The relentless title sprint
An air of inevitability has engulfed this title race. Manchester City win every one of their remaining games, and so too do Liverpool. That actually threatens to give one of the most sensational ends to a season an anticlimactic finale. A sprint this good, over such an extended distance, needs twists and turns, nip and tuck. The only question at the moment is whether City or Liverpool win by one goal, two goals or more.
But if the 2018/19 title race lacks the usual days of light and shade, we should laud it for that quality rather than bemoan the consistency. We have truly never seen anything like this before, and we might never again.
Beware those who call Liverpool bottlers, or are waiting with feverish impatience to do so, only to be disappointed by every one of their results.
That is not to say that Liverpool cannot trip themselves up, and the tag will stick if they lose each of their remaining league games. But if, as we expect, Liverpool achieve a remarkable points total and yet still fall slightly short, we must herald both teams in the title race. We have grown accustomed to praising the winners and lambasting every team that falls short, but this title race demands a more nuanced assessment.
The character Liverpool displayed on Sunday was extraordinary. This was their hardest remaining league game of the season, the same situation in which they tripped and slipped up so memorably in 2014. That the game also came on the eve of the 30th anniversary of Hillsborough only added to the raw emotion. The accusation had been whispered all week: Liverpool don’t always deal well with raw emotion.
That Klopp ended his post-match interviews by making a joke about Andrew Robertson’s second-half slip demonstrates just how well Liverpool prepared for the game and how well they harnessed the emotion and the pressure. They have now owned their 2014 failure, and that can make them stronger.
Chelsea were slightly willing opponents, as they have been in all away games against the top six, but this Liverpool have bottle. They are not performing at their peak over long periods of matches, instead landing upon infrequent majesty, but that’s plenty enough to get it done when their peak is so high. At their very best, even for only ten minutes of the 90, they were more than a match for Chelsea.
When the pressure has been on like never before, Liverpool have won five straight matches including two against top-six opposition intent on ruining their fun. With four, more gentle, fixtures to come, Klopp’s team will surely pounce upon any Manchester City mistake. Do that, and you couldn’t say that they don’t deserve it.
Now go and read 16 Conclusions.
The only member of the class of 2013/14 to play for Liverpool on Sunday, and therefore the one player most intent on righting the wrong. That doesn’t necessarily mean winning the title, but it does mean ending the season safe in the knowledge that Liverpool did all they could. Achieve that and there can be no regrets. And Liverpool are. And Henderson is.
Three weeks ago, Henderson asked Klopp if he could play higher up the pitch. Having been used by Gareth Southgate in that role, Henderson believed it could be key to Liverpool’s success. They had become too easy to defend against, too predictable. If the front three didn’t click, nor did Liverpool.
Since then (and Klopp deserves credit for listening to his captain and agreeing to the tweak in role), Henderson has come alive. He is now a box-to-box midfielder, one who surges around in the style of – yes, I’m saying it – Steven Gerrard. When Liverpool need an extra body in the penalty area, it’s their captain who’s there. And so you have the delightful chipped cross for Sadio Mane to score against Chelsea, the goal and assist against Southampton and the buzzing around the pitch in each of Liverpool’s recent games.
But Henderson’s impact is about more than just attacking runs. Go back and watch him as he left the Anfield pitch following his late substitution on Sunday, and witness him screaming at his teammates to, well…not let this slip. This is exactly the time for a captain to step up and be the positive influence that the team require; Henderson is stepping up.
Raheem Sterling and Mohamed Salah
Since the start of last season, Sterling and Salah have scored or assisted 123 goals in the Premier League alone. They have been two of the four (add Eden Hazard and Harry Kane) standout attacking players in the Premier League over that period.
But this goes beyond goalscoring and creativity, and goes beyond football too. Sterling and Salah – both the victims of high-profile racist abuse – are important because of who they are and what they represent. They have risen above the hatred and the twattery to achieve two things that those who try and bring them down never will: a positive legacy and an example for others to follow. Outside of the strains and stresses of a title race, it’s possible to love them both.
Since the beginning of 2019, when Hasenhuttl had been in the job for almost four weeks, Southampton sit eighth in the Premier League having played a game fewer than most of the sides above them. Win that game in hand, and they would likely move into the top five. Southampton were below Huddersfield when Hasenhuttl was appointed. Make no mistake: this is some effort.
Hasenhuttl’s most impressive achievement lies in guiding Southampton away from trouble while avoiding the typical stereotypes. He has been tactically flexible, expansive and has trusted younger players far more than his predecessor. Managers are expected to make their team battle-hardened as the first step to avoiding relegation. Hasenhuttl has turned Southampton into a mid-table team by making them play like a mid-table team might, without the inherent fear that engulfs most sides battling for survival.
Which all acts as an emphatic answer to the ‘what does he know?’ brigade who reacted predictably to Hasenhuttl’s appointment. ‘I don’t know the man that’s coming in but he’s never been in the Premier League before and that’s a big ask,’ said Paul Merson. ‘A few years ago, managers came to clubs in the Premier League and they got relegated still.’
A reminder that that argument could have ended after the first eight words. Hasenhuttl deserved better.
Ryan Fraser, Callum Wilson and David Brooks
Nowhere near the perfect Bournemouth season, but the perfect result to answer the doom-mongers. The stick most consistently used to beat Eddie Howe is that his record in the transfer market is too patchy, but Bournemouth’s three best players at Brighton offer a watertight retort.
Fraser, Wilson and Brooks were all signed for total fees of around £14m. This season alone, they have provided exactly 50 goals and assists in the Premier League. Were the trio to be sold this summer – and Fraser is likely to leave – they would command around ten times the purchase price.
The ideal striker for Rafael Benitez’s strategy. Friday night’s fixture pitched together two of the three best strikers outside the top six (Raul Jimenez is the other), but no centre-forward is more important to their side’s success than Rondon. Yes, even more than Jamie Vardy.
This was a masterclass. Rondon hit the bar with a long-range free kick, was a constant outlet for Newcastle despite often being left isolated and almost solely responsible for relieving pressure during the second half as Newcastle battled gamely for victory.
Holds up, holds off, links up. Let it flow now mama.
Such is the misery of Fulham’s season, winning a single home game might be enough for Parker to get himself the manager’s job on a full-time basis. Keeping a clean sheet with that defence might get him an OBE.
Done and done. If there were still any lingering doubts about relegation, they have evaporated. And now for some perspective: Burnley are on course for their second highest top-flight points total in 48 years, having achieved their highest last season.
Third at Burnley for chances created (four on Saturday), second for dribbles completed (three on Saturday) and joint-second for completed crosses (five on Saturday). He’s only played 1,332 league minutes.
How nice it must be to cruise. It’s been a while.
Under more pressure than ever before. A few months ago, some were bemoaning Hughton not being considered for bigger and better jobs, but the picture has shifted alarmingly since. Hughton is a gentleman and speaks eloquently on any number of topics. But being a wonderful ambassador for a club means less and less when you’re struggling to stem the tide of results.
Brighton will probably survive relegation; victory over Cardiff on Tuesday would confirm that and a draw might do. For a club of their size, that should still be the only realistic goal. But Brighton have only won three league games since December 4, there are growing concerns amongst some supporters about the negative tactics and Saturday saw an abject capitulation in one of their most important home games of the season.
It’s one thing playing badly and falling behind, but another entirely to manage no response to adversity other than to get even worse. At least Brighton have an immediate chance to make amends, but supporters are approaching the Cardiff game with trepidation rather than anticipation.
Hughton is a victim of his own success. This is a club that by wage bill, transfer budget and squad quality are just about exactly where they should be. But success only creates a demand for further success, and even half a season of disappointment can bring you down. For Hughton, the lingering whiff of David Wagner. A great coach who has done a magnificent job whose spirit is being eroded by the principle that you always need to do more just to tread water.
A total abdication of responsibility from a senior player. Knockaert cannot command a place in the team if he is going to deal with his frustrations in such a dim manner. It would be no surprise if he was disciplined by the club for his actions, and he could have no complaints.
Maurizio Sarri’s tactical errors
Chelsea were not abysmal at Anfield, even if their results away at the top six have been. Ruben Loftus-Cheek held his own, they had to cope with an injury to their best central defender, they paid the price for five rotten minutes and they had the chances to claw their way back into the match.
But Sarri got his decisions wrong. Eden Hazard had been in supreme form on the left of a front three in recent weeks. If the plan to play him as a centre forward aimed to expose Virgil van Dijk against a dribbling, tricky player, it didn’t work because Hazard was starved of service. The moment Sarri switched Hazard back to the left wing in the second half, Chelsea came alive. But it was too late.
Even in making that change, Sarri erred. Quite why Gonzalo Higuain retains the trust of his manager over Olivier Giroud despite all evidence to the contrary is anyone’s guess. He is slow, cumbersome and ineffective in the penalty area.
Cardiff City, running out of chances
Neil Warnock will continue to blame referees for their perceived errors, as if there is some conspiracy against Cardiff’s attempts to stay in the Premier League. But the reality is that Cardiff are simply not good enough. They have lost 12 of their last 15 away games, scored in two of their last seven on the road and must surely win at Brighton on Tuesday evening to have a chance of staying up. No amount of deflecting attention and blame is going to change that.
Manchester United’s luck
Criticising teams in victory is a difficult look to pull off without getting tweets from supporters containing the words ‘bias’, ‘typical’, ‘journo’ and ‘nonce’, but you’d struggle to find a Manchester United supporter who was happy with the performance against West Ham. United’s next three league fixtures are Everton (a), Manchester City (h) and Chelsea (h), and Barcelona come first. They simply have to find a way to close up the massive spaces in midfield if they aren’t to get found out.
Wolves against the worst teams
A baffling season, when you drill down into the details. Wolves have averaged 1.2 points per game away from home against the top six. Wolves have averaged 0.2 points per game away from home against the bottom five. Wolves remain undefeated against Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester United. Wolves have lost to Burnley, Southampton, Cardiff, Brighton and Huddersfield (twice).
It might not seem as if it matters much in the great scheme of Wolves’ season, but this period between now and May could be important. Having lost in the FA Cup semi-final, the club will be extremely keen to finish seventh and likely qualify for the Europa League. Continue as they are, and Wolves could feasibly finish as low as tenth. And that really would take the gloss off a superb campaign.
Beat Chelsea and Arsenal, lose miserably to relegated Fulham. I can’t even begin to work you out, you daft weirdos. Everton must now endure an anxious wait to see if the Premier League choose to relegate them for being unable to score against Fulham’s defence.