Kaide Gordon is one of two 17-year-old winners while Arsenal and Newcastle get a kicking after a cracking weekend of FA Cup football.
If you are looking for the EFL winners (Forest) and losers (Reading), come this way…
Cristiano Ronaldo had scored in an FA Cup final before Kaide Gordon and Lewis Hall were even born. If the FA Cup increasingly offers an early look at rising talents – and the combination of Covid and the gulf between the Premier League superclubs and lower-league teams means they are likelier to be seen in such matches – two depressingly young players took their opportunity in hugely encouraging fashion.
Gordon became the second youngest scorer in Liverpool’s history and both the execution – calm and precise – and the importance of a goal against Shrewsbury, when Jurgen Klopp’s team trailed, when four of the six midfielders and forwards starting for them had never previously found the net for the club, suggested he will become a player of stature. Klopp said the winger has the finishing already but has to improve the rest of his game. He will probably be confined to cameos in the short term, but a quick, direct, inverted winger looks the prototype of a Klopp player and should have the potential to be prolific in a few years.
Thomas Tuchel felt still more cautious in his rhetoric about Hall. He put in the caveat that it was against fifth-tier opponents in Chesterfield. Perhaps his feelings could be gauged from the fact he had not put Hall on the bench at Molineux, when Chelsea only had four outfield substitutes. And yet the defender looked so assured in possession and so comfortable bringing the ball out from the back on Saturday that he seemed to slot in naturally. And while a versatile player’s bow came as one of three central defenders, with Ben Chilwell injured, he could be a back-up left wing-back if Tuchel does not sign someone this month.
Rodolfo Borrell and Cole Palmer
Manchester City’s resources were stretched. But perhaps not that stretched. Covid may have sidelined some 21 players and staff but of the 12 key individuals at Swindon – the 11 starters and the man in charge on the bench – 10 were internationals who cost a combined total of over £400million: the other two were assistant coach and stand-in manager Borrell and the precociously talented Palmer. Borrell had said that he and the absent Pep Guardiola think alike and they looked sufficiently well-drilled that they scarcely needed the more famous Catalan against League Two opponents. More auspicious, perhaps, was Palmer’s performance and not just the precise low cross for Bernardo Silva’s tap-in and his curled finish for City’s fourth. A class act looks at home in such distinguished company and Phil Foden provides a trajectory to follow, from promising youngster to pivotal player.
Perhaps West Ham won’t finish in the top four, just as maybe their three cup runs won’t bring silverware. But they won their first four games in the Europa League. They beat both Manchester clubs in the Carabao Cup, to accompany Premier League triumphs over Liverpool and Chelsea. By opening their FA Cup campaign by beating Leeds, West Ham brought up their 16th win of the season on January 9. They only won 12 matches in the whole of 2019-20, 13 in 2017-18, 15 in 2016-17. David Moyes is turning regular underachievers into a club who expect to win matches and often do. And that is an achievement in itself.
Sadly, Brendan Rodgers makes fewer entertainingly over-the-top comparisons these days so there was much to savour in his words to Choudhury. “Tomorrow, you’re going to be the new Mascherano for Leicester,” he told the midfielder who, like Javier Mascherano before him, was reinvented as a centre-back in the 4-1 win over Watford. Mascherano’s reinvention lasted the majority of his club career. With Jonny Evans, Wesley Fofana and Caglar Soyuncu injured and Wilfred Ndidi and Daniel Amartey at the African Cup of Nations, Choudhury’s may only need to last a month.
Thomas Tuchel’s fondness for five substitutes
To some, Tuchel was making a logical point when he called for the use of five substitutions per club in the Premier League. To others, it formed part of a series of complaints about the formats and fixture lists which seemed to occupy his December. But granted a quintet of changes in the FA Cup, Tuchel probably got the benefit he wanted: he named a strong attacking outfit, had the match against Chesterfield won by half-time and took off the stand-in captain Mateo Kovacic and scorer Romelu Lukaku. With Christian Pulisic, Andreas Christensen and then Callum Hudson-Odoi coming off later, the minutes were shared out ahead of bigger games against Tottenham and Manchester City. The youngster Harvey Vale came on when Chelsea were five goals to the good. And permitting Tuchel those five changes meant Lewis Baker got an outing after not figuring in the previous 448 Chelsea games.
Everton didn’t really play with wingers last season; not when Carlo Ancelotti was trying to accommodate James Rodriguez, a luxury player and a No. 10. Rafa Benitez signalled a shift in approach and a new commitment to width in attack immediately and, if much he has done has not worked, his cut-price wide men have provided some of the highlights of his reign. His signings Demarai Gray and Andros Townsend scored in the win at Hull; indeed, Everton’s last six victories have had a goal from one or both. The homegrown Anthony Gordon didn’t find the net but was arguably better than both. And if Benitez’s decision to take him off felt contentious, his replacement was Townsend, the eventual match-winner.
Long doesn’t score in August. Or September. Or October. Or November. Or December, unless you go back to a goal on New Year’s Eve in 2016. The non-scoring striker has been barren before Christmas since 2015. But he is inexplicably potent in January, when he has seven goals since he last scored in the first half of a season. After setting up Mohamed Elyounoussi’s equaliser, the substitute belatedly opened his account for the season to take 10-man Southampton through at Swansea. Though it owed much to James Ward-Prowse, who went to right-back when Yan Valery was sent off.
Another week, another indication Palace have a huge talent on their hands. Inspiring a comeback against Millwall is a decent way to endear himself to their fans, too.
A technically excellent footballer who completed 2021 without scoring a league goal, Podence can feel the definitive Wolves player: they can be a frustratingly impotent side who look to have the ability to score more. But a brace against Sheffield United took the Portuguese to four cup goals this season and, after an outstanding performance in the win at Manchester United, brought another indication he could be entering a rich vein of form. Wolves must hope he caps it with more goals.
Six-and-a-half years after joining Liverpool, he scored his first FA Cup goal with the backheel of the round.
Perhaps they heard the theory that the biggest asset they had in their quest for a top-four finish was the lesser workload that comes from not playing in Europe. Arsenal freed up still more time on the fixture list by getting knocked out of the FA Cup; indeed Mikel Arteta now has as many third-round exits as Arsene Wenger, and both came away at Nottingham Forest. But the high point of the Spaniard’s reign remains winning the FA Cup and Arsenal closed off a route into Europe and a path to silverware with a performance devoid of pretty much anything – urgency, creativity, hunger, movement, shots – that tend to help win a match.
The most symbolic moment may have been when Rob Holding hit the corner flag with a volley. But it could have been when Eddie Nketiah, presented with their best chance, headed the ball in the wrong direction. Or the first-half substitution of Nuno Tavares after a hapless display that in turn had several ignominious incidents. Or when Albert Sambi Lokonga attempted to scoop a pass and instead gave the ball away for Forest’s winner. Whichever, it was Arsenal’s worst display since their dreadful August. Their wretchedness in midfield both called into question the decision to let Ainsley Maitland-Niles join Roma during a month when Thomas Partey is away and bodes badly for the Carabao Cup double header with Liverpool. Arsenal could enter February still in a solitary competition.
Spare a thought for Ronnie Radford. He has had half a century when his goal against Newcastle symbolised the FA Cup upset. Perhaps for the next 50 years, that mantle will pass to Joe Ironside instead. Certainly defeat to Cambridge ranked as a seismic shock; it highlighted the gulf between ambition and reality. They are stuck on a solitary win this season and many of the mediocrities on show are scarcely likely to figure in the long-term plans, it is nevertheless the case that some will be required to keep them up this season and that a statement signing debuted in an embarrassing setback: Kieran Trippier traded Champions League football with Atletico Madrid for defeat to Cambridge. Meanwhile, Eddie Howe’s early cup exits with Bournemouth were often overlooked: at this early stage of his Newcastle reign, however, he needs to offer more evidence he is conjuring improvement. And, terrific against Manchester United, terrible against Cambridge United, it showed how Newcastle can take one step forwards and then two backwards. A self-destructive streak is rarely just limited to one competition.
Much like Newcastle, they managed to demonstrate their losing habit against lower-league opponents. The reality is that Burnley have won two games (plus a penalty shootout) so far this season. While Burnley’s long list of absentees, including five strikers or wingers, was a contributory factor, it boded badly for their potential Championship campaign next season that Huddersfield looked the classier team. Burnley lacked ideas and, apart from Jay Rodriguez, any hint of incision. They had 50 minutes against a teenage debutant goalkeeper and did not even draw a save.
At least one relegation-threatened side managed to lose to Premier League opposition. But Watford conceded four to a Leicester side that included Lewis Brunt, Vontae Daley-Campbell and substitutes Wanya Marcal-Madivadua, Kasey McAteer and Will Alves, all part of an Under-21 team who lost 5-0 at Accrington in the Papa John’s Trophy. Watford have now conceded 20 goals in their last seven games. Claudio Ranieri’s returns to Leicester this season have seemed exercises in underlining how distant his heroics of 2016 seem now.
There have been rather too many low points in Ndombele’s Tottenham career and they don’t all involve Jose Mourinho. He may have reached a new low when he was booed off with Tottenham losing 1-0 at home to Morecambe, further irritating the crowd by taking his time leaving the pitch when they needed a goal and then making the seemingly unilateral decision to head down the tunnel. Antonio Conte’s arrival has spurred several Tottenham players on: not Ndombele, seemingly, who is on his fourth manager in London and feels an enigma for all.
Everton’s familiar failings
Everton contrived to sum up two of their major problems in the first minute at Hull. They keep conceding the first goal in games and keep letting in from set-pieces. To nine dead-ball goals in the Premier League could be added Tyler Smith’s first-minute header. It was the seventh successive game where they have conceded the opening goal. They had a deficit after nine minutes against Liverpool, three against Brighton and now one. The classic Rafa Benitez teams are meticulously organised and well prepared. An eventual comeback should not camouflage the reality this is a long way from a classic Benitez team.
The Argentinian’s reign at Elland Road won’t be defined by the FA Cup. Not when he restored Leeds to the Premier League after a 16-year exile, took them into the top half, improved a host of players and inspired some thrilling football. And yet in four seasons in the FA Cup, Bielsa has won fewer games than in his famously unsuccessful 2002 World Cup: none, to be precise. Losing with an injury-hit team to West Ham is far less ignominious than going out to Crawley last season but it feels ever likelier Bielsa will leave Leeds without ever having a good cup run.