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You could make a decent case for Manchester City having the best weekend of any title challenger without even playing, as Liverpool, Arsenal and Aston Villa all dropped points. Arsenal will enjoy their Christmas most, earning a draw at Anfield despite their hosts missing fine chances after half-time.
At the bottom, Nottingham Forest are closer than ever to big trouble as Nuno lost his first match in charge at home to Bournemouth. Burnley and Luton Town both won unexpectedly, the latter dedicating their victory to the absent Tom Lockyer.
Scroll down for my analysis on every team below (listed in table order)…
This weekend’s results
Thursday 21 December
Friday 22 December
- Aston Villa 1-1 Sheffield United
Saturday 23 December
- West Ham 2-0 Man Utd
- Fulham 0-2 Burnley
- Luton 1-0 Newcastle
- Man City P-P Brentford
- Nottm Forest 2-3 Bournemouth
- Tottenham 2-1 Everton
- Liverpool 1-1 Arsenal
Sunday 24 December
The 1-1 draw at Liverpool was further evidence that Declan Rice should be a near-certainty to be named Footballer of the Year whether Arsenal win the title or not. There are some games – and it’s generally the biggest ones in Arsenal’s calendar – when Rice ends up playing at least three roles and starring in all of them. He’s like a one-man band, stomping his feet to make the snare drum play in perfect time while his hands strum a guitar and he creates a sweet tune out of the mouth organ.
This may too seem like a foolish time to be negative in any way. Arsenal just went to the team second in the league, rode their luck plenty and came away with a point to stay top at Christmas. This is their weekend more than it is Liverpool’s or Aston Villa’s or Tottenham’s.
There is one slight caveat to all this, though. Rice has become so important for Arsenal, and carrying out so many duties in demonstrating that importance, that he has quickly become absolutely irreplaceable. Because he is doing so much off the ball (harrying, making recovery sprints, tackling, intercepting) and so much with it (driving forward, playing simple passes, playing crossfield passes), inevitably that allow those around him to do their own thing safe in the knowledge that Rice will sort it – Arsenal’s fourth emergency service.
But what happens when Rice isn’t there? Or, just as importantly, what happens when Rice starts to show signs of fatigue after or during this run of festive games. He is a fabulous footballer and a consummate professional, but I fail to see how you can so obviously give so much every game and not suffer a physical or emotional lapse at some point.
This has very quickly become Rice’s team and, if Arsenal do win the league, it will be his season too. But that comes laced with risk as well as advantages. Quick piece of advice to Mikel Arteta: pop him in a cryogenic chamber over Christmas with all the turkey and stuffing he wants and come and get him in three days.
Premier League table
Liverpool have made great strides this season, getting back to something like their best much quicker than anticipated, after last year’s blot on the copybook.
But there is still so much work to be done, in one area of the pitch in particular that represented, for so long, everything that was great about the Jurgen Klopp juggernaut.
Take Mohamed Salah out of the equation and Liverpool’s forwardline of Darwin Nunez, Luis Diaz, Cody Gakpo and Diogo Jota has one league goal between them since the second week of November. Manchester United’s strikeforce has three to their name in that time, that is how bad it has become.
Goals have come from other areas of late – the modus operandi for plenty of title-winning teams – but with Arsenal raising their game to new heights, and Manchester City reaching that time of year when they embark on 20-game winning runs, Liverpool don’t have the margin for error many of those successful teams of the last past had.
Again, Salah’s majesty was all the hosts could conjure against Arsenal, his 12th goal of the season in all competitions bringing the Reds level as they appeared set to earn yet another Premier League victory after falling behind this term.
They instead had to settle for 19 points earned from losing positions, thanks to a forwardline that continues to flounder more than at any point since Liverpool’s “Fab Three” of Sadio Mane, Salah and Roberto Firmino made the Premier League their playground.
Jota’s injury was a cruel blow, while Diaz has not looked the same since his long-term knee injury. Gakpo and Nunez, however, have no excuses. Klopp has tried everything, Nunez out wide, Gakpo off the front three, but to no avail. Sometimes the players themselves have start taking greater risks for the ultimate reward. By Pete Hall
A first failure to win at home since February is no issue in itself, but it was slightly remarkable that, having beaten Newcastle, Tottenham, Manchester City and Arsenal at home, it was the team with the worst away record in the Premier League who finally ended the club record run.
Or perhaps we should not be surprised. Villa have enjoyed great success this season in their home fixtures against the best teams in the league, beating both Arsenal and Manchester City who tried to go toe-to-toe with them and failed. Villa kept clean sheets against both of last season’s top two.
However, the best way to beat Villa is not to engage with them but to sit deep, soak up pressure and then try to hit that high line with direct balls forward. The two league games in which Villa have had the most possession this season were the loss to Nottingham Forest and the draw against Sheffield United. The six games in which they have had the most possession have seen Villa fail to keep a clean sheet and concede nine goals against Forest, Sheffield United, Luton, Brentford, Crystal Palace and Bournemouth.
That constitutes an established pattern and it’s something that Unai Emery must solve if he wants to take Villa into the Champions League. Nobody is underestimating them now. Nobody is going to let them play to their strengths.
Every season, there is one knee jerk reaction from the opening weekend that looks utterly foolish by Christmas. I was in a bar in Sydney at midnight during the Women’s World Cup watching Brentford vs Tottenham and I could not believe how uncertain Guglielmo Vicario looked with the ball at his feet, making saves and communicating with his defenders. I wondered how long it would take him to settle into Premier League life.
Even before Saturday, Vicario had been one of the best goalkeepers in the division this season, rapidly looking not just confident in himself but able to lead the team by example from the back. Using the post-shot expected goals model, we can see that Vicario had “saved” Tottenham five goals on the basis of his saves vs quality of chances faced. That was 0.9 more than any other goalkeeper.
That gap to second will have increased after the sneaky, uncomfortable win against Everton. Vicario made one good save from Dominic Calvert-Lewin after 15 minutes, a second block from Jack Harrison before half-time and as the game’s best player as Everton turned up the pressure in the final 30 minutes. For all the defensive absentees and upheaval recently, Vicario is fighting on through the storm.
Game postponed due to Manchester City’s participation in the Club World Cup.
All hail the new Lucas Paqueta, released into the wild and left to roam in the final third. In his last 153 minutes on the pitch, Paqueta has contributed five assists and looks like a player unshackled from any responsibilities in his own half. With him and Mohammed Kudus roaming behind Jarrod Bowen, West Ham instantly look three times more dangerous.
Against Wolves last week, Paqueta had 28 touches in the final third of the pitch, more than any other West Ham player. He only had one touch in the penalty area, but that’s fine. He plays the passes into the area from which others score.
On Saturday lunchtime, more of the same. Paqueta played 30 of his 43 passes from inside Manchester United’s half. With Kudus’ off-the-ball work vastly underrated (he made five tackles against United, more than any of his teammates) and Edson Alvarez now firmly settled in at the club, Paqueta is loving life. There are few better players in the league at spotting and executing a through ball pass by any means necessary.
Eddie Howe will come under pressure soon, if this run of away form continues. You will tell me that I’m being unfair or hasty or hyperbolic. You’ll say that he earned faith with his overperformance last season, and I would agree with you. But Newcastle’s owners are deeply ambitious and being eliminated from two cup competitions in the space of a week raised the stakes on the league form.
Newcastle have played 14 away games in all competitions this season and they have won two of them (Manchester United in the League Cup, Sheffield United in the league). They have lost their last four away games in the league at Bournemouth, Everton, Tottenham and Luton Town. They have scored one goal in those four games and that was in added time at the end of a 4-1 defeat.
Fatigue is clearly a factor, no doubt. But it’s also unacceptable to just say “fatigue” and that become a catch-all excuse for consistent underperformance away from home, given a) the same issue has been happening all season, and b) Luton have had a heck of a week and they still had the strength and emotional resilience to produce. You can blame fatigue for tiring late in matches. You cannot use it for the inability to create proper chances or finish the ones you do create over the course of several months.
At this point I’m just going to detail a stream of consciousness that I experienced when watching Manchester United at West Ham. Some are questions, some half-baked thoughts and others just exasperated missives about a rotten football team:
– If Scott McTominay is meant to offer the energy and Bruno Fernandes is meant to offer the creativity, why is the latter spending so much time deep to accommodate the former pushing high up the pitch to no good effect?
– Rasmus Hojlund may well come good, but this is going terribly. He has played 14 league games and is yet to register a goal or assist. For a young man who is lightning fast, perhaps the quickest young forward in world football, we see precious little of him actually sprinting. Instead he spends time with his back to goal, having to do several things well just to get half a chance and then he gets substituted.
Hojlund was clearly bought as one for the future, but that’s a problem because a) Manchester United needed a good striker for the present, b) they paid “good striker for the present” money for him and c) by the time he’s spent two years developing, Hojlund may well be utterly miserable for the experience and thus shorn of what made him so exciting in the first place.
– The attacking unit as a whole is an abject waste of talent and resources. Manchester United have failed to score in seven league games this season, more than any other team by full-time in their game on Saturday. Their attackers have been functionless to a man. They have scored eight away league goals this season.
– Luke Shaw is a good left back. Bruno Fernandes is a decent creator, albeit one playing a different role at the moment and looking glum in it. I don’t know if any of the other nine starters are good enough for Manchester United’s purpose on a regular basis. That’s not fun.
– Antony’s performances are becoming risible and no amount of tracking back will change that. West Ham signed an attacking midfielder from Ajax who could score goals. Manchester United overpaid wildly for a raw potential talent whose form is now festering and who reacts to every mistake by angrily pointing as if to blame teammates.
– “We were dominant”. Erik ten Hag is not thick. So he must know that saying such obviously foolish things is going to invite mockery of him and lead to further anger amongst supporters. It creates a perception, unfairly or otherwise, that he doesn’t understand just how bad Manchester United are. And they are incredibly bad.
We know that Brighton are the only team without a Premier League clean sheet this season. We also know that Brighton are the only team to rotate their goalkeepers – Bart Verbruggen and Jason Steele have started nine league games apiece. The pertinent question is whether that strategy has been successful.
Not just because Verbruggen made the mistake that cost Brighton a decent shot of winning at Crystal Palace on Thursday evening, but I don’t think the strategy is working. I can accept that Verbruggen and Jason Steele are used by Robert De Zerbi to counteract the strengths of different opponents, but I’m just not sure it’s working because they aren’t adept enough as shot stoppers.
Rank all 34 of the Premier League goalkeepers this season by their post-shot expected goals total and Brighton have two of the lowest nine. Interestingly, two other clubs also have two goalkeepers in the bottom 10 by that measure – Arsenal and Nottingham Forest – have made a significant goalkeeping change this season, replacing one No 1 with another.
It raises a question. If changing your goalkeepers to fit a certain situation or because you feel the current No 1 has not performed well enough seems logical, it can actually be very difficult for the other goalkeeper to step in and hit the ground running. Rather than getting the best out of both of them, the danger is that both feel extra pressure and perform accordingly.
Nicolas Jackson increasingly resembles an actor attempting to recreate the movements of an elite striker for some Hollywood blockbuster made largely by people who have never watched a football match.
Everything is too slow, too clumsy, too lumbering and languid and lackadaisical. He exists in the uncanny valley between appearing to possess the requisite physical attributes to be a great forward and clearly not being one.
Against Wolves, time and again Raheem Sterling crafted opportunities for Jackson to spurn. There was the perfect cross gawkily miscued into the Sir Jack Hayward stand. There was the chance to round Jose Sa, who Jackson promptly ran into.
There was even the moment two Wolves defenders ran into each other to leave half the penalty box unmanned. The prospect of so much time and space appeared to utterly perplex Jackson, who decided to neither look up nor shoot, simply dribbling until someone recovered to tackle him.
Jackson’s record of eight goals in 21 Chelsea games is unimpressive without being heinous. He needed time to settle in, then he needed a bit more. He was underperforming in an underperforming team. Being one of myriad problems has relieved some of the criticism.
Yet there has been no tangible improvement since Jackson joined Chelsea. Much is made of his expected goals (xG) in the Premier League – 10.63 – which puts him behind only Erling Haaland and Mo Salah. xG underperformance is often viewed as something which will inevitably be reconciled, as an average which will eventually be restored. Yet that is only the case if you are at least an above-average finisher.
Jackson’s xG underperformance of 3.63 trails only Darwin Nunez for the poorest in the Premier League. It’s not that the chances aren’t being created for him or that he cannot craft opportunities himself, it’s simply that he’s not a particularly good finisher. By George Simms
Sunday’s three points puts Wolves level with Chelsea, and they would be above the Blues if they could improve their away form. They are now unbeaten in seven home games, beating Man City, Spurs, Burnley and Chelsea, but have only won one of their past eight on the road.
It is testament to Gary O’Neil’s continually impressive man management that Molineux has become the force it is, but solving the away problem needs to be his next great trick.
If O’Neil and Wolves are going to do so, Mario Lemina will be at the heart of it. Lemina produced a man of the match performance against Chelsea, and dedicated his opener to his father, who is in hospital. He is rapidly becoming Wolves’ most crucial player.
Lemina’s 37 passes was a team-high, while his six tackles only trailed midfield partner Joao Gomes across both sides. His 24 tackles won in the Premier League this season is 14th among all players, his 21 interceptions 16th. He has even added goals to his game, with vital finishes against Newcastle, Spurs and now Chelsea. The Gabonese is the all-action midfielder every respectable counter-attacking side needs. By George Simms
Bournemouth will concede – and greedily accept – that they were the beneficiaries of a refereeing decision that changed the course of the match in their favour, but the headline from another away win is that Dominic Solanke is in the form of his life under Andoni Iraola. His hat-trick means that only Erling Haaland and Mohamed Salah have scored more goals in the Premier League this season.
Iraola has slowly turned Solanke into a penalty-box centre forward, capable of bringing others into play but responsible for being in the box to receive the final pass rather than running the channels or dropping too deep to pick up the ball. At the City Ground, Bournemouth played against 10 men for most of the game’s 105 minutes and Solanke still only had 34 touches of the ball. He also had six shots and scored the first hat-trick of his senior career.
You can see the confidence building because Solanke is taking his shots early and making the right runs to connect with crosses. If England are going to take three strikers to the European Championship this summer then right now he, Ollie Watkins and Harry Kane are the automatic picks. All of a sudden, England have options in a problem position.
One of those days, an annoying way to enter the festive schedule rather than cause any lasting headaches. Fulham had 19 shots against Burnley and created plenty enough chances to win the game. This was the most they had taken in any league game without scoring since October 2022. The last three times that Fulham have managed more shots than this, they scored three times in each game (Everton, Crystal Palace, Sheffield United).
Still, Fulham really do have an issue with their inability to haul themselves back into matches after falling behind. They have conceded the first goal in 10 of their 18 league games this season. Their record in those games: Played 10, Won 0, Drawn 1, Lost 9. The only point came at Brighton, who were fatigued after European exertions and gave Fulham 64 minutes plus added time in both halves to find an equaliser. That record places an effective glass ceiling on your ambitions.
Game postponed due to Manchester City’s participation in the Club World Cup.
Until the moment they scored the opening goal against Brighton, Crystal Palace had 38.4 per cent of the possession, three shots on target and took more shots than their opponents.
Between their goal and Brighton’s equaliser in the 82nd minute, Palace had 30.4 per cent possession, allowed Brighton to take 12 shots and failed to have a shot on target of their own. The equaliser came via a fantastic header from Danny Welbeck, a low-percentage chance, but it had been coming.
The point is this. Palace don’t take the lead much. They have done so in seven of their 18 matches this season, less than everyone bar Luton and Sheffield United. So when they do take the lead, Palace really need to hold onto it or they will be sucked into trouble.
Sitting back is the natural tendency when holding a lead and the game ticks down. But each of the last two times that Palace have held a lead, they have sacrificed possession and territory and counter-attacking threat and that simply isn’t good enough. Roy Hodgson must fight those tendencies or he’s going to lose his job.
Andre Gomes lives! Having spent the entirety of last season at Lille and without a league appearance for Everton since May 2022, it seemed unlikely that Gomes would ever feature for the club again when he suffered a series of niggling injuries to start this season. All the while, Everton’s midfield flourished.
But Gomes has worked his way back, and credit to him for it. When Idrissa Gueye got injured midway through the first half at Spurs, Gomes came on for the first time in 567 days. Most Everton supporters wondered whether the Portuguese midfielder really fancied it and certainly doubted whether he would be a natural fit for Sean Dyche. But everyone gets a chance here.
And, somehow, Gomes was absolutely magnificent. He was the creative force, unfortunate not to assist Dominic Calvert-Lewin thanks to a VAR intervention. He scored the goal, drilling the ball low from a cleared corner. He is hardly a midfield tyke, haring around to make tackles and break up play, but then Everton already have midfielders who can do that. It’s great to see Gomes back. Bring it on.
The Nuno era began with a whimper. The boos that rained down from all four stands were thankfully offered in the direction of referee Rob Jones but the City Ground felt instantly more flat than it ever was during Steve Cooper’s tenure. The concern was always that Cooper’s relationship with supporters was worth at least six points to Forest last season given their home performance. Without it, Forest really can go down and this can unravel quickly.
Nuno’s debut was ostensibly ruined by a bad refereeing error and, unfortunately, the type that VAR cannot intervene on. Willy Boly was on a yellow card and you might weakly argue that, as such, he should avoid diving into tackles. But when you win the ball cleanly and have your foot stood on in the follow through, you do not expect to be penalised and punished with a second yellow card. The ability of VAR to make calls on straight red card incidents but not red cards for two yellows is an oddity.
Forest chose to tweet at half-time, inviting an FA charge for openly criticising the officials. They garnered great support amongst their fans for doing so. But it’s also worth pointing out that Forest still scored twice with 10 men. What let them down, and lost them the game after the break, is their continued inability to mark opposition forwards, to lose possession in silly areas and them having first and second-choice goalkeepers who seem incapable of stopping shots that are directed into the corners.
Nuno will hope to solve those problems, slowly and then surely. But in the meantime, the clubs below Forest continue to pick up points at a faster rate than them. Anyone who doesn’t believe that they are deep in relegation trouble is a fool or a dreamer.
I wanted to take the opportunity to commend Rob Edwards after an extraordinarily difficult week ended with his team earning their finest result of the season so far.
People underestimate the immense pressure under which football managers live. There is no time off because your brain cannot switch off. You must relentlessly pursue perfection in an environment where that is not possible. Get anything wrong and you will blame yourself for defeat. Win and you are forced to move immediately to the next challenge. And then something like Tom Lockyer’s cardiac arrest last weekend happens and your resolve shatters.
“[Looking at] how we move forward from this as well, without going into too much detail, it’s not about ‘using it’,” Edwards said this week. “I’ve been really careful not for anything to seem like we’re using it. It’s about ‘what would Locks want?’. I think that’s the most important thing now, and what does this group of people want?
“We’re a really tight-knit group, a family, and we’ve got to look after each other now. It’s about really coming together even more than we already are. And I do, and we do, want to do it for Locks, but that’s coming from the right place as well. It can’t be selfish, and I’ve been really keen to stress that.”
That is a thousand times easier to say than do, to get a group of human beings who have just seen their colleague collapse in front of them on the pitch in the right headspace to go back out and to play a professional game with no distractions and not allow the inevitable emotion to overpower your own sense.
But Edwards did that. Of course the tributes were paid to Lockyer, after the goal and after the game – that is only appropriate. But Edwards has done an awful lot this week to enhance his reputation, even if he is too humble to accept it. In times like these, you learn a lot about your leaders. Luton have a diamond.
Vincent Kompany will call it karma and everyone else will call it one of the most eye-opening results of the season so far. Fulham had won three straight home league games, scoring 13 goals in the process. Burnley had the leaky defence, without an away clean sheet in the Premier League in 15 attempts, a run stretching back to February 2022. So obviously Burnley won without conceding.
Ain’t it funny how things go down. All season, Burnley have been punished for their defensive openness and lack of midfield protection, particularly away from home. They have also conceded goals at a rate further above the quality of the chances they have allowed than any other team in the league. Finally, they have been inefficient in front of goal.
So what happens in London? Burnley allow their hosts to take 19 shots and record an expected goals total of almost triple Burnley’s. However, this time Burnley do not concede to two or three of these chances, but instead stay in the game. Then they take the lead with their first shot on target, also highly unusual. And rather than being punished for sitting back, they then extend the lead by scoring with their only other shot on target.
I wonder if this result also suggests that Kompany has begun to compromise tactically, something that we suspected Burnley’s manager might have to do but probably wouldn’t want to. Burnley had between 47 and 55 per cent of the ball in six of their eight away games before Saturday and lost four of those games – the exceptions being the draw at Forest and win at Luton, with 54 and 51 per cent possession.
In December already, Burnley have drawn 1-1 at Brighton with 28 per cent possession and now won 2-0 at Fulham with 34 per cent possession. They rode their luck significantly in both games – and a change in that luck may persuade Kompany to go back to his original plan – but Burnley are now playing and behaving a little more like a relegation fighter. That’s no bad thing.
With four points from his four matches in charge, we can now conclude that hiring Chris Wilder was the right thing to do in the situation. Sheffield United are going to have to start closing the gap if they are to have a chance of staying up, but for now a sinking ship has at least stopped taking on extra water.
Wilder has not really changed the plan – sacrificing possession and hoping to spring something on a counter attack or from a set piece. But he has certainly been more successful than Paul Heckingbottom at using that plan. In the previous eight games that Sheffield United had had 38 per cent of the ball or lower, they had lost every game. Basically: they sat back and looked to soak up pressure without being good enough to soak up pressure.
Friday’s visit to Villa Park was different. Wilder’s team had only 23 per cent possession and they didn’t even have a shot until after the 75th minute. But they also limited a fantastic, in-form attacking unit to less than 1.0 xG across the entire match and with Villa chasing a goal throughout.
I think the answer lies in where Sheffield United engage their opponents. Against Aston Villa, they made 11 tackles in the middle third of the pitch, a total that they have only surpassed twice this season (and one of those was the excellent 1-1 draw at Brighton). If this plan is going to work with the defenders and goalkeeper Sheffield United possess, they will have to offer more energy in midfield to engage higher up the pitch and avoid the defence being swamped. And if they can do it at Villa Park, they can do it at most grounds.