Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has had an extra pep in his step recently. Manchester United had finally shaken some of their away-day blues. They had beaten Partizan Belgrade in the Europa League, Chelsea in the EFL Cup and Norwich City in the Premier League to provoke calls for extra patience in his management. The return of Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford as a striking partnership had given United a shot in the arm.
And now that positivity ebbs away after another dismal showing on the road. The most damning element of this latest defeat is that Bournemouth did not even need to be at their best to thwart Solskjaer’s team and move ahead of them in the league.
Losing matches is not unforgivable in itself, but the general lack of intensity is dismal. United’s players demonstrated they were up for the biggest match of their season against Liverpool, but there is no excuse for letting that endeavour slip against lesser opponents. Manchester United are no longer good enough to coast to victory, and there is no fear factor. Solskjaer has been plunged straight back into serious crisis.
A team and a manager that simply will not accept defeat. Liverpool are by no means perfect this season, conceding more goals and being far more profligate than Jurgen Klopp would like. But that only makes them more watchable and their eventual success more thrilling.
Liverpool are the kings of the comeback. The last seven occasions on which they have conceded the first goal in a Premier League match, they have come from behind to win six games and draw the other (against Manchester United last month). You can add in the remarkable second-leg comeback against Barcelona for good measure.
That type of resilience reflects a team at the peak of their powers and with extraordinary confidence. No setback is enough to push them off their path, and adversity only acts as fuel to get through it. Liverpool feel untouchable right now. It will take an awful lot to get them off the top of the league.
No Granit Xhaka to take the headlines and take the heat off Unai Emery this weekend. Arsenal’s manager is unwanted by his own supporters, and the poor performance of his players suggests that they might feel the same. Reports of Jose Mourinho being interested in the job certainly puts the cat amongst the pigeons in north London.
What is most bizarre about Emery’s limp tenure is that he apparently disagrees that he is falling way short of reasonable expectations. After another miserable draw at home to Wolves, Emery defended the tactical performance of his team. But there is no spark, no invention and very little joined-up thinking fromArsenal. They rely upon irregular moments of magic from star players. They are not a bad team, but a good team playing badly.
All the noises coming out of Arsenal suggests Emery will be given until the end of the season to address the systemic issues of his reign. But he should consider himself incredibly fortunate to make it beyond the end of the month if Arsenal’s form does notimprove. Another season is going to waste.
What else is there left for Watford to cling to? They have already made their managerial change, a Hail Mary call to a former manager to stop the rot. They have faced teams at the top of the table and teams around them. They have suffered defensive calamity and attacking profligacy. They are conceding early goals and late goals. And they are already six points from safety after just 11 matches.
Quique Sanchez Flores has not improved Watford enough to merit his appointment, that much is clear. The club quite reasonably felt that they had no choice but to remove Javi Gracia after an extended run of wretched league form, but in opting for the familiar face rather than breath of fresh air they might have signed off on their own relegation.
But then those within the club’s corridor of power merit their share of the blame. Where were the fresh faces recruited over the summer to shore up the squad, particularly across the back four. Where too was the able backup to Troy Deeney? Andre Gray has never been prolific enough since signing and Gerard Delofeu and Isaac Success are too mercurial to be depended upon. The result is an ageing squad that already looks laboured and is struggling under the weight of pressure that being bottom of the table brings.
The lack of home goals was the only item to tick off on Sheffield United’s Premier League to do list. They had beaten a Big Six club, remained resilient on the road and stayed true to Chris Wilder’s tactical strategy after promotion, but before Saturday had scored only three times in five matches at Bramall Lane.
Against Burnley, they addressed that issue with three goals and an utterly dominant home display that again sent their supporters home with joy in their hearts. Lys Mousset, a summer signing from Bournemouth, registered a hat-trick of assists. Just another player who has been instantly improved by Wilder’s management.
Surviving relegation was always going to be mighty difficult, but Wilder was never the type of man to focus on what the naysayers might think. By sticking to his ideals and demanding the absolute maximum from every player, Sheffield United’s manager believed that his side could keep their head above water. Right now, they’re doing handstands in the deep end while bigger clubs than them struggle to tread water.