Plus: Leicester show their quality in second-half turnaround at Brentford; how Thomas Frank has raised the expectations at the GTech Community Stadium; Bournemouth's soft underbelly exposed at Aston Villa; can Alexander Isak fire Newcastle into the Champions League?
Sunday 19 March 2023 17:46, UK
Arsenal exuded confidence and calm at the Emirates Stadium. This was the performance of a team that believes they are marching towards the Premier League title. The mood could easily have been different, nerves jangling, but that is not Mikel Arteta's Arsenal now.
That penalty shootout defeat to Sporting in the Europa League, which featured extra-time, of course, was not the ideal build-up to this fixture against Crystal Palace. It was an awkward start too, the away team having the first two shots, Wilfried Zaha striking the post.
But Arsenal showed again that they can go through the gears. Gabriel Martinelli, who missed the crucial kick on Thursday, is the in-form goalscorer in the Premier League with six goals in his last six games. Nobody else, not even Erling Haaland, comes close. He scored the first and Palace were overwhelmed.
The brilliant Bukayo Saka's partnership with Ben White on the right has blossomed. Both were outstanding. But there are partnerships all over the pitch for Arsenal now, new ones emerging all the time. The third goal saw Leandro Trossard feed Granit Xhaka.
An eight-point lead at the top, albeit with Manchester City having a game in hand, feels big for one very simple reason - Arsenal look the best team in this Premier League. The idea that City will rein them in is predicated on the notion that their supposed superiority will tell.
What if that needs to be recalibrated? In the first 28 games of the Premier League, there has been little sign of Arsenal's fragility. The fixtures are being ticked off, the challenges overcome. Ten games to go and while the fans may be on edge, this Arsenal team is not.
"When it rains it pours," said Crystal Palace's interim manager Paddy McCarthy after their Arsenal drubbing.
Joachim Andersen's injury in the warm-up at the Emirates was the start of another miserable afternoon. Wilfried Zaha soon struck a post which would have given them the lead.
Such fine margins go against out-of-form teams, let alone one that is now 13 without a win. Unlucky number 13.
Palace, though, are still three points above the drop despite their torrid run of results. They must now use the international break to appoint a manager and regroup as when the Premier League returns, they will be entering a crucial period.
A season-defining six fixtures awaits them in April: Leicester, Leeds, Southampton, Everton, Wolves, West Ham. The last time Palace played a team below them in the league was against Bournemouth on New Year's Eve - Vieira's last win in charge.
Palace must show why they've spent the majority of the season in a comfortable mid-table position. They share the unwanted record with Forest Green Rovers of being the only sides in the top four tiers to have not won a game this year. They will hope for sunnier days ahead.
It's far too early to anoint Ellis Simms as Everton's answer at No 9 but the way in which the 22-year-old announced his arrival onto the scene was a welcome boost for the goal-shy Toffees.
Only Crystal Palace have scored fewer Premier League goals than Everton's 22 this season and with Dominic Calvert-Lewin apparently unable to stay fit and Neal Maupay out of favour, Sean Dyche has felt the need to start Demarai Gray, a winger, as his striker in recent weeks.
But Simms, recalled from a productive loan spell at Sunderland in January, showed he could play a pivotal role in the closing stages of Everton's campaign during his cameo against Chelsea.
With 11 minutes to go and his side staring defeat in the face, Simms was thrown on to try to save the game for Everton - and he did just that.
The way in which Simms breezed past Kalidou Koulibaly - one of Europe's standout centre-backs before joining Chelsea - was striking and, while Kepa Arrizabalaga could perhaps have done better in trying keep out his effort, Simms deserves credit for getting his shot on target and ultimately showing his fellow forwards how to find the back of the net.
Chelsea's three-game winning run relieved the pressure on Graham Potter at the opportune time after his job was seemingly on the brink following a run of one win in 11 matches in all competitions, but nobody should have been fooled into thinking the manager has fixed all his side's problems.
While Potter is finally getting a tune from his forward line following a profligate start to the year, Chelsea still lack a ruthless streak, too often failing to finish off opponents when they're there for the taking.
The Blues deserve credit for ending their wretched run of form against Leeds at the start of the month and overturning a 1-0 deficit to progress past Borussia Dortmund in the Champions League, but both results were only secured after nervy endings.
Chelsea dispatched Leicester last weekend but they were guilty of throwing away a lead at West Ham last month and they can only have themselves to blame for repeating the trick against Everton.
Potter admitted after the game that his side's defending was sloppy and he will know Chelsea cannot afford to continue making the same mistakes if they have any hope of returning to the Champions League next season.
Wilfried Gnonto was dropped to the bench for the games against Chelsea and Brighton but having been restored to the starting line-up he was a difference maker for Leeds in their 4-2 win against Wolves. It was Gnonto who set up the opening goal for Jack Harrison.
His cross made Harrison's task fairly straightforward and it was the third time that the winger had troubled Wolves despite the goal coming in only the sixth minute of the match. Allowed to isolate his marker, the Italy international is a real weapon for Leeds.
That freedom has not always been there for Gnonto. It had become so obvious that the team were reliant on him to create that he was receiving a lot of attention. Perhaps those two games out of the team helped because Wolves were not ready to deal with him.
One wonders how much higher up the table Newcastle United would be right now had Alexander Isak been fit for the whole season?
The Sweden striker, bought for £63m from Real Sociedad last summer, scored on his debut at Liverpool in August, only to then suffer a serious hamstring tear just as he was settling in at St James' Park.
That injury sidelined Isak for the rest of 2022, with the forward missing 16 games in total, before he finally returned in January.
However, since regaining full fitness, the 23-year-old has begun to show the type of form we were seeing from him before his layoff, and after Friday's night double at the City Ground, he has four goals in his last two matches for the club.
His manager Eddie Howe now seems to have decided to go with Isak ahead of trusted frontman Callum Wilson for the run-in, and you can see why given his impressive scoring rate for the Magpies.
Isak has now scored six Premier League goals in just 10 appearances for the club this season at an impressive rate of a goal every 115 minutes.
The writing seemed to be on the wall for the visitors in west London. Leicester's first-half performance had exhibited their recent issues: a lack of cutting edge in attack and uncertainty at the back.
But a wonderful team goal for the equaliser early in the second half was a reminder of the quality in this squad. Kiernan Dewsbury-Hall was brilliant in midfield, holding off challenges, James Maddison did what he does best in the pocket, feeding a through pass into the box, and Harvey Barnes was dynamic and then deadly with his finish.
Brendan Rodgers threw both arms up into the sky in delight and in relief. It was the kind of move he relishes.
The goal breathed confidence back into his team and, while there was no winner, which would have substantially boosted their standing in the relegation fight, they denied Brentford a shot on target in the second half to secure the result. This will go down as a positive step for a side surely too good to go down.
Brentford have gone unbeaten in 10 Premier League home games in a row. They are level on points with seventh-placed Brighton in the race for Europe. Yet the feeling at full-time in their draw with Leicester was one of frustration. That's a mark of how Thomas Frank has raised the standards for this side.
Brentford have not won a game they have had more possession in this season and again on Saturday they were unable to turn their extra time on the ball into victory. Frank admitted afterwards his forward players had failed to fire and perhaps that leads onto questions about the creativity behind them.
But in the first half they caused chaos in the Leicester box with their direct play and perhaps the second-half drop-off can be attributed in part to the exertions in midweek.
Frank looked tired in his post-match press conference and maybe the international break has come at a good time for Brentford, providing the chance to refresh their minds and bodies for the final 11-game push, where they will hope to at least consolidate their high league position.
"Yes and no, because I know what this group of players are capable of," said Frank when asked if his team were exceeding expectations. He and his team are ambitions but in the bigger perspective, Brentford's tremendous season needs to be appreciated.
"The last two matches against Crystal Palace and today, they are the best two matches we've played here in the style I want to create."
It may have taken some time, but Unai Emery is finally starting to see his vision come to life at Aston Villa. His side are now unbeaten in four Premier League games and level on points with Chelsea.
It was an impressive display from Aston Villa too. They look devastating going forward, playing some wonderful one-touch pass with speed and accuracy.
They did not always have it their own way either, but look solid at the back. Blocks and clearances from Matty Cash and Tyrone Mings spring to mind, while Emi Martinez looked unbeatable in goal at times.
But perhaps a player who has benefitted the most from Emery's arrival is Douglas Luiz. He scored the opening goal and the later two were sparked from his set-piece delivery.
Luiz has been directly involved in six goals in 14 appearances in the Premier League this season under the Spaniard (2 goals, 4 assists), having provided one goal and one assist in his 12 games this season under Steven Gerrard and Aaron Danks.
Emery described Aston Villa's win as confirmed his side's Premier League status, and now they can very much start looking up. A crack at Europe is potentially only six points away - and don't forget, Emery has won the Europa League three times as a manager.
But even if European football is a stretch too far this season, there's no reason why Aston Villa fans cannot dream of it in the near future.
Confidence would have been high among the Bournemouth squad after impressive performances against Arsenal and Liverpool. They are still very much in with a chance of surviving relegation - but defeat at Aston Villa will be bruising.
They were undone by a slow start to the game - Douglas Luiz scoring inside seven minutes - and a lack of concentration in the final quarter of an hour as Jacob Ramsey and Emi Buendia wrapped things up for Villa.
But for the bits in between, Bournemouth often matched an Aston Villa side looking up rather than down. The home defence needed to be sharp and made some crucial interceptions, while Emi Martinez's superb save from Philip Billing's free-kick served a timely reminder of his World Cup-winning pedigree.
Aston Villa simply looked like a high quality, slicker team and they punished Bournemouth for their errors. The Cherries' defending from set-pieces in particularly certainly left a lot to be desired at times.
While the big results and wins are crucial - as well as core memories for fans - it is the weekly grind of trips to teams like Aston Villa or Brentford, for example, that can make or break a season. You have to perform in each of them to have any chance of survival.
While Bournemouth's soft underbelly was certainly exposed at Villa Park, they showed they do have the quality to stay up. They must now put those positives to good use.
Julen Lopetegui pointed to the decision not to award Wolves a penalty for a foul by Junio Firpo on Nelson Semedo that even injured the right-back and was left just as baffled that the referee did not overturn Leeds' fourth goal despite being asked to go to the monitor.
The shirt tug on Adama Traore was clear and with this frustration coming so soon after the non-award of a penalty for Nick Pope's foul on Raul Jimenez at Newcastle, Lopetegui probably has a fair claim when he says that the margins are going against his side.
However, it is their own failings rather than those of the officials that should be a bigger concern for the Spaniard. Wolves had enough openings against Leeds to get something from this game despite conceding four at the other end but still lack a cutting edge.
They scored two, a 41-yard lob and a deflected shot, but it was the misses that will linger - Raul Jimenez failing to find the net from inside the six-yard box, Pablo Sarabia passing wide with the goal gaping. It has been going on too long now to expect it to turn.
Such wastefulness means Wolves must be solid defensively to win matches - the majority of their wins this season have been 1-0. But once Craig Dawson was substituted, organisation at the back was lacking. Bad in both boxes. It is a combination that risks relegation.