There was no real winner from the Etihad, though Kevin De Bruyne was brilliant. As was Timo Werner on Saturday.
An unwanted hat-trick and a welcome double. Werner contrived to hit both posts and the bar. He also managed to score twice in Chelsea’s 6-0 rout of Southampton, which trebled his tally of league goals for the season. As they have all come against Southampton, he seems a specialist in this fixture, if all too few others.
But if Saturday showcased one of his weaknesses, with his profligacy, it also illustrated his strengths: the pace to exploit high defensive lines and the persistence to get in scoring positions. Perhaps it is too late for him to alter the direction of his Chelsea career, to become the prolific scorer he was for RB Leipzig. Yet he suffered when Romelu Lukaku was starting and, with Kai Havertz now the pivotal figure in the forward line, Thomas Tuchel reunited last season’s Champions League final starters, with Mason Mount and Werner completing the attacking trio. They proved a devastating combination. It gives him reasons to pick them together again, whether with Werner as the striker or Havertz as a false nine.
Delph’s last three starts at Goodison Park came in 2020, 2021 and 2022. Everton have an unfortunate habit of signing injury-prone players and he can seem a case in point. And yet, if it is easy to call him an example of what is wrong at Goodison, he instead provided much of what was right on Saturday. Everton were callow in defeat to Burnley. A fit-again Delph brought an immediate sense of authority: streetwise and tough, he helped make them look readier for the fight. Ben Godfrey looked a better centre-back with Delph ahead of him. Everton, who had to used defender Mason Holgate as an ersatz anchorman at Burnley, instead had two defensive midfielders, with Allan used in more of an advanced role, and proved harder to break down. Manchester United were beaten in part because of a former Manchester City player. As Delph had also impressed on his previous outing at Goodison, against Tottenham in November, Everton’s chances of survival depend in part on keeping him fit. Which, given his past injury problems, may be a cause for concern.
Tottenham’s new front three
The 2022 charts are dominated by Tottenham. Heung-Min Son’s hat-trick at Aston Villa made him the division’s top scorer in the calendar year, just ahead of Harry Kane. Yet a potent trio have been completed by the arrival of Dejan Kulusevski. In Spurs’ last nine games, they have scored 28 goals. The Swede has scored three and assisted six of those. If it still makes him less prolific than his sidekicks, he has dovetailed well with them, doubling up as winger and penalty-box player, looking a marked upgrade on Lucas Moura and Steven Bergwijn and offering an endorsement of managing director of football Fabio Paratici. Even if his recruitment policy consists of raiding his old club Juventus, Kulusevski and Rodrigo Bentancur show the wisdom of that policy.
Kulusevski has both reduced the reliance on Kane to score while freeing him up to create. It is remarkable Spurs have nine goals in two games without Kane getting any of them. Son’s golden run, with six goals in three games, has not merely given Spurs a firm grip on fourth place: he has ensured the Golden Boot is not a coronation for Mohamed Salah, as it long looked, but a competition where the South Korean has the momentum.
After a stunning goal at Anfield came a match-winning assist and goal, a crisp, classy volley, at the Emirates Stadium. Mwepu has been a bit-part player at times this season, but maybe the Zambian is shaping up as Brighton’s resident big-game player. Certainly he ended their slide, displaying an ability to get into the final third and the quality to pose problems there, showing the blend of the physical and the technical to suggest he has a high ceiling. The sense is that Albion may have a midfield makeover in the summer, potentially with Yves Bissouma leaving. Like Moises Caicedo, who made an auspicious Premier League debut in victory over Arsenal, Mwepu is a sign Brighton have got their future planning right.
Leeds, finally keeping a clean sheet
Leeds had conceded 53 goals since their last clean sheets. The vast majority, of course, were under Marcelo Bielsa and Jesse Marsch had begun to improve their defensive record. But a shutout at Watford was a reward for more conventional tactics, for abandoning man-marking and populating the area in front of the back four – which was often vacated as markers were dragged everywhere – with defensive midfielders.
Kevin de Bruyne and Gabriel Jesus
Some of Pep Guardiola’s surprise selections against Liverpool have backfired in the past: Aymeric Laporte has played left-back and Ilkay Gundogan on the right wing at Anfield, neither with conspicuous success. A manager who jokes he overthinks decisions confounded many a prediction by picking Gabriel Jesus on Sunday, The least prolific of his forwards duly scored in style, set up a glorious chance for Raheem Sterling and played terrifically well.
Albeit not as well as De Bruyne, simply because no one else on the Etihad Stadium pitch did. Liverpool have been remarkably frugal in 2022 but De Bruyne specialised in defence-splitting passes, opening them up at will. Mohamed Salah is very likely to win the individual awards for the season, and deservedly so, but when De Bruyne plays like this, he feels the best player in the division.
A 30th birthday to remember; should Liverpool overhaul Manchester City by the narrowest of margins, his equaliser will assume a still greater importance. But after a brilliant performance by Luis Diaz on the left wing against Benfica, this was a reminder the man who has occupied the position for most of the last five years is arguably still more devastating. And, after Senegal triumphed at Egypt’s expense in the Africa Cup of Nations final and then in World Cup qualifying, Mohamed Salah’s wonderful pass to him felt particularly generous.
A January signing secured Newcastle victory and, in all probability, another season in the Premier League on Friday. Yet well-taken as Chris Wood’s penalty was, and while he won it himself, he was not the game’s classiest player. Guimaraes was. Eddie Howe took a gradual approach to integrating his biggest buy, leaving the Brazilian on the bench when Jonjo Shelvey, Joelinton and Joe Willock formed an effective trio. But Guimaraes scored a glorious goal at Southampton and, even in defeat at Everton, looked a player of far greater pedigree. He was the best player on the pitch against Wolves. Newcastle’s five January arrivals can be divided into two categories: the pragmatic recruits who did a short-term task, in Dan Burn, Matt Targett and Wood, and those with the ability to play for teams far higher up the league, in Kieran Trippier and Guimaraes. And given the difference in their ages, the midfielder is likely to be in the team for far longer than any of his sidekicks in the new regime’s first batch of signings.
Brentford, staying up
It is getting to the point where Thomas Frank’s team could be mathematically safe. To have 36 points, 12 more than Burnley, feels a still greater feat when Norwich and Watford, who finished above them in the Championship last season, look set for a swift return to the Championship.
Arsenal, having a horrible week
Mikel Arteta’s reign has veered between highs and lows, between terrific and terrible form, so it would be an exaggeration to say this has been the worst week of his time in charge. But it has been awful nonetheless, Arsenal’s own two defeats compounded by two huge Tottenham wins that brought a sizeable swing in goal difference towards their neighbours. The Gunners were awful against Crystal Palace on Monday and not much better against Brighton. As Albion had a solitary point (against Norwich, too) from their previous seven games, arguably losing to Graham Potter’s team was the worse result. The damage was not limited to the shift in the standings, as Arsenal went from favourites to outsiders for fourth place: the loss of the injured Kieran Tierney and Thomas Partey on Monday means they now look short-staffed. They need two Granit Xhakas: when he started at left-back on Saturday, they missed him in midfield. And when Gabriel Martinelli spent the second half as an ersatz left-back, it underlined that a January spent slimming the squad and a policy of only having about 12 players they could trust were risky. Arsenal could do with Ainsley Maitland-Niles now.
Manchester United (as usual)
Even Burnley had beaten Everton. As Everton had lost 17 of their previous 22 league games, virtually everyone defeated them; indeed, on many occasions, Everton beat themselves. But then along came United. If their bid – and that feels an overly generous way of describing it – for a Champions League spot ended at Goodison Park, it did so in entirely predictable manner: with a team that was less than the sum of its expensive parts, with a goal that involved Harry Maguire, albeit unfortunately, without any great semblance of a plan and with precious little of Ralf Rangnick’s beloved gegenpressing. It ended with Juan Mata on a Premier League pitch for the first time in 11 months: it underlines United’s capacity to waste money that they extended his contract and then did not use him until the 64th minute of their 31st league game. Most teams who lose do care and do try, but it was harder to make that argument about United. Meanwhile, David de Gea, in describing defeat at Goodison Park as a “disgrace”, is heading for the double as both the player and the pundit of their sorry season.
Sometimes words can come back to bite you, especially when they seem to be delivered from a position of smugness. “I said to the lads that this lot don’t know how to win a game,” said Dyche on Wednesday and if the contents of his half-time team talk galvanised his side to beat Everton, he repeated them with relish in public. If they were an attempt to influence the rest of Everton’s season, it backfired: Frank Lampard’s side beat Manchester United and Burnley, who might have envisaged ending the weekend out of the relegation zone, instead lost to Norwich, the worst team in the league. Burnley only have four victories this season. In three games against Norwich and Watford, they have not even scored. Perhaps they don’t know how to win a game.
Watford, struggling at home
The last time Watford avoided defeat at Vicarage Road, the opposing manager was Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. Since that 4-1 win, the Hornets have lost nine in a row at home. And if that partly reflects a fixture list that has included Chelsea, Manchester City, Tottenham and Arsenal, it is notable that 2022 defeats include Norwich, Brighton, Crystal Palace and now Leeds. In theory, Watford had winnable home games in the run-in – with Brentford, Burnley, Everton and Leicester set to visit Vicarage Road – but that kind of record prompts the question if they are capable of winning any of them.
Southampton, getting their annual thrashing
At least it wasn’t 9-0. Although, but for some fine saves from Fraser Forster, Timo Werner’s capacity to hit the woodwork or Chelsea easing off in the final half-hour, it might have been. Part of the curiosities of Ralph Hasenhuttl’s reign is that Southampton can both beat the top teams and get destroyed by them. When the wheels come off, they do in spectacular style. Maybe it reflects the high-risk nature of high pressing and high defensive lines: lacking the required intensity, far too open, Southampton were easy to play against on Saturday. Errors contributed, too: Mohammed Salisu was glaringly culpable for the fourth goal, just as James Ward-Prowse had been for the third. At least the 9-0s both had the mitigating factor of an early red card. This time, Southampton were hammered with a full complement of players.
Aston Villa, against the top teams
Steven Gerrard has not been quiet about Aston Villa’s ambitions. To be one of the better teams in the division, it helps to beat them. Instead, Villa have a solitary win against top-eight opponents this season and that, 1-0 at Old Trafford, came under Dean Smith. They have four points against Manchester United but are pointless against the top six. That they had 19 shots, eight of them on target and many in the first half, against Tottenham, showed they could compete in some respects, but they lost 4-0. But for Hugo Lloris’ brilliance, Villa may well have led at the break. Under Steven Gerrard, they have competed against some of their superiors. But a return of no points out of 33 against the top six is terrible.
Wolves’ slow starters
Wolves were beaten by a second-half goal at St James’ Park but the seeds of their undoing were sowed before then. They had no touches in the Newcastle box in the first half and, as the statistic shows, no great intent in a poor, pointless opening period. Nor was it a one-off: they had been oddly positive from the start, scoring two before the break against Aston Villa and Leeds and three before Watford. Until then, however, they had a mere 10 first-half goals all season. They only have 67 in four seasons in the Premier League. Sometimes, under both Nuno Espirito Santo and Bruno Lage, they have seemed capable of starting slowly, easing their way into a game and then adding more attacking incision later. At others, especially last season, it seemed a self-defeating dullness that sets the tone for mediocrity. On Friday, that initial impotence allowed Newcastle to assume the initiative.
West Ham, losing to Brentford and losing defenders
If a derby defeat felt definitive proof they will not get a top-four finish, the loss of the injured Kurt Zouma meant a defence already without the injured Angelo Ogbonna and the suspended Aaron Cresswell could be without a third key man for the Europa League quarter-final with Lyon.
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