After a weekend which saw Liverpool and Manchester City both beaten, Mark Holmes gives his verdict on the crazy Premier League title race.
KNEE-JERKERS OUT IN FORCE AFTER LIVERPOOL DEFEAT
There is a habit among many in the media of drawing enormous conclusions on the back of one result. It leads to teams being talked up and written off as Premier League title contenders on an almost weekly basis.
Take Liverpool for example. On Thursday, the day after their brilliant 6-1 win over Southampton in the Capital One Cup, The Guardian published a blog titled: ‘Liverpool to win the Premier League? It sounds far from crazy now, Jurgen’
Three days later, after a 2-0 defeat at Newcastle United, the same newspaper’s match report read: ‘As Merseyside reflected on an afternoon that made all the recent talk of an Anfield title challenge seem a little silly…’
You will find similar examples in pretty much every newspaper; as far as many journalists are concerned, one game can tell you an awful lot.
The reality, of course, is that every team puts in a mixture of good, bad and average performances throughout the season, meaning those determined to draw conclusions from every game find themselves contradicting themselves on an almost weekly basis.
A much more sensible way to judge a team’s prospects for the rest of the season is to look at a bigger pattern, but in the case of Liverpool that is hard to do only 12 games into Jurgen Klopp’s reign. He has taken charge of just seven Premier League games; how can anyone hope to accurately predict how the Reds will fare in the remaining 23?
So far under Klopp’s stewardship, after back-to-back draws at Tottenham and against Southampton, Liverpool have won at Chelsea and Manchester City but lost at home to Crystal Palace, struggled past Swansea at Anfield and now lost at Newcastle. You might glean from those results that the Reds are better playing against ‘big’ teams, but the truth is that it is still too early into Klopp’s reign to make such an assessment.
The German is still testing out different players, different systems and different ways of playing; who knows how good (or bad) Liverpool might be once he settles on his preferred options? The fact that Klopp is still working out his best approach, with a squad built by another manager, may very well turn out to be a reason why the Reds do not challenge for the title this season.
However, it would be ridiculous for anyone to suggest that Sunday’s no-show at St James’ Park was proof that they cannot win it. Coming just a few days after a 6-1 win and on a weekend which saw Manchester City, Manchester United and Tottenham also fail to win, never have knees jerked quite so much.
PELLEGRINI NOT INJURIES TO BLAME FOR MAN CITY DEFEAT
Speaking after Manchester City’s 2-0 defeat at Stoke City on Saturday, Manuel Pellegrini suggested the reason his side ‘did not play with the energy they needed to win’ was that their injury problems had prevented them from rotating his squad.
The Citizens actually made five changes from the team that had had beaten Hull City in the Capital One Cup on Tuesday, one more than Stoke made from the team that beat Sheffield Wednesday on the same night, but there is no doubt that injuries have been a massive hindrance to the Blues. Vincent Kompany, Yaya Toure and Sergio Aguero is a formidable trio of players to be without down the spine of your team.
However, few have much sympathy for a club that has assembled what is, on paper at least, by far the strongest squad in the Premier League. It’s impossible not to feel some impact of losing Kompany and Aguero, but Pellegrini cannot use their absences as an excuse for the level of performance his side turned in at the Britannia Stadium.
At the back, the Citizens’ struggles in the absence of Kompany is nothing short of an embarrassment. No team should be so reliant on one player, but certainly not one which was still able to field a £33million centre-half in Kompany’s absence.
Unfortunately, Pellegrini is bizarrely unwilling to change his tactics to suit the players at his disposal on the day. Playing a high defensive line may suit the team when Kompany is in it, but it really should not take a genius to work out that it’s a risky strategy to adopt with Martin Demichelis at the back. Frankly, the 34-year-old’s legs have gone.
To make matters worse, Pellegrini dropped Fabian Delph for the game at Stoke, his most mobile holding midfielder, leaving the back four completely exposed. To use the word again, it was embarrassing how easily Stoke were able to get behind the visitors’ backline. Was Pellegrini arrogant enough to assume that Raheem Sterling, David Silva and Kevin De Bruyne could win his side the game regardless of how the other seven outfielders performed?
If he did, he must have got a shock. De Bruyne was OK, but Sterling was extremely poor, while Silva still looked miles off the pace. And the less said about Wilfried Bony up front the better.
But, despite Pellegrini’s complaints, he did have other options. Delph, as already stated, always looked a strange omission, but you also have to question what Bony has done in Aguero’s absence this season to keep his place in the team ahead of Kelechi Iheanacho. Though, to be fair, the service into the former Swansea City forward left a lot to be desired.
Plenty are rushing to rule Liverpool out of the title race after their defeat at Newcastle, but that was a pretty rare off day for the Reds under Klopp. Pellegrini, however, has now repeated the same mistakes on several occasions.
If Manchester City keep their best players fit for the majority of the season, they will win the Premier League. But it hardly requires a tactical mastermind to achieve that with those players.
That the Blues struggle so much without one or two of their stars really does not say a lot about the management ability of Pellegrini.
TITLE RACE MAY STAY OPEN FOR A WHILE YET
There is still plenty of time for one team to establish their dominance over the rest in the Premier League. As stated, there is every likelihood that Manchester City will do it if they can keep their star players fit.
However, the fact that are continuing to suffer on that front means this title race could continue to be one of the most exciting in memory long into the New Year.
Arsenal, typically, are going through an equally difficult time with injuries and so almost certainly won’t be able to fully capitalise on the slip-ups of Pellegrini’s side, while Manchester United continue to find it as difficult to win as other teams are finding it against them. They have developed a good knack of grinding out results regardless of injuries or any other factors under Louis van Gaal, but they also struggle to put games to bed, which could well cost them in terms of fatigue as well as in the more obvious terms of dropped points like those against West Ham at the weekend.
Tottenham, meanwhile, have now gone 14 games unbeaten yet still remain outside of the top four. Having drawn eight of those 14 games, most recently against Chelsea and West Brom, they too appear highly unlikely to pull clear at the top but will keep themselves in the mix if they continue to pick up points as teams around them falter.
Liverpool’s chances depend on them finding consistency under Klopp, while Leicester City have been the most reliable to date but will face a big test of their aspirations in games against Everton, Liverpool and Manchester City before the turn of the year. Claudio Ranieri’s team face Chelsea at the King Power Stadium before then, but that is a game they will certainly feel confident of winning. There is every chance they could keep hold of top spot for Christmas Day.
In the long run you would expect them to fall away, but who knows how long they can keep up the pace if they keep Kante, Mahrez, Vardy et al fit while injuries continue to affect the chances of the teams around them.
This is one journalist that won’t be making any bold predictions just yet…