Title looks out of reach for Man Utd
Context is everything. On the face of it, a point at Arsenal is not a bad result for Manchester United. Certainly not if they had beaten Sheffield United in midweek. Maybe not if they had won the previous meeting between the sides at Old Trafford either.
But surrendering five points to this Arsenal side and delivering only one from two games after being top of the table this time last week feels like a chance missed for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side. The fear now is that this will be remembered as the week momentum shifted. The moment came. The moment passed them by.
United were not awful at the Emirates Stadium. They kept a clean sheet away from home. Edinson Cavani, preferred to Anthony Martial up front, missed two good chances from close range in the second half that might have led to a very different outcome and mood.
Solskjaer, to his credit, was bold in making an attacking substitution in the first half too. When Scott McTominay could not continue through illness, the manager turned not to the direct replacement in Nemanja Matic but opted for Martial and rejigged the midfield.
It just was not enough against an under-strength Arsenal. United, it seems, are not quite ready to win. Not able to press home the advantage just when they had others worried.
They remain second in the table. Another top-four finish looks well within their capabilities and there are cup competitions that they can pursue as Solskjaer goes in search of some silverware.
But it is Manchester City three points clear now and with a game in hand too. Sides have slipped whenever hitting the front this season but this feels different. Facing Pep Guardiola’s City from a standing start is tough enough. In a handicap race, hope fades fast.
Perhaps United can go again. Three of the next four are at home. The other is at West Brom. The opportunity is still there for them to be within reach when the derby comes around in March. Next time, though, they must seize the moment. Even a point at the Etihad Stadium is unlikely to be enough then. Context is everything.
Not bad Arsenal, but do they have enough fit players?
No Aubameyang, no Tierney, no Saka, and a nowhere-near-fully-fit Partey. In those circumstances, a draw for Arsenal against Manchester United was no bad result. Mikel Arteta was probably exaggerating when he said “in the second half we were so dominant”, but he was right to say that his side “had some big chances to win it”, and right to be encouraged by what he saw from his injury-hit troops.
As Nick Wright highlighted in his pre-match feature, the big picture news on Arsenal is that a clear outline of what Arteta is trying to do has started to emerge in recent weeks after a December of discontent. And in Saka as well as Gabriel Martinelli and Emile Smith Rowe, who stood up and stood out once again, they have young players of genuine promise.
But what exactly does Arsenal’s season now promise? Asked to identify their ambition for the rest of the campaign, Jamie Carragher replied: “To be playing European football next season. They are still in the Europa League so that is the avenue for them to get a Champions League position because there is no way they are going to get in the top four. Can they sneak into the Europa League?”.
That is a reasonable question to ponder, but another might be whether their Europa League exertions may yet damage their hopes of securing another season of European football. Because what should not be glossed over, especially within the context of the likes of Mustafi, Ainsley Maitland-Niles, Joe Willock and Reiss Nelson perhaps joining the list of departing players by Monday night, is just how thin Arsenal’s squad is starting to look in terms of available players. Dani Ceballos is also currently absent through injury. So is Pablo Mari. Gabriel has not played for over a month since contracting Covid. Add in Saka, Tierney and Aubameyang, and a clear problem starts to emerge.
Arsenal have seven matches scheduled for February, which averages out at a game every four days. They have made real progress over the last month but how much progress they continue to make over the next calendar month may well boil down to whether they can progress most of their missing players off the treatment table.
Relentless Man City will take some stopping
Opta released a quite astounding stat in the wake of Man City’s latest victory. It read: City’s nine wins across all competitions in January was the most by a team in the top four tiers of English football in a single month since the formation of the Football League in 1888.
No wonder Pep Guardiola described his players as “animals” after their 1-0 win over Sheffield United. They are relentless.
The games have been packed in over the past 30 days. City have been hit by absences of key players, too. But while those around them at the top of the Premier League have tripped up, City just keep on winning.
It is a club-record 12 in a row across all competitions now, with Saturday’s latest success making it eight on the spin in the Premier League, where they now sit commandingly at the summit.
While Guardiola was keen to talk up Sheffield United, it was clear the creativity of Kevin De Bruyne and finishing of Sergio Aguero was missed at the Etihad Stadium. But then, which team would not be weaker without those Premier League legends?
The point is, whatever challenges City face – from opponents to injuries and illness – they just keep motoring on right now. They find a way.
There is little time to reflect on their landmark winning streak – they are back in action against Burnley on Wednesday, when they will be aiming to get February off to a flyer. Then comes what feels like a pivotal test against Liverpool.
If the winning run is still alive by the end of next weekend, it is hard to see who will stop City from reclaiming the Premier League crown.
Newcastle finally show spark
Energy, creativity and, most importantly, guts. That is all Newcastle fans wanted to see. They saw a season’s worth at Goodison Park.
Pressing higher up the pitch, it looked a naive move in the first 25 minutes as Everton, helped by James Rodriguez, broke through on several occasions. But from then on, Newcastle constricted Everton and had control of the game. It is not often we have said that about Steve Bruce’s side.
Callum Wilson was the star – he scored two and could have had five, played wider on the right to much success. But Miguel Almiron’s tireless energy set the tone from the front, running more than any player on the pitch (11.5km).
Newcastle did everything that Everton failed to do. While Carlo Ancelotti was bemoaning his side’s lack of fight – “We were lazy, we were slow and we were not focused” – Newcastle ran more and sprinted more.
Bruce inferred this had been coming, with the effects of Covid seemingly wearing off and giving Newcastle some spark. That may well be the case, but it felt the tactical switch was equally as important.
Now Newcastle fans will want to see more of it. They have been crying out for a bolder, attacking approach for months, and believe they have the players to do it.
Villa’s summer signings shine at St Mary’s
It was an astute away performance from Aston Villa at Southampton and they had two of their summer incomings to thank for the results.
Firstly, Ross Barkley’s goal – his third for Aston Villa in the Premier League since his loan move from Chelsea – was incredibly well taken. Jack Grealish provided an ever-reliable cross, but Barkley still had work to do to power his header home for what turned out to be the winner.
He also had the highest passing accuracy of the Villa squad (85.2 per cent) and led the way for key passes (2), continuing his comeback from injury with encouraging performances.
When asked about Barkley, Aston Villa manager Dean Smith said: “He’s not 100 per cent yet [after injury], but he’s getting there. He’s actually played more minutes than he’s had training minutes over the last 12 weeks.
“Because we were all in self-isolation, he was back to fitness but couldn’t do any group training so he’s having to get his fitness back during matches. He got 90 minutes tonight so he’s getting better and better and it was a superb header today.”
But Aston Villa were perhaps most indebted to Emiliano Martinez for their win. He made a string of sensational saves in the second half as Southampton hunted for an equaliser. He saved from Che Adams twice and a Jan Bednarek header in the pick of his efforts, keeping his 10th Premier League clean sheet of the season – the second highest in the league.
Speaking about his goalkeeper, Smith told Sky Sports: “He is a very good goalkeeper, that is why we brought him in. He was also the first one in the dressing room thanking the lads for the blocks as well.”
The victory has sent Aston Villa above Arsenal and Chelsea into eighth place and although he would deny it, Smith may have an eye on those European places.
Saints’ worrying slide continues
It was a perplexing evening for Southampton. They had a massive 20 shots and 60.1 per cent of possession, played some wonderful football at times, but really, there were only a few chances that instantly spring to mind.
Although Danny Ings has proven to be the main man up front, it was Che Adams who had their first effort on target in the 70th minute. It was possibly the only stroke of luck they had in the game after he replaced the injured Theo Walcott.
The other side of Southampton’s after was that old foe, VAR. They had a clear handball call turned down early in the first half, which would have changed the whole game. Then, Ings’ late equaliser was ruled out for offside by the thread of a shirt to compound a frustrating evening.
Manager Ralph Hasenhuttl told Sky Sports: “We are struggling at the moment with injuries but also with scoring goals. That is the reason why at the moment it is tough for us to win games.
“The reason why I am not too worried is because we are having chances but the final ball does not want to go in. The precision of the final shot is not perfect. This we can do better.”
It is now one win in eight Premier League games for Southampton, who have now not scored from open play in seven league games and without a goal in the second half for eight matches. But if Hasenhuttl can bring his side back from a 9-0 defeat against Leicester, he can certainly find the solution to the current issues too.
Is Diang the game-changer for Allardyce?
Sam Allardyce will need to buy the admin staff at West Brom a bottle of champagne after they managed to get Mbaye Diagne’s registration submitted in time for him to feature against Fulham. The on-loan Galatasaray man, signed on Friday, was not quite ready to start but his arrival from the bench completely changed the game in West Brom’s favour. They were lucky to be even in the game at that point after Fulham’s silky play had left them seeing stars in the first 45 minutes.
Diang looks very well versed in leading the line on his own, something Allardyce wants from his central striker. His physicality gave Jerome Anderson much more to think about after the break as his clever hold-up play and movement down the channels laid the platform for the West Brom turnaround.
As seen for the second West Brom goal, scored by Matheus Pereira, where Diang powered his way down the right before crossing for his team-mate to finish.
He will give Allardyce hope that the great escape might be achievable.
Nuno still in search of Wolves’ identity
Wolves are in a bad place. Nuno Espirito Santo’s side are bottom of the form table in the last eight Premier League games, a period in which the Midlands club have taken just three points. Their woeful run was extended in south London as Ebere Eze’s dazzling strike was enough to secure a 1-0 win for Crystal Palace.
“A lot of things are missing,” Nuno said afterwards. “Better performances, better decisions, what is our identity. Everything must be faster. A lot of passes were sideways, not taking risks.
“It is not about individuals, it is about all of us and we must commit more to face the challenge we have in front of us. We have a big challenge and we have to improve and improve fast.”
Nuno is unfamiliar with such an alarming run of results at Molineux since the start of his stewardship, and the Portuguese’s warning for his players must now be heeded.
Wolves have not tasted success in the division since December 15 when they beat Chelsea and while they have progressed into the FA Cup fifth round, in the top flight they continue to look toothless.
It took them until the 56th minute to have a shot on target at Selhurst Park and although new signing Willian Jose looked sharp on his full debut, Wolves have slumped to 14th.
Sheffield United are still adrift at the bottom but are improving, while Newcastle’s victory over Everton will have them looking over their shoulders. They are not yet embroiled in a relegation battle, but results and performances must improve – starting with the visit of Arsenal on Tuesday.
Wolves undone by Eze brilliance
For all of Wolves’ recent troubles, this was a much-needed win for Roy Hodgson’s side. Crystal Palace entered the game with just two league victories from their last 12 games, against the division’s bottom two, and while they were thankful to Vicente Guaita’s smart reflexes during the second half, this was a deserved win as their greater courage was rewarded.
The authority Wolves demonstrated in securing two seventh-placed finishes is nowhere to be seen right now, on a run of eight games without a win, but it was a moment of brilliance from Ebere Eze which ensured they were usurped in 13th place by Palace. It was a special goal, Eze’s third of the season, and a clinical strike that was enough to the job.
The victory might have been more handsome had Wilfried Zaha kept his shot down instead of rattling the crossbar, but this win certainly lifted Hodgson’s mood with his side comfortable in mid-table, 12 points clear of the relegation zone.
Eze had been rather subdued prior to his match-winning moment, and he said: “It’s been a long time coming. It’s not been going for us but today we’re grateful to win. We always put in the work and try to do the best we can but it hasn’t come off at times. It’s been a difficult run but we’ve put it right today.
“With the quality we’ve got in our team, we always know we’re capable of creating chances. I just saw the ball roll across the box, tried to create a bit of space so I could get my shot off. Now, we want to be looking up the table, getting points on the board and climbing up as fast as we can.”
Creativity, speed and breaking the lines are problems Wolves have to solve, but with Eze on board, Palace have those qualities in abundance.
Blades can take heart ahead of Baggies showdown
There was to be no repeat trick for Sheffield United across the Pennines, just days after the shock of the season at Old Trafford, but despite a narrow defeat at the hands of the Manchester City machine, this was further evidence Chris Wilder’s side remain, as Pep Guardiola put it, “alive”.
City’s dominance in possession and territory was predictable but Guardiola, whose side had managed only three shots by the break, feared a tricky assignment and so it proved.
Wilder will rue the slapdash nature of the goal that proved decisive, Bernardo Silva allowed to impossibly wriggle from Jayden Bogle and Ethan Ampadu between a misjudged header and a marker’s lapse.
But he will take heart from their resilience and application, from a series of fine saves that should boost the confidence of a previously fragile-looking Aaron Ramsdale, from the steadily more adventurous play of John Fleck – who went close to punishing City late on – and Oliver Norwood in midfield.
If any outside suspicions lingered that this team might have settled for its fate, this was a week in which those were emphatically dispelled.
“We’re not looking to get pats on the back but you’ve seen a team there that’s fighting for their lives,” an energised Wilder said afterwards.
“There is a manner, a body language and an identity and I think we are showing that, getting that back. I feel we’ve got plenty left in us.”
Galvanised by an FA Cup run, Sheffield United are stirring.
Their biggest Premier League test – West Brom at Bramall Lane on Tuesday – awaits and it should be a showdown to relish. Two trips to Manchester have set the mood.