Not top of the winners because they beat Leicester City. Not even top of the winners because they won their 17th consecutive Premier League match, one behind Manchester City’s record set two years ago by that phenomenal, record-breaking team. But top of the winners because they have an eight-point lead at the top and are odds-on title favourites.
The argument that Liverpool are not yet playing at their best carries some weight. This is not the Brendan Rodgers team that streamed forward and left themselves open at the back, but nor is it the Jurgen Klopp team that was so miserly last season and kept so many clean sheets. It is a team with more balance and a defence that plays with a higher line. Both will take some getting used to. Liverpool are still learning and have not yet produced the complete performance in any competition this season.
But then that only makes this run of form – and Liverpool’s lead at the top – more remarkable. Liverpool are still winning, still beating high-performing teams and now have the type of lead that they really could rely upon to take them through the winter. We wondered for so long whether Liverpool would be able to go again after last season that we never stopped to think whether Manchester City would.
We hear it every time, and we heard it this time: Be careful what you wish for. Chris Hughton felt like the most British non-British manager and Potter the most foreign British manager, so although the usual actors switched places the advice still rained down: Don’t lose what you have, play it safe.
Forget that Hughton almost took Brighton down after doing such a wonderful job at Brighton. Forget that results had fallen off a cliff. Forget that Potter had a grand vision to take Brighton forward that excited the club and persuaded them to back him. People on the outside thought that they knew best.
Brighton had become one of the most predictable clubs in the Premier League; they are now one of the most interesting. Tottenham were dreadful on Saturday, but that doesn’t mean that Brighton don’t deserve great credit. Speak to their supporters, and they will tell you that this landmark victory has been in the post for some time. We told you so ourselves.
Most impressive is how quickly Potter has changed Brighton. The average age of the starting XI has dropped, and the team that faced Tottenham on Saturday was the youngest since they were promoted – it contained no player aged 30 or above. Last season, Hughton gave just 110 league minutes to players aged 21 or under (all given to Yves Bissouma before he turned 22 in late August). This season, that total already stands at 453 minutes and Steven Alzate and Aaron Connelly were two stars of Saturday’s win.
Tactically, there is variation where once there was certainty. Potter typically prefers to start with a 3-4-2-1 formation – in itself a significant change from last season – but is regularly prepared to tweak and switch mid-game. The style of play has been transformed, from direct, low-possession football to possession-based play. Brighton’s average possession has gone up 13% from one season to the next.
The signings have helped. Neal Maupay has allowed the responsibility on Glenn Murray – and the way in which playing Murray subscribes the team to a certain strategy – to diminish, but the addition of Aaron Mooy is the brainwave. He and Pascal Gross now get to share creative duties, rather than Gross carrying those on his shoulders.
One of the misnomers of safety-first football is that bedding in and defending with a low block at least avoids your side conceding goals. But the opposite can be true. Brighton are playing more expansively and with such confidence that their opponents are being penned back and given something to think about in their own third. Brighton have conceded 10 goals in eight games and have already played Manchester City away. No team has more clean sheets in the league.
The Premier League is sold as the Promised Land, and it is indeed great to pit yourselves against the game’s elite. But after the initial surge of excitement, it’s not much fun watching a team try and draw games 0-0 or keep the score down and grind out home wins against easier opposition. What Brighton – and many of their supporters – wanted was to try to have some fun. For fans, that’s what it’s supposed to be about.
Appointing Potter might be a misstep. It might still cost Brighton their place in the Premier League. But equally might allow this non-elite club to thrive in the top flight and hit upon a method of becoming even greater than the sum of their parts. It might mean that they find something better. And right now, life under Graham Potter feels better and tastes sweeter.
Roy Hodgson and Crystal Palace
Teams with more Premier League wins than Crystal Palace in 2019: Liverpool, Manchester City, Arsenal.
Teams with more Premier League away wins than Crystal Palace in 2019: Liverpool, Manchester City.
Teams that have conceded fewer home goals than Crystal Palace in 2019/20:
And yes, that empty space is deliberate. Bloody hell.
I’m wary of making firm conclusions based on the result of one mad victory, but given that Aston Villa fans weren’t hopeful of a good result or performance at Carrow Road they certainly deserve to take their place high up in the winners list.
This was Villa’s biggest away win in over a decade. Now go and follow it up with a string of solid performances and move up the Premier League table. You’re behind Manchester United, for goodness sake.
Wolves’ counter-attacking plan
For all that Manchester City were found lacking at the Etihad on Sunday, Wolves were magnificent. Nuno has struggled at times this season to cope with opponents that no longer see value in attacking Wolves and being caught on the counter attack, but in Besiktas and City Nuno found two opponents that his team could unsettle. The recipe was clear: Sit back, soak up, hit on the counter.
That sounds simple, but it takes some courage. Wolves lost Romain Saiss early in the first half, but that may well have been a blessing in disguise. With Ryan Bennett on to join Willy Boly, Wolves had enough physical presence to thwart City. The plan was to crowd central midfield with Ruben Neves, Joao Moutinho and Leander Dendoncker, frustrating City’s short, quick passing and forcing them to cross the ball. The three games since the start of last season in which City have attempted the most crosses from open play: Loss to Crystal Palace, loss to Norwich City, loss to Wolves.
That might have been enough for Wolves to earn a point, but Nuno deserves extra praise for his in-game plan to win the match. He substituted striker Patrick Cutrone for Matt Doherty, allowing Doherty to play at right-back and leaving Adama Traore in a free role. Traore was told to sit deep when Wolves were out of possession, but to sprint up the pitch to be Wolves’ furthest player forward on the counter-attack. Cut to Raul Jimenez twice putting him through on goal. Don’t you just love it when a plan comes together.
Tammy Abraham and Mason Mount
This column covered the pair at length recently, but this is getting silly. Abraham and Mount have 12 league goals between them in Chelsea’s eight league games. Add in Fikayo Tomori’s strike against Wolves and you have 13 league goals scored by Englishmen for Chelsea so far this season. In the last two league seasons combined they have managed 10.
(Also, because it’s been bugging me in every article I read about them: their names really should be swapped around. Tammy Mount and Mason Abraham just fits so much better. And I’ve said it over and over so many times that I now get mixed up with what is real).
Mauricio Pochettino, Tottenham and the end of the cycle
In 2014/15, Borussia Dortmund’s form dropped off a cliff. They took 25 fewer points from one season to the next, and dropped five places. From finishing behind only Bayern Munich, they were pipped to a top-five place by Augsburg. By the time Jurgen Klopp had left at the end of the season, Dortmund were far closer in points to the relegation zone than the Champions League places.
Klopp, who had previously been untouchable and overseen a period of extraordinary Dortmund improvement, was helpless in arresting the slide. This master man manager and tactician, who built players up to be bigger and press harder, could no longer do it.
It is not a perfect comparison (Klopp won trophies, albeit against far fewer giants and before Bayern had truly established their stranglehold), but the principle is the same. One of the typical themes of consistent overachievement is that when the cracks start to appear, it can all crumble very quickly. Doubt is the most effective accelerator of decline. Dortmund started to doubt themselves, and they were done. Tottenham are doubting themselves.
Tottenham are dismal away from home. They look sapped of belief and sapped of the fight to make it right. There is a lack of competition for places, a collective fatigue caused by a massive workload and and a loss of togetherness caused by several players wanting to leave because they feel that they are underpaid or want a new challenge – and you can’t really blame them on either point. A team doesn’t have to drop far for others to exploit the new flaws. Suddenly everything seems to go wrong.
It is easy to say with the benefit of hindsight, but perhaps it would have been better if this had all ended in the summer. Mauricio Pochettino was clearly prepared to leave had Tottenham won the Champions League final, because he believed it could never get better. But maybe it couldn’t get better than reaching the final. Instead, Pochettino demanded transfer efficiency and Tottenham waited until the end of the window to buy players and nagging contract situations to rumble on. Two of the four players Spurs signed are injured, and another is out on loan as part of the deal.
The Klopp comparison is interesting, because his reputation was left largely untarnished by that Dortmund slump. Those within the game – and certainly those at Liverpool – maintained the belief that he was a top-class manager. The same is true of Pochettino. There are several elite clubs who will consider him to be the perfect replacement for what they already have.
Nor too will – or at least should – Tottenham supporters change their opinion of their manager. Pochettino has given them the best times they had in 50 years, longer than the memories of most season ticket holders. He took a club that hadn’t finished in the top two since 1963 and had never got to the European Cup final and took them to both. And in a climate of financial behemoths in the Premier League, he led them to more league consistency than any manager since Bill Nicholson. If it ends now, soon or some way down the line, it should end with a fanfare rather than the best Tottenham manager in half a century slipping out of a side door.
Manchester City’s defence
The focus will be on the absence of Kevin de Bruyne for another Manchester City league defeat (he last started a home league defeat on December 3, 2016), but the real issue is their defensive issues without Aymeric Laporte. They could not have expected his extended absence, but the lack of replacement for Vincent Kompany in the summer might well cost City the title.
A central midfielder at centre-back, doing the best he can in difficult circumstances. A right-back starting at left-back, then moving to right-back so another midfielder could fill his place. Last season’s fourth-choice centre-back now the only fit option for his position. A right-back who was once the best in the country and is now fourth choice for his national team and was substituted at half-time.
The result can be explained away by the manager as a freak occurrence – Manchester City do not lose many home games. But it was the result of more sloppy work from a defence that is creaking and will not be back at full strength until March. How far will City be behind by then?
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer
We have done this to death, but as Solskjaer remains in his job it does still bear repeating: You can believe that the manager is not solely responsible for this mess, believe that he is not in the top three factors for this Manchester United malaise and yet still believe that persisting with Solskjaer is based on nothing more than the vague premise that once playing for this club makes him the right manager.
Put it this way: Which other Premier League supporters would be happy with Manchester United’s manager? Tottenham, despite Pochettino’s struggles? God no. Everton, for whom Marco Silva is struggling? Not a chance. Watford, who are rooted to the bottom of the league and winless? Nope.
Nobody would, that’s who. Manchester United – the Manchester United – have got a manager in charge who no other reasonable supporter would swap for their own. And that statement should be humiliating for those in charge of the club’s decision-making.
United’s squad is weak, with significant flaws and injury problems (for which Solskjaer must take his fair shame of the blame). But that is only a reasonable excuse to be struggling to reach the top four, not struggling to stay out of the bottom three. Newcastle have a worse squad. So too do Crystal Palace. And AZ Alkmaar. Solskjaer’s United have lost to the first two and drew with the other without having a shot on target.
The starting XI on Sunday contained nine full internationals. Even if they are all wretched players, as some would have you believe, wasn’t the whole point of Solskjaer that he would be able to motivate them to fight harder and longer to make up for any shortfall? Instead United are as hard to break down as a soaking wet paper bag.
Also, I don’t quite buy into this notion that no coach could succeed under these owners, because the one thing that Manchester United haven’t tried is a forward-thinking manager with a strong and relevant CV. Or, to go back to the original point, a manager that other clubs of their size might consider employing.
In 2015, when Brendan Rodgers had been sacked as manager, Liverpool fan site The Anfield Wrap wrote a piece assessing FSG’s time in charge. Within it, they made the following points:
‘The last five years under FSG have not been perfect. Far from it. League finishes of sixth, eighth, seventh, second and sixth, show that. There have been mistakes and growing pains. Kenny was removed when perhaps giving him the full-time job again made that inevitable and Rodgers was kept on when removing him appeared inevitable. Transfer policy has been unclear and uncertain at best.
‘Now, eight games into the season, after another summer of rebuilding, the man who in theory had final say on all the signings during the transfer window has been sacked before most of the new players had picked a favourite seat in the Melwood canteen. It feels like another season of transition, another year slipping away, wasted again.
‘As for how FSG rate thus far, though it may be a cop-out, their next managerial appointment will be the deciding factor. Be they altruistic thrill-seekers just looking for the glory of trophies or hard-nosed businessmen with one eye on a sale in the coming years, it is pivotal that they make the correct choice.’
And they did make the correct choice. They didn’t appoint Sami Hyypia, who had failed in English football like Solskjaer, succeeded abroad (in a better league than Norway) like Solskjaer but crucially played for the club at the turn of the century. They targeted and appointed Jurgen Klopp, and let him scope the club has his expertise saw fit.
FSG are not the Glazers, and the latter are parasites that will continue to hold back Manchester United. But the point is that Klopp’s excellence removed any talk of the ownership by bringing everything else together and by relying upon his tactical acumen and man-management. And anyone who believes that Klopp wouldn’t have United further up the table is guilty of oneyedness.
Having a proficient manager won’t solve Manchester United’s deep-rooted issues, but it’s far better to have one than not. The hunt should start now.
Of course every game cannot be televised, and broadcasters are forced to pick their matches weeks in advance. But when the customer pays so much for their live Premier League coverage, and covers so many matches, it seems a bloody shame to have missed both of the key matches in potentially the defining weekend of the Premier League title race.
It’s all going south. Certain managers who are struggling in the Premier League can reasonably plead external factors to mitigate their own culpability, but Silva isn’t one of them. Everton have improved numerous positions since chasing Silva. He was supposed to be the manager that mounted a stern and sustainable top-six challenge. He’s simply going the way of all the others.
Last season, Everton had problems with scoring goals that were offset by the increasing reliability of their defence. This season, the attacking hasn’t got much better and the defensive assurance has been entirely absent. So too has any obvious spark in Silva, who patrols the touchline like a sad tiger trapped in a cage.
This is not all on Silva. The loss of Idrissa Gueye cannot be overstated, and his direct replacement is injured. The lack of centre-back signing to replace Kurt Zouma was unforgivable, particularly given that Phil Jagielka was also allowed to leave. But the buck still stops with the manager. The above might excuse Everton being ninth in the league, but not in the bottom three having played 21% of the season.
Everton is a big club, one that would be able to attract an up-and-coming manager from home or abroad. Silva was once that man, but is now fading into the dark. Storm clouds are hanging over Goodison. There’s little Silva lining visible.
Norwich City after beating Manchester City
After Norwich humbled the champions at Carrow Road, I wrote in this column that the result would only define their season if they could use it as fuel for the next few months. A victory like that can be worth more than three points, but only if you make it so. Success over a season comes not from individual standout results, but consistently getting things done. Think Burnley and Sean Dyche.
Norwich have not ceded the goodwill that they generated during that magnificent victory, because it will remain in the memories of those who witnessed it. But its tangible lasting impact has been lessened by what came next. Norwich have conceded nine times in three defeats to Burnley, Crystal Palace and Aston Villa. They have now lost 75% of their league games this season. If that continues they will be relegated.
It is the abiding image of Watford’s terrible season so far, Andre Gray staring in disbelief after scooping the ball over the bar from six yards before pulling his shirt over his face to try and curb some of the embarrassment. Behind him, thousands of home supporters held their heads in unison as if part of a disappointed flashmob. On the touchline, Quique Sanchez Flores curses in Spanish and tries to believe next time will be different.
There are a few reasons why Watford have tailed off so badly this season. They took their eye off the ball while Javi Gracia was overseeing a sharp decline in league form, failed to adequately invest in the defence over the summer and the squad is the oldest in the Premier League. But the decline in their shooting statistics has done more than anything else to drag them down.
Last season, Watford had the fifth best shooting accuracy in the division and the eighth best shot conversion rate at 11.9%. So far this season, their shooting accuracy has dropped and their shot conversion rate is a miserable 3.5%. It’s easily the worst in the Premier League.
Here’s a truth bomb for you all to wrestle with: You’re likely to struggle if it takes you 30 shots to score a goal.