Two Manchester City men top the winners but Mikel Arteta is not far behind, while Ralf Rangnick and Harry Maguire head the losers…
Kevin de Bruyne
Pep Guardiola has a theory that more open matches suit De Bruyne most. If Manchester United’s tactics played right into his hands, a display of extraordinary dominance was a reminder that the Belgian’s best is better than virtually anyone else’s. He has an old-fashioned ability to grab a game by the scruff of its neck, even one as big as a Manchester derby. His is a barnstorming form of brilliance. Two goals and an assist were a reflection of individual excellence in a consummate team.
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Less false nine than genuine one, albeit a roving centre-forward, but one who could run in behind the Manchester United defence and dart through the inside-left channel. A terrific performance lacked a goal but offered further evidence of both talent and versatility. Go back to another of the games that define City’s season, the 2-2 draw at Anfield, and he was brilliant as a left winger. He can be equally good cutting in from the right. And, as Tuesday’s display at Peterborough showed, his long-term future could lie in midfield.
Mikel Arteta, going fourth
It wasn’t quite Arteta’s first assist for Arsenal since 2014/15, but his quick throw to Bukayo Saka did lead to Gabriel Martinelli’s ultimately decisive goal against Watford. It felt symbolic: Arteta is having an impact. Arsenal are fourth and with games in hand. Arteta is yet to eliminate their self-destructive streak and it is within their capabilities to mess this up but the Champions League is starting to loom large on the horizon.
Victory at Vicarage Road came courtesy of the path Arteta is ploughing. Alexandre Lacazette remains rooted on three league goals for the season but Arsenal’s firepower comes from their attacking midfielders and three – Martin Odegaard, Saka and Martinelli – all scored. It is four wins in a row now. Weekend defeats for Manchester United, West Ham and Wolves made the last all the more valuable as they surged to the top of their mini-league.
And not merely because he set a personal best by recording his 16th assist of a season. Given Alexander-Arnold’s brilliance as a crosser, making him the Beckham of right-backs, there was something unusual in the way he set up Sadio Mane’s winner against West Ham: whether a mishit shot or a cross simply putting the ball into an area, rather than the usual concoction of whip and bend. But it was a victory that owed much to Alexander-Arnold’s contributions at either end. To Jurgen Klopp’s bemusement, the right-back’s defensive instincts are sometimes questioned but they were apparent when he made a swift retreat to his own line to clear Pablo Fornals’ lob: so, too, when he covered for Ibrahima Konate sufficiently quickly that he closed down Manuel Lanzini when the Argentinian blazed over. On a day when Liverpool were below their best, Alexander-Arnold was near his in a reminder their match-winners are not merely found in the forward line. Liverpool haven’t conceded with him on the pitch since Cardiff’s consolation goal in the FA Cup fourth round. That may be no coincidence.
It was a fitting comeback for a player who had become more productive this season. James’ first start of 2022 brought a goal and an assist; as Kai Havertz only had to bundle the ball over the line, it was more of an assist than some. Burnley were beaten 4-0 in the sort of result Chelsea seemed to produce in autumn when James was flying. It was notable that they lost some of their potency when he joined Ben Chilwell on the sidelines and if that reflects the importance of attacking wing-backs in Thomas Tuchel’s gameplan, it is also the case that very few can make the impact in the final third that James does. And in its own way it is remarkable that he was out for eight weeks and, one game into his return, no Chelsea player has more assists and only two have scored more in the Premier League this season.
The position of goalkeeper in Leicester’s all-time side may be fiercely contested. Peter Shilton and Gordon Banks provide stiff competition but Schmeichel already had a case to be City’s finest, and not merely because of historic Premier League and FA Cup wins, and on the day he passed Mark Wallingford to become the keeper with the most appearances for the club, he turned his 461st game into an exhibition of excellence. Clean sheets have been a rarity for Leicester this season and if, at times, there were suspicions Schmeichel’s standards had slipped, he was outstanding in saving from Dan James, Jack Harrison, Rodrigo and Raphinha.
Perhaps a loser will be proved a winner in time if a debut defeat was a sign a corner is being turned. Certainly Marsch took Leeds in a different direction, abandoning Marcelo Bielsa’s beloved man-marking system. Leeds were less chaotic at Leicester. After conceding 20 goals in their previous five games, they only let in one. Allowing four shots on target in 90 minutes, as opposed to four goals, felt a case of improvement as there were indications of Marsch’s training-ground work. Yet the loss means back-to-back home games assume a greater significance.
Thomas Frank has called him the best penalty-taker in the world. If his two nonchalantly cool spot kicks at Carrow Road ultimately keep Brentford up, perhaps Toney will prove the most valuable one. They were the definition of pressure penalties: for a team with one point from the previous 24, knowing defeat would have trimmed the gap to Norwich to just four points. Instead a six-pointer leaves Brentford 10 ahead of their victims and six clear of the bottom three. If Christian Eriksen suggested he can be one difference-maker for Brentford, Toney remains their other potential trump card and is the scorer of their first Premier League hat-trick.
Southampton had felt the winners of a transfer, banking £25 million for a player with a solitary year left on his contract, accelerating into the top half as the loanee Armando Broja proved a revelation and Ings’ former strike partner Che Adams proved more prolific. Meanwhile, Ings found goals rarities in a stop-start Aston Villa career.
And so, with a certain perverse inevitability, his first reunion with his old club was a triumphant affair. Ings ended with two assists and a goal: the sort Southampton might recognise, a first-time finish from a low cutback. Perhaps as significant was Ollie Watkins’ strike: set up by Ings, it was the first time either had assisted the other and if a theme of Villa’s season has been the question of whether they can play together or, if not, which starts, Steven Gerrard prospered by pairing them, putting Philippe Coutinho in behind at the tip of a midfield diamond and looking his slightly wider strikers to run either side of Southampton’s centre-backs. At his best, Ings exudes sharpness and he buzzed around, looking lively. It is a sight Southampton used to enjoy.
Newcastle, 2022 stars
Admittedly, a year that began with a home defeat to Cambridge got off to an inauspicious start but compile a table for 2022 and Newcastle are third. Only they and Liverpool are unbeaten in the Premier League. And, whereas every win felt newsworthy in itself until recently, now there was a sense of normality about them beating Brighton. That the goals came from the rejuvenated pair of Ryan Fraser (recruited on a free transfer by Steve Bruce) and Fabian Schar (a £3million buy by Rafa Benitez) shows that, for all the money spent this year, the change in form owes much to Eddie Howe’s management.
Crystal Palace, a top-10 hit
Making a mockery of pre-season predictions that relegation beckoned. With 10 games to go, they are all but safe. Patrick Vieira has done a terrific job and Palace’s transfer-market planning has transformed Roy Hodgson’s old team.
Manchester United’s interim manager has often argued progress has been made in his reign. His points total suggested it had, but the numbers came with an asterisk attached: United had not faced any of the top three teams. They have now and while Rangnick has tended to cite an improved defensive record as evidence they were going in the right direction, they conceded four goals to Manchester City. As the league leaders mustered 24 shots, it could easily have been more. Given the hapless displays of Harry Maguire and Aaron Wan-Bissaka, not to mention the possibility that Victor Lindelof is still charging in the wrong direction after being lobbed by Phil Foden, United were more shambolic than solid. A second-half shot count of 14-0 indicated how United fell apart; there are enduring questions if they display enough fight and they predate the Rangnick era.
But some of the blame must rest with him. He gave the impression he felt United were too negative in losing to City under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. His answer was a bold 4-2-4 formation, perhaps rendered all the odder by the absence of a specialist striker. But there was a predictable problem: it left United outnumbered in midfield against what Rangnick called the best passing team on the planet. It afforded Kevin de Bruyne acres of room to run into. And given there is a gulf in class between Scott McTominay and Fred and their City counterparts to begin with, it seemed needlessly reckless.
The ball went through his legs for the first goal. And just before the second. The third deflected off him. The fourth was perhaps the worst offside line in the history of football. Not a great afternoon, all things considered.
Reports of their demise have been premature before. Perhaps not now: Norwich may only be five points from safety but there is a case for arguing that losing 3-1 at home to a Brentford side without a win in two months was their worst result of the season. Certainly, it had the look of a must-win game. Certainly, Norwich were complicit in their own downfall. Ben Gibson’s unfortunate double of conceding two penalties made him the personification of a self-destructive streak, though arguably the team’s defending was still worse for Bryan Mbuemo’s disallowed goal. Norwich had a glimpse of safety after beating Watford. Now it feels a long way away.
Burnley, not defending like Burnley
There has long been the sense that some of the cliches about Burnley are a little outdated. Turf Moor has not always been a difficult place to go when Burnley have won two of 23 league matches at home. But as Chelsea have scored 15 goals on their last four visits, they have not had too many difficulties there for a while. The Clarets’ demise on Saturday, however, did feel out of character. After conceding five goals in eight-and-a-half matches, they let in four in 23 minutes. They showed a capacity to get men behind the ball but without halting the delivery into the box or marking the scorer while James Tarkowski got an inadvertent assist for Christian Pulisic’s goal. Back-to-back defeats shift the verdict on a home-heavy bunch of matches. Burnley played six times at Turf Moor in 29 days and if their opponents after Watford – Manchester United, Liverpool, Tottenham, Leicester and Chelsea – suggested they were invariably underdogs, they only took five points and scored two goals. In the final reckoning, neither tally may be enough.
Wolves, still struggling to score
Bruno Lage criticised his young right-back, even if blaming a malfunctioning Hoever sounded like a case of a faulty domestic appliance. But Wolves’ major problem remains the same: they don’t score enough goals. The last of their players to find the net was Jose Sa, with his unfortunate own goal against Arsenal. Their barren spell at the right end now spans 260 minutes. A tally of 24 goals in 27 games is lamentable. Barring a strangely prolific end to the season, they will muster fewer goals than the infamously bad Mick McCarthy/Terry Connor team who propped up the Premier League in 2011/12. Lage left Raul Jimenez on the bench for the first hour against Crystal Palace, a decision that backfired. If an experiment with a false nine, in Daniel Podence, failed, Wolves have recurring issues: getting too few players into the box and when some of those rarely score.
Brighton, on a losing streak
Remember the statistic that only the top three had lost fewer league games than Brighton? It was true a few weeks ago. Now Albion have doubled their number of defeats in the last four games. It feels out of character for draw specialists who often clawed their way back into matches, aided by Graham Potter’s changes. But in the last three, they have gone behind in the 21st, 17th and 12th minutes, only mustered one goal in response and lost to a trio of bottom-half sides. Maybe Brighton have relaxed a little: perhaps selling Dan Burn, which was excellent business financially, was the wrong move psychologically. But with Liverpool next, it could become five straight defeats.