Arsenal will take an eight-point lead into the international break after another rampant league victory in which Bukayo Saka starred. Crystal Palace, in their first game post-Patrick Vieira, drop further into trouble without falling a place.
Across north London, Tottenham sink deeper into crisis and Antonio Conte is more than happy to talk us all through the details. Are we expecting another sacking this midweek?
At the bottom, Leeds were the big winners with their 4-2 victory at Wolves but Everton, Southampton and Leicester picked up potentially priceless points.
This weekend’s results
Friday 17 March
- Nottingham Forest 1-2 Newcastle
Saturday 18 March
Sunday 19 March
Arsenal can defeat most things these days, but print deadlines wait for nobody. As part of the matchday programme’s coverage of their opponents, a warm welcome for Arsenal great (and now former Crystal Palace manager) Patrick Vieira.
Vieira may have been licking his wounds after being sacked last Friday, but he was serenaded by the home supporters towards the end. They can live happily in the past and present these days.
Those supporters must be red raw and bruised from the amount they have pinched themselves during this ludicrous campaign: Arsenal have an eight-point lead at the top heading into the final international break of the season.
Thursday night’s Europa League exit to Sporting could be easily transformed into a positive, as long as the reaction was instant. Mikel Arteta’s team have scored three or more goals in each of their last four league matches. They’re not clamming up; they’re getting better.
An injury to Takehiro Tomiyasu? Don’t worry, Ben White will step in and be Arsenal’s best player, a hand in the first two goals and superb when stopping Wilfried Zaha.
The big decision of whether to recall Gabriel Jesus? Arteta kept the faith in Leandro Trossard as a nominal centre forward with Gabriel Martinelli off the left – Martinelli was exceptional in scoring the opening goal that allowed a mood of relief to wash over the stadium.
Hang around in the Emirates for long enough, and relief, angst and any other negative emotion will be washed away by joy. Such is the impact on the soul of watching Bukayo Saka create or score a goal and then look around like an expectant toddler for a hug, you catch yourself beaming with misplaced pride.
There is something moving on some molecular level about watching Saka in a team like this repeatedly doing unexpectedly wonderful things. It has roots in his missed penalty for England in 2021, the racist abuse he received in the aftermath and the manner in which he went away and vowed to himself that his excellence would shout louder than their hatred.
Whether Arsenal win the title or not, Saka will be a deserving Player of the Year. It’s now 22 goals and assists in the league alone. He’s still 21, for goodness sake.
Premier League table
In an article last week on the rise in value to Premier League managers of the left-footed central defender, I mentioned a host of examples of those who had impressed and those who had been recently signed. From the former list, I omitted Tyrone Mings.
Six months ago, that would have been entirely reasonable. Under Steven Gerrard, Mings was out of favour, lost the captaincy and was then recalled only when new signing Diego Carlos suffered a serious knee injury. Mings also lost his place in the England senior squad and could have few complaints. There were too many lapses of concentration. Villa were simply not defending well enough.
Under Unai Emery, Mings has been reborn. It’s not just that his left foot is useful to Emery because of his ability to build play from the back with either short passes under pressure or stretching the game with longer balls to the onrushing Alex Moreno. It’s that, because he can feel how important he is to his manager, all the other bits are back in Mings’ game.
As this excellent piece details, Mings’ attitude never changed. He will always work his socks off and he will always try to lead his team, because that is what he does. He will occasionally make mistakes, because he takes responsibility in difficult situations and because perfection is impossible. But the difference between his output under Gerrard and Emery is proof that how you handle a player, and the role you give him, can make an enormous difference.
It was in October 2021 that David Brooks heard the news he had feared the most. He had been diagnosed with Stage II Hodgkin Lymphoma, a cancer that develops in the body’s immune system. Brooks was a midfielder for Bournemouth and Wales but, at that point, he had to pause his career while he focused on the treatment and recovery.
Imagine for a moment the fear that would provoke. Not only because you have cancer, frightening in itself. But because all you have ever known as a distraction and an escape is football, and your dedication to it has allowed you to live your dream. And now, because of the diagnosis, you are unable to rely upon the escape. It isn’t just what cancer does to you; it’s what it takes away.
By May 2022, the best news. “It has been a few months since my last update and in that time I have thankfully completed my cancer treatment,” a statement from Brooks read. “Last week I met with my specialist having reviewed my final test results. I am delighted to say the treatment was successful and I can now say that I have been given the all clear and am now cancer free.”
The last part of that journey came on Saturday. Until Brooks made it back onto the pitch for competitive football, he would still be in the process of his full recovery. It may have been a rotten day for Bournemouth on the pitch, the only team playing on Saturday in the relegation fight to lose, but some things are bigger than league form. All that’s really left to say is: well done David Brooks.
Brentford supporters don’t need me to tell them this, but there have been signs in recent weeks of a little downturn from their wonderful form before February: the draw with Palace at home; the defeat to Everton; the draw with Leicester at home. That is proof of two things, the first of which we need to shout from the rooftops: all of those teams are Premier League staples and this is Brentford’s second season after promotion. They are at least 15 points clear of all of those teams and that represents an extraordinary achievement.
The second conclusion is that, yes, Brentford probably do need to invest in their squad in the summer to maintain this overachievement. Leicester’s four substitutes on Saturday were Jamie Vardy, Kelechi Iheanacho, Dennis Praet and Boubakary Soumaré. Three of those were signed for a combined £57m and other has been one of the most consistent Premier League strikers of his era.
Brentford’s first three substitutes, used to change the game rather than simply shore it up after the late red card, were Josh DaSilva, Shadon Baptiste and Kevin Schade. One of those is on loan from Freiburg, another was a free transfer and the most expensive of the three was signed from Oxford United. Don’t forget to note what Thomas Frank has done with these players.
No league game due to the FA Cup quarter-finals.
I’m using it as the excuse to make a wider point, but the manner in which Kalidou Koulibaly was beaten in at least three different ways by Ellis Simms, who scored his first Premier League goal, is a huge worry for one of Chelsea’s landmark signings of last summer, not least because they have since spent £110m on Wesley Fofana and Benoit Badiashile. Koulibaly signed a four-year contract on £160,000 a week last year that commits £33m on him, should he stay at the club. Koulibaly turns 32 before the start of next season.
On the whole, this has been a difficult season in the Premier League for those signed from Serie A last summer. Koulibaly has struggled with the speed of movement of attackers, while former Atalanta captain Remo Freuler has had the same issue in midfield at Nottingham Forest. Gianluca Scamacca cost £36m and has scored three goals for West Ham. Ivan Perisic has looked every bit his age at Tottenham, who also made Cristian Romero’s move permanent for £43m just as he was beginning to show signs of rashness. Arthur Melo and Denis Zakaria have barely featured as loanees.
There is clearly no blanket rule here; each player and each signing deserves to be judged on its own merit. But it may also remind those in recruitment roles at Premier League clubs that the different styles of the two leagues can make acclimatisation a long-term process. Or, to be a little more blunt, committing around £70m (transfer fee plus contract worth) to a 31-year-old from Serie A is a risky business.
It would be misleading to claim that Vieira was a victim of the fixture list, but sacking a manager just after they have played 11 straight matches against top-half opponents strikes as a bit rum.
The counsel for the prosecution points out that Palace won none of those matches and scored only three times in the process. But the defence is that Palace conceded only seven goals in his last eight league games.
By the time Saka had scored his second and Arsenal’s fourth, Palace had recorded their heaviest away defeat in almost two-and-a-half years.
There were odd flashes of resistance on the counter attack, not least when they hit Aaron Ramsdale’s left post at 0-0, but mostly Crystal Palace look like a team in which the creative players have seized up through a lack of use.
Too often, they either make the wrong decision or no decision at all and so are crowded out. Michael Olise and Eberechi Eze were bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, once. Now, one is substituted off for the other with an exchange of glances that says “I’ve seen some things out there, man”.
Zaha is both Palace’s brightest spark and their frustrated-in-chief, slamming his fists against the floor in disgust at having to carry the attack and beat two men on his own. His contract is up at the end of the season, and has the broken expression of a man who has tried so hard to do so much and may leave having witnessed precious little progress.
There is no problem with sacking Vieira if you believe that he was underachieving and was so unlikely to address the slump when the easier fixtures arrived that the firing and rehiring made financial and strategic sense. But there clearly is an issue when that sacking is not immediately followed by a formulated emergency action plan that includes having a replacement lined up.
Instead, we got reports that Roy Hodgson may return as an ancient caretaker and divide the club’s support ahead of the most important months of their recent history. If a club seems to make little sense off the field, don’t be surprised when they look so lost on it. Futureproofing and planning are necessities, not luxuries, when you’re sinking like a stone.
Simple one this after their 2-2 draw with Chelsea, because we now have very real evidence that Everton’s players believe in the process and believe in their manager more than under Frank Lampard:
- This was only the second point that Everton have gained from a losing position across their last 20 league games.
- This was the first time in over two years that Everton have taken a point in a game in which they have trailed twice.
- This was the first time since December 2021 that Everton have scored twice against a Big Six opponent, and the first time away from home since February 2021.
No league game due to the FA Cup quarter-finals.
“We do now know how Javi Gracia is intending to keep Leeds up: he’s going to try and make them boring. That might be an odd conclusion to draw from a 2-2 draw, but it holds true. There are no weird and wonderful left-field strategies and no deliberate ignorance of a particular area of the pitch. Gracia has cut out the nonsensically intense pressing all over the pitch. He is going to be happy to sacrifice possession and territory, if needs must.”
Do you know which idiot wrote that last weekend? Sure. Chaotic Leeds are back! Javi Gracia explained after the 4-2 win that he wanted to attack Wolves from the start, perhaps to exploit their own lack of confidence, and then sit back and defend the lead. But he can surely not have wanted – nor expected – for the game to have lurched between the two extremes so dramatically. Leeds scored three times and then seriously considered throwing it away. They are bonkers and we love them when they are so.
One explanation (if only because I’m trying to save face after writing “Leeds are boring”) is the absence of Tyler Adams in midfield. Gracia insisted that Weston McKennie and Marc Roca played well in his absence, but there is no doubt that Adams is a massive loss because of the work he gets through. Only Joao Palhinha has more tackles and interceptions combined than Adams this season.
Adams has missed only three league games this season, and it’s probably just as well for the health of Leeds supporters. Across those three games, Leeds have conceded eight goals and allowed their opponents to take 60 shots.
The draw with Brentford was a point gained, given that Leicester trailed and had lost five league matches on the spin. James Maddison and Harvey Barnes continue to carry this team, taking their combined goal contributions (goals and assists) in the league alone this season to 25. Leicester’s next best is on seven; they would be down were it not for those two attacking midfielders and at least one will leave in the summer.
Drawing at Brentford, and celebrating that draw, is also a mark of Leicester’s fall from grace since. Exactly a year ago on Monday, Leicester beat Brentford at home to move six points ahead of Thomas Frank’s team with three games in hand. Since then, Brentford have spent £45m on transfer fees but lost Christian Eriksen and Leicester have spent £45m and lost Wesley Fofana. Brentford are now 17 points clear of Leicester. That is damning on Brendan Rodgers.
Finally, it’s a damn good job that Leicester have managed to claw back some points from losing positions recently (against Brighton, Aston Villa, Tottenham and now Brentford). Because since the beginning of 2023, Leicester have played 10 league games and have conceded the opening goal in all 10. That isn’t sustainable.
No league game due to the FA Cup quarter-finals.
No league game due to the FA Cup quarter-finals.
No league game due to the FA Cup quarter-finals.
One of the risks of welcoming unlimited wealth into your club is that pathways can easily become blocked for academy graduates. The hope is that the most talented players will always manage to force their way in, but so often at elite clubs it relies upon good fortune. Marcus Rashford’s break only came in the midst of a Manchester United injury crisis. Can we be sure that the cookie would have crumbled in the same way otherwise?
The key, as every youth coach will tell you, is to have the confidence in your own talent that you take those opportunities when and where they come. Before Friday, Elliot Anderson was, at best, fourth choice to play wide left for Newcastle United, behind Anthony Gordon, Joelinton and Allan Saint-Maximin. But on Friday, Anthony Gordon was injured, Joelinton was suspended and Saint-Maximin’s calf felt tight at half-time (and he had done precious little before the break).
Anderson got his chance; Anderson took his chance. His direct dribbling scared Forest’s defenders, his volley was expertly saved by Keylor Navas and his header was disallowed on the tightest of calls. Forget filling in for those ahead of him in the queue – Anderson merits starting above them on this evidence. Sometimes, signing a new player for £40m isn’t always the best solution to a problem. The answer was staring them in the face: a 20-year-old who has been at Newcastle since he was eight.
This has been in the post for a long while. Nottingham Forest may have remained unbeaten at home in the league since September, but they have ridden their luck at the City Ground. Against West Ham and Crystal Palace, both 1-0 wins, their opponents missed a penalty. Against Leeds and Liverpool, Forest survived intense pressure (and missed chances) before they won the game themselves. Against Newcastle, they did not quite survive the first-half pressure. Against Newcastle, the penalty they conceded was scored. If that home record isn’t instantly repaired, Forest will be relegated.
Friday night also spoke to another Forest problem this season: giving away leads. Here’s a bizarre statistic: this season, Steve Cooper’s side have scored the first goal in 10 of their home league games, a number that no team in the Premier League can beat. By way of comparison, Leicester have scored the first goal in four home games, Crystal Palace three and West Ham five. Even Manchester United and Liverpool trail Forest by at least two.
The problem comes in converting those leads into wins. Forest have won only five of those 10 home games in which they have scored first, drawing two and losing three. The golden rule of surviving relegation is to make the most of the situations when you manage to seize an advantage. Forest had those situations against Bournemouth, Fulham, Brentford, Aston Villa and Newcastle at home and they took two points from those games.
It had been 127 days since a player not named James Ward-Prowse or Carlos Alcaraz had scored in the Premier League for Southampton and, after the midweek home defeat to Brentford, supporters were fearing that a bluntness in front of goal.
Cue the timely arrival of Theo Walcott back into his mid-20s. Walcott hadn’t scored a league goal for Southampton since May 2021 and had completely fallen out of favour under Ralph Hasenhuttl and Nathan Jones. He’s started more Premier League matches this month than he had in the previous 15 months and on Saturday completed 90 minutes in the league for the first time since January 2021.
And unthinkably, given that Walcott is now 34 and – we assumed – his career was entering a slow, drifting end, he has made a huge difference under Ruben Selles. Although he lacks the trickery to repeatedly take on and beat a full-back and then provide a decent cross, Selles is picking Walcott as a central striker and asking him to sit on the shoulder of the last defender. He timed his run beautifully before crossing for Che Adams for Southampton’s first goal and then was given far too much space in the penalty area for the second.
Incredibly, it was only the second time in the last decade that Walcott has scored and assisted in the same Premier League match. He and Che Adams as a strike partnership keeping Southampton up would make for an extraordinary end to this season.
This now has to be the end. After his team let a two-goal lead slip against the team bottom of the division, Antonio Conte marched into his post-match press conference and allowed 18 months of deep frustration to spill out of his mouth. This was the football management equivalent of the famous scene in Scarface, Conte spraying bullets at anyone unfortunate or foolish enough to be caught in the crossfire.
A manager accusing players, owners, decision-makers and the club itself of letting themselves down is nothing new. But a coach deliberately picking out each of them for their own self-preservation is a sure sign of a relationship beyond repair. His contract expires at the end of the season. It would be a sign of weakness if Tottenham allowed him to see that out, lashing out at those around him all the while. If ever a post-match interview amounted to gross misconduct, this was it.
We have also been here before. “I have great ambition but I don’t have money for Chelsea,” said Conte in March 2018 after Chelsea had spent £240m on new players since winning the league. “The club knows very well what my idea is, what my ambition is. That is very clear. When you decide to work with this type of coach, you must understand that you take a coach with great ambition. Not a loser but a winner. And that ambition must always be shared.”
Then, Conte stayed until the end of the season and failed to finish in the top four. Tottenham cannot risk the same happening. They are unlikely to get another season when Liverpool and Chelsea are so far off the pace and, before long, reaching the top four will be an expectation for Newcastle.
Conte’s use at Spurs was extinguished after the Champions League exit to Milan. He was appointed because he was “a winner”, a coach capable of squeezing more out of this team in the matches that mattered the most and has wholly failed to do so. If Conte believes that is due to the underperformance of those around, above and below him, he must also accept his own culpability.
Tottenham tumbled out of the Champions League because they waited until 150 minutes into a 180-minute tie before they tried to attack. After the money spent last summer and in January, this is his team playing his style. It is an inconvenient truth for Conte that he has been given greater resources than any other Tottenham manager in history.
If Conte also surmises that his players are no longer following his instructions, perhaps he might ask why that is. Is it because, as he insinuates, they are lily-livered and selfish? Or is it because they have been bruised and broken by a coach who is happy to hang them out to dry as a means of protecting his own reputation and had their creativity stymied so that the well has dried up completely? That sergeant major management methodology can probably still work in specific circumstances, but it has fitted awkwardly here.
I got this wrong. I thought that Conte might add something that this club lacked: passionate leadership. But when things begin to go awry, a leader relies upon his experience and expertise as an ingredient of improvement. A leader does not detail the ways in which that experience and expertise makes him better than those who must follow him into the next challenge.
And so Tottenham got this wrong too. If, as Conte suggests, there is a fragility within the club’s core that bars them from winning trophies, it strikes as a risky call to appoint two managers who infamously leave nothing but scorched earth when they leave their clubs. Because if you still don’t win trophies with them, every bridge between every stakeholder will be razed to the ground.
No game due to the FA Cup quarter-finals.
Are Wolves paying the price for a “woe is me” attitude to refereeing decisions. Over their sticky recent run under Julen Lopetegui, which consists of four points from six matches and includes home defeats to Bournemouth and now Leeds, a number of decisions have gone against Wolves. This happens and it happens to every team, even if it always feels like it’s yours. It makes you angry as a supporter, player or manager, and that is perfectly understandable.
But if you’re a player, you have to learn to control that reaction because, if you don’t, you are more likely to make mistakes and you risk entering a downward psychological spiral where you think everything is against you. And that only makes it harder for good habits to stick.
Take the incident around a potential penalty on Saturday. It was tight, touch-and-go maybe. But the way that Wolves’ players and manager (and, it has to be said, reporters who cover Wolves) reacted was as if it was an outrage that a penalty wasn’t given. “Here we go again,” was the implied message. And then Wolves defended awfully for three of Leeds’ four goals, Jonny got himself sent off (and suspended) for a nonsensical challenge and then Matheus Nunes got the same for dissent. They will miss three matches each, pending any appeals.
“The referee’s decisions until this moment [since my appointment] – it’s incredible,” Lopetegui told Match of the Day. “Maybe when you have the same mistakes a lot of times against you, it’s not balanced.”
And maybe having the manager suggest that there is a conspiracy against your team when the reason you lost the match was your defensive incompetence isn’t particularly helpful either. Sensible supporters might point out that Wolves again lost the match after Lopetegui brought on Nathan Collins. Keeping your cool in a relegation fight is key.
On a different (but hardly lighter) note, Wolves’ progress under Fosun was defined by their successful work in the transfer market under Jorge Mendes. If the salient question was what happened if Wolves ended up getting players who were less obvious fits for the team/manager/system/situation, the answer lies in the league table now. Wolves have spent £160m on new players since the end of last summer and only two of the eight most expensive arrivals started against Leeds.