Following victory over Sheffield United, West Ham have accumulated 42 points from 24 games - more than the entire of last season; meanwhile, Chelsea are into the top four and looking rock solid under Thomas Tuchel...
Monday 15 February 2021 23:24, UK
West Ham finished only 16th last season, but David Moyes has overseen a transformation in the London club's fortunes. Having risen to fifth place following their 3-0 win over Sheffield United, the Hammers underlined their status as one of the surprise packages of the season.
It is hard to fathom how they finished just five points above the relegation zone in the last campaign with 39 points from 38 games.
If outsiders have been taken aback by their success, Moyes has always maintained his self-belief, admitting he was optimistic of a good season following his side's improvement after the first lockdown last June.
The Scot has proved his doubters wrong to guide the Hammers to 19 points better off than they were at this stage last term. Having leapfrogged Liverpool, how far can they go?
Moyes said: "We know this is a big result for us and I can't say enough about what the players are doing. They've done a great job but I feel there's another level that these players can get to. The aim is to get them there before the end of the season to really get them up to the top level.
"We've got five games before April 1, so if we get through those games and we get into the last month of the season, then it may then hot up. But it nearly feels uneasy to be talking in this way. I don't want to be negative, but the teams around us are super teams.
"We're up against some top talent and we're going to have to play incredibly well to be there. But I feel we've got another gear than we showed tonight."
West Ham have now eclipsed their points tally from last campaign with 14 games still remaining, and replicating their best finish in the Premier League era when they clinched fifth in 1999 is a realistic goal.
Thomas Tuchel was a little unhappy with his side's second-half performance but their 2-0 victory over Newcastle at Stamford Bridge was conclusive. According to the expected-goals data, Chelsea have had the better chances in all five of their Premier League matches so far under the German, drawing one and winning the last four, their best run in over a year.
The success has been built on their defensive strength. They have conceded only one goal in those five games. No team has let in fewer since Tuchel arrived and it is no coincidence. Chelsea are dominating the ball and there is little hint of them being exposed on the counter-attack. With two holding midfielders and a three-man defence, this team looks solid.
Against Newcastle, Tuchel did all he could to be sure of the clean sheet. N'Golo Kante came on for Mason Mount. Reece James replaced Callum Hudson-Odoi. These were substitutions that sent out the message that Chelsea wanted to maintain control and maintain it they did. The new man has established stability with the formation. He has stabilised Chelsea's season.
Tenth as he walked out with his players for that first game in charge, his side are now into the top four and though there are many teams chasing them, they look well placed to stay there.
If there is an issue for the longer term, it is likely to be that he has loaded the team with an extra defensive player. The confirmation afterwards when speaking to Monday Night Football that he prefers to play with a reference point in attack with Timo Werner as a supporting forward, suggests that Chelsea have an abundance of talent competing for just one role in Tuchel's team.
"If Timo Werner is going to play in that position, there is only one other player who can play there," said Jamie Carragher. "You are thinking about three or four players for one position."
Christian Pulisic and Hakim Ziyech were unused substitutes against Newcastle. Kai Havertz will be hoping he could yet force his way back into the starting line-up too. "They are good options but sometimes you can have too many players and it can cause you a problem on the training pitch."
That is a debate for another time. Winning matches was always going to be the priority for Tuchel and while there are tougher tests ahead, he is doing just that. The impact has been swift and the ease with which he has imbued Chelsea with confidence suggests that better times are ahead.
Sheffield United arrived in east London having won six of their previous nine games in all competitions, with confidence harnessed from a strong FA Cup run that has taken them to the quarter-finals.
But in losing 3-0 at West Ham, this was a poor time to be taking a backward step.
With West Brom collecting a point against Manchester United and Fulham winning at Everton over the weekend, it was important for Chris Wilder's side to make life difficult for their high-flying opponents. But Sheffield United were punished once again for individual errors and profligacy in front of goal.
For the 12th time this season, Sheffield United failed to score in a Premier League game, but it was a slack pass from Oliver Norwood which led to the concession of a penalty late on in the opening period as Chris Basham was forced into drastic action to haul down Jesse Lingard inside the box.
"It is what it is," said Chris Wilder. "You can't get away from the facts. If you give away the chances we did, they've got the quality to punish you. It doesn't look great with the scoreline but the performance has been decided on a few things. The goals are terrible, gift-wrapped.
"They'll say the second is a great ball in from the set-piece, but it was a really poor one from our point of view. Up to that point, I wouldn't have thought it was a backward step, but it is given the manner of the goals.
"There's a lot of enthusiasm and commitment but there's more to the game than that. We need to be error-free like they were to us and then we need to create chances, which we did, but we couldn't finish. It does feel like a big step backwards, of course, as I felt we could've got something tonight."
With John Egan carried off on a stretcher late on, this was the Blades' season in microcosm: injuries, mistakes and missed chances. With 14 games remaining, it looks like the writing is on the wall in this ruthless division but Wilder and his side must regroup and go again at Fulham on Saturday.
Arsenal gave their fans a scare against Leeds, their four-goal advantage halved in the space of 11 second-half minutes as the visitors threatened a comeback. But while the win was not as emphatic as it might have been, it was still an overwhelmingly positive evening for Mikel Arteta's side.
Not least because of the way in which their attack clicked.
Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang marked his return to the team with a clinical hat-trick, claiming the man-of-the-match award and walking off the pitch with the ball safely stowed under his arm. But it was the trio of players behind him who provided the ammunition.
Emile Smith Rowe, Bukayo Saka and Martin Odegaard, the latter making his full debut, were outstanding, their one-touch combination play and intelligent movement pulling Leeds apart and creating the gaps which Aubameyang gleefully exploited.
Saka was the pick of them, his determination to make his mark on the game seemingly growing every time he was brought tumbling to the turf by a Leeds player. The teenager won five fouls and two penalties, if you count the one dubiously overturned by VAR, his speed and acceleration terrifying the visitors.
Smith Rowe will be told he didn't mean the assist for Aubameyang's hat-trick goal but it was typically selfless of him to pick out his captain rather than shoot himself and while the shape on the cross was unusual, his eyes, directed across goal rather than at it, showed the intention.
Odegaard, meanwhile, had Arteta practically purring in his post-match interview with Sky Sports. The Norwegian did not score or set up any of Arsenal's goals but there were some brilliant touches and plenty of industry too. At the time of his substitution, he had covered more ground (10km) than any other player on the pitch.
"Big credit to him to play his first Premier League start against Leeds after not playing a lot of football in the last three months," said Arteta. "To run the way he did, how confident and creative he was on the ball and the personality he showed was great."
This was only the second time since July that Arsenal have scored four goals in a Premier League game. Carry on with Smith Rowe, Saka and Odegaard behind Aubameyang, however, and there will surely be more examples to come.
Before facing West Brom, Man Utd manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer declared to Sky Sports: "This won't be fun" - and it most certainly wasn't.
They once again conceded early on - now winning a league-high 22 points from losing positions this season - and their first-half play was slow and laborious. You'd have to point to a marathon FA Cup fifth-round tie against West Ham as being a factor, with six players starting again at The Hawthorns.
But that man Bruno Fernandes popped up with another moment of magic that ultimately rescued a point for Man Utd, sending a thunderous volley home. While the midfielder cannot profess to having been at his best on Sunday, he was ultimately vital to the result.
Man Utd were improved after the break, but despite seeing a huge 73.1 per cent of possession, you cannot profess to recall many chances for them, bar two quickfire chances in the middle of the half and a late strike from Harry Maguire tipped over the crossbar. In fact, it was West Brom who could have scored a couple on the counter, missing some truly glorious chances.
Against a side who have just 13 points and have won only two Premier League games this season, Man Utd toiled to a point. After conceding a late equaliser against Everton last weekend, it's another stumble for United as they target a title challenge up against Manchester City.
"That is an exceptionally poor performance and result for Manchester United," summarised Graeme Souness on Sky Sports.
United have taken just 10 points from their last seven games, with only two wins against struggling Fulham and out-of-form Southampton. They returned to second in the table on goal difference after Sunday's draw, but are seven points behind a Man City side who are on an incredible winning run.
While Solskjaer said Man Utd will not be settling for second, the reality is they will need to find a lot more to push for that top spot because Man City are close to running away with the Premier League title once again.
Mbaye Diagne has been threatening his first Premier League strike for a few games now. He had two goals ruled out for offside against Tottenham last weekend, and it took him just 83 seconds to finally open his account against Man Utd.
It was clear that West Brom's game plan was to pump the ball into the area for Diagne to get on to. It's a simple but effective plan that led to the opening goal as he nodded home from Connor Gallagher's cross.
In a physical league like the Premier League too, his ability to outmuscle defenders - as he did with Victor Lindelof for his goal, and later against Maguire - will be a huge asset. As a former striker, even Solskjaer did not think his tussle with Lindelof for the opener was a foul and that is the fine line Diagne will need to walk.
He could have added two more late on too. The first saw two quick saves from De Gea before Diagne blazed wide of the post in what should have been the West Brom winner. Misses like that could be the difference between survival and relegation for the Baggies.
Before his January arrival on loan for Galatasaray, Sam Allardyce had been crying out for a player who could score goals. He has certainly found the potential in Diagne and now he needs to be scoring more of the opportunities that fall his way.
You know it's a strange season when away wins outnumber home wins, but Everton have a real Goodison Park problem, and it's getting worse.
Since putting four past Brighton on October 3 and leading a fledgling Premier League table, the Toffees have won two of nine Premier League home games.
Really, they are fortunate their away record includes more wins than any side bar Manchester United and Leicester. Their stories tell similar tales; thriving when able to set up on the counter. When they have to come out and attack teams, it doesn't click the same way.
That explains how those two wins at Goodison came against Chelsea and Arsenal; in those two games, they had 28 and 42 per cent of the ball respectively, and did enough with it to see out the victories.
Against Fulham, who hadn't won a game home or away since early November, they did nothing with it. Richarlison managed 11 touches across the whole game. It took 76 minutes to muster a shot on target. Everton have enough creativity and midfield bite to play on the front foot, so something has to change.
"It's an unpredictable season," Carlo Ancelotti said, referring in part to the intensity of this truncated campaign, as well as the lack of fans normally packing one of the Premier League's loudest grounds. But that won't bring any solace to any of them watching on at home.
This was meant to be the season Everton pushed towards Europe, and it still could be. But without home comforts, that's going to be a tough ask.
It has been a few weeks of severe discomfort for Southampton. Six consecutive league defeats marks the worst run in their history. The Saints were top of the Premier League barely three months ago, but they have become a team of extremes, and right now they cannot buy a point let alone a win.
Ralph Hasenhuttl did find solitude in the FA Cup in midweek and a place in the quarter-finals was secured at the expense of Wolves, but the alleviation in pressure has proven only temporary.
There were signs of the old Southampton in the first half with Danny Ings' sumptuous volley taking them into the break deservedly in front, but their confidence drained away from them following a marginal penalty decision involving Ryan Bertrand that swung the momentum in Wolves' favour.
Hasenhuttl contested: "The referee explained that Ryan's arm was stretched away from the body but it was the shot which took the arm away. I'm normally a big fan of VAR and if it followed the rules, it would be easy. I don't know what Mr Atkinson saw today but they're not doing a good job at the moment. Then, it does destroy the game."
The defeat will certainly sting for Hasenhuttl, but his players must take the positives from a vibrant opening hour into their home game with Chelsea next weekend if they are to demonstrate how their position in the bottom half is merely a temporary arrangement.
The taskmaster Austrian had hoped the cup win at Molineux would prove the catalyst for a return to league form, but instead Saints' wait to put that 9-0 hammering at Manchester United fully to bed goes on.
It will take more than Sunday's 2-1 win over Southampton for some Wolves fans to forgive Nuno Espirito Santo's decision to field a weakened team in their FA Cup tie against the same opposition three days earlier. But the result does at least provide a degree of vindication for the under-fire manager.
Pedro Neto and Adama Traore were among those rested for the 2-0 loss at Molineux which cost Wolves a place in the FA Cup quarter-finals, and after a wretched first-half display at St Mary's, the duo were instrumental in helping Wolves fight back to claim three points as the two sides locked horns again.
Wolves were perhaps fortunate to be awarded their penalty after Ryan Bertrand's inadvertent handball, but they were the superior side throughout the second period, with Pedro Neto's stunning individual strike clinching a win they deserved on the balance of play.
Neto and Traore's energy and directness was too much for Southampton and, given the packed schedule this season, Nuno can justifiably argue that his young stars might not have had those performances in them had they started Thursday's FA Cup tie.
Nuno still has work to do to turn Wolves' season around - this was only their second win in 10 Premier League games - but his jubilant celebration with his coaching staff at the final whistle showed how much it meant. A satisfying afternoon for the man in the dugout.