Manchester United had 22 shots and just three on target v Watford. Only Marcelo Bielsa and his interpreter are bigger losers…
Manchester City, grinding out a win
The goal came from a defensive error. The win came in part because of a contentious decision, to say the least, to deny Everton a penalty when Rodri handled. The first-half performance was mediocre. Yet the most important element for Manchester City was simply the result. They won. They could argue they found a way to win, too, Pep Guardiola shifting Phil Foden and Bernardo Silva around multiple positions until each played a significant part in the goal. Maybe there was a comparison with Liverpool’s recent victory at Burnley, also 1-0, also without much fluent football, but also an indication that champion teams show the wherewithal and the willpower to prevail in tough away games.
Kane and Son
The most potent double act in Premier League history. Perhaps it was fitting that they overhauled Didier Drogba and Frank Lampard with a trademark goal, Harry Kane dropping deep to supply a playmaker’s pass at Elland Road, Heung-Min Son running in behind a defence to convert in clinical fashion. Certainly, it had echoes of Kane’s four assists against Southampton last season. Perhaps their record serves as an indictment of Spurs – even with Kane and Son, they are only seventh – but it was an illustration that they can be magnificent together.
It was the transfer where everyone seemed a loser. Certainly Matt Doherty, who had gone from one of the most potent wing-backs in the league to a full-back who never scored and rarely started. Not Jose Mourinho, who bought him, or Nuno Espirito Santo, who was reunited with him but did not pick him in the initial XI for a league game with Spurs. Not Wolves, either, when Nelson Semedo had an underwhelming debut year in England as the men from Molineux regressed. If Wolves have rebounded this season as Semedo has improved, now Tottenham have had a belated return on their investment in Doherty. Emerson Royal’s attacking shortcomings have become painfully apparent, making it easier for opponents to subdue Spurs and hindering Antonio Conte in his preferred formation. Doherty’s goal at Leeds was a reminder he used to excel both as a finisher and at getting into goalscoring positions. As Conte’s right wing-back last season was Achraf Hakimi, it is safe to assume Doherty is scarcely his ideal player there. But perhaps he can do a job in the short term, certainly in the games where Spurs expect to attack more.
Ignore the ludicrous booking for a second and concentrate on the footballing impact for a Villa team in a slump and whose narrow tactics necessitate that their attacking wing-backs have an impact. Cash’s excellent opener at Brighton was a sign he has the ability to raid forward and the quality to finish.
His drought stretched into an eighth successive game and he only has two goals in his last 20 outings for West Ham but while there are certainly times when it seems that David Moyes’ lone striker has been blunted by being overworked, perhaps this was not one. Maybe Antonio should have scored later himself, but by setting up Tomas Soucek’s winner in a relentless display, he contributed. If, with no cover, Antonio may shoulder a bigger burden than virtually anyone else in the battle for fourth, he and West Ham remain very much in it.
Newcastle and Burnley, continuing recent revivals
They each benefited from generosity from opponents in London, whether Josh Dasilva’s red card or Luka Milivojevic’s own goal, but points procured on the road felt proof of resilience and renaissance. As Sean Dyche pointed out, Burnley have now only lost once in seven games; that was by a solitary goal and to Liverpool. They have four clean sheets in those seven matches, with the old firm of Ben Mee and James Tarkowski producing their finest form of the season and perhaps Dyche is being rewarded for his refusal to panic when the table looked bleak.
Newcastle’s numbers are looking still better. After 12 points all season, they have 13 from five games. They have only conceded two goals in that time. And if it is a surge helped by spending, it is also created by coaching: they went to Brentford without Kieran Trippier, Callum Wilson and Allan Saint-Maximin, while Bruno Guimaraes is yet to start. So with what looked a dreadful side, stripped of their two match-winners but plus the unglamorous additions of Chris Wood, Dan Burn and Matt Targett, Eddie Howe has forged what now seems a very competent team.
Allan and Abdoulaye Doucoure
Everton were losers in various respects, beaten for the seventh time in eight league games, occupying their lowest league position of the season, potentially in the drop zone before they play again. If negativity could shroud Goodison Park, there ought to be some positivity about their performance, particularly in the first half against Manchester City, and their resolve. Their midfield had been wretched against Southampton. A week on, there was a marked improvement: Abdoulaye Doucoure was fit to feature for the first time in five weeks and Frank Lampard’s praise was a sign that one midfielder respects another. Allan was taken off at half-time against St Mary’s to spare him a second yellow card. He was combative and excellent against City: that he could hold his own in a midfield with Kevin de Bruyne, Ilkay Gundogan and Rodri was a reminder that, with the personnel Everton have, they really ought not to be 17th. In turn, that should give them hope they can extricate themselves from a perilous position. Rewind to last season, when each arrived, and Allan and Doucoure looked two-thirds of a potentially terrific midfield, let down only by the increasingly underwhelming Andre Gomes. Perhaps Donny van de Beek will complement them better. Certainly, Everton look to have a more solid centre.
If the game’s vocabulary has expanded in recent years, with many a new description of positions entering the footballing lexicon, there still isn’t a perfect term for two of the roles in Ralph Hasenhuttl’s system. The Austrian sometimes refers to them as his two No. 10s, but they aren’t really a No. 10, just as they aren’t a winger or a striker or a central midfielder.
If it is hard to define, it seems even harder to play. Just look at Manchester United when Ralf Rangnick tried to import the 4-2-2-2 formation he and Hasenhuttl had both used in the Bundesliga. None of Bruno Fernandes, Jadon Sancho, Marcus Rashford or Mason Greenwood looked at home as a wide 10; none mastered all of its many duties. But while Hasenhuttl has had time to coach his unusual system, no one has played this bespoke role as well for him as Armstrong. The Scot was elusive and irrepressible against Norwich: his eventual tallies of seven shots and four key passes illustrated how influential he was. He was a major reason why Southampton amassed 27 shots. Oriol Romeu’s spectacular goal made him the headline act but Armstrong, the king of the half-space, confounded Norwich with his movement.
It was an undignified end for Leeds’ best manager since David O’Leary and perhaps the Premier League’s most idiosyncratic. Sacked after the 4-0 defeat to Tottenham, Bielsa may have been a martyr to his kamikaze approach, going down in a blaze of gory. They have often brought the right kind of entertainment but Leeds have conceded 20 goals in five February games: three each to Everton and Aston Villa, four apiece to Manchester United and Tottenham, six away at Liverpool. Time and again, Leeds players pitted in individual battles against far superior players have lost them. It is a system that feels better suited to the Championship, with players of roughly similar ability levels, and it underlines the overachievement in coming ninth last season. But recently the flaws in Bielsa’s theory of man-marking were highlighted by his obstinate refusal to compromise. It seems there is a limit to what the players he inherited and who had just finished in the lower half of the Championship can do; except for Kalvin Phillips, who was sadly missed. Failures in recruitment compounded difficulties and Junior Firpo’s latest hapless showing at left-back, as he was very culpable for Dejan Kulusevski’s goal, may be an indictment of director of football Victor Orta. But part of the question for Leeds and Bielsa’s successor is if defenders with some pedigree – Diego Llorente, Robin Koch, Firpo – could show more solidity with more conventional tactics. But if Bielsa’s departure felt sadly necessary, he will have a place in Leeds history as the manager who ended their 16-year exile in the lower leagues and, perhaps more remarkably, made many a neutral like them.
Marcelo Bielsa’s interpreter
We may never see his like again.
Manchester United, in front of goal
Twenty-two shots, three on target: the statistic alone is a sign of problems at Old Trafford on Saturday. It can bring an obvious focus on the man who has scored more goals than anyone else in the history of football and Cristiano Ronaldo had four of those efforts; at least he hit the post and found the net when offside but he now only has one goal in 10 games. Perhaps age is catching up with him. Definitely, Ralf Rangnick has got less from Ronaldo than other managers. Against Watford, however, Bruno Fernandes (eight) had twice as many shots. That none of the other seven players to have any even tested Ben Foster highlighted that it is a collective issue. That the substitute Marcus Rashford has lost his way is a factor: so, too, that Edinson Cavani is invariably injured. Under Rangnick, United have only scored more than once four times and average 1.41 goals per match. For a side who supposedly had a formidable attacking armoury and who, under the German, have had a favourable fixture list, it is an undistinguished return.
Wolves’ Champions League chances
It may have been four days that ended a top-four bid. Playing catch-up, Wolves needed to beat their rivals to overtake them. Losses to Arsenal and West Ham suggested a Europa League place is the ceiling of what they can achieve. It also indicated that, realistically, they were always outsiders. Bruno Lage has favoured continuity and if that has bred understanding, it has also been a necessity. When, for once, he made five changes, the conclusion was that they lacked strength in depth. It was understandable that, at 35, Joao Moutinho did not start again but there was a drop-off in quality without him in midfield and their first-choice wing-backs. Even as Fabio Silva had a positive second half, Wolves have too few scorers. With Raul Jimenez and Daniel Podence benched, only one of the front three who started at West Ham has scored a league goal this season. It helps explain why they mustered a lone shot on target.
Norwich, running out of time
Much has been talked in recent weeks about Burnley’s thousands of games in hand. Less attention has been devoted to the fact others have the opposite scenario. Norwich are down to their last 12 games now and if few expected them to get anything from a trip to in-form Southampton, a feeble showing underlined, and may compound, problems. The home games against Brentford, Burnley and Newcastle assume colossal proportions, but part of their difficulties could stem from midweeks when the Clarets, Everton and Newcastle play their extra fixtures.
If Saturday always promised to be about a glimpse of an attacking midfielder who could bring much-needed creativity to Brentford, it was actually about two. Christian Eriksen’s return was welcome in itself, with the touches of timeless class offering optimism that his passing may halt Brentford’s slide. But he came on after the game was gone, after Dasilva had gifted Newcastle an advantage with his 11th-minute red card. Thomas Frank felt it was unlucky; few others may concur after a challenge that probably wasn’t malicious but felt the definition of a dismissal. Until Eriksen’s arrival, Dasilva’s injury had robbed Frank of the player who could have added some attacking thrust to his central trio. Now his three-match ban makes the new signing still more pivotal. It rules Dasilva out of six-pointers with Norwich and Burnley which complete a trilogy of defining games. And the first, against Newcastle, was in effect decided 40 minutes before Eriksen’s introduction to leave Brentford with a solitary point from eight games.
Sometimes results don’t tell the whole story and it is worth noting that Albion’s run of three successive defeats began at Old Trafford, where they were the better team for the majority of the game and that 10th place would be the highest finish in their history. The context is scarcely depressing but those three setbacks have come without scoring. Losing at home to Burnley and Aston Villa, who had both been struggling for wins, by an aggregate score of 5-0 means only Norwich have got fewer home goals and only the bottom three have fewer home wins.