Bruno Fernandes makes it onto the losers list while other penalty takers lead the winners. It was a funny old weekend…
The big four’s penalty takers
It was about 90 minutes before Cristiano Ronaldo converted his penalty at Carrow Road that Jurgen Klopp made an excellent point about penalties. “If somebody says they don’t count the same, I don’t understand it,” he said. “They count exactly the same.” One for the prize bores who think they are hilarious with their references to ‘Penandes’ and ‘Penaldo,’ perhaps. But as Manchester City, Manchester United, Liverpool and Chelsea won courtesy of nerveless penalty-taking, it illustrated why Klopp did not want to differentiate between penalty and non-penalty goals.
There are different stories within the quartet of scorers. Mohamed Salah is a brilliant penalty taker, as his record of 19 successes out of 21 attempts for Liverpool shows. He likes to drive them in, going for the emphatic approach. Cristiano Ronaldo’s conversion rate is lower, but few players in the history of football have scored more penalties. His spot-kick at Norwich was whipped in, but it is worth remembering that when he returned to Old Trafford, Bruno Fernandes was the nominated spot-kick taker: but for his wild effort against Aston Villa, which illustrated that even the best can miss, Ronaldo may still be second in line.
Jorginho did have a reputation as one of the finest until a spate of misses of late, often in Italy’s colours. But his 94th-minute effort against Leeds was the definition of a pressure penalty, the difference between one point and three. And then there is the odd man out: Raheem Sterling has often been a poor penalty-taker; he wasn’t chosen to take one by Gareth Southgate in the Euro 2020 final. He wasn’t Pep Guardiola’s first choice either, but neither Riyad Mahrez, who has an undistinguished record himself, or Ilkay Gundogan was on the pitch when Jon Moss pointed to the spot. Few teams have more high-class footballers who have missed penalties than City, but Sterling, who often feels a better finisher when he has less time to line up shots, scored. Penalty shootouts are never the lottery of cliché, but they can be tests of character. So, too, stressful spot-kicks in games. The big four’s chosen four passed.
Arsenal’s goalscoring midfielder
A few weeks ago, Emile Smith Rowe scored in three successive league games. Now Martin Odegaard has. It means it is Bukayo Saka’s turn next. The encouraging element is that Arsenal are getting more goals from the players who had scored too few in the past and who could be their creative contingent for years to come. Which could be useful, given that Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang is absent in the present and has an uncertain future.
Leicester’s goalscoring midfielders
As Jamie Vardy looked on from the bench when Leicester scored four and Patson Daka scored one and made another, one conclusion may be that City have got their succession planning right. But, impressive as the summer signing was in attack, the demolition of Newcastle was orchestrated by attacking midfielders. The rejuvenated James Maddison won a penalty, rather controversially, got a lovely pre-assist and an assist and eventually scored himself. Youri Tielemans took his two goals, one from the spot, in ways that showcased his technique and talent. Between them, they now have nine league goals this season, as many as Vardy has on his own. The sight of passers doubling up as scorers felt like Brendan Rodgers’ vision in action, offering a happy end to what had been one of his worst weeks at Leicester.
Crystal Palace’s goalscoring midfielder
Rafa Benitez may not be in a mood to concur right now, but there is something wonderfully irrepressible about Conor Gallagher. Perhaps he has a great positional sense, perhaps the instincts to sniff out an opening or perhaps he simply runs further than anyone else: whichever, or which combination, he can feel ubiquitous. Certainly he was able to pop up to score two goals against Everton, the second with a quite brilliant finish, and it was symbolic that he was still running in injury time. To get six goals from the centre of midfield for a bottom-half side before Christmas is a rare feat. But with each outstanding performance, it feels likelier he can sustain such form.
David de Gea
And not merely because, after finding clean sheets elusive for much of this season, De Gea has two in as many appearances under Ralf Rangnick. The Spaniard preferred his stop to deny Teemu Pukki, but his two late saves from Ozan Kabak preserved a point at Norwich in a game when Manchester United were largely unimpressive. They also confirmed a return to form this season: despite United’s habit of conceding, De Gea has been excellent and the debate whether he or Dean Henderson should be the first choice was ended some time ago. Some of De Gea’s best campaigns can be among United’s worst, but this season would have been worse again had he not offered reminders of his peak.
There were some differences on Steven Gerrard’s first return to Anfield, and not merely because it was the first time the Liverpool public hoped he would lose. While John Arne Riise flourished at times and Jamie Carragher did a fine defensive job, particularly in the treble season of 2000-01, for much of Gerrard’s Liverpool career, left-back was a problem position. Not now. The Scot was at his rampaging best against Gerrard’s Aston Villa. Gerrard’s tactics, with a narrow 4-3-3 that may have been modelled on Jurgen Klopp’s, had the downside of leaving Liverpool’s full-backs free. Robertson relished the chance to storm forward time and again.
With every week, it seems less likely that Dennis’ goalscoring was an early-season aberration and more probable that Watford got a terrific striker for their £3million outlay. The Nigerian has been directly involved in a goal every 98 minutes this season; over the last five games, which have brought him four goals and two assists, that drops two one every 72.
Brentford’s other forwards
When Ivan Toney tested positive for Covid last Saturday, it threatened to derail Brentford in a week with two of the kind of games they need to target. Instead, they have four points from two matches, offering proof of resourcefulness and showing how others have made telling contributions when needed: Sergi Canos, who took over from Toney up front, scored in the draw at Leeds; with Canos suspended, Marcus Forss, who came on for Yoane Wissa, got the flick-on for Pontus Jansson’s equaliser on Friday and Bryan Mbuemo, Toney’s regular strike partner, took over his spot-kick duties with similar nonchalance to defeat Watford.
Roma’s resident ray of sunshine doesn’t win much these days, but perhaps he can enjoy the sight of Chelsea conceding five league goals in two games. With each one that goes in, it makes it more likely his 2004-05 record, of letting in just 15 in a season, will survive for another year.
Arsenal’s last three games amount to the wrong sort of hat-trick for their captain. He was taken off when they needed a goal against Manchester United. At Everton, he was dropped, brought on after the back-up Eddie Nketiah and missed a late chance to equalise. Against Southampton, he was omitted altogether for what Mikel Arteta termed a “disciplinary breach” and a “non-negotiable”. Given that he was left out for March’s north London derby after arriving late, Aubameyang has a track record of leading by the wrong sort of example. As Alexandre Lacazette led the line instead and scored, even an available Aubameyang may be on the bench. With each week, it feels as though his contract is another expensive mistake from the club who overpaid Mesut Ozil. Oh and he really should not be captain.
He gave the ball away 27 times at Norwich, apparently, and if some players can complete a month without doing that, the bigger problem is that Fernandes achieved little in return. Normally, there is a risk-and-reward equation with him: he takes chances, but creates chances in the process. Much as Ralf Rangnick describes the attacking midfield roles in his 4-2-2-2 formation as two No. 10s, they aren’t: not in the way Fernandes likes to be a specialist No. 10, a central creative fulcrum, not a player coming in off either flank. It is too soon to say he can’t play there. But Saturday’s display at Carrow Road was scarcely encouraging.
Just when it seemed Kyle Walker had got the most astonishingly stupid red card in a Manchester City game this week, along came Jimenez. As Wolves’ obstructionist tactics had become obvious and their time-wasting was scarcely subtle, he collected a caution and remained obdurately a yard from Rodri as he took out a free kick. It wasn’t subtle. It was an invitation to Jon Moss to send him off. Defeat was attributable to a distinctly dubious spot kick, with Joao Moutinho penalised for armpitball, but also to the sheer weight of pressure that became inevitable when Jimenez went off. Wolves had been defensive beforehand; they defended heroically at times afterwards. But if the game came down to two of Moss’ decisions, Jimenez was at fault for the first.
If sympathy should normally be afforded to the Mexican, starved of service as he leads the line for a team with one goal in almost 600 minutes, not now. He has got himself banned for the trip to Brighton, when Wolves, and he, might have stood a better chance of scoring.
The most stubborn man in football rarely does things the easy way. Benitez may have sensed vindication when Salomon Rondon, hitherto the scorer of precisely zero goals for Everton, scored as a substitute at Crystal Palace, especially after the contentious decision to bring him on for the ineffective Richarlison. Perhaps, however, the more pertinent part was the removal of the catalyst of Monday’s comeback victory against Arsenal. Benitez claimed a calf injury was the reason, but the Brazilian’s reaction was a visible display he disagreed with it. As Benitez was already without Dominic Calvert-Lewin, as he has already fallen out with Lucas Digne, as Everton were well on course for a seventh defeat in nine games, it felt an unnecessarily bold call. The respite that remarkable win against Arsenal afforded Benitez may be temporary: with the Everton fans, anyway, after they displayed their displeasure at Richarlison’s removal.
Conceding four to Leicester would scarcely be ideal at any time. When it came at the start of a run of games that involves Liverpool and both Manchester clubs, it bodes terribly. The fact is that Newcastle have compiled the division’s worst defensive record and conceded at least three goals in six different games without even facing Liverpool or Manchester City. The January shopping list may be topped by some paragons of solidity.
While one Nigerian can’t stop scoring goals for Watford, another can’t stop giving them away. There are multiple reasons why Watford are the only team without a Premier League clean sheet this season but Troost-Ekong ranks high among them. Admittedly, Claudio Ranieri’s team had already conceded at Brentford before the centre-back’s rash injury-time lunge on Saman Ghoddos brought the penalty for Bryan Mbuemo’s winner. But it was not his most egregious error of the season: ducking at Leicester to allow James Maddison to run through and score was that. And that wasn’t his first costly mistake: he was at fault for Neal Maupay’s goal for Brighton in August. Sometimes it is a simplification just to judge defenders on their blunders, as it can ignore everything else they do. Sometimes, however, they just suggest he is a liability.