Thomas Tuchel comes out on top against his own striker, while Manchester City continue to disappear into the distance after a win at Arsenal that was never in doubt. Ahem.
Two goals down to Liverpool, having cast his £98million striker aside when Romelu Lukaku had emerged as his most prominent critic, it seemed as though Tuchel’s troubled December could give way to a worse January. He ended the weekend without the vindication of victory and two points further behind the pace in the title race, but after a comeback and with a performance that nevertheless suggested Chelsea’s increasingly fractious manager might not be in a downward spiral. A draw came courtesy of two brilliant strikes, and if Mateo Kovacic wondergoals are sufficiently rare that it is hard to argue for it as a long-term method of compensating for Lukaku’s absence, this felt Chelsea’s best display since the 4-0 walloping of Juventus. After some tired and uninspired displays in recent weeks, they played with more pace; that Jorginho, officially the third finest player on the planet in 2021, was benched both helped and showed Tuchel was not ducking any decisions. That decisiveness propelled the German to glory last season. If he has not lost faith in himself, the early evidence is that the supporters and his players remain on his side.
Now go read 16 Conclusions.
A side whose ability to go on remarkably long winning runs year after year is unrivalled have taken their current sequence to 11. They give everyone else no margin for error. When Liverpool have dropped points in their last three games and Chelsea four of their last five, a big gap has opened up quickly. The title is theirs to lose now.
When Pep Guardiola was ruminating on the rarity of Manchester City getting injury-time winners, Raheem Sterling in 2017 came to his mind. It was the season when Sterling reached another level, when he became a decisive force. Rodri is a very different brand of footballer and holding midfielders score fewer goals but there was something symbolic when he was the one to pop up in the Arsenal box in the 93rd minute to turn one point into three. As Rodri reflected, he wasn’t sure what either he or Aymeric Laporte were doing there, but it reflected a willingness to take responsibility, to make something happen and, as he ran 11.5km, it showed the power to get forward on his comeback from Covid. It is a sign of Rodri’s excellence that perhaps only Bernardo Silva and Joao Cancelo have been better for City this season and when they needed a poacher to score a scrappy goal, the midfield metronome obliged.
Manuel Lanzini and Declan Rice
Not since Prince Andrew has anyone done as much damage to the Palace as Lanzini, who has six goals in seven starts against favourite opponents and 21 in 122 against everyone else. His first on Saturday was a classic, a beautiful touch and volley, his second a calm penalty for a side who can struggle to score spot kicks when Mark Noble is not on the field. West Ham’s revival over the last 16 months has largely come without Lanzini starting and perhaps, but for Pablo Fornals’ positive Covid test, he would not have begun at Selhurst Park. Maybe he should be pencilled into the team for their next meeting.
Rice is his opposite, the constant, the player whose career has gone forwards as Lanzini’s has regressed. The Argentinian excels against Palace, the England international against everyone. He is the on-field personification of David Moyes’ driven approach. It is fitting, then, that the aspect he has added to his game in the last year is driving runs. A 40-yard burst from his own half to the edge of the box set up the Argentinian’s first goal, but an increasingly familiar sight is of Rice powering forward, sometimes into space, sometimes past opponents. There used to be a theory that his limitations meant he would be better suited to centre-back. Now he is a great all-rounder in midfield, a world-class player at the heart of his team. Since Trevor Brooking in the 1970s, only one West Ham player – Dimitri Payet – has been voted into the PFA Team of the Year in the top flight. At present speed and course Rice should become the second.
There have been too few performances like this from Partey, too few examples of why Mikel Arteta persuaded the Kroenkes to fund a £50million deal themselves. But Partey’s best – displayed away at Manchester United last season, at home to Manchester City this year – showed he can dominate a midfield against top teams. There are few who can be both the technical and physical player, the progressive passer and the forceful tackler, in the way he can but there are matches this season when the centre of midfield has looked Arsenal’s weakest department. If Partey performs to his potential, then it can be an area of strength.
A welcome entrant to the Conor Coady competition for goal-line clearance of the season. Ake is not a natural left-back and had his difficulties against Bukayo Saka. But while his dramatic intervention to spare Laporte an own goal would have counted for nothing had Gabriel Martinelli scored seconds later, it was brilliant.
Elsewhere in the world of last-ditch heroics, the triple Guaita – the three first-half saves in a matter of seconds to deny Michail Antonio and Said Benrahma – was pretty special. And, as is the nature of goalkeeping, more liable to be forgotten when he conceded twice in swift succession soon afterwards.
Yes, he didn’t really intend to score, but menacing free kicks can sometimes curl in anyway. And it amounted to a game-changing contribution from a youngster who almost rescued a lost cause, entering at 3-0 down, getting an assist, with a lovely cross for Odsonne Edouard, and a goal. Had Jean-Philippe Mateta’s injury-time overhead kick gone in, Palace would have got a point against West Ham.
In a sense, Crystal Palace are proving theirs, too. Under Roy Hodgson, they seemed too reliant on Wilfried Zaha for inspiration and short of scorers. This season, Conor Gallagher has emerged as a temporary talisman. Olise is part of a shift to youth and his introduction to the Premier League has come as a super-sub. He has two goals and three assists in 161 minutes as a replacement. It is a small sample size but an encouraging start.
The first Tottenham manager to get a 1-0 win against Watford since Nuno Espirito Santo. Also the first to go unbeaten in his opening eight league matches, and that matters rather more. With the exceptions of Liverpool and a Carabao clash with West Ham, the fixture list has given Conte a soft landing. Spurs scarcely made a statement with an unexceptional scoreline at Vicarage Road, even if Davinson Sanchez’s injury-time strike underlined the importance of finding a way to win. Yet Conte’s undefeated start still amounts to an early impact, especially considering just how bad they were in losing five of Nuno’s last seven league games. His haul of 18 points from a possible 24 may mean that, while Spurs are sixth now, they might be slight favourites to finish fourth. And if that status owes much to the manager, five clean sheets in eight and 44 shots on target in the last six reflect considerable improvement at both ends of the pitch.
Leeds’ 2020-21 stars
Between them, Jack Harrison and Stuart Dallas scored 16 Premier League goals last season. Between them, they had scored none this. Until both delivered important strikes (and, in Dallas’ case, a brilliant one) to defeat Burnley. Leeds could savour the sense that the clock had been wound back a few months, to happier times, rather than a couple of weeks, to the thrashings by Manchester City and Arsenal.
There is an art to staying up with something to spare. Part of it lies in the knack of getting a win before a slide becomes a real slump and before a team gets dragged into trouble. Brentford are one of only three teams (with Manchester City and West Ham) to win league matches in each of August, September, October, November, December and January. They have only had one run of more than three games without a win this season. They had lost two in a row. They duly came from behind to beat Aston Villa just as, after taking one point from two games, they had come from behind to beat Watford. After a couple of excellent early-season away victories, the path to safety now seems paved with triumphs in the winnable home matches. None of their last eight home matches are against the top four; only two are against the top eight. It is looking good for them.
Manchester City have got more points, but perhaps no one has had a better Christmas and New Year than Brighton. A team without a league win in three months now have seven points from three games. The manner of those matches, whether mustering special goals against Brentford, Danny Welbeck’s last-minute equaliser at Chelsea or scoring three times at Goodison Park, is impressive. And the fact a team with two goals in their previous five games now have six in three is welcome.
Few Evertonians have had much to savour this season. Rafa Benitez does not have many success stories. In both respects, however, Anthony Gordon represents an exception. Demarai Gray and Andros Townsend were the initial beneficiaries of a renewed focus on wingers but this has become a breakthrough season for the 20-year-old. He had produced arguably his best performance in an Everton shirt in the draw at Chelsea. His first goals came against Brighton. Sadly for him, they counted for nothing.
Lost his chance to play in a superb game and, when Chelsea were pushing for victory with Callum Hudson-Odoi impersonating a striker, Lukaku ought to have been thinking that this was a stage made for him. After recapturing fitness and then form, scoring goals in successive games, Lukaku appeared to have the chance to cement his place in the Chelsea team and deliver the sort of contribution he was signed for. Instead he was omitted for a huge game, and, if it is possible to feel some sympathy for him given his already infamous interview with Italian television was recorded weeks ago, it feels uncertain where he goes from here. He has a Monday meeting with Tuchel, who has said he won’t be sold in January, but it will be instructive how long his exile lasts and whether his return is as a starter or a substitute.
Liverpool, when in the lead
Brentford. Manchester City. Brighton. Tottenham. Chelsea. Five draws, each after Liverpool were ahead. Had they been immaculate at holding on to advantages, they would top the table now. And if that may simplify the situation, it is remarkable that Liverpool have four 2-2 draws and a 3-3 already this season. For a couple of years, when they were at their most ruthless, they felt strangers to such scorelines. They feel more like a throwback to the beginning of Jurgen Klopp’s reign, before Virgil van Dijk brought a sense of order and great success. And if the two goals they conceded at Stamford Bridge were brilliant finishes, it is becoming an all too familiar story.
Gabriel Magalhaes and Granit Xhaka
There are times when it seems as though Arsenal have a reputation to live down to. There have been far too many mentions of DNA of late, but Arsenal’s appears to contain a self-destructive streak. Either error-prone players gravitate to the Emirates Stadium or they develop a tendency to blunder once there. This six-minute period felt like a David Luiz tribute act.
He used to be particularly liable to suffer pratfalls against City. Now, after his August red card, that mantle may have passed to Granit Xhaka. Often a byword for indiscipline, the tug on Bernardo Silva to concede a penalty was scarcely his worst offence. But it was a foul in the box and it was the turning point.
Gabriel Magalhaes is an excellent centre-back. It is no coincidence that Arsenal’s season was transformed when he and Ben White were paired. But there is something particularly stupid in scuffing up the penalty spot and then getting booked for dissent. A defender on a yellow card has an added responsibility to be careful. Grabbing Gabriel Jesus back in especially unsubtle fashion (and, in the centre circle, scarcely in a position of danger) was reckless, rash and needless.
There have been times this season when there has been a new Arsenal, defined by a group of exciting young players, shedding the baggage of the past. For 50 minutes at the start, Arsenal were outstanding against City. For 30 at the end, they were defiant. Yet that innate Arsenalness possibly cost them a wonderful win. It may yet deny them a top-four finish.
Pity the poor channel where they keep on insisting they don’t want to talk about referees and VAR while talking about referees and VAR more than Sky, Amazon or the BBC. The BBC and Sky managed to discuss decisions to a proportionate amount while providing intelligent and informed analysis of high-quality, eventful, outstanding matches this weekend. BT managed to overlook the football and spend the best part of an hour talking about referees and VAR. But, as they kept on saying, they really didn’t want to.
Is he already in the Watford manager death spiral? Six successive defeats would suggest so. And while Watford displayed more obduracy in losing 1-0 to Tottenham than 4-1 to West Ham, a spirited display featuring a terrific cameo by Joao Pedro undermined only by a poor piece of set-piece defending, the reality is their last Premier League clean sheet came before the World Health Organisation had declared Covid-19 a pandemic and Ranieri’s last came in 2018 and, albeit briefly, he has managed in the division in three calendar years since then. January games against Newcastle and Norwich could afford Ranieri a chance to get Watford’s season back on track. But as this is Watford, that opportunity could be offered to another instead.
It could have been a springboard. When Everton last played, a severely weakened team got an unexpected point at Chelsea. Benitez could unveil his biggest signing, Vitaliy Mykolenko. He could pick a fit-again Dominic Calvert-Lewin. But the striker missed a penalty, Salomon Rondon was booed, Everton conceded another set-piece goal and lost at home to Brighton and the argument Benitez has often made, that the second half of their season would be better than the first, soon came to look a case of wishful thinking. The uneasy relationship between Benitez and Evertonians gets no happier.