Thoughts and analysis from topsy-turvy weekend of Premier League action
Footballlifestyle examines the most important developments and biggest talking points from the weekend’s slate of action in England’s top flight.
Arsenal show class but still too early for comfort
A decisive victory over Fulham restored Arsenal’s five-point edge over Manchester City while maintaining an unexpected title run that looks set to end with a parade in north London, as every passing week ends with a victory.
Until the title is confirmed, however, there’ll always be a lingering fear that the club’s best chance to win the league for the first time since 2004 might slip away. That’s just the reality of the situation after years of heartache, and so long as second-place Manchester City trail closely in search of their fifth title in six years.
Yet, despite the persistent worry, Arsenal have repeatedly proven their title credentials with convincing wins like the one they produced at Craven Cottage. But it’s the manner in which Arsenal secured their 21st win from 27 games that could prove helpful in the title race, as the 3-0 scoreline saw the Gunners chip away at Manchester City’s superior goal record.
With the lead cut down to five in the goal-differential race, Arsenal will hope that continued solid defensive performances – combined with a potent attack that’s already eclipsed last season’s overall goals-scored record with 11 games to play – can help them eclipse Manchester City’s mark. But first, the obvious goal will be to avoid dropping any points before the potentially title-deciding visit to the Etihad Stadium late next month.
Can Manchester United live without Casemiro?
Manchester United have been here before. Quite recently, too. Casemiro missed three matches through suspension after grabbing the throat of Crystal Palace midfielder Will Hughes in a touchline fracas that boiled over in early February. United won two of the three games Casemiro missed, and while the quality of opposition wasn’t the best – Leeds United, whom they played twice, was still managerless at the time – the Red Devils showed they can cope without the Brazilian patrolling midfield.
Results during Casemiro’s three-match ban
|Feb. 8||vs. Leeds United||2-2 D|
|Feb. 12||at Leeds United||2-0 W|
|Feb. 19||vs. Leicester City||3-0 W|
Fred stepped up with dominant performances in the middle of the park and played with the same snarl as his compatriot. He completed eight tackles in one of the games against Leeds and showed tremendous application in defensive areas of the pitch. Marcel Sabitzer, who joined Erik ten Hag’s side on loan from Bayern Munich during the January transfer window, also looked good alongside Fred, dropping between the defenders to facilitate play.
Again, Leeds put up less of a threat than most teams in the Premier League – their attack isn’t really top-flight standard – but the games against the West Yorkshire outfit proved informative. United can find balance in midfield without Casemiro tipping the scales.
That’s good to know, especially on the heels of the 31-year-old’s latest suspension, brought on by a studs-up challenge on Southampton midfielder Carlos Alcaraz during Sunday’s goalless draw at Old Trafford. Casemiro is now set to miss United’s FA Cup quarterfinal fixture against Fulham on March 19, their trip to Newcastle United on April 2, and home clashes against Brentford and Everton.
That’s a very winnable slate of games. But it will require more standout performances from United’s supporting cast to get by.
Strange season for erratic Liverpool
What a difference a week makes.
For a snapshot of just how strange Liverpool’s season has been, one doesn’t have to look further than the Reds’ last two Premier League results. After shocking the football world by embarrassing bitter rivals Manchester United last week, Liverpool got a taste of their own medicine after a dire performance saw Jurgen Klopp’s side lose 1-0 to a Bournemouth outfit that entered Saturday’s contest in last place.
The Merseyside club looked set to continue its revival after starting the game brightly, but it wasn’t long before the problems that have plagued the Reds this season beset their chances of maintaining the momentum they generated after pounding Manchester United 7-0 at Anfield. Despite deploying 10 of the 11 players that helped beat United, the lethargic Reds were a shell of the side that trampled the Red Devils – as well as the squad that dealt Bournemouth a 9-0 loss earlier this season.
Even after Philip Billing gave the hosts the lead, Liverpool lacked any kind of urgency or sharpness in attack needed to break down Bournemouth’s organized back line. After the visitors were controversially awarded a second-half penalty – the team’s first of the season in the league – it was only fitting that Liverpool’s peculiar season continued with the normally reliable Mohamed Salah firing his shot well wide of the net.
As far as setbacks go, this one is going to haunt the inconsistent Reds for a long time. Along with denting their hopes of finishing the season in the top four, Liverpool now have to regroup in their quest to overturn a 5-2 deficit against Real Madrid in the Champions League round of 16 on Wednesday.
Have Chelsea turned a corner?
Chelsea are on a winning streak. Who would’ve thought?
The Blues’ third win in a row arrived Saturday at Leicester City. It was also the visitors’ first road victory in 11 trips. Chelsea scored three times in a league match for the first time since October, and the goals were of the highest quality; Enzo Fernandez served up the best assist of the manager’s short reign with a clever pass over the top to Kai Havertz.
Finally, Potter’s team, which cost hundreds of millions of pounds to assemble, is looking like a viable Premier League outfit.
But the threat of a relapse remains. Chelsea didn’t exactly dominate the proceedings at King Power Stadium. Leicester outshot the west London side 17-12 and missed three big chances. Chelsea midfielder Conor Gallagher had to make a goal-line clearance to keep the Foxes from equalizing in the second half, and Kiernan Dewsbury-Hall scuffed a tantalizing effort wide shortly thereafter. If Chelsea were facing a team of greater quality, they likely would’ve trailed the match or, worse yet, lost it entirely.
The relief of this recent turn of fortune mustn’t blind Chelsea to the issues that continue to plague them. They strayed offside six times against Borussia Dortmund in the Champions League on Tuesday and another four times against Leicester on Saturday, proving they still lack clarity up front. They’ve also conceded far too many chances in the pursuit of goals. Chelsea needed goalkeeper Kepa Arrizabalaga to make two fine saves to stave off Dortmund midweek and nearly blew a 1-0 lead at home to Leeds a few days earlier.
Is this really sustainable without talisman Thiago Silva at the back for the foreseeable future?
That’s not to say Chelsea haven’t deserved to win any of their last three matches. Their wing play has been excellent, and the likes of Ben Chilwell have shown their class. There’s just enough here to keep the club honest. Chelsea can’t get carried away and suddenly think the good times are rolling. It doesn’t work that way, not when you give up 28 shots to two teams in relegation trouble.
For now, though, results are enough. Get a win over Everton next weekend and head into the international break with confidence. Small steps can lead to bigger things.
Doomed Conte buys more time
It’s going to take a lot more than beating a team hovering just above the relegation zone to save the marriage between Tottenham Hotspur and Antonio Conte. A 3-1 victory over Nottingham Forest will buy the Italian some time, but the damage is seemingly irreparable amid another lost season in which Tottenham have regressed and failed to end their trophy drought.
Days after bowing out of the Champions League in limp fashion at home to AC Milan, Spurs bounced back with a convincing performance to end a three-game winless run that began when they were knocked out of the FA Cup by Sheffield United.
But despite a return to the win column, there’s a strong sense that it’s just a matter of time before Spurs and Conte go their separate ways. With Conte – whose contract expires this summer – professing his commitment and affection for a Spurs team he’s “ready to die” for until the end of the season, Tottenham director Daniel Levy will ultimately be the one who decides the ex-Juventus and Inter Milan manager’s fate.
With Liverpool breathing down Tottenham’s neck, Conte can’t afford any more slipups in Spurs’ quest to qualify for the Champions League next season. Failure to win maximum points in upcoming trips to Southampton and Everton could result in Tottenham moving on from yet another coach who failed to deliver silverware.
Trossard fueling title charge
Gabriel Jesus made his long-awaited return after over three months out with a knee injury. But what if he isn’t the same player that took north London by storm in the first half of the season? Arsenal’s proven depth in attack should help allay concerns over a possible dip in form. Among those who played brilliantly in Jesus’ absence was Leandro Trossard, who wasn’t even on the team when the Brazilian got injured. Sunday’s Man of the Match was sensational once again, setting up all three goals against Fulham to become the first player in Premier League history to record a trio of first-half assists on the road. Trossard has been downright unplayable at times on the left flank since his move from Brighton in January. From his ball control to his ability to drift all over the pitch untouched, he’s been an obvious nuisance for opposing teams and has helped fuel belief that this magical Arsenal campaign will have a fairy tale ending.
Leicester won’t go quietly into the Championship
Not for the first time, the crowd at King Power Stadium called on the board to sack Brendan Rodgers. Leicester had just lost their fifth game in a row across all competitions and fell within a point of the relegation zone. The Foxes also lost center-back Wout Faes to a red card late in the game. But Rodgers found encouragement in the spirit his players showed during Saturday’s 3-1 defeat to Chelsea. “Over the course of the game, the players gave everything, and we looked like the team that was on top,” the manager said afterward. “Then we don’t get a goal, and when they have that quality, they get the chance and score it.” Rodgers has a point: Leicester went down swinging. If they play with the same assertiveness against upcoming opponents Brentford, Crystal Palace, Aston Villa, and Bournemouth, they’ll eventually get the points they need to move up the table and away from danger.
Ouattara is a baller
Bournemouth have a rising star on their hands. For the second consecutive weekend, Dango Ouattara set up Philip Billing to score against one of the Premier League’s perennial heavyweights, following up his assist against Arsenal with another in Saturday’s 1-0 win over Liverpool. The 21-year-old, signed for £20 million from Lorient in January, was a constant thorn in Liverpool’s side. He gave Virgil van Dijk, in particular, headaches. The Burkina Faso international completed the most dribbles (four) and won the most duels (10) of any player on the pitch against the Reds, showing off the entirety of his well-rounded game. Since making his Premier League debut in late January, nobody has more assists than Bournemouth’s exciting young winger. Including his stats from Ligue 1 prior to his transfer, he’s joint-second for assists by players aged 21 or under across Europe’s top five leagues this season. Only Bukayo Saka has more. Decent company, that.
Enormous win for Everton
Everton catapulted themselves out of the relegation zone with a gritty 1-0 win over Brentford on Saturday, ending the Bees’ 12-match unbeaten league run in the process. While there is still a lot of time left to determine if they’ll stay out of the drop zone come season’s end, this could end up being a critical result in the Toffees’ push for survival. For starters, some of their direct relegation rivals – Leeds, Nottingham Forest, Leicester, and Crystal Palace – all lost on Saturday, allowing Sean Dyche’s team to either create some separation or gain important ground on the sides around them. The victory was also vital considering Everton’s upcoming schedule: their next three matches are against Chelsea, Tottenham, and Manchester United. Not picking up three points this weekend would have been a nightmare scenario. “There are strong signs that the mentality is growing,” Dyche said after the match. The next month will be a good litmus test for that improved mentality.
Stat of the weekend
Leandro Trossard is settling in nicely at Arsenal.
Tweet of the weekend
Maybe Liverpool were just showing their support for Gary Lineker?
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