Watford and Ismaila Sarr
It wasn’t just that Watford beat Liverpool. It wasn’t even that the scoreline represented the worst defeat by a league leader against a team in the relegation zone for almost 35 years, although that is indeed astonishing. The most remarkable aspect of Watford’s victory was that it was fuelled by an intensity that suggested their players never believed anything else would happen. That takes some guts and a spirit that owes everything to Nigel Pearson’s ‘Yes I would like to fight a pack of wild dogs’ attitude.
You could argue that this Liverpool performance has been coming for a while. They conceded twice at home to West Ham on Monday and failed to have a shot on target against Atletico Madrid the week before. At Vicarage Road, they produced both the defensive uncertainty and the attacking bluntness in combination for the first time in an age.
But that does Watford a disservice, because it suggests that they were merely fortunate beneficiaries rather than the engineers of their own fate. They were resolute against the front three, shut down Liverpool’s full-backs before they could switch play or cross from deep, used runners in behind a high defensive line to trouble their opponents and exposed a lack of response that owed plenty to Liverpool’s handsome lead at the top of the league. Pearson will have stressed the need to score the first goal, testing the motivation of Jurgen Klopp’s team without their vocal captain in midfield.
It was also a win that vindicated Watford’s decision to break their transfer record and sign Ismaila Sarr last summer. Sarr is still a little lightweight for the intensity and physicality of the Premier League – and has suffered irregular injuries this season – but he has a directness that revolutionises Watford when he is fully fit and in form.
Since the 2-0 defeat at Anfield in December – Pearson’s first game in charge – Sarr has started seven matches. Watford have won five and drawn the other two, with Sarr scoring four goals and assisting another three. The five games he’s missed during that period: 3-3 vs Tranmere, 1-2 vs Aston Villa, 1-2 vs Tranmere, 2-3 vs Everton, 1-1 vs Brighton and 0-3 vs Manchester United.
The ACL injury that will rule out Gerard Deulofeu until next season is a blow to Watford, but if Sarr can demand the ball on one wing and Roberto Pereyra hold fort on the left, Troy Deeney can bully central defenders in the middle and Watford have an effective attacking plan to combat the threat of relegation.
Norwich City and the relegation battle
Somehow still alive. Results this weekend meant that Norwich probably needed their Friday night victory to avoid being cut adrift, but a third league win since September 14 does give them a sporting chance.
Daniel Farke’s side have generated a large amount of goodwill during the last six months. That’s partly because they attempt to play progressive attacking football, partly because they retained most of their starting XI from last season and partly because they have produced impressive results against some of the best teams in the land. A third of their points this season have come against Manchester City and Leicester City.
Their timely resurrection is also wonderful news for potentially the most intriguing relegation fight in years. With ten games to go, the bottom six are separated by only seven points. That’s the smallest points gap in years (‘years’ is pretty vague, but I went back nine seasons. I’m not Johnny Opta and there’s so many more words to write. Sorry).
West Ham’s attacking intent
Monday’s defeat at Anfield contained far more reason for West Ham cheer than fear. Unlike the abject sacrifice against Manchester City, David Moyes instructed his team to attack their opponents and actually try to create chances. If that sounds a little patronising, it’s entirely deserved. West Ham have the tools to play on the front foot but too often have chosen not to.
Perhaps the Liverpool defeat convinced Moyes to be a little more courageous, or perhaps Southampton’s poor record against teams playing direct football with two strikers made the decision for him. But with four attackers on the pitch, West Ham were much better. They still sat back and allowed their opponents to dominate possession (33% on Saturday), but there was a purpose to their counter-attacking.
Sebastien Haller has struggled for service and goals this season, but it’s amazing what difference it makes having three players around him (Jarrod Bowen, Michail Antonio and Pablo Fornals) who want to carry the ball forward to meet the striker rather than the striker dropping deep to meet them.
This must now act as a mandate for the remainder of West Ham’s season. Fortune really does favour the brave, and Moyes’ team are not good enough defensively to soak up pressure. They have the talent to – literally – attack their relegation fight rather than shy away and flinch.
I really must stop being surprised by how good Wolves are on the counter. They are an established top-half team who have repeatedly proven their excellence against the Premier League’s biggest and best. The key to that aptitude lies in their mindset. Wherever Wolves win the ball on the pitch, they believe that they can score within 10 seconds.
Their winner against Tottenham on Sunday could be hung in the Louvre and subsequently made the subject of an assignment in a school trip workbook. Diogo Jota’s ability to control, turn and sprint down Tottenham’s right will keep Jose Mourinho up all week, but it shows the confidence in Nuno’s players. Raul Jimenez is the best all-round centre forward in the Premier League on current form. If you were designing the perfect striker for English football, they would have most of his characteristics.
If it is remarkable that Wolves have maintained their Premier League intensity despite a long Europa League campaign, their multi-tasking has lasted so long that we must expect it to continue until May. Nuno’s side face only one opponent in their remaining ten league games who are currently in the top seven. Why shouldn’t they take advantage of their peers and finish in the top four/five?
Crystal Palace, safe again
To understand the magic of football fan culture, you don’t go on Twitter. You don’t look in the places where performative extremists lie waiting. You don’t even have to drop down the leagues, despite what some who talk of ‘real’ football would have you believe. You don’t have to go abroad either, even if other countries do make things easier for their supporters.
Instead, just look at the away end of the Amex Stadium when Jordan Ayew scored Crystal Palace’s goal against Brighton in their most important match of the season. Witness the thrashing mass of bodies and cacophony of noise that occurs only when joy, relief and pent-up nervous energy releases as one involuntary cry from every supporter present. No mobile phones, no Fan TV characters recording their goal reactions to post online. Just emotion. Pure, raw emotion.
Crystal Palace effectively confirmed their Premier League safety on Saturday. They did against their bitter rivals and in their rivals’ own stadium. These are the weekends that you cling during the fallow years, and use as anecdotal evidence when trying to persuade a young family member to join your church.
Alonso is Chelsea’s top league goalscorer in 2020, and he’s only played 180 minutes. That’s not great news for his club or their manager, but it’s good for Alonso. The million-dollar question for Frank Lampard is whether it’s worth sticking with the back three just to give him the licence to push forward.
No Premier League player had a better weekend, and Sheffield United didn’t even have a game. David de Gea produced another high-profile error to increase the chances of Henderson competing with him for a first-team place at Manchester United, while Gareth Southgate watched Jordan Pickford again disappoint to make Henderson’s case for starting for England in March’s friendlies (assuming they go ahead).
Leicester City, losing their shine
The composition of a league season matters, and few managers know that more than Brendan Rodgers. In July 2013, Liverpool were 33/1 for the Premier League title. Had Rodgers’ side finished a fraction behind a wonderful Manchester City team having suffered a slow start and then chased them until the final day, his reputation would have been undented. As it was, Liverpool won 11 league games in a row, stumbled against Chelsea and Palace and the season was viewed in banterous hindsight as a bottle job.
Is a similar thing happening at Leicester City? At the start of the season, Leicester becoming the first team in four years to break up the Big Six’s dominance would have been heralded as a great success. But having been second in December, when a title challenge was still being whispered about in sections of the King Power, Leicester are in danger of being dragged back into the pack.
Leicester have taken 12 points from their last 12 league games. They have now gone 300 league minutes without a goal. They are badly missing Wilfried Ndidi, as this column noted last week, but that’s not a good enough excuse for the chronic lack of clear-cut chances being created or the defensive uncertainty that is creeping into their matches.
Rodgers will be mighty relieved that none of the supposed top-four challengers seem able to string together the run of wins that are required to bridge the gap, but he also knows the need for his team to rediscover their groove if this season is not be tinged with a sense of ‘what might have been’. That can easily nag away at players over their summer break when the super clubs start circling.
Brighton, misfiring their way into trouble
This has been an odd season for Brighton. Most supporters are still relatively pleased by the club’s intentions under Graham Potter, but the league table is beginning to cause some panic.
When a manager tries to revolutionise a club in sharp contrast to the approach taken by his predecessor, the usual pattern is a slow start followed by gradual improvement as the players get to grips with new demands. At Brighton, the opposite; they started quickly but are the only team in the division not to win a league game in 2020.
Against Crystal Palace, the same old problem. Brighton had eight shots on target but failed to score. No other team this season has managed as many in a Premier League match without scoring. Potter’s side both struggle to create enough clear-cut opportunities (they too often shoot from low expectation areas) and regularly miss the clear-cut chances that they do create.
After the game, Potter bemoaned their bad luck as he has done at regular intervals this season. But this problem has lasted long enough that misfortune is no explanation. Brighton’s defeats follow the same pattern: 1) Comfortable possession that tends to end in the final third 2) chances squandered 3) goal conceded 4) temporary panic 5) Return to 1). Something’s got to give.
Liverpool are still likely to break the Premier League points record. They will set a new record for victories in a top-flight season too. They remain an astonishingly complete team. One defeat doesn’t change that. How could it?
Yet this comprehensive defeat will – and should – cause lingering disappointment. Having accepted that Liverpool would be league champions at the turn of the year, thoughts inevitably turned to the chance of them matching Arsenal’s Invincibles team of 2003/04. Players – or their social media lackeys – would use the word ‘Unbeaten’ in their posts. So we know that the squad had Arsenal’s record in mind.
The nagging problem for Klopp is that brilliance quickly becomes normalised – that is a phrase we have used often about Liverpool this season. Becoming champions-elect in December means that we got used to them winning the league by January. By February we were looking for what else Klopp’s team might do. That included breaking records and winning other trophies.
That all makes the next fortnight particularly important for Liverpool. They play Chelsea in the FA Cup and Atletico Madrid in the Champions League. Tumble out of both competitions, hardly outside the realms of possibility, and a stupendous season somehow takes on a disappointing, ‘What if?’ tinge. Klopp will be keen to blow such silliness away.
In his pre-match press conference, Steve Bruce promised that we would see a more attacking version of the Newcastle team we have grown so used to seeing last on Match of the Day. He changed the personnel, starting Dwight Gayle centrally with Joelinto pushed onto the left wing.
Those changes did provoke an upturn in attacking output, albeit one also aided by Burnley’s happiness to sit back and invite their opponents onto them; in only one other league game this season have Newcastle enjoyed more possession. Bruce’s side had 21 shots and created 13 chances. That ranks joint-first and second for their match totals this season respectively.
But then we must examine the quality of those chances. Newcastle have created 26 big chances (as defined by Opta) this season, the second lowest in the Premier League. None of their chances on Saturday justified that term.
The Burnley draw at least saw Newcastle take another small step to safety, but the gap to the bottom three has narrowed after West Ham and Watford won. Bruce is left hoping that his side will stagger over the line having signed eight new first-team players this season. That’s below expectation, even given the Mike Ashley-inspired cloud that hangs over the club. That cloud is the only reason for Bruce getting the job in the first place.
Since Jose Mourinho was appointed as manager, Tottenham have conceded one fewer league goal than Norwich City and one more than Burnley. That defensive instability has been exacerbated by Spurs prioritising their attack far more than we expected, but it’s still shambolic. Mourinho’s side have also conceded 11 goals in seven cup matches, failing to keep a single clean sheet.
Most worryingly, there’s not really a sense that Mourinho has a plan to solve it. The formation switches occasionally, the personnel changes continuously and the mistakes just keep on coming. There is some merit in a manager trying every different combination until he finds something that works, but it’s not unreasonable to expect the third highest-paid manager in the world to be a little more scientific up his sleeve than trial and error.
Tottenham are now 9/1 in places to finish in the top four, with six clubs – including Wolves – available at a shorter price. The injuries sustained by Harry Kane and Son Heung-min have made life difficult, but that does not excuse the lethargy through midfield (Giovani Lo Celso excepted) and the limpness of their defending. We are allowed to ask for more than this.
…And their lack of response
As tweeted by Tottenham supporter Ashley Lawrence, Tottenham conceded the winner to Wolves in 73rd minute. That gave them 21 minutes to find an equaliser against an opponent that had played a match 72 hours earlier in Spain. In that 21 minutes, Rui Patricio didn’t even have to make a save. Is that what happens when your manager publicly states that he wishes the season was over already?
Liverpool have conceded five goals in the last 1,449 minutes that Joe Gomez has been on the pitch. Liverpool have conceded five goals in the last 115 minutes that Dejan Lovren has been on the pitch. Sometimes the counsel for the prosecution doesn’t need to waffle on for long.