Cristiano Ronaldo dominated Saturday but Thomas Tuchel and Luis Diaz both had excellent weekend. Spurs, not so much.
Sometimes force of personality and brilliant finishing from an all-time great can compensate for a myriad of failings. And if it may not for Manchester United over a season, over 90 minutes Cristiano Ronaldo produced a stunning display against Tottenham, his best for the club since 2009, to seal victory. His first Premier League hat-trick for 14 years contained the variety of wonderful goals to illustrate why he has scored more than anyone else in history: the long-range howitzer, the predatory finish, the bullet header of a winger who turned himself into the greatest aerial threat in football.
In an afternoon, Ronaldo doubled his tally of goals for Ralf Rangnick and perhaps proved a point to him: a restorative if unauthorised trip to Portugal may have cured his hip flexor injury, but perhaps he wouldn’t have started the Manchester derby anyway. But on his return, he shaped a game by willpower, relentlessness and timeless excellence in front of goal. United probably anticipated more such occasions when Ronaldo returned to Old Trafford; the broader picture is of his decline and their shortcomings. But for a one-off performance, it was extraordinary.
Now read 16 Conclusions from that game.
It was just his first Premier League goal of the season. It was also more than just a goal for Yarmolenko, who broke down in tears after opening the scoring against Aston Villa. Without his footballing talents, he might not have left his native Ukraine. Without a horrific war, Yarmolenko’s defining quest might have been his attempts to take over from the great Andriy Shevchenko as Ukraine’s record scorer. He has been less potent for West Ham in an injury-hit spell, but a reminder of his quality highlighted a far greater issue. The Premier League and its clubs can be wildly imperfect in other ways, some of them moral, but there has been something moving about many of the gestures in support of Ukraine and it was touching to see a Ukrainian score.
“I’ll stick to football,” said a manager at Stamford Bridge. It was Eddie Howe, when quizzed about 81 executions in Saudi Arabia. Tuchel hasn’t just stuck to football in recent weeks, but he has done very well at the football part. Chelsea would be expected to beat Luton, Burnley, Norwich and Newcastle but to do so in this context, with the climate of uncertainty that can affect everyone and everything at the club, is admirable. It often feels as though too many in the game can latch on to any excuse when results aren’t forthcoming. Tuchel’s team could have plenty of genuine reasons for being distracted. Instead, they have secured three wins in nine days that make it far likelier they will play Champions League football next season; both in terms of future revenues and finding a buyer, that top-four finish now seems more important.
Kai Havertz’s winner against Newcastle was controversial, given the possibility that he should have been sent off long before then, but his recent renaissance is a tribute to Tuchel and well timed. Chelsea nevertheless weren’t particularly impressive against Newcastle: off the field, however, their head coach has been. Management in troubled times can be about a very different form of leadership, about offering an example and trying to speak for others. Tuchel has done that, and in his second language.
Design a forward for a Jurgen Klopp team and they would probably be fast, direct and relentless. They would show a willingness to run in behind defences, preferably in the inside-forward channels. They would be adept at operating as a narrow winger, preferably an inverted one. And they would work hard off the ball.
Diaz may be a January signing whose journey to Anfield came via a more remote area of Colombia and Porto, but he could have come from a production line, were factories able to churn out Klopp players. Like Sadio Mane, Mohamed Salah and Diogo Jota before him, he has slotted straight in at Anfield.
Diaz was outstanding at Brighton, a constant menace who had the bravery to get a goal from an incident that could easily have left him injured. Yet it already felt unsurprising how good he was: given his impact in his brief Liverpool career, it felt a surprise it was only his second goal for his new club. Even as Salah ended his mini-drought, Diaz’s display seemed proof Liverpool have a bigger group of high-class forwards than at any other stage in Klopp’s reign. Certainly he has ensured it has not mattered that Jota’s goals have dried up in a way they rarely have since he left Wolves while, when Diaz plays at this level, it feels as though more of Mane’s future could rest in the middle of the front three.
Ivan Toney (again)
Many an achievement at Brentford feels historic and, a week after Toney scored their first top-flight hat-trick since 1937, they recorded back-to-back wins at this level for the first time since 1946. All five of their goals in those victories against Norwich and Burnley have come from Toney and if three of them were penalties, he has won two of them and his opener on Saturday was a terrific header when stalemate beckoned. He has delivered in what long shaped up as a pivotal point in Brentford’s campaign. In the space of eight days and 180 minutes of football, they have gone a huge way towards booking a second consecutive season in the Premier League and Toney now finds himself on the leaderboard of the division’s top scorers. Each, in its own way, is remarkable.
His long-range shooting has tended to be as enthusiastic as it is wayward but Arsenal have found a way to get Partey scoring: to head in corners against opposition from the Midlands. Emile Smith Rowe was his supplier against Aston Villa in autumn, Gabriel Martinelli against Leicester now. Another close-range Partey header, when handled by Caglar Soyuncu, brought the penalty for Alexandre Lacazette’s second. Partey did manage to rattle the woodwork with a shot from further out; technically, however, it counts as another off-target effort from a player who only gets 19% of his shots on target. Beyond that, however, his performance against Leicester was the sort Arsenal envisaged when they paid £50 million for him. Partey has not always justified the price, but his best is very good. Mikel Arteta’s vision has not always been reproduced on the pitch. Recently it has, though, and Partey is a reason why they are favourites for fourth.
He has been both a senior player and a young player for much of his career. If his 25th birthday meant he may no longer be the latter, Neves marked it with a wonderful display of passing and a magnificent cross for Conor Coady’s winner at Goodison Park. The Portuguese looked much the classiest passer on display and if that is a regular occurrence, he gives Wolves enviable quality. That they have got five seasons and more than 200 appearances without him decamping to a supposedly bigger club is something to be savoured. That Neves could take them back into Europe may make it likelier they can enjoy his brilliance for longer.
He has now scored in his last three appearances, although he may prefer not to count his own goal at Molineux. But a brace at Southampton meant that Hernandez now has five at the right end this season. So do Josh King and Ismaila Sarr, while Emmanuel Dennis is on nine. It is rare that a relegation-threatened team has so many scorers of their calibre. If Watford are to stay up, that potency will be crucial.
The teenager played no minutes of the first 90 at Elland Road and still scored the winner. If the stoppage-time replacement’s impact was further evidence that he has a temperament to mean he relishes the big stage, it also felt an endorsement of Jesse Marsch: a draw against Norwich would have made his a particularly underwhelming start. And if a 2-1 home win against the bottom club was scarcely emphatic, the American is off the mark.
A wildly inconsistent Tottenham
Their season isn’t yet destined to end in failure, but every setback makes it more likely. That they have lost five times in eight matches suggests an opportunity is being squandered: after going nine unbeaten at the start of Antonio Conte’s reign, they have lost the kind of consistency the classic Conte teams exhibit. Nor did they defend like a Conte side: not with the space Eric Dier afforded for Cristiano Ronaldo’s first, the failed offside trap for his second, the way Cristian Romero lost the Portuguese for his third. Tottenham have conceded 15 goals in nine games: again, not the sort of numbers generally associated with a Conte team. As in a previous 3-2 defeat, to Southampton, they conceded soon after scoring, rather than exerting control.
Assuming they do miss out on fourth place, their results against their immediate rivals will be a major cause. Manchester United have done a double against them. They have three points from a possible 15 against United, Arsenal, West Ham and Wolves. If one explanation is to argue that, Harry Kane and Heung-Min Son apart, there is too much mediocrity, that record still represents underachievement. It makes their wins home and away against Manchester City look still more of outliers. Otherwise, they have found different ways of falling short.
Spurs were the better team in several respects at Old Trafford; yet in fashioning many of the better chances, their goals instead came from a penalty and an own goal. It spoke to a lack of ruthlessness and efficiency which, once again, tend to be hallmarks of Conte sides. The Italian had suggested on Friday that he could extend his strangely short contract beyond 2023. Yet it is hard to escape the sense it is likelier an impatient manager will be gone then, if not before.
It was closer to grievous bodily harm than a legitimate challenge. Flattening Luis Diaz in a manner that was high, late, reckless, dangerous and yet went unpunished may have highlighted the ludicrous double standard that surrounds goalkeepers, who seem to have a licence to clatter into everyone else yet expect a free-kick if anyone touches them, but it really should have brought a red card. Quite apart from being terrible officiating, it was also terrible goalkeeping: Sanchez charged off his line and got nowhere near the ball. If that was in part a consequence of Joel Matip’s pass and Diaz’s pace, it also showed a lack of judgment. The eventual challenge was the sort that really ought to bring retrospective action.
Everton’s serial losers
Half a Premier League season is 19 games. In their last 19, Everton have lost 15. They have drawn two and won two. It is a staggeringly bad record and not just in comparison with everyone else. Since Rafa Benitez’s early-season pacesetters drew at Old Trafford, Watford have 15 points, Norwich 16, Brentford and Burnley 18. Everton have eight. And while they have played fewer games than any, games in hand scarcely feel much of an advantage for a side with such a losing habit. Everton’s wretched form is made all the more damning by the reality that they have spent around £550 million in transfer fees under Farhad Moshiri’s ownership. And yet five of the starters against Wolves – Seamus Coleman, Jonjoe Kenny, Donny van de Beek, Demarai Gray and Anthony Gordon – cost under £2 million in transfer fees. The rather costlier Allan and Michael Keane were dropped and already in his brief reign Frank Lampard has worked his way through various formations – 4-4-2, 3-4-3, 4-3-3 – and combinations of players without much semblance of success.
Ivan Toney’s second strike on Saturday put Brentford nine points ahead of Burnley, but it took the difference into double figures in another respect: the promoted club now have 10 more goals than the one who could be relegated. Burnley’s defensive record remains decent. Their attacking efforts, however, feel insufficient. They had chances on Saturday but have mustered a mere four shots on target in a run of three straight defeats, with a lone one at Brentford. They have just three goals in 10 league games. If, for obvious reasons, there is a focus on Wout Weghorst, his return now stands at one goal in eight appearances: it is a small sample size, but he averaged one every two for Wolfsburg.
Yet it is unfair simply to blame him. Maxwel Cornet has not scored for two months. His autumn run of wonder goals was hugely entertaining while it lasted, but it rarely looked a sustainable formula. The broader problem is that Burnley have lacked one, while too many players have been unproductive. Dwight McNeil’s season has brought no goals and one assist: so has Johann Berg Gudmundsson’s. Jay Rodriguez struck the bar at Brentford but he and Matej Vydra have made a combined 39 appearances, albeit largely from the bench, and got one goal each, while Ashley Barnes has none in 15. Chris Wood only managed three before his sale. Along with Norwich, Burnley are in the bottom two for goals, expected goals, shots and shots on target.
Leicester at set-pieces
They still can’t defend them.
The south coast
Brighton have lost five in a row. Southampton have suffered three successive defeats. Both had been overachievers but proximity to the English Channel now seems to have a negative impact on results.