This weekend saw the early season leaders stretch further away from the chasing pack, which must now include Spurs, and consolidate their grip on the all-important top four places. None of the sides had it easy but their will to win demonstrated the uphill task facing Spurs or even United if they are to overtake them.
In the weekend’s early game, Manchester City visited Burnley and made things difficult in securing their 2-1 win by dropping several key players; Gundogan and Stones entirely whilst De Bruyne and Silva started from the bench and the latter didn’t feature at all.
Turf Moor is a hard place to extract three points from—only Arsenal have managed to do so in the last six fixtures there, and that courtesy of a disputable goal deep into injury time. But with a heavy Christmas fixture list ahead of them, Pep was keen to give his players a break following their midweek qualification for the next Champions League round.
Burnley’s plan to contain and counter had worked against Liverpool and almost against Arsenal. They started well scoring the first and didn’t allow City to settle or find their fluency. But City do not always need fluency to score, they have Aguero, who utilised his goal-scoring instincts to poach an equaliser and then the winner in a messy game. Burnley had numerous chances to level the scoreline as the game drew to a close but they lacked a quality finisher.
It is difficult to make anything of City in this game. It was simply a case of job done with the minimum of fuss. Pep was most concerned with getting the three points whilst giving his players a break; in that, his gamble paid off. The absent players will return fresh for next week’s crucial visit of Chelsea. He won’t be too concerned about the manner in which City won the game, however, the ease at which Burnley got at his defence in the final 20 minutes will have him worried. Hazard, Pedro and Costa will not be so meek or obliging come Saturday.
The same criticisms could be directed at Chelsea’s defence too. Having been given the run-around by the movement of Liverpool and Arsenal, the new-look back three, installed as a consequence of the two losses will be put to the ultimate test by Aguero, Silva et al. How they cope will reveal a lot about this Chelsea team, but Conte appears to be happy enough for the moment, even going on to acknowledge “now we are another team compared to the Liverpool and Arsenal games” following his side’s win at Stamford Bridge against Tottenham yesterday.
Spurs arrived at the Bridge needing a win to stay in touch with the Premiership leaders. A great start to the season, culminating in victory against City in the first week of October, was undone with four consecutive draws and departure from the Champions League on Tuesday night.
Spurs began the game very comfortably; so much so, that they looked more like the home side than Chelsea did. Their pressing was excellent, their fullbacks pinned Moses and Alonso back in their own halves and the Spurs’ midfield, perhaps the strongest in the Premiership, dominated the centre of the park. With Hazard and Costa isolated and unable to impact the game, the Chelsea defence had no obvious out-ball and came under pressure time and time again in much the same way as they had done to Everton in their thrilling win on Bonfire night. When Eriksen scored an eleventh minute screamer it didn’t come as a huge surprise. What was, however, was that they didn’t add to their tally in the remainder of the half, which was well-deserving their dominance. This proved costly for them when Pedro equalised with a goal as sublime as Eriksen’s at the worst possible moment for Spurs—one minute before half-time.
Going down the tunnel looking rightly dejected, Spurs returned from the break looking broken and Chelsea finally took the game to their opponents. The second half was a complete reversal of the first and Chelsea stormed ahead with a goal from Moses, his third of the campaign. Spurs never recovered.
The early season promise for Spurs has all but gone, they are still fifth but the gap to fourth is growing with every game. They seem to have most of the right parts but their profligacy in front of goal must be addressed if they have any hope of catching the leaders.
Chelsea on the other hand sit top of the table and can take comfort from the resilience they mustered to recover against Spurs. The bookies were impressed and installed them, for the first-time overtaking Liverpool, as joint favourites with City. They will head into next week’s crunch game against City in a positive mood and perhaps the only shame is that Liverpool can’t join in this game in a three-way tie of sorts. Now that would be some feast eh!
Perhaps the most interesting question to come out of this weekend’s round of games is what happens next for Liverpool. They hosted bottom of the table Sunderland in a game they were expected to win. And so they did, but like their rivals, they did not find it easy going and the win came at a tremendous cost with injuries to Sturridge (prior to the game), Firmino and, most alarmingly, Coutinho during it. Liverpool hope that the first two and Lallana will be back by next week, but Coutinho, judging by the pain that he was in, will likely be out for longer, much longer if the results of a scan to his ankle reveal ligament damage as is the fear of most Reds’ fans.
Saturday started with an interesting stat: Liverpool have not scored in the games Lallana has been absent for—Southampton and Manchester United. It prompted Klopp to boldly state in the pre-match press conference that Liverpool can score without Lallana, an odd thing to defend in light of the fact that they are the Premiership top scorers. But the question is not without merit.
Lallana’s guile and ball retention in forward areas have been so far overshadowed by Coutinho’s wizardry and Mane’s pace, but, make no mistake, he is just as important. He is the glue that holds everything together and more, and he was sorely missed at Southampton last week. Last year, I wrote that Messi – assists – goals = Lallana. This year Lallana has been contributing in both those departments and the upturn in Liverpool’s form is evident.
Without him, Liverpool struggled to prise open an obdurate Sunderland. Despite dominating the game, in terms of possession at least, they created few chances. Coutinho was having an off day too before he departed injured, making Liverpool’s job, without their two locksmiths, much harder. The lack of incisiveness cannot just be put down to this though. There were too many passes going sideways and Henderson, reverting back to the form of his early Liverpool career, was guiltier than most. Mane tried to take responsibility but was either having an off day too or just couldn’t compensate. He is more effective at being on the end of through balls than creating them.
The inspiration for the breakthrough, when it came, did so from a surprising source, manager Jurgen Klopp. Irate from hearing the Anfield crowd boo one misplaced pass too many, he turned on his own supporters with such ferocity that no-one dared boo again. Waving his arms wildly he began orchestrating the crowd to sing and they responded rapturously. Anfield sparked and crackled back into life helping Liverpool up their tempo and find their rhythm. As the pressure on the Sunderland goal began to build, chances started to arrive and with fifteen minutes of time left, Origi, on for Coutinho, seized his moment and fashioned a well taken goal by himself from the edge of the box. Milner converted a penalty (courtesy of Mane) in injury time, giving Liverpool a 2-0 win.
Where Liverpool go from here is anyone’s guess. Opponents are now wise to them and stacking their defences, making Liverpool’s job of opening them up that much more difficult. A lot will depend on Coutinho’s injury and keeping Lallana fit. On the other hand by ‘parking the bus’, opponents are ceding possession to prevent a thrashing, so it is not unusual to see Liverpool with upwards of 75% possession, or their goalkeeper Karius with nothing to do. As such, the likelihood of Liverpool actually losing a game is now quite slim given their opponents’ predictable lack of ambition.
And they also have Jurgen Klopp, too, who probably achieved something novel for a manager—Liverpool’s Man of the Match award. Next week, further clues to their ability to progress will be found at another good footballing side, Bournemouth, who put in a very good performance in the defeat at Arsenal today.
The omens for Arsenal were not good—they have not won a November Premier League fixture since 2014 and arrived on the back of three draws. Their task was made considerably easier when Sanchez intercepted a dreadful backpass by Cook early on and dribbled past Bournemouth’s keeper Federici to score Arsenal’s first goal. With Bournemouth’s game-plan effectively torn up this should have been the cue for Arsenal to settle and take control of the game. Instead, Bournemouth were somewhat fortuitously awarded a penalty, from which they scored, and the game unfolded into one of the most entertaining of the season so far, characterised by slick movement and interplay from both sides.
Arsenal gradually started to dominate, and shortly into the second half, Walcott scored to give Arsenal the lead with Sanchez making sure of the win in injury time with his second of the game. It finished 3-1 to Arsenal, but masked some of the Gunners’ deficiencies.
The performance was workmanlike rather than inspiring—Arsenal did not have the excuses City did, that they were playing away whilst resting players, or Liverpool, that Sunderland arrived to ‘park the bus’, nor were they playing anyone of Tottenham’s quality. There were flashes of brilliance, but only Sanchez has been consistently brilliant, and without him (which they might be, given their injury record), it is difficult to see Arsenal challenge for the title.
So, with round 12 of the Premier League over and no change to the top of the table, all four will be mightily relieved at having emerged unscathed, in terms of points at least, but Liverpool have injury concerns that could hamper them going forward, Arsenal aren’t exactly setting the world on fire, and one, if not both, of Chelsea and Manchester City, will drop points next week.