Monday Verdict: Ruthlessly aggressive Liverpool much missed

Date published: Monday 13th February 2017 8:35

Could a front pairing of Gabriel Jesus and Sergio Aguero be Manchester City’s future? Plus Liverpool have their swagger back, the Swans are sailing to safety and Huddersfield buck the Championship trend…

 

In time Pep will find a way for Aguero & Jesus to play together

Pep Guardiola, as one of the best managers on the planet, will know the worth of Sergio Aguero.

Stories have appeared over the last couple of weeks claiming that the Spanish boss is willing to sell the Argentinian forward, with big-money deals to Paris Saint-Germain and Real Madrid understood to be on the table.

Aguero’s omission from the starting line-up for Manchester City’s last two Premier League matches against Swansea City and West Ham has rightly raised a few eyebrows – with their shiny new signing Gabriel Jesus preferred in attack.

And Guardiola was forced to defend his decision following their victory over Swansea by insisting that the 28-year-old remains key to his plans at the Etihad.

“Sergio remains the most, or one of the most, important players in our squad. Without him it will not be possible,” Guardiola said.

“This guy (Jesus) arrives, he played good. That’s why he was playing but they can play together. Gabriel can play on the left. Now I have many options up front.”

While Guardiola’s statement was reassuring, Aguero’s post-match reaction was somewhat unnerving, as he hinted at a possible exit in the summer.

“I have to help the team as much as I can in these three months, afterwards we’ll see what the club wants to do with me,” Aguero said.

Gabriel Jesus: Enjoying life in England

It seems, however, that Aguero’s only gripe is the possibility of falling down the pecking order behind Jesus, after the Brazilian bagged three goals in his first two Premier League starts.

That is a problem Guardiola can solve if he is willing to experiment, with a possible place for both his star men in the City attacking line-up.

Currently, City play a high-pressing 4-1-4-1 formation that allows room for only one striker. To make these tactics work, the lone striker must put in his fair share of defensive work for his side – an area in which Aguero has struggled under Guardiola.

With 4-4-2 unlikely to be an option that the inventive Spaniard would use, the City boss could deploy what effectively looks like a 3-5-1-1 with Aguero tucked in behind Jesus.

City have struggled with three at the back this season but, with Guardiola’s refusal to play Jesus out wide, this could be one way to incorporate both strikers, while maintaining the attacking threat from Leroy Sane and Raheem Sterling in wide midfield.

Aguero, who has scored 154 goals in 234 appearances for City, will go down as one of the best players in Premier League history and Guardiola will know he is irreplaceable.

Pep is no stranger to making high-profile sales – just ask Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Samuel Eto’o – but with Aguero in his prime at 28, he will still be part of City’s present and future.

Joe Williams

 

Liverpool have their swagger back

Welcome back, Liverpool! Where have you been?!

The Reds were quite simply sensational in the first half against Tottenham and were reminiscent of the side that looked like serious title contenders at the start of the season.

While those title dreams have since faded away into a distant memory, their first Premier League win of 2017 should now set the benchmark for nailing down that all-important Champions League spot.

And Sadio Mane showed exactly how important he will be if Liverpool are to put together a really strong end to the season. His ruthless aggression, his powerful surges beyond the defensive line and emphatic finishing gave Jurgen Klopp everything that he hoped Daniel Sturridge would bring to his attack.

Along with a well-drilled defence and a dynamic midfield – which had everything to do with Georginio Wijnaldum replacing Emre Can – Liverpool have their blueprint for the rest of the season set out in front of them.

With no European or FA Cup commitments, Klopp now has two whole weeks to make sure that his squad are prepared for the run-in.

That is a huge luxury to have at this stage of the campaign and one that their fellow Champions League challengers do not have, and that means Liverpool have no excuses if they do fail to finish in the top four.

We are all aware that Liverpool can produce big results against their top six rivals, now they have to replicate it against the likes of Leicester, Burnley and Bournemouth who are sandwiched in between the games coming up against Arsenal, Man City and Everton.

On a final note about the aforementioned Can and Sturridge. The Tottenham game provided yet more strong evidence that their days at Liverpool must be numbered.

The more mobile Wijnaldum showed he is much more capable of unlocking a defence with a killer pass and Sturridge’s poor psychical condition is made very clear when compared to Mane.

If Liverpool can replace Sturridge with a player who has the same attributes as Mane to play as two of the front three alongside a more creative outlet in Roberto Firmino and Philippe Coutinho, then the Reds could be a force to be reckoned with next season.

 

Steering the Swans to safety

Coming in to what was one of the most difficult jobs in English football, new Swansea City boss Paul Clement deserves some recognition for what has been a remarkable turnaround.

Since Clement arrived in South Wales from somewhat different surroundings at Bayern Munich, he has steered the club from bottom of the league to four points above the top three.

In truth, the Swans were very low odds for relegation before Clement’s arrival last month. Since he took charge at the Liberty Stadium, Swansea have won four of their six league matches. Prior to that, they had won just three of their previous 19.

The club now sit in 15th place in the Premier League table, and there is absolutely no question that the new boss is proving to be a masterstroke from the board, with the club firmly heading in the right direction.

“It’s down to hard work on the training ground, instructions from the coaching staff, and he had a good game,” Clement said after his side beat Leicester on Sunday.

“We have worked with all of the back four combinations, doing unit work with those in the team and not in the team.

“I have been impressed with our belief. I don’t know what it was like before, but it has been good since I have been here.”

Belief appears to be the operative word. While the rumours seem to suggest Bob Bradley never quite gelled with the squad, Clement has clearly arrive and put an arm around the players and got them to back their own abilities on the field.

The effects on that were demonstrated perfectly as Swansea comfortably beat champions Leicester City on Sunday afternoon.

It was essentially a relegation six-pointer (as much as that cliche is overused); the winner pulling themselves into clarity, and despite the champion pedigree in the Foxes, it was only the Swans who showed up for the game.

Clement’s side looked organised, composed and solid yet also purposeful, intelligent and bright as they sprinted out to a 2-0 half-time lead from which the result was never in doubt. Perhaps many would point the finger at Claudio Ranieri’s side and their remarkable fall from grace, but it was clear to see that the home side are achieving the desired effect under their new boss.

Wins over Crystal Palace and Liverpool away as well as Southampton at home have finally got the Swans sailing in the right direction, and at this point it is difficult to see them finishing in those bottom three spots, but there are plenty of points still up for grabs.

Oliver Fisher

 

Terriers challenging the Championship establishment

Heading into the 2016/17 Championship season, it seemed that many people were predicting the same teams to be in and around the top six. The likes of Newcastle United, Norwich City, Aston Villa – all equipped with huge transfer warchests due to parachute payments – as well as Brighton, Derby County and Sheffield Wednesday.

These are all huge clubs with budgets that most in the bottom half of the table (historically) cannot compete with. Of course, it’s up to those teams to spend the money wisely or face the same rut as Blackburn, Cardiff etc. are going through, but they are no doubt at an advantage.

That’s where Huddersfield Town come along. A historic club, being the first to win the First Division (now Premier League) three times in a row as well as being FA Cup winners, but one that hasn’t yet tasted the Premier League under its current moniker.

After gaining promotion back to the Championship in the 2011-12 season, Huddersfield failed to really push on following their dramatic last day survival in 2012-13. Their league finishes since being back in the second tier have been 19th, 17th, 16th and 19th. As aforementioned, the club is constantly fighting against the big boys, and managerial changes in order to try and gain some momentum had previously failed with the likes of Simon Grayson, Mark Robins and Chris Powell all failing to do the business.

Then came David Wagner. Seen as a left-field appointment from chairman and supporter Dean Hoyle, Wagner was hired from Dortmund II to give a fresh approach to a club which had become somewhat stagnant. There were teething problems, but the man the media know as Jurgen Klopp’s best mate transformed the squad over the summer on a budget of less than £4million.

The ex-Schalke man essentially rebuilt the back four, adding Chris Löwe (free), Michael Hefele (free) and Chris Schindler for a club-record fee, with the ever-present Tommy Smith slotting in at right-back as a much developed player under the stewardship of Wagner. Meanwhile, attacking force came in through the likes of Elias Kachunga (loan), Kasey Palmer (loan) and Jack Payne (free); midfield guile from Aaron Mooy (loan) and Jonathan Hogg, plus the prolific Nahki Wells leading the front line.

It doesn’t seem possible that a squad so cheap could challenge for promotion, but that is exactly what the Terriers are doing. Having taken 16 points from their first six games including wins against Newcastle United (away), Wolves and Leeds United (away), the division started to take notice with the West Yorkshire club top of the league by four points.

Huddersfield lost five games in seven in the league from mid-October through to the end of November in what was a spell expected to end any slim hopes of a miracle promotion. The team conceded three goals at lowly sides Preston and Cardiff either side of being shipped for five at Fulham.

Since December 10, Town have won nine out of 11 in the league, and 11 out of 13 in all competitions which has seen them set up an appetising round of 16 clash against Manchester City.

In this spell were some huge victories too, including wins against Norwich, Brighton and Leeds. The game against Brighton (live on TV) showcased exactly what Wagner is building at the club; a fast-paced, high intensity performance that the league leaders were blown away by, while three days later they did the double over local rivals Leeds with a late winner from cult hero Hefele.

On Saturday at QPR the Terriers recorded their first ever league win at Loftus Road, another indication that this team is re-writing the history of Huddersfield Town Football Club and tearing up the script that the Championship big-boys wanted to write.

The fans are in dreamland, the journey feels more like a fairytale and with every three points the impossible becomes possible. With vital home fixtures against Reading and Newcastle still to come, don’t count Wagner’s boys out of the top two race yet, especially having picked up 28 points from their last available 33, something even the top two sides have failed to match.

Huddersfield would prefer that their exploits continue under the radar, but everyone should take notice of the revolution happening in West Yorkshire.

Oliver Fisher

 

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