Saturday, February 24, 2024

Moyes the big loser but Liverpool’s bench presser and Arsenal bargain are Premier League winners

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Arsenal’s brilliant bargain tore the very essence and point of David Moyes to shreds. One Liverpool player is praised but should Bournemouth be worried?

 

Winners

Sheffield United
Chris Wilder will presumably be keen to bypass the first part at some stage but it should not go unnoticed that two of Sheffield United’s three Premier League wins this season have come in games immediately after losing 5-0.

That Aston Villa humiliation necessitated a reaction as much as the Arsenal humbling in October, which prompted victory over Wolves. The manager rectified his own mistake by restoring Jack Robinson to his starting line-up and the defence was far more resolute against a familiar challenge as a result.

The midfield pairing of Vini Souza and Gustavo Hamer will be vital to any hopes of survival, and something eminently more sustainable than the level of clinical finishing which decided matters at Kenilworth Road. In only four league games this season have Sheffield United had fewer shots than the six they mustered against Luton, to score three goals in a top-flight fixture for the first time since July 2020.

As much as Wilder will realise that is not a formula for consistently positive results, it is at least proof that there remains plenty of fight left in a team that has suffered its fair share of knockout blows.

 

Harvey Elliott
In quantifiable terms, the most-used substitute of this Premier League season, his 17 appearances off the bench matched only by Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg across the entire division.

In qualitative terms, the most effective substitute of this Premier League season, his introduction prompting an immediate improvement in Liverpool far more often than to see it as a mere coincidence.

Elliott’s assist for Darwin Nunez’s header against Burnley was tangible proof of what Liverpool had already realised: that bringing the 20-year-old on at half-time changed the course of a game the hosts were exerting an awkwardly low amount of control on.

It was the same story against Newcastle in August, Wolves in September, Luton in November and Crystal Palace in December.

After that game at Selhurst Park, in which Elliott came on two minutes before Liverpool equalised and then scored a stoppage-time winner, Jurgen Klopp praised his ability to “connect things”. And as seamlessly as the club have replaced their entire engine room, there is no better midfielder at bringing everything together.

Elliott’s 98 Liverpool appearances have included 53 starts – mostly in cup competitions – and 45 substitute cameos. Some of that is down to his age, and much more due to the consequences of a long-term injury. That proportion will look healthier with time but this role perfectly suits him for now.

READ MORELiverpool are the best second-half Premier League side by a mile

Harvey Elliott has been excellent for Liverpool this season

 

Mark Flekken
By some measurements, the single worst goalkeeper in the Premier League this season. But in the past two games, something has finally clicked for Flekken.

After the futile brilliance of his resistance and assist against Manchester City, a first clean sheet in 13 matches and a booking for time-wasting after 60 minutes helped inspire Brentford to a crucial win over Wolves.

“We know, when we are on it, we are one of the good defensive sides in the league, and we have lacked that level of consistency or urgency or whatever in too many games – it feels like it’s been three years since we had a clean sheet!” Thomas Frank said after the game.

“The clean-sheet mentality was a big focus today. We spoke about it during the week, in training and in meetings, and, I know it sounds simple, but I said, ‘clean sheet and we’ll win the game’, because we’ll always score goals.”

Flekken has clearly appreciated the clarity of his role. It helped that Brentford named the same starting defence in consecutive Premier League games for only the third time this season. The January arrival of competition for his place in the form of 22-year-old Hakon Valdimarsson might well have been a factor. And maybe just a good old desperately overdue shot of confidence from that Manchester City performance was all the Dutchman needed to rediscover his touch.

 

Newcastle
The Jose Mourinho dream is fading, replaced on the horizon by the previously unthinkable prospect of another Champions League qualification.

Newcastle will not allow themselves to be distracted by that for the time being, requiring as it does a delicate balance of them sustaining some form and the teams around them dropping off.

Eddie Howe would likely prefer to focus on defensive improvements first and foremost, the club’s last Premier League clean sheet coming seven games ago. But while the goals are flowing at the other end, any concern is diminished.

Bruno Guimaraes shining in an advanced role and a new-found set-piece potency are at least foundational blocks upon which Newcastle can build towards a truly meaningful season, which has at various points looked well beyond them.

 

Spurs
Beyond Guglielmo Vicario and Cristian Romero offering an insight into how Fabien Barthez and Laurent Blanc would look if their relationship was founded on simmering, red-blooded passion rather than mutual love and respect, there was one Spurs lesson to learn from the weekend.

Before the Brighton win, only six times had a substitute scored or assisted a Premier League goal for Spurs this season; for reference, the only managers to have been in place throughout the campaign with fewer direct contributions from the bench were David Moyes (two) and Thomas Frank (five).

That tally included Alejo Veliz’s consolation in December’s defeat to the Seagulls, Richarlison’s late heroics against Sheffield United in September – his equaliser in that game was set up by fellow substitute Ivan Perisic – and Brennan Johnson’s goal in the 3-2 Brentford win, as well as the Welshman’s assist for Heung-min Son at Crystal Palace in October, a favour his captain kindly returned in stoppage-time against Brighton.

Ange Postecoglou noted after the game that Tottenham’s bench options had been “pretty limited lately” due to injury and other factors, but his view that “we do have that ability, irrespective of where the game’s at, to finish games strong” was clear to see in turning one point into three.

 

Leandro Trossard
Arsenal pivoting from Mykhaylo Mudryk to Trossard remains one of the best transfer decisions in recent Premier League history. The Belgian’s 10 goals and 12 assists since have come at a rate of one every 103.8 minutes, a slight upgrade on the Chelsea winger’s one every 263 minutes.

The finish against West Ham was stunning but his overall performance as a false nine was glorious. One tackle by the touchline in the first half was greeted with a pat on the back from Mikel Arteta and that majestic pass to play Bukayo Saka in to win the penalty came from his own half. Sometimes settling for the back-up plan is the best possible option.

READ MOREArsenal steal from Liverpool yet again as ‘ruthless’ streak emerges against abysmal West Ham

 

Manchester City
Perhaps the single biggest factor in most Premier League title bottlings of the modern age is that Manchester City perennially have an arseload of games in hand on their competitors, which they proceed to exploit by embarking on an uncompromising winning run to make their closest rivals seem amateurish.

Make that ten victories in a row, inflicted with six clean sheets, an imperious calm and, not even vaguely coincidentally, the return from injury of the country and maybe continent’s two most decisive players. How they have missed Matheus Nunes.

Pep Guardiola has frequently made the point that Erling Haaland and Kevin de Bruyne don’t necessarily change how Manchester City play, it’s just that they are so uniquely skilled that they can rise above those systems and roles to deliver in key moments with individual brilliance. Haaland twice breaching a belligerent defence, once with the freakishly wonderful assistance of substitute De Bruyne, only underlined that against Everton.

The longest run of consecutive Premier League wins any team has put together this season is six. Manchester City have done it twice; as unsustainable as their perfect start to the campaign felt, this feels their usual mid-to-late-season unstoppable stride.

 

Fulham
Marco Silva, the eighth-youngest current Premier League manager, has named the 14 oldest starting line-ups by average age this season. The XI put out against Bournemouth ranked fourth, with experience running through the spine.

Tim Ream was phenomenal in shackling Dominic Solanke. Tom Cairney was impeccable in dictating the tempo. Willian was creatively sublime. At 36, 33 and 35 respectively, the supposed twilight of their respective careers is shining as bright as ever.

For the first time this season, Fulham have gone three Premier League games unbeaten. Poor Armando Broja has timed his arrival terribly, just as Rodrigo Muniz embarks on literally the first run of vaguely sustained form in his entire Cottagers career. Adama Traore even rocked up for his first appearance since November.

After a patchy old run of one win in seven matches, Fulham have been wise to rely on some senior moments to pull them through to where they belong: thoroughly mid-table.

 

Harry Maguire
The only Manchester United player with a better personal Premier League goal difference this season than Maguire (+3) is Anthony Martial (+5). What more do you want?

Fine, the only Manchester United player, of those to have played more than 1,000 minutes, with a better personal Premier League points-per-match record this season than Maguire (1.93) is Scott McTominay (1.95).

Still not enough? The only Manchester United player with more Premier League assists this season than Maguire (two) is Bruno Fernandes (five). That’s all you’re getting.

READ MOREMan Utd’s next permanent managerial appointment confirmed as ‘character’ shines through again

 

Derby County’s 2007/08 season
Their little bit of Premier League history, forever enshrined.

 

Losers

David Moyes
One Michail Antonio quote has stuck in the mind when it comes to Moyes’ brand of coaching – and it isn’t the the revelation that “I’m told I’m not allowed to shoot from outside the box”.

“That’s one thing with our gaffer, literally, he loses his mind,” the forward said in September 2022. “When we concede one he’s like ‘you do not concede two within ten minutes’. You’ve got to make sure you work from your shape and then you go for it. The only time you can actually really go for it? Last ten of a match you can probably go for it and try and get something if it’s 1-0. But before that, if it’s one goal, you can get that one goal from anything, it could be like a corner, a throw-in, they could score an own goal, anything can happen when it’s 1-0. Just try not to concede two. Concede two, do not make it three… just try and shut up shop so the game doesn’t run away.”

It has become all too relevant all too frequently all too recently. No team has lost more Premier League games this season by at least three goals than West Ham. It has happened as many times (four) in 2023/24 as in the last three full campaigns combined.

The hallmark of Moyesball was a low-risk, counter-attacking style which kept games tight and always within theoretical reach. Sometimes it worked and sometimes it didn’t but there was a degree of balance which made it vaguely worth it.

That has gone. If the 15-minute period in which West Ham collapsed and conceded four times against Arsenal was not proof enough, the two quickfire second-half goals confirmed it. Moyes no longer being able to consistently deliver his side of a bargain many fans already found unappetising makes his continued employment pointless.

READ MORENine West Ham chumps in worst Premier League team of the weekend

 

Bournemouth
This current miserable run of no victories since Boxing Day for Bournemouth is bookended by two curiously similar matches. Both came away to London-based opposition and both were lost 3-1, but the resemblances between defeats to Spurs and Fulham do not end there.

Those two matches rank first and second for the most shots Bournemouth have had in a Premier League game this season, yet in both they only mustered four on target from 24 and 25 efforts overall respectively.

Even in terms of corners, the 13 they had in both defeats were an unlucky omen; if only they had someone the stature of Kieffer Moore to help convert them.

That is, of course, a disingenuous way to view their January transfer business. But in times like these, fans are bound to look at Moore’s impact for Ipswich and the immediate influence both David Brooks and Joe Rothwell have had at Southampton and wonder what might have been.

Enes Unal will help in that regard once he is fit and available, and the hope will be that he is one of the many who can take on board Andoni Iraola’s call for his players to be “more ruthless in both boxes”. Fulham having 18 fewer shots but two more on target – much like Spurs managing half as many shots but two more on target on New Year’s Eve – only underlines, emboldens and italicises his point.

 

Aston Villa
The theme of this past Premier League weekend was summed up well by Villa, one of four teams who won their games on xG but lost by far more nebulous concepts as scoring fewer goals than they conceded.

Most post-match manager assessments include some sort of stressing the Need To Be Better In Both Boxes and Unai Emery was no different, ruing how “clinical” Manchester United were in comparison to his players.

Villa have beaten three of the four teams above them but their results against those directly below and in the mid-table have been relatively poor. They have lost as many matches as they have won against the eight sides going down to 13th; if Champions League qualification is going to be eventually lost anywhere, that would be the place to start the investigation.

 

Luton
Outside the relegation zone they remain, but a home game against Sheffield United was the most ample of opportunities to open up some sort of breathing space to the bottom three. Instead, they let the net close uncomfortably around the bottom six with an uncharacteristically poor defeat.

Luton had not lost by more than a single goal since December 2 and were one of the Premier League’s highest scorers since Boxing Day, when they rallied to beat the Blades 3-2. They lacked that element of fortune and cutting edge in the return fixture and Chris Wilder’s side punished some curious mistakes.

Whatever Luton’s fate may be come the end of the season, they have already proven every critic wrong. But defeats to both their promoted brethren at Kenilworth Road feel like avoidable bumps in a road they have otherwise relatively serenely steered through.

THE 3PM BLACKOUT: Liverpool top but not really, Spurs and Fulham defy description, Hatters blow it

 

Wolves’ attacking depth
Those starting Wolves forwards are in impeccable form but when Matheus Cunha was substituted due to injury early against Brentford, Hwang Hee-chan could not recover in time to feature after the Asian Cup and Pedro Neto was forced into unfamiliar roles to help the subsequent adjustments, it was stark just how shallow the pool of alternatives at Molineux is.

Gary O’Neil could only turn to Jeanricner Bellegarde – out of both position and form, acclimatising to a new league – exciting but callow teenager Nathan Fraser and 20-year-old Tawanda Chirewa and his two career Premier League minutes for assistance from a bench in sore need of reinforcements.

 

Brighton
Defeat in a Premier League game they led at one point for the first time since April’s setback against Nottingham Forest. There should be disappointment and frustration for Brighton, whose three lowest Premier League shot tallies this season have now come away at the Etihad, the Emirates and the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium in narrow losses. Any reaction stronger than that would be excessive, even if they have still not won consecutive Premier League games since September.

 

Everton
A harsh but necessary lesson: if you’re going to breach the Premier League’s financial regulations, at least do it properly by breaking as many rules as possible, tangling everything up in lawyer-based red tape and not only refusing to acknowledge any wrongdoing, but doubling down by threatening legal challenges of your own.

If you back down and sign Ashley Young on a free, you’re just asking for it.

 

Jarrad Branthwaite
A harsh but necessary lesson: if you’re going to try and defend against Erling Haaland, strongly consider not doing that.

 

Nottingham Forest
How do you lose six games 3-2? Eleven Premier League games have ended 3-2 this season and Forest have lost more than half of them. Why are they like this?

 

Burnley
No Premier League side has conceded more goals from corners this season than Burnley’s nine. Be a real shame if they were playing the Premier League team which has scored the most goals from corners this season in their literal next match, wouldn’t it?

Don’t worry, James Trafford. Arsenal definitely won’t just relentlessly target you on Saturday, buddy.

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