theScore examines the most important Premier League developments from the weekend, dissecting the biggest talking points after a busy slate of action.
Brighton, Palace are teams to watch
The shift in Crystal Palace’s identity under Patrick Vieira is turning the Eagles into one of the most watchable teams in the Premier League.
Though it may take some time to see the best of Eberechi Eze as he returns from an Achilles injury, the prospect of the graceful attacker lining up alongside Conor Gallagher and Michael Olise for the remainder of the season is truly exciting. This is no longer a defensive team overly reliant on Wilfried Zaha, who’s currently with Cote d’Ivoire at the Africa Cup of Nations. It’s a slick and well-coached collective capable of intricate, attractive football.
But Palace weren’t at their best in Friday’s 1-1 draw on the south coast as they tried to keep a superior Brighton & Hove Albion side at bay.
Graham Potter is destined for a much bigger job as he continues to fine-tune Brighton with comparatively meager resources. Full-backs Marc Cucurella and Tariq Lamptey – the latter entered as a substitute against Palace – are arguably the most electrifying players in Potter’s side, but the development of Alexis Mac Allister and Leandro Trossard is proof of further improvement for the Seagulls.
With a more reliable striker, there’s no reason Brighton can’t soon be outsiders to sneak into a Europa League place.
Brighton and Crystal Palace don’t have the big-name appeal of some Premier League teams, but they’re the closest things the division has to guaranteed entertainment.
Premier League postponements are farcical
Tottenham Hotspur are understandably aggrieved by the Premier League granting Arsenal’s request to postpone the north London derby.
England’s top flight has fallen afoul of its own postponement guidelines; in addition to COVID-19 cases and injuries, the league considered the number of Arsenal players at the Africa Cup of Nations before deciding to call off Sunday’s game.
If clubs aren’t prepared for players to miss matches on international duty, that’s down to their poor organization. Everyone knew this tournament was coming. Some of Arsenal’s issues were self-inflicted. Did they need to let Ainsley Maitland-Niles join Roma on loan last week, thereby denying themselves a player who can be deployed at full-back and in midfield?
Premier League matches should only be postponed if squads are down to 13 outfield players and one goalkeeper because of positive COVID-19 tests and injuries. Nothing else should affect that decision. Premier League clubs have Under-23 and B teams. They should use them.
While fans can speculate about the necessity of Arsenal’s postponement and others, the fault lies firmly with the Premier League. Its postponement rules had little initial clarity, giving clubs an opportunity to take advantage.
No one can stop Manchester City
That’s it, then. Manchester City are Premier League champions for the fourth time in five seasons – because they must be. Neither Chelsea nor Liverpool have demonstrated the consistency to keep up with City, who are now 13 points clear after Saturday’s 1-0 win over Chelsea.
Thomas Tuchel’s side retreated into its shell at the Etihad Stadium, handing City the ball when it needed to show ambition to revive its title bid. Make no mistake: Chelsea absolutely needed to win here. Instead, Kevin De Bruyne’s kill shot ended any hope for a dramatic conclusion to the campaign.
Pep Guardiola won’t buy any of this, by the way. He doesn’t want his players to believe they’ve already won. Fair enough. But they’ll have to seriously implode for any other team to hoist the trophy in May.
City haven’t lost in the league since October. In that span, they’ve navigated a significant COVID-19 outbreak, injuries to key players, and numerous cancellations. If they were to slip up, they would have done so by now.
Chelsea attackers out of sync
“Our offensive players need to show up more. We need consistency. Chelsea is not a place to hide,” Tuchel said after Saturday’s 1-0 loss to Manchester City.
The defeat saw the Blues fall 13 points behind the domineering league leaders – almost certainly an insurmountable deficit – and highlighted Chelsea’s struggles to create and finish chances consistently.
Romelu Lukaku’s £97.5-million re-signing was heralded as the solution to that problem ahead of the campaign. But myriad factors have conspired to spoil his return, not the least of which was an explosive interview in which the Belgian voiced his displeasure with how his season has unfolded thus far.
Lukaku, who squandered two excellent chances Saturday, has just five league goals this season.
Not for the first time this year, he looked out of sync with his attacking teammates. That wasn’t entirely his fault, though. Christian Pulisic and Hakim Ziyech, who played behind the lone striker in a supporting role at the Etihad, didn’t fare much better; the American wasn’t proactive enough on the ball, while the mercurial Moroccan’s final passes let Lukaku down too often. One instance – when a hilariously overhit through ball for Lukaku scuppered a very promising chance – had Tuchel seething on the touchline.
Chelsea have amassed 39.2 expected goals in the league this season, lagging well behind City and Liverpool. The Blues have spent far too much money on attacking talent to be so toothless relative to their title rivals, and whether or not the solution involves Lukaku, Tuchel needs to find it.
Coutinho provides spark for Villa
Philippe Coutinho only needed 14 minutes to make an enormous impact on his Aston Villa debut, providing an assist and scoring the equalizer in Saturday’s 2-2 draw with Manchester United.
The Brazilian’s introduction in the second half changed the complexion of the match and provided a glimpse of what Steven Gerrard’s team could look like once Coutinho settles in.
His time with Barcelona was, frankly, a disaster. His was an unnatural tactical fit at the Camp Nou – not all his fault – and his spell is remembered more for the damage he did against Barcelona while on loan at Bayern Munich than for anything he accomplished with the Blaugrana.
“There have been many ups and downs. It is in the past,” Coutinho said after his Villa debut. “I’m here, and I’m focused on the objectives of the club and the manager, and I want to do a good job to help my teammates and the club.”
It’s easy to forget after his unfortunate Barca tenure, but Coutinho remains an extremely talented footballer. In the right situation with a club that actually wants him, he could thrive.
If Gerrard can consistently field Coutinho and Emi Buendia in support of Ollie Watkins, the little Brazilian will flourish again – and Villa will follow suit.
Matic’s struggles are no secret
Fred was chosen as the more expressive half of the midfield duo in Manchester United’s 4-2-3-1 formation, and some of the success of Ralf Rangnick’s approach was evident when the Brazilian assisted on Bruno Fernandes’ second goal against Aston Villa.
But by then, the cracks had started to appear.
Given Scott McTominay’s suspension and United’s scatterbrained approach to recruitment in recent years, there was no alternative to the stiff-limbed Nemanja Matic as Fred’s partner in the middle. Matic, 33, initially offered balance to Rangnick’s side, but he gradually faded after receiving a yellow card for a cynical challenge in the 31st minute.
He only attempted two tackles thereafter – one on Buendia, the other on Jacob Ramsey – and was easily bypassed each time. He also misplaced nearly one-fifth of his passes when he was meant to keep United ticking behind Fred. The threat of a second yellow card troubled Matic; he became twitchy and overly cautious.
Vast spaces opened up as Matic withdrew into anonymity, and Buendia, Ramsey, and Coutinho took full advantage as Villa quickly turned a 2-0 deficit into a 2-2 draw. There were issues elsewhere in United’s lineup by that point – right-back Diogo Dalot’s resistance to Lucas Digne’s runs had crumbled – but Matic’s struggles were the most obvious.
It’s not Matic’s fault his mobility has deserted him in recent years. But it’s also no secret, and United should have replaced him long before this campaign kicked off.
Benitez leaves a mess at Everton
From the outset, Everton fans suspected the worst from Rafa Benitez, whose ties to crosstown rivals Liverpool made him out to be a double agent. Six months later, the Merseysiders are at serious risk of relegation and have been torn apart by Benitez’s hard-line approach. Everton lost a talented left-back in Digne – as well as their head of recruitment and director of football – because of disagreements with Benitez.
His sorry reign lasted just 200 days and ended with Saturday’s embarrassing 2-1 defeat to Norwich City that dropped the club to 15th place in the Premier League. The Toffees were trending in the wrong direction for months, but losing to the league’s worst outfit – a team that had lost each of its last six games and failed to score in any of them – was inexplicable.
So, what will happen next? Everton have too much at stake to even countenance the thought of relegation. They have a new stadium lined up with a hefty bill to pay and numerous players on big wages. But who can they hire to replace Benitez? Wayne Rooney, who’s currently coaching Championship side Derby County, is the bookies’ favorite to take over.
This will end well.
Newcastle still look like relegation fodder
Eddie Howe hasn’t changed much since taking the reins at Newcastle United. With one win in 10 league matches, just eight goals scored, and 19 conceded, the Magpies have shown no indication they can reverse the scoring issues and defensive vulnerabilities that first appeared under Steve Bruce.
Newcastle were closing in on a much-needed 1-0 victory over Watford on Saturday when Joao Pedro found a seam and headed home from close range. Even before allowing the late equalizer, Howe’s side was far from convincing, relying on Allan Saint-Maximin’s individual brilliance just to go ahead. Only one of Newcastle’s 12 shots hit the target, and £25-million signing Chris Wood didn’t lead the line with much authority.
“We’ve damaged ourselves,” Howe said afterward. “There’s a psychological failing that we can’t hold on to a lead. The longer the game went on, the more anxious and desperate we got. There are mental scars.”
It was a sobering admission from a man who appears to be coming to grips with the scale of his task.
Ward-Prowse has no equal
There’s no debating it anymore: James Ward-Prowse is the best free-kick taker in the game right now.
The Southampton captain provided yet another example of his set-piece prowess on Saturday, uncorking a majestic strike against Wolverhampton Wanderers that defied physics:
Ward-Prowse has scored eight direct free-kicks since the start of the 2019-20 Premier League season. Trent Alexander-Arnold, a celebrated dead-ball practitioner in his own right, ranks second over that span. He’s only scored three.
The Saints midfielder can find the net in a variety of ways, showing a mastery of the free-kick art that nobody can rival.
Leeds aren’t gone just yet
Sunday’s hard-fought 3-2 win against West Ham United was undoubtedly Leeds United’s biggest of the season. They hadn’t beaten an opponent in the top half of the table all season; all they had were victories over Watford, Crystal Palace, and Burnley.
So, Leeds should take a lot of encouragement from their performance in east London. In ending West Ham’s four-match winning streak – which included a victory over Leeds in the FA Cup – Marcelo Bielsa’s outfit produced a ton of chances, three of which Jack Harrison converted for a famous hat-trick. Leeds pressed well and combined with authority on the counterattack. Frankly, they should have scored more.
The win was all the more remarkable given Leeds’ injury crisis. Bielsa named 15-year-old Archie Gray on the bench just to fill in the numbers, and the treatment room became a little more crowded when starters Adam Forshaw and Junior Firpo limped off midway through the first half. Crucially, midfield lynchpin Kalvin Phillips and top scorer Patrick Bamford remain out with long-term injuries.
But the West Yorkshire side still has life.