Man Utd’s accidental title challenge in winners and losers

Date published: Friday 1st January 2021 11:00 - Matthew Stead

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Manchester United are winging it a little but fair play to them: Liverpool seem to be feeling the pressure.

 

Winners

Marcelo Bielsa
The shame – well not the shame but you get the point – is that another pulsating Leeds performance was lost in the commotion. Their social media manager will be bathing in engagements but owner Andrea Radrizzani was among the many to wilfully ignore the irony in complaining that ‘the fantastic hard work of our players and coaches’ was in danger of being overlooked, while ensuring the overarching story emerging from a 5-0 victory was about anything and anyone but them. Talk about ‘completely unnecessary and disrespectful’.

Leeds should instead be basking in consecutive wins over obdurate managers who represent the style many have demanded Marcelo Bielsa conform to. As chastening as losing 6-2 to Manchester United was, an aggregate 6-0 win over Sean Dyche and Sam Allardyce suggests there is more than one way to skin a cat.

There are few more exciting methods than that employed by Leeds, mind. Their 16 Premier League matches have included 60 goals for either side, bettered in Europe’s top eight leagues only by Ajax (62). While the Eredivisie leaders have scored 52 and conceded only ten, Leeds have shared theirs completely equally.

That might not be to the taste of certain pundits or rival fans but Leeds need not stress. They should pride themselves on being an impossible team to judge in this most reactive of sports. They win as often as they lose. They score as often as they concede. They have kept more clean sheets than Liverpool and Tottenham. They have beaten the teams currently 4th and 5th while losing by three goals to the one in 15th. They have been the most consistently entertaining side in the division all the while, which must mean something in the current circumstances.

So let that be the story. Have Ezgjan Alioski and Raphinha’s individual brilliance take precedent. Allow the excellent team goals from Jack Harrison and Rodrigo the time and space to breathe. Help this wonderfully flawed and exceptionally awed unit be properly appreciated before another cookie cutter side comes along with the express intention of finishing 17th by any means necessary and leaving no evidence they were ever here in the first place.

After all, it would be a travesty for ‘the fantastic hard work of our players and coaches’ to be the second most memorable thing coming out of Leeds’ biggest away league win since April 2003. Perish the thought.

 

 

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer
When you remember the last player to score a stoppage-time winner at Old Trafford was Patrick van Aanholt, you understand how important that was. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has thankfully disbanded the Manchester United Treble tribute act but this was precisely the sort of result he should have considered reviving it for.

It is too early to say whether snatching victory from the jaws of a draw put enough pressure on Liverpool to force their stumble at Newcastle. The only thing for sure is that Manchester United are doing everything a title challenger can, even if it still has the lingering sense that it could go wrong at any moment and they are winging it a little.

That is not intended as a slight, more a reflection of a team learning on its feet at sprinting pace against a far more established and proven frontrunner. Their ability to come from behind to win is well-documented but the thrashing of Leeds and the grinding down of Wolves were equally impressive in their own ways, victories of both preparation and mentality.

The former comes from the manager while the latter is a more self-fulfilling virtue. There is more belief that they can produce results because there is more proof. But Solskjaer has clearly played his “very, very boring” cards perfectly. “There’s no title race after 15 games,” was simple but effective deflection that the media can misrepresent if it so wishes, while anyone connected with the club will know to listen.

“You can lose the chance of being in a race in the first 10 games,” he added. In all truth, United never lost that chance because precious few gave them one to begin with. They have benefited from expectations being lowered and detractors queuing up to criticise with opinions so embedded they neglect to credit or even notice the improvement. The underdog tag does not come particularly naturally to them yet the crown strangely fits. The pressure will be on Liverpool come January 17.

 

Aston Villa
They remain the only club to have had at least ten shots in every Premier League game so far, scraping past that total against Chelsea. Anwar El Ghazi has had 23 shots in four starts, which is more than Anthony Martial and Alexandre Lacazette have managed all season. Jack Grealish has created 22 chances in his last four games, which is one fewer than Harry Kane has managed all season.

Yet that masks the true improvement. Villa had solid attacking options and were more expansive than most teams last season. They had 12 shots per game (10th) but allowed 16 (20th). This season, those numbers are 16 (1st) and 11.4 (9th) respectively: almost a perfect flip. A mid-table attack has become an elite one. A relegation defence has become at least a mid-table one.

Few sides have simplified their approaches quite so effectively. Dean Smith has reduced the space from defence to midfield to attack, making it more difficult for opponents to bypass them and ensuring a quick counter is always on. They have far more discipline and balance, while no side has used fewer players nor made fewer substitutions.

That lends itself to a consistency that is otherwise difficult to manufacture. Factor in that this was their first point from a losing position since June, having not dropped a single point from a winning position this season, and Villa are slowly becoming predictable in the best possible sense.

 

Steve Bruce
Many supporters might not appreciate his stylings but it is clear to see that Steve Bruce retains the support of his players. Credit where it’s due: Newcastle had an equal amount of shots as they conceded in the second half at Manchester City and first against Liverpool combined (11 each). If the two-goal deficit made the former a necessity, the latter was a welcome reprieve from the norm.

Newcastle took the game to a far stronger opponent instead of sitting back and waiting for the inevitable. Karl Darlow, Federico Fernandez and Fabian Schar were all excellent in defence but Callum Wilson had chances he might ordinarily take and Jacob Murphy tested Alisson too.

Liverpool will focus on their own decisive moments but so too should Newcastle. It is not often that can be said after these sort of games. They tend to make fans wonder what might have been in a distant alternate reality but at least on this occasion they were given a glimpse of what actually nearly was. Even if Bruce never truly wins them over, he must admit it is far more satisfying to leave supporters frustrated for the right reasons.

 

Bukayo Saka
The boy is special
. The only teenager with more minutes across Europe’s top five leagues this season is Benoit Badiashile. And we all know Thierry Henry wouldn’t dare tell an actual Arsenal legend to tuck his chair in.

 

Pablo Mari
Since joining in January, Pablo Mari has started seven first-team games for Arsenal. They have won six of those games by an aggregate score of 15-4. Defeat to Manchester City in June remains the only exception, and the centre-half was substituted due to injury at 0-0 of a 3-0 loss.

Put the Arsenal improvement down to Mikel Arteta using the kids if you must. But at the end of the day: shag, Mari, kill.

 

Wilfried Zaha
Delightful goal, that. Really nice. The finish was impressive. The run and pass in the build-up made it all possible. Both dispelled two of the bigger – and most contradictory – myths surrounding Zaha: that he simultaneously has no end product while also only being effective close to goal.

There was nothing on when Zaha collected Jairo Riedewald’s pass in his own half, closely tracked by two Leicester players with no teammate within more than ten yards. He carried it brilliantly and was intelligent enough to switch the ball into space rather than anyone specifically. He knew where Andros Townsend would be and that link was reciprocated with the perfect cross after Zaha fooled Youri Tielemans with his movement.

His metamorphosis into an accomplished centre-forward is complete. This was the eighth Premier League game of 16 so far this season in which he has not created a single chance, yet he has managed at least a shot in each. Zaha ranks joint-53rd overall in the division for the former and joint-14th for the latter. That is pretty much the opposite to his perception as a tricky but inconsistent and unproductive winger. It’s quite the transformation and has only magnified his importance.

 

 

Harvey Barnes
Equalisers with the weaker foot from outside the area is a strange niche but each to their own. While James Maddison may be more aesthetically pleasing to watch, Harvey Barnes has emerged as one of Leicester’s most effective forwards behind Jamie Vardy.

Brendan Rodgers sought to rest the majority of his front six against Crystal Palace. Kelechi Iheanacho started ahead of Vardy, Ayoze Perez and Dennis Praet took the places of Maddison and Marc Albrighton and Hamza Choudhury and Nampalys Mendy swapped with Tielemans and Wilfred Ndidi as the two-day turnaround was deemed too quick for most. But not Barnes, who was given 90 minutes in both games and repaid that faith with interest. Odd of you not to look forward to his quarter-of-an-hour substitute cameo against San Marino in March. Five assists at least.

 

Sean Dyche
As many Premier League wins in 2020 as Villa. Three points fewer than Leicester. And now the potential of a Burnley budget to match his brilliance. He has sodding well earned that.

 

Olivier Giroud
Eleven goals in his last nine starts for club and country. He’s quite good.

 

Losers

Liverpool’s mortality
For the second time this season after 16 matches, Liverpool have failed to win consecutive Premier League games. Only three times did that happen from May 2018 to September 2020 – a run of 81 matches.

That is the by-product of an entirely understandable and unavoidable reversion to the mean. No team has ever kept a 90-point pace for three straight Premier League campaigns for a variety of reasons: physical or mental burnout, the loss of key players, improving challengers. Liverpool were always going to be pulled back towards the pack.

But this is a little more than that. They look flat and easier to frustrate. Jurgen Klopp blaming Fabian Schar for disrupting Liverpool’s rhythm by time-wasting was telling. It is often as if he and they forget that the opposition is not there solely to roll over and have their tummies ticked.

There was at least vast improvement from that bizarrely insipid performance against West Brom. But of the two changes to the starting line-up for the trip to Newcastle three days later, one was enforced. Joel Matip would have made way for Nat Phillips regardless of the previous game. For only Georginio Wijnaldum to lose his place and be rested otherwise was peculiar.

Takumi Minamino has not featured since his breakthrough display against Crystal Palace. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain is returning from a long-term injury but five games on the bench have been converted into just 22 minutes. Xherdan Shaqiri was given all of stoppage-time to make his impact at St James’ Park. Divock Origi, for all his many faults, has surely been kept in the squad for a reason not immediately obvious when you realise he has had just three late substitute appearances in the Premier League this season.

Each player is not of the same standard as their regular starting equivalent. That much is obvious. There is a notable drop from Liverpool’s front three to anyone who replaces them. But that does not take into account form and other variables. Mo Salah and Sadio Mane need to know that under-performance at this level is not simply rewarded with more games until it finally clicks. Whether they want a rest or not, they need one.

Either way, that sheen and shield of invincibility is gone. Liverpool often had the beating of teams as soon as the starting line-ups were named. The mental battle was won and only the physical procession was left. Yet they have drawn with three of the current bottom seven this month alone and that seed of doubt that once paralysed opponents seems to be afflicting them instead. Newcastle held out for a point but if Steve Bruce was able to sense and target that vulnerability in the first quarter of an hour, Liverpool’s fear factor has clearly diminished.

 

Sam Allardyce
This is it. This is the tweet.

See, that works when you take over a decent squad that has suffered from mismanagement. Allardyce inherited attacking quality at Everton (Baines, Gueye, Rooney, Calvert-Lewin), Crystal Palace (Zaha, Benteke, Townsend, Cabaye) and Sunderland (Defoe, Defoe, Defoe, Defoe) that allowed him to focus solely on the defence first and foremost, relying on set-pieces and individual quality to make the difference at the other end. This West Brom side was hardly playing beneath itself going forward under Slaven Bilic and Allardyce’s brand of firefighting will never work as well when deployed with one of the three worst squads in a division.

It will secure a result here and there, as a below-par Liverpool will attest. But Allardyce might have f**ked this and, with it, a bit of his reputation.

 

Sheffield United
Three clubs won more Premier League games by a single-goal margin last season than Sheffield United (9). It might be that no club has ever lost more Premier League games by a single-goal margin than Sheffield United (11 from 16 already) come the end of this season.

That is the fine balance managers in the same position as Chris Wilder constantly try to strike. Their plight this campaign has been unusually cruel in constantly tipping the scales against them. Sheffield United are better than this.

 

Oliver Burke
The poor lad has now started his Premier League career with a record 25-game winless run. Although going by the previous holder of that particular accolade, he is one injury to Benoit Assou-Ekotto away from becoming the most expensive golfer in world football.

 

Graham Potter
Of Premier League ever-presents in 2020, only Sheffield United (24) have scored fewer goals than Brighton (33) and just Newcastle (52) and Crystal Palace (57) have conceded more (51). Their next three games are against Wolves, Manchester City and Leeds.

That two-year contract extension he was given for winning four of his first 13 matches last November looks awful weird. Brighton might not have expected him to stay until 2025 then; they surely did not think it would be their choice and not his.

 

Southampton and West Ham
Has anyone noticed that both of them have gone four games without a win? Does anyone care? Will any of this matter when the concept of football itself is placed into Tier 427?

 

Jeff Bezos
Eight games. 12 goals. Pay your taxes pal.

Matt Stead

 

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