Erik ten Hag pulled himself back from the brink just as Steve Cooper and Roy Hodgson leaned further over, while Aston Villa and Fulham were phenomenal.
How wonderful that the Arsenal v Unai Emery title race everyone predicted would happen when the two parted ways in bitter circumstances four years ago, the club in mid-table and the manager mocked and written off by the insular English game, is coming to fruition. Saturday should be fun.
Before then, Aston Villa will bask in a phenomenal and entirely deserved victory. Never before in 535 league games has a Pep Guardiola team had so few shots, nor has one ever faced more. The previous biggest negative shot differential in one match of the Spaniard’s Manchester City tenure was -14, when Wolves had 21 efforts to their seven in December 2019. Villa had 22 shots to City’s two in midweek; from the 12th minute the hosts had 19 shots to absolutely no response.
Ederson was sent off in the 12th minute of that Wolves defeat. There was no such excuse on Wednesday night. Rodri and Jack Grealish were absent – the latter not being a part of such glorious dismantlement perhaps the only thing Villa Park will have regretted – but Manchester City had time to prepare, to sift through their squad for alternatives, to give £130m worth of options a front-row view from the bench to witness the particular annihilation of that midfield.
Douglas Luiz, Youri Tielemans and Boubacar Kamara cost exactly half a Mateo Kovacic, around one-third of a Kalvin Phillips and less than a quarter of a Matheus Nunes. And they dominated the players Guardiola chose to stock his engine room instead of those three.
Tielemans was one of only two Emery signings in that starting XI, with Pau Torres the other. Dean Smith bought five of those players, Steven Gerrard purchased three and Steve Bruce added one. Each manager got a tune out of them at some stage but Emery has improved a ridiculous number of players both inherited and acquired in such a short space of time. Villa have undoubtedly invested to reach this point but Emery’s specific success has been underpinned by a level of coaching on par with the established elite, if not a whole lot better on that evidence.
Emery dismissed Villa’s title credentials after the game while Guardiola spoke them up. That such conversations can be legitimately held in early December is remarkable. There has rarely been a more stark managerial upgrade.
Fulham’s biggest Premier League win since August 2012. Marco Silva’s biggest Premier League win ever. The Cottagers’ previous four wins this season had come by a combined five-goal margin but they packed that difference into 90 dominant minutes against a side they were only two points clear of before the game.
They are closer to fifth than they are 18th now, and while Fulham need not concern themselves with hopes of European qualification, distancing themselves from latent relegation fears is welcome. This season had all the necessary ingredients for disaster: Aleksandar Mitrovic’s acrimonious sale, Willian having his head turned and Silva shuffling in the vague direction of the exit at one stage of a difficult summer. But Fulham will be fine.
It does offer the tantalising prospect of them staying up comfortably while never winning more than a single Premier League game a month. One victory each in August, September, October and November, with December boxed off nice and early.
Three goals in four games, his previous three goals having come in a 47-game stretch. Not since January 2020 had Jimenez scored more than once in a single match. Hearing the Mexican described as “a player full of confidence” on co-commentary was weird but also entirely fair and it’s lovely to see.
Erik ten Hag
Some other managers might consider losing half the dressing room if it garners that sort of response. A Manchester United side apparently torn apart through mutiny put together their best performance of the season against a major rival to defy the narrative and drown out what Ten Hag has termed “the noise”.
He needed that. Any sort of negative result or performance would have been fuel to the fire, oxygen to the leaks. The coverage and the crisis levels might well have become unbearable with another defeat.
But the Dutchman engineered a fine display in which another of his make-or-break calls – dropping Marcus Rashford in this case – was entirely vindicated. Even if he is fighting the strongest of currents when it comes to changing the culture of a squad that has undermined a series of managers, Ten Hag has shown a rare ability to keep his head above water when most would expect him to drown.
It is no longer a coincidence. It hasn’t been for a while in truth. This calendar year, Arsenal have turned draws against Manchester United (twice), Aston Villa and Luton into victories, and a defeat to Southampton into a draw, with goals scored in the 90th minute or later. And that arbitrary mark cuts off late revivals against Manchester City, Chelsea and Brentford this season alone.
There were obvious issues to address, not least the continuing goalkeeper conundrum and a rare fallibility from set-pieces. But Mikel Arteta praised “that drive, that energy, that risk and emotion” for a reason; some games need to be won on character rather than class and the Gunners passed a test most of their more recent iterations would have summarily failed.
The irony is that had they drawn or lost, it would have been described by critics as ‘typical Arsenal’, but the eventual outcome was far more representative of what Arteta’s side have become through the self-fulfilling prophecy of their last-ditch comebacks.
Perhaps they are happening a little too often, papering over some worrying cracks in the background. But even then, Arsenal continuing to emerge with the necessary result is proof of title-worthy testicular fortitude – and more than justifies the manager’s apparently punishable “excessive celebrating”.
Look, we are doing our best over here.
Arteta quite rightly punished for a mild fist pump whilst De Zerbi gets off scot-free running across the pitch at the City Ground like a screaming banshee a couple of weeks ago 👍🏻👮🏻♂️pic.twitter.com/QUM7ZjsnGQ https://t.co/QDxa7QEJkJ
— 🚨The Celebration Police🚨 (@PLCPolice) December 6, 2023
There are a handful of players whose fitness and availability will help decide the Premier League title race. Rodri is perhaps the most obvious, but Declan Rice, William Saliba, Virgil van Dijk, Mo Salah and apparently John sodding McGinn are in that next echelon of importance.
Jesus can count himself among that number. The Brazilian might have only directly contributed two goals and an assist to Arsenal’s domestic cause – and one of each of those came in the Luton victory – but that attack is so much more fluid and fluent for his presence. No player has been more influential in turning the tepid, unappetising water of Kai Havertz into glorious wine.
Not only the holy grail of full-back assisting opposite full-back – for the winner, no less – but those two players were the oldest and youngest outfielders on the pitch for Roberto De Zerbi’s side, both capturing the essence of Brighton’s brilliance perfectly.
“Jack is the ‘son’ of Pascal Gross,” the manager said of the teenaged Hinshelwood. “He can play in every position and he is smart. He works like Pascal Gross. He started in full-back position but then he played between the lines.” It’s like a Football Manager glitch, with a player tutoring his own regen.
That first initial and surname combination has irresistible Premier League midweek energy, as David’s hat-trick for Blackburn against Manchester United in 2006 and ludicrous north London derby volley for Spurs two years later irrevocably proved. But Wolves back-up goalkeeper Dan rose to the challenge both of upholding that proud tradition and filling in for Jose Sa against a side who had just scored five goals in one game.
Burnley were never likely to repeat that feat on Tuesday but Bentley’s contribution to the cause was vital all the same, his double save from Jay Rodriguez and Josh Brownhill coming a matter of minutes before Hwang Hee-chan scored what would turn out to be the winner.
The 30-year-old didn’t concede in over an hour against Arsenal either, with this both his first clean sheet and first win in three Premier League starts. He is also probably about third in the England keeper pecking order now because that’s how it works, especially when you have single-handedly kept more clean sheets than Brighton all league season.
Bournemouth and Bill Foley deserve immense credit for holding their nerve through those winless first nine games. Since then, 13 points from a six-game run in which the Cherries have faced three of the top seven has provided vindication.
Those substitutions helped sum up a shift in approach and ambition. Bournemouth led from the 25th minute onwards away from home, having half the amount of shots as Palace in the subsequent hour. Game state and all that. But none of those four changes were defensive. Marcus Tavernier and Dango Ouattara were not extra defenders thrown on to shore up the result, and Kieffer Moore and Philip Billing combined to score the goal to put it beyond doubt.
Bournemouth have already won as many Premier League games by a margin of two goals or more than they did in the entirety of last season; that is no coincidence.
Ross Barkley and Andros Townsend
Losers on the night, but winners overall for taking a perceived step down to reinvigorate their careers, reignite that hunger and play their part in an incredible story.
Barkley explained when he joined Luton that “over the last couple of years I’ve not played as much as I’d have liked,” while Townsend “felt like my time had gone” before the Hatters rocked up in October to give him a contract until January. It will surely be extended.
Both feel indebted to Rob Edwards and his side and it shows. Barkley and Townsend were international teammates five times (and counting?) but they have found an unlikely home at Kenilworth Road. Whoever had them combining to score a goal against the Premier League leaders in December 2023 when they first played together for England in November 2013 can finally tick that off the bingo card, shame as it was coming in a losing effort.
“It’s embarrassing. I don’t deserve it. I’m very grateful, but I don’t deserve it,” was Cooper’s reaction to the support shown by the away end at Craven Cottage. If your name is still being sung by the fans after a 5-0 thrashing to Fulham then you’re doing something right.
Perhaps it’s more accurate to point out that Cooper has done something right. He is responsible for taking Forest to this point. He brought them to the party. The only pertinent question currently is whether he can keep them there.
The fans are undeniably onside and aspersions should not be cast over the players without proof. The issues on display against Fulham were more of confidence than insurrection, of “lost races” as Cooper termed them, rather than simply not showing up. The fifth goal, with aimless passes around the back before a couple of daft decisions by Murillo and Ryan Yates let Fulham in again, summed up the cowed, uncertain performance of a team in horrible form.
The other variable, the last and ultimately most decisive of the holy trifecta in terms of Cooper’s continued employment, is the owner. And while Evangelos Marinakis lobbing his lanyard into a nearby garden after the fourth goal does not immediately emit faith in the manager, Cooper at least holds the support of those worthy of the term.
He might not feel deserving of that backing, but nor would he deserve for his reign to end in that manner, as understandable a call as it would be.
Found this thrown on a bush in someone’s front garden just outside Craven Cottage… someone clearly left in a strop… 😂 pic.twitter.com/l4M235cE5Z
— Dom Manning (@dommanning) December 6, 2023
Liverpool and Watford supporters will unhappily attest that connection with a fanbase has not always been Hodgson’s strength, nor even his priority. For better or worse, he guarantees a 33% win percentage, a solid number of clean sheets, relatively few proper thrashings in comparison to managers with anything close to his experience, and a mid-table finish.
He is a certain owner or chairman’s dream, an assurance of stability, a cheat code for those wanting to finish between 11th and 14th. Steve Parish, basically.
For Crystal Palace, that was ideal for a few post-De Boer years – although the safety blanket was clung to for slightly too long – and as a short-term fix after Patrick Vieira. But making that arrangement permanent in the summer for one more season was a mistake because of what it represented: the club locked in stasis for one more campaign.
Palace have tried twice in the last six years to branch out and do something different, and both times have ultimately resulted in an emergency call being made to Hodgson. It can only feel like a step back, a deeply unsatisfying rebound at the first sign of trouble in a more exotic relationship.
And that residual resentment is manifesting itself in some wonderful post-match Hodgson snark. Having already rowed back on his bizarre scapegoating of the club’s young players after defeat to Spurs in October, the manager backpedalled on calling Palace fans “spoiled” in record time.
But that chasm in perspective between manager and fanbase had already been exposed. By Hodgson saying “the expectations are high”. By Hodgson saying “people came here to see us win”. By Hodgson saying “they’ve come here today thinking we would run all over” Bournemouth. By Hodgson saying “they came here tonight expecting us to blow this tiny Bournemouth team away”. The “spoiled” quote was foolish but it was part of wider nonsense.
Unless Palace can beat Liverpool, Brighton or Brentford at Selhurst Park this month, they will have completed a full two years in which they have won 11 of 38 home league games. They are 17th in a home Premier League table this season. No fan turned up on Wednesday night expecting victory. Hodgson can be certain of that.
He will surely keep Palace up. They have won a single game since the start of October yet still enjoy a nine-point and three-team cushion to the relegation places. These runs of form tend to precede better sequences in which Palace bloody a few noses – fine timing, looking at their fixture list. Injuries have played a part. But Palace have been kept up for years and were promised more this time. It is more of a minimum requirement than an achievement for a team that has been in the top flight for a whole decade.
It was supposed to be better than this. Hodgson specifically outlined “the target of a top-half finish” when he returned and Parish spoke of taking the club “to the next level” in the summer. Now the fans are “spoiled” for not wanting to lose 2-0 at home to a Bournemouth team lower in the league, all because they were in the Fourth Division when the manager, a 76-year-old man, was younger? Palace supporters need only quote one of his own more memorable post-match lines in response: “Let’s not take the piss here.”
Manchester City without Rodri
Manchester City have lost each of the last four Premier League games Rodri has missed. They won the one before that 6-3. He is important.
Since he joined in summer 2019, Manchester City’s Premier League record when Rodri has played 30 minutes or fewer of a match is: P24 W15 D2 L7 F49 A26. In per-game numbers, that is 1.96 points, 2.23 goals scored and 1.08 goals against.
When the midfielder plays an hour or more, it is: P143 W104 D20 L19 F365 A115. In per-game numbers, that is 2.32 points, 2.55 goals and 0.8 goals against.
That represents a monumental difference in what is likely to be another close race: an extra 14 points, 12 goals for and 11 against. Guardiola is right to say he needs to figure out a way of helping Manchester City cope without Rodri, but even with the Spaniard in place they look weirdly fallible.
Only once this season have Chelsea recorded the same consecutive result: when they beat Fulham and Burnley in the space of six days in October. Before and since, the Blues have not had back-to-back wins, draws or defeats.
Perhaps that is a mere statistical quirk, but those persistent peaks and troughs feel inevitable when trying to build something on quicksand. Every win is a turned corner. Some draws are steps forward and others steps back. Every defeat brings a new problem to have to solve. Without consistency, there can be no progress. And with more than £1bn spent, there has to be progress.
The thing is, almost certainly at no stage did Todd Boehly think this wouldn’t work, that he couldn’t just keep throwing money and eight-year contracts around and it not all pay off eventually. Mauricio Pochettino might figure the puzzle out but there will be no contingency plan in place for if he doesn’t. Last season could be written off as a transitional year; this campaign cannot. Yet Chelsea are five points worse off at the same stage and are possibly even less coherent.
An even game in which both sides forced the opposition into a decisive mistake with a high turnover, yet Wolves maximised an opportunity Burnley had earlier wasted.
It remains the case that the Clarets have only won games they were victorious in last season. It remains the case that there is a great deal there to work with – in terms of manager, squad and infrastructure – yet not enough to simultaneously fend off relegation this campaign while the project is ongoing. It remains the case that they are a Dwight Gayle of a football club in their current state and you know precisely what that means.
Having most of your best players simultaneously either injured or suspended is starting to look a bit daft. Should probably reconsider that stance.
They won, sure. And a fine if understandably stodgy win it was, as much as it was the wrong game to write about. But that is all besides the point, because now Manchester City have kindly stepped away from the title race and definitely won’t be returning, the plot twist has become that much more clear and obvious. Liverpool are two points behind Arsenal with almost the exact same goal difference. That gap is going to remain pristinely in place until May, isn’t it? Both going to win all their remaining games while drawing against each other in a relentless race, aren’t they? The Spurs defeat is going to be pivotal, isn’t it? And Premier League corruption is going to prevent that from being replayed, isn’t it? You can try to throw us off the scent by letting Simon Hooper officiate a Liverpool win after his Manchester City advantage nonsense but we’re not going to be fooled that easily.
Phenomenal work to come into a job in which there are approximately no expectations, following a 5-0 thrashing against a direct rival, to receive a standing ovation from the supporters before a spirited but entirely deserved defeat to a title challenger, only to question the performance of the referees. Fair play for getting up to speed so quickly on where the blame always lies, even if there is none to really be apportioned.