Plus: Can Gabriel Jesus help Arsenal sustain a title challenge? Everton unearth a winning formula away from home to claim first victory since last month's points deduction; emphatic Burnley pile pressure on Sheffield United boss Paul Heckingbottom
Sunday 3 December 2023 12:29, UK
Manchester United had won five of their previous six Premier League games going into their trip to Newcastle on Saturday evening but their form had felt a little flimsier than that. A miserable Champions League campaign has tempered the mood. This showed why.
Erik ten Hag's team were outworked from the outset, unable to match the tenacity and tempo of their opponents. They might have conjured a late equaliser had Harry Maguire not been stood in an offside position but it would have been a grossly undeserved point.
Thirteen Premier League games away to top-eight opposition have now come and gone since Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's United won at Tottenham over two years ago. They have not mustered a victory in any of them. When it gets tough, this team struggles.
These are the matches when methods are tested, when the belief in the process must be there. Is it? Ten Hag was left exasperated by what he was seeing from Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford, removing both on the hour. The work rate was not there.
The Manchester United boss had spoken of the extra day that Newcastle had to prepare but how long will there be an appetite for such excuses? The injury list is lengthy but Eddie Howe's options are limited too. He made no substitutions in Paris on Tuesday.
It was the 86th minute before he was forced into a switch here but that did not stop Newcastle playing with an intensity that was conspicuously absent from the game of their opponents. Worrying trends. With Manchester United now seventh, worrying times too.
Most managers would have squirmed if they saw their injured striker playing international football - but thankfully it seems to have paid off for Mikel Arteta when it comes to Gabriel Jesus.
The Brazilian striker has yet to score in the Premier League since returning from his hamstring injury during the international break - but he played such a vital role in Arsenal's 2-1 win over Wolves and looks fully fit despite his earlier-than-expected return from injury.
Jesus didn't score, didn't assist - but played two crucial passes in the build-up to both of Arsenal's early goals which ultimately proved crucial in them going four points clear at the top. That's what he does - his link-up play is so efficient that it unites an attack which has scored eight goals in a week.
But despite their dominance, Arsenal failed to seal the points and it ultimately led to Wolves creating a nervy ending by halving the deficit late on.
Jesus' finishing was part of that - missing a total xG of 0.63 - the second-highest in the game behind Leandro Trossard, another option for that No 9 spot who didn't score from five shots.
And with Eddie Nketiah hitting the post with a key one-on-one chance to wrap the game, questions linger over Arsenal's quality in that centre-forward role. Jamie Carragher said Arsenal can't win the league based on current performances due to them playing too close to the fine margins - these missed Arsenal chances are part of that.
Nobody is complaining about Arsenal's attacking quality after eight goals in a week, but Mikel Arteta is the brutal perfectionist and may need that clinical goalscorer to seal results. Will he make a move in January?
From the pitch invasions after the win over Crystal Palace under Frank Lampard to Abdoulaye Doucoure winning it for Sean Dyche's side on the final day against Bournemouth, the past two seasons have seen Everton's Premier League survival built on key moments at Goodison Park.
But that has changed this term, with Dyche somehow turning Everton into a force on the road. They'd only won two away games in the Premier League in each of the past two seasons - they already have four victories in this campaign.
Those wins have come in their last five matches away from home and it has built up a confidence when they play away. But it suits their attributes too. It's now their last 12 wins which have come when they have had less than 50 per cent possession. This is a side able to defend their box and move the ball forwards quickly.
It was notable that when the points deduction came last week it effectively wiped out the 10 points Everton had won away from home this season. But the game-plan and belief Dyche and his players have on these occasions wasn't diminished. If they can find the cutting edge which has been missing in often chance-filled performances at home, safety could well be secured more comfortably this season, with or without a successful appeal.
It’s that time again. Forest are in a rut and Steve Cooper’s position is up for debate.
Despite dragging the club from the bottom of the Championship and into the Premier League in less than a year, Cooper came under pressure at various intervals last season as Forest adapted to the demands of the top flight.
Cooper survived those scares and even secured a new contract as he guided Forest to safety, but results have once again turned.
The East Midlands side have just one win in their last 10 games and, were it not for Everton’s 10-point deduction, they would be 16th.
After spending more than £100m on 14 new players in the summer, Evangelos Marinakis, Forest’s enigmatic owner, would surely have expected more.
Cooper has survived these kind of situations before and come out stronger for it. Whether Forest will once again show him patience remains to be seen.
On paper, this fixture was a difficult one to call. Burnley, without a home win this season, faced a fellow relegation-threatened side without a victory on the road.
It had all the hallmarks of a tight affair. It was anything but.
Burnley were ruthless and deserve a significant amount of credit for picking up their first points at Turf Moor this term. It was an emphatic performance and their biggest-ever Premier League win.
But there is no doubt they were helped by Sheffield United. The Blades began the day one point above their opponents but produced a wretched display to put Paul Heckingbottom under severe pressure.
Oli McBurnie's red card at the end of the first half for two reckless challenges didn't help the cause, but the visitors were already 2-0 down by that point. Even if it remained 11 vs 11, it's difficult to see the result being different.
Sheffield United have conceded a league-high 39 goals and there are little - if any - signs to suggest they can avoid the drop. And after losing so comfortably to another struggling team, a return to the Championship looks more of a certainty than a possibility.
If Luton weren't already dreading next week's games against Arsenal and Man City, first and second in the Premier League, they will be now. Injuries to Tom Lockyer and Teden Mengi leave boss Rob Edwards in a bit of a pickle.
The drop-off defensively after captain Lockyer's removal at half time was clear. Brentford scored twice, from a cross and then a set-piece, 11 minutes after the restart. Both goals involved Brentford getting the best of the scraps.
"I felt like we gave away a few early Christmas presents in that second half," Edwards said after the game. "They didn't have to work too hard for their goals."
Lockyer topped Luton's stats for interceptions (2) and clearances (6) despite only playing half the game. Only Gabriel Osho (3) surpassed Lockyer's two tackles, further highlighting the skipper's value to the Luton defence.
Osho was Luton's sole recognised central defender by the end of Saturday's defeat to Brentford, who were dominant. So dominant, in fact, that Thomas Frank, the Brentford boss, admitted he was surprised by the control his team had.
"In the end we only had one out and out defender on the pitch," added Edwards. "That's going to be difficult against a team as good as Brentford."
There's not lots of time for Lockyer (back) and Mengi (knee) to recover before Luton's games against the league's best two teams so far. Their frail stand against Brentford doesn't bode well for the Hatters if those two injuries are as bad as they looked.