Liverpool look like they are falling apart while Brighton’s brilliant season keeps getting better – FA Cup hits and misses

Liverpool are already falling apart

Image: Liverpool fell to their ninth defeat of the season in all competitions

“We will not fall apart.” So said Jurgen Klopp in the wake of Liverpool’s FA Cup exit against Brighton. The worry is that they already are. This was their ninth defeat of the season in all competitions and there are still four months of it to go.

Klopp was eager to focus on the positives afterwards. The performance, he said, was “much better” than the one his side produced at the same ground two weeks ago. But the outcome was the same and in truth it could easily have been worse.

Kaoru Mitoma’s winner came after two Liverpool players – Ibrahima Konate and Fabinho – somehow avoided red cards. Konate, already on a yellow, should have been off for his last-man barge on Alexis Mac Allister. Fabinho’s lunge on Evan Ferguson was even uglier.

  • Brighton 2-1 Liverpool – Match report
  • How the teams lined up | Match stats

Those reprieves only made Mitoma’s winner more painful when it came and, for all Klopp’s bullishness afterwards, it is becoming increasingly difficult to see how they turn the situation around.

Certainly, Andrew Robertson offered little encouragement, the most revealing line in his brutally honest post-match interview being that Liverpool have “probably been worse” since they returned to action following the World Cup.

It was a damning assessment but looking at Liverpool’s recent results, it is difficult to argue otherwise. Their current run of one win from six games represents their worst of the campaign.

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It does not get any easier, either. The next few weeks bring Premier League games against Everton, Newcastle and Manchester United and a Champions League last-16 tie with holders Real Madrid.

In May, they faced the Spanish side knowing victory would seal a treble having competed for four trophies right until the final week of the campaign. Fast forward to now and all that feels like a distant memory; a once brilliant team now broken and easily beaten.
Nick Wright

Buoyant Brighton are on the up

Image: Roberto De Zerbi embraces match-winner Kaoru Mitoma at full-time

Liverpool must be sick of the sight of Brighton – and they aren’t the only side to have developed a distaste. The Seagulls have outclassed many visitors to the Amex this season, but none more so than under-fire Liverpool.

Roberto De Zerbi’s side have scored eight goals across three encounters with the Reds. It wasn’t quite the demolition that unfolded on the south coast in mid-January – a performance Jurgen Klopp described as “horrendous” – but the defending at times was just as disastrous.

Klopp insisted pre-match that he has not become a “bad manager overnight” and he can solve Liverpool’s current malaise, but the Amex is a difficult place to go soul searching – as proved.

De Zerbi has got this courageous Brighton team running like clockwork and with genuine belief they can match any side. Not even the loss of key midfielder Moises Caicedo disrupted their rhythm.

The Italian was critical of his side in the aftermath of the game, perhaps unfairly, but such high expectations speak to the club’s rising ambition. “If you ask about the quality I didn’t like the game, we can improve a lot,” he said. Two wins over Liverpool in the space of 15 days is, however, testament to their growth under the Italian.

Many questioned whether Brighton could continue to show signs of improvement after Graham Potter swapped Brighton for Chelsea in September. Such concerns should now be duly laid to rest.
Laura Hunter

Antony ‘growing’ but can he prove doubters wrong?

Antony has provoked a lot of ire since signing for Manchester United. The Brazil winger’s showboating and inflated price tag have made him an easy target.

But after a frustrating start to his career at Old Trafford the 22-year-old is slowly beginning to show why Erik ten Hag was so insistent on bringing him to Manchester.

  • How the teams lined up | Match stats
  • FA Cup fixtures | Results
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“I think he’s growing,” Ten Hag told ITV after the 3-1 win over Reading. “We want him to be more dynamic, variable and direct. Today was a lovely pass for the first goal.

“We are happy with his improvement in this moment. There’s big potential in him and he has to develop it every day.”

Antony, who has scored six goals for United this season, showed his threat as a creator against the Royals.

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The former Ajax winger, who cost £86m in the summer, created more chances than anyone on the pitch at Old Trafford and set up his Brazil team-mate Casemiro for the opener with a slide-rule pass.

United fans can expect more frustrating evenings with Antony, but he brings much-needed balance to their lopsided attack on the right wing and is an asset out of possession.

Ten Hag has laid down the gauntlet for Antony to prove the doubters wrong and become a key figure in his rebuild at Old Trafford.
Zinny Boswell

Smiling Son shows class is permanent with timely return to form

Image: Heung-Min Son celebrates his second goal in the 3-0 FA Cup win over Preston

Heung-Min Son is smiling again. “I needed those goals for my confidence. It was really important. I’m very, very happy,” he told the BBC after scoring twice in Tottenham’s 3-0 win in the FA Cup at Preston. They were two brilliant strikes but also crucial ones, with Spurs’ main man Harry Kane on the bench after being unwell this week. In his absence, Son stepped up.

But it’s what these goals can do for Son which could be even more important for Spurs’ season. The Korean has looked a shadow of himself for large parts of this campaign, with the 2021/22 Golden Boot winner managing just one goal in his past 17 games for club and country before Saturday.

  • Preston 0-3 Tottenham – Match report
  • How the teams lined up | Match stats

It had been hoped that his deflected strike at Crystal Palace at the start of January would be the turning point but perhaps these two efforts at the end of the month are more significant than that rather fortuitous goal.

At Deepdale, Son had twice caught the ball cleanly from range in the first half before bending a beauty beyond goalkeeper Freddie Woodman. Form is temporary, class is permanent and this was the perfect example of that. His second, swivelling and striking firmly home, was a result of his returning confidence.

  • FA Cup fixtures | Results
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If this is to be the transformative moment for Son, it has come at a crucial time for Spurs. Their indifferent form has left them work to do in the Premier League and they have Manchester City visiting on Sunday – a side who swept them away in the second half when the sides met at the Etihad recently, when Son’s struggles were laid bare. The first leg of their Champions League tie with AC Milan follows soon after.

Conte and Spurs have stood by Son during his lean period. Saturday showed why. Can he now repay them in the big moments of this season to come?
Peter Smith

Perraud shines, but still question marks over Saints

Image: Romain Perraud scored twice for Southampton, but there are still glaring questions for Nathan Jones' side

While Southampton may not be flourishing in the Premier League, they are having rather more success in cup competitions. Saturday’s FA Cup win against Blackpool is sandwiched in between a Carabao Cup semi-final against Newcastle, with a spot in the Wembley final still very much up for grabs.

Romain Perraud was the spearhead for the Saints’ victory. He scored two superb goals – helped in large part by Blackpool’s parting defence – and was a terror for Blackpool in the first half especially.

In one of many sumptuous moments, he drove down the left wing before backheeling the ball around his bamboozled defender for Mohamed Elyounoussi’s run into the box. He remained a source of quality for the Saints throughout, although was quieter in the second period.

  • Southampton 2-1 Blackpool – Match report
  • How the teams lined up | Match stats

However, that was down to an impressive Blackpool pegging Southampton back, especially after their goal. While they may be in a similarly perilous position as the Saints in the Championship, they did not lack for lack of effort, drive and determination.

A replay would have been a more than fair result and Mick McCarthy should be pleased with his team’s performance in his first game as manager.

Blackpool exposed Southampton’s shaky defence and their ability to see out games must be questioned. While they ultimately came away with a spot in the last 16, Nathan Jones may continue to have more questions about his side – especially at the back – rather than answers.
Charlotte Marsh

Marsch keeps Leeds ‘progress’ going

Image: Luis Sinisterra (left) celebrates after making it 3-0 to Leeds

“We’re taking it very seriously,” declared Jesse Marsch pre-match, who knows just how important momentum will be in keeping Leeds in the Premier League.

Marsch has been adamant that his side are making progress despite not winning in the league since the World Cup. Losing to League One side Accrington in the FA Cup would be simply non-negotiable. A replay, a disaster.

  • Accrington 1-3 Leeds – Match report
  • How the teams lined up | Match stats

He made six changes from their draw with Brentford last weekend and it took some time for them to adjust to the hosts’ intensity. Jack Harrison’s superb opener settled them down before they threatened to run riot in the second half.

New signing Georginio Rutter was wasteful in front of goal but looks a useful addition while Patrick Bamford impressed with two assists – and should have had two of his own.

Marsch concluded: “This tournament will give us confidence. We know we have some tough games coming up in the Premier League but the group is feeling better and better about the progress.”
David Richardson

Youthful Sunderland deliver on big stage

Image: Sunderland's Jack Clarke beats Fulham's Kenny Tete to the ball

Marco Silva described it as a “strange game” but Fulham’s draw with Sunderland was nothing short of a thriller.

The strides Sunderland have made under Tony Mowbray have been huge with their youthful team and exciting frontline providing plenty of entertainment for their Premier League-starved supporters.

  • Fulham 1-1 Sunderland – Match report
  • How the teams lined up | Match stats

And on the top-flight stage at Craven Cottage they shone with Patrick Roberts and Amad Diallo particularly impressing.

Fulham could not contain the youthful Black Cats although the hosts equally could have chalked up four or five had it not been for a superb goalkeeping performance from Anthony Patterson.

The replay will be one to watch.
David Richardson

What lessons will top two take from their cup clash?

Pre-match it felt like Mikel Arteta’s team selection could open the door for a damaging defeat for Arsenal. But in the end his side equipped themselves well and although the FA Cup defeat will frustrate and hurt his players, perhaps the Arsenal head coach escaped the Etihad without his priority – the Premier League challenge – substantially hit by the loss to rivals Manchester City.

The more optimistic Arsenal supporters may even suggest the game offers encouragement, with Arteta likely to field a far stronger starting XI when the sides finally meet in the league at the Emirates on February 15.

But really there was little given away by either side in regards to how that game could play out in a couple of weeks. City looked more effective with Julian Alvarez playing off Erling Haaland, so that could be an option, while Pep Guardiola noted how Arsenal’s man-to-man marking set-up limited his team’s options. Expect him to be already mulling over possible solutions.

  • Man City 1-0 Arsenal – Match report
  • How the teams lined up | Match stats

He will certainly need to decide on his best defensive options, with Stones looking set to be a doubt, and the two Premier League games both sides have to play before their next showdown could shift the storyline too. Anyway, Arsenal might have Moises Caicedo in their midfield by then.

This was a tie far removed from the all-action thriller that was Arsenal vs Manchester United last weekend but it serves as an intriguing appetiser for the bigger contests to come between the Premier League’s top two so far this season…
Peter Smith

Trossard looks like he could become a key asset for Arsenal

Image: Leandro Trossard made his full Arsenal debut

He’s only been at the club for just over a week but already Leandro Trossard has seamlessly slotted into this Arsenal team – and appears to be a real asset too.

After an encouraging cameo in the final stages of the win over Manchester United on Sunday, Trossard was handed his first start for the Gunners at the Etihad and immediately caught the eye.

Driving down the left flank into the space left unoccupied by Rico Lewis drifting infield, Trossard caused City real problems early on. He teed up Takehiro Tomiyasu for a thunderbolt and another cross was prodded just wide of the post by Eddie Nketiah. In between he hit the target himself, drawing a good stop from Stefan Ortega in the City goal.

He was subbed off after 65 minutes but finished the match as Arsenal’s joint-top chance creator (two), joint-top crosser (two) and also their joint-top tackler. Indeed, his chasing back will have pleased Mikel Arteta, with Riyad Mahrez hardly getting into the game behind him.

Perhaps the one problem for Arsenal was that all this output came from just 21 touches – the fewest of any starter from either side. If Arsenal can find a way to get him even more involved in the coming weeks, new boy Trossard could play a key role in the run-in.
Peter Smith

How big a loss will Stones prove in title race?

Image: Manchester City's John Stones leaves the field

Pep Guardiola’s face said it all.

John Stones winced and tucked his legs into his chest, to reduce the pain that had shot through his right hamstring in freezing conditions in Manchester.

Trossard had left the England centre-back’s thighs burning for most of the opening half, slightly exposed by Rico Lewis’ exuberance to get forward down the right channel.

Another twist, another turn and Stones felt the ping and his likely period on the sidelines will put Manchester City’s clear depth in this area to the test.

Image: John Stones has excelled this season for City

At the start of the month, Guardiola highlighted Stones’ form, telling Sky Sports: “John he played extraordinary in the World Cup and he can adapt perfectly with three or out wide.

“He is playing at the best level, maybe for the first time in seven years since we arrived together. When he is playing like this it’s so good.”

Such was the significance of Stones’ injury, Aymeric Laporte was in no way ready to replace him. Sheepishly, he stripped off as his side temporarily had to play with 10 men.

It was hardly the sharpest of responses from Laporte, who would go on to make a crucial interception shortly after Nathan Ake’s decisive opener.

With fixtures coming thick and fast in February – including the second instalment of this epic trilogy with Arsenal – greater emphasis will be placed on Laporte and Ruben Dias, who was an unused substitute on Friday. It could be a tense wait for Guardiola as Stones is assessed.
Ben Grounds

Arteta’s harsh Holding lesson learned

Image: Holding and Erling Haaland battle for the ball

Haaland won five of his seven duels in the first half, predominantly up against Rob Holding. The Arsenal centre-back was booked on the stroke of half-time and it had been coming. It left Mikel Arteta with a conundrum to solve.

Would he be trusted to be careful during the second period against one of the world’s most prolific strikers?

Holding didn’t know whether to stick or twist, and mismatch brought back nasty memories of when he was sent off before half-time in the North London derby at Tottenham towards the end of last season as Arsenal’s season unravelled.

Image: Rob Holding struggled to cope with Erling Haaland

Holding was also in the Arsenal side that were beaten in the third-round stage last season by Nottingham Forest, which led to Arteta apologising for his side’s display.

With a face like thunder, Arteta ripped into the performance of the players while criticising the low standards that came with it.

“I accept losing guys, I accept losing. I don’t accept these standards, I’m telling you. I don’t accept them, I don’t accept them, these standards,” he said while furiously wagging his finger around.

Image: Holding was sent off before half time against Spurs

“When I lose a duel, I am upset,” Arteta ended as he stormed out of the dressing-room.

It is a scene that has been revisited more recently as a marker for how far Arsenal have come in the past 12 months, but on Friday night Arteta showed he had learned from harsh previous lessons.

Against the most ruthless finisher in England, the Spaniard took no chances as William Saliba replaced Holding at the interval.

Incidentally, Arteta defended Holding when he was sent off against Spurs last May, telling Sky Sports: “If I say what I think, then I am suspended for six months. I don’t like lying. I prefer not to say what I think. I cannot say what I think. I am so proud of my players. A beautiful game was destroyed.”

But here, Arteta was wise not to make the same mistake twice, for Holding’s own good and for the wider good of his team.
Ben Grounds

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