Over the last few weeks, there was a growing assumption that the destination of the Premier League title had already been decided. So dominant was Manchester City’s football, so sumptuous their attack and so solid their defence, that nobody could surely stop them.
The fly in that ointment was that in-game dominance had not produced a dominant points lead. After 15 matches of the Premier League season, the leaders had a two-point lead. Last season at the same stage, City had an eight-point cushion. In fact, the last time the Premier League leaders had a smaller points gap to second at the same stage of the season was in December 2008. By those standards, we already had the makings of a titanic title tussle.
But to truly convince us of City’s fallibility, we needed a defeat. City had played away games at Wembley, Emirates and Anfield and hadn’t even conceded a goal. Only by witnessing a chink in their armour could we believe that Liverpool had a chance.
It may have been an imperfect weekend for Manchester City and a brilliant one for Liverpool – more on that next. But the biggest victors of this Premier League weekend were those of us who are desperate for a title duel between a traditional giant trying to fight their way back to domestic glory after a long fallow period and the nouveau riche super club aiming to defend their crown. There will be nothing better to watch on television this Christmas. Not even Mrs Brown’s sodding Boys.
Mohamed Salah and Liverpool
The ‘one-season wonder’ stuff was mainly nonsense. No reasonable supporter believed that Salah would go from Europe’s top goalscorer to a mediocre attacker over the course of one summer. But there were signs that Liverpool’s brilliant forward was not quite at the same level in 2018/19 as 2017/18. The goals still flowed, but Salah looked occasionally shonky in promising positions: misplaced passes, loose touches, shanked shots.
At the Vitality Stadium on Saturday, Salah blew away those doubts with a virtuoso performance that contained all the hallmarks of last season’s majesty. He was our early winner and for excellent reason.
The first goal demonstrated the reaction and hunger to anticipate Asmir Begovic’s spill and adjust his feet to take full advantage. The second took impressive resilience, having had his Achilles studded from behind while dribbling in full flight and continuing his merry way. The third and crowning goal was Salah as cat playing with small mouse, dipping and ducking with the ball at his feet and bamboozling defenders and goalkeeper.
If Liverpool’s sluggish performances – albeit while still winning games – had persuaded some that Jurgen Klopp’s side would soon come a cropper, Saturday was evidence that Liverpool had several spare gears to find. Get Salah hitting his straps, and Liverpool aren’t going to cede first place easily.
Raheem Sterling and the courage to speak out
It would have been easier to say nothing. Stay quiet and the feelings of resentment and hurt won’t go away, but at least you get to process them in silence. Speak up, and suddenly you have created a story that you cannot choose to put back in a box and push to the back of a drawer. Raheem Sterling is now the footballer who called out elements of the British tabloid media for their racism. It will only invite more criticism from those members of the public who believe abhorrent racist chants to be acceptable.
This does not come naturally to Sterling, a shy boy who would much prefer to talk about football and enjoy a sensational 2018 as it comes to a close. He has never intended to be the poster boy for a movement or the leader in any battle. But he has reached the point where enough is enough.
So Sterling must be congratulated, cherished, for taking a stance. It is woeful that he feels the need, but then that reflects only upon those who are guilty of empowering racists by judging people differently based on the colour of their skin.
There will be people reading this who dismiss Sterling’s claims, but that only makes you part of the problem. If one of the most talented English footballers feels victimised – and how else could he feel given the ‘blinging, spoilt brat’ reputation that certain outlets has pushed onto a public that has never and will never meet Sterling in person? – it paints the nation in general in a very sorry state. Sterling has not just taken a stand. He has attempted to shape the future of our media. At the very least he deserves to be heard.
This is not about overt racism, the type that Sterling suffered at Stamford Bridge at the hands of morons who must be banned from every football ground in the country for life. That is merely an extreme example that can be punished on a case-by-case basis. In many ways, such overt racism is easier for someone like Sterling to swallow. Ill-educated, hateful idiots who allow tribalism to cloud decency share no common ground with him.
But societal racism can be harder to accept. It is about an underlying tone in certain places that treats young black players in a different way to white players. It is about referencing Sterling in an article about knife crime in London without any reasonable excuse for doing so. It is about making Sterling’s supposed character, personal life and spending habits a story that the public is taught to feast on, so that repeated stories become the accepted norm. And it is about middle-aged, white, middle-class people telling Sterling that he is mistaken that there is any racial motivation. Like the unpleasant joke or behaviour that the protagonist insists is just a bit of banter, you don’t get to decide the reaction of the offended and affected.
It must all stop, and Sterling’s Instagram post will help. More and more on social media, those stories about players’ private lives that are sensationalised and used to drive content are called out and criticised. Keep going, keep doing it. The power of the decent majority will shine through.
If Sterling believes that he suffers for the colour of his skin at the hands of those who are trusted to report honestly and fairly, how can we ever hope to move forward and succeed together as a culture? Short answer: we can’t. And we should be bloody ashamed we’re even having the debate in 2018.
Have that, those of us – *raises hand sheepishly* – who worried that Sarri was in danger of stymieing N’Golo Kante with the Frenchman’s new box-to-box role. Chelsea weathered the Manchester City storm with Kante dropping deeper than usual to assist Jorginho, and then he popped up in the opposition penalty area to score the opening goal.
Want a demonstration of Kante’s positional change in one statistic? He has already touched the ball 27 times in the opposition penalty area in the Premier League this season. That’s eight more than he did in the whole of last season.
There are still reasons to believe that Sarri’s masterplan dilutes Kante’s all-tackling, all-intercepting one-man midfield mission, but one thing is certain: Sarri is not for turning. Kante must learn to love his new role. There are few midfielders more suited to adding strings to the bow.
In the space of eight days, Torreira has sealed victory in the north London derby after a terrier-like performance, helped his side to draw at Old Trafford with another large dose of tenacity and rescued three points with a late overhead kick goal. Is this a Truman Show-style experiment where he’s starring as the new Roy Race?
The last time each of the current top six conceded more than once in a league game:
Manchester City – December 8
Manchester United – December 5
Chelsea – December 5
Arsenal – December 5
Tottenham – December 2
Liverpool – April 21
You see the point.
Hoo boy, that was needed. It may not have been particularly pretty, but you see if Sean Dyche gave a hoot as he settled down on the sofa on Saturday evening and opened a new packet of cherry Tunes. Had Burnley lost at home to an in-form Brighton on Saturday, Dyche’s own role in this Burnley decline would have merited some scrutiny. A first win in what feels like several long months keeps the wolf from the door.
In 2018, Manchester City have collected points at a rate of 2.25 per away game. Tottenham have collected points at a rate of 2.21 per away game, second in the Premier League by that measure and only a fraction behind City.
The chaotic defeat against Arsenal was so frustrating because it was so unusual. If Mauricio Pochettino got his plans wrong that afternoon, that too is the exception to the general rule. Tottenham, with their smaller squad, smaller transfer budget and smaller wage bill, are one of Europe’s best away teams. Imagine how good they could be if they had a place to call home.
We must take care to avoid damning Manchester United with faint praise. Scoring four goals against Fulham at home is an achievement matched by Burnley, and United still failed to keep a clean sheet. If beating the team bottom of the Premier League caused a jump in mood amongst supporters, that says far more about what came before than what took place on Saturday afternoon.
But there were signs of life that must now be taken to Anfield next weekend in a monumentally important match for Jose Mourinho’s future and Manchester United’s top-four hopes. The second and third goals were as a result of free-flowing attacking moves of the like that we have not seen at Old Trafford in months. Ander Herrera is in excellent form in midfield and dilutes the headlines surrounding Paul Pogba’s absence from the team. Diogo Dalot’s early first-team adventures offer plenty of promise for the long term.
With progress in the Champions League already confirmed and the midweek trip to Valencia virtually meaningless, Mourinho can now spend his time planning for Liverpool on Sunday. Tiptoes in the right direction against Fulham may count for nothing then.
Proof that the hyperbolic stories about Mourinho’s reaction to Rashford’s miss against Young Boys were built on piping hot nonsense. There are still reasonable doubts as to whether Mourinho is the best manager for Rashford – and they will not go away for a fair while – but Rashford has plenty enough talent to shine through adversity. He’s a joy to watch when his tail is up.
One of the signings of the season, and proof that West Ham have not got everything wrong in the last two years. They may have paid a premium for a South American who arrived with no guarantee of consistency, but Anderson is already reaching Dimitri Payet levels of cult hero status. This is the Brazilian who broke onto the scene so spectacularly at Lazio. For £30m, Anderson already looks like a steal.
At 4.20pm on Saturday afternoon, Roy Hodgson was the 7/1 third favourite to be the next Premier League manager to leave his job. I won’t pretend I didn’t get a little excited and pile on, because it’s difficult to explain that price.
Southampton and Fulham, the two most obvious candidates to make a change in the autumn, had already pulled the plug on their managers. Jose Mourinho was available at a lower price, but Manchester United will surely wait until they are certain to miss out on the top four and thus avoid such an expensive pay-off. Nuno was also shorter than Hodgson, but Wolves had just beaten Chelsea to halt their poor run and have now beaten Newcastle too.
Hodgson, meanwhile, was floundering. He has been dealt a difficult hand at Selhurst Park, budgets tightened after expensive mistakes made before his appointment, but is playing it badly. The plan to play with wingers as strikers is no longer getting the best out of a visibly frustrated Wilfried Zaha, Hodgson’s mid-game substitutions and tactical changes often raise eyebrows amongst supporters and Palace are now on the sort of run that will cause boardroom panic.
Hodgson has suffered from a similar scenario to Mark Hughes, managers who did enough to keep their clubs in the Premier League but look out of their depth when tasked with taking the club back towards health following emergency surgery. As the oldest manager in the Football League, Palace may feel that a freshness is needed that Hodgson cannot provide. Right now, he could hardly muster a strong defence.
Pep Guardiola’s insistence that he was delighted with City’s performance was a bit much, but you did see his point. The way team dominated possession at Stamford Bridge in the first half, and Chelsea scored with their first shot of the game. Play like that in every match, and City will win the majority of their fixtures with some comfort. Remember too that City were without Sergio Aguero and Kevin de Bruyne, two of their most capable attacking players and so often difference-makers in City’s big games over the last three years.
But there was cause for concern, not least because Manchester City no longer top the Premier League and have been overtaken in what many assumed was a one-horse race. Slightly worrying too was the relative ease in which Chelsea – a team who have suffered recent defensive issues – were able to keep City at bay until they extended their lead.
Only a fool would believe that City’s league form is going to tail off badly from now on in, but Guardiola did note that City must find ways to succeed in games such as these if they want to win the Champions League. That is not an arena in which teams will look to merely keep down the score. Only another run of consecutive victories will steady the ship. Those are the high standards City have set.
Now go and read 16 Conclusions on the game.
Left on the bench in favour of the ‘false nine’ strategy. Even if the plan was not successful it paints Jesus as Guardiola’s attacking Plan C, particularly in the highest-profile matches. Which wasn’t exactly what he had in mind in August.
Having achieved notable success at his last three clubs, the appointment of Hasenhuettl as a replacement for Mark Hughes was rightly viewed as proof of the Premier League’s pulling power. But Hasenhuettl is a football manager not a magician, and Southampton are so predisposed towards defensive incompetence that he has a mighty task on his hands.
Every Southampton performance over the last 18 months, including the one at Cardiff on Saturday, is marred by at least one total breakdown in communication or aptitude in defence and the shooting has long been too bad to bail them out of trouble. It’s an unhappy formula. The Titanic left Southampton in 1912. In 2018, the iceberg is looming towards them while Hasenhuettl desperately attempts to spin the wheel.
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.
Puel initially suffered by unfair reputation for tedious football, and has put more faith in younger players than many supposed, but Leicester are coasting in the middle lane of Premier League – win a couple, draw a couple, lose a couple. There’s nothing wrong with that, but coming so soon after their wonderful title triumph everything else feels dull in comparison.
If you aren’t going to achieve the unthinkable again, the least you can do is have a little fun. A quick straw poll of Leicester City season ticket holders suggests that plenty aren’t feeling the buzz under Puel and rarely have. Expect a sexier foreign name to have walked into the King Power before the start of next season.
And what of Leicester’s former manager Ranieri, who must now be convinced by those who warned him about Fulham’s shambolic defending. Fulham are the only team in the country not to keep a league clean sheet, and have conceded two or more goals in 13 of their 16 matches. Still, at least they’re only on course to concede 95 goals now.