Arsenal top Premier League winners and losers

Winners

Arsenal’s new meritocracy
Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that Mikel Arteta just picked the kids. Perhaps there was an element of ‘well I’ve tried everything else’ to the selection of Gabriel Martinelli, Bukayo Saka and Emile Smith-Rowe as a three behind Alexandre Lacazette, but Arteta also changed the formation and opted for pace in wide areas to trouble two half-fit full-backs.

He also picked a group of players that had an evident desire to reverse Arsenal’s grim situation. The most damning indictment of Arsenal is that they played every recent match in the style of a team that was 1-0 up. Gone was the urgency or determination to wrestle control of matches that should have been there for the taking. Suddenly Martinelli, Saka and Smith-Rowe demanded the ball, ran directly at opponents and tried things that – even when they didn’t come off – gave Chelsea something to think about.

Chelsea clearly aided Arsenal’s task. They failed to press effectively so that central defenders and midfielders had the time to pick their next pass and multiple options when they chose to do so. But Arsenal finally played some front-foot football.

Young players can be haunted by the underperformance of their clubs. They inevitably make mistakes. Those mistakes can be costly, and in a struggling team those errors seem to be punished more often than you’d otherwise expect. Young players can lack the experience to display the grit and guts that so often comes with age.

But the flipside can also be true. Young players (and other fringe players) can display a sense of liberty. They can play without the weight of recent defeats simply because their selection persuades them that their manager believes that they were not responsible for them. On Saturday, that is exactly what Arsenal’s players did.

And just look at who was absent. David Luiz and Willian, those two underperforming Kia Joorabchian clients, were left out of the match-day squad due to illness. Nicolas Pepe was left on the bench behind three young players who have already offered as much as him this season.

Arteta is clearly not out of the woods yet; one defeat will not lift the existential crisis that has hung over the Emirates like a smog this season. But Arteta also has a mandate that he must now follow. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Thomas Partey and Gabriel should be welcomed back into the fold when fit, but the starting XI must become a meritocracy. You are picked for selection based not on your wage, previous reputation, identity of your agent or transfer fee, but because of what you offer now. The lingering question is whether Mesut Ozil plays any part in that meritocracy.

 

Aston Villa, the overachievers
Last season we fell over each other to praise Sheffield United, and rightly so. Chris Wilder’s team were widely tipped for relegation but took 29 points by Boxing Day to effectively confirm their safety.

Well then what of Aston Villa? They certainly spent more money than Sheffield United in the summer (roughly £75m vs roughly £55m), but they only survived relegation on goal difference. Villa may have four fewer points by Boxing Day than Sheffield United last season, but the vagaries of the 2020/21 calendar means that they have played six fewer league fixtures.

Had they played and won their game in hand at home to Newcastle United (still to be rearranged), Villa would be third with a record of exactly two points per game. To put that into some perspective, Villa have never done that in any division since three points for a win was introduced.

That makes Villa this season’s great over-achievers. Ollie Watkins works tirelessly and his performances have merited more goals. Jack Grealish has found another new level. Matty Cash and Emiliano Martinez have settled in brilliantly and Ross Barkley has produced flashes of what we know he can.

But more pleasing than that is how Dean Smith has improved the players that have been at the club longer than a few months. Matt Targett has been one of the best left-backs in the Premier League this season. Douglas Luiz gets better all the time and has understandably provoked rumours of Manchester City making good on their buyback clause. Kortney Hause has started three league games this season and Villa are yet to concede a goal with him in the side. Anwar El-Ghazi has four goals in seven league games.

All power to Smith who came perilously close to losing his job earlier this year. While richer clubs fight over themselves to establish positions of dominance in a top-six shootout, Villa are safely ensconced there on merit having won their only two league games against teams above them.

 

Gylfi Sigurdsson, the No. 10
Sigurdsson has been seen as a mark of Everton’s haphazard recruitment for most of the last 18 months. They spent £40m on an ageing player in a position that they didn’t really use and so who didn’t appear to command a natural place in the team. Instead, Sigurdsson played as a jobbing central midfielder, operating in areas that demanded characteristics he simply doesn’t possess.

But Carlo Ancelotti has changed that over the last few weeks. The absence of James Rodriguez created an opportunity and Sigurdsson has been recast as the No. 10 he always wanted to be. Ancelotti has also made him captain which seems to have produced the desired effect.

Since Everton’s 1-1 draw against Burnley (during which he came off the bench), Sigurdsson has started four league games and Everton have won every one. He has created 13 chances, scored two goals and assisted another. Sigurdsson should be in line for a Premier League Player of the Month nomination.

 

Bruno Fernandes
Yes yes, ‘Penandes’. Football supporters truly are the best comedians. I haven’t been this wowed by sporting wordery since seeing ‘Nottingham Florist’ on a fan forum.

But seriously, don’t let the penalty statistics seize the narrative. It’s pretty clear that taking Manchester United’s spot-kicks have contributed to Fernandes’ 31 league goals and assists since joining the club. That accounts for over half their goals during that period.

But since his arrival in English football, Fernandes ranks third in the Premier League for chances created, second for goals, first for assists and third for shots on target. That’s remarkable for a midfielder in his first months at a new club.

He is our player of 2020.

 

Leeds against the ‘rest’
There was an awful lot written after Leeds United’s 6-2 defeat at Old Trafford, and some of that is a response to perceived over-effusive praise for Marcelo Bielsa. But Leeds’ season will not be decided by those results. They have played eight league games against sides who finished outside the top eight last season and have won six of them. Given the quality and depth of Leeds’ squad, that’s far more than satisfactory.

 

John Stones
In eight games this season, the only goal Manchester City have conceded with Stones on the pitch was Raul Jimenez’s on the opening weekend of the season. He’s back in the side, fully focused on his football and a key player under Pep Guardiola again. Next step is to get that England starting place back.

 

Sam Allardyce (and Slaven Bilic)
Of course this was a piece of pure Allardycian theatre. It contained all of the hallmarks: the sacrificed possession, 11 men 30 yards from their own goal, a deliberate lack of attacking intent even after conceding early and a mightily impressive ability to give their opponents chances but, crucially, not clear-cut chances.

But before we rush to praise West Brom’s new manager for engineering an unlikely draw away from home against a title challenger, let’s remember that Slaven Bilic did exactly that in his final match in charge. Allardyce has only had a week in charge; this was as much Bilic’s success as his.

 

Fulham
Scott Parker would obviously have liked to turn one of Fulham’s four consecutive league draws into a victory, but let’s focus on the positives. Fulham look like the most capable of the current bottom three to stay up, have discovered some defensive resilience and are on their longest unbeaten run in the Premier League for seven years. The last time they bettered their current streak of two goals conceded in four top-flight matches was 2010.

 

Illan Meslier
He may not have dealt with every cross well and was highly fortunate that Burnley had a goal disallowed for a phantom offence on him. But in the second half, Burnley deliberately targeted Meslier with an aerial assault and he became more commanding under the high ball. For a 20-year-old goalkeeper playing in his first top-flight season, that cannot be easy. Well done young man.

 

Losers

Frank Lampard
This isn’t good enough. Lampard may well take any opportunity to play down a potential title challenge from Chelsea (and that’s entirely unsurprising), but this squad should be good enough and has certainly had enough spent on it. Roman Abramovich is not in the business of investing hundreds of millions of pounds for plucky attempts at a top-four finish. Maybe he has mellowed and maybe Lampard represents a new direction for Chelsea, but don’t expect the owner to roll back his ambitions just because.

Chelsea are closer in points terms to crisis club Arsenal than Liverpool and on Saturday barely laid a glove on them until the game was lost. Lampard chose to blame the players for their lack of pressing and hassling high up the pitch, allowing Arsenal to settle too easily, but that works both ways. A press is a result of individual effort and collective instruction handed down by the manager. Questioning the effort of the players can work as a motivational tool once, but Lampard would be advised to avoid it becoming a habit.

Let’s put Chelsea’s season so far into some context, particularly given the lofty praise he has been afforded from some quarters. They are on course to finish the season with 63 points, their second lowest since 2001 (the exception was 2015/16, when Jose Mourinho was sacked by Christmas). The last Chelsea manager to record a lower total over the course of an entire season was Ruud Gullit in 1996/97. Chelsea have played five matches against last season’s top eight and taken two points.

There are a couple of predictable retorts to this criticism, but both fail to convince. The first is that a starting XI containing several new players will take time to gel, but Chelsea were in far better form a month ago than now suggesting that this is not an issue of teething problems. Lampard’s blame for the players will also curry favour with supporters who are inclined to back a club legend manager because the sheer idea of it attracts them. But the tactical plans over the last few weeks have looked awry and that’s on him.

Lampard’s biggest problem is that his perennial issue has not yet been solved, despite the added investment. At Derby County, he struggled to find a balance between defence and attack that avoided one being exposed when the other performed better. Last season, he struggled to find a balance between defence and attack that avoided one being exposed when the other performed better. So far this season, he has struggled to find a balance between defence and attack that avoided one being exposed when the other performed better. That suggests that this is his problem more than the players’. Even if it isn’t, he’s not foolish enough to believe that the buck stops anywhere but at his feet.

Lampard is learning on the job; that is inevitable given his relative inexperience and the size (and ambitions) of the club he is managing. But inexperience does not offer immunity to criticism and doubt – quite the opposite. If we are witnessing rookie flaws in a rookie manager it begs the question why Chelsea chose to appoint one if they were then going to spend title-challenging money on new players.

The next five games may or may not take Lampard into real trouble – Aston Villa, Manchester City, Leicester City, Wolves and a west London derby against Fulham. Take 12 points from those and us critics may well have to quieten down a touch. But we entered December wondering whether this was the month that would help shape Frank Lampard’s reputation one way or the other and they have lost three of their last four league matches. To repeat the first point: That’s not good enough, given the resources at his disposal. And it doesn’t matter who you are.

 

Timo Werner
No goal in his last seven league games. Those runs happen to every striker, but Werner isn’t offering an awful lot else. He’s had seven shots on target in those seven games and only created nine chances.

And this is becoming a problem. Werner has scored as many Premier League goals as Kurt Zouma this season and his chance conversion rate (10.5 percent) sees him ranked 10th at Chelsea. Whether Lampard has dented Werner’s confidence by farming him out on the left or just a player taking time to acclimatise to life in England, Chelsea could do with it clicking soon.

 

The last days of Roy Hodgson the manager
We asked for a reaction and we got…a shambolic response to being handed a one-man advantage and the chance to save a game. Hodgson was reportedly been told by Palace that he needed to play a little more attacking football. That’s apparently led to his team being leakier than the Welsh national emblem and not much better in attack.

This matters for Hodgson because there are precious few reasons to keep faith with him. His contract expires at the end of the season and, at the age of 73, very few people expect it to be renewed. There are reasons to let it run its course if Palace are playing perfectly functional football that keeps them in midtable, but the 5-1 win at West Brom remains their only victory in their last seven and they have lost four of those matches without scoring a goal. Is Eddie Howe getting ready for an interview?

 

Jose Mourinho, reaping what he sows
“We had control of the game but we had 89 minutes to score more goals and we didn’t. It was not about scoring more goals, it was about not being dangerous or being ambitious… you score a goal in the first minute and you have 89 minutes to score more goals and we didn’t” – Jose Mourinho.

There are two ways to interpret that post-match message. Either Mourinho is saying – not for the first time this season) that Tottenham’s players did not follow his instructions, that they fell back towards their own goal entirely in conflict with what they were told. Or he’s saying that they did try and follow his instructions but were unable to offer any attacking threat after scoring in the first minute of the match. Neither is a particularly strong look for a highly-paid manager, but both demand a little more investigation.

Here’s the problem for Mourinho: He is the manager who cried wolf. He established a reputation for being successful through his team establishing leads that they were content to sit on and see out. He would cite exceptions to that (the record-breaking goalscoring season with Real Madrid is the go-to example), but the reputation still clings to him for a reason. Had Tottenham won those matches against Crystal Palace and Wolves without conceding, he would be happy. There’s really no escaping that.

But let’s imagine that Mourinho did indeed tell his players to keep attacking, and wonder why they might have failed to follow that order. Against Stoke City in the EFL Cup quarter-final, Dele Alli attempted a flicked pass in opposition territory that didn’t come off. The ball went back to Stoke’s goalkeeper and, 15 seconds later, Tottenham conceded. After the match, Mourinho singled out Alli for censure.

How does that make you feel as a player? Does it empower you to try and attempt things in a bid to create chances and extend your lead, knowing that if they don’t come off you should expect to be hung out to dry? Or, as seems logical, are you more likely to play risk-averse football? Mourinho’s blame game subconsciously persuaded his players to play as they did.

There’s nothing wrong with using a deep defence when 1-0 up. Mourinho had Tottenham playing excellently with the same style earlier this season. But it only works with a counter-attacking threat as part of a two-part process. Against Palace and Wolves, Tottenham defended deeply but sacrificed all attacking intent. That invites pressure. Tottenham have only kept 11 clean sheets in 41 league games under Mourinho. He cannot be surprised when an opponent finds a way to break them down.

We must be a little careful here. Tottenham now face six eminently winnable matches in three competitions; win five and they will likely be back in the title race and in a domestic cup final. Only Everton, Manchester City and Aston Villa in the top half won this weekend, so Spurs have not ceded much ground.

But that’s not really the point. As with Chelsea, the optimism of a month ago has been replaced by a cold water splash of reality that brings into focus the doubts about the manager. Mourinho has always prioritised results football, but that only wins over supporters for as long as the results come. For all the momentum gained in October and November, Tottenham are seven points behind where they were at the same stage in 2019/20. They didn’t make Mourinho the fifth-highest-paid manager in the world for that.

The mood on social media on Sunday evening was one of genuine anger not because Tottenham are awful but because Tottenham are unpleasant to watch in this mode. Mauricio Pochettino smashed through the glass ceiling to offer them a view of a blue sky they hadn’t seen in a generation. Mourinho is busy reminding them that the floor still exists.

 

Liverpool’s pesky draws
Liverpool have now dropped six points against teams currently in the bottom eight positions. In the last two completed seasons combined, Liverpool dropped three points against teams that finished in the bottom eight. Perhaps that’s merely slipping back to an inevitable mean, but Jurgen Klopp will be furious at the sloppiness.

 

Sheffield United, record-breakers?
Sheffield United now face a run of three games against Burnley, Crystal Palace and Newcastle. It will surely not be pivotal in their Premier League survival, for that horse has left the stable and is halfway across South Yorkshire, but they are still crucial. Fail to win any of the three and Sheffield United are surely favourites to break the all-time Premier League low points record?

Every weekend, another damning statistic. Sheffield United have now recorded the joint-worst start to a league season in the history of English league football.

 

Newcastle United
Losing away at Manchester City is neither anything to be ashamed of nor nothing new: Newcastle have lost their last 12 away league games there, scoring eight times and conceding 41 goals. But after the dismal EFL cup exit against Brentford in midweek, Steve Bruce needed to show something, anything. He didn’t and nor did his team.

After the match, journalist George Caulkin asked for the thoughts of supporters on social media. There was no anger nor even any sadness; Newcastle United don’t provoke such extremes anymore. Almost every fan that replied used the same word: ‘Apathy’. These supporters lost their connection to their club a long time ago thanks to Mike Ashley’s reign of atrophy. Now plenty have lost their connection to the team too.

In their away league games this season, Newcastle have averaged 34% possession. If that hints at a preference for reactive, counter-attacking football, you have to squint so hard to see it that your eyes are shut tight. Newcastle have had 26 shots on target in their last 10 away league games.

 

Steve Bruce and ‘mass hysteria’
“It shows you how difficult it is up here. The mass hysteria, I find some of it pathetic, to be honest” – Sunderland manager Steve Bruce, August 26 2011. He was sacked three months later.

“Of course here, at a club like ours, it turns into mass hysteria. A couple of bad results and all of a sudden it’s the end of the world again” -Aston Villa manager Steve Bruce, September 25 2017. Bruce left the club a week later.

“We had a bad week, and some of the mass hysteria in my opinion was unjust, unfair and a lot of it was not right in my opinion” – Newcastle United manager Steve Bruce, December 26, 2020.

 

Daniel Storey