Xherdan Shaqiri and Liverpool’s fringe players
The most obvious contrast between Liverpool and Manchester United lies in their fringe players. After Jose Mourinho made a number of changes for United’s trip to Valencia in midweek and missed the chance to top their Champions League group, Mourinho once again bemoaned the output of those who missed the chance to impress. The more changes he makes, the less those on the edges of his squad take their opportunities and so the more changes Mourinho makes in search of the answer.
Contrast that with Liverpool and Jurgen Klopp. Alisson, Virgil van Dijk and the first-choice front three have collected most of the plaudits this season, but Klopp has a wonderful knack of keeping the reserve players motivated and ready to hit the ground running.
If there is one theme running through Liverpool’s improvement over the past 18 months, it is fringe players taking their chance and thus becoming hard to shift from the team: Who scored the winner at the death in the Merseyside derby? Divock Origi. Who came on the pitch to wrestle victory against Manchester United? Xherdan Shaqiri. Who stepped back into the team and kept Marcus Rashford under check? Nathaniel Clyne, Liverpool’s fourth-choice right-back.
It is easy to wonder what Mourinho might have made of his club signing Shaqiri, a £13m arrival from a relegated club. Or Georginio Wijnaldum, signed from relegated Newcastle United. Or Andrew Robertson, signed for £8m from relegated Hull City. Would they have been cherished at Manchester United like they have been at Liverpool, or castigated as signings that lacked glamour and were therefore evidence of a lack of ambition on the club’s part?
Jurgen Klopp and Liverpool
The assumption was that if City continued at last year’s pace, nobody would lay a finger on them. And Pep Guardiola’s side have indeed dropped five more points than at this stage of last season. But they also had an 11-point lead at the top at the same point of 2017/18, and an 18-point lead over Liverpool.
Forget the result against United for a moment. For Klopp to have overturned that gap and sit atop the Premier League is remarkable. To have done so whilst simultaneously navigating through the Champions League group of death is an astonishing achievement.
With Klopp and Pochettino, all praise must inevitably prompt a ‘but what have they won?’ auto-response from those who are either unable to see the point, unwilling to see it or consider the EFL Cup to be a bizarrely important honour. Klopp, like Pochettino, has improved not just a first-team or a squad but an entire club. He has made supporters feel excited and given them something to believe in. Of course trophies are important, but the journey can be as important as the destination. For once, I agree with Johnny.
An awfully high percentage of being a football fan is time spent daydreaming about hopes and dreams and ambitions. It is those daydreams that Klopp is improving, as well as the tangible hope of trophies. That is why they sing his name with such feeling, rather than through habit or a sense of duty. And if you don’t understand that – really don’t understand it rather than allowing tribalism to make you wilfully obtuse – you need to do more daydreaming.
Now go and read 16 Conclusions.
A manager known as the ‘Alpine Klopp’, and one who goes through every action with his players on the touchline during a tense, fraught 90 minutes just like Jurgen. Hasenhuttl’s sprint onto the pitch at full-time was proof enough of the change in mood at St Mary’s following the new manager’s arrival.
Defensive incompetence still remains, and there were more times that Arsenal had three on three but failed to capitalise than Hasenhuttl would care to remember. But one of the hallmark of teams haunted by relegation is an ability to snatch defeat from matches in which they have played pretty well. Southampton snatched victory, finally held on to a lead and with it moved out of the bottom three.
If the usual criticism is that you are not Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo, take it as a compliment. Failing to match up to two of the greatest players in the game’s history is not a stick with which being hit should leave lasting bruises.
Instead let’s focus on what Hazard is: Chelsea’s leader by example and a talent bright enough that he only needs to shine for 30 minutes in a match to put the result beyond the opposition. If the consistency could indeed be improved, remember that Hazard is continually kicked from pillar to post and usually gets up and goes again.
Remember too that only two players in Europe’s top five leagues have at least eight league goals and eight league assists this season: Hazard and Messi. Chelsea’s top-four bid rests almost entirely upon his shoulders.
His first league goals for four months and 11 league games, earning significant praise for his patience from Pep Guardiola. Everton’s defending was ludicrously generous, but you see if Manchester City’s smiling Brazilian cares. It’s a good time for Jesus celebrations.
Gone is the simple transfer strategy of signing players almost exclusively from Udinese or Granada. In its place is one of the best recruitment and scouting models across Europe. Vicarage Road has become the perfect home for ambitious players looking to make that step up to an elite club or young players desperate to impress.
Domingos Quina and Ken Sema, signed from West Ham and Ostersund in the summer, are the latest examples. Gerard Deulofeu looks reborn, Kiko Femenia was a steal, Roberto Pereyra started the season on fire and Abdoulaye Doucoure really could make the grade higher up the league. Those six players were signed for approximately the same amount as the profit Watford made on Richarlison.
Crystal Palace, winning without Wilfried Zaha
A first victory without Zaha starting since September 2016. To put that into context, it was long enough ago that Steven Pienaar started for the opposition. How Palace must wish they could play Leicester City every week. Despite all their travails of the past two years, they have won their last three matches against Leicester by a combined score of 9-0.
So damn good at organising a defence that it might just be the saviour of Newcastle United for the second successive season. Huddersfield dominated their visitors during the first half, but Newcastle dug in and took full advantage of the chance that came their way. They have now conceded fewer goals than Arsenal and Manchester United. Now give that man a new boss for Christmas.
West Ham, who have turned a corner
Four wins on the spin to change the mood. If the previous run of results were unacceptable, any panic has now been put into proper context by the subsequent surge. West Ham can spend the Christmas period looking up rather than down. Given the quality in the squad and investment made, a top-eight place was always a possibility. It is still on.
Wolves, who have turned a corner
Three wins on the spin to change the mood. If the previous run of results were unacceptable, any panic has now been put into proper context by the subsequent surge. Wolves can spend the Christmas period looking up rather than down. Given the quality in the squad and investment made, a top-eight place was always a possibility. It is still on.
As the third most expensive player ever bought by a non-Big Six side (behind Gylfi Sigurdsson and Richarlison), Anderson should be good. But signing players from Serie A has long contained elements of risk, and there were doubts as to whether Anderson could repeat his excellent breakout season at Lazio. So far, he’s doing exactly that.
Embarrassing and humiliating, and neither term is in any way hyperbolic. Before Sunday, the most shots Liverpool had managed in a Premier League game this season was 22 – they beat that total by 14. It was the most shots Manchester United had allowed in a Premier League match sine Opta started collecting such data in 2003/04. If a 3-1 result and scoreline that was in the balance until the final 20 minutes suggests some degree of parity, that presents an inaccurate picture for those who did not watch the game.
The worst fears of Manchester United supporters were wholly realised. Their team never tried to win the match at Anfield, instead sitting deep and launching long balls forward that were at best hopeful and at worst aimless. Jose Mourinho has managed expectations down to the point that some supporters have alleviated him of some responsibility for making the mess, but no reasonable fan could be proud of that performance. United were so passive that there were signs of rigor mortis visible to the naked eye.
It is a message that needs repeating, because plenty disagree with it: This is not a bad group of players. It is not an ideal squad, of course, but then nor is Tottenham’s or Chelsea’s. Most of this squad have succeeded at Manchester United or elsewhere before joining them. Paul Pogba won the World Cup in the summer. Romelu Lukaku and Victor Lindelof excelled at the same tournament. Marcus Rashford is one of England’s brightest young lights. Eric Bailly, Nemanja Matic and Fred excelled enough at previous clubs to persuade Mourinho to part with more than £110m for them.
The squad was also good enough to win five of its first six matches last season to initially keep pace with Manchester City, and beat each of the top six in at least one league game in 2017/18. They have not all lost their ability.
But all of them succeeded outside a toxic environment and within a consistent system that helped them flourish. They are a group devoid of confidence, made miserable by their habitat. And the responsibility for that lies with the manager. If one or two key players were in abject form, it would be on them. If every member of the squad is, it suggests that the system itself is broken. Mourinho’s man-management has not worked. His constant tinkering with formations and personnel has not worked. His siege mentality has not worked. Nothing is working.
To those who believe few managers could do better: We have seen this before. In 2015/16, Mourinho took the league champions deep into the bottom half before being sacked because he lost the respect of those players with a series of strategies that no longer worked. On commentary on Sunday, Gary Neville said that United do not possess a midfielder who can pass it ten yards. That’s nonsense, just like it was nonsense that Chelsea’s players turned lame over the course of a summer. Great management is about fostering a spirit that spurs a team on to succeed. Those teams have organisation, fluency and discipline. Manchester United are nought from three. They are taking the lead from their manager.
Mourinho may well consider that he has been short-changed by those above him, but that does not excuse the piffling output that has the club with the highest wage bill in the country 19 points behind the leaders and closer in points to 14th than fourth. Even his expectation management cannot deflect the tidal wave of criticism that Sunday’s performance will and should bring. If the flak feels more fierce than with other managers, that is because Mourinho long demanded to be judged in those terms and was quicker than most to label others as failures.
At any other elite club, Mourinho would be out. Real Madrid started the season appallingly and Julen Lopetegui was asked to clear his desk. Such wanton underperformance and lack of hope that sunshine will follow the storm only ever ends this way.
But not at Manchester United, and not because of some vague notion that the club stands against the immediacy of modern life or is run by any higher principles, but because incompetence reigns over this fiefdom. Woodward has all the inspirational qualities of a hastily written leaving card. The only plan is to have no plan, save bumbling along and desperately hoping that at some point FIFA decree that sponsorship revenue can be converted into points.
Mourinho will be sacked, but only when a Champions League place is mathematically out of reach and so United can avoid giving him his full pay-off; David Moyes and Louis van Gaal suffered the same fate. But doesn’t that just sum up Manchester United perfectly, waiting until crisis point is reached rather than proactively making changes to avoid it? The only place where on-pitch passivity can be equalled at Old Traffod is in the boardroom.
It has been clear for some time that relationship between manager and record signing is broken, but Sunday was the final nail in that coffin. When Manchester United were desperate for some midfield control, midfield creativity and midfield…well, anything, Pogba stayed on a substitutes’ bench that acted as naughty step. The only way that Pogba can now make it work at Old Trafford is if Mourinho goes first, and even then he must be tempted to find the quickest route out of town.
He cost £52m, has played 17 Premier League minutes since November 3 and was left out of the match-day squad for United’s biggest game of the season. If this is what Mourinho does with large swathes of money, you can understand why the club is reticent to give him more (but in that case just sack him).
He’s going to get sacked soon, because Leicester City are coasting towards nothingness. They have won two of their ten league games since the end of September, against Cardiff and Watford, and in that period have failed to beat Brighton, Fulham, Crystal Palace, Burnley and West Ham. Given their recent history, Leicester City have every right to dream and at least have a little fun in failed pursuit of those dreams. Right now, it all feels a little Monday morning rather than Friday night.
Leno was not the only one at fault for Arsenal’s defeat to Southampton. Laurent Koscielny was rustier than a cheap barbecue left out over winter, while Stephan Lichtsteiner is barely a Championship level central defender. Leno has also been asked to perform behind a regularly changing cast of defenders.
But when Arsenal needed solidity and composure, Leno provided none. You cannot come for a cross in the final minutes of a match unless you are certain that you will not provide an opposition striker with an open goal. The decision to sell Wojciech Szczesny continues to haunt Arsenal.
There’s not much point Marco Silva trying to get Everton passing neatly out of defence if every time Mina gets the ball he sends it long up the pitch. There’s even less point him doing so if Mina’s pass goes straight to Ilkay Gundogan and then the Colombian plays Jesus onside.
Neil Warnock’s refereeing moans
Warnock is right that Troy Deeney should have been booked. The pitch was skiddy and the striker had every right to go for the ball, but Deeney could probably have got out of Neil Etheridge’s way. But for Warnock to use that incident to have a rant about Cardiff City being given an inexperienced referee that he referred to as a “Sunday trainee” is a disgrace. How else are referees supposed to get Premier League experience other than by refereeing in the Premier League?
There is an issue with a lack of referees in general, fuelled by it being a rough ride to progress through non-league football where conditions can be difficult, abuse can be abhorrent and pay is almost nothing. Those who rise to the very top do so in spite of the circumstances, not because of them. So to be used as a deflection tactic by an experienced manager just because you are raw is unacceptable. There is a culture of abuse and mockery that surrounds refereeing, and it is doing more than anything else to lower the general standards.
For what it’s worth, Andy Madley oversaw the game perfectly well. And Warnock should do better than lambast him.
Claudio Ranieri and Fulham
This is a battle between Uncle Claudio’s lovely smile and Fulham’s rotten defending, and the latter is winning. The change of manager may have caused an initial home win, but Fulham are still conceding at a rate of more than two a game under Ranieri and they’ve now only scored twice in their last four games. This season is turning into a disaster.
Huddersfield Town’s strikers
Since the beginning of March, Laurent Depoitre and Steve Mounie are Huddersfield’s highest-scoring strikers. They have got two goals apiece. The club’s survival from relegation depends upon them buying a forward in January. David Wagner might wish to have a word with Jurgen Klopp and take Dominic Solanke on loan.