Plus: Leeds look like their old selves; Everton's slow starts; Brentford's steel; tired Man City keep on winning; hope in defeat for Arsenal
Tuesday 4 January 2022 11:53, UK
Is it October 2021? Manchester United getting outrun, outfought and out-thought, players giving interviews heavily suggesting dressing room disquiet and managers defending futile attempts to press their opponents.
It all begs the question - has anything changed since Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was sacked? That question seems ludicrous when you look back on what was an unbeaten start for Ralf Rangnick before defeat to Wolves at Old Trafford on Monday night, with four wins from five and a chance to move one point from the top four.
It gains more credence when you consider the standard of opposition in that time - coming from behind to beat Arsenal, then fifth in the table, is certainly the highlight. That aside, Norwich, Newcastle, and Burnley have been three of the five league sides United faced since his arrival. Crystal Palace, too, came into their Old Trafford defeat on the back of losses to Leeds and Aston Villa.
Just as we were collectively quick to regale Rangnick's quality after the comfortable, if laboured, win over Palace in his first home game, so too must a word of caution be sounded that it's still "early days" in the interim manager's era.
But the alarm bells must be sounding. Loudly. That United should play so badly, across a whole game, at home, on the back of an unbeaten run like that is a huge concern. That Luke Shaw would openly question his team-mates' motivation six league games into a new manager's tenure screams of a fractured dressing room.
"I don't know what they're doing here. I think they're all over the place. They don't have faith, they don't have belief in each other, they play as a load of individuals," said ex-Man Utd midfielder Paul Ince, who knows a thing or two about controlling games - and winning mentality.
What has really improved since Solskjaer's departure? Results in the short-term, sure, but the fixture list has been kind. After a performance like this - and against Newcastle, and against Norwich - it's difficult to pinpoint much.
It is difficult to judge a manager after six games. No philosophy can be fully drilled in that time, just look at Pep Guardiola's first season at Manchester City. From the other side, you can question Rangnick's tactics against Wolves, but regardless of them, many of his players looked uninterested and disjointed. That begs the question - if United have so many problems to fix, why are they wasting six months on appointing an interim manager, only to then do it all again next summer?
What seems clearer than ever is that Solskjaer was far from the only problem at Old Trafford. And a stopgap appointment is not going to solve that.
This was a Wolves story too, however. They dominated United, having more shots at goal in the first half than any away team has managed at Old Trafford since Opta started logging them almost two decades ago. They were typically controlled but they showed more than that.
That cutting edge was lacking for 81 minutes - though Pedro Neto's return next month will surely help - but Wolves do not need to score many when their defence is as rock-solid as this. They have conceded only two goals in eight games having played the top three in that time.
Goalkeeper Jose Sa has been an important addition but this improvement has not been achieved in the transfer market but on the training field and the regular video meetings that have become a feature of life under Bruno Lage. It has been a coaching triumph.
Joao Moutinho is rolling back the years, Ruben Neves is playing the best football of his career, and Nelson Semedo is much improved. At the back, more is being coaxed from Romain Saiss and Conor Coady, while Max Kilman has been a revelation.
In the post-match interview with Sky Sports' Pat Davison, Lage's detailed explanation of how Wolves were able to outmanoeuvre United was damning for Ralf Rangnick. But it was also reassuring for Wolves fans. They have a top-class coach. And a very good team.
The gap to Premier League leaders Manchester City is wider than it was before a weekend that was overshadowed, from a Chelsea perspective, by Romelu Lukaku's explosive interview. But Thomas Tuchel finishes it with his position at the club strengthened.
It was a brave call to omit his best striker from the squad after Lukaku had scored in the previous two matches. When two goals down early on against Liverpool at Stamford Bridge, it was easy to imagine the criticism that might have awaited the Chelsea coach.
But his side played with extraordinary energy, pressing with a purpose as they not only came from behind to draw 2-2 with Liverpool but were the better side in the best of games. This was the sort of high-tempo football that supporters - and owners - crave.
Maybe there were moments when a £97m striker would have helped. But Tuchel's players showed the spirit that is required to thrive in the longer term. He lost out on two points. But he won the argument. His strong leadership should pay off once the fuss dies down.
The title race may be slipping out of their sights but at least Liverpool supporters can console themselves with the fact the best player in the world right now wears their red shirt.
Mohamed Salah produced another marvellous goal at Stamford Bridge which, at the time, looked like it may keep their Premier League dream alive, before Chelsea's remarkable comeback.
It wasn't on the level of his goal-of-the-season contenders against Watford and Manchester City but it was scored with the ease of a player in outstanding form and full of belief. The dummy did for Marcos Alonso and the finish was never in doubt - regardless of the tight angle.
It was his 16th in the Premier League this season and means he's scored twice as many as the majority of his rivals for the Golden Boot. His departure for the Africa Cup of Nations will give those chasers a couple of games advantage but don't expect them to catch him any time soon - if at all.
The tournament also presents a challenge for Liverpool. How do you replace a player of his stature? The fixture list has at least been kind. An FA Cup tie with Shrewsbury and Premier League games with Brentford and Crystal Palace should still be successfully negotiated without their main man.
Perhaps, with the Premier League title now an unlikely target, the two games against Arsenal in the Carabao Cup semi-final will be the biggest concern. With no Salah - and no Sadio Mane too - the likes of Divock Origi and Diogo Jota will have to step up.
Liverpool will hope to welcome their Egyptian king back happy, healthy and successful from AFCON - and ready for the run-in. And perhaps those contract talks, too... After all, his value is going up by the game.
The celebrations at Elland Road showed just how big a win that could prove to be for Leeds!
It's been a difficult season so far for Marcelo Bielsa's side and they are still contending with injury issues with Kalvin Phillips, Liam Cooper and Patrick Bamford still missing through injury.
However, the side Bielsa put out in the 3-1 victory against Burnely was much more like the Leeds we knew from last season, and it showed on the pitch.
The hosts produced a performance full of energy and fight as they halted a run of three straight defeats and more importantly climbed eight points clear of Sean Dyche's side, who remain third from bottom.
Leeds also ended a run of four Premier League matches without a win (drawing one and losing three), winning their first game since a 1-0 win over Crystal Palace at the end of November, while this was the first time all season they had scored three goals in a league game.
It was much more like it from Leeds and with Patrick Bamford's return imminent, they will be hoping to build on victory against Burnley and move further away from the relegation places in the weeks to come.
The Premier League rolls into 2022 and while Everton returned to action for the first time since December 16, the competition is leaving them behind. It was in the corresponding fixture last season that, under Carlo Ancelotti, Everton went top of the Premier League thanks to a man-of-the-match display by James Rodriguez in a 4-2 win.
That was October 2020, and while Rafael Benitez has had to juggle with all manner of issues this term, this Everton side have been in reverse while Brighton have motored on.
Benitez has been responsible for guiding his side to just 19 points from their first 18 Premier League games of the season. It was the 12th time this season he witnessed his team concede the first goal of a match. The Spaniard must arrest the slump quickly, but he is only the latest manager to find out about the ongoing issues derailing the club.
"We had a slow start, and after another mistake conceding a corner," Benitez said afterwards. "It's a big mountain to climb and it's not easy with these mistakes. You miss a penalty and it's even more difficult."
Everton have lost their first league game in each of the last five calendar years, last having a longer such run of defeats between 1957 and 1963. That unwanted statistic is historic, but Everton last had fewer points at this stage of the competition in 2005/06, when they had accrued 17 points after 18 games, eventually finishing the season in 11th place.
It would seem like mid-table mediocrity is the best he can hope for at this stage, and with each passing defeat a nervous end to the campaign becomes an even more galling possibility.
Benitez will point to the positives - Calvert-Lewin's return, Gordon's greater output, and a spirited second half - but eight defeats in 12 is nowhere near good enough for a club of this stature.
In contrast, Brighton, on a far smaller budget, remain more than the sum of their parts having won two of their last three Premier League games after failing to win any of the 11 before that.
The Seagulls' haul of 27 points after 19 games is their joint-best-ever return at this stage of a top-flight campaign, equalling the number of points in 1981/82. The worry for Everton is that they didn't really need to perform well here to end their 10-game wait for victory on the blue half of Merseyside.
Brentford continue to be the surprise package of the season. They burst onto the Premier League scene with a victory against Arsenal and holding title-chasing Liverpool to a thrilling 3-3 draw.
Since then, they have continued to compete with some of the Premier League stalwarts. Even a 1-0 defeat to Man City in midweek was a pretty good result, all things considered.
And Brentford are developing a very handy habit of producing a late winning comeback. Against Watford a few weeks ago, two late goals saw them win 2-1 and it was another late show that saw them take all three points on Sunday.
A superb strike from Yoane Wissa cancelled out Danny Ings' well-taken opener, but a first Premier League goal from Mads Roerslev - taken in a similar fashion to Ings - in the 82nd minute saw the Bees leapfrog Aston Villa into 12th place.
"In a way, it shouldn't be possible that we're above Villa," Brentford manager Thomas Frank told Sky Sports.
"The amount of money they've spent on their team in the last three years, I think they have a very good squad. I think they're a good club in many ways so that we're above them is quite good.
"But it was a game that could easily have been a draw, a tight game that we saw out in the end. Now we just need to continue... I can't praise the players enough for their mentality."
It is interesting to note too that many of their best results are coming at home. You would have been mistaken to think the Brentford Community Stadium was a delayed New Year's Eve party at full time. Music was blaring as the players did a lap of honour, with players and fans alike dancing and celebrating.
It was a reminder of the unique bond Brentford fans have with their club and the squad, especially one that is truly competing in the Premier League. It was a long journey to reach England's top table and they deserve to celebrate every victory.
Now, only West Ham (12) and Everton (11) have won more points from losing positions in the Premier League than Brentford this season (9). It also means that at the halfway stage of the season, the Premier League debutants are well on their way to another season in the top flight.
Liverpool have lost one and drawn one of their last two Premier League games. Chelsea have drawn three of their last four in the competition. The demands of the festive fixture schedule - perhaps as tough as they have ever been in modern times, given the illnesses and injuries affecting squads - have taken their toll on Man City's title rivals. When the standards are so high, those small slip-ups can be costly.
Against Arsenal on Saturday, it looked like City may be going the same way.
Afterwards, Pep Guardiola described his group of players as "incredibly tired, mentally and physically". He pointed to the four academy youngsters on the bench.
But City, somehow, found a way to win.
That was far from certain at various points through the contest, with an impressive Arsenal side - described as the better team by Guardiola - seeing the ball cleared off the line and Gabriel Martinelli hit a post after Bukayo Saka had swept in their opener.
There will be lots of debate about decisions made by the officials in the game around the two key penalty decisions and Gabriel Magalhaes's red card but, regardless of the controversy, City battled until the very last moment, when Rodri - a key figure for them in midfield this season - emerged as the unlikely match winner.
It's now 11 Premier League wins on the spin for the defending champions, who are approaching the 15-game winning streak which propelled them to the title last season. Even better, they get to sit back on Sunday and watch Chelsea and Liverpool go head to head.
Whatever the result in that one, City's lead at the top of the table will still be substantial. Dropped points at the Emirates may have offered some hope to their flagging rivals but, even when they're exhausted, this City side just can't be stopped.
Arsenal had just been beaten by Manchester City - nothing new there, of course.
But it was different this time.
The home fans stayed and cheered their team with great gusto, in full appreciation that Mikel Arteta's men were absolutely superb against the champions in waiting, despite their manager being forced to isolate at home after a Covid positive test. They were the better side for 85 minutes of the match, in fact.
The problems came in the other five minutes midway through the second half. Rarely has a game changed so much in such a short space of time. Unfortunately for Arsenal, it was much of their own doing.
Granit Xhaka's lazy challenge and shirt pull on Bernardo Silva gave the referee a decision to make for the equalising penalty. Gabriel Martinelli - full of energy and quality - snatched at what was an open goal chance after Nathan Ake's miraculous clearance off the line. And then Gabriel Magalhaes's moment of inexperience blotted his copybook when picking up his second yellow card for a needless foul.
Those three incidents defined the result. Elite teams like Man City feast upon such mistakes and although Arsenal were superb in every department, the big moments in the match were gobbled up by the City machine.
"At the end, it's very frustrating but Mikel was very proud of the performance and at the same time frustrated," said Arsenal coach Albert Stuivenberg, who was standing in for the absent Arteta.
Frustration was the perfect word to sum up the feeling in the ground at full-time. But when the dust settles, those Arsenal fans can look back on a performance that gives the club so much hope and excitement for the future.