Premier League winners and losers on Boxing Day…

Date published: Friday 27th December 2019 11:47

Winners

Liverpool
During the first mini-period of Jurgen Klopp’s tenure, Liverpool were an entertaining, thrashing, attacking team whose defensive vulnerabilities stopped them mustering a serious title challenge but made them a highly dangerous cup team. During the second mini-period, Klopp signed players to improve the defence and prided himself on clean sheets.

In the third mini-period, Klopp went in search of the perfect balance. At the King Power on Boxing Day evening, we had emphatic proof that he has found it. With that balance comes near perfection. With that balance will come a maiden Premier League title.

We have become accustomed to Liverpool’s high bar, but this was something else. Klopp’s team did not just beat the team in second place, they humiliated them. They made all the niggling concerns about fatigue and travel over December look superfluous, and then did the same in the context of the match. Just when we wondered if Liverpool might pay the price for not extending their lead by two or three more goals, they scored three times. What more can they do? What other hoops are there left for them to jump through?

Count the ways in which we love thee. The defensive resilience was extraordinary. Jamie Vardy wriggled free once in 90 minutes, marshalled down the channels by Virgil van Dijk and Joe Gomez. In two fixtures between the current top two this season, Leicester have managed one shot on target in total.

The attacking prowess remains unabated by the improvement in Liverpool’s defending, assisted (literally) by the best pair of full-backs in the world. Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andrew Robertson haven’t just been the keys to Liverpool’s constant creativity; they have forced us to alter our expectations of what full-backs can do.

The only fly in the ointment is an occasional profligacy in front of goal that threatens to make matches interesting until the weight of pressure and chances eventually pays – the same happened on Thursday. And even then, Liverpool have the best conversion rate of shots to goals in the Premier League so it’s hardly a huge concern for Klopp.

But the best parts of Liverpool are not the individual components within this machine, but the whole package. It is the way they press relentlessly to hound the opposition and create the impression that they have at least one extra man on the field. It is the way in which players show for the ball more than any other team in the division. It is the manner in which they get the balance right between patience and possession for its own sake, constantly choosing the correct pass at the correct time.

Do not underestimate how hard that is to play against. Leicester supporters groaned when their side ceded possession in their own half, but it all stems from Liverpool’s control. When you finally get the ball back, you feel the need to try and make your possession count and so attempt speculative passes; the alternative is to be pressed high up the pitch and risk losing the ball anyway. To complete the unhappy picture, even if you do pass through the press and get midfielders into the final third, you risk being killed by a lightning fast counter attack.

I’ve said it plenty of times before, but this Liverpool magnificence has become so quickly normalised. Klopp has won 26 of his last 27 league matches as a manager. Even if Manchester City win every game between now and the end of the season, Liverpool could afford to draw five and lose one of their remaining matches and still be guaranteed glory.

Their supporters might not be able to believe it in case of inflicting a jinx, but the rest of us are in no doubt. Liverpool are the champions elect, and they should win by a landslide.

Trent Alexander-Arnold
Since the start of last season, Trent Alexander-Arnold has been part of the Premier League’s meanest defence. He’s also assisted more goals than any other player in the division. And won the Champions League. And become the youngest player to start in consecutive finals. And won the Super Cup and the Club World Cup. And been named Young Player of the Year for his boyhood club twice in a row. And been nominated for the Ballon D’Or. And been named in the Premier League and Champions League Team of the Season.

Alexander-Arnold is 21. His passing, his crossing, his recovery, his bite and his ability to step up in the biggest moments of the biggest matches is like nothing we have seen in a boy so young for a long, long time. Someone rip off his shirt and check for wires.

 

Ralph Hasenhuttl
Well, well. Southampton’s season steps out of the darkness and into the light. Hasenhuttl has the best victory during his time in charge, and relegation fears have been abated.

Southampton have always been dangerous away from home under Hasenhuttl. Some struggling teams go into their shells on the road, preferring to try and grind out draws and then focus on winning home games against the teams around them. But the last time Southampton failed to score away from home was the opening day.

The more salient question was whether Southampton could find a formation that made them defensively solid. They had conceded 13 goals in their last seven away games. Hasenhuttl’s 4-4-2 at Stamford Bridge worked perfectly, Jack Stephens and Jan Bednarek resolute in central defence and Pierre‑Emile Højbjerg brilliant in midfield. When they needed to drop deep and crowd out Chelsea, Southampton did so without falling into the ‘too many cooks’ trap that has often been their downfall. This was no fluke; Southampton were better than Chelsea in every area of the pitch.

Just as pleasing was that Southampton scored twice in a match without Danny Ings starting, with Hasenhuttl choosing to rest his star forward and bring back Che Adams into the side. Adams did not score but pressed high up the pitch and Hasenhuttl was pleased with his contribution. It was the first time they have scored twice without Ings since April 27.

“We played like a relegation team,” said Hasenhuttl after the game. “Now we play like a Premier League team.” Southampton supporters will hope that they have started to leave their troubles behind after a rotten 18 months.

 

Manchester United
A regulation victory that still came with an early scare, but Ole Gunnar Solskjaer will be pleased to see his team win a league game with more than 55% possession for the first time since March. Given that they had 74.1% of the ball against Newcastle, their most in a game all season, maybe there’s just a tipping point.

 

The relegation battle
Vital wins for Aston Villa, Everton and Southampton really do make it more interesting. Having presumed it was three clubs from the bottom four (Villa, Watford, Southampton and Norwich), every member of the bottom half is now within six points of the relegation zone. Given we won’t have a title race, that’s vitally important.

 

Carlo Ancelotti
I’m always wary of pouring praise on managers who have only had a couple of training sessions to influence their new squad, but Ancelotti will be mighty pleased by the way in which his change of shape late on nudged a tight match in Everton’s favour. Getting crosses from near the touchline to Dominic Calvert-Lewin would seem to be the new manager’s favoured strategy. After plenty of attempts, it worked with ten minutes remaining and the locals getting anxious.

 

Nigel Pearson
Fixtures against three of the current top seven in his first three matches, and significant steps in the right direction. So wretched have Watford been in over the last 12 months that this is the first time they have taken four points over two league matches since April. Last time it happened they promptly lost six straight games. Probably try and avoid that this time…

 

Dele Alli
Since the 7-2 home defeat to Bayern Munich, Alli’s league goals alone have been worth seven points to Tottenham. He’s back.

 

Losers

 

Big Six teams, losing the fear
In 2017/18, the Big Six played 84 home matches against non-Big Six teams. They lost only three of those 84 matches, and dropped 39 points.

So far in 2019/20, the Big Six have played 43 home matches against non-Big Six teams. They have lost seven of those 43 matches, and dropped 39 points.

At precisely the time that the richest clubs in the league should be moving away from the rest of the league, the opposite has happened. The only obvious explanation is an inherent arrogance on the part of larger clubs that has eroded the fear factor they used to hold.

 

Frank Lampard
If Frank Lampard wanted to know exactly how long his honeymoon period would last at Chelsea, he has his answer. The groans and moans that greeted the full-time whistle told their own story. Lampard has a problem on his hands, the first significant issue of his Chelsea tenure.

It is not just that Chelsea have lost three of their last four home league games, or even that those three defeats have come against supposedly weaker teams – West Ham, Bournemouth, Southampton. It’s that Chelsea have failed to score in all three of those fixtures, and that all three have had the same pattern that Lampard has been unable to break.

As with Manchester United and Solskajer, Chelsea are a capable attacking team who proved themselves able to overpower Tottenham last weekend away from home. But presented with a deep defence and clogged midfield, they lack the invention to break down the opposition. All season long Lampard has struggled to find an answer to that. Simply pushing more midfielders forward only succeeds in leaving them open to the counter. Southampton remained dangerous after their goals on Thursday.

Instead, Chelsea suffer from a sterile domination, enjoying plenty of possession and territory with too few chances to show for it. Tammy Abraham is struggling for service and for goals. He has three in the Premier League since the reverse fixture against Southampton on October 6.

Lampard has at least identified the problem. “You can’t have near on 70 per cent of possession and not get more clear chances at goal,” he said after the game. “If you’re an offensive player, play round the corner, join, mix up your game and break defensive lines because teams aren’t stupid – you need to do more in an attacking sense.”

But solving problems is far harder than identifying them, particularly given that potential solutions may involve Chelsea veering from their preseason commitment to sticking with the club’s young players this season. That commitment cannot be judged when the birds are singing and goals are flowing, but when the transfer window is open and results have taken a turn. It promises to be an interesting January at Stamford Bridge.

 

Leicester City, put in their place
As well as bantering with each other like two retirees playing their weekly golf round, Jon Champions and Ally McCoist on Amazon Prime made a very valid point about criticism of Leicester City. Even within the context of a single season, it is easy to make teams and managers victims of their own success. Any sharp words for Leicester must be put into context. They are still second in the table and we never expected that.

But over their last two matches, Leicester have been firmly put in their place. They created a platform for a potential title bid by flicking away non-Big Six teams (35 points out of a possible 39 against those sides). There is no shame in losing to Manchester City, Liverpool (twice) and Manchester United, but Leicester only produced a good performance for part of the defeat at Anfield and at no point of the other three matches.

Brendan Rodgers probably got it wrong. It would have taken a great deal of bravery to change shape and play an extra attacker (Kelechi Iheanacho or Ayoze Perez), but having lost 4-0 anyway without laying a scratch on Liverpool,  Rodgers may well regret not doing so. The other option would have been to start Hamza Choudhury and beef up the midfield to try and win that battle.

Neither Harvey Barnes nor Dennis Praet influenced the game. Picking both was a mistake. Leicester were swamped in midfield, forcing Barnes and Praet deep into their own half and leaving Vardy horribly isolated up front. Vardy had two touches in the opposition penalty area; only once since the start of last season has he played a full match and had fewer.

 

Norwich City
Six points from a possible 42 since beating Manchester City in September. Norwich haven’t kept a clean sheet at home this season, conceding 22 goals in nine games at Carrow Road, and the away form is nowhere near good enough to make up for it. They have now been beaten 6-1 across two games against the team third bottom of the table.

 

Manuel Pellegrini
From Winners and Losers after West Ham won at Chelsea:

‘Pellegrini now lives in constant purgatory. West Ham will lose their next match at Selhurst Park on Boxing Day and at home to Leicester, leading to another ultimatum from the board. They will then beat Bournemouth at home and scrape through against Gillingham in the FA Cup to earn some breathing room. Cue defeat at Bramall Lane to cause further headaches. At some point it might strike those in charge to seize control of the situation.’

Place your bets accordingly.

 

Daniel Storey

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