Salah helps Liverpool learn from history
If every club’s aim each season should involve improving on the failings in the last, Liverpool showed signs they have rectified some errors. This year, like last, they went 3-0 up at Bournemouth. The difference this time was that they were the team to score four; rather than losing 4-3, they won 4-0. That the win came with Sadio Mane an unused substitute was also significant.
The Senegalese has been out of form, but Liverpool are far less reliant upon him. If Mohamed Salah was initially seen as a Mane clone who could reduce Liverpool’s reliance on his fellow winger, he has gone far beyond that.
AS IT HAPPENED: Bournemouth v Liverpool
He became the first Liverpool player to reach 20 goals in a season before Christmas since Ian Rush, a feat that eluded such superb goalscorers as Luis Suarez, Fernando Torres, Michael Owen and Robbie Fowler. Philippe Coutinho and Roberto Firmino also scored and starred as it demonstrated that, for all the talk of Liverpool’s ‘Fab Four,’ they often only really need three of them on the pitch. Last season, they could not afford to lose one. This season, they can.
2. Lingard stars in Mkhitaryan’s absence
Henrikh Mkhitaryan’s descent from outstanding to outcast remains both remarkable and not fully explained. The most creative player in the Premier League in August, when he registered five assists, failed to make Manchester United’s matchday squad for the eighth time in nine matches as they beat West Bromwich Albion. If it appears a waste of the talent of a player voted the best in the Bundesliga in his final season at Borussia Dortmund, another is capitalising on his fall from grace.
AS IT HAPPENED: West Brom v Manchester United
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Jesse Lingard’s strike at the Hawthorns was deflected. It was also his fourth goal in five league games, including a wonderful solo run at Watford and a match-winning brace at Arsenal. It marks quite a turnaround after his previous 47 top-flight matches produced a solitary goal.
It also helped illustrate the value of a player regularly denigrated, perhaps in part because he is not the sort of big-money signing United have tended to make in recent years. The sense is that United will not benefit from Jose Mourinho’s discarding of Mkhitaryan. In the short term, however, there have been days when Lingard has ensured it has not mattered.
3. City reach new high in thrashing of Spurs
Any team with 16 consecutive wins has reached rarefied levels and provided plenty of highlights. Manchester City could cite a win over defending champions Chelsea at Stamford Bridge and last week’s derby triumph at Old Trafford when they showed attacking intent and Manchester United appeared intent on defence. They could mention scoring five goals against Liverpool, six away at Watford and seven at Stoke.
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Yet there was a sense that the 4-1 win over Tottenham was their best display so far. Partly because it came against a team who defeated them last season and because Spurs were beaten at their own tactics as City pressed and played at pace.
Partly it was because they sustained the intensity of their assault. Partly it was because the scoreline did not flatter them on a day when they scored eight goals. Partly, indeed, it was because the in-form David Silva was absent and his replacement, Ilkay Gundogan, was hugely influential.
Partly, too, it was because of the quality of the individual performances of Kevin de Bruyne and Leroy Sane within a superb collective display. Partly it was because City ended up 21 points ahead of Spurs after finishing eight points behind them last season. It was a combination of everything that made it so impressive.
4. Tottenham are missing Alderweireld
It is hard enough visiting the Etihad Stadium at any point. Going their without one of your two best defensive midfielders, Victor Wanyama, and with the other, Eric Dier, required in defence is not ideal. It is still worse when two of your three best centre-backs, Davinson Sanchez and Toby Alderweireld, are injured and suspended respectively. So Mauricio Pochettino and Tottenham merit sympathy.
While Manchester City were so good it is possible to imagine them winning no matter who lined up in Spurs shirts, it was another game to illustrate how much Tottenham miss Alderweireld, the outstanding centre-back in the country.
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When Gundogan headed City ahead, it was the third consecutive goal Tottenham had conceded from corners. By the time Raheem Sterling scored City’s fourth goal, following an error from Alderweireld’s deputy Dier, it meant Spurs have been breached 11 times in the eight league games he has missed, compared to just seven in the 10 he started.
It is no coincidence that Alderweireld’s teams, whether Ajax, Atletico Madrid, Southampton or Spurs, have either had the best or the second best defensive record in their division in each of the last eight seasons. Now Spurs have conceded six more goals than Burnley and four more than Chelsea and there is no guarantee Alderweireld will be back when they face Manchester United and Liverpool at the end of January and start of February.
5. Hodgson deserves huge credit for Palace’s turnaround
If Frank de Boer was supposed to be progressive appointment at Crystal Palace, Roy Hodgson seemed a regressive one, a 70-year-old who had failed with both Liverpool and England and who was unlikely to reinvent Palace. Instead, however, he has revived them. They had no goals and no points when he took over; that became no goals and no points after seven games following his slow start.
It is impressive, then, that rather than being cut adrift, Palace climbed to 14th place after beating Leicester on Saturday. It was a remarkable result for several reasons: Christian Benteke’s opener at the King Power Stadium was Palace’s first away goal for 237 days; Leicester had won their previous four games; their only defeats this season had come to Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool and the Manchester clubs. It was based on an outstanding performance from Wilfried Zaha, built on a fine defensive effort and illustrated the transformative effect a manager can have. And it might just encourage clubs who make a dreadful beginning to next season to sack their manager.