Arsenal are embracing their old flat-track bully tag, Raheem Sterling is rediscovering himself and Wilfried Zaha let Crystal Palace down.
Three clubs have played the teams from 16th to 20th at least five times this Premier League season while maintaining a perfect record. Flat-track bully is often used as a derogatory term but if it’s good enough for Manchester City and Liverpool, it is absolutely something to build on for Arsenal.
Extend that to records against sides in the bottom half and again, only two clubs fare better than Arsenal. Their 25 points is more than Manchester City’s 22 and Manchester United’s 14, with only Liverpool (28) and Chelsea (29) more effective. The Gunners have 2.27 points per match against current bottom-half clubs, compared to 1.85 against 20/21’s dwellers between 11th and 20th. It does not sound like a substantial improvement but extrapolate that difference over a whole campaign and the additional eight points can be crucial: they would have finished fourth with them last season.
Their form against the sides occupying fifth to 10th inevitably falls off somewhat, but not massively – an average of two points per game from Tottenham, Manchester United, West Ham, Wolves and Brighton is comfortably sufficient. Then comes the crushing reality of three defeats, 11 goals conceded and none scored when facing Manchester City, Liverpool and Chelsea.
While that is the level they wish to reach and a platform they could easily still fall short of, it is worth reiterating just how surreptitiously Mikel Arteta has reestablished Arsenal’s old identity as a Goliath that can crush Davids. Scoff at praise for commanding away wins at Leeds and Norwich if you must, but it is the sort of low bar the Gunners have hit their head against recently.
Emile Smith Rowe
The most striking thing about Arsenal is the variation in their scorers: they have six players on three or more Premier League goals this season, which is something only Manchester City can match.
Mesut Ozil netted the last time four different Arsenal players scored in the same match. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, too. Back in February 2020, Alexandre Lacazette and Nicolas Pepe also put Newcastle to the sword; both had their part to play against Norwich almost two years later.
Bukayo Saka took both his goals as brilliantly as Kieran Tierney struck his, while Martin Odegaard was outstanding. But it is Emile Smith Rowe who deserves the most credit for once again stepping onto a busy dancefloor and not missing a single beat. It takes a certain type of skill and mentality to score in three successive substitute appearances; he epitomises the hunger, professionalism and enthusiasm upon which Arteta is building.
Crystal Palace have been hailed for their stylistic evolution and Brentford applauded for their endeavour and adaptability. Precious little has been said of Southampton, perhaps the most volatile team in the Premier League, but they sit level on points with the aforementioned pair.
Armando Broja, by the way, is something special.
Their longest winless league run since November 2014 is over yet we have learned approximately nothing we did not already know about Brighton. They are often very good, usually pretty frustrating and score some quite silly goals. Next.
Brighton have a 100% win ratio in winter in the Premier League this season, an 80% win ratio in summer and a 0% win ratio in autumn. It's a season of three seasons.
— Richard Jolly (@RichJolly) December 26, 2021
After the opening month of the season, few would have accurately predicted the fates of Ferran Torres and Raheem Sterling. The former had established himself as an effective centre-forward at Manchester City, playing all but 55 minutes of the first four games of the Premier League campaign and excelling. The latter, meanwhile, was a relatively forgettable substitute in three of those matches, starting the insipid defeat to Tottenham before being taken off.
It did not feel as though the two could coexist particularly successfully. Torres and Sterling have started ten Premier League games together, of which Manchester City won only half, lost three and scored 14 goals.
But Sterling was in a far more precarious position than Torres. He is six years older and has been there five years longer, thus did not carry that same fresh, exciting aura. Pep Guardiola rarely works with the same clubs for too long, never mind the same players. The accepted wisdom was that he, Sterling and Manchester City would all benefit from a different challenge.
That challenge, it turns out, was to unlock the 27-year-old again and harness the brilliance that poured out during the Euros. No player has made more career appearances under Guardiola, nor has any coach managed Sterling for more games. Yet as their 300th match together approaches, there is a sense that both men are still learning a great deal about one another.
Sterling took his two goals against Leicester predatorially, converting from 12 and three yards as he would once do routinely. He won a penalty, thrived in one-on-one situations and notably enjoyed himself.
For the first time since September 2017, and on only the second occasion of his entire career, Sterling has scored goals in four consecutive Premier League appearances. In those games – 21% of Manchester City’s table-topping season thus far – Sterling has had 45.5% of his shots, completed 45.5% of his dribbles, made 36.4% of his overall tackles and created 31.8% of his overall chances for the campaign. He is invigorated, reborn.
It took a foot injury and well-timed bout of homesickness to dislodge Torres, but Sterling has taken the opportunity to restore his own relevance at the perfect time.
With a handful of exceptions, there are no bad footballers at this elite level of competition. There are unhappy ones, misguided ones and ill-fitting ones, but incompatible conditions can lead to conflation as players are mislabelled as lazy, one-dimensional or simply not of the requisite standard.
Circumstances are important. Players need to be content in their home lives and fulfilled professionally to show their best side on the pitch. There are countless examples of individuals looking lost or substandard under one manager, then revitalised by the next.
Lucas Moura is slightly unique in that coaches are drawn to his work-rate and innate ability, but have long seemed unable to channel it properly. He was Jose Mourinho’s most-used player at Tottenham, then one of Nuno Espirito Santo’s regular starters. Even in the only full season he experienced with Mauricio Pochettino, only Christian Eriksen and Toby Alderweireld featured more often.
Antonio Conte has similarly taken a shine to Lucas: one of four players, alongside Harry Kane, Eric Dier and Heung-min Son, to play in nine of his 11 games. But he has married that inherent application with a consistency in performance. The Brazilian has undoubtedly benefited from his guidance.
That much was clear before the Crystal Palace game, in which he scored a soaring header and expertly set up Tottenham’s other two goals. Three’s a crowd but Kane and Son don’t seem to mind their fruitful partnership accommodating one more forward.
It was the first time Lucas has had direct involvement in three goals in the same game since his Ajax hat-trick. This is a player who has made the difference before in crucial Champions League games. There is flair and aptitude within. Conte has already come as close as anyone to exploiting it. It turns out that elite coaching still matters.
Seriously, Antonio bloody Conte. Not sure there is a better manager to learn the art of shithouse midfield controller from.
The defeat will sting, underlined as it was by Pep Guardiola’s usual routine of patting more pliable opponents on the head for putting up a good but ultimately forlorn fight. And it is absolutely a crude and reductive comparison, but the sight of James Maddison expressing his best self while Jack Grealish and Phil Foden chatted away on the Manchester City bench was apt.
Grealish and Maddison in particular have long been pitched as equals: thrilling English talents whose only weakness might be a lack of concentration off the field. As their junior, and a player coddled by Premier League academy life rather than shaped by Football League experience, Foden has only been thrown into that equation recently. He was given 20 quiet minutes, Grealish was an unused substitute and Maddison continued his rich vein of form.
He absolutely held his own in a game of nine goals, weaving through tackles and threading passes beautifully. Maddison’s well-taken strike was his fourth in five Premier League games; the 25-year-old has rarely felt this focused and effective.
It is entirely by design that Wilfried Zaha plays the way he does. Crystal Palace’s captain seeks out individual battles, feeds off the crowd, revels as his role as pantomime villain builds with each hack at the ankles and perceived dive. Zaha accepts that he will be hated by every other fanbase, provided it is accompanied by the complete adoration of the Palace support.
But purposely operating on the edge comes with an obvious risk. Boxing Day was not the first time Zaha has been dragged into a personal feud and goaded into an unnecessary and foolish reaction. As harsh as some might have felt his first booking for a foul on Davinson Sanchez was, pushing the same player by the touchline little over ten minutes later was, frankly, pathetic. It let his teammates down and he will know that.
The 29-year-old is obviously still in credit at Selhurst Park. But there is less of a dependence on his attacking output under Patrick Vieira, thus no need to accommodate those who cannot be consistently relied upon to put the team before the individual. Zaha has more Premier League career bookings than David Luiz, Gary Cahill, Duncan Ferguson, Nemanja Vidic, Stuart Pearce and Jordan Henderson. It might be time to try and rein things in a little.
“You’re always trying to take some points off the teams who look as if they’re going to be there. You’d expect Liverpool certainly to be there, but I think there’s a group of other teams. About six or seven teams who could easily challenge.”
David Moyes was discussing how West Ham’s hopes of qualifying for the Champions League might hinge on the results against fellow contenders. They have won two games since, beating Liverpool a couple of days later before overcoming Chelsea a month later, yet their challenge to the elite has never looked weaker.
Defeats to Wolves and Arsenal have been every bit as damaging as draws against Brighton and Burnley, but losing at home to Southampton is the sort of result West Ham ought to have outgrown. And as far as injuries could be used as an excuse, the overall performance was lethargic and uninspired.
January will be crucial. At least two new players are needed in terms of reinforcements, which has been a particular strength during the second Moyes reign. It could be make or break in terms of another European campaign.
A makeshift defence received no protection from a porous midfield – Youri Tielemans was the fire engine going to the right fire but dousing it in petrol instead of water – yet Kasper Schmeichel was still culpable in a chastening defeat for Leicester. There comes a stage, perhaps by the fourth goal in 25 minutes, that a goalkeeper generally tends to be absolved of blame. That sort of capitulation suggests wider issues in the team and coaching. But Schmeichel’s gloveprints were evident at the scene of this defensive crime, particularly when neglecting the basics and palming out a straightforward Joao Cancelo cross directly in front of him and into the welcoming path of Ilkay Gundogan.
Schmeichel made a few eye-catching saves but it would have been difficult not to when facing 17 shots. More pertinent was that mistake for the third goal, the sort of error that is becoming a weekly occurrence between the Leicester posts. Once one of the league’s most consistent and underrated goalkeepers, Schmeichel has picked the wrong time to turn into a liability.
From January 2020 to December 2021, Ozan Kabak has been on the wrong end of an 8-0, a 7-0, a 6-1, three 5-0s, two 4-0s and two 4-1s, taking part in one relegation season and very probably another, with a few months at Liverpool and a European Championship disaster in between.
He isn’t the problem at Norwich, nor was he at Schalke. Not sure he’s all that helpful, mind.
Lukaku has now scored nine Premier League goals against Aston Villa – equal with the most he has against any team. That statistic literally always ends up being Aston Villa.
The Premier League
You reap what you sow and all that.