Liverpool have been relentless for the last three seasons. From reaching the Champions League final in 2018 and then winning it the following year as they pushed Manchester City all the way in the Premier League, to last season’s march to the title, Jurgen Klopp’s side have been consistently brilliant.
But there are signs now they are starting to feel the strain. First, the context: Liverpool went top of the Premier League with their draw at Brighton. Diogo Jota demonstrated once again how the Reds have strengthened their attack with another fine goal. But no pre-season, a condensed fixture list, and a string of injuries are taking their toll on this team.
Jurgen Klopp described his side’s performance as “very good” at Brighton but also conceded “problems with energy” had led to them dropping deep and putting them in a situation where they conceded an injury-time penalty equaliser. Earlier in the game, a makeshift backline had struggled with its synchrony when Brighton played it over the top.
These are understandable issues. On top of the many injuries which have stretched the squad and the short recovery time from Wednesday’s Champions League loss to Atalanta, there were three different right-backs against Brighton, a centre-back pairing that had never played together, and key men Sadio Mane and Jordan Henderson only brought on mid-match.
They are finding a way to keep picking up points. This unusual season and its unfamiliar challenges is demanding more from every team and Liverpool’s league position shows they are coping as well as, if not better than, most. But there is no question they are operating at a level below the high standards they have set in the past. The key issue is whether this current level – and whether its sustained, drops further or is improved upon as the season continues – will be enough this time around.
Carlo Ancelotti had insisted ahead of Everton’s clash with Leeds that, despite the blow of losing Lucas Digne, Alex Iwobi would be able to step in as an able deputy at left wing-back. It did not play out that way at Goodison Park on Saturday, with Marcelo Bielsa’s side repeatedly exploiting that area throughout the first half.
Iwobi was withdrawn midway through the second period shortly after shifting to right wing-back when Fabian Delph replaced Tom Davies, who also struggled in the specialist position in lieu of skipper Seamus Coleman and Jonjoe Kenny.
The problems on those flanks reflected some concerning defensive stats for Everton this season, who have one of the leakiest backlines in the division and no clean sheet since the opening-day shutout at Tottenham.
Everton will not be the last team to struggle to contain this lively Leeds side, who drew several smart stops from Jordan Pickford, but with the goals not flowing at the other end as freely as they did earlier in the season, Ancelotti’s men must shore up if they are to get back on track.
On the one hand, Manchester City looked at their fluent best against Burnley, casting aside their opponents 5-0 at the Etihad in the sort of fluid, clinical attacking football we have long come to associate with Pep Guardiola’s side – and, more recently, wondered where it has gone.
On the other, Burnley are cannon fodder any time they step foot on Guardiola’s pitch. This was, unbelievably, their fourth straight 5-0 defeat on this ground. They were hopeless.
But as the old adage goes, you can only beat what’s in front of you. Riyad Mahrez looked superb as he grabbed a deserved hat-trick, Ferran Torres picked up again after some impressive performances either side of the international break and Kevin De Bruyne’s wands at the end of both of his legs were as magical as ever.
It is very difficult to say in isolation how much this can mean for Manchester City. With the season of goodwill approaching, Burnley could not have been much more generous and Sean Dyche rightly admitted “you can’t start a game like that”. We will be able to tell a lot more about how the game changes things as time goes on. But scoring five without reply certainly never hurt anyone.
“He’s a flair player who works his socks off!” That was Graeme Souness’ assessment of Leeds winger Raphinha and the Brazilian looks a perfect fit for this Marcelo Bielsa side. The £17m summer signing from Rennes caused problems for Everton right from the word go.
Everton had Alex Iwobi in at left wing-back and Raphinha gave him a torrid time, running that channel and then getting in at the hosts’ three centre-backs before trying to play in his team-mates.
He was looking for a pass again in the second half before eventually rifling an excellent low effort into the bottom corner to win the game. That was his first Premier League goal but if the 23-year-old maintains these levels he will be hitting the net plenty more times this season.
Chris Wilder was left, in his own words, “scratching his head” after Sheffield United passed up five glorious opportunities to earn at least a point at West Brom – but they remain bottom of the league after finding themselves on the wrong end of another narrow defeat.
After 10 games though, it is far from a coincidence Sheff Utd have scored only four goals, and it is not because they are not creating chances.
They should have scored against West Ham last weekend and they should have had a couple, at the very least, at The Hawthorns. Even Slaven Bilic admitted as much after the game.
But unless Oli McBurnie, Lys Mousset and the club’s other forwards sharpen up, they are headed for the drop. Only four of 14 teams have stayed up without a win in their opening 10 Premier League games, and while last year Sheffield United could count on their watertight backline to see them through, without Jack O’Connell for the foreseeable future their defence has taken a major hit.
Somewhere along the line their forwards will have to step up. They have spent enough money on the likes of McBurnie and Rhian Brewster, leaving a certain irony that free transfer David McGoldrick has scored half of their league goals. If they do not find their shooting boots in the next few games, it could already be too late.
Brighton’s last-gasp VAR-assisted penalty equaliser against Liverpool took their tally to 10 points from 10 games in the Premier League this season, leaving them in 16th place in the table. That is one spot above where they finished when Chris Hughton was sacked, and a place below where they ended up last season.
Is that their level? Watching Brighton, you always feel as though they are better than being ranked among the bottom five or six in the Premier League. That would certainly be the case for anyone who saw them against Manchester United, Tottenham, or Liverpool.
Graham Potter’s side have become a side which can control the ball well or, as they showed on Saturday, cause problems running in behind Liverpool. They can force errors in opposition penalty areas and create chances from open play.
But the results tell their own tale. Just as Manchester United’s last-kick penalty cost them in September, and Gareth Bale’s header undid their good work at Spurs, Neal Maupay’s missed penalty almost led to them taking nothing from their clash with Liverpool.
Pascal Gross’ late spot-kick ensured that was not the case, and Potter will hope his team are just as clinical as the German’s penalty was in their upcoming run of encouraging fixtures – or once again, they could find themselves without the points to match their performances.