Leeds showed why Newcastle fans want something more. Everton, Bukayo Saka and Brighton also get a mention.
Phil Hay has surely never been propositioned quite so many times in 90 minutes. Nor Newcastle’s defence, which took a little encouragement but collectively laid back and thought of Steve Bruce’s elusive fourth crime novel as the hosts had their way with them.
They had been threatening this. Leeds rank 11th for shots per game across Europe’s top five leagues and joint-27th for goals: an exciting team that lacked the cutting edge in crucial moments all too often. But they play in such a way and with such conviction in their approach that it was bound to click eventually against the right opponent.
The test will be whether they can sustain it – they have won consecutive Premier League games once all season – but at least one Marcelo Bielsa myth was thoroughly debunked. “These look like they’ve blown a gasket already,” said Tim Sherwood of a team that “looked tired against West Ham”. Not enough dominancy, clearly.
A few different words sprang to mind when watching Rodrigo’s sublime goal, or the late counter-attacks that suffocated and swarmed Newcastle, or Jack Harrison running from well inside his own half to plant one beyond Karl Darlow from 30 yards out. “Tired” was irrefutably not one of them.
This will not silence that discourse. The next game Leeds lose will be attributed to fatigue or some other unquantifiable commodity. The rest of us can sit back and simply enjoy the entertainment for what it is. Leeds have never claimed to be perfect but they are unique. The Premier League is much better for their presence. Only Liverpool’s games have involved more goals (48 to 46).
“We are trying to find the best solution for the team, game by game,” said Nuno Espirito Santo before facing Chelsea. It’s safe to say that search had been largely unsuccessful of late; Wolves had beaten only Arsenal in their previous five games to slip towards mid-table obscurity.
Worse still was the calibre of teams that had beaten or held them since the start of November. Single-goal defeats to Leicester and Aston Villa, as well as the 1-1 draw with Southampton, indicated that Wolves’ place at the forefront of the chasing pack was in jeopardy. A 4-0 defeat to Liverpool was incredibly chastening for a side that has rarely looked as vulnerable under this manager.
Perhaps the loss of Raul Jimenez offered a moment of clarity to Nuno, who spoke of finding “other options” without their talismanic striker. Before this season, Jimenez had started 73 of a possible 76 Premier League games for Wolves. He has already missed as many matches this campaign alone with a fractured skull that will keep him out indefinitely.
So restoring two key facets of their identity was crucial in midweek: beating a true member of the elite and coming from behind to do so. This was their first win of the campaign against a team in the top half, and their first win since March 1 after trailing.
The intelligent Fabio Silva deserves credit for learning on the job and under the considerable weight of his transfer fee. But it’s that Daniel Podence and Pedro Neto combination – the two scorers in 2-1 wins over both Arsenal and Chelsea in the space of just over a fortnight – that suggests Nuno has the “other options” he seeks.
Far be it for anyone to claim Everton have lacked consistency in recent years, but let’s just say the last time they kept clean sheets in consecutive Premier League wins was so long ago that Idrissa Gueye manned their central midfield ahead of Kurt Zouma in defence and Theo Walcott came off the bench for Marco Silva’s side.
Everton seemed to be sliding. Four straight wins to start the season preceded a seven-game run in which just Fulham were beaten – and then only 3-2 with the Cottagers missing a penalty. Their true level is somewhere in between those two extremes as an excellent but flawed side, still a work in progress.
The return of Richarlison and form of Alex Iwobi has helped. Everton are becoming much more ruthless in attack, ranking 6th in the Premier League for both goals and shots on target but 11th below Brighton and Fulham for shots overall. Dominic Calvert-Lewin’s proverbial golden boot helps in that regard but he has scored in neither of these last two wins.
— FIVEYARDS (@FIVE__YARDS) December 16, 2020
That defence is also looking meaner. Chelsea were restricted to three shots on target from 72% possession and Leicester just two from 61% as first Jordan Pickford and then Robin Olsen were treated to relatively quiet evenings. Ancelotti will hope Allan can return soon as he has been vital to their improvement at the back. They have coped well without James Rodriguez, Seamus Coleman and Lucas Digne but the squad only runs so deep.
For now, Everton can bask quietly in this form. Their last successive Premier League wins against teams above them came last December, but beating Chelsea and Leicester to go fifth is slightly more impressive than overcoming Burnley and Newcastle to go 10th.
The most saves made in a Premier League season since such statistics were kept was 170, by Ben Foster in the 2010/11 season for Birmingham. The man who replaced him at West Brom is on course to take that completely non-existent record: in his debut top-flight campaign Sam Johnstone has 56 saves from 13 games. Extrapolate that over 38 games to get 164 saves. Add a dash of Big Sam and the sky is both the limit and the probable playing field.
There are legitimate points to be made about whether Arsenal should be happy with a point at home to Southampton, who simultaneously ought to be frustrated with drawing away at the Emirates against ten men after leading. That role-reversal drives home how good and bad Mikel Arteta and Ralph Hasenhuttl are really doing.
But Arsenal needed that. The public messages of support from the hierarchy would have been replaced with the kind of ‘noise’ that did for Unai Emery, when ‘creating doubts in their opponents’ minds’ was the sum total of what this formerly famous football club could hope to achieve. They sacked him around this time last year when they wished not to, swayed by a manager-fan relationship that was irretrievable.
Arteta was genuinely approaching that point, perhaps even benefiting from a lack of supporters and an atmosphere that was subsequently more vacuous than toxic. A draw might only stem the bleed but they showed enough to first come from behind against an excellent side and then hold on for a point with ten men. For all the predictable cliches about fighting spirit being what they lack, that surely counts for something. There is a pulse, however weak.
Some nerds might suggest Arsenal relying heavily on a 19-year-old who has played in a variety of different positions is not a tell-tale sign of a healthy club. They’re right, of course. But that should take nothing away from how Saka has excelled as an inexperienced player airdropped into an emergency situation.
The only players younger to start a Premier League game this season are Mason Greenwood and Fabio Silva. Saka has played more than both combined in more difficult circumstances. He alone is a compelling argument for Arsenal to start using their youngsters more instead of relying on senior squad members who keep letting them down, but as any parent will tell you, the first child is only easy to trick you into reproducing again and spawning a difficult demon. Saka is far more likely to be an exception than a general rule. Credit to him for that.
Not since December 2013 had a Jose Mourinho side conceded a winning Premier League goal in the 90th minute or later. Before then, it was August 2006. Roberto Firmino is only the third player to accomplish the feat. Klopp’s mentality monsters did not look back after establishing a proper advantage in the title race this season; it’s games like those that convince you history will repeat itself.
Now go and read 16 Conclusions.
Six players have at least four goals and four assists this Premier League season. Jamie Vardy, Heung-min Son, Bruno Fernandes and Jack Grealish have all been excellent but it was Harry Kane who Che Adams most resembled against Arsenal, dropping deep to collect Jannik Vestergaard’s pass, evading Gabriel’s clutches and sliding Theo Walcott in behind to score.
“We want to win the league; obviously it’s a lot to ask for but you have to set new targets for yourself to hit,” he said when he joined in summer 2019. “With the squad here I’ve seen from last season, there’s no reason why we can’t.” Who knew his vision was so good on and off the pitch?
Since being named Fulham captain in the absence of bench-bound Tom Cairney against Leicester, Joachim Andersen has shone. Defeat to Manchester City was a setback – and even then the deficit was less severe than most expected – with positive results coming against Leicester, Liverpool and Brighton.
Scott Parker spoke recently of “the question mark” that hangs over the head of any player without Premier League experience but Andersen has made a mockery of the idea that one can only impress if they have been here before. The only downside is that the better he is on loan the less likely it becomes that he stays. Survival ought to soften that blow and Andersen is key to those hopes.
Crystal Palace have been ahead for 469 minutes this Premier League season: more than Manchester City (456), Chelsea (424) and Liverpool (395). They have been level for 381 minutes, fewer than every other team. They are almost as close to 18th as they are 1st. What a man.
That connection alone was worth £45m.
‘Slaven Bilic turned them into an ‘almost’ team, and has sealed his fate. Had he got them nowhere near that place, a la Sheffield United, he might have been okay. Instead, Bilic turned them into precisely the sort of side that needs Sam Allardyce, and his job into precisely the sort of job Allardyce would take. Bilic doomed himself.’
Pretty much. It is probably the end of his Premier League road, with six wins in his last 38 games in the competition a fairly comprehensive case against Bilic’s suitability to English top-flight management. It’s harsh, particularly as Allardyce will get all the credit if they stay up while many will forget West Brom were all of two points from safety upon his appointment if they go down. But that’s the game.
The next time Mark Lawrenson claims Newcastle fans are “never happy” because “they want to win the Champions League”, show him the last quarter of an hour against Leeds on Wednesday.
Steve Bruce said it himself: it was “something you see on a park on a Sunday” an “embarrassing” and “unacceptable” collapse under more pressure than his system is designed to cope with. But he quite neatly summed up the argument against his tenure after a match that encapsulated the fans’ frustrations.
“Up until 75 minutes I was comfortable,” he said, at which point Newcastle had eight shots to Leeds’ 20 and 28.6% possession. And therein lies the problem: Bruce is “comfortable” with ceding the ball, the chances and the authority to a newly promoted team so long as the scoreline is close towards full-time.
Newcastle supporters justifiably crave more, particularly when they watch a Leeds side that dominated the Championship on a modest wage budget and has continued to imprint its own style on teams in a higher division. That comes with the possibility of heavy defeats to Leicester and Crystal Palace but also the promise of evenings like this.
Newcastle might well finish higher but what memory will they have of this season? Leeds, even leaving aside the emotional nature of their long-awaited return, have created more enduring moments than in Bruce’s entire St James’ Park reign.
They exist to entertain, to excite. Newcastle just exist. They won’t go down. They won’t finish in the top half. The same can be said of Leeds but at least they are building towards something meaningful, an intangible connection between the manager, the players and the fans.
Bruce is performing perfectly to his remit. It’s just that said remit is wrong. When supporters are given overwhelming reason to glance enviously at a club with whom they are level on points with a game in hand, there is a deep-rooted problem.
No Premier League team has won more away games yet only Sheffield United have lost more at home this season. Leicester continue to infuriate like few other sides, existing on the perennial cusp of something brilliant but ever so capable of shooting themselves in the foot.
They have become the team of streaks: three wins, two defeats, three wins, two defeats, two wins and now defeat to Everton followed by a visit to Tottenham on Sunday. Just when you think they might challenge towards the top they encounter a team with a plan. Just when you think they could fall into the pack, their counter-attacks click emphatically.
Brendan Rodgers has, to his credit, not used the schedule as a legitimate excuse. That was Leicester’s 8th game in 24 days, including trips to Ukraine and Portugal that would have Jurgen Klopp sacrificing Des Kelly on an altar in Anfield to the triumphant howls of Liverpool fans throughout the country.
But again, fitness cannot be cited for every setback and at some point Leicester need to look within for the answers. They have already lost as many home league games this season as they did in 2019/20 and with the Europa League off the agenda for a couple of months, it’s time to establish some consistency.
That time of year has been reached when Sam Allardyce dusts off the headset, dons his PPE and strolls into a raging Premier League dumpster fire. Alarm bells inevitably ring at any side within a ten-point radius when that panic button is pressed.
Yet it does not feel as though many people are taking Brighton’s struggles seriously. Any mention of their actual league position is met with a bombardment of numbers: 10th for xG, fourth-best for xGA, 7th for xPTS. Expectation versus reality suggests they really are in trouble.
The problem is easy to identify but not quite so simple to rectify. Neal Maupay and Solly March are their only players with more than a single goal from open play and both have only two each. Brighton are one of only six teams across Europe’s top five leagues yet to score from a set-piece and of the others, Leicester and Barcelona both have more obvious routes to goal, while Genoa, Getafe and Mainz are all in relegation battles.
There is no quick fix. They can only really keep doing what they’re doing as Graham Potter is clearly a talented coach and there is no attacking equivalent to Allardyce’s defensive rescue act. It just turns out that Danny Welbeck leading your line is not entirely conducive to mid-table safety, as if two goals and one assist in 18 games for Watford was not proof enough.
For about 15 minutes in that match Brighton were far better than Fulham. They didn’t score.
For about 15 minutes on Sunday Leicester were far better than Brighton. They scored 3 times.
That’s the difference at this level.#bhafc
— Dr Baldhead (@IamDrBaldhead) December 16, 2020
Yes, he is in both sections. But Arsenal have gone almost as long without winning a Premier League game (46 days) as they did between top-flight victories at the end of last season and start of this (48 days). And that isn’t great.
That said, his hands are a little tied when his players are so foolish.
In the ten minutes before Gabriel’s sending-off against Southampton, Arsenal scored their equaliser, had an effort from Saka saved and seemed to have found a foothold.
In the nine minutes before Granit Xhaka’s red card against Burnley, Arsenal had four shots to zero, 77.8% possession and every chance of converting a draw into a win.
Nicolas Pepe’s dismissal against Leeds was not quite as catastrophic but even last season Eddie Nketiah was sent off at 1-0 up against Leicester in a game Arsenal would go on to draw, while David Luiz was removed against both Manchester City and Chelsea at crucial points. Arteta should be doing much better but so much of the blame rests with the players.
Premier League wins against teams currently in 12th, 13th, 14th, 16th, 18th and 20th. Premier League defeats to teams currently in 1st, 5th and 10th. That unsustainable defensive record is gone. The attack has left with it.
Chelsea are Manchester United: blessed with some brilliant players that will always be able to deliver results and performances at times because of their sheer quality, led by a manager of similarly volatile tendencies. I would trust no other coach more with the task of beating a relegation contender. I would have about 15 in mind when it came to getting a result from a European hopeful before reaching Lampard.
The only Manchester City outfielder not to have a shot against West Brom, including both substitutes. It’s almost as if they should look into signing one of those striker things.
The good news is that Heung-min Son used to do that all the time. The bad news is that Jose Mourinho will probably sell him in January before he has the chance to undergo a similar transformation.