After every round of Premier League fixtures, BBC football pundit Garth Crooks gathers his thoughts and gives you his Team of the Week.
This week Garth’s combining the best players from the past two weekends – as a single round of fixtures were split on two for the winter break. And, as ever, Garth also discusses the game’s big talking points in the Crooks of the Matter.
Emiliano Martinez (Aston Villa): It’s not the first time Martinez has come to Aston Villa’s rescue this season and it was just as well. Everton had enough chances to win this game last weekend – which finished 0-0 – and would have won had it not been for the Argentina World Cup winner. He denied Dominic Calvert-Lewin, when the Everton striker was clean through on goal, then moments later had to change his direction in order to produce the most fabulous one-handed save to deny James Garner. Had Villa won at Goodison Park, they would have gone level on points at the top with Liverpool, which gives you some indication of the type of season they are having. In the end, I think the visitors were relieved to get a point.
Gabriel (Arsenal): It’s been a while since I’ve seen such abject defending by a team but Crystal Palace’s defensive display as they lost 5-0 at Arsenal on Saturday was certainly up there. Gabriel took complete advantage of a team in defensive disarray. Why Palace weren’t prepared to compete in the air with Gabriel on the set-piece for the first goal was hard to fathom. By the time the second set-piece came along you’d have thought they would have learned a lesson – but sadly not, as Gabriel’s header went in off goalkeeper Dean Henderson. The Eagles were now 2-0 down, with both goals created by Gabriel’s ingenuity, while a challenge by the visitors was nowhere to be seen. What Graham Potter, who was watching in the stands, must have thought about Palace’s performance is anybody’s guess. However his presence at the game will only add to the speculation that Roy Hodgson’s days at Selhurst Park are numbered. The Eagles were well short on inspiration and have been for some time and the banners from their travelling supporters said so. Hodgson has made a huge contribution to the game but now may be the time to put his feet up.
James Tarkowski (Everton): Everton were well up for last weekend’s match against Aston Villa – and no-one more so than James Tarkowski. I don’t know what he had for his pre-match meal but it must have been rather spicy. The centre-back is a determined and committed defender but it has to be careful. There are too many occasions where I’ve seen him flying into tackles when his opponent is on the half-turn; Tarkowski takes advantage of the situation by making his challenge dangerously heavy. Such was the case with Moussa Diaby when he left the Villa striker in a heap on the floor and moments later he flattened defender Alex Moreno. He was booked for the challenge and quite rightly. It’s clear Tarkowski likes to mix it and there is nothing wrong with that provided he’s not trying to hurt people. We had enough of that in the 1970s and 80s.
Ibrahima Konate (Liverpool): If Sunday’s match at Bournemouth had been a boxing match, the referee would have stopped it. The hosts never laid a glove on Liverpool, who were comfortable 4-0 winners. The Reds dominated possession, while Konate and Virgil van Dijk never gave Dominic Solanke, Justin Kluivert or Luis Sinisterra a kick. Konate is looking more accomplished the more I see him. He was immense against Arsenal in the FA Cup earlier this month without Van Dijk by his side, and even better against Bournemouth. He is starting to look every inch a Liverpool captain of the future.
Bernardo Silva (Manchester City): In a 3-2 win at Newcastle last weekend, Silva held the fort for 60 minutes and scored the most superb goal for Manchester City. There can only be a few players in the world who can move towards the ball at speed, let it go through their legs and backheel it into the net. I’ve seen lots of players try to produce the skill in training but few pull it off in matchplay. Just after the hour, Silva was substituted and gave the stage to Kevin de Bruyne who completed Newcastle’s downfall. All that City have to do now is wait for Erling Haaland to return and their normal service of bashing three or four goals past any team approaching anywhere near average will be resumed.
Kevin de Bruyne (Manchester City): Newcastle went out of the Champions League more with a whimper than a roar but had an opportunity to test themselves against the best team in Europe. And they would have won had it not been for Kevin de Bruyne. With the Belgium superstar back in the side after a long-term injury, it was just the tonic Manchester City needed to continue their push towards the title. Is it any wonder that Pep Guardiola was grinning like a Cheshire Cat after the game? Not only would he have been delighted with his star performer but he knows the psychological impact that his comeback, not to mention his performance, will have on Liverpool and Arsenal. With De Bruyne back, the second half of the season promises to be a belter.
Alexis Mac Allister (Liverpool): Only one team who deserved to win Sunday’s match at Bournemouth, and that was Liverpool. They dominated from start to finish. Mac Allister was absolutely superb in midfield. He never complicated matters, and played the most exquisite passes at the right time. Since the departures of Georginio Wijnaldum, Fabinho and Jordan Henderson, Liverpool have struggled to fill the defensive midfield role. I never thought Thiago worked there, as even when he played well, he slowed the tempo of the team to almost walking pace. Mac Allister is a different animal entirely. He moves the ball on, retaining the pace of Liverpool’s play, and the quality of his passing is excellent. He’s an exceptional player bought at an exceptional price. Why Liverpool were prepared to pay around £111m for Moises Caicedo when Mac Alister only cost half that figure is baffling. In terms of value for money, there is no comparison between the two players.
Rodrigo Bentancur (Tottenham): A point was a fair result when Manchester United hosted Tottenham last weekend, as either side could have won. However, it was Rodrigo Bentancur who caught the eye when his header was cleared off the line, scoring a superb equaliser in a 2-2 draw and proving to be the standout player on the day. If Spurs can clear their backlog of injuries, and their players come back from international duty unscathed, a top-four finish is not out of the question.
Diogo Jota (Liverpool): At the risk of running out of superlatives to describe Liverpool’s performance at Bournemouth, I though Darwin Nunez and Diogo Jota’s link-up play was superb. I must say that Jota is more inclined to look for Nunez than the other way round but then the Portugal international is a little more creative. His assist for Nunez’s first goal was brilliantly perceptive, a wonderful through ball. Liverpool have to face up to losing Mohamed Salah at some stage. So manager Jurgen Klopp must be delighted to see a team under his tutelage capable of challenging for the title and winning trophies again without being totally reliant on Salah.
Darwin Nunez (Liverpool): Mohamed Salah may have been at the Africa Cup of Nations with Egypt, but that hasn’t stopped Liverpool winning. They were outstanding against Arsenal in the FA Cup, and followed victory there with a footballing masterclass at Bournemouth, in which Darwin Nunez scored twice. Nunez, might not be prolific in front of goal but has all the elements to become a world-class striker. He’s a very willing runner and a handful for any defence. Salah’s absence may be a blessing in disguise for Nunez, who needs the space to grow and might get it now. If I were Klopp, I would refrain from showing all this concern about Salah’s hamstring injury sustained while playing for his country and tell him to take his time getting fit, to enjoy the African sunshine, and add that there’s no need to rush back.
Ivan Toney (Brentford): It was a dream return for Brentford striker Ivan Toney on Saturday: A 3-2 win at home to a very dangerous Nottingham Forest. A superbly taken free-kick was the highlight of an overall display that belied the fact he’d been absent for eight months. It was about as impressive as it gets. If Forest are really irritated by Toney moving the ball from where the free-kick had been awarded, then they should have said so at the time or moved their wall accordingly – but the truth is they weren’t paying attention. They missed the moment and paid the price. We know Toney can score goals – but his ability to see the pass or merely exploit a situation is also a part of what good strikers do. He played like he had never been away. Toney did well not to let the fanfare over his return affect his game. He took the entire affair in his stride and the captain’s armband suited him.
The Crooks of the Matter
If I didn’t know better, I might have thought that the Africa Cup of Nations and Asian Cup were held in the early part of the year to disrupt the European club season. The reality is that, in both cases, the weather has had a key role to play.
The Cup of Nations could not be played in Ivory Coast last June and July, as originally planned, because it was at the height of the country’s rainy season. The previous finals in Cameroon were shifted to January and February too for similar reasons. The Asian Cup, staged in Qatar, was moved to a January start partly so it could be played in cooler temperatures.
Dozens of stars from the Premier League have travelled to participate in both competitions. The international make-up of the Premier League these days is such that as many as 38 players are absent from their clubs’ first-team activities at a crucial time of the season.
I’m not saying for one minute that these competitions shouldn’t take place – on the contrary. International football is as important in Africa and Asia as it is anywhere else. But governing bodies can’t keep adding competitions and games to the football calendar whenever it suits them. Judging by a recent ruling, it would appear that the European courts have the same concerns.
There are so many competitions and competing interests that the best players are now caught in the middle having to make the biggest sacrifices in order to play for their country and fulfil their contracts with their clubs with very little time for recuperation.
The possible long-term impact such scheduling can have on a player’s health and wellbeing can be quite devastating. That is why the Professional Footballers’ Association is considering taking legal action over the growing number of games their members are being forced to play. Can you blame them?