Without a win in two Premier League games and missing their defensive talisman, let’s not get too excited about a narrow victory over a side who can’t buy a win at the moment.
But behind that word of caution, the Reds’ performance in their 2-1 win over Sheffield United bore a few remnants of their Premier League-winning campaign.
It does not take long for memories to become rosier in hindsight, but Liverpool’s route to the title last season often did not come through flowing football or total domination, but grinding out results. Remember the last-minute win at Aston Villa in November? Or even Dean Henderson’s howler which gifted them a win at Sheffield United in September?
There were no such gifts from the Blades at Anfield on Saturday, but there was plenty of Liverpool grit to move joint-top against a Sheffield United side who, like their hosts, produced a performance far more reminiscent of their successful 2019/20 than their shaky start this campaign.
While Chris Wilder’s men were growing in confidence after taking their first league lead of the season 13 minutes in, it was Liverpool who struck next out of nowhere thanks to some Jordan Henderson magic and a Roberto Firmino tap-in.
And with the Blades holding firm well into the second period, a brilliant Sadio Mane delivery found Diogo Jota to power home his first Premier League headed goal at the perfect moment.
It wasn’t vintage Liverpool, but it was winning Liverpool. And after dropping points in back-to-back games, and without Van Dijk, victory in this style may have felt satisfyingly familiar for Jurgen Klopp.
It seems like Chelsea can only have one or the other – goals or a clean sheet. So far this Premier League season, they have drawn 3-3 twice already and in only one game have they superseded this tally while keeping their opponents out at the other end during a 4-0 win against Crystal Palace before the international break.
But their last two games in all competitions have seen no goals and none conceded. Despite marquee signings Timo Werner and Kai Havertz starting at Old Trafford, they barely made a mark. Christian Pulisic was Chelsea’s main attacking threat, although his influence was also infrequent.
Their best bits of summer business right now look to have been the arrivals of Thiago Silva and Edouard Mendy. It’s not unfair to say that the pair were the main reasons why Chelsea kept a clean sheet. Silva was imperious at the back – as Frank Lampard himself said – while Mendy made three superb stops to keep Man Utd at bay.
Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink summed it up perfectly when he told Sky Sports after the game: “I want to see entertaining football but I understand why they play with five [at the back] and why they are looking for a clean sheet because they need to gain confidence at the back. I want to see goals and people running forwards, but Chelsea are not there yet. They are improving step-by-step.
“They conceded three goals against West Brom and Southampton and it hurts your confidence a little bit so they should gain confidence from this defensively today. But now, it’s about the balance and how can we get the balance right with scoring goals and keeping clean sheets.”
As Donny van de Beek stared glumly from the stands as the rain continued to fall in Manchester, Gary Neville quipped on co-commentary: “He must be thinking, ‘What am I doing here?'”
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer said simply beforehand: “He’ll get his games, don’t worry.” But Van de Beek’s continued absence – he is yet to start a Premier League game – will again come under the spotlight after a conservative showing where Solskjaer’s side struggled for creativity. Though they have played five league games and not six, only West Brom have created fewer big chances than Manchester United so far.
With Paul Pogba on the bench until the hour mark, the onus was on Bruno Fernandes but he was unusually subdued, while Dan James failed to justify his selection from the start.
“I wanted to see Man Utd play without fear,” Patrice Evra said in the Sky Sports studio. “People were scared to pass the ball. It’s not in Man Utd’s DNA to play that kind of game with fear; we need leaders, characters.”
Chelsea were uninspiring too and the expected goal data of the hosts’ 0.68 – their lowest of the season so far – to Chelsea’s 0.21 told a story; two cautious, leaky sides who effectively cancelled each other out.
Though his defence finally recorded a clean sheet, this was the fifth Premier League game Solskjaer’s side have failed to win at home.
There were proactive changes and Edinson Cavani’s performance off the bench was certainly promising. The Uruguayan almost made a swift impact as a darting run led to a shot that rippled the side-netting.
“He was sharp, he played without fear,” Evra said of the veteran forward but a question of invention behind the forwards – especially when Fernandes and Pogba are not purring – remains.
Where would West Ham be without Michail Antonio? Well, the simple answer is the Championship, given the number of vital goals the converted forward scored after the Premier League returned in June.
And the 30-year-old has picked up when he left off at the end of last season, adding to his previous goals at Arsenal and Leicester by opening the scoring against Manchester City with a spectacular overhead kick that will live long in the memory.
All of which means Antonio now has 11 goals to his name since the summer restart, a total bettered only by Tottenham striker Harry Kane with 12.
And this from a player who started out as a wide man due to his unreliable finishing, but has since been converted into a lethal marksman who must surely now be knocking on Gareth Southgate’s England door?
Not only that, but Hammers fans will be relieved that Antonio’s second-half substitution was down to nothing more than a bit of cramp ahead of their trip to champions Liverpool – live on Sky Sports – next weekend.
Sheffield United may still have a single point from their six Premier League games so far but this was a display to allay fears, to bolster self-belief, to encourage continued trust in the process.
Chris Wilder called it a “more of a Sheffield United performance” and his side turned up against the champions – albeit without the all-pervading influence of Virgil van Dijk – in the sort of manner that suggests a return relative to their efforts is not far away.
They were higher up the pitch, more purposeful, more aggressive here. Only against Leeds – when their profligacy was punished at the death – did Wilder’s side have more shots and create more chances from open play, and there were more touches in the opposition box at Anfield than against any other side so far this term. Ethan Ampadu, named on the left of the back three in Jack O’Connell’s absence, tucked into midfield to great effect as the tenacious Ben Osborn covered ground on the left flank, while John Egan was a towering figure at the back and Sander Berge rampaged with intent.
A clinical touch remains elusive – Rhian Brewster made his first start here but needs to acclimatise at the sharp end of Premier League life – and there were defensive lapses that afforded uncontested headers in decisive moments.
Man City and Chelsea are up next but Wilder’s Blades remain sound in structure and united in spirit as well as name. Results will turn with this sort of performance level.
Roy Hodgson had barely readjusted himself in his seat following his Crystal Palace side’s fine 2-1 victory in familiar surroundings at Fulham when he was asked a familiar question.
Wilfried Zaha had just inspired his team to a deserved victory at Craven Cottage. Palace directed 10 shots on target in the game, the most they’ve managed in an away Premier League since August 2018, also against Fulham (10) – and Zaha was instrumental as he laid on Jairo Riedewald’s opener before scoring the second himself.
So just how good was Palace’s talisman? “Once again, every press conference begins with Zaha in one way or another and if I’m not careful I’ll have to explain to him why I’m giving negative comments. We’re more than happy with him.”
It is quite a common occurrence if Palace do well for Zaha to be front and centre, but Hodgson is right. Against Fulham, there were 10 others who vindicated their selection – and unlike in previous seasons, Palace now have options all over the pitch. Gary Cahill was replaced admirably by Scott Dann while Jordan Ayew, sidelined due to coronavirus, wasn’t missed. But in Riedewald, Palace have arguably their most improved player this season.
Bought as a defender under Frank de Boer in 2017, the Dutchman has been converted into a central midfielder under Hodgson, and while he can at times appear ungainly, he had just as much influence on proceedings as Zaha in a fiercely-contested London derby.
Still only 24, Riedewald netted his first Premier League goal in his 33rd game in the competition, with what was his first-ever shot on target. Up to fifth in the table with 10 points from their six games, Palace are reaping the rewards of bringing other elements to his game.
A glance at Fulham’s recent record in top-flight London derbies suggested their wait for a first Premier League win of the season would have to go on a little longer, and while they remain rooted to the bottom after a fifth defeat in six games, Scott Parker has vowed to “front up” to the battle that lies ahead following a 2-1 reverse at home to Crystal Palace.
“We’re a young team, still trying to gel but there were some big positives today and this is when the chips are down you have to face up and keep working hard and I am sure we will come out of the other side,” he said.
Fulham’s haul of just one point after their first six games is their worst-ever return at this stage of a top-flight campaign, but in Ademola Lookman they have a player who is capable of providing the sharpness and dynamism that Parker admitted his side lacked in the final third on Saturday.
Lookman has already opened his Fulham account and no player had more than his six shots on the Palace goal, desperately unlucky in striking the inside of the post with one attempt. There was also an encouraging first league start for Mario Lemina, and when Ruben Loftus-Cheek is fully up to speed on the other flank, Fulham will be a much better proposition.
Having drawn and lost their last two Premier League games, Leeds had a point to prove at Villa Park and they certainly turned on the style against one of the league’s in-form teams.
Leeds produced a dazzling attacking performance that brought Aston Villa back down to earth with a bump. But Luke Ayling also impressed at the back – making a vital goal-line clearance to deny Jack Grealish in the first half – and there was some neat one-touch football being played across the field.
One of the most eye-catching moves in Leeds’ arsenal – and there were plenty of them – was the ferocity in which they counter-attacked, piling forward in pace and numbers and overloading the Aston Villa midfield, then their defence. They did all this too without one of their star men in the injured Kalvin Phillips, with Ezgjan Alioski, Jack Harrison and Helder Costa shining in his absence.
But the headlines will go to Patrick Bamford. Questions had been raised about his ability to perform in the Premier League, having only scored once in the top flight during his career. But after doubling his tally for the season with a superb hat-trick, he must surely have gone some way to answer his doubters.
Leeds must now carry on playing as they did on Friday evening, when they were briefly third in the Premier League table – their highest position at the end of a day in the division since 20 September 2002. If their performances against Liverpool and Man City were warnings, this was an ominous statement.
There was a big dose of reality for Aston Villa on Friday evening. To put it simply, they were out-muscled by a swarming Leeds side, with those thoughts of their last home game – that famous 7-2 win against Liverpool – nothing but a distant memory.
Let’s start with the positives though. Despite a slow start, Aston Villa soon found their feet in the first half and were mere inches away from taking the lead when Luke Ayling cleared Jack Grealish’s effort off the line. They had the best early second-half chances too but will be left wondering ‘what if’ with Villa restricted to half chances from the 55th minute on as Leeds stepped into fourth gear.
They were unable to stop the thunderous Leeds counter-attack and the full-backs Matty Cash and Matt Targett languished on the wings. Admittedly, Cash did well in the first half but the combination of Ezgjan Alioski and Jack Harrison was soon too much for him to handle.
It brings Aston Villa’s four-match winning run to a screeching halt and they missed the chance to top the Premier League table for the first time since August 2011. It’s time for Dean Smith to reassess in a bid to make an instant return to a winning formula.