Key thoughts and analysis from Saturday's Premier League action
theScore examines the most important developments and biggest talking points from Saturday’s slate of action in England’s top flight.
Saints sunk by poor transfers, Nathan Jones
Fulham were occasionally guilty of being too casual in possession and lacked creativity in the final third. They still won 2-0 at Southampton.
The defeat confirmed the Saints’ descent – a relegation that appeared inevitable in recent weeks. Like many demotions, mistakes from years ago contributed to their demise. But a drastic change to the club’s transfer policy – it signed numerous young, inexperienced players last summer – and the appointment of Nathan Jones in November were what left this season in ruins.
Jones discussed his disastrous 14-match spell with Sky Sports News on Saturday and revealed his greatest regret was his post-match comments following a 3-0 defeat at Brentford in February. During that press conference, he dropped huge hints that there were divisions in the dressing room and a difficult relationship between himself and the club executives. Rather than dealing with the club’s issues internally, he needlessly exposed the splintered roots of Southampton’s struggles.
“It was probably a little bit ill-timed,” Jones conceded.
There were obviously other errors over Jones’ tenure. He failed to recall Nathan Tella from his loan at Burnley – where the versatile attacker tallied 17 goals and five assists over 39 Championship appearances – and it was hard to identify a playing style while he constantly tinkered. He changed formation five times during a 3-1 home defeat to Brighton & Hove Albion; that might not destabilize the experienced squad members, but Jones used 10 players aged 25 or under in that fixture.
Ruben Selles was left to deal with the mess that Jones left behind. The coach tried to instill discipline that had begun to fray during Ralph Hasenhuttl’s time in charge. There were positive moments – the wins over Chelsea and Leicester City and, most notably, the stirring display in April’s 3-3 draw at Arsenal – but it was ultimately too little, too late.
Jones is undoubtedly one of the EFL’s greatest managers over the past decade – he was instrumental in Luton Town’s rise from League Two to the upper reaches of the Championship. But the chasms in Southampton’s dressing room and waning confidence in the club’s new transfer strategy were made worse by the appointment of an intense figure who constantly and unhelpfully referred back to his prior achievements.
Southampton need to ensure the woeful decisions made this season can never happen again, otherwise earning an instant promotion from the Championship will be near-impossible.
Awoniyi a big part of Forest’s survival run
Taiwo Awoniyi missed nearly half the season through injury, and yet Nottingham Forest may have the 25-year-old to thank for preserving their Premier League status.
Awonyi’s brace against Chelsea on Saturday helped Forest move three points clear of the relegation zone and crowned a particularly prolific week for the Nigerian striker. His brilliant two-goal performance in Monday’s 4-3 win over Southampton gave Forest the belief they could extend their membership in England’s top flight, and he showed the same clinical edge at Stamford Bridge, eluding Chelsea’s defenders to score off a pair of headers.
If Awoniyi hadn’t missed 15 matches between January and the beginning of April, Forest may not have even been in this mess. His match-winning potential became clear earlier in the season: He scored the only goals in 1-0 wins over West Ham United and Liverpool and showed he can carry attacks with his dribbling ability. But a groin injury derailed his first season in England and left Forest without either a target man or a counter-attacking presence in their lineup. It’s no coincidence Steve Cooper’s side struggled to score goals during Awoniyi’s absence.
The problem now is that Forest are leaking more goals than ever. The last time they kept a clean sheet in the Premier League was Feb. 5 against Leeds United, a whopping 16 games ago.
“We’re scoring more goals in this phase than any phase of the season, although we are conceding as well,” Cooper said afterward, according to Sarah Clapson of the Nottingham Post. “It feels like we are giving away goals more easily than how we are scoring them.”
That makes Awoniyi’s recent run of goals all the more meaningful.
Time running out for woeful Spurs
Tottenham fans were annoyed from the get-go. And who could blame them?
Long before Spurs slumped to a 2-1 away defeat against a strong Aston Villa side, fans voiced their displeasure at the club’s longtime chairman, Daniel Levy, at the tail end of another lost season. “We want Levy out,” shouted supporters just 15 seconds into Saturday’s contest at Villa Park.
It was another loud demand for change at a club that has regressed to the point where a European berth isn’t certain for next season. Pressure continued to mount on the north London side Saturday against a Villa side breathing down its neck in the Premier League table.
Spurs justified frustrations in the away end less than 10 minutes into the game after conceding the opener to Jacob Ramsey. There was hardly anything to cheer about over the next 35 minutes. In fact, Spurs were lucky to go into halftime trailing by just a goal after Villa missed a pair of golden opportunities to increase their advantage.
After Douglas Luiz’s superb 72nd-minute free-kick doubled Villa’s lead, Harry Kane offered a glimmer of hope with a late penalty. Then Son Heung-Min scored what he thought was the game-tying goal in injury time, but it was called back because the Korean had roamed into an offside position for the second time in the match. Besides the late surge, it was a limp overall display that offered little encouragement for Spurs’ hopes of ending the season on a high note. Defeat ensured the club can no longer qualify for the Champions League.
They’re on pace to at least qualify for the Europa Conference League next season. But even that isn’t a guarantee given that Brighton are two points back and have three games in hand on both sixth-place Tottenham and seventh-place Villa.
Leeds dodge bullet
It’s no wonder Leeds supporters celebrated Saturday’s 2-2 draw like a victory. After leaving with a point from a match where they conceded two penalties and finished a man down, fans rightfully let out a collective sigh of relief at full-time. In a game Leeds desperately needed to avoid losing, a series of mistakes quelled optimism at Elland Road and almost cost the relegation-threatened club dearly. After Luke Ayling’s opening goal, Patrick Bamford missed from the spot. Callum Wilson then converted a pair of successful penalties, forcing Leeds to go into desperation mode before Rasmus Kristensen’s equalizer briefly alleviated concerns. An injury-time red card to Junior Firpo raises the stress levels again in West Yorkshire, but Sam Allardyce’s men showed just enough fight to avoid complete disaster. The draw moved Leeds up one place in the table, but relegation fears remain for the 18th-place club with two games left.
Sterling too on and off for Chelsea
Raheem Sterling went four months without scoring a Premier League goal. Injuries aren’t to blame for that. He’s always been a streaky player, and his indecisiveness on the ball costs him on a regular basis. That’s what makes the brace Sterling scored Saturday all the more frustrating: He has all the technical ability to do whatever he wants on the pitch but often gets in his own way. Chelsea can’t afford to have any passengers in the team next season, and in his current will-he-or-won’t-he state, Sterling just doesn’t cut it. It’s too late to show up now when the season means next to nothing for the club. Chelsea need a left-winger who can cause more problems for the opposition than he does for himself.
Ten Hag doesn’t need to replace Sancho
Jadon Sancho is nearing the end of his second season at Manchester United, and it’s been a largely underwhelming spell blighted by subdued performances and 14 weeks away from the first team while he worked on issues with his fitness and attitude. It’s getting to the point where his £73-million move from Borussia Dortmund can be labeled a bust. But while Erik ten Hag prioritizes a No. 9 in the summer transfer window, he should refrain from also acquiring a wide attacker to compete with or replace Sancho. Alejandro Garnacho, 18, marked his return from an eight-week injury layoff with a goal off the bench against Wolverhampton Wanderers, confidently declining a pass to Wout Weghorst before bashing the ball in via the post. And then there’s 20-year-old Amad Diallo, who’s scored 14 goals in the Championship for Sunderland while tormenting defenders with his runs inside from the right flank. Both players deserve plenty of chances in United’s starting lineup next season.
Stat of the day
Ashley Young has quietly had an excellent campaign at right-back for Aston Villa.
Tweet of the day
It’s been undercooked fare on and off the pitch for Chelsea this season.