PL hits & misses: End of road for Ronaldo? Nunez shows potential
Cristiano Ronaldo has a habit of grabbing the headlines, but not even his sulking departure could detract from another encouraging stride in the right direction taken by Erik ten Hag’s players.
Ronaldo, an unused substitute, was unhappy with the watching brief he was handed as goals from Fred and Bruno Fernandes earned a deserved 2-0 victory over Tottenham, but when United perform to such a high level his frustrations are baseless.
From start to finish, United took a poor Spurs side to task, demonstrating their continued adaptation to Ten Hag’s methods with an attacking display as comprehensive as any seen at Old Trafford in memory, let alone since the Dutchman took charge.
United’s 28 attempts on goal was the most by any side in a Premier League match this season, the most Antonio Conte had ever conceded in his top-flight managerial career, and had it not been for the heroics of Hugo Lloris, the scoreline would have been just as emphatic.
With Ronaldo on the bench against Liverpool, Arsenal and now Spurs, games United have won with increasing proficiency, it’s clear the club’s transition to life without the Portuguese is already underway. His petulance will only speed that up.
Tottenham could have gone second with a point at Old Trafford. The problem is that too often Spurs can seem like a team playing for just that in these big games. Sometimes it works and it is an Antonio Conte masterclass. When it doesn’t, the complaints come.
This was a miserable night for the Italian and his team. The seemingly defensive switch to 3-5-2 had worked well in the second half against Everton. Yves Bissouma’s inclusion freed up Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg and Rodrigo Bentancur to join the attacks more regularly.
It did not work against Manchester United. Conte’s team conceded 28 shots – the most by any team in a Premier League game this season. The most that a Conte side has conceded in a top-flight game – and there have been 318 of them in England and Italy.
But in another sense, this outlier has become a theme. So far this season, they have picked up results efficiently enough against the rest but whenever Tottenham have been faced with a stronger opponent, the deficiencies are all too apparent. Conte sees it.
“The table is good but every time we play a high-level game we struggle,” he said afterwards. “Against Chelsea we drew, but we have to be honest. Against Arsenal we lost. Today against United we lost. For sure, when the level is high we are going to struggle.”
It may be that this reflects the limitations of the squad. Conte pointed to “simple mistakes” being the reason for this defeat. But his detractors might point instead to the paucity of his attacking ambition. Against United, that reactive approach was punished again.
After an action-packed cameo from the bench against Manchester City on Sunday, Darwin Nunez showed from the start against West Ham that he, like his team, is starting to find form.
The Uruguayan made a big impact when he arrived on Merseyside, scoring in the Community Shield win over City and then causing problems and finding the net against Fulham. But his red card against Crystal Palace was derailing. Now though, he looks to be rediscovering his confidence.
His third goal in his last four appearances was a forceful header into the ground and past Lukasz Fabianski in the West Ham goal. It led to Jurgen Klopp describing Nunez as “a real weapon” in the air but, as the Liverpool boss pointed out, this is a player with so many attributes and who can be a threat from all angles and many distances.
Fabianski experienced that early on in Wednesday’s match, with a first-time dig from the edge of the area from Nunez forcing him into a sharp stop. The striker also tested the keeper from a tight angle soon after his goal, before launching a shot against the post late in that first half.
He’s the kind of player you can’t take your eyes off. Klopp called him “an exceptional talent” after the game. “We’re really excited about it,” said the Liverpool boss before explaining Nunez’s substitution was about protecting the 23-year-old from a potential hamstring problem. It was a reminder that Nunez – despite his huge price tag – has developing to do. But, clearly, the potential is huge.
Chelsea maintained their unbeaten run under Graham Potter but had to settle for a point against a Brentford side that continues to punch above its weight through Thomas Frank.
This turned out to be a bit of a damp squib of a derby without goalless, but in keeping an in-form Chelsea at bay and creating the better of the chances, Frank may well rue a missed opportunity of making it back-to-back wins over their west London neighbours for the first time in 80 years.
Potter was forced into a triple change in the second period owing to the problems Brentford were causing his side, who possessed a distinct lack of cutting edge up front.
Here, the hosts outran their opponents – 101.9km to 94.2km – while they also produced more sprints – 120 to 88. The work rate of this side under Frank, spurred on by the packed house, is one of the reasons why the club are desperate for the Dane to sign a new deal at the Gtech Community Stadium.
“Whichever team comes here, they respect us which is a good thing,” said Frank. “We need to stay humble about it because we need to put in a performance every single time. The performance gives us so much confidence for when we play again.
“The opposition don’t have any magic sauce or drink so we knew we could match them for intensity, but of course we need to be tactically adaptable in the Premier League. I’ve done it a few times this season [changed formation], and the game is moving more in this direction.”
This week marked four years since Frank took over from Dean Smith as Bees boss and initial talks on improved terms are progressing to detract potential suitors.
Leicester and Brighton are just two of the clubs reportedly impressed by his management style. His contract until 2025 currently includes a buy-out clause, possibly as low as £3m.
David Raya produced five saves to frustrate Chelsea, but it is the organisation Frank has fostered from back to front which was behind a fourth clean sheet of the season.
Graham Potter handed opportunities to two of Chelsea’s rising stars against Brentford, giving Armando Broja his first start and throwing on Carney Chukwuemeka from the bench for only his second appearance.
Broja cut an isolated figure at times, with Chelsea struggling to provide him with consistent service, the striker leaving the field in the second half, to be replaced by Raheem Sterling, having only registered one shot on goal and none on target.
But there were glimpses of his speed and strength on the rare occasions he was able to isolate Ben Mee at the heart of Brentford’s back three, the 21-year-old firing a flashing a dangerous cross-shot into the six-yard box having outpaced, and then outmuscled his marker.
“There were two or three actions in the first half which showed what he’s about,” said Graham Potter afterwards. “He can attack space when there’s space behind. Brentford press high and they leave space behind, so we felt we could use him.
“We did it two or three times but we probably felt we could have done it more. I think he did okay for his first game, quite well. We thought, because it’s his first game, 60 minutes was about the maximum for him, but overall, happy with him.”
Potter was happy with Chukwuemeka’s impact too, even if it did not yield the goal Chelsea needed. The 18-year-old had some good moments on the ball and showed his physical qualities too, bursting in behind to fire a stinging shot at David Raya in stoppage time.
“He’s a big powerful boy who can run away from people. In a game like Brentford, you’re often in duels and you need physicality, so that was just the thinking.”
Potter praised the teenager for “affecting the game”, adding: “He’s a young player but he’s got exciting attributes. We’ve just got to help him reach his potential because his potential is exciting.”
Chelsea left the Gtech Community Stadium with one point rather than three, but with hope that Broja and Chukwuemeka can have a big part to play in their future.
“I feel sick. Honestly, I feel sick.”
Declan Rice’s reaction pretty much summed up West Ham’s reaction. On another day, they would have taken something out of the game at Anfield.
Jarrod Bowen’s missed penalty, James Milner’s last-ditch tackle to deny Tomas Soucek a tap-in, Said Benrahma’s missed clear-cut chance saved by Alisson. There was enough for West Ham to win the game, let alone draw it.
The 1-0 defeat at Liverpool was West Ham’s third match against a ‘Big Six’ side this season and they’ve only got one point to show for it. But it could so easily be nine.
Missed chances at home to Tottenham, a last-minute goal conceded against Chelsea and more spurned opportunities at Anfield. West Ham need to be better at the bigger moments unless they won’t ever progress as a team.
Rice should surely know that as well. “Even though I’m gutted, we are showing signs we can compete with the big boys… I’m proud,” he said after the game.
But if the Hammers don’t get better in these big games, they’ll lose their star midfielder at a sooner date.
Newcastle may have made a surprisingly conservative approach in the summer transfer window, but the emergence of Miguel Almiron has been as good as a £60m signing.
The Paraguayan winger has scored five Premier League goals in 11 games this season which is as many as in his previous 64 appearances. He won’t want October to end after firing in four of them just this month.
Almiron has played 133 times for Newcastle and it is fair to say his time at the club has been underwhelming. Jack Grealish joked during Man City’s title celebrations last season that teammate Riyad Mahrez deserved to have been taken off in their final-day victory over Aston Villa as he had “played like Almiron”. Grealish, with his one goal and zero assists, might be wishing he’d played like Almiron so far this season.
Newcastle supporters have largely stayed patient with the 28-year-old given his selfless contribution to the team’s work ethic. Now he’s getting his rewards.
“He’s always been incredible out of possession, the work rate he gives the team can’t be questioned,” said boss Eddie Howe. “Of course, then you want product from your widemen, goals and assists, and he is producing goals. I’m really pleased for him because he’s getting the recognition he deserves for everything he gives the team and long may that continue.”
Just when you thought a corner had been turned, up steps Miguel Almiron to serve a bitter dose of realism. Everton and Newcastle represent clubs whose fortunes are in stark contrast. The Magpies are flying ever higher, while the Toffees are stuck in the mud. It’s been a miserable few weeks for Frank Lampard. His side has slipped to three successive defeats, rather undoing the favour gleaned from a solid start to 2022-23.
Everton mustered one lowly effort against Eddie Howe’s side – even that failed to hit the target. Jordan Pickford’s England deputy, Nick Pope, was reduced to a mere bystander. He had less to do than the fan behind his goalframe who caught Dominic Calvert-Lewin’s solitary attempt – a header that cleared the crossbar.
The toothless performance was equally characterised by a lack of discipline. Both James Tarkowski and Anthony Gordon were fortunate to stay on the pitch. The latter has only just returned from a suspension for wracking up five yellow cards by mid-October. His collection has now reached six.
Understandably, the ill-discipline is a by-product of frustration. And a lack of cohesion. There were just five goals scored by four teams in the Premier League on Wednesday night, the fewest on a single day with a minimum of five games since April 2017. It’s no surprise Everton were not one of them.
Roberto De Zerbi awaits his first win as Brighton boss. He won’t get a much better opportunity. Nottingham Forest were rock bottom at the night’s inception. 19 attempts on their goal later, they’ve emerged with a miraculous point at the expense of De Zerbi’s luckless side.
Brighton’s concerns are obvious. For all their eye-catching build-up play, bold yet intricate, they are not able to put the ball in the back of the net often enough. Their potency, or lack thereof, is costing points.
When they were zipping passes around Man United at Old Trafford, finishing free-flowing attacks with aplomb against Leicester or playing Liverpool off the park at Anfield earlier this season, you thought this problem was behind them. You thought they had found their permanent scoring boots. Alas, they’ve once again been misplaced.
Brighton are attack-minded by design. Solly March creates enticing overlaps down the right, Leandro Trossard mirrors his endeavour on the opposite flank, while there is an abundance of forward-thinking talent centrally. Their movement is equally contrived.
Yet, goals in recent weeks have been less than forthcoming. Since their debut Premier League season in 2017-18, the Seagulls have failed to find the net in more games (72) and played out more goalless draws (23) than any other side in the competition.
They have neglected to score with any of their last 54 attempts on an opposition goal. Back to the training ground they go. Where the agenda will surely be continuous shooting practice.
“When Wilfried is having a good day, the team will have a good day,” said Crystal Palace manager Patrick Vieira after their 2-1 victory against Wolves and on Tuesday evening, that was certainly true.
Wilfried Zaha again proved why his is the Eagles’ best asset and came to life after the break in what was a tactical switch, seemingly decided by the player himself.
Zaha took up a more central role just behind Odsonne Edouard, switching with Eberechi Eze and his goal came from that exact spot. “I took it upon myself to move from left wing and float a bit,” he told Amazon Prime, and it worked out perfectly.
His forward play in the second half was simply wonderful and his goal brilliantly taken. It was his fifth of the season already – more than the entire Wolves team combined – and he’s on course for his highest ever goal tally.
Interestingly, that came last year in Vieira’s first season, when he scored 14 goals in 33 games. In 2022, Only Harry Kane (22), Son Heung-Min (18), Ivan Toney (16) and Erling Haaland (15) have scored more Premier League goals than Zaha (14).
He attributed this increase in goalscoring to a change in his mindset implemented by Vieira. The way he has Crystal Palace playing allows Zaha to focus on being an efficient goalscorer, rather than making those dribbles and using fancy footwork that an often goal-shy Eagles needed to break the lock.
Now, the Crystal Palace squad is filled with players who also like to do those things as well as scoring, freeing Zaha up to concentrate on those all-important goals that win you games. He’s no longer shouldering the entire burden, with that ease in pressure actually bringing about a greater goalscoring efficiency.
Zaha seems to be in one of the best spells of his career, certainly since Crystal Palace were promoted to the Premier League. He looks relaxed and happy playing under Vieira, who continued to underline Zaha’s importance to his project at the club.
“He’s an important player on and off the field, he’s got the experience,” he said. “It’s important for him to play at this level, be consistent and to help these young player around him to grow and we will see what will happen.”
As Vieira points out, consistency is key for Zaha now. If he keeps performing as he did on Tuesday, Crystal Palace will be mixing it in the top half of the Premier League for much of the season.
Steve Cooper has made a bold decision to go against all his natural principles when it comes to football in order to get Nottingham Forest up the table. He is a manager who likes his players to play with freedom, to express themselves.
That, for now, is very much in the bin.
It’s all about defensive security and discipline in the search for Premier League points. Jesse Lingard and Brennan Johnson, two players that like to create and posses an abundance of talent in forward areas, were made to run and run some more at The Amex. Lingard had just 16 touches. Johnson had 10. Even the Brighton goalkeeper Robert Sanchez had more than both of the Forest duo combined.
It took Forest 59 minutes to record a touch in the Brighton box and they managed just three shots on Sanchez’s goal. The goalkeeper could have got his deck chair out and read a good book such was the lack of action he saw.
But despite the lack of excitement as an attacking unit, Forest have now taken two points from the last nine available. It’s certainly a start but such lack of adventure and freedom in their play must be hard for Cooper to watch.
You got the feeling this was a must-win game for Southampton. Or certainly a must-win game for Ralph Hasenhuttl.
The Saints found themselves in the relegation zone as they made the trip along the south coast to face Bournemouth having lost 15 of their previous 22 fixtures in the Premier League.
That dismal record, as well as their poor form on the road and their inability to keep clean sheets, all pointed towards another disappointing day for the Austrian.
But you never know quite what to expect from them. From an impressive win over Chelsea at the end of August to five games without a victory, Hasenhuttl’s side have now ended Bournemouth’s six-match unbeaten run. They are probably the most inconsistent team in the Premier League.
But that’s why there is always hope for them and hope for Hasenhuttl. They welcome table-topping Arsenal to St Mary’s on Sunday. It would be foolish to write them off.
Gary O’Neil is making a serious case to be Bournemouth’s next permanent head coach. Before losing to Southampton, he was the only boss with an unbeaten record in the Premier League since replacing Scott Parker on an interim basis at the end of August.
His side may have lost the bragging rights on the south coast, but there is no need for him to panic. Bournemouth dominated large periods of the game – they had 15 shots in total – and on another night would have converted at least one of them.
The result wasn’t to be, but the work O’Neil is doing is admirable. It looked like the 39-year-old would initially be at the Vitality Stadium just to steady the ship, but imminent new owner Bill Foley will surely be considering keeping him at the helm on a permanent basis once his takeover of the club is officially completed.