We’re almost a quarter of the way through the Premier League season. Thanks to 38 not being divisible by four, there really isn’t a quarter-mark in the season. After the next round of fixtures after Thanksgiving, we’ll have passed it.
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Anyway, after that useless bit of mathematical discussion, the Premier League will soon enter its pivotal chicane. This is the last international break until March. While most other leagues will have something of a break a month after this one, the Premier League just hits the gas during the holidays, as teams will play three times from Christmas to New Year’s. There’s a midweek set of fixtures chucked in at the beginning of December, as well. Whoever comes out of that still around the top of the table when January becomes February can generally be considered challengers. At least until City put it into fourth gear somewhere in February or March.
Liverpool aren’t really supposed to be one point behind City, whom they just happen to face first game out of the international break with a chance to go top. The midfield overhaul signaled something of a multi-year project and the defense may still need to plot what its post-Van Dijk exit plan will be. And it may still turn out to be that.
But here they are, after a 3-0 win over a usually pretty testy-Brentford that Liverpool never looked all that stressed by. And Mo Salah was at the heart of it again, with two goals to get to 10 for the season in just 12 games, leading the non-Haaland division. He also has four assists, which means he’s played a hand in half of Liverpool’s goals.
Salah being the cog in Liverpool’s attack is hardly news, as that’s been the case since he arrived in 2017. But there’s a brewing storm for Liverpool on the way, especially if Salah continues to produce as he has.
Salah was closer to heading to Saudi Arabia last summer than a lot of Reds supporters were comfy with. They offered Liverpool an enormous transfer fee ($245 million according to some reports), Salah himself a planet’s worth of money and Salah left it up to the club, who thankfully for us Scousers, never even considered it. He was too vital, unlike Jordan Henderson or a fading Fabinho. But that hardly means it’s over.
After this season, Salah will only have a year left on his contract, which is when teams either try to re-up or sell a player to get whatever they can before they walk for free. Given Saudi Arabia’s hard-on to have the world’s leading Arab player in their league, the usual transfer fee dip for a player who only has a year left on his deal might not occur for Salah. Liverpool very well still might get a nine figure fee for him at age 32, which is unheard of. In that sense, it’s a no-brainer. Given the salary Saudi Arabia will be offering him, Salah’s demands for a new contract at Anfield will still have a gargantuan salary for a player about to enter his mid-30s.
But obviously, it’s not a no-brainer. There’s a lot of brainer (?) on this one. Because Salah is still doing so much for Liverpool. Even stripping out Salah’s penalties this season (3), he’s averaging the most combined expected goals and assists per match than he has in his Liverpool career. And he’s doing that while his shots come from a farther distance on average than they ever have, and his position has greatly changed. Here’s his heat map on Sunday and this has been the case all season. Thanks to Liverpool shifting Trent Alexander-Arnold inside with the ball quite often, Salah is basically the team’s only width on the right. He gets the ball near the sideline much more often than he used to. And he’s still producing.
Still, Liverpool’s analytics department (or whatever is left of it), might look at his 58 percent shooting percentage, some 20 points above his career average, and conclude he’ll never match that again. Especially as his shots per 90 and shots on target per 90 have dipped. How does a team find the answer?
Starting in January or February, Salah’s future will become a huge story, more so if Liverpool are still pulling at City’s tails again. What will worry them is that even if they do decide to cash in on him, there’s few replacements to think of. Leroy Sane at Munich has been a name mentioned already, but he’s 28. Jarrod Bowen will be 27 next month. Both are too old to fit the usual profile for a Liverpool purchase. Left-footed attackers who play on the right are kind of like trying to find high-end left-handed starting pitchers. Bit of a holy grail.
There’s a lot of strands in Duder’s head when it comes to what will happen for Salah and Liverpool when the season is over. It’s only getting more complicated the more goals he’s involved in. And the questions will start to roll in when the calendar hits 2024.
What else went down this weekend?
This is just a personal taste. 4-3 can often be a perfect scoreline, the almost automatic indication that you’ve just witnessed a breathless classic of a match. But 4-4 or 5-4 is just farce, something that oozed out of Wonka’s factory or feels like a soccer version of NBA Jam or Hit the Ice. Doesn’t mean it isn’t good for a laugh or two though. Or maybe I’m still just bitter about Liverpool’s 4-4 draw with Arsenal in 2009 that cost us the title. Yes, I can carry a grudge that long. F*cking Arshavin.
Chelsea and City offered up that score to cap off the weekend. If you wanted signs that something of the City magic is off at the moment, here you go. Mostly because even when things aren’t going all that well for City, Rodri crashes one in during the last 10 minutes and they win anyway. Well, things weren’t all that easy for City at Stamford Bridge, and then Rodri crashed one in in the 86th minute, so it looked like the usual. But then they gave away a very silly penalty, which is not something they do.
All that followed them taking the lead twice, but then giving it up. That never happens. Or making some individual mistakes we never see, like Gvardiol completely losing track of the ball, or maybe his sense of direction, to let Reece James in to cross for Raheem Sterling, or Ederson palming a ball right back into the middle for Nic Jackson to finish into an open net. That was after losing Thiago Silva on a set piece. It’s still very low odds on them sorting this all out soon, maybe even starting with a thwacking of Liverpool at home out of the break to reassert who they are. Still, hints of cracks, maybe?
Props to Chelsea for finding the gas to keep coming back against the champions, though their problems are still pretty clear. Should a $200-300 million midfield be this easy to cut through?
But they’ve really got something in Cole Palmer. Mauricio Pochettino has turned Conor Gallagher into something more than a blonde Weston McKennie. There are green shoots here, but they can’t then turn around and then get stuffed by Newcastle and Brighton when the league resumes. And no one can say for sure they won’t.
Ange Postecoglou got praise for still trying to play like he wants Tottenham to play even with nine guys in the second half against Chelsea. “It’s who we are, mate.” Postecoglou might have to learn how to make Spurs two or three things, though.
It was obvious that Tottenham were going to struggle to create nearly as much without James Maddison. One of the problems of using a true No. 10 is that they’re incredibly hard to replace when they’re out. A team can’t orchestrate an attack around one player and then have a stand-in who is just as ready to do the same. Seinfeld taught all of us there’s only one Bette Middler.
Still, 0.70 xG against Wolves is pretty putrid, which left them open to a sucker punch. That that sucker punch came with this sublime touch Pablo Sarabia won’t ease the pain much:
But both Wolves’ injury-time goals came with the Spurs still having their fullbacks inverted into midfield and having their wings exposed. With their injury list, taking a 1-0 win at Wolves that just needed to be gutted out is more than fine. Why was the line still so high and fullbacks still parading around as midfielders in injury time? There comes a point where you have to take what you’ve got, especially when half your squad is unavailable. Everyone loves Sir Lancelot charging into the wedding and slaying everyone, but sometimes you have to be “Brave Brave” Sir Robin, too.
Leandro Trossard had the bravery moment of the weekend, having to balance his momentum toward the post and the ball at the same time and deciding the latter was more important than the former:
Slightly more glorious than this most-famous meeting of post and player:
They’re the two debutants in European competition, and well . . . they have combined for two wins out of eight in their games after their Euro commitments in the midweek. Newcastle might blame injuries, but that’s part of the deal. They looked insipid against Bournemouth. Brighton can blame injuries and fatigue in their defense, where they’ve basically had to use the same four guys, especially since Solly March and Pervis Estupinian have been hurt. Their only clean sheets this season have come against Ajax, and there might not be a bigger toxic waste spill than that club anywhere in the world this season.
Growing pains suck, but this is life at the big table.
Follow Sam on Twitter @Felsgate and on Bluesky @felsgate.bsky.social