Every week, Sportsnet.ca will chat with soccer commentator James Sharman about the big stories and issues surrounding the Premier League.
SN: A lot has been made about Liverpool dropping points against West Ham United on Monday, with a prevailing view being that the pressure of being league leaders is starting to get to them. Is that fair? Or are some making too much of one result?
SHARMAN: Well, it’s really two results if you include the draw with Leicester City before that, but yes, I think too much is being made out of it. Liverpool dropped points against two decent sides – these things happen during a season, and the fact is that despite not always playing at top gear, Liverpool have up until now not been hit with the dreaded malaise that every team struggles through from time to time each season. Manchester City certainly has on a couple of occasions, which only added to the convenient narrative that this was Liverpool’s title to lose.
I have never thought City was anything but the favourite to repeat as champions, and I certainly still feel that way regardless of what the Reds are going through. Liverpool can cause the upset and still win the title, but to say the recent results demonstrates they are cracking under the pressure is nonsense. It’s only February, so let’s save any choking talk until at least April.
After struggling under Jose Mourinho, Paul Pogba and Marcus Rashford have 12 goals between them since Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was hired in December. What do you make of the renaissance of Pogba and Rashford under Solskjaer?
It seems to me Rashford and Pogba represent the modern young footballer, who need to feel the love and support from his manager. Mourinho is an old-school coach who used old-school methods to get the best out of his troops. That worked great on Didier Drogba and Frank Lampard when he was at Chelsea, but not so much on his young stars at United.
Tactically, of course, Solskjaer has unshackled his attacking players, which allows them to do what they do best. But I would suggest both players would crash through a glass window for the new manager, and do whatever he wanted with smiles on their faces, rather than the begrudging acceptance they labored through under Jose.
A run of games has helped Rashford, rather than the sporadic starts he had with his former coach. All in all, its confidence. We all knew how good they could be, we just needed to understand they needed to feel the support of their manager.
Newcastle United landed MLS star Miguel Almiron at the transfer deadline. Is this a good signing for the Magpies? How do you think the Paraguayan will adapt to the Premier League?
Time will tell. Almiron was brilliant in his two seasons for Atlanta, but I don’t think I will offend anyone by saying this is a massive jump in class. We should remember that this isn’t just a kid who did well in MLS, though. He was excellent for Lanus when it won an Argentine title a couple of years ago. Therefore, he certainly will not be intimidated by making the move to the Premier League.
Of course, he will join a team fighting for its life, and a side that is hardly known for its attack or creativity, which is part of the reason why he has been brought in. I imagine Almiron will compete with Ayoze Perez for playing time, which can only be a positive for manager Rafa Benitez, who has not been able to rely on Ayoze on a consistent level.
Optically, the purchase of Almiron looks good for Newcastle, and takes a little pressure off owner Mike Ashley, who has done all he can to not spend on the club of late as tries to sell it. All in all, I like the deal for everyone, including MLS which is looking like a more and more attractive place for young talent who want a springboard to top leagues.
Manchester City hosts Chelsea on Sunday. Gonzalo Higuain scored his first two goals for Chelsea last week. How do you think he’s adapted to life in the Premier League thus far, and do you see him extending his stay at Chelsea beyond this season?
It will all depend on whether he is willing to sign a one-year deal, as per Chelsea policy. I’ve always been a fan of Higuain, who has always been a hard worker, great finisher, and strong link-up man. No one knows him like Chelsea manager Maurizio Sarri, and for all those quick to dismiss “Sarri-ball,” maybe now we’ll get a better idea of exactly how it will work in England. Chelsea is such strange team, hardly having the mix of players you’d want in the trenches, but maybe given time Sarri can change the chemistry, and the results will follow. Higuain is a good start.