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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.

Watford regressing under Ranieri

There probably won’t be a place for William Troost-Ekong in the starting lineup for Watford’s next match after his costly challenge during the battle of the Hornets and Bees. After conceding an injury-time penalty in Friday’s deflating loss to Brentford, manager Claudio Ranieri suggested the center-back was destined for a place on the bench.

But is that really the answer to Watford’s problems? After all, the incident was born out of Ranieri’s game plan and negative tactics, which cost the Hornets three crucial points in their bid for Premier League survival.

Watford – for whatever reason – went into the second half content with their 1-0 advantage and invited pressure by dropping into deeper positions. The result was disastrous, as Brentford fought back for 60 minutes to score an equalizer in the 84th minute before converting a penalty in the 95th to ensure Watford’s downward spiral would continue.

Although Ranieri’s arrival might’ve sparked far-fetched hopes that the Italian could work his Leicester City magic, it simply hasn’t worked out. One could actually argue Watford are worse off with him at the helm, owning one of the poorest defensive records since his return to the Premier League in October.

Jimenez costs Wolves against average City

The most bizarre moment of the weekend goes to Raul Jimenez.

The Mexican striker essentially wiped out Wolverhampton’s already thin chances of upsetting Manchester City after suffering an epic meltdown. As the first half was drawing to a close, Jimenez picked up a yellow card for a late challenge on Rodri.

But things got really weird during the ensuing free-kick, as Jimenez apparently forgot he was walking on a tightrope and picked up a second yellow for refusing to back away from the ball. City supporters cheered as Jimenez tossed his head protector to the ground in disgust during his walk of shame.

Lynne Cameron – Manchester City / Manchester City FC / Getty

There was an inevitability about the result, but in the end, Wolverhampton avoided embarrassment, losing 1-0 against a City outfit that looked surprisingly average. Pep Guardiola said after the game that his team played better when both sides were at full strength. Nevertheless, Wolves might’ve mounted a strong challenge had it not been for Jimenez’s moment of madness.

Arsenal can’t hide from Aubameyang distraction

A day after Mikel Arteta attempted to downplay reports of a rift with Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, the club revealed the Arsenal captain was unavailable due to a “disciplinary breach” ahead of Saturday’s clash with Southampton.

Aubameyang’s absence didn’t affect the outcome, as the Gunners cruised to a 3-0 victory over the lowly Saints. But the win won’t mask the problem or put an end to ongoing speculation about the forward’s future in north London.

Arteta didn’t get into specifics, but The Athletic’s David Ornstein reports Arsenal disciplined Aubameyang for arriving late from a team-approved trip abroad.

It’s the second time in 2021 that Arteta has disciplined Aubameyang, who was dropped before the north London derby last season after arriving late for a club function. There will undoubtedly be calls for Arteta to strip Aubameyang of the captaincy and demands for clarification on the 32-year-old’s role moving forward.

Salah is simply irresistible

Before Mohamed Salah swept home from the penalty spot on Saturday, Liverpool struggled to convert their superiority into a 1-0 lead. Aston Villa defended very well, clogging up central areas and denying clear-cut chances to Liverpool’s most dangerous players. Full-backs Matty Cash and Matt Targett tucked inside to limit the amount of penetration in the middle, and while Steven Gerrard seemed to regret being so conservative for so long, his choice was understandable. Few teams can play open football at Anfield without getting burned.

Still, if you give Liverpool enough time to find a breakthrough, odds are they will.

Clive Brunskill / Getty Images Sport / Getty

But the Reds needed Salah to do his thing to get the win they thought they deserved. When the 29-year-old finally found himself one-on-one with center-back Tyrone Mings – completing one of his trademark dribbles to draw contact and earn a penalty – it was game over. Salah’s invention was enough on a night when the hosts lacked a cutting edge.

The spot-kick itself was also superb: A shot struck with conviction against one of the game’s greatest agitators in goalkeeper Emi Martinez.

Salah not only scored the winning goal, he created it, showing why he’s one of the league’s best at moving the ball forward. Salah has 26 total chance-creating carries this campaign, second only to Newcastle’s Allan Saint-Maximin and far more than any of the Egyptian forward’s teammates. That means, when Liverpool surge forward, they often look to Salah to carry the ball into dangerous positions. And he relishes the responsibility.

What’s up with Chelsea’s defense?

Chelsea blew a lead for the fourth consecutive match, allowing Leeds United to challenge for a point that few would’ve expected them to get at Stamford Bridge. You could see the tide changing in real-time: In the 15 minutes before tying the game, Leeds controlled 65% possession, completed double the number of passes, and upped their intensity. The resulting equalizer – which substitute Joe Gelhardt scored seconds after his introduction – was the only possible outcome after such a dominant spell.

Blues manager Thomas Tuchel mentioned before Saturday’s fixture that his side hadn’t paid enough attention to the details, something they had done obsessively on their way to Champions League glory last season. What happened against Leeds was part of a greater trend that should concern the German boss.

Opponent Lead(s) Final Result
Dec. 1 at Watford 1-0 2-1 W
Dec. 4 at West Ham 1-0 and 2-1 3-2 L
Dec. 8 at Zenit 1-0 and 3-2 3-3 D
Dec. 11 vs. Leeds 2-1 3-2 W

Tuchel admitted his team “stole” three points against West Ham United last week and needed to be “lucky” to beat Leeds. Those are not exactly the words of a manager who’s happy with the state of his players’ performances. At this juncture, with matchups flying by, no club is going to play the perfect game. But defensive solidity has underpinned so much of Chelsea’s recent success that, without it, opponents may sense an opportunity to strike.

Maybe the Blues’ spiraling form is due to a lack of balance, or even the absence of N’Golo Kante, who’s out injured. Maybe it’s because Tuchel’s defenders are flying forward and leaving space behind them. Whatever the reason, it’s an ongoing concern that could have consequences in the title race.

Jorginho proves penalty-taking prowess

After missing a pair of crucial penalty kicks in World Cup qualifying – misses against Switzerland that denied Italy victories and an automatic berth in Qatar – Jorginho seems to have rediscovered his mojo from 12 yards. The 29-year-old shot high to the left and low to the right to keep Chelsea from dropping more points at Stamford Bridge. He increased his conversion rate to 88% – the highest of any Premier League player who has scored at least eight – and tamed concerns about the effectiveness of his trademark hop, skip, and jump.

Jorginho was even playing through pain from a back injury. He has played in 66 matches in 2021, so it’s remarkable he even put himself in a position to save his team.

“There was not only physical effort for him, but also it has been mentally very, very demanding,” Tuchel told reporters afterward.

Rangnick still has work to do

Last weekend, Manchester United showed glimpses of the vision Ralf Rangnick hopes to execute during his time as manager. Rangnick was “positively surprised” with the way United attacked the game and pressed in the opening few minutes. They couldn’t maintain that intensity for 90 minutes, but Rangnick left his first match with optimism.

DANIEL LEAL / AFP / Getty

Saturday’s narrow 1-0 win over bottom side Norwich City didn’t offer as much compelling evidence. United looked nervous throughout, and while they collected a second consecutive clean sheet, they only did so because of David De Gea’s brilliant shot-stopping. Given they were facing the league’s worst outfit – not to mention a side riddled with injury and COVID-19 concerns – United needed the Spaniard to intervene far too often. Norwich created high-quality chances, not just stuff of the speculative variety.

In the end, United needed a relatively soft penalty call to get the winning goal. Cristiano Ronaldo fell to the ground as Norwich’s Max Aarons jockeyed for position with the Portuguese superstar, and while there was enough contact to uphold the initial decision, the Video Assistant Referee may not have given a penalty if match official Darren England hadn’t initially pointed to the spot.

Maddison instrumental in ending Leicester’s skid

A visit from Newcastle United was just what Leicester City needed to ail their woes.

After appearing to unravel in the weeks leading up to Sunday’s contest at King Power Stadium, the Foxes beat the relegation-threatened Magpies 4-0 to end their three-match losing skid in all competitions and record their first clean sheet since September. The confidence-boosting victory was sorely needed for a Leicester squad that was fresh off getting knocked out of the Europa League with Thursday’s loss to Napoli.

The impactful James Maddison, who was involved in all four goals, ensured a return to the win column. After controversially drawing a penalty in the first half, the English midfielder was instrumental in the buildup to Patson Daka’s goal after his gorgeous pass split Newcastle’s defense open, helping the Foxes double their lead.

Sunday’s Man of the Match, who assisted Youri Tielemans’ second of the contest, finished Newcastle off with a goal of his own. It was a stellar performance and one that Leicester will hope to see repeated as they aim to qualify for Europe next campaign.

Gallagher is the league’s most underrated player

Conor Gallagher continues to shine for Crystal Palace. Another game, another match-winning performance – and his efforts involved more than just goals.

Consider how he completed his brace on Sunday: With Palace leading Everton 2-1 in second-half stoppage time, Gallagher forced a turnover in the final third and lashed a sensational shot off the underside of the crossbar and in. The 21-year-old has an outstanding level of awareness and commitment, and he’s the main reason Palace have enjoyed success this season.

Consider this as well: Gallagher has scored 41% of Palace’s goals in the Premier League this campaign. No player in the English top flight accounts for a larger chunk.

Chelsea were wise to lend Palace their talented midfielder for the season. Finally, they seem to loan out players to develop them, not just to pawn them off. Gallagher’s the leading man on a team with few aspirations other than mid-table security, and under a proactive manager in Patrick Vieira, he’s unlocked his attacking potential.

COVID-19 wreaking havoc again

If it wasn’t obvious before, the Premier League – along with the rest of the world – isn’t out of the woods yet when it comes to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The concerned tone in Antonio Conte’s voice last week should give you a pretty good idea of how serious the pandemic continues to be, as the manager revealed the severity of the outbreak that rocked Tottenham Hotspur last week.

Tottenham Hotspur FC / Tottenham Hotspur FC / Getty

“To speak about football today is impossible,” said the Italian, who added that he was feeling a “bit scared” after confirming 13 players and staff members had tested positive. Tottenham’s next two matches were called off – including this weekend’s clash against Brighton and Hove Albion.

The league’s situation only deteriorated as the weekend progressed when news emerged that both Manchester United and Aston Villa are reportedly dealing with their own outbreaks ahead of midweek matches that could now be in doubt.

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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“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.

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