Premier League weekend review: What we learned

By Alex Keble 22 May 2023
Nott'm Forest

Alex Keble analyses Forest's great escape, Roberto Firmino's legacy and Phil Foden's No 10 role

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Following a thrilling weekend, delivering drama from top to bottom in the Premier League, Alex Keble looks at the key talking points and tactical lessons.

Forest secure safety against the odds

Steve Cooper has performed a miracle. Nottingham Forest won promotion to the Premier League last season despite being bottom of the EFL Championship when Cooper arrived in September 2021, and after changing almost their entire squad last summer they were given no chance of staying up.

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Somehow he has done it, winning an incredible 30 points at the City Ground to ensure Forest get a second year in the top flight. But if the journey itself was unpredictable, by now the manner in which they would get over the line had become obvious enough. Forest’s 1-0 victory over Arsenal went almost exactly as we had predicted: an Arsenal team weakened by injury were stumped by Cooper’s low block and then hit through the middle of the pitch by Forest’s counter-attacking front three.

They were assisted by a series of enforced Arsenal changes that further undermined the visitors’ usual slick football. With almost everything coming down Forest’s left-hand side, the job was simpler than usual.

Arsenal attacks v Forest
Arsenal's attacks were mostly focused down their right flank, but the Gunners could not get past Forest

From a hunched and determined defensive shell, and with just 18 per cent possession - the lowest tally on record for a winning team in the Premier League - Cooper’s side just had to wait for their one chance, which came from a misplaced pass from Martin Odegaard.

That moment - that rare act of carelessness from the captain - captured Arsenal’s sudden decline since Manchester City took control of the title race. The Gunners have lost three of their last five league matches, as many as in their first 32, and have now failed to score in successive matches for the first time in 2022/23.

But Arsenal are not the story here. Cooper and Forest have rallied from nowhere to win 10 points from their last five matches. They will, against all odds, be a Premier League team again next season.

Fickle Spurs show their best and worst

After the most chaotic of Premier League campaigns, Tottenham Hotspur supporters endured a fitting tribute to the year they have witnessed. The 3-1 defeat to Brentford really did encapsulate the story of their season: in short, Harry Kane’s brilliance failing to cover for the team sinking into passive resistance.

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For the first 45 minutes, the Spurs players in Ryan Mason’s 4-2-4 formation aggressively pressed Brentford and forced them back through sheer weight of attacking numbers. Yves Bissouma produced his best performance in a Spurs shirt and managed to control central midfield as part of a two with Oliver Skipp, while the forward line put concerted pressure on David Raya’s goal.

But it could not last and after the break, with the more elegant Mikkel Damsgaard brought on to grab some control in the middle, Brentford took advantage of Spurs slipping into old habits. In the first half Spurs led on tackles attempted (13 to six) and fouls committed (seven to three), but in the second half Brentford made twice as many tackles (10 to five) and committed more fouls (six to four).

Note the difference between the images below. The first shows a typical first-half scene for Spurs that led to Skipp winning a tackle and launching a counter. The second image shows the build-up to Brentford’s second goal. The hosts went from pressing the Brentford midfielders to sitting off, giving the visitors space to pick their passes.

Spurs 1
The arrows show how quick Spurs were to close down a Brentford player or get to the ball first
Spurs 2
By contrast, in the second half Spurs couldn't get anywhere near the Brentford players

Suddenly, Spurs' 4-2-4 shape looked light on numbers in central midfield and they collapsed once again, a perhaps inevitable occurrence considering Mason is attempting to reverse years of coaching under cautious reactive tacticians like Jose Mourinho and Antonio Conte.

He has been unable to arrest the decline; unable to inspire attacking football that can be sustained for a full 90 minutes.

The headline statistic says it all: Spurs' 2022/23 campaign is only the second time in a 38-match Premier League season that a team have both scored and conceded 60+ goals (66 scored, 62 conceded).

Firmino has changed how we see strikers

Roberto Firmino’s tearful Anfield farewell on Saturday was marked by a goal, giving Liverpool supporters – and manager Jurgen Klopp - the opportunity to serenade a club legend before he departs this summer.

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“You can imagine Bobby, my God, how much I love the guy,” Klopp said after the match. It’s easy to see why.

Firmino wasn’t just a crucial part of Klopp’s first Liverpool team, the central point of a three-pronged attack with Sadio Mane and Mohamed Salah that won the UEFA Champions League in 2019 and Premier League in 2020.

No, Firmino helped redefine what a striker could be. English football had little time for non-goalscoring centre-forwards before the Brazilian, and certainly prior to his emergence under Klopp, the Premier League had no real concept of what a "false nine" was.

In fact, it was years before Firmino gained mainstream acceptance outside Liverpool; before neutrals began to appreciate just how much he gave to the Liverpool team with his subtle and intelligent link-play outside the penalty area.

These days, tactical awareness has moved on to such an extent that even the record-breaking Erling Haaland is critiqued for what he contributes outside the box. But it didn’t used to be that way.

Firmino changed how we see strikers and, appropriately, half of his eight touches in Saturday's cameo against Aston Villa were taken in his own half.

Firmino touches
Roberto Firmino's eight touches after coming on as 72nd-minute substitute against Villa

Nevertheless he scored the equaliser and, in the process, set a personal record for his most Premier League goals at Anfield in a season, with nine.

In fact, Firmino is 16th on Liverpool’s all-time goalscorer list, set to leave with 110 goals and 72 assists in 362 matches. Not bad for a supposedly "false nine".

Foden excels in No 10 role

Throughout a sleepy end-of-season match at Etihad Stadium, heavily impacted by Pep Guardiola’s nine changes to the starting XI, supporters were mostly just waiting for the Trophy lift.

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But the ease with which Manchester City overcame Chelsea - the 1-0 scoreline barely reflecting their control of the match - was an apt way to celebrate what has, in retrospect, been another season of total domination for the champions.

There are 15 instances of teams winning 12 consecutive matches in English top-flight history and Guardiola’s Man City are responsible for five of them. They have scored 100 goals at home this season in all competitions, equalling a record that they set themselves. They are now on course to win the league by 10 clear points.

We are in the era of Man City. That is not new information, but for City and England fans there was one interesting nugget from Sunday’s match: Phil Foden was superb as a gliding all-action No 10.

Foden floated neatly between the lines to connect with Julian Alvarez, completing a season-high nine progressive passes to open Chelsea up and set the tempo in the first half.

Foden passes
Phil Foden's passes as a No 10 against Chelsea

Foden’s game time in central areas has been limited by Kevin De Bruyne and, with Jack Gealish enjoying a brilliant season on the left, Foden has been given fewer league starts (20) than in either of the last two campaigns.

Yet still he has a personal best of 16 Premier League goal contributions this season. After Sunday’s showing, perhaps Foden can expect a few more starts in central midfield next campaign.

Everton in control of three-way relegation fight

Everton have gained control in the battle against the drop, thanks to the latest goal the club have ever scored in the Premier League, an equaliser in the ninth minute of stoppage time from Yerry Mina at Wolverhampton Wanderers.

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After Leeds United fell to a 3-1 defeat at West Ham United, Everton are now two points clear of the relegation zone.

Sean Dyche’s side also have the most straightforward final match and can secure safety with victory at home to AFC Bournemouth on the final day.

The relegation battle

Position Pos Club Played Pl GD Points Pts
17 Everton EVE 38 -23 36
18 Leicester City LEI 38 -17 34
19 Leeds United LEE 38 -30 31
20 Southampton SOU 38 -37 25
See the full table

Everton might not have enjoyed a major lift under Dyche, but another late equaliser – their third in the 89th minute or later since the beginning of April – has at least shown a fighting spirit.

That is perhaps more than can be said about Leeds United, who were limp at West Ham and deserving losers in the first truly winnable fixture of Sam Allardyce’s short interim spell.

Leeds' style of football has changed under new management yet the end result is the same, and they have now gone eight Premier League matches without a win. They haven’t kept a clean sheet since February.

It leaves them needing to beat Spurs on the final day while hoping Everton lose to AFC Bournemouth along with Leicester failing to defeat West Ham, which Allardyce has acknowledged means there is only a “slim chance – but we have to hang on to that.”

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“Our quality at both ends is what we lack, to defend better and create more opportunities,” Allardyce said. “Those two critical areas are particularly disappointing for us and when you are looking for your substitutes to make a difference, none of them did.”

He ended his post-match press conference crossing his fingers, saying he “hoped” Leeds would be a Premier League club next season. The supporters aren’t feeling any more optimistic than the manager – not after such a drab and lifeless display in London.

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