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?
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.
2009 – Chelsea 4-4 Man City was the first Premier League match to see four equalising goals scored since Liverpool and Arsenal’s iconic 4-4 draw in April 2009. Classic. pic.twitter.com/ZtGfy18i3X
— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) November 12, 2023
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.
Cole Palmer trying to listen in to Man City’s huddle 👂
Erling Haaland was having NONE of it! 😂 pic.twitter.com/gd1sDiHw3K
— Sky Sports Premier League (@SkySportsPL) November 12, 2023
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.
Palmer, Lewis called up to England squad
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.
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 apart from the fact they probably should have other things to be worried about, managers must understand their words carry much more weight than fans, broadcasters or journalists. One remark like this adds further weight to an already intolerable load placed on officials.
Managers whining about refereeing decisions is irritating and we could probably do without it, but it’s at least understandable if the decision is either wrong or debatable. When you admit the referee got things right but still concoct some excuse to have a go… it’s just not understandable.
- It’s international week, baby. But don’t worry, all you strident domestic followers: there are still a few club games to keep you happy before the nations start getting involved. The FA Cup first-round replays, for example, when tiny Isthmian League outfit Horsham have another go at League One Barnsley before, even more implausibly, Cray Valley Paper Mills face Charlton Athletic.
- There’s also the Women’s Champions League, a little light on English teams but still with a few humdingers: Emma Hayes’ quest to win the big one in what will be (for the moment) her final season at Chelsea begins with a trip to Real Madrid, while holders Barcelona start their defence against Benfica and previous perennial champs Lyon face Slavia Prague.
- Then it’s the internationals: England, who have already qualified for Euro 2024, face Malta on Friday night at Wembley and then travel to North Macedonia on Monday. Scotland can also take it easy having already sealed their place, but Wales will go through if they beat both Armenia and Turkey.
- Netherlands vs Ireland next Saturday is one worth keeping an eye on if you like weird stuff/the vagaries of UEFA’s qualifying rules because it will help Irish hopes if they lose (even if it would still take a few more things to break their way).
- Elsewhere, Italy will need to beat both Ukraine and old foes North Macedonia to avoid another rather embarrassing failure; it’s still all to play for in Group E where Albania, Czech Republic, Poland and Moldova are all in contention for the two automatic spots; it’s technically also all up for grabs in Group G, but realistically Serbia and Hungary are probably going through; while in Group J there is the delicious if slightly unlikely prospect of Luxembourg qualifying, but they’ll need to beat both Lichtenstein and Bosnia & Herzegovina and hope Slovakia lose both their games… but it could still happen…
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(Top photos: Getty Images)