on the big takeaways from the weekend's action...
This is different. Jurgen Klopp is absolutely right to play down expectation and calm down hype, but there is substance to this title bid. In 2013/14, Liverpool were a frantic whirlwind of a team, one who won 11 matches on the spin under Brendan Rodgers but shot themselves in the foot too often to merit being league champions. That project collapsed because Rodgers could not continue to bottle lightning.
Klopp’s Liverpool is far different to Rodgers’ version. The success of this side is not founded upon a chaos that is almost impossible to maintain, it is infinitely more defensively resilient and there is a great deal more depth in the squad, too. The list of Liverpool midfielders who didn’t start against Arsenal: Jordan Henderson, James Milner, Naby Keita, Adam Lallana, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain.
Liverpool’s attack is now also firing more than it was in the autumn. Mohamed Salah, Roberto Firmino, and Sadio Mane scored nine times between them in the first eight league games of the season. In the last eight, they’ve scored 14. The passing interchanges — give, go, receive — are smoother than even a month ago. That is particularly bad news for Liverpool’s rivals.
We should be careful of crowning Liverpool as champions, having been guilty of the same with Manchester City two months ago.
But if Pep Guardiola spoke of scoreboard pressure placed upon Liverpool as they attempt to maintain a lead, it was hardly evident — even having fallen behind — against Arsenal. This team believes in itself too much.
It would be easy to put Tottenham’s defeat to Wolves down to those problems that we always wondered might hamper them: Fatigue, a lack of spending, a temporary stadium nobody wishes to play in any longer. Each probably did play a small part.
Captain Harry Kane was in no mood for excuses. Their lack of intensity without the ball and sloppiness with it allowed Wolves back into the match. Nuno’s side are too good to miss such generosity.
If Tottenham’s thrashings of Bournemouth and Everton took them to second in the Premier League and sparked talk of a title challenge, that bid is over before it had ever got off the ground. Concentrating on a top-four place and Champions League progression is the aim now. Mauricio Pochettino will demand a return to full focus against Cardiff on New Year’s Day.
You can understand why Arsenal supporters are concerned, having watched their side’s defensive weaknesses exposed under Unai Emery in the same way that they were under Arsene Wenger. The more things change, the more they stay the same.
Then that is Arsenal’s biggest problem. Emery is being asked to revitalise a flailing team without the investment enjoyed by those above and around him. A defence containing Shkodran Mustafi and Stephan Lichtsteiner cannot be good enough to qualify for the Champions League. Given Arsenal’s apparent budgets, it will take two years to bring in the players that Emery requires.
Impatience is natural when supporters have waited so long to move forward, but it helps nobody. Arsenal broke their transfer record in January and signed an elite goalscorer. Now the rest of the squad requires similar surgery. If Liverpool are the blueprint, Klopp plugged the defensive holes with expensive brilliance.
There are certain acts that are sure to anger your teammates and manager. One is openly discussing a potential transfer or criticising your colleagues in the media. Another is wantonly disobeying team orders.
Aboubakar Kamara has never been Fulham’s first-choice penalty taker, a list determined by manager Claudio Ranieri. He scored from the spot against Man United, but with Aleksandar Mitrovic on the pitch, it should have been the Serbian who stood up. Kamara wrestled the ball from his teammate, demanded he take it and then promptly saw his penalty saved. Mitrovic saved some of his blushes with a late winner.
“I said to Aboubakar Kamara to leave the ball to Aleksandar Mitrovic, he is the man who shoots the penalties. It is unbelievable what he did. I wanted to kill him,” said Ranieri after the game.
“He did not respect me, the club, team-mates and crowd. I spoke with him, it is not right. It should be Mitrovic, that is it.”
Kamara may well find himself on the bench for a while.
If the cliché is that ‘anyone can beat anyone’ in football, Leicester City supporters might grumpily point out that anyone can lose to anyone too. Claude Puel clawed back an enormous amount of goodwill during recent victories over Manchester City and Chelsea. How can a team perform so brilliantly against the best before losing at home to Cardiff City? Puel may well point out that James Maddison’s missed penalty cost his side the chance of taking all three points, but Leicester were insipid and uninspiring against Cardiff. They were restricted to shots from distance against a resolute defence, adding fuel to the argument that Leicester struggle against deep defences and flourish when allowed to play on the counter.
For Puel, it’s a case of one step backwards after two forward. They sit in a pack with Watford, Everton, and West Ham — three teams who also fluctuate between good and bad performances at the drop of a hat.