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Top 5 Golden Boy candidates

Ed Woodward has hit back at criticism of his Manchester United leadership by branding suggestions he picks which players to buy as "a myth" and "insulting."

Woodward has overseen a trying spell since taking over for chief executive David Gill in 2013, during which time United have slipped from Premier League champions to regularly missing out on a place in the Champions League.

Much of the fans' fury has been directed at the owners, the Glazer family, and the board -- particularly after a dismal start to the season that has seen Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's team collect just nine points from eight games and sit two points above the relegation places in 12th.

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Some supporters have pointed the finger at Woodward for the club's underwhelming recruitment record since Sir Alex Ferguson retired six years ago, but United's executive vice-chairman has rejected the suggestion he handpicks players to sign.

"There is a myth that we have non-football people making football decisions, and I think it's insulting to the brilliant people who work on the football side in this club," said Woodward.

"Many of the senior staff on the football side of the club have been in their roles for over 10 years. Some of our scouts have worked with us for more than 25 years.

"We've expanded our recruitment department in recent years and we believe this now runs in an efficient and productive way.

"Player recommendations and decisions are worked on by this department and by the first team manager and his staff, not by senior management."

Woodward has also addressed concerns that the commercial side of the club -- which has remained healthy despite a lack of success on the pitch -- takes priority at Old Trafford over investment in the playing squad.

"Our commercial business allows us to reinvest in the football side," he said. "It's how these two interact with each other at Manchester United that results in us having a competitive advantage in this area.

"What's important is the commercial side is never allowed to take priority over the football side."

The impact of summer signings Harry Maguire, Aaron Wan-Bissaka and Daniel James -- identified by a revamped recruitment department -- has been a bright spot during United's miserable start to the season that could reach new depths on Sunday if Liverpool win at Old Trafford.

Solskjaer has managed just five wins from 21 games since being appointed permanent manager in March, and despite mounting pressure after defeat to Newcastle, Woodward insists the Norwegian is still the right man for the job.

"Ole's vision maps exactly to the core three football objectives we have," said Woodward.

"We must win trophies, we must play attacking football, and we must give youth its chance.

"The middle section of last season, after Ole's arrival, feels most relevant to what we want to achieve and where we want to be.

"We saw a team playing fast, fluid football, with a clear representation of the style and philosophy the manager wants."

While new signings Maguire, Wan-Bissaka and James have been early successes, Solskjaer has been left with a squad short in midfield and up front after the summer departures of Ander Herrera, Romelu Lukaku and Alexis Sanchez.

Lukaku and Sanchez were allowed to leave late in the window with no prospect of bringing in a replacement, but Woodward has hinted the decision was made for the good of the group.

"Ole has instilled the discipline back into an environment where we may have lacked it in recent years," said Woodward.

"He is building a squad that respects the club's history, in which players work hard and respect their teammates. No one is bigger than the club."

Meanwhile, Brandon Williams has signed a new contract at Old Trafford. The 19-year-old left-back, who made his first senior start against AZ Alkmaar in the Europa League, has penned a deal until at least 2022.

A couple of years ago, N'Golo Kante might have been the most valuable soccer player in the world.

In August 2015, Leicester City signed the relatively unknown French midfielder from Caen for £5.6 million. The season before his arrival, Leicester finished with 41 points. In Kante's only season with the club, Leicester finished with 81 points, winning the most improbable championship in the history of modern sports.

Then, in July 2016, Chelsea signed the by-now-well-known French midfielder for £32 million. The year before Kante's arrival at Stamford Bridge, the club finished with 50 points, by far the worst tally since Roman Abramovich bought the club back in 2003. In Kante's first season with the team, Chelsea finished with 93 points, winning their fifth Premier League title. Leicester, meanwhile, held onto all of the other key contributors to their championship team, but without Kante, they almost slipped right back down to where they were before he'd arrived, finishing with 44 points.

Ignore any other context and it looks like Kante alone was worth something like 40 points a year. That's obviously not quite true, but it certainly seemed like Kante was one of those rare players who could significantly elevate his team's performance without putting the ball into the back of the net. And in the summer of 2017, a group of researchers from the University of Salford and University College of London published a paper that supported this very idea.

They created a number of models to determine a player's "plus-minus" rating, that is comparing how a team performs when a player is on the field with how it performs when he's not. These models are tricky and imperfect because unlike in basketball, most teams don't spend a significant amount of time with their starters off the field; therefore you get things like Manchester City's Claudio Bravo being the second-highest rated player in the world for the 2016-17 season. However, the results of the research also seemed to verify what everyone at Stamford Bridge and the King Power Stadium was thinking about Kante.

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"The paper presents a method for estimating how important each player is to a team's success," Ian McHale, one of the paper's authors, said over email. "For the seasons under consideration, Kante was found to be the player contributing the most to a team's success. And this doesn't just mean Leicester and Chelsea, but a hypothetical team made up of any set of players: Kante would contribute the most."

Except, in the two seasons since then, something has happened that had never happened before ... and it's happened two seasons in a row: The team Kante plays for didn't win the Premier League. In 17-18, Chelsea finished in fifth and last year, they landed third.

"Kante has plummeted down the rankings in the last 12 months, probably because he was played out of position for much of that time," said McHale.

Much of the discussion surrounding Kante over the past year-and-a-half echoes what McHale suggests. Since Chelsea signed Jorginho, a relatively immobile player who needs to sit in front of the defense and constantly have the ball at his feet in order to be effective, Kante has been deployed higher up the field under both Maurizio Sarri and current manager Frank Lampard. This discussion between BBC pundits Alan Shearer and Ian Wright serves as a good summary of the general sentiment:

Jorginho or Kante as Chelsea's holding midfielder...Do you agree with @IanWright0's assessment? pic.twitter.com/hRfFVTK4k3

However, Sarri claimed he needed a different player profile in his holding midfield role. "In that position, I want a player able to move the ball very fast... N'Golo is very useful for us, but this one is not his best characteristic."

In August, Lampard echoed those thoughts. "This idea that he wins the ball probably as well as anybody in world football doesn't mean that he has to sit in front of the back four and do that. He also has too much in his game to drive forward with the ball, to lead midfield areas and win the ball back high up the pitch. That's what I want to give him the freedom to do."

Even when France won the 2018 World Cup, Didier Deschamps opted to play Paul Pogba, of all people, in the holding role with Kante given the kind of freedom that Lampard talks about: license to win the back higher up the field.

Three separate coaches have envisioned a more aggressive role for Kante. Could they all be wrong?

Last season under Sarri, all of Kante's defensive numbers declined except one. In his sole season at Leicester, he made 5.22 tackles per 90 minutes and 4.65 interceptions, both of which led the Premier League. In his two seasons under Antonio Conte, he averaged 3.67 tackles and 2.45 interceptions and last year, he was down at 2.18 tackles and 1.28 interceptions. In the Leicester and Conte years, he won possession in midfield an average of 4.85 times per 90 minutes, ranking in the top three in all three years. Under Sarri, that number dipped down to 3.26.

What didn't dip, though, was the number of times he won possession in the attacking third. That rose up to 1.02 per 90 after not being above 0.63 in either of the previous three seasons. In fact, only Mohamed Salah and Richarlison won more possessions in the final third than Kante last season. The difference, of course, is that Kante's a midfielder and they're both attackers. So when Kante wins possession that high up the field, there tend to be more players ahead of the ball and therefore more players capable of capitalizing on re-gaining the ball. Why is this important? Because winning possession in the attacking third has also been shown to correlate with, well, winning games.

On top of that, Kante found his way into the penalty area more than he ever has before. He took 73 touches in the box last season after taking 58 touches in the box in the previous three seasons combined.

Winning possession in the attacking third and finding space in the opposition box are two of the most valuable things that a player can do that don't directly involve taking or setting up a shot. Kante may have been playing a new role, but he did more of these things than ever before. He also set or matched career highs in shots, chances created, goals and assists.

However, the value that Kante provided in years past was that he did the defensive work of multiple players and allowed Claudio Ranieri and Conte to often only play two midfielders instead of the customary three you see employed by the best teams in the Premier League. That made room for another attacker: basically another player who could win the ball back in the attacking third and make runs into the box.

The running joke at Leicester was that they "played three in midfield, Drinkwater in the middle with Kante either side." At Chelsea, Eden Hazard said of Kante's omnipresence: "I think I'm playing with twins."

Those teams were at least partially built around Kante's unique skills. His value wasn't necessarily in what he did; it came from everything he allowed his teammates and managers to do. But it's still not clear that one role is better than the other.

In Conte's last season with Chelsea, with Kante in his supposedly more natural role, they won 70 points on a plus-24 goal differential. In Sarri's one season, with Kante playing higher up the field, Chelsea won 72 points on a plus-24 goal differential. In terms of their expected goal differential last season, Chelsea were the clear third-best team behind Manchester City and Liverpool. Kante has only started three Premier League games so far but it seems like we're in for more of the same this season.

Kante hasn't really played enough to define his role within Lampard's preferred system, but early signs suggest that he's going to be used as something of a hybrid; his number of possessions won in midfield is up from last year, but he's already scored two goals. And so, perhaps the truth of the Kante conundrum is that he doesn't have a best position. He's never been a pure holding midfielder. He's never been a box-to-box runner either. He's always been somewhere in between but, in playing either role, he's proven to be indispensable.

Remember the year Leicester won the title? Kante won the third-most possessions in the midfield among all Premier League players. His teammate, Danny Drinkwater, was No. 1.

Tottenham Hotspur head coach Mauricio Pochettino has said that the club does not need to sign players in the January transfer window.

Pochettino has come under pressure following a poor start to the Premier League season that has seen just three wins, including losses to Brighton, Leicester and Newcastle.

Spurs, who reached the final of the Champions League last season, were beaten 7-2 at home to Bayern Munich earlier this month, continuing a poor start to the competition this time out.

But when asked whether he feels he needs to add to his squad in January, Pochettino said in a news conference on Thursday: "I don't believe [we do]. I believe in the players we have that are in Tottenham today.

"I respect the opinion of people who say we need to change. But if it is my decision, I am going to stick with the players because they have quality to fight for the things we expect to fight."

Spurs spent heavily in the summer window, signing midfielder Tanguy Ndombele for a club-record fee £65 million, as well as adding left back Ryan Sessegnon from Fullham for £25m and Giovani Lo Celso on loan -- both of whom have spent lengthy spells out injured time since their arrival.

The club did not make a single signing last season.

Pochettino also said that Sessegnon and Lo Celso are "a long way off" the fitness level he requires for them to return to the matchday squad.

On Spurs' poor form, Pochettino added: "I trust 200 percent in them [the squad] and believe that they have the capacity and potential to win the games and turn this situation around.

"This type of situation happens at all clubs sooner or later. We have confidence that we have the quality. Only a matter of time to make things clear.

"It's not about selection, not about the names, it's about collective behaviour and performance."

Spurs will look to turn things round when they face Premier League strugglers Watford at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium on Saturday.

Arsenal midfielder Mesut Ozil has said he is always blamed when things go wrong at Arsenal, but that he will remain at the club until "at least 2021."

 The former Germany international has struggled for game time this season, making just one Premier League and one Carabao Cup performance and not yet completing a full 90 minutes, but has insisted he will try to prove himself at the Emirates, rather than looking for minutes elsewhere.

"When I signed the new deal, I thought about it very carefully and said it was one of the most important decisions of my footballing career," Ozil told The Athletic.

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"I didn't want to stay for just one or two more years, I wanted to commit my future to Arsenal and the club wanted me to do the same.

"You can go through difficult times, like this, but that is no reason to run away and I'm not going to. I'm here until at least 2021.

"When I moved from Real Madrid, it was a really tough time for Arsenal, but I always believed in what we could do and together we delivered. More recently things have been difficult and a lot has changed, but I'm proud to be an Arsenal player, a fan and I'm happy here. Whenever people see me in the street I always say, 'This is my home.' I'm going nowhere."

While Arsenal manager Unai Emery has said Ozil's limited game time this season has occurred because other players "deserve it more," Ozil said he has no problem with the Spaniard.

"All I know is what has already been said," he said. "It's disappointing, of course, but as a professional footballer, I have to respect the decision of the coach. This should not be about me or the coach, only the club."

The 31-year-old, who signed for Arsenal in 2013, has at times come under scrutiny for his performances at the north London club, particularly in so-called big games, but said the criticism was largely unjust.

"It always happens that an ex-player stands there on TV and criticises me," he said. "Others just continue the theme and it gets in everyone's heads.

"If we don't do well in a 'big' game, it's always my fault. If that's true, how do you explain our results in the 'big' games when I wasn't involved? There's no real difference.

"I know people expect me to offer more, dictate play and make the difference -- I do, too -- but it's not that straightforward. I'm not the only player in the team and, don't forget, some of our opponents are simply better than us.

"Also, what is a 'big' or 'small' game? In the Premier League, anyone can beat anyone. Look at Wolves and Norwich beating Man City, or Newcastle and West Ham beating Man United. So you can't say my good performances only came in 'small' games, because these games don't really exist."

We're eight games into the Premier League season, and and it already looks as if our hopes of a title race might be over. Liverpool have amassed an eight-point lead in winning every match, but they are lucky to be so far ahead. 

ESPN and the team led by Dr. Thomas Curran, at the London School of Economics, compile the Luck Index, to examine how the Premier League would be if luck were not a factor through this season. And our latest update shows that Liverpool's lead would in fact be slashed in half if they weren't so lucky.

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Liverpool were headed for a surprise 1-1 draw against Leicester at Anfield before, five minutes into added time, Sadio Mane fell to the deck after contact from Marc Albrighton. Penalty! James Milner converted with virtually the last kick of the game -- one point turned into three with seconds remaining. Lucky? Plenty of people would say so. Even though there was contact, Mane's theatrics earned the penalty. 

Manchester City are two points worse off than they should be after referee Michael Oliver failed to give the champions a penalty against Tottenham earlier in the season. One point that should have been three.

If those decisions were reversed, Liverpool lose two points and City gain two, reducing the gap between first and second to four points. 

JUMP TO: The Anti-VAR Index

Any other unlucky teams? Bournemouth are two points worse off, with Aaron Cresswell's deflected goal for West Ham helping the London side claim a draw. Turn that into a home victory and Bournemouth would be sixth in the table, rather than 10th. 

Man United were unlucky that Crystal Palace's Gary Cahill wasn't sent off with a straight red card for denying a goal-scoring opportunity. If the ref had made the correct call and Palace went down to 10 men, the Luck Index predicts that United would have earned a point and, as a result, would be two places higher in the table, in 10th place. 

Arsenal (loss of 2 points), plus Aston Villa, Leicester and Sheffield United (1 point) complete the list of the league's unluckiest teams. 

But hang on, where is Lady Luck sending her charm? Crystal Palace are four points better off and would be 11th in the table, five places lower, if they weren't so lucky at Man United and in avoiding a late equaliser at home to Aston Villa. 

Brighton, Newcastle and Southampton have had luck go their way, winning games that would have turned out to be draws. The loss of two points would shift each club a couple of places down the table.  

West Ham complete the list, one point better off.  

Decisions, decisions, decisions ... In a shock turn of events over the past month, VAR has actually started giving goals to teams rather than taking them away. 

We've seen Bournemouth, Arsenal and Crystal Palace all awarded goals that last season would have been chalked off by the linesman's flag. That's a good thing, right? Well, don't let the football purists hear you say that.

So far 15 match-changing incidents have been overturned, with 11 goals disallowed. But what does this all mean for the Premier League table? Who would be much higher in the table without VAR, and who has VAR helped the most? 

- The Ultimate Var Guide: All your questions answered- Every VAR decision in the Premier League

The Anti-VAR Index mirrors the Luck Index at the top of the table, with Liverpool's lead cut in half to four points. Jurgen Klopp's men lose two points because, without VAR, Chelsea would not have had a goal disallowed against them at Stamford Bridge, resulting in a draw. And Man City would have won at home to Tottenham earlier in the season. 

Man United can also have a good moan about VAR, as Arsenal gained an equaliser at Old Trafford when Pierre-Emmanuel Aubameyang had a disallowed goal ruled back in, costing the Red Devils two points. 

The only team to suffer a greater points drop than the Manchester clubs are Sheffield United. Chris Wilder's team have enjoyed a great start to life back in the Premier League, but just imagine if the goal disallowed for offside at home to Southampton, when the score was 0-0, had stood. The Anti-VAR Index say the Blades would have won rather than suffer a 1-0 defeat, shooting them into lofty heights of seventh. That climb of six places is the greatest in the list. 

West Ham, who have been involved in a third of all overturned decisions, would be two points and three places better off in fifth. Aston Villa, Brighton and Wolves would also have two more points. 

Meanwhile, Bournemouth and Tottenham have profited most from VAR decisions and would slide five places down the table to 14th and 15th, respectively, had original decisions stood. So things could be worse for troubled Spurs boss Mauricio Pochettino. Burnley don't fare much better, dropping four places into 11th, when you strip out VAR decisions.

While that trio of clubs might drop the most positions without VAR, it's Southampton who lose the most points. With two VAR decisions in their favour, they are docked three points, but as they are 17th they can only fall into 19th but one point off the foot of the table. 

Total checks: 475Overturned decisions: 15Penalty decisions: 0Red cards: 0

Most decisions in favour: Southampton (2)Most decisions in against: Chelsea (2)Most involved club: West Ham (5 overturns)

It has been a record-breaking start to the season for Liverpool, with Jurgen Klopp's team sitting eight points clear at the top of the Premier League after winning all eight league games so far this campaign.

Another victory against Manchester United at Old Trafford on Sunday would be Liverpool's 18th consecutive league win, equalling the Premier League record set by Manchester City in 2017-18.

The Champions League winners are showing the kind of form that suggests they could go through the season unbeaten and emulate Arsene Wenger's Arsenal Invincibles of 2003-04, but can Liverpool maintain it for the whole campaign?

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Injuries, loss of form and bad luck could all conspire to derail Liverpool's bid to win the title for the first time since 1990, but the Reds have already beaten Arsenal and Chelsea this season and wins against United and Tottenham in their next two games would keep them well clear of the pack before they meet champions City at Anfield next month.

So are we about to witness history being made by Liverpool? Or are there problems lurking around the corner?

The players

Liverpool's transfer committee and Klopp have spent plenty of money to get the most exciting and fearsome team seen at Anfield since the late-1980s, when the club were as dominant as Manchester United became during the 1990s.

Alisson is arguably the world's best goalkeeper, but during the Brazilian's injury-enforced absence, back-up stopper Adrian has been rock solid during Liverpool's winning run.

Defensively, Andy Robertson and Trent Alexander-Arnold are two of the best full-backs in the world, while Virgil van Dijk has few rivals as the world's best centre-back.

The midfield is strong, if unspectacular, while Liverpool possess one of the best forward lines on the planet with Mohamed Salah, Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mane.

The Klopp factor

Football teams reflect the personality of their manager and Klopp has built Liverpool in his own image.

The so-called "Heavy Metal football" he inspired at Borussia Dortmund -- intense, exciting, 'in your face' football -- has been replicated at Anfield, but the joy and passion that the German manager exerts from the touchline helps explain why Liverpool play at such a high tempo.

Klopp has tapped into the vast Liverpool fanbase and forged an incredible bond between the supporters and the team. This unity was a key factor in last season's Champions League triumph -- just ask Barcelona about how they coped against that unified front in last season's incredible 4-0 semifinal defeat at Anfield.

Tactically, Klopp has also proved his status as a world-class coach by making Liverpool a force in England and Europe. He is the architect of this impressive side.

Anfield

If Liverpool are to remain unbeaten in the league, they will have to negotiate plenty of tough away games, but their record at Anfield will give them the strength to travel without fear. The club have not lost a Premier League game at Anfield since a 2-1 defeat to Crystal Palace in April 2017 and they appear to be developing into an even more formidable force at home as the weeks go by.

No Premier League stadium provides as much noise and support for the home team as Anfield and it is a huge asset in their favour. If they maintain their home form, then Liverpool will not have to chase victories away from Anfield, which only makes them harder to beat.

Weak competition

The Premier League might still be regarded by many as the most exciting league in the world, but it is debatable whether it is the strongest and recent seasons have pointed towards an increasing gulf between the so-called "Big Six" and the rest.

Are the "other 14" capable of beating Liverpool? Well, Klopp's team lost just once in the league last season and that defeat came against champions Manchester City. In fact, you have to go back to January 2018 or the last time that they were defeated by a team outside the "Big Six": away at Swansea.

Liverpool have already beaten Chelsea and Arsenal this term and they face a struggling United and out-of-form Spurs next. City are always a threat and the game against their title rivals in the second half of the season will be difficult, but on paper there are few potential defeats on the horizon.

Luck

When Arsenal became the Invincibles in 2003-04, they had luck along the way -- most memorably when Ruud van Nistelrooy missed a last minute penalty for Manchester United in a 0-0 draw at Old Trafford early in the season.

This campaign, Liverpool have won some games -- notably against Sheffield United and Leicester -- thanks to good fortune in the form of opposition mistakes or refereeing decisions, while they may yet salvage a draw from the jaws of defeat in the same way. Last season's Luck Index showed that Liverpool were the unluckiest team in the league though that's more than evened out so far in 2019-20.

The dice can roll the other way, of course, but winning teams tend to push harder and take greater risks than struggling sides, so if fortune does favour the brave, they will have earned it.

Determined rivals

Historically, Liverpool have lost 80 of their 202 meetings with Manchester United and won just 66, so the difficulty of Sunday's trip to Old Trafford cannot be overstated, despite the dismal recent run of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's team.

Some games are always going to pose problems whatever the state of the teams. The fixtures against United, for reasons of long-standing rivalry, and Manchester City, because of their status as the reigning champions, could see Liverpool lose, while they still have to travel to Arsenal and Tottenham.

A derby is always tough and though Everton haven't won at Anfield this century, or beaten their bitter rivals at Goodison Park since October 2010, that run will end at some point.

Back in March 1988, Liverpool travelled to Goodison needing to avoid defeat to become the first team go 30 league games unbeaten since the start of a season, but Everton won 1-0. That result is proof that a determined rival can overcome even the best teams.

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Lack of depth

Injuries can trigger the downfall of any team and Liverpool have, either by good preparation, luck, or both, avoided long-term injuries to key players in recent seasons.

Goalkeeper Alisson has been sidelined since the first game of this season with a calf injury, but Liverpool have shrugged off his absence thanks to the form of understudy Adrian. However, things could be different if Van Dijk was ruled out for a period of time, or full-backs Robertson and Alexander-Arnold, while the thought of Salah, Mane or Firmino sidelined would give Klopp nightmares. (Firmino, in particular, knits the forward play together and embodies Klopp's high-energy style.)

There are still capable squad players like Joe Gomez, Xherdan Shaqiri and Divock Origi to plug the gaps, and Liverpool may not even need to do so if their luck remains, but the lack of cover for their top stars could ultimately cost Klopp's team.

Of course, injuries aren't unique to the league leaders. If anything, their eight-point lead atop the table owes plenty to Manchester City's lack of depth at centre-back. This season, Manchester City have been without defenders Aymeric Laporte and John Stones due to long-term injuries and are understandbly struggling defensively. The same could yet happen to Liverpool.

Scars of failure

Liverpool have not been crowned champions of England since 1990 and they have fallen short on numerous occasions since then.

Steven Gerrard's slip against Chelsea in 2014 triggered a title collapse under Brendan Rodgers, while Klopp's team lost just once last season and it still wasn't enough to beat City to the title. Liverpool's players will have to overcome those negative memories, and the intense pressure of a fanbase that's been waiting since the 1980s for a league title, if they're to win it all this season.

If they get close in March, April and May, the pressure to end the 30-year wait will grow and it will either propel them to glory or prompt uncharacteristic mistakes that could lead to defeat. Liverpool have plenty of scars from recent history and it would be naive to think that they will not be reminded of them during the run-in.

An unexpected result

While the lack of competition, as mentioned above, has become a worrying trend for the Premier League, the flip side is that there are still surprise results that defy all logic.

Nobody could have anticipated City's 3-2 defeat at Norwich last month, or their 2-0 loss at home to Wolves last time out, and Pep Guardiola's team were also stunned at home by Crystal Palace last season.

In recent years, shock results have led to teams losing the title. Manchester United lost at Wigan in April 2012 having never even dropped a point against them in previous meetings and Man City went on to pip them to the trophy on goal difference.

But while the gap between the best and the rest is growing, City's early season defeats should serve as a warning to Liverpool that a bad performance can lead to a surprise defeat.

Loss of form

Losing their form or confidence looks to be the least of Liverpool's concerns right now. They are flying high at the top of the table, yet to drop a point and have built such a lead that they have a cushion to soften the blow of any unexpected slip.

But these things do not last forever and can be affected by a number of different issues -- injuries, poor decisions by officials, selection mistakes by the coach -- and Liverpool may yet hit a sticky patch which enables City to close the gap.

With three points for a win, even a run of three successive draws by Liverpool would open the door for City, so maintaining their form will be crucial.

Going unbeaten through a league season is no mean feat and only Arsenal have done it in the modern era. Sir Alex Ferguson's great Man United sides, Jose Mourinho's formidable Chelsea teams and Pep Guardiola's majestic Man City have all tried and failed, so it would be an immense achievement if Liverpool pull it off.

Right now, Klopp's men look on course to win the club a first title since 1989-90 but becoming the new Invincibles is a different matter. Liverpool are a great team, one of the most exciting of the Premier League era, but while they will surely end their long wait for the title, they will suffer at least one defeat along the way.

The recent international break was not a profitable one for the column but we are still well up for the season and looking forward to another big weekend of action, as leaders Liverpool head to Old Trafford to face Manchester United.

Running total: +£38.40

Even when Liverpool were dominating English football in the 1970s and 1980s, they were rarely odds on shots in the betting for any trip to Old Trafford. However the Reds -- now clear title favourites after a majestic start to the season -- are a 4/6 chance to make it nine Premier League wins on the spin this weekend and on current form it's hard to make a case against them claiming yet another three points. Manchester United have won just one of their last seven league games and were genuinely terrible last time out in losing 1-0 at Newcastle.

There's not a single player in this Red Devils side who you would say would automatically walk into the Liverpool first team and Jurgen Klopp must be confident of maintaining their 100% start. The only solace for United fans is the fact that Klopp's men have not won at Old Trafford since the 2013-14 campaign but given the wretched recent form of the hosts, Liverpool look must bet material this weekend.

Selection: £4 on Liverpool-Liverpool Half-Time Full-Time at 7/4 with bet365.

Karim Benzema has scored six goals in just seven La Liga matches and the louche, aloof but often deadly Real Madrid frontman looks a decent price at 7/2 to score first against struggling Mallorca. Los Blancos are top of the pile in Spain after eight matches and Benzema can help fire them to victory against a team currently languishing in the bottom three.

Selection: £4 on Benzema to score first at 7/2 with bet365.

Wolves (3/4) can build on that fabulous victory over 2-0 Manchester City before the international break by seeing off Southampton at Molineux. The turnaround in Adama Traore's form has been extraordinary and he can help them blast past the Saints on Saturday.

Elsewhere Leicester City (1/2) can make home advantage count against a stubborn Burnley side. The Foxes have lost just one of their last 10 home league games and are flying. Finally add in Arsenal, who have won five out of their last six, at 10/11 to beat Sheffield United on Monday night.

Selection: £3 on the treble at 4.01/1 with bet365.

Juventus are an even money chance to beat Bologna by more than a goal and the Serie A champions should be too strong in Turin for a team sat in eleventh place in Italy's top flight. Cristiano Ronaldo joined the 700 club this week and will be eager to add to his tally this weekend. His 700 career goals are comprised of five for Sporting Lisbon, 118 for Manchester United, 450 for Real Madrid, 32 for Juventus and 95 for Portugal. Bologna, you have been warned!

Selection: £5 on Juventus (-1) to beat Bologna at evens with bet365.

Everton have lost their last four league matches so it's a surprise to see West Ham chalked up at 11/4 to win at Goodison this weekend. Despite having spent more than £100m on several new recruits last summer, Everton have been awful this term and currently sit in the relegation zone. Manuel Pellegrini meanwhile has built an exciting, effervescent West Ham squad and we fancy the Londoner's to heap further pressure on Marco Silva.

Selection: £2 on West Ham to win at 11/4 with bet365.

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Lee Hendrie scored in the third minute to put Aston Villa in front, but it didn't matter. Arsenal would score and score again, and Arsenal would win. Because Arsenal always won.

Sure enough, Robert Pirès equalised from the penalty spot, and after Thierry Henry had given the home side the lead on the stroke of half-time, Pirès swept home his second goal to seal a routine 3-1 victory. "I don't think they would have panicked at even two goals down," beaten manager David O'Leary said. "They've got such belief."

It was Oct. 16, 2004, and Arsenal had just extended their record-breaking unbeaten run to 49 Premier League games. The defending champions were five points clear at the top of the table, having scored almost twice as many goals as any other team in the division, and with Villa duly dispatched, thoughts quickly turned to a midweek trip to Panathinaikos in the Champions League.

With the benefit of 15 years' hindsight, that mild, overcast October afternoon in north London turns out to have been the last time Arsenal looked unbeatable. Eight days later, their unbeaten run came to an end in a 2-0 defeat at Manchester United -- Ruud van Nistelrooy converted a penalty dubiously won by Wayne Rooney, who added a second goal in stoppage time -- and Arsenal have never been the same since.

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Arsène Wenger's side won only one of their next four league matches in the 2004-05 season -- a chaotic 5-4 success against Tottenham Hotspur at White Hart Lane -- and eventually finished 12 points behind José Mourinho's Chelsea in second place.

Since coming second to Chelsea at the end of the 2005 season, Arsenal have finished in the top two only once, in 2016, and even then it took a spectacular collapse from Tottenham for them to claim the step on the podium below Leicester City. Only the FA Cup, which Wenger won three times in his last five seasons, has provided any solace.

Over the course of Wenger's first 11 seasons (including the 1996-97 campaign, in which he took up his role in October), Arsenal conceded 369 league goals at an average of 33.5 per campaign. In his last 11 seasons, those figures jumped to 446 and 40.5 respectively.

Fifteen years on, Arsenal have yet to mount a serious title challenge, with the latter years of Wenger's tenure serving only to earn the club a reputation for psychological flimsiness and defensive fragility that remains very much intact despite his departure and Unai Emery's arrival. Once renowned for their robust back four, Arsenal are now the epitome of how not to defend. And it has been a long time since they looked anything close to invincible.

More damning than the statistics, though, were the defeats. The 8-2 at Old Trafford, the 5-1 at Anfield, the 6-0 at Stamford Bridge. The slapstick manner of defeat against Birmingham City in the 2011 League Cup final. The 10-2 evisceration by Bayern Munich on aggregate in the Champions League.

Piece by piece, brick by brick, Arsenal's empire quietly came apart.

Nigel Winterburn remembers a time when defensive discipline was at the heart of everything Arsenal stood for. A summer signing from Wimbledon in 1987, the former left-back vividly recalls the hours spent on the training pitches with the other members of Arsenal's famous back four -- Lee Dixon, Tony Adams and Steve Bould -- as manager George Graham led them through the drills that would turn them into the most formidable defensive unit in the English game.

With the four players aligned across the width of an otherwise empty pitch, Graham would stride around representing the ball, explaining how his defenders should react to each new position that he took up. In time, Arsenal's defenders learned to move as one, rolling up, down and across the pitch with the smooth, unthinking coordination of a shoal of fish.

"It became robotic," Winterburn told ESPN. "Once one reacted, the other three instantly knew what to do and where to go. That was the value of the work we did with George."

Graham's rigorous approach reached its peak in the 1990-91 season, when Arsenal won the title -- the second of his time in charge -- having conceded only 18 goals in 38 games. For the members of his defence, backed up by goalkeeper David Seaman, clean sheets were not so much a strategic objective as a raison d'être.

"We hated conceding goals," Winterburn said. "Even when we were 3-0 and 4-0 up. If we let a goal in late on and we ended up winning 3-1 or 4-1, we'd be absolutely livid with each other. There was a burning desire not to concede."

The contrast with the defensive apathy of the current team is striking.

When Wenger took over from Graham's successor, Bruce Rioch, in the autumn of 1996, he had the good sense to realise that the defence he had inherited would require little fine-tuning. Dixon and Winterburn, the two full-backs, were given more licence to push forwards in matches, but with Pat Rice, Wenger's assistant, adopting a light touch in his defensive training sessions, things otherwise remained much as they had been.

"To be quite honest with you, we didn't do a lot of defending [in training]," Winterburn said. "Pat took little bits, but I think he knew that we knew it anyway."

Boro Primorac, Wenger's right-hand man at Arsenal from 1997 to 2018, told ESPN in a rare interview that positional work remained a secondary consideration even after the team that would go on to be the "Invincibles" had been assembled.

"You'd repeat tactical work, but only 15 or 20 minutes -- not all day," Primorac said. "They were already ready. They were all big players. You can imagine, we had four or five world champions in this team. What can I teach a world champion? What can I teach Gilberto [Silva] about taking up positions on the pitch? He can teach me!"

As the players of the 1990s were phased out, Arsenal made a concerted effort to preserve the culture of defensive excellence they had helped to establish. Bould left in 1999, Winterburn in 2000, Adams and Dixon in 2002 (after Wenger's second Double), and Martin Keown in 2004, but as the players destined to replace them came in, the old guard ensured that the standards were kept while adapting to the increasingly attacking -- and successful -- football being developed by Wenger at the other end of the pitch.

Rather than collective movement, Arsenal's new defence was based on athleticism and stamina, with converted midfielders Lauren and Kolo Touré dropping back to play alongside Sol Campbell and Ashley Cole. Primorac describes them as "physical monsters." Danny Karbassiyoon, then a young left-back on the fringes of the squad, remembers being struck by the intensity of first-team training sessions.

"You can't just turn your intensity on and off like a tap. You're going to play the way you train," said Karbassiyoon, who now works for the club as a scout in North America.

"A great example was Keown, who was one of the hardest guys I ever had the pleasure of meeting or playing against. He'd be furious if he let in a goal or if his team lost. That embodied the attitude and the character of that entire team."

The "Invincibles" let in only 26 goals over the course of the 2003-04 campaign, figures bettered by only five title-winning teams in the Premier League era. But then came Old Trafford: the cynical targeting of José Antonio Reyes, Van Nistelrooy's studs down Cole's right shin, Rooney's dive, the flying pizza and the end of the unbeaten run. Wenger blasted referee Mike Riley's performance, claiming that Arsenal had been "robbed," and 15 years on, the manner of the defeat still rankles. "The referee was not correct," said Primorac, who now runs the academy at Hajduk Split. "The players were very, very upset."

The defeat at United also served to germinate the idea that the best way to unsettle Arsenal was to target them physically. As Arsenal faded over the seasons that followed, and as sturdy players such as Campbell, Lauren, Patrick Vieira and Gilberto moved on without being adequately replaced, Wenger's complaints about the lack of protection afforded to his players became a wearily recurrent refrain.

"If they couldn't play 'footballistically,' they would try to be aggressive," said Primorac, his choice of language reflecting the 21 years he spent at Wenger's side in the Arsenal dugout. "It's normal. They fought to win. It was a problem with the referees letting them kick us."

Whether at centre-back (Thomas Vermaelen, Sebastien Squillaci, Shkodran Mustafi) or in central midfield (Denilson, Kim Kallstrom, Granit Xhaka), the signings who should have made Arsenal stronger instead made them weaker, rendering the team ill-equipped to deal with the kind of rough treatment they received.

Had the recent history of European football followed a different course, Wenger might have come to realise that the best way to inoculate his team against such rude physical treatment would have been to inject it with some hardiness of its own. Instead, the rise of Pep Guardiola's Barcelona convinced him that it was possible to play attractive, proactive football with small, technical players and still be successful. It was a formula that he grasped, albeit only partially.

"He misread what Barcelona were all about," former Arsenal midfielder Stewart Robson, who became one of Wenger's staunchest critics, told ESPN. "Whenever he was talking about Guardiola and Barcelona, he'd say, 'We're the closest thing to them. We play combination football, we've got small, skillful, technical players, and we can play around pressure.' What he didn't realise and acknowledge was that Barcelona were also the best team at closing the ball down. It wasn't just that they kept the ball, but they won it back so quickly.

"Arsenal didn't always do that, and you could tell from week to week, there was no defensive game plan."

By the time of Wenger's departure from the Emirates Stadium in May 2018, Arsenal's mounting frailties meant that even things the club's fans had come to depend on -- attractive football, consistent Champions League qualification, always finishing above Tottenham -- had slipped away.

When Emery took over from Wenger in the summer of 2018, he inherited a flaky squad with no clearly defined defensive principles, the influence of the old back four and the defenders from the "Invincibles" era having become more and more diluted as the long, slow second half of the Frenchman's reign wore on. Where once the Arsenal defence meant Adams' rugged tackling, Campbell's peerless heading ability or Cole's lung-busting surges down the left flank, it now stood for Xhaka failing to track his runner, Mustafi losing his man in the box or Petr Cech sombrely fishing the ball out of his own net.

At Sevilla, where he won three successive Europa League titles, Emery's teams were renowned for playing high-energy, relentlessly vertical football, but they were not an especially solid side defensively. His attempts to introduce a more dynamic style of play at Paris Saint-Germain were unsuccessful, and although PSG had few problems keeping clean sheets in Ligue 1, their frailties were brutally exposed in the famous 6-1 defeat by Barcelona in the Champions League in March 2017.

Emery hasn't yet had any discernible impact on Arsenal's defensive robustness. Arsenal conceded 51 goals in Wenger's final league season -- the club's worst defensive figures in 34 years -- and in Emery's first campaign at the helm, they shipped 51 goals again.

This season, things have been scarcely better. Emery's men are mid-table in terms of goals conceded (11), but their expected goals against figures (12.88) are the sixth-highest in the division, and only promoted sides Aston Villa and Norwich City have granted their opponents more shots on goal than the 136 Arsenal have allowed. Not that you need statistical evidence to tell you that all is not well in Arsenal's defensive third, where a porous midfield and calamity-prone centre-backs have combined to create a perfect storm.

Costly defensive mistakes have been a consistent feature of Arsenal football, be it Xhaka's kamikaze penalty-box challenge on Son Heung-min in the North London Derby, David Luiz's error-strewn display in the 3-1 defeat at Liverpool or Sokratis Papastathopoulos's catastrophic loose pass in the recent 2-2 draw at Watford.

"At the moment, it doesn't look any better than last year, which wasn't good enough. I think there's a lack of understanding between the back four, in terms of each individual player and the responsibilities in their roles," Winterburn said.

"And at times, the opposition play through the lines too easily. The more pressure that's put on the back four, the more mistakes they will make."

Emery's thinking on defensive matters also seems muddled. He arrived at the Emirates promising aggressive, front-foot football, and there were signs of that in his first season, most memorably in December's 4-2 win over Spurs. But the intensity has steadily disappeared from Arsenal's play, and when they come up against supposedly inferior opponents, Emery can be curiously reactive, seemingly more inclined to focus on the strengths of the opposition than the strong points of his own side. On top of all that, his determination to see his team play out from the back can seem like more trouble than it's worth.

Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang complained to Canal+ after the draw at Watford that Arsenal were "literally giving goals to the opposition," but Emery has remained steadfast, declaring that building up play from the back needs to become part of the team's "identity."

Recent weeks, at least, have offered a faint promise of better days ahead. Arsenal have kept three clean sheets in their past four games across all competitions, and with Héctor Bellerín, Rob Holding and new signing Kieran Tierney all now free of injury, there is hope that a new defensive unit might emerge to put Emery's team on a surer footing.

"On the flip side, there's potentially three players who will be starting who haven't started [in the league] yet," Winterburn said. "Once you've had another seven or eight games, it might be the right time to have a look and see whether we've improved defensively or not. If we haven't, I think Unai Emery will have to answer a lot of questions."

Arsenal, the team who forgot how to lose, have become the team who forgot how to defend. Remember how to defend, and they might one day remember how to challenge for titles.

Manchester City striker Sergio Aguero has escaped unhurt after being involved in a car crash, sources have told ESPN FC.

Aguero did not need medical treatment after the incident in Manchester on Wednesday morning which caused minor damage to the front right wheel of his Range Rover.

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He was not due at City's training ground on Wednesday having been given the day off but is expected to report as normal on Thursday ahead of the trip to Crystal Palace on Saturday.

Pep Guardiola's side are looking to bounce back at Selhurst Park after their shock 2-0 defeat to Wolves before the international break.

Aguero, who suffered a fractured rib after being involved in a car crash in Amsterdam in 2017, played 90 minutes against Wolves but did not feature for Argentina during the break because of an ongoing injury problem.

The 31-year-old has scored eight goals in nine appearances for City this season.

Former Premier League executive chairman Richard Scudamore has been appointed special advisor to the A-League clubs and head of league Greg O'Rourke.

The appointment comes as the A-League, W-League, Y-League and E-League transition to independence from the FFA.

Scudamore played a significant role in transforming the Premier League into the most-watched league in world sports, growing its revenues from £148 million in 1997-98 to the current £3.2 billion for 2019-20.

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"I am obviously delighted to be involved at such an important and exciting time for the professional game in Australia," Scudamore said in a statement.

"The strategic planning that has taken place is impressive and I believe I can very much help build on that work.

"The Australian game has so much potential for growth and global resonance. There is clearly the necessary commitment from the Clubs to realise that potential as quickly as possible."

Paul Lederer, chairman of the Australian Professional Football Clubs Association (APFCA) said the clubs were "delighted" to have Scudamore involved.

"His leadership of the English Premier League saw the organisation become renowned for its commercial success as well as its contribution to other leagues and communities," Lederer said.

"That's obviously something we are committed to replicating for Australia's professional Leagues Organisation.

"The appointment is indicative of our wish to be decisive and effective in every possible way as we work with stakeholders to fast-track the evolution of all aspects of Australia's professional game."

ESPN