EPL TALK: Liverpool, Man United moving in opposite directions

Liverpool's Virgil van Dijk (centre) celebrates scoring their first goal against Manchester United after a well-worked corner kick. (PHOTO: Action Images via Reuters/Carl Recine)

SINGAPORE — How have your favourite English Premier League (EPL) teams performed over the past weekend? And how will they fare in their next matches? Yahoo News Singapore looks at the key talking points surrounding the league in this new weekly series:

Reds’ relentlessness a result of astute planning

WHAT HAPPENED: Let’s start this new series by stating the obvious: Liverpool are going to win their 19th domestic league title after a torturous 30-year wait since their 18th. Their extraordinary pace of amassing 64 out of a possible 66 points so far this season is unlikely to be matched by any of the other title challengers.

How have they reached such an astonishing level of relentlessness? There is a simple answer: It is down to the astute long-term judgment of manager Jurgen Klopp and his assistants to stay ahead of other clubs by finding new ways to win matches.

With rivals trying their hardest to nullify their potent strike trio of Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino, Klopp had already tasked his assistants at the start of the 2018/19 season to improve Liverpool’s set-pieces, according to renowned sports news website The Athletic.

The results were spectacular. Liverpool have scored 14 league goals (including penalties) from set pieces so far this season, more than any other team. Last season, they also topped that table with 29 set-piece goals. This, after managing just eight goals from set plays two seasons ago.

In their 2-0 win over Manchester United on Sunday (19 January), as their arch-rivals deployed a five-man defence to combat the threats of the Liverpool strike trio and fullbacks Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andrew Robertson, the Reds countered by taking the lead through a simple corner routine – a beautiful delivery by Alexander-Arnold headed in by the imposing Virgil van Dijk.

Neither Salah, Mane nor Firmino were involved in the goal. The Reds machine that Klopp created now has too many weapons to be stopped by their EPL rivals. And that is why they are going to win the EPL title at long last.

WHAT’S NEXT: A very tricky trip to Molineux awaits Liverpool on Thursday evening. Sixth-placed Wolves have maintained their stellar development under manager Nuno Espirito Santo in the past two seasons to transform themselves from relegation strugglers into solid contenders for Europa League qualification.

How good are they? How about beating defending EPL champions Manchester City home and away this season, and giving Liverpool a hard time despite losing 0-1 to them at Anfield last month?

Curiously, Wolves have only the 12th-best home record in the league, largely due to drawing five of their 11 home games. But they have pace in winger Adama Traore, flair in playmaker Joao Moutinho and strength in striker Raul Jimenez to trouble the Reds all game, and they will definitely be a tough hurdle for the Reds in their title-chasing bid.

Prediction: This could very well be the second draw of the season for Liverpool. 1-1.

Manchester United's Marcus Rashford lies in pain after picking up a back injury during the FA Cup third round replay match against Wolves. (PHOTO: Martin Rickett/PA Images via Getty Images)

Rash Rashford decision will haunt Man United

WHAT HAPPENED: The consistently astute judgments by Klopp in the past few seasons only serve to amplify the stark contrast between Liverpool and the dysfunctional world of Manchester United under manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward.

Solskjaer may continue to be doggedly positive as he tries to rouse his haphazardly-assembled Red Devils to qualify for a Champions League spot, but he undermined his managerial acumen with a reckless gamble in playing an injured Marcus Rashford in Man United’s FA Cup third-round win over Wolves last Thursday.

Rashford duly aggravated his spinal injury in his 16-minute substitute appearance, and is now out for at least two to three months. It is another instance of poor, panicky judgment by Man United, as they feared losing the Cup tie and are now resigned to losing their best goalscorer for a crucial part of the season.

Yet, few are surprised by this latest bout of bad decision-making; it has undoubtedly been the Red Devils’ biggest flaw since legendary manager Alex Ferguson retired in 2013. The majority of footballing decisions since then have smacked of short-term and reactive planning, with the hapless Woodward assembling expensive but incoherent squads that are so much less than the sum of their parts.

Their 0-2 loss to Liverpool highlighted the gulf between the two arch-rivals, and the different directions in which the teams are heading. Solskjaer may have insisted that he was pleased with his players’ efforts, but it was a far cry from the days when Ferguson would have been furious even if his side had won, had they not played to his required level.

Now the talk is of finding a short-term transfer replacement for Rashford – another instance of panicky planning by Man United. Somewhere down the line, this must change for them if they are to regain their status as England’s top football club.

WHAT’S NEXT: Burnley at home would usually mean a straightforward win for a full-strength United. However, without three key players – Rashford, and midfielders Scott McTominay and Paul Pogba – they may struggle to create chances against Burnley’s solid defence line and in-form goalkeeper Nick Pope.

Pope was excellent in Burnley’s 2-1 win over high-flying Leicester City on Sunday, saving numerous attempts, including a penalty from Jamie Vardy. The England international will need to keep up his fine form as 14th-placed Burnley continue to climb out of relegation trouble.

Prediction: United may struggle to score in Rashford’s absence, and a 0-0 draw is on the cards.

Chelsea players look on in dejection after Newcastle's Isaac Hayden (right) scores a last-minute winner in their English Premier League clash. (PHOTO: Action Images via Reuters/Lee Smith)

Chelsea in rebuild mode as they bank on youths

WHAT HAPPENED: What does one make of Frank Lampard’s Chelsea? Are they a side capable of challenging for top domestic and continental honours, or a long-term work in progress along with their inexperienced manager?

Increasingly, it looks as if Chelsea’s title-winning days are over, at least in the near future. While they still boast match-winning talents in N’Golo Kante, Tammy Abraham and Christian Pulisic, the feeling is that they are giving their youngsters – and Lampard – time to grow into a consistent squad.

As of now, the Blues are showing inconsistencies typical of a youth-oriented team – capable of six-match winning runs earlier in the season as well as surprise losses to mid-table sides like Bournemouth, West Ham, Everton and, most recently, Newcastle in a last-gasp 0-1 defeat last Saturday.

Unlike Man United, Chelsea seem to have a better strategy despite being hit with a transfer ban last year, with Lampard being allowed to develop potential talents like Abraham, Mason Mount, Callum Hudson-Odoi and Reese James. Inconsistencies are tolerated this season, to the club’s credit.

They are still fourth in the table, five points ahead of fifth-placed United for the final Champions League spot. If they are able to hold on to that spot, it will give Lampard more time to rebuild his squad with new signings in the off-season.

Yet, for a club that won the EPL title a mere three seasons ago, it is a sign of the times that, even with Roman Abramovich’s riches, Chelsea’s perennial lack of a long-term manager is impeding their progress when compared to the ambitions of Liverpool and Manchester City.

WHAT’S NEXT: An intriguing all-London clash against Arsenal could set a marker for Chelsea for the remainder of the season. Arsenal have already endured a tumultuous season in which they sacked manager Unai Emery amid poor results. But they are showing signs of improvement under Mikel Arteta – who like Lampard is a former player tasked with revamping the club – and could pose a tricky threat.

Lampard will have to rouse his side from Saturday’s bitter loss, and getting his sputtering strikers back on form will be crucial.

Prediction: A 1-0 win for the Blues.


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