SINGAPORE — How have your favourite English Premier League (EPL) teams performed over the past week? Yahoo News Singapore looks at the key talking points surrounding the league in this weekly review:
Tactical decisions Klopp must make in van Dijk’s absence
WHAT HAPPENED: There is no other way around it – Virgil van Dijk’s anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) injury has dealt a hammer blow to Liverpool’s hopes of retaining the EPL title.
The colossal central defender limped out of the bruising 2-2 draw with Everton on Saturday (17 October) after a reckless challenge by goalkeeper Jordan Pickford, and looks set to miss the entire season with the serious knee injury.
Given that the Dutchman is rated as one of the world’s best defenders right now and was ever-present for the Reds during their spectacular title run last season, his prolonged absence will be a severe test for manager Jurgen Klopp to maintain their defensive excellence over the past few years.
Van Dijk is so much more than a reliable defender. He also acts as the “control tower” of the team, directing where his colleagues should be positioned to cut off danger and starting Liverpool’s attack from the back. His vocal authority is something that neither of the remaining first-team central defenders Joe Gomez and Joel Matip – or defensive midfielder Fabinho for that matter – possess.
Given that Gomez and Matip are both injury-prone, and it is easy to see why Liverpool’s tag as title favourites is becoming more fragile than ever. With 17 EPL and Champions League matches to be played before the January transfer window opens, Klopp must decide whether to bring an additional central defender to ease the burden on his two healthy centre-backs, or promote several promising youngsters such as Rhys Williams, Sepp van den Berg or Billy Koumetio.
Klopp may also have to decide whether to tinker his tactics to better protect Liverpool defence. With van Dijk, the Reds were confident enough to play a high-intensity, high-defence line strategy to put opponents under immense pressure before they can pass the centre-line. Van Dijk’s absence removes the safety net that make such tactic workable, and Klopp may need to tell his team to hold back a little in their manic pressing.
Whatever his decision, rivals will be sensing that Liverpool are considerably weakened. It is probably the one setback which Liverpool have been hoping to never be hit with, but how they respond to van Dijk’s absence will shape the rest of the EPL season, with many teams eager to topple them from their perch.
WHAT’S NEXT: After a tricky midweek Champions League tie against Ajax Amsterdam, Liverpool face struggling Sheffield United at home on Sunday morning (Singapore time). Sheffield United are yet to register a win this season, and have scored just twice in five games. On paper, it should be a comfortable contest for the defending champions. With van Dijk out, however, anything may happen.
Spurs, Chelsea need to learn how to preserve leads
WHAT HAPPENED: It says a lot about the maddening unpredictability of the EPL during the COVID-19 pandemic that a three-goal lead within the opening 20 minutes could not guarantee all three points for a title hopeful.
Tottenham Hotspur, buoyed by their 6-1 rout of Manchester United before the international break, looked set to record another convincing win on Sunday after goals from Son Heung-min and Harry Kane (twice) put them 3-0 up against West Ham after barely 15 minutes.
For the next hour, Spurs looked comfortable in defending their sizeable lead, and climb up to the top three in the EPL table. Then it all went south, as they conceded twice in quick succession to set up a nervous finale. Just when they thought they had held on long enough for the win, along came Manuel Lanzini to score a stunning 94th-minute equaliser for the Hammers.
A frustrated Spurs manager Jose Mourinho accused his players of not being strong enough psychologically, and it summed his side’s lack of nous in shutting up to defend a comfortable lead. It is what made Tottenham so maddeningly inconsistent in recent years, and unless Mourinho can somehow instil some ruthlessness in his team, they will be prone to more frustrations like this match.
It is a flaw which is also evident in another top London club, Chelsea. Frank Lampard’s side looked scintillating in attack, but are so flimsy in defence that no lead of theirs looks safe this season.
On Saturday, they were 2-0 up early against Southampton before the Saints pulled two goals back after 57 minutes, Within a minute, the Blues grabbed the lead again through new signing Kai Havertz, and seemed to be on their way to a hard-fought victory.
However, their defence let them down again deep into stoppage time, failing a free kick from the left to allow Jannik Vestergaard to head home the equaliser.
Not for the first time season have Chelsea’s defensive woes come back to haunt them, and Lampard – just like his mentor Mourinho – must somehow inject some steel in his back line. Otherwise, Roman Abramovich’s hefty investment in bringing in six players in the transfer window may seem pointless if the Blues keep wasting their leads.
WHAT’S NEXT: A trip to Burnley calls for steely determination, which means it will be a stern test for Tottenham as they look to bounce back from the frustrating draw. Chelsea, on the other hand, travel to Old Trafford to face a Manchester United side who responded after their thrashing by Spurs with a 4-1 win over Newcastle.
Villa transformed in early-season success
WHAT HAPPENED: Probably the most pleasant surprise this season is the fine form of Aston Villa, who barely avoided relegation last season.
They are the only side which still possess a 100 per cent record, with four straight victories to start off their second season after being promoted from the Championship. The latest was a hard-fought 1-0 win over Leicester, clinched right at the death when new loan signing Ross Barkley slammed home from outside the box.
How have Villa turned things around from being relegation candidates to surprise pace-setters? The answer may be a series of sound decisions made by the club since the COVID-19 break last season.
First, manager Dean Smith decided to tweak his tactics to beef up Villa’s defence, which had been dreadful in the opening months of last season. It worked well enough for them to grind out enough wins to stay up in the EPL.
Then came a brilliant transfer window in which Villa made sensible and astute purchases that significantly upgraded the squad: Barkley, Bertrand Traore, Emiliano Martinez, Ollie Watkins and Matthew Cash.
The loan signing of Barkley seemed like a masterstroke, as the England midfielder is able to pair up with his international colleague Jack Grealish to boss the centre of the pitch. Since his arrival, Villa have stormed to a 7-2 thrashing of defending champions Liverpool and now the precious Leicester win.
For a historical club like Villa, it is a welcome sight to see them doing well in the league after years in the doldrums. While a title push may seem implausible yet, a Europa League placing is well within reach for this squad.
WHAT’S NEXT: A mouth-watering tie against newly-promoted Leeds United, who were unfortunate in losing 0-1 to Wolves on Monday. Can Villa’s new-found resilience be able to resist Marcelo Bielsa’s team’s high-intensity pressing? It is an intriguing prospect that will go some ways in shaping Villa’s fortunes this season.
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