Fulham have already prompted many of the doom-mongers among us to revisit our predictions. But Liverpool looked worryingly undercooked in a sloppy start to an unforgiving season…
Fulham’s hugely-creditable performance on their latest return to the Premier League will prompt more jerking of knees – especially here – than any other aspect of the Cottagers 2-2 draw with Liverpool. But for all the calm Jurgen Klopp will attempt to convey, the Reds boss would be right to wonder why his side seemed so ill-equipped to cope with their hosts’ endeavour by the Thames.
Especially for the first hour, Liverpool appeared woefully undercooked and they really ought not to be. Last weekend in the Community Shield they faced a Manchester City side who have taken a calculated risk in using the opening weeks of the Premier League season to ease into their stride and Pep Guardiola’s champions were brushed aside by Klopp’s men, who were stronger and sharper at the King Power.
At Fulham, it was Liverpool who were too often out-fought and, uncharacteristically, out-thought. Klopp can’t dispute that, and his demeanour on the touchline suggests he knows how far off the pace his side were. He can’t possibly have missed it.
The Reds have little excuse for being so stagnant. Their build-up to the opening day took in six matches and for many of their players, almost five weeks of preparation. Fitness won’t be a concern and sharpness shouldn’t be either. Klopp will likely deny it, but the most feasible explanation for their opening-day sloppiness against a side widely tipped to struggle was a mentality somewhat less than monstrous.
Liverpool have won these games before while playing a few notches playing full-pelt and they nearly got away with it today. But just as nearly they could have returned to Merseyside with nothing rather than just a point when the margins over the season are likely to be as tight as the last.
In fairness to the Reds, few outside the Fulham dressing room expected what the Cottagers produced today. In contrast to Liverpool, it has been a somewhat fraught pre-season for last term’s Championship winners, with Marco Silva frustrated at the progress of his squad strengthening. Based on this evidence, he need not be.
Every Premier League club’s best and worst opening day in the modern era
For an hour, Fulham were the better team. Yes they were ahead on the intensity stakes, which is worry enough for Klopp. But Silva’s shape was also offering Liverpool plenty of posers with which they failed to fathom until well after half-time.
Silva sat Joao Palhinha and Harrison Reed in front of his back four to screen a defence that had a distinctly Championship feel to it. Paulinha particularly was outstanding, the 27-year-old seemingly irritating Liverpool by having the temerity to get close enough to tackle them. Which he did more than anyone else before the break.
Their discipline and energy allowed new signing Andreas Pereira to play off Alexandar Mitrovic in and out of possession. The ex-Manchester United midfielder joined the centre-forward in pressing Liverpool’s back four and backed up by Reed and Palhinha, there was no central route for the visitors to reach their front three.
Klopp gave his starters the chance to wake themselves from their slumber but his patience had evaporated only five minutes into the second half. Thiago’s twang prompted a midfield swap, with Harvey Elliott dispatched to add some energy, while Darwin Nunez came on for the anonymous Roberto Firmino in a change that felt far more permanent than simply serving Liverpool’s immediate needs.
Even Elliott and Nunez were sloppy at first, with both guilty of giveaways within their first few touches, each of which gave Fulham good chances to extend their lead. But once Nunez found some rhythm, he began to occupy Fulham in a way that caused his markers considerably more discomfort than Firmino’s approach of coming towards the ball.
With Nunez stretching Tim Ream and Toisin Adarabioyo, it left Salah with rather more space on the right and finally Liverpool got some joy. Salah teed up Nunez with a low cross that the new boy flicked into Marek Rodak’s midriff. A few moments later, they pair combined in exactly the same way, but this time, with a little help from a fortunate ricochet, it worked and Liverpool were level.
The assumption was that the Reds would go through the gears and get the job done. Nope. By that time, the sloppiness that blighted Liverpool’s opening hour had spread to Virgil van Dijk, which is when Klopp really knows he has a problem.
In mitigation, with Mitrovic in this mindset, the Serbia striker is a nuisance to any defender. Van Dijk is used to dealing with pests, but Mitrovic ruffled the Liverpool centre-back. He had already bullied Trent Alexander-Arnold at the back post to score Fulham’s opener, which came as little shock to anyone familiar with the right-back’s defensive frailties. But to see him rattle Van Dijk was rather more surprising.
First Mitrovic Cruyff-turned Van Dijk on the halfway line, which was a lovely novelty, but the forward must have sensed vulnerability when he ran at the heart of the Liverpool defence shortly after Fulham had lost their lead. Despite the presence of Alexander-Arnold covering around, Van Dijk wafted a leg in Mitrovic’s vicinity and a slight touch was enough to prompt a penalty kick, duly dispatched by the man of the match.
Frustratingly for Fulham, that lead was lost too and it all started when, for the first time, Mitrovic didn’t fancy a duel with Van Dijk. Instead, under a long ball forward, the striker anticipated contact that never came and hit the deck. Perplexed, Van Dijk claimed possession and so started the move that led to a somewhat scabby leveller for Salah.
That was one of a few ‘moments’ for Fulham – others included a couple of brain farts while attempting to play out from the back – that they must keep to a minimum if they are to make a better fist of sticking around in the Premier League. On this evidence, they are certainly capable of competing and perhaps thriving. So long as they can find the energy they mustered up today another 37 times.
For Liverpool, Klopp has to fathom why his side struggled to match that level of application. All sides are entitled to a bad day at the office, but less so when the last month as been all about building up to this particular day and the margin for error is so slight.
McTominay ‘interesting Juventus’ as swap deal emerges for £15.3m Man Utd target
Manchester United star Scott McTominay is ‘interesting Juventus’ amid multiple reports of the Red Devils’ interest in Adrien Rabiot.
The former Paris Saint-Germain midfielder is entering the final 12 months of his contract with the Serie A side and has been linked with both Chelsea and Arsenal this summer.
READ MORE: Ten Hag makes his Winners and Losers debut as Gerrard and Liverpool keep him company
And David Ornstein of The Athletic claimed on Monday that the 27-year-old has ’emerged as a leading option’ for United as they look to bolster their midfield options.
It’s not clear whether they will chase Rabiot irrespective of their pursuit of Frenkie de Jong, or if they will wait to see if they can tie up a deal for the Barcelona star before making a decision on the France international.
They would also need to agree personal terms with Rabiot – valued by Transfermarkt at £15.3m – who is ‘high among a number of candidates’.
And Italian outlet JuveDipendenza, who picked up on United’s interest in Rabiot on Sunday evening before other outlets, also claim McTominay could move in the other direction.
The Scotland international, who came through the youth ranks at United, is ‘interesting Juventus’, according to the report.
McTominay has divided opinion throughout his United career and came under fire after Erik ten Hag’s first game as manager on Sunday.
United fell to a 2-1 defeat to Brighton, and both McTominay and midfield partner Fred were heavily criticised for their performances as the Seagulls opened them up with ease in the first half at Old Trafford.
Club legends Roy Keane and Paul Scholes were adamant after the game that their former club need to significantly improve in central midfield.
Keane told Sky Sports: “The decision making and the football intelligence, in particular from Fred – and I’ve said this for a long time – Fred and McTominay are not good enough. They won’t get Manchester United back competing at the top.
“We see it week in, week out. [They are] not up to it.”
Scholes described the first half showing against Brighton as “shambolic” before agreeing with his former teammate.
He told Premier League Productions: “The quality in the middle of the pitch was really poor.
“I was happy he [McTominay] didn’t get sent-off [for a late challenge], but I think he was slightly lucky. Again, he’s running with the ball, absolutely ridiculous. The quality in the middle of the pitch was nowhere near good enough, but we have seen that for the last few years with these two players.
“With Fred and McTominay, he [Ten Hag] is going to have to play just one of them [moving forward] but even one of them is probably too many. Fred gives the ball away all the time and McTominay tries run with it constantly and then gives it away. Pass it to your best players…
“It’s not that difficult. It’s criminal on a day like today [Sunday afternoon].”
Ten Hag can’t save zombified Man Utd while parasitic Glazers profit from failure…
Johnny Nic saw reality dawn on Erik ten Hag on Sunday. He can’t rescue Manchester United. No one can while the leeches remain in charge at Old Trafford…
You had to feel for Erik ten Hag in his post-game interview on Sunday. He’d strode out onto the Old Trafford pitch chest out, shoulders back, cutting an impressive and determined figure as he accepted the applause from fans. This was a man ready to get to work. A new man. A new era.
But when the final whistle blew, he looked physically altered by the experience of watching the full horror that is Manchester United. He looked smaller, more hunched and deflated. His eyes wore an expression that was part fear and part shock. How has mediocrity become endemic? And what the hell was he supposed to do about it? ”It takes time, but we don’t have time,” he said, perfectly expressing the Old Trafford Catch 22: a problematic situation for which the only solution is denied by a circumstance inherent in the problem.
All great managers clearly back themselves to do any job. All of United’s managers in the last 10 years have, all of them have been wrong. It looked as though ten Hag realised in that moment he had been wrong too.
This club is a beast that is too big to be changed, but nor can it be slaughtered. It is a zombie, dead by some definitions, certainly all soul hollowed out like a massive baked potato, leaving only a shell. A giant football cash machine brilliant at dispensing money to the owners and seemingly limitless executives, but utterly dysfunctional in all other respects.
As the club hierarchy looked on, all in their suits and club ties, they looked considerably less concerned at the skip fire that was on the pitch than ten Hag. Why would they care as long as the cash machine keeps paying out? And even if they did care, there is precious little evidence that any of them have a clue what to do about the walking dead that United have become.
Ten Hag makes his Winners and Losers debut as Gerrard and Liverpool keep him company
However, while we should lay much of the blame for this dysfunctional monster at the club’s owners and directors, they were not the ones who had inexplicably asked Christian Eriksen to play as a false nine. It made no sense, not just because it isn’t a position he’s familiar with, but more because we all know where Eriksen does his best work and it isn’t as a false nine. And as soon as he was pushed further back in the second half, things improved marginally.
And just like last year, the manager turned to that ageing recividest CR7 to bail the team out, surely aware that it was another example of desperation. As it turned out, CR7 was peripheral, an irrelevant old lag.
What must it be like to be a great player, like Jadon Sancho, who has proved his worth in Germany only to walk through the Old Trafford love
removal machine and come out as half the player. New signing Lisandro Martínez came with the intimidating nickname the ‘Butcher’ but was laughably incapable of butchering anything as Danny Welbeck literally ran over him. United had instantly turned the butcher into a vegan.
And then there’s poor Marcus Rashford doing his best Dele Alli impersonation as a once great star whose talent has evaporated, never to be seen again. Somehow, they have ruined him. United ruins players. This is what they do. They take gifted players and turn them into lesser men.
This is a peculiar phenomenon, unique to Manchester United who remain a top six club by virtue of breathtaking spending, but with a squad that are all fur coats and no knickers. A veneer of glamour with nothing underneath.
United are corporate football in excelsis. The football doesn’t matter really, its primary function is to generate money, what happens on the pitch is a distant second to that, especially if fans all over the world keep supporting the club. The owners abuse the loyalty of fans, indeed, it is easy to imagine them privately laughing at them for being such mugs as to stick with them even as they drain money out of them and the club. They will think them all idiots to keep paying through the nose for a bag of chips dressed up as Michelin Star cuisine.
The whole thing is a deception, an elaborate ruse to trade off United’s history while ruining their future. This is how it works. They spend big on players to look like a big club and to keep eyes on them. They pull in huge amounts of money from all kinds of ‘partners’ and spend it on huge wages and pay those huge fees and that makes them look important. Players come for the big wages and stay for them. But there’s no rhyme or reason to these purchases and no strategy to make sense of them, so the team malfunctions. But that doesn’t matter. Only the image of United being a big spending club, a big force, matters. That pulls in so much revenue that the Glazers can skim off plenty for themselves.
It is all one big con. They have set up a machine to enrich themselves and nothing else matters. Everything that appears to be part of funding and running of a modern football club, that’s all part of the illusion, all part of the trick. All of this only exists for the Glazers financial benefit. They have no interest in the club apart from funding it sufficiently to maintain its money-making status. When that stops, they’ll sell up, leaving a husk of a club behind, but there’s no sign of that yet because of football’s insane economics. And they know that a hapless United is good for TV business as viewers flock to see the giant brought low. Being rubbish is great for content. Indeed, they’ve worked out that fans will still keep paying for tickets and watching on television in order to be able to keep on moaning and complaining. It’s brilliant, they’ve monetised failure. Indeed, it is quite possible that they have a spreadsheet which proves failure is better for business than success.
It is like United are an experiment. How long can you keep creaming off money from a club before the very people you rely on for the money you are going to cream off, rise up and drag you and your minions out of the place by your feet.
Obviously, they have learned that this will never ever happen because of the nature of fandom. Fans will never stay away, never stop supporting them. So how terrible the team is remains irrelevant to the Glazers.
The toxicity from the ownership and the board has stained everything, leaked over the whole place, into the dressing room and onto the pitch. It pours diesel into the petrol engine, making the whole machine cough and splutter and malfunction. But do they care? No. Why should they? They keep hitting that cash machine for another pay out and if times get tough, they can leverage money against the club’s valuation. The goose is still stuffed full of golden eggs.
They have turned United into the living dead and I think Ten Hag suddenly realised he was just another schmuck turning coin for the bosses as the giant con continues.
Kulusevski changes the Spurs narrative as Conte’s side discover unexpected style
That Spurs brushed Southampton aside on the opening weekend was no great surprise. The manner in which they did it was.
There’s a long way to go, but the early signs are encouraging. Spurs kicked off their Premier League season on Saturday with a convincing home win against Southampton, and it was a performance that told a story of how head coach Antonio Conte has reshaped this team, and about how the best laid narratives of mice and men can go missing.
Spurs had some reason for trepidation ahead of this fixture. When the two clubs met at The Tottenham Hotspur Stadium in February, Southampton won 3-2, the second of three successive league defeats and a result which set in motion a flurry of speculation over whether Conte would even still be there by the end of the season.
But he stayed, the rebuild has continued apace, and Spurs’ summer in the transfer market has been wisely praised as a number of briskly arranged arrivals of excellent quality have been signed on the basis of how well they will fit into a clearly defined system.
But Conte can also be somewhat mischievous at times, and when the team sheet was produced for the first Premier League game of the season, none of the club’s five big summer signings – Ivan Perisic, Yves Bissouma, Clement Lenglet, Fraser Forster and Djed Spence – were starting in the first XI.
And by the end of the afternoon, another narrative was looking a little shakier than it had done previously. The attacking pairing of Harry Kane and Son Heung-min contributed 40 goals between them in the league alone last season, and it is understandable that there might have been comment that Spurs may have been a little over-dependent on them.
Even though Spurs went to the top of the first (and obviously most meaningless) league table of the season with four goals, these two were not among the scorers.
The star of the show was a player who’s been living in the shadows a little. Dejan Kulusevski’s arrival from Juventus on an 18-month loan at the end of January was one of the less heralded moves of that window, but Kulusevski has become increasingly influential since his arrival.
He’d come a long way over the course of the second half of last season, but his performance against Southampton indicated that he’s not reached the limits of his capability just yet.
But before any of this could come to pass, Spurs had to get their Tottenham moment of the afternoon out of the way. A chill wind blew through the stadium when James Ward-Prowse gave Southampton an early lead, a sobering moment after all that pre-season optimism.
This might have been the cue for another round of Deep Tottenham Hotspur On-Pitch Introspection and Panickiness but instead, less than ten minutes later, they were level with a Ryan Sessegnon header, his first goal for the club.
Early nerves settled, Conte will have been more than satisfied, not only by the eventual 4-1 scoreline but also by the nature of his team’s performance. Southampton were largely ineffectual as Spurs’ confidence grew, with Kulusevski finding particular space in the gaps behind their defence.
After Eric Dier had put Spurs in front after 31 minutes with a glanced header and Mohammed Salisu had extended their lead with an own goal from two yards out that in days of yore would have found its way onto a video cassette compilation hosted by a stand-up comedian, Kulusevski added the fourth goal himself – a low-shot across goal which put the game beyond any reasonable doubt with almost half an hour still to play.
The strength of Kulusevski’s performance shows that opposing coaches preparing their teams for the omnipotent threat of Son and Kane may have to recalibrate their plans. It’s not that these two weren’t a threat against Southampton. Both had chances to score themselves. But if it was true that Spurs may have been a little over-reliant on their goals last season, the early signs this time around are that this might not be quite as much the case again.
Of course, results and league tables at this point of the season should be treated with due caution. The league table shows nothing that can’t be seen from looking at a list of results, and even results and performance levels at this very early stage can be taken with something of a pinch of salt.
Spurs supporters know this better than most. On the opening day of last season, Nuno Espirito Santo’s team beat Manchester City 1-0, and after three games they were the only ones left with a 100% league record. By November, Nuno was out of a job and Conte was on his way.
But the performance against Southampton was characterised by a number of unexpected – or at least under-reported – improvements (Kulusevski’s ability and increased importance to Spurs’ system has been no secret for Spurs supporters this year). That should, if anything, only offer encouragement. Son and Kane are still there, and both will now be likely champing at the bit to get their own goalscoring for the season kick-started.
Further goalscoring threats from different positions are A Good Thing in and of themselves. Having so many outlets for scoring goals is one of the many strings to their bow that Manchester City have had in recent years.
It’s also worth remembering that this was all achieved without the services of Richarlison, who missed this game after being suspended by the FA throwing for a flare into a stand at Goodison Park during Everton’s win against Chelsea towards the end of last season.
There’s no question that Southampton’s defence was extremely porous – the odds against Ralph Hasenhuttl becoming the first Premier League manager this season to be sacked will have been slashed – but for Spurs, a team with a reputation for flakiness and with expectation levels starting to rise, this will be considered an irrelevance.
A win’s a win, but a win in style can be something else altogether at this early point in the season.
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