Premier League winners and losers on another weekend when the big game let us down do badly…
A hugely significant week for Mikel Arteta, a man who has been afforded plenty of patience during his 14 months in charge. There are very good reasons for that patience, not least the myriad squad issues at Arsenal that may well require several transfer windows and a change of ethos to solve.
Supporters of rival clubs might suggest that the acceptance of being a lower mid-table club for several months is proof of Arsenal’s acceptance of slipping standards. Whether that is fair or not, progress requires significant milestones to send a message that faith is justified. The last four days are one of those milestones.
The Europa League isn’t just Arsenal’s last shot at a trophy this season; it’s also their easiest route back into the Champions League. So to fight back from 2-1 down in an unfamiliar stadium with a quarter of the second leg left demonstrated a resilience that we have often questioned in Arsenal. To follow that with a 3-1 win at a ground where Arsenal had lost their last three games by an aggregate scoreline of 8-1 offers evidence of some squad depth, particularly given that Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Bukayo Saka were rested.
Arteta would have preferred plainer sailing, but there is joy to be sourced from resilience. Three of Arsenal’s last four wins have come despite trailing at some point during the match. Remarkably, they only did it four times in the league during the entirety of Unai Emery’s reign.
Arsenal’s chances of making the top four haven’t quite gone, which is a little mad given their position in November. They sit eight points behind that mark and still have seven of the bottom eight to play. Arsenal have won all five of their fixtures against the bottom five this season, scoring 13 goals and conceding one; they really could get a head of steam together.
But the general mood – not to mention the Europa League – is more important given the funk into which Arsenal fell when Arteta’s job looked in serious danger. That such positivity still lingers despite recent defeats to Manchester City, Aston Villa and Wolves is due to the improvement of several players (Nicolas Pepe, Granit Xhaka and even Willian), the rise of Emile Smith-Rowe and the continued excellence of Bukayo Saka, who really does feel like a season-saver. Now to go and get bullied by Burnley at Turf Moor, obviously.
Gareth Bale and Tottenham’s attack
I’m happy to admit (because I’m happy that it was too hasty) that I worried if Gareth Bale was done. He left the Premier League as a specialist – perhaps even the specialist – in direct dribbling, running at defenders who either backed off or committed themselves and were made to look foolish. Either way, Bale usually had a shot at goal.
At 31, it seemed unlikely that he could still do that effectively, not least because he hadn’t done it for some time. After two years of mostly sitting in the stands, and with his agent explaining his early struggles at Tottenham by simply saying that Bale was nearing the end of his career, this looked like a well-meaning mistake.
It also presented Tottenham as the worst destination for Bale. No matter how many times supporters reminded themselves that Bale wouldn’t be the same player that left them at the age of 24, you just can’t shake that dream. Bale was remembered for what he was and therefore urged to be exactly the same again.
Bale probably isn’t that direct attacker anymore, at least not to the same degree; that was right. But he clearly does still have something to offer, particularly on the counter attack and particularly if Son Heung-Min can be responsible for carrying the ball forward. Bale’s left foot remains a wand when it is given time and space. Tottenham’s first goal against Burnley suggests that his anticipation is still working too, always a worry when someone has been starved of minutes for so long.
This was just Burnley, and that really does need to be said. There is no better opponent for Tottenham than a team that prefers to sit deep but concedes an early goal and is forced to push out. Obviously I’m guilty of deliberately picking out opponents that fit the argument here, but Burnley have played seven matches against Manchester City, Chelsea, Tottenham and Manchester United this season, conceding 18 goals and scoring none.
But there was enough swagger to suggest that Jose Mourinho must keep faith with this attacking plan against better opponents. It’s really this simple: The attack-minded players are Tottenham’s highest-quality individuals, supporters enjoy their team trying to have a go and the defence actually looks more secure when they aren’t asked to sit deep and repel semi-constant pressure. Spurs have three winnable games in two competitions to keep it up before the north London derby.
It came with enough good fortune to sink a decent-sized battleship, but Sam Allardyce won’t give a hoot. West Brom entered this weekend with both feet firmly planted in must-win territory. In those circumstances, only the win matters.
If West Brom are going to stay up – and it’s still a daunting ‘if’ – their home form was always going to need rapid improvement. They have already played every single member of the current bottom seven away from home, and that presents a problem. West Brom had two clean sheets at home all season and had conceded 25 goals in their last seven home games.
They should have conceded at least three more here, but were thankful to Lee Mason’s wanton whistling and Brighton’s admirable commitment to slapstick comedy. That must be a platform to move forward. Take seven points from their next three games against Everton, Newcastle and Crystal Palace – again a little daunting – and they have a sporting chance.
Aston Villa, without Jack Grealish
One of the more ridiculous Premier League runs in over. Stretching back to February 2016, Aston Villa had started 16 top-flight matches without Jack Grealish in the team. Their record without him was truly appalling: Won 0, Drawn 1, Lost 15. The curse is broken.
West Ham played really well. They stopped City from having a shot in the opening 30 minutes, had as many shots on target as their opponents across the 90 minutes and had Pep Guardiola angrily gesturing at his players in the first half.
And still it was all for nought. Manchester City have won 20 matches in all competitions, a record for an English club. They are three home games and a trip to Fulham from equalling their own record for Premier League wins too. And yet this was the first time that Kevin De Bruyne and Sergio Aguero have started together in over a year. It was fun to have a title race while it lasted.
There aren’t many players at Liverpool who have improved their reputation this season, but Jones is one. Whenever they need an injection of energy, or someone to take a risk in possession and do something different, it often seems to be Jones who answers the call. Keeping hold of a place in midfield will be mighty difficult when Thiago, Henderson, Fabinho, Keita and Wijnaldum are all fit and not having to stand in as defenders, but on this season’s evidence Jones deserves as much faith as Trent Alexander-Arnold did.
Brighton’s final-third farce
This is getting incredibly silly. Against Aston Villa, Brighton had 26 shots – including nine on target – and contrived not to score. Against Crystal Palace, Brighton had 25 shots and managed to score only once, losing with virtually the last kick of the game. They had 52 touches in the opposition box and Palace had two.
Against West Brom, Brighton only had 15 shots without scoring. But just to spice up the comedy, they missed two penalties, lost 1-0 and suffered one of the strangest disallowed goals you could ever witness. In those last three games alone, Brighton have had 45 shots from inside the penalty area. West Brom have had 118 all season.
It’s hard to know what to make of this mess beyond two very simple observations. The first is that Brighton are creating more than enough chances to be safely positioned in mid-table. Their expected goals and against totals (roughly a measure of the quality of chances created and allowed) has them as comfortable victors in seven of their last eight league matches. And so to the other painfully simple observation: Good God they’re bad at finishing all manner of different chances.
And that leads to two further conclusions, the first of which is that Graham Potter is doing a thoroughly decent job. The buck ultimately always stops with the manager, and I’d generally rail those who blame the players for general poor performance, but Potter has created a system that makes Brighton fairly resilient and allows them to create multiple good chances every game. He will be more frustrated than those Brighton supporters who now need new televisions after Danny Welbeck’s missed penalty.
The other conclusion is that this will probably improve soon. Even if Brighton’s chance creation dips slightly and their chance conversion pushes a little closer to the mean, they will surely start scoring goals soon.
But the flipside to that tepid positivity is that it has to improve soon or Brighton will be thrust deep into trouble. Confidence breeds confidence and failure breeds failure, meaning that logic dictates Brighton’s strikers are slightly less likely to take their next chance than their last one. That’s certainly how it feels at the moment.
And the fixture list doesn’t provide much solace either. Brighton have 12 games remaining. Four of those games are against Big Six teams and four more are against Everton, Leeds, West Ham and Leicester City. Top tip: only practice shooting in training this week.
Leicester City, breaking at the seams
A year ago, Leicester City’s season began to fall apart. Brendan Rodgers would admit that the general performance level tailed off, but there’s no doubt that fatigue – and therefore fatigue-related injuries – played a part. They combined with old-fashioned rotten luck to decimate Leicester’s first-choice team.
Wilfred Ndidi missed seven league games in January and February. Ricardo Pereira missed the last nine matches of the season (and would miss most of this season too). James Maddison missed the last seven, Ben Chilwell the last five and Caglar Soyuncu the last three (although that was due to suspension). Leicester took nine points from their final nine league games and fell out of the top four.
History is being repeated, at least in terms of the injuries. The added workload of Europa League football and relentless scheduling is catching up with Leicester and misfortune is again playing a part. Maddison has a hip problem, Wesley Fofana has been missing since the end of January and on Sunday Harvey Barnes was stretchered off and Jonny Evans limped from the pitch. Both look likely to out for a while. Thursday’s limp European exit to Slavia Prague was quickly followed by home defeat to Arsenal that makes their top-four place look far less secure.
There’s no surprise that injuries hurt Leicester badly. Without Barnes and Maddison they struggle to create for Jamie Vardy, who failed to have a single shot for only the second time this season on Sunday. The drop in quality from the first-choice starting XI to the rest is stark; Daniel Amartey, Cengiz Under (so far at least) and Kelechi Iheanacho are just not good enough for a side chasing Champions League football.
The question, as it was last season, is whether Leicester already have enough to cling on. Given that they are still to play every other team in the top five plus Tottenham, you do wonder. But then Brendan Rodgers and Leicester have both flourished in upturning expectations. It would certainly be a huge shame if their attempts to break the top-four dominance were kiboshed for the second successive season.
But either way, Leicester must respond to this. Last summer they signed three first-team players. Timothy Castagne was a cheaper replacement for Chilwell and Under effectively replaced the unwanted Demarai Gray, who was sold in January. Only Fofana represented a significant improvement to the squad.
Rodgers deserves a little more. Nobody is calling for a wanton spending spree, particularly in the current financial climate and with a new training ground to pay for. And it can be hard to persuade players to join a club that has such a settled first team. But Leicester must find a way if they are too be perennial top-four challengers and sate Rodgers’ ambition.
Newcastle and their injuries
One thing Newcastle United supporters have grown tired of in recent weeks is the overwhelming positivity of Steve Bruce. There are valid reasons for that, of course – no manager is going to say “We look buggered, don’t we?” and hope to maintain a positive working environment for players. But some fans believe that there is a line when too much positivity suggests that the severity of the situation hasn’t quite been grasped.
This week, for example, Bruce said he was smiling immediately after the loss to Manchester United because Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was praising how his side played and claimed that six or seven other sides were still in trouble (which seems a stretch even if you include Sheffield United). Throughout this extended run of poor form, Bruce has sought to talk up the positives of each performance. Again that’s hardly a crime; again some supporters have taken it as evidence of naivety.
But make no mistake: Newcastle are in trouble. Results this weekend actually went their way, with Brighton losing and Fulham failing to beat Crystal Palace. But Newcastle have taken nine points from the last 45 available and travel to Craven Cottage on the final day. This squad should not be in this position.
Bruce the optimist may well reason that five remaining fixtures against the five teams directly above and below them gives Newcastle the opportunity to spring clear of trouble (and they have performed better in those fixtures this season). But there’s a but: Four of those fixtures are away from home, and only West Brom and Sheffield United have picked up fewer away points this season. While Newcastle are treading water, there are signs that Fulham and West Brom are growing in confidence.
And then there’s the injuries. Callum Wilson will miss another few weeks and should not be rushed back from a muscle problem – Newcastle have scored two goals in five games without him. On Saturday, Miguel Almiron and Allan Saint-Maximin both sustained injuries leaving Bruce and supporters waiting nervously on the results of scans.
That leaves the cupboard painfully bare. Take out those three, and the highest-scoring Premier League goalscorer for Newcastle since the start of last season is Jonjo Shelvey with seven. Any extra bluntness in the final third would only increase the pressure on a defence that has kept one clean sheet in the last 12 attempts. It’s a ‘fingers crossed’ kinda week with those scans.
Manchester United in the big games (yes, again)
No it’s not a huge problem. Yes, drawing away at Big Six opponents is probably always a good thing unless it’s Arsenal and they’re 15th in the league. Yes, Manchester United’s unbeaten away record is mightily impressive.
But I stick by my assessment that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer got spooked by the manner of Manchester United’s home defeat against Tottenham on October 4 and has over-compensated by limiting their attacking endeavour since. The last time they scored an open-play goal against a Big Six team in the league was March 8, 2020, eight matches ago.
A mini-league created of those teams this season has United bottom with five points. Manchester City have 17 points and are a far superior team to United. But Tottenham have 10, Arsenal seven and Liverpool 14. Can the same be said for those three this season? Nobody is knocking United’s defensive assuredness in these fixtures; we’re wondering whether a little less handbrake might have produced better results.
I’ll anticipate the response from Manchester United supporters: Who cares about the Big Six anymore when Leicester and West Ham are in the top six. That’s fair enough. But a mini-league of matches between sides in the top eight still has Manchester United picking up 1.33 points per game (fewer than Everton and Leicester, for example) and scoring 12 goals (fewer than every other top-eight team bar Chelsea).
Also, I can fully understand why Bruno Fernandes is Manchester United’s dominant attacking weapon because he is supremely talented, but in this type of game United need somebody else to join in as a creative force because it’s becoming a little predictable. Opposition managers are working out to close down his space and force him to drop deeper. In his last five games against Big Six sides, covering 434 minutes, Bruno has only created six chances.
You can read 16 Conclusions here.
If Manchester United are in the losers list for failing to score, Chelsea have to be here for missing the chance to win. It was hardly a disastrous weekend, given Leicester and West Ham’s results, but Thomas Tuchel’s side could have ended the weekend with a top-four place in their hands. I’d also like to formally state that I have no idea why Hakim Ziyech stayed on the pitch as long as he did.
Chelsea v Manchester United
Feel like pure shit just want goals in big games back x