PL hits and misses: Ronaldo reminds Rangnick what he offers
Don’t ever bet against Cristiano Ronaldo. After a week of intense scrutiny, a week in which his Manchester United future had been called into question, he offered the watching Ralf Rangnick a reminder of his enduring power to bend matches to his will.
Four days on from being dropped by caretaker manager Michael Carrick for Manchester United’s 1-1 draw with Chelsea at Stamford Bridge, the 36-year-old marked his return to the starting line-up with the 800th and 801st goals of his extraordinary career.
His first of the night, swept home from Marcus Rashford’s cut-back, gave Manchester United the lead early in the second half but it was his second, smashed home from the penalty spot after Martin Odegaard had levelled for Arsenal, which proved decisive.
His double takes Manchester United within touching distance of the top four and takes him to 12 goals for the season in all competitions – and that’s excluding the five he has scored for Portugal. After West Ham, Villarreal and Atalanta, this was just the latest game in which he has made all the difference.
The stylistic questions will endure. He is not a natural fit for Rangnick’s preferred brand of high-intensity, high-pressing football. But as long as he continues to win matches single-handedly, perhaps it is Rangnick, not Ronaldo, who will need to adapt.
A degree of inconsistency is inevitable for Arsenal given the youthful make-up of their side this season. Against Manchester United, they fielded seven starters aged 23 or under and brought two more off the bench as they chased the game in the second half.
But while fluctuations in form are all part of the learning process for Nuno Tavares, Bukayo Saka and others, they are more difficult to accommodate in the cases of Thomas Partey and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. Arsenal need more from their senior players.
Partey has shown flashes of his undoubted talent this season but all too often he drifts in and out of games and Thursday’s trip to Old Trafford was one of those occasions.
Manchester United’s midfield is hardly their biggest strength but Partey struggled to get a grip on an area of the pitch he should have dominated, suffering frequent lapses of concentration both in and out of possession.
The same was true of Aubameyang, who had five shots but lacked conviction with all of them. It is now five games without a goal for the Arsenal captain and he offered little in general play either, touching the ball fewer times (28) than any other outfield starter.
Arsenal found themselves in an excellent position after Emile Smith Rowe’s early opener, but at a time when they needed their most experienced players to step up and steady things, they instead allowed Manchester United to seize the initiative.
If Arsenal are to have a genuine hope of achieving a Champions League finish this season, they will need Partey and Aubameyang to start performing on a far more consistent basis.
Antonio Conte’s short reign at Tottenham has been eye-opening to say the least.
Defeat at NS Mura in the Europa Conference League prompted a startling admission from Nuno Espirito Santo’s successor that the players he inherited are not at the level required to fulfil the objectives with which he’s been tasked by the Spurs hierarchy.
The January transfer window, and the opportunity to reinforce his squad, remains eight arduous December games away, but in the interim the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium is already proving to be a fortress from which the Italian’s team can build.
Spurs drew a line under their shambolic showing in Slovenia with victory over Brentford on Thursday night, as the 2-0 triumph ensured Conte maintained his 100 per cent record on home soil.
Tottenham have won all three of their home matches under Conte in all competitions, a feat the previous three managers – Jose Mourinho, Ryan Mason, and Nuno – all managed in their first three games, but now he has to push on to a level his predecessors were unable to reach.
Make no mistake, Spurs remain some distance from the finished article, but an encouraging performance against Brentford, which leaves the north London club just two points outside the top four, certainly inspired hope that this manager may just be the right one.
Chelsea dropped two points against Manchester United on Sunday, but this was two points fortuitously gained. Having made six changes, frankly, they got away with one.
Thomas Tuchel described this as “unlike” Chelsea, and it’s difficult not to agree, given their personnel.
Saul Niguez was given the chance to redeem himself after a forgettable debut against Aston Villa in September, but put in an almost identical performance. He was subbed off at the break with just 50 per cent passing accuracy in the opposition half, having given the ball away six times, gained it just once, and won just two of his eight duels. On loan for the season, Premier League football may well pass the Spaniard by.
And while Ruben Loftus-Cheek was solid, it’s worth remembering Chelsea were without their three best midfielders on Wednesday night in N’Golo Kante, Jorginho and Mateo Kovacic.
Tuchel was scathing afterwards: “It’s one thing to win or lose challenges, but we did not even find them.”
Winning having not played well: the sign of champions? It depends which way you look at it.
On the one hand, Manchester City and Liverpool look mesmerising, and this feels like another 90+ point season where playing badly isn’t tolerated. On the other hand, Chelsea haven’t fielded their best XI for a number of weeks and still sit top.
Andrew Robertson’s pass was slightly behind Diogo Jota but it did not matter. The Portuguese simply checked his run, stretched out a leg to hook the ball past Allan, then slammed an unstoppable finish past Jordan Pickford from close to the byline.
The goal mattered little in the context of the result. Liverpool were already out of sight at 3-1. But it turned a comfortable derby win into a rout and it also underlined the brilliance of a player who looks right at home alongside Mohamed Salah in Liverpool’s attack.
In truth, Jota has done ever since his £41m arrival from Wolves last summer. Many scoffed at the fee. The consensus was that Liverpool had overpaid for a player who was talented but inconsistent. Now, though, it is difficult to view it as anything other than a bargain.
Jota’s goal was his fourth in his last three appearances and his eighth in the Premier League this season, putting him third in the scoring charts behind only team-mate Salah, whose tally now stands at 13, and Jamie Vardy, who has hit nine for Leicester.
His numbers were similarly impressive despite his injury troubles last season.
In fact, with 17 goals in 32 Premier League appearances for Liverpool in total, he is averaging one for every 120 minutes minutes played – an even better strike rate than Salah, who has averaged a goal every 124 minutes in the same timeframe.
It’s not just goals he’s bringing to the side either. Against Everton, nobody won more duels (11) or completed more dribbles (three). He ranked top for chances created too (three). Everton could not live with Salah but the same was true of Jota.
Salah remains Liverpool’s superstar, of course, but at 24, five years younger than his Egyptian team-mate, Jota is showing it might not be long until he enjoys the same status.
What now for Everton and Rafael Benitez? Their 4-1 thrashing by Liverpool sent supporters streaming towards the exits long before the final whistle at Goodison Park and those who braved it out until the bitter end could be heard booing when it was all over.
They are entitled to be angry. A season which started promisingly is threatening to fall apart. It’s now eight games without a win. Benitez could only watch their latest defeat, inflicted in brutal style by his former club, with his arms outstretched on the touchline.
He is under mounting pressure and understandably so given the nature of their recent performances.
Everton rallied briefly on Wednesday night but the gulf was huge. Liverpool’s quality was too much and they ruthlessly exploited the hosts’ lack of defensive organisation. The scoreline was bad but it could have been worse.
It remains to be seen how long Benitez will last but there can be no doubt he has been dealt a difficult hand, the shallowness of his squad summed up by his first substitution, when Salomon Rondon, a 32-year-old free transfer, was replaced by Anthony Gordon, a 20-year-old academy graduate with only 10 Premier League starts behind him.
Rondon battled gamely and Gordon is a talented young player with a bright future ahead of him, but neither is at the level required for a game of this magnitude right now and the same can said of many others in the squad.
The problem, of course, is that past errors have left the club hamstrung by financial fair play. Benitez was unable to adequately strengthen a squad that desperately needed it in the summer and injuries have exposed the lack of depth. Benitez is under-performing, undoubtedly, but removing him will not solve Everton’s problems.
Bernardo Silva is in the form of his life!
The Portugal international produced another standout performance in Man City’s 2-1 hard-fought victory at Aston Villa and to cap it off he produced one of the goals of the season.
The goal, which came just before half-time, was a sensational, ruthless, move from the champions.
It started when Riyad Mahrez and Joao Cancelo delicately played their way out of a tight space inside their own area for Fernandinho to release Jesus.
The Brazilian’s early cross picked out Bernardo and the forward put the gloss on the stunning counter with a brilliant first-time volley which flew past Martinez from 18 yards.
It was a goal that left even Pep Guardiola laughing on the sidelines. “He is a player on another level,” said Guardiola after the win at Villa Park.
He has scored four goals in his last seven Premier League appearances, as many as in his previous 55 for Manchester City.
And in the absence of Kevin De Bruyne, Phil Foden and Jack Grealish, who was jeered on his return to Aston Villa when he came on as very late substitute, he has shown his importance to City’s title chances this season once again.
It has been a pretty frustrating season for Leicester so far. Their lack of consistency has seen dreams of returning to the Champions League turn into a mid-table scrap, and their performance at Southampton epitomised the rollercoaster season they are having.
It was a very slow start from the Foxes as Southampton out-played them in the first period. Their set-piece frailties were again widely exposed with the Saints scoring from their first two corners and ended the half with six of their nine shots being on target.
But as the case has been a few times this season, the second half was far better. Kiernan Dewsbury-Hall came on and sparked life into a disjointed Leicester, with James Maddison also picking up where he left off against Watford.
Leicester should have won it late in the half, with Harvey Barnes seeing an effort saved by Alex McCarthy before an almost anonymous Jamie Vardy fired an effort over from an area we have seen him score from dozens of times before.
On the balance of play, a draw was probably right, but Brendan Rodgers did describe it as “two points dropped” based on the second-half performance.
Discussing the issues his side had in the first half, the Leicester manager added: “It’s a lack of concentration [slow starts in the first half], it’s a lack of aggression in key moments of the game and that’s what hurts us at times. The two goals were really poor goals to concede and it just comes from not being aggressive enough and a lack of concentration.”
Leicester face a huge task next week when they travel to Napoli in the Europa League, needing a win to secure their status as group winners. But if they have any aspirations of another European adventure next season, they must start finding consistency at home.
Oddly, especially when you consider just how hard they were to beat at Elland Road last season, Leeds United have really struggled at home so far in this campaign – in fact, heading into Tuesday night’s clash with Crystal Palace, Marcelo Bielsa’s side had actually picked up more points on the road, which would partly explain their struggles so far in the Premier League.
So you could feel the relief around the famous old ground when Raphinha kept his cool from the spot to slot home a 93rd-minute penalty to hand his team a crucial three points that lifted them away from the relegation zone.
The hosts may not have played well and still look a shadow of the team that surprised so many by finishing ninth in their first campaign back in the top flight last season, but you get the feeling this win may prove to be the catalyst for a return to fortress Elland Road.
And if that is the case, then surely their current struggles near the foot of the table will be over.
With just over ten minutes to play, Newcastle were on course for their first three points of the season. There was little to be done about Teemu Pukki’s superb equaliser, but it will be disappointing for Eddie Howe and his side.
Newcastle were almost the masters of their own downfall on Tuesday. Ciaran Clark’s poor clearance and then tackle saw him sent off inside ten minutes, but credit to his team-mates for not letting it affect them too much.
They kept Norwich at arm’s length and kept it at a fairly even contest. Clark’s replacement, Federico Fernandez, did well coming in at centre-back at such short notice.
But late on, his defensive partner Fabian Schar gifted the ball to Pierre Lees-Melou, who was only denied by Martin Dubravka’s outstretched foot. In the final moments of the game, a Norwich winner would have been incredibly harsh on Newcastle. They deserved their point.
A draw may not be the ideal result – but it is another point on the board, just maybe don’t look too far above.
Newcastle manager Howe said: “We know we need wins, draws aren’t going to be enough. But I think all you can do in every game is give your all and I think you saw a group of players who gave that tonight. I couldn’t ask any more of those players who committed to the task ahead so I have to be very proud and pleased with them tonight.”
And there was plenty of Newcastle heart on Tuesday. But very quickly, it needs to be turned into points to avoid a return to the Championship.
The good news for Wolves is that they have kept three consecutive clean sheets. Burnley did not even draw a save from Jose Sa until deep into the second half. The problem is that Nick Pope had little more to do at the other end in this Molineux stalemate.
That is back-to-back goalless draws for Bruno Lage’s side against Norwich and Burnley – two teams that remain in the Premier League relegation zone. Wolves had 16 shots in this one but still lacked that cutting edge. Get bodies behind the ball and they find it tough.
Adama Traore continues to walk that tightrope between solution and problem. He was the most dangerous man on the pitch, his driving runs from deep wowing the crowd but that goal somehow eludes him. His fierce shot hit the underside of Nick Pope’s crossbar.
There were one or two boos at the final whistle but mainly silence as supporters trudged away into the Wolverhampton night. They know their team was the one pushing. They know that Wolves remain sixth in the Premier League table. It has been a good start.
But Lage has been making reference to this daunting run of fixtures that now awaits them for some time. Wolves play the top three teams in the country in their next four with away trips to Manchester United and Arsenal not long after that. It will not get easier.
Football truly is a funny old game at times.
With the clock approaching 90 minutes and Brighton 1-0 down at West Ham and very much down to 10-men after Adam Lallana became their third player to leave the field injured, Neal Maupay’s night at that point was going to be sleepless – again.
Following on from his wasteful performance in front of goal against Leeds, where he spurned chance after chance, his confidence looked rock bottom at the London Stadium. The endeavour was there but that killer instinct quality was lacking as shown by his poorly executed effort after just two minutes that missed the target.
However, the football gods work in mysterious ways sometimes. Tariq Lamptey, bright as a button from the bench, delivered a hopeful cross that gave Maupay a sniff of goal that was a much harder finish than all of his previous six shots over the last two Premier League fixtures. But this was to be the one he’d stick away, leaping sensationally to produce a magical overhead kick that flew into the top corner. A point rescued for draw-specialists Brighton. That’s seven stalemates in their last nine fixtures.
Seagulls boss Graham Potter said: “Neal had a difficult game against Leeds, even though his performance was good. If you miss a chance and it’s 0-0 the environment is tough. But he was always going to stay on today and it’s really good for him to get the goal. It shows how you can go from villain to hero.”
It was a strange result for Norwich at St James’ Park. Yes, a draw away at Newcastle is nothing to be sniffed at, especially after going behind early in the second half.
But they had a man advantage which they never really took advantage of. Against an already depleted Newcastle defence, which had to be changed inside ten minutes, Norwich could have made far more of the situation. Then again they do say it can be harder to play against ten men than 11.
Perhaps the most worrying aspect of Norwich’s performance, though, was a glaring lack of quality. Not necessarily in personnel – there is some real talent in the Canaries squad – but their lack of big chances was of their own doing.
Passes went awry as they tried to build pressure around the Newcastle area – the ball went out of play on a far too regular basis. Very little was created – only six of their 16 shots were on target – and it was telling that Teemu Pukki’s equaliser was with his first shot of the game in the 79th minute.
Manager Dean Smith said after the game: “We didn’t do enough to win the game because we didn’t show enough quality, in all honesty.
“I felt like we were a little bit pedestrian on the ball, we needed to be quick. It wasn’t until the goal that we scored that we moved the ball with any kind of tempo and pace. Teemu scored a wonderful goal but we didn’t do enough of that after the sending off. Because of that, we never got enough big chances.”
Norwich are now unbeaten under Smith, but there is a long road ahead – especially after Leeds won against Crystal Palace – and the quality needs to increase quickly and dramatically to avoid another relegation.