Convenient Liverpool scapegoat makes Premier League winners and losers debut

Liverpool assistant Pep Lijnders and Jurgen Klopp Credit: Alamy
Liverpool assistant Pep Lijnders and Jurgen Klopp Credit: Alamy

Brentford and Brighton are showing everyone how it should be done. Everton and Southampton are irrefutably not. And Liverpool have lost their Midas touch.

 

Brentford
The last team to beat Liverpool, Manchester City and Man Utd in the same Premier League season was Leicester in 2020/21. Before them, Southampton and West Ham, both in 2015/16, were the most recent clubs to achieve that feat. Each finished no lower than 7th in those respective seasons and, at the time, all were praised as chief applecart upsetters who had bridged that Big Six gap through sensational scouting and impeccable coaching.

It is not bad company for Brentford to keep whatsoever. With the scalps of Chelsea and Arsenal also among their collection from last campaign, Spurs are the only member of the gilded elite to avoid defeat to the Bees since their promotion.

Thomas Frank and his team have done some phenomenal work. Liverpool were made to look less than ordinary and Brentford did it all without their star striker and talisman. They are the template for how a club should operate.

 

Brighton
The Brighton XI named against Everton cost a combined £27.4m – less than the Toffees paid in individual sums for Jordan Pickford, Alex Iwobi and Amadou Onana: the keeper who had four goals stuck past him, one of the midfielders who was too feeble to stop them and another who was suspended.

Yerry Mina, an unused Everton substitute, cost £27.2m alone. Against perhaps the most carelessly extravagant spenders in Premier League history, Brighton proved that it is not huge investment but smart investment, both on the pitch and off it, which pays dividends.

 

Harry Kane
In his defence, Harry Kane did stress that “it’ll take some time to get over”. The World Cup penalty miss will always linger in his subconscious, striking with pangs of regret at the most inopportune times. But this is quite the brave face to put on, scoring three goals in the 26 days since, back in the comfort of his role as Tottenham’s saviour and often only competent player.

The point has been made before but the ‘cheat code’ description of Erling Haaland is far more suitable for Kane. Manchester City have no need to skip levels in a game they have already completed numerous times; Spurs often struggle to navigate even the most basic objectives while mashing the buttons before handing the controller over.

They were ambling towards another dreadful result and insipid performance, going into half-time at Selhurst Park having had five shots to Crystal Palace’s nine. A save from Hugo Lloris to deny Jordan Ayew, as well as numerous vital, late defensive interventions from Eric Dier and Clement Lenglet, prevented a possible mutiny-inducing deficit.

Then Kane happened. His opening goal was a simple header born of excellent movement but that second soon after was pure, uncut Harry: starting a move from deep having drifted to the right, making a difficult first touch seem effortless and instantly shooting low and hard across the keeper. If the noise that ball made as it struck the net could be translated it would be onomatopoeic for Kane’s majesty.

Bryan Gil was brilliant. Pape Matar Sarr impressed from the bench. Heung-min Son scored in his second game of the season. It felt, at least to the uninitiated and optimistic, like a potential turning point.

But this was and is business as usual for Kane. Fifteen goals in 18 Premier League games in this Spurs side with those issues is witchcraft. There has been a predictable increase in the volume of ‘no trophies lol’ responses to any praise – or even the vaguest mention – of Kane recently, yet he remains one of the game’s great modern strikers with or without a Carabao Cup medal.

 

Marco Silva
The manager of the Premier League season so far, pipping Mikel Arteta merely through the acceptance that his hair does not have to look immaculate.

Marco Silva does not receive the credit he deserves for what he has accomplished at Fulham, nor for acknowledging his Premier League stock had fallen sufficiently far so as to require him to drop down to the Championship for his next opportunity.

But a stunning promotion season did little to persuade or convince onlookers that Fulham had changed their top-flight ways. They would return from whence they came soon enough, completing a hat-trick of instant relegations under numerous different managers.

Almost halfway through the campaign, Fulham are above Chelsea, have outscored Man Utd and are level on points with Liverpool, with thoughts of Europe starting to creep into the wider consciousness.

Bernd Leno, Andreas Pereira and Joao Palhinha have been inspired summer additions. Tim Ream is the best centre-half in the Premier League. Willian is brilliant again. Aleksandar Mitrovic is scoring consistently. Fulham are back, baby.

 

Casemiro
One should never go full Garth Crooks and only start picking players out for praise if they have scored, but Casemiro’s delightful finish against Bournemouth was almost secondary to his overall performance. Useful though Fred and Scott McTominay are, it is considerably hilarious to think their midfield has gone from that to this.

“You’re getting a steady Eddie. He was playing with great players, he’s not a great player, he’s never been a great player,” said Graeme Souness in August. But it turns out the five-time European champion is actually pretty handy and not just an average plodder make to look good by jogging alongside Luka Modric.

The Brazilian brings calmness and assurance, making every aspect of his role look straightforward. Man Utd waited far too long to bring in a midfielder of his ilk but at least they nailed the decision.

 

Taiwo Awoniyi
While his all-round game has improved exponentially since Proper Football returned, that has not come at the detriment of Taiwo Awoniyi’s appetite for the bread and butter of his role. Four goals is a solid return in the context of a summer signing playing for a new, relegation-threatened club in a different country with a rotating cast of teammates; it is phenomenal when you consider they have delivered nine points across three 1-0 wins.

That, combined with a dogged defensive performance at Southampton, has been enough to take Nottingham Forest out of the relegation zone for the first time since early September. It might prove crucial come May.

 

West Ham
Snapping that losing streak was necessary, but a draw in those sad circumstances at least shows that David Moyes still has the backing of his squad.

 

Mykhaylo Mudryk’s agent
The only substitution Mikel Arteta made against Newcastle was to bring on Takehiro Tomiyasu for Benjamin White in the 76th minute. Fabio Vieira, Marquinhos and Nathan Butler-Oyedeji all had uninterrupted front-row viewings of the manager’s #antics. Arsenal really need some more reliable attacking options.

 

Diego Simeone
Every Premier League club should be given an Atletico Madrid player at the start of the season. Down with ball in-play time.

 

Unai Emery
Steven Gerrard collected nine points from 11 Premier League games as Aston Villa manager this season. Unai Emery has earned 10 in his first five matches.

 

Losers

Southampton
Not the best Dry January effort from Southampton, with the stench of boos enveloping St Mary’s on an evening when chants of “you’re getting sacked in the morning”, “you don’t know what you’re doing” and “how shit must you be, we’re winning away” all received justifiable airings.

That was stark. Southampton have suffered famously comprehensive shellackings in recent years, yet rarely has the reaction been quite so negative, fatalistic and toxic as it was on Wednesday night. A 1-0 defeat brought jeers at both half and full-time from those who dared remain throughout.

This was no ordinary loss. It was a game Saints had to win: to stop the rot; to drag themselves off the foot of the table; to pull a direct rival further in; to reverse a thoroughly bleak atmosphere. Nathan Jones reacted by picking a back five at home to a team which hadn’t won away all season and only scored or kept a clean sheet once each on their travels.

The result was disastrous but a performance which brought no shots on target in those circumstances was cataclysmic.

Jones was parachuted into a difficult situation but he has contrived to make things worse. The tactics are difficult to decipher beyond an incredibly direct style and trying to win free-kicks within shooting range. The weeks he had to work, train and coach during the World Cup appear to have exacerbated prior issues. His public comments are engendering frustration and anger rather than goodwill.

“They didn’t have any big chance apart from the goal they scored,” he said of a Forest side that hit the crossbar in the first half – and that is before mentioning just how much heavy lifting the ‘apart’ is doing in that sentence. Jones’ talk of not being able to work a “miracle” in shifting momentum so quickly, of wanting to “manage expectations” at a club literally bottom of the league, even the subliminal references to ‘they’ instead of ‘we’, have exposed his inexperience at this level in front of a microphone, never mind any Premier League coaching immaturity.

There can be sympathy for Jones, who might well have cashed a carefully cultivated Championship reputation in at precisely the wrong time, right club or not. But this has been the absolute opposite of a new manager bounce and Southampton genuinely ought to be considering their options again.

 

Liverpool
Pep Lijnders has become a convenient lightning rod for a club and fanbase seemingly struggling to come to terms with a collective mid-reign identity crisis. The book released by Liverpool’s assistant manager in the summer contained no industry secrets, nothing the opposition could use against the Reds. It was a puff piece designed solely for the This Means More crowd of Mentality Monsters, a tome to capture and capitalise on the feel-good factor of a remarkable few years.

It is inconsequential to what Liverpool are experiencing now. The only relevance the book has is the ironic title. ‘Intensity: Inside Liverpool FC’? There was no evidence of it against Brentford, nor for much of this lethargic campaign.

The truth is that Liverpool should never really have been in the soaring position from which they have crashed. Winning and routinely competing for titles, reaching Champions League finals, pursuing Quadruples – it should have been beyond them. But they went through an almost unique phase during which flawless decision-making was allied with perfect coincidence: the appointment of Jurgen Klopp; the careful composition of a squad ideally suited to his approach; the emergence of Trent Alexander-Arnold; the complete simultaneous mastery of signings and sales. Rarely does a club get everything so right, so often, especially at this level.

This is a stark contrast. It seems that nothing Liverpool do at the minute clicks either in a microcosm or as part of the bigger picture. Their transfer market imperiousness has dissipated. Their squad makes little sense. The call not to address those midfield problems in the summer at the absolute latest looks amateurish. The departures of key members of staff who thrived in the background has broken their collective stride.

Lijnders cannot be blamed for his book but Klopp and his right-hand man are at the epicentre of this confused, disorganised mess. They are being consistently out-coached and there is no longer anything recognisable or instantly distinguishable in this Liverpool team. That air of invulnerability, of them being in any way different to the rest, hangs heavy. The sequel should be interesting.

 

Everton
The obituaries are already being written – and predictably entirely absolving Frank Lampard of any semblance of blame.

Everton’s problems are vast, systemic, structural and well-established, far predating the current incumbent’s appointment. That much is fair. But that much was known. Lampard and Everton would not exist in the same sphere without them. A series of bad relationships and decisions meant the Toffees fell straight into the arms of the first manager who treated them nicely, acted obsequiously to the fanbase and was willing to constantly refer to them as Everton Football Club. And it worked last season, to the extent that he kept them in precisely the same position he inherited them.

But Lampard and his eternal defenders should not be able to have their cake and eat it. His cannot be a powerless, blameless and inscrutable role. Everton being a basket case does not disqualify the individual paid a handsome sum – and given a substantial summer budget – to reverse that from criticism.

He was aware of their circumstances. He accepted them, took the challenge and welcomed the compliments for achieving the bare minimum. He has to shoulder the responsibility for their subsequent rank failure to do so. This is not a situation that allows for a free pass.

It might not rescue Everton and certainly does not address their myriad issues, but even Lampard must accept that his opening promise to the supporters – “the first thing they want is fight and desire and that must always be our baseline” – has been broken, and for that a price will have to be paid.

 

Patrick Vieira
Crystal Palace have earned as many points against the current bottom half of the Premier League as Newcastle (19) and more than Liverpool (17).

Crystal Palace have earned as many points against the current top half of the Premier League as Bournemouth (3) and less than Southampton (4).

Crystal Palace have also not had more two of the same result in successive Premier League games this season. They drew back-to-back games at the end of August and start of September, won a couple in a row from October going into November and lost either side of the World Cup break. There is a reason Patrick Vieira said that “consistency is a priority” after a second heavy defeat in little over a week.

A minority of critics have emerged among the fanbase calling for the manager to be sacked, which at this stage is patently bollocks; they’re closer on points to Europe than they are the relegation zone. Mid-table side is mid-table. But some investment in a paper-thin squad would not go amiss, either this month or in the summer.

 

Wilfred Ndidi
Look how they (injuries, positional changes, the lack of an actual back-up, the general Leicester malaise) massacred our boy. Wilfred Ndidi was once the foremost defensive midfielder in the Premier League, an all-tackling intercepticon symbolic of how sensational the Foxes had become at recruitment. He is now a liability entirely shorn of confidence, yet another passenger in a team devoid of drivers.

“It’s just a case of sometimes coming away from the team and working on the training field and just resetting everything,” said Brendan Rodgers before the Fulham defeat. “I can see in training that has allowed him to have that freshness back in his game so there’s no doubt over the coming weeks he will be ready to start.”

Ndidi was initially named on the bench before an injury to Kiernan Dewsbury-Hall necessitated his promotion. Leicester have now won one of the nine Premier League matches the Nigerian has started this season – and he was substituted at half-time of that 4-0 victory over Nottingham Forest. He is broken.

 

Bournemouth
Bournemouth’s record this season under permanent management: P7 W1 D0 L6 F2 A23.

Bournemouth’s record this season under caretaker management: P11 W3 D4 L4 F16 A16.

Make that difficult call to Gary O’Neil and get Tony Parkes in.

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