What is the opposite of being a flat-track bully? Well, Liverpool are it.
Time for reflection has been impossible for most clubs this season. However, when Jurgen Klopp sits down to pick out where it all went wrong for Liverpool in this chaotic and constricted season, one damning area of concern will stick out like an Everton shirt nestled within a full Kop.
Liverpool’s inability to beat the lower-ranked teams in the Premier League.
What odds would have got on Liverpool winning none of their fixtures against West Brom, Fulham, Brighton, Burnley or Newcastle this season? You’d probably have better chance winning the lottery. Eight games, no wins. An unbelievable set of results for a defending champion.
A couple of iffy results can be deemed an anomaly but to take just five points from a possible 24 available in eight fixtures against West Brom, Fulham, Brighton, Burnley and Newcastle is bordering on unacceptable for a team that should be chasing for the title, let alone making the top four.
Even when a VAR call went in their favour against Newcastle, Liverpool still managed to throw away the points despite only two minutes left on the clock. Jurgen Klopp referenced that. “We were given a present and still couldn’t take advantage,” he said.
The result leaves Liverpool’s top-four destiny out of their own hands with five games remaining although they statistically have the easiest run-in in terms of average position of their opposition, including fixtures with Burnley and West Brom.
However, as previous results suggest, that may not actually be an advantage for Klopp’s strange side.
Thomas Tuchel. Big game away from Stamford Bridge. Chelsea win 1-0. It has become a theme of his brief reign. His team have already gone to Tottenham and Liverpool and scored the only goal. Atletico Madrid were beaten 1-0 in Bucharest. Manchester City succumbed by that score in the FA Cup semi-final at Wembley. Now, West Ham have become the latest victims of this new Chelsea.
It is five wins and two draws from Tuchel’s seven Premier League away games so far as his risk-free brand of football looks to be reaping maximum rewards. The inclusion of Cesar Azpilicueta at wing-back for this one was a further clue that the German wanted to give West Ham absolutely nothing.
That made sense given the importance of the occasion. Level on points going into the game and with the tougher run-in, defeat at the London Stadium would have jeopardised the top-four spot that Chelsea have worked so hard to secure having been languishing in mid-table at the start of February.
Tuchel quickly worked out that if Chelsea could establish a solid base then they had the quality in the final third to make the difference. Timo Werner has been wasteful at times – and there was further evidence of that even in victory – but he was the difference-maker, nevertheless, popping up with the winner late in the first half.
Given Liverpool’s surprise slip earlier in the day, Chelsea have bought themselves a useful advantage – one they may need as attention turns to Real Madrid and this season’s Champions League.
With a trip to the Etihad Stadium still to come, Chelsea know that the job is not yet done. But this was a huge step towards that top-four finish. And given Tuchel’s record in these big away games so far, perhaps it would not be such a surprise if City are beaten again by this much-changed Chelsea team.
“Surely not” was the feeling around The London Stadium as Chris Kavanagh jogged to the pitchside monitor to review Fabian Balbuena’s ‘foul’ on Ben Chilwell in West Ham’s 1-0 defeat by Chelsea.
But there are absolutely no sureties given the current state of officiating in the Premier League.
Balbuena was guilty of kicking a football.
Hammers boss David Moyes described it as “rank, rotten and rubbish”, but with an almost apathetic tone. Many have given up on VAR and hold no hope that the situation will improve.
But at the end of a week where football’s biggest stakeholders – the fans, players and coaches – tasted victory against a plan that would have disenfranchised so many, VAR and the scrupulous implementation of rules poses its own threat. This isn’t football, and its long-term impact is really quite worrying.
Either the rules change – wait, I think we’ve tried that – or common sense is introduced. Moyes said this was a decision made by somebody who has never played the game; suggestions of having an ex-footballer on hand when decisions are made in Stockley Park may improve the situation, but the authorities seem scared to rely on a common-sense approach.
At the moment, football is being ruled like a criminal trial. It needn’t be treated so seriously. A balance between entertainment, fairness and sense needs to be struck. We’re miles away at the moment.
This was a bright spot in what has been a miserable season for Sheffield United. After four defeats as interim boss, Paul Heckingbottom could finally taste victory, however ugly this was.
Sixteen of the Blades’ losses have been by only a single goal, including last week at Molineux, but here they could toast one of their own. Brighton found Aaron Ramsdale in inspired form, belatedly showing just why £18.5m was spent on him last summer as he kept just a third clean sheet of the league campaign.
A key reason why the side’s relegation was a foregone conclusion long before it was confirmed last weekend was the sheer number of defensive combinations that have been forced upon the team this term – 14 in total – but the rearguard action which served Sheffield United so well in 2019/20 was on display here as Brighton’s second-half revival was snuffed out.
“I’m pleased with every aspect of the performance tonight,” the interim boss said. “In the games I’ve been in charge of so far, we’ve shown attacking quality but not been clinical and have then been punished going the other way. But the manner in which we defended having gone in front was really important. To a man, we were excellent.
“The timing of it, the fact it’s come after relegation was confirmed… nothing’s changed in the players’ approach. The application has been there. You can’t blame luck when you’re at the bottom after 32 or 33 games but the fight is still there. If we keep that, there’s no reason why next season can’t be a successful one.”
Heckingbottom is after some face-saving results with the club’s owner Prince Abdullah relaying the message that the next manager “is watching” – and this was the perfect reminder of the club’s DNA as a gutsy performance was rewarded.
Graham Potter admitted his Brighton side missed the suspended Ben White but felt his players collectively fell below their usual standards during their defeat at Sheffield United.
In the Steel City, Brighton had a golden opportunity to move 10 points clear of the relegation zone but they produced a display that typified their campaign: full of passes, full of chances, but desperately short of a clinical touch.
Curiously, the Seagulls have won just four of their 25 Premier League games against sides in the relegation zone (16 per cent) – the lowest win rate of any club in the competition from a minimum of 10 such games.
Having beaten the likes of Tottenham and Liverpool this season, that unwanted statistic will certainly frustrate supporters aware of their team’s potential.
“It just shows how tough and competitive the league is,” Potter explained. “It shows that we’re doing some things right as we’ve got the points from somewhere.
“We’ve certainly got the potential to do better against the sides around us but we simply haven’t. Tonight, our performance level wasn’t where it has been and when that happens, it’s hard to collect points in the Premier League. That’s the reality.
“Sheffield United beat Manchester United this season so it shows you what’s possible. We’re not some super team. We’re a team that is trying to develop and get better. We’ve made some steps but we’ve clearly got some more to do.”
The 16th-placed Seagulls have picked up 21 of their 34 points since the turn of the year, with that return significantly helped by eight clean sheets from their last 15 outings, but it is the shortage of goals that will concern the manager.
Brighton fired a blank for a third Premier League game at Bramall Lane which may just be cause for concern as they head into their final five games of the season.
It has been one monumental week for Arsenal off the pitch, initially announcing their intention to compete in the European Super League – and very swiftly backing out again.
After mass protests at Chelsea and Tottenham during the week, it was inevitable that the same would happen ahead of Friday’s game against Everton, and Arsenal supporters turned out in force to make their feelings about Stan Kroenke’s ownership well heard.
Even as the game kicked off inside the empty Emirates, the chants, fireworks and helicopters overhead could be clearly heard. Police stayed outside the ground well after dark to marshal the gathering.
Ahead of the game, Mikel Arteta said his players would only focus on matters on the field, despite also being blindsided by the Super League announcement. However, they could not replicate the fiery atmosphere outside the ground, turning out a disappointing performance against a close rival.
Arsenal had more possession (59 per cent) and more shots (14), but did very little with either. Jordan Pickford was only called into real action in the dying minutes of the game when the Gunners were desperate for another late equaliser. Unfortunately this time, there was not late reprieve as Bernd Leno’s disastrous own-goal handed Everton victory.
Former Arsenal striker Kevin Campbell told Sky Sports: “It was a poor performance. It [the performance] doesn’t fill me with any joy, with anything to do with positivity. For me, it’s a lacklustre, lifeless performance but we’ve seen so many of them this season. Ten home defeats and it’s looking bad.
“You could say it is down to the manager, the buck stops with him and of course it does, but as a professional footballer, when you cross that white line, it’s your job to perform. You have to have some aggression in your game – you’re at home, there’s something on the line for Arsenal and you put in a performance like that? No.”
Could it be the off-field theatrics that has had an impact? Or are all eyes on Thursday’s Europa League semi-final? That now looks to be their best chance of securing European football next season because based on Friday’s showing, the Premier League appears to have fallen by the wayside.
Ancelotti stopped short of billing his side’s trip to Arsenal as decisive in Everton’s quest to finish in the European positions, but after witnessing an ugly win at the Emirates, the Italian underlined the importance of completing a first league double over the Gunners since the 1985/86 season.
After 24 games without a win at Arsenal in all competitions stretching back to January 1996, the manner in which Everton moved to within three points of fourth-placed Chelsea would always come a distant second to the result itself.
A first half in which the visitors shaded very nearly turned in Arsenal’s favour during the second when Jon Moss initially awarded the hosts a penalty for a foul by Richarlison on Dani Ceballos. But VAR David Coote deemed that Nicolas Pepe had strayed fractionally offside in the build-up.
Mikel Arteta’s ire was doubled as a similar call would subsequently go against his side leading up to Bernd Leno’s calamitous own goal. A small slice of good fortune was needed, therefore, was required for Everton’s first win in six across all competitions and Ancelotti insisted facing one of the would-be breakaway teams added no pre-match motivation to his players.
“We were motivated because it was a vital game. Maybe lose this game, we have lost a lot of opportunity to fight for Europe and that was the only motivation,” he said.
“We were a little bit lucky with the VAR decisions but with these three points we keep fighting for the rest of the season. We are in the fight for European positions, and this is where we wanted to be at this time of the season.
“We are there and have six games until the end and have to do our best.”
Only Manchester City (12) have won more away games than Everton (10) in the Premier League this season, while this is the first time since 1986/87 that the Toffees have won 10 away games in a single league campaign.
Indeed, Toffees have now won at Tottenham, Leicester, Liverpool and Arsenal this season. The home defeats to Newcastle, Fulham and Burnley revealed Everton’s other face, and Ancelotti knows his side must replicate the away performances against less-fancied opponents if they are to maintain a top-four push.