Liverpool and Jurgen Klopp
The most meaningful sound at Anfield on Boxing Day was not the roar of approval that greeted each of Liverpool’s four goals. It was not the relaxed cheers at half-time and full-time that marked a comfortable afternoon. It was not the exultant singing of You’ll Never Walk Alone by a support swelled by Christmas spirit.
It was the sound of excitement that surged around the stadium when news of Leicester City’s winner against Manchester City filtered through. It starts as a murmur, some listening to the radio and others checking live score apps on their phones, but soon builds to a crescendo as the good word is spread. That was the noise of a set of supporters who finally feel part of a title race again. That was the noise of a set of supporters who believe.
And why not? Liverpool are now the bookmakers’ favourite for the title. They are on course to set a new record for goals conceded in a Premier League season. They are, remarkably, on course to break Manchester City’s record points total set last season as they strolled towards glory.
There is also – and it is highly significant – a serenity to Liverpool. There are standout star performers as at any elite club, but a general harmony seems to exist between teammates, between manager and players, between manager and his superiors and between supporters and every member of on-pitch or off-field staff. The special Liverpool connection often gets written off as sentimental hogwash, but they do feel it. It is a self-evident truth: as long as you believe in it, it exists.
For Klopp, a six-point lead that he is desperate to play down but must be getting more excited about by the day. In 2008, he was appointed by Dortmund and spoke of building something sustainable at a club with an extraordinary fan culture. In his first two seasons he enjoyed cup progression but could only achieve sixth and fifth-placed league finishes as critics questioned his stomach for the fight. In his third full season, Dortmund won the Bundesliga.
In 2015, Klopp was appointed by Liverpool and spoke of building something sustainable at a club with an extraordinary fan culture. In his first two full seasons he enjoyed cup progression but could only achieve fourth-placed league finishes as critics questioned his stomach for the fight. In his third full season, we are yet to see what Klopp can deliver because the job is only half-done. But by heck they’ve given themselves a wonderful platform to push for a first league title in 29 years.
They have conceded seven goals in their last 20 Premier League games, and two in their last eight. Just as impressive is that Liverpool have allowed the opposition to have more than three shots on target in just three of their last 12 league games. When you have a defence that miserly and an attack that potent, you aren’t going to lose that often. Or at all, it seems.
A tiring Christmas period with a smallish squad? Pfft, we’ll score 11 times in 180 minutes and move up to second in the Premier League in the process. The question in August was whether Tottenham could retain their top-four place given the lack of investment, lingering fatigue and stadium clusterf*ck. Now Match of the Day guests are being asked whether Pochettino can lead them to the league title.
This is where those who believe Pochettino needs a League Cup trophy to prove himself look very dim. The ‘what has he won?’ arguments falls down through the consistency of league overachievement. He has not won the title, but then no club on their comparative budget should. He has dealt with adversity, focused the minds of his players on the job in hand and made Tottenham far better than they could ever have dreamed.
When the going got toughest, Tottenham actually got better. That’s like musk to the owners of financially elite football clubs.
On December 19, 2015, Chelsea supporters reacted angrily to Jose Mourinho’s sacking. They blamed Chelsea’s star players for letting down their manager, and Eden Hazard was given some of the roughest treatment. One banner labelled him a rat, but he and others were booed by home supporters despite Chelsea taking a 2-0 lead against Sunderland inside 15 minutes.
“The atmosphere will be tense and people may turn on Diego Costa, Eden Hazard and Cesc Fabregas, who have all been below their best this season,” said Tim Rolls, chairman of Chelsea’s Supporters’ Trust.
Eighteen months later, those banners were an amusing reminder of how quickly things can change. Chelsea were Premier League champions, Hazard was named in the PFA Team of the Year, Costa was the club’s top goalscorer and Fabregas provided the most assists. Rats had become lions. All three were lauded by supporters and rightly so.
It’s happening again. When Mourinho’s sacking by Manchester United was confirmed last week, Pogba received the most flak of any player. His form had been poor and many fans felt that he had done little to help Mourinho. The sway of social media opinion declared that Pogba was a snake.
Pogba has since assisted three goals and scored two others in 180 minutes under his new manager. His goal celebration for his second against Huddersfield, standing still as if to take in the full extent of the Old Trafford cheers, was significant. No longer is Pogba drowning under the pressure. He’s doing handstands in the deep end and diving off the top board.
There will still be supporters who deem it unacceptable that Pogba has apparently only started trying in Mourinho’s absence, and the argument is clearly not without merit. But Hazard’s experience must shape our judgment of Pogba. Even the best players – with the possible exception of Lionel Messi – need the system around them to fit them. Manchester United’s full-backs are pushing on, and Pogba is thus given more space and time. We know he has the technical ability because we saw it at Juventus and with France.
Players also need to feel trusted by their managers, a principle that applies to just about any industry in the world but becomes most obvious in the jobs played out in front of a discerning public. Pogba’s critics will not yet be convinced by his innocence, but one thing is certainly true: If you’re a manager who is prepared to isolate star players, the rest of your management better be bloody good. Hazard and Pogba are too good to waste.
Tottenham sharing the goals
One of the most amazing things about Tottenham scoring 11 goals in their last two matches is that Harry Kane isn’t their top goalscorer over that period. Heung-min Son and his smile that could melt a serial killer’s heart has been the star.
But it’s representative of a new-ish side to Tottenham. Between 2014/15 and 2017/18, Kane scored between 33.7% and 40.5% of Spurs’ league goals in each season. This campaing, Kane has scored only 28.5%. Here’s a stat for you: This season, six Tottenham players have scored three or more league goals. That’s already more than in the whole of 2017/18 or 2016/17.
Reducing that onus on Kane as the source of goals is crucial for the next stage of Tottenham’s progress, because it erodes the idea that their own form is intrinsically linked to his. They are no longer “the Harry Kane team”, as Pep Guardiola once claimed.
I go on about young players a lot, to the extent that if you’re not thoroughly bored of it by now you may apply for your medal. But I make no apologies for it being my thing. Getting excited about the next generation of footballers, watching them develop and fretting about them getting enough minutes to blossom is a wonderful pastime within a wonderful sport.
Choudhury might just be the next one to get giggly about. England are crying out for a central midfielder who races around to put out fires rather than sitting in front of the back four and waiting for the flames to reach him, and Choudhury fits the bill.
It’s all happening incredibly quickly. Choudhury was handed a start against Manchester City in the EFL Cup last week and was Leicester’s best player. That earned him a start against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge, where he held his own in a wonderful surprise victory. That earned him a start against Manchester City in the league. Again, he was exceptional.
The most astounding – and deeply pleasing – thing about this crop of young England players is just how confident they are despite making such massive leaps forward. Choudhury has started his first Premier League games against Chelsea and Manchester City, and would have been forgiven for crumbling in such circumstances. That he is able to cope so easily is a testament to the coaching within their clubs and the England youth setup.
From two weeks ago, in this very column:
‘It’s hard to shake the feeling that Puel is forever destined to drift at Leicester City, until he is finally sacked in a move that causes initial back-page alarm which settles down far too quickly to paint the departing manager in a good light.’
Add Puel to the long list of people who have made me look stupid. At least I’m used to it.
Everton’s high-profile signings
Lucas Digne scored both a wonderful free-kick and a spectacular arrowed effort. Yerry Mina opened the scoring. Gylfi Sigurdsson continues to impress in his No. 10 role. Bernard assisted two goals and was vibrant throughout. Richarlison came off the bench to score the crowning goal.
If the 6-2 defeat by Tottenham raised questions of Everton’s big-name signings, a 5-1 thrashing of Burnley offered something approaching an answer. Marco Silva playing with a central midfield of Tom Davies and Andre Gomes was tactical suicide against Tottenham, but far more logical against a Burnley team who cannot defend for toffee. Or against Toffees, for that matter.
One hundred goals for Chelsea, and their leader this season on goals, assists, chances created, shots on target and dribbles completed. The false nine role does not suit him perfectly and does not please him greatly, but he can still make it work. When Hazard performs at his peak, Chelsea win. It’s that simple.
What the bloody hell has happened? There was a period of ten minutes at the end of the first half at the King Power when Manchester City were in full panic mode: every hurried clearance fell to a Leicester player; every 50:50 was won by the home team; every attempted counter-attack broke down through a sloppy pass or mistimed. Leicester had three or four clear chances to score. The tables had turned completely.
Manchester City have now not kept a clean sheet for nine matches in all competitions, their longest run in three years, and the worst of Guardiola’s reign. It’s easy to blame complacency here, and ceding a lead in three consecutive games only adds fuel to that argument, but there is something bigger at play.
It starts with the full-backs, most of whom are injured or playing poorly. It is such an obvious weakness that it spreads to the rest of the team. Puel told James Maddison to sit on Danilo on the left and he made his afternoon miserable with Ben Chilwell overlapping. Central defenders are thereby forced to drift out wide to help their struggling teammates, creating a space that Fernandinho is not there to fill.
But City’s defence aren’t being helped by an attack that before Chelsea was making the lack of clean sheet easy to forget. City clicked excellently for the opening goal before everything went a little bitty. Raheem Sterling is being asked to stay out wide rather than operating in the areas in which he has been most dangerous. Leroy Sane is both City’s most potent weapon and also their most frustrating player. Four times against Leicester he made the wrong decision or delivered a poor final ball.
And then there’s Sergio Aguero, who has scored three times from 20 shots since the beginning of November. For comparison, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang has scored 11 times from 33 shots. Aguero is not getting as many clearcut chances as he is used to, and he is not taking them in the manner that we are used to.
Guardiola probably wished these issues were caused by complacency. He could sort that out with a few well-placed angry words and warnings. But City’s current funk – which has blindsided most supporters – may be more difficult to solve. It will rely upon every element of the team playing just a little better, and the full-backs improving markedly. The question is how far they will be behind Liverpool when that improvement inevitably comes.
Tottenham are happy enough to have wonderful fun without being given a helping hand. Charlie Daniels farted about on the edge of his own penalty area, the entire defence was static for Harry Kane’s goal and they somehow failed to spot Lucas Moura running late into the penalty area. And that’s without mentioning an attack that created more chances than Spurs did and somehow spurned them all.
Sean Dyche and Burnley’s defence
Burnley’s big problem is that they did not plan for this eventuality: the entire defence falling to pieces over the course of a summer. Given Dyche’s budget restraints, there may have been nothing they could do anyway. It isn’t easy to tempt sexy foreign signings to Turf Moor, and English players are incredibly expensive.
But if the plan is to carry on doing the same things and cross fingers that defenders and goalkeeper can find some form, it’s going to get even worse before it gets better. Between October 2014 and April 2018, Burnley conceded more than three goals in one of their 106 Premier League games. Since then, they have conceded more than three goals in six of their 21 Premier League games. They have fallen off a cliff.
A miserable performance to hammer home just how far this club has fallen under its current owner. Liverpool vs Newcastle United used to be an absorbing, entertaining contest. Now they are nothing more than light strolls through Stanley Park.
Worse news came after the game, with Rafael Benitez asked about transfers and confirming that a) no deals would be done early in the January transfer window, and b) that he was perturbed by that scenario. With rumours of takeovers still lingering, cynical – or just experienced – Newcastle supporters will fear that they are being played by Mike Ashley again.
In their position, you have to be ruthless. Fulham have taken the lead in five matches this season, but won only one. Had they even held on to a couple of those, Claudio Ranieri’s side would be outside the relegation zone.
Unai Emery (and some Arsenal supporters)
The substitutions were poor. Elements of Arsenal’s away-day blues have returned, which may be further exposed at Anfield. Elements of their defensive incompetence have been exposed too, and they really could be further exposed at Anfield.
But to see some Arsenal supporters complaining that they had lost faith in their new manager really does put into sharp focus the entitlement of some fans. This is a man tasked with taking the club away from the managed decline of Arsene Wenger’s latter years without the budgets enjoyed by most of the clubs with which he is expected to compete. Can we please calm down a little?