Liverpool’s slip-up makes Man City game a must-win

It took Liverpool 30 years to end their wait to be champions of England, but Jurgen Klopp’s team are on the brink of surrendering their crown just seven months after lifting the Premier League trophy for the first time. In fact, fail to beat Manchester City at Anfield on Sunday and Liverpool can forget about retaining their title.

That is the brutal reality facing Klopp’s team after relegation-threatened Brighton inflicted a second successive home defeat on the faltering champions on Wednesday, with Steven Alzate‘s second-half goal the difference.

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Until Burnley won at Anfield two weeks ago, Liverpool had gone 68 games unbeaten at home in the Premier League, a sequence stretching back to Apr. 2017. Now they have lost two on the spin, with league leaders City due to visit on Sunday, aiming to stretch their more positive recent run to 14 straight wins over all competitions.

For Liverpool defender Andy Robertson, the stakes couldn’t be higher.

«Any game against Man City is a big one,» Robertson said. «As this moment stands, we’re not in the title race. We are seven points behind them and they have a game in hand. We need to get back to the Liverpool everyone knows.»

It isn’t just the back-to-back home losses that will worry Klopp and his players as they prepare to take on Pep Guardiola’s team.

Since beating Tottenham with a last-minute Roberto Firmino winner at Anfield on Dec. 16, Liverpool have taken two points from four home games and scored just once in that run. The defeat against Brighton — a deserved victory for Graham Potter’s suddenly in-form side — saw the Reds fail to score in three successive home games for the first time since Oct. 1984.

There are few positives for Liverpool to cling to right now. Perhaps they should just be thankful for the away wins at Spurs and West Ham during the past week that have at least kept them in the top four. But if they lose again against City on Sunday, they will be 10 points behind the leaders, having played a game more, and with precious little hope of Guardiola’s men allowing them back into the race.

«The solution is always the players,» Klopp said after the defeat against Brighton. «It has been a tough week and tonight it was not enough.

«The only explanation is that we are a fatigued team, mentally more or less. But City are flying and we have to find solutions.»

If, or more likely when, Liverpool admit defeat in their bid to hold onto their title, there will be many reasons for their failure to defend it.

Injuries have clearly hit hard. Against Brighton, Klopp was without Alisson, Virgil van Dijk, Joe Gomez, Joel Matip, Fabinho, Naby Keita, Sadio Mane, and Diogo Jota. The defensive crisis, which prompted the Deadline Day signings of Preston North End’s Ben Davies and Schalke’s Ozan Kabak, has led to Klopp using Jordan Henderson at centre-half, which doubly has depleted the champions’ midfield.

Davies, who has never played at a level higher than the EFL Championship, was an unused substitute against Brighton, with Kabak not in the squad. But at some point, they will have to play because Klopp needs Henderson, last season’s FWA Player of the Year, back in midfield, organising and driving his team.

All clubs suffer injuries, however, and Liverpool are not alone in having had to cope without key players this season. But the season-long injuries to Van Dijk, Gomez, and now Matip have been hammer blows.

Also against Brighton, just as against Burnley, the absence of fans inside Anfield because of the COVID-19 pandemic worked against Liverpool. So often in recent seasons, the noisy, passionate urging from the Liverpool fans has carried Klopp’s men to victory – even when the odds have been stacked against them. City have been on the receiving end of the Anfield experience too in recent seasons, with the home crowd helping Liverpool blow Guardiola’s team away on more than one occasion.

Anfield, just like every other stadium, is silent this season, but the lack of noise has taken the edge off Liverpool’s performances. Home advantage has been lost to Klopp’s team. But despite the injuries and empty stands, Liverpool still have quality and depth, so they should have done much better in defending their title.

Losing to teams like Brighton can happen, especially in a season made so unpredictable by the effects of the pandemic, but dropping points against struggling teams has become a worrying trend for Liverpool. They have now dropped 16 points against teams in the bottom half of the Premier League and 11 to sides in the bottom six. The failure to beat Fulham, West Brom, Newcastle, Burnley, and now Brighton twice is why Liverpool are about to face City with their grip on the title having become so precarious.

Liverpool struggled to create chances against Brighton and Burnley. It was the same story against Newcastle and West Brom. They lack imagination and energy — and energy was a huge factor in their title success last year. Without it, Liverpool are not the same team. It is why Burnley were able to record their first Anfield victory since 1974 and why Brighton left Liverpool victorious in the league for the first time since 1982.

City haven’t won a league game at Anfield since 2003, but if they end that run on Sunday, the title will be heading to Manchester.

Time will tell whether it ends up with City or United, but whichever way it goes, Liverpool will be watching from afar.

Klinsmann: Tuchel can use past experience to succeed at Chelsea

Jurgen Klinsmann won the World Cup and European Championship with Germany during a glittering career in which he played for Inter, Tottenham and Bayern, among others. As a coach, he led Germany to a third-place finish at the 2006 World Cup and managed the U.S. men’s national team from 2011-16. In addition to an ESPN.com column, he is a regular guest on FC Daily.

Taking over as manager midway through a season is all about adapting quickly, and Thomas Tuchel will have been busy since replacing Frank Lampard at Chelsea last week. He was coaching on the touchline one day after arriving, had another game at the weekend and now prepares for a visit to Jose Mourinho’s Tottenham on Thursday. Oh, and there was the end of the transfer window — phew!

Thomas’ experience with Paris Saint-Germain was a reminder that things can happen overnight in football, both negatively and positively. I am sure he looks back at his time as an amazing experience, with Neymar and Kylian Mbappe as the main aspects of the team, but having seen it was not enough to win the league and cup and reach the Champions League final, he probably will approach Chelsea a little differently, even if the goal is similar: win trophies.

The best managers have ways of settling and putting their stamp on a new club. Mourinho, for example, understands what is needed and does not fool around. He is very clear and his specific way of doing things might be connected to a style of play that does not please everybody, but pretty much wherever he has been, he has won.

It is important to stick to your own personality. Mourinho does not make promises he cannot keep; he goes into a new job and says, «this is me, I have to do it my way,» and his success proves it works. Liverpool‘s Jurgen Klopp is the same, only for him it is playing attacking-minded, 200 mph football! If you look at the top managers, they all have their trademark.

– Klinsmann: UCL experience can help USMNT stars
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Everyone talks to everyone else in football is an industry and so, before he arrived in London, Thomas will have been discussed by the Chelsea players. This can help a new manager; Thiago Silva and Christian Pulisic, for example, can spread the message that the man they worked with — at PSG and Borussia Dortmund respectively — is a good guy and a positive person who is full of energy and inspiration.

Thomas knew Pulisic as a teenager and now gets an older, more mature footballer who can get even better playing a style that suits him: a fast-paced, transitional game, with high tempo and high pressure when possible. Pulisic has a presence and personality on the field; he is demanding of the ball and has proved that he made the right move to join Chelsea.

A lot of expectation will be on Timo Werner and Kai Havertz to find top form under their fellow German. It is true that they have found it difficult in England, but both are difference-makers and part of that category of players, who move from one Champions League club to another because of what they offer. Thomas has to look at why things have not worked out yet, and maybe his evaluation will be that they just need a bit more time.

Werner can play wide, where there is more space for his speed than as a No. 9; when he is in a one-on-one situation and makes the first move and you don’t have the ball right away as a defender, he is gone. But deep inside, he is a goal scorer; that’s what he lives for. And that’s why he should take the next penalty when he gets a chance, even after missing his last one.

Forwards just have to live with the fact that goals come in certain stretches; one day you’ll miss a penalty or a one-on-one, the next day the ball will seem to go in easily. You are driven by numbers and want to compete with others at the top level; just consider Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, who are looking at each other every day and have been for 15 years.

I used to look at Marco van Basten. I always admired him and, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, he was the most complete striker in the world. We played many times against each other, whether it was him on AC Milan against me with Inter Milan, or his Holland against my Germany. Sometimes he won and sometimes I won.

Havertz has the possibility to develop into a more complete player and is still in his development, even if he has already proved a lot. Coaches often say that talent is only 50%, and Thomas will have a big say in building the other 50%, just as Lampard had a say and Peter Bosz had a say at Bayer Leverkusen. There is so much more to come from Havertz, physically and as a personality.

With a team full of different people from different backgrounds, every minute you can spend time with them helps. Learn about their non-football life, for example; players like that appreciation of who they are and want input to become a better athlete and human being. It is easier to make all this work within a national team environment because you have more time for individual meetings.

With a club, though, everyone is constantly on the go. Players have to manage their private lives and families, plus you play every three or four days. It is not surprising they leave the training ground quickly to get other things done!

Beyond dealing with individual players, a manager’s biggest task is to run the inner circle of the club and building awareness of the existing culture — from history to community to media to ownership goals — can take time. You have to enjoy dealing with all that stuff on a daily basis, but also need help, so the staff you bring play an important role.

There will definitely be assistant coaches to prepare training sessions and examine the technical side; maybe there is an analyst, too, and perhaps also a lead scout, a physio or head of medical. That support network was important to me when I took over as Germany coach in 2004 ahead of the World Cup. You build your own team and act as guide for a field of experts who have to be empowered and trusted.

It is also important to accept you will make mistakes and understand how to move past difficult times. Top managers don’t get stuck on two or three losses and doubt themselves; they know how to maneuver through the bad days and give stability to the team. It is essential to get the message across to players that, even if things are not sunny today, they will work out.

To achieve success at a new club, every manager needs time. A strong relationship between ownership, board and coach can help achieve that, but football is such a results business that the old saying «the day you are hired is the day you are fired» applies more than ever before.

There are many reasons a partnership does not work out, and it is all part of the managerial learning curve. So while it might have been a shock for Thomas to be let go by Paris after doing so much that was positive, he took the message and moved on to his next adventure, which challenges him to adapt to England and the expectation that comes with being in charge of Chelsea Football Club.

Lingard nets debut double in West Ham win

West Ham United‘s new signing Jesse Lingard scored twice on his debut as they beat Aston Villa 3-1 at Villa Park to stay in touch with the top four in the Premier League on Wednesday.

Villa had the better chances in the first half but it was West Ham who went ahead six minutes into the second as Michail Antonio held the ball up before finding Said Benrahma and he picked out Tomas Soucek who rifled the ball into the far corner.

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Lingard, who joined West Ham on loan from Manchester United this week, scored five minutes later, chesting down Antonio’s cross and firing home a stinging left-foot shot.

West Ham did well to shackle Villa playmaker Jack Grealish but he eventually found the space to set up Ollie Watkins to net his 11th goal of the season and reduce the deficit in the 81st.

Watkins almost had a second goal a minute later as Grealish picked him out again but West Ham defender Craig Dawson‘s diving challenge averted the danger.

Having only appeared in three games in cup competitions for Manchester United all season, Lingard was not in the mood to be upstaged in his first league game of the year, and it was not long before the 28-year-old was celebrating again.

Antonio picked out the onrushing Lingard to his right and the midfielder lashed a shot that squirmed though the grasp of keeper Emiliano Martinez to seal the victory.

«I started tonight, scored two goals and (we) got three points. I was smiling before the game and during, I just enjoy playing football,» Lingard told BT Sport.

«It has been a long time. I have come here to get game time and scored two goals but… three points is the most important.»

The win lifted West Ham to fifth on 38 points from 22 games, two points behind fourth-placed Liverpool. Villa stay ninth on 32 from 20 matches

Will MLS owners lock out their players? Where labor negotiations stand

The pace of negotiations on a revised Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) between MLS and the MLS Players Association (MLSPA) is accelerating, although it’s unclear where, or how, it will end. On Friday, MLS extended the existing negotiating window by one week until 11:59 p.m. ET on Feb. 4, but MLS also said that the two sides are «far apart» and the threat of CBA termination and a lockout still looms.

With the clock ticking, here’s a rundown of where things stand, what possible outcomes remain, and where they’re headed.

Where do things stand?

On Thursday, the MLSPA submitted its latest offer to MLS and, according to some observers, met MLS halfway. The union agreed to extend the CBA by one year through 2026, while also reducing the salary cap every year from 2022 to 2025. The revenue-sharing plan for the next media rights deal was also reduced from 25% to 12.5% for 2024.

In return, the MLSPA wants MLS to lower the threshold for free agency to players 23 years of age or older and with at least four years of service in the league. That’s compared to the existing threshold of 24 years of age and five years of service. According to the MLSPA, this will save MLS $53 million.

Any hopes of a quick resolution were dashed on Friday by MLS announcing its deadline extension and threat of a lockout.

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How hard is that deadline?

That depends on who you talk to. The league insists the deadline is real, but they said the same thing about the previous deadline, one borne out of the force majeure clause it invoked to reopen CBA negotiations on Dec. 29. That clause opened a 30-day negotiating window on a revised deal and specified that if a deal wasn’t struck within that time frame, either side could terminate the CBA. Let’s be clear, however: If any side decides to blow up the CBA, it will be MLS. The MLSPA has long said it intends to honor the agreement the two sides reached in June, and won’t go on strike.

The MLSPA maintains that any talk of a deadline is artificial and not legally binding in any way. The regular season isn’t scheduled to start until April 3, meaning there’s still time to get a deal done.

What has MLS been angling for?

Ever since MLS invoked the force majeure, it has wanted a two-year extension and a freeze of the salary cap from 2021 to 2022. In their most recent proposal, they offered to increase the growth rate of the salary cap between 2026 and 2027 by 2.5%. But all told, they are asking for between $100 million to $110 million in economic concessions. This is on top of the $150 million in concessions that the MLSPA said it made in the previous CBA that was negotiated last June.

Another factor is the proximity to the 2026 World Cup, which is set to be co-hosted by the U.S., Canada and Mexico. By having a CBA that ends 18 months after the World Cup, the players would lose considerable leverage to extract concessions or go on strike at a moment that is critical for MLS and its stakeholders — such as its marketing arm, Soccer United Marketing. The one-year extension the MLSPA is proposing would carry the CBA past the World Cup, but is still close enough to the tournament that a strike might kill some of the momentum the World Cup would generate.

Haven’t the league and the union been down this road before?

Indeed they have. The two sides agreed in principle to terms on a new CBA last February. Then the pandemic struck, and the league shut down on March 12. The fact that neither side had ratified the CBA allowed the league to reopen negotiations.

The talks were contentious, but in June, with the league idle for almost three months, the two sides settled on a deal in which the players agreed to salary cuts of 5% when applied to yearly salaries (7.5% going forward), as well as cuts to bonuses that the MLSPA contends amounted to 70%. The terms of the CBA were also pushed out a year, extending the expiration date through the 2025 season, resulting in an overall compensation freeze from 2020 to 2021. The terms of a revenue-sharing agreement based on the aforementioned new media rights deal was reduced in 2023 by 12.5%.

Most critically of all, the two sides agreed to the insertion of a force majeure clause that allowed either side to reopen negotiations in the event of an economic catastrophe, like that brought on by a pandemic. With MLS dependent on game-day revenue, it remains concerned that it is looking at another season with few fans — and in some cases no fans — in the stands, depending on how vaccinations go. The league contends it lost nearly $1 billion in 2020, with $725m of that due to COVID-19.

What happens now?

The two sides will continue to negotiate. MLS was expected to submit an offer to the MLSPA by Saturday, sources told ESPN. But so far, the league hasn’t budged much from its initial position — the only change is an increase in the salary cap by 2.5% between 2026 and 2027 — while the MLSPA has moved considerably, offering a one-year extension, reductions in the salary cap between 2022 and 2025 and a reduction in the revenue-sharing percentage of media rights. The league said there is also a set schedule of meetings over the next week, although one union source said nothing had been explicitly spelled out. Expect there to be more back and forth until the next deadline.

Once that deadline is reached, there are basically three possible scenarios: the two sides can accept the deal, MLS can extend negotiations with another deadline or MLS can terminate the CBA and then lock the players out.

If a deal is reached, the two sides can begin preparing for preseason like they normally would. Training camps are set to open on Feb. 22, with the season following in early April. That’s about a month later than in 2020, but the additional time means more people could be vaccinated against COVID-19, making it more likely that games will be played in front of fans.

If MLS opts to continue negotiations, the talks will carry on as before. It would be a positive sign as well in that both sides seem to be converging on a middle ground.

What if the deadline passes without a new agreement?

The league will go with the nuclear option of terminating the CBA and locking out the players. Technically if the league terminates the CBA, games could hypothetically still take place, and players would still be operating under the old deal. But practically speaking, the no-strike/no-lockout provision of the CBA would be gone, paving the way for a lockout. It’s telling that the league has consistently spoken of CBA termination and a lockout in the same breath. In a memo sent to league staff on Wednesday, MLS president and deputy commissioner Mark Abbott said the league and its teams should prepare for a lockout.

If the league takes that step, it wouldn’t be long before the players would feel financial pain. The players are paid twice a month, not per game, and one missed paycheck would amount to about 3.8% of a player’s yearly salary. The first paycheck that would be missed would come on Feb. 15.

Abbott’s memo said the league would continue to provide healthcare benefits to the players and their families, an important dynamic amid the pandemic. And the MLSPA has long been telling players to prepare for a lockout. But the MLSPA is still a relatively young union with almost $13m in assets. For a player pool comprised of more than 700 players, any kind of work-stoppage fund is bound to run out pretty quickly.

If the players are locked out, could they seek employment elsewhere?

They could, but unless they were released from their MLS contracts, they would have to return once a work stoppage ended. Given that the transfer window in most of Europe closes on Monday, Feb. 1, the lockout scenario doesn’t leave players with much in the way of options.

One possibility is that some players could look to the second-tier USL Championship. One manager in that league said that agents «are starting to sniff around to make sure their players have landing spots,» although it’s unclear how the league itself feels about this.

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Twellman excited for MLS return

Taylor Twellman breaks down the schedule ahead of the return of MLS for the 2021 season.

How much damage would a lockout do?

Plenty. The optics would be terrible, and it would further damage a relationship with the players that MLSPA executive board member Ethan Finlay called «fractured.» There is no chance the players will be looked upon as being greedy given they have already made concessions.

Will that matter? In the long run, probably not. But a lockout would also further halt momentum that has already been compromised by the pandemic. With the aforementioned media rights deal ending in 2022 (the existing U.S. rights package with ESPN, FOX Sports and Univision Deportes runs to the end of 2022), an extended lockout runs the risk of depressing interest in the league and by extension the deal’s value.

Another factor to consider is if the lockout were to last long enough to where games are canceled or postponed, MLS runs the risk of losing whatever mindshare it has. It’s one thing to not be playing when every other American sports league wasn’t due to the pandemic, which was the case last spring, but come April, the NHL, MLB and the NBA will be in action. Can MLS run the risk of sidelining itself?

The league and the union — and most of all, fans — will be hoping it doesn’t come to that.