PL hits and misses: Moyes rewarded for attacking style
Monday’s win at Burnley was a huge moment for West Ham. With Chelsea and Tottenham both winning in superb fashion over the week, the spotlight was on the Hammers as they continue to push for a European spot.
David Moyes was honest from the start that West Ham would be going for all-out attack at Turf Moor. He made five changes to his starting XI, three of which came in attack with Manuel Lanzini, Said Benrahma and Michail Antonio.
And all three players were nothing short on sensational – Antonio scored twice and was awarded the Sky Sports Man of the Match award, while Benrahma nabbed an assist and both players should have added more. Lanzini was also on the cusp of a goal, but his overall play was outstanding.
Moyes has built up a repertoire of incredible attacking talent in his squad – we haven’t even mentioned Jesse Lingard, Jarrod Bowen or Tomas Soucek. West Ham also registered an eye-watering 22 shots at Turf Moor and were scintillating on the counter-attack.
West Ham have four kind fixtures to secure themselves a European spot, and it looks like they are opting for an attacking approach. The return of Declan Rice will also shore things up in midfield and give them more stability as the surge forward.
But as Jamie Carragher said on Monday Night Football: “If they get into the Europa League, it’s still fantastic, but the chance for West Ham to get into the Champions League? Go for it!”
Gareth Bale was unplayable in Tottenham’s 4-0 win over Sheffield United and took his Premier League tally to eight goals in the last eight games, but with that must come a sense of what might have been this season.
The Welshman was alarmingly under-used by former boss Jose Mourinho, even when he had regained peak condition, and playing with freedom in a front four with Harry Kane, Heung-Min Son and Dele Alli, Spurs were a constant threat and a far cry from the pragmatic style that dogged Mourinho’s era.
After scoring his first Tottenham hat-trick since 2012, Bale told Sky Sports: “It’s always nice to get another hat-trick and another match ball.
“I remember my last hat-trick – Villa away I think. It was a while ago and it’s nice to get a hat-trick, but more importantly it’s three points for the team and we move on to the next one.
“It was a great performance by everyone especially Serge [Aurier, who provided two assists]. I said if it was three assists he could have the match ball.
“Winning always makes everyone happy and gives a winning mentality to the dressing room. It’s not going to happen overnight but I feel like we’re taking a step in the right direction.
“Obviously you have to take your chances when they come, and thankfully I had a few tonight. I’m feeling good. As I’ve said before I just needed to play games and get a run of games and I’m doing that now, so I’m happy and when I’m happy I normally play well.”
Wolves’ season has been a challenging one and the news that Willy Boly could be suffering the effects of long Covid adds to the feeling of frustration that Nuno Espirito Santo has been unable to field his first-choice starting line-up even once since the season began in September.
Boly was among a list of absentees that also included Raul Jimenez, Jonny, Pedro Neto and Joao Moutinho – arguably Wolves’ five best players – for the Black Country derby against West Brom. As a result, it will have heartened Nuno that the younger performers did well in his team’s 1-1 draw at the Hawthorns.
Being without five players should not be disastrous to a side’s ambitions but this Wolves squad is smaller than most. The trio of players brought in for the game that means most to supporters had just nine league starts in English football between them. But these three combined for Wolves’ goal.
Owen Otasowie fed Vitinha who flicked the ball forward before Fabio Silva was able to deflect the ball into the West Brom net. With Rayan Ait-Nouri also impressing at left-back, Wolves started the game with four players born since the turn of the century.
There are only two other teams that have started four such players in total all season let alone in the same match. Wolves have given starts to seven players in that age bracket during the campaign, far more than any other side.
It is a reminder of why there is a need for a bit of patience at Molineux. This season might have seemed like a backward step but these players will be stronger for this experience. The potential for growth is obvious.
Nine years ago, Sergio Aguero wrote his name into football folklore with his 93.20 goal to win Manchester City their first Premier League title and has continued to be their ‘Mr Reliable’ ever since.
On Saturday, he did it again – albeit in far less dramatic circumstances. Man City had laboured in the first half, struggling to find that spark to edge them closer to Premier League glory.
He had showed signs of the incredible talent he possess, but his control and finish from Benjamin’s Mendy superb cross was world class. Aguero also had a role in the build-up to Ferran Torres’ goal 83 seconds later.
“There’s nothing we can compare to that moment for Manchester City in 2012,” Guardiola said. “But he’s shown again what he has shown all his career, many times – what a goal, what a player, what a man.”
Aguero has once again helped Man City to put one hand on the trophy – they need just two points from four games to clinch their latest Premier League crown.
With just a few months left of his decade at Man City, Aguero will be hoping to contribute as many goals as possible to achieve success for the club – could he perform similar heroics to 2012 in a Champions League final, perhaps? It would certainly be a fitting end to a glittering Man City career.
One thing is for sure though, whoever snaps Aguero up on a free this summer will be getting a striker who still has bags of skill, talent and goals, just as he demonstrated on Saturday.
“He’s an absolutely top legend, extraordinary player, behaving as the most humble and nicest human being and it’s not easy to find that. That’s why I love him as a man,” Guardiola added.
“Hopefully he can go in the place he wants to be and play the last years of his career in a high level. I never will forget it, he helped me a lot and it’s a pleasure to work with him.”
Thomas Tuchel would have been forgiven for having an eye on Wednesday’s Champions League semi-final second leg with Real Madrid, but he was adamant, despite making five pre-match alterations, that Chelsea focus lied solely on Saturday’s derby with Fulham.
It was the kind of statement managers make time and again, one they almost have to minutes before a game, but any suggestion his comments were said for effect were dispelled by another flawless Chelsea performance.
Yes Tuchel made five changes, but Chelsea’s level of performance was just as ruthless and clinical as they have been since the German took the reins at Stamford Bridge.
Fulham’s fast start was extinguished by a moment of magic from Mason Mount and a cool finish from Kai Havertz, who killed off the game and doubled his Premier League goals tally with a second early after the break.
Chelsea enjoyed a measure of control throughout which allowed them to keep Fulham at arm’s length with relative ease and, crucially, left plenty in reserve ahead of the midweek showdown with the 13-time European champions.
If the victory over Fulham was symptomatic of Tuchel’s transformation of Chelsea, then Madrid’s visit to west London presents the German with the opportunity to secure a tangible reward for his efforts.
The case for the defence…
Chelsea boss Thomas Tuchel has kept more clean sheets (11) than any other manager in Premier League history from their first 15 games in charge in the competition (overtaking Mourinho and Scolari, 10 each from their first 15).
It may have come too late for Aston Villa to generate enough momentum towards snatching a European spot, but in beating Everton 2-1, Ollie Watkins could yet cap a memorable first season in the Premier League with a place in Gareth Southgate’s England squad for this summer’s European Championships.
Watkins produced a hugely impressive display at Goodison Park, bullying Mason Holgate for his 15th club goal in all competitions and the striker showed good improvisation to very nearly score a second during an intriguing individual battle with Jordan Pickford.
Indeed, the striker has scored 13 goals in the Premier League this season – only one Englishman has scored more for Aston Villa in a single season in the competition (Julian Joachim, 14 in 1998/99).
Were it not for Pickford, Villa would have held a commanding lead before half-time. Watkins wasn’t alone in impressing, but manager Dean Smith reserved special praise for the man he also managed at Brentford.
“He was very good tonight and very difficult to handle. It’s what we paid a lot of money for. I knew how good he was, and I knew what he’s like as a person, wanting to grow and get better. I thought he was outstanding. He pickpocketed the defender well to score his goal and Pickford regained parity with some of the saves he made as well.”
This was another hugely frustrating night at Goodison for Everton, who must iron out the mistakes in their final five Premier League games if they are to retain any hope of securing a European berth. The Toffees have won just one of their last 10 home league games, with that victory coming against Southampton in March.
It is hard for Carlo Ancelotti to put a finger on why the performances on the road cannot be mirrored back on Merseyside.
“We weren’t good enough,” the Italian said. “It was completely different from the last game we played against Arsenal with more concentration, more spirit and more attitude. The start of the game was really bad and there were a lot of poor passes.
“We had opportunities but we also conceded a lot and in the end we deserved to lose and so it’s difficult to say why we have this kind of home run. It’s a completely different team with a completely different attitude.”
Only Sheffield United and Fulham have lost more Premier League home games than Everton (eight), whose away record is only bettered by Manchester City. Huge lapses in concentration ultimately cost them against an Aston Villa side who looked better prepared.
With James Rodriguez injured in the warm-up, Everton lacked balance. Andre Gomes is easing his way back to full fitness, but he was again wasteful in possession as the hosts struggled to gain a foothold. Ancelotti arrived with a 60 per cent win record as a manager, but he is finding out the size of his task in turning Everton into a side befitting of his illustrious career.
When pressed on the impact of Rodriguez’s absence, Ancelotti added: “He had a little problem and wasn’t comfortable to play. But I think he’s going to be OK in the next game. We had some individual mistakes, but the team spirit and the team work wasn’t good enough.”
An impeccable chested pass back to his goalkeeper Robert Sanchez – that drew comparisons with Paolo Maldini from some quarters – on 74 minutes triggered a thought: why isn’t Gareth Southgate watching Lewis Dunk?
Conor Coady seems to be the likely back-up for John Stones and Harry Maguire at the Euros due to his ability to play at the heart of a back three. But Dunk is equally, if not more, effective at such role judged on his performances in the second half of this season. He is the leader in the best defence of sides in the bottom nine, conceding 39 goals and has kept six clean sheets in their last eight home games.
He was absolutely faultless in this victory over Leeds, marking Patrick Bamford out of the game, who failed to have a shot at goal, and repelling everything Leeds mustered in his direction. When you consider the lack of options in the centre of England’s defence, how he only has one cap for his country is a mystery.
Brighton boss Graham Potter, usually so reserved, was beaming in his assessment of his skipper: “His performance was sensational,” he said.
“I haven’t seen him play as well as that. He’s been so consistent at a high level. How he leads the line, he was amazing today.”
Stranger things have happened than West Ham pipping Leicester to a top-four place in the final five games of the season. The gap to the Foxes could be reduced to five points by the end of the weekend, with a hard run-in to follow for Brendan Rodgers’ side.
The Leicester manager’s sense of deja vu will not have been aided by the Foxes failing to take advantage of by far their easiest remaining game at Southampton on Friday night, especially when said opponent has won only two out of 15 games, and even more especially when they are forced to play for more than 80 minutes with 10 men.
Trips to Manchester United and Chelsea are still to come, plus the distraction – and fatigue – of an FA Cup final appearance, and it is not too late for Leicester’s bubble to burst for the second season in a row.
“The football they have played has been so good, but after their wobble last year you are just concerned whether it could happen again,” Jamie Redknapp said on Friday Night Football after their draw at St Mary’s, but added a word of encouragement: “I think this team is too good this year and have learned from last season’s mistakes.”
Worries about fourth spot missing out on Champions League qualification would need Chelsea to finish outside the top four, meaning West Ham would likely have to finish in third position for Leicester to be in trouble – even in David Moyes’ wildest dreams that seems a stretch.
But the Foxes can draw on one note of positivity. It’s difficult to praise a side dropping points against the most out-of-form team in the division but let’s look at it from a very low bar – Leicester’s run-in last season.
It’s quite possible that at this stage in 2019/20, when the Foxes won only two of their final eight games to miss out on the Champions League, that after falling behind to James Ward-Prowse’s penalty on the hour mark, they might not have had enough enough character to dig their way past low block and dogged defending of Southampton.
It took fight, and it took persistence. And yes, it still lacked quality and creativity, but mental strength is needed in spades in this part of a campaign. Especially when you’ve got trips to Old Trafford, Stamford Bridge and Wembley still to come.
Fulham were brushed aside by Chelsea with the minimum of fuss in the west London derby and it leaves their Premier League status hanging by a thread.
The 2-0 defeat leaves Scott Parker’s side in 18th place, nine points adrift of Newcastle and Burnley having crucially played a game more than their relegation rivals. And with just 12 points left to play for it’s a really tall order for Fulham.
However, Parker still believes his side can give themselves a chance of survival… he has to, but he also knows how difficult it will be for his side.
When asked what Fulham need from their final four games to survive, Parker said: “Four wins. It can be done. We have to win four games. What I do know is that if we keep this level we have chance of beating Burnley, then beating Southampton, Man Utd and then Newcastle. Of course, it is difficult.”
Fulham remain winless in their last 24 Premier League London derbies (D5 L19), since a 2-1 victory against West Ham in January 2014 – in top-flight history, only Crystal Palace have endured a longer winless run in London derbies (31 games between August 1969 – March 1973).
It’s admirable stuff from Parker considering Fulham have never won four Premier League games in a row.
“That is the challenge for us,” the Fulham boss added. “I understand it. But anyone who watched this game today will see a team who wanted to win. I know we can win four games and that is our aim. It would be some escape, but we’ve seen it before.
“People will laugh at their screens and think I’m living in cuckooland. Maybe I am. But until that curtain comes down, we will see.”
He may be the only person who believes, but what is certain is Parker will give it his all and demand the same from his side until relegation is confirmed.