Up until Liverpool thrashed United 7-0 (yes, seven) on Sunday evening, the defining image of the Premier League weekend had been William Saliba leathering the corner flag into Holloway Road after Reiss Nelson’s 98th-minute winner against Bournemouth.
Manchester City kept the pressure on Arsenal by beating a wasteful Newcastle, Tottenham‘s decision to rest their best players against Sheffield United backfired at Wolves and Southampton boosted their survival bid with a hard-fought win against free-falling Leicester.
This weekend’s results
Saturday 4 March
Man City 2-0 Newcastle
Aston Villa 1-0 Crystal Palace
Brighton 4-0 West Ham
Wolves 1-0 Spurs
Southampton 1-0 Leicester
Sunday 5 March
Monday 6 March
Brentford vs Fulham
Last week, we wrote that the more regulation wins (to nil, comfortable, without any significant drama) a title challenger could manage, the more likely they were to achieve their goal. Get caught up in high drama too often and you will eventually come unstuck.
All that is still true, but there’s no doubt that high drama has its place. And in those moments directly after you have stared adversity in the face, risking ignominy and still, somehow, come through unscathed, you become convinced that something deeply special is building. Watch the reaction of Arsenal’s players at full-time and try and tell me that it would have been better to win 2-0 with a goal in each half. You can’t do it every week; boy it makes a difference when you do it.
The method of victory mattered. This was the first time in 11 years that Arsenal have come from 2-0 down to win a Premier League match. You can argue that they should never have conceded twice at home to Bournemouth (and that itself was a sign of weakness), but the comeback proves that there is a resilience in this team that we have not witnessed at Arsenal for far too long.
It also continues Arsenal’s new habit of scoring crucial late goals. “Between November 2017 and the beginning of 2023, Arsenal won only two Premier League matches with goals in stoppage time,” this column noted a fortnight ago. They have eclipsed that record in 2023 alone. In January, February and now March, an Arsenal game has been 2-2 entering stoppage time and has ended in Arsenal victory.
The identity of the scorer makes a difference too. If there is one understandable doubt about Arsenal, it is a lack of squad depth that manifests itself in an absence of game-changing substitutions. Reiss Nelson wants a word: he now has three league goals and two assists in just 85 minutes over three substitute appearances.
Finally, there is a fearlessness that acts as an effective retort to the doubts about Arsenal lacking title-winning experience. So what if they haven’t been there and done that? They’re simply running on positive adrenalin and that can be as powerful as experience. There is something of Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool (circa 2017-20) in this Arsenal side: high morale, extreme togetherness that can overcome any perceived lack in quality or knowhow.
The greatest compliment that we can pay Unai Emery is that it now seems absolutely bizarre that Aston Villa were in deep, deep trouble five months ago. When Steven Gerrard was sacked on 20 October, Villa were outside the bottom three on goals scored alone. They are now a point behind Brentford in ninth. Since Emery officially took charge, Villa sit fifth in the league table and only Manchester United, Manchester City and Arsenal have won more games. How quickly competence has become the norm.
Under Emery, this Villa team has two distinct traits. The first, crucial for every club with designs on climbing the table, is that defeats do not seem to cause lasting damage. They have not been immune to defensive collapse, but Emery has steadied the mood to enable progression and recovery.
They lost 4-0 to Newcastle before his first game, and then won the next two. They lost 3-1 at home to Liverpool, and then won 2-0 away at Tottenham. They lost three games on the spin, including a 4-2 home defeat to Leicester, and have won two league games in a row since without conceding a goal. Unlike during Gerrard’s tenure, the players seem convinced in the manager’s general plan.
The second trend is their improved defensive solidity against non-elite opponents that Villa must now expect to beat. Under Gerrard this season, Villa allowed 15 shots against Everton, 16 against Crystal Palace and 17 against Fulham; they were far, far too open. Under Emery, look at the difference: eight shots faced against Manchester United, seven against Brighton, eight against Southampton, nine against Leicester (who did score from four of them) and, on Saturday, just three against Crystal Palace.
The emotional gamble that every football supporter takes – and this is where the loyalty and the addiction is born – is to risk their worst day of the week for a shot at their best. As the games get more important, the risk only increases: you head to Wembley, for example, to risk the worst day of your last decade for the greatest. This is why we do it.
That’s a predicament that Bournemouth faced this weekend. Had they lost 2-0 at the Emirates, conceding once in the first half and then again five minutes before the end, nobody would have lost much heart; this was entirely expected. Somehow, they suffered a less heavy defeat, scored twice away from home and it still felt ten times worse. They took forward steps and ended further back from where they started.
Criticising Bournemouth or Gary O’Neil after a 3-2 defeat at the league leaders does feel a little harsh, given we barely expected them to compete. But there is something in his tactical approach that is worrying Bournemouth supporters who have seen most other relegation rivals appoint experienced coaches while their club keeps faith in a novice. O’Neil seems convinced that Bournemouth should look to sacrifice possession and attempt to succeed on the counter attack.
Look at the details. During their horrible run between October and January, Bournemouth lost to West Ham, Southampton, Leeds, Chelsea, Crystal Palace, Manchester United and Brentford while enjoying between 40 and 60 per cent possession. They then bought three attacking players in January, including two wingers, and changed tack. Since then, Bournemouth have had 29 per cent possession against Brighton, 34 against Newcastle, 33 against Wolves, 34 against Manchester City and just 20 per cent against Arsenal.
There is some logic in the approach, given the January recruits. But the accusation from some supporters is that Bournemouth have become far too one-dimensional, sinking further and further back towards their own goal, particularly when they are defending a lead. The pertinent question is this: are their central defenders good enough to soak up pressure without eventually cracking?
Play against Fulham on Monday evening.
Graham Potter has got enough on his plate at Chelsea without this, but as Brighton continue to make a remarkable under-the-radar push for the top four (yes, I know it’s mad but look at the table – they’re seven points behind Spurs with three games in hand), we have to wonder whether Roberto De Zerbi was exactly the right manager to take this squad forward.
It took De Zerbi a little time. His Brighton team scored three goals at Anfield during his first game in charge, but then once more during their next four. In these games, they were very similar to Potter’s Brighton: pressing high up the pitch and capable of creating chances, but blunted by their own poor chance conversion.
De Zerbi’s theory – and it’s highly persuasive given what has happened since – was that it wasn’t just poor finishing that was costing Brighton. Instead, they were not brave enough in committing players high up the pitch. Strikers were getting isolated and snatching at chances when they came. They needed to be more versatile, more courageous in possession.
As if by magic, he has landed upon the answer. Since that run of one goal in four games, Brighton are the third highest scorers in the Premier League (behind Arsenal and Manchester City). They are now sharing the goals out, as De Zerbi demanded. Last season, four Brighton players scored five or more league goals; they already have five this season.
Against West Ham on Saturday, we saw the nascent peak of De Zerbi’s Brighton. Four different players scored goals. Twelve different players had shots. Eight different players created chances. Eight players had 15 or more touches in the final third of the pitch. It’s brilliant – and it’s brilliant to watch.
Graham Potter’s insistence that Chelsea have shown promise during his tenure and that performances had not matched results carries some weight, particularly in terms of their attacking returns. But the numbers, backed up again on Saturday despite them winning, offer both a prosecution and a defence.
Over their last nine matches, Chelsea have recorded an expected goals for figure of 11.5 (so, on the quality of chances created, we would have expected them to score around 11 goals) but have only scored four times. That suggests that Potter is right about the inability to finish chances, but also that Chelsea have struggled to create clear-cut opportunities. Chelsea have registered an xG total greater than 2.0 once in the league this season. As a comparison, Antonio Conte’s Tottenham (also accused of being laboured and lethargic in possession) have done it five times.
But those goals would have made a difference. If there is one player who epitomises Potter’s Chelsea it is Kai Havertz. Havertz clearly has talent and excellent technique and there is clearly a fine Premier League attacker in there. But the inconsistency is maddening. Over that same nine-game run, Havertz has had 16 shots and scored once despite being the player most often picked to lead the line.
Which comes back to Todd Boehly’s odd recruitment strategy. Chelsea have spent half a billion pounds over the last year and appointed a manager who infamously had struggled to turn good possession into goals despite being a roaring success at Brighton.
What did Chelsea do? Give him lots of new players no actual centre forward. Mykhailo Mudryk, Chelsea’s £89m new signing, spent the entire game against Leeds on the bench while Joao Felix, a loanee who has probably been their best attacking player recently, started ahead of him.
All the while, Havertz played for 90 minutes as the striker, missed a one-on-one and generally frustrated everyone in Stamford Bridge. It’s now six goals in almost 2,200 league minutes for Havertz since scoring against Southampton last April.
Our prediction a few weeks ago was that Patrick Vieira’s Palace would continue to struggle against better opponents, everyone would assume that they were deep in the relegation fight and then they would begin to win games during a far more gentle run of fixtures. That’s because you can split Palace’s season into two: six wins against teams currently in the bottom half, none against those in the top half.
The first half of that prediction is certainly coming true. Palace have now played 10 games in all competitions in 2023 and have still not won a game. When this terrible run began, Palace had a gap to the bottom six that allowed them to keep looking up the division, not down. All of a sudden, that has changed as teams pick up points; Palace are six points off the bottom.
This isn’t going to get easier just yet: Palace face Manchester City, Brighton and Arsenal in their next three league games; lose them all and they might well be in the bottom three. It is an odd quirk of the fixture computer that eight of their last 10 league games are against teams currently placed 13th or lower, but there’s a chance it could prove to be Palace’s downfall. When those supposedly easier fixtures come along, they will be relegation six-pointers.
Vieira has a team that has forgotten how to score and how to win. Those are not habits that can simply be picked back up off the floor.
This is hardly a newsflash, but if Everton are going to stay up then two things need to happen. The first is that, when you score as few goals as they do, you really do need to hold onto your leads. It has made a huge difference this season: Everton have led against Leeds, Brentford, Manchester United, Wolves, Southampton and now Nottingham Forest and have won none of those matches.
The second necessity is that Everton are going to have to score a lot of set-piece goals. In six matches under Sean Dyche, they have scored four goals; only one of them was from open play and that was Seamus Coleman’s wonder goal winner against Leeds. It is not sustainable.
Things probably aren’t going to get better soon in open play. Neal Maupay has now been dropped to the bench in favour of Demarai Gray as a false nine. We were told this week that Dominic Calvert-Lewin’s return is not imminent, to the extent that there is no exact potential return date even mooted. All aboard the Dyche back-post corner routine survival challenge.
Play against Brentford on Monday evening.
It has been slightly lost in all the noise of Jesse Marsch’s drawn out exit and the laboured appointment of a successor, but Leeds United’s away form has been absolutely dismal this season and, if it doesn’t improve, will be the reason that they are relegated. We’ve discussed this same problem with reference to Nottingham Forest repeatedly this season, and that’s a handy comparison: Leeds have taken the same number of away points as Forest in one extra match.
The most worrying aspect of this record is Leeds’ inability to pick up points on the road against their bottom-half peers. They have played nine away matches against teams currently in sixth place or below and have taken one point from a possible 27 available – away at Southampton. They have scored six goals in those nine matches and conceded 17. As with Forest, it piles an awful lot of pressure on the three home games against Leicester, Forest and Crystal Palace. The way they’re going, they might need to win all three to stay up.
Throughout the last year, there have been mitigating factors to offset strong criticism of Brendan Rodgers despite Leicester’s tricky form. That form, for full disclosure: 38 league games played in the last 12 months, 43 points.
After a full year without adequate investment to reinvigorate the squad (largely thanks to poor purchases in previous years), Leicester did recruit in January. The central defender they desperately needed came in. So too did the creativity on the right wing, with Marc Albrighton moved on. Rodgers also signed a new left-back; Ryan Bertrand’s move has gone horrendously badly.
Rodgers talked up these purchases as the signifier of a new mood at Leicester after the 4-2 win at Villa at 4-1 home win against Tottenham; it really did feel as if a corner had been turned. Since then, Leicester have lost four straight games in all competitions, including a humiliating home defeat to Blackburn in the FA Cup. Rather than Leicester’s new signings lifting the mood and taking Leicester forward, it now appears that the existing spirit, weary and dispirited, has quickly dragged the new players down.
Last week, we also discussed just how much Leicester struggle when James Maddison is absent, after Rodgers’ team only had a single shot against Arsenal. But this week, Maddison was back and Leicester lost against the team bottom of the table without having a single shot on target. The general rule of this season: if you lose to Southampton, you’re in trouble.
Leicester did indeed miss a host of chances against Southampton, provoking Rodgers to stress that his team had played very well. But here’s the thing: that always seemed likely to catch up with them. Leicester have been outperforming their quality of chances all season, including a run in the autumn when they seemed to exclusively score from outside the penalty area. Only three teams in the league score with a higher percentage of their shots and only two teams shoot from further out, on average. There was always likely to be a regression to the mean.
Rodgers is stressing that Leicester are now at the beginning of a new cycle (Jamie Vardy in decline, Youri Tielemans out of contract in the summer, two new defenders and a winger joining recently); that’s a fair point. But he is no fool – he knows that Leicester possess one of the strongest teams in the bottom half on paper and yet seem unable to fully escape the clutches of the bottom three. It has to improve, quickly.
By the end, neutrals were laughing in shock and Anfield was singing “Always look at the bright side of life” to the away end. The biggest surprise is that they could still manage to speak at all, given the magnitude of the experience. Every one of them will say it out loud and say it proud for months to come: our team just inflicted the joint worst defeat in Manchester United’s history. Any year, any competition, any game.
The second half was sent like manna from heaven onto half a city. We must watch it back in a few days just to take in the downright silliness of the experience. Liverpool scored six unanswered goals, Erik ten Hag’s team played like a group of hyperactive toddlers asked to herd cats and the Kop chanted for an eighth goal. Football is daft and unpredictable and unstoppable in its power to catch us off guard.
A request – we do not need to ask or answer whether Liverpool are back. The proof one way or the other will come in time and we can allow ourselves the wait. Manchester United are not bottlers or terrible based on this result. We do not have to extend everything into the panoramic shot; Liverpool’s entire season has taught us that. Some days are so special that they do not demand extrapolation. You simply stare at what you have witnessed in wonder, confident of only one thing: you won’t see the same again for years.
But we can say this, which we all knew but had forgotten too easily: there are elements of this Liverpool team that, when they click, make your tummy fizz and your eyes open wide to take in its majesty. And when you watch Mohamed Salah put Lisandro Martinez on his backside simply by feinting one way and this, a wide forward Jedi mind trick, you know that hope will never quite be extinguished by the dismay of defensive uncertainty.
Football is a pursuit governed by confidence; we knew this and still it was hammered home at Anfield on Sunday afternoon during the winter’s last knockings. What’s more, it can turn on one pass or one tackle. Suddenly everyone has their faith in those in front, behind and around them reinvigorated. Andrew Robertson found Cody Gakpo, Gakpo found the net and apparently broke the football narrative mainframe.
Suddenly, Liverpool are alive. Jordan Henderson is tearing around making tackles like he is trying to make good on the last five games in one go. Salah, Gakpo and Darwin Nunez are playing one-twos like Bonjela has been slathered over their teething problems. All of them scored in the same game for the first time and then they had all scored twice. It’s amazing how a midfield can look less fragile when the defence and attack is functioning.
Phil Foden has suffered over the last two months. He has been struggling with an ankle injury ever since returning from the World Cup that hampered his ability to start games and his ability to dominate in them when he did start. It led, probably for the first time since breaking through, to some criticism of Foden’s performances. Elite football can be an unforgiving place to grow up.
Two things are now certain: 1) Foden was always too good a player for his funk to be anything other than temporary, and 2) that funk is now over. He has four goals in his last three games over the course of eight days. After the victory over Newcastle, Pep Guardiola made the point of emphasising that his own trust of Foden had never once wavered.
With Bernardo Silva now more often used in a deeper role, Guardiola is picking between Riyad Mahrez, Jack Grealish and Foden for two positions and Foden does prefer to operate in the same role as Grealish. This time he played on the right wing and it worked. There is a directness to Foden with the ball at his feet that scares opponents. His dribbling, done through little dips and shifts rather than pure pace, is wonderful to watch and horrible to watch your team defend against.
That directness manifests itself in how often Foden gets into dangerous positions. He averages 1.5 more touches in the penalty area per 90 minutes than Mahrez this season and takes his shots an average of two-and-a-half metres closer to goal. It will not always be the best option (there is benefit in the way Mahrez stretches the game across the width of the pitch). Against Newcastle, it definitely was.
The joint-heaviest defeat in Manchester United’s history may not have long-reaching consequences, if the general trend is still upwards, but make no mistake: this was a dark, dark day. Ten Hag will be deeply troubled by the way that his side collapsed so embarrassingly and there should be recriminations in the dressing room.
This is not playground football, where you can play as a disorganised mess and get away with it. Every opponent in the league is good enough to make you look foolish if you lose your heads. Those in white may as well have waved their shirts like flags, such was the dimness of their emotion-driven response.
There are individuals who must be singled out for censure. Bruno Fernandes was United’s captain, and as such had a responsibility to keep a calm head. It is not hyperbolic to suggest that he should lose the armband based on this display, such was his petulance and embarrassing lack of maturity.
“Bruno Fernandes is stood in the centre circle with his arms raised saying ‘Why isn’t it me coming off?’ Honestly.
“I think some of his behaviour in the second half has been a disgrace.”
He added: “The second-half has been an absolute disgrace, a shambles. They have not been epitomised more than Bruno Fernandes, who has been embarrassing – a shambles – in this game.
Fernandes spent the last 30 minutes rolling on the floor, screaming at officials, kicking opponents, failing to offer anything for the team and then shoved the assistant referee. If a team takes its lead from its on-pitch leader, Bruno led by pitiful example.
Behind him, Lisandro Martinez and Luke Shaw also lost their heads. Both were left helpless by the lack of resolve in front of them, but there are ways to react. Martinez enjoys playing on the edge – and is a better defender for it – but he must control the extremes of his tendencies. Charging out to commit fouls might make him feel a little better, but this is a team sport.
Eddie Howe has got most tactical and selection decisions spot on during this season, but is his loyalty to Callum Wilson, and subsequent resistance to starting Alexander Isak, beginning to hold Newcastle back a little? Against Manchester United in the League Cup final last week, Wilson struggled to hold up the ball and thus barred Newcastle from maintaining much momentum. This weekend, he missed chances at 1-0 that you have to take against Manchester City.
That has been a theme recently. Wilson has scored one goal in all competitions since the end of October, against West Ham early last month. In that time he has taken 27 shots. It is true that Newcastle are not creating chances of the same quality as in autumn (and aren’t scoring the low-percentage chances either). But Newcastle have a £60m attacker sitting on the bench and Wilson isn’t justifying leading the line ahead of him right now.
Given the recent run, might Howe be tempted to start Isak and Wilson in combination? They have both been injured for periods of this season, but it is slightly surprising that they have still not started a match together in any competition.
One point gained rather than two dropped, given the state of the game and the fact that it keeps a cushion to Everton, but Forest are living dangerously. We knew that their home form would be crucial, given their inability to score away from home. We also suspected that the home form might not be sustainable, given the manner and style of wins over West Ham, Liverpool, Crystal Palace and Leeds. Forest were due an opponent taking their chances and scoring twice, basically.
Forest’s problem, to repeat the point from last week, is that they seem unable to gain a foothold in midfield. They’re so busy reacting to pressure and an opponent on the front foot that the passing is panicked rather than planned. In the moments when it does click, Morgan Gibbs-White and Brennan Johnson can cause havoc. What they need is someone to make tackles, lead and organise them and generally stop the opposition from running the show.
Step forward Ryan Yates, who has been so badly missed. Forest might have bought eight (no, really) players this season who have started in central midfield, but Yates is the one who understands Steve Cooper most and the one who leads by example. He is neither the most talented or most valuable financially, but Yates is irreplaceable in this team.
This week, Southampton manager Ruben Selles publicly criticised midfielder Romeo Lavia. In the world of management spiel and media-trained deliberate anti-insight, it was a fairly punchy answer:
“I will say he’s not impressed me. He has more football to offer and I expect him to offer more football. He’s not there yet. He needs to step up and move forward. Romeo has all the qualities to become a great player, but I don’t think he’s there yet. And this is why he didn’t impress me.
“I have worked with talent and I think to make the next step he needs to show more domination in the games, more domination in possession, more leadership on the pitch if he wants to become the thing that everybody says about him.”
Now we do not see what happens inside a club (and perhaps this was more a dig at Lavia’s behaviour), but, if it did merely refer to on-pitch performance, that seems mighty harsh. Lavia has indeed struggled in recent weeks, but he also only turned 19 in January and this is his first ever season of senior football. To say that he has been thrown in at the deep end, starting in arguably the most important position in a team haunted by the threat of relegation, is an emphatic understatement.
Teenagers are not consistent. As they learn on the job and learn how to cope with the physical and mental demands of elite-level sport, their performance level will fluctuate. What they really need at times like that is support, not being hung out to dry in public. That said, Lavia then went and won possession 14 times against Leicester on Saturday evening, five more than any teammate. Perhaps this was all a super-smart motivational tactic.
Another afternoon on which Tottenham supporters who travelled up the country then travel back down it wondering what the point even is. I can really only reiterate what I wrote this week on the subject of a potential return for Mauricio Pochettino:
“This isn’t about logic, but unashamed, still fervent emotion. Pochettino’s tenure is a reminder (and a very handy, available reminder, given he’s out of work and living around the corner) of what it means to support a football club and what it is to fall in love with a particular interaction of your football team. The one problem with being allowed to dream is that you then can’t stop dreaming.
“Of course they would want it to work out this time – that would equal salvation. Of course they would weep if it went sour again, especially if this time the end wasn’t preceded by a gloriously extended middle. But the yearning for Pochettino is the hardwired – and entirely understandable – response to everything Tottenham fans now see before them.”
The common response to that piece (and I fully understand it) is that Tottenham are fourth in the league – what’s the problem here? But Tottenham are fourth virtually by default, given the slumps endured by Liverpool and Chelsea and Newcastle’s recent stutter. And the whole point of following your football team is, hopefully to enjoy the experience.
Tottenham can look across north London at what is possible. They look at their own team and see precious little to believe for the long term.
“But this must not be a one-off, as it was against Everton. If West Ham simply revert to type next weekend, passed off the park by Brighton at the Amex and then too slow to push on the front foot at home to Villa a week later, they will not escape trouble. The quality is there. The ideas are there. These players just need to be allowed to play. Everyone is sick of false dawns.”
They are halfway towards that false dawn, because passed off the park and too slow to push onto the front foot is exactly what West Ham were against Brighton. Therein lies the inherent nonsense of giving a manager one game to save their job. It might work in the immediate future but it clearly doesn’t solve the problems that brought the manager to that point. Now West Ham are caught in a weird vortex where the home game against Villa is win or bust. And so it continues.
“We let ourselves down,” Moyes said after the game. “That’s one of the worst results and worst performances since I’ve been here. I totally understand the fans’ reaction. They have been watching a team that has been doing really well over the last few seasons so it’s hard for them to watch that.”
They have, but it isn’t just the comparison with seasons past that is frustrating supporters. This is not a poor selection of players, but a fine selection of players performing poorly. Suffering your heaviest defeat since August 2019 a week after taking a necessary step forward suggests that Moyes isn’t really controlling much at all.
A lot of things have changed at Wolves under Julen Lopetegui, but he should take care not to throw the baby out with the bathwater. The most interesting thing about their victory over Tottenham, that surely takes them close enough to survival to allow a small sigh of relief, is how many components of “old” Wolves there were.
Wolves looked ragged in the first half. They failed to have a single shot and allowed Tottenham to take 11 of their own and were very fortunate not to be trailing. At half-time, Lopetegui abandoned the four-man defence, brought on Nathan Collins for Pedro Neto and went with a back three. It’s something we have said before, but letting Conor Coady leave just because Bruno Lage wanted to try a back four was a very strange call.
And then look at the Wolves team when they score the winning goal. There’s Johnny at left wing-back. There’s Joao Moutinho in midfield, in partnership with Ruben Neves but not being overrun because there are three defenders behind them and one typically steps up. There’s Raul Jimenez, causing mischief in the box and forcing the goalkeeper to make a save. And there’s Adama Traore, scoring winners for Wolves and making that Barcelona loan spell seem more weird.
The role of Jimenez was the most pleasing aspect, particularly with Diego Costa leaving the pitch with an injury that might well spell the end of his work at Wolves. Lopetegui spoke after the game of Jimenez’s importance in busying central defenders when he isn’t scoring goals, and he’s absolutely right. See how much space there was for Wolves’ other players on the goal, simply because Jimenez had dragged two defenders with him.