- Manchester City is fighting again. But is it good fighting or bad fighting?
- Alexis Sánchez is doing serious damage for Arsenal.
- Swansea's Bob Bradley experiment isn't going smoothly.
Before his team took the field on Sunday, Liverpool manager Jürgen Klopp talked about preparing for to face Bournemouth.
“Analyzing before the game I know I had to show the strength of the other team to my squad,” Klopp told Sky Sports. “They look really good.”
But he added: “Of course there are a few weaknesses—that’s how it is always—and we need to force those weaknesses more than in other games. If we do we will win; if not it will be really difficult.”
In the first half, Klopp’s planning worked to perfection. Liverpool wrapped the home team in a smothering neon yellow blanket. It exploited Josh King’s reluctance to defend on the right.
By the time Sadio Mané outpaced Nathan Aké to score the first, Bournemouth looked utterly powerless. A sign of its desperation was the panicked charge by goalie Artur Boruc as Divock Origi broke down the Liverpool right. Boruc was never going to arrive in time; all he did was allow Origi to dribble past and score into an empty net from a narrow angle.
“If you see the first half they dominated us,” Aké said after the game.
In the second half, Bournmemouth replaced King with Jordon Ibe and switched around its back four. But after 55 minutes, Eddie Howe brought on a player Klopp could not have analyzed. Ryan Fraser, a 22-year-old, had not appeared in the league this season. Within a minute, Fraser, a 5' 4" Scot, ran at James Milner drawing a foul. Callum Wilson converted the penalty.
Emre Can restored Liverpool’s two-goal cushion with a cute curling shot, but Fraser was not done. In the 76th minute, the Liverpool defenders—perhaps not recognizing a threat they had not seen on video—allowed him space in the box. He scored. Three minutes later, Fraser added an assist crossing for center back Steve Cook to spin and score a striker’s goal.
Bournemouth pressed for an unlikely victory. In the third minute of added time, Cook smashed in a long-range shot. Loris Karius could not hold the ball. Aké, another defender lurking like a striker, pounced and bundled the ball in to give Bournemouth victory, 4–3. Liverpool slipped to third in the standings, four points behind leader Chelsea.
Liverpool had lost a match that for 45 minutes it looked like winning at a canter. As opposing coaches know, Klopp’s team has a weakness in the heart of its defense. All they need to do is escape the relentless press and the explosive attack to force that flimsy door open.
Fighting deeds — English is at best Pep Guardiola’s third language. The Manchester City manager is a native Castilian and Catalan speaker and is also conversational in German and Italian. Still, he could have phrased his answer differently when he faced the cameras after a 3–1 loss at home to Chelsea, a match that ended in a brawl and with red cards for Sergio Agüero and Fernandinho.
“We are fighting again,” Guardiola told the BBC.
Presumably he meant that City would not be giving up in the battle for the title. His team had played well for most of the game but wasted a string of good chances to finish off Chelsea before being hit by a string of deft sucker punches in the second half.
In soccer, there is good fighting and bad fighting. This season, Diego Costa seems to have discovered the difference. He has changed from a player who tries to intimidate opponents with his sneaky use of the studs and elbows to one who terrorizes them only with his relentless running and clever control.
He remains a physical player. On Saturday, he bullied John Stones, Nicolás Otamendi and Aleksandar Kolarov. He transformed the game with a goal that combined brute strength, silky control and deadly finishing as he leveled the score after an hour. Then he held off defenders before setting up Willian to score the second goal with a perfect pass.
Agüero has a history with David Luiz, whom he scythed down to detonate the late melee. Indeed, Luiz was lucky to escape punishment after tripping the Argentine in the first half. But as players from both team crowded around and exchanged shoves and slaps, Costa remained aloof. This season he is focusing his fury on delivering shots that matter.
Hammer blows — Costa may be the scariest striker in the Premier League, but at the London Stadium late on Saturday, another man gave a display that suggested he is, currently, the best.
Arsenal thrashed West Ham, 5–1, and one man did almost all the damage. Alexis Sánchez set up Mesut Ozil to tap in the first and then scored three of the next four, each one a better finish than the last.
Like Costa, Sánchez is playing with a controlled rage that fuels an implacable will to win through ceaseless running and a relentless determination to hurt the opposition every time he has the ball. He rarely passes the buck with a tame backward pass.
After the game, his manager gushed. “He's a fighter,” Arsène Wenger told the BBC. “He's a classy player. You don't find many players who are fast and who can close down very quickly. He has such a short back lift; he can always surprise you.”
When asked about the Chilean’s ball control, Wenger laughed: “I forgot to tell you, he had a great technique as well.”
Costa has the power of a true center forward. Sánchez is bringing the imagination and creativity of a great natural inside forward to the position.
Swan dive — The scariest thing about Swansea’s 5–0 loss at White Hart Lane on Saturday is that it was crushed by a Tottenham team that was sluggish, sloppy and disjointed in attack.
Dele Alli broke Swansea’s flimsy resistance with a theatrical dive that would have shamed any swan but somehow won a penalty kick. Harry Kane converted. Yet already it was a question of when Tottenham would find the killer touch to exploit its complete domination and the space and time Swansea was allowing.
The next three goals all came when balls deflected or blocked by Swansea defenders fell to Tottenham players free in front of goal. For the fourth, Christian Eriksen even seemed to be ducking out of a header but Jordi Amat helpfully kicked the ball into the Dane. It rebounded into the net.
Swansea managed one shot, which was off target. It allowed Tottenham 28. Trailing, Swansea needed to attack but even so, long before the end, seemed to have given up chasing back when it lost the ball. Tottenham’s lumbering counter-attacks repeatedly caught Swansea outnumbered. Swansea is last in the table and lacks quality. If its players aren’t prepared to try to outwork opponents, they are doomed.
“We’re not good enough,” Swansea manager Bob Bradley said after the game. “The starting point was Tottenham physically first to every ball. They were faster. They were on top of us. We didn't play out of pressure very well. If you're constantly coming in second it makes for a tough day.”
Next week, Swansea should have all motivation it needs when it faces another team in the bottom three, Sunderland, at home. Sunderland appears to have begun its annual revival a little early. It beat Leicester, 2–1, on Saturday for its third victory in four league games. That match will be the test of whether the Bradley experiment is working.
Ugly, but with style — While the last match of the weekend at Goodison also ended in a frenzied crescendo, much of the 1–1 draw between Everton and Manchester United provided a reminder of how unsightly Premier League soccer can be.
When Zlatan Ibrahimovic put United ahead after 42 minutes it was the first shot on target either team had managed—though this one only just hit the goal, dribbling over the line after hitting the bar and the post.
Up to that point the main talking points had why Michael Oliver, the referee, had not shown Gareth Barry a yellow card for either a nasty foul or a deliberate handball and why he had not sent off Marcos Rojo for a two-footed lunge at Yannick Bolasie that would have made Jackie Chan wince. Slumping Everton had gone back to simple basics and spent the half hoofing long balls vaguely in the direction of Romelu Lukaku who, with Phil Jones sticking close, struggled to control even the accurate balls. Lukaku did not have a shot on goal in the match.
Slumping United, on the other hand, focused on trying to keep the ball, even if it struggled to go anywhere with it.
Then Maarten Stekelenburg repeated Boruc’s earlier error and flew out for a ball he could not reach. Ibrahimovic coolly chipped and then watched as the ball toyed with the goal-frame before spinning slowly across the line.
United has made a bad habit of dropping points by conceding late goals. In the last 15 minutes, as Everton threw on attacking players, United fell back. Everton, which had only one shot on the target in the first 75 minutes, managed four in the closing stages. David de Gea, so much more reliable than Stekelenburg, saved everything. It wasn’t the first time de Gea had made the difference for his club.
With five minutes left, José Mourinho, true to his habits, opted to defend the narrow lead. He sent on the hulking Marouane Fellaini to help repel Everton’s aerial bombardment. Two minutes later, Fellaini clumsily tripped Idrissa Gueye, a man who has never scored in the Premier League. Leighton Baines converted the penalty.
United has dropped seven points in the last 10 minutes of Premier League games. It has now won once, lost once and drawn six times in its last eight league matches. Mourinho has inherited a team built for managers who have, in recent seasons also struggled to live up to United’s tradition of winning with élan. Yet it could be more than just the squad, perhaps his “what we have we hold” tactics late in games cut too deeply against the grain of United’s attacking DNA.
He clearly understands that he must please the United fans both at Old Trafford and in the media, yet the criticism that comes with the job is also clearly irking him, though he is easy to irk. So is the fact that United is 13 points behind Chelsea, where Antonio Conte is winning by counter-punching with a squad that Mourinho built.
“When my teams win matches playing a different style of football then, in that moment, what matters is the style of football, not the results,” Mourinho told Sky Sports. “You have at this moment teams in the Premier League playing defensive and counter-attack football. That is ‘phenomenal’ in your words. When my teams are playing extremely well, the result are more important.”
“We were the best team by far,” he insisted, but for most of Sunday’s game, that was like boasting he had the best-looking entrant in a naked mole rat beauty contest.