Liverpool uses smoke, mirrors and its depth to get back on top of the Premier League table

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Following the Premier League this year, it feels that the term “Mentality Monsters” should be emblazoned on the front of Liverpool’s shirts instead of their Standard Chartered sponsorship. Jurgen Klopp coined that term after the hallucination of the 4-0 comeback over Barcelona in 2019, Steve Kerr co-opted it, and it’s how Liverpool have been judged ever since. Given that the Reds have collected 18 points this season in games they’ve trailed, it’s easy to point to something intangible as to why they never give in and seem to find a way to get back into matches (unless VAR stops them, as I’m required to say as a Red).

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But we don’t deal in that here. Everything has an explanation, everything has logic, or we will simply roll up in the corner and piss ourselves. As opposed to when we do that to get out of a meeting, but that’s just straight tactics and not a visceral reaction to confusion. And there is an explanation for Liverpool’s ability to turn matches around.

Liverpool have had an array of subs who have been able to affect games from the bench. It was Harvey Elliot on Saturday at Crystal Palace, and he’s probably been the most common player to do so. But Darwin Nunez, Ryan Gravenberch, Curtis Jones, Joe Gomez, Cody Gakpo, Luis Diaz, and Wataru Endo have all had an effect on matches when coming on as a sub. Yes, it’s depth. Liverpool have a ton of good players.

But it’s also more than that. Because Liverpool are in the Europa League this season, and have used it as a bonus League Cup so far, that depth is also being kept sharp. They can roll out the B-team (or A-team) more often than one or two Carabao Cup games. Their subs come Premier League weekends aren’t all players barely getting any minutes. Liverpool have 19 outfield players who have gotten 500 minutes or more this season in all competitions. Compare that to Arsenal’s 14, or City’s 16, and it’s easy to see why Liverpool not only have more options, but more options that haven’t gone stale through inaction. Arsenal and City have to use more of their first-choice players in Champions League games.

That advantage may go away soon, depending on whom Liverpool draw in the last 16 of the Europa League and how seriously they take it. They have a League Cup quarterfinal next week, which comes in the thick of the Premier League’s bonkers December schedule. But for now, when Klopp looks at his bench, not only does he see lots of options to bend a match the way he wants it, but he sees options that have properly warmed up in the pen, as it were.

What else went down on the weekend?

4. Aston Villa don’t need your stinking projects

And Liverpool going to the top of the league wasn’t even the story of the weekend, at least everywhere else outside my apartment. Aston Villa cut down their second title challenger in four days at Villa Park, this time suffer-balling through a 1-0 victory over Arsenal. As always with Arsenal, it was the refs’ fault somehow.

Whereas Villa absolutely smashed City on Wednesday night and 1-0 didn’t really showcase how superior they were, they had to survive against the Gunners. They had less than half the shots on Saturday than they did Wednesday, about a quarter of the xG. And yet with all of Arsenal’s possession, it wasn’t like they peppered Emi Martinez (just five shots on target). Some of that was Arsenal’s wayward finishing, some was Diego Carlos swatting everything away like Kong on the Empire State (with a better ending).

Whether Unai Emery likes it or not, they’re in the title discussion now. They’ll have to sort out their away form to stay there, but then again, so does just about every other team in the league. As for the overall picture at Villa Park, this piece from ESPN’s Ryan O’Hanlon outlines how this isn’t really a “project.” All of Villa’s regulars, bar Boubacar Kamara, are between 26 and 30 (though Jacob Ramsey would feature more had he not been hurt), and thus, really in their primes. They aren’t a team being gelled together over time, but established pros being maxed out to create this immediately.

But that’s kind of Emery’s thing. The Villareal team that he took to the Champions League semis was slightly older (28.0 average age vs. Villa’s 27.3), and one of those young stars was Pau Torres whom he brought with him to Birmingham. His last Sevilla side to win the Europa League, which they made a habit of, only had two players under 25 who played more than 1,000 minutes.

What does that mean? Well, it’s harder to gauge than just saying this is a bunch of players peaking together and it’ll never be better, though that’s a definite possibility. Were Villa to get into the Champions League and the money that comes with it, we’ll know more when we see what they add with that cash and whether it’s more long-term or augmenting the right now. Still, Sevilla did win three Europa Leagues in a row, so it’s not like Emery has only produced one-season wonders. He just might not be installing truly deep foundations. But right now, find a Villa fan who cares.

Also, Emi Martinez, blood streaming down his face, roaring the crowd behind him on in injury time. Hero.

3. Man United are back, in the good way, for the rest of us

You’d think observers would have more depth of analysis than thinking a midweek win over perhaps the one club that’s a bigger mess than they are was some kind of corner for Man United, beating Chelsea as they did on Wednesday. After getting thrashed by Bournemouth at home on Saturday, 3-0, United are right back under the bridge from which they’ve spent most of the last decade.

When Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was binned off as manager, the rap on him was that all United ever had were chaotic wins and chaotic losses. There wasn’t a noticeable plan or system or identity. They were either pulling rabbits out of their hat for no discernible reason, though Ole would label it, “We are Manchester United.” And then they’d get pilfered the next match, and everyone else would say, “This is Manchester United.”

Where are we 18 months later? Scott McTominay might goof a couple shots through the posts to grab points or survive the cauldron that was their trip to Goodison Park to play Everton right after the latter’s points-deduction penalty, but then they get roped by Bournemouth or Newcastle, or come apart in Copenhagen or Istanbul. And that’s all in the past month!

We still don’t know what United are trying to do, they have players in the lineup that were all bought for three or four different systems, and none of them are all that good or playing well at all.

But hey, we all love Erik Ten Hag’s hat.

2. Speaking of messes

Maybe Chelsea and Man United have some sort of wager on which club can set more money on fire, non-Musk division.

Chelsea were woeful against Everton on Sunday, with no cohesion or chemistry between the 11 players on the field. Reece James got hurt again, Enzo Fernandez isn’t doing anything, and they still don’t have a No. 9 that looks like he should be playing on any team other than a mid-level Premier League team at best.

We’ve made a lot of fun of Mikhaylo Mudryk here . . . and we’ll do it some more! Mudryk was able to create a couple openings by doing what he always does – run straight ahead as fast as he can. But that works when facing a fossil at right-back like Ashley Young who couldn’t keep up. That doesn’t mean Mudryk’s final product was good or even existent.

Meanwhile, on the other side, Dwight McNeil playing on the left for Everton got fewer looks, but did something Mudryk seemingly can’t do, which is come inside, beat a man through something other than speed, and actually create a chance:

Also, let’s give a round of applause to Chelsea keeper Robert Sanchez, for whatever this was:

Flopping at shots that aren’t anywhere near the goal is Jordan Pickford’s specialty, and apparently, Sanchez decided to raise him by flopping at a shot that was actually headed into the net.

1. Newcastle are out on their feet

It’s tough for teams to cope with their first attempt to balance Champions League and Premier League assignments. It gets harder when they have an entire team fighting over whirlpool time in the training room, as Newcastle do. Thirteen players were out injured for the Magpies, which meant that Sunday’s date at Spurs was the fifth straight game in all competitions that they had to play the same 10 outfield players.

For a team that’s built on their energy, that’s a recipe for disaster, and you can see it in the first two goals they gave up with how many players are just a step or six behind their counterparts:

Especially on Richarlison’s goal, where you can see Bruno Guimaraes see the danger a half-beat too late, which is unlike him, and is a half-step slow to get there, which means all he can do is put a hand on Richarlison’s shoulder from behind before he scores. It’s ok, though, they only have six games in the next 21 days.

Follow Sam on Twitter @Felsgate and on Bluesky

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