Premier League winners and losers: Emery brilliant, Chelsea plunged into actual relegation battle

Matt Stead
Unai Emery, Bukayo Saka and Chelsea coach Frank Lampard

Unai Emery, Roy Hodgson and Gary O’Neil are showing that mid-season manager appointments can work. Chelsea genuinely might get relegated with theirs.


Gary O’Neil
While it can sometimes seem as though successful top-flight management is beyond the capabilities of English central midfielders who played in the Premier League during the mid-2000s, Gary O’Neil has taken the invert route of Messrs Gerrard, Lampard and even his Bournemouth predecessor Parker.

Those excellent players became mediocre coaches. This average player has turned into an excellent manager.

Considering Parker has been intermittently linked with the Tottenham job in recent years, this was a doubly satisfying win for O’Neil. He inherited a Bournemouth side condemned to relegation and has instilled a belief few other sides can match. The Cherries have a worse squad than most, but a far better idea of what they are doing and an attitude which should shame many of their rivals.

O’Neil is not close to the best manager in the league, and doubts remain over his long-term suitability to the post. But it feels absolutely fair to say that no-one could have done a better job for Bournemouth in the circumstances.

Bournemouth boss Gary O'Neil during a match


Copying someone’s homework sounds easy and tempting enough but there will soon be problems if you don’t understand the sums. Chelsea can steal all the answers they want; only Brighton can show their working-out.

There might never have been a more gratifying, rewarding result in Premier League history. Chelsea took Brighton’s manager, his entire coaching staff, their head of recruitment and a £60m player. Chelsea then took an absolute beating as Brighton out-shot them more than three to one, with four times as many corners and more possession in their first-ever league victory at Stamford Bridge.

The plight of Marc Cucurella epitomises everything. Chelsea saw him thrive at Brighton and threw money in their general direction. They managed the ‘who’ of recognising a good player, without even vaguely considering the ‘why’ or ‘how’ of what made him so, the systems and tactics and culture and environment and dynamics that go into competent squad building.

The Spaniard spent the whole match on the bench.

Without knowledge, money is useless. Brighton have the blueprint and they know what comes with the territory of being the biggest league in the world’s best-run club by far. The vultures will return from Chelsea and elsewhere but the Seagulls have countless contingency plans which cannot be bought.


Unai Emery
Aston Villa accruing more points than every team bar Arsenal and Manchester City since Unai Emery’s first Premier League game in charge is old news. Aston Villa sitting 12th in the current table if they gave every other team a 14-game head start and only counted their results since the Spaniard’s appointment is where it’s at. They have 38 points from November 6 onwards under Emery; Thomas Tuchel, Graham Potter, Bruno Saltor and Frank Lampard have guided Chelsea to 39 points since August 6.

The sheer gravitational pull of a man born to stride Europa League touchlines has dragged Villa up to sixth and on the longest consecutive winning run of their Premier League history. Not even John Gregory’s title challengers could string five straight victories together at the height of their 20th century powers.

The Emery turnaround has been remarkable, both on a personal and collective level. His individual reputation has been not only restored but enhanced; if all managers to have been in place for at least 50 Premier League games were ranked by win percentage, Emery would be 11th. And Villa have been raised from a relegation battle to European contention after acknowledging something wasn’t working and rectifying it. The next manager who complains that they need a pre-season or more investment in the transfer market for their impact to be properly felt should be sent on their Emery way.


Diego Costa
Of course Diego Costa’s first Premier League goal since scoring for Chelsea in May 2017 was essentially a tackle. The 34-year-old rolled back at least half a dozen years with a scrappy, determined but ultimately ultra-effective performance to pull Wolves further clear of relegation concerns which had grown after one win in seven.

Wolves have been aggressively mid-table since Julen Lopetegui’s arrival, ninth in a table of results since the Spaniard’s appointment with seven wins to six and as many goals scored as conceded (18). This remains a period of relative uncertainty and flux, with foundations being laid which can be built on this summer. Diego Costa will not have a substantial part to play in their long-term future but there are few players better at setting short-term standards in terms of character and attitude.

Diego Costa has helped restore pride in this side with his sheer force of personality and work-rate. Molineux has rarely witnessed a goal celebrated so joyously by the players or fans. At times this season, the first six words of that last sentence have worked perfectly well as its own separate point.


Steve Parish
Fair play to the cleverest man in a room full of people otherwise scratching their heads and stifling laughter. Where most saw a retired 75-year-old who had been out of work since failing to keep Watford afloat almost 12 months prior, Steve Parish sought solace in “the only Palace manager to secure four years in the Premier League”.

Roy Hodgson will almost certainly make it a fifth. And it would be a mistake to put his three wins, nine goals and one clean sheet in two weeks down solely to a fixture list which Patrick Vieira’s biggest supporters pointed towards with quizzical looks.

This transformation reaches far deeper than a new manager bounce against kind opposition. Eberechi Eze has been incredible. Michael Olise’s improvement is clear. Jordan Ayew and Jeffrey Schlupp look revitalised. Cheick Doucoure is more controlled and focused and far less isolated. The confidence that was shattered across three winless months has been instantly rebuilt.

And all this has been accomplished without the player Palace – and by extension Hodgson – were supposed to not be able to function properly without.

It remains a short-term solution, albeit one which has proven an awful lot of people and awful lot of wrong. This summer, Hodgson will leave Palace in a far better position than that in which he found them for the second time in a stunning career. That final chapter needed rewriting after the Watford debacle but this is a better draft than surely even Parish envisaged.


Victor Lindelof
The sporadic panic which takes hold at Man Utd when their £48m (Lisandro Martinez) and £41m (Raphael Varane) centre-halves are unavailable is fun. The humiliation of having to pick their £85m (Harry Maguire) or £30.75m (Victor Lindelof) defenders is always palpable.

Much like Christian Eriksen slotting seamlessly into a potential title-winning midfield at short notice, Lindelof in particular stepped up to the challenge of filling those considerable shoes. Maguire was effective enough but his partner was effortlessly good both in defence and possession.

With Martinez, Varane and Maguire all out of the FA Cup semi-final with Brighton, the burden will fall on Lindelof to guide an inexperienced option through. He has proven himself more than capable.


Vladimir Coufal
Perhaps partially at fault for the first goal at least, yet that paints the rest of his performance in even more positive a light. West Ham supporters must have feared Coufal’s head to head with Gabriel Martinelli but the right-back was absolutely excellent, particularly in the second half. No player made more tackles or clearances as the Czech international led a determined resistance.


Daniel James
On his 102nd appearance, Daniel James scored and assisted goals in the same Premier League game for the first time. Oh, Everton.


Alex Moreno
Important as it is not to get ahead of ourselves, he has the potential to be the best Spanish left-back called Al Moreno the Premier League has ever seen.


Erling Haaland
Didn’t even realise he’d scored another two goals to be honest. The bloke was already a winner for his John Stones impression.



Sean Dyche
It feels as though many were drawn into assuming Sean Dyche had pulled Everton to shore, yet a tide as mild as losing Abdoulaye Doucoure to suspension threatens to sweep both manager and club away.

In two games without their midfield talisman, Everton have looked awful. Amadou Onana and Idrissa Gueye could not cope at Man Utd, while Gueye and James Garner were far less forgivably abject against Fulham.

Dyche has failed to come up with an adequate solution to a problem which really shouldn’t have derailed Everton so drastically. Even beyond Doucoure, the defensive shape which underpinned their impressive early results is gone, the use of Ben Godfrey at right-back is puzzling and the handling of both Ellis Simms and Dominic Calvert-Lewin, at least from an external point of view, seems peculiar.

Fulham had lost their last five before rocking up at Goodison Park and picking the holes in a 4-4-2 system which emphasised Everton’s weaknesses if anything. Dyche soon changed that shape but acknowledged this was a “step backwards” in his reign.

Those are to be expected from a team in Everton’s position, but as much as relying on Neal Maupay to take his chances in a relegation battle is a rank failure of squad composition, Dyche has enough experience and wherewithal in these specific situations not to make such strange mistakes.


Bukayo Saka
As Mikel Arteta said, “a player that takes penalties misses penalties”. But even beyond that errant spot kick, Saka continued his relatively worrying form in this wider Arsenal stumble.

The 21-year-old has had a sensational season but the drop-off is clear. Saka’s only goals or assists in his last eight Arsenal games came against Paddy McCarthy’s Crystal Palace. The West Ham draw was the first time this season he has failed to create a chance or complete a dribble in the same game.

That tame effort at the end of a late three-on-two attack Saka never looked confident leading summed up an uncharacteristically blunt offering from a player struggling to match the incredibly high standards he has set. With Gabriel Jesus, Gabriel Martinelli and Martin Odegaard all substituted in search of a goal, it was curious to see Saka left flailing for the full 90 minutes.


The Premier League’s best centre-half partnership
Considering the ruination Ollie Watkins wrought on the second of these defensive combinations in October 2020, perhaps his dismantling of this season’s supposed meanest pairing should have come as no surprise.

Botman and Schar had only conceded more than once in three of their previous 31 appearances together: a 3-3 draw with Manchester City in August, then consecutive 2-0 defeats to Liverpool and Man Utd in February. The way in which they struggled to deal with the movement, pace and physicality of Watkins was anomalous.

But it must have been concerning to see them so isolated and exposed. None of the system functioned properly, Kieran Trippier and Dan Burn offered no assistance whatsoever, and the hapless centre-halves bore the brunt of the punishment.


The Opta curse was real this weekend; the excellent partnership between Ben Mee and Ethan Pinnock simply could not cope with what one of the division’s least effective attacking forces had to offer.

Brentford have suddenly lost three on the bounce and are five without victory, having won just once in seven since their impressive unbeaten run was ended.

With Kristoffer Ajer unavailable, the departing Pontus Jansson injured and Zanka having not started since New Year’s Day, Mee and Pinnock will be excited to learn of their next opponents: Villa and Watkins.


What was the logic behind sacking Graham Potter to temporarily replace him with Frank Lampard?

It cannot have been Champions League pedigree – Lampard lost his only previous knockout tie in that competition 7-1 on aggregate, even before the 2-0 quarter-final first-leg defeat to Real Madrid this month.

Potter, meanwhile, had navigated past Dortmund before his sacking.

It cannot have been familiarity with this squad, considering the wholesale changes made in the two years since he last managed Chelsea.

It cannot have been for greater tactical acumen, considering Lampard has used three wildly different formations in his hat-trick of defeats in as many games this season.

It surely could not have been to lift the mood, because those amnesiac supporters who did not see through the transparent attempt to appease them were always going to roll up their banners as soon as performances did not improve and results got even worse than they were before.

Perhaps Todd Boehly simply had the foresight to install Lampard, who has escaped relegation with Everton before, because he knew Chelsea would be within six points of Crystal Palace, Wolves and Bournemouth with seven games remaining. And those glances over the shoulder genuinely might become more nervous with a fixture list including Brentford, Arsenal, Man Utd, Manchester City and Newcastle.

Is it too early to call the May meetings with Bournemouth and Nottingham Forest six-pointers? Again, we’re only half-joking here.


Frank Lampard
On a more personal level: seven consecutive defeats and one win, two draws and 14 losses(!) in his last 17 games.

This was never the win-win situation many pretended it was for Lampard on a personal level; if this carries on his managerial career will be unsalvageable, whether or not he knows where the Stamford Bridge loos are.


Daniel Levy
There goes another unfortunate lightning rod for a great deal of pent-up rage and existential fury. Davinson Sanchez was an innocent bystander caught in the crossfire of a club at war with itself; it was never about him but that is impossible to rationalise when being booed, jeered and sarcastically cheered by thousands while trying to do your job.

Tottenham are sustaining so much collateral damage that it has started to become self-inflicted. The levels of toxicity are dangerous and yet more people are being dragged under the spotlight who simply don’t deserve it.


Here’s something ludicrous: Southampton have completed league doubles over more opponents this season than Liverpool, despite having only won six games all campaign.

And something else: Ralph Hasenhuttl has still accrued more Premier League points this season than any other Southampton manager.

One last thing: the last three teams Southampton beat in the Premier League – (oh) Everton in January, Chelsea in February and Leicester in March – have since changed managers.

Just lose 9-0 and leave.


Keylor Navas
Big fan of a goalkeeper marking their debut with a clean sheet in a win, then recording neither in their next ten games.


Dean Smith
Not to piss on any Leicester survival bonfire, but they have employed a firefighter with three wins in his last 27 games as a Premier League manager. And two of those were against doomed Burnley and Watford. The other? Oh, Everton.