The Premier League in Review: Liverpool get the Leicester Blues
Whenever things aren’t going so well at Anfield, there’s a statistic that is rather instructive to refer back to. Liverpool have not finished below eighth place in the table in whichever division they’ve been playing in at the time since the end of the 1954/55 season. Unlike any other football club in England, there is no-one below a pensionable age supporting or otherwise involved with this particular club who can even remember what it’s like to finish below this position in an end of season league table.
At the time of writing, Liverpool are in eighth place in the Premier League table. We may be able to count the number of times that the club has seriously challenged to be the champions of England over the last quarter of a century on the fingers of one hand, but this doesn’t alter the cold, hard fact that as things stand right now, the club’s current position is bad as it has been on the pitch for Liverpool since before the Suez crisis, even if the club is not going through the sort of existential crisis that it went through during the Gillett/Hicks/Hodgson days at the moment.
Statistics, of course, can be manipulated to tell just about any story that one wants to tell, but there can be little arguing with the fact that it was not meant to be like this for Liverpool. The arrival at Anfield of Jurgen Klopp was supposed to be a glimpse of a brave new world and the opening gambit towards a brighter future. The clamour him to be appointed in the slipstream of the departure from the club of Brendan Rodgers seems to have led to a belief that there was a hint of inevitability about Liverpool’s long-overdue return to the summit and, as ever, the manager is already starting to feel a degree of heat over the team’s continued misfiring on the pitch, but which is really more likely to be the truth behind the club’s continuing torpor?
Can Klopp really be starting to be exposed as a busted flush as a coach, though, or is this all more a matter of the current generation of Liverpool players just aren’t really gifted enough to match the lofty expectations of the club’s support? There may well be something to the idea that the manager’s charm offensive since landing at Anfield may have blinded some to the scale of the challenge that he faced in bringing the team up to scratch. What cannot be doubted is that, whilst Liverpool’s class of 2016 is capable of turning on the style in fits and starts, consistency of any sorts remains as far out of reach as it has done at any other stage over the course of this season.
On Tuesday night at The King Power Stadium, Liverpool yet again demonstrated their Jekyll & Hydesque tendencies in losing tamely to Leicester City. It’s only been five weeks since Klopp’s team beat Leicester at Anfield, a result which was supposed to precipitate the beginning of the end of what most at the time still believed to be Leicester’s mirage of a title challenge whilst simultaneously beginning the process of propelling Liverpool towards the Champions League places. Since then, however, Liverpool have won just four of the eleven matches that they have played in all competitions.
Leicester City, on the other hand, have only been beaten once since then and even that defeat, at home against Tottenham Hotspur in the FA Cup, might be considered to do their chances in the Premier League no harm, considering the fixture backlog that it averted. The win brought up Leicester’s half century of points for the season, and they are entitled to raise their metaphorical bat to the metaphorical pavilion. They’re now ten points ahead of fifth-placed Manchester United with fourteen games to play. The Champions League is starting to glimmer on the horizon. What they’ve managed already this season is already an achievement for our times, and it’s not over yet.
Elsewhere in the Premier League, Tottenham Hotspur supporters are stretching every sinew in continuing to refuse to believe. Spurs’ three-nil win at Carrow Road against Norwich City on Tuesday night was just about as routine as any that Mauricio Pochettino’s team will breeze through this season, but still that feeling remains. How long can this last? When will Pochettino be lured away by a club with a bigger wallet and greater sense of entitlement? What will happen when the inevitable injuries to, say, Harry Kane, Christian Eriksen or Delle Alli come? Five and a half decades without a league title will do that to a club, and Spurs retain a sense of disbelief that the Premier League title could ever be delivered to White Hart Lane. Every match still feels like a potential minefield, but Pochettino’s team was clinical and effective against one of the leakiest defences in the Premier League, and for so long as the results keep flowing so will that sense of disbelief at it all become more and more difficult to retain.
If this is all a complex set of psychological manoeuvres designed to demonstrate the essential inner cruelty of the universe to the supporters of Tottenham Hotspur, then Arsenal are certainly playing a full part in it all. Spurs’ North London rivals continued their recent stutter with a goalless draw at home against Southampton, a result that dropped them to fourth place in the table on goal difference after having gone four league games without a win and three without so much as a goal. Much of this was down to a performance for the ages from the Southampton goalkeeper Fraser Forster, but Arsenal supporters have become almost as accustomed to their team inexplicably losing their way during the post-Christmas period as their Spurs counterparts have to flattering to deceive in a more general sense. The return of Mesut Özil alongside Alexis Sánchez will doubtlessly assist Arsenal in regaining their poise, but they’re faltering in a way that few would have expected, a couple of months ago.
Sandwiched between Leicester City and Tottenham Hotspur at the top of the table, meanwhile, remains Sergio Agüero. Manchester City were workmanlike rather than sparkling in winning by a lone goal at the Stadium of Light against a Sunderland team that may on another evening have grabbed a point or more for their efforts. Agüero, however, remains the Premier League’s greatest force of nature, with twelve goals in his last ten games to keep City in touch at the top of the table. Still, though, Manuel Pellegrini’s team has failed to win successive Premier League matches since scoring eleven goals in two games against Newcastle United and Bournemouth in the first half of October. They have a chance to end that record on Saturday lunchtime against… Leicester City. To say that it’s tight at the top is something of an understatement.
Manchester United, meanwhile, continue to show signs of stirring back to life. For all the talk of crisis at Old Trafford, United remain in the FA Cup and the Europa League, and in touch with a place in the Champions League for next season, should one of the clubs above them stumble further. Most encouragingly of all for Louis Van Gaal, Tuesday night’s brushing aside of Stoke City came with a straightforwardness that has been absent from many of his team’s performances this season. Was this a reaction to the news of Manchester City’s capture of Pep Guardiola from the end of this season? It’s tempting to think so, but this was as much about a team that played ninety minutes with a sense of freedom and expansiveness rather than the straitjacket that it has seemed to be wearing for much of the last six months or so. It would be stretching credulity to suggest that Manchester United are back, back back just yet, but this was a definite step in the right direction.
Tuesday night’s other three matches were largely of interest to other end of the current Premier League table. Whether Aston Villa’s recent performances can even be described as an upswing is debatable. What can be said for certain is that they were the architects of their own downfall at West Ham United, where a bright enough opening seventeen minutes was completely undone by the sending off of Jordan Ayew over a flying forearm. A two-nil defeat followed, and Villa remain ten points adrift of the dotted line that marks Premier League survival. Elsewhere, West Bromwich Albion and Swansea City cancelled each other with a one-all draw, and Bournemouth took another small step towards safety with a narrow win at the now free-falling Crystal Palace, who have now lost five league matches in a row.
Last night’s two matches saw Chelsea continue their unbeaten run under Guus Hiddink with a goalless draw at Watford, who had an outstanding performance from goalkeeper Heurelho Gomes to thank for emerging from the match with a point. And finally, back on Merseyside, those Jekyll & Hyde tendencies mentioned earlier aren’t exclusive to Liverpool. Everton’s Roberto Martinez has been coming in for a little criticism following recent league performances, but a glimpse of his team’s capabilities was on display at Goodison Park as they brushed Newcastle United aside by three goals to nil. It was their first league win since Boxing Day, when they beat… Newcastle United, at St James Park. Seldom elsewhere has the song, “Can we play you every week?” felt more appropriate as it must have been as Everton got back in touch with what we might describe as their inner Jekyll. Like identical twins separated at birth, Liverpool and Everton seem to be finding very different yet oddly similar ways to blow hot and cold this season.
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