Is that the title race over in February, a third Premier League procession in four years? Perhaps. Manchester City now have a five-point lead and a game in hand. Even their tricky run of fixtures, the return of domestic cup ties and Champions League assignments don’t offer enough hope to the teams below them, particularly given that those supposed rivals are stalling themselves.
More pertinently for this column, Pep Guardiola got it spot on on Sunday, notable given his tendency to go rogue on days like these. Fabinho has flourished as a central defender when being allowed to man-mark a focal-point centre forward. By picking Phil Foden as a false nine (and allowing Bernardo Silva to join him after the break for the double version of the same plan), Guardiola forced Fabinho to step up to close off the spaces between defence and midfield. It’s amazing how much harder it is to do that when you don’t have central defensive cover in behind you. Fabinho looked spooked, run ragged by Foden and Raheem Sterling. Read 16 Conclusions for more on this.
But the most emphatic proof of City’s health came in adversity. Six months, 12 months, 18 months ago, conceding an unexpected goal after a stupid mistake would have provoked psychological disarray that ended in further self-inflicted punishment. At a stadium that has been their least favourite place to play, City resolved to push on and force their opponents into the mistakes. City could so easily have settled for the point gained (given Leicester and Manchester United’s results this weekend) and invited Liverpool onto them. Not a bit of it.
We doubted Guardiola. We wondered whether he could create a second great team at precisely the time in his tenures where he is typically considering a break. While we were wondering, Guardiola was doing. Even if that passes comment on those clubs directly below City (they are still only on course for 86 points), he won’t and shouldn’t care.
In tightening up the defence and resurrecting John Stones’ Manchester City career, in creating a hybrid full-back-midfielder role for Joao Cancelo, in converting Ilkay Gundogan into a dynamic advanced midfielder, in fine-tuning Phil Foden, in coping without Kevin De Bruyne and Sergio Aguero, Guardiola has done it again. Further proof that he is truly one of the – if not the – greatest coaches of our time.
This didn’t feel like just another step along the road to stardom for a highly-talented young player; it felt like a coronation. We’ve spent so long wanting to see the complete Phil Foden that every youth coach told us he can be, intrigued and excited in equal measures by the momentary glimpses of majesty. At Anfield, we saw that Foden.
My favourite moment: When presented with the ball by Alisson, Foden knew he had the chance to maximise the overload of attacking players and create a crucial goal. But even for experienced attacking players, those chances can be snatched at or overthought. You work on so many situations in training that attacking moves become second nature, but those that are unexpected are also often unrehearsed. It comes down to speed of thought and brilliance of execution. In five seconds, Foden chose to do four or five different things and did them all perfectly. That’s the sign of a seriously composed – as well as seriously talented – player.
In 2018, I wrote this piece for this lovely site and described Foden as the canary down the mine for England’s prodigious young players. If he couldn’t make it at an elite club, with all the plaudits handed down by every coach he’d worked with, nobody could. The pathway system at elite clubs would be proven to be irrevocably flawed.
I can’t pretend I wasn’t worried. But Guardiola has managed Foden perfectly. Give them too much and you risk burnout, unrealistically heightened expectations and complacency. Don’t give them enough and you risk hampering the development that only comes with regular competitive football. Give them just enough and you leave them desperate to impress and allow them to grow into an elite team until they and the team become intertwined with one another.
Guardiola still wants more. On Sunday after the game he spoke of Foden failing to find the right space in the first half as a false nine, an issue that was corrected by playing Bernardo Silva closer to him after the break. But we should take this as a compliment. The doubts about Foden’s ability have evaporated so quickly that Guardiola is helping to become a multi-functional elite attacking midfielder at the age of 20. To hammer home that last line: Foden is younger than Jadon Sancho and he’s leading the best team in the country in the absence of their best creator.
Six months ago I was fretting about whether Foden would get enough league minutes to make England’s European Championship squad this summer. Now I’m wondering which position he plays in England’s first group game. We rightly try to underplay expectations of young players, but failing to get excited risks cutting off your nose to spite your face. Make no mistake: This boy is the bloody future.
Two victories in one for a Newcastle team finally moving in the right direction, albeit from a lamentable starting point. Southampton were entirely complicit in their defeat, committing more defensive sins to accompany the season’s worth of calamities present at Old Trafford on Wednesday. Yet Newcastle forced those mistakes; they would not have happened without the attacking intent that has been absent so often over the last 18 months.
But having established a position of dominance by half-time, Newcastle almost scuppered themselves thanks to the brilliance of James Ward-Prowse and the stupidity of Jeff Hendrick, who made the most obvious of yellow-card fouls when already booked. With Fabian Schar stretchered off with 15 minutes plus extended stoppage time remaining, Newcastle had nine players and faced a Southampton onslaught. They were bestowed with some good fortune, but they earnt it too.
This was a crucial win for two reasons. It virtually guarantees Newcastle their Premier League place next season with the bottom three now cut adrift, but it also gives them the breathing room they might need if Callum Wilson’s muscle injury keeps him out for weeks rather than days. Very few Premier League teams have a bigger drop-off from their first-choice centre forward to their second.
The challenge to Steve Bruce is to keep Newcastle pushing forward without Wilson as the focal point of their attack. Much has been made of the difference since Graeme Jones was appointed as a coach, but some of that is unfair on Bruce. It might well be true that Jones is more animated on the touchline than Newcastle’s manager, but so what? Effective coaching teams operate as a unit, with different individuals contributing in different areas. Jones’ success need not be a damnation of Bruce.
Boy is he loving life in the Premier League; there aren’t many better sights in the top flight than Watkins’ broad grin that marks another league goal. He’s now on 10 for the season, as many as he managed in his entire debut Championship campaign in 2018/19. It’s easy to forget that Watkins had never played higher than League Two level at the age of 21. Having turned 25 in December, he’s knocking politely on Gareth Southgate’s door.
But Watkins’ impact is only partly demonstrated by the goals he scores. Some lone central strikers wait for service, preferring to conserve energy and drift under the radar of centre-backs before springing into action. He is the opposite, constantly running the channels and harrying defenders into knocking the ball long. He lies second for chances created at Aston Villa and second only to Harry Kane of all centre-forwards in the Premier League.
That workload inevitably saps your energy, and so to Watkins’ greatest asset of all: his consistency of form and fitness. Since the beginning of last season (when still at Brentford), Watkins has played 6,320 of a possible 6,330 league minutes. Being lauded for being on the pitch might feel a little like damning with faint praise, but it shouldn’t. Dean Smith is able to build an attack around Watkins because he’s always there, always giving his all and nearly always making it work.
Tottenham have won none and drawn one of their last five league games without Kane, whose speedy return to the team against West Brom was made necessary by their dismal attacking returns without him. Pep Guardiola caused a lot of fuss when he called Spurs “the Harry Kane team” in 2017 but, three years on and with Kane so crucial to their attacking interplay as well as goalscoring, it’s pretty much spot on now.
Easily his best performance at Anfield since leaving Liverpool, perhaps not just coincidentally when there were no home supporters to boo his every touch. It would have been easy to put Trent Alexander-Arnold in the list below such was the standard of his defending on Sunday (and before). But instead let’s praise the winger who ducked and dipped inside him and helped keep City marching on.
Liverpool’s defensive experiment and more…
I can’t quite get on board with Roy Keane’s half-gleeful, half-apoplectic eulogy of Liverpool’s fall from grace. You don’t have to be an expert to conclude that a series of debilitating injuries to key players that compounded the lack of investment last summer in exactly those positions has fuelled this slump.
And it’s not just that. This Liverpool team played three years of ‘pursuit’ football. In season one they were trying to get towards a peak few thought that they could reach, ending in the Champions League final. In season two they were trying to atone for losing that final. In season three they were attempting to rewrite the ending of a Premier League title race that they believed had left them as deeply unfortunate runners-up.
That takes an enormous investment of emotional energy. It doesn’t make subsequent decline inevitable (even when their peers have vast disposable incomes), but it does exacerbate the issues when setbacks happen. Reality becomes blurred with fatalism: We won because we were destined to win and we are suffering now because champions are destined to suffer post-triumph. Sunday didn’t alter that or cause it; it was merely part of the process.
But one thing that must now end is the experiment of playing two central midfielders at centre-back. One is fine, two is not. I can understand why Jurgen Klopp didn’t want to give Ozan Kabak his debut against the form team in Europe, but Fabinho struggled badly and Jordan Henderson is far better playing his penetrative forward passes from midfield. Doing it 10 yards further towards his own goal simply persuades Liverpool’s attackers to drop deeper for the pass and makes the whole process harder.
Liverpool’s focus now has to shift to maintain their position in the top four. They are 10 points behind Manchester City having played a game more, and on Sunday’s evidence are far further behind on form. They must ensure that they remain in the Champions League next season if Klopp is to attract the players he wants in the summer.
Whether they can return to their previous position of dominance quickly? That’s unclear. It will be far harder than some supporters believe; it’s not easy to return to a previous level of performance having allowed flaws to creep in. An example: How has Trent Alexander-Arnold’s form been impacted by the lack of frontline centre-backs next to him, and how long does it take to come back? And do they have to sell one of their front three to buy another elite option to freshen things up?
But what is certainly true is that Liverpool’s aura has gone with the unbeaten home record and the slipping standards. That can only be rebuilt through hard work, savvy investment, the return of supporters to matches and Klopp being fully persuaded that his own ambitions match the owners’.
It happens. Goalkeepers suffer crises of confidence just like any other player on the pitch, and their mistakes are magnified many times over. If a striker misses two open goals and scores the third, his reputation is redeemed. It will take Alisson far longer to atone for handing City their second and third goals.
But what I cannot fathom is why Alisson responded to the first goal as he did. Surely after making such a massive ricket you would send your next clearance into the opposition’s half for a jolt of self-confidence, of nothing else. Instead he made exactly the same error, not just misplacing his short pass but failing to spot that he was aiming the pass directly towards a City attacker. Or, as Klopp put it after the game, “the stands are there”.
The relegation fight
On January 25, West Brom had 11 points and a new manager who had a history of saving teams from the drop in the second half of a season. Fulham had 12 points but also had a game in hand. Win that, and they would be two points behind Brighton and four behind Newcastle and Burnley. We had ourselves a relegation shoot-out.
Fast forward a fortnight and most of that tension has evaporated. West Brom are 11 points from safety and Sam Allardyce has struggled to have any obvious positive effect. Fulham are eight away and no longer have a game in hand on Burnley. Crucially, the transfer window has ended and their only arrival was Josh Maja on loan.
With Burnley, Newcastle and Brighton all picking up points with more regularity than those below them, and the bottom three drawing games against each other (Sheffield United 1-1 Fulham, West Brom 1-1 Fulham) and only drawing with Brighton (1-1 vs West Brom, 1-1 vs Sheffield United, 0-0 and 0-0 vs Fulham), the relegation battle already looks done with three months of the season to go.
In a related point, Norwich got 21 points and scored 26 goals last season in the Premier League and are top of the Championship. As a neutral, I’m desperate for Brentford and Swansea City to go up to bring something a little different to the party.
Manchester United’s sloppiness
This wasn’t a disastrous result or performance, and it wasn’t without positives. Having scored five goals in six matches in all competitions in December and January, Manchester United have scored 18 times in six games since.
But United were undone by poor game management and defensive sloppiness. Harry Maguire let Dominic Calvert-Lewin run in behind too easily and David de Gea should have done far better with his parry for Everton’s first goal. United were too slow to react to the loose ball and left James Rodriguez too much space for the second (similar to Sheffield United’s winner). Three defenders let Calvert-Lewin take down the ball in the penalty area for the late equaliser and Maguire played him onside by holding the wrong line; I’ve no idea why De Gea came out on his feet rather than sliding to make himself big.
After the game, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer said that his team had never talked about winning the title and should never have been considered challengers. I’m sorry, but that’s not good enough. They were top of the league a fortnight ago and have only slipped back because they dropped five points in home games against Sheffield United and Everton. They have a deeper squad than most in the division, have suffered comparatively few serious injuries and those around them (Liverpool, Chelsea and Tottenham) have experienced pronounced slumps in form.
For all the positivity understandably generated by United’s away form, they rank sixth in the table for home points per game and are on course for 74 league points. That has only been enough to finish in the top two once in the last nine years, when Leicester City won the title.
To repeat, this wasn’t a disaster. But when you’ve not scored in open play against a Big Six team in 11 months, it only serves to increase the pressure on – and scrutiny of – your results against the other 14 clubs in the league.
Mikel Arteta’s change
Arsenal can reasonably claim to have got a little unlucky twice in a week. They were better than Wolves but were undone by silly mistakes and better than Aston Villa for long periods but paid for their early uncertainty.
But Arteta was also at fault on Saturday. Nicolas Pepe was getting some joy down the left against Matty Cash, so quite what possessed Arsenal’s manager to bring Willian on and play him down the left to move Pepe right goodness only knows. Arsenal had one shot on target after the substitution; Villa had two.
Willian is quickly becoming Arsenal’s scapegoat, and with good reason. He is a sign of a broken club, offering a long deal to an ageing winger that has nudged his way ahead of Gabriel Martinelli in the pecking order despite lacking the pace to beat a defender and lacking the creativity to account for the lack of speed.
But it’s one thing giving Willian the contract and another entirely persevering with him despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Arsenal aren’t quite back to square one, but that’s only because they were so dismal beforehand. Three defeats under Arteta against Villa without scoring is a marker of just how much work remains to be done.
December 13 – January 4: Six league games played, including fixtures against Manchester City, Liverpool, Arsenal and West Ham – two goals conceded.
January 5 – February 6: Five league games played – 18 goals conceded.
This is partly an issue of availability. Kyle Walker-Peters remains absent and has been superb since joining Southampton permanently, and Newcastle’s first-half goals stemmed from Jack Stephens committing too early on Allan Saint-Maximin and then giving him too much space to pick a pass. Jannik Vestergaard was back in the team but this was his first start since Christmas and Oriol Romeu started his third game since December 19.
Ralph Hasenhuttl’s squad simply isn’t deep enough to cope with such absentees. Southampton are in a rut having lost five league games on the spin, not unlike the one that almost caused Hasenhuttl’s sacking post-Leicester City 9-0. But if they want to keep hold of their best manager since Mauricio Pochettino, it’s time to back him in the summer. Right now he’s being sold short by his club.
“We’ve got to start winning games and we won’t do that by keeping on losing,” said Allardyce post-game on Sunday. Fair play, you can be uninspired by his ability to organise West Brom’s defence but you can’t doubt the man’s logic.