Gareth Bale showed glimpses of being world-class against Burnley while Liverpool and Chelsea both can’t afford to lose on Thursday, says Paul Merson in his latest column.
Merson explains why Gareth Bale’s performance in Spurs’ 4-0 win over Burnley on Sunday can give hope of being more than just a flash-in-the-pan showing from the Real Madrid loanee.
Ahead of Liverpool and Chelsea’s meeting on Sky Sports this Thursday, Merson also says he “can’t explain” how big it would be should the champions miss out on Europe’s premier competition – only two years after they last lifted the trophy themselves.
Thomas Tuchel’s side have moved themselves back into contention thanks to his unbeaten start as head coach, but finding the back of the net only eight times in seven Premier League games since then has created its own problems – and Merson believes it could put off any world-class forwards they may look to sign this summer unless their style changes.
‘I don’t see how you stop Spurs’ front three’
Bale played well against one of the worst European teams you’ll see. He had a good game, he come on in the second half and played well against West Ham, but the shackles were off, West Ham were sitting back and it was gung-ho Tottenham. They never play like that, unless they losing, which they were.
And then against Burnley, who were all over the place, he scored an early goal and it’s nice. Jose Mourinho will be looking and asking ‘what happens when we play against the big boys?’ And that’s going to be the case. That’s where he’s going to be judged – but fair play, he’s not able to pick the opposition. He showed glimpses of being one of the best players in the world. He’s not now, of course he’s not.
But he’s still going to be a lot better than everybody else, a lot of other people. The one thing I liked about him, when he got the ball on the right side and knocked it past Charlie Taylor like he was just standing there, I thought ‘wow, that was Gareth Bale’. He was lightning quick, not just a good player but he had that turn of pace.
When he did it to Taylor, I thought ‘this lad could be back’. But, how is he going to be when it’s a big game, and the full-back he’s playing against is going the other way and he’s got to come back with him.
They made Burnley look average, they made them look poor. But they were beating Liverpool the other week. You’ve got to do what you can do and I just thought when they get rolling and they’ve got those players, and you’ve got Harry Kane, Heung-Min Son and Bale, if they’re all playing well, I don’t see how you stop them.
‘Neither team can afford to lose on Thursday’
Thursday is a very, very big game. Looking at the money that Chelsea spent and the way Liverpool started, these two were probably thinking they were shoe-ins for the top four this season. All of a sudden, it’s a big, big, big, big match.
It’s coming down to shoot-outs because, at the end of the day now, I don’t think these teams can be out of the Champions League because they have to budget for the Champions League. I know they’re not like Leicester; if Leicester get into the Champions League they’d have a load of money next season out of nothing.
Liverpool and Chelsea and teams like that will be spending money on the strength of expecting that money to be coming in next season, Champions League money. That’s why it’s a big game – I don’t think either team can afford to lose it.
I can’t explain how big it would be if Liverpool ended up not getting in the top four, it’s massive. Massive. Liverpool can’t not be in the Champions League. People go over the years they might not have been in every year but this Liverpool team of the last two years have been, bar the last three months, unbelievable.
To be out of the top four would be unthinkable. Unthinkable. They would’ve budgeted everything, everything about it – season tickets, everything. TV money from the Champions League, prize money for getting through the groups; it pays people’s wages. They’re not bottomless pits.
They still have to look at their books. It won’t be ‘oh, don’t worry about it’. And they need to bring in players. We’ve seen that with a few injuries they’ve become a lot less of a team. How are you going to get players to Liverpool now if they’re not going to be in the Champions League? They need to get in the top four, 100 per cent.
Chelsea won’t get world-class striker without style change
I think next season Thomas Tuchel will be saying to the board, to Roman Abramovich, I need a top-drawer centre-forward. You will not win the Premier League, or be anywhere close, if you don’t have players around the top-scorer mark. At the moment, I don’t see Tammy Abraham or Olivier Giroud being in that category.
The way they are now, if you’re Erling Haaland and Chelsea come in and say we’ll pay £110m or whatever it is, we’ll give you this much a week, he will be looking at the same time at the way Chelsea play, and that they’ve only scored eight goals in seven games. You can only score goals if there’s chances and Chelsea haven’t made a lorry load of chances. Liverpool’s finishing against Sheffield United was poor, but they made a lorry load of chances.
Chelsea need to be showing more than what they’re showing at the moment. Because if I’m a world-class centre-forward and Chelsea want me, I’m having a look and saying to my agent ‘they don’t really make a lot of chances, do they?’. Even though they’re a good team, I’m not getting five or six chances in the game. I’m working on scraps.
You’ve got Reece James, who’s as good as anybody at crossing a ball. Callum Hudson-Odoi, down the wing, will beat players and put the ball in, won’t mess about. You’ve got Ben Chilwell who doesn’t mess about. Mason Mount’s a good player, Hakim Ziyech is low on confidence at the moment but he’s a good player. Kai Havertz is a good player. Timo Werner, there’s a lot more to work on in his game than people think.
The problem is the midfield. Who’s got that defence-splitting pass? When you play Chelsea, everyone’s behind the ball – even Manchester United, a top team, and they sat behind the ball, let’s be honest, and went from a base.
You’ve got N’Golo Kante and Mateo Kovacic. Between them, I’d like to know how many assists and goals they’ve got. They haven’t got a lot. Kovacic has never scored at home with Chelsea. They dominate a lot of football matches, I like Kovacic, he’s a good player, but you need to kick on. People have got to score goals. Jorginho, take his penalties away… That’s three midfield players who play in a team that dominate a lot of football matches during the season.
I mean, that’s amazing. Really, that needs to change. He’s got to change the game when the midfield players are getting in the box and it’s not too negative, when they’re all sitting outside the box.
At the same time, you come in – Chelsea were shipping a lot of goals, for a team of their quality where they were. He’s come in, and said you’ve got to stop one thing. It’s hard to stop one thing at one end and score goals at the other. We saw that with Man City, Pep Guardiola was like ‘wait a minute we need to stop letting in goals’. They stopped letting in goals but then were winning games 1-0, 2-0, 1-0. Then all of a sudden, it’s coming now.
You’ve got to start walking before you start running. He’s said right, let’s keep it tight. Keep clean sheets, if we don’t make a lot of chances, we’re not losing the football match. I think in time he’ll have to turn that round but it’s important he does that before the end of the season.