“I was not happy with the way we conceded chances today, to be honest.”
Jurgen Klopp’s post-match assessment may seem odd after a 4-0 victory, but the scoreline didn’t really tell the story. Southampton could and should have scored at least one, but by that reckoning, they could have also come away from Anfield having conceded double figures.
This Liverpool side are completely relentless in the way they attack; so much so that warning signs barely register with them. It’s “you have a shot, we have a shot”, safe in the knowledge they possess far more quality than the opposition.
They’ve scored two or more goals in each of their last 17 games, equalling a 94-year record.
Reflecting on last season, Klopp said on Saturday: “I learned a lot. A lot!” A third of the season in, they are clearly back to their best after those issues. But which version of their ‘best’, exactly?
Some wondered whether Liverpool could return to their title-winning form after the shock of 2020/21, but if anything, they’ve returned to their old, old selves. This Liverpool feels much more like the side of 2017/18 and parts of 2018/19, where blitzes and high-scoring games were a trademark.
It’s certainly not boring, and it’s a bold way of approaching this division, but can it work over 38 games?
Their xG for this season is over six goals higher than Man City’s, but so is their xG against. What Klopp wants and needs more of is stability, so that when sides break against them, as they always will with this high Liverpool line, they don’t give up the quality of chance they did on Saturday.
It feels like game management is less of a priority, and that old adage rings true: better sides might punish them. But are there any better sides?
Big players make big game-changing moments when it matters most. Bukayo Saka is a big-game player.
Arsenal were in control against Newcastle but the score still read 0-0 with 50 minutes on the clock. Eddie Howe was hanging in there with too many Arsenal attacks ending in wayward off-target finishes. The home crowd expected more against a team with no wins to their name and one that concedes goals for fun.
It required a mature head to make the difference. With Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang in lacklustre mood, it was Saka, who has only just turned 20, who took the game by the scruff of the neck in the style of one of the main leaders of this progressive Arsenal side. On 51 minutes, Saka twisted and turned past Matt Ritchie before firing an effort at Martin Dubravka.
That lifted the crowd and Saka continued to lead the charge, whipping a sensational cross into the six-yard box moments later that no Arsenal player had read. The momentum towards the Newcastle goal was now at its peak and Saka found the game-changing moment on 55 minutes. He started the move on the left, linking in silky fashion with Emile Smith Rowe before making a third-man run that was spotted by Nuno Tavares. There was a sense of inevitability as Saka drew his left foot back and found the bottom corner. That is what we expect now of this impressive young man. He is Arsenal’s most dangerous and important weapon. Mikel Arteta will be hoping the knock that forced him off isn’t a long-term problem. Arsenal can’t afford to lose him.
Eddie Howe was animated in the Newcastle technical area. Particularly in the first half, the new Magpies boss was relishing working with his team from pitchside, after his expected debut in the dugout was delayed last week by a positive COVID result.
But at the Emirates it was a case of new manager, same story for Newcastle.
They were pegged back and could hardly get on the ball in the first half, averaging 21 per cent possession. Jonjo Shelvey saw a shot tipped onto the bar by Aaron Ramsdale but the visitors were fortunate not to be punished by some wasteful finishing at the other end.
After the break, Bukayo Saka converted a nice team goal to give the Gunners a deserved lead and, although there was a Callum Wilson penalty shout moments before Gabriel Martinelli’s goal, as so often in recent times, it wasn’t until Newcastle were out of the game that they began to show more ambition in attack.
They finished the game with stats below their season’s average for possession, shots and shots on target. They’re averaging two goals conceded per game, as well.
Howe tried to strike a positive note afterwards, putting weight on the Shelvey shot and penalty call and how they could have changed the game. But there’s no escaping he has a huge task on his hands to keep Newcastle in the Premier League.
They’re now without a win in their first 13 Premier League games. Four of the previous five sides to do that were playing in the Championship the following season. That’s unthinkable for this club, given the wealth and ambition of their new owners.
January is clearly going to be key but there are seven games before that transfer window opens, including the next two against fellow strugglers Norwich and Burnley. They’re crucial games if Newcastle are to ensure they’re not cut adrift before they can address their issues.
Steven Gerrard became only the second Aston Villa manager to win his first two Premier League games in charge after John Gregory back in March 1998 and while the scoreline looked close at Selhurst Park, the visitors were fully deserving of their win over Crystal Palace.
“We can’t get carried away, it has been a positive couple of weeks. The players have been fantastic in their application. We had to dig in at times today but we managed to get over the line which is nice,” Gerrard said.
Villa came with a game plan to frustrate Palace and in particular Wilfried Zaha, executing it to perfection. John McGinn was instructed to double up with Matty Cash on talisman Zaha and the Scotland international was an influential presence throughout.
For Patrick Vieira, he will once again lament his side’s paucity at defending set-pieces with Matt Targett the eighth beneficiary this term already from dead ball situations but Villa were the slicker outfit in every department.
It wasn’t until the final 10 minutes that Villa goalkeeper Emi Martinez was forced into action and there was a real class to Villa second to seal the victory as Emi Buendia and Anwar El Ghazi combined to feed man-of-the-match McGinn for a show-stopping finish into the top corner.
This was a bump on the nose for Vieira, Palace’s first defeat in eight Premier League games, but Gerrard will be delighted with his team who looked back to their best under his watch, epitomised by England international Tyrone Mings.
Gerrard showed courage in making big calls, dropping Danny Ings and Buendia to the bench and giving Leon Bailey a start but Ollie Watkins looks rejuvenated under the former Rangers boss. It is too early to draw conclusions but the early indications are that he prefers to start with just the one striker as part of a more balanced side.
“Away from home especially, Watkins is a manager’s dream as he will chase every lost cause, turning bad balls into good ones,” Clinton Morrison told Soccer Saturday.
Gerrard was a big-game player and making such big calls is what the best Premier League managers have always done.
“I always believe if you’re not creating chances that’s the worry,” said Dean Smith after Norwich’s 0-0 draw with Wolves.
There will be a hint of disappointment when Smith reflects on Norwich’s goalless draw because of the chances his side missed to win the game, but the former Aston Villa boss certainly has a platform to build from after following the win over Southampton in his first game with what could be a significant point against Wolves, who are currently in the top-six.
“I thought the performance was better than last week against Southampton,” Smith added. “We were probably fortunate to get an extra two points last week and we were probably unfortunate that we probably lost a couple of points this week. I thought our overall performance was really good.
“When I first came in, I said I wanted us to stop giving away big chances, which we did today. We restricted them to very few and I’m not sure (goalkeeper) Tim (Krul) has had much to do today, and we created four big chances. On another day we win the game.”
It may be small steps for Norwich, who are still in the very early stages of the Smith era following Daniel Farke’s sacking earlier this month, but the improvements are there for all to see.
Norwich have now taken seven points from their last three Premier League games (winning two and drawing one), more than they had in their previous 25 in the competition (winning one, drawing three and losing 21)
The Canaries have now have kept two clean sheets in their last four Premier League home games, as many as they had in their previous 26 at Carrow Road in the competition and they also had 14 shots against Wolves, only managing more against Brighton (15) in a single Premier League game this season.
There’s still a long way to go for Norwich, who are still in the bottom three and two points adrift of safety, but Smith certainly has something to build on.