Man Utd suffer title-race reality check
‘Expect the unexpected’ has become the mantra for the 2020/21 Premier League season. But even after all the outrageous results of the past five months, nobody was predicting Manchester United’s defeat to bottom-of-the-table Sheffield United.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer can rightly point to some dubious calls around Sheffield United’s opener and Anthony Martial’s disallowed strike, but it was Manchester United’s performance as much as the final result which was the bigger jolt, the bigger reality check about where they stand in this title race.
The hosts struggled to get through the gears at Old Trafford against a Sheffield United side who had won just one league game all season, and then produced a horror show of defending to allow their opponents to take the lead for a second time.
It was all a sharp contrast to Manchester City’s display against another struggling side in West Brom 24 hours earlier.
While Pep Guardiola’s side swept to a 5-0 victory to make it seven league wins on the spin, Manchester United laboured and very rarely threatened to open up the visitors’ compact defence. And then, once again, they ended up chasing a game from behind.
That’s been a common position for Solskjaer’s men this season – but while they’ve shown quality and resolve to turn things around in previous matches, it is not a habit many champions fall into.
A different kind of consistency is required at this stage of the season – and, after enjoying their stint at the summit, Manchester United supporters will know it is their neighbours making the major move now. Win their game in hand, and City will be four points clear at the top.
Of course, they could lose their own clash with Sheffield United this weekend, and Manchester United could win at Arsenal. As Guardiola pointed out, there’s a long way to go and many more twists and turns to come. Don’t rule anything out in this bizarre season.
But Wednesday’s defeat was a reminder to Manchester United they will have to be at their very best week-in, week-out during the second half of the campaign if they’re to pull off a huge shock of their own.
First taste of Tuchel leaves you wanting more
With a mere 24 hours, and a solitary training session passing since Thomas Tuchel was confirmed as Frank Lampard’s successor at Stamford Bridge, you could forgive the new Chelsea for failing to put on a real show in his first assignment.
It was clear however, even at this early stage, what Tuchel’s template for success will look like – a possession-heavy, pressure-heavy style of football – but Wednesday’s game with Wolves came too soon for the German to implement the most crucial aspect that plan, the finishing.
While there was no immediate new-manager bounce, what Chelsea lacked in the goalless draw was more than made up for by the passion Tuchel exuded. Not only did he embrace the challenge of taking Chelsea on this latest chapter, he took it upon himself to raise expectations.
His vow to manufacture a team no one in Europe would want to face could quite easily have been disregarded as new manager hyperbole, but the prospect of marrying his track record with the talent Chelsea have made such a statement resonate this time.
When time was finally called on Lampard’s tenure, Chelsea had a list of improvements as long as Kai Havertz’s Premier League goal drought. And yet, even after 90 somewhat underwhelming minutes against Wolves, watching Tuchel address those issues looks a journey worth paying close attention to.
A point gained for Leicester or a missed chance?
Leicester’s brilliant run continues. They haven’t lost any of their last seven games in the Premier League (W4 D3) – their longest run without defeat in the competition since December 2019 (a run of nine games).
Their brilliant away form also continues with the point at Everton. They have only lost one of their last 10 Premier League away games (W7 D2), and are unbeaten in their last five games on the road since a defeat at Anfield in November (W3 D2).
“On another day, we could have won it,” said Brendan Rodgers after his side drew 1-1 with Everton. “We knew we’d have to have patience and there wouldn’t be too many goals. Performance-wise, it was really good. They are a tough team to play against.”
It was a result that left Rodgers pleased, and rightly so, but it could have been even better for Leicester had they made their dominance count, especially after Manchester United’s shock defeat to Sheffield United.
Having seen the score, Rodgers might have been forgiven for wondering what might have been had his side sneaked a win. However, the point keeps Leicester in third, one point behind United in second, and two behind leaders Man City.
If you’d have offered this position to Rodgers and everyone associated with Leicester at the start of the season, they’d have bitten your hand off. They are still right in the mix and there are no signs that they are going away any time soon.
Problems for Pickford as Southgate watches on
“International goalkeepers should be saving that,” said Sky Sports’ Andy Hinchcliffe of Jordan Pickford’s effort to keep out Youri Tielemans’ low shot.
Carlo Ancelotti’s side, who led thanks to James Rodriguez’s brilliant first-half strike, had soaked up a huge amount of pressure but the defence, which had conceded only three goals in six matches, was doing its job.
Everton looked on course for three points, which would have taken them fourth, but when they needed their goalkeeper, he didn’t respond as he let Tielemans’ strike through his grasp.
Watched by England boss Gareth Southgate, who was at Goodison Park, Pickford got both hands to the ball, but he could only push it in via a post. “This is not the right place to talk about this,” Ancelotti said after the game. “He can do better but it doesn’t matter.”
With a big year of international football ahead, errors like that will certainly matter to Southgate and with Nick Pope impressing once again for Burnley, the England boss has a decision to make over his number one goalkeeper.
Sheffield United can smile again
There was a nice moment during the first half of Sheffield United’s stunning win at Old Trafford. As the clock ticked towards the interval and the visitors held an unlikely lead, Blades boss Chris Wilder shared a smile and joke with one of his players on the pitch.
It has been more a case of furrowed brows and frowns at Sheffield United in 2020/21, with Wilder’s players suffering a brutal second season in the top-flight. But there was plenty for him to like about Sheffield United’s performance on Wednesday night.
Led by the brilliant veteran Phil Jagielka, the defence was tight, compact, and gave Manchester United’s rapid attackers no space to stretch them. The sight of the 38-year-old launching himself in front of a Donny van de Beek cross in the box late on summed up the commitment on show from the defender and his team-mates.
Ahead of the backline, there were lung-busting efforts to contain Manchester United’s creators, with the team clocking up almost 120km between them and John Lundstram – who repelled two dangerous crosses in the final minutes – covering more ground than any other player on the pitch.
In attack, where the Blades have been so blunt this term, there was a touch of fortune about their two decisive goals, with Billy Sharp lucky to get away with a shove on David de Gea for Kean Bryan’s opener, and Oliver Burke benefitting from some truly shocking defending.
But Bryan and Burke won’t care one bit. Those were their first-ever Premier League goals and moments to savour. And this was a night to enjoy for Sheffield United, too.
The scale of their task remains huge. They’re still 10 points off fourth-bottom Brighton. But this unlikely victory will restore belief and bounce in the Blades. Bring on Man City…
Wolves on their way back?
It’s been a testing few months for Wolves. Robbed of Raul Jimenez through injury, Nuno Espirito Santo’s side simply haven’t looked the same without their talismanic frontman leading the line.
Jimenez’s high-profile absence dominates the headlines, but the real issue for Wolves has been their uncharacteristically porous defence.
Qualification for the Europa League at the end of the 2018/19 season was built on the back of the fifth-best defensive record in the Premier League. Fast forward to the midway point of the 2020/21 season, and Wolves boast the fifth-worst defensive record in the division.
Getting a clean sheet is always a positive. It is something we missed, and we need. The boys defended very well and that is the starting point for everything.
Nuno Espirito Santo
One of the Premier League’s most formidable defences has lost its way at times his season, and 29 conceded goals have exacerbated Wolves’ shortage at the other end of the pitch.
They say defences win titles, but they also underpin pretty much everything you can achieve in football.
Wolves fought for a point at Chelsea and may have had all three, but the real prize was a timely first clean sheet since October 30 that provides the foundation from which to build.
The game that went against the form book
Once in a while, a game comes along that throws stats out of the window. For Matchday 20, it was Burnley’s 3-2 comeback victory against Aston Villa.
Heading into the game, Burnley had lost their last nine Premier League matches when conceding first, and Villa had won each of their games when scoring first in the league this season (9/9), so hopes were high for the visitors when Ollie Watkins turned home early on.
Villa should have been out of sight by half-time, having registered 11 shots, but the second period was a rollercoaster affair that flew in the face of the form book. As much as Watkins’ goal saw Burnley take a knock of confidence, Ben Mee’s header was the shot of adrenaline they needed. Sean Dyche’s side matched Villa for sweeping, attacking play and scored with three of their four shots on target in the second half.
It was only the eighth match in the Premier League at Turf Moor to see both teams score twice and the first since October 2019. Burnley have also scored three goals in a Premier League game for the first time since a 3-0 win over Bournemouth in February, bringing an end to a strange run of 1-0 scorelines in each of their last five Premier League games.
While the performance was certainly there for Villa – their first-half play rivalled the creativity of Man City and Liverpool – but they lapsed in concentration at the back with some basic errors, coupled with a stroke of bad luck for Dwight McNeil’s second equaliser, seeing them ‘throw away three points’, to use Dean Smith’s own words.
Villa have kept nine clean sheets this season and Smith will be hoping their slips at Turf Moor was just a blip. As for Burnley, while never known for their free scoring, they are starting to find goals from others than just Chris Wood and Ashley Barnes, which will be vital as they continue to edge away from the relegation places.
Fulham must beat West Brom after Seagulls stalemate
Fulham boss Scott Parker declared himself happy with a battling point at Brighton. He would have had all three had Ruben Loftus-Cheek not been denied by Lewis Dunk’s last-minute goal-line clearance.
On its own, a draw away at a side like Brighton is not a bad result for a team without a win in eight themselves. But in context, it’s not enough. Fulham would have moved within two points of safety, and a game in hand over the 17th-placed Seagulls, had they won.
That they didn’t, extending their winless run to nine games in the process, leaves them still where they were 24 hours ago.
They have an opportunity to make amends against West Brom on Saturday, though. Brighton’s recent form suggests Graham Potter’s side won’t beat Spurs on Sunday; they have not won a home game since June, after all.
So the opportunity could not be better for Parker’s side, travelling to a Baggies unit thumped 5-0 by Manchester City on Tuesday and one of only two teams below them in the table.
Take this, and win their game in hand, and maybe it’s not too late. But another poor result and things are starting to look tough.