We will come to Liverpool later, but first…
Fulham and the relegation battle
Fulham’s season can be split into two unequal halves, the first of which ended in late November. On October 5 and 6, Fulham signed Tosin Adarabioyo, Terence Kongolo, Joachim Andersen and Ruben Loftus-Cheek. They joined Ademola Lookman, Alphonse Areola, Ola Aina and Kenny Tete, all of whom arrived at Craven Cottage in September. Suddenly Scott Parker had more than half a new team.
In hindsight, Fulham should have got their business done earlier. That’s not really a criticism, given the uniquely short summer break and the difficulty in making loan signings before parent clubs were sure that those players were surplus to requirements. But recruiting so many new players late in the window meant that it took an inevitable bedding-in period for them to settle. During which, Fulham took four points from nine league games and gave themselves a monumental task to survive relegation.
But since then, we’ve really seen the benefits of Fulham’s recruitment. Of the seven players with the most league minutes for Fulham this season, only André-Frank Zambo Anguissa joined the club before this summer and he had spent the entirety of the previous season on loan at Villarreal. Since that ninth league game of the season, Fulham have only lost four times. More impressively than that, only Manchester City have a better goals-per-game defence since. That’s extraordinary for a promoted club that had a history of defensive sloppiness.
The argument from Parker’s critics (and it carries some weight) is that Fulham’s manager applied the handbrake too much in mid-season. Fulham drew plenty of matches, but they would have been better losing a couple and winning a couple of those. But Parker reasoned (again, not unreasonably) that Fulham’s survival bid was dead in the water without their solid defence.
Finding that balance is still the challenge, particularly given that Aleksandar Mitrovic is no longer a regular starter (no other Fulham player scored more than eight times in the Championship last season). They have scored more than once in two of their last 15 league games, which puts an awful lot of pressure on the clean sheets.
But Fulham have given themselves a chance. The new players are fully acclimatised, Fulham work as hard as any team in the league and they are a regular goalscorer away from staying up with ease. They might still be good enough to pip Newcastle United.
And we needed this. There might still be some top-four interest, but with the title race looking like it’s over and West Brom and Sheffield United succumbed to their fate, the last thing Premier League season needed ahead of the European Championship was an absence of tension over its final months. Good on you, Fulham.
A victory that encapsulated everything that Moyes has instilled in this West Ham team and proves just how effectively he has created a team in his own image. Michail Antonio, the winger converted to striker that works because he works so damn hard. Jesse Lingard, the latest player signed by Moyes not because he’s a star but because he is highly motivated to show everyone what he can do. Craig Dawson, unfashionable and derided when he was signed but prepared to do all he can for the cause.
And the shared determination to dig in, when Tottenham were overpowering them in the last 20 minutes. This was a backs-to-the-wall, ‘we want this more than you’ performance that sits at the heart of this extraordinary – and do not underestimate West Ham’s grim mood after their first game of the season – campaign.
This may or may not last. West Ham probably won’t stay in the top four until May. But who cares? They are headed for their highest points total in the top flight since 1986, they have a togetherness that is unlike anything we have seen at this club since the days of Harry Redknapp and their manager has completely redeemed his reputation in the space of six months. Hopefully both are happy to co-exist in this harmony for a long while yet.
Everton are an incredibly hard team to work out. They produce infuriating, limp performances out of nothing, most of which have come at Goodison. Everton have an identical home record to Newcastle United; had they beaten Fulham and Newcastle and drawn with Leeds at home, they would be clear in second.
But Everton have been superb away from home on a consistent basis, and had plenty enough at Anfield. They were defensively disciplined, made the most of the chances that now inevitably come against Liverpool’s defence and ended a 22-year hoodoo that can only ever be cause for rampant celebration and a huge sigh of relief from one half of Merseyside.
You can read 16 Conclusions here.
Ancelotti does flourish in this type of match. With less pressure on his team to play attacking football, they dug in and countered and made use of set-piece situations. The early lead was the perfect ingredient for a performance such as this. For all the territory and possession that Liverpool enjoyed, the best chances all fell to Everton: the first goal, the Dominic Calvert-Lewin chance that resulted in the penalty, the Seamus Coleman header. Jordan Pickford made six saves, but none of them were outstanding.
Everton supporters will forgive me for moving on from a victory that they may understandably choose to dwell upon; their club has a chance of something bigger here. Their next six league opponents include out-of-form Southampton, West Brom, Burnley, Crystal Palace and West Brom. Cementing a position in the top six will be the priority, but if Everton can cut out their tendency to drift through home matches there’s no reason why they can’t make a surge at the top four. It’s eight years since they finished above Liverpool…
At a rate of roughly once per week, I’m picking my predicted England squad for the Euros. With Gareth Southgate seemingly wedded to a back three (I’d like 4-3-3), I figure that there’s room for three goalkeepers, eight defenders or wing-backs, three defensively-minded midfielders (Henderson, Rice and Phillips, unless his obsession with Eric Dier continues) and two centre forwards (Kane and Ings, Calvert-Lewin or Abraham, most likely). That leaves seven places for attacking midfielders, wingers and wide forwards.
Last week, those seven in my squad were Grealish, Foden, Sterling, Sancho, Mount, Rashford and Maddison. This week, Barnes is in and Maddison is out, despite Maddison doing absolutely nothing wrong and scoring a goal. I do not envy Southgate this dilemma, at least partly because it is going to make several sets of supporters cry about a conspiracy against their club. But what a wonderful crop of players to choose from. And what a majestic dribbler, passer and finisher Barnes is.
They have to be included because they keep bloody winning. I remember when we looked at City’s run of fixtures in February as a potential chance for their title-challenging peers to claw back some points; City haven’t even been behind in the Premier League for three months. It’s done and they deserve it. Nine wins, two draws and two defeats from their final 13 matches will mathematically confirm it.
He has to be included because he keeps bloody scoring. I remember when we assumed that Bruno’s goal scoring and assisting consistency would have to drop off; not a bit of it. In 39 Premier League matches, he has scored 23 times and provided 17 assists. And a quick message to those social media funsters: ‘Fer’ doesn’t sound anything like ‘Pen’.
Their games are probably the worst to watch in the Premier League and they have had some good fortune recently, but Nuno won’t care and neither will their supporters. Wolves have taken 10 points from their last four matches against difficult opponents. No more need for the neckache caused by looking nervously over their shoulder.
Tottenham were better than West Ham for the final 30 minutes and probably merited an equaliser. Gareth Bale’s introduction changed the game and it’s rare that Harry Kane has six shots without scoring. But that all reflects badly on their manager in two ways: 1) It suggests that it takes Tottenham to fall behind (this time conceding twice) for them to muster the urgency needed to try and play front-foot attacking football, and 2) Attacking at times like this is likely to be frantic, without a strategic plan other than pushing more players forward. It doesn’t suggest an attacking system, merely a reaction to the game situation.
I wrote this column on Monday about Jose Mourinho’s lessening ability to produce a team capable of winning matches consistently. When you watch Tottenham defend badly and lack an attacking plan, it strikes as the antithesis of both many of his high-profile peers and of what made Mourinho great.
I’m wary of saying that Mourinho is finished at the very top level, because he could easily make that look foolish and it feels unnecessarily cruel. But you really do wonder, given the diminishing returns while Mourinho continues to blame individual players and a lack of investment. Remember that Mourinho, when his appointment was announced, declared that this squad didn’t need any extra investment because he loved the players and had tried to sign some of them for other clubs.
Mourinho’s gripes fall on deaf ears when they lose to teams like West Ham and against managers who pride themselves on finding a style that suits the squad and fulfill their potential because of it. But they also raise serious questions for Daniel Levy, the man who was so infatuated with making Mourinho Tottenham’s superstar manager. It’s fair easier to change him than sign the players he wants and hope this works out against overwhelming current evidence.
After the game, Mourinho produced an extraordinary (even by his standards) admission of his current situation: “I feel that we are not in the position in relation to our potential – even if I think for a long, long time that we have problems in the team that I cannot resolve by myself as a coach.”
That is a clear attempt to point the finger of blame anywhere but towards himself (and Mourinho went on to say that he was still the best manager in the world), but it’s simply not good enough. To say that he has no control over the performance of this team is an abdication of responsibility and effectively a resignation letter. To imply that these players are not good enough for any better than their current upper-mid-table position is an act of mutiny given his own salary.
Tottenham are in the EFL Cup final, which Mourinho may view as proof of his sterling work. But if he honestly thinks that beating only Stoke and Brentford without penalties is sufficient for him to remain in his job, he has become more blinkered than even we feared.
Liverpool, going from bad to worse
Perhaps this defeat taught us nothing that we didn’t already know – an insult in itself. You can read the last Winners and Losers column and apply most of it here. Home defeat at Anfield used to be a seismic sporting event; now it’s just another weekend. Ozan Kabak was booked again, desperate to impress but unable to fit in easily in a defence that operates in a high line. The midfield suffered as a result and the front three performed in component parts rather than the smooth machine we’d previously relied upon. There was also another injury to a senior player, because of course there was.
But of course this defeat was significant. Firstly, Everton won at Anfield. Whatever was going wrong at Liverpool, however far they misjudged managerial appointments and fell into mediocrity, that unbeaten record became a reason for continued faith and hope. Now the last stronghold has fallen.
It is also instructive that Liverpool are losing by continuing to persevere with the strategy that took them to the top with increasingly diminished returns. Klopp sees that as the only route out of this mess. If he changed the style it would only place a temporary plaster over the wound creating a false image of what he ultimately believes works best.
That’s interesting because it presents the depth of Liverpool’s fall as vital to their hopes of ultimately redressing the balance. After Chelsea’s dreadful title defences, they simply changed the manager and therefore the mood and the style. If Klopp is going to stay (which seems likely) and stick to his tactical guns (which seems likely), how bad this will get makes a difference.
In terms of personnel, things will change quickly next season. Virgil van Dijk, Joe Gomez and even Diogo Jota will add an inevitable injection of exactly the ingredients Liverpool are currently lacking. But psychologically, it isn’t that simple. It will take time and improvements are likely to be incremental. The length of that incremental journey depends entirely upon the starting point. Finish in the top four, and Klopp will hope to address the problems quickly. But finish eight or ninth, where Liverpool will be if others win their games in hand, and that becomes a far harder, longer process.
3pm on a Saturday used to be the best time of the week. Whether you sat on the sofa watching Gillette Soccer Saturday or listened to 5Live or Talksport while performing various administrative duties, you were taken to a place where only football mattered with featured commentary matches and reporters at multiple Premier League games. On the weekend before the first lockdown was announced, there were five Premier League matches at Saturday 3pm.
I enjoy being able to watch every Premier League match, and won’t apologise for that. I’ve been stuck inside for a year, it allows me to feast upon football and I’m able to understand that the quality might drop and adjust my expectations accordingly.
But Saturday, 3pm has lost its edge. There are still a multitude of EFL matches that take place at that time, but having a single Premier League game in the traditional time slot is a big price to pay for blanket live coverage. Now we’re restricted to Burnley vs West Brom, with four shots on target in total and a Burnley team that had 15 touches in the opposition box despite playing for over an hour against ten men and facing the worst defence in the division.
No footballer likes being substituted off having been substituted on. It is worse even than being hauled off midway through the first half, the ultimate in being hung out to dry. Saturday might well have angered Hudson-Odoi and will certainly not do much for his confidence until Chelsea’s next match.
But this can be managed right. Thomas Tuchel has repeatedly hammered home to his squad the need to press high up the pitch and force turnovers that lead to high-quality chances. He has stressed to them that this plan only works if everyone does their bit and that Chelsea’s hopes of finishing in the top four depend upon it. This was a brutal public message that the squad must adapt to the strategy quickly.
But it must be accompanied by a personal touch with Hudson-Odoi, who has at least featured repeatedly during Tuchel’s brief tenure (which suggests that the manager is convinced by most aspects of his game). He must take Hudson-odoi to one side, point out the areas that on Saturday he felt were lacking and motivate him to prove that he can produce them consistently.
Nobody gets too much stick for losing to Manchester City at the moment, but Arsenal’s opponents really were there for the taking. Bedding in and ceding possession after conceding an early goal (thanks to some dreadful marking) was completely understandable – there’s no point enthusiastically sauntering forward and being picked off.
But why did Arsenal not push more in the final 30 minutes. With City playing in first gear and occasionally creating their own problems, Arsenal had the chance to play a little more direct and push higher up the pitch. Instead they effectively declared for a 1-0 defeat. Arsenal had two shots in total in the final 40 minutes and didn’t have a shot on target in the second half. If that was down to fatigue, fair enough, but it raises the stakes before their trip to Athens on Thursday night to play their second leg against Benfica.
Losers because Fulham won as much as they lost to Manchester United, but a 12th defeat in 16 matches can never be good news. Steve Bruce continues to pick out reasons for hope, faith and praise in Newcastle’s performances, but what they really need are more tangible reasons for cheer. Wolves, Aston Villa, West Brom and Brighton to come – they need at least five points.