Premier League Weekend Review: Derby haze

Words By Seb Stafford-Bloor Illustration by Philippe Fenner
December 3, 2018

Had it not been for its final seconds, the Merseyside derby would have fallen flat. Liverpool were blunt and unusually profligate and, as they were at Stamford Bridge, Everton had been just about solid enough to warrant a point. They conceded long waves of possession, plenty of shots and were required to make a titanic number of clearances, but they’ve toughened under Marco Silva and developed an appetite for digging-in.

But poor Jordan Pickford: he’ll get the social media pitchfork and he can also expect to hear its confected laughter for some time. But perhaps we’re too often guilty of failing to appreciate just how difficult goalkeeping is. He should have dealt better with Virgil van Dijk’s slice, that’s difficult to contest, but there must be some room for compassion. Goalkeepers are held to a high standard and, of course, they should be, but a spinning ball landing directly on top of a crossbar is not only a freakish sequence, but must also be a horribly awkward scenario. It made him look silly and it cost Everton the game in a dreadful way, but these are fine margins and, despite the mortifying aesthetic, Pickford was only guilty of a minor misjudgement which was multiplied into a major error by bad luck.

Regardless, another win for Liverpool and another three points for Jurgen Klopp. Given the circumstances, Klopp can be forgiven his charge onto the field; he was reacting to one of the more shocking moments in the fixture’s history and no doubt doing so spontaneously. Nevertheless, over time you do wonder how real this all is. He doesn’t plot these moments, they’re not rehearsed, but it’s no coincidence that his touchline behaviour is such an integral part of his personal brand and that his goofy, affable German persona is so regularly on display. There’s nothing wrong with any of that, but it would be naive to think that he doesn’t know exactly what he’s doing and, more importantly, the kind of sentiments it fosters.

Earlier on Sunday, Arsenal and Tottenham produced a hard act to follow. Or, at least, Arsenal did, because Spurs gave a clumsy and confused response to what they faced at the Emirates. It’s important to focus mainly on what the hosts did well, but Mauricio Pochettino oversaw arguably the most calamitous derby performance of his reign and, unfortunately, that was something for which he was more than just tenuously culpable.

Tactically, it’s difficult to know what to make of Pochettino. He has a clear philosophy, but there remain many flaws in his ability to control games and he retains a maddening habit of overthinking this sort of fixture. Juan Foyth has had a fine start to Premier League life, recovering well from that dreadful night at Molineux to perform admirably against Crystal Palace and Chelsea. Nevertheless, the decision to drop Toby Alderweireld to accommodate him at the Emirates bears no scrutiny at all. It was Pochettino at his most illogical and his over-stated defence of Foyth’s performance post-game was just a doubling down on an untenable position.

However, Foyth was not the difference between victory and defeat. That margin contained Jan Vertonghen’s senseless handball, Eric Dier’s wayward positioning and Tottenham’s unnecessary brutishness. Aggression is a valuable commodity in football, more on that further down, but there is a time and a place for it. Tottenham’s past under Pochettino suggests that they don’t pick those moments well and that was true again on Sunday. Having snatched an underserved equaliser in the first-half, for instance, Dier’s goading of the home support and substitutes was misplaced. It may have provided a gratifying visual, but it wasn’t what the situation called for. Pochettino’s dash down the touchline suggested that he agreed, but it was too late: Dier’s behaviour stoked an atmosphere which actually needed to be dampened.

Many Tottenham supporters will tell you that they like this brashness and that it reflects a welcome hardening of spirit. Fair, but it can also do as much harm as good and Sunday produced a litany of moments when, needing something cold blooded, Spurs played with counter-productive temper.

Conversely, Arsenal have needed to be more wild-eyed for a long time. This really was a derby performance. With a brief lull at the end of the first-half, it was a display laced with adrenaline, intent and just the right amount of unpleasantness. The Spanish call it mala leche – bad milk – and Arsenal had it in buckets.

Even during the latter Wenger years, when the house was crumbling and their play was obviously built on a flawed premise, Arsenal always had the technique to theoretically compete. You knew that they’d lose crtainly, but you could make an argument for them winning. As history records, though, they too often came out on the wrong side of physical contests, with their finesse stamped down by the hard running teams around them. On Sunday – finally – that changed. They set a pace and intensity which kept Spurs perpetually off-balance and as and when the hostility rose, they met that challenge with fire of their own. Crucially, unlike their opponents, that ferocity actually instructed their football.

How long has it been since that Arsenal have been seen? When did they last tease and taunt, or thunder into tackles like that? Whenever it was, it was too long ago. Lucas Torreira played the kind of nuggety role expected of him, but there was a controlled aggression shared throughout the side and, along with the speed of play and their relentless attacking aggression with the ball, that was a key to victory. This was no ponderous, death by a thousand passes Wengerball, but something new, which involved much of that past neatness, but within a far more direct aim. They really were excellent.

Unfortunately, by Sunday night a different story had emerged. Following reports of a banana skin having been thrown at Pierre-Emerick Aubemeyang, an arrest was made in the Tottenham end. There can be no defence for that at all, obviously, and the hope is that nobody from that fanbase attempts to circle the wagons; it’s not a tribal issue, just one which demands the strongest response and the most draconian punishment. Too often in the past, fandom has been used to excuse this sort of behaviour or, failing that, a lack of education has been deployed as feable mitigation. In 2018 there are no excuses. There are no second chances, there is no benefit of the doubt and there is no reason to protect the football-watching rights of anybody who stains the sport with that kind of behaviour.

How the police proceed is a legal matter, but how football reacts is just common-sense.

Manchester United had a strange Saturday night. Not strange in the unpredictable sense, because Jose Mourinho’s team selection sounded the ominous organ notes long before his players even took the field, but certainly in what it produced. At times, United’s reticence seemed almost voluntary. Having dug themselves a two-goal hole in the first half, they showed in their quick response that they were far superior. And yet then they backed off. At 2-2, with the game having clearly swung in their favour and Southampton’s belief shrinking away, United retreated into their shell. The lack of expression was startling. Not just that in manifested in only five shots in the second-half (to Southampton’s nine), but in the obvious reluctance of Mourinho’s game-changing players to exert any productive influence.

Paul Pogba will attract plenty of derision, as he always seems to when United underperform. To an extent that’s fair, because he played well within himself and was also guilty of two of the weekend’s ugliest turnovers. But this was a collective failure. Pogba is often self-indulgent, he certainly slows the play down unnecessarily, but too often that’s a result of the inertia in front of him. He could absolutely do better, that’s for certain, but United don’t work nearly hard enough to create the sort of fractures he’s able to exploit.

That’s true of them without the ball, too. Southampton are a fragile side, yet were often allowed to play without pressure and without the risk of exposing themselves to the counter-attack. Similarly, while Mark Hughes’s centre-halves showed an early inability to cope with the speed of Marcus Rashford and the threat of Romelu Lukaku, they were rarely required to answer those questions after Ander Herrera had equalised. It was so contradictory: United found Southampton’s weakness, exploited it to tremendous effect, and then reverted to their pass-stop-pass-stop pondering. In the final forty-five minutes, they attempted just 66 passes into the final third of the pitch (compared to their opponent’s 93). Given how notoriously fearful of attacking Southampton are, that’s as damning as it is confusing.

But this week there is no Mourinho controversy to hide behind. United were just bad. They didn’t make any sense and offered little indication of what they were trying to achieve. They were never going to overturn Manchester City’s advantage in a single season, nobody should have expected otherwise, but for them to already be eight points behind the fourth-placed side is a chastening illustration of just how much of an also-ran they are. Mourinho may not be entirely responsible for that and there are clearly issues above his paygrade, but after two-and-a-half years with this side they’re now showing signs of regression. The sense, really, is that this is just a waste of everybody’s time and money.

From the bad to the good, from Saturday to Friday, and Cardiff City’s win over Wolves: maybe this was one of the performances of the weekend? Neil Warnock will never be popular: he’s too loud, too conspiratorial and too much of an anachronism. His team are still a credit to whatever qualities he represents, though. It’s a difficult admiration to express without being patronising, but Cardiff City shouldn’t be able to compete at this level. After all, they have no real goalscorer, very little pace, and are built on rudimentary fundamentals rather than any tactical sleights of hand. Only Burnley and Huddersfield are averaging fewer shots on target per game; their margin for error is tiny. And yet, somehow, they’re making a fist of it.

This is a team who didn’t score a Premier League goal until September and who didn’t win a game until the end of October. Those sequences had to sap at morale and so for Warnock to arrest that decline and to reverse is nothing short of miraculous. It certainly speaks to the strength of his man-management and the last two home performances have been his pay-off. The come-from-behind, last-gasp win over Brighton was assisted by a red card, admittedly, but was also a triumph of persistence. This, against a Wolves side who are very much their financial and stylistic counter-point in the league, was the same again. Junior Hoilett’s splendid winning-goal was a rare artistic flourish, but don’t let it disguise just how hard those players worked and how doggedly rugged they continue to be almost four months into their first season at this level. Forgetting the technical challenge, that’s a huge conditioning ask. Maybe they won’t survive and perhaps there’s a nosedive into freefall coming, but there’s no sign of it yet.

Wolves are in trouble, though. Or at least Nuno Espirito Santo is. He and his side were always going to hit a wall at some point, their early pace was unsustainable, but this recent slump will trouble the club’s owners. Santo doesn’t deserve to have his position questioned, but when there is great wealth and sizeable ambition, there is almost always impatience. Fosun International have big plans and it’s been smooth sailing under Santo to this point, but having now suffered back-to-back losses to Huddersfield and Cardiff in the same week, just how bruised is that ego?

These defeats haven’t just been a coincidence, either, because many of the strengths Wolves possessed earlier in the season have receded. Their wing-backs aren’t nearly as prominent, the range and reliability of passes coming from midfield has receded sharply and, while they set a high standard early, the defensive unit (including the goalkeeper) has started to make too many mistakes.

And Raul Jimenez. Is he good enough? He’s energetic and eager and he’s certainly not a bad player, but can he be relied upon to make the right decisions in the penalty area and to ultimately score enough goals. Essentially: is he a fifteen-to-twenty goal a season forward, or one more likely to exist in the eight-to-twelve range? At the moment, the latter looks more likely and, as a result, the club might look at upgrading his position as early as January. As with the manager’s situation, patience with underperformance is likely to be short and any player who isn’t seen grabbing his Premier League opportunity will be living dangerously.

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