Premier League: 10 talking points from the weekend’s action

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Josh Maja, Gareth Bale and John McGinn were in the spotlight this weekend. Composite: Getty/Shutterstock/NMC

Crystal Palace have problems in defence and attack, Maja improved by spell abroad and Liverpool are following a trend

  The Guardian- Guardian sport

1) Schedule offers Allardyce and Baggies hope

West Brom don’t play for six days. Then they don’t play for a week after that. In fact, the way the schedule stands, they won’t have another two-game week for three months. That will come as a welcome relief in terms of fatigue, but as Sam Allardyce observed after Sunday’s draw against Manchester United, it will give him proper time on the training pitch. That will be critical not only to organising a side that currently has by far the worst defensive record in the Premier League, but also to integrate the five players he has added to the squad. Mbaye Diagne, loaned from Galatasaray, got the goal against United, while Okay Yokuslu, loaned from Celta Vigo, and Ainsley Maitland-Niles, loaned from Arsenal, were effective in protecting the back four. There is, for the first time in a long time, a glimmer of hope for West Brom, and the schedule could kindle that. Jonathan Wilson

2) Spurs stroll an enjoyable watch for Guardiola

It is good to learn Pep Guardiola can enjoy Manchester City’s current displays. This win against the last side to beat his – 23 games ago, on 21 November – was a 16th on the bounce in which Tottenhamwere allowed no chance to play. “We create more chances and concede few,” said Guardiola. “You can create much more and lose games – it’s the only sport where it happens – not in basketball, golf, tennis, no this is this only one. This year we’ve not made mistakes.” City’s ascendancy has occurred without their record goalscorer, Sergio Agüero, due to injury and Covid, or finest player, Kevin De Bruyne, recovering from a hamstring problem. “I’d like to have a player to score four goals a game. But I will not change any player I have this season,” said Guardiola. The bad news for rivals is that Agüero is available again and De Bruyne will soon join him. Jamie Jackson

3) Jiménez return adds to feel-good factor

Even before Wolves’ comeback win at Southampton, there was some good news for supporters: Raúl Jiménez’s return to training. Wolves are hopeful the striker, who returned to the grass on Thursday following a positive consultation with medical staff, could play before the end of the season. Jiménez is training away from the first-team group but continues to build fitness after fracturing his skull in November. Wolves missed their talisman at St Mary’s but the form of 20-year-old Pedro Neto, coupled with Adama Traoré beginning to get back towards his razor-sharp best, offered a reminder that, when Jiménez does return, they will boast a terrifying front three. Neto nonchalantly pressed pause before accelerating away from Jannik Vestergaard to notch a superb winner. At the other end, the captain Conor Coady commanded Wolves through a vital victory on his 100th Premier League appearance, a much-needed pick-me-up after a poor run was compounded by exiting the FA Cup. Jiménez’s baby steps provide another welcome boost. Ben Fisher

4) Barnes gives Southgate a nice headache

Pretty much everything good that Leicester did in their 3-1 win over Liverpool featured Harvey Barnes. Playing wide left in a 4-2-3-1, he twice teed up Jamie Vardy for clear chances but it was after he was moved higher up the pitch, as the left striker in a 4-4-2 diamond, that he put Liverpool to the sword. Barnes’ most eye-catching strength is his directness, his ability to burst past defenders with tremendous acceleration and it was on show when he won the free-kick from which James Maddison equalised and when he worked Alisson after a surge past three opponents. His thrusting late goal crowned a display that would have delighted the watching England manager, Gareth Southgate, who surely has one of those “nice headaches”. For the wide attacking roles in his 3-4-3, Southgate’s options take in Raheem Sterling, Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho, Jack Grealish, Phil Foden, Mason Mount, Bukayo Saka, Mason Greenwood, Callum Hudson-Odoi and Danny Ings. David Hytner

5) McGinn has been key to Villa’s progress

It’s taken Aston Villa 22 games to record more points than they managed in the whole of last season and a key component in their renaissance has been the central midfield partnership between John McGinn and Douglas Luiz. Even if they were outplayed by Brighton on Saturday, Dean Smith’s side came away with a point thanks to the heroics of Emiliano Martínez to maintain their hopes of playing in Europe next season. But while he was full of praise for the former Arsenal goalkeeper, Smith also acknowledged the influence of Scotland midfielder McGinn in a deeper role than he played last year. “He was making lung-busting runs into the opposition box but this year we’ve changed our system a bit and he has done a really good job in protecting our two centre-halves,” said the Villa manager. “He’s getting better and better after his injury last season.” Ed Aarons

6) Leeds shuffle the gift Gunners needed

Leeds proved ideal opponents for Arsenal to sharpen their Emirates scoring touch. They had previously scored just 12 goals all season at home. Marcelo Bielsa’s decision to make up for Kalvin Phillips’ absence by shunting Luke Ayling, Pascal Struijk and Jamie Shackleton into unfamiliar roles badly backfired but the quality of Arsenal’s attacking was decisive. Pierre Emerick-Aubameyang scored a hat-trick but the youngsters around him demanded recognition. Bukayo Saka was irresistible when surging from the right while Emile Smith Rowe’s use of space and languid, socks-rolled-down style are a throwback to a different era, such is the time he makes for himself on the ball. That homegrown pair overshadowed Martin Ødegaard, playing off lone-striker Aubameyang, and who was neat and tidy but never quite as explosive or incisive in his first Arsenal start. Promising signs but few other will be as accommodating as Leeds, for whom Illan Meslier in goal had a nightmare. John Brewin

7) Hodgson needs to make the case for defence

“I was hoping we would see one or two outstanding individual performances like we have seen from Wilfried Zaha so often over the years,” Roy Hodgson said. “Here is the chance to put the criticism to bed that we need Wilfried in our attack and once again we failed.” Not only did the attackers struggle as they failed to test Nick Pope to any great degree but the knowledge that goals are hard to come by without Zaha is impacting the defence. Considering Crystal Palace boast the oldest starting XI on average in the Premier League this season, a solid base might be expected. A back five where no one is under the age of 30 should not be so calamitous and porous; conceding two avoidable goals in the opening 10 minutes effectively ended the game. Hodgson mightworry about the forwards but he might be equally concerned about the second-worst defence in the Premier League. Will Unwin

 

8) Bale seeks fire to prove Mourinho wrong

Gareth Bale showed a glimpse of the great player he once was, jinking inside, before hitting a fierce shot which forced Ederson into a fine save. The Welshman’s contribution has been pitiful since returning to the Premier League, resulting in myriad questions about his character, including from José Mourinho. The Spurs boss has questioned the loanee’s claims over fitness while barely using him on the pitch. His attitude now under scrutiny, Bale might be forced to up his standards. Some of his best moments at Real Madrid came while his relationship with Zinedine Zidane was most strained, so there might be the fire he needs to remind everyone of his talents. Two goals in the 2018 Champions League final against Liverpool came off the bench, followed by a jibe towards Zidane about playing every week. He needs something similar to give it back to Mourinho. Will Unwin

9) Fulham reap benefits of Maja’s spell in France

Sunderland expressed surprise in 2019 when Josh Maja decided to leave the League One side, a division they remain in, to join Bordeaux. In France, he played 45 league games, scoring nine goals, as he stepped up from third-tier football to test himself against some of the biggest sides in Europe. Jadon Sancho is the poster boy for young English talent moving abroad to expand their horizons and talents on a greater stage at a young age, butmany others are learning their craft all over the continent , seeking to better themselves outside their comfort zone. Maja has returned 18 months later to show what he can do in the Premier League, playing for Fulham alongside Ola Aina and Ademola Lookman both also impressing after spells in Europe. Maja’s instinctive finishing against Everton suggested the attributes to succeed, having honed his craft in Ligue 1. Will Unwin

10) Liverpool are just following the trend of champions

Are Liverpool really “bad champions”, as Roy Keane labelled them last week? It would seem more accurate to say the defence of their first title in 30 years has been disappointing though by no means the worst in recent memory. Chelsea collapsed into rancour after title wins from both José Mourinho and Antonio Conte while Leicester sacked Claudio Ranieri when he followed up a 5000/1 miracle with a relegation battle. The fans’ faith in Jürgen Klopp is unshakeable but there is concern for someone whose frayed temper and moodiness with the media is explained by the recent death of his mother. And yet the “mentality monsters” of last season have been replaced by sentimentality for a time when everything went right. Alisson will always have a mistake in him – his style of goalkeeping is risky by nature – but the team around him was previously good enough for Liverpool to make up for his disasters against Manchester City and Leicester. John Brewin

 

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