The most pleasing aspect of Liverpool’s season is how players have stepped up their performance level at exactly the time their club has needed them most. That’s neither accident nor coincidence. It speaks to the harmony and competition for places that Jurgen Klopp has established within the first-team squad. Everyone knows their responsibilities and is motivated to match up to them as and when required.
Between September and November, Salah played second fiddle to Sadio Mane simply because Mane’s form demanded it. Salah was not playing poorly – no Liverpool player has been guilty of that – but the Egyptian was snatching at chances and losing possession by running down blind alleys.
Klopp had always decided that he would start rotating at the beginning of December, and that meant asking more from Salah when he started during that month. And so, by magic: in Liverpool’s last three matches Salah has scored four goals and assisted another. His right-footed finish in Salzburg demonstrated extraordinary composure, and he matched that with the opening goal against Watford.
That takes him to 19 goals and assists in the Premier League and Champions League this season. As with Harry Kane, if that’s one of your fallow seasons…
Kevin de Bruyne
I think my favourite thing about De Bruyne, amid some competition, is the way in which everything seems to be done at the same speed. ‘One-paced’ should be an insult, but it’s a compliment here. Whether De Bruyne is pushing forward from midfield, getting back to close down an opponent, preparing to take a shot or eyeing up a crossfield pass, it’s all the same. He does things quickly, but rarely rushes and never seems panicked.
It is De Bruyne’s technique that tricks the mind; it buys him time. The first touch always pushes the ball half a yard ahead of him so he can pass or shoot in the next movement if he wishes. The body positioning means he is in the perfect shape to give and receive possession at whichever moment he chooses. In a sport dominated by pace, power and strength, De Bruyne does not rank at the very top for any of those three measures. He is a touch player. The passing through the lines reminds of Michael Laudrup, the greatest passer in the game’s history.
Still, it does help when your opponent makes it easy for you. De Bruyne was supreme at the Emirates on Sunday, but Arsenal approached the match as if they had never watched Manchester City play before. Pressing high up the pitch but without everybody mucking in, so that City could easily pass around them? Sure. Central midfielders pushing on to leave De Bruyne on his own in the opposition half? Why not. Arsenal’s players had the temerity to look surprised when De Bruyne swept home his second goal. Either they are very fine actors, or immensely dim.
Manchester City’s form has tailed off badly, and surely cost them a chance of a third straight league title, but De Bruyne still has a reasonable claim to be recognised as the country’s best attacking player. His contribution on Sunday took him to 16 goals and assists in the league this season; only Jamie Vardy can beat that.
Now go and read at least some of those 16 Conclusions.
John Fleck and Sheffield United’s second-chance heroes
In the summer of 2016, John Fleck’s career had reached a crossroads. About to turn 25, he had been named Coventry City’s Player of the Season but the club had missed out on the League One play-offs again. After 18 league starts in five seasons for Rangers, Fleck had refused the transfer of his contract to the new company after their reformation in favour of trying to make the grade in England. But four years of third-tier football had followed. A move to Sheffield United was his shot to nothing.
Three-and-a-half years later, Fleck is established as a Premier League player and on Saturday scored more than once in a match for the first time in his professional career. Before the end of the year he will double his previous top-flight league appearances over the course of four glorious months.
Yet rather than a unique tale of over-promotion, this is the norm at Bramall Lane. The one overriding theme of Sheffield United’s squad is how many players were picked up by Chris Wilder having previously failed to make the grade at the top level. John Lundstram started at Everton. Enda Stevens started at Aston Villa. Jack O’Connell, Chris Basham, Oliver Norwood, Callum Robinson and John Egan were all at Premier League clubs but then fell into the EFL.
That is no accident. Wilder’s motivational techniques will only work on open recipients. He seeks out those who have something to prove to themselves and the doubters, and uses their hunger to create a team greater than the sum of its parts. Fleck was only this week’s best example.
If there is a ceiling to the potential of a limited team that is coached, managed and prepared brilliantly, that ceiling is far higher than we thought in August. After 45% of the season, Wilder’s team are four points off the top four.
Bournemouth, despite the injuries
Bournemouth’s tendency to lurch between runs of good and poor form is nothing new. That has been the constant theme of their Premier League life, the reason Eddie Howe has been unable to consolidate them in the top half. But for the first time, the latest slump has brought with it criticism of the manager.
It’s hard to look beyond the injury crisis. The list of players missing for Bournemouth’s trip to Stamford Bridge on Saturday included Callum Wilson, Harry Wilson, Steve Cook, Nathan Ake, Lloyd Kelly, David Brooks, Adam Smith, Charlie Daniels and Arnaut Groeneveld, while Josh King and Junior Stanislas were in the matchday squad having just recovered from issues.
Saturday was therefore the perfect response to criticism while also evaporating any serious concerns that Bournemouth would be dragged deep into the relegation mire. It was their first away win since September, and only their third away at a Big Six team since their promotion to the Premier League.
Perhaps we should not be surprised. Bournemouth have held an odd curse over Chelsea in the recent past. They have beaten them without conceding in three of their last four meetings, including the 3-0 win at Stamford Bridge last season. Now to take this fillip into home fixtures against Burnley and Arsenal and shoot back up into their natural habitat of the Premier League’s midtable.
Manuel Pellegrini’s purgatory
A classic West Ham week. After the home defeat by Arsenal and loss at Wolves, West Ham’s owners opted for anti-leadership by making it clear that Pellegrini had one game to save his job. Either you think the manager is right for his position or not. Putting everything on the result of one game is patently ridiculous. But also entirely unsurprising at this club.
But it worked. As against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge, West Ham’s players proved that they have not given up on their manager and produced a battling – if not sparkling – display to ward off the talk of crisis.
Pellegrini now lives in constant purgatory. West Ham will lose their next match at Selhurst Park on Boxing Day and at home to Leicester, leading to another ultimatum from the board. They will then beat Bournemouth at home and scrape through against Gillingham in the FA Cup to earn some breathing room. Cue defeat at Bramall Lane to cause further headaches. At some point it might strike those in charge to seize control of the situation.
In their two matches under Duncan Ferguson, Everton have allowed their opponents to have 39 shots, 22% of their season total. That probably isn’t sustainable.
But Everton have made it work because of the determination – as instructed by their temporary manager – to fight for the cause and squeeze everything out of each performance. As well as conceding a significant percentage of their season shots in two matches, Everton have also made 17% of their tackles and 25% of their blocked shots. If the task of a caretaker manager is to re-energise the squad in preparation for the permanent replacement, Ferguson has done the perfect job.
Tottenham’s smash and grab
Winning despite being under almost constant pressure, and grinding out three precious away points? Welcome, Jose Mourinho. We’ve been expecting you.
Winning games late on became Tottenham’s signature under Mauricio Pochettino. Last season they won matches with goals in the final ten minutes against PSV Eindhoven, Inter, Burnley, Fulham, Watford, Newcastle, Brighton and Ajax. As that list shows, their run to the Champions League final was defined by an ability to dig deep and find new reserves of energy. Mourinho will be more than happy not to kick the habit.
Chelsea, waiting for January but…
The only positive aspect of Chelsea’s recent run of four defeats in five matches – and I’m reaching here – is that it makes the decision to spend money in January an easier sell to supporters and players. Youthful exuberance and enthusiasm has warped slightly into the naivety of youth. As ever, it’s a thin line.
Until recently, Chelsea’s big issue was their defensive openness. Young defenders made individual mistakes and the defensive unit as a whole lacked cohesion and leadership. It failed to protect Kepa, who exacerbated the problems with his own poor form.
But that problem was covered by Chelsea’s attacking prowess, led by Tammy Abraham, Mason Mount and Christian Pulisic. Chelsea became The Entertainers, winning matches 3-2, 4-2, 5-2 and drawing 4-4. The question was whether the defence could improve without the attack becoming blunt.
Instead, something worse has happened. Chelsea have kept one clean sheet in their last 12 matches in all competitions, but have only scored more than once in one of their last five in the league. Against Bournemouth on Saturday, they failed to score for the second time in three home league games. Those three opponents – Aston Villa, Bournemouth and West Ham – have some of the least resolute defences in the division.
The obvious answer is for Chelsea to spend in January. They could buy an experienced central defender, a first-choice left-back and even another striker or wide forward if current fringe players can be sold or loaned out.
But then that creates its own problem. Chelsea’s early form under Frank Lampard was achieved by putting faith in young academy graduates. That was one of the reasons Lampard and Jody Morris were brought back to Stamford Bridge. To move drastically away from that strategy at the first opportunity would risk throwing out the baby with the bathwater, and put roadblocks in the way of certain young players.
Chelsea have to make a decision, and make it quickly. Do they keep faith in youth and use this season as a free roll of the dice, accepting that they might miss out on the top four but reasoning that you learn more about young players during times of adversity? Or do they conclude that this is their best chance to stay in the Champions League and invest in January accordingly, thus risking becoming a ‘normal’ club again?
It’s not that Freddie Ljungberg saw the blueprint for beating Manchester City, defending with a low block and hitting them on the counter attack, and chose to try almost the exact opposite.
It’s not that they gave Kevin de Bruyne an embarrassing amount of space to concede within 90 seconds of kick-off, and then proceeded to give him the same amount of space six or seven times thereafter. This is a team determined not to learn their lessons.
It’s not that they spent £72m on a luxury wide forward when they desperately needed defenders.
It’s about more than that. It’s about Arsenal leaving Ljungberg in limbo by asking him to take control of the team on a temporary basis but refusing to let him bring any of his own staff in. Ljugnberg is a good man being asked to do a difficult job with one arm tied behind his back.
Arsenal kept faith in Unai Emery for too long, far beyond the point at which anybody reasonable believed he could arrest the slump. The only acceptable reason for that was because the club’s hierarchy were sourcing Emery’s predecessor, and in doing so ensuring that the transition from one manager to the next would be smooth.
But of course they weren’t. Instead, Arsenal waited an age to sack Emery and more than a fortnight later we still have no clear indication of who their top target is. They have doubled down on their incompetent management of the entire process. If your local grocery store was run in such a shambolic manner, you might consider shopping elsewhere.
Seriously, 16 Conclusions.
Cataclysmically bad, and somehow getting worse. Watford have had 25 shots in their last three matches without scoring. They have scored seven times this season from 195 non-penalty shots. Their shot conversion rate of 4.6% is a full 4% lower than any other team in the league. The gap between them and the next worst is bigger than the gap between 19th and fifth.
Still, good on Nigel Pearson.
You can stop laughing at Watford, lads. The only difference between Southampton and Watford is that one of them has Danny Ings.
Southampton’s shot conversion rate is 8.6%, the second lowest in the division. Ings’ shot conversion rate is 24.3%. Of all Premier League players to have taken more than 20 shots, only Jamie Vardy and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang register higher. You’ll forgive me for expecting Ings to revert slightly to the mean. And that could mean curtains for Southampton.
It should not cause any lasting disappointment within Leicester City’s squad or amongst their supporters that they will not win the league. As long as Brendan Rodgers leads them into the top four, he and they will have had a wonderful season.
But it’s impossible not to be frustrated when a title challenge, however unlikely, is extinguished with a sloppy home draw against lesser opposition. Rodgers will now motivate his side for successive games against the teams directly above and below them in the table. Avoiding defeat in either would improve their top-four credentials. That is what matters now.
Newcastle without Allan Saint-Maximin
The key to Newcastle’s relative success this season has been their two-pronged counter-attacking approach. With Miguel Almiron and Saint-Maximin both on the pitch, Steve Bruce’s team can unnerve defences who are unable to double-mark both wide players. With only one on the pitch, they are easy to control and neither Andy Carroll nor Joelinton come close to Salomon Rondon’s ability to hold up the ball and bring others into play. Strikers become isolated, wingers crowded out.
Saint-Maximin is the most mercurial player in the division, but it is easy to see his impact on Newcastle. In the seven league games in which he hasn’t started, they have taken two points (at home to Brighton and Watford) and scored four goals. They average 4.3 shots on target per game with him, and 2.3 without him.
Saint-Maximin is frequently unreliable, but he is also Newcastle’s difference maker. And he is out for a month with a hamstring strain, his fourth muscle injury in 2019. That presents a huge problem for Bruce.
Manchester United against the ‘rest’
After the strides forward taken against Tottenham and Manchester City, the familiar bump back to earth. Manchester United probably merited victory against Everton and were certainly due their late equaliser, but Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has proven himself incapable of finding a way to break down non-elite opposition.
After 17 league games, Manchester United have taken 11 points against Big Six opponents and 14 points from 12 matches against the others. Chelsea in fourth have lost four of their last five league games and United are still four points behind them.
Substituted after 18 minutes, with Duncan Ferguson saying he made the call to waste time. Brutal management of a player who looks like he needs an arm around the shoulder. This has gone very badly indeed.