Adama Traore produced the sort of cameo against West Ham that makes you wonder – even in these parsimonious times – why every club in Europe isn’t chasing his signature.
The Hammers had looked reasonably comfortable for 60 minutes, before Traore (with more hair but the same extreme pace and quality), came from the bench to win the game for his side. David Moyes claimed West Ham had prepared for the threat of Traore, and actually there’s no particular reason to doubt that; they were just powerless to stop him.
For the first goal, he was past the defenders doubling-up on him with two touches, before using a delightfully minimal back-lift to clip a cross on to Raul Jimenez’s head. Pablo Fornals maybe could have been closer to him when he picked up the ball, and perhaps Aaron Cresswell should have closed him down quicker. But to some degree, with a winger as fast as Traore, you’ve just got to pray he gets the final ball wrong – which is happening less and less frequently these days.
And for the second goal he jigged past two or three in midfield, before again selecting the right option by laying the ball on a plate for Matt Doherty, who – in the space left by those drawn to Traore – had all the time in the world to cross for Pedro Neto to volley superbly past Lukasz Fabianski.
We named Traore as one of the ten players we were giddy to watch on the return of Premier League football, and can confirm that being very, very fast does indeed make him “unplayable”. The exemplary decision-making and perfect execution doesn’t hurt either.
The Pogba-Fernandes axis
We’ve still got questions about how it can work long term, and it was only brief, but there was definitely a spark.
The moment leading up to Anthony Martial’s chance in particular was special. Paul Pogba found Bruno Fernandes on the edge of the box, who Cruyff turned and smashed (yes, smashed) a perfect pass into Martial’s path. The vision alone was stunning; to execute the pass was almost unfair.
Pogba’s impact in that game was astounding in general, that half-volleyed pass was absolutely ridiculous, and it was him who danced past Eric Dier for the penalty – and yes, it was a penalty – that was converted by Fernandes.
Manchester United were fortunate in a way, because the rest of their attacking players offered very little. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer simply has to find a way to get them in the same team. Please.
Ralph Hasenhuttl and those that stuck with him
On November 23, 12 games into the season, Southampton sat 19th in the Premier League on just nine points after eight games without a win. The board at Southampton deserve huge credit for sticking with Ralph Hasenhuttl at this juncture. It was a month after the 9-0 embarrassment at home to Leicester and signs of improvement were not leading to an upturn in results.
They knew what they were doing. Before the vital win over Watford on November 30 to stop the rot, they played Spurs, Chelsea, Wolves, Leicester, Man City, Everton and Arsenal on the bounce. That is a very unfortunate run of games, and one that means easier fixtures must be around the corner.
And so Southampton ignored outside pressure to pull the trigger on Hasenhuttl, stuck with their man and reaped the rewards. 18 games later, Southampton have 37 points, just three behind Arsenal, and a further two behind Tottenham. The Saints are now very much looking up the table rather than down.
Sure, it was only Norwich, but the number of bodies Hasenhuttl commits to attacks makes them a very entertaining side to watch whatever the opposition. Danny Ings is the best finisher in the league right now, James Ward-Prowse’s delivery is as good as anyone’s and Nathan Redmond has never looked more lively or keen to impress. They’ll be hoping the fixture generator is a little kinder on them next season.
Ben Chilwell thought he had won the game for Leicester, with his cleanly struck arrow in the 90th minute into the top corner at Vicarage Road. It was a wonderful goal, the something special Leicester needed to break the deadlock after Watford’s defence frustrated them for much of the rest of the game.
But the Foxes didn’t deserve to win this one, with the few good chances evenly split between the two sides on the day. And Craig Dawson drew the Hornets level in the third minute of stoppage time, producing a magnificent spinning scissor-kick to fire past Kasper Schmeichel – it was a stunning end to a frankly unremarkable game of football.
Dawson would be seen by most as an unlikely hero; this was his first goal for Watford after all. There’s a straightforwardness to the way he goes about his defending in particular that allows him to go unnoticed – he’s not unlike his former West Brom teammate Jonny Evans in that way. Maybe there’s something in the Black Country water.
Or more likely, this is an impression we get from all defenders who play under Tony Pulis for a long period. Centre-backs in a Pulis side tend to merge into one after a while; they’re all just bodies, heads and big boots.
But like with Evans, there’s more subtlety to Dawson than those cold, wet days at the Hawthorns would have you believe. And maybe, like with his Leicester counterpart, we will start to appreciate Dawson for the uncomplicated but uncompromising professional he is.
Everton, finding their ‘two’
Carlo Ancelotti has chopped and changed his centre-back pairings all season, but as Seb Stafford-Bloor said in 16 Conclusions, he’s now found his ‘two’. Mason Holgate and Michael Keane dealt brilliantly with the movement of Liverpool’s front three.
The way Roberto Firmino drops into the hole and Sadio Mane and Mo Salah threaten in behind is the reason they’re the most feared attacking force in world football. And you could say a sharper Liverpool would have broken through, or at least one without a major part of their armoury missing. But there was a sense that just like Liverpool’s strikers had gears to go through – if they could only find the clutch – Everton’s defenders also had intensity to spare. It was comfortable, which it never quite seems when Yerry Mina is in the side.
Joelinton and his mates
He’s through on goal. He’s not going to score is he? Not with that body position. No, he’s scuffed it and fallen flat on his face. Joelinton just had far too much time to think about his golden chance in the first half against Sheffield United. A striker that hadn’t scored for 301 days wasn’t going to calmly slot that one past Dean Henderson.
But his build-up play – which is far more his forte than goalscoring – was as good as ever, and the Blades were vulnerable throughout with the striker dovetailing beautifully with Miguel Almiron and Allan Saint-Maximin, who was once again a joy to watch.
This was a St James’ Park performance of old – hustle and bustle, pace, skill, quality and the goals to go with it. Such a shame there was no-one in the stadium to enjoy it – there would have been quite the racket in the second half.
All three were involved in the third goal, with Saint-Maximin popping the ball off to Joelinton in midfield, who spread the ball out wide for Almiron before the big Brazilian sprinted into the box to finish off the Paraguayan’s return pass. This was only the second time all season they’d scored more than two goals in the league, and Joelinton will be a very relieved man to have got one of them.
Chelsea’s defenders attacking, not defending
A win’s a win, and a vital one at that. Chelsea are now a healthy five points above Manchester United, and with Manchester City, Leicester, Liverpool and Wolves still to play, the comeback victory over Aston Villa may just have been a must-win game in the race for Champions League football.
But the Blues can’t defend. Cesar Azpilicueta can, and he can also attack, providing the assists for both Christian Pulisic and Olivier Giroud. But the centre-backs simply aren’t good enough. All four of them – Andreas Christensen, Antonio Rudiger, Fikayo Tomori and Kurt Zouma – are a six out ten, Rudiger a seven, at a push. But none of them come anywhere close to the quality of Virgil van Dijk or Aymeric Laporte.
If Chelsea are seriously wanting to contend for trophies, and it certainly looks like they are given the signings they’ve made and are rumoured to be close to completing, they have got to add a centre-back or two to their transfer wish list. Because the signings they’ve made so far make total sense – improving them in areas they clearly need improvement. To ignore the the area that needs improving most would be a very strange decision.
I took stock after watching Danny Murphy and Phil Neville waxing lyrical over the Chelsea display on Match of the Day 2, who described the football as “superb” and the performance “dominant”. It was easy on the eye, and the ball was being moved a little quicker than in their previous failed attempts to beat relegation-threatened sides. Mason Mount looked sharp, N’Golo Kante played well in his favoured defensive midfield position, and tag team brothers Mateo Kovacic and Ross Barkley both kept the ball moving nicely as they had their customary spell on the pitch.
So perhaps I was a little harsh on Chelsea, it’s their first game back and there was some fluency to be excited by. But let’s see how that defence holds up against Man City on Thursday…
On Match of the Day, Ian Wright, rather than condemn Guendouzi’s actions after Arsenal’s defeat to Brighton, urged his teammates to follow his lead, claiming: “We need to be showing that fight.” And in part, he’s right.
It’s no secret that Arsenal lack leadership and character, and the loss to Brighton was another example of this inadequacy. But this was not the same “fight” of a Patrick Vieira or a Martin Keown, it was pure petulance on Guendouzi’s part after he was deservedly taunted by Neal Maupay at full-time having whispered insults in the striker’s ear for half the game.
Bernd Leno was injured because of what Maupay did, but the Frenchman’s winner still felt like justice. He didn’t mean to injure the Arsenal goalkeeper, and did nothing different to what strikers all over the country would have done that day. And credit to him for getting on with it; he could easily have shied away amid the badgering from the Arsenal players, but instead scored a wonderful goal after a brilliant one-two with Aaron Connolly. It had more than a hint of Dwight Yorke and Andy Cole against Barcelona.
Guendouzi’s throat grab wasn’t quite in the William Gallas hoardings-kick category of post-match meltdowns, but the circumstances were similar. They dropped points from a comfortable position having lost the plot following a serious injury. The big difference being that Arsenal were somewhere near their peak in 2008, while they are at the bottom of their trough in 2020. Or at least they hope they are.
Control the ball, lad.
Roy Keane and the future of punditry
Roy Keane’s half-time rant in Sky Sports’ coverage of Manchester United’s 1-1 draw at Tottenham was very entertaining. Entertaining in the same way as watching Love Island or the early rounds of Britain’s Got Talent. You are enjoying it, but hating yourself for doing so, and can feel your brain cells disintegrating with every ludicrously hasty proclamation of love, duff note or over-dramatised exclamation of anger.
As Matt Stead said in 16 Conclusions, it all feels very forced. And whether it is or not is really besides the point. After the initial amusement at Keane claiming he’d “be throwing punches” after David de Gea and Harry Maguire’s mistakes, and that he “wouldn’t let them back on the bus” to go home, came the realisation that he had offered almost nothing in the way of actual punditry. Even his comment that De Gea should have caught Son Heung-min’s header was made with the mirth of those watching in mind – he can’t genuinely have thought that was an option.
We produced a series called F365 Fake Punditry at the start of lockdown, but Keane’s display was a parody in itself, it went beyond pastiche. Walking smile Patrice Evra played the Jekyll to his Hyde, trying to provide some levity before being shut down simply by Keane repeating “Patrice” in his Irish lilt over and over again without explaining with any clarity why he disagrees so unwaveringly.
But Sky will look at the hits and laughing emojis on social media and pat Roy on the back. He may or may not be putting on an act. He’s just as likely to be genuinely furious as he is to have a little smile to himself in the advert breaks. And it is fun, and entertaining – but that’s got very little to do with football.
We know Ryan Fraser doesn’t want to be at Bournemouth, but does anyone anymore? Eddie Howe confirmed the Scotland international is finished at the club, and won’t play again this season. And in truth, Fraser’s head has been elsewhere all season. He’s provided just four assists after 14 in the last campaign.
To down tools in this way is not a good look. He’s obviously got talent and will be snapped up by someone this summer, but he’s kidding himself if he thinks prospective buyers won’t have looked at his attitude this season and thought twice about making a bid.
And his form, or rather lack of effort, has f****d Bournemouth over. They’ve won just twice in their last 14 fixtures, sit 18th in the table and still have Wolves, Man Utd, Spurs, Leicester and Man City left to play. The smart money is on the Cherries to go down.
They’ve been hit worse than most by injury, and having top summer signing – and Fraser alternative – Arnaut Danjuma out since the start of December was a cruel blow, and David Brooks has been sorely missed. But Eddie Howe has to take a significant portion of the blame.
The defending was woeful against Crystal Palace. For the second goal, no-one tracked Patrick van Aanholt as he was fed down the line by Wilfried Zaha, who was under no pressure when he received the ball. And Jordan Ayew had a simple task of slotting the ball past Aaron Ramsdale from the gaping hole of space he was allowed in the middle of the box.
Will Ford is on Twitter