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'I would've fought him': Inside Roy Keane's turbulent managerial career

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Warning: Story contains coarse language

Steven Caldwell vividly recalls the moment his Sunderland career effectively ended. He was grocery shopping with his wife when the phone rang. Roy Keane, the Black Cats manager, was on the line. The conversation was abrupt.

“‘I spoke to Burnley. They put an offer in for you, and you can leave,'” Caldwell, then Sunderland’s captain, remembers the combative Keane saying. “I was like, ‘What? I thought you wanted me to stay.’

“‘Well, I’ve changed my mind. I want you to go.'”

Just two days prior, a tense meeting between the pair ended with Keane telling his skipper, an impending free agent, that he’d sort out a new contract to keep him at the club. Volatility, Caldwell told theScore, was commonplace with Keane.

The Manchester United legend’s appointment surprised some Sunderland players to begin with that season. In his first job as a manager, he was entrusted with a side that opened the 2006-07 campaign with five consecutive defeats following a historically poor relegation from the Premier League.

But the club hadn’t just placed its trust in any rookie boss. Keane was notoriously feisty on and off the pitch. Niall Quinn, the Sunderland chairman and icon overseeing the team until he hired Keane, witnessed the latter’s infamous, searing rant at Republic of Ireland boss Mick McCarthy ahead of the 2002 World Cup. Quinn, one of the senior Irish players at the time, supported McCarthy in the rift, which ended with Keane sensationally leaving the squad prior to the tournament.

“Quinny doesn’t suffer fools gladly, but he’s not volatile. He’s totally measured and controlled. Roy’s also smart, but not measured and controlled,” Caldwell said.

The public spat, which stemmed from Ireland’s supposedly poor World Cup preparations, was perhaps the biggest controversy of Keane’s storied playing career. Ireland and the rest of the British Isles were gripped by the soap opera that unfolded. The “Saipan incident,” as it was dubbed, has its own dedicated Wikipedia page.

Sir Alex Ferguson and Roy Keane in 2005 John Peters / Manchester United / Getty

That wasn’t all, of course. There was also Keane’s infamous challenge on Manchester City’s Alfie Haaland – father of Erling Haaland – that led to the midfielder’s early retirement. He flung his elbows, stomped on genitals, and grappled with opponents and teammates. His legendary spell of over 12 seasons with Manchester United ended abruptly due to his faltering relationship with manager Alex Ferguson.

“He wasn’t bothered about upsetting people,” Tommy Miller, who worked under Keane at Sunderland and Ipswich Town, said. “That’s how he played as well. He’ll tell you himself: There’s no friends in football. I don’t think he had many friends.”

‘Our best player was the manager’

Sunderland followed four straight losses to begin the 2006-07 Championship season with an embarrassing League Cup elimination at Bury, who were sitting dead last in the fourth tier of English football.

After that harrowing defeat, a visibly emotional Quinn revealed a managerial appointment was imminent. Grudges were going to be set aside.

“Let’s be honest, it worked,” Miller said.

Keane’s arrival revitalized a squad that had been drained of confidence. He met the players during a Sunday training session and watched from the stands the next day as Sunderland beat promotion candidates West Bromwich Albion. Even Quinn, in his last appearance as a manager, couldn’t hide his amazement.

“People thought we were going to get spanked again today,” he said.

Roy Keane watches Sunderland beat West Brom in 2006 Mike Egerton – EMPICS / PA Images / Getty

Keane wasn’t afraid to make changes despite the much-needed victory. He dropped five players from the starting lineup for his first official game as Sunderland boss, a trip to Billy Davies’ Derby County, and hailed the team’s character after a 2-1 comeback win. Although the Black Cats collected all three points, defender Neill Collins – who scored in the win over West Brom – wanted to know why he was demoted from starter to unused substitute against Derby. The center-back, who had recently turned 23, thinks he was the first player to initiate a one-on-one meeting with his new boss.

“People always fear the worst with Roy Keane – but he was excellent,” Collins recalled.

Collins, who’s now in charge of Barnsley, was impressed with Keane’s man management. Keane told the young Scot to be patient and insisted he was part of his plans. The manager then gave Collins a full 90-minute shift for Sunderland’s next outing, deploying him at right-back for the first time in his career in a 3-0 win at Leeds United.

Training became more intense. Assistant manager Tony Loughlan covered most of the sessions while Keane, perhaps taking inspiration from Manchester United’s Ferguson, would observe from afar or arrive later in the day. He had high standards and would occasionally step in with directives and demands. He wanted high-tempo, attacking football. He urged his players to take only one or two touches. He fired the ball at their feet during rondos.

Keane was 35 and suffered some injury issues during his playing days – but his quality on the ball hadn’t deserted him. Far from it.

“It was maybe the first three weeks he hadn’t joined in at all, but he joined in a game, and I think his team won 3-0 and he scored all three. It was incredible,” Collins said.

“Our best player was the manager,” he added.

Quinn and the rest of the boardroom were willing to back Keane in the transfer market, allowing him to retool his roster before officially taking charge. Sunderland signed six players on the last day of the summer transfer window alone, and only one – Keane’s former Manchester United teammate Dwight Yorke, who had just flown across the world to join from Australia’s Sydney FC – didn’t start against Derby.

“He had whatever he needed that first season,” Caldwell said.

Roy Keane talks to officials during match at Derby Jon Buckle – EMPICS / PA Images / Getty

theScore’s attempts to contact Keane through agents who look after his commercial interests and public speaking engagements were unsuccessful.

Out of favor

Players Quinn signed earlier in the summer, like Clive Clarke and Arnau Riera, soon disappeared from view as Keane brought in his own personnel. Remnants from the previous regime – headed by Keane’s old rival McCarthy – were even more vulnerable.

Miller was proven in the Championship, notching 11 and 13 goals from midfield over his previous two second-tier seasons. He was also desperate to perform for Sunderland, the team he regularly watched with his dad and supports to this day.

“I was doing everything right,” he said. “I was training well. I was doing well for the reserves. In in-house practice games, I was scoring goals.”

But Keane wasn’t convinced.

Miller, who was injured when Keane arrived, was sent on a short-term loan to fellow Championship side Preston North End in November 2006 and was strangely eligible to face Sunderland at the end of December.

That dubious decision – or oversight – backfired. Preston dealt Sunderland their second defeat in three matches to finish in second place at the season’s halfway point and leave Keane’s men 10 points below the automatic promotion positions. Miller played the whole match.

His frustration at not being given an opportunity under Keane made it easier to offset his loyalties toward Sunderland.

“Because of Roy Keane, I just thought, ‘Yeah, fuck you.'”

Tommy Miller makes his only appearance for Roy Keane Clive Brunskill / Getty Images Sport / Getty

Miller returned to Sunderland in January and made his only appearance for Keane as a substitute the following month. He suspects his opportunity only materialized because Keane instructed the team bus to leave without three players who were running late.

Caldwell wasn’t frozen out in the same way. An injury sidelined him during the start of Keane’s tenure, but he was soon thrust into the starting lineup when he was fit. He remained captain.

That’s what made Keane’s U-turn, when he blindsided Caldwell at the grocery store, more perplexing.

Even after a positive few hours touring Burnley’s facilities, Caldwell wanted to fight for his place at Sunderland. But Keane wouldn’t change his mind again. He called Caldwell into his office to question why he’d not accepted a “great offer” from Burnley. That irritated Caldwell – he and his family would judge the quality of the offer – and he was soon pushed to breaking point when Keane told him he’d strip him of the captaincy because he wanted players who were “up and at it.”

“He’s probably the only guy in 18 years as a professional – player, coach, anyone – that’s ever questioned my attitude. Ever,” Caldwell said.

“I swear to God, I would’ve fought him in that room if he stood up, if he was ready for it. I was so angry.”

Caldwell thinks there were around 10 minutes left in the January transfer window when he joined Burnley.

Steven Caldwell in Sunderland colors before Roy Keane’s arrival Nigel French – EMPICS / PA Images / Getty

Despite upsetting players with his squad overhaul, Keane got Sunderland promoted as champions. It was an incredible feat considering the mood in the camp and team’s position in the table when he took over, but was it primarily recruitment, rather than Keane’s management, that sparked their return to the Premier League? Their spending outstripped most of their Championship rivals, and it didn’t slow after promotion – but Keane’s Sunderland struggled to stay afloat in the ultra-competitive Premier League.

They avoided relegation by three points in their first season back in the top flight. When Keane left by mutual consent in December 2008, Sunderland were 18th after five defeats in six matches. They’d splurged almost £70 million on 33 players during Keane’s 27-month reign.

Quinn praised Keane effusively when he departed.

“He was instrumental in developing a winning mentality – that was the toughest thing of all for him to come and do when we were at the foot of the Championship,” Quinn explained. “He brought standards to this club which are amazing.”

Playing with fear

Keane wasn’t out of the game for long.

Twenty weeks later he embarked on a similarly ambitious project at Ipswich Town. Keane had the luxury of assessing his squad over the final two matches of the Championship campaign before truly kickstarting the Tractor Boys’ bid to return to the Premier League over the summer.

“We went to an army camp. We had to survive three days in the woods,” Pim Balkestein, then 22, said of the team’s rigorous preseason getaway ahead of the 2009-10 campaign.

Ipswich chief executive Simon Clegg and Roy Keane Adam Davy – EMPICS / PA Images / Getty

Balkestein remembered Keane joining the drills and appearing to enjoy them. Explosive, gun-like sounds would startle the squad awake in the early hours, signaling another grueling day in the wilderness. Balkestein believes the exercises helped them “grow together as a group,” but that wasn’t evident when the season got underway.

Keane’s Ipswich started in miserable form, recording eight draws and six defeats before finally winning their first match on the final day of October. Balkestein was taken aback by Keane’s ferocity in the Ipswich dressing room during that run. Objects would fly. He would scream. The youngster said the “really nice guy during the week” could switch in an instant.

“When you play a shit ball, he’ll really say, ‘You’re a fucking wanker, why (did) you play this shit ball?’ You have to cope with it,” Balkestein said.

Owen Garvan, who was substituted 23 minutes into a match at Watford after making an error, said people “stayed clear” of Keane to avoid his outbursts.

“Your confidence levels are going lower. You’re scared to make mistakes,” Balkestein, who was soon shipped to Brentford, recalled of his mental condition. “You’re thinking about what Roy Keane’s thinking, and that’s not the state of mind you need to have on the pitch.”

Balkestein suggests Keane’s inability to adapt to different personality types harmed his tenure in Suffolk. Ipswich finished 15th at the end of Keane’s first full campaign, closer in points to the relegation zone than the playoff places. He was sacked midway through the following season, with Ipswich writhing in 19th place.

Ipswich’s Pim Balkestein downbeat after League Cup exit to Peterborough United Chris Radburn – PA Images / PA Images / Getty

“I tracked some players, and I think from that squad, 10 players reached Premier League clubs, so there was a good squad,” Balkestein said. “Maybe he didn’t bring it together.”

Keane hasn’t overseen a team since.

He was assistant manager of Ireland from 2013-18 and was briefly on the coaching staff at Aston Villa in 2014 and then Nottingham Forest five years later. There’s been nothing after that.

Caldwell believes one of his former boss’ greatest hurdles to managerial success was separating “Keano” the aggressive midfield star from Keane the gaffer. He had a reputation to live up to as a no-nonsense, outspoken character, and his scathing dressing-room addresses and ruthless discarding of players satisfied that role.

And as a pundit with a delivery that’s blunt, savage, and often the key ingredient for viral videos of Premier League analysis, he could still be trying to play a part.

“The reason he’s great on the telly is actually what you saw in management. I think he started to become a caricature of himself,” Caldwell said.

“He’s good value on TV, but it’s all a big act.”

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Premier League

Liverpool win League Cup on Van Dijk's dramatic ET goal

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Virgil van Dijk scored in the 118th minute against Chelsea on Sunday to win the League Cup for Liverpool and deliver the first trophy of Jurgen Klopp’s farewell season.

Van Dijk’s header settled a wildly entertaining final that somehow ended goalless after 90 minutes at Wembley Stadium.

Unlike the previous two finals between these two sides – which Liverpool won on penalties after 120 minutes of goalless football – they created enough chances to muster a clear winner. Each team had goals disallowed for offside, had hit posts, and produced goal-line clearances. Goalkeepers Djordje Petrovic and Caoimhin Kelleher combined for 19 saves – many of them spectacular.

The 1-0 win keeps the Reds in contention for a continental quadruple and denies Chelsea a first title since Todd Boehly’s consortium took over in May 2022. It also robbed Chelsea manager Mauricio Pochettino of a first title in England.

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It also comes as Liverpool deal with a massive injury crisis. Klopp fielded three teenagers in the final and had another two on the bench because of injuries to Mohamed Salah, Diogo Jota, Darwin Nunez, Dominik Szoboszlai, Trent Alexander-Arnold, and Alisson.

The last time a team had three or more teenagers on the field in a League Cup final was in 2007 when Arsenal lost to Chelsea with Theo Walcott, Cesc Fabregas, Denilson, and Armand Traore in the starting XI.

Chelsea have now lost six consecutive domestic finals dating back to the 2018-19 season. It’s another black mark against a club that’s spent more than £1 billion since Boehly’s group acquired it from Roman Abramovich in a £4.25-billion deal.

“In extra time, it’s been Klopp’s kids against the blue billion-pound bottle jobs,” former Manchester United defender Gary Neville said on Sky Sports, per Agence France-Presse. “Special managers do special things. He is a monster manager.”

Klopp has won eight major trophies since being appointed Liverpool manager in October 2015. And it may not end there: His team leads the Premier League table, is in the fifth round of the FA Cup, and has advanced to the round of 16 of the Europa League.

Mike Hewitt / Getty Images Sport / Getty

Liverpool are rebounding well from last season, when they finished outside of the Champions League places in fifth and failed to win a trophy.

But Sunday’s final was far from straightforward. Liverpool lost midfielder Ryan Gravenberch to injury early in the first half after Chelsea’s Moises Caicedo accidentally stepped on his ankle. Without a natural replacement, Klopp threw on right-back Joe Gomez and moved Conor Bradley, who had already been deputizing in that position, into Salah’s usual slot on the right wing.

Liverpool also survived numerous goalmouth scrambles and heaved a sigh of relief in the 32nd minute when the VAR ruled Raheem Sterling’s goal offside.

Van Dijk then thought he had put the Merseyside outfit 1-0 up after 60 minutes when he steered in a strong header from Andrew Robertson’s free-kick. But the VAR caught Wataru Endo standing in an offside position before freeing Van Dijk with a pick on Chelsea defender Levi Colwill.

Liverpool’s Cody Gakpo and Chelsea’s Conor Gallagher each hit the post as both teams vied for an elusive goal. It would stay 0-0 until Van Dijk made good with the game’s 42nd attempt on goal.

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Premier League

Key thoughts and analysis from Saturday's Premier League action

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theScore examines the most important developments and biggest talking points from Saturday’s slate of action in England’s top flight.

New era, same old Man United

Jim Ratcliffe is now a co-owner of Manchester United, and if he didn’t understand the size of the rebuilding project in front of him, Saturday’s crushing 2-1 loss to Fulham surely hammered it home.

The good vibes that Ratcliffe’s arrival had inspired earlier this week hardly lasted. United didn’t just lose at home to an opponent that hadn’t beaten them at Old Trafford in 21 years, they collapsed entirely, allowing Fulham full control of the game, only responding for brief moments at a time. The form that helped United win their last five matches was nowhere to be seen. If anything, they played as badly as they have at any point in Erik ten Hag’s tenure. For the 14th time this season, United conceded at least 17 shots, exposing themselves to myriad counterattacks as they foolishly threw caution to the wind.

Michael Regan / Getty Images Sport / Getty

United’s problems have less to do with individuals and more to do with the system Ten Hag so desperately wants them to play. Pressing is clearly not in the DNA of many of his players, and yet he insists they do it, even at the expense of their goals-against record and the acres of space left behind. United can’t mark man-to-man, either, and often get outmuscled by bigger opponents on corner-kick routines, as they did when Calvin Bassey scored the opener in the 65th minute. Fulham’s Tosin Adarabioyo blocked Christian Eriksen from tracking Bassey’s run, and the United midfielder bailed entirely. No one helped or noticed.

Losing both Luke Shaw and Lisandro Martinez has obviously harmed their bottom line, but if United can’t function without these two players, then they have to play differently without them. They can’t afford to play such a high line or leave as much space behind them as Harry Maguire did when he tried to dispossess Adama Traore in the closing seconds. The consequence of his and United’s foolhardy approach was a 97th-minute gut punch that further derailed their hopes of a top-four finish.

Ratcliffe likely sees the chemical imbalance in the squad. Ten Hag wants to play a certain way but can’t sustain anything with the players at his disposal. That could mean a change of manager or more intentional signings. Because right now, nothing fits, and when United happen to capture lightning in a bottle, as they did in previous wins over West Ham United, Aston Villa, and Luton Town, it just doesn’t last. They’ll just continue to swing between good form and bad form until the end of the season, and that won’t get them Champions League football.

Newcastle’s season unraveling

At what point does Eddie Howe’s position come under serious threat?

Getting whooped by Arsenal is far from inexcusable, especially considering the roll that the title contenders are on at the moment; including Saturday’s dominant 4-1 victory at the Emirates, the Gunners have scored 18 goals in four Premier League matches – all wins – in February. What is inexcusable, though, is being wholly unprepared and overwhelmed right from the opening whistle. Newcastle looked lost in north London. Even the very best teams have bad days when things don’t click on the pitch, touches are a little off, and passes are wayward. But Newcastle struggled to even accomplish the most basic tasks. They didn’t look ready to deal with an Arsenal side that was always going to come flying out of the gate in response to its own meek midweek Champions League defeat in Portugal. That’s on Howe.

His players share the blame, of course.

A comedic sequence inside the penalty area led to Sven Botman’s own goal from a corner kick for Arsenal’s opener. They failed to track a simple run inside the penalty area on Kai Havertz’s tally. A sloppy turnover, of which there were many, led to Arsenal’s third marker. An inability to properly defend a corner kick (again) allowed the home side to grab a fourth.

Sure, the second half was better for Howe’s team, but only because it couldn’t possibly have been any worse than the opening 45 minutes. Arsenal had 34 touches inside the penalty area compared to Newcastle’s one in the first half, while the Magpies, flustered and incapable of handling Arsenal’s high press, lost possession 11 times in their own third of the field.

There have been some mitigating factors – Newcastle’s unfortunate injury issues have been discussed ad nauseam this season – but Saturday’s match showed two clubs going in totally different directions. Arsenal, after narrowly missing out on the title last season, have improved significantly once again and are pushing for top spot with renewed vigor. Newcastle, meanwhile, haven’t built on their brilliant 2022-23 campaign and are now almost the same distance away from fourth place (15 points) as they are from the relegation zone (17 points).

They’re conceding goals at an alarming rate – 12 in their last four league outings – and unless Howe can engineer a deep FA Cup run, this will be a lost season.

Quick free-kicks

Haaland needs to shut mouths again

Michael Steele / Getty Images Sport / Getty

Pep Guardiola was protective of Erling Haaland in midweek. “Don’t criticize, he will shut your mouth,” the Manchester City manager warned reporters after the Norwegian scored the only goal in a win over Brentford. It seems unfair for a striker who’s tallied 22 goals in all competitions, but Haaland will face scrutiny again after missing more inviting chances in City’s unimpressive 1-0 victory at Bournemouth. Many elements of the striker’s game are working fine – he excellently outmuscled a defender before his shot that preceded Phil Foden’s goal and has dominated other physical battles in recent weeks – but doubt has crept into Haaland’s finishing. One breakaway left him with only Neto to beat; the chance was on his weaker right foot, but that doesn’t excuse the timidness of the shot that floated well wide of the post. Haaland was substituted in the 75th minute. Manchester City haven’t been convincing for weeks and they, along with Haaland, must find some rhythm immediately with a run of Premier League matches against Manchester United, Liverpool, Brighton & Hove Albion, Arsenal, and Aston Villa on the horizon.

No overnight revolution at Palace

Don’t let the 3-0 scoreline fool you: Crystal Palace didn’t immediately embrace the principles of new boss Oliver Glasner and run riot. It was a routine victory over Vincent Kompany’s haphazard Burnley, who played with 10 men from the 35th minute. And although the new era at Palace started with a bang, Glasner’s work with previous clubs suggests his team is a long way from how he wants it to look. Filip Kostic averaged 12.5 crosses per game under Glasner at Eintracht Frankfurt, and it seemed Jordan Ayew, whose rush of 14 crosses included an assist for Chris Richards, was fulfilling a similar role. But don’t expect it to last. While Glasner changes his formation – he predominantly used a back-four at Wolfsburg but opted for a defensive trio at Frankfurt – he rarely deviates from his preferred approach of determined pressing and hard running. Ayew, 32, is among a considerable contingent of players at Selhurst Park whose pace doesn’t match the level Glasner demands. Plenty of changes should be expected in the summer as the Austrian forms a team to suit his philosophy.

The Bailey boom

Leon Bailey might represent the biggest individual transformation during Aston Villa’s Unai Emery era. Bailey didn’t start more than two Premier League matches in a row for Aston Villa before Emery’s predecessor, Steven Gerrard, was sacked in October 2022, but his importance in the Spaniard’s setup is growing by the week. Bailey tormented makeshift right-back Moussa Niakhate during the first half of Saturday’s 4-2 triumph over Nottingham Forest, repeatedly exposing Niakhate’s poor positioning while duping him and his teammates with trickery and pace. Bailey rolled the ball between the legs of Murillo and Felipe to assist Ollie Watkins’ opener and eased nerves when he tapped in Villa’s fourth goal. Despite starting just 13 league matches this season, Bailey has crammed in eight goals and seven assists, putting him second only to Watkins in goal contributions for his team. Bailey can become one of the key figures in Villa’s resurgence if he maintains his fitness.

Stat of the day

Are Manchester United lucky to be sixth in the table?

Tweet of the day

We should have seen that Newcastle performance coming.

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Premier League

Key thoughts and analysis from Saturday's Premier League action

Find the biggest stories from across the soccer world by visiting our Top Soccer News section and subscribing to push notifications.

theScore examines the most important developments and biggest talking points from Saturday’s slate of action in England’s top flight.

Chelsea look like a team again

Have Chelsea finally turned a corner? There have been plenty of false dawns before, but their performance against Manchester City on Saturday was too disciplined to ignore. Mauricio Pochettino asked his players to “be brave” before the match, and they were. They chased City all over the park, forcing turnovers in crucial areas while marking the likes of Kevin De Bruyne out of the game. Chelsea defended and attacked as a unit, which they’ve rarely done in the year-and-a-half since co-owner Todd Boehly began playing musical chairs with the furniture at Stamford Bridge.

What was most impressive was the way they stuck with City even as they passed the ball around the park, probing for an opening. Chelsea didn’t give the hosts a free inch. They pressed with the kind of precision that was hopelessly absent from some of their slapstick performances that plagued the early months of Pochettino’s reign. If anything, it was City giving away free yards, especially on the counterattack.

Darren Walsh / Chelsea FC / Getty

Naturally, Chelsea conceded ground over the life of the match, and eventually, the equalizer came off an unlucky deflection. They could only hold on for so long. But that’s because they gave so much in all areas of the field. They didn’t just park the bus and hope for a result from the beginning. They battled, expended energy, and put themselves in a position to take home a positive result. That’s why Pochettino decided to swap leading scorer Cole Palmer for Trevoh Chalobah in the 71st minute: The 1-0 lead was too precious to give up. Chelsea, after all, entered the match in 10th place. It would’ve been foolish to risk throwing it away when the tide was so clearly turning in City’s favor.

“It’s important that the players realize that football is really competitive and to reach the level we want, we need to suffer,” Pochettino told the BBC.

In truth, Chelsea have shown incredible team spirit since losing 4-2 at home to Wolverhampton on Feb. 4. Enzo Fernandez and Moises Caicedo have added bite to Chelsea’s midfield, and the misfiring Nicolas Jackson is evolving into a reliable provider, if not a finisher. The Blues overwhelmed Aston Villa to advance in the FA Cup, outfoxed Crystal Palace’s low block in an impressive 3-1 win, and went toe-to-toe during a battling draw with City.

Maybe there’s a reward for patience.

Liverpool’s test of resources, resilience

In an ideal world, Jurgen Klopp would’ve preferred the fourth official to display the No. 11 on his board with a small portion of the match left and Liverpool cruising to victory. Instead, Mohamed Salah was hurried onto the pitch in the 44th minute after Diogo Jota became the second of three players to suffer an injury in the 4-1 win at Brentford.

Trent Alexander-Arnold, Alisson, Dominik Szoboszlai, the luckless Thiago Alcantara, and long-term concern Joel Matip were already ruled out of the trip to west London. Jota, Curtis Jones, and Darwin Nunez were added to that list on Saturday.

Salah’s return to contention and instant contributions to his team’s attacking cause couldn’t have been more timely. For his assist, he collected the ball between the lines and quickly sprung a side-footed pass to Alexis Mac Allister’s feet. For his goal, he preyed on a defensive mix-up and showcased his surprising level of strength to easily resist Nathan Collins’ challenge before slotting into the far corner.

One theme of this season has been how teams have dealt with absences. Eddie Howe failed to create a siege mentality or, with the exception of Lewis Miley, successfully lean on academy graduates during Newcastle United’s spate of injuries and suspensions, so his side gloomily trudged away from the European places. Others fared much better with setbacks, like Tottenham Hotspur soldiering through periods without James Maddison, Micky van de Ven, and Cristian Romero, Manchester City navigating long stretches without De Bruyne and Erling Haaland, and Fulham dealing with regular disruptions to their center-back contingent.

Now, it seems like it’s Liverpool’s turn to cope with a busy treatment room. Salah’s comeback has already lifted Klopp’s side, but potentially losing both Jota and Nunez means there could be a thorough examination of the Salah, Cody Gakpo, and Luis Diaz trio during a one-and-a-half week spell that features four matches.

Upcoming matches for Liverpool

Date Competition Match
Feb. 21 Premier League Luton Town (h)
Feb. 25 League Cup final Chelsea (Wembley)
Feb. 28 FA Cup Southampton (h)
March 2 Premier League Nottingham Forest (a)

And the game after that burst of matches? A visit from Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City on March 10.

Quick free-kicks

Arsenal’s confidence soaring

Make that 21 goals in five Premier League matches for Arsenal. What a turnaround for a club whose title prospects had seemingly come and gone. The Gunners went the preceding six games with just five goals scored, leading many to question their recruitment up front. That conversation ended quickly. Even Kai Havertz, an often confusing figure in the attacking third, has joined in on the fun. With leading striker Gabriel Jesus in and out of the lineup, secondary scoring has never been more important, and nine different players have picked up the slack in recent games. That’s a byproduct of Mikel Arteta’s style of play, which closely resembles Guardiola’s criss-crossing passing football at Manchester City, allowing everyone to participate in the buildup. And with three of their next four Premier League matches against defensively porous sides, Arsenal’s goal rush should continue.

Newcastle invite trouble

Marc Atkins / Getty Images Sport / Getty

Martin Dubravka’s slip in the 2-2 draw with Bournemouth was more than a goalkeeping gaffe. It was a peculiar passage of play by Newcastle. The Magpies aren’t known for playing it out of the back: Fabian Schar is their only defender who’s fully comfortable with the ball in his own third, and their goalkeepers, Nick Pope and Dubravka, are shot-stoppers rather than modern ball-playing ‘keepers. So, attempting to evade Bournemouth’s press was a bad idea. The Cherries, among the league’s top tacklers in the final third, cut off passing lanes and picked their moments to swarm. Sven Botman, Dan Burn, Anthony Gordon, Sean Longstaff, and Botman again were under pressure before Dubravka’s panic set in. He touched the ball with his right, and then, in his haste to get the ball to Schar while Dominic Solanke closed him down, the same foot slipped beneath him. Solanke’s easy tap-in was simply an example of Newcastle succumbing to one of their weaknesses and Bournemouth playing to their strengths.

Discount City at your peril

Manchester City are inevitable. Even on their worst days, they can get by. No one on City’s roster is happy about the 1-1 draw with Chelsea, and yet it’s a draw that keeps them within touching distance of first place. They remain four points off Liverpool with a game in hand because of Rodri’s 81st-minute deflected equalizer at the Etihad. It’s a goal that keeps the nerves off edge. Instead of dwelling on their first home loss in 34 matches – a run dating back to November 2022 – City can continue to look forward. The draw buys them time. That’s why City are impossible to count out. When they’re playing as badly as they did on Saturday – leaving yards of space behind them, practically inviting Chelsea to score on them – they get a kick save from Ederson that keeps the score in check. Even when they’re struggling to create solid chances, they retain enough of the ball to force their way through. They’ve conceded first in five of their last 11 league matches, and what difference has it really made?

Stat of the day

Haaland is allowed to have bad days.

Tweet of the day

They say title races come down to the smallest details.

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