It might well have passed you by, but Manchester City are in the middle of an injury crisis. Their best defender from last season (John Stones) is injured. Their best player from last season (Kevin de Bruyne) is injured. Their second best player from last season (Fernandinho) is injured. Their best defender this season (Aymeric Laporte) is injured. Pep Guardiola’s first three left-back options (Benjamin Mendy, Fabian Delph and Laporte) are all injured.
Yet such is the strength in depth of this squad, and Guardiola’s ability to fit those on the fringes of his first-team squad snugly into the team, that those injuries have barely caused Manchester City to skip a beat. That smooth transition might well be enough to lead them to consecutive titles.
On January 2, Liverpool had a seven-point lead over Manchester City and went to the Etihad with the chance to increase that gap to ten. Liverpool had a better goal difference too. Now it is City who are back on top of the table, and their goal difference is seven better. That clumsy defeat against Newcastle United caused Guardiola to privately question his players and challenge them to prove him wrong. Challenge accepted.
In all competitions, City have now won 16 of their last 17 matches. Liverpool are not wildly out of form (after all, they have only lost one league game all season) but their title opponents have entered squeeze mode, where they crush the life out of their opponents. Despite their frustrating occasional tendency to ease off after scoring early, City have kept 11 clean sheets in their last 15 matches. They have scored 49 goals in that same run.
What’s worse for Liverpool, this run may well continue. City’s next five matches see them face Watford (h), Schalke (h), Swansea (a), Fulham (a) and Cardiff (h). Win all of those – hardly beyond them – and they will play a Champions League quarter-final first leg with a Premier League lead and FA Cup semi-final having already secured one trophy. By then, the injuries should have cleared up too. Be afraid. Be very afraid.
Another argument against Guardiola being purely a money manager, despite what some Twitter accounts with Liverpool and Manchester United players as their profile pictures might say. Of course Guardiola has access to huge transfer budgets – but which manager at an elite club doesn’t (okay, point taken Mauricio)? – but look at the improvement in the players he inherited or recruited on the cheap.
Guardiola has improved Sergio Aguero, Fernandinho and David Silva in the late summer of their careers. He has Raheem Sterling and Bernardo Silva playing the best football of their careers. He converted jobbing central midfielder Delph into a left-back when the situation demanded it. And now he’s doing exactly the same with Zinchenko.
Had you been told in August that Zinchenko would be City’s best player over a run of games in February and March, you would have laughed until Zinchenko got tears in his eyes and told you that your mirth was a bit much. But a midfielder signed for £1.8m really has become the perfect replacement for the perma-injured Mendy.
If it helps that the lack of attacking impetus in City’s opponents allows Zinchenko to basically play as a wide midfielder, or at least a wing-back in a back four, it’s worth pointing out that he was also excellent against Chelsea in the EFL Cup final. Out of nowhere, Guardiola has found a hidden gem to cover the most troublesome position in his squad.
Our early winner and finally here on merit, rather than me searching for a reason to fulfill some weird obsession that I’ve laid on way too thick.
Lukaku has had a fairly rotten season, comfortably the most frustrating of his career. His decline mirrored Jose Mourinho’s, isolated by his manager’s ‘handbrake on’ strategy and sapped of confidence in front of goal. Lukaku also looked heavy-set after a long summer of football that followed a long season of football. Perhaps his body was starting to creak. Playing 483 senior matches at the age of 25 will do that.
But if other Manchester United players have responded under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, now it is Lukaku’s turn. Four goals in two league games to lead United to six crucial points is the headline, but the devil is in the detail. The manner in which Lukaku slalomed past two Southampton defenders and finished with his weaker foot demonstrated that the confidence is flooding back in.
Given the (merited) criticism of Lukaku, particularly strong among Manchester United’s own supporters, it’s surprising to note that Lukaku is now the joint-sixth top scorer in the Premier League, and outright fifth if you take way penalties. Mohamed Salah, Harry Kane and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang are averaging a league goal every 145, 135 and 133 minutes in the Premier League this season. At one goal every 141 minutes, Lukaku is in the same company.
There is also evidence that Lukaku fits into Solskjaer’s split strikers strategy, comfortable crossing from wide areas and creating space for the advanced midfielder to push into. The summer will bring rumours of a move to Inter or Juventus, but right now Lukaku has a role to play at Old Trafford. He’s the club’s top goalscorer after all.
The argument against Brighton being sucked right into relegation trouble was a list of gentle home fixtures, but boy did Chris Hughton need that. The sound of joyous relief rocked around the Amex after Florian Andone’s winner, and it should be enough to allay the most serious fears of supporters. With Burnley losing two on the spin and the gap to Cardiff increased to five points (plus another half for goal difference), one more win might just do it.
A bloody good week. Football fans earn the right to be fickle by paying extortionate prices to watch their team home and away, but it was telling that Chelsea’s away end chanted Jorginho’s name at Craven Cottage. Those “f*ck Sarriball” chants of a fortnight ago now feel half a lifetime ago.
Sarri has managed the last week impeccably (he’s not ‘deluded’ or a ‘ditherer’), so ignore those pundits who believe he should have sacked Kepa or sent him to train with the Under-23 squad for the rest of the season. Chelsea’s manager played down the problem in public, dealt with it in private, punished his goalkeeper for his insolence but then forgave him and brought him back into the fold having served it.
The Kepa incident could also have provided an unwelcome distraction at a time when Sarri needed his players focused on saving their season. Consecutive victories in crucial London derbies proves that senior players have not given up on their manager. Two home wins over Dynamo Kiev and Wolves this week and Sarri should be back in credit.
Sensational. Roy Hodgson deserves all the credit he gets for leading Crystal Palace away from trouble, but Zaha is the player who supporters identify with most. With Michy Batshuayi on board, we are now seeing the benefit of him not having to play the dual roles of striker and creator.
Of course scoring his second West Ham goal helps, because it means that Rice becomes the header image on all the match reports. But it is the dirty work that sets Rice apart from other young midfielders. He tackles, he intercepts, he puts himself in the perfect positions to stop counter-attacks and he dictates the tempo of West Ham’s passing.
And he’s 19. If I sound giddy with excitement, that’s because I am. If you can’t get excited about a young player who could be England’s answer in a problem position, there’s something wrong with you.
In his piece from Goodison, The Times’ Merseyside correspondent Paul Joyce wrote that Silva gained the trust of Everton supporters during Sunday’s derby and it really did feel like that. Denting Liverpool’s title hopes might well have been the main order of business, but after late Anfield defeat Everton needed to prove that they could again compete with their rivals.
In the first half, Everton looked a little lost. Afraid of being caught in possession close to their own goal and hampered by their own poor passing out from the back, Everton regularly went long. Jordan Pickford repeatedly sent the ball high up the pitch and asked Dominic Calvert-Lewin to win headers. Calvert-Lewin is excellent in the air, but stood very little chance against Virgil van Dijk. Liverpool were able to hold Everton at arm’s length and play on the front foot.
But in the second half, that changed. All three of Silva’s substitutions (Cenk Tosun, Richarlison and Andre Gomes came on) were attacking, but they also altered their first-half strategy. Rather than kick long up the pitch, Pickford instead played the ball out wide to full-backs that had pushed up. Gomes’ composure on the ball was matched by Gylfi Sigurdsson, Everton’s best player throughout.
Over the final 20 minutes at Goodison, it was Everton who looked more composed and Everton who passed the ball quickly through midfield rather than bypassing it with direct aerial passes. That, more than the single point gained, will please Everton supporters.
Falling away, with the added issue that their manager has shifted from throaty war cries to resigned dolefulness. “I do not know what more I can get out of the lads,” said Neil Warnock after the defeat to Wolves. “I don’t think there is much you can do on the coaching side with that, they are just elementary mistakes we keep seem to be making.”
Warnock has the weakest squad in the division, and it is showing as Cardiff City dawdle around the bend and into the home straight. Sol Bamba’s knee injury only makes things worse. He is comfortably Cardiff’s Player of the Season.
Warnock may have been down on Sunday, but he cannot feel sorry for himself. If Cardiff are to survive relegation, they surely must avoid defeat next weekend at home to West Ham. Lose again, and that might well be that. There are nine league games to play, and four of them are against Liverpool, Manchester City, Manchester United and Chelsea.
Barring a run of disastrous results, Brendan Rodgers has a free pass until the summer. The benefit of tempting him away from Celtic in mid-season is that it gives him three months to analyse his Leicester City squad and formulate both a tactical plan for next season and a transfer plan for the close season.
But it won’t have taken Rodgers long to learn that Leicester City have a concentration issue. They are too often caught out early in matches, and too often caught out in the dying embers of the game. If they are far better in between, it is overshadowed by the bad news.
Leicester have now conceded eight goals in the first 10 minutes of league games this season, comfortably the highest total in the division. Leicester have now lost three games through goals scored in stoppage time, the highest number in the division. They have conceded 39% of their goals in the first and last 10 minutes of matches. That is unacceptable, and Rodgers will make it his mission to cut out such sloppiness.
He might want to start with our early losers.
Jurgen Klopp’s substitutions
Klopp got angry in his post-match press conference when a journalist asked whether Liverpool had failed to be attacking enough in the second half at Goodison. But given that he also used the wind as an excuse for Liverpool’s performance (again) and accused Manchester City of over-celebrating having scored one of their “900 chances” against Bournemouth, we can assume that Liveprool’s manager was a little rattled.
I don’t know who asked Klopp the question that provoked the response, but it was a perfectly valid enquiry. Liverpool badly lacked midfield creativity, and yet left Xherdan Shaqiri on the bench in favour of (an out-of-form) Adam Lallana and James Milner. It left the front three suffering from a lack of service, and invited Everton to push for their own victory.
A similar accusation could be labelled against Klopp after the 0-0 draw at Old Trafford, when Liverpool failed to take advantage of Manchester United injuries and were again forced to settle for a point. By any normal standards and against any normal title challenger, draws away at United and Everton – Liverpool’s two biggest away games of the season – would be perfectly acceptable. But the rules have changed. Liverpool have to make the most of what good fortune and good opportunity comes their way. He who dares wins, Jurgen.
And now for Klopp’s defence, because if Salah was at his 2017/18 level then Liverpool would probably have won at Old Trafford and certainly won at Goodison. We have been saying for weeks that last year’s Player of the Year looks either off colour, knackered or a bit of both. But it’s really starting to hamper Liverpool’s progress.
The myth of football fatigue is that it only shows in players blowing out of their arses and unable to muster a sprint. That oversimplification misses the point. Tired players don’t stand bent double like me after 15 minutes at Powerleague. Fatigue -physical and mental – manifests itself in slack touches, poor decision-making, substandard positioning and inaccurate passes.
Take Salah’s first-half chance, when his poor touch allowed Pickford to make himself big and close down the angle so that the shot hit his right glove. Take the second-half chance, when another slack touch allowed Michael Keane to steal in and make the tackle.
In some ways, Salah is suffering through comparison to his own imperious best. He is still the second top scorer in the Premier League. Replicating such a majestic 2017/18 was an almost impossible task. But Liverpool’s title bid was founded upon Salah’s excellence. If he struggles, they will.
Salah is still sprinting and dribbling, ducking and diving. But the tiny fractions of the tiny moments that are off-kilter. Klopp will cross his fingers that everything clicks and that March’s international break gives Salah the rest he needs.
Now read our excellent 16 Conclusions on that game.
Xherdan Shaqiri and Naby Keita
Both joined last summer and impressed in autumn, but Shaqiri and Keita have since been pushed to the back of the shelf. The former has played 210 league minutes in 2019 and was left on the bench throughout during 0-0s against Manchester United and Everton. The latter has played 323 minutes this year, but started only twice against Big Six opposition all season. That indicates a lack of trust from his manager.
Arsenal’s missed opportunity
You have to make the most of these moments. Seasons change not on long periods of fine or foul form, but on periods of a few seconds when your mettle is tested. A penalty in the dying embers of a north London derby is not the time for generosity.
Firstly, the positive spin. For a team that has again limped through long periods of away matches this season, this was far better from Arsenal. Unai Emery picked a surprising starting XI without Lucas Torreira, Sead Kolasinac, Mesut Ozil and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, causing the predictable social media meltdown, but it worked. They played on the front foot without committing themselves too much. Bar another piece of Shkodran Mustafi nonsense – and controversial onside call – they would have kept a clean sheet away at Tottenham for only the second time in a decade.
But this top-four race will be tighter than ever before, and Arsenal can ill-afford to be so careless. Alexandre Lacazette missed two chances that he would usually expect to score, while Aubameyang’s penalty was scuffed and nowhere near the corner of Hugo Lloris’ goal. From pulling Tottenham back in within reach, Arsenal end the weekend in fifth. They will drop further if Chelsea win their game in hand.
Now read our excellent 16 Conclusions on that game.
Poor Christian Eriksen. A brilliant attacking player, but one who increasingly looks knackered and yet receives more and more criticism for his inability to drag his team on. There are benefits to not making a series of summer signings, but there is also a middle ground. Tottenham have one fit creative attacking midfielder, and they’re running him into the ground. The flak Eriksen is now getting from his own supporters must make him feel bilious.
Tottenham are quickly running out of energy. We are used to them playing with high intensity and on the front foot in big games, particularly in the opening 20 minutes as they attempt an early salvo to gain a position of dominance. But with a small, injury-affected squad competing on multiple fronts, they can no longer manage it. There are several players in Mauricio Pochettino’s first team for whom there is no back-up.
The other result of Tottenham’s lack of transfer activity is the ageing nature of the team. This season, Spurs have handed 57 league starts to players aged 24 and under. They have given 72 starts to players aged 30 and above. Jan Vertonghen turns 32 next month. Toby Alderweireld is 30, Moussa Sissoko 29 and both first-choice full-backs are 28. That only increases the effects of fatigue in late season.
Tottenham still have Manchester City and Liverpool to play away from home, and are likely to have a Champions League quarter-final to deal with in April. This is not going to get easier.
A second Premier League start of the season, and only his tenth since May 2017. On Saturday lunchtime, we saw why. Wanyama is in the Mousa Dembele category of ‘brilliant once but now unable to keep up’. Bugger me Tottenham need to get busy this summer.
No shots on target. No shots off target. No corners. Not much fun.