Key thoughts and analysis from Sunday's Premier League action
EPL

Key thoughts and analysis from Sunday's Premier League action

Feb 5, 2024

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theScore examines the most important developments and biggest talking points from Sunday’s slate of action in England’s top flight.

More twists to come in title race

Just a week ago, Liverpool looked poised to win the Premier League title. They were five points clear, winning games without Mohamed Salah, and ready to send off manager Jurgen Klopp on a high.

Those sentiments died a sudden death Sunday with a calamitous 3-1 defeat to Arsenal. Alisson and Virgil van Dijk’s mix-up at the back cost Liverpool a chance to create an eight-point buffer at the top of the table and signaled to the rest of the chasing pack how quickly things can turn. Arsenal are now just two points back, Manchester City have two games in hand and a winning streak on the go, and Aston Villa and Tottenham Hotspur are only five and seven points, respectively, out of top spot.

For a variety of reasons – a rash of injuries, VAR interference, bad form, colossal mishaps – this season has been wide-open. There have already been several lead changes: Spurs were early pacesetters, Arsenal took over before blacking out in December, and Liverpool built credit with comeback after comeback. With players feeling the strain of such a furious and unforgiving schedule and the toll of the 2022 World Cup finally catching up to them, consistency has never been a rarer commodity.

Justin Setterfield / Getty Images Sport / Getty

City have demonstrated the most resilience of all, and that’s no surprise. They have a deep enough squad to withstand injuries to their biggest protagonists and don’t need Erling Haaland to score all of their goals. But ask the most studious fans about their chances of winning a fourth consecutive Premier League title and they’ll tell you it’s as far from a guarantee as it’s been during Pep Guardiola’s seven-and-a-half-year tenure. Ruben Dias has been shaky at the back, and their dependence on Rodri in the middle of the park has been exposed. Defensively, City don’t seem sure of themselves. Even Chelsea put four goals past them in December.

Then you have games like Sunday’s that follow no particular script. Arsenal dominated the first half but lacked the composure to protect their half-time lead. William Saliba allowed the ball to roll into danger just before the interval, and Luis Diaz forced an own goal. A victory that was well within the Gunners’ grasp had suddenly lost its sense of security. Liverpool found themselves on the front foot and with it a greater chance of winning. But no one could legislate for Van Dijk’s uncharacteristically weak defense of a hopeful long ball and Alisson’s incredible whiff job. It left Gabriel Martinelli with the easiest of finishes.

You could envision similar scenes playing out over the remaining months. Klopp has already admitted his players are physically spent. City have also shown signs of treble-winning fatigue. And Arsenal are, well, Arsenal, an incredibly entertaining side that’s never far from doing something stupid.

By the numbers: Hojlund catches fire

The pressure of his gargantuan transfer fee was compounded with each match that Rasmus Hojlund failed to score. Some critics were prematurely sharpening their knives, preparing to dissect yet another bust from Manchester United’s recruitment team.

But then Hojlund’s cutting edge came to the fore. His opener against West Ham United was further indication of how he’s now teeming with confidence. He superbly collected the ball on the half-turn before duping center-backs Nayef Aguerd and Kurt Zouma with a cool left-footed touch; then, with his opposite foot, he arrowed home an unstoppable effort from the edge of the box.

Here are some standout statistics relating to Hojlund’s reversal of fortunes following United’s 3-0 win at Old Trafford:

3 – Hojlund (21) was only the third-youngest starter for Manchester United. His recent form, along with some impressive performances from teenagers Kobbie Mainoo (18) and Alejandro Garnacho (19), are giving Red Devils supporters plenty of hope for the future.

4 – Hojlund is the youngest player to score in four successive Premier League matches since 20-year-old Dele Alli in January 2017.

Michael Regan / Getty Images Sport / Getty

7 – The striker has seven goal contributions (five goals and two assists) over his last six appearances in all competitions. Only Wigan Athletic have kept him quiet over his fruitful period.

14 – The Dane went 14 matches without a Premier League goal before the Boxing Day win over Aston Villa. From that match onward, Hojlund has recorded four goals and two assists over four top-flight outings.

21 – On his 21st birthday, Hojlund became the youngest-ever player to score in four consecutive Premier League matches for Manchester United. He’s also just the second player to celebrate that birthday with a goal after Noel Whelan (for Coventry City in 1995).

85 – Hojlund reportedly cost €75 million with an extra €10 million potentially being paid in bonuses. It was a colossal sum for a youngster who scored just nine goals in Serie A for Atalanta last season, but he’s making great strides toward justifying that fee.

Quick free-kicks

Oh dear, Emerson

West Ham will rue poor decision-making and technique from Emerson Palmieri as the moment the game slipped away at Old Trafford. The full-back pinched the ball from a flat-footed Harry Maguire and was spoiled for choice as he ran toward Manchester United’s goal. He had two teammates in excellent positions to his right and, although it was the worst option of the three, the angle was good enough for most Premier League players to at least test Andre Onana. Emerson shot – and it was horrific. A slight hesitation threw Emerson off balance, tilting his body to the right as he fired with his left foot, and he wastefully ballooned an ugly attempt high and wide. It should’ve been 1-1.

And little over 40 seconds after Emerson held his head in his hands, Garnacho was celebrating his deflected goal to give United a two-goal lead. Garnacho easily beat Emerson before unleashing a strike that effectively ended the match.

Time for Chelsea to blow it up

James Gill – Danehouse / Getty Images Sport / Getty

It has been nearly two years since Todd Boehly’s consortium bludgeoned their way into the Premier League with spending in the billions of pounds, and the return on their investment continues to plummet. Chelsea’s 4-2 defeat to Wolves on Sunday was an unmitigated disaster, as a team comprising nearly £700 million in transfer fees struggled under the pressure of a squad worth a mere fraction. Matheus Cunha and Pedro Neto ran the Blues ragged – Thiago Silva and Ben Chilwell couldn’t cope with their pace – and there was no stopping the bleeding once the hosts blew their 1-0 lead.

Now, Chelsea have to contend with the likely prospect of a Financial Fair Play investigation, which could force them to sacrifice their prized homegrown talent just to balance the books. And for what, an 11th-place finish in the Premier League and a team without an identity? No one is happy at the club, and enough time has passed to conclude that this costly experiment has failed. Three different managers have come and gone. Sacking Mauricio Pochettino won’t make a difference. It’s time to blow it up.

Nuno must find balance

Some elements of Nottingham Forest’s lineup are extremely promising. Murillo, 21, is an exciting talent and his developing defensive partnership with Andrew Omobamidele helped stifle Dominic Solanke in the 1-1 draw at Bournemouth. Morgan Gibbs-White, a physical attacking midfielder, is difficult to contain and was complemented by Nicolas Dominguez’s tirelessness and tenacity behind him. And although he didn’t do much on the south coast, Taiwo Awoniyi is a fearsome striker trying to regain full fitness after his nagging groin issues.

Nuno Espirito Santo inherited a decent squad from Steve Cooper, but there’s still work to be done. Ryan Yates worked admirably in midfield, but Ibrahim Sangare’s return from the Africa Cup of Nations will bring some much-needed solidity to that area of the pitch. And as for Nuno Tavares, he’s simply nowhere near the quality of the other full-back, Neco Williams, and his starting role should be reconsidered.

Stat of the day

Matheus Cunha was never a reliable finisher. However, the Wolves attacker now has nine goals in 14 games across all competitions and is, incredibly, outscoring some of Chelsea’s lavish signings at Stamford Bridge.

Tweet of the day

We’re with you, Andy Murray. Preferably, Piers Morgan would avoid talking about football – or anything else for that matter.


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