Premier League hits and misses: Ralf Rangnick makes his mark at Man Utd, Antonio Conte's Spurs emerge, and twists in the title race

Plus: Steven Gerrard's win over Brendan Rodgers, Chelsea's defensive cracks, Man City's title warning, Divock Origi's late magic, Patrick Bamford's dramatic return at Leeds, and Jarrod Bowen's importance to West Ham...

Rangnick's Man Utd revolution begins

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FREE TO WATCH: Highlights from Manchester United's win against Crystal Palace

A lot has been said about the application of Manchester United's players this season. Inconsistent performances have already put paid to a title challenge and, ultimately, cost Ole Gunnar Solskjaer his job, but their work-rate could not be questioned as Ralf Rangnick made a winning start to life at Old Trafford.

Rangnick's first match as United interim manager came less than 72 hours after Michael Carrick's last as caretaker boss. Such was the proximity of Sunday's match with Crystal Palace and Thursday's 3-2 victory over Arsenal, the German was afforded just a single 45-minute training session on a pitch with his new players.

Throughout a whirlwind week in which his work permit was approved and his appointment was confirmed, Rangnick was keen to downplay the speed with which his appointment could transform United's fortunes. But, to everyone's surprise, including Rangnick's, there were visible signs of improvement from the outset.

Ralf Rangnick and Cristiano Ronaldo embrace after Man Utd's win over Crystal Palace
Image: Ralf Rangnick and Cristiano Ronaldo embrace after Man Utd's win over Crystal Palace

"To be honest, I was positively surprised by the physical state, intensity and performance of the players," Rangnick admitted after Sunday's 1-0 victory over Palace.

The German's famous Gegenpressing tactics were evident from the off, with United winning back possession in the final third six times in the opening 25 minutes, and six more times before the final whistle sounded. To put that into context, the most United had managed in a Premier League game this season was seven.

Throw into the mix a first home clean sheet of the campaign at the 11th attempt, and Fred's fabulous winning goal with his unfavoured right foot, and Rangnick's debut, while not thrillingly entertaining, gave a glimpse of what the future could hold for Manchester United.

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Now it is time to head to the training ground, if the hectic festive schedule will allow.
Jack Wilkinson

Encouraging signs of Conte effect at Spurs

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FREE TO WATCH: Highlights from Tottenham's win against Norwich

Lucas Moura's screamer rightly grabbed the headlines after Tottenham's win over Norwich. It was a thunderbolt to cap a brilliant passage of play from the hosts. But perhaps the most satisfying thing for Conte, as he reflects on the 3-0 win, will be the way his side are beginning to play the way he wants.

It was a strange first-half performance from the hosts, which saw bottom-of-the-table Norwich dominate possession, but in patches Spurs were slick, whether that was instigated by the impressive Oliver Skipp driving through the midfield, or quick link-up play between Harry Kane and Heung-Min Son, reminiscent of their connections at the start of last season.

In the second half, though, it was a more consistent display, with Spurs taking greater control of the contest. By full-time, with the Spurs fans singing Conte's name, there was an optimistic feeling around the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium that the team are back on the right path.

Perhaps Conte has found a way to put the pieces of this Spurs squad into the right places. "In that role specifically, I can get the best out of Ben Davies," Conte said afterwards about the left-sided centre back, as an example, while the balance of Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg and Skipp in midfield looked good, and the front three are beginning to click together.

It would be wrong to get carried away about a victory over a side which sits 20th in the Premier League, but rather than the result, it was the manner of Tottenham's performance and the feeling around the ground which offers encouragement the Conte era is beginning to take shape.
Peter Smith

Gerrard overcomes Rodgers… Klopp next?

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FREE TO WATCH: Highlights from Aston Villa's win against Leicester

And so Steven Gerrard's flying start to life as Aston Villa manager continues. Their 2-1 victory over Leicester was their third in four games under the former Liverpool midfielder. It was all the sweeter for Gerrard given it came against his old manager.

Villa suffered an early setback when Harvey Barnes gave Brendan Rodgers' side an early lead but the early evidence suggests Gerrard is fostering a strong spirit among his players. They responded with a goal inside three minutes. Soon, they seized control of the game.

Konsa's header, his second goal of the evening, won it for them but the way Gerrard managed the game in the second period was impressive too. Well organised and dangerous on the break: Villa were everything Rodgers' Leicester side used to be.

The question now is whether Gerrard can do to Jurgen Klopp - the man who gave him his first coaching job in Liverpool's academy, and whose shoes he would one day love to fill - what he did to Rodgers when Aston Villa face Liverpool at Anfield on Saturday.

"I just want to go there and try and win and try to take what we can," said Gerrard afterwards, shrugging off the sentimentality of the fixture. "We are not competing with Liverpool in terms of the level we are both at, at the moment, but we'll certainly go there and give everything we've got.

"We took City to the wire and I believe we should have got something out of the game with our second-half performance. So, we go there with confidence and belief, with three wins out of four and we go and try and make it as difficult as we can."

Privately, Gerrard will also be eager to make another statement about his managerial ability - and his long-term suitability for the task of succeeding Rodgers and Klopp in the Liverpool dugout.
Nick Wright

Rodgers needs solution to Leicester's set-piece problem

James Maddison shows his dejection at Villa Park
Image: James Maddison shows his dejection at Villa Park

"It's killing us at the moment," said Brendan Rodgers after Leicester's 2-1 defeat to Aston Villa. The Foxes boss was referring to their vulnerability from set-pieces after Villa became just the latest side to exploit their major weakness.

This time, Ezri Konsa was the beneficiary. For the equalising goal, he got a toe to Emi Buendia's header after Leicester failed to clear their lines from a free kick. For the winner, he capitalised on poor marking to head home John McGinn's corner at the far post.

According to Opta, and excluding penalties, they were the ninth and 10th goals Leicester have conceded from set-pieces this season - the joint-most in the Premier League along with Crystal Palace.

Rodgers could not hide his disappointment afterwards and pointed the finger squarely at his players.

"It's just, 'do your job'," he told Sky Sports. "We do lots of really detailed work on set-pieces. We know that Konsa comes at the back post, and that him and Mings are the two big threats.

"We've got to get tight to him. Just being there or around it isn't enough. He ends up getting a free header so that's disappointing for us."

Rodgers clearly feels the blame lies with his players but they may feel their training-ground preparations are falling short. Either way, Leicester are paying a heavy price. This defeat, their sixth of the season, leaves them in the bottom half of the table.

Finding a solution to their set-piece woes must be a priority.
Nick Wright

Bamford brings Leeds timely cutting edge

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FREE TO WATCH: Highlights from the 2-2 draw between Leeds and Brentford

There appeared little likelihood of Leeds scrambling a point before Patrick Bamford stepped off the bench to score a stoppage-time equaliser.

Bamford, making his first appearance in over two months as a second-half substitute after recovering from an ankle injury, marked his comeback by levelling in the fifth minute of added time.

It was described by Bielsa as "a goalscorer's goal" and Leeds have their scorer of goals back at an opportune moment. Their fixture list makes grim reading: trips to Chelsea and Manchester City are up next before they host Arsenal. Liverpool at Anfield on Boxing Day completes a daunting quartet.

It means Bamford had to hit the ground running after 11 games out. As with any striker judged on his goals, he pictured the one chance that would fall his way and was rewarded for sensing where Luke Ayling's flick-on would land.

"I felt rusty as hell to be honest," Bamford said afterwards. "But I always felt once I was out on the pitch I was going to get one touch.

"Sometimes, when you're out through injury you become a better player all of a sudden. There was a bit of pressure but to score is always nice especially as it rescued a point."

The way Leeds went from being in a position of complete control to all of a sudden floundering during a 10-minute spell will concern Bielsa. But with Bamford marking his first appearance since mid-September off the bench, he will believe they have every chance of derailing those with loftier ambitions over the coming weeks.
Ben Grounds

Cult hero Origi proves his worth to Liverpool again

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FREE TO WATCH: Highlights from Liverpool's win against Wolves

No player has scored more goals from the bench for Liverpool in the Premier League than Divock Origi and that total does not even include the one that he scored against Tottenham in the 2019 Champions League final. This was yet another important goal for the club.

Origi's stoppage-time winner at Molineux was also reward for Jurgen Klopp's positive substitution in removing his captain Jordan Henderson. Wolves have a strong defensive record, riding their luck at times as they sought what would have been a fourth consecutive Premier League clean sheet. It took Origi to change that.

"Divock Origi, the legend," as Klopp put it in his post-match press conference. "He is an incredible football player. To create these moments he does not need a big run-up. He was a threat before he scored. That goal we have seen often in training."

Klopp even went as far as to describe Origi as one of the best finishers that he had ever seen in his life and was keen to point out that in just about any other team in the world, the Belgian striker would be featuring rather than more than he does at Liverpool.

Was he close to leaving in the summer?

"If I was at another team I would have gone for him," he said. "Just because you are not playing for Liverpool does not mean you are not good. Top striker and a top boy. He has already scored some of the most important goals in the history of this club."

It must take a certain mentality to be able to accept the situation and adjust to the tempo of games when not used to playing regularly. Origi has carved out a role for himself and carved out a place in Liverpool's folklore. Klopp summed up the mood in a sentence.

"Winning is great but when Divock scores it is better."
Adam Bate

Liverpool late show, the mark of champions?

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Liverpool boss Jurgen Klopp heaped praise on super-sub Divock Origi

This would have been a tough two points dropped for Liverpool if they had not found a way past Wolves late on, particularly given that the opening was there following Chelsea's slip against West Ham earlier in the afternoon. How crucial the goal could prove.

A smiling Klopp would not concede it was the mark of champions. "If you do it 38 times, yes," he said. "If you do it once, no." Even so, the celebrations on the Molineux touchline told their own tale. "It was really important. It was a really big day for us, to be honest."

Liverpool were up against a team that had not conceded in their previous three games. It was an unfortunate moment for the Premier League top scorers to be wasteful in front of goal but Sadio Mane and, in particular, Diogo Jota both spurned opportunities.

"We missed a lot of chances and we had to defend the counter-attacks of Wolves with Traore who is quick. That was the challenge today. In the circumstances, I liked the way we played. It was really good apart from the finishing, the last pass, these kind of things."

Patience paid off and the momentum continues just as Chelsea's appears to be stalling. There is a long way to go but after so many convincing victories for Liverpool, perhaps it is encouraging that they were able to win a game that they really had to work for.

"We said at the end it was like old times where we got the goal when we really needed it at the end. It is an important skill to stay positive. We have not needed that too often this season but it is still an incredibly important skill and thank God we could show it today."
Adam Bate

Reigning champions City will take some stopping

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FREE TO WATCH: Highlights from Manchester City's win against Watford

Before kick-off, there was an ominous feeling at Watford. The hosts had lost their last 13 matches with Man City, and Pep Guardiola arrived at Vicarage Road with a replenished squad. By the final whistle, the alarm bells were instead ringing in Liverpool and west London.

Man City's dominant display in the 3-1 win was a show of their strength and a statement to their rivals following Chelsea's defeat earlier in the day.

In truth, they should have scored far more, with Jack Grealish wasting a host of first-half chances and City striking the post twice in the second half. But the return to fitness of their £100m man, along with Phil Foden, Ilkay Gundogan, and Kevin De Bruyne, has bolstered their options just as the busiest period of the season approaches.

But City also have a handy run of games coming up, before playing Arsenal and Chelsea at the start of January.

If they keep playing like this - and as much as Bernardo Silva has been brilliant, Guardiola has in-form options across the pitch right now - they won't give Liverpool and Chelsea much chance to strike back before the calendar year is out. They could hit 2022 with real momentum.

We seem set for a thrilling three-way title race and the leading trio have all had surprising slip-ups at times, which adds to the excitement - but City are in pole position now.
Peter Smith

Cracks appear in Chelsea foundations

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FREE TO WATCH: Highlights from West Ham's win against Chelsea

Chelsea had only conceded more than one goal in two out of 52 games under Thomas Tuchel before their trip to the London Stadium. Their defensive record under the German has been extraordinary. But did West Ham expose cracks in their foundations?

Certainly, questions will be asked of Edouard Mendy. The goalkeeper, normally a picture of reliability for the Blues, was not helped by Jorginho's loose pass when conceding the penalty for West Ham's opener but there can be no excuses for Arthur Masuaku's winner.

His positioning was poor and he was not the only member of Chelsea's defensive unit who endured a difficult afternoon. Reece James was not his usual self. Antonio Rudiger struggled with Michail Antonio's physicality. Even Thiago Silva suffered lapses of concentration.

Injuries have hit them hard. Ben Chilwell's thrust was missed on the left-hand side, where Marcos Alonso struggled before his second-half withdrawal, while Andreas Christensen also underperformed in the absence of Trevoh Chalobah.

Kai Havertz's injury forced Romelu Lukaku back into action prematurely - the Belgian was clearly not fully fit - while N'Golo Kante and Mateo Kovacic were missed in midfield, where Jorginho lacked his usual composure and Ruben Loftus-Cheek only impressed in patches.

Tuchel cannot complain about a lack of depth. Chelsea's squad is arguably the strongest in the Premier League. But the foundations upon which their recent success has been built suddenly look a little less sturdy than before.
Nick Wright

Brilliant Bowen drives West Ham forward

Jarrod Bowen celebrates after scoring West Ham's second goal against Chelsea
Image: Jarrod Bowen celebrates after scoring West Ham's second goal against Chelsea

After the crushing disappointment of Brighton's late equaliser on Wednesday night, West Ham returned to the London Stadium and produced the perfect response. It feels like anything is achievable for this team right now.

Chelsea don't concede goals. At least they don't concede many. But West Ham did what only two other opponents had managed in their previous 52 games under Thomas Tuchel, scoring more than one goal against them. In fact, they scored three.

Arthur Masuaku's freakish third won it, sparking delirious scenes of celebration inside the ground, but Jarron Bowen's second, struck low from the edge of the box, was the pick of them. The 24-year-old epitomises their fighting spirit. He can play, too.

Bowen was outstanding at both ends of the pitch - just as he has been throughout the season. His speed and directness terrified Chelsea and when it seemed the game was slipping away from the hosts, it was him who drove them forward.

He helped them defensively too, of course. No player on the pitch got close to his total of 25 high-intensity sprints, according to Premier League tracking data, while only Declan Rice regained possession on more occasions (10).

Bowen does not attract as much acclaim as many of his team-mates but his importance to David Moyes' side cannot be underestimated. Their presence in the Champions League places owes a lot to him. It feels increasingly like they might stay there, too.
Nick Wright

Obvious where Saints must improve

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FREE TO WATCH: Highlights from the 1-1 draw between Southampton and Brighton

In succumbing to a 98th-minute equaliser from Neal Maupay in the 1-1 draw with Brighton, it is a result that will sting Ralph Hasenhuttl for some time on the eve of his third anniversary as Southampton manager.

This is a young Saints side boasting a starting XI with an average age of 25 years and 279 days - only Arsenal average younger - but with that comes a naivety which is all-too apparent.

It is difficult to assess the progress Hasenhuttl has made during his tenure; Southampton have recorded 33 points this calendar year - the fewest of any ever-present side but their inconsistency is evident within the same game.

The 20 matches lost in 2021 is the most of any team while their 14 goals scored is only more than Norwich (8), Tottenham (11) and Wolves (12). But they were by far the superior side against Brighton.

Southampton dropped more points from a winning position
Image: Southampton dropped more points from a winning position

Given their poor shot conversion rate, it was important that Saints continued their defensive improvement under Hasenhuttl this term, but what transpired were repeated late errors that contributed to two more dropped points.

It now stands at 72 points from winning positions since Hasenhuttl took over - 15 more than any other Premier League outfit. The late goal conceded here was compounded by a hamstring injury to Alex McCarthy which has left Southampton short in the goalkeeping department heading into a busy month.

"It's a horrible feeling and tomorrow it will be even harder," Hasenhuttl said afterwards. "We're not the first team to concede as late as this but it was absolutely not necessary."

Che Adams dropped to his knees as the final whistle was met by boos from the frustrated home fans. Their team had contrived to find a new way of chucking points down the drain. As Hasenhuttl retreated down the tunnel, it was certainly a sentiment he shared.
Ben Grounds

Maupay epitomises Seagulls' fighting spirit

Neal Maupay has often been Brighton's saviour
Image: Neal Maupay has often been Brighton's saviour

While Brighton's wait for a first league win was extended to a 10th game, this was a draw their supporters gleefully welcomed at the final whistle.

Indeed, it is now the Seagulls' longest winless run in the top-flight since a 10-game run between December 1982 and February 1983. But coming shortly after the St Mary's stadium announcer had provided the unwanted disruption that trains back to home 57 miles away had been cancelled, Maupay's finish was all the more sweeter.

Remarkably, 50 per cent of Brighton's away Premier League goals this season (4/8) have been scored in the 89th minute or later, with three coming in the 90th minute. Three of those four goals have been scored by Maupay (90th vs Crystal Palace and Southampton, 89th vs West Ham).

Graham Potter celebrates a hard-earned point
Image: Graham Potter celebrates a hard-earned point

Brighton's biggest issue has been converting chances; only three sides in the division have scored fewer. But combining smart build-up play with a killer instinct can be addressed on another day.

For now, that can wait. Potter will count the cost of more casualties after Leandro Trossard was removed with a serious-looking elbow injury, but this was a point gained from a below-par display.

"I don't think it's as bad as we initially thought but the early analysis is that it's a bit more positive than we feared," Potter said on Trossard. "Over the next few days we'll have to assess it.

"We have to be honest as we weren't at our best in the first half. Southampton were a better version of themselves than we were and I have to take responsibility for that as well. We kept going even down to 10 men and in the end, it was great to score and to get a point."
Ben Grounds

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