Marathon man McTominay is key for United post-Pogba, Pepe and Willian sum up Arsenal’s woe and Jorginho is finished at Chelsea… Things we learned from the Premier League’s pre-Christmas round
- Manchester United have emerged from the pack as challengers to Liverpool
- Two-goal midfielder Scott McTominay was integral to their 6-2 win over Leeds
- There was more misery for Mikel Arteta as Arsenal crashed to defeat at Everton
- Summer recruit Willian is turning into a complete flop on enormous wages
- Liverpool’s 7-0 win at Crystal Palace is ominous for the chasing pack in title race
- Tottenham need more from others when Harry Kane and Son Heung-min misfire
- Pep Guardiola has learned to be satisfied with Man City grinding results out
It was the Premier League weekend that saw Liverpool remind us they’re championship class, Manchester United emerge from the pack as chief challengers and Leicester kick Tottenham when they’re down.
We also saw the scale of Sam Allardyce’s task at West Brom made clear by Aston Villa and yet more misery for Mikel Arteta and Arsenal as they lost at Everton.
Here are the things we learned from the weekend’s top-flight action…
Scott McTominay celebrates the second of his goals as Manchester United thrashed Leeds 6-2
Marathon man McTominay finally looks the part
As players tried to keep up fitness levels at home during the Spring lockdown, Manchester United’s squad had a 5k running competition.
Scott McTominay posted an incredible time of 16:01 over 5.03km which apparently would have put him in the top 30 times clocked by British athletes this year had he done it on a proper track.
This ability to cover ground quickly is absolutely essential when facing Marcelo Bielsa’s hard-running, hard-working Leeds United team and so it should surprise nobody that McTominay was United’s man of the match.
Not only did he scored twice inside the opening two minutes and 52 seconds to set his team on their way to a 6-2 victory, but his box-to-box running proved vital in a contest that resembled a basketball match thereafter.
McTominay posted this exceedingly quick 5k time during lockdown back in the Spring
For a time last season, it looked as though Nemanja Matic, Fred and Paul Pogba were all ahead of McTominay in United’s midfield pecking order. The summer arrival of Donny van de Beek was also a concern for the Scot.
But after this performance – which drew wholesome praise from Gary Neville, who described him as a hybrid of Paul Scholes and Roy Keane in the game – McTominay has made a strong case to be first choice.
This is important when United confront a post-Pogba landscape. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer should build his midfield around McTominay, who plays the fetching and carrying role between either Fred/Matic in front of the defence and Bruno Fernandes or Van de Beek more advanced.
McTominay’s relentless running and work rate proved crucial to counter the threat of Leeds
Bielsa-ball needs a Plan B
No doubt some will claim a moral victory for Leeds in that they remained true to their style of football under Bielsa even when trailing 4-0, 5-1 and 6-2 at Old Trafford.
Another way of looking at their performance was that it was simply reckless. Everyone – especially someone so meticulous as Bielsa – knows full well Man United thrive on the counter-attack and Leeds played right into their hands.
‘Our offensive game has consequences which cause us to suffer goals,’ the Leeds manager said. Yes indeed, 30 conceded now in 14 matches since promotion and the most in the division.
The defeat at Old Trafford may persuade Marcelo Bielsa to make adjustments to the game plan
Fine, Leeds could have scored four or five at Old Trafford, but they could also have conceded 10.
They could get away with always being true to themselves in the Championship, but attackers in the Premier League are just licking their lips at all the space available.
There are worse teams in the league than Leeds and their methods will deliver enough wins to avoid relegation but Bielsa will occasionally need to be more pragmatic against top opposition and curb his instincts to avoid more repeats of this embarrassment.
What has happened to Willian?
Christmas cheer will be in short supply at Arsenal. Just four points above the relegation zone having lost eight of their 14 matches and Saturday’s defeat at Everton came as little surprise to anyone.
Mikel Arteta will be backed in the January transfer window with the easier-said-than-done priority being the purchase of a creative midfield player.
But God help them on the evidence of recent recruitment and Saturday’s performance. The only time £72million man Nicolas Pepe seemed to enter the Everton box was to score the penalty and one attempted shot was so wild and wide it went viral on social media.
Willian was a shadow of a player as Arsenal suffered yet another defeat at Everton on Saturday
And Willian, on the other side of the front three, was equally as bad. The Brazilian, 32, is commanding £220,000-a-week but has had one shot on target in 12 league matches.
He was a completely anonymous presence at Goodison Park, failing to track back, creating next to nothing and barely running.
Arsenal’s recruitment is starting to make Manchester United’s look shrewd at the minute.
Versatile Godfrey looks like a steal
A big part of the reason Pepe was so poor on Saturday was the defensive dominance of Ben Godfrey.
Godfrey, a right-sided central defender naturally, has been deployed as a makeshift left-back by Carlo Ancelotti after Lucas Digne suffered ankle ligament damage and has excelled there.
He was too physically strong for Pepe and kept Everton’s back line well-marshalled when Arsenal did start to exert some pressure in the second-half.
Godfrey is only 22 but looks like a superb purchase by Everton, who paid Norwich an initial £20m for him back in October.
Ben Godfrey is excelling for Everton despite being played out of position on the left of defence
Godfrey managed to negate the threat of Arsenal’s £72million forward Nicolas Pepe
He was one of the few bright points of Norwich’s short-lived stay in the Premier League last season and at that point the Canaries wanted £50m for him.
Relegation back to the Championship forced them to lower their price and Everton seem to have done some excellent business for a player comfortable right across their defence.
‘Godfrey is doing a fantastic job because he is not playing in his usual position,’ said Ancelotti.
‘He is showing he is a really intelligent player, tactically a really top player.’
Winter champions Liverpool will kick on now
There was definitely something ominous about the way Liverpool ripped Crystal Palace to shreds. Seven goals, five different scorers and seven different assist-makers. A team cranking things up.
Despite all Jurgen Klopp’s gripes about scheduling and despite what might have been a debilitating injury pile-up, the reigning champions celebrate Christmas four point clear at the top.
We shouldn’t really be surprised by the fact Liverpool are now unbeaten in 10 league games and are ratcheting up their title defence.
Roberto Firmino celebrates with a kung-fu kick as Liverpool thrashed Crystal Palace 7-0
Rather like Sir Alex Ferguson’s relentless title-winning Man United teams, Klopp’s Liverpool find their groove through the winter as others wilt amid a congested schedule.
Last season, they won every league match through November, December and January to settle the title argument. The year before, their 2-1 loss at Man City on January 3, which ultimately proved crucial, followed nine consecutive wins in November and December.
For a manager who came from Germany, where football usually shuts down just before Christmas right through until February, Klopp really has become a master of the hectic English festive schedule.
There have been many predictions in this unpredictable season that no one team will run away with the Premier League. But if someone does now, it’ll be Liverpool.
Jurgen Klopp was full of Christmas cheer with his Liverpool side four points clear at the top
Tottenham will need more from their back-up brigade
As Liverpool pull clear, Tottenham, who a week ago looked the most likely to challenge them, have picked up just one point from nine.
While Harry Kane and Son Heung-min have formed the most devastating partnership in the Premier League this season, there is a danger that Spurs become too reliant on them.
In Sunday’s 2-0 defeat to Leicester, that telepathic link between the pair seemed to have broken down but the back-up options off the bench couldn’t improve things.
Jose Mourinho brought Gareth Bale on at half-time and Lucas Moura early in the second half but neither were able to turn the game around.
Gareth Bale struggled to make much of an impression after coming on for Tottenham
Roy Keane said Bale ‘looks way off it’ and there was only one glimpse of the Welshman’s trademark pace and direct running in the whole of the second-half, ended when he was fouled.
Perhaps it’s little wonder when Bale has been used so sparingly in the Premier League since the start of his loan from Real Madrid.
Bale might have known he wouldn’t play such a central role on his return to Spurs but he’ll need more game time to get back to his best and Mourinho’s side can’t really afford too many more slip-ups.
Harry Kane and Son Heung-min were below their best on Sunday and Tottenham struggled
Guardiola has accepted it’s points over performance
Not too many Pep Guardiola teams would celebrate a gritty 1-0 away win at Southampton but that’s where Manchester City are at the moment.
They relied on the not-so-aesthetically-pleasing parts of the game to get them over the line at St Mary’s such as whacking the ball into the stands to run down the clock and throwing bodies at the ball in defence.
It worked, though, and Saturday’s 1-0 win against in-form opponents keeps City on the fringes of the top four. Even Guardiola will appreciate one of his teams keeping eight clean sheets from their last nine games.
Manchester City defenders Ruben Dias (left) and John Stones celebrate Saturday’s 1-0 win
John Stones and Ruben Dias were the stars of the show here rather than Kevin De Bruyne or Raheem Sterling and if City have to grind it out to stay in the hunt then so be it.
‘The back four were brilliant. That’s the way we can still be there, knocking on the door of the teams above us. Work hard, be solid, stable and one day maybe we’ll fresh to score goals,’ Guardiola said.
City’s manager will spend the rare moments on the training ground in the next few weeks trying to get his attack firing again but, for now, his defenders are providing a safety net in every sense.
This might be a job too far for escape artist Allardyce
Nobody can ever accuse Sam Allardyce of shirking a challenge. He specialises in dragging teams away from Premier League relegation and boasts a proud record of never having dropped into the second tier.
But the task that confronts him at West Brom was certainly laid bare by their sorry 3-0 loss to Aston Villa on Sunday night.
Obviously it didn’t help that his captain, Jake Livermore, was sent off in the first half with Allardyce saying the midfielder will be fined for his actions in hacking down Jack Grealish.
Sam Allardyce may have bitten off more than he can chew with West Brom’s escape bid
No team has avoided the drop in the post-1992 era with fewer than eight points from their opening 14 games. Albion have seven and next up is a trip to Liverpool on Sunday.
What Allardyce will need is some money to spend in January to shore things up. A defence that had conceded the most goals in the division until Leeds let in six on Sunday is an obvious place to start.
But his predecessor Slaven Bilic had to beg for funds last summer and that was pretty much only to keep their Championship promotion side together by extending loans or making them permanent.
So it remains to be seen if Allardyce is backed when he produces a lengthy list of targets on January 1.
Brighton’s failure to finish is a growing concern
When John Lundstram was sent off just before half-time on Sunday, it looked highly likely that Brighton would roll Sheffield United over and pick up a valuable three points.
Instead, they fell behind and only plundered a point thanks to Danny Welbeck’s goal three minutes from time.
Graham Potter’s side had 21 attempts at goal, many with that man advantage, yet only five were on target. That came after they drew a blank at Fulham in midweek.
Danny Welbeck breaks Sheffield United’s resistance as Brighton finally scored on Sunday
Potter will have looked at those two fixtures and targeted six points to reduce the pressure on himself and his team but instead they poor finishing leaves them just two points above the drop.
Given how poor Brighton were at the start of this year, failing to win in nine games between December 28 and the start of lockdown in March, Potter made clear they may look for another striker in the window to avoid a repeat.
Otherwise, they won’t have moved forward at all in the past 12 months.
Mitrovic looks lost in the Premier League again
When Aleksandar Mitrovic scored twice against Leeds United on the second weekend of the season in September, it looked like Fulham’s man mountain up front would finally sparkle in the Premier League.
The Serb has often been accused of scoring plenty of goals in the Championship but then failing to make the step up to a higher level.
Last time Fulham were here, in 2018-19, he scored 11 goals before hitting 26 in their 2019-20 promotion season.
Aleksandar Mitrovic hurdles Newcastle keeper Karl Darlow as he drew a blank on Saturday
The fact Mitrovic hasn’t scored since that game at Elland Road suggests history is repeating and he looked far from his best in Saturday’s 1-1 draw at former club Newcastle.
Ultimately he was subbed off with 14 minutes left for Ruben Loftus-Cheek when Fulham might have been pushing for a winner.
Scott Parker’s side are undoubtedly getting better – and they may have enough to stay up this time – but they won’t unless Mitrovic can find his scoring touch again soon.
Jorginho is becoming surplus to requirements at Chelsea
Jorginho was once so important to Chelsea that former manager Maurizio Sarri brought him in from Napoli and built a team around him.
However, despite starting the season in the starting XI and even captaining the side, he has lost his way in recent times.
Ahead of Monday’s night’s 3-0 victory over West Ham, the Italian midfielder had not made an appearance in any of the Blues’ previous five Premier League games – all featuring on the bench as an unused substitute.
Jorginho (left) was given a rare start against West Ham United on Monday but failed to impress
Jorginho had not started a game in the top flight since the end of October in a 0-0 draw at Manchester United but was given a rare starting XI opportunity ahead of Mateo Kovacic against the Hammers.
If it was an audition for his place at Stamford Bridge he didn’t impress. His passing was notably poor and despite Chelsea being 1-0 up at the time he was hooked off after 65 minutes… tellingly to be replaced by Kovacic.
Frank Lampard has often stuck with a midfield trio that has consisted of Mason Mount, N’Golo Kante and either Kai Havertz or Kovacic in the last couple of months. Based on Jorginho’s poor showing that does not look like changing anytime soon.
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