SINGAPORE — How have your favourite English Premier League (EPL) teams performed over the past week? Yahoo News Singapore looks at the key talking points surrounding the league in this weekly review:
English giants at sixes and sevens in shock humiliations
WHAT HAPPENED: Rarely do Manchester United or Liverpool lose league matches by five-goal margins. The last time it happened for the Red Devils was in 2011, while you would have to go back to 2015 to find the last time the Reds suffered such a heavy defeat.
So when the two English giants were humiliatingly thrashed by five-goal margins less than three hours apart on Sunday (4 October), the shockwaves were felt all over the world by their huge global fan bases.
The biggest question on everyone’s mind was: How?
How did Man United capitulate 1-6 at home to Tottenham? How did Liverpool – the reigning EPL champions – bellyflopped so badly in a 2-7 mauling by Aston Villa? How could the highly-paid players and managers get it so wrong? How will the two most illustrious clubs in England respond to such humbling defeats?
As both sides retreated to lick their wounds – and nurse their bruised egos – for the international break, one thing is clear: their problems are not the same.
For Man United, the heavy loss felt like the culmination of years of lacklustre recruitment and haphazard coaching, which had long infuriated their rabid fans.
For Liverpool, their shock defeat seemed out of character, stemmed from a combination of poor performances, untimely injuries and silly errors that resulted in a perfect storm of an embarrassment.
MANCHESTER UNITED: Let’s start with United. They were already struggling with poor performances in their opening two matches of the season when they hosted Tottenham, now coached by their former manager Jose Mourinho. Despite taking an early lead, they were methodically carved apart by the two-pronged threat of Harry Kane and Son Heung-min, and were down to 10 men for much of the match after Anthony Martial’s first-half red card.
What will appall the fans is that the tragi-comical defending, the lack of ideas in attack and – worst of all – the lack of fight displayed by their highly-paid players are not new problems.
For the past few transfer windows, the Red Devils were urged by everyone to strengthen their defence – specifically their left-back and centre-back positions. Yet, those advices were unheeded, and the bumbling performances of Harry Maguire and Luke Shaw on Sunday surprised no one.
More damningly, manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer seemed incapable of devising a coherent winning strategy throughout his tumultuous tenure.
The Norwegian is increasingly looking out of his depth, capable only in setting his side to go on the counter-attack with the speedy front trio of Martial, Marcus Rashford and Mason Greenwood in every match.
When opponents set up defensively, United cannot seem to muster enough inventiveness or intensity to outwit them. Is it down to Solskjaer’s ineffective tactics, or is it because too many of their players – Paul Pogba being the key culprit – did not seem to pull their weight despite their sizeable salaries?
Whatever the problems are, these are institutional conundrums that are not easily eradicated. Yet, the club seemed strangely unwilling to address these problems; they’ve instead gone out to sign free-agent striker Edinson Cavani on transfer deadline day on Monday.
How the Uruguayan is going to solve United’s defensive problems, no one knows. What is certain to everyone is that Solskjaer does not have much time to revive United’s fortunes. He may not survive beyond another couple of embarrassing results.
LIVERPOOL: After three straight league victories to start off their title defence, Liverpool had begun preparing their away tie with Aston Villa with lots of confidence. Even though key new signing Thiago Alcantara was sidelined due to a positive COVID-19 test, they were expected to assert their dominance over Villa, who barely avoided relegation last season.
Then came troubling news that star forward Sadio Mane also tested positive for COVID-19, and would be quarantined and unavailable for the match. While the Reds shrugged off the setback, feeling that there were capable back-ups among the squad, they were hit by another major injury: goalkeeper Alisson Becker dislocated his shoulder during training, and will be out for at least four weeks.
And so they travelled to Villa Park in hope that the patched-up team could at least grind out a victory. Yet, from the second minute they were suffering – second-choice goalie Adrian made a mess of an innocuous pass to gift an easy goal to Ollie Watkins. That opened the floodgates, as brilliant Villa repeatedly carved apart a highly-regarded Reds defence line to register the huge rout.
A shell-shocked Klopp refused to pin the blame on Adrian, who looked shaky throughout the match. The German manager said the biggest mistake was his players’ reaction after falling behind, as he accused them of “losing the plot”.
He did not mince his words when he added, “Whatever team we could have lined up, I wouldn’t have expected to lose 7-2. It had nothing to do with the players we missed... Tonight, in different challenges, Aston Villa definitely wanted it more than us. That’s something I saw and I don’t like.”
Given that Klopp had gushed about his players as “mentality monsters” amid their rise to being champions of England, his post-match comments seemed to allude that some of his players have lost their edge after winning the EPL title.
Indeed, the Reds have already conceded a whopping 11 goals after four matches this season – surpassed only by newly-promoted West Bromwich Albion (13 goals). That is already one-third of the 33 goals they conceded over 38 games last season – and 12 of those 33 goals came in the final seven matches, when they had already clinched the title.
Clearly, their defence is faltering – and it is not just down to their defenders playing a risky high-defence line tactic. Their midfielders and attackers had also failed to do their job to press hard ahead of the defence. Mane’s constant harassing of rival defenders was sorely missed.
It is also telling that captain Jordan Henderson, whose constant cajoling of his teammates on the pitch is so crucial to Liverpool maintaining their intensity, is absent with injury.
While such a porous defence is troubling, it is fixable, given that this is practically the same group of players who won the league by 18 points last season. Form-wise they are terrible at the moment – and the Villa thrashing could finally prove to be the humiliating wake-up call they need to step up their game.
And that is perhaps the biggest different between the Reds’ current predicament and Man United’s – they already have the personnel to recover from the embarrassment. Whereas United’s heavy defeat seemed like a culmination of problems, Liverpool’s shock loss felt like an out-of-character result.
And judging by Klopp’s comments, he is ready to summon a big kick up his players’ behinds to ensure they get back to the standards he demands.
WHAT’S NEXT: Both wounded giants face tough matches after the international break. Man United travel to St James’ Park to face a Newcastle United side which is set up defensively with counter-attacking intentions – precisely the kind of opponents the Red Devils have had so much trouble to break down under Solskjaer.
Liverpool will be making the short trip across Stanley Park to play fierce city rivals Everton, who are top of the EPL table with four wins out of four. The Toffees would love nothing more than to inflict more misery on their neighbours, and assert themselves as genuine title challengers under Italian manager Carlo Ancelotti. The Reds will have their work cut out in responding after their Villa capitulation.
Last-minute shopping for clubs amid COVID-19 uncertainties
WHAT HAPPENED: Those hoping for a grand slam finish to the European transfer window on Monday (5 October) would have been sorely disappointed.
No, there was no last-minute change of heart from Lionel Messi – he is staying at Barcelona. No, Jadon Sancho is still at Borussia Dortmund, despite the repeated overtures made by Manchester United.
And no, Chelsea and Manchester City have not made any last-minute shopping sprees to add to their already-sizeable number of signings since the transfer window opened in August.
And the deadline closed with several intriguing transfers, but no blockbuster trades that would set pulses racing among fans.
Arsenal made the biggest splash by signing Ghanaian midfielder Thomas Partey for £45 million (S$79 million) from Atletico Madrid. (Cue all the “Partey Time” puns.) The 27-year-old has been increasingly influential and dynamic for Atletico, and the Gunners will hope he can do the same for their midfield.
Yet, Arsenal would also have been pondering what might have been, had they also managed to secure the services of long-time target Houssem Aouar from French side Lyon. The playmaker would have further upgrade the Gunners’ midfielder and make them as legitimate title challengers.
But that sums up this transfer window: because of the deep uncertainties due to the COVID-19 pandemic, clubs have been more prudent with their transfer spending, so as not to mortgage their future on players who may or may not turn out to be overwhelming successes.
Man United – who signed left-back Alex Telles, striker Edinson Cavani and a couple of youth prospects in the final hours of the transfer window – had been chasing Sancho since the transfer window began, yet could not pull the trigger to pay the staggering €120 million (S$192 million) fee demanded by Dortmund.
And while it seem justified and prudent, given that the 20-year-old winger is an exciting but ultimately untested talent, United’s repeated hesitations have infuriated their fans, who felt that their club should have turned their attention to other areas of the squad that need immediate strengthening.
United’s faltering transfer moves were in contrast to several other title contenders, who have assessed their finances and made moves that fit their budgets as well as addressed the areas of improvement in their squads.
Everton, for example, made a slew of astute signings to transform their problematic midfield. And James Rodriguez, Allan and Abdoulaye Doucoure have propelled the Toffees to the top of the EPL table with four straight wins.
But Everton continued to strengthen with deadline-day signings of defender Ben Godfrey and goalkeeper Robin Olsen. If both of them start contributing positively and quickly, then it would undoubtedly be a successful transfer window for the Merseyside club.
Otherwise, the likes of Liverpool, Chelsea and Manchester City have made their squad additions early on in the transfer window, and were able to relax and coast through the frantic final hours before the deadline.
With the window closed, it is time for the managers to show their worth to coach the new players to fit into their playing systems. In a sense, the EPL season has truly begun.
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