Premier League Weekend Review: Pre-Christmas Slog

Words By Seb Stafford-Bloor Illustration by Philippe Fenner
December 17, 2018
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Is there anything more to say about Jose Mourinho’s Manchester United? The historic weight of the Liverpool fixture demands attention, but the 3-1 loss at Anfield went exactly to script. Increasingly, this is a United who can’t compete in this sort of game. Most recently, they’re a United who seem unwilling to compete in them.

It’s not a surprise that the criticism of Mourinho is so eager, his career has always been antagonistic, but there’s nothing contrary to it. Liverpool got a little fortunate on Sunday in that both of Xherdan Shaqiri’s goals were heavily deflected, but nobody would claim that United were owed more from the game. Why would they? Mourinho’s side were out-shot 36-6 and when they did attack, when Liverpool’s midfield occasionally lost its shape, there seemed no general plan for how to capitalise.

Over the years, this fixture hasn’t produced many classics. Instead, it draws in neutrals with its threat of an unpredictable result and high thermals of atmosphere. This time, it really delivered neither. The goals might have been met with the usual delirium, but Anfield was almost subdued – as if this was West Ham at home, or Watford. Worst of all from United’s perspective, it felt like that kind of game too. Nothing was a surprise; not the the way United approached the game, not their failure to take anything which wasn’t given to them, and – ultimately – not the result.

Afterwards Roy Keane, doing punditry for Sky Sports, bemoaned the lack of quality on the field, suggesting that many of Mourinho’s players aren’t good enough for Manchester United. That may be fair, but how can it be true of a side with such a superficially impressive spine? David De Gea is the league’s best goalkeeper, Nemanja Matic has won the competition twice and, at the top of the field, a forward with a mightily impressive goal return (albeit for different clubs) is flanked by two England internationals.

It’s being shown that Romelu Lukaku isn’t quite the player he appeared to be at Everton and, admittedly, neither Marcus Rashford nor Jesse Lingard would start for any of the title contenders, but how is this team, together, not good enough to have even a puncher’s chance? Losing to Liverpool is no disgrace, but how is the sum of United’s parts not enough to cause any discomfort to the league’s biggest fish? Two weeks ago, an Everton side built from far less expensive parts were only denied a point at Anfield by a ridiculous fluke. On Sunday, United couldn’t really have argued if they’d been three goals down by half-time. That’s not a flattering parallel for Mourinho and it’s one which rather defeats the suggestion that United are limited only by the shortcomings within their recruitment.

One note on Liverpool though: what an encouraging performance from Fabinho. Naby Keita is clearly yet to adapt to English football, but the Brazilian’s lofted assist for Sadio Mane’s goal was one of the weekend’s most artistic moments. Naby Keita is yet adjust properly, but Fabinho is beginning to look like the upgrade he was intended to be.

Elsewhere, Arsenal’s long unbeaten run is over, ended by a much improved Southampton at St Mary’s. In tone, this game threatened to become reminiscent of Mark Hughes’s last match in charge, when his players raced into a two-goal lead against Manchester United, before their momentum was punctured by two quick goals. Sunday was clearly different; twice they lost their lead, twice they reclaimed it.

A new manager and the extra enthusiasm he brings can do that. But this wasn’t just a victory infused with intangibles, but one owed to a bolder technical approach. After defeat in Wales last week, Ralph Hasenhuttl had stressed the need for more aggression, more vertical passing and a greater willingness to advance up the field. He was rewarded, eight days later, with a performance of far greater intent and, crucially, with plenty of accuracy. Three excellent crosses, three perfect headers, three invaluable points.

Interestingly, Southampton played fewer passes and attempted fewer crosses than they did at Cardiff, but there lies the efficiency of Hasenhuttl’s preferred style. He doesn’t necessarily want his teams to control games, but he does insist that they ruthlessly expoloit the cracks in them as and when they appear. They did that against Arsenal and a feature of all three goals was the speed of the move from which they came. The third goal was a case in point: under Hasenhuttl’s predecessors, Shane Long would almost certainly have delayed his cross and waited for support, allowing the visiting defenders a chance to settle behind the ball. As with Matt Targett’s excellent delivery in the first-half, it was the quick movement from south-to-north which created the opportunity (and invited the mistakes).

Arsenal needn’t linger on the post mortem. Unai Emery lost Hector Bellerin and Stephan Lichtsteiner during the game, Sead Kolasinac in the week, and the defence inevitably looked at its most vulnerable for months. Every defeat this club suffers runs the risk of becoming a melodrama and losing a 22-game unbeaten run to such a lowly side will encourage that kind of overreaction. But – really – there’s no need for panic. A more clinical performance could have produced a different result, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang might have done more with a succession of half-chances, but Emery needn’t be concerned by the game’s texture.

Isn’t it difficult to have opinions about Manchester City? That isn’t meant as a criticism, but Pep Guardiola’s football is so clinical that it leaves you cold. City beat Everton, were relatively impressive in doing so, and yet there’s nothing to take away or learn from that victory. As nearly always, the play at one speed and in one way and so, week to week, there’s little room for interpretation. Gabriel Jesus appears to have escaped his poor form, that’s certainly notable, but it’s a measure of their superiority that these kind of games can pass without so much as a flicker of interest.

The game did at least expose the fallacy of the post-Chelsea discussion. City aren’t shaken by isolated defeats, they just pick themselves up and start building another long, unbeaten sequence. If the Premier League needed a reminder of their strength in depth, the sight of Kevin de Bruyne reappearing should have offered one. The Belgian is their most complete player, certainly their most versatile attacking weapon, and yet his side have managed to surge ahead in the title race without him.

He first returned from injury in October and it looked premature. He was rusty and blunt and, in hindsight, this second set-back (suffered at the beginning of November) appears to have been a blessing in disguise. De Bruyne was sharp on Saturday and it can’t be long before he’s back to his best and City are returned to full-power. How daunting. How boring, too, because their well-oiled excellence combined with their financial advantage makes their march towards a second successive title feel like a sub-plot.

Tottenham had an excellent weekend. They weren’t good against Burnley, it was actually a performance which a sodden, half-empty and disengaged Wembley deserved, but Christian Eriksen’s late goal was nicely constructed and three points was the bow on a pretty perfect seven days. And it’s one which Oliver Skipp will never forget.

A young English player will always be slightly over-celebrated on debut, particularly when he’s the product of a club’s youth academy and, as in Skipp’s case, from a family of native supporters. In that situation, fans see what they want to see and ignore what they don’t. Over the coming days, Skipp will be compared to all sorts of illustrious names and, most likely, his Premier League debut will be embellished well beyond its context. He played well and earned Mauricio Pochettino’s ebullient praise, but some will inevitably get carried away.

But it’s interesting how the other Tottenham players react to him. There’s evidently a good spirit at Spurs and it’s not uncommon for senior professionals to congratulate a young debutant, but as far back as the summer Skipp has been piquing the collective interest. In particular, Eriksen’s assessment at the end of the tour to the United States was especially flattering.

“…the guy who’s the youngest is probably Skippy, who’s really taken the game in his hands and is trying to do his thing. He’s been very good. What I like about him is his courage. He is not scared to get the ball, he is not scared to go forward and he is not scared to tackle. He’s an all-round midfielder.”

That’s the indicator, not the hastily compiled videos which will now appear on YouTube or the vague statistics used to illustrate his performance against Burnley, but the apparent patronage of one of the world’s best playmakers. When somebody like that takes an interest, the rest of the world should follow.

Elsewhere, West Ham are starting to play very well. Quietly, they have crept up the table and now sit in ninth, and Manuel Pellegrini is owed a nod of recognition for that. Marko Arnautovic and Andriy Yarmolenko are and will continue to be out for some time, Jack Wilshere hasn’t been able to escape his ongoing ankle issues, and Pellegrini remains without a host of other first-team players, including Manuel Lanzini, Winston Reid and Ryan Fredericks. Regardless, West Ham have now won four games in a row and their win over Fulham, while expected, was tactically very adroit.

Pellegrini was fortunate not to see his side fall behind, with Lukasz Fabianski spreading himself to deny an early one-on-one chance, but once West Ham took the lead they never really looked like losing it – or even giving up particularly good chances. Fabianski did make further saves – he’s actually one of the signings of the season – but Fulham were made to look like a very average team. West Ham’s attack looked fluid, their midfield functioned as intended and the defence, which features two new centre-halves and a recently arrived goalkeeper, looked very sturdy.

Where next for their opponents is difficult to say. The obvious response is the transfer-market, but more flux is hardly likely to improve things and the team seems desperately short of chemistry as it is. Claudio Ranieri might bring some stability. He’ll certainly simplify the style of play at Craven Cottage and, quite logically, he has settled on a defence, but whether the incumbent players are really good enough to survive is doubtful. On Saturday evening, Fulham lacked the thrust of Ryan Sessegnon and, given that he was withdrawn before the end, Jean Michael Seri can be presumed not quite fit, but there’s such a lack of reassuring quality in the side.

As a case in point, Aleksandar Mitrovic is held up as a talisman and while that’s partly because of how he plays the game, he still looks unconvincing at this level. He’s a handful, certainly, and with the right supply he’s a problem for most defences, but his first-touch is often loose, he isn’t the best athlete, and his range of passing limits him to being a penalty-box player. Worse than overdoing the summer transfers, then, has been Fulham’s failure to properly add players around him: Luciano Vietto is definitively not what he was expected to be in his Villarreal days, Andre Schurrle looks a million miles from the player he was at Chelsea, and none of the incumbent players in that area obviously belonged in the Premier League to start with.

A final note, or winge. Football is currently considering a range of initiatives to prevent teams from time-wasting, the most notable of which would be a ban on injury-time substitutions. Good news though that may be, perhaps the game would also benefit from a better clarification of the offence. Substitutions have been a problem for a long time, but then so are goal-kicks which take up to a minute and other restarts which are stretched well beyond their realistic time-frames. That’s the greater issue and, most likely, if it was policed properly from early in a game – not just from the 85th minute and beyond – the average ball in-play time in the Premier League wouldn’t be around the 61 minute mark.

As a case in point, Burnley’s performance at Wembley on Saturday was almost scandalous and the reluctance of the referee to issue early, deterring yellow-cards allowed Sean Dyche’s players – Joe Hart in particular – to drain far too much time out of the game. It’s not a legitimate tactic; reducing the amount of time the ball is in-play for should not be a loophole that the sport is afraid to close.

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