This week’s Monday Verdict questions just how geared up for a title challenge Manchester United really are, analyses two years of Jurgen Klopp, the apathy around England and why Arsenal’s return to form has been exaggerated.
TRUE TESTS ARE YET TO COME FOR MAN UTD
The soundtrack to Manchester United’s scintillating start to the season has been one nagging question: Are the Red Devils back to being genuine title contenders?
Well, this coming week at Anfield, we will probably get our answer.
The truth is that, as good as Man Utd have been, you wouldn’t say they have had a true test yet. West Ham, Swansea, Leicester, Crystal Palace… they aren’t really opposition that reveals a team in the Premier League. Even Everton in their current state are not exactly testing.
This week, though, Liverpool will certainly put Jose Mourinho’s men and their title credentials under the microscope. Granted, Liverpool have not been in great form themselves, but if their quality players continue to misfire, the occasion itself will certainly deliver a genuine test for Man Utd.
Every fan of every club believes, genuinely, that their derby is the most intense and ferocious, and who am I to argue with them? Derbies provoke passion and passions are subjective. I’m neither a Liverpool or Manchester United fan, but you simply must acknowledge the strength of feeling behind this fixture.
That’s sure to produce an atmosphere that could make life very uncomfortable for Man Utd – if they are not quite as good as it seems right now. They will have less time on the ball, less control of the game, considerably fewer powers of intimidation.
Whether Liverpool themselves are a real barometer for quality with their defence in their current state is very questionable. The can be got at, and they can be exposed and exploited – and Manchester United’s ability to do it in the most hostile of atmospheres will tell us everything we need to know now about their title-readiness.
TWO YEARS FOR KLOPP BUT HAVE LIVERPOOL ACTUALLY PROGRESSED
Sunday marked two years since Jurgen Klopp agreed to become Liverpool’s new manager, taking over from the sacked Brendan Rodgers.
It’s fair to say that those two years have been a real rollercoaster for Reds fans and the club alike.
We’ve witnessed some scintillating, breathless football, defending that Sunday league players would be ashamed off and offbeat antics from the great man himself.
The stats claim that Klopp and Rodgers are pretty close but that’s just about where the comparison ends.
When on top form, Klopp’s Liverpool really do take your breath away with the sheer pace with which they play and the relentless nature in which they hunt down the ball. On their day, and when everyone is fit, you could strongly argue that they are the most difficult team in the league to play against.
But therein lies the problem. There is no way that you can possibly play like that throughout 38 round of Premier League football, hence the reason why Klopp has been adding to his squad with very similar players to what he already has to cope with that, at times almost frantic way of playing.
The case for the defence, or complete lack of one, has so clearly been the entertaining German’s Achilles heel during his Anfield tenure and it’s his sheer stubbornness in that area that lets him down – almost like Arsene Wenger in that regard.
Anyone who only even has a slight knowledge of this great game of ours knows that if this Liverpool side could actually defend they could be world-beaters but Klopp just won’t do anything about it.
If he’s not careful that will end up being the final nail in his coffin, given that there have already been murmurings of some fans losing their patience in the former Dortmund chief.
As a neutral, Klopp’s two years have flown by and that’s almost a reflection of where Liverpool are as a club right now… exciting and on the brink of great things.
But how much longer can a club the size of Liverpool just be on the fringes of things and is Klopp the man to lead them to the promised land?
So many questions but it remains to be seen if Klopp is the man to provide the answers.
ARSENAL’S RETURN TO FORM GREATLY EXAGGERATED
I’ve read with disbelief this week as Petr Cech talked up Arsenal’s form and insisted the club could still have a major say in the title race this season.
Granted, since the Gunners were destroyed 4-0 by Liverpool just before the last international break, the club has enjoyed a decent run of form, having gone seven games without a defeat.
But there needs to be a significant dose of perspective here: home wins against Bournemouth, Doncaster, West Brom and Brighton are hardly earth-shattering and all matches you’d expect the Gunners to win.
I will give them credit for their goalless draw at Chelsea, which showed why they’re a more solid side without Mesut Ozil than they are with these days…. But to start talking about Arsenal in the same breathe as Man City, or even Manchester United, is a huge stretch of the imagination.
Cech would have been far wiser saying nothing, or even trotting out the tired ‘one game at a time cliche’.
And with their fans claiming their run of four straight Premier League games without conceding is more by luck than judgement, at least there’s some who can sprinkle a dose of reality on proceedings.
Arsenal face Watford, Everton and Swansea in their next three Premier League matches, with the double header against Red Star Belgrade and the Carabao Cup clash with Norwich thrown in for good measure – meaning there’s every chance they could extend the run to 13 games. I just hope in the event that happens, the word Invincles isn’t brought up…!
Their next real test comes on November 5 when they take on Manchester City at the Etihad. If they’re still unbeaten by then, I’ll start to take Cech with a degree more seriousness….
SOUTHGATE UNDERSTANDS… ENGLAND FACING BATTLE TO WIN PUBLIC HEARTS AND MINDS
England are trying to enjoy the moment after booking their place at the 2018 World Cup but Gareth Southgate’s side know they face a battle to win the hearts and minds of a sceptical public.
The likes of Portugal, Holland and Italy might cast an envious eye at the Three Lions’ qualification but Thursday’s arduous Wembley win over Slovenia – together with a ground-out success in Lithuania – felt anything but celebratory.
Harry Kane’s injury-time effort at least ensured they crossed the line with a victory but with tens of thousands of seats left unclaimed, and those in attendance more entertained by their own paper planes than events on the field, the challenge was to re-engage with a careworn fanbase.
Asked if he was enjoying the tricky challenge of leading his country, Southgate said with a chuckle: “Weirdly, I am. Although I am not certain I am standing here thinking ‘well, isn’t it brilliant to qualify for the World Cup, I am feeling all the love’ but I get it.”
Euro ’96 is held as the high watermark for the national side in the Premier League era, with an entertaining team capturing the wider imagination on home soil before crashing out to Germany in a semi-final shootout.
Southgate, of course, missed the decisive penalty in that match and now finds himself in charge of rekindling the old affection.
“They might find it difficult to find much love for me with my history with England! I’ve managed to shoulder that for 20 years,” he said.
“My job, my first objective, is to get the country to a World Cup finals. Then make the team as good as we possibly can and that’s what I intend to do.
“The more we can play football which excites people and score goals, will of course start to win people over. We’re in an era where it must be difficult for the supporters to relate to players because of what they earn and all of the hullabaloo that is around them. But these are good kids, desperate to play for England.”
The treasured status of Euro ’96 relies on many things, including a timeless anthem from the Lightning Seeds, but central to the memory is an England team who conjured Paul Gascoigne’s wonder goal against Scotland and a 4-1 demolition of Holland.
All of which provides proof that England do not need to lift the the trophy in Russia next summer to make their mark.
“I think to go into the latter stages would be looked on as a success if I’m being honest,” said defender Gary Cahill.
“I’m not saying let’s go out in the latter stages and then it’s been great. We’ve seen when England reached the semis in 1996, when Gareth was there, and I remember as a boy that felt massive. Yet we didn’t win.
“From the fans’ perspective, if you look at the last time we won anything for England it was a long, long time. So naturally they don’t expect. But I’d like to think everyone is positive and behind us.”
Joe Hart, the squad’s most experienced hand with 74 caps and two World Cup campaigns already under his belt, added: “We want to be part of that one special team that does something. It’s not to prove people wrong, it’s to make people happy.
“There’s no bigger bug or buzz than being part of a good national team. I really enjoyed my good memories of 1996 and I’d love to give that feeling to some other children.”
It is unlikely those youngsters who witnessed this week’s dour encounter felt that magic and Cahill admitted it made for an unusual night at Wembley.
“It was a bit strange,” he said. “Of course you want the fans on-side. You want the whole country to be behind the team. It wasn’t fantastic on the eye and yes, there’s a lot we still have to learn, but we’re trying to deliver with a young team.”
Hart sympathises with those who have felt let down in recent times, because he counts himself among them.
“I’m an England fan too,” he said.
“As well as walking off the field gutted at the last tournaments as a player, I understand how people feel. It’s our job to change that. The only way to do that is by doing well at a tournament.
“People probably are going to be cynical but at the back everyone’s minds, they want us to do well.”