Man Utd’s defence lets them down
The biter was bitten. After late, late winners over Brighton, Southampton and Wolves this season, Manchester United suffered a 95th-minute equaliser against Everton, missing the chance to move back level on points with leaders Manchester City at the top of the table.
There have been times this season when United have played badly and won. Here, they were fluid in attack, dominant in possession and, unlike in seven of their Premier League victories this season, never behind in the match. And yet, they finished with only a 3-3 draw.
There were hints in the first half that Harry Maguire and Victor Lindelof’s lack of pace in the centre of defence would be exposed and that happened in the early stages of the second. But it was goalkeeper David de Gea who must take his share of the blame for the failure to win this one – appearing too timid in allowing two of Everton’s three goals.
He palmed Dominic Calvert-Lewin’s cross into the path of Abdoulaye Doucoure for the first goal and then hesitated to throw himself at the striker’s feet for that last-gasp equaliser. Everton had three shots on target on the night and every single one of them beat De Gea.
There have been times when the Spaniard has saved United but that feels a long time ago now. This has been no more than a middling season for him after the struggles of the previous campaign and while Dean Henderson waits for his chance, questions will continue.
But has Ole found his front four?
“I think this is the best that I have seen Manchester United attack, where the way they have combined with their front four players,” said Gary Neville on co-commentary for Sky Sports. “The movement of Greenwood, Rashford, Cavani and Bruno has been absolutely brilliant.”
It was Marcus Rashford who sent in the cross for Edinson Cavani to head Manchester United in front against Everton. Bruno Fernandes whipped in the second soon after. What followed highlighted the defensive weaknesses but at least United have found their best forward line.
Some supporters might regard that as an obvious statement, and yet this was only the third time in any competition that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has picked all four in the starting line-up – and one of the two previous occasions was the 9-0 win over Southampton last time out.
It has taken time for Cavani to establish himself ahead of Anthony Martial in that striker role but there can be no more debate. The Uruguayan now has six Premier League goals for the club with only Mohamed Salah boasting a better strike rate among the other 23 players to have found the net that many times this season – and the Egyptian’s tally includes five penalties.
Cavani’s clever moment puts Martial in the shade and with pace in the channels, there are now options for Fernandes to pick out. “He looks back to his best in this game, Mason Greenwood,” said Neville. “It has been a stop-start season for him but he has looked good.”
Fernandes, of course, is the provider who makes sense of all that happens ahead of him. This was another decisive performance. His goal was a delight, not just for the finish but the dummy that preceded it and the similarly nonchalant celebration that followed. He now has 21 goals and 16 assists from 37 Premier League appearances. What an impact.
United threw two points away at the death with their inability to clear one last cross into their penalty area but the big positive is that there should now be some clarity about their best attacking set-up.
VAR in the spotlight once again
Football is a game of opinions, very rarely is there a consensus on any one topic. But players, managers, pundits, fans have found common ground in recent weeks, united in their frustration with the application, or rather over-application, of VAR.
After midweek incidents involving David Luiz and Jan Bednarek, the technology was back under the spotlight after another dubious decision at Craven Cottage, where Tomas Soucek was the recipient of a late red card for a completely inadvertent clash with Aleksandar Mitrovic.
Soucek was given his marching orders on the grounds of violent conduct after the West Ham midfielder was adjudged to have elbowed the Fulham striker in the face. After a lengthy VAR review showed there was no malice in the incident and the contact was completely accidental, referee Mike Dean produced a red.
The thought-process that went into the decision represented a “genuine worry” for Sky Sports pundit Jamie Redknapp, while David Moyes was more damning, labelling the decision “embarrassing” for the officials involved.
This latest episode in an increasing line of bad judgement calls not only baffled but raised serious questions over the efficacy of the technology and the people tasked with using it.
Arsenal in danger of another year in mid-table
Arsenal are in increasing danger of suffering another season of mid-table mediocrity in the league, after dropping further ground in the race for Europe in a limp defeat at Aston Villa.
Losing to Wolves on Tuesday night could be explained away by their two red cards, but even a VAR-denied penalty for Emi Martinez’s shove on Alexandre Lacazette at a corner could not excuse the manner of their loss at Villa Park, and Mikel Arteta said as much after the game.
“Regardless of those decisions we have to win the game. It is as simple as that,” he stated. Decisions will go for and against Arsenal across the season, even if they do seem less than favourable at the moment. They cannot control it either way.
Their performance, lack of intensity and poor concentration leading to Ollie Watkins’ early winner, as well as a host of other Villa chances, is entirely down to them though.
The Gunners are already five points off seventh, which could end up being the last possible European spot, and if the teams above them win their games in hand that could rise. With Leeds, Leicester and Manchester City to follow in their final three games of February, life is not going to get any easier.
Seven games without defeat changed the feeling around Arsenal, certainly around Arteta, and back-to-back defeats have not brought the pressure back on him yet.
But if Arsenal are left relying on the Europa League to keep their season alive before the month is out – and even that relies on navigating a Benfica side with plenty of continental ambition themselves – it will not be far off.
Villa reach their Targett
If Aston Villa’s aim this season was to improve on the last campaign, they are about to do it easily. Their win over Arsenal means they are at 35 points, the same tally they cobbled together last season, in just over half the time.
They have tightened up massively in defence – helped by the signings of Emi Martinez and Matty Cash, and the continued development of Ezri Konsa next to a solid Tyrone Mings – but Matt Targett’s improvement at left-back is arguably the most surprising and impressive.
The 25-year-old, signed for £11m in the summer of 2019, albeit dangerous in the final third, was last season criticised for being lightweight and lacking bite in the tackle. He looks a different man this term.
Statistically compared to last season, Targett is tackling more and to more success, blocking more and being dribbled past less – 0.77 times per game compared with 1.22 last season.
But aerially is where Targett has improved most – last season his aerial wins were at 1.45 per game average; they are now at 2.26 per game.
In an age where VAR has softened football, almost beyond recognition, Targett is throwing his body about hard and fair. Like most of Villa’s team, he has toughened up, and Dean Smith now has a side to be feared both physically and technically.
Newcastle show they are fighting… for someone
Few could argue that things have not changed at Newcastle since Graeme Jones arrived to provide Steve Bruce with some assistance.
They have scored more goals in their last three games than they did in their previous 11, picked up two wins from three to put daylight between themselves and the drop, and more than anything, provided some much-needed entertainment.
If the win at Everton was a carefully curated piece of art, this was the equivalent of chucking paint at the wall in the dark. When the lights were turned on at 5pm, the result was just about passable – an acquired taste at best – beating Southampton 3-2 but with nine men and three injuries. But Bruce’s side once again pressed, were bold in their attacking play, all with the caveat of space in behind their defence.
For those predicting Newcastle players would down tools as the pressure grew on Bruce, the last eight days have at least proved that forecast to be false. Newcastle players threw bodies all over the shop to secure a win that seemed unlikely with 40 minutes remaining, and despite having a numerical disadvantage, sprinted more than their opponents (135 sprints to 112).
But the big question is: who exactly are these players fighting for? Is it Bruce, the man under the spotlight, who admitted after the game he knew this job was a “health hazard”? Or is it the new man Jones, active on the sidelines, who looks to have implemented a style of football he also adopted at Luton?
Or, more likely, is it both?
We will probably never know, but one surety is that this Newcastle team are, dare I say it, at last good to watch.
Hasenhuttl must prove himself again
Southampton’s 9-0 defeat by Leicester last season has long been credited as the lightbulb moment for Ralph Hasenhuttl. Of course, it was not; Saints lost another three games before things got better, but that is not good for narrative.
But talking of moments, Hasenhuttl certainly will not want the image of him on his knees, weeping with joy having beaten Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool, to be forever known as the moment it started to go wrong. Since that win on January 4, Saints have lost five on the trot and conceded 18 goals. In fact, they have scored just five in their last 10.
Such is the bizarre, swinging nature of this season, Saints have gone from European contenders to decidedly mid-table in the space of a month. Having led the division for a brief period in November, they are now closer to 17th than they are the top seven.
It is their turn for crisis – everyone is having one this season – a crisis in which questions about Hasenhuttl’s coaching ability should be resisted.
Nevertheless, the Austrian’s style of play has inhibited them in recent weeks; Hasenhuttl likes to slow down possession, draw opponents out and then pounce with pace and the precision that the likes of Danny Ings brings. Against the 10 men of Newcastle, in particular, that was impossible.
Hasenhuttl has credit in the bank, but he must prove again he can claw Saints out of a nasty patch.
Sanchez shines again for Brighton
There may have been a few raised eyebrows when Brighton academy product Robert Sanchez replaced the exiled Mat Ryan as the Seagulls’ No 1 in the middle of December. But the 23-year-old goalkeeper has more than proven his credentials – Brighton have only lost two games since his current stint began on December 16.
In fact, they are unbeaten in five Premier League games and before Johann Berg Gudmundsson’s equaliser on Saturday, he had kept four successive clean sheets – including against Tottenham and Liverpool – and had not conceded in 458 minutes of league action.
But it was the manner of his saves that was so impressive against Burnley. He showed off some superb reactions in the first half to keep out Dwight McNeil and James Tarkowski and thwarted Matej Vydra twice after the break as the hosts dominated.
He collected most of the set-pieces that came into the area and was strong in the air – much-needed against a Burnley side who match Brighton for their stature and physicality.
Brighton boss Graham Potter told Sky Sports: “I think he’s getting better and better. That’s what we’re hoping and the more he plays, the more chance of that. I thought it was an impressive performance, he made some good saves and aerially, he dealt with a lot of Burnley’s stuff as well so I’m pleased for him.”
It is looking increasingly likely that Brighton will avoid the drop – now 11 points clear – and they will certainly have Sanchez to thank if they survive.