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Premier League weekend review: What we learned

19 Feb 2024
Haaland

Alex Keble on the key talking points including how Man City showed fallibility against Chelsea

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After a thrilling weekend of Premier League goals and drama, Alex Keble looks at the key talking points and tactical lessons.

Man City show fallibility and lose ground on rivals

Erling Haaland’s personal Expected Goals (xG) tally of 1.71 showed that, for all Chelsea’s tactical successes on Saturday evening, Manchester City had the chances to win.

That they did not – that Haaland and Man City showed they’re fallible – was an important moment in the title race, significant for ending their 11-match winning streak in all competitions.

In previous years Pep Guardiola’s side have had a long string of wins (12 between February and May in 2022/23; 12 between January and November the season before). Ominous by their nature, those runs created a fatalistic mentality for Guardiola’s title rivals.

But beyond simply the breaking of a chain, Saturday's draw at the Etihad Stadium opens up a four-point gap to league leaders Liverpool prior to their trip to Anfield on 10 March and slows progress during what is supposed to be Man City’s easiest spell of the season.

They face Brentford and AFC Bournemouth next, but after that begins a considerably more difficult spring challenge: Manchester United, Liverpool, Brighton & Hove Albion, Arsenal and Aston Villa in consecutive Premier League matches.

It has been standard practice to say Liverpool and Arsenal are the ones who must build a buffer between themselves and Man City, such is the expectation that Guardiola’s side will get better as the season goes on.

But what if the reverse is true? Starting with that encounter against Man Utd, City’s run-in is more difficult than Liverpool’s or Arsenal’s.

Haaland has to make sure the squandered chances on Saturday were a one-off.

The title race

Position Pos Club Played Pl GD Points Pts
1 Arsenal ARS 34 +56 77
2 Liverpool LIV 33 +43 74
3 Man City MCI 32 +44 73
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Burnley’s press makes it easy for rampant Arsenal

Arsenal are on fire. They’ve scored five or more goals in back-to-back away league matches for the first time in their history; have won their opening five league fixtures of a calendar year for the first time ever; and have a +19 goal difference in 2024.

Arsenal's last five results

Everything is clicking into place for Mikel Arteta since their winter break in Dubai, most notably the fine details of Kai Havertz’s and Leandro Trossard’s positioning in the front line.

Havertz is seeing more of the ball. He received nine progressive passes at Burnley, up from a season average of 4.2 per match. He also looks considerably more assertive in the left-sided "No 8" role in 2024, while "false nine" Trossard – who has four goals in five matches since the break - is connecting intelligently with Havertz and Martin Odegaard.

But to be blunt, we shouldn’t heap too much praise on Arsenal for winning 5-0 at Turf Moor.

In the repeat of a problem we have seen all too often this season, Burnley’s sharp counter-pressing pulled too many players out of position, allowing Arsenal to race into a fourth-minute lead they were never likely to give up.

Note the strange shape of the midfield and the space afforded down Arsenal’s entire left side in the aftermath of a failed Burnley counter-press.

Arsenal 1st goal v Burnley

Even the top teams don’t press Arsenal with quite such wild abandon. Burnley need to show more humility if they are to survive the drop.

Brentford feel Pinnock loss as defence disappears

An uncharacteristic sequence of defensive errors undermined Brentford in the early kick-off on Saturday against Liverpool.

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Liverpool’s fourth goal was a calamitous mishap of the kind that are vanishingly rare under Thomas Frank, but on this occasion indicative of a defence that had short-circuited in the absence of Ethan Pinnock.

Nathan Collins’s wild air-shot allowed Cody Gakpo in to score, and although it was the most glaring error it was the least significant.

For the first goal Brentford failed to leave enough players back from an attacking set-piece; for the second Alexis Mac Allister found far too much space centrally; and for the third the centre-backs were caught too far apart as Mohamed Salah ran through.

Pinnock’s absence was a major factor. Usually playing in the centre of a back three, his anticipation and commanding presence would have narrowed the spaces for the crucial second and third Liverpool goals, covering the gaps and tracking the runners.

Liverpool 2nd goal v Brentford

Brentford are now just six points above the bottom three after averaging only one point per game across their last six matches.

The relegation battle

Position Pos Club Played Pl GD Points Pts
14 Crystal Palace CRY 33 -14 36
15 Brentford BRE 34 -7 35
16 Everton EVE 33 -14 30
17 Nott'm Forest NFO 34 -18 26
18 Luton LUT 34 -28 25

Worse still, they are without their defensive leader for the next six weeks, covering a five-match sequence that includes three matches against the traditional "Big Six".

Pinnock cannot come back quickly enough.

Torres return restores balance for Villa

Throughout Villa’s patchy run of form their supporters have repeatedly pointed out to anyone who would listen that once Pau Torres returned, order would be restored – and so it has proved.

Unai Emery’s side were deserved winners against Fulham, moving smartly through the thirds thanks to Torres’s excellent progressive passing.

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His ability to relieve pressure with an intelligent pass out of defence – whether breaking lines against a deeper block or evading a press and releasing a Villa full-back up the field – is the foundation of Emery’s tactical strategy.

Torres, who had 84 touches and completed 58 passes - more than any other player - topped the Villa charts at Fulham for "progressive passing distance" at 480 yards, highlighting the forward momentum he gives Villa.

Pau Torres pass map v Fulham

His influence was clear for the winning goal, a brilliant flowing move of the sort Villa haven’t been able to put together over the last six weeks.

Torres carried the ball past the first Fulham line and released Douglas Luiz, triggering a series of vertical passes until Ollie Watkins was through on goal.

The winner was also noteworthy for the part John McGinn played in the Boubacar Kamara role and the superb through-ball by Youri Tielemans: two actions that suggest Villa can survive Kamara’s serious knee injury.

Watkins' second goal v Fulham
West Ham in danger of falling out of the top half

West Ham United have now lost three consecutive Premier League matches without scoring a single goal and have failed to win any of their last six in the competition.

It leaves David Moyes’s side just one point above 11th in the table, and following such impressive performances from Wolverhampton Wanderers, Brighton and Chelsea this weekend there is a very real danger West Ham will soon drop out of the top 10.

You wouldn’t be surprised if it happens based on this form. Moyes will have expected a reaction following the 6-0 defeat to Arsenal last weekend but instead West Ham gifted Nottingham Forest their first clean sheet in 14 Premier League matches.

The Hammers are without a win in any competition since beating Arsenal on 28 December, a record that will surely change over the next three rounds, when West Ham face Brentford, Everton and Burnley.

If it doesn’t, West Ham will be staring at successive bottom-half finishes for the first time since 2017/18.

Gomes and Lemina partnership flourishes

Scoring his first and second goals of the season, it isn’t exactly controversial to highlight the significance of Joao Gomes to Wolves’ win at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium. But his contribution went much further than that.

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Gomes and Mario Lemina were outstanding in a two-man midfield, covering huge amounts of space in the middle column of the pitch despite Spurs’ tendency to overload this area with midfielders and inverted full-backs.

Rarely did Gomes and Lemina make it look like a five-on-two in Spurs’ favour, such was their aggression when the home side had the ball.

Lemina made five interceptions and Gomes attempted six tackles, which on both counts was more than any other player on the pitch.

Their work in possession was just as significant, with Gomes in particular playing clever one-touch passes through Spurs’ furious high press, releasing his team on the counter-attack and relieving pressure.

The most important example of which was the pass that set Pedro Neto away for Wolves' winner. Some 80 yards later, Neto completed the one-two for Gomes to score his second of the match.

Joao Gomes' second goal v Spurs
Dubravka errors dent Newcastle’s European hopes

Newcastle United’s form has been steadily improving and a respectable 2-2 draw with Bournemouth made it eight points won from the last four matches, but with Spurs 10 points clear of them in fifth it still won’t feel good enough to Eddie Howe.

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The problem would appear to be with goalkeeper Martin Dubravka, who is conceding a goal every 36.9 Premier League minutes this season compared to Nick Pope’s 131.

It’s an issue we already highlighted in our preview of the weekend, but things took a turn for the worse on Saturday when Dubravka was directly at fault for both Bournemouth goals.

The first is an obvious mistake that doesn’t need analysis: an unfortunate slip to gift Dominic Solanke his 14th goal of the season.

The second was subtler, but what at first appears to be a brilliant strike from Antoine Semenyo is, on closer inspection, a positional error. The ball is at a comfortable height and does not go into the corner, yet Debravka is too deep and too far to one side to stop it.

Dubravka positioning v Bournemouth
Gross takes control in demolition of Sheff Utd

Having felt the wrath of Roberto De Zerbi’s Brighton just three weeks ago in a 5-2 FA Cup defeat at Bramall Lane, the last thing Sheffield United needed was an early red card.

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From the moment Mason Holgate was sent off the hosts were in big trouble. The initial plan was to use the front two in a 3-5-2 to block the passes into Pascal Gross, but it simply isn’t possible for one forward, in a 3-5-1, to screen alone.

Even so, the extent to which Gross dominated the game was pretty extraordinary.

He created eight chances, completed 110 passes and had a 97.3 per cent passing accuracy, becoming the first Premier League player since records began in 2003/04 to create that many chances while completing 100+ passes at a 90+ per cent accuracy.

Gross pass map v Sheff Utd

His assist for the fourth also set a club record as Gross became the first Brighton player to hit nine assists in a single Premier League campaign.

Hojlund’s record-breaking form keeps Man Utd in the hunt

"I think we are back in the race,” Erik ten Hag said after Man Utd won their fourth consecutive Premier League match to move five points off fourth place. “We are building momentum. Every game is a final to get closer to the other teams.”

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“Momentum” is certainly the right word to describe the form of Rasmus Hojlund, whom Gary Neville and Peter Schmeichel compared to Haaland after the 21-year-old became the youngest player in Premier League history to score in six straight matches.

His two early goals, the first a clinical finish capitalising on a defensive error and the second a brilliant instinctive chest, were just enough for a Man Utd side that stuttered and wobbled at times.

Luton Town could have drawn level during a concerted spell of pressure in the first half when United’s erratic side reappeared. A clumsy challenge from Casemiro, which could have seen him sent off for a second yellow card, exemplified United’s problems.

That is why Ten Hag’s assessment can be called into question. There is momentum among that forward line and United continue to climb, but Man Utd won’t truly be “back in the race” unless they can show greater control across a full 90 minutes.

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