Premier League weekend awards: Liverpool’s secret weapon and Pochettino is a problem

<span><a class="link " href="" data-i13n="sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link" data-ylk="slk:Phil Foden;sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link;itc:0">Phil Foden</a> scored twice in <a class="link " href="" data-i13n="sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link" data-ylk="slk:Manchester City;sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link;itc:0">Manchester City</a>’s 3-1 win over <a class="link " href="" data-i13n="sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link" data-ylk="slk:Manchester United;sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link;itc:0">Manchester United</a>. </span><span>Composite: Getty Images, Shutterstock</span>

Player of the week

Phil Foden is in the middle of the biggest heat check since Mark Ruffalo in Poor Things. He was the best player on the pitch in City’s 3-1 win in the Manchester derby, finishing with two goals, including a now trademark stunner from the edge of the box.

Sometimes you can tell a player has taken a mini-leap, even if it doesn’t show up in the numbers. While others have been in and out of the lineup this year, Foden has been City’s constant. He’s played more games for Pep Guardiola this season than at any other point in his career.

By the advanced metrics, this has been a standard Foden season, albeit with an increase in shots. But he’s delivering key performances with more pressure on his shoulders. With Erling Haaland missing big chances, Kevin De Bruyne missing time due to injury and others being cycled in and out of the lineup, City have routinely turned to Foden to dig out wins.

The focus on Foden’s End Product™ has obscured (a little) the development of his all-around game. As a player, Foden’s greatest strength is his unpredictability: it is impossible to know, at any given moment, whether he will zig here or zag there. He can drop into space and feed players ahead of him; he can zoom in behind. No other City player has such a refined bundle of skills.

Controversy of the week

Isn’t it fun to have another weekend defined by an officiating decision? If you want a full accounting of the disasterclass at the end of Liverpool’s 1-0 win over Nottingham Forest, we will point you here.

In short, referee Paul Tierney incorrectly handed a drop ball to Liverpool in the eighth minute of added time at the end of the game. Liverpool went up the other end of the pitch and, two minutes later, Darwin Núñez scored a last-second winner. From there, bedlam.

We can debate the merits of how much Tierney’s decision affected the winner – Forest, after all, had a couple of chances to clear the ball before Liverpool put it in the net. But for those in non-Liverbird tinted glasses, it was probably a lot. Former referee Mike Dean described it as “monumental error.”

What we can all agree on: Forest’s post-match handling of the situation was farcical. The club sent out their newly appointed ‘referees analyst’, Mark Clattenburg, to flood the airwaves with their side of the story. It is a damning indictment of the league that a former official is now employed by a club to go full Malcolm Tucker when a decision they disagree with goes against them.

When Clattenburg was initially appointed, it was sold as a position built around data analysis and internal communication – all commonplace for Premier League clubs, though it’s typically work undertaken by data scientists. Clattenburg, we were told, would help teach the Forest coaches and players the rules and assemble dossiers on the different referring crews. It was clear to anyone with eyes and ears that Clattenburg’s real role would be to give the club an outlet to take shots at officials without manager Nuno Espírito Santo shouldering any responsibility.

“I will not comment on the referee,” Espírito Santo said post-match, leaving it to Clattenburg to do the heavy PR lifting.

This was Clattenburg’s first rodeo as spinner-in-chief. Here’s hoping it will be the last.

Save of the week

On the flip side of the Forest controversy was a result that kept Liverpool at the top of the table. “If you had told me 12 days ago we would have won all four games,” Jürgen Klopp said after the Forest game. “I’d have said no chance.”

If Liverpool win the league, people will rightly point to the young replacements further up the pitch who have stepped up in the absence of senior pros all across the field. But it’s been Caoimhín Kelleher’s ability to keep Klopp’s team in games that has provided the platform for their recent form. It’s now five wins on the spin for Liverpool in all competitions. Across the last three, they’ve conceded a cumulative xG of 5.76 but haven’t conceded a goal.

Here are the league’s current top-three goalkeepers in shot-stopping % who have played at least 600 minutes:

  1. André Onana, Manchester United

  2. Alisson Becker, Liverpool

  3. Caoimhín Kelleher, Liverpool

How wonderful it is to have Kelleher as your backup goalkeeper. Since he’s entered the starting lineup due to Alisson Becker’s hamstring injury, Kelleher has been as productive as any keeper in the league. Take any measurement you like – stop percentage; post-shot expected goals; actions outside the box – and you’ll find Kelleher at or near the top of the list. He is saving a ludicrously high volume of shots that should go in. He’s saved his best Alisson impression for one-on-one stops, though.

Klopp’s expansive style puts pressure on his goalkeepers to be quick off their line. Midway through the Forest game, Kelleher delivered another crucial save, rushing out to deny Anthony Elanga, who was running clean through on goal.

If Kelleher had played at even a league-average level over the past month, Liverpool’s title hopes would probably have disintegrated. Instead, they have maintained a title challenge despite being hit by injuries. They have lost one of the league’s best goalkeepers and, seemingly, found another one.

Goal of the week

This, from Marcus Rashford, is football as high art:

“If you back me, good,” Rashford said this week. “If you doubt me, even better.” There is no better way to answer critics than to blast one in from 30-yards in a home town derby.

Despite Rashford’s effort, though, it was a disappointing display from United. They conceded three preventable goals and finished with just three total shots, only one of which (Rashford’s) was on target. Issues that have plagued them all season returned against the league’s best. They finished with just 26% possession – City finished with more total shots (27) than the percentage United had the ball. Had it not been for Rashford’s strike, it would have been another routine win for City.

Chant of the week

Chelsea left it late to grab a 2-2 draw away to Brentford. It was another frustrating afternoon, with Chelsea controlling the first-half and then wilting once Brentford applied pressure early in the second.

Hounding defense is built into Brentford’s DNA, and Chelsea could not hold their composure once their opponents started to crank the tempo. Chelsea fans let their manager know how they were feeling, offering a round of anti-Pochettino chants and singing the name of former manager José Mourinho – and this on Pochettino’s birthday, no less.

Pochettino is one problem among many. But he is a problem. Chelsea’s performances have been a cluttered slog all season. They have no organizing purpose, no structure, no crutch when a game gets tight. Pochettino was hired to mold a mishmash of players into a team – and Chelsea are no closer today to having a blueprint for the next 12 months than they were when he first took the job.

The handwringing over Chelsea’s $1bn spending spree has (rightly) drawn msot of the vitriol. The scattershot approach to the transfer window has been the club’s biggest problem. All of that is baked into the adjustment period. But the confusion and aimlessness is still jarring at times. Pochettino is closing in on a near full season worth of games but the list of questions is growing: Where is the development? Which of the young investments is significantly better today than when they first signed? What would the peak version of Pochettino’s Chelsea even look like?

As we approach the final stretch of the season, Chelsea are in the bottom half of the table. They’ve won just once in their last five league games. They lost a cup final that was there for the taking. They’re now left hoping they can win the FA Cup and scratch together enough points to finish in the upper half of the league table. A reminder: they won the Champions League three seasons ago. By the time next season rolls around, it’s unlikely there will be any European football at Stamford Bridge.

Building a team is about incremental improvement, sure. But under Pochettino, Chelsea have shown none. The doubtful experiment feels increasingly doomed.