Positives, yes. But old failings still there for Arsenal
“We started the game really well, that’s how I want to play football,” Freddie Ljungberg said after his side’s 2-2 draw at Norwich.
“We dominated totally and that’s when we needed a goal. We couldn’t get that but we need to work on the transitions, we dominated and they break us too easily, and that’s where their two goals came from. That’s hard to take but the players showed great mentality. They went a goal down twice away from home and came back, that shows that we have desire.
“I really wanted to win the game so I am disappointed but I have also seen some positive things and certain things we need to nail down.”
Ljungberg, who was taking charge of his first game as interim head coach at Arsenal, is right to take the positives from his side’s draw at Carrow Road. What else can he do?
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In only a couple of days, the Swede got the Gunners attacking with more intent than they had done in several weeks under Unai Emery. They also showed plenty of character as they clung on for a point thanks mainly to a number of fine saves from Bernd Leno.
However, clinging on to a point at second from bottom Norwich is not good enough for a club of Arsenal’s sature, and Ljungberg knows it.
Despite the positives, the old failings were still there for all to see as the game highlighted the problems facing the club’s former midfielder in their battle for a top-four finish.
Defensively, Arsenal were all over the shop and had it not been for Leno, they would have certainly lost the game.
Ljungberg sprung a surprise before kick-off by pairing Shkodran Mustafi with David Luiz in defence, but time after time they, alongside right-back Calum Chambers, were exposed. Meanwhile, Mesut Ozil once again failed to impact the game significantly while the balance of Arsenal’s midfield will be called into question with Matteo Guendouzi, Granit Xhaka and Joe Willock starting ahead of Lucas Torreira.
Time really wasn’t on Ljungberg’s side ahead of this encounter, though.
It was a short turnaround from the defeat to Eintracht Frankfurt and Emery’s sacking to Ljungberg’s appointment, but with three full days now until the Gunners’ next clash against Brighton on Thursday, Ljungberg, with the help of Per Mertesacker, needs to get to work on the training field.
Magpies get under City’s skin again
Just what is it about Newcastle, who appear to be a bit of a bogey team – if that is possible, of course – as far as Premier League champions Manchester City are concerned?
The Magpies were at it again on Saturday after twice coming from behind to hold Pep Guardiola’s star-studded side at St James’ Park, albeit with the help of a late Jonjo Shelvey thunderbolt, and leave them now trailing leaders Liverpool by 11 points.
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It was Newcastle who also put a big dent in City’s title hopes last season when Rafa Benitez’s team recovered from conceding after just 24 seconds to Sergio Aguero to secure a memorable 2-1 victory.
While the home team – now managed by Steve Bruce – did not record a victory this time around, their spirited draw meant Newcastle are now unbeaten in each of their last four home league games against reigning top-flight champions.
City, meanwhile, recovered from that surprise loss to go on to win the league last season, but can they repeat that remarkable recovery this time around?
Man Utd let another lead slip
Another Premier League weekend, and Manchester United come up with more of the same problems rather than answers in another under-par performance.
One of the biggest questions is why they have not been able to protect a lead, especially over the last week. They led in all three games against Sheffield United, Astana and Aston Villa but ended up with two draws and a defeat.
- Man Utd 2-2 Aston Villa – Match report and highlights
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It was easy to see where these errors were coming from. There were too many misplaced passes and silly fouls that put Man Utd under unnecessary pressure. For example, in the first half, Andreas Pereira fouled Conor Hourihane on the left of the box when there was not much reason to. It gave Aston Villa a free kick in a dangerous position and while they did not score, it added undue pressure onto Man Utd when they should be running the show at Old Trafford.
Despite it all seeming gloomy, Man Utd have come from behind in their last two Premier League games. Solskjaer said it shows “attitude and character” from his young side and when they click into gear, they can damage anyone on their day. But there was a lack of creativity from the supposedly creative players on Sunday, which will be another issue for Man Utd to address.
Lampard honeymoon over?
It was only a week ago that Chelsea were touted as potential Premier League title challengers. Now, after back-to-back defeats to Manchester City and West Ham, the Blues are 14 points behind leaders Liverpool.
That title talk was always premature, and no Chelsea fan would have really believed it. Frank Lampard’s side may have performed superbly in the opening four months of the campaign, but they remain very much a work in progress.
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The gulf in quality and, perhaps more importantly, experience compared to the likes of Liverpool and Manchester City was evident at the Etihad. But against West Ham at Stamford Bridge, there was something else lacking. Something Chelsea’s young players have had in abundance all season: Exuberance.
The Blues dominated the ball but never moved it at pace. They created chances but did not truly threaten the Hammers goal. They pressed but never with intent. Throughout the entire 90 minutes Chelsea were passive – they didn’t concede a single foul – and that proved their downfall.
Lampard recognised this after the game. “It’s a reality check for everybody,” he said. “We’ve all been happy with a lot of things so far but a game like today shows the harsh realities of the Premier League and the realities of where we’re at. So we need to work and improve.”
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It could be argued the performance against West Ham was a result of the match being Chelsea’s third game in six days. But with Lampard rotating his squad, making five changes to the team which drew in Valencia in midweek in the Champions League, that excuse doesn’t wash.
His biggest call was to start with Olivier Giroud in place of the injured Tammy Abraham. It did not pay off. Giroud is a lot of things, including a World Cup winner, but given what Lampard demands of his striker, the French star isn’t a great fit.
Chelsea’s attacks rarely involved the striker, instead, they seemed to bypass him. Giroud would last 71 minutes before being replaced by Callum Hudson-Odoi and for the final stages Chelsea played without a recognised striker.
The fact the Blues boss opted against introducing Michy Batshuayi from the bench spoke volumes. It’s a reminder this Chelsea squad is far from complete – it has its problems and its weaknesses. Lampard has done a fine job covering these, but the honeymoon phase may finally be over.
Klopp will be aware of performances
Gary Neville said weeks ago that this Liverpool side have the touch of the Manchester United’s about them – the 1998/99 Manchester United, that is – and that comparison keeps ringing true. Once again, Liverpool were nowhere near their best, but came away with three points.
This time it was not a late winner, synonymous with Sir Alex Ferguson’s treble-winning side, but some extreme late anxiety. Brighton arguably deserved something at Anfield, and there won’t be many sides coming here registering a better passing accuracy (84 per cent to 80 per cent) and possession (55 per cent).
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Going into a heavy December – Liverpool could potentially play 12 games in 34 days – that zip and slickness to their passing is sometimes awry. But they have so much quality and character, the wins keep coming.
It is, as we keep saying, the sign of champions, but Jurgen Klopp will be acutely aware of performance levels. There’s no chance his head will be in the clouds, despite the healthy chasm between his side and their challengers.
Dele relishing return to his best position
These are still very early days in the Jose Mourinho regime but there is already a noticeable shift in mood at Tottenham. Reports of their demise have been greatly exaggerated, but so too were those questioning Dele Alli’s attitude and application.
Mourinho’s fresh eyes have simplified the Dele dilemma – the 23-year-old is back playing in his best position, deployed in the support role behind Harry Kane to devastating effect in Tottenham’s 3-2 win over Bournemouth.
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“Every manager has his own ideas, and we are all different,” Mourinho said. “Nobody is right and nobody’s wrong, but for me Dele is not a midfield player. For me, he is not a player to play positionally in midfield.
“He’s a player to play like he’s playing, close to Harry, following some dynamics that we train but also a little bit of freedom to associate with attacking players. I think this is the best position for him.”
Mourinho had done his homework on Bournemouth, whose reluctance to play a low block owing to the modest height of their centre-backs allowed Alli to wreak havoc with his deep-lying runs. Both his goals came from raking Toby Alderweireld passes from the back that circumvented the visitors’ high press.
Having fallen down the pecking order with England under Gareth Southgate, omitted entirely from his latest squad, Alli will be hopeful of a recall if he continues to personify the sense of rejuvenation at Spurs under Mourinho.
Heartache for Everton… but a Silva lining
Football can be a cruel sport, and with the spotlight firmly on Marco Silva at the King Power Stadium, his Everton side were denied a battling point by Kelechi Iheanacho’s VAR-assisted match winner in the 94th minute that keeps Leicester on Liverpool’s coat-tails.
It’s only just turned December, but Everton have lost eight Premier League games. It wasn’t supposed to be like this when the pre-season objectives were set, but after the damaging 2-0 home loss to Norwich last weekend, Silva can take comfort on this evidence that he has retained the faith of his dressing room.
- Leicester 2-1 Everton – Match report and highlights
- Silva: Everton commitment not in question
His Everton side ended Leicester’s run of not conceding in 446 minutes of Premier League football, but after Jamie Vardy hauled the hosts level, the fear was that the mental fragility that has plagued Silva’s tenure would resurface.
Everton were ultimately undone partially due to being too open in their willingness to seek a winner, but this certainly wasn’t a collapse.
Silva said: “It’s a harsh result for my players, as nobody can say anything about their commitment, about their attitude or about their ambition for this game.
“It was clear and we showed that because we knew we had to show a reaction after the performance against Norwich. We will go to Anfield with the commitment we had this afternoon.”
Liverpool have been grinding out results, but if Everton apply themselves in the same way during the Merseyside derby on Wednesday, it could well prove the toughest assignment for Jurgen Klopp’s men to date this season.
The turning point for Southampton?
Saturday’s relegation battle with Watford was always going to be massive for Southampton, even at the end of November. It would either signal that there was life in them yet or raise some more serious questions about Ralph Hasenhuttl’s management. Luckily, the former turned out to be true.
For 70 minutes, it was a familiar story. Southampton saw plenty of possession and played some good stuff at times, but struggled to break down a stubborn Watford defence, who had already taken the advantage through Ismaila Sarr’s 24th-minute goal. The Saints looked shaky at the back whenever their opponents got forward, which despite the eventual 2-1 win, will need to be urgently addressed.
- Ward-Prowse fires Saints to precious win – match report and highlights
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But some inspired substitutions and a huge slice of luck gave Southampton the confidence boost they needed. After the game, VAR officials admitted they had missed a Moussa Djenepo handball in the build-up to Danny Ings’ scrambled equaliser and it should have been disallowed. But the Saints will take all the advantages they can get at this stage, eventually leading to a trademark James Ward-Prowse free-kick to seal the win, which was their first at St Mary’s since April 13.
The big question for Southampton and Hasenhuttl now is how they build from here. Their next four games are all against teams near them and heading into the busy festive period, they will need to get as many points on the board as possible. Confidence and belief will be the key thing to take forward over the next few weeks.
Watford woes deepen in Sanchez Flores’ final game
Things are looking pretty bleak for Watford at the moment. Firstly, they let a 1-0 lead slip against Southampton, the team who were just above them at the bottom of the Premier League table and had not won a home game in over seven months.
It was a shame given their good first-half performance. Watford looked dangerous on the counter and resolute at the back, with Sarr in particular forcing some brilliant saves from Alex McCarthy and you would have expected the 21-year-old to add a few more after the break. But after Southampton’s now-contentious equaliser – epitomising the poor luck Watford are experiencing – their heads dropped and they stumbled to another defeat.
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It turned out to be Quique Sanchez Flores’ final game of his second spell in charge, which lasted just a few months, with the club now changing managers twice so far this season. The Watford hierarchy have never been afraid of sacking a manager or two, but the instability and chaos at the moment will only be to their detriment. Here’s hoping they bring in an experienced, cool head for longer than a few months to help drastically turn their fortunes around.
Howe in search of complete performance as slump continues
Since promotion in 2015, Bournemouth’s form in the Premier League has been a tale of peaks and troughs. From sitting third on September 20 following a 3-1 win at Southampton, they have slipped to 12th.
There have been recent signs of improvement; Bournemouth were the better side for the opening 20 minutes of Saturday’s 3-2 defeat at Tottenham, and they were unfortunate not to grab a point after a strong final 20 – but Eddie Howe was left lamenting the 50 minutes in between.
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“We know what we’re capable of, but we need to start showing it on a consistent basis,” he said.
“You could see good bits and bad bits in the 90 minutes so our challenge is to try to deliver more consistently throughout the game.”
The Cherries also showed a spirited second-half response in defeat to Wolves last weekend, but they have now won just one of their last eight Premier League games.
With fixtures against Liverpool, Chelsea and Arsenal to come over the next month and with injuries severely testing their squad, producing the complete performance couldn’t come at a tougher time.
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