Plus: Sadio Mane becoming the Liverpool poster boy after scoring the winner against Aston Villa; Mason Mount proving he is Chelsea's present and future star
Friday 13 May 2022 08:12, UK
Rob Holding has revelled in his role as Arsenal's finisher at times this season, coming off the bench to help secure wins over Wolves, Watford, Aston Villa and Manchester United. He started victories over West Ham and Leeds this month. But this was a wretched night.
The central defender had fouled Heung-Min Son twice already before he even went into the book. Smiling at the Spurs man, one might have thought he was relishing the battle, but instead he became caught up in it. Gary Neville called it ego and that is how it seemed.
"What is he doing? Oh my goodness," said Neville, on-co-commentary for Sky Sports. "I am watching the run and I think he has a jab with his elbow. He is saying it is a shoulder but it is madness from Holding. He has been erratic, he has been rash, and he is off."
Holding is 26 with half a dozen seasons of Premier League experience, but this was the behaviour of a player lost in the moment, displaying immaturity when cool heads were required. "Son played Holding like a little boy," said Neville. It was difficult to disagree.
You wouldn't have thought it from the way Arsenal collapsed under the weight of Holding's ill-discipline but the pressure was all on Tottenham ahead of kick-off, with anything but victory all-but ending their chances of qualifying for the Champions League.
And when they started poorly, allowing the visitors to dominate the opening exchanges and dominate possession in the opening minutes, it looked like it might be showing.
But as Holding and Son began their acrimonious tussle which would be cut short by the former's red card after barely half an hour, it quickly became clear who was keeping their composure better at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium.
Although Son was lucky to escape punishment for a sly elbow on the Arsenal defender in their first exchange, he put the incident behind him while Holding continued to push his luck.
In the end, the game was over before half-time thanks to Cedric Soares' sloppy foul conceding a needless penalty, Holding's even more inexplicable dismissal and some confused defending from a corner as the Gunners struggled to regroup.
Spurs have had plenty of capacity to self-destruct themselves, as they showed in their home defeat to Brighton last month, but they kept their cool here and had the nouse Arsenal lacked to get themselves back in the top-four race.
Pep Guardiola had talked up his team's trip to Molineux as a final and big games demand big performances from big players. That has always been Kevin De Bruyne but where he would once look to influence games with his passing now he has added decisive goals too.
This was his first hat-trick for Manchester City and it took him only 24 minutes. He added a fourth just for the fun of it. The 5-1 win over Wolves means four points from the final two games will be enough to retain the title - maybe three given their goal difference.
It was outrageous from De Bruyne. This is now the best scoring season of his Premier League career. Worryingly for the opposition, as Guardiola suggested afterwards, at 30, he is getting a taste for it. "I have a feeling he has started to enjoy scoring," he revealed.
"He is a guy who is always so generous, always has the sense to make the assist. But I think this season he has also had the sense to be prolific to score goals. I am very pleased for him because scoring four goals in the decisive part of the league, it is so important."
The third of the four was De Bruyne's favourite, a rasping drive with his so-called weaker foot that showcased his extraordinary technique. His team-mates were not so clinical. But with De Bruyne around they did not need to be. City's decisive player, yet again.
Alan Smith described Mason Mount's performance in Chelsea's 3-0 win over Leeds as "poetry in motion" on co-commentary. "He's such a classy player and he's young enough to get better," said the Sky Sports pundit.
That thought should be a tantalising one to Chelsea supporters.
Mount, rested against Wolves on Saturday, used his return at Elland Road to remind everyone just how important he is to this Chelsea side. Even before Daniel James' first-half sending off, Leeds simply could not get close to him.
His goal was beautifully taken as he curled home a first-time finish from Reece James' cut-back to silence the home supporters and his flick for Christian Pulisic's second was sublime too.
Mount has now reached double figures for both goals and assists in the Premier League this season.
He is only the fifth Chelsea player to achieve that feat after Frank Lampard, Didier Drogba, Juan Mata and Eden Hazard. It is esteemed company but the 23-year-old is there on merit.
Chelsea will hope he is there for the long haul too.
Chelsea are heading into what could be a tumultuous summer under new ownership but the priority must surely be to build around Mount. He is their present and should be their future too.
While Pep Guardiola has been bemoaning his team's injury problems, Liverpool's loss of Fabinho could have ramifications beyond the Premier League title race. Will he be fit for this weekend's FA Cup final? How about the Champions League final that follows?
"He felt a muscle, not too much," Jurgen Klopp said after the game. "He is quite positive but I am not sure what I can make of that, to be honest. We will see. He has a good feeling, that gives me a better feeling than when I took him off. We will see. I think the rest came through."
The importance of the Brazilian can hardly be overstated. A towering figure at the base of Liverpool's midfield, Klopp leans heavily on him to protect the defence in the air and on the deck, particularly when covering for those marauding full-backs.
Indeed, Klopp has only gone without Fabinho in his starting line-up on three occasions in the Premier League since the turn of the year - against Norwich, Watford and Newcastle.
The only Champions League game that he has sat out in 2022 was the second leg against Benfica - which just happens to be the only time this year that Liverpool have conceded three goals in a game. A swift return could be crucial to his team's hopes.
It was quite poignant that just minutes after the Liverpool striker scored the winner against Aston Villa on Tuesday night, a former Reds forward had the chance to immediately respond.
Within moments of Sadio Mane putting Jurgen Klopp's side 2-1 up at Villa Park, Danny Ings burst through on goal and started bearing down on Alisson.
Ings saw his effort well saved by Liverpool's Brazilian goalkeeper and Villa's best chance of the evening had gone. Ings had a couple more snapshots at goal denied by the Reds defence, plus one goal disallowed for a clear if not clumsy offside - and this shows how far Liverpool have come under Klopp.
It's the summer of 2016 and Mane had just arrived at Anfield from Southampton for £30m. It was quite a lot of money to spend given how poor Liverpool had been at recruiting forwards in recent years.
In the 18 months or so before Klopp had joined, Liverpool had signed the likes of Christian Benteke, Mario Balotelli and Ings - all of whom flopped very quickly. Roberto Firmino and Divock Origi were both under the age of 24 and were ones for the future - but look at Liverpool now.
Mane arrived six years ago to link up with Firmino - and very little has had to change since Mohamed Salah arrived the following season. Yet the Senegalese winger's expert header against Villa symbolises how flexible Mane has had to be in that fixed front three, with Diogo Jota and Luis Diaz now in the competition mixer too.
"He initially came in on the right wing then moved to the left when Salah arrived," said Jamie Carragher after the Villa game. "Diaz comes in on the left and Mane goes to centre-forward. He's always moving for someone else but his performances never drop.
"It doesn't seem to matter where Mane plays, you get exactly the same from him. The same cannot be said for the rest of the Liverpool attack."
A lot is made about Salah's impact on this team, given he's the top scorer. But if Liverpool do go on to claim a historic quadruple, Mane's goals since the turn of the year - he now has 12 since the start of February, more than anyone else in the Liverpool team - will be what got them over the line.
There was a real lack of quality but no lack of fight on show at Vicarage Road as Everton earned another point towards their safety mission.
The Merseysiders have failed to score in 12 Premier League games this season, their highest such total in a league campaign since 2014-15 (also 12), while only Norwich (21) have failed to score in more top-flight games this term than Watford (18).
It was never going to be a classic, and so it proved. It may seem small against a Watford side who had lost their previous 11 home league fixtures - a new club, Premier League and English top-division record - but given the events at Elland Road, and the next two home fixtures, avoiding defeat could prove priceless come the final reckoning.
Frank Lampard said: "This wasn't the best game to watch, let's get it right but that's the nature of the position we're in. It's intense and they had nothing to lose. We toiled but if you offered us seven points from Chelsea, Leicester and Watford I'd have snapped your hand off.
"If you'd offered me this position with two games to come at Goodison now before we play Arsenal away I'd have bitten your hand off. It would be naïve to say we're now going to stay up because football is too ruthless. We have no divine right to win these next two games so the whole situation can flip. I don't expect anything until we know it's done."
Everton took their full allocation of 2,500 fans but there were far more here flanking the segregated area to keep the soundtrack of the Spring - the Spirit of the Blues - going from Finch Farm the day before all the way to Hertfordshire.
A 328-mile round trip on a Wednesday shows there is a unity Lampard has fostered in these past few weeks that their relegation rivals have struggled to replicate.
This was a performance not at the same level as witnessed at Leicester, who were far superior opponents than this heavily-depleted Watford outfit, but the stakes are so high now.
Lampard felt he couldn't change a winning formula as he stuck to the back five system that served him so well during those wins over Chelsea and the Foxes, but with Brentford and Crystal Palace coming up now at Goodison Park, this stalemate will have made him consider whether a more offensive approach is needed to clinch the two wins that would guarantee Everton's top-flight status.
There were still 35 minutes on the clock when Christian Pulisic doubled Chelsea's lead at Elland Road, but both they and Leeds seemed to know that the game was up. The Blues had a comfortable lead and an extra player after Daniel James' red card in the first half, and there was no obvious way for the home side to get back into the game.
Leeds' thoughts understandably began to turn to their final two fixtures - at home to Brighton and away to Brentford - even while proceedings played out against Chelsea. Those are the two games that will decide whether Leeds remain a Premier League club or return to the Championship, the division they dropped into in 2004 and took 16 long years to emerge from.
Leeds' defeat means they will go into the weekend in the relegation zone, behind Burnley on goal difference and two points off Everton. Both sides have a game in hand on Leeds, meaning their future is out of their hands.
Jesse Marsch will no doubt believe Leeds can win both of their remaining games - neither Brighton nor Brentford have much to play for - but the two pressing questions are: how does the manager turn around their troubling form, and how many players will he actually have available?
Leeds are now winless in four - and have just one goal in that run - while they will now have to do without James for the rest of the season after his sending off. Jack Harrison and Raphinha are also injury doubts after coming off against Chelsea - Marsch said the former suffered a "contusion" that limited his movement - and the American's squad is starting to look desperately thin.
Luke Ayling is also out for the campaign with suspension, while Patrick Bamford, Tyler Roberts and Adam Forshaw are out injured, meaning Marsch was forced to name four players on the bench against Chelsea who are yet to play in the Premier League this season. If Leeds are to emerge from the trouble in which they themselves, they may need an unlikely hero to come to the fore.
Jamie Vardy is 35 and he is still having a party.
It's been a difficult season for Leicester, while their talismanic striker has struggled with injury.
But on his first Premier League start since March, Vardy reminded everyone just how important he is for Leicester, scoring twice in a ruthless second-half showing against Norwich to end his side's seven-game winless streak.
It shouldn't come as any surprise, but even with his relative lack of game time compared to recent seasons, Vardy has still managed to deliver 12 goals in just 22 Premier League appearances in 2021/22.
Leicester manager Brendan Rodgers told his players to put a marker down for next season against Norwich and Vardy answered his boss in style.
Rodgers is planning a summer shake-up after a disappointing league campaign, with the futures of some of his key players up in the air. Vardy is one thing he won't want to change.
He may be getting on in football terms, but Vardy's desire remains.That will be vital if Leicester are to mount a serious challenge for Europe next season.
"I kept him on to see if he can get his hat-trick," said Rodgers. "He's older now so every minute counts. He gave everything."