Monday 22 January 2018 / 03:54 AM

BOX-TO-BOX: EPL MATCHDAY 23

Talking points and analysis from Week 23 of the Premier League

Reds end the streak

Determination and belief are incredible tools. Without them, the pursuit of a win is often directionless and ultimately futile. Manchester City’s undying brilliance puts opponents in this state from the jump. But with these qualities, it makes the impossible, possible. That isn’t to say Liverpool emerging victorious against the unbeaten competition leaders was inconceivable, but they were heavy underdogs entering the fixture, and fairly so. Clearly no one told them that was the case. We were promised fireworks when the league’s top two offences clashed, and with a seven-goal thriller we were not let down.

An instant classic at Anfield brought an end to City’s unbeaten run, the Reds coming hard out of the gate early and overcoming the Citizens’ usual second-half surge to secure the biggest win of their season, prevailing 4-3. The electric atmosphere was sent into overdrive after the opening goal, which in hindsight was the perfect entry point for the chaos that was about to ensue.

Perhaps no one defines these aforementioned qualities better than Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, finally hitting his straps after months of trial and error looking for his best position, the opening goal a well-deserved breakthrough moment that was born out of sheer determination. It was a glimpse at what’s possible should he find his feet at Anfield. With ‘Ox’ joining their ever-dominant front three, there were rustlings, if only for the minute, that the Coutinho transfer isn’t the end of the road, but maybe the beginning of a new path.

The result has the potential to alter either team’s trajectory moving forward. Liverpool now have tangible proof that their ferocious press brings results against the highest quality of competition, and might be the mask their vulnerable backline needs. The prospect of Virgil Van Dijk setting the foundation for this version of Liverpool is enticing enough that Chelsea and United should be looking over their shoulders.

It brings an end to the ridiculous invincible talks that surrounded most City conversations. Sometimes the end of such a lengthy streak can bring a sense of relief, freed from the pressure of simple upkeep, chasing their own tail every week. On the flipside, it gives hope (and a simple blueprint) on beating Manchester City, which will light a spark in each opponent moving forward. At the very least, this is the first moment of adversity for the competition leaders, and with a week to prepare for their response game against Newcastle at home, their bounce-back effort is possibly the most intriguing storyline of the season so far.

Gunners fail to fire

This week, we comfortably put a line through Arsenal as a top-three contender, and prospects of them challenging for the fourth and final UCL spot are looking increasingly grim.

Elite teams simply do not surrender a lead against a side that started the round in the relegation zone. But complacency lead to a capitulation that saw Bournemouth net twice in five minutes and turn the game on its head, just another sign the Gunners’ erratic form will continue to restrict them from taking the next step.

The most important takeaway is where it leaves them on the table: sixth, eight points out of a Champions League spot and a whopping 23 points behind the league leaders. Without the threat of falling any lower in the standings, their only route to a successful season is to shift their focus to the Europa League, where they’ve qualified for the knockout stage, and are comfortably one of the best four teams remaining.

That’s their only path back to Champions League football, because they aren’t making it through the Premier League. With Sanchez having one foot out the door, it feels as though things will get worse before they improve.

Surprise party

Burnley comfortably picked up the most surprising performer award for the first quarter of the season, and the second quarter’s winner has come by an equally large margin. Crystal Palace – who beat Burnley 1-0 on the weekend – have lifted themselves from absolute despair and improving enough to be genuinely optimistic about where the second half of the season could lead them.

Palace is up to 12th (!) on the ladder, and have only lost two of their last 14 Premier League games, a stark turnaround from where they were when Roy Hodgson took over – goalless and without a point to their name.

Moving to a more stable 4-3-3 (from an ambitious 4-2-3-1) formation has shifted their counterattack-heavy style into a more well-rounded look that, along with some important personnel changes, has re-energised their entire roster. They should look to their upcoming fixture against out-of-form Arsenal with legitimate belief they can win the game.

It makes sense that their most significant win to date comes against the other surprise packet of the season, but it appears as though the Clarets’ stock is definitely trending down. Watch this space.

Clear contrast

After his disastrous start in which he cost Huddersfield the opening goal, Joel Lolley’s gorgeous finish was a nice moment of respite, but his sublime strike only brought the Terriers a brief moment of hope as West Ham got straight back to business, utterly dominating every facet of the matchup.

Once Huddersfield threw everyone forward in an attempt to reclaim the match, Lanzini and Arnotivic ran riot on the counter and quickly put the result to bed. A 4-1 scoreline was an accurate depiction of the gap between the two sides, whose paths have swapped over the course of the season.

West Ham were always more talented than their start suggested. It took a while, maybe too much time, to find the right way to fully realise their talent, but switching to a 5-3-1-1 has completely revamped their style, their defensive consistency among the biggest changes that has rescued their season that once appeared destined for the relegation battle. Now up to 11th with a slew of winnable games on the horizon — Bournemouth, Palace, Brighton, Watford and Swansea in five of their next six — the Hammers are undoubtedly trending up.

Conversely, Huddersfield far exceeded expectations early, getting as high as 7th on the table and playing beautifully cohesive football. Now their lack of talent — comparatively speaking — has started to come to the forefront. Teams are no longer caught off guard by their hustling efforts, and any attempt to push forward exposes their defensive deficiencies over the full field.

They remain secure with their backs against their own goal, but that’s no recipe for winning football – that strategy is effective only for survival. Problem is, what was once a season full of hope is quickly turning into a survival mission. Once filled with lofty aspirations, they now sit only four points above 18th and need to pick up points soon.

No cure for Chelsea’s inconsistencies

Leicester’s ferocious — and unsurprisingly successful — press caught an out-of-rhythm Chelsea side off-guard and the Blues, who looked devoid of energy and ideas, failed to create anything substantial as the Foxes frustrated them into a painful 0-0 draw.

Ndidi tracked Hazard about as well as anyone has all season, shutting down Chelsea most dependable creative input, with only two Fabregas missiles challenging the goal all game.

I remain confident that Chelsea are still the second-best team in the competition, but the blueprint to disrupting their rhythm and luring them into a scrappy arm-wrestle is so blatantly obvious that it’s not hard to imagine more teams following this game-plan and opting to steal a point rather than trying to win.

Their style serves them well in match-ups with the top teams, but their susceptibility to such simple tactics has to force Conte’s hand into trialing something more creative. Chelsea’s upcoming stretch will make or break their season.

Stray Observations

• Transfer rumours and spotty form have been the most consistent elements of Riyad Mahrez’s season to date, but performances such as his effort on the weekend for Leicester are reminders of how deadly he can be on his day.

• As Kane becomes the Spurs’ all-time leader scorer and Heung-Min Son scores in his fifth straight home game, it’s hard to go past them as the best duo in the Premier League right now. Tottenham’s offensive production is dependent on their output, and games like this suggest it’s not a bad investment.

• Furthermore, if Deli Alli was able to reach his best consistently, this trio might have enough star power to lift Spurs to the next level. There’s a star player somewhere in there, and there’s still no doubting he’s got the potential to reach that level, he just hasn’t come to the party just yet. The fear is that Spurs may put too much trust in a young talent who is still largely rocks and diamonds.

• Unpopular opinion: Arsenal should be thrilled with the Sanchez deal. Selling an out-of-favour 29-year-old with less than six months on his contract for £30 million-plus is just good business.

• The United-Stoke result – the heavyweights prevailing 3-0 at Old Trafford – was exactly as expected, which again forces some attention on a small concern: their high-powered offence will generate goals, but their defence continues to get bailed out by De Gea, who was again sublime with some incredible saves. This could have easily been 3-3.

• Saints’ late stumble and Watford’s heroics, and the overall game at large (which finished 2-2), pretty much sums up both teams perfectly.

• Everton’s defensive improvements still aren’t enough to hang with the best of the best, and whilst we’ll always laud an attacking mindset, the choice to open the game up cost the Toffees any chance of being competitive against Spurs, going down 4-blot. Balance is key, and they haven’t found it…yet.

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About the author

Brayden Issa

Brayden is a Sydney-based sports management student and sports fanatic, specialising in rugby league, basketball, football and cricket. He is concerned with everything related to professional sports performance and management.

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