Monday, July 15, 2024


Welcome to The Briefing, where every Monday during this season, The Athletic will discuss three of the biggest questions to arise from the weekend’s football.
This was the weekend when injuries began to bite Tottenham Hotspur and Newcastle United, when Manchester United just about escaped a home game against Luton Town with all three points, and when Everton got another win to move them further clear of trouble.
Here, we will ask whether Manchester City should have made an exception to their sales policy with one player, if Liverpool should reject any approach for Mohamed Salah in January, and what exactly Roberto De Zerbi’s comments about referees were meant to achieve…

Will Manchester City regret selling Cole Palmer to Chelsea?

You’d struggle to argue that Premier League leaders and treble holders Manchester City made a mistake in selling Raheem Sterling to Chelsea.
Their policy of being perfectly happy to sell a player who wants to leave as long as a reasonable offer comes in hasn’t exactly held them back in the past few years. Sterling was being phased out of the City team in his final season, so a departure made sense for everyone involved.
That he was the beating heart of Chelsea’s multiple comebacks in Sunday’s madcap 4-4 draw with City probably still won’t make Pep Guardiola or anyone at the club think they made a mistake: he served City well, but they replaced him and if you never sold a player because you thought he might have a good game against you… well, you would never sell a player.
However, you wonder whether they will come to regret, on a certain level, selling Cole Palmer. Sterling was with City for seven seasons, scored 131 goals and won four Premier League titles. There is no sense of ‘what might have been’ there: he served his purpose and then some.
Palmer is different. The 21-year-old hadn’t yet become a regular starter for City when he, according to Guardiola, decided he wasn’t going to get much game time so made the move to Chelsea. He was all potential, an immensely talented prospect who clearly had the style and technical ability to fit in a few different positions. Guardiola wanted him to stay, presumably because he knew just how good he was.
Guardiola knew before Sunday’s game and he certainly knew it afterwards. It wasn’t just Palmer’s superbly struck penalty (who believes his claim that he doesn’t practise them, by the way?), but the way he played for the whole game. It was enough to make you think that, despite all of Chelsea’s lavish spending, it might just be a kid they bought on deadline day, almost as an afterthought, that they could end up building their team around.
Sterling was exceptional, too, as he has been for most of the season, and there has been much understandable consternation about his omission from Gareth Southgate’s England squad. But if you were to bet on whether it will be Palmer or Sterling in that squad for the European Championship next summer, the smart money might be on the youngster, who has just earned his first senior call-up to the England squad ahead of qualifiers against Malta and North Macedonia.

Why would Liverpool even consider selling Salah in January?

It’s easy to forget how quickly this Liverpool team has changed.
Of the regular front six that won the Champions League in 2019 and the Premier League a year later, only one remains. Fabinho, Jordan Henderson and Roberto Firmino left last summer, Sadio Mane a year earlier, and Georginio Wijnaldum the year before that.
This is, as Jurgen Klopp proclaimed, Liverpool 2.0, the reinvention of a team in style (sort of) and personnel. They have recruited new forwards well and done as good a job as anyone realistically could in replacing an entire midfield in one summer.
And yet the one who remains is their best and most potent player.
Salah’s two goals in Liverpool’s 3-0 win over Brentford represent his ninth and 10th of the season in the league, with another couple (in limited playing time) in the Europa League. You can chuck in four assists, too.
He’s responsible for 37 per cent of Liverpool’s Premier League goals this season, a percentage that isn’t outrageous or massively unusual for a side’s best striker (Erling Haaland has 41 per cent of Manchester City’s), but next on the list for Liverpool is Darwin Nunez (who has one since September, though is crucial in providing assists to his Egyptian team-mate) and Diogo Jota, both with four.
This is a roundabout way of saying he’s still Liverpool’s most important player and to reiterate they must not sell him, however much money is offered to them in January by Al Ittihad or whichever Saudi Arabian team wants that league’s ultimate prize.
Apologies for bringing transfers into this while it’s still November, but there are only another 48 gossiping days before the window opens and the wheels are beginning to turn.
There is a school of thought that, not unreasonably, says Liverpool would be foolish to turn down an offer of £100million ($122m) for a 31-year-old with 18 months left on his contract. It would be a sensible business decision and would allow them to get ahead of the game in finding a replacement.
But without him, Liverpool might be touch and go for the Champions League places, never mind having a chance of a convincing title bid.
Apart from that, Salah is one of the greatest players Liverpool will ever have: clubs shouldn’t necessarily make decisions like this based on sentiment, but they almost owe it to their fans to ensure he plays for them as long as possible.
What good do De Zerbi’s complaints about referees do?.
“I am honest and clear. I don’t like 80 per cent of English referees. It’s not a new thing. I don’t like them.
The behaviour. I don’t like their behaviour on the pitch.”
It’s going to be interesting in a couple of years if De Zerbi does succeed Guardiola at Manchester City, as some believe he will.
At the moment, he’s with Brighton & Hove Albion, a team that most neutrals broadly quite like and where he receives almost universal praise for his exciting and progressive football. At a club that, to put it lightly, are not quite so universally popular and who play many, many more high-profile games, we might see the first example of a manager actually exploding on the touchline.
His comments after Brighton’s 1-1 draw with Sheffield United were extraordinary, particularly when he acknowledged that the big officiating call of the game was correct. “If I see the new rules, it’s a red card, clear,” he said about Mahmoud Dahoud being sent off for a foul on Ben Osborn. “But I was a player and the dynamic of the situation wasn’t a red card.” It was a bit of a pity he didn’t expand on what sort of “dynamic” would constitute a red in his mind, if not a player missing the ball by a yard and planting his studs into an opponent’s calf. De Zerbi speaks to John Brooks after the match (Steve Bardens/Getty Images)
We rarely get through a weekend now without at least one manager going off the deep end about the officials but most of the time, they’re at least complaining about decisions they don’t think are correct.
What’s the thinking here? Does he think referees don’t get enough criticism? They simply get too easy a ride for the decisions they make, so he thought he would throw in ‘I dunno, I just don’t like their vibe’ into the mix?
What’s he trying to achieve here? Clubs and managers will say they just want to improve the standard of refereeing when they criticise, but how is this sort of thing constructive? Presumably, De Zerbi is referring to the perception that some referees ‘peacock’ and try to make the games all about them. But even if this is true, who cares?
It’s the sort of thing you’d expect fans and neutral observers to get annoyed about, but managers? Quite…

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