Danny Higginbotham says Liverpool are predictable, Man Utd are ‘two players’ off winning the league and recalls horror injury
There’s no shortage of talking points as the Premier League enters the business end of the season.
We spoke to former Premier League stalwart Danny Higginbotham on what’s gone wrong at Liverpool and what Manchester United need to compete for the title.
The former Saint also gave us his Southampton v Brighton 5-A-Side team selection which you’ll find on our social channels on Friday.
‘Liverpool only have one way of playing’
I think when you look at Liverpool, last season was unbelievable – the way that everything went for them. They didn’t win the league by a fluke; they were by far the best team. The problem Liverpool have – and I’m putting Jurgen Klopp up there as one of the best managers in the world – is that I just feel like they only have one way of playing.
When you look at even Leicester City and the way they play, there’s a number of systems they can play. When you look at Manchester City, the amount of systems they can switch to at the drop of a hat is unbelievable. Chelsea are now beginning to show glimpses of that kind of adaptability under Thomas Tuchel.
But I look at Liverpool and they only have one way of playing. Don’t get me wrong, it’s brought them an unbelievable level of success. They’ve been unstoppable over the past few years at times and while I’m not saying that teams have found them out, what I will say is that teams are now starting to make it more difficult for Liverpool to do what they’ve been so used to doing.
The top, top teams respond to that; they adapt and make it even harder to play against them. And that’s something Jurgen Klopp is going to have to do, which makes for a fascinating summer ahead in the transfer window.
Jurgen Klopp has achieved phenomenal things with Liverpool – not many teams have won the Champions League and the Premier League in two years. But you feel like that squad is maybe coming to the end of its cycle.
It’s inevitable, though; it has to happen. We’ve seen it with so many dominant teams over the years; Arsenal in the late 90s and early 2000s, Manchester United teams of old and that first Chelsea team under Jose Mourinho. When a team comes to the end of a cycle, the problem is that you’ve had such incredible success, it becomes difficult replacing players that need replacing.
‘Man United are two players off being a title-winning side’
I think you have to look at the spine of any team and build from that. Dean Henderson has got his opportunity now after a fantastic season last year at Sheffield United. It’s going to be really interesting to watch him and David de Gea fight for that starting spot because every time Henderson has played he’s shown us what he’s capable of.
Does Ole Gunnar Solskjaer want to improve the spine of his team? You’ve got Harry Maguire at the back who won’t be going anywhere but we’ve seen him play alongside Eric Bailly and Victor Lindelof, so is that an area they look at in the summer?
Then you go into midfield and if you look at some of the most successful teams in world football and on an international level, they’ve all got a top quality defensive midfielder. I think it’s becoming one of the most important positions on the pitch so does Ole bring someone in?
At the top of that spine is your striker, and for Man United we’ve seen Anthony Martial play there, we’ve seen Mason Greenwood there, Marcus Rashford and Edinson Cavani but there’s not a standout name week-in, week-out. So I think that’s another key area that Manchester United should be looking at and maybe thinking they need to bring someone else in.
When I’m looking at this current Manchester United side, I’m thinking two players would turn them into a team capable of sustaining a title challenge.
It’s difficult though because you’re looking at United compared to Manchester City, who are the best team in the league at the moment, and I’m saying they’re probably two players off being able to compete with them for the league. But that’s not taking into consideration the business that City themselves might be looking to do. If they bring in an Erling Haaland, all of a sudden they’re pulling even further away in terms of being the best side in the Premier League.
Ole doesn’t get enough credit
I think if you look at the players Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has managed to move on in the past few seasons, he’s probably not got the credit he deserves for the job he’s done. Things weren’t working out with Alexis Sanchez, Chris Smalling, Ashley Young have all left and it’s a tough job shifting those kind of players on. They’ve all been fantastic servants for the club, don’t get me wrong.
I hear a lot of people say that Ole has taken United as far as he can and that he doesn’t have the experience to be managing a club like Manchester United.
But if you look at where they are right now, they’re in a good position in the Europa League, they’re looking likely to finish second in the Premier League and they’re still in the FA Cup.
So with that in mind, I’m not too sure where people are coming from when they say you need a serial winner in charge of the club. Just look at their previous two managers; between them Louis van Gaal and Jose Mourinho have pretty much won everything there is to win at club level and the club parted company with both of them. Yes, they did get a bit of silverware between them, but Ole is still in contention for two trophies this season.
The talk of a rebuild has been there for so long now at United but there does come a time where consistent success has to return to Old Trafford, I get that. But in order to win trophies and challenge for titles you need to see progression, and I am seeing progression under Ole.
On Aaron Ramsey’s leg break & Shawcross aftermath
That infamous game we played against Arsenal wasn’t one I was involved in. I’d had an issue with my back at the time so I remember watching the match from home.
I just remember Glenn Whelan. The image of him standing over Aaron Ramsey making sure he was alright because everyone knew it was a horrific injury.
The person it affected more than anybody was obviously Aaron Ramsey. Fortunately he recovered from it, he came back and that was brilliant. But Ryan Shawcross was physically and emotionally hit by it all. If I remember right I think he was possibly going away with England – I’ve got a feeling it was around that period.
Ryan always had stick from Arsenal fans from that moment onwards and he’s taken it and got on with it. I just made sure I was always there for a chat with him.
The thing is, we always hear the comments like ‘he’s not that type of player’, but those things don’t matter. What happened, happened. It affected Ryan because nobody wants to intentionally hurt an individual like that.
I’ve just always tried to make sure I’ve been there for players as someone to talk to – whether they’re the ones who’ve been injured or have caused the injury. I spent a lot of time with Rory Delap – one of my best mates in football – when he had his injury. I went across to him on the pitch and I remember looking down and thinking ‘there’s no way that part of his leg should be there’. I made sure I was always around for a drink with him, I’d spend time with him in the gym because it can be a lonely place on your own when you’re on that road to recovery.
On fracturing Steve Livingstone’s skull in his Derby days
I had a similar incident when I was 21 or 22 at Derby. We’d just been relegated and we played Grimsby.
I went up for a header with Steve Livingstone – a proper physical centre-forward. He won the ball and I headed the back of his head. It knocked me sideways, but he was on the floor lifeless. It was horrendous.
All I was thinking was ‘oh my God; what have I done?’. There was no intention there from me whatsoever, but it was awful. To see this player on the pitch who’d had a really good career – I was really, really scared. It really scared me. The ambulance actually came onto the pitch and he was taken off with a fractured skull. I’ll never forget it; I sent him flowers at the time, it’s not going to make up for anything but that was something I wanted to do.
I think I saw him in the reverse fixture and apologised to him again but I don’t think he was interested in speaking to me. And I get that, but there was no intention from me whatsoever.
But I have no right as the player who caused the injury to tell the injured player how they should feel – regardless of there being no malice in the challenge. You don’t have a right to say to a player “you should tell me it’s OK and that you forgive me”. That’s up to the individual player.
All I can say from my experience with Steve Livingstone was that it was a scary moment for me. It took me a while to get over it. It was only when I knew he was going to be OK that I felt a little bit better. But if he holds any grudges against me for that, I have no issues with it whatsoever because at the end of the day, I’ve fractured his skull. Who am I to tell him how he should feel about the whole incident?
‘Regardless of what happens with Haaland, teams are still going to be interested in Kane’
There’s always a lot of talk about Harry Kane and his future. It’s a decision that he will make on his own; he’s still a really good age. But Tottenham could still win two trophies this season themselves, so it’s not like he’s not playing for silverware.
I think that regardless of what happens with Erling Haaland in the summer, there’s still going to be interest in Harry Kane. The thing that makes Kane so attractive to so many teams is that he’s an all-round centre forward. He can play that advanced role, he can play a deeper role, we know he scores a whole range of goals. He’s probably one of the only strikers in the world that could walk straight into – and fit in – any starting XI on the planet.
Jose doesn’t trust his defence
Jose Mourinho gets criticised quite a lot for being too pragmatic at times. But his approach reminds me quite a lot of his second season in charge of Manchester United. His preferred partnership is Toby Alderweireld and Davinson Sanchez – but I think on quite a few occasions this season he’s probably looked at it and thought he’s not really got the dominant a formidable partnership at the back that he’d like.
I don’t think Mourinho has got a centre-back partnership that he 100% implicitly trusts. That then affects your team going forward, because your creative players can’t express themselves as much as they’d like.
There’s attack-minded players who are probably playing 30 yards further back than they’d like – but that’s just Mourinho and that’s how he likes to play.
Arsenal are ‘two years’ off Man Utd
I think what sums Arsenal up perfectly would be that Burnley game last weekend. They absolutely dominated the game pretty much from start to finish and they’re a joy to watch at times going forward. But then they’ll give away just the most bizarre goals that you’re likely to see. That must be really frustrating for Mikel Arteta.
The impact Kieran Tierney has had on this Arsenal side has been incredible – and it shows just as much when he doesn’t play because you really feel they’re lacking something going forward.
I think the biggest thing with Arsenal is that the majority of goals that they concede come down to organisation.
On paper they actually have one of the better defences in the league, so I think a lot of their problem is in the transition. If you look at some of their better performances this season, they’ve actually come when they’ve had less possession of the ball. But because they’re one of the better teams in the division, they’re going to have more than their fair share of possession in most games.
I go back to when they beat Man United earlier this league. United dominated the possession but Mikel Arteta had set his team up brilliantly. The balance of defending with a five and attacking with a five meant that they were just as comfortable out of possession as they were in possession.
Arsenal are at their most vulnerable when they’re attacking; so often this season you’ve seen them seemingly on the front foot but then go and concede a sloppy goal because players are out of position from their own attack.
If you look at where Arsenal are right now, they’re probably two years off being in the kind of position Manchester United are currently. I mentioned earlier that I thought United were probably two players off being a title-winning side – you couldn’t say the same for Arsenal. They’re probably five top players short.
North London derby prediction
Arsenal are and have always been great to watch going forward but they’re always likely to give you goals. So when you’re coming up against Heung-min Son, Harry Kane, Gareth Bale and Lucas Moura, you don’t see Arsenal keeping a clean sheet.
This is a game that I would expect Tottenham to go on and win.
In my Stoke days we got tarnished with the brush of being a physical, sometimes dirty and aggressive side, but we knew that wasn’t the case.
During my time at Stoke, which I think spanned across eight years, I was always seen as a player who was going to hurt you. I never got sent off in my career. I had 10 years in the Premier League and one suspension as a result of five yellow cards.
What we did when we came up was acknowledge and understand that we needed to be better at something than three other teams. It was as simple as that.
We knew that it wasn’t going to be pleasing to watch; that wasn’t us. So we knew it would start defensively; we had an unbelievable defensive unit. Not just the defenders in particular – I’m talking about the whole team. We knew set-pieces would be important so we worked tirelessly on them because we knew they’d cause problems, and also Rory Delap’s throw-ins.
As the season went on you’d constantly hear people saying Stoke shouldn’t be in the Premier League. We took that as the biggest compliment ever.
This is what a lot of people don’t understand; when you’re an individual at a club like Stoke and you’re getting all of this negativity from football fans, pundits and the media, you’ve got two choices. You can let it get to you or you can use it for fuel.
We had a bookmaker paying out for us to be relegated after the third game of the season – all that did was fuel us because we wanted to prove everyone wrong. I think we finished in 11th place that season. Where was everyone that doubted our chances at the end of the season? They were nowhere to be seen. As a team you have to play to your strengths; especially when you’re making a step up into a higher division like we were.