There are some strong words for the Premier League after a weekend of postponements, huge wins, devastating losses and awful Kane tackles.
Tottenham’s different midfield
Nuno Espirito Santo and Antonio Conte seemed to have one thing in common: a shared fondness for the double act of Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg and Oliver Skipp. With the Dane out of action and the Englishman perhaps only fit enough to be a substitute, Conte had to reconfigure his midfield with three who have come to look misfits at Tottenham. But they were all excellent and minus the twin defensive beacons, Spurs had a counter-attacking threat – albeit against a Liverpool side without Fabinho and Jordan Henderson.
Tanguy Ndombele played the perfectly-weighted defence-splitting pass for Harry Kane’s opener. Dele Alli came close to scoring and produced his best attacking display of the season. Harry Winks played some of the kind of progressive passes Spurs have lacked at times this season. One led to the terrific Heung-min Son’s equaliser. Conte showed there is life in players who looked like deadwood. And Tottenham’s oldest midfielder – the 52-year-old head coach – offered evidence his team, with his tactical nous, can take on the best as his switch to 3-5-2 worked.
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Can a goalkeeper be a winner when he has made a mistake that cost a goal and two points? Maybe not but if so, Alisson surely was. Yes, he was at fault for Son’s leveller but a first-half save from Alli was superb, a second-half stop from Kane even better.
A record 34 wins and 106 league goals in 2021, 10 wins in 11 games in all competitions, separated only by a meaningless defeat to RB Leipzig, and the Christmas No. 1 spot. Beating Newcastle 4-0 may have been the easy bit, but they were the big winners on a day when Liverpool and Chelsea both drew.
There was perhaps a solitary element of Cancelo’s game that merited criticism this season: his shooting. He had flourished in the unique role of left-back/playmaker but no-one had attempted as many shots in the Premier League without scoring. That mantle now passes to Adama Traore after Cancelo’s cracker against Newcastle. And if Cancelo’s latest assist owed plenty to wretched defending, perhaps, with him on the right, the left-back berth brings added creativity: Oleksandr Zinchenko’s cross for Riyad Mahrez’s goal was lovely.
The problem with Arteta’s Arsenal is that they can lend themselves to very different conclusions. But when they are good, sometimes they are very good.
Some of Arteta’s gameplans work perfectly. Some of his young players are terrific. Saturday’s 4-1 win at Leeds showed as much. It felt like a clinical dissection of the flaws of Marcelo Bielsa’s side, aided by Arsenal’s youthful verve but orchestrated by Arteta and Alexandre Lacazette. It seemed telling that all four goals came from wingers coming from outside in to take advantage of the space Lacazette created by vacating it.
Victory gave them a cushion in fourth place. Look at Arsenal’s season and the two stand-out results – for the wrong reasons – are the defeats at Brentford and Everton. Their other 16 games have brought four defeats against the Champions League clubs and 32 points from a possible 36 against the rest. Keep up that consistency against the other 15 clubs and the Champions League might beckon.
Martinelli has taken Emile Smith Rowe’s place in the team, even though the Englishman has come off the bench to score in the last couple of games, but in a sense he has proved the internal answer to Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. Rewind to Arsenal’s first half-season under Arteta and the captain, as he then was, tended to cut in at speed from the left to finish with his right foot and with unerring accuracy. As Lacazette drops deep, the Brazilian is the Arsenal player likeliest to run in behind defences. As plenty of others prefer to operate between the lines, it gives them a different dimension and Martinelli a case, beyond his goals, to stay in the side.
Leeds’ bleakest week since their return to the Premier League has nevertheless offered one reason for optimism: Gelhardt scored against Chelsea and won a penalty against Arsenal. It is no secret he is a talent but an ability to make an impact for a struggling side against two of the best teams bodes well. Leeds still miss Patrick Bamford but, when he is back, Gelhardt looks as though he could be a fine impact substitute for now.
Joe Gelhardt has played 270 minutes of PL football, 230 of those against Spurs, Chelsea, City and Arsenal.
He’s scored 1 goal and won 2 penalties in a team that’s struggling.
It’s clear as day he’s ready, good enough and will be a superstar #lufc
— Tommo (@LUFC1992_v2) December 19, 2021
Nuno turned his captain into a centre-back. Bruno Lage seems to have transformed him into an even better one. Coady did not need to add to his collection of improbable goal-line clearances to keep Chelsea out, but in itself that was a sign of how well Wolves did. But he was impeccable, both in his positioning and the timing of his tackles. On paper a back three of Coady, Romain Saiss and Max Kilman, plus Jose Sa as a goalkeeper, might not look one of the best defences in the Premier League. They absolutely are on the pitch, though.
So much for the theory he would be phased out this season. Well into his 38th year, Silva has started 10 of Chelsea’s last 12 games and come off the bench in another. He has begun three in eight days. The mid-match switch to a back four at Molineux meant he had more one-on-one defending to do. He was left isolated as the last man at the back on occasions when Chelsea committed others upfield. Wolves had a policy of looking to isolate forwards against Silva and release them as soon as possible. But he was immaculate and outstanding.
Winner and loser
Made one, scored one, got sent off and Harry Kane tried to maim him. If much of a brilliant game revolved around Robertson, he was brilliant in it. He was marauding and magnificent as Liverpool’s full-backs were dynamic and relentless. The cross Robertson pinged for Diogo Jota to head in was terrific, but far from his only excellent delivery. On the other side, Trent Alexander-Arnold was almost as good, and if they are Anfield’s assist twins, Robertson ensured his sidekick got one by stooping to head in the right-back’s cross. But he could have been stretchered off and ended up sent off for his swipe at Emerson Royal. Robertson admitted the red card was the right decision; if only others involved in the flashpoints shared his honesty.
The Premier League
An embarrassing, farcical week for the world’s best league concluded with an outstanding match, which in turn ought to show them why it is in their interests to actually ensure games go ahead. As they seem to care precious little for supporters, they may want to listen more to the broadcast partners who pay them billions, probably didn’t enjoy seeing their schedules ripped up, sometimes at the last minute, and may soon start to ask for rebates. Out of 10 games this weekend, only four went ahead; this after midweek postponements on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday.
And while these are troubled times in many walks of life, the Premier League is partly responsible for its own problems. With a couple of notable exceptions, such as the admirable Jurgen Klopp, there has been a lack of leadership. Managers who are obsessed with tiny details have tried to dodge major issues by saying it isn’t for them to tell others to get a jab. That, in turn, has led to the rampant stupidity of unvaccinated players contributing to games being called off. They brought football to a halt. In La Liga, Ligue Un, Serie A and the Bundesliga, with their far higher vaccination rates, this has not happened. It shouldn’t just be Klopp telling players they have a moral duty to be vaccinated. They also have a financial one: to their clubs.
At the moment, several multi-million pound businesses are out of action because employees are guilty of professional negligence. The league needs to take a harder stance: unvaccinated players should not be paid, and should be fined, for each match they miss. If unvaccinated players who have not tested positive are isolating, they are neither injured nor ill but absent as a result of their own actions and they should be replaced with Under-23s. Clubs who have 70 or 80 footballers on their books, including Under-23s and Under-18s, should find it harder to get postponements because they allegedly can’t field a team. Difficult as Thomas Tuchel’s task became, the Premier League was correct to refuse Chelsea a postponement when they could still name a bench including Mateo Kovacic, Saul Niguez and Ross Barkley.
Both the league and the clubs have a duty to communicate. If players are out, they need to say who, rather than merely expecting everyone to accept diktats from bodies who repeatedly show a lack of transparency. Information is the least supporters deserve. So, too, is a cut-off time so that those travelling to a ground can know they will actually see a game there. Anyone postponing a match after then ought to refund everyone every penny spent getting there.
Spare a thought for Burnley and their fans; there are times when it seems as though few do but, for the second time in four days, they had a game called off through no fault of their own, one with 150 minutes’ notice, the next with just 140, each after being treated shoddily by their opponents. On Wednesday, Watford didn’t bother to tell Burnley the game was in doubt, which feels utterly unacceptable. This time, they had travelled down the M6 to Villa Park, never a pleasant experience in itself. On the plus side, they now have the best defensive record in December.
It isn’t saying much to argue this was Kane’s best display of the Premier League campaign so far. Just his second goal of the season was taken superbly. He was more creative and more elusive. His old alliance with Son worked wonderfully. And as he got away with his misdemeanour, some would term him a winner. But his challenge on Robertson was atrocious, reckless, out of control and the definition of a red card. For Paul Tierney and the VAR to keep him on the field was a failure of officiating. For Kane to claim afterwards that he got the ball was nonsensical and embarrassing.
No-one else plays like Bielsa and Leeds’ last two games, which they have lost by an aggregate score of 11-1, demonstrates why. It is horribly hard to do: get it right and it looks brilliant but get it wrong and you can be ripped apart. Leeds felt shambolic against Arsenal, just as they did against Manchester City, with massive gaps opening up as the Gunners dragged players trained to man-mark all over the pitch. Putting Robin Koch on Lacazette backfired but it was hard to identify a Leeds player who won his duel. Arsenal mustered 11 first-half shots on target, the most in a Premier League game since Opta first compiled such records. Factor in Leeds’ capacity to give the ball away in their own half and they are increasingly liable to be thrashed by the stronger sides. Their defensive record, albeit after playing more games, is now worse than Norwich’s.
Bielsa was left looking naïve, a martyr to idiosyncratic policies, including operating with a small squad, which has then meant Leeds were stretched, with understudies unable to play an attacking approach without conceding. He has an admirable refusal to complain about injuries, a reluctance to call for new signings and a self-flagellating willingness to blame himself. Perhaps Bielsa would never forgive himself if Leeds were relegated but it is coming to look very possible.
A maiden Premier League start is not always something to savour, as Drameh can now testify. The problem of a man-marking system comes when a player is isolated against a superior opponent: an in-form, inspired Martinelli, in Drameh’s case. He was nowhere near the Brazilian when he scored his first goal and was caught behind him by Granit Xhaka’s defence-splitting pass for the second. When Smith Rowe replaced Martinelli, Drameh was left behind the substitute when he scored. In a zonal-marking system or a more defensive team, he might have been afforded more cover. In Bielsa’s Leeds side, Drameh was exposed.
In his defence, he was probably only the third-best right-back in the starting 11, with Luke Ayling required in the middle and Stuart Dallas on the left. Diego Llorente, Kalvin Phillips and Jamie Shackleton, while all preferring to operate elsewhere, would probably have been better choices were they not part of Leeds’ sizeable injured contingent. It is not Drameh’s fault their squad is so slim. He is not a cause of their problems, but he did look a symptom.
At half-time, he ranked as a winner. Xhaka’s wonderfully incisive pass set up Martinelli’s second goal and was a reminder of the ability on the ball that explains why three very different Arsenal managers have all selected him when available. Then came an illustration of why much of the wider world regards him as a liability – the wretched, needless lunge at Raphinha. It should have been a red card and, as Xhaka was already sent off at the Etihad Stadium this season, a four-match ban that would have put him out of the Sunderland, Norwich, Wolves and Manchester City games. Instead, he contrived to get booked for timewasting when 4-1 up, which still seemed the sort of thing that happens to Xhaka.
Some of the joy of football stems from incompetence and there isn’t enough of it in the Premier League. So we should cherish Clark, even if Newcastle shouldn’t. In his last two games at St James’ Park, he has got needlessly sent off in the ninth minute and then taken the equally strange decision to duck so that Ruben Dias could head in Manchester City’s fifth-minute opener. Turning his back when Cancelo doubled City’s lead was scarcely the finest bit of defending, either. Given Clark’s dodgy start to games, perhaps Eddie Howe might want to begin with 10 men and then bring him on after 10 minutes. Or maybe not pick him at all.
Yes, Newcastle should have had a penalty. Howe nevertheless needs to spend less time complaining about referees and prefacing his complaints by saying he doesn’t like to complain about referees, and more fixing a dreadful defence now breached 11 times in the last three games – something that requires spending, but also coaching. Bournemouth’s poor defensive record under him feels pertinent: so, too, the fact that Burnley and Watford are amassing games in hand on Newcastle now.
Ross Barkley, Saul Niguez and Hakim Ziyech
Chelsea were short of fully-fit midfielders (and players, for that matter) at Wolves. There was no Jorginho and no Ruben Loftus-Cheek. A rushed-back N’Golo Kante put in a heroic shift at Molineux and Kovacic reappeared after 11 games out in a cameo. It was a less uplifting experience for others. Barkley was the only senior outfield player, apart from defender Malang Sarr, who did not get a minute on the pitch. Niguez’s capacity to fall behind virtually everyone other than Barkley was illustrated when he began on the bench as Ziyech and Trevoh Chalobah started in midfield instead, even though the Spaniard came on to produce a tidy performance. And the Moroccan exerted an influence neither in the deeper role nor, after a change of shape, in more familiar areas further forward.