I have nightmares that I’ll be seeing this in my sleep for the next decade:
It’s a little ways back now, 10 days in fact, thanks to the amount of games the Premier League tosses at its fans over the Holidays, but it may hang over the rest of the season (unless Man City goes on their usual second-half 13-game winning streak, which they almost certainly will). Had Trent Alexander-Arnold found twine instead of steel, like he should have, Liverpool would be five clear at the top of the table in total at the moment, seven clear of City (with City having a game in hand), and eight clear of Arsenal, with the latter possibly being written off already. Instead, we still have the more jumbled and exciting mess.
Erling Haaland set to break records | Premier League
At least Raheem Sterling did his best to make Liverpool supporters feel better the next day:
Anyway, now that I’ve had that brief moment of therapy, we can look forward. And the question for the next four weeks at the top of the table is can Liverpool chaos their way through the absence of Mo Salah for the AFCON. Salah is Liverpool’s leading scorer and he has the most assists for them as well, so him disappearing with his national team for a month is, as they say in the old country, a problem.
This comes a day after Liverpool utterly destroyed Newcastle on the statsheet, and yet had to sort of gut through a nervy 4-2 scoreline. Liverpool piled up 34 shots and an unconscionable 7.11 xG. Even with the two penalties, it’s an absurd number. Which makes it the rare occasion that fans can say their team scoring four goals is something of a disappointment and keeper (Martin Dubravka) conceding four and still probably being Man Of The Match.
Which makes the next month for Liverpool a shaky prospect. Cody Gakpo has one goal in the league since September, his accidental finish Monday. Darwin Nunez piled up nearly 2.0 xG himself against Newcastle, but didn’t pot any actual goals, which is still his thing. Luis Diaz was much better Monday than he’s been, but still only has three goals on the season. Diogo Jota is still the surest bet to score, but has rarely been asked to string starts together while carrying the main scoring load. And he’s not all that far removed from a 30+ game scoreless streak.
Liverpool’s schedule, at least in the league, without Salah, isn’t that forgiving. An away trip to Bournemouth isn’t the Wiffle ball it used to be. There’ll be a home date with Chelsea, and while Chelsea are their own brand of chaos, they’ve played the big teams pretty well this season. They might not have Salah for the trip to Arsenal in February either.
And Salah is what Liverpool’s attack orbits around. Harvey Elliott, likely to get first crack at taking the spot, is more of a winger than Salah, which might actually provide a little more balance to Liverpool when Alexander-Arnold moves into midfield. But he’s far less likely to create something out of nothing than Salah. Like, galactically so. He also won’t have the telepathic understanding with Nunez that Salah has developed.
Liverpool just need one guy to catch fire for even just two or three weeks. If they’re still top when Salah returns, then it might be time to start to dream. But if Nunez can’t still figure out the posts don’t move, or Gakpo continues to only briefly flash, and Jota proves to be only an impact sub and occasional spot-starter, then Salah may be returning to a rescue job.
What else did we find out with our soft pants on for a full week?
Gooners are more likely to be singing “Christmas Time At Ground Zero” than any traditional carol, thanks to their wretched stretch that saw a credible draw at Anfield, but losses to West Ham and Fulham that have handed the initiative to other teams.
While most of the focus has been about Arsenal’s center-forward position, and that neither Gabriel Jesus nor Eddie Nketiah have looked like a true spearhead to a title challenger, their lack of options during matches seems to be getting exposed. When they were struggling at the end of matches against Liverpool, West Ham or Fulham to find a winning or tying or any goal, Mikel Arteta really has only one card to play. That’s to bring on Leandro Trossard on or bring on any of the three forwards for him when he starts. There isn’t a lot of variance.
It’s the same story in midfield. When Ødegaard-Havertz-Rice doesn’t fire or create much, the only solution is . . . bring on Leandro Trossard. Jorginho hasn’t been much more than a rumor this season and there isn’t anyone else. This is the same size squad, essentially, that wilted at the end of last season, and has now had Champions League requirements chucked onto it. Compare that with all the options, if only to save legs, that both City and Liverpool have in both midfield and attack. Just yesterday, Liverpool tossed on Gakpo, Jota and Gravenberch after an hour, and piled on two more goals. Pep Guardiola has been somewhat criticized for not using his bench more, but he also has Haaland, Doku and De Bruyne out injured. Even Villa have seven players for their four midfield spots.
Finding a central striker worth anything in January is a real trick, but Arsenal might just need some numbers wherever they can find them.
First, Gio Lo Celso to set up Heung-min Son’s second goal against Bournemouth on Sunday:
And then Alexis MacAllister’s to set up Diogo Jota to . . . ahem, “earn” Liverpool a clinching penalty:
For fans of the Yanks, it was a bit topsy-turvy. It started in net, where Matt Turner seems determined to crowbar himself out of the Nottingham Forest net and leave Gregg Berhalter with basically none of his top keepers playing regularly:
Though Turner might have Kleenex boxes for feet, he does do the first thing on the job description:
Elsewhere, Auston Trusty has nailed down a starting spot in Sheffield United’s defense. The problem is that Sheffield United’s defense sucks. He was part of the backline that held Villa to a 1-1 draw at Villa Park, which is encouraging. He was also part of the backline that gave up three to Luton at home.
There’s still an open competition to partner Tim Ream, it seems, in the summer’s Copa America. Trusty is playing regularly, which Chris Richards can’t claim. He’s playing regularly in the world’s toughest league, which Miles Robinson or Walker Zimmerman can’t claim. Trusty can make an argument it’s between him and Cameron Carter-Vickers to start against Bolivia come June 23rd.
I probably shouldn’t miss the chance to take another swipe here. It might not last forever. But the idea being peddled, after United’s miracle comeback against Villa, was that they’d somehow tapped into something sustainable was always laughable. We’d seen this kind of thing before, they did it to Brentford and then they always fell into the next ditch they could find. So it proved against Forest when they were insipid once again, were gifted a goal, and then promptly gave away a winner when they decided to just not have a midfield.
When you absolutely, positively have to have someone wander around the top of your own area like they can’t find the cereal aisle at the store, have Scott McTominay around.
This is still a team that has no identifiable style, far too few DUDES and no plan. But don’t worry, the dude who fixed British cycling is going to fix it all? I mean maybe, I can’t claim to know much about the cycling world. But I’m fairly sure there are no Man Citys in it.
Follow Sam on Twitter @Felsgate and on Bluesky @Felsgate.bsky.social