Key thoughts and analysis from Saturday's Premier League action
Footballlifestyle examines the most important developments and biggest talking points from Saturday’s slate of action in England’s top flight.
Foden bouncing back in a big way
Troubled by his ankle and out of the lineup more than he was in it, Phil Foden had lost the sparkle that initially caught the eye of Pep Guardiola when he was a teenager with Manchester City’s youth team. Now 22 and a full English international, Foden had reached what he termed the “worst” part of his career. But Guardiola wasn’t prepared to ditch the player he lauded in his youth. The coach just wanted him to rediscover the fiery edge that catapulted him to the team in the first place.
Foden listened. After scoring a brace in the FA Cup last weekend, Guardiola’s pupil starred again Saturday, driving to the net and scoring in a 2-0 win over Newcastle United that kept City on Arsenal’s heels in the Premier League’s increasingly competitive title race. Foden wound his way through an obstacle course of defenders that seemed helpless to stop him, showing the belligerence and confidence that Guardiola had hoped to see again.
“When I spoke with Phil, after he was having the ball and passing back, he didn’t have the confidence to do it. I said to him that is normal. What happened is absolutely what should happen in my opinion,” the Spaniard told reporters Saturday. “He arrived at 17 training with us, 10 minutes, 15, 20, here, here, national team, World Cup and Euro Cup, winning titles, and every year he was a little better than the year before.”
Foden’s ascent happened so quickly that, eventually, he’d have nowhere to go but down. But he’s since emerged from the sidelines with familiar vigor. He even looked comfortable on his off wing, showing the versatility that Guardiola craves from his players. With Riyad Mahrez and Jack Grealish also performing high-energy roles, City have the necessary depth to give the treble another go.
Arsenal’s winning culture clear to see
“It’s about winning in any context,” Arsenal manager Mikel Arteta says time and again.
His team is doing exactly that.
Arsenal have built a five-point lead atop the Premier League standings by playing all kinds of football. Sometimes they win easily. Other times, they do barely enough to get the three points. More recently, they have made a habit of winning from losing positions, and it’s those performances, the ones that test and try them, that illuminate the character within Arteta’s squad.
He’s worked years to cultivate this collective energy. He ushered out Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, fined players for disciplinary reasons, and increased the tempo in training – all in an attempt to reestablish the standards that made Arsenal a destination of greatness in the first place. He basically did to Arsenal what Erik ten Hag is doing to Manchester United, cutting the slack and restoring pride in the club and shirt.
The results are coming through. Arsenal have their way of playing – they can control possession against the best of the teams, including Manchester City – but it’s not their only way of winning. Saturday’s 3-2 comeback win over Bournemouth was made of the same stuff as their 4-2 conquest of Aston Villa: packed with shots, possession, and a healthy dose of adversity.
On the balance of play, Arsenal deserved to win both of those games. But deserving doesn’t always meaning doing. Despite dominating every major statistical category, the Gunners faced deficits in both of those contests. But they reacted quickly each time. Bukayo Saka equalized against Villa nine minutes after Arsenal went down, and Thomas Partey and Ben White scored within eight minutes of each other to restore parity against Bournemouth. No one, not even the referees, took it easy on them.
Numerous calls went against them again on Saturday. They lost two points to Brentford in a game marred by an incorrect offside ruling. Arteta and his players could have allowed the frustration to manifest in a negative way. Instead, they made the conscious decision to control what they can control and react in the best way possible. That meant crowding the box and settling for ugly goals. It meant waiting until the last second to score. It meant suffering. And it’s paid off.
Spurs firing blanks at critical juncture
Harry Kane, Son Heung-Min, Dejan Kulusevski, and Richarlison are all available to Tottenham Hotspur. That’s a rare event in and of itself. Usually one or them is injured, or worse yet, suspended. But it doesn’t seem to matter anyway. Spurs can’t score with or without them.
Tottenham couldn’t convert any of the 38 shots they took against Sheffield United and Wolverhampton over the last four days. They lost both games by a score of 1-0, most recently Saturday against a Wolves side that has just as much trouble finding the back of the net. Son hit the post before halftime, but that was really all they had to show for their time on the ball. Spurs just couldn’t break down Wolves’ compact defense.
“It is a lesson we have to learn, because when you control the game, you have to kill the game,” assistant coach Cristian Stellini said, according to The Guardian’s Will Unwin. “We have to be more aggressive and nasty.”
Maybe Antonio Conte’s return to the bench will get his players to add bite to their bark. Stellini has done a decent job during Conte’s leave of absence, overseeing important wins over Manchester City and Chelsea, but perhaps Spurs have lost something on the training ground without their fiery manager keeping a watchful eye.
Because the issue isn’t talent. Spurs have more than enough of it to beat teams like Sheffield United and Wolves. It’s a matter of application. With Conte set to return Sunday and the second leg of their Champions League last-16 tie to come Wednesday against AC Milan, the time to respond is now.
How long will Potter’s reprieve last?
Graham Potter really needed that. Chelsea were in a tailspin going into Saturday’s match against Leeds United, and confidence in his ability to get the Blues on the right track was waning. Patience, too. A 1-0 home victory over one of the worst defensive teams in the league may not seem like much to celebrate, but right now, Chelsea should be encouraged by absolutely anything that goes their way. Wesley Fofana’s goal was the club’s first in 396 minutes; Potter hadn’t seen his team score at Stamford Bridge in 48 days. The victory, meanwhile, was Chelsea’s third in their last 16 matches across all competitions. So, yeah, beggars can’t be choosers. Potter said after the match that the result will help boost the confidence and morale of his players who were “suffering” during the team’s rotten run of form. We’ll find out very quickly just how transferable that uplifting feeling is on Tuesday, when Chelsea look to overturn a 1-0 deficit in the second leg of their Champions League last-16 tie against red-hot Borussia Dortmund. Defeat, or simple failure to progress, and the good vibes created by the win over Leeds will be immediately forgotten.
Bournemouth’s brilliant routine
Bournemouth’s Philip Billing scored the second-fastest goal in Premier League history on Saturday – finding the net in just 9.11 seconds – after an expertly choreographed kickoff routine caught Arsenal cold. Too many teams, across every league, simply play the ball backwards from the opening kickoff and launch it forward, angling it toward the sideline and hoping for either a flick-on or a throw-in deep in opposition territory. Bournemouth appeared as though they were lined up for a similar approach, with five players on the left-hand side of the pitch, all standing on the halfway line, waiting for the opening whistle. When it went, instead of passing back to one of his central defenders, Dominic Solanke rolled the ball into the path of Joe Rothwell beside him, who instantly clipped it to the right side pitch, where tricky winger Dango Ouattara was waiting. Arsenal, accounting for all the Bournemouth players on one side of the field, left Oleksandr Zinchenko alone on the other, and Ouattara gladly accepted the space in front of him, ran directly at the Ukrainian and whipped in a cross that found Billing inside the penalty area. The plan, obviously hatched on the training ground, was brilliant, and the players executed to perfection. More teams should be so bold from the opening kickoff.
Almighty relegation battle
The race between Arsenal and Manchester City – and perhaps Manchester United? – at the top is engrossing. Long may it continue. But the battle at the other end of the Premier League table is equally riveting. After Saturday’s results, nine clubs are separated by only six points in what is becoming an almighty fight to stave off relegation. Bournemouth, currently bottom by virtue of their woeful minus-27 goal difference, are tied on points (21) with both Southampton and Everton; the Saints moved off the foot of the table with a victory over Leicester City on Saturday. Above that trio, the pack is condensed all the way up to 12th place, where Crystal Palace, who haven’t won a game in 2023, are sitting on 27 points and suddenly starting to look nervously behind them. Perhaps things regulate quickly, three teams sink to the bottom, and the race for survival fizzles out. But right now, things are well poised for a fascinating tussle, and it’s difficult to make a call on who will remain in the top flight, and who will drop down to the second tier.
Stat of the day
It’s a new era, officially, for Arsenal.
Tweet of the day
Reiss Nelson’s thunderous 97th-minute winner against Bournemouth took the roof off the Emirates.
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