Liverpool proved why the title is theirs to lose. But Tottenham should be proud of their efforts.

 

1) It feels a little perverse to wonder whether Jurgen Klopp and Jose Mourinho were swayed by events elsewhere this midweek in the build to their meeting. Leicester, Southampton and West Ham dropping points would not generally be any business of theirs but the teams in 3rd, 4th and 6th – as well as Chelsea in 5th – either drawing or losing created a real opportunity for the sides in 1st and 2nd to establish some rare breathing space in this sprinting marathon of a season.

Perhaps it did not effect their approach in the slightest. But how refreshing it was to see two heavyweights try and bully opponents their own size in their own way. Liverpool tried to jab Tottenham into submission while the visitors were only interested in landing knockout blows. Both were aware of the possible reward; neither were fearful of the obvious risk. Either could have won. It took until the final minute for one to do so. It made for a very fun game.

 

2) It also provided proof as to why Liverpool should be overwhelming favourites to defend their title. With a Premier League debutant at centre-half and a teenager in midfield this was never going to be a resounding victory, and indeed it relied on a heavy dose of fortune. But their mentality is like no other. It might seem like a vague platitude but it makes a genuine difference when Rhys Williams and Curtis Jones can slot seamlessly into a team founded on such high standards.

The 3-0 win over Leicester and 2-0 victory at Chelsea were examples of how Liverpool can dismantle and demoralise their closest perceived challengers. This was a war of attrition against football’s greatest drill sergeant and they still ended up overcoming the enemy.

 

3) Those decrying Mourinho and revelling in a defeat for ‘anti-football’ are being wilfully obtuse. Tottenham came with a plan and almost executed it perfectly. A sharper Harry Kane or a more predatory Steven Bergwijn would have crowned a first Premier League away win at Anfield since April 2017 and few could have argued with that result.

Plenty will cite the 24% possession, the total number of balls into the final third, the fact Jordan Henderson attempted almost half as many passes as Tottenham overall. And perhaps he got the balance wrong in the first half, when Liverpool really should have made their dominance count. But Mourinho should take great pride and positivity from that performance. All it lacked was a little more precision and care in the final moment.

 

4) This is part of the deal, of course. Mourinho approaches these games in such a way that defeat in this manner is an inevitable trade-off eventually. At some point the ungodly accurate finishing reverts to the mean and the pressure finally tells on a defence with susceptible components.

The fact is that similar tactics have already worked to emphatic degrees against Manchester United, Manchester City and Arsenal. Mourinho took it a little too far against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge – personal motivation surely played a part – but this was a completely understandable way to play against a phenomenal team on a ridiculous home run. It’s just that sometimes Heung-min Son won’t be on the end of every opportunity, and excellent opposition players can conjure up decisive moments in stoppage-time when concentration levels have dipped.

Mourinho’s methods seek to ensure this calibre of game is settled by those fine margins; that gamble will backfire at times. He walks the line between disaster and masterclass like no other, but at the end of the day football can just be a bit stupid and we are all idiots for trying to find a grander meaning in every single game.

Let’s carry on.

 

5) How the critics would prefer Mourinho to set his team up is a mystery. If Tottenham visited Anfield and try to out-pass Liverpool they would get destroyed. If they tried to dominate possession they would be picked off on the counter themselves and pressed into oblivion. Mourinho laid it on a little too thick in his pre-match press conference but there was a valid point hidden in the bluster: most of those Liverpool players have been together for years under the same manager while this Tottenham side, if not relatively new, have barely been working with their coach for 12 months.

They have played worse and won. They have played better and been beaten by more. A negative result does not necessarily mean a negative performance. His “better team lost” shtick was debatable but to brand tactics that almost held Liverpool to a draw as ‘anti-football’ is just plain wrong. And hilariously childish.

 

6) It is especially disingenuous when you consider Liverpool scored from a heavily-deflected shot and a set-piece. Most of their other chances were of pretty poor quality. The rest were hit directly towards the centre of the goal and into Hugo Lloris’ welcoming arms with unerring accuracy. This was no swashbuckling attacking performance.

The front three were profligate but Andy Robertson was sensational. The corner for Roberto Firmino’s winner ensured quantifiable reward for his efforts but even without it the left-back’s impact was obvious. It can take a quieter game from Trent Alexander-Arnold to realise just how proficient his teammate on the other side is; without Robertson, Liverpool do not win that.

 

7) The first shot on target actually mirrored the last quite well. It was a Robertson free-kick instead of a corner and Firmino’s header was saved by Lloris but Liverpool issued a warning Tottenham would have been forgiven for forgetting about 80 minutes later.

As obvious as it feels to praise the match-winner, he really was excellent. Some discussion in the build-up centred on how Kane had started to mimic Firmino’s role in dropping deep but this was the master of the art at his absolute best, the focal point around which Liverpool operated. Kane was barely noticeable for long periods and painfully off the pace when he did show up.

 

8) It was one of the Tottenham striker’s specials: four shots, none on target, 12 passes, no chances created. These displays come around once every few months – usually for England – but they do emphasise just how brilliant Kane usually is at maximising his moments on the ball. It is often taken for granted.

Again, though, that is the basis upon which Tottenham are founded. They will defend resolutely as a unit and rely on their elite forwards to perform at their absolute peak consistently. They did the former for most of this match and the latter only once. That was rarely going to be enough.

 

9) Kane was not simply poor. Nor was Son, who had one shot, dispatched it wonderfully and struggled thereafter. Liverpool’s centre-halves were formidable, if not faultless.

It was Williams whose missed header let Bergwijn in within a minute of the second half kicking off, but the 19-year-old was otherwise great. Having one of the best and most adaptable players in the entire league alongside him surely helped but it was Williams and not Fabinho who played the 40-yard cross-field ball out to Robertson in the build-up to Salah’s goal. That sort of distribution is what Liverpool have lacked since Virgil van Dijk’s injury and Williams nonchalantly cracking on with it should not be understated.

 

10) Fate cruelly dictates that he was not even Liverpool’s best academy product, as Jones was sublime. His one-touch passing, close control and persistence created the first goal, which the midfielder almost added to soon after when capitalising on Serge Aurier’s sloppy play in his own area. There’s a sentence I always thought I’d write.

Henderson and Georginio Wijnaldum went about their midfield business characteristically quietly and effectively. Yet Jones provides a certain different dimension to proceedings, particularly with his dribbling. It really is not normal how comfortable he looks in this team, under this manager, in this kind of game. Him not being capped by England really is quite funny.

 

11) The discourse around ‘typical Mourinho’ will also ignore the context of the first half, in which Tottenham were one better touch or crisper pass from racing through on goal.

The first such instance came in the 10th minute with Hojbjerg’s hopeful ball over the top. Kane could not quite bring it under control and that allowed Williams to nip in but Son would have been running through with Fabinho perhaps too far to his right if the touch had been better.

A few minutes later, an interchange between Son and Kane ended with Bergwijn being played in down the right but Alexander-Arnold came across well to cover, before another counter-attack saw Moussa Sissoko struggle to find Kane completely unmarked in the centre.

They had more obvious chances in the second half but there was no period in which Tottenham did not pose a threat to Liverpool. That latent danger just developed a little more after half-time, but it was there throughout.

 

12) And just after the half-hour mark, when Amazon Prime kindly cut away from an insignificant replay to show Son baring down on goal and finishing supremely well beyond Alisson. They were automatically in credit thanks solely to Ally McCoist but still.

Honestly, though, that finish was delightful. Few players have made Alisson seem so beatable in a one-on-one situation. Credit also goes to Giovani Lo Celso, who lost Jones for the opener but cut straight through Liverpool’s centre for this assist. But Son made it count; he really is one of the best forwards in world football and it doesn’t feel as though that is an accepted thing.

 

13) Is…is it alright to call Aurier good? There were two poor moments: his mistake that let Jones in in the first half and then being completely deceived by Mane’s turn before he hit the crossbar in the second. But he fared excellently against the Senegalese otherwise in what most would have described as a mismatch before the game.

The raw numbers were impressive enough. Ten tackles, two interceptions and five clearances is quite the shift for a player whose perceived strengths are in attack. By which I mean his manager was literally “afraid” of his “sh*t defending” not long ago. Aurier did not pass the Mane test with a distinction, but a decent grade all the same. It is becoming a habit.

 

14) He was helped by some absolutely sensational defending by Anthony Taylor, who blocked Liverpool’s passing lanes like N’Golo Kante after a packet of Tangfastics. The referee surely had more touches than most Tottenham players; Henderson couldn’t bloody help but pass to him in the first half.

 

15) Liverpool found the winner but that should not take too much away from the ridiculousness that is not making a single substitution in 90 minutes. Klopp and Pep Guardiola seem to be trying to outdo one another in undermining their mutual argument that Premier League clubs need five subs to ensure the welfare of the players in these unique circumstances.

It’s a bit rich to pinpoint “a lack of leadership” at the FA and make snide public comments about Chris Wilder before asking eight players who featured for 90 minutes against Fulham on Sunday to do the same against Tottenham three days later. He is a brilliant coach but a bit of a silly sod sometimes.

 

16) Hahahahang this up in the ruddy Louvre.

Matt Stead

 

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Posted in EPL, FA Premier League

Patrice Evra has revealed that Thierry Henry once turned off the TV rather than watch Granit Xhaka captain Arsenal.

Xhaka made a show of himself in Arsenal’s latest defeat – their fourth in succession – by getting sent off just before the hour mark for grabbing Burnley’s Ashley Westwood around the throat.

The Gunners went on to lose 1-0 courtesy of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s own-goal, leaving Mikel Arteta’s side in 15th place in the Premier League having scored the fewest number of goals at this stage of the season since 1981-82.

Xhaka was Arsenal’s captain until last year when he was stripped of the armband for his reaction to being jeered when he was substituted by former boss Unai Emery.

The Switzerland midfielder appeared all set to leave the Emirates until Arteta was appointed and convinced him that he could play a major role in the new manager’s rebuild.


READ MORE: F365 Says: Same old Arsenal a damning indictment of Arteta’s leadership


But his latest indiscretion will see the clamour to axe Xhaka increase once more and Evra, while analysing the game for Sky Sports, offered an insight into how Henry, an Arsenal legend, views the 28-year-old’s qualities.

“I will tell you a quick story,” Evra said. “Thierry Henry one day invited me to his house to watch an Arsenal game.

“He turned on the TV, the first image we saw on the screen was Xhaka leading the Arsenal team, being the captain. Thierry Henry turned off the TV.

“I said, ‘What happened?’. He said, ‘I cannot watch my team and Xhaka being the captain of my team’ and he turned off the screen. And we did not watch the game.”

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Posted in EPL, FA Premier League

We should enjoy this football cycle while it lasts. A game between Brighton and Southampton – let’s face it – would likely have been a pretty dire affair under previous incumbents Mark Hughes and Chris Hughton. But Southampton’s 2-1 win over Brighton was instead a fascinating end-to-end battle of intrigue – unfortunately soured by more head-shaking VAR bullsh*t – between two excellent teams with excellent managers.

“We often speak about it being impossible to be half-pregnant. Either you are pregnant or not. Half-pregnant doesn’t exist so either you go or you don’t go and when you go you all go together otherwise it doesn’t make sense.”

The light-hearted wackiness of the analogy gives the game away: this was Ralph Hasenhuttl, not Graham Potter. But the basic philosphy of both managers is the same. They direct their players to recognise ‘triggers’ – a miscontrol, a long pass, a dribble – to initiate a whole team press. Southampton and Brighton are either pregnant, or they’re not.


READ MORE: Mourinho is the master of Premier League winners and losers


It’s not the exotic, fancy-pants tactic it was. Mauricio Pochettino’s high press was poured and purred over, as was Jurgen Klopp’s ‘gegenpressing’ and Pep Guardiola’s ‘six-second rule’; the 60-year-old ploy with roots in ice hockey and basketball is now the norm for the foremost contemporary coaches in the Premier League. And will be until Jose Mourinho wins the league to illustrate that the ball is the last thing you want.

A one minute spell at the start of the game set the expected tone. Southampton first laid a trap, pouncing on a slightly laborious attempt from Brighton to play out from the back to win the ball high up the pitch. Having recycled possession they tried to build again through the middle third but were swarmed by a deeper but similarly effective mass of Brighton bodies, who reacted to the ‘trigger’ of a heavy touch.

It made for absorbing, splendidly chaotic viewing, but VAR will again be the talking point.

Pascal Groß gave Brighton the lead from the spot after midfielder-cum-Harlem Globetrotter James Ward-Prowse was punished for handball. No arguments there. Jannik Vestergaard – who was immense throughout – then equalised with a brilliant towering header. But Danny Ings’ penalty, or rather the awarding of it, will dominate the chat among the 2,000 Brighton fans on their journeys home.

The boos from those fans and the remonstrations of the Brighton players – after the incident was shown on the big screen – were totally fair. Solly March’s shove on Kyle Walker-Peters was outside the box, as David Coote originally thought. It could also have been given if there was a second foul after the initial push, but there wasn’t one.

Ings was asked after the game whether he was more confident in the penalty being awarded the longer VAR looked at the incident. But it should be the opposite, shouldn’t it? If VAR has to look at minutes of slow-motion replays that’s surely proof that any perceived error isn’t clear or obvious.

Brighton perhaps didn’t deserve to win their second game of 2020, but certainly didn’t deserve to lose. And the football they played and have played this season should see them easily pick up enough Premier League scalps to make relegation no more than a subtle threat.

Southampton meanwhile, are up to fifth having won without playing all that well. Typically an indication of title contenders, in Southampton’s case it could well be a telltale sign of a successful pursuit of European football.

 

Will Ford is on Twitter

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The view from the top must be quite special for Frank Lampard. Especially if he’s brought his binoculars…

The Chelsea manager is spending his Saturday night looking down on the rest of the Premier League after a 3-1 win over Leeds United. Getting one over on Marcelo Bielsa, who is now lurking 12 places below Lampard in the table, will have been particularly sweet for Lampard. But sitting at the summit at the end of the day for the first time as a manager would have been satisfaction enough for the Blues boss.

Lampard might also be feeling pretty smug about Chelsea’s chances of staying there. They might not finish the weekend on top, with Tottenham and Liverpool both able to leap back above the Blues on Sunday. But Chelsea’s form means that they deserve as much as anyone to be spoken about as title contenders.

Given the sum Chelsea spent in the summer, perhaps that should be expected. No manager should get to finish in the top four, then have £222million lavished upon him without as a consequence facing the expectation of a title push. But as countless teams and managers have demonstrated, spending alone is not a guaranteed recipe for success.

Lampard has demonstrated in this early part of the season that he can hone that individual talent, whether purchased and produced, and blend it into team capable of taking on all comers in the Premier League.

The Blues boss has also had to identify and fix some Chelsea flaws. Given the scale of their recruitment, some unfamiliarity was inevitable in the early weeks of the season and that manifested itself in a deeply-concerning defensive record.

Had Bielsa been able to analyse and pick holes in the rearguard Lampard employed up until the middle of October, then Leeds might have had a field day at Stamford Bridge. But since conceding three at West Brom and another three in farcical circumstances at home to Southampton, Lampard has shored his side up to such an extent that they have accumulated eight clean sheets over 10 games.

That defence restricted Leeds, an attack that may lack efficiency but certainly not creativity, to only eight shots. In the previous fortnight, Bielsa’s men have rained 48 attempts on Arsenal and Everton’s goals and have averaged over the season almost double the number of shots per game that Chelsea allowed them.

The immediate cure to Chelsea’s defensive ills had the side effect of slowing down their output at the other end. But Lampard has now managed to concoct a precise blend between defence and attack. Since that calamitous draw with Saints, over 11 games in all competitions, Chelsea have scored 25 goals and conceded three.

In the Premier League, they have scored three more goals than anyone else with Christian Pulisic’s late strike taking to 13 the number of players in Lampard’s squad to have notched this season. The next best spread of goalscorers is nine.

It bodes extremely well that the most in-form goalscorer of them all is one who looked all-but-finished at Chelsea. As recently as the last international break, Olivier Giroud looked almost certain to be heading for the exit in January. But half a dozen goals of all type in the last week and a half have propelled the Frenchman to just one below leading scorer Timo Werner.

Werner himself was wasteful against Leeds on a night that he could have bagged a hat-trick. Kai Havertz was similarly off-colour, though unlike Werner, his performance was in-keeping with a sluggish start to his maiden season in the Premier League. The German attacker’s form must be one of few concerns for Lampard, but with incredible competition for places in his forward line, the Blues boss is spoiled for choice.

Chelsea’s credentials will be sorely tested over the coming month, when they face Everton, Wolves, West Ham, Arsenal, Villa and Manchester City. All, except Arsenal, have shown streaks of consistency this term though none quite as impressive or sustained as Lampard’s side. It may not turn out to be title-winning form but it certainly is the form of title challengers.

Ian Watson

 

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Posted in EPL, FA Premier League

Both Ralph Haenhuttl and Nuno Espirito Santo will point to missed chances and periods of supremacy in the 1-1 draw at Molineux to claim their side deserved victory. Neither did, but it was a game full of the tactical intrigue we have come to expect from two of the Premier League’s greatest strategists.

Southampton games used to be a bit dull. Under Claude Puel, Mauricio Pellegrino, Mark Hughes, even in Ralph Hasenhuttl’s early days as manager, before he’d had a real chance to get a grip of the side, a Saints game would often pass us – and more crucially, them – by. That is now never the case.

The proactivity is the big difference. Players don’t sit off, waiting for something to happen, they swarm around the opposition like Covid deniers to irrelevant flu statistics on social media.

It means that whoever they’re playing against have to show real quality on the ball to keep it, get out of the holes Southampton force them into, and find the space that must be elsewhere.

Wolves were able to carve out those hard-earned opportunities on Monday. Alex McCarthy’s international disregard was again brought into focus through a number of smart stops. A double save very early on to deny Leander Dendonker was particularly noteworthy.

Let’s take a moment to appreciate Stuart Armstrong. He’s far from a fashionable midfielder. Being Scottish doesn’t help in that regard, neither does playing for Southampton for that matter. In the absence of Danny Ings in particular, they’re a team in which it’s difficult to pick out individuals, such is the set of non-negotiables to which they all must subscribe.

And Armstrong is the epitome of that dynamism, desire and energy that Hasenhuttl requires. But he’s so much more than the tryhard he can sometimes be portrayed as. He plays nominally on the right of a midfield four, but he’s most dangerous infield, either in the spaces behind the midfield or on the half-turn.

He played a beautifully disguised ball that Theo Walcott should have done better with early on, and it was his strength and foray past a defender that led to Southampton’s goal.

It was a tap-in in the end for Walcott, after a clipped cross to the backpost by Moussa Djenepo and a low fired ball back across the box from Che Adams. Southampton deserved the lead at that point. Adams and Walcott were a consistent threat and Adams’ wonderful control, turn and lofted through ball should have been finished by Walcott to secure the victory.

But he shot wide and Wolves capitalised. Nuno Espirito Santo’s side had until then struggled to come to terms with playing a back four: an alien formation utilised due to the absence of Conor Coady. But they deserve huge credit for the way they grew into the game, learning very much by doing.

Nuno’s side don’t press to the same extent as Southampton. They wait for their moment to increase the tempo, going for the kill when a game appears to be drifting, luring the opposition into a false sense of security. Hasenhuttl’s side chase the ball like a dog after a bone, while Nuno’s players were cat-like: circumspect and thoughtful.

Amid tired legs and minds it was 34-year-old moggie Joao Moutinho that inhaled the catnip. He took control of the midfield in the last 30 minutes, snapping into challenges and – of course – using it effectively to create opportunities for the forwards, that were suddenly buoyed by the space a flagging Southampton were affording them.

Adama Traore – who had been doubled and tripled up on – started to have a bit of joy, but without the end product that has gone a bit missing again this season. And Raul Jimenez was allowed into a groove that predictably proved to be Southampton’s undoing.

A quick pass from Moutinho, who had won the ball in midfield, found Jimenez, who was afforded rare space to expertly turn and shoot off the post, with newly introduced Pedro Neto there following up to equalise.

Wolves were very much in the ascendency and will look at the end of this game and their 20 shots with nine on target (their most since their return to the Premier League) and see this as an opportunity missed.

But a point each was fair, after a thoroughly entertaining game that confirmed both of these teams as genuine European qualification contenders and their managers as among the hottest properties around.

 

Will Ford is on Twitter

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1) ‘This is absolutely not normal,’ was one of the conclusions drawn when these two sides last met. Leicester were second and unbeaten at home by Boxing Day of 2019, with one of the best defensive records in the Premier League. Liverpool summarily dismantled them in a 4-0 win that effectively sealed the title before the year was out.

Sunday was not quite as emphatic a statement. Leicester at least had a few opportunities this time and avoided one of those ten-minute collapses Liverpool tend to induce in an opponent. But this was perhaps as impressive, if not more so, than that victory 11 months ago. They hosted a team that had already made themselves at home as visitors to Elland Road, the Etihad and the Emirates. Jurgen Klopp was without two first-choice midfielders, including his captain, as well as his talismanic right-back, two best defenders and most effective goalscorer. Liverpool dominated one of the closest supposed challengers to their throne in a breathtaking display of control and authority. That Aston Villa defeat was even more of an absolute aberration than first thought.

 

2) There were two particular passages of play that underlined the gulf in quality. The build-up to Diogo Jota’s goal featured 30 passes with Leicester chasing shadows and every Liverpool outfielder having at least one touch. The second half started with a similar sequence, the hosts stringing together 16 passes to create another shooting opportunity for Jota. The opposition’s only touch from kick-off to the effort going over had been Wesley Fofana winning a header that Georginio Wijnaldum instantly recovered and recycled.

It must be knackering to face, both physically and mentally. The levels of concentration and skill required to suppress it should not be understated. This once chaotic Liverpool team has evolved into a patient predator that will wait for its moment to strike instead of ever forcing the issue. Five years of masterful coaching and phenomenal recruitment has come to this.

 

3) That is perhaps the greatest trick this Liverpool team has pulled: luring every team into thinking managers simply need time and understanding to build something special and realise their grand vision. The example of Klopp and how Liverpool tolerated years of trophyless frustration under his guidance before finally taking their brilliant true form is so often given in defence of coaches – sometimes by them – as proof that all they need is a similar level of trust and belief to create a foundation for such success.

It is a false equivalence. Even ignoring the fact Klopp and Liverpool have never taken a single step back from season to season since his appointment, he and they are the obvious exception to the rule. It is the modern version of pretending a manager should be given as long as he wants because Manchester United once kept the faith with Sir Alex Ferguson and he returned that loyalty with a sport-defining dynasty. Klopp is not as good as the Scot was, but his is every bit as unattainable and unrealistic a blueprint to follow.

 

4) Brendan Rodgers can console himself with the fact that Leicester were improved from their submissive display last December. They forged far more chances and really ought to have equalised through Harvey Barnes in the first half. James Justin was a fine outlet on the left and almost scored. Jamie Vardy was an utter nuisance throughout.

It sounds incredibly patronising but for five minutes or so in the second half they were excellent, having three unanswered shots around the hour mark, cutting off every passing lane, pressing as a unit and penning Liverpool back. Rodgers tried to capitalise on their period of superiority by bringing on Cengiz Under and Dennis Praet, changing from a back five to match up in midfield and showing more attacking intention. It was a justified decision designed to solidify the change in momentum, a call any good manager would have made.

Liverpool simply absorbed everything and returned it with interest in a final quarter of an hour that featured them hitting the woodwork twice, scoring a third goal and preserving their clean sheet. It summed up the futility of facing them in this mood quite neatly.

 

5) It is difficult to pinpoint one standout performance from the hosts. A welcome byproduct of Virgil van Dijk’s unfortunate injury was to remove a perceived reliance on any one player. Every teammate has stepped up in his and the other absences since, be they direct replacements or established starters already in the team.

The reaction to the incident that sidelined Van Dijk was overblown. So much so that David Coote was removed from officiating duty for this very match as Liverpool remain perturbed by his handling of the Merseyside derby. But it has reinforced their team unity and strengthened a siege mentality that might well have gone understandably stale after the holy grail was finally found after a 30-year search in the summer. They look every bit as focused as last season. It might perversely be the best thing that could have happened to them.

 

6) After all, it’s not as if losing Van Dijk has weakened their defence. A first Premier League clean sheet since he was ruled out means Liverpool have conceded two goals from open play in their last seven matches with a variety of different central defensive combinations. That decision not to reinvest in January already seems justified.

Joel Matip was solid. Fabinho alongside him was absolutely faultless. Alisson has a remarkable ability to make crucial saves after having huge amounts of time with little or nothing to do. One of the best counter-attacking teams in the country was thwarted by supreme individuals fitting diligently into an impressive system. Who else remembers when the high line was discussed in hushed, disapproving tones for fear of ridicule?

 

7) So much of Liverpool’s success is down to the tactical intelligence and malleability of their players. Fabinho, the defensive midfielder excelling at centre-half, had obvious traits that were easily transferable to a slight positional change. But Wijnaldum’s seamless transition from potent attacking threat for his country to tireless midfield workhorse for his club is ludicrous. It requires immense acuity.

James Milner might be the best of all. For just over 50 minutes he was fantastic at right-back, a fine Trent Alexander-Arnold impression ensuring Liverpool lost none of that attacking dimension. The removal of Naby Keita for Neco Williams facilitated the captain’s subsequent move into central midfield. His first action there was to instantly release Sadio Mane beyond Fofana, who forced a fine save from Kasper Schmeichel and a clearance off the line from Christian Fuchs.

Klopp is brilliant. But these players deserve so much credit for their understanding of what is asked of them. Not even mid-game positional shifts faze them in the slightest.

 

8) On the point of Milner, how strange that Leicester focused on the right-hand side he patrolled so well. The graphic that flashed up in the 25th minute showed that 70% of their attacks had come down that flank, yet only once had he really been beaten. Even then Fabinho came across to cover after Justin evaded both the Englishman and Matip.

There was not much Rodgers could have done to affect the course of this game in reality. Liverpool were without their first-choice right-back so targeting that position was an understandable tactic in theory. But that rather ignores the 18-year career of one of the most astute and hard-working players ever. If only Leicester had someone in charge that had signed him or something. They could have done with a better grasp of the supposed weak point they tried to exploit.

 

9) Fofana is great fun. Not entirely convinced he is a centre-half on this showing, as Mane constantly out-thought him and Roberto Firmino snatched his soul with a wonderful turn before hitting the post in the second half. But he was a real force on the break with a skill set that could well lend itself to a slightly more advanced role.

There was one instance in the 12th minute, when he tackled one player and released the ball out to the left before haring towards the Liverpool box, only for Justin to overhit a simple pass with Fofana unmarked, that made him seem wasted in defence. A little later he evaded both Keita and Wijnaldum with a run beyond the halfway line to start the move for the chance Barnes should have scored. Six interceptions seems more like the work of a progressive midfielder than a partner to Jonny Evans. Plus moving him forward would reduce the likelihood of each mistake he makes resulting in a shot.

 

10) Don’t know why that Matip situation was not given as a handball when penalties have been awarded this season in similar circumstances. There will be no further comment at this time.

 

11) One thing came to mind when watching Jota trying to catch his breath as Milner waited to take a corner both men had combined to win, one bound for the head of Evans. It was his interview after the Atalanta game in which he scored a hat-trick, and the response to being asked whether he was “playing the best football” of his career.

“Well, I’m playing in the best team in my career so far, that’s for sure,” came a thought-provoking and mindful reply. It begged more questions: how many other players are capable of scaling up from teams in the upper or mid-table to the genuine elite? And why do some teams view such signings as beneath them? Liverpool’s front line was comprised of players purchased from Wolves, Southampton and Hoffenheim, who impressed at a certain level and showed enough to suggest they could be elevated even higher in a suitable system with world-class coaching. It is a credit to their scouting and recruitment team – but an equally damning indictment on those who still insist on shopping at Waitrose when there are bargains to be found at Asda.

 

12) Rodgers was at pains to balance the “narrative” of Liverpool battling injuries by presenting his own list of Leicester absentees after the match. Only the most stubborn fool would deny that Wilfred Ndidi, Caglar Soyuncu, Ricardo Pereira and Timothy Castagne might have made a difference.

But his worst performers were all bona fide regulars. Evans was abysmal, his baffling own goal almost compounded with another in the second half while his distribution was poor. Youri Tielemans was sloppy in possession, more rushed than usual by Liverpool’s midfield. Barnes remains so very wasteful. James Maddison only partially atoned for an anonymous first half with his improvement in the second. Rodgers would have had more of a point if it was the stand-ins letting him down.

 

13) Schmeichel at least gave a wonderful account of himself with some admirable resistance. The two keepers put in antithetical but excellent performances: Alisson the serene last line of defence and his opposite number more of a Boromir in the face of constant onslaught. His nine saves featured some fine athleticism and acrobatics but also sublime decision-making. It feels as though Schmeichel is never really considered among the league’s best players in his position but he absolutely is.

 

14) It seems telling that Liverpool committed 15 fouls spread across nine players and received no bookings, while Leicester managed six between four and had both Justin and Nampalys Mendy yellow carded. The tactical foul ground has been tread countless times before with regards to Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City, Mauricio Pochettino’s Tottenham and the many supposedly nefarious teams that came before them but Klopp has recognised the usefulness of the art too.

Liverpool have committed 91 fouls to Leicester’s 88 this season. Yet the former have received seven bookings – the fewest in the Premier League this season – to the latter’s 21 yellow cards, which is the division’s most. So many prospective Leicester moves were countered at the source with a simple trip or obstruction. So few Liverpool attacks were stopped with such nous at any point.

 

15) Andy Robertson deserves a mention: he was brilliant. So too was Mane, who is at a similar stage of baffling under-appreciation as Mo Salah. These are talents who have achieved so much and make it look so easy that they risk it being taken for granted.

Yet the leader in those stakes for this game must be Curtis Jones, slotting seamlessly into the country’s best team despite not exiting his teenage years for another couple of months. To not look even vaguely out of place in this side, helping fill the voids left by Jordan Henderson, Thiago and even Fabinho, is quite something. Let’s call this a defeat for John Barnes and a resounding victory for the alien concept of being patient with a young player, letting any opportunities present themselves and watching him grasp them with maturity and confidence. Why loan him out to start 25 games at West Brom when he can be meticulously coached in Liverpool’s exact style, playing a little less but learning exponentially more?

 

16) Then there’s Firmino, whose goal will only placate the critics for so long. He has looked tired at times, sloppy in possession and tired out of it. The emergence of Jota only forced the issue further; those debates would have been undermined completely if Divock Origi was the only alternative. But this was much closer to the Firmino of years gone by. His goal was a more quantifiable measure of his impact – and particularly welcome after hitting the post when it seemed as though he would never score again – yet the things that really define him were all there: the link-up play, the insatiable work-rate, the skill.

One of the inevitabilities of team sport is the constant demand to improve and refine. When a team emerges that is so clearly operating at a much higher level than anyone else it emphasises how silly it is: they could not possibly be doing so well if any of their composite parts was not performing to their manager’s standard. Each of us are guilty of being swept away by the current of popular opinion at times. Bear with me, but it might be that Klopp has a better idea of what

Matt Stead

 

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“(In terms of) the positives, I see a clear identity about my team,” Scott Parker said after the 1-1 draw with Sheffield United. “I think the first six games, there’s been a lot of bright things, there’s been a lot of good things, a lot of things that I’ve been really impressed with.”

The party line was the same a week later. “I constantly see improvements,” Parker parroted. “There were a lot of good things against Crystal Palace that I see and that I have seen in games, some real positives.”

“Scoring first is key,” Parker added. Fulham did just that on Monday, the “identity” was clear and the “real positives” – this time – resulted in a crucial 2-0 win. It wasn’t quite the error-free football Parker has been prescribing – they were playing a Championship-standard team unable to punish mistakes they did make – but it was a win to take the sting out of Premier League life.

Fulham scored two very good goals. The first: a flowing team move through the pitch featuring a lovely clipped cross from Antonee Robinson, a smart cushioned header from Aleksandar Mitrovic; finished off by Bobby Decordova-Reid. The second: A stunning strike from 20 yards from Ola Aina after further link-up between Decordova-Reid and Mitrovic.

They were goals that illustrated the “identity” Parker refers to. Energy and quality in wide areas, improved through the acquisitions of Aina, Robinson and Kenny Tete – who has impressed since his move from Lyon but missed out through injury – providing enough for their Premier League quality striker to score the goals to keep them up, or – on this occasion – the touches of class to set up his teammates.

Fulham’s defence too, looks a lot better. Loan signing Joachim Andersen was solid on debut: progressive in his passing; calm in possession. Alongside Man City loanee Tosin Adarabioyo they limited West Brom to very little.

That said, they weren’t tested. The Baggies’ style and game plan is comparably inconspicuous. Their two true creative talents – Matheus Pereira and Grady Diangana – were atypically lax in possession and worryingly uninterested out of it. Karlan Grant got very little service and lost the ball when he did. Jake Livermore looks as cumbersome and sterile as when West Brom were last relegated from the Premier League.

Parker described this game as “massive” for Fulham, aware that defeat would be a crushing psychological blow. Lose to West Brom at home and talk of lowest points totals and Premier League unworthiness would have been rife.

This win by no means puts Fulham doubts aside. There were occasions when sloppiness and dawdling on the ball could and probably would have been punished by a superior team. And because it was only West Brom – a particularly poor iteration at that – on the surface this could look little more than one piece of relegation fodder slightly bettering another.

But Fulham weren’t slightly better: the gulf was akin to a mid-table side against one at rock bottom. And although that says more about how bad West Brom were than whether or not Parker’s side can climb that high (they almost certainly can’t), it was an assured performance to build on. One in which their identity was clear to us as well as the manager.

 

Will Ford is on Twitter

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The one quality Gareth Southgate guarantees as an England manager is the ability to relate with his squad. He has been there, done it and got the bag over his head while eating overpriced pizza. If anyone can share compassion with players who have found such an intense spotlight so blinding, such significant pressure so unbearable, it is the man who started a 12-yard run-up in June 1996 and vicariously completed it in July 2018, carrying the baggage of an entire nation’s summer hopes and dreams for two arduous decades before finally dropping it at the door as football came home.

His understanding even extends to the media. When Steve Holland dared to not completely obscure a possible England team in a possible England formation ahead of a World Cup game against Panama two years ago, it was captured by long lens cameras and leapt on by journalists, who described the incident as yet another ‘own goal’ during a major international tournament.

Southgate initially donned his waistcoated parka and braved the storm in a teacup – “our media has to decide whether they want to help the team or not” – but he later offered a more measured take.

“The guys have to find stories and produce content,” he said. “We have to get results.” And immediately a fire that his predecessors might have continued to stoke was doused by a manager who understood how his words could be interpreted and appreciated the motivations of everyone involved. He, Holland, his players, the media: everybody won. Or at least nobody explicitly lost.

From that to this. Southgate has faced an incredibly difficult week but that cannot excuse his explanation for the team selection against Denmark and the predictably insipid performance that followed. To suggest that “on the back of everything on the last couple of days, we needed to be secure and solid,” was cowardly. To state that “if we’d been lightweight and wide open and looked a mess,” then critics would be “pointing at yesterday as the cause of it,” completed his transformation from empathetic to plain pathetic.

It is the sort of quote Jose Mourinho would be lampooned for, a dangerous kind of rhetoric and subtext designed to protect oneself and leave others open to censure. Southgate wants us to know that he only started eight defensive players against Denmark to avoid Phil Foden and Mason Greenwood being blamed if England lost or played poorly, so you can blame Phil Foden and Mason Greenwood for that. For managing two shots on target in 90 minutes. For giving Jack Grealish 15 minutes. For hating left-footed people. For watching Danny Ings have the best season of his career and rewarding him with 12% of the time on the pitch across two games.

Southgate has judged it wrong. His first response, to call the pair “naive” and point out their “responsibilities” but say he will speak to them privately “in the appropriate way” so as to “not add to how difficult their situation is going to be,” was perfect. It toed the line between authority and sensitivity. It balanced his role as a manager of players, of expectations and of the media.

But sensing a pile-on and perhaps a build-up of resentment towards his tenure, Southgate needed little excuse to throw a couple of snide kicks in, to blame a pair of young players for his own mistakes. The only party that stands to benefit is the one that needs “to find stories,” and he has gift-wrapped this one to the detriment of himself and his players.

Southgate was the one and still turned us on in Russia; now he seems just as self-serving as the rest.

Matt Stead

 

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Mikel Arteta is bloody good, you know…

 

It is something every manager craves, yet few truly possess. It is both required for success and often only achievable through it. It is perhaps the most precious commodity in coaching but cannot be supplied by a lavish owner, nor is it even quantifiable.

Mikel Arteta has it. Whether through his inherent charisma and character, his accomplished playing career, his precocious but promising coaching acumen, his humility or a combination of factors, he has something no transfer budget could ever provide: buy-in. From much of the media. From the majority of the supporters. From the entirety of the boardroom. But most importantly, from each member of his Arsenal squad willing to put in more than they take out.

There are no favourites or favours. When he says that “everybody starts from zero,” they believe him. When he adds that “what you did two weeks ago or two years ago doesn’t matter,” those on the fringes are given hope and those on the frontline are warned not to let standards drop. The same message is a carrot for some and a stick for others, if not both for all.

It is only enforced further by tangible progress, and while the Community Shield is immediately relegated to pre-season friendly status by the loser, it can be whatever the winner defines it as. Trophies create a culture of success otherwise unattainable; an elite mentality impossible to manufacture. A second lift of silverware at Wembley within a month is gold dust for a club at the start of such a journey.

But so too is that buy-in, that desire from players to perform for their manager, that commitment and dedication from those he is open to selling, those who wish to leave, those capable of playing at a higher level and those who could look out of their depth a step down. Hector Bellerin, Emiliano Martinez, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Rob Holding fit those categories respectively and each were excellent on Saturday evening, putting their individual futures aside for the benefit of the collective.

So, too, Mo Elneny, forgotten upon his return from an average loan at Besiktas and promptly written off as an asset by those who judge on past reputations, using the clean slate afforded to him to provide a reminder of how useful he could be. And Ainsley Maitland-Niles, whose attitude has been questioned in the past and who might not even be at the club by the start of the Premier League season, but who has played as big a role as anyone in Arsenal’s rampant recent evolution, captain aside.

“I’m an Arsenal player until I’m told otherwise,” was his post-match message and it is not difficult to think of players in a similar situation who would show half the enthusiasm, loyalty and responsibility. “My heart’s in the club, so I’m gonna give 100% while I’m here, and that’s that.”

It comes from the top and trickles down. It is a desire to play for the shirt, but also for the manager. It is a vote of confidence louder than anything an executive’s statement could muster. It is a quality Arsenal have had before and seem to have stumbled upon again.

Arteta has dealt with a broken dressing-room, delicate pay cut negotiations, boardroom reshuffling and precarious contract situations, emerging from a tumultuous first nine months of his managerial career with not a single immaculate hair out of place, and all the respect and esteem of a ten-year veteran. It is almost impossible not to instinctively believe in him.

Matt Stead

 

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Manchester United fans will have retained hope – up until this past weekend – that they would sign Jadon Sancho this summer. But with reports now suggesting that they will put their pursuit ‘on hold until next year’, the question has to be asked: What the f*** are United doing?

The first team has shown – when they weren’t completely knackered through being overplayed – that they can compete with anyone. The problems come when you scratch below the surface of those first-choice players. Daniel James, Odion Ighalo, Jesse Lingard and Juan Mata are all fine, but little more than that. There’s a huge drop-off in quality.

It’s not as though Ole Gunnar Solskjaer hasn’t recognised this. He’s made it abundantly clear not just through his unwillingness to change the team but also through his media appearances.

“You need to plan ahead. It is not just about 11, 12, or 13 players. You have to have 19, 20, 21 or 22 that you really rely on because if you play every three days for a full year it’s going to be mentally and physically difficult. It’s a race. You can see teams building. We’re always looking at the squad and player logistics. It is definitely about quality – and it is going to cost money to get in players who are better than the ones we already have.”

It’s a similar situation to that which contributed to Jose Mourinho’s demise at Old Trafford. In the summer of 2018 he made it very clear that he wanted a new centre-back, didn’t get one, and was sacked three months later.

In a situation like Solskjaer’s now and Mourinho’s then – where it’s so obvious to them, everyone at the club and everyone on the outside looking in – that they will struggle next season without new signings, and having spoken publicly about exactly that fact, the manager should not be liable when results inevitably suffer through exhaustion or injury. The problem is, they are blamed – the manager is always culpable for the performance of the team, no matter the extenuating circumstances.

The rest of the Big Six have all made signings. And other than Liverpool – for whom the need is not so great – they’ve all brought in players that will improve not just their squad, but their starting line-ups. And most of them completed those signings weeks, if not months ago. They identified the areas of weakness in their teams, targeted players to strengthen those areas of weakness, negotiated deals with those players’ clubs and agents and completed the transfers. That’s how it’s done.

So why can’t United do that? Everything’s so complicated, drawn-out and tiresome, with this DNA-infused air of superiority hampering the deals at every stage. £108million for Sancho? We’re not paying that – he wants to join us. A deadline? Facetiousness – we won’t be bullied. We’ve got history, heritage, pedigree – we’re Manchester United.

Then you will have to do without.

The Glazers have reportedly said £108million is too much for Sancho, and fair enough. But it’s always been too much. Dortmund might have been bluffing, but it’s far more likely that they weren’t and they really were going to stick to that deadline and that price tag. What are the other options? Where do you go from here? To pin all their hopes on a player they knew they couldn’t afford is negligence.

It’s the arrogance of it all. Ed Woodward, the Glazers, even some fans – believing players will desperately force through a move to Manchester United, simply because they’re Manchester United. But how much do players really care about the history? They may have won more league titles than any other English club, but how close are they to their next one? Surely that’s what counts now.

Both Timo Werner and Hakim Ziyech spoke of their desire to join Chelsea, specifically because of the conversations they held with Frank Lampard, Petr Cech and Marina Granovskaia; they felt wanted. Would you feel the same way having held a similar conversation with Woodward? Does he have the wit to woo?

We can only really speculate as to how personable the United executive is in those situations. But the enthusiasm that’s easy to picture on the face of a player sat in front of Frank Lampard or Mikel Arteta wanes when you imagine the droning of Woodward, explaining why it would be a privilege to play for the famous Red Devils.

It’s the Community Shield next weekend; the Premier League starts two weeks later. And the United transfer news – other than some very woolly links to many, many Sancho alternatives – is pretty bleak. In another failed show of bravado they made a late bid for Gabriel Magalhaes, who is destined to join Arsenal. Talk of a move for Jack Grealish has been replaced by murmurings over a deal for David Brooks. But there are no ‘advanced talks’ or personal terms being discussed – not publicly anyway.

It’s time for a change of tack – what United are doing isn’t working. But they’ve got to do it quickly, or Solskjaer could be looking down the barrel of a gun he knew had been primed and loaded through the hubris of his bosses and a club relying too heavily on its past glory.

 

Will Ford is on Twitter

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