FFT's Best of the Premier League weekend: Games, goals and moans
Performance of the week: Liverpool (vs Chelsea)
Sometimes it's too easy to translate a winning performance in a big game into genuine significance. The Premier League's broadcasters have always prioritised marquee fixtures and so, inevitably, the temptation is to overstate simple victory.
But Liverpool did produce a worthy display on Friday night and, as is becoming a weekly habit, they showed us something new. There may not be anything novel in watching them win at Stamford Bridge, they've developed a recent trend for that, but the manner of their victory was striking. Against the division's superpowers, Jurgen Klopp has typically reverted to counter-pressing type. His record against the traditional top-four clubs, evidenced in wins away to Chelsea and Manchester City last season and Arsenal this, owes much to that approach and each of those games were memorable for the manner in which Liverpool absorbed pressure, pressed intensely and converted possession turnovers into smartly taken goals.
So this was different. Klopp's team was the power this time. Chelsea had brief surges of momentum but, Diego Costa's goal and the minutes immediately afterwards aside, the Reds exerted a real control. This was not a game plan we are used to seeing from Liverpool; they played on the front-foot and, for long periods of the game, controlled the ball in the opposition half. Particularly impressive, too, given Roberto Firmino's absence.
Since his arrival at Anfield, Klopp had won just one of the 10 league games in which the Brazilian was unavailable and that's easy to understand: his blend of work-rate, technique and distribution is integral to Liverpool's multi-movement attacking. In his stead, his teammates produced their most impressive showing of the season, though. With Jordan Henderson providing the stable midfield base, the advanced five were able to strike a balance between their typically intense harrowing and smart, economic use of the ball. It made Chelsea vulnerable and, for sustained periods, locked them inside their own half.
The "heavy metal" description of Klopp's football is catchy but ultimately reductive: it suggests a high-spirited chaos which does his style a disservice. Friday's Liverpool may have bustled with the usual energy, but their play was characterised by more lift-music calm than power-chord frenzy; this wasn't a win built on breaking furiously into space, but a tactical masterclass memorable for its composure. The post-game discussion might focus on Adam Lallana's number of sprints, Henderson's goal, or Sadio Mane's dancing menace, but – with
If they sustain this level of improvement, they will become a substantial threat at the top of the table
the exception of Daniel Sturridge – four of the front five had pass completion rates in excess of 83 per cent. That may be a superficial statistic but, considering how dangerous Liverpool often looked in advanced positions, it's a reliable measure of their intelligence and accuracy with the ball.
Klopp's players are becoming more individually noticeable, but more importantly they now appear to exceed the sum of their parts. While still capable of pyrotechnics, this side is more remarkable for its ordinary qualities: for its precision, its resilience and its ability to dictate the shape of a game. What that truly means in the long term, who knows, but if they sustain this level of improvement they will become a substantial threat at the top of the table. With each passing week, Liverpool are showing themselves to be capable of winning games in different ways and three points at Stamford Bridge saw them pass another yardstick.
Best Player: Jordan Henderson (for Liverpool against Chelsea)
Inheriting the Liverpool captaincy from Steven Gerrard was an unenviable task for Jordan Henderson. He is neither Gerrard's equal as a footballer, nor does he enjoy the same natural bond with the surrounding city and so, inevitably, he has paled in comparison. He makes the right faces and gestures but, at times, he's seemed too preoccupied with imitating his predecessor. Gerrard was a natural leader whose influence and playing personality transcended games. By contrast, Henderson leads through example and his skill-set equips him more for honest hardwork than game-winning heroics; it may be peripheral to his performances, but it's nonetheless an interesting struggle to watch.
On Friday, however, he left a Gerrard-shaped indent on the game in southwest London. As mentioned above, Klopp's side was unexpectedly controlled in the capital and while it had been assumed they would cede possession to the hosts and attack on the break, they played much of the football beyond the halfway line. Henderson may not have been the most visible part of that, but he was the foundation of it. He was the centre-point between a defence which never looked as vulnerable as it should have done and a forward line whose ball-retention within Chelsea's final-third was outstanding.
(Henderson) is often seen as filler in Liverpool's midfield and as a shirt-warmer for a soon-to-arrive better player – and that's not entirely unjust
No player made more interceptions than Henderson, nor did anyone surpass his eight ball recoveries. To complete a rounded performance, his distribution was eclectic and mature. That was partly enabled by the movement ahead of him, of course, and by the width provided by the full-back tandem, but it was also emblematic of his growing responsibility. His technical contribution was very sound, but on Friday he strutted with unusually broad shoulders too; he played that game as if it was his to run and that felt significant. It wasn't his posturing default, passion faces and chest-beating, but actual authority.
He's often seen as filler in Liverpool's midfield and as a shirt-warmer for a soon-to-arrive better player – and, given that he's rarely so prominent, that's not entirely unjust. But Friday was his rebuttal. Of equal value in both halves of the pitch and largely dominant over N'Golo Kante and Nemanja Matic, it was the quintessential captain's performance. It was 90 minutes of character and reliable, lead-from-the-front excellence.
And the Gerrard flourish: what a wonderful goal. It wasn't in the last minute and it wasn't in front of The Kop, but the similarities were striking: a stunning moment at an opportune time and a goal which, come May, will still be among the best scored this season.
He will never be his predecessor. He'll never be as good and he'll never be as loved but, finally, this was a weekend when the armband fit.
Best Goal: Granit Xhaka – Arsenal (vs Hull)
A few of Manchester City's goals against Bournemouth were neatly constructed and Jordan Henderson's certainly warrants another mention, but Granit Xhaka was in a weight class of his own this week. He produced a movement of pure violence.
There's certainly a caveat about modern footballs and how they behave in flight and so, yes, Xhaka was given a strong assist by aerodynamics. However, when we're tired of watching this kind of shot – all fizzing energy and wild movement – we're probably tired of football itself. If you were in the stadium, it probably knocked the wind out of you. If you were at home, it at least raised your eyebrows.
Thank goodness for goal-netting, because that might have killed somebody.
Moan of the Weekend: The Honest British Professional
"If that had been a foreign player, he'd have been rolling around.
Oh, Glenn Hoddle: still?
That little nugget, in response to a stiff challenge between two British players, was part of Hoddle's co-commentary during Everton's game with Middlesbrough. We've been here before, haven't we? No matter how much time passes or how the game changes, we're stuck with this flawed belief that footballers raised in this part of the world possess a certain nobility.
This is no attempt to shame Hoddle and neither is there any intention to label him in a pejorative way. During his career, both as a player and a manger, English football was both more rugged and more densely populated by domestic players. The tempting conclusion for someone of his generation, then, is that cheating and gamesmanship are imported poisons which were smuggled in with the influx of Europeans and South Americans in the 1990s. There's a vague argument to be made in support of that and some facets of player behaviour may have been influenced, but if that was ever a fair accusation then it certainly isn't anymore.
It's more of an entrenched fallacy than a sinister prejudice, but such thinking is still badly in need of an update – if for no other reason than to stop the rest of the world sneering at English football's self-regard. Among other reasons, this is why they hate us. This is why England's failure at international tournaments provokes such global mirth and where the accusations of insularity come from. We, as a country, believe in our own moral superiority and, in this instance, perceive our football and our footballers to be of a certain purity. Worse still is this lingering belief that all threatening pollutants come from the outside.
And it's untrue. For every Argentinean who goes down easily, there is an English, Scottish or Welsh equivalent. For each cunning Southern European who feigns injury, there is a crafty cockney who is just as practiced at buying free-kicks from referees.
Tea came from China and opium originated from the Mediterranean, but cheating and deceit in football is really now just a product of human nature. As long as points are on offer and a score is being kept, players from all over the world will try to find an artificial advantage.