Premier League: Rafa Benitez out, Chelsea not good enough, Leeds resilience on show with season's best display

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The Score is Daniel Storey’s weekly verdict on all 20 Premier League teams’ performances. Sign up here to receive the newsletter every Monday morning

Only eight fixtures but a brilliant weekend of Premier League action which produced a series of potentially season-defining results.

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Manchester City march on, Rafael Benitez lost his job, Newcastle let another lead slip and Leeds United produced one of the performances of the season given their absentees.

Weekend’s Premier League results

Friday

  • Brighton 1-1 Crystal Palace
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Saturday

  • Manchester City 1-0 Chelsea
  • Newcastle 1-1 Watford
  • Norwich 2-1 Everton
  • Wolves 3-1 Southampton
  • Aston Villa 2-2 Manchester United

Sunday

  • Liverpool 3-0 Brentford
  • West Ham 2-3 Leeds United
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Two matches postponed due to multiple player absences

Arsenal

Game postponed because of absentees.

Aston Villa

This is becoming a broken record now, but Saturday’s draw against Manchester United, for all the positivity that stems from a comeback result, should probably put to rest any continued faith in the notion that Steven Gerrard can pick Ollie Watkins and Danny Ings in the same team. The pair simply haven’t been able to connect well enough with each other for it to merit perseverance.

In Villa’s last eight matches with Watkins and Ings starting together, they have won two and drawn one. But even that’s a little misleading: their five goals in those three matches when they avoided defeat all came after one of the pair had been withdrawn.

The arrival of Philippe Coutinho – ostensibly an expensive short-term measure, if the move isn’t made permanent – gives Gerrard another option that he may well choose to take up. By only picking one of Ings or Watkins as the central striker, he could switch from a 4-3-3 to a 4-2-3-1 with either Coutinho or Emi Buendia nominally starting on the left and the other centrally behind the striker. Given both players have experience on the left, it would both allow them to swap positions and also to drift from the left wing to allow Lucas Digne to overlap.

The big question in that formation is who gets left on the bench because three central midfielders don’t go into two (and it would be very harsh on any of Jacob Ramsey, Douglas Luiz and John McGinn – plus one of Ings and Watkins – to be dropped), but Gerrard would surely see that as a positive. Villa’s spending has created a competition for places like never before. It is on Gerrard to deal with the pressure that inevitably creates.

Brentford

Ivan Toney’s record this season is proof (were it really needed) of the gulf in class between the Championship and Premier League. Last season, Toney had three or more shots in 13 of his last 15 matches of the season. He averaged a shot for every 27.8 minutes played in all competitions.

This season, Toney has had three or more shots in six of 19 league appearances and averages one every 42 minutes played. He has now had six shots on target in his last eight league games and has scored one goal from open play since September 18. This issue is more about service than any failure on Toney’s part, but it does show just how hard it is to hit the ground running as a striker at a promoted club.

Brighton

A familiar story of frustration for 87 minutes. Brighton had 19 shots to Crystal Palace’s three and yet were forced to chase the game due to their own proflicacy. Brighton rank 18th in the Premier League for shot accuracy and 17th for their conversion of shots to goals. This time they even missed a penalty as an infuriating punchline to their running joke. That’s another callback to the last two seasons: Brighton missed four of their 11 penalties in 2019/20 and 2020/21.

But Joachim Andersen’s late own goal demands that we shift focus a little from Brighton’s attacking failings to their determination to eventually part-atone for them. Graham Potter’s side have scored seven times in the final 10 minutes of their league games this season. Not only is that as many times as they did in the whole of last season (and puts them behind on Chelsea and Manchester City on that measure), it’s also at least three more goals than they have scored in any other 10-minute period.

Brighton have scored a third of their league goals after the 81st minute. That is proof of a team that trusts its attacking strategy and, eventually, gets some rewards for their creativity. And yes, it would be helpful if they bought a centre forward.

Burnley

Game postponed because of absentees.

Chelsea

When Romelu Lukaku was signed by Chelsea, I wrote a column in which I expressed a little concern for Thomas Tuchel’s comments on Lukaku’s style of play: “I think, with the exit of Olivier Giroud, we could use a player used to playing with their back to goal, whose strength is to keep possession from long balls.”

That struck as odd, because if you watched Lukaku thrive at Inter it would be hard to think of a more different striker profile to Giroud. Lukaku wasn’t just Inter’s top scorer and recorded the most shots on target; he created the most chances and completed the most dribbles too. No player in Serie A was involved in more moves that led to goals and yet Lukaku still ranked second for touches in the opposition penalty area. What Lukaku certainly wasn’t was a centre forward “playing with their back to goal…keeping possession from long balls.”

Lukaku is clearly not blameless here. He is out of form and out of confidence. He missed a decent chance against Manchester City and the decision to give an interview to Sky Italy was horribly misjudged. There’s also a perfectly reasonable argument that if you can’t adjust to playing for an elite club like Chelsea then the fault lies with you as much as them.

But watching him standing with his arm raised, desperate to receive the ball, and being targeted by long balls (he won no aerial duels against City on Saturday), you do wonder quite what Tuchel thought would happen? If Chelsea’s manager wanted a replacement for Giroud, why didn’t he sign one? Chris Wood just moved for £25m – he could have saved himself £72.5m.

With the relationship clearly strained – Tuchel used his post-match interview to call out Lukaku for losing possession – it’s hard to see how this fixes itself quickly. Either Tuchel changes his attacking strategy to one that suits Lukaku, Lukaku is forced to work within this same strategy or he reasons that Lukaku isn’t worth keeping faith with and leaves him out of the team. Which leaves Tuchel exactly where he started, wanting a striker to play as a target man. It’s all so utterly illogical.

And for all the focus on Lukaku, with Tuchel using him as a useful distraction in that post-match interview, Chelsea’s manager knows that he too must improve. It was hard to explain why he kept Hakim Ziyech and Christian Pulisic on for so long on Saturday (or started both at all). Chelsea have now played 10 matches against Brighton in ninth or higher this season. They have won only two of those games. That’s really not good enough, given the strength and depth of his squad.

Crystal Palace

Patrick Vieira’s Palace are emphatically still a work in progress. They were comprehensively outplayed by Brighton on Friday evening and there are a few issues that have dogged them all season: defending set pieces, exacerbating that by giving away free-kicks in the final third and making individual defensive mistakes.

But then you watch their goal on Friday and you are instantly convinced that it is all worth it. Palace got some excellent results under Roy Hodgson, who was warmly thanked for his work in consolidating them safely in Premier League mid-table, but they simply didn’t score 20-pass goals where every outfield player gets a touch of the ball. In those 60 seconds, we saw a glimpse of Palace’s potential future.

Everton

If you were being incredibly generous – probably to the point of wild optimism – you could congratulate Everton for taking a gamble on Rafael Benitez. They ignored the noise around his history with Liverpool and reasoned that they needed a steady hand to make a team resilient on a low budget, exactly what Benitez had achieved at Newcastle United.

But it was a foolish thought. The noise could never be escaped; Everton supporters were never likely to warm to Benitez. With their club forced into temporary austerity by their poor recruitment, fans needed a manager who distracted them from their concerns about the way the club was run. Benitez was the opposite.

But even given the difficulties of the position and the complications of his relationship with the supporters, Benitez has underperformed woefully. We – and maybe even the fans – would have forgiven him for pragmatic football, given the issues higher up his food chain. But Benitez made Everton worse defensively and the loss of Dominic Calvert-Lewin made them blunt in attack. He then fell out with one of the most popular players at the club, who has now been sold to a club that Everton supporters believe they at least should be able to match.

But, as ever, questions should be asked of those in positions of greater power at Everton. If appointing Benitez was a mistake (and it seemed several weeks ago that it was), why did Farhad Moshiri go onto Talksport to be so vocal about backing his manager? And if Benitez deserved the sack after the latest lamentable defeat, why on earth did Everton agree to sell Lucas Digne just because Benitez had fallen out with him and then spend £17m on another left-back who is highly unlikely to be as good?

These are the questions that Everton supporters are asking. Benitez has been a failure at Goodison; on that point there is no doubt. But he was also a useful distraction for those who appointed him. If they get the next appointment wrong, Everton really could be in a relegation fight.

Leeds United

There have been moments during this season when I’d happily concede that I have doubted whether Marcelo Bielsa was running out of hope at Leeds United. The demands of his football, combined with an intrinsic reluctance to use the transfer market and the complications of this Omicron-affected season persuaded me that they had run out of juice. There’s not much better in football than being made to look utterly stupid. It is always at its best when it surprises, teases and fools you.

Leeds were ravaged for the trip to West Ham. They had a full XI of senior players but many of them must be half-knackered given the workload and the injury absences that has made rotation almost impossible. But they pushed and they pressed and they harried and they hassled and they still had the composure to produce moments of brilliance. And even after their defensive slackness had threatened to ruin their chances of winning the game, they started again from scratch to surge on.

Forgive the hyperbole in the aftermath of one of the best matches of this Premier League season, but I simply refuse to believe you get that type of performance from any other manager in the bottom half. Some may inspire backs-to-the-wall resilience (Sean Dyche the most obvious name here); others stay true to their belief that football should be played on the floor even in the face of adversity. But none combine the two, with added intensity without the ball, quite like Bielsa. And that is why he has been such a wonderful addition to English football.

Leicester City

Game postponed because of absentees.

Liverpool

A regulation win which, given the circumstances surrounding the lack of Afcon players, Jurgen Klopp will be thoroughly delighted about. The vagaries of the calendar means that Sadio Mane and Mohamed Salah may only miss two Premier League games (Crystal Palace away comes on January 23). Ensuring safe passage through those games will enable Liverpool supporters to believe that they can still catch Manchester City.

But Klopp was always likely to enjoy home comforts. His team have dropped two points at Anfield against non-title challengers all season and have now won each of their last five home league games by an aggregate of 15-1.

And Klopp will be reassured – as he insisted in his programme notes – that Liverpool can thrive without Mane and Salah present. Of the 28 goals they have scored at Anfield since the 2-2 draw against Manchester City in October, that pair only scored seven of them. There’s your argument that it’s the two full-backs that are most important to Liverpool’s attacking success.

Manchester City

We shine a semi-constant light on Manchester City’s attacking brilliance, and Kevin de Bruyne’s winning goal was the headline moment of a match between supposed title rivals, but another triumphant league season is being founded upon Pep Guardiola’s defence not his attack. City are on course to score 93 league goals. Hardly a shabby total, but bettered by them in 2017/18, 2018/19 and 2019/20.

Almost a quarter of the league goals City have conceded this season came in that frantic 11-minute period against Leicester last month. Guardiola has turned Ruben Dias into one of the best central defenders in the world and yet their last 13 matches with John Stones and Aymeric Laporte starting together have seen City concede one goal. That was scored by Stones himself against Club Brugge in the Champions League.

Manchester City have faced 147 shots in the Premier League this season. Liverpool are the only other club in the division to have allowed fewer than 200 and they have an expected goals against total (a measure of the quality of chances they face) that is more than five below Liverpool. Against Chelsea on Saturday, they allowed their opponents to have one shot on target or fewer for the ninth time this season. Ederson, widely regarded as one of the best goalkeepers in the world this season, has only made 32 saves. You don’t even need your attack to be brilliant when you protect your own goal so well.

Manchester United

If Ralf Rangnick’s pressing plan was intended to make Manchester United more fluent in attack, winning possession high up the pitch and forcing turnovers that lead to high-quality chances with a short number of actions, the idea is that it would also make them stronger defensively. It’s a pretty simple equation: The more often you win the ball in the opponent’s half, the more you protect your central defenders and goalkeeper.

And like just about everything for Manchester United, it’s not really working. Over their last league games (against Newcastle, Burnley, Wolves and Aston Villa, hardly the most prolific teams in the division), United have allowed their opponents to have 26 shots on target. By way of comparison, Manchester City have faced 48 shots on target in the league all season. Against Villa on Saturday, United faced nine shots on target. The last time Manchester City allowed that many in a competitive game? November 21, 2015. They will not come close to fixing their problems until that changes.

It also appears to be a problem whoever plays in defence. Harry Maguire has come in for a huge amount of stick from United supporters on social media (which isn’t necessarily a good judge of the wider view), but Maguire wasn’t playing against Villa and there was certainly no improvement. And it’s worth pointing out that United have never kept a league clean sheet without him in the starting XI since he signed (admittedly over a fairly small sample size given his consistency of selection).

That suggests that this is a systemic issue rather than individuals, something that many supporters have been shouting for months as evidence for the need for a world-class holding midfielder. Why United are not paying the reported asking price of £6m for Denis Zakaria, even as a short-term option, is maddening.

A related statistic: Manchester United’s record when Nemanja Matic has started over the last 12 months – played 20, won five (against Newcastle twice, Granada, Burnley and Wolves), drawn eight, lost seven.

Newcastle United

Eddie Howe took over a fairly rotten situation at Newcastle. He inherited a squad down in the dumps and down on their luck but with the expectation that is inevitably borne out of a new takeover and a new appointment. Despite that expectation, this is the same squad other than the excellent Kieran Trippier and the goodness-only-knows-if-this-works Chris Wood and has only had two training sessions with both in tandem.

But we were also allowed to expect a little better than this. Howe has had home games against Brentford, Norwich, Burnley, Cambridge and Watford and won only one of them. Any hopes of a new manager, new owner bounce have been evaporated by that run of results. Newcastle are in just as much relegation trouble as they were before he arrived.

Newcastle’s problem all season has been failing to make the most of leads, dropping points when they needed to hold on. They have spurned 21 points from winning positions, more than the three teams above and below them combined.

This was an issue before Howe came in, but then surely that made it patently obvious that his first task was to try and iron out that problem. Against Watford on Saturday, a carbon copy of other matches. Newcastle sat back far too much and invited pressure that they were incapable of repelling. Howe admitted as much post-game, but it’s on him to find a solution.

There is still a fortnight left in the transfer window, but Newcastle’s owners are finding things equally difficult. They have still not appointed a director of football, leaving them scratching around for loan deals (Premier League clubs are seemingly unwilling to negotiate at reasonable prices) or paying bumper release clauses. Reports suggest that transfer targets want contract clauses that allow escape if relegation occurs, leaving Newcastle wondering about the mindset of players who might already have one eye on a route out of the club.

Norwich City

We will reserve judgement on whether this was the start of a Norwich revival or simply them being marginally better than a shambolic Everton side who promptly sacked their manager until after the trip to Norwich on Friday evening, but Dean Smith will at least be mightily relieved to have ended a dismal run of scoreless defeats.

For all the misery of those six straight losses, Norwich have never been cut adrift because the quality of the current bottom four is so pitifully low. Win against Watford and take a point from their home game against Crystal Palace and Smith’s team may well be outside the bottom three. That is now the necessary aim.

Southampton

There are conclusions to make about Adam Armstrong’s desperate struggles to replace Danny Ings as Southampton’s goalscoring threat and a continuation of the point about the away form under Ralph Hasenhuttl but given the handsome win over Brentford in midweek and the victory at West Ham before it, we can park those for now.

Instead let’s just make a bold statement that stands up to plenty of scrutiny: James Ward-Prowse is currently the best free-kick taker in world football. Saturday’s effort was something different, raw power to match the whip and curl he usually imparts upon his dead-ball deliveries.

Tottenham

Game postponed because of absentees.

Watford

Watford supporters firmly believe that Joao Pedro is one of the Premier League’s hidden gems, and you can see why. At 19, he played over 2,700 minutes during their Championship promotion season. Pedro has largely had to make do with substitute appearances after Watford’s recruitment over the summer, but he produced several excellent mini-displays and is still only 20.

Of all Watford’s regulars this season – measured by shot-creating actions – Cucho Hernandez ranks first with 3.8 per 90. Just behind him, and ahead of Ismaila Sarr, Emmanuel Dennis, Josh King and others, comes Pedro. His header against Newcastle in the dying embers of their must-not-lose league game could genuinely be season-changing.

West Ham

Sunday did not mark the end of West Ham’s pursuit of a top-four place, but it does offer persuasive evidence of why they will fall short if they are to pursue glory in the two cup competitions (and that really should be their focus now). This squad is too light on strength in depth to sustain them on all three fronts.

Against Leeds, that was most obvious in central defence. Issa Diop looked an excellent prospect when he arrived at West Ham, but his form has tailed off and the temporary loss of Kurt Zouma to injury has upset the balance of the defence. David Moyes’ substitution of Diop was cheered by home supporters – more than a little harsh and probably unhelpful – but his performance proves how much West Ham suffer when one or two key players are out injured.

Declan Rice was superhuman in his attempts to do three or four different jobs, but he too must be getting leggy. Jarrod Bowen missed a late chance but has played 90 minutes in each of his last 11 appearances. Michail Antonio’s energy levels are being pushed to the brink. And the game-changing substitutes were Arthur Masuaku, Andriy Yarmolenko and 17-year-old Sonny Perkins. A couple of players arriving in the next fortnight – striker and centre-back – would do wonders.

Wolves

Bruno Lage always insisted that the goals would come. Wolves had become the binary champions of the Premier League thanks to their excellent defending and poor chance conversion, but their creativity merited plenty more returns than Lage believed that the law of averages would soon fall on his side.

That’s borne out by the statistics. Wolves have an expected goals total of 20.7 this season, suggesting that by the quality of their chances we would have expected them to have scored four more than their total of 17. They also have an issue with where their shots are taken from; only three clubs have an average shot distance further away from goal. The final ball has often let them down as well as their finishing.

And yet this was a win achieved in entirely illogical fashion. Wolves managed only nine shots against a Southampton side that has constantly struggled to defend their box away from home and actually faced double the number of shots on target they managed themselves. Rather than wasting chances, they suddenly became efficient and scored with a third of their attempts. Lage will hope to find a middle ground from now on, but Wolves are now a point behind Manchester United having played the same number of games.

It’s also worth pointing out that Wolves were severely low on numbers on Saturday. They gave a debut to Toti and had six players on the bench who share six minutes of Premier League experience between them. Good on them for ploughing on rather than requesting the postponement.

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Newcastle United remain interested in Bournemouth’s Lloyd Kelly, with the Premier League outfit set to offer a deal for the 23-year-old regardless of what level of football they will be ... Read more »