Connect with us

Premier League

10 thoughts from the weekend's Premier League action

theScore examines the most important Premier League developments from the weekend, dissecting the biggest talking points after a busy slate of action.

Chelsea’s marauding defenders wreak havoc

Chelsea didn’t need a full squad to produce a complete 3-0 shellacking of Leicester City on Saturday. Even with Romelu Lukaku out, Timo Werner watching on as an unused substitute, and Hakim Ziyech and Christian Pulisic starting on the bench, the Blues produced enough chances to more than double their score.

That’s because Thomas Tuchel has coached a system and style of play that relies not just on one player but the entire collective. Tuchel also tasks his defenders with pushing forward and joining the attack. The wing-backs look like de facto wingers out there, almost creating a front five when they enter the opposing half. We’ve seen Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City operate with so-called inverted full-backs, and Chelsea are pulling off something similar. Reece James and Ben Chilwell routinely find themselves in the final third and even in the penalty area.

On Saturday, James had more touches in the 18-yard box than Jamie Vardy, and Chilwell created more chances than any of his teammates. Trevoh Chalobah, one of Chelsea’s three center-backs, progressed the ball up the field like a midfielder, and Antonio Rudiger scored off another set piece. Chelsea’s defense is so prolific due to Tuchel’s aggressive tactics.

Leicester regressing under Rodgers

Leicester slid into the bottom half of the table with Saturday’s dismal showing, and the fans let them have it. All the goodwill manager Brendan Rodgers had going for him seems to be evaporating.

It feels very much like the beginning of the end.

The stats read like an obituary: with one clean sheet in 17 league matches and just two wins out of six at home, the Foxes look nothing like the high-pressing, all-action side Rodgers unleashed in his first few months in charge. Vardy’s struggling to run off the shoulders of defenders as he usually does, and the midfielders are completely capitulating ground to their opponents. Jonny Evans, an otherwise sturdy presence since joining the club in 2018, can’t possibly mistime any more tackles without getting a red card, and Caglar Soyuncu has offered futile resistance to onrushing opponents.

Mike Egerton – PA Images / PA Images / Getty

Youri Tielemans’ absence certainly took a toll on Saturday – it was the first time he missed a Premier League fixture in nearly two years – as his teammates couldn’t cover the cracks. Chelsea had tons of space whenever they ventured forward, and their long balls over the top forced Leicester’s slower defenders into foot races that showed them up.

It was also peculiar to see Patson Daka – Leicester’s young livewire and author of four goals in last month’s Europa League match at Spartak Moscow – sitting on the bench alongside the club’s No. 10, James Maddison, while Marc Albrighton started in the year 2021.

Solskjaer’s firing long in the making

Nothing was going to save Ole Gunnar Solskjaer this time around, no last-minute push for an equalizer to salvage this lost cause. Last month’s 5-0 capitulation to Liverpool was embarrassing, the 2-0 loss to Manchester City humiliating, but Saturday’s listless 4-1 defeat to Watford was perhaps the worst of all. Watford had scored just twice in their previous five home fixtures, but the goals came easy against Manchester United, who conceded chance after chance to their relegation-threatened opponent.

Afterward, the Norwegian held up his hands to the traveling supporters in the corner of Vicarage Road, apologizing for his team’s lethargic display. Midfielder Bruno Fernandes insisted Solskjaer wasn’t to blame. But many of the problems that plagued the team in recent months – the lack of cohesion, the absence of a game plan, the shortcomings in defense – had resurfaced. The manager hadn’t found a fix.

IAN KINGTON / AFP / Getty

Reeling from their fifth defeat in seven league matches, United had no choice but to fire Solskjaer. The club gave its former player of 18 years every opportunity to succeed, committing over £400 million in transfer fees across the past three seasons. It even awarded him a contract extension in July. But nothing worked. The buzzing positivity that marked the early days of his reign had long evaporated. After 168 matches in charge, Solskjaer failed to establish forward momentum.

Now, the club has to find a capable replacement midseason. Is Michael Carrick really the only interim solution? Did the board not learn its lesson about former players with limited coaching experience? United made a mistake allowing Solskjaer to stay for so long. They could’ve appointed Mauricio Pochettino last year or Antonio Conte earlier this season. Both are now unavailable. Not even Zinedine Zidane seems interested. So around and around United go, searching for answers in familiar places.

Maguire’s fallen off a cliff

What on earth has happened to Harry Maguire?

The England stalwart was legitimately excellent last season for Manchester United. The Red Devils boasted one of the best backlines in the nation and the imposing captain was a critical reason why, anchoring the defense while logging over 3,000 league minutes.

However, he’s been a downright liability this season.

It seems obvious that rushing back from injury to feature for England at Euro 2020 has played at least some part in Maguire’s downfall. The malaise at Manchester United doesn’t help, but some of it comes down to egregious mistakes Maguire simply wasn’t making last campaign.

The horrible sequence that led to his sending off against Watford – turning the ball over under absolutely no pressure before lunging wildly in a desperate effort to recover – was another low point for the 28-year-old.

Maybe the suspension-induced absence will be a good opportunity to reset.

Gerrard settles early nerves at Aston Villa

Aston Villa supporters were chanting Steven Gerrard’s name by the end of Saturday’s victory over Brighton & Hove Albion. Ninety minutes prior, many were unsure how to feel about their new manager. Fans had just bid farewell to “one of their own” in Dean Smith, the man who led Villa back to the Premier League. Gerard is undoubtedly a legend of the English game but is still an apprentice in the coaching department.

Matthew Ashton – AMA / Getty Images Sport / Getty

Still, Gerrard inherited a capable squad, and he’s fostered some kind of team spirit in the short week-and-a-half he’s had in charge. He can be proud of the 2-0 win at Villa Park, his first as a Premier League manager, and he’ll be happy with the contribution of veteran Ashley Young, who supplied a superb assist to Ollie Watkins on the counterattack. Gerrard’s Rangers played at pace on the break, and the early returns suggest a similar strategy could work at Villa Park as well.

Maybe some would’ve liked Villa to show more ambition at home – the hosts had less than 40% possession – but the result was paramount. Villa now have their first win in six league matches, and Gerrard has some breathing room as he settles into the club.

Arsenal still a work in progress

Arsenal have made some clear strides in recent weeks – their 10-match unbeaten run was cause for legitimate optimism – but the Gunners were given a harsh reminder of the gap that still exists between themselves and the Premier League’s elite on Saturday.

Liverpool steamrolled Mikel Arteta’s men in the second half of a dominant 4-0 win at Anfield; the visitors looked overawed as the Reds ramped up the pressure, a telltale sign of a young team still under construction.

“When we had to grow momentum at the start of the second half we gave the game away,” Arteta said after the defeat. “We gave the ball away under no pressure and were punished. They had all of the momentum. They were the better team and that is the level. They have been together for six years. We haven’t. That is the difference.”

There were only two points – and one place in the table – between the two sides before the contest, but that gap was an illusion. That Aaron Ramsdale had an excellent outing and still conceded four goals tells the whole story.

What was in the water on Saturday?

Saturday was hectic in England’s top flight.

There were 30 goals scored across the eight matches played, with teams seemingly throwing caution to the wind and going for broke. That was especially true near the foot of the table, with Newcastle United and Burnley playing out relentless 3-3 draws against Brentford and Crystal Palace, respectively.

Was it just a one-off, or a sign of things to come?

Particularly for teams mired in the relegation race, wins are infinitely more valuable than draws. Those sides might be willing to take more chances and risk throwing away one point in their quest for all three.

For the sake of the neutral viewer, hopefully managers don’t overreact to this weekend’s chaos and revert to conservative tactics.

Rodri integral to City’s title bid

Picking the Man of the Match from Manchester City’s dominating win over Everton couldn’t have been easy, but on a night when a host of City stars could have laid claim to the honor, it was Rodri who stood above the rest.

He was simply unplayable against Rafa Benitez’s uninspired side. He capped off his commanding performance with a 25-yard screamer to help seal another three points for City. The goal was a thing of beauty, but it was Rodri’s work in the heart of Pep Guardiola’s midfield that proved once again why he’s one of the best holding midfielders in the world.

Performances like this would have been difficult to forecast earlier in Rodri’s career at City. His highly anticipated arrival in 2019 was quickly followed by concerns over his ability to adapt to life under Guardiola.

But, just over three months into the season, the Spaniard has established himself as a stalwart at the Etihad. His development will also give Manchester City supporters peace of mind about a smooth transition when Fernandinho calls time on his legendary career.

In awe of Cancelo’s pass

If you haven’t yet seen it, do yourself a favor and marvel at Joao Cancelo’s otherworldly assist from Manchester City’s win over Everton (45-second mark of the video):

Is there anyone in world football who can manipulate the ball with the outside of their foot like the Portuguese star? Eat your heart out, Ricardo Quaresma.

Cancelo had six assists in 76 appearances over the last two seasons for City. He’s already matched that total in just 18 matches this term. With passes like that, it’s no wonder.

Spurs break out of malaise

Over 250 minutes without testing the opposition is long enough to drive any football fan crazy.

After a dismal first-half performance against Leeds United on Sunday, tempers boiled over among Tottenham supporters who booed the home side off the pitch at halftime. It was a deserved response to an opening 45 minutes that saw Daniel James give the visitors the lead, while Tottenham Hotspur’s streak without a shot on target was extended to six consecutive halves.

The second half was a different story.

Adam Davy – PA Images / PA Images / Getty

Harry Kane ended the streak a minute after the break for a side that implemented a much more aggressive game plan. Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg brought Tottenham level before Sergio Reguilon scored his first for the club, securing Conte’s first Premier League win as Spurs manager.

Now unbeaten in three games as Spurs boss, the manager celebrated the victory in true Conte fashion. When the aggressive fist pumps and hugs were finished, the Italian tactician said he was confident the victory could be a springboard for Tottenham, saying, “This is a point to start for the rest of the season.”

Copyright © 2021 Score Media Ventures Inc. All rights reserved. Certain content reproduced under license.

Continue Reading
Click to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Premier League

FIFA president: More World Cups can save migrants from 'death in the sea'

FIFA president Gianni Infantino sparked outrage Wednesday after claiming plans to hold the World Cup every two years could stop African migrants from suffering “death in the sea.”

Infantino was speaking at a parliamentary assembly session for the Council of Europe, a collective dedicated to the support of human rights, about promoting inclusiveness in the European-dominant landscape of football.

“Football is … about opportunities, about hope, about national teams, about the country, about the heart, about the joy, about the emotion. And we cannot say to the rest of the world, give us your money … but watch us on TV. We need to include them,” Infantino said.

“We need to find ways to include the entire world to give hope to Africans so that they don’t need to cross the Mediterranean in order to find maybe a better life but, more probably, death in the sea.

“We need to give opportunities and we need to give dignity. Not by giving charity but by allowing the rest of the world as well to participate. Now, maybe the World Cup every two years is not the answer. We discuss it. We debate it.”

The biennial World Cup proposal has been roundly criticized across Europe and other parts of the globe. However, Infantino and former Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger – the latter of whom is leading the controversial Future of Football project – appear determined to promote and eventually implement the shortened tournament cycle.

David Ramos – FIFA / FIFA / Getty

Ronan Evain, the chief executive of Football Supporters Europe, took to Twitter to strongly condemn Infantino’s monologue: “How low can Infantino go? Instrumentalizing death in the Mediterranean to sell his megalomaniac plan is beyond words.”

Evain was also disturbed by Infantino being given such an important platform in Strasbourg. “His speech today wasn’t about common good. It was about commercial interest and his own personal political interest,” he told theScore over the phone.

Tony Burnett, chief executive of anti-discrimination charity Kick It Out, was similarly furious with Infantino’s address.

“FIFA is a multibillion profit-making organization. They already have the funds to invest in creating and inspiring opportunity for disadvantaged people around the world,” Burnett said, according to The Guardian’s Paul MacInnes.

“It is therefore completely unacceptable to suggest that a biennial World Cup, predominantly set up to drive further profits for FIFA, could be a solution for migrants who risk their lives, sometimes fleeing war-torn countries, to seek a better life.”

Infantino subsequently released a statement via FIFA Media on Twitter. He claimed his words were “misinterpreted and taken out of context” and that he provided a “general message” to those in power, rather than a comment “directly related to the possibility of playing a FIFA World Cup every two years.”

Copyright © 2022 Score Media Ventures Inc. All rights reserved. Certain content reproduced under license.

Continue Reading

Premier League

10 thoughts from the weekend's Premier League action

theScore examines the most important Premier League developments from the weekend, dissecting the biggest talking points after a busy slate of action.

Norwich’s survival bid might have substance

Norwich City seem to win in pairs. Their first two victories of the season came in twos, a 2-1 result at Brentford preceding another by the same score against Southampton. Their last two wins arrived consecutively as well, with last weekend’s 2-1 defeat of Everton setting up Friday’s 3-0 humbling of relegation rivals Watford.

Norwich couldn’t sustain the momentum the first time, picking up just two points over the eight contests that followed, but there’s enough evidence to believe Dean Smith’s side can turn its latest run into something more substantial. It’s now outside the relegation zone for the first time in 53 top-flight matches, albeit with one more game played than 18th-placed Newcastle United.

Nick Potts – PA Images / PA Images / Getty

Despite controlling just 31% possession, the Canaries showed a clinical edge their opponents lacked. Josh Sargent ended his 18-match scoring drought with an out-of-this-world scorpion kick and headed in another shortly after, and Juraj Kucka’s mishap gave Norwich three goals in an away fixture for the first time since August 2015.

Norwich simply couldn’t score earlier in the season, managing just one tally over the eight games that followed their first two wins. But with Sargent’s goalless run over, talisman Teemu Pukki looking more lively up front, and a relegation specialist in Smith now behind the bench, the East Anglia side might have the conviction to stay up.

“To get the win was the main thing,” Smith said afterward, according to The Guardian’s John Brewin. “There was a calmness that came over the players after the goals.”

Gerrard revives role as Goodison Park villain

It might not have been obvious that Steven Gerrard was buzzing in the days leading up to Saturday’s match against former rivals Everton, but the Aston Villa manager revealed his hand shortly after setting foot on the Goodison Park pitch again. The former Liverpool captain seemingly couldn’t resist engaging with Everton supporters ahead of his first game at the stadium as a manager.

As was the case throughout most of his illustrious career in the red side of town, Gerrard had the last laugh as Aston Villa secured three points with a 1-0 victory over Everton. The contest wasn’t pretty, but Villa managed to scrape their way to victory over a poor Everton side that lacked quality and struggled to create scoring chances in their first match of the post-Rafa Benitez era.

Emiliano Buendia’s goal to close out the first half was the difference, as the Argentine winger delivered a beautiful header off a corner despite being the smallest player on the pitch. Aston Villa continued to control the match in the second half on their way to winning and helping Gerrard pile more misery on a club he loved to torment throughout his playing days.

As the old saying goes, you can take the man out of Liverpool, but you can’t take Liverpool out of the man.

Digne shines in Everton return

If archrival Gerrard celebrating another victory at Goodison wasn’t bad enough, former defender Lucas Digne rubbed salt in the wounds of the Everton faithful by playing a crucial role in the Villa win

Less than two weeks after his transfer from Everton, the French full-back made his second appearance for Aston Villa and provided the assist to set up Buendia’s decisive goal. Overall, it was the type of performance that Everton supporters were accustomed to during Digne’s spell on Merseyside before his relationship with the club unraveled this season.

Digne’s return, however, was marred by an ugly incident in which he appeared to be struck by a plastic bottle near the Gwladys Street End as Aston Villa players celebrated Buendia’s goal. Digne, along with teammate Matty Cash, crashed to the ground after a projectile was thrown from a section of Everton supporters.

Thankfully, both players avoided serious injuries and managed to stay on until the final whistle.

Willock’s unsexy yet necessary graft

Joe Willock was close to scoring his first Newcastle United goal since his loan was turned into a permanent transfer in the summer, only to be thwarted by an excellent save by Illan Meslier. But the graft that preceded his stoppage-time opportunity was a key feature of the Magpies’ huge 1-0 win at Leeds United.

The midfielder was excellent at doing the unsexy work when Newcastle were ahead. He ran from the center circle and held off Stuart Dallas before winning a corner kick. He squeezed Rodrigo off the ball and then played it off the Spaniard, allowing Martin Dubravka to drain the clock as he prepared the resulting goal kick. And he did well to ride Robin Koch’s challenge and tempt Luke Ayling out of the backline in the buildup for his chance.

Mike Egerton – PA Images / PA Images / Getty

His goal rate at the end of last season – he scored in seven consecutive games – was unsustainable, and it created the perception that Willock is primarily an attack-minded midfielder. However, his display in West Yorkshire can serve as proof that he’s also willing to do defensive drudgery while Newcastle are mired in a relegation battle.

Outcast Martial flourishes in rare cameo

The Anthony Martial era at Manchester United isn’t over just yet.

Just when it seemed that the French forward was on the verge of leaving Old Trafford, Martial made a surprise cameo appearance Saturday and went on to help Ralf Rangnick’s team pull off an important victory over West Ham United.

OLI SCARFF / AFP / Getty

Martial made headlines at the end of December when news broke that he notified Rangnick of his desire to leave United. The situation deteriorated in the weeks that followed amid Rangnick’s claim that Martial refused to be included in the squad for their clash with Aston Villa on Jan. 15.

But earlier this week, Rangnick said that the situation had been resolved, proving as much by introducing the 26-year-old with less than 10 minutes left in Saturday’s contest. The French forward didn’t disappoint in his first Premier League appearance since Dec. 2, providing a much-needed spark in attack before playing a pivotal role in the buildup to Marcus Rashford’s injury-time winner.

Although whatever friction he had with Rangnick seems to be a thing of the past, it would be premature to write off the chances of Martial leaving before the transfer window closes at the end of the month.

Salisu is hot property

Mohammed Salisu’s dedication to honing his craft at Southampton was indicated by recent reports from his homeland that he resisted a call-up for Ghana’s ill-fated Africa Cup of Nations squad. While he may live to regret denying himself the experience of representing his country at the tournament, there’s no doubting that Ralph Hasenhuttl’s coaching is greatly improving his game.

Salisu’s name rung out around St. Mary’s as Southampton’s 1-1 draw with Manchester City approached the final whistle.

The defender’s effectiveness in possession has developed to the extent that he’s given license to trigger attacks with long-range passes. But what stood out against City was his proactiveness without the ball as he led the fixture in blocked shots (three), interceptions (four), tackles (seven), and clearances (14). His immaculate challenge on Kevin De Bruyne in injury time was a particular highlight that demonstrated his quality in one-on-one duels.

Bryn Lennon / Getty Images Sport / Getty

Another element that suggests a bright future for Salisu is the strength of his decision-making, which is far advanced for a 22-year-old with only 33 Premier League appearances to his name.

Southampton bought Salisu for under £11 million in the summer of 2020. A year later, they sold the underwhelming Jannik Vestergaard to Leicester City for £15 million. That’s excellent business.

Once again, we’re not talking about actual football

The dominance of Liverpool’s first-half display and Crystal Palace’s excellent response in the second period provided plenty of talking points from Sunday’s game at Selhurst Park. Could the Reds use the result as a springboard in the title race? What did Patrick Vieira say to his players at halftime?

But the post-match conversation was instead dominated by yet another dubious decision.

It was a bewildering call. Diogo Jota lost control of the ball and ran into Eagles goalkeeper Vicente Guaita, but somehow, after referee Kevin Friend checked the monitor, a penalty was awarded. Fabinho’s spot-kick made it 3-1 in the 89th minute and killed any prospect of a Palace comeback.

Adam Davy – PA Images / PA Images / Getty

“For me, it spoiled a really good game of football,” former Palace striker Glenn Murray said on BBC Radio 5 Live.

The standard of refereeing is a legitimate concern and one that needs to be addressed at the grassroots of the English game, but the influence of VAR also deserves scrutiny. Has it greatly improved officiating at the top level? That’s debatable. Have the delays and repeated slow-motion replays made the game as a spectacle slightly worse? Absolutely.

As an entertainment industry, the latter answer should be of the utmost concern to the game’s top figures.

Leicester’s late slumps continue

Brendan Rodgers’ plea for his players to “get up and fight again” for Brighton & Hove Albion’s visit seemed to be taken aboard as Leicester took the lead through Patson Daka early in Sunday’s second half. It was exactly what the Foxes deserved after creating the best chances of the opening stanza.

However, their midweek collapse to the Steven Bergwijn-inspired Tottenham Hotspur seemed to weigh heavily on Rodgers’ men as the second period wore on. Their play became desperate as their bodies tired – and only Manchester City have scored more goals in the final 10 minutes than Brighton this season.

An equalizer, and maybe even a winner for the Seagulls, seemed inevitable.

NurPhoto / NurPhoto / Getty

Kasper Schmeichel did well to keep out a Danny Welbeck header, but he couldn’t repeat the trick nine minutes later when the former Manchester United and Arsenal frontman nodded inside Schmeichel’s near post. Panic set in at that point for the Foxes, and they would’ve lost the game if it wasn’t for Youri Tielemans’ goal-line clearance and another great Schmeichel save.

A season like this wasn’t in the script for FA Cup holders Leicester. Riyad Mahrez, Harry Maguire, and Ben Chilwell left the club in turn over the previous three summers. But there were no such departures ahead of this campaign, and improving on back-to-back fifth-place finishes seemed a real possibility. They should’ve only gotten stronger.

Instead, Leicester are 10th – four points off ninth place but also only four points above 15th – and have logged two straight league wins just once back in October. Rodgers needs to find a way to refresh things at the King Power Stadium.

Arsenal’s scoring woes persist

Arsenal have a scoring problem.

The Gunners couldn’t muster a goal in Sunday’s draw with basement dwellers Burnley and have now found the net just once in their last five matches across all competitions. They were getting goals from other sources earlier in the season – Emile Smith Rowe leads the north London outfit with eight league markers – but the lack of a standout presence up front is hampering the club’s push to re-establish itself as a top-four threat.

Disciplinary issues have made former captain Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang an outcast, while Alexandre Lacazette has two goals in his last 17 games. This isn’t exactly Manchester City that we’re talking about here, with their abundance of attacking options everywhere on the pitch. It’s no wonder Arsenal are chasing Fiorentina striker Dusan Vlahovic this month.

The numbers from Sunday’s affair, per Opta, make for grim reading. Arsenal attempted 25 crosses against a Burnley team known for its size in defense, and only two of those open-play crosses found a teammate. Knotted at nil-nil and needing a goal, Mikel Arteta’s team managed only one shot in the last 20 minutes of the match. The Gunners have failed to score in four straight games for the first time since 2005, and, perhaps most damning of all, Arsenal finished the month of January with more red cards than goals.

Unless this drought ends, and quickly, Arsenal will be watching the Champions League on television for another year.

Chelsea superior to Tottenham in all facets

For the third time in just three weeks, Chelsea asserted their absolute authority over Tottenham, winning 2-0 on Sunday after shutting out Antonio Conte’s side 3-0 on aggregate in League Cup action. Up until the final 20 minutes, when the Blues were content to defend their lead, the hosts controlled more than 70% possession and allowed just two straightforward shots on target.

The gulf in class between these two sides is significant. It’s a credit to Conte that Sunday’s defeat was only Spurs’ first in the Premier League since the Italian manager replaced Nuno Espirito Santo in November.

Tottenham Hotspur FC / Tottenham Hotspur FC / Getty

This is a broken team. Conte has a surfeit of reliable players in his squad, particularly in midfield and on the flanks, where Tottenham so often cede control to their opponents. Conte has every reason to demand reinforcements, because even when his team wins, it does so in the scrappiest fashion possible.

Meanwhile, Chelsea can take comfort in a win that should buoy their spirits after going winless in four league matches. They’re now a point behind second-placed Liverpool, albeit with two more games played, and should kick on from here with nine of their remaining 14 fixtures against clubs in the bottom half of the table.

Copyright © 2022 Score Media Ventures Inc. All rights reserved. Certain content reproduced under license.

Continue Reading

Premier League

10 thoughts from the weekend's Premier League action

theScore examines the most important Premier League developments from the weekend, dissecting the biggest talking points after a busy slate of action.

Brighton, Palace are teams to watch

The shift in Crystal Palace’s identity under Patrick Vieira is turning the Eagles into one of the most watchable teams in the Premier League.

Though it may take some time to see the best of Eberechi Eze as he returns from an Achilles injury, the prospect of the graceful attacker lining up alongside Conor Gallagher and Michael Olise for the remainder of the season is truly exciting. This is no longer a defensive team overly reliant on Wilfried Zaha, who’s currently with Cote d’Ivoire at the Africa Cup of Nations. It’s a slick and well-coached collective capable of intricate, attractive football.

But Palace weren’t at their best in Friday’s 1-1 draw on the south coast as they tried to keep a superior Brighton & Hove Albion side at bay.

Bryn Lennon / Getty Images Sport / Getty

Graham Potter is destined for a much bigger job as he continues to fine-tune Brighton with comparatively meager resources. Full-backs Marc Cucurella and Tariq Lamptey – the latter entered as a substitute against Palace – are arguably the most electrifying players in Potter’s side, but the development of Alexis Mac Allister and Leandro Trossard is proof of further improvement for the Seagulls.

With a more reliable striker, there’s no reason Brighton can’t soon be outsiders to sneak into a Europa League place.

Brighton and Crystal Palace don’t have the big-name appeal of some Premier League teams, but they’re the closest things the division has to guaranteed entertainment.

Premier League postponements are farcical

Tottenham Hotspur are understandably aggrieved by the Premier League granting Arsenal’s request to postpone the north London derby.

England’s top flight has fallen afoul of its own postponement guidelines; in addition to COVID-19 cases and injuries, the league considered the number of Arsenal players at the Africa Cup of Nations before deciding to call off Sunday’s game.

If clubs aren’t prepared for players to miss matches on international duty, that’s down to their poor organization. Everyone knew this tournament was coming. Some of Arsenal’s issues were self-inflicted. Did they need to let Ainsley Maitland-Niles join Roma on loan last week, thereby denying themselves a player who can be deployed at full-back and in midfield?

Giuseppe Bellini / Getty Images Sport / Getty

Premier League matches should only be postponed if squads are down to 13 outfield players and one goalkeeper because of positive COVID-19 tests and injuries. Nothing else should affect that decision. Premier League clubs have Under-23 and B teams. They should use them.

While fans can speculate about the necessity of Arsenal’s postponement and others, the fault lies firmly with the Premier League. Its postponement rules had little initial clarity, giving clubs an opportunity to take advantage.

No one can stop Manchester City

That’s it, then. Manchester City are Premier League champions for the fourth time in five seasons – because they must be. Neither Chelsea nor Liverpool have demonstrated the consistency to keep up with City, who are now 11 points clear after Saturday’s 1-0 win over Chelsea.

Thomas Tuchel’s side retreated into its shell at the Etihad Stadium, handing City the ball when it needed to show ambition to revive its title bid. Make no mistake: Chelsea absolutely needed to win here. Instead, Kevin De Bruyne’s kill shot ended any hope for a dramatic conclusion to the campaign.

Pep Guardiola won’t buy any of this, by the way. He doesn’t want his players to believe they’ve already won. Fair enough. But they’ll have to seriously implode for any other team to hoist the trophy in May.

City haven’t lost in the league since October. In that span, they’ve navigated a significant COVID-19 outbreak, injuries to key players, and numerous cancellations. If they were to slip up, they would have done so by now.

Chelsea attackers out of sync

“Our offensive players need to show up more. We need consistency. Chelsea is not a place to hide,” Tuchel said after Saturday’s 1-0 loss to Manchester City.

The defeat saw the Blues fall 13 points behind the domineering league leaders – almost certainly an insurmountable deficit – and highlighted Chelsea’s struggles to create and finish chances consistently.

Romelu Lukaku’s £97.5-million re-signing was heralded as the solution to that problem ahead of the campaign. But myriad factors have conspired to spoil his return, not the least of which was an explosive interview in which the Belgian voiced his displeasure with how his season has unfolded thus far.

Laurence Griffiths / Getty Images Sport / Getty

Lukaku, who squandered two excellent chances Saturday, has just five league goals this season.

Not for the first time this year, he looked out of sync with his attacking teammates. That wasn’t entirely his fault, though. Christian Pulisic and Hakim Ziyech, who played behind the lone striker in a supporting role at the Etihad, didn’t fare much better; the American wasn’t proactive enough on the ball, while the mercurial Moroccan’s final passes let Lukaku down too often. One instance – when a hilariously overhit through ball for Lukaku scuppered a very promising chance – had Tuchel seething on the touchline.

Chelsea have amassed 39.2 expected goals in the league this season, lagging well behind City and Liverpool. The Blues have spent far too much money on attacking talent to be so toothless relative to their title rivals, and whether or not the solution involves Lukaku, Tuchel needs to find it.

Coutinho provides spark for Villa

Philippe Coutinho only needed 14 minutes to make an enormous impact on his Aston Villa debut, providing an assist and scoring the equalizer in Saturday’s 2-2 draw with Manchester United.

The Brazilian’s introduction in the second half changed the complexion of the match and provided a glimpse of what Steven Gerrard’s team could look like once Coutinho settles in.

His time with Barcelona was, frankly, a disaster. His was an unnatural tactical fit at the Camp Nou – not all his fault – and his spell is remembered more for the damage he did against Barcelona while on loan at Bayern Munich than for anything he accomplished with the Blaugrana.

Clive Mason / Getty Images Sport / Getty

“There have been many ups and downs. It is in the past,” Coutinho said after his Villa debut. “I’m here, and I’m focused on the objectives of the club and the manager, and I want to do a good job to help my teammates and the club.”

It’s easy to forget after his unfortunate Barca tenure, but Coutinho remains an extremely talented footballer. In the right situation with a club that actually wants him, he could thrive.

If Gerrard can consistently field Coutinho and Emi Buendia in support of Ollie Watkins, the little Brazilian will flourish again – and Villa will follow suit.

Matic’s struggles are no secret

Fred was chosen as the more expressive half of the midfield duo in Manchester United’s 4-2-3-1 formation, and some of the success of Ralf Rangnick’s approach was evident when the Brazilian assisted on Bruno Fernandes’ second goal against Aston Villa.

But by then, the cracks had started to appear.

Given Scott McTominay’s suspension and United’s scatterbrained approach to recruitment in recent years, there was no alternative to the stiff-limbed Nemanja Matic as Fred’s partner in the middle. Matic, 33, initially offered balance to Rangnick’s side, but he gradually faded after receiving a yellow card for a cynical challenge in the 31st minute.

Ash Donelon / Manchester United / Getty

He only attempted two tackles thereafter – one on Buendia, the other on Jacob Ramsey – and was easily bypassed each time. He also misplaced nearly one-fifth of his passes when he was meant to keep United ticking behind Fred. The threat of a second yellow card troubled Matic; he became twitchy and overly cautious.

Vast spaces opened up as Matic withdrew into anonymity, and Buendia, Ramsey, and Coutinho took full advantage as Villa quickly turned a 2-0 deficit into a 2-2 draw. There were issues elsewhere in United’s lineup by that point – right-back Diogo Dalot’s resistance to Lucas Digne’s runs had crumbled – but Matic’s struggles were the most obvious.

It’s not Matic’s fault his mobility has deserted him in recent years. But it’s also no secret, and United should have replaced him long before this campaign kicked off.

Benitez leaves a mess at Everton

From the outset, Everton fans suspected the worst from Rafa Benitez, whose ties to crosstown rivals Liverpool made him out to be a double agent. Six months later, the Merseysiders are at serious risk of relegation and have been torn apart by Benitez’s hard-line approach. Everton lost a talented left-back in Digne – as well as their head of recruitment and director of football – because of disagreements with Benitez.

His sorry reign lasted just 200 days and ended with Saturday’s embarrassing 2-1 defeat to Norwich City that dropped the club to 16th place in the Premier League. The Toffees were trending in the wrong direction for months, but losing to the league’s worst outfit – a team that had lost each of its last six games and failed to score in any of them – was inexplicable.

So, what will happen next? Everton have too much at stake to even countenance the thought of relegation. They have a new stadium lined up with a hefty bill to pay and numerous players on big wages. But who can they hire to replace Benitez? Wayne Rooney, who’s currently coaching Championship side Derby County, is the bookies’ favorite to take over.

This will end well.

Newcastle still look like relegation fodder

Eddie Howe hasn’t changed much since taking the reins at Newcastle United. With one win in 10 league matches, just eight goals scored, and 19 conceded, the Magpies have shown no indication they can reverse the scoring issues and defensive vulnerabilities that first appeared under Steve Bruce.

Newcastle were closing in on a much-needed 1-0 victory over Watford on Saturday when Joao Pedro found a seam and headed home from close range. Even before allowing the late equalizer, Howe’s side was far from convincing, relying on Allan Saint-Maximin’s individual brilliance just to go ahead. Only one of Newcastle’s 12 shots hit the target, and £25-million signing Chris Wood didn’t lead the line with much authority.

Stu Forster / Getty Images Sport / Getty

“We’ve damaged ourselves,” Howe said afterward. “There’s a psychological failing that we can’t hold on to a lead. The longer the game went on, the more anxious and desperate we got. There are mental scars.”

It was a sobering admission from a man who appears to be coming to grips with the scale of his task.

Ward-Prowse has no equal

There’s no debating it anymore: James Ward-Prowse is the best free-kick taker in the game right now.

The Southampton captain provided yet another example of his set-piece prowess on Saturday, uncorking a majestic strike against Wolverhampton Wanderers that defied physics:

Ward-Prowse has scored eight direct free-kicks since the start of the 2019-20 Premier League season. Trent Alexander-Arnold, a celebrated dead-ball practitioner in his own right, ranks second over that span. He’s only scored three.

The Saints midfielder can find the net in a variety of ways, showing a mastery of the free-kick art that nobody can rival.

Leeds aren’t gone just yet

Sunday’s hard-fought 3-2 win against West Ham United was undoubtedly Leeds United’s biggest of the season. They hadn’t beaten an opponent in the top half of the table all season; all they had were victories over Watford, Crystal Palace, and Burnley.

So, Leeds should take a lot of encouragement from their performance in east London. In ending West Ham’s four-match winning streak – which included a victory over Leeds in the FA Cup – Marcelo Bielsa’s outfit produced a ton of chances, three of which Jack Harrison converted for a famous hat-trick. Leeds pressed well and combined with authority on the counterattack. Frankly, they should have scored more.

The win was all the more remarkable given Leeds’ injury crisis. Bielsa named 15-year-old Archie Gray on the bench just to fill in the numbers, and the treatment room became a little more crowded when starters Adam Forshaw and Junior Firpo limped off midway through the first half. Crucially, midfield lynchpin Kalvin Phillips and top scorer Patrick Bamford remain out with long-term injuries.

But the West Yorkshire side still has life.

Copyright © 2022 Score Media Ventures Inc. All rights reserved. Certain content reproduced under license.

Continue Reading

Trending