Man City take control, Nketiah’s Arsenal salvation, Maguire’s Man Utd fallacy


The Score is Daniel Storey’s weekly verdict on all 20 Premier League teams’ performances. Sign up here to receive the newsletter every Monday morning.

Someone has finally blinked in the title race, and Jurgen Klopp wasn’t happy with how Tottenham played. Manchester City won’t care; they took advantage.

Elsewhere, Leeds produced a shambolic 30 minutes when they could least afford them while Manchester United did roughly the same for the entire match against Brighton.

With Everton winning, Leeds are in the bottom three again.

This weekend’s results

Saturday 7 May

Sunday 8 May

Arsenal

Cometh the hour, cometh the free-scoring centre forward. Plenty of Arsenal supporters lost faith with Alexandre Lacazette a long time ago and they bemoaned the club’s decision to let Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang leave on a free contract. That didn’t reflect particularly well on Mikel Arteta either; Aubameyang left ostensibly because that relationship broke down.

Step forward Eddie Nketiah, a young man who has been desperate for more time to impress in the Premier League and who has done remarkably well in the circumstances. It is far harder than you think to come into a team and immediately click with those around you, even when you train together every day.

Nketiah scored twice against Chelsea, effectively pulling Arsenal back into the top-four race. He then shone against Manchester United, although missed a couple of chances that he probably should have finished. He was a little quieter against West Ham last weekend as Arsenal won with two set-piece goals, but scored twice in the opening ten minutes against former club Leeds on Sunday.

Nketiah now has as many league goals as Lacazette in roughly 30 per cent of the minutes. More importantly, he looks capable of pressing with the attacking midfielders in this team to make Arsenal dangerous after they lose the ball. At 22, it’s no hyperbole to suggest that he’s saved his Arsenal career over the last few weeks.

Aston Villa

Did Steven Gerrard get the second half of this season badly wrong? You can fully understand why a) he wanted to sign Philippe Coutinho once it became clear that the Brazilian was up for the move and, b) why he started Coutinho nearly every game after signing him, but it’s certainly true that Villa’s results didn’t really improve with him in the team. They took 1.5 points per game under Gerrard before Coutinho arrived and have taken 1.3 points per game when he’s started.

More pertinently, Coutinho joining has limited Emi Buendia’s starts and also the responsibility on him to create. Buendia has started six league games since Coutinho’s debut, but five of those came alongside him. With the Brazilian demanding the ball and dominating Villa’s play, Buendia was left as a secondary creative option. And in that scenario, there’s a lot less point having him in the side at all.

Plenty of Villa fans saw a flaw in that logic. Having paid £40m for Buendia, a player they chased for some time, was there really much point in reducing his creative role in favour of a loanee when there was no guarantee that Coutinho would stay and Buendia was actually doing pretty well in that role himself?

On Saturday, Gerrard finally started Buendia without Coutinho for the first time. He, and Villa, were brilliant. Asked to be the chief creator, Buendia scored one goal, created another and played an integral part in the third. He was named as the game’s best player.

Nobody is doubting that Coutinho is an excellent footballer. But Villa effectively signed a player for the one position in which they already had their club-record signing and a player capable of doing exactly the same thing successfully. That should instruct them towards their summer transfer strategy.

Brentford

For most of their promotion campaign, Thomas Frank lined Brentford up with a four-man defence that allowed them to use two fast wide players to support Ivan Toney as a centre-forward. They then switched to a five-man defence in April to great success, starting with a 5-0 away win at Preston.

Frank then stuck with that five-man defence in the Premier League, not unreasonably believing that Brentford required a little more defensive security. In that formation, he asked the wing-backs to provide the pace and width rather than wingers. It largely worked: Brentford consolidated themselves in the Premier League. Although Toney did often get a little isolated, Brentford have the second-best defence in the bottom nine and have still managed to score at a rate of more than a goal per game.

But with Brentford safe, Frank has switched again to a four-man defence and, in recent matches, turned that into a 4-3-3 rather than 4-5-1. In the three games Brentford have used that formation, they have beaten West Ham 2-0, Watford 2-1 and Southampton 3-0. On Saturday, it was the pace of those wingers that caused Southampton the most problems. Yoane Wissa and Bryan Mbeumo supported Toney brilliantly. Although the centre-forward didn’t score, he busied central defenders to create time and space for those either side of him.

It will be interesting to see if Frank sticks with the 4-3-3 next season, using the five-man defence only away at higher-class opposition whom he can look to hit on the break; the only opponents against whom he has used a back five since mid-February are Chelsea, Tottenham and Manchester United.

Brighton

Graham Potter’s mantra is one of consistent, gradual improvement. They took five extra points than the previous season in his first campaign, matched that total in his second and will take between six and 10 extra points again in 2021-22. Over that period, he believes that the club’s recruitment model will allow him to develop players, sell the stars and then reinvest the proceeds sensibly to improve the general quality of the squad.

Gradual improvement is great, and Brighton fans love Potter very dearly, but there’s nothing like the odd standout performance on which to truly hang your hat. Until the beginning of April, that’s something Potter was lacking. They did beat Manchester City on the final day of last season, but City had already been confirmed as champions. Other than that, they had gone 14 months without beating a so-called Big Six team home or away.

Since then, Brighton have won at Tottenham, won at Arsenal and on Saturday dismantled Manchester United from start to finish. Brighton had not won at home since Boxing Day, but were tireless and brilliant. Moises Caicedo (who we discussed here last week) was superb; he was a £4.5m signing from Independiente del Valle and offers good reason to sell Yves Bissouma at a premium this summer. Please buy a striker with that money, Brighton.

Burnley

This is the flipside of the new Mike Jackson and Ben Mee mini-era. Burnley’s improvement in recent weeks (and this is absolutely not intending to denigrate that work nor to conclude that their approach wasn’t the right thing to do) has been achieved through becoming a good deal more expansive and open. They figured, not without reason, that Burnley are usually pretty good at defending (although that had dropped off badly). What they needed was to trouble their opponents more.

But that can lead to you being picked apart a little, particularly if neither of your two central midfielders (in this case Jack Cork and Josh Brownhill) are protectors of the defence and neither play well. In only six matches this season have Burnley allowed an expected goals total of 1.8 or higher against a non-Big Six team. Two of those have come in their last five games under the interim managers.

To repeat the point, this is not intended to be stinging criticism. The expansiveness of Burnley won them matches against Southampton and Watford. But with this defeat potentially bringing Burnley back into the relegation picture, it’s something that Jackson and Mee must think about this week.

Chelsea

Their top-four place is not really in danger. Losing to Leeds on Wednesday and Tottenham beating Arsenal on Thursday would leave the clubs in fourth, fifth and sixth separated by only two points, but Chelsea have a far better goal difference and would probably only need to beat either Watford or Leicester at home to secure Champions League football.

But it’s certainly true that the joy of Chelsea’s season has waned over the last two months. The uncertainty over the ownership (and there are still plenty of people who don’t realise just how sticky this could still get if Roman Abramovich continues to put sticks between the spokes) clearly hasn’t helped, but Thomas Tuchel seems to have lost a little control of his team. Chelsea have won four and lost four of their last 10 matches in all competitions. One of those wins saw them eliminated from the Champions League.

“I need to watch it again, but it was a lack of execution of discipline and execution of the match plan throughout a whole half and we get punished for it,” Tuchel said after the game, clearly unhappy with plenty of his senior players. “At half-time, I reminded the team to stick to the plan with more discipline, we did this and we were 2-0 up and again we took too many risks. We invited big chances and then you lose confidence and you allow the opponents to smell something is possible when it’s absolutely unnecessary.”

And for all the brilliance of last season, culminating in that Champions League final win, this has been a season of diminished returns. Do not forget that Chelsea were widely touted as potential champions in August. They are on course for 73 points and fourth place. They parted ways with Maurizio Sarri after he achieved 72 points and third place.

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Crystal Palace

A fortnight ago, after Palace had lost their FA Cup semi-final to Chelsea, this column urged them to try and finish their league season as strongly as possible. No flip-flops here – Palace were, at that point, on course to finish on exactly the same number of points as they did last season under Roy Hodgson.

Patrick Vieira clearly thought exactly the same. In periods of their three matches since then – two wins and a draw – we have seen some of Palace’s most expansive football, not always with full reward. It matters that they have played two struggling sides and a Southampton team in disarray, but still: Palace have had more than five shots on target in two of those games (and five in the other). They have only done that nine times all season.

Just as important is the personnel. On Saturday, Vieira picked Eberechi Eze, Michael Olise and Wilfried Zaha in the same starting XI for the first time in the Premier League. Zaha’s future is uncertain (doesn’t this seem to happen every summer?) and his 13 league goals from a non-central forward will be very hard to replace, but in Eze and Olise you have the future of this club. If Conor Gallagher isn’t going to be at Selhurst Park next season, they must build around pace in wide areas.

Everton

He was the subject of the Everton section last week, but there’s no harm in continuing to pour praise on Jordan Pickford after he was again his side’s best player during a huge win that, coupled with Leeds and Burnley losing, finally takes Everton from relegation probables to relegation possibles.

During Everton’s last four positive results, wins against Manchester United and Chelsea and four points from two games against Leicester, Pickford has been sensational. He has faced 21 shots on target and conceded twice. Everton have allowed their opponents a total xG of 5.4 across those matches. They have been saved partly by poor finishing (Harvey Barnes’ header on Sunday the best example) and Pickford’s excellence. He is England’s No 1 and that is entirely appropriate.

Leeds

It’s all falling apart. You can give Leeds an iota of credit for their second-half performance, when they really did trouble Arsenal despite having one fewer man on the pitch, but the opening 30 minutes probably constituted the worst half hour of football this season by any Premier League team not already relegated.

Count the errors: the lackadaisical start despite the importance of the match so obvious, the defending for the first goal and lack of improvement for the second, the ball not sticking up front, the dismal decision of Luke Ayling to fly into a challenge that was a certain red card, Raphinha’s pathetic arguments that really could have ended with him also being sent off. There are ways of dealing with frustration; Leeds’ reactions to their adversity suggest that they have little capability of coping with the pressure.

Plenty of Leeds supporters will bemoan Jesse Marsch, even though they were surely going down with Marcelo Bielsa. There’s some logic in that: it is Marsch’s job to prepare the team and they looked badly undercooked in the first quarter of the game. But when your senior right-back and your star attacker behave so petulantly, you have to ask questions of the individuals too.

And those questions should be directed higher up than Marsch (and Bielsa) as well as below them. Leeds’ boardroom knew that this season would be harder than last. They knew the squad needed bolstering. If Bielsa was against transfer activity, the club should have been strong enough to force a compromise that would have helped both club and manager. Instead Leeds bought Dan James and tried to play him as a striker and a left-back in Junior Firpo who has badly struggled to acclimatise.

When the injuries then struck, players had to operate out of position because there was simply no other first-team option to step in. On Sunday, Leeds’ Under-23s suffered relegation on the final day, largely because most of the best players are now with the senior team. What a mess.

Leicester

As Leicester concede another two goals from set pieces (one against Roma, one against Everton), is one of the issues that Kasper Schmeichel is too reticent to come and try and claim the ball? That would seem odd given Schmeichel’s personality, someone who seems to enjoy fronting up and being a leader, but it stands up to some scrutiny.

Watch Tammy Abraham’s header for Roma on Thursday. As the ball is delivered, Schmeichel is three or four yards off his line. But then he retreats towards his own goal even though the cross comes very near where he was standing. Abraham makes contact with the ball five yards from Schmeichel’s goal, meaning the forceful contact gives the goalkeeper no chance.

And again on Sunday. Schmeichel would not have been able to come and claim the Everton corner, but when the initial header comes he has retreated towards his own goal and actually has one foot over the goalline. That makes the diving save harder and means that his parry only pushes the ball two yards from his own goal, where Mason Holgate has an easy task.

This is clearly not all on Schmeichel – it would be nice if Leicester defenders actually marked their players and won headers. But I wonder whether that positioning is actually exacerbating Leicester’s set-piece problems.

Liverpool

It’s never easy for managers to speak immediately after the game, particularly one that has had such a disappointing end result. Emotions simmer at the top of the surface, and they often struggle to keep them in check. Jurgen Klopp isn’t the first and won’t be the last.

But his comments on Tottenham’s football were pretty misguided. “I am sorry, I am the wrong person to ask about [Spurs’ defending] because I don’t like this kind of football,” Klopp said. “But that is my personal problem. I think they are world-class and I think they should do more for the game.

“It’s a game against Liverpool, they have 36 per cent possession. But that is my problem. I cannot coach it. So that is why I cannot do it. World-class players who block all the balls. It is really difficult.”

Nobody is asking Klopp to change the way he plays, but there is clear condescension in those words. For a start, Spurs hardly played like Atletico Madrid. They did indeed block a lot of balls – these days they’ll throw you in prison for saying you want to defend well – but they didn’t resort to the Simeone-style dark arts. And for all the gripes about their defending and possession, Tottenham soaked up the pressure and had as many shots on targets as Liverpool. They also had roughly the same expected goals figure and should have won the game with Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg’s late headed half-pass-half-shot.

Liverpool have been rampant at home. Klopp was clearly frustrated, but he must know that teams are likely to identify their best chance of resisting that rampant attack rather than kowtowing to it. If that means asking “world-class” players to deal in half-chances rather than being supported by overloading wing-backs and central midfielders, so be it. The best solution is the one that gives you the highest chance of success and Antonio Conte has nothing to feel ashamed about.

Also, it’s hardly as if Conte has forged a reputation as a grisly, dark arts coach. His Chelsea team scored 85 goals in 2016/17 (more than Klopp’s Liverpool) and his Inter team were the second highest scorers in Serie A (both times behind a frankly outrageously fun Atalanta) in both of his seasons there. And his Tottenham team have scored three or more goals in 13 of his 33 matches in charge.

Man City

After a dreadful midweek, an almost perfect weekend. Most of us assumed that this title race would require Manchester City to win every game between now and the end, but Liverpool’s surprising dropped points against Tottenham (it says a lot about the standard of these two teams that dropping points against anyone constitutes a surprise) rather allowed City to mitigate the agony of Madrid before they had even played.

Who knows if it would have been different, more nervy, against Newcastle if Liverpool had won. Instead they strolled in the sunshine, winning the game early and then capping it off with two goals in the final three minutes to give themselves a four-goal advantage over Liverpool as well as the three points. I’m not sure that will be as crucial as Martin Tyler was very keen to repeat – if City lose a game it would surely allow Liverpool to overhaul that goal advantage, but it’s certainly relevant.

More importantly was learning that there is no headache. Kevin de Bruyne is still brilliant. Raheem Sterling is still a facilitator and a finisher (I still find it incredible that he’s only started 22 league games this season). Bernardo Silva and Riyad Mahrez could be rested throughout and Phil Foden only came on to play a vital role in two goals. They intend to make up for Champions League disappointment with a fourth league title in five years.

Man Utd

It should be an obvious thing to say, but plenty of Manchester United supporters certainly seem to disagree with it: can we finally conclude that Harry Maguire isn’t/wasn’t the problem in United’s shambolic defending?

There’s no doubt that he’s in no form at all at club level, but United’s continued misery without him in the side, coupled with his form at international level, suggest that we have a broken environment not a broken player. United have a 47 per cent win record with Maguire in the team this season and have won 29 per cent of their matches without him.

They also produced one of the most embarrassing defensive performances from this club in a long, long time against Brighton, albeit with some fine competition from this season alone. Alex Telles’ header and Victor Lindelof’s awful attempted block for the first goal, Raphael Varane’s miscontrol for Danny Welbeck’s chance, the vast space afforded to Leandro Trossard for the second goal (and more defenders turning their backs), Pascal Gross somehow finding even more space in the middle of the penalty area (and again Varane sells himself), the ludicrous attempt by Varane to step out and let Welbeck run behind him for the fourth – we could go on.

Ralf Rangnick described it as the worst performance of his tenure – rightly so – but the lack of pride and professionalism from a group of players who want the season to end and clearly have little intent on salvaging anything positive from this season is deeply problematic. Good luck, Erik ten Hag; you’re going to need it.

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Newcastle

Some things don’t change: Newcastle have lost their last 13 league games away at Manchester City, conceding 46 goals in the process. If their owners dream of becoming part of English football’s elite, there is nothing like getting pumped away from home at the second richest club in the land to demonstrate quite how much of a long-term process that will be.

There’s not a huge amount to say. Newcastle’s season is done, although those supporters who travelled may demand an improvement in the soft defending on show. Manchester City’s season isn’t and they possess a better XI than Newcastle in every position.

But if Eddie Howe is using these final matches to determine where his transfer market priorities lie, he probably at least needs a left-back, a central defender, a central midfielder, another striker, a right winger and to work out if Allan Saint-Maximin can flourish with better options around him. Now to give Kieran Trippier and Callum Wilson minutes to get fit and rotate the team to assess the fringe players.

Norwich City

It’s something we’ve said repeatedly this season, but it’s hard to work out why Dean Smith was so keen to get back into management this quickly by taking on a job that looked impossible. Norwich were already relegated before the weekend, but this was still a horrible day. They faced a West Ham team that must have been knackered after playing for 70 minutes on Thursday night with 10 men and yet were completely outplayed and hammered.

Smith was clearly appointed to get Norwich back up more than keep them up (that never looked on), but then that only re-emphasises the oddity of his decision. He must now try and overhaul a squad that has twice demonstrated that it is not good enough for Premier League football. The psychological impact of relegation is surely exacerbated when it happens a second time.

Smith could have waited. Having done an excellent job at Aston Villa, this – or at least a job as attractive as this – would have come up. He might even have got a Premier League job over the summer or early next season. Instead he’s dropping down to the Championship and tasked with matching what Daniel Farke did by taking Norwich up as champions. I’m not sure it will be as easy as people might think, even with the parachute payments.

Southampton

This felt like a significant day for Ralph Hasenhuttl. Not only were Southampton rotten in their loss at Brentford – a theme of their season – but the travelling support chanted that their manager should be sacked during the final minutes of the match.

Hasenhuttl is clearly not blameless and clearly in some trouble. If there’s one thing that supporters understandably hate, it is following their team away from home at great length and expense to watch a team that they believe cares far less about the outcome of the match than they do. Since the beginning of March alone, Southampton have lost 4-0 at Aston Villa, 2-0 at Burnley and 3-0 at Brentford. It’s a manager’s job to address that and Hasenhuttl hasn’t.

But then this is not a particularly good team. Nathan Redmond and Stuart Armstrong are inconsistent wide players, Armando Broja has tailed off badly, Adam Armstrong just hasn’t worked out and Jan Bednarek has actively declined over the last 18 months. Leaving Oriol Romeu on the bench was an odd move, but around him were a collection of fairly uninspiring substitutes.

Southampton are not safe yet (although Leeds’ issues suggest they will be fine), but they really do need a change of mood over the summer if they are to avoid mixing it with the promoted clubs. If that means moving Hasenhuttl out, it’s a mighty tough ask to tempt anyone better to come in without significant investment.

Tottenham

It sums up this very strange Tottenham season, during which they chased a number of managers before eventually having to appoint Nuno Espirito Santo, sacked him after 17 matches, appointed Antonio Conte and then listened to him threatening to leave due to the difficulties of getting players to do what he wanted, that they will end the season having taken eight points from their four unbeaten matches against Liverpool and Manchester City.

Or, to put it another way, Spurs have taken more league points against the top two than they have against Southampton, Burnley, Brighton and Crystal Palace combined. A top-four place remains out of their hands even if they win Thursday night’s north London derby. Had they managed to beat Burnley at home, Southampton at home or away, Everton away, Brighton at home or Wolves at home they would be favourites for Champions League football next season. That must be indescribably frustrating.

But forget all that for now (and hope that Conte does the same). Since losing to Burnley in February, only Liverpool and Manchester City have taken more points per game than them in the Premier League. If Conte had joined last summer, they would surely have finished in the top four. Just another “what might have been”, but also good reason to be optimistic about next season if he stays.

Watford

“It is a privilege to be a Premier League player, coach or manager,” said Roy Hodgson before Watford’s trip to Crystal Palace. “You certainly miss it when you are not one anymore. The players need to realise that. They are going to face some harsh realities in the Championship. We have lots of messages for the players, but they often fall on deaf ears.”

Ben Foster repeated roughly the same message after the game: “We’ve got too many players who are happy to put it in for an hour, 70 minutes, but then probably fall off and happily let it go in the last 20 minutes. You can’t have that. When you’re a team like us, the minimum is giving it everything you’ve got. The ability you can forgo a little bit and accept that you might not have the quality of some players, but you’ve got to put the effort in.”

It’s an interesting assessment, albeit one that might be an attempt to shift some of the blame. The culture of Watford, a high turnover of players and managers, is so well-established that it is clearly a deliberate strategy, but is the risk that it can create an environment in which those players don’t feel as connected to the club and therefore aren’t quite as emotionally invested in staying up?

It’s only a theory (and this sort of thing is very rarely anything other than subconscious even if the theory carries any weight), but of the 80 current longest-serving players in the Premier League, only one was in Watford’s starting XI on Saturday (Craig Cathcart). Will Ismaila Sarr, Emmanuel Dennis, Moussa Sissoko, Edo Kayembe still be at the club next season?

West Ham

A bitterly disappointing trip to Frankfurt and a European dream that ended just when West ham supporters had started to believe in it. But hope springs eternal.

West Ham know that finishing in the top six would mean automatic entry to the Europa League group stage again, while finishing seventh would still mean European football with the Conference League (although they would have to play one qualifying round).

David Moyes had probably already decided to play a strong team against Norwich (he pretty much did that all the way through their Europa League campaign), but that decision will have been made easy by Manchester United’s shambolic defeat against Brighton. Not only did that leave West Ham six points behind United with two games in hand, it also ruined any hopes of United pipping West Ham on goal difference.

The win at Norwich was slightly pyrrhic given the events of Thursday, but it also gives West Ham a very good chance of finishing the top seven, even with a game against Manchester City to come. Lose that and they must beat Brighton on the final day while United lose to Crystal Palace. It’s hardly beyond the edge of reason.

Wolves

Chiquinho has certainly had to wait for his chance at Molineux. Before Saturday, he had played just 47 minutes in the Premier League this season. Having arrived from Estoril for £3m in January, it was pretty clear that – even at 22 – he was considered “for the future”. It is hard enough for senior players to fit into a new team in a new country when joining midseason; it’s harder still for a young player away from his home country for the first time.

But Chiquinho has certainly taken those brief opportunities. Not only did he assist both of Wolves’ goals at Stamford Bridge, he’s also now the club’s joint-highest assist provider in the Premier League this season despite playing only 68 minutes. Expect more of the same next season.



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