Fourteen matchdays are in the books and the table is still looking very condensed. At the top and bottom, teams are separating themselves. For good and bad reasons. At the top, Liverpool may have decided it’s time to turn it on and canter away with the title. Having finished last weekend second on goal difference, they now sit four points clear at the top, while at the bottom Sheffield United are five points adrift of West Brom despite picking up a good draw this weekend.
The middle of the table is ever-changing. Spurs dropped from second to sixth over the weekend and West Ham have fallen to 6th to end last weekend to 10th to end this one. Manchester United jumped from 6th to 3rd over the weekend, while Leicester, yet to end a matchday outside the top four, are back up to 2nd after a big win over Spurs.
10 points separate 2nd and 17th, and then the drop off begins with Arsenal. A little mini-league of six teams seems to be forming at the bottom of the table which is good news for those glued into the bottom three as they have more of an opportunity to stay up if other teams continue to be so poor, but it’s bad news for the teams getting dragged into that relegation fight.
With all that said, here’s the good, the bad and the ugly of Matchweek 14.
Manchester United – when it clicks.
United are blessed with a fantastic group of attacking players. Marcus Rashford, Anthony Martial, Mason Greenwood, Bruno Fernandes, Donny Van de Beek, Edinson Cavani, Juan Mata and Dan James are all potential match-winners in the right situation. Yes, Dan James too. How quickly people forgot that he was a major difference maker in the early parts of last season, before Solksjaer overplayed him and Premier League defenders began to figure him out. He became a target on social media among the 13 year olds who’ve never seen sunlight but call themselves SanchoooSzn or some such nonsense.
Solskjaer recalled James to the starting line-up against Leeds, and was rewarded as the winger put on a very good display. He used his pace and direct style to stretch the field and open up the pitch. He held width when United needed him to, he tried to make back post runs when they needed him to, he used the ball well and he tracked back.
James’ presence wasn’t the reason United clicked into gear, but it was a contributing factor, and in return his performance was a direct result of the others in the attack performing well. Fred and McTominay were dynamic in midfield – and McTominay scored two goals to open his account for the season, Bruno Fernandes did Bruno Fernandes things and helped himself to two goals and assist while Rashford and Martial were a constant threat and put Leeds on the back foot over and over again. Neither of them scored, but both played very well. Indeed for Martial, this was probably his best performance of the season.
Their defense was not good, not by a long stretch, but the midfield and attack clicked really well going forward and showed what they are capable of. Even without Pogba and Greenwood in the starting 11, even with Martial and Rashford not scoring, United filled their boots.
Whether United have turned a corner under Ole, or this is just another of the runs they tend to go on whenever he finds himself under a bit of pressure remains to be seen but they played some good football against Sheffield United and this performance against Leeds was arguably their best of the season. United fans will be hoping it’s not an Oasis in the Desert.
Sadio Mane’s rage
Sadio Mane is a very humble, respectful human being. A devout Muslim, he shuns the spotlight and prefers to focus on his charitable work when he’s not playing football. Not much is really known about Mane away from the pitch. He keeps himself to himself, and lives a quiet life.
On the pitch, he’s something very different. Sadio Mane is a killer. And let a stone cold silent assassin type either. Mane is more the manic spree killer type who leaves a trail of dead bodies behind him and leaves no room for consideration with regards to who killed those people. Mane plays the game with an intensity that few can match, and he plays it to win. He wants to score goals, he wants to torture defenders who find themselves unlucky enough to be marking him for the day. Jurgen Klopp has turned him from an unassuming talent, into one of the premiere killers in the world of football.
Mane scored his first Premier League goal since October 17th on Saturday and immediately went on the hunt for more. He tormented the Palace backline at every opportunity and almost added a second in the 56th minute. Immediately after that chance, Mo Salah appeared on the sideline stripped and ready to go. Mane began to gesticulate and moan. He was not at all happy. There was blood in the water. Liverpool were 4-0 up and Palace were on the ropes. There was more goals to be had here, and he didn’t want to pass them up. The killer inside wanted to inflict more damage.
Off he went, to be replaced by Salah. He sat in the stands, in the rain, and fumed. It took him about ten minutes to put his jacket on. He was far too busy silently raging to be worried about the rain. When Salah scored Liverpool’s 6th, Mane’s rage went up a level. He’d been off the pitch for 24 minutes. He hadn’t calmed down at all. Glorious rage glowed from him as the camera panned to get his reaction to Salah’s goal. Bobby Firmino didn’t help matters by continually making fun of Mane. He just caused Mane to fume even more. Liverpool were winning 7-0, he’d scored his first goal in the league in two months and none of it mattered to Mane. He’d been taken off early and his killer instinct could only process that via the medium of rage.
Sadio Mane has become a world class player at Liverpool. He’s developed from a talented but inconsistent player into an elite world class attacker. How? By becoming a killer. By raging against the slightest perceived injustice and then turning that rage on unsuspecting defenders. I wouldn’t fancy being a West Brom defender, having to face Mane after he’s had eight days to fume about being subbed off against Palace.
Danny Ings’ Luck
Danny Ings just can’t catch a break. Last season, for the first time, in four years, he finally managed to stay injury free and he delivered goals galore for Saints. He forced his way back into England reckoning, having basically lost three years of his career due to two major knee injuries sustained at Liverpool. His first season at Saints was blotted with injuries and rustiness as her sought to recover anything resembling form.
Last season was different, he had a full uninterrupted pre-season and went into the season fit and confident. For a man who’d suffered multiple serious injuries, he played without any sort of fear and looked like the Danny Ings who impressed many at Burnley, but with a more ruthless nature in front of goal. 22 goals in the Premier League represented a career high for league goals in a season, doubling his previous best.
Coming into this season the question was whether Ings could follow that up or whether he would slip back towards the 10-15 goal range. He has six so far, but missed out on four games through a knee injury so that six from 10 game tally is definitely in line with what he was putting up last season. Unfortunately for Ings, he has sustained another injury now and as yet there seems to be no word on how long it will keep him out. It’s a hamstring injury, which can always be tricky. Come back too quickly and it can lead to a much longer absence.
No matter who you support, surely everyone wants Danny Ings to stay fit and healthy. He’s been through enough with injuries, he’s lost enough of his career.
Jose putting the shackles on
Why Jose, why?
There can be no argument that Mourinho is an all time great manager with a CV to match anyone in the history of the game, but he could depress a car full of clowns with some of his tactical decisions. Why the need to play Sissoko and Hojbjerg together at home? Why the need to only play two attackers at home? Why not embrace the talent at your disposal, the way you did at Porto, at Chelsea the first time, and at Inter until you discovered the joy of anti-football?
Daniel Levy has gifted Mourinho an attacking group to match any in the league, spearheaded by Harry Kane and Son Heung-Min, with Gareth Bale, Steven Bergwijn, Lucas Moura, Carlos Vinicius, Dele Alli and Erik Lamela all at his disposal as well. Few teams in world football boast such quality depth, but Mourinho has taken umbrage with Alli’s lack of effort in training and Lamela has been injured so those two have been out of the picture. Bale is working his way back to fitness so we’ll excuse him not starting, but there was no logical reason to start Giovani Lo Celso on the right wing in this game.
There was no reason to play such unambitious football. Even when Spurs fell behind to Jamie Vardy’s penalty, their football didn’t show anything that suggested they were going to overturn the deficit. Leicester always looked the more likely team to score, in large parts because Jose had the shackles on his lads. If Spurs are to be considered serious title contenders, they’ll need more than Kane and Son in attack, and that responsibility will fall solely at the feet of the manager.
Leeds Defending Set Pieces
It’s past the point of just being bad, it’s just plain ugly now. They’re not a good defensive team in open play, but at least they look like a team. When it comes to set pieces they look like a group of lads who won a raffle to have a kick about with professional players. They most closely resemble the kids not picked on the playground, standing about aimless with no real idea of what they’re meant to do.
The data wizards who measure xG need to start including corners and freekicks against Leeds because the probability of scoring from them is far higher against them than the same situations against other teams.
It’s something Bielsa and his coaching staff are going to have to figure out quickly or teams will start playing to win corners against his team, safe in the knowledge that for every 3-4 corners, they’ll probably score two goals. Other than “Sheffield United didn’t win this weekend” there can be no more frequently used statement this season than “Leeds concede from a set piece”.
While Leeds should have enough quality to stay in the Premier League this season, they are going to need to sort out their defensive issues – particularly defending set pieces, if they want to stay in the league long term.
Mikel Arteta’s Job Security
15th in the table. Four defeats in their last five Premier League games. Eight defeats already this season, only West Brom and Sheffield United have more. Only 12 goals scored this season, only Burnley, West Brom and Sheffield United have scored less. None of this is good enough for Arsenal Football Club. None of it can be seen as acceptable. They’re only one point ahead of Burnley in 16th and just four points above 18th placed Fulham.
The more reports that come out of Arsenal, the worse the situation looks. Monday produced reports by connected journalists that Arsenal had a plan in case they got relegated. Arsenal Football Club. Relegated. Have you ever heard the like of it? They’ve never been relegated since they became Arsenal Football Club. Not once. In 106 they’ve only even flirted with it a handful of times. That they’re even considering it a possibility suggests that it may be time for a change. If there were fans in the stands, the change may have already happened.
It’s not all Arteta. Arsenal have a poor ownership situation, an underqualified Director of Football and seemingly want to use an agent driven recruitment model. They bought badly for the better part of a decade and Arteta took over a squad containing very little in the way of real quality. Outside of the attackers, Tierney and their academy products, who, of what he inherited, would you want at your team? Maybe Leno. Not much else.
Barring a remarkable turnaround, Arteta will go. Maybe not this week, maybe not this month, but soon enough. It won’t solve the problems at Arsenal but it will allow his superiors to hide behind a new manager for a few months.
Two Points from Forty-Two
Credit where it’s due, this was much better from Sheffield United. They came within single digit minutes of winning a game of competitive football for the first time since July. But then they remembered they were Sheffield United and allowed Danny Welbeck to score a late equalizer.
If United want to take heart from something, they need just look at Burnley who were dead even with the Blades not all that long ago and have now climbed to 16th in table. Burnley have shown just how quickly you can not only catch the teams above you, but overall the teams above them too. United’s plight is worse than Burnley’s as we have now passed week 14, and the gap between them and safety currently sits at 11 points.
But let’s focus on Burnley and how they turned it around. If Burnley can do it, United need to stay positive and believe they can also do. They need to focus in on the positive things they have going for them.
They did end a run of eight straight defeats, that’s a positive. They did pick up their second point of the season, that’s a positive. And they have Everton at home next and maybe, just maybe, they can remember that 12 months ago they were 5th in this very same division and dreaming of bringing European football to Bramall Lane. and win a game of football for the first time since Chelsea visited Sheffield on July 11th.