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.
Statement win for Europe-chasing Villa
The way Aston Villa have played since the Premier League restarted following the World Cup, don’t be surprised if they’re competing for European silverware next season. Villa rattled off yet another win Saturday, with their most recent triumph – a 3-0 victory over Newcastle United – qualifying as their most impressive and satisfying during a win streak that was extended to six games.
Up against a strong Newcastle side with similar European ambitions, the West Midlands club passed its latest test with flying colors. An organized defensive performance and sparkling attack combined once again to seal three points in a convincing win at Villa Park that helped the hosts close the gap on fifth-place Tottenham Hotspur.
But unlike the path to Europe taken this season by Newcastle – a team that’s benefited since its Saudi-led takeover – Aston Villa’s route has featured a natural evolution that began after the arrival of Unai Emery.
The Spanish tactician’s influence has been obvious. Aston Villa have grown into a competent outfit at both ends of the pitch compared to the disjointed squad he inherited in October. He celebrated the fruits of his labor Saturday, passionately pumping his fists up and down as Villa Park celebrated a second goal that meant another three points were imminent.
In extending their unbeaten run to eight matches, Aston Villa also earned their 50th point of the campaign – five more than the 45 points they accumulated in all of last season. Villa’s quest to qualify for Europe for the first time in over a decade is far from guaranteed, however, as six of their last seven matches are against teams in the top half of the Premier League table during a run of matches that’ll test the team’s mettle.
Spurs suffering familiar woes under Stellini
In hindsight, it’s bizarre that Tottenham thought appointing Cristian Stellini would produce different results. He is, after all, largely responsible for getting the club into its current state of disarray alongside ex-Spurs boss Antonio Conte. That makes Saturday’s collapse against relegation-threatened Bournemouth even more infuriating for a fan base that’s grown sick of watching their team cough up points against inferior opponents.
With their trophy cabinet set to be left untouched for yet another season, all Tottenham have to hope for is qualifying for Europe. But even that’s an objective in danger of slipping if Spurs continue to play as poorly as they did against Bournemouth in Saturday’s humbling defeat. Discontent among fans echoed throughout the stadium as Spurs lost 3-2 in dramatic fashion while jeers and boos rained down from the stands at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium.
Davinson Sanchez, in particular, was singled out by supporters after a dreadful cameo. But, as the defender was pulled from the game to a chorus of boos, it was hard not to feel for Sanchez. A loud majority of supporters determined he was to blame for Saturday’s collapse against a Bournemouth side desperately battling to avoid relegation. And the stats make it hard to debate that notion:
Yet, the decision to bring on the out-of-form defender lies with the interim coach, who’s seemingly delivering the same message and contriving similar tactics that left the club in neutral during the end of Conte’s spell in charge. Perhaps Spurs could do with a fresh voice over the last seven games before it gets too late and their hopes of salvaging a forgettable season evaporate.
Brighton have found another hidden gem
Brighton & Hove Albion haven’t just made a habit of scouting players with massive potential. Their entire existence – and rocket-like trajectory up the Premier League table – depends on it.
But the club’s greatest strength lies in its ability to sign replacements before it needs them. Whenever a player leaves or gets injured, Brighton have a youngster in his late teens or early 20s raring to go on the sidelines. It can be said of Evan Ferguson, the Irish striker with a greater appetite for goals than former center-forward Neal Maupay ever had for Brighton; Kaoru Mitoma, the Japanese left-winger making fans forget about Leandro Trossard; and now Julio Enciso, the 19-year-old summer signing whose piledriver of a finish Saturday secured a memorable and deserved 2-1 victory over Chelsea.
Mitoma and Enciso also hit the post in a dominant performance at Stamford Bridge that once again proved it’s not about how much money you spend but how you spend it. Enciso joined Brighton last year for around £9.5 million, and his contributions to Saturday’s match outweighed that of Chelsea’s many overpriced signings.
Brighton usually source for talent in less popular parts of the world, refusing in most cases to pay a premium for players from traditional powerhouse nations. With a tight budget in mind, the Seagulls flocked to Ecuador for Moises Caicedo, Japan for Mitoma, Ireland for Ferguson, and Paraguay for Enciso.
This model also requires leadership, and Brighton have a progressive coach who can buff the rough edges out of such precocious youngsters. Like predecessor Graham Potter, Roberto De Zerbi’s own predilection for monopolizing possession and dictating play requires extreme attention to detail, and if it’s not there, the Italian can and will kill any bad traits before they become habits.
Instead of lavishing praise on Enciso, De Zerbi warned him against switching off toward the end of the game.
“He has to progress and improve in his mentality, to explain to him the importance of the last 10 minutes,” De Zerbi told BBC Sport. “If we conceded a goal, then his goal is not important like if you win. The important thing is to have the confidence from your teammates. I don’t like if you score and then you finish the game. You have to think about the team.”
That’s why it’s so important to have young players signed and ready to go: Integrating them into such a complicated system becomes an infinitely easier task when they’re learning without pressure. Brighton are reaping the benefits.
Watkins thriving under Emery
Is it any surprise that Ollie Watkins was at the center of Aston Villa’s best performance of the season? The English forward continued to thrive under Emery and was primarily responsible for delivering a blow to Newcastle’s Champions League hopes. After setting up Jacob Ramsey’s first-half opener, Watkins shined even brighter after halftime against the Premier League’s best defense. He was an offside away from a second-half hat-trick, but Watkins will be happy nonetheless after bagging a pair of goals in front of England boss Gareth Southgate, who was in attendance. Alongside free-scoring Erling Haaland, Watkins leads the Premier League in goal involvements in 2023 with 13 goals and assists.
Hodgson’s Palace proving everyone wrong
Roy Hodgson found Crystal Palace in rough shape when he returned for a second spell as manager at the end of March. Palace were winless in 12 Premier League matches and without even a single shot on target in the three games that precipitated Patrick Vieira’s firing. Most thought Hodgson, who, at 75 years old, had sworn off coaching in the Premier League, couldn’t fix Palace’s problems. But he’s done that and more. Palace have won all three games since Hodgson’s return, scoring nine goals in that span. Eberechi Eze’s brace Saturday against bottom side Southampton lifted Palace up to 12th place, four points off the psychological 40-point barrier that all but guarantees salvation. So, yes, barring a spectacular collapse, Hodgson’s going to keep them up again and prove himself as a credible manager in his eighth decade.
Costa back on the scoresheet
Wolverhampton waited seven months to get a tangible return from emergency signing Diego Costa. Scoring his first Premier League goal for the club since joining in September, the 34-year-old led relegation-threatened Wolves to another crucial victory against Brentford. It was his first goal of any kind in English football since 2017 when he was leading the line for Chelsea in the FA Cup final. He hadn’t played football for eight months when he parachuted in as Wolves’ last-minute replacement for summer signing Sasa Kalajdzic, who suffered a season-ending knee injury on his full debut for the club. Costa obviously needed time to reintegrate, but the Brazilian-born striker has slowly gotten back to his best bruising self. His goal Saturday was a picture of brute force: Costa carried the ball into Brentford’s end before laying it off and finishing in the area.
Stat of the day
Haaland is keeping some incredible company.
Tweet of the day
Frustrated Chelsea fans arrived at Todd Boehly’s Stamford Bridge suite to berate the Blues owner after Saturday’s defeat to Brighton left the struggling club mired in the bottom half of the table.