Manchester United fans in revolt, West Ham need to make changes and Tottenham too predictable


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.

FA Cup semi-final weekend left a sizable hole in the Premier League calendar with Liverpool, Manchester City, Chelsea and Crystal Palace all in action at Wembley.

Even so, the battle for survival and the race for the top four continued to take shape with the title race briefly on hold.

This weekend’s results

Saturday 16 April

Sunday 17 April

Arsenal

On 4 April in this column, we wrote that Arsenal faced a period which, even allowing for recency bias, felt era-defining. “The next three games are crucial,” we wrote, “not just because they are winnable (Palace away, Brighton home, Southampton away) but because they come immediately before a trip to Chelsea and home game against Manchester United.”

And Arsenal lost all three of those fixtures. They are not out of the race for Champions League qualification yet because their challengers have also stuttered and stumbled, but it is no longer in Arsenal’s hands. That should make Mikel Arteta very gloomy indeed.

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When seeking an explanation, we noted last Monday the injuries that have killed Arsenal’s buzz. Losing Kieran Tierney and Thomas Partey at the same time has undoubtedly caused a loss of control in midfield, removed one of their attacking outlets on the left and removed some protection of the defence.

And yet, to some extent, existing problems are merely being exposed. Their inability to create high quality chances and take those chances they do create has been a problem all season, even if it was overshadowed by the pattern of their results. Only Liverpool and Manchester City have had more shots per game this season, but five have a higher expected goals total and nine have a better shot-to-goal conversion.

Roughly, Arteta has relied upon the high-end production of two individuals – Emile Smith Rowe and Bukayo Saka. There are questions too about his broken relationship with Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang (who has left) and Nicolas Pepe (who might as well have done). Eddie Nketiah leading the line for a team with top-four aspirations just isn’t good enough.

This goes beyond tactical issues, though. After the miserable defeat against Palace, supporters demanded a response against Brighton. After the almost total lethargy against Brighton, those same fans insisted that they must improve against Southampton. You can conclude that Arsenal should have won the game on the balance of play, but this was a team that had lost their last home game 6-0. Arteta has been in charge for long enough that he should be able to command better. Having flunked the supposedly easier fixtures, they must now take at least four points against Chelsea and Manchester United.

Aston Villa

No game this weekend.

Brentford

Brentford have become the late-goal champions of the Premier League. Below is the record of each team in the bottom half for goals scored in the final 10 minutes of their matches (for and against):

  • Brentford – 12-3
  • Southampton – 5-6
  • Crystal Palace – 9-8
  • Aston Villa – 10-8
  • Newcastle – 2-11
  • Leeds United – 9-9
  • Everton – 3-7
  • Burnley – 1-8
  • Watford – 6-15
  • Norwich City – 4-12

It goes beyond that. Brentford have scored goals in second-half stoppage time that have earned them 15 per cent of all their league points this season.

Given that the gap in goal difference in the last 10 minutes between them and Watford is a massive 18 goals, we should not have been surprised by Pontus Jansson’s late winner.

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Brighton

If Harry Kane is now Tottenham’s totem, linking play and creating chances as much as he is taking shots, the best way to thwart him and them is by tasking a defensive midfielder to follow him wherever he roams. It is far easier said than done; Kane’s movement is brilliantly intelligent. Arrive a little late or let him slip away and your defence becomes exposed.

On Saturday, Yves Bissouma demonstrated a perfect example of the art. He did follow Kane, staying close enough to stop him progressing the ball up the pitch and not getting so close that Kane could turn him. But he also identified when to pass Kane onto a team-mate in favour of him staying deep to protect the central defenders with Son Heung-Min and Dejan Kulusevksi trying to drag players out of position.

This was the first time in 14 months that Brighton have stopped their opponents having a shot on target in an away league game. That was against Liverpool at Anfield, and the match followed a similar pattern. Brighton sat deep to avoid runners in behind, but crucially did not sacrifice attacking ambition and thus allow themselves to get swamped. The dreadful run of early spring is now firmly behind them.

Burnley

For someone who was the longest-serving Premier League manager and whose team may not be universally missed if they are relegated this season, Sean Dyche’s sacking caused a large ripple of divergent responses. Some pointed out that everything had gone a little stale this season, that Burnley’s record over the last 18 months is pretty terrible and that Dyche didn’t seem to have much of an idea on how to arrest the slump.

Others stressed that Dyche keeping Burnley up on one of the lowest wage bills and transfer budgets in the division was arguably the most extraordinary feat in the Premier League over the last 10 years after Leicester winning the title. If things have indeed gone a little stale, that’s probably because the new owners haven’t made money available for transfers until after Burnley had sold their best striker (and even then he was only given half of what they received). It is impossible to separate Dyche’s performance from that relative austerity.

Sunday offered evidence for both arguments. Burnley did fight hard and took an excellent point; they would surely have won if Maxwel Cornet had scored his penalty. But then they would have got a point against Norwich under Dyche if Cornet had not missed an open goal. It is possible that a freshness can help Burnley to fight for survival. If they do save themselves, it was the right move.

But the fact that Burnley’s managerial team for Sunday included Ben Mee and Mike Jackson indicates that the owners didn’t have anyone lined up to replace Dyche. That makes this a huge risk that may well define their tenure as owners (and all the doubts about their funding of the club’s future). A whole town holds its breath and prays that they know what they’re doing.

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Chelsea

No game this weekend.

Crystal Palace

No game this weekend.

Everton

No game this weekend.

Leeds United

No game this weekend.

Leicester City

There should be no huge panic after a defeat that came following a raft of changes. Later in this column we urge David Moyes to make more changes. It would therefore be a bit rich to criticise Brendan Rodgers for the same thing, particularly given that the perceived charge for the top seven was only ever a pipe dream.

One thing that might be in the back of Rodgers’ mind is the form of Kasper Schmeichel. He was a huge part of Leicester’s defensive resilience over the last two seasons, but his form has tailed off badly in 2021-22 and he was at fault for the first goal on Sunday. Like Hugo Lloris a couple of years ago, it feels like commentators are saying “a rare mistake by Schmeichel” more often than they used to.

Also, there can surely never have been a goalkeeper in the game’s history who protested against the award of goals with more regularity or ferocity than Schmeichel. It has become performance art.

Liverpool

No game this weekend.

Manchester City

No game this weekend.

Manchester United

An afternoon on which each of Manchester United’s cliches were reinforced. They were saved by Cristiano Ronaldo but how much does his totemic presence hold them back in other areas?

They have a manager who was appointed to organise them but it’s hard to work out what the plan is. There were protests before the game by supporters wearing the new replica shirt. They were seemingly comfortable before being pegged back and then distinctly uncomfortable before taking the lead. They are a baffling club, and the only conclusion that matters is that they are wealthy enough to be baffling.

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The most relevant episode of a 3-2 win over the bottom club in the league is not that Manchester United are now firing again (they did gain ground in the top-four race but play Liverpool at Anfield on Tuesday), but that the relationship between Paul Pogba and the club’s supporters appears totally broken – you can read Pete Hall’s piece from Old Trafford on that issue here.

Newcastle United

It’s clear that Eddie Howe was assisted by the amount of money he was able to invest in January, rarely evident more than on Sunday when Dan Burn defended brilliantly and Bruno Guimaraes scored both goals. Those two cost Newcastle £50m between them.

Nor too can we separate that spending from the wider context of Newcastle’s ownership. Howe has repeatedly ducked questions to “concentrate on football”, but then that is the reality of sportswashing. I advise you to read this superb piece by a Newcastle fan on that point.

But even despite those caveats, we are allowed to commend Howe for doing an excellent job after a dreadful start to life on Tyneside. There are fewer quicker shortcuts to making yourself a hero in Newcastle than by turning St James’ Park into a fortress. For too long, the stadium felt like a prison, sucking the joy from those who played and supported inside it.

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Howe’s team have now won five home league games on the spin. They are not perfect, and the football has often been slightly rudimentary, but they have grit and they have guts and they have proven themselves very capable of staying in games long enough to expose their opponents’ weakness. All of which were hardly characteristics we associated with Howe before he took this job.

Norwich City

Given the hype surrounding him at Chelsea and how excited everyone seemed to be to see him play a full season in the Premier League, it’s interesting to learn just how unpopular Billy Gilmour is with a significant section of Norwich City’s support. Gilmour has only started one of Norwich’s five league wins this season. In more than 1,500 league minutes he has one assist and no goals.

It’s mostly a question of frustration and a failure to meet expectations. Supporters were desperate to finally consolidate in the Premier League after another promotion and saw Gilmour as a potentially crucial part of that plan. It isn’t that he’s been awful consistently, more awfully inconsistent. For a 20-year-old without much senior football before this season, that’s probably fair enough. But it doesn’t help Norwich much.

There’s also the PR of only being on loan. Unfairly or otherwise, it creates an air that relegation doesn’t matter as much as it does to the players under longer contracts. So when Gilmour comes to Old Trafford with the score at 2-2, doesn’t play very well and Norwich then lose, people get cross.

Southampton

There’s little doubt that Southampton rode their luck against Arsenal. Fraser Forster produced his best performance in as long as anyone can remember and was comfortably the game’s best player. Ralph Hasenhuttl will be relieved by the determination and grit displayed – goodness knows it was missing against Chelsea – but sometimes you just need a little good fortune and a goalkeeper in form.

Still, this felt like a symbolic win because of the changes Hasenhuttl made. Not only did he switch to three at the back, aiming to provide a little more protection of their own goal and some extra bodies in central midfield with the wing-backs providing the width, he also made four changes. They included dropping Mohammed Salisu and Tino Livramento for Lyanco and Romain Perraud.

Perraud and Lyanco are hardly Premier League staples and neither of them are older than 25, but Salisu and Livramento have suffered dips in form recently and it reminds you that they are only 23 and 19 respectively.

Our assessment of the reasons for the occasional heavy defeats last Monday failed to mention that Southampton do have the third youngest average starting XI in the Premier League this season. Sometimes a manager needs to take young players out of the limelight for their own good. Both Salisu and Livramento will come back stronger.

Tottenham

There’s not too much to be gained from tearing up all of our praise about Tottenham from recent weeks. If we have learnt anything about this season’s top-four race it is that one team will reach the Champions League without ever being consistent or, at times, even competent. The key, as Antonio Conte intimated after the match, is not to avoid defeat but react well when you inevitably suffer them.

But there are a few things to learn from the 1-0 home defeat against Brighton:

1) Tottenham really must learn to start quicker in matches. It seems a foolish thing to say about a team who have scored 10 times in the opening 15 minutes of matches, but on those occasions when they fail to spark quickly, they have to try and keep the tempo up rather than getting coerced into a sluggish mush of a match. Against Newcastle and Aston Villa, it was easily overlooked because Spurs – or, to be more exact, their front three – blew their opponents away after the break.

2) Matt Doherty is suddenly very important for Tottenham. For this shape to work, the wing-backs have to get high up the pitch and they have to be brave in demanding the ball and taking on their opponent. Against Brighton, Emerson Royal and Sergio Reguilon just didn’t do it enough. The knock-on effect is that the ball stays in central midfield rather than the game being stretched. Cue lots of short, sideways passes from Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg and a general attacking lethargy. Tottenham need to surprise opponents; predictability is their Kryptonite.

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3) That majestic front three finds things a lot more difficult when opposition defences stay very deep. Expect Tottenham’s opponents to do the same for the rest of the season.

4) The one disadvantage of your front three being brilliant is that, when they aren’t performing at their peak and you need to call upon your reserves, the drop-off in quality is massive. Lucas Moura and Steven Bergwijn barely look capable of being in Conte’s plans next season.

Watford

Watford’s season has been ruined by two managerial appointments. In Claudio Ranieri and Roy Hodgson, they opted for age, experience and know-how and now realise that none of them count for anything if they cannot manage to organise a defence.

Supporters will direct plenty of their criticism higher up the food chain – why on earth did they not invest in better defenders last summer? – but we are still allowed to have expected better. The questions of the club’s hierarchy and decision-making are growing in intensity amongst the fanbase. Appointing Ranieri and Hodgson are two of the decisions under serious scrutiny.

It is fitting that Watford’s relegation was virtually secured with a home defeat confirmed in the last minute. They have conceded 15 times in the last 10 minutes of league games this season, more than any other club in the league. They have taken seven home points, five fewer than any other team. They have now equalled the Premier League record for consecutive home defeats (10) and broken it if you only include matches from within the same season.

For all the gripes about a lack of investment in key positions, Watford should be better than this. Even compared to the tepidity around them, they have fallen short. Thirteen points from their opening 12 league games was mediocre; they have taken nine points from 20 matches since. And it’s fairly safe to predict that their best attacking players will push for moves away in the summer.

West Ham

The end of West Ham’s league season is becoming an Icarus-style parable about the dangers of becoming infatuated by finishing in the top four. For weeks we have wondered when David Moyes might make wholesale changes to his team given the obvious risk of burnout with a small squad that has already played 10 European matches and has at least two more to come.

Instead, as we have said before, Moyes seemingly prefers to pick very similar teams, barely rests any players and then acts surprised when they look leggy and suffer poor results in the league. He is presumably persuaded to do so by the regularity of those teams above West Ham (Manchester United, Arsenal, Tottenham) doing something stupid to prolong their distant hope of finishing in the top four.

This weekend, Moyes did at least make three changes for the visit of Burnley. But two of them were cosmetic: the manager changes the goalkeeper for cup games and Aaron Cresswell was suspended on Thursday and so always likely to return. Nikola Vlasic filling in for Said Benrahma was the only real selection decision.

But here’s the thing: it makes no sense. West Ham are favourites to reach the Europa League final which gives them a possible route into the Champions League anyway. They are far more likely to win that competition than finish in the top four. If Declan Rice, Michail Antonio, Jarrod Bowen or Tomas Soucek got injured in a league game that barely matters, it could ruin West Ham’s season. And they aren’t even getting good results in their league games (12 points from last nine games) with their strong starting XIs because everyone looks so tired.

Wolves

No game this weekend.



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