jordan Henderson were the game’s two highest performers, hassling and harrying when Liverpool were without the ball and protecting it when Liverpool had possession. Most important is the way that the pair dictate the tempo of the play. When Liverpool needed to be fast as a flash on the counter they recycled possession quickly and played penetrative passes forward. When Liverpool needed to slow down the game to halt Manchester United’s attempt at counter-attacking chaos, they did exactly the same.
This week, a financial report suggested that the value of Liverpool’s squad has risen from £360m to £1.83bn under Klopp’s management. Even if the maths is slightly pie in the sky, the point it helps to make is entirely valid. For all the excellence of Liverpool’s transfer business over the last three years, it is an improvement in the ‘others’ that is Klopp’s calling card at Anfield. The maligned safe passer and the midfielder signed from a relegated team for £25m have become almost irreplaceable in Liverpool’s title-winning machine.
For more words and vigorous adoration of Roberto Firmino, do go and read 16 Conclusions.
Burnley, winning from behind
In the 12 months prior to Sunday’s victory over Leicester, Burnley’s record when conceding first was a source of great frustration for Sean Dyche. In 22 such matches, Burnley had taken just six points and won only once. For a team renowned for their grit and resilience, that was surprising.
So you can understand Dyche’s wide smile as he embraced his coaches at full-time. Burnley may have rode their luck with Jamie Vardy missing a penalty and Ben Mee avoiding a red card, but they hauled themselves past a prodigious opponent and in doing so took themselves three steps closer to another season in the sun.
Last season, Wolves earned 23 points away from Molineux and we assumed that no promoted team would do similar for a long, long time. This season, Sheffield United have earned 16 points from their 12 away games and five of their remaining seven away fixtures are against teams below them in the table. Chris Wilder’s team will head into February having only lost away from home against Liverpool and Manchester City. That is a ludicrous feat.
He was our early winner, after all.
Manchester City’s defence
Manchester City could hardly have been expected to keep pace with a Liverpool team that has taken 64 points out of a possible 66; nobody could. But Liverpool’s consistency does not absolve City or Pep Guardiola of criticism. Their title defence has been pathetic, and they are fortunate that those directly below them continue to stutter.
This season’s domestic failure has been typified by defensive incompetence. It was indeed unfortunate to lose Aymeric Laporte for an extended period of time through injury (and Liverpool losing Van Dijk would surely have caused them their own problems), but no team with these resources should be so reliant on the availability of a single player. Those tasked with accounting for Laporte’s absence have let themselves down.
Manchester City have already conceded four more goals this season than they did in the whole of 2018/19. They have conceded first in six of their last nine home league games. A pattern has emerged: if City do not score early, they begin to get frustrated and over-commit. That leaves space on the counter that Crystal Palace, Manchester United and Wolves in particular have exploited. The Etihad used to be a fortress, but City have only taken four more points at home than away, and played an extra match.
Last week, Guardiola again moved to address rumours that he would leave City in the summer, insisting that only being sacked would prompt his departure. But if he is to oversee a return to domestic form next season, Guardiola will be keen to overhaul City’s defence. Benjamin Mendy and John Stones have surely finished their drinks in the last-chance saloon, Kyle Walker has been moved from the first team and replacements for Nicolas Otamendi and Fernandinho may also be needed. There’s a fair chance that Laporte may be the only member of August’s first-choice defence that remains in place a year later.
Tottenham without Harry Kane
It isn’t quite true to say that Tottenham’s free-flowing attacking play has been decimated by Kane’s absence, because they weren’t exactly flying immediately prior to his injury. Spurs only scored four times in the four games before he was potentially ruled out for the rest of the season, and they failed to score at all against Southampton and Chelsea. But Spurs have now failed to score at all without Kane.
The odd thing is that Jose Mourinho does not seem to have altered his tactics to account for Kane’s absence. The obvious strategy was to play Heung-min Son and Lucas Moura as split strikers that drifted wide and allowed Tottenham to sit deep and attack using quick counters, but that hasn’t really materialised. They have continued to play long balls forward – 48 against Liverpool and 51 against Watford – as if they still possessed their target man. Son and Moura have rather unsurprisingly been unable to hold up the ball as effectively. That leads to Tottenham ceding possession and inviting pressure on their bit-part midfield.
Mourinho must find a solution, and quickly. Either he must alter Spurs’ tactics to make them less one-dimensional or push Daniel Levy to sign a striker as a matter of urgency. A return for Fernando Llorente has been mooted but would be underwhelming. The best option would surely be to try and dissuade Olivier Giroud from being a reserve at Inter and promise him first-team football in the months directly leading up to Euro 2020.
Chelsea, good but better?
Another weekend during which those clamouring for a top-four place fell short and yet will still not have lost heart. Another weekend during which Chelsea stumbled but still didn’t fall over. After beating Crystal Palace at home on November 9, Chelsea were nine points clear of fifth place. They have only managed 13 points from 11 league games since, yet are somehow still five points clear of fifth.
In the context of this season, then, Frank Lampard is doing well. Finish in the top four and he will consider his first season as a top-flight manager to be a roaring success. But Chelsea are on course to reach 64 points, eight fewer than Maurizio Sarri managed last season before being sacked. Lampard understandably retains far more goodwill than his predecessor, but he and Chelsea are fortunate that those around them have allowed them to remain in the driving seat for Champions League qualification.
Tammy Abraham has six goals in his last 19 matches, Mason Mount hasn’t registered an assist in the league since October and they have kept two clean sheets in 11 league games. Chelsea were unfortunate not to take the lead against Newcastle before conceding, but their passing around the penalty area was slow enough to allow their opponents to thwart them. At the moment, Chelsea are reliant on individual brilliance or individual error to score.
If their current form continues, Chelsea will certainly struggle to keep hold of their top-four place; they cannot continue to drop points at such a rate and hope that their peers do the same. A run of fixtures against Arsenal, Leicester, Manchester United and Tottenham could well decide their fate. A vast improvement is needed.
Manchester United, who almost got lucky
If the optimists among Manchester United’s support squint hard enough, they might consider themselves unfortunate not to have taken a point. Anthony Martial missed a glorious chance and Andreas Pereira came oh so close to getting his toe on the ball in the first half. If you ignore the fact that Mane and Salah missed easy chances, Henderson hit a post, Liverpool had two goals disallowed, missed a one-on-one and still won by two goals, United got unlucky.
But then that is Manchester United in 2019: plucky and deserving of praise and sympathy because they almost did something good. One of the richest clubs in the world, with one of the highest wage bills, have been cast as underdogs by their own mismanagement and incompetence.
Daniel James refuted that “underdogs” moniker in the build-up to Sunday’s game at Anfield, but Ole Gunnar Solskjaer welcomed it in the post-match debrief. Solskjaer praised his players for giving their all and coming up short. That alone never used to be enough at this club.
To repeat a statistic from above, Chelsea have taken 13 points from their last 11 league games and still United remain five points outside the top four. For all the positivity after victories over City and Tottenham, it means nothing if United cannot be trusted to put together a consistent run of form. They have won more than one league game in a row just twice since March 2019, and never won three in a row during Solskjaer’s permanent tenure. That epitomises his management: green shoots of recovery overshadowed by an inability to prolong them.
Manchester United need an overhaul; that much is so obvious it barely needs repeating. But something else that really shouldn’t require repetition is that a club – or indeed any business – can only begin to fulfill its potential if the best people are put in the most vital roles. The brutal reality for Solskjaer is that, if United are indeed intent on revamping the club on and off the field, he should be one of the first to lose his job. The best companies appoint the best people for the role, according to their CV and their current performance. Knowing the club is no substitute for expertise. What might have mattered once means little more than nothing now.
Seriously though, join everyone in laughing at Harry Maguire becoming a broken-down lorry in 16 Conclusions.
Leicester, suddenly in a rut
This has been coming. Against Aston Villa, Leicester were sluggish in possession and too easy to repel. Against Southampton, Leicester were flat and defensively unsound. Against Burnley, Leicester lost after taking the lead. They have taken three steps backwards in three different ways.
It is as if Leicester’s defeats against Manchester City and Liverpool – both comprehensive – reinforced that they were fallible and have thus pricked the bubble of confidence that ran through the squad before Christmas. The defending in particular has dropped off a cliff, with Jonny Evans making a game-defining mistake on Sunday. After conceding one goal in six league games, Leicester have kept two clean sheets in ten.
There is no cause for panic; that is obvious. The gap to fifth place is still monumental and nobody is eating into it quickly enough for Leicester to be worried. But Brendan Rodgers will still be extremely keen to take his team out of this rut, particularly with domestic cup assignments around the corner. His management style is founded by the retention of high morale that creates a mood of invincibility among his best players. That mood is hard to maintain when you lose to Burnley.
Now adding comedy to their tragedy. Steve Cook’s handball was spectacular enough to be considered for Premier League Save of the Month, but it did Bournemouth no good at all. Evidence proves that you are far better to go 1-0 down with 11 men than concede a penalty and lose a player. The miserable run continues, and so too does Eddie Howe’s slim chances of arresting it.
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