We are 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 notch in the season. After the next round of games after Thanksgiving, we will have passed it.
Anyway, after that pointless piece of mathematical discussion, the Premier League will soon enter its crucial 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. There is also a midweek series of matches submitted at the start of December. Whoever comes out of it still at the top of the table when January turns to February can generally be considered challengers. At least until City put it into fourth gear sometime in February or March.
Liverpool aren’t actually supposed to be one point behind City, who they happen to face in the first game of the international break with a chance to go top. The midfield overhaul hinted at something of a multi-year project and the defense may still have to plan what its post-Van Dijk exit plan will be. And it may still turn out to be so.
But here they are, after a 3-0 win over a usually rather difficult Brentford that Liverpool never looked too stressed about. 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, meaning he played a hand in half of Liverpool’s goals.
Salah being the cog in Liverpool’s attack is hardly news as it has been since he arrived in 2017. But there is a storm brewing for Liverpool, especially if Salah continues to produce as he has.
Salah was closer to going to Saudi Arabia last summer than many Reds supporters were comfortable 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 luckily for us Scousers never even considered it. He was too vital, unlike Jordan Henderson or a faded 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 will either try to reinstate a player or sell a player to get what they can before walking for free. Given Saudi Arabia’s difficulty in having the world’s top Arab player in their league, the usual transfer fee drop for a player with just a year left on his contract may not happen for Salah. Liverpool could still get a nine-figure fee for him at the age of 32, which is unheard of. In that sense, it’s a no-brainer. Given the salary that Saudi Arabia will offer him, Salah’s demands for a new contract at Anfield will still carry a huge salary for a player entering his mid-30s.
But of course it’s not a no-brainer. There is a lot of brainer (?) about this one. Because Salah still does so much for Liverpool. Even if he takes out Salah’s penalties this season (3), he averages the joint-most expected goals and assists per game than he has in his Liverpool career. And he’s doing it while, on average, his shots are coming from further distance than they ever have, and his position has changed greatly. Here is his heat map Sunday and that has been the case all season. Thanks to Liverpool regularly moving the ball inside, Salah is basically the team’s only width on the right. He gets the ball near the touchline much more often than before. And he’s still producing.
Still, Liverpool’s analytics department (or whatever remains of it) can look at his 58 percent shooting percentage, some 20 points above his career average, and conclude that he’ll never match that again. Especially since he dipped shots per 90 and shots on target per 90. How does a team find the answer?
From January or February, Salah’s future will become a big story, more so if Liverpool continue to pull City’s tails. What will worry them is that even if they decide to cash in on him, there are few replacements to think of. Leroy Sane at Munich has already been mentioned but he is 28. Jarrod Bowen turns 27 next month. Both are too old to fit the usual profile for a Liverpool signing. Left-footed hitters playing on the right side is kind of like trying to find high-end left-handed starting pitchers. Bit of a holy grail.
There are many strings in Duder’s mind when it comes to what will happen to Salah and Liverpool when the season is over. It only gets more complicated the more goals he is involved with. And the questions will start rolling in when calendar 2024 arrives.
What else went on this weekend?
4. Eight goals in a game is too many
It’s 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 game. But 4-4 or 5-4 is just farce, something that flowed out of Wonka’s factory or feels like a soccer version of NBA Jam or Hit the Ice. However, that doesn’t mean it isn’t good for a laugh or two. Or maybe I’m still just bitter about Liverpool’s 4-4 draw against Arsenal in 2009 which cost us the title. Yes, I can hold a grudge for so long. Fuck Arshavin.
Chelsea and City matched that tally to end the weekend. If you wanted signs that some of the City magic is off at the moment, here you go. Mostly because even when things aren’t going so well for City, Rodri hits one in the last 10 minutes and they win anyway. Well, things weren’t that easy for City at Stamford Bridge, and then Rodri struck in the 86th minute, so it looked like business as usual. But then they gave away a really silly penalty, which is not something they do.
All that followed was that they took the lead twice, but then gave it up. It never happens. Or making some individual mistakes that we never see, like Guardiol completely loses track of the ball, or perhaps his sense of direction, to let Reece James in to cross for Raheem Sterling, or Ederson palming a ball right back up the middle for Nic Jackson to finish in an open net. This was after he lost to Thiago Silva on a set-piece. There’s still very little chance they’ll sort it out any time soon, perhaps even with a thump from Liverpool at home from the break to confirm who they are. Still, hints of crack, perhaps?
Props to Chelsea for finding the gas to keep coming back against the champions, although their problems are still pretty obvious. Should a $200-300 million midfield be so easy to cut through?
But they really have something in Cole Palmer. Mauricio Pochettino has turned Conor Gallagher into something more than a blond Weston McKennie. There are green shoots here, but they can’t turn around and then be stuffed by Newcastle and Brighton when the league resumes. And no one can say for sure they won’t.
3. You can be two different things, mate
Ange Postecoglou has been praised for still trying to play the way he wants Tottenham to play even with nine men in the second half against Chelsea. “This is who we are, mate.” Postecoglou may need to learn how to make Spurs do two or three things.
It was clear that Tottenham would struggle to create nearly as much without James Maddison. One of the problems of using a true no. 10 is that they are incredibly difficult to replace when they are out. A team cannot orchestrate an attack around one player and then have a stand-in just as ready to do the same. Seinfeld taught us all there is only one Bette Middler.
Still, 0.70 xG against Wolves is pretty dirty, leaving them open for a blowout. That that blow came with this sublime touch Pablo Sarabia won’t ease the pain much:
But both of Wolves’ injury-time goals came with Spurs still turning their full-backs in midfield and exposing their wings. With their injury list, it’s more than good to get a 1-0 win against Wolves who just had to be wiped out. Why was the line still so high and full backs still paraded around as midfielders in injury time? There comes a point where you have to take what you’ve got, especially when half your team isn’t available. Everyone loves Sir Lancelot storming into the wedding and killing everyone, but sometimes you have to be “Brave Brave” Sir Robin too.
2. Trossard gets the Phil Babb Award
Leandro Trossard had the bravest moment of the weekend, having to balance his momentum towards the post and the ball at the same time, deciding that the latter was more important than the former:
Slightly more delicious than this most famous meeting of post and player:
1. Brighton and Newcastle learn how to try to deal with Europe
They are the two debutants in European competition, and well . . . they combined for two wins from eight in their games following their Euro commitments in midweek. Newcastle can blame injuries but that is part of the deal. They looked lackluster against Bournemouth. Brighton can blame injuries and fatigue in their defence, where they have basically had to use the same four guys, especially since Solly March and Pervis Estupinian were injured. Their only clean sheets this season came against Ajax, and there may not be a bigger toxic waste dump than that club anywhere in the world this season.
Growing pains suck, but that’s life at the big table.
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