Salah and Liverpool top Premier League winners and losers

Date published: Monday 1st February 2021 7:04

Winners

Mohamed Salah and Liverpool
One of Liverpool’s most eminent issues over the last two months has been the pace of their play when in possession. It’s been easy to spot, the ball passed around midfield so much and so slowly that Jurgen Klopp expressed his frustration to James Milner when he was substituted on Sunday.

But it has indirect impacts too: Before Liverpool would break quickly, so that when one of the full-backs was inevitably entrusted with advancing the attack they would receive the ball on the run. With this slower play, the full-backs have time to move up the pitch before receiving the ball and so get it to feet rather than running onto it. Opposition defences are set and the whole thing grinds to a halt.

There’s a reason for it, and it’s far simpler than the theory that the introduction of Thiago Alcantara into the team has slowed them down. With so many defensive players missing, Liverpool have played slightly more risk-averse football through midfield for fear of ceding possession and being counter-attacked by opponents before their makeshift defence is set. That’s particularly true without Fabinho and Jordan Henderson in central midfield to protect that defence.

As Klopp made clear, it was a problem against West Ham too. But when you have Mohamed Salah on the pitch, you have a chance. He was presented with the ball on the wide right of the penalty area and three West Ham outfield players between him and the goal. Two shimmies and a dip to the left and he suddenly had the ball on his left foot. A low-percentage scoring opportunity became a high-percentage one. There’s a reason why Salah is the first Liverpool player since Ian Rush to score 20 or more goals in a season four years in a row.

Instead, it is Liverpool’s mesmeric second goal that proves their new-found confidence after consecutive away wins for the first time since September. The vision of Trent Alexander-Arnold to spot the crossfield switch. The anticipation of Xherdan Shaqiri to play the Andrew Robertson role, surging down the left flank to take the ball on the run and play a fabulous first-time pass. The right-left touches from Salah to control the ball and dink it past Lukasz Fabianski. These are the hallmarks of the Liverpool we remember.

It has been a brilliant few days for Klopp and his team. They cannot get back the points squandered over winter, but they are far from out of the title race. Beat Manchester City at Anfield next weekend, a fixture in which they have been unbeatable over the last 15 years, and they will be a point behind City and have their mojo back. Then the race to the finish between England’s two best teams over the last five years starts.

 

Newcastle’s new style
Much, much better. Callum Wilson has suffered a goal drought over the last six weeks, but this demonstrated what is possible when you get players closer to him and service him adequately. Newcastle potentially have the best fit striker in the bottom half, but there’s only so much a centre-forward can do when operating in a different postcode to the rest of the team.

There is a (understandable) theory that you make your team more defensively resilient by defending deep and protecting your own penalty area. This was the counter-argument: Press higher up the pitch and win possession in the opposition half and you can ease the pressure on your central defenders and goalkeeper.

The arrival of Graeme Jones as a coach must be discussed. Watching the touchline on Saturday and you could see Jones micromanaging Newcastle’s players while Steve Bruce stood behind him. But that need not – and should not – be sold as a negative on Bruce. The best coaching teams work in combination with individuals holding responsibility for various aspects of the process. As long as Newcastle improve on their results and performance, it doesn’t matter how the sausages are made.

With Fulham and West Brom drawing, West Brom continuing to concede goals and Scott Parker admitting that new arrivals at Craven Cottage are unlikely this week, Newcastle have taken a huge step in their bid to avoid a relegation scrap that they should never have been part of in the first place. This must give them impetus to use the result and the manner in which it was achieved as a blueprint to design the second half of their season.

 

Patrick Bamford
A seriously good centre-forward performance in front of the watching Gareth Southgate. Dominic Calvert-Lewin and Danny Ings are probably ahead of Bamford in the race to play up front for England in the Euros after Harry Kane knacks his metatarsal in April, but the England manager must have been mightily impressed with what he saw.

Bamford’s finish (always the headline) was exquisite, swept with minimum backlift before Kasper Schmeichel could set himself and so impossible for Leicester’s goalkeeper to dive and save. But his assists were just as good, showing vision to slot the ball between the lines to Stuart Dallas and showing wonderful selflessness to play the ball across the goalkeeper for Leeds’ third.

Even then we risk overlooking how Bamford has improved most under Marcelo Bielsa. Previously he had a tendency to play as a focal-point centre forward, waiting for the ball to come into his head or feet rather than creating the option for the pass himself. Watch him now to see how he drops into space to link up play or arcs his runs to break between central defenders. Bamford lacks the lightning pace of some Premier League strikers. Now he’s making up for it with game intelligence.

This has been a brilliant breakout season for Bamford, coming midway through his professional career. He is now five goals away from his goals total in 45 Championship matches last season and that’s happening because his movement is better, his finishing is more accurate and his confidence is higher. The only English player with more Premier League goals this season is Kane.

A word too for Leeds in general, who suffered a backlash after the effusive praise piled upon Bielsa at the start of the season. The 11 players on the pitch for their third goal on Sunday all played in the Championship last season. That’s proof of a team far greater than the sum of its component parts.

 

Brighton
Finally. This is what Graham Potter wants from this Brighton side, a performance defined by their array of technically proficient midfielders interchanging possession and moving into space to receive the ball but accompanied by a faultless defensive display that means their strikers only need to take one chance to win the game. Watching Aaron Connolly aim the ball into the only part of the goal that was blocked, you can see why.

This has been a difficult period for Potter. Brighton are the last team in the country to record a home victory this season and last season wasn’t much better either. They are a deeply frustrating team to watch, undone by profligacy in one penalty area and occasional lapses of concentration or positioning in the other.

But they were too much for a miserable Tottenham. The magnificent Yves Bissouma – the poster boy of their scouting and recruitment model – protected the defence and Leandro Trossard, Pascal Gross and Alexis MacAllister ran the midfield. This is the plan that Potter believes in so strongly and, when it works, you can see why Brighton’s hierarchy have so much faith in it. Now stay up and buy a higher-class centre forward in the summer.

 

Manchester City’s title charge
It wasn’t pretty, you understand. Pep Guardiola made numerous changes and found Sheffield United to be a stubborn opponent buoyed by their midweek victory at Old Trafford. But City found a way, sat on their lead and defended it in the manner that has now become customary.

For all their dominance under Guardiola between 2017 and 2019, City never managed to record 12 successive victories. They have now set a new club record. When this unbeaten league run started they were 13th in the table. When the winning run began they were ninth. Having gone top for the first time since August 2019, they will be confident of maintaining that position.

City are also purring while their supposed title rivals drop away. For all Manchester United’s improvement over the last few months, City have taken seven more points than them in the last fortnight and that does seem to be title-race defining.

The trip to Anfield next weekend is crucial for a number of reasons. Manchester City haven’t won there in any competition since 2003 and in recent seasons have been blown away by early Liverpool salvos. A loss next weekend could easily provoke a damaging spiral with City’s subsequent run of league games.

But Guardiola will be keen to stress to his players that next weekend also provides them with the chance to lay down a marker against the defending champions and to expose Liverpool’s defensive crisis. It hasn’t always been the case over the last 18 months but, right now, no team in Europe fancies facing them.

 

Chelsea’s new meritocracy
Had you been told three weeks ago that Callum Hudson-Odoi and Marcos Alonso would start as Chelsea’s wing-back pairing, you might have assumed either a defensive crisis or a tactical meltdown from Frank Lampard. When Thomas Tuchel did exactly that for his second match in charge, it provoked social media outrage from a section of Chelsea’s support. You don’t even get to play the match these days before the judgement is delivered.

But it worked. Hudson-Odoi was Chelsea’s most effective chance-creator and looks born to play the wing-back role against opponents who are intent on sitting deep. Playing with wing-backs allows the two players operating behind the centre forward to stay closer to the middle of the pitch and work around the lead striker.

In Winners and Losers in midweek, I wrote about Ben Chilwell’s suitability to play at wing-back and concluded that he was probably better as a full-back because he has a tendency to turn back rather than overlapping his man. I wondered whether Christan Pulisic might be suited to the role, but Tuchel instead sees the forgotten man Alonso as the best of both options. His underlapping run into the penalty area, touch and finish is exactly what he specialises in and exactly what Chilwell struggles at.

Chelsea have also found a defensive solidity in Tuchel’s first game in charge. They are yet to face a shot on target and Tuchel came within seconds of becoming the first Chelsea manager to stop their opponent having a shot of any kind since Opta started collecting data in 2013. That will obviously be tested moving forward – Wolves and Burnley barely attempted to attack them – but it is interesting to note how Tuchel likes to keep five men (three centre-backs and two midfielders) behind the ball even when they attack. That’s a shift from Lampard’s preference for pushing extra players forward to supplement the attack when struggling to break down deep defences.

It was too early on Thursday to label Tuchel a loser and too early today to label him a winner. Tottenham on Thursday will provide the first chance to watch his team against higher-class opposition and Spurs may test Chelsea’s new tactical plan.

But we can at least conclude that there is a new meritocracy at Chelsea under Tuchel. The arrival of any new manager gives the squad a clean slate and an opportunity to impress, but that seems particularly clear here given the switch of formation and style. If nothing else, it will be fascinating to watch how Tuchel’s Chelsea evolve during his early weeks in charge.

 

Eberechi Eze
He’s absolutely brilliant, potentially the most exciting player in the bottom half of the Premier League. If that means Crystal Palace end up selling Eze for £40m-plus further down the line, so be it; that’s how well-run clubs do things and the trick is to enjoy the development of said players while you have them before reinvesting the proceeds sensibly. If it’s good enough for Leicester City, it’s good enough for Palace.

 

Losers

Jose Mourinho
A defeat so damning
on Tottenham’s manager because it was so bloody predictable. We winced at the sight of this team lethargically trying to unpick Liverpool in midweek with Harry Kane absent and winced at the thought of their prospects without their best player. If this was not the worst team performance of Mourinho’s tenure, the first half was surely the worst 45 minutes.

Suspicions that Tottenham were ripe for dismantling on Sunday night only grew when Mourinho picked three central defenders against the worst home side in the country. That formation typically relies upon the wing-backs to provide the creativity, but Mourinho selected two unnatural wing-backs in Ben Davies (left-back) and Moussa Sissoko (central midfielder). They created one chance each.

The lack of Kane obviously provides a part-explanation. The downside of his greater responsibility to knit together the strands of Tottenham’s attack rather than merely leading it is that his absence would leave a deeper hole than it previously had. Gareth Bale looks half-broken, Steven Bergwijn is a runner but not a finisher and I’m not even sure why Tottenham bought Carlos Vinicius to then never play him and leave him rusty for precisely the time he was needed.

But that isn’t a good enough excuse. Mourinho must have worked on a plan in the build-up to Sunday’s game and yet Tottenham played like a team without any semblance of attacking strategy. Tanguy Ndombele could have played as a No. 10 to increase his creative influence or more attacking wing-back options. But more important than that was that Tottenham moved the ball at speed through midfield to drag Brighton’s defenders (who lack pace) out of position. Instead we saw the same miserable half-speed football that only ever seems to lead to half-chances. Tottenham’s expected goals total at half-time? 0.03.

Mourinho insisted after the match that his team did apply pressure in the final 20 minutes, but forgive me for holding back the prizes for that. Spurs were 1-0 down against a team with one home league win since 2019 – I’d bloody hope that they would try and equalise. That doesn’t even meet the bare minimum standard required.

And there’s a slightly broader issue here too. Mourinho explained the lack of energy in the first half – particularly in attacking areas – because several Tottenham players are “sad”. You can interpret that in all manner of ways (Mourinho’s vagueness was surely deliberate), but the manager must accept his own culpability in that process.

Imagine the following scenario: At work, you have been given a task and told to do it how you see fit. Rather than play it safe, you choose to try something a little different that has a higher ceiling of success if it comes off. When it doesn’t come off, your manager lambasts you not just in front of your peers but on national television. The next time your teammates are given an identical task, how are you likely to approach it? Will you also try something experimental that your competitor may not expect? Or are you far more likely to play it safe for fear of being given the same treatment? Welcome to Tottenham’s Dele Alli problem.

Mourinho now has a serious problem on his hands. Tottenham are enjoying a worse ‘start’ (and we are now past halfway) to a season than in any of the five full campaigns under Mauricio Pochettino. If that nugget handily omits Pochettino’s fall from grace season, the emotional fatigue following the Champions League final heartache made a change necessary.

But then a change is supposed to bring a new mood and is supposed to allow talented footballers to express themselves in a new light. Fourteen months after Mourinho was appointed, Tottenham look roughly the same as they did in Pochettino’s final weeks. They are gaining more points per game than Pochettino did until November that season (1.2 vs 1.7), but then Tottenham have signed nine new first-team players under Mourinho.

Plenty of Tottenham supporters must be wondering whether this is all worth it. They emotionally invested so much in Pochettino’s Tottenham partly because he took them to previously unthinkable places but also because he created a culture within the squad that really did bleed into the mood of the fanbase. They were proud of their boys and there was an intangible sense of community between the elements of the club.

What’s really to emotionally invest in now? A League Cup win ends the silverware drought but hardly sets pulses racing. The team is attacking as if it is operating inside a joy vacuum. The relationship between manager and players looks to be wavering, death via a thousand angry Mourinho post-match press conferences. And they’re not even winning games to vindicate his autocracy.

 

Manchester United’s Big Six intent…again
This wasn’t a problem result in isolation; no draw away from home against a Big Six team can be sold as that. This wasn’t a problem performance in isolation either; Manchester United created chances against Liverpool and created them against Arsenal too.

But when you combine all of Manchester United’s results in these matches a pattern emerges that is problematic. Since Scott McTominay’s goal against Manchester City in March 2020, Manchester United have played 631 minutes against Big Six opponents without scoring from open play. Their only goals were penalties from Bruno Fernandes in a 6-1 home defeat to Tottenham and Bruno again against the same opponents last June.

We’ve said it plenty of times before, but that 6-1 defeat seems to have spooked Solskjaer into being more risk-averse against higher-profile opponents. They can finish in the top four quite easily and may well continue to mount a vague title challenge, but they will surely not win the league without a little more gusto.

This season, a table comprising intra-Big Six league matches has United fifth of six with 0.67 points per game. That is far below Liverpool (2.33 ppg) and Manchester City (1.6 ppg) and City may well improve that record over the next two months. That may well be the difference come May.

It’s also a little odd because it represents a shift in Solskjaer’s approach to such matches. Last season, United finished second in that table with a record of 1.6 points per game, 0.5 ppg higher than Manchester City and Chelsea. They also scored 15 goals in those matches. Compared to one so far this season.

And on Saturday they could have done more against an Arsenal team missing Kieran Tierney (their best attacking full-back and second-highest chance creator this season), Bukayo Saka (their highest chance creator this season) and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. United had a virtually fit squad, fully fit attacking unit and Arsenal’s highest chance creator that started the match was Alexandre Lacazette with 13. The game was there for Manchester United to impose themselves upon it and they largely ceded that advantage.

 

Southampton’s VAR misfortune
To lose out once to a questionable VAR call is galling. The fact that the ball rebounded off his thigh gave Matty Cash a half-defence for his handball non-offence, but his arm was certainly raised high and the deflection was slight; it could so easily have been ruled the other way.

But the kicker was the late offside call that robbed Southampton of a point. The notion of ‘level’ has been deemed void by the introduction of VAR’s dotted lines, but this was as close as we have seen any decision this season. We stared at the miniscule distance between the line between armpit and arse as if judging an anatomical game of rock-paper-scissors and were still unsure how the verdict would fall. And that’s before you get onto the subject of frame-rate accuracy that warps the whole exercise into a guessing game.

 

Leicester without their two best players
If Manchester United’s title challenge fell away as soon as we took it seriously, Leicester City’s has evaporated before anyone really gave it any serious thought.

This defeat came via the absence of two key players. Jamie Vardy is a far better centre-forward than Ayoze Perez will be, and the failure to invest in an effective back-up striker may well cost them their quest for Champions League qualification.

But it’s Wilfred Ndidi who they really miss. The all-passing, all-intercepting, all-running central midfielder would have broken up so many of Leeds’ attacks in a manner that Nampalys Mendy just cannot mimic. If Ndidi does not start 80% of Leicester’s games between now and May, they will continue to leave themselves exposed to the counter attack. Leeds had too much space and too much fun in the space between defence and midfield.

 

Everton
Why must you do this to us? Why must you make such leap forwards and then fall back into awkward mediocrity in the space of the same fortnight? Who do you think you are, West Ham?

 

Daniel Storey

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