Graham Potter engineered a fine victory over Liverpool, who cannot bully those at the bottom anymore. There is love for Brendan Rodgers.
What a performance. It was understandably and justifiably lost in the rubble of the fallen fortress that is Anfield, but Brighton were absolutely sensational on Wednesday. Over the course of three days they have beaten both 2019 Champions League finalists, with Graham Potter deservedly snaring two of the most revered coaches of this or any other generation in the process.
The most telling aspect was that Jurgen Klopp did not blame the wind or the referees, nor did he snipe at the playing style of the team that had just conquered his champions. That has been the German’s calling card in rare defeats, his frustration boiling over into unnecessary and often laughable criticisms of “defensive” football, as if it isn’t as legitimate a tactic as attacking or pressing.
“First and foremost, Brighton won the game and rightly so,” he noted of a “deserved” win. “They were fresher than us tonight and did more good things than we did. They scored a goal, they had a clear idea – so it’s passing the ball or chipping the ball to Burn and go from there.”
It was the ideal away performance as underdogs. Liverpool’s only shot on target over the course of 90 minutes was a heavily deflected strike as full-time beckoned. Brighton had opportunities besides Steven Alzate’s goal; Leandro Trossard perhaps should have made it 2-0. Hell, the visitors almost had as many shots after scoring (6) than the hosts while chasing the deficit (7).
Brighton were as attacking as they were defensive, keeping their shape impeccably as Liverpool failed to land a punch on a narrow, flat back five. They then picked their moments to surge forward, with Neal Maupay a particular nuisance up front.
It was a perfect set-up from a fantastic coach, executed almost entirely without fault by a group of players who couldn’t actually be much further from the fifth-worst team in the league if they tried. Burnley established the blueprint in terms of thwarting and beating this Liverpool side; Brighton refined it.
It don’t lie, friends.
They won a bloody game 9-0, yet there is not a great deal one can read into victory over an already depleted and confidence-sapped opponent reduced to ten men after little more than a minute.
With that said, they were breathtakingly ruthless. Manchester United have been many things this season – excellent, fortunate, mentally strong, haphazard, consistent, unambitious – but rarely have they been so merciless and relentless in their pursuit of absolute dominance. So much for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer being too nice to succeed.
For Leicester City, it was Jonny Evans who told teammates the record was on, and they went for nine goals.
For Manchester United, both McTominay and Solskjaer shouted “Keep going!” when they sensed a high goal tally was on.#MUFC heritage. Big Bullies.
— Carl Anka (@Ankaman616) February 3, 2021
Nuno Espirito Santo will take the points whichever way they come. He himself admitted that “everything changes” with the award of a penalty against Arsenal at Molineux; the timing of David Luiz’s dismissal could not have been more advantageous.
Wolves had been pretty awful for the previous 45 minutes, a naturally quite reserved and safe team further inhibited by confidence issues created by an eight-game winless run. But then came the point that can turn a season, that swing in momentum that cannot be manufactured by meticulous coaching or lavish transfer spends. Managers cannot buy or force moments like those when Willian Jose was put through on goal as half-time beckoned, but they do have to harness and foster them.
The inherent risk in Nuno’s approach is that games are kept tight and thus always within reach, ordinarily settled by no more than a couple of incidents going either for or against them. Only Sheffield United (15) have had more games decided by one goal this season than Wolves (12). No two sides could underline the problem in consistently striking that balance better.
The challenge now is to push on and establish some sort of stability in both performances and results. The truth is that victory from behind courtesy of a penalty and a long-range rocket against a team reduced to nine men with more than a quarter of an hour remaining cannot be considered solid foundations on which to build. Wolves cannot rely on those transformative incidents occurring in subsequent matches. But they can and must use that injection of belief as a starting point.
West Ham’s transfer business
With the regrettable days of Mario Husillos and David Sullivan’s offspring seemingly driving transfer strategy at West Ham long gone, there is not a great deal of transparency when it comes to who is in charge of signings at the club. But whatever the structure, David Moyes has ensured the manager is central to it.
“Now I want the recruitment to go in a completely different direction,” he declared last month, a matter of days after sanctioning the sale of record signing Sebastien Haller, with previous incumbent Felipe Anderson still on loan at Porto. The club erred in not bringing in a direct replacement to reinforce their striker options but that is perhaps their only genuine transfer misstep since Moyes took more control.
Tomas Soucek has been incredible. But his success has perhaps obscured the ease with which Said Benrahma and Vladimir Coufal have taken to this side. Jarrod Bowen was finally given a rest in the Aston Villa win but has been excellent since joining last January, while Craig Dawson has proven to be a typically astute acquisition on loan.
Throw in Jesse Lingard and a debut featuring his first two Premier League goals of what really could be a few, and each of the six permanent or loan signings brought in during Moyes’ second reign have been resounding successes. It’s on that remarkable hit rate that West Ham are still pushing towards the top four.
The very concept of home and away games may be hanging by a thread currently, but Everton seem to be travelling safely and embracing their journeys at the minute. They sit third in a table comprised solely of away results, below only Manchester United and Leicester. In only three full Premier League seasons have they recorded more than their current seven wins on the road (eight in 2013/14, nine in 2008/09, eight in 2007/08).
Quite what the issue is at Goodison Park, no-one knows. But the team that succumbed to the irresistible brilliance of Newcastle put in an accomplished performance at Elland Road. Everton have now beaten Leeds, Wolves, Sheffield United, Leicester, Fulham, Crystal Palace and Tottenham as visitors this campaign.
They produced one of their more accomplished displays on Wednesday, taking an early lead through Gylfi Sigurdsson, the captain deployed not in that disastrous deep-lying role but behind the striker where he can make an actual impact. It was his corner that Dominic Calvert-Lewin converted at the back post after Ben Godfrey’s flick.
When Raphinha halved the deficit in the 48th minute it felt as though a comeback was inevitable but Everton held firm in the face of an onslaught thereafter. Robin Olsen was excellent and this goalkeeper rotation lark might just catch on. Godfrey has been a revelation in a better team than the Norwich side that surrendered to relegation last season. Andre Gomes was perhaps at his most effective since he first joined in June 2019; that pass for the first goal was exquisite. Lucas Digne is watching the interminable debates over who is the best attacking left-back between Andy Robertson, Luke Shaw and Kieran Tierney with a wry smile.
It could simply be that the Toffees are benefiting from those fine margins. Ezgjan Alioski hit the post and Patrick Bamford headed against the crossbar as Leeds pursued parity, while six of Everton’s away wins have been by a single goal, with the 2-0 at Leicester in December the only exception.
But Carlo Ancelotti will know not to examine the dental health of this particular gift horse. He has won as many away Premier League games in 13 months as Everton manager than Ronald Koeman and Marco Silva combined in 30. European hopes are being sustained on their form outside the supposed Goodison Park fortress, although this weekend’s trip to Manchester United will test those foundations to the fullest.
Regardless of whether this continues at Old Trafford, Everton have rarely looked as durable or potent on their travels over the past three decades or so. Carry on at this rate and they might not even have to coax Kevin Campbell out of retirement to win at Anfield.
The genuine meritocracy installed at Leicester through spectacular man-management has been touched upon before. Brendan Rodgers made four changes to the side that lost to Leeds and saw each member of that quartet impress against Fulham.
Ricardo Pereira was fantastic on his first Premier League start since last March, with Jonny Evans shifted alongside him to accommodate the return of the imperious Caglar Soyuncu. Timothy Castagne and Wesley Fofana were absent through injury but will have to wait their turn even when fully fit. Hamza Choudhury took the place of Nampalys Mendy a couple of days after a protracted move to Newcastle collapsed and was phenomenal. Marc Albrighton made way for Kelechi Iheanacho, who finally took the opportunity to impress without Jamie Vardy.
It certainly helps to have one of the strongest squads in the entire division, with accomplished players ready to step into the team when injury strikes or form deserts someone; whoever comes in then knows that their place is under threat if they aren’t good enough. But the most striking thing is that Rodgers has maintained a positive atmosphere through healthy and fair competition. It has been a masterclass in managing a squad rather than just a team.
Brighton and Crystal Palace are the only other teams on a run of more than one consecutive Premier League victory. They both have two. Manchester City have nine.
Manchester City’s defence
You get the feeling that could be its final form: Cancelo, Stones, Dias, Laporte. That back line restricted Burnley to two shots, both off target, at Turf Moor. Cancelo had three, one on target, by himself.
Laporte in particular deserves the utmost credit for slotting back into a settled and successful side. The 26-year-old missed ten straight games immediately after that Tottenham defeat in November but has returned first at centre-half and then at left-back without missing a beat. It will be fun to see how France ignore him this time.
He is inevitable. That was Crystal Palace’s first Premier League win from behind since Boxing Day 2019. We’ll stop doubting them and him one day.
The Bashambauer moniker is lovely but the centre-half brought another legend to mind when casually assisting a vital goal with a Cruyff turn while surrounded by four defenders in the opponent’s area. Forgive the probable hyperbole, but it was a neat trick to cap one of the most influential performances of the entire Premier League season from any player.
Wreaking havoc vs West Brom, tearing it up consistently in the PL.
Choo choo indeed 🚂 pic.twitter.com/lpoL65qWj0
— Kate Burlaga (@kateburlaga) February 3, 2021
It kind of has to be, because once is a mistake and twice is a pattern. Ralph Hasenhuttl remains one of the best coaches in the country but will forever be known as the bloke who lost 9-0 twice over the course of about 15 months. Both results have Wikipedia pages dedicated to them, for crying out loud.
There are mitigating circumstances. The manager cannot be blamed for a defender wishing to test the structural integrity of an opponent’s thigh barely a minute into his full first-team debut. Jan Bednarek’s red card was also harsh and some crucial officiating decisions went against them, although their subsequent reaction both on and off the pitch to perceived injustices was poor.
Consider, too, that bench. It contained two goalkeepers and four teenagers who had not had a sniff of Premier League football between them. This is a squad that has been decimated by injuries and already hamstrung by its transfer business.
The relief is that Hasenhuttl seems to have avoided undue criticism from the supporters. He obviously made mistakes and should be held to account for them. His reputation has likely been indelibly affected by this and the Leicester debacle. But there is an acceptance that this was a freak result and he is still comfortably the best manager they could hope for. He was let down emphatically by some of his players and all of the club’s hierarchy.
It became a running joke, how every Southampton game would include at least one mention of ‘the 9-0’ in the aftermath of the events of October 25, 2019. It is damning that it will now need clarifying which one is being refererenced.
The Southampton board
There are more words on that dreadful showing here but it is worth taking a look at Liverpool’s new-found inability to bully those of an irrefutably smaller size.
In seven games against the current bottom six this season, Liverpool’s record is: P7 W1 D4 L2 F5 A6 PPG 1
Against last season’s bottom six, that was: W11 D0 L1 F26 A10 PPG 2.75
In 2018/19: W12 D0 L0 F31 A6 PPG 3
In 2017/18: W8 D3 L1 F30 A4 PPG 2.25
In 2016/17: W8 D1 L3 F28 A11 PPG 2.08
And in Klopp’s games against the bottom six in 2015/16: W5 D2 L2 F21 A14 PPG 1.8
That is a problem. And not one that can be explained by simply pointing to a mounting pile of injuries.
Liverpool when they lose to Brighton and Burnley at home but Thiago controlled the tempopic.twitter.com/TjCbRz0uch
— Samu™🔰 (@UTDSamu) February 4, 2021
The Sam Allardyce survival blueprint was made available for public consumption in September 2017. It listed seven points, of which his current West Brom side have successfully implemented no more than one:
Clean sheets (zero in eight games)
Don’t lose possession in own half (West Brom completed five of 15 passes in their own defensive third in the five minutes up to and including Sheffield United’s equaliser)
Play the first pass forward (224 forward passes to Sheffield United’s 409)
Win knock-downs and transitions (14 turnovers to Sheffield United’s 11)
Exploit the opposition’s weaknesses (ha)
Quality in the final third (ha ha)
Aside from set-pieces, West Brom are displaying none of the traits that have characterised Allardyce’s latter career transformation into master firefighter. They were two points from safety and six clear of Sheffield United when he replaced Slaven Bilic. Those gaps have gone in entirely the wrong direction: ten behind Burnley in 17th having played a game more, and above the Blades by virtue of a single point. In a table since Allardyce’s appointment, the Baggies are bottom, have conceded at least six goals more than anyone and only two sides have scored fewer.
After a positive January transfer window, he has no excuse. When Allardyce inevitably blames the lack of time he has had with the players or the difficulty in them bonding off the pitch in these socially distanced times, remember that he took this job for a reason. He knew the constraints and restrictions he would face returning to football in the current climate. He could have happily slinked into the relative obscurity of the talkSPORT studio, maintaining a reputation that saw him touted as Pep Guardiola’s defensive coach as recently as October. He didn’t have to take this job but did so on the pretence he could further his legacy. If it hasn’t been already, that will be thoroughly tarnished come May.
How strange that one of only three teams to use no more than 21 players in the Premier League so far this season is starting to look a little knackered. Of the others, Leeds lost to Everton and Crystal Palace could rest their legs defending against Newcastle.
Aston Villa had no such luck, falling to a West Ham side that considered them to be a serious threat and who coped with them accordingly. They pressed high, forced mistakes and worked tirelessly to shut the hosts down.
Until their last two games, Villa had been the only Premier League side to have at least ten shots in every game. That record fell against Southampton but fortune ensured it didn’t matter. A better and more stable side in West Ham exploited that surprising attacking bluntness.
This was a return to their days of relying too heavily on Jack Grealish, whose four key passes were more than his teammates managed combined. Dean Smith will hope it’s not permanent as Villa are capable of so much more.
What an absolute meme of a football club.