Premier League winners and losers as Man Utd go fourth

Date published: Tuesday 25th January 2022 9:01 - Richard Jolly

Marcus Rashford, Antonio Conte and Andy Robertson

Chelsea and Man Utd were the biggest Premier League winners at one end of the table while Norwich climbed out of the relegation zone at the other….

 

Winners

Hakim Ziyech and Callum Hudson-Odoi
As a group, Chelsea’s attackers have felt like underachievers for a while. Certainly Thomas Tuchel has been struggling to find the most potent formula. Some of his recent selectorial choices can be questioned. But if he sometimes seems to have too many options, he permed the right ones against Tottenham. A rare use of 4-3-3 was justified. So was his decision to use Hudson-Odoi and Ziyech as wingers, rather than inside forwards in his normal 3-4-3. Hudson-Odoi ran Japhet Tanganga ragged, won the free-kick for the second goal against Tottenham and earned the assist for the first. Ziyech scored it in wonderful fashion, embellishing a performance in which he had already combined well with Mason Mount.

The Moroccan can appear an enigma, both his inconsistency and Chelsea’s host of alternatives denying him an extended run in the side but, as last season’s goals against Atletico Madrid and Manchester City show, he has the quality to score on defining occasions. Left wing may be Hudson-Odoi’s best position and if it is a role he occupies infrequently, he illustrated what he can do there.

Now go and read 16 Conclusions.

 

Andy Robertson
Go back a couple of years and a recurring theme was the friendly competition within Jurgen Klopp’s squad to see which defender could create most goals. Now the private contest between Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson could take on a grander dimension. Both are in the division’s top three for assists and if Alexander-Arnold appeared to have reached another level again as a creator, the two goals he set up in London this week came in the Carabao Cup. Robertson’s pair at Crystal Palace took him to eight Premier League assists, completing an all-Liverpool top three with Alexander-Arnold (10) and Mohamed Salah (nine). The numbers are one thing, the style of them another: a pinpoint corner which Virgil van Dijk met with an emphatic header and a brilliant cross-field pass for Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain’s second goal in as many games, each assisted by him. Robertson was rampant and relentless in the first half at Selhurst Park. There has been plenty of discussion about how Liverpool would cope without Salah and Mane for a month. Assists from full-backs has played a major part.

 

Josh Sargent
Not too many can get shortlisted for miss of the season and goal of the season in the same campaign. Sargent might. Until Friday, his debut campaign at Norwich was notable for the open goal he missed against Brighton, which had the novelty value of a forward who failed to kick the ball hard enough to enter the unguarded net. After the embarrassing came the extraordinary: few forwards in the division seemed less likely to score with a scorpion kick than Sargent, not least because he hadn’t scored at all, until his improvised moment of brilliance at Vicarage Road. Then he scored another, in more conventional but still impressive fashion, and one night made him Norwich’s second highest scorer.

 

Dean Smith
There are matches when it has appeared that the likeable Smith had accepted an invitation to captain the Titanic after it had already struck the iceberg. Perhaps the eventual verdict will still be that he hopped aboard a sinking ship but, after a traumatic time, he has had a wonderful week. Norwich’s biggest away win in the Premier League since 1993, 3-0 at Watford, gave them back-to-back victories. After eight goals all season, they got five in two games. Smith has overseen a surge few saw coming. Norwich climbed out of the relegation zone in the Premier League for the first time since 2019. Top-flight football had seemed a resolutely miserable experience for Norwich this season: amid the doom and gloom, they deserve to enjoy their recent revival.

 

Emi Buendia
Unprompted, Steven Gerrard highlighted the theory that Philippe Coutinho’s arrival would be bad news for Emi Buendia. Not so, he insisted, and the player he nominated as man of the match against Manchester United overshadowed his fellow South American creator with the winner against Everton. The penalty boxes at Goodison Park seemed the land of the giants but the diminutive Buendia still headed in the only goal. After a slow start to his Villa career, the Argentinian is becoming more decisive and showing some of the attributes Gerrard likes. “People see Emi as a little technical footballer but he will also fight for you,” he noted.

 

Southampton
A draw against Manchester City may count as a victory of sorts, considering that the champions had not dropped points since October. Southampton suffered a familiar fate, in losing yet another lead and conceding from a set-piece again, but they are guaranteed to complete the league season unbeaten against City, and they may be alone in that distinction.

But it was much more that statistical uniqueness that ought to encourage them. Kyle Walker-Peters’ maiden Premier League goal was a brilliant strike. Without joining him on the scoresheet, Armando Broja showed he has the ability to trouble even the best. Fraser Forster made a stunning save from Raheem Sterling. Mohammed Salisu produced a remarkable, relentless display of defiance, encompassing 14 clearances, seven tackles, four interceptions and three blocked shots.

That Salisu was bought at 21 and Walker-Peters at 23 and Broja was borrowed at 19 shows one of the admirable aspects of Ralph Hasenhuttl’s management. He can trust in youth and improve players and while Southampton have suffered some famously heavy defeats under the Austrian, on the days when they excel, his inexperienced teams can prove obdurate opponents for the best. They have only lost one of their last five games when they faced the reigning champions.

 

Marcus Rashford
After 11 games without a goal, two in four days and 47 minutes on the pitch. An injury-time tap-in against West Ham was notable for its lateness and significance, but also for way Rashford was in the position to get the predatory finish. It was the sort of goal that Cristiano Ronaldo has often scored.

 

Manchester United
Unconvincing in the second half against Aston Villa, poor in the first against Brentford and not great over 90 minutes against West Ham. And yet over eight days, they took seven points, to Tottenham’s three and none for West Ham and Arsenal. Yes, they played more games than any of their top-four rivals in that time but it was still the best spell of Ralf Rangnick’s reign and showed that the talent of the players in their ranks can compensate for imperfect performances.

 

Ruben Neves and Joao Moutinho
Some players kick a ball but Wolves’ twin Portuguese playmakers stroke it around. Beautiful passers tend to be irregular scorers, however, partly because each is a stranger to the penalty box. Neves is infamous for his optimistic long-range attempts and Moutinho has been a strictly once-a-season man. But Neves struck from distance and Moutinho got his second goal of a strangely productive season, at Brentford. It was entirely fitting that each came with the precision their passing invariably shows.

 

Newcastle’s full-backs
Newcastle have needed centre-backs for a long time. It is not an original observation but it has been repeated more in a January when their only defensive addition thus far is a right-back. At Elland Road, however, against a Leeds team with Dan James doing his latest energetic but unconvincing impression of a striker, they required full-backs to excel. Leeds’ threat came from Jack Harrison and Raphinha. Newcastle’s first clean sheet south of the Tyne since May owed much to Kieran Trippier, who produced a terrific display against Harrison. That they allied it with a first away win of the season was thanks in part to Javier Manquillo. Displaced from right-back by Trippier, coming on for Paul Dummett, who had put in a valiant shift against Raphinha, the Spaniard’s barnstorming run earned the free-kick that Jonjo Shelvey scored.

 

Losers

Watford
Friday was not a great night for the electrician and an even worse one for the team. The sight of some of the lights going out offered a metaphor. They lost 3-0 to a Norwich side that had two shots on target; that Juraj Kucka came on and promptly scored an own goal summed up their evening. His introduction was not the only thing to backfire: the supposed triumph of keeping Emmanuel Dennis out of Nigeria’s clutches for Afcon proved illusory. Perhaps the signing of the season was sent off and is now suspended for their next relegation six-pointer at Burnley.

Claudio Ranieri will not have the opportunity to select him at Turf Moor. Possibly for two reasons, given Vicarage Road’s revolving door and his own wretched record. If Watford felt Xisco Munoz’s return of seven points from seven games was flattering when they sacked him, Ranieri has taken seven from 13 and the remarkable wins against Everton and Manchester United have been surrounded by defeats; some routine but some, like 3-0 at home to Norwich, ignominious. Including his time at Fulham, Ranieri has now suffered 17 defeats in his last 21 Premier League matches. Perhaps he will not have any more.

But given the turnover of managers at Watford, perhaps they are more symptom than cause of problems. There were points, both in the draw at Newcastle and in the first half against Norwich, when their three new signings showed promise. But their record is dreadful and perhaps it is unsurprising that teams who can look like random collections of people sometimes seem less than the sum of their parts. As Ranieri admitted, Norwich played as a team. Watford didn’t.

 

Antonio Conte
A former Chelsea manager with no answer to Chelsea. Conte has lost three times to his former club in as many weeks without even seeing his Tottenham team score (or not a goal that was permitted to stand, anyway). His defensive 4-4-2 formation looked short of scorers and seemed an admission he has an inferiority complex. He can argue that it is the result of his inheritance. He called Tottenham a team in the “middle” after the first of those losses and Chelsea’s bench is sufficiently strong that many of their substitutes look better players than some of Spurs’ starters. When the gulf between them looks sufficiently wide, it is tempting to wonder if Conte initially underestimated the task in hand and to wonder whether even a manager of his calibre is capable of bridging it. The manager’s answer involved playing for a stalemate, with the rarity of a back four, and a makeshift, mediocre right-sided duo of Japhet Tanganga and Matt Doherty. It may all be used in the case to Daniel Levy to invest but while it was Conte’s first Premier League defeat, it came in a manner that probably irritated the impatient Italian.

 

Arsenal in 2022
A year that began so well, with what was largely a brilliant performance against Manchester City, has nevertheless started with a dreadful January, with three times as many red cards as goals (3-1), an FA Cup upset against Nottingham Forest, a Carabao Cup exit, a north London derby postponement that brought reputational damage and a stalemate with bottom club Burnley. Despite 20 shots on Sunday, Arsenal end the month without a goal since Bukayo Saka’s opener against City on New Year’s Day. They have lost discipline, their scoring touch and a place in the top four. At least February can’t be much worse.

 

Duncan Ferguson
Carlo Ancelotti had told his old assistant he was ready. Ferguson had issued his war cries in his pre-match comments, talking about what Everton meant to every fan. He had watered his army, paying for fans to have drinks in pubs near Goodison Park before kick-off. And then Everton produced a strangely flat performance; rather than replicating the febrile atmosphere and fantastic result against Chelsea in his first game in temporary charge in 2019 came an underwhelming defeat when Ferguson surely needed to make an immediate impact to enter serious consideration for the manager’s job. He has the pedigree to serve as the great unifier but, as it did before Ancelotti’s appointment, his football feels too rudimentary. Consider Everton’s pass completion rates against Aston Villa: two of the back four’s were 60 and 66 percent, two of the midfield 52 and 57. An inability to keep the ball was coupled with an old-fashioned 4-4-2 that left Everton outnumbered in the centre of midfield, which was also an issue in his first brief reign. The sample size is small but it suggests a team who can defend the aerial ball, as Villa did well on Saturday, have an answer to Ferguson’s rather one-dimensional brand of football.

 

West Ham, in the last few minutes against Manchester United
Manchester United are a point above West Ham United after taking six off them, courtesy of late drama in two games when David Moyes’ team contributed much. The Scot sounded more downcast than he has all season after Marcus Rashford’s injury-time decider. Factor in Jesse Lingard’s 89th-minute winner in London and Mark Noble’s even later penalty miss and, if West Ham miss out on Champions League football, it may be the result of the last few minutes against Moyes’ old club. In the broader picture, he has built a team capable of competing with his former club with lower expectations and a lesser budget. They have closed a gap but have conceded three late winners to Manchester clubs this season. As Moyes’ reaction demonstrated, it could be costly.

 

Leicester, when in a lead
If matches were 80 minutes long, Leicester would have taken six points this week. If injury time was capped at four-and-a-half minutes, they would have four. Instead, they led against both Tottenham and Brighton and ended up with a solitary one. That inability to hold on to leads cost them in both the Europa League and the Carabao Cup and is a sign of the defensive problems that have undermined them this season.

 

Thomas Frank
The Brentford manager hasn’t fully grasped the concept of trying to influence referees’ decision-making. While his peers ask officials to give them penalties, he told Peter Bankes to send him off. The referee duly obliged.

 

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