Another wild weekend in the Premier League is done and dusted. We get you caught up on the action with the Weekend Review.
JUMP TO: Pep’s shallow squad | Liverpool’s title to lose | Emery is throwing stuff at a wall | Foxes better than Claudio’s heroes | West Ham sweating on Fabianski | Luckiest moment of the weekend | A final word on VAR … again
Instinctively it feels slightly absurd to suggest one of Manchester City’s weaknesses is their strength in depth. After all, on Sunday £60 million worth of Riyad Mahrez didn’t make it off the bench and Gabriel Jesus would start every game for about 98 percent of other teams on the planet. But in specific areas, City’s squad is shallow, it cost them the game against Liverpool and it could cost them the Premier League title.
The most obvious place to start is in goal, where Claudio Bravo wasn’t quite the calamity he was in the Champions League against Atalanta (36 minutes, no saves, one goal conceded, one red card) but he was terrible in a more low key way, letting in three goals that, for at least two if not all, you thought “Ederson would’ve saved that.”
Maybe Bravo would be a safer bet with some proper defenders in front of him. The decision not to recruit a centre-back when Vincent Kompany left in the summer seemed odd at the time, but looks even worse now. Perhaps City thought they could muddle through with Aymeric Laporte and someone beside him, but when the Frenchman was struck down with his knee injury, their options looked bleak. Guardiola has always been fond of playing midfielders in defence, but he’s learning pretty quickly that it’s not always a good idea.
And then there’s left-back, a position that Guardiola has never really nailed at City but is proving particularly tricky this season. To illustrate the point Benjamin Mendy wasn’t injured for Sunday’s game, but Guardiola preferred to give Angelino just his second league start, which turned out to be a pretty thankless task. Asking the Spaniard to deal with Trent Alexander-Arnold, Jordan Henderson and Mohamed Salah — probably the toughest right flank in the world to face — was ambitious, and went about as well as you’d expect.
All of this was a big reason for Man City’s 3-1 defeat at Anfield. Sure, Liverpool got a little lucky, but they also exploited City’s weaknesses ruthlessly and as a result are nine points ahead with a third of the season gone.
Since three points for a win was introduced in 1981, only three teams have been eight points or more ahead after 12 games: Manchester United in 1985-86 and 1993-95, and City in 2017-18. The first United side collapsed pretty soon afterwards and finished fourth, but the latter two strode on and won the title at a canter.
“Other people will 100 percent say that from now on Liverpool can only lose it,” said Klopp, who had a similar lead with Borussia Dortmund in 2010-11 when he won his first title there. “That’s a very negative approach, but you can see it like this. But we don’t care.”
The question now is how Liverpool deal with being such emphatic front-runners, given how they stumbled after taking a big lead last season. Klopp, as with most things, seems aware of that.
“It’s not important because who wants to be first in November? You want to be first in May. The pressure is not there yet,” he said. “It will come, but at the moment it’s just opportunity.”
Unai Emery has now said after three straight games, none of which Arsenal won, that for at least some of the match his team followed the plan and carried out his instructions. After the 2-0 defeat to Leicester on Saturday, you could sort of see what he was getting at, because Arsenal weren’t too bad in the first-half. But surely anyone with even a little self-awareness would realise that continually saying that the team were doing what you tell them to, but not winning, will make you look like an idiot.
A charitable interpretation would be that he’s trying to take the heat off the players, but there isn’t much charity in the Arsenal fanbase at the moment. They have won just two of the last 10 league games, two away games of any description all season, and Emery is showing the telltale sign of a floundering manager by throwing formations and team selections at a wall and seeing what sticks.
But not much is sticking, and it just looks like Emery is guessing at this stage: Brendan Rodgers observed that, as far as he could tell, Emery had only used the 5-2-1-2 system deployed on Saturday once before, in last season’s Europa League final. You will probably recall that Arsenal lost that one 4-1.
To give a small illustration of the work Rodgers has done at Leicester, they were a whopping 32 points shy of second place when he took charge of his first game last March. Now they are second, with broadly the same players, a point above City going into the international break and one of the most exciting teams to watch in the Premier League.
Implausibly, they’re very much in the title race again, and you could feasibly argue that A: This team is better than the one that won the league in 2015-16, and B: If they managed it again this time, it would be a better achievement due to the higher calibre of opposition they’re facing.
If a player’s value is determined by the difference in quality between them and their replacement, then Lukasz Fabianski might be the most important player in the Premier League.
It probably wasn’t a great sign when his back-up Roberto played in West Ham’s Carabao Cup game against League One Oxford United and conceded four times. The man with the neck tattoos has very much continued that form since replacing the injured Fabianski in the Premier League side.
With Fabianski in goal this season West Ham conceded eight goals in six-and-a-half Premier League games, five coming in one game against Manchester City, which happens. Since Roberto took the gloves they’ve let in 12 in five-and-a-half games, winning none of them, the latest being the 3-0 defeat at Burnley this weekend where Roberto was responsible for at least two of the goals conceded.
The current third-choice is David Martin, who had a solid enough career in the Football League before joining the Hammers in the summer — surely he can’t be much worse than Roberto. In the meantime, expect Manuel Pellegrini to use the international break to take Fabianski to Lourdes and dip his entire body in holy water.
On the weekend when his side moved another place higher, to fifth in the Premier League with a draw against Tottenham, it’s worth reminding ourselves that when Chris Wilder arrived at Sheffield United in 2016, his team had failed for a fifth season to escape League One, finishing in a limp 11th place.
“I’m tired of talking about VAR,” Wilder said, after his midfielder John Lundstram’s big toe apparently meant he was offside and ruled out a goal for the Blades.
“The main talking point for me was seeing my team go toe to toe with a team that got to the Champions League final last year.”
Damn right, and Tottenham can consider themselves fortunate to have got away with a point.
With apologies to Wilder, a quick word on VAR — pun intended. It feels like the ways the system is being implemented this season are oscillating wildly from one extreme to the other. A couple of weeks ago we had a few penalties very softly overturned after weeks of none, and now after most people agreed that reviews were taking too long, some came in the Liverpool vs. City game that were so quick it was doubtful they actually watched the incidents properly.
There is a middle ground to all of this, guys. It doesn’t have to be one extreme or another. That, or scrap VAR completely. That would work too.