We will get to Liverpool and Manchester United in good time…
Fulham, embracing the pressure
A team haunted by the threat of relegation has two options. Either they can look to grind out draws and pick up the odd home win, playing safety-first football that has become the cause celebre of the English manager merry-go-round. Or you can play with a liberty that is made possible by everybody assuming you will go down. By playing on the front foot, you can take advantage of any complacency before the final few weeks of the season and flip-flop wearing during them. Fulham went for the second option.
For a while, it produced much the same results as the first, albeit achieved via an entirely different method. Fulham had contracted Brighton disease; they looked bright in possession but failed to take their chances and drew far too many matches. Scott Parker was probably a little too circumspect at times. If you’ve got it, flaunt it.
That made Sunday’s game at Anfield particularly important, partly to show up Newcastle’s safety-first approach but also because Fulham had a daunting run of fixtures to come. It’s not quite ‘win here and you can win anywhere’, given Liverpool’s recent record, but it sets the tone that they have no reason to fear this relegation fight.
The difference between Fulham and both West Brom and Newcastle was night and day. Fulham tried to play football, actively seeking to create space rather than prioritising closing it down. Their midfielders took two touches and looked for an attacker in space and on the move rather than taking three seconds to make a decision, launching the ball long and then trying to win the subsequent game of head tennis.
And here’s the thing: Fulham attack more than the teams around them but are also defending better than them. Since losing 2-0 at Manchester City on December 5, Fulham have conceded 12 goals in 17 matches, bettered only by Manchester City. Attack really is their best form of defence.
This might not be enough to keep Fulham up, but it does make you root for them. The Premier League has become a slog over the last few weeks (more on that later), but Fulham are the standout antidote in the bottom eight. And now, more than at any point since the opening weeks of the season, their fate is firmly in their own hands.
Manchester United, proving again what they can do
To pretend that we saw this coming would be to undermine the excellence of the performance and the result. Manchester City were heavy favourites and had won 21 matches on the spin. Manchester United were out to spoil the party as they did three years ago and did exactly that.
And there was a familiarity to this upset, if that is not too oxymoronic. Manchester United dismantled City with a counter-attacking blitz that was aided by the early penalty that they made happen. They attacked relentlessly on the break rather than sitting on their lead, which is so often the difference between drowning and swimming in opposition to Pep Guardiola’s team. We know Manchester United can excel when in this mode, but that should not reduce the praise for implementing the strategy against such high-class opponents.
They also did it without Bruno Fernandes in a starring role, despite his penalty. Bruno created a single chance in the game; United’s stars were Luke Shaw, Scott McTominay and Anthony Martial. More on two of those later, but an extra word too for McTominay, who is far better than he is given credit for. Fred makes my heart skip a beat because I’m suspicious that he’s never more than 30 seconds away from doing something silly. McTominay is the opposite, a calming influence in the holding midfield role.
This was a hugely important result for Solskjaer. It does not feel like an exaggeration to say that it has cemented his position as manager. So often have United faltered against deep-lying defences and struggling teams who set up to spoil their counter-attacking fun that we needed a demonstration of that fun to remind ourselves of how good they can look. That was particularly important after the recent wave of dreary big-game 0-0s.
Of course this should cause a tinge of regret, at least when the celebratory mood has eased slightly. Manchester United have shown that they can take four points out of six against the best team in the land this season. But their title challenge was undone by the lack of a coherent plan to break down deeper defences despite every single fan identifying that as an issue.
If they had beaten Sheffield United, Crystal Palace (twice) and West Brom they would be a point off top. I know the ‘Auntie had balls’ retort will come, but that misses the point – United should be beating those teams. Sunday is proof that United are good enough to seriously compete for the title; that’s a compliment. They were top of the league for a reason.
But Solskjaer will not focus on that now (and nor might supporters). His position had clearly been weakened in recent weeks but now looks firm again. If this all feels a little like Groundhog Day, Solskjaer will insist that next season United really can challenge for the title rather than flirt with it before dropping away.
In that context, this was a result for next season as much as this. I just hope we’re not dancing the same old dance in eight months’ time.
Now read 16 Conclusions.
For all Leicester City’s injuries, it is the form of Jamie Vardy that is most worrying. The two are clearly related. The absence of Harvey Barnes reduces Leicester’s creativity, while Ricardo Pereira’s serious injury issues appear to have – temporarily at least – affected his ability to overlap and provide crosses for Vardy. There’s also the defensive absentees to consider; they have forced Leicester to sit a little deeper, leaving Vardy isolated. But still: Leicester’s best striker has scored once in his last 14 matches.
Brendan Rodgers’ response has been to play with two strikers, Kelechi Iheanacho’s introduction intended to take at least one defender away from Vardy. Rodgers also wants Iheanacho to link up play and leave Vardy on the shoulder of the last defender.
And it’s worked. Vardy is still seeking an end to his own goal drought, but Iheanacho has stepped into that breach. The Nigerian has scored in Leicester’s last two Premier League matches to earn them two precious points as they try and fend off pressure from below and get through this mini injury crisis.
Iheanacho now has four goals in his last seven games, only five of which were starts. It would be very odd if it was his goals rather than Vardy’s that secured Leicester Champions League football, but Rodgers won’t care much. Credit to him for altering his tactics and getting a positive result from them.
The best left-back in the Premier League this season. Five years ago, judging defenders by their attacking output would have been considered deeply unfair, but it does now seem significant that Shaw surged forward against the best team in the country, exchanged passes with Marcus Rashford and finished low into Ederson’s bottom corner. If Gareth Southgate is intent on playing with a back three this summer, Shaw is competing for a position that he has barely ever played in. On this evidence, I’m not too worried. He should be England’s first-choice left wing-back on form.
Just when you start to lose faith, back he comes to drag you back in. If there is indeed a thought process at Old Trafford that Anthony Martial needs to be replaced as the starting centre-forward this summer, it is not without logic. Like his team as a whole, Martial can be damn effective on the counter-attack but offers too little against a deep-lying defence and often looks to be deeply frustrated by the whole process. He has still only scored four league goals this season and did miss a one-on-one at 2-0.
But this is why Martial is worth keeping around, if he is happy with becoming a squad player and wide attacker who only starts centrally when United are likely to be able to counter at will. On Sunday he dropped deep, interchanged play with Marcus Rashford and didn’t lose faith when his team dropped deeper to defend a two-goal lead.
There was a moment in the second half where he received the ball to feet, flicked a turn around a Manchester City defender and ran directly at the heart of the opposition’s defence. That is what Martial can do. The consistency is still lacking; nobody is doubting that. But the potential remains.
Life is proven to repeatedly be a cycle of failing to take things for granted. When you get a cold you curse yourself for not being more appreciative when you didn’t have a cold. When you’re forced into lockdown you curse yourself for not taking more advantage of being allowed to leave the house but instead choosing to watch Married At First Sight Australia on loop.
And when you have Harry Kane as the England centre-forward you fail to realise just how good we have it. He’s the second highest goalscorer in the Premier League and he’s the highest assist provider too. And when he swept his right foot around the ball for Tottenham’s third goal on Sunday, there was no place it was going other than the top-left corner. He’s glorious, he’s England’s No. 9 and I love him.
They should never have been in a position where they were looking nervously over their shoulders, but Ralph Hasenhuttl will hope that those fears have now been evaporated and grateful that his team ran into a desperate Sheffield United side. A first clean sheet in 10 games and a first away win since December 7 are exactly what was required.
Yeah fair enough, he’s definitely back now.
Liverpool: How bad can it get?
Every weekend, I fall for the same trick. I persuade myself that this is the match for Liverpool to come good, to release themselves from the misery of repeated home defeat. Every weekend I’m made to look foolish. Every weekend they find a new low.
Perhaps this was one of the least surprising of Liverpool’s six home defeats on the bounce, and not only because it came after five others. Fulham play expansive football with three forwards who take joy in running in behind and with midfielders who are intent on picking them out. With Liverpool persisting with their nonsensically high line (and their recent results do make that perseverance nonsense), danger was inevitable. Ademola Lookman alone got clear four times.
Jurgen Klopp also chose to make seven changes, publicly admitting that his focus has now switched to winning the Champions League. There cannot have been many less capable (partly due to their experience) centre-back pairings in Liverpool’s last few decades than Nat Phillips and Rhys Williams. Phillips in particular lacks the pace to cope with the high line. Next to him, right-back Neco Williams was taunted throughout by Lookman.
Even so, it’s still remarkable how loose Liverpool look defensively and how much they now struggle to get back into contests in which they trail. This is a team that had an astonishingly long unbeaten record who were outplayed by a team in the bottom three.
That plays into the weirdest thing of all about this Liverpool decline. For a period of two years, Liverpool seized control of the narrative in first the Champions League and then the Premier League. They scored late goal after late goal after late goal, relying on extraordinary reserves of energy and guts and grit and a simple resolve to make this happen. The Barcelona victory was the perfect example, a night on which Barcelona faced not just 11 red shirts but sporting fate itself.
Now it is Liverpool who are battling fate, as if they made several deals with a devil who is now demanding repayments with added interest. It isn’t just that they are losing matches and sliding down the table, but that they seem so utterly helpless to wrestle back control of matches and their own situation.
Nobody can say with any certainty when or where this ends, which is what makes it so fascinating. We can’t reasonably predict that it will be an irreversible slump that only Klopp leaving can solve, because next season players will return and so will the carrot to prove people wrong that has always been a vital ingredient of Klopp’s management.
But we can’t be sure that Liverpool will respond instantaneously either, rejuvenated after a summer break. They need a new centre forward; there are doubts about Mohamed Salah’s happiness and Georginio Wijnaldum’s contract is expiring. It’s far, far easier to rebuild when you’re at the top than when the perception is that your glory ebbed away over the course of a year.
This is getting painful. Brighton didn’t squander chance after chance against Leicester on Saturday evening, but that’s hardly a positive spin given that they let a lead slip and lost again in the final few minutes of the match.
Both are becoming a pattern. Brighton have scored the first goal in 12 matches this season but won only five of them – their 1.58 points-per-game record in those fixtures is virtually identical to West Brom’s and better only than Sheffield United’s They have lost points late against Palace and twice against Leicester recently (league and FA Cup).
The worry is that Brighton are getting dragged deep into a relegation battle that they have sleepwalked into. Much has been written about their dire chance conversion, but Brighton have only trailed for 642 minutes in the Premier League this season, less than Arsenal, Leeds, Southampton and Wolves, amongst others. But in the crucial moments of crucial matches, they have been left wanting.
I can’t quite understand that at the time of writing (11am Sunday morning), Brighton are considered such emphatic outsiders to be relegated (15/2 is available). Their repeated tendency to fall short of merited goals and points must surely be inflicting psychological damage on the squad and the struggles in front of goal show little sign of abating.
Sheffield United and a growing civil war
Sheffield United were probably already down before this weekend, but wretched home defeat to a Southampton side in a slump hammers the final sorry nail deep into the walls of their coffin. Supporters would not have swapped this two-year Premier League ride for the world, but it has come with a sour, desperate ending.
Bigger issues that Sheffield United’s impending relegation is the growing civil war within the club. Reports suggest that there has been a significant breakdown in the relationship between Chris Wilder and the club’s owners.
The problems stem from the Blades’ transfer activity. Since promotion to the Premier League, Wilder has spent more than £80m on five players who commanded transfer fees of £10m or more: Sander Berge, Oli McBurnie, Aaron Ramsdale, Lys Mousset and Rhian Breswster. The three strikers in that list have made 48 Premier League appearances this season and scored a single goal. That has persuaded the owners that a Director of Football is required to help oversee transfer market plans alongside Wilder.
Wilder has a different view. He points to players that he wanted to sign but who chose to move elsewhere (Ollie Watkins and Matty Cash are two obvious examples). Wilder is demanding that he keep total control if this is to work out.
And that might be that. If the owners are determined to get their way (and they wield the power) and Wilder is not prepared to cede to their demands, then Wilder surely leaves this summer. Supporters will be forever grateful to Wilder, but are surely more prepared than ever before to stomach him moving on for a fresh mood. It’s going to be damn hard to turn around this type of season without meaningful change, and this is not a good summer to be overhauling a squad.
Manchester City’s vincibility
It’s probably not an issue for their Premier League season, because that race has run. But Sunday’s defeat will annoy Guardiola most because it came out of nowhere. That’s exactly what threatens to ruin their Champions League dream.
Guardiola probably got his team selection wrong. City have looked at their best recently when playing with a false nine and two wide attackers that can interchange with each other. That might have worked very well in dragging Harry Maguire and Victor Lindelof out of position. The change to bring Foden on came too late, and City created far more chances after his introduction.
But the defeat was really as a result of several players performing poorly. Joao Cancelo has delighted in moving into a midfield position from full-back, but here he was exposed by Luke Shaw’s attacking intent and Marcus Rashford flying forward on the counter. De Bruyne played poorly, as did Riyad Mahrez and Raheem Sterling. When your three best creators all falter and lose possession too easily, it exposes you to the counter.
But we were also re-acquainted with two of Manchester City’s nagging flaws. The first is their response to adversity. This was the first time in an age that City conceded the first goal in a game and it caused a great deal of defensive panic – Shaw and Rashford could both feasibly have scored in the aftermath of the penalty. City have now conceded first in four games this season and taken only two points from them. Since the beginning of last season, they have taken 0.75 points per game from matches in which they have conceded the first goal.
And City also squandered chances, having 23 shots without scoring. That’s their other flaw; missing clear-cut opportunities that they really need to score. Those are the two things that have combined over Guardiola’s tenure to bar their progress in the Champions League. Guardiola will be irked that they have come to the fore again.
Steve Bruce and Newcastle United
“Eleven games to go, we’ve done OK,” said Steve Bruce after Newcastle’s 0-0 draw against West Brom that never looked like being anything else. “The last five or six games there’s only been Chelsea and Manchester United that have beaten us. We will take a point and move on.”
On some level, you have to appreciate that there is some logic to the assessment. Going back six games does include a home defeat to Crystal Palace and I’m not sure anyone in or outside Newcastle United thinks that 27 points from 27 games is ‘OK’ or anywhere close. But if Bruce believes that his remit was to keep Newcastle in the Premier League, we’ll let that slide.
But you do wonder whether Bruce is slowly falling into a relegation mire that his positivity might be unable to escape from, and wonder too whether Newcastle’s hierarchy are falling into the same trap. “We’ve done OK” is a pretty one-eyed assessment of 10 league points from his last 16 matches. Being satisfied with a draw always depended upon Fulham’s result later in the day at Anfield. Fulham’s victory renders this, on paper Newcastle’s easiest remaining away game of the season, two points dropped. It was a remarkably upbeat post-match assessment from the manager of a club in this much trouble.
It is still in Newcastle’s hands, but every supporter of this club knows that they are perfectly capable of dropping it and mourning as it smashes into pieces on the floor. They have two league fixtures before the international break against Aston Villa and Brighton. Fail to win either and they are playing catch-up having spent the last three months insisting that panic is unnecessary.
As an aside, the commentators on Sunday pointed out that Newcastle were fifth favourites for relegation before the season started, and so being in this position comes as no surprise to the wider world. But Newcastle supporters would agree entirely with that assessment; that’s exactly the point. This lethargic slump into a relegation battle was exactly what they feared under this ownership and this manager. Make mediocrity your self-imposed natural ceiling and nobody is surprised when you fail to achieve it.
If Newcastle United’s reticence to pour forward in pursuit of victory at least had some basis in league table logic, I cannot fathom why West Brom didn’t try and show more intent until the final ten minutes of the match when Sam Allardyce’s players were clearly fatigued and the manager was yet to make a substitution. Allardyce’s side huffed and puffed and created half chances, often from set-pieces, but this was a must-win game during which they looked far too accepting of a draw.
‘Now to go and get bullied by Burnley at Turf Moor, obviously.’ this column wrote last week. It was a pithy line, and proven completely wrong. Instead Arsenal were undone by a sloppy individual mistake that passed up all accrued control. Of course they were.