Premier League hits and misses: Liverpool can improve, time for Paul Pogba to live up to hype
Liverpool have room for improvement, which will scare the rest of the Premier League, and it is time for Paul Pogba to live up to the hype.
Last Updated: 22/06/20 2:36pm
So, a third straight 0-0 in a Goodison Park Merseyside derby, and, even without the atmosphere, it was the same old story.
Liverpool had bags of energy, but Carlo Ancelotti's tactics were perfect; sit deep but stick tight, as the champions-elect found it hard to create in tight spaces.
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Usually, pinball in the final third favours Liverpool, but, in the end, Everton arguably deserved more, with some fine late chances.
It feels odd to ask where Liverpool can strengthen, given they are likely to break the record points tally for a Premier League team. But two wins in seven games has raised some serious questions about the back-up for Liverpool's famed front three.
Takumi Minamino is clearly a work in progress, and Divock Origi, though thought of fondly by Liverpool fans, is rightly defined as a much lesser option. Liverpool clearly missed that press and verve from Mo Salah.
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Andy Robertson was missed too. The Scot stretches opposition defences until they snap, allowing one of Salah, Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mane to pounce, and with Trent Alexander-Arnold he creates the symmetry this Liverpool side thrives off.
Jurgen Klopp's side will deservedly be labelled among the greatest Premier League champions, but what is scary for the rest of the league is their room for improvement.
Some of Manchester United's defending against Tottenham was less than impressive - just ask Roy Keane - but Paul Pogba's return certainly provided a cause for optimism.
The Frenchman, who had not featured for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's side since Boxing Day due to injury problems, and whose future had been the subject of intense speculation, came off the bench in the 63rd minute at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium and changed the game in United's favour.
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There was no shortage of individual brilliance, including a stunning cross-field pass to release Marcus Rashford and the rampaging run which earned the penalty for United's equalising goal, but it was his combination play with Bruno Fernandes, the scorer of the spot-kick, which was most encouraging.
The pair did not get quite long enough on the pitch to salvage three points for United on Friday night, but if - and it is a big if, given his past inconsistency - Pogba can continue in the same vein for the rest of the season, then a Champions League spot will surely be theirs.
Perhaps now is the time that Pogba will start living up to the 'Pogback' hype.
It has been a difficult season for Newcastle's £40m striker Joelinton, and the Brazilian's struggles in front of goal continued during the first half of Sunday's 3-0 win over Sheffield United. But the striker, with just one Premier League strike to his name prior to facing the Blades, went into the restart with a spring in his step.
He scored during an intra-squad friendly before netting the winner against Middlesbrough at the club's Benton base on Tuesday. Having snatched at a glorious chance to break the deadlock against the Blades, however, it looked like the same old story would befall the 23-year-old.
But Joelinton rolled up his sleeves, was involved in the crucial dismissal of John Egan, and duly ended his long wait for a home Premier League goal to cap a fine afternoon for the Magpies.
Speaking afterwards, Steve Bruce said: "He wants to do well and he has a go. Of course, it's been difficult for him but he's only young. He'll only get better. He wants to achieve things, and when players have the appetite that he has, you know they're going to be okay."
Newcastle are now just two points off Arsenal in 10th, and, after 39 shots without scoring, Joelinton could well prosper without the expectant fans in the stands.
Since Arsene Wenger left in 2018, Arsenal's approach to management has felt a little like rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic. Since the start of that year, the Gunners have been led by three different men; all have faced the same problems.
Latest recruit and former midfielder Mikel Arteta could never have been accused of lacking heart and desire in his playing days but his historical insight into a Gunners side on the way down will at least have given him the perspective to avoid any great shock at their capitulation at Brighton.
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It was all-too familiar as Arsenal threw away a winning position with A) a basic defensive error from a corner, and B) a lapse in concentration in the last minute. Arteta chose his words carefully post-match, but left no-one in any doubt of his demands.
Keeping concentration is "non-negotiable", he announced, stony faced. "We haven't competed like you have to in the Premier League." Wenger and successor Unai Emery may have raised a wry smile at that assessment, but Arteta will wonder whether he will be afforded the personnel to change things next season. After all, even keeping David Luiz appears to be a stretch.
It was clear where his faith lay against Manchester City on Wednesday, as he left the old guard of Mesut Ozil, Luiz and Sead Kolasinac, among others, out of the starting line-up, but with the Gunners' injury list mounting, for the short term at least, he is running out of alternatives.
It has been a disappointing return to action for Sheffield United, who head into a tough run of fixtures off the back of two "bang-average" performances, as Chris Wilder admitted following his side's abject 3-0 defeat at Newcastle.
Wilder was keen not to dwell on the clear injustice of the goalless draw at Aston Villa last week, but his team lacked urgency during the opening period at St James' Park before things quickly unravelled in the second on Tyneside.
John Egan received just the second red card of his English league career, and there were just 264 seconds between the defender's departure and Allan Saint-Maximin's opener. The visitors never recovered.
Just one point and no goals from two games against sides in the bottom half of the Premier League table is not the sort of form you want heading into a trip to a resurgent Manchester United - a crucial match in the race for a top-four spot on Wednesday - before Tottenham visit Bramall Lane.
Key to their success has been a consistency to the backline, but with Egan's suspension now adding to Jack O'Connell's absence and Dean Henderson's ineligibility against his parent club, the Blades must put talk of Europe to one side and get back to basics.
No-one wanted the Premier League season to take a hiatus. Okay, not everyone, but certainly not in the circumstances it did. But Jose Mourinho will be as close as anyone to admitting a three-month break is exactly what his side's season needed.
Tottenham looked refreshed and a world away from their laboured draw at Burnley before the lockdown in a draw with Manchester United where they gave as good as they got, and looked relatively assured defensively even with Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen on the bench.
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Having Heung-Min Son and Steven Bergwijn, who would have missed most if not all of the regular season, either side of Harry Kane allowed them to stretch United and they looked like a typically well-drilled Mourinho team of old.
It was far from perfect and it will be interesting to see how they improve with a fully-fit Kane to lead the line, but there were enough good signs to show real encouragement.
On Friday evening, Southampton looked like they had not missed a week, let alone 100-odd days, of Premier League football. They were fit, sharp and switched on, taking advantage of a Norwich side who made a number of needless errors and are almost cut adrift at the bottom of the table.
They passed well, defended resolutely when Norwich began well in the first 10 minutes and used the counter-attack to devastating effect, scoring twice from a quick break and have now won 23 away Premier League points this season (W7 D2 L6), with only Chelsea (24), Man City (28) and Liverpool (37) winning more on the road this season.
It has been a wonderful turnaround from Ralph Hasenhuttl and he was awarded with a new four-year deal at the start of June. Credit must also be given to Danny Ings, who was the man of the match against Norwich, having a hand in all three goals - scoring one, assisting one and providing another quick break for the other - and showed his defensive qualities too.
The Saints were nervously looking over their shoulder at one point this season. Now, they can confidently look ahead.
Jack Grealish is having, statistically speaking, a remarkable season.
Forget the goals, forget the assists. It is his 'fouls won' tally which is most extraordinary of all.
After another mauling on Sunday, the Villa captain has been credited with 'winning' - which is the wrong word, of course, but let's go with it for now - a staggering 140 fouls this season in the Premier League.
For context, the next highest is 98.
Against Chelsea, the tally took another nine hits - and that, along with 'mauling', most definitely is the right word. Put another way, more than half of all the fouls committed by Chelsea at Villa Park were on a single player. Grealish's average over the 90 minutes was barely three touches for every foul won.
Does he deserve more protection? That's not the question. The answer is very simply that every player deserves greater protection.
On Saturday, the red herring debate was whether Bernd Leno was injured by deliberate intent. The talking point which mattered was whether he was deliberately fouled.
Watching Grealish felled time after time on Sunday, the thought occurred that the Premier League has become blase about fouling. Leno's injury was a horrible reminder of how the most innocuous of fouls can be ruinous. The point is slightly swayed by the extra detail of the extra vulnerability when a player is fouled with both feet off the ground. But it is worth keeping in mind that Leno had previously only been fouled three times in the Premier League all season. The result of foul number four may be a year on the sidelines.
As for Grealish, he will have, on current rate, another four 'fouls won' by the close of play on the next match day. It is asking for trouble.
This was not vintage Wolves by any stretch. For 70 minutes, striker-less West Ham formed a structured wall in front of goal, helped by Declan Rice playing in defence for the first time in the Premier League this season.
But when the cavalry arrived after the hour mark for Wolves in the form of Pedro Neto and Adama Traore, everything changed.
Capitalising on a tiring Hammers, Traore got everyone off their sofas and made the opener with a burst of pace and delivery no back-line could begin to defend. Raul Jimenez barely had to a break sweat to meet it.
Traore is box office, and though there is always confusion when he is named on the bench - that was the eighth time in the Premier League this season - introducing him with half an hour to go is arguably a better option.
How many more times will we see a late Wolves rally this season, given their strength in depth?
When Nigel Pearson arrived at Vicarage Road back in December, after a tough start - including a 2-0 loss at Leicester in his third game - the former Foxes manager really started to turn things around in Hertfordshire.
So much so that the Hornets even went on an impressive five-game unbeaten run, including four wins, to move themselves away from the relegation zone.
However, since that mini revival, Watford have only won one match - albeit when Pearson's side destroyed champions-elect Liverpool 3-0 at home back in February to raise hopes the club would beat the drop.
Meanwhile, they have also suffered four defeats in that time and while Saturday's injury-time leveller at home to Leicester, thanks to Craig Dawson's spectacular strike, kept Watford out of the bottom three, they will need to start winning again between now and the end of the season if they want to remain in the top flight.