The Premier League finished up their split-round, in what constitutes their winter break. So let’s run through every game that went down Saturday and Sunday, which doesn’t even allow us to get to our usual five bullet points! It’s our break, too, we guess. And sorry to any Brighton or Wolves supporters, you’ll be out in the cold this week. But we do know that you exist.
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I’ve spent a lot of time mocking how Manchester United haven’t really grown out of their habits under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, which was just a series of chaotic wins or chaotic losses. There was no throughline or pattern to them, utter than just their utter silliness. Which sort of blinded my red-tinted heart that Liverpool the past month or longer were kind of doing the same thing. They were just way better at it.
For a team at the top of the table, and now five points clear, Liverpool haven’t done that thing most champions do of late and that’s put together a comfortable win without ever looking like they had to get out of the easy chair. Everything has had a level of drama or chaos, and as Arsenal last year learned, that can get a little draining come the spring.
Go back through the schedule, and Liverpool’s fixtures, and you’ll see the 4-2 win over Newcastle that statistically was one of the most dominant efforts in Premier League history, but that they somehow made pretty nervy by getting caught cold twice, once on the counter and once on a set-piece. The two draws at home against Arsenal and United. Away wins at Burnley, Sheffield United and Crystal Palace where they were mostly awful and just barely pulled it out. Before that was the didn’t-do-the-reading-but-aced-the-test 4-3 comeback win over Fulham. You have to go all the way back to November 12th to a 3-0 win over Brentford at home to find the last match that was something of a yawner.
Bournemouth, is a kind of marker. Sure, they threw in some smelly stretches. The first half wasn’t all that good and was too fixated on bypassing Bournemouth’s press (which has become ferocious the past two months) with direct and long balls. At halftime, Jurgen Klopp shifted his frontline around, moving Darwin Nunez to the middle with Diogo Jota starting from the right, but moving into the hole behind Nunez all the time, and four goals in the second half later, it was a waltz. They strung together passes with ease.
Liverpool weren’t bad – Nunez, Jota, and Alexis Mac Allister were brilliant – and they weren’t great either. Most weeks of a season, teams aren’t going to be either. When they result in 4-0 wins, then you know you’ve got something worth having.
On the opposite side of the spectrum, can a team have a 5-0 win that they can’t feel good about? Arsenal certainly tried.
The problem for Arsenal is they haven’t looked all that spicy in attack of late, and two first-half goals off corners allowing a second half where they could just pick off Palace on the break doesn’t really return a verdict on that problem. Palace took a cue from what other opponents have done of late to the Gunners, and even switched to a back-three so they could crowd Bakayo Saka at all times. Marc Guehi and Tyrick Mitchell were pretty much stapled to the left touch line and Saka all through the half. Arsenal had one shot on target in the opening 45 minutes.
Still, it’s 5-0, and set-play goals count the same as 25-pass moves in open play. Get your goal how you get them. Other teams won’t be as welcoming in those spots as Palace, though.
Did you hear that Ivan Toney is back? This one had a strange air about it, some of it because of the weird emotional welcoming back of Toney, who had been suspended because he committed the ultimate no-no in betting on soccer. It didn’t just happen to him, he’s responsible. And yet it was obvious how important he is:
The other facet adding a strange environment to this, and will to add to any match the rest of the season that has relegation ties to it, is that we don’t know how much relegation will hinge on the result on the field. The biggest factor in who will be in a relegation fight and who isn’t, will go on in some conference room/Zoom meeting when Forest’s and Everton’s latest FFP violations earn punishments, and what those punishments will be. Brentford had been sliding toward the relegation zone, but we don’t know if the relegation zone will slide back away from them if those two teams are docked points. Are brave and scrappy performances from Forest and Everton signs of safety? Or are they pointless when those points earned are just taken away by something away from the ground?
Every match those two play is going to have that weird feel to it, because the most important thing to both is not what happens on the field, which isn’t where a sport should want to be. Games with Luton or Sheffield United or Burnley or Palace is going to be uneasy but uncertain. It’s not something that the Premier League should want to hang around for the rest of the season, but it will.
This isn’t a penalty, huh?
West Ham will feel aggrieved and angry they gave away a point to the worst team in the league, but considering they’re without Michail Antonio, Lucas Paqueta, Mohammad Kudus, that’s almost all of their creative fulcrum. It will get hairier for them with all those players out, as their next three games are Bournemouth, Manchester United and Arsenal. But that’s probably why they’re ruing these two lost points.
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