Premier League winners and losers: Liverpool and Arsenal shine as Fernandes stinks the joint out
Liverpool should bask in the glow of thrashing Man Utd to the extent that Bruno Fernandes’ future must be questioned. Arsenal justified Mikel Arteta’s faith.
The relegation battle
Six points separating nine teams with almost a third of the season remaining. Is everyone excited to make a definitive prediction on who is going down, only to change it every single weekend in a fit of result recency bias?
It is worth reiterating that while This Means More, a 7-0 victory does not necessarily indicate Liverpool are back. Their previous turned corners this season include a 9-0 thrashing of Bournemouth, 10 days after which they were being humbled at Napoli, a 7-1 shellacking of Rangers, 10 days after which they were being turned over by Nottingham Forest, and consecutive 2-0 victories over Everton and Newcastle, which led into a 5-2 humiliation against Real Madrid.
But none of that really matters when you beat Man Utd 7-0. The Liverpool that Jurgen Klopp built would have known to savour that result and performance before putting it to one side and moving on. As much as Man Utd’s reaction will shape their season, the same has to be said for their conquerors.
Go and read 16 Conclusions and we will meet you back here.
It is faintly curious that the three fastest goals in Premier League history have been scored by sides who did not eventually win. Southampton were pegged back for a 1-1 draw when Shane Long stunned Watford after seven seconds in April 2019, while Bradford scrapped to a 3-3 draw after Ledley King’s nine-second strike in December 2000.
Bournemouth led for 69 nice minutes after Philip Billing shocked the Emirates and Marcos Senesi handed the title initiative back to Manchester City. Arsenal led for a few seconds of stoppage-time but that was all that mattered.
Perhaps they should never find themselves in such a situation but that ignores the many uncontrollable variables at play. The point is that Arsenal abandoned neither hope nor their principles because they have earned that invaluable belief in what they do and how they do it being the right way forward.
That gives rise to a resilience which sees Arsenal pick up more points from losing positions than any other team, despite trailing in only eight games. Manchester City have been behind in seven matches and earned fewer than half as many points as the Gunners from those situations. It is currently the difference between a five-point lead and a three-point deficit.
While the manner of these victories grow more ludicrous – Thomas Partey, Benjamin White and Reiss Nelson being the goalscoring rescuers is plain daft – and the critics run out of hoops to make Arsenal jump through, the confidence builds and belief becomes unshakeable. Since Manchester City took supposed control of the race with that 3-1 win over the Gunners on February 15, Arsenal have collected maximum Premier League points and scored more goals than any other team, while Pep Guardiola’s side immediately drew with Nottingham Forest.
Mikel Arteta was mocked by some when he said that the defeat to City gave him “more belief after seeing a side that can go head to head”. Wins such as those only reinforce his warranted optimism.
A 1-0 victory at home to a relegation candidate who had eight shots to two after the game’s only goal is not the sort of result on which a glorious dynasty can be built. But Chelsea and Graham Potter had long since gone beyond the point of valuing performances above all else; this was only ever about getting back into the habit of winning.
There has already been a kickback from some elements of an unmovable support at any attempt to praise Chelsea for narrowly beating Leeds, but the Blues struggle enough to score without the goalposts being moved. Those three points are worth precisely as much as those Liverpool gained for putting seven past Man Utd – and Potter might point out that his side kept the free-scoring Reds out when they met in January.
The tease of a reliable foundation in a back three – and even appeasing those tiresome critics of his touchline demeanour with a more animated display – hint at something more meaningful going forward. But a first win in 48 days will be savoured first and foremost as a simple confidence boost to keep those clouds from creeping any further.
Two wins in three Premier League games is more than Nathan Jones managed in eight matches. Ruben Selles has some catching up to do for iconic quotes but in terms of the boring, football stuff he is a far better fit at Southampton.
Manchester City have utilised eight different central defensive partnerships when using a formation with a back four in the Premier League this season; based on results, the four best all contain Ruben Dias.
The reigning champions have won every league game Dias has started in a two alongside Nathan Ake, Manuel Akanji or Aymeric Laporte, with the draw against Aston Villa in September the only setback in three matches partnering John Stones.
Just one non-Dias combination can compare: Akanji and Stones, who have won two and drawn one of their three games together. In terms of points per match, Ake with Akanji (1.5), Laporte with Akanji (1.5) and Ake with Stones (1) underlines the importance that a fit and firing Dias has in this team. There are precious few better pure defenders in the world.
When Jason Steele made his first Premier League matchday squad, Brighton were being managed by Micky Adams in League One. The Seagulls finished 16th that season, inspired by a late charge under Russell Slade.
Plenty has changed in the near 15 years since. Steele has represented Northampton, Middlesbrough, Blackburn and Sunderland to little distinction and a move to Brighton in 2018 seemed to signal a career shift to a role as perennial top-flight back-up. Mat Ryan and David Button were ahead of him then.
Steele has played just two Premier League games in the subsequent half-decade. A 2-0 defeat to Aston Villa in November 2021 was finally overshadowed by a commanding 4-0 victory over West Ham in which the keeper was key.
You can’t teach an old dog new tricks but you can coach a 32-year-old with barely any experience beyond the Championship to a solid enough standard that they can slot into the starting line-up of one of the most exciting teams in the country. Steele made a couple of important saves in a dominant win but his contribution to the build-up play was most striking. Roberto De Zerbi publicly declaring him to be a better fit for his side than Robert Sanchez was a plot twist few would have expected when watching Steele’s plight on Sunderland ‘Til I Die.
Only Arsenal, Liverpool, Manchester City and Man Utd have more Premier League points and wins than Aston Villa since Unai Emery’s first game in charge. Chuck in Brighton for the exhaustive list of teams with more goals in that timeframe. To engineer that improvement, from a relegation battle to absolute mid-table security, with only one of his own signings playing regularly is testament to Emery’s underrated coaching excellence.
Only Manchester City, Arsenal, Man Utd, Liverpool and Fulham have more Premier League points and wins than Wolves since Julen Lopetegui’s first game in charge. Chuck in a load more sides for the exhaustive list of teams with more goals in that timeframe because this is still Wolves, but there has been more than one admirable Basque-inspired Midlands revival this season. Brendan Rodgers had better watch out for Aitor Karanka.
If Bruno Fernandes genuinely is made of Man Utd captaincy material, it’s safe to conclude that he shrunk in a ferocious Anfield spin cycle.
Enough has been said and written about the Portuguese, whose behaviour during the capitulation against Liverpool came as no surprise. Fernandes is petulant. Fernandes is childish. Fernandes is irritable. Fernandes dives, throws his arms in the air at misplaced passes and becomes consumed by perceived injustices. That is what makes him potentially brilliant, but also what makes him a detriment to the team when things go wrong.
Fernandes is never a passenger but in matches such as the one against Liverpool, he grows into something actively worse: a dangerous driver who takes the wheel and careens everything off the edge of a cliff.
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It does nothing to list his disciplinary infringements in a 7-0 defeat in which he also missed one huge chance when the scores were level, was ruled offside as often as he shot and gave the ball away in the lead-up to the third Liverpool goal. Anyone looking to Fernandes to set an example and lead in adversity has not watched much of his three years in England.
But it is important to wonder whether his obvious talent makes the trade-off at all worth it; Man Utd need consistency and reliability in his role but Fernandes has only ever offered the opposite.
A penny for the thoughts of Harry Maguire, whose crucifixion on the Old Trafford pitch would have been demanded had he presided over that sort of collective and individual performance against Liverpool. It is one thing to play badly but another entirely to just give up because those bigger boys aren’t letting you have the ball.
There goes that last shred of mitigation. The one thing David Moyes’ style guaranteed at West Ham was that they would not be thrashed. They keep games tight before pushing for a goal in the closing stages. They make everything compact so that a result is always theoretically within reach. To return to those Michail Antonio quotes from earlier in the season:
“That’s one thing with our gaffer, literally, he loses his mind. When we concede one he’s like ‘you do not concede two within ten minutes’. You’ve got to make sure you work from your shape and then you go for it. The only time you can actually really go for it? Last ten of a match you can probably go for it and try and get something if it’s 1-0. But before that, if it’s one goal, you can get that one goal from anything, it could be like a corner, a throw-in, they could score an own goal, anything can happen when it’s 1-0. Just try not to concede two. Concede two, do not make it three… just try and shut up shop so the game doesn’t run away.”
West Ham, to be fair, did not concede two within ten minutes when letting four in across an embarrassing hour and a half against Brighton. But that does nothing to improve the mood after the club’s heaviest Premier League defeat since the opening game of the 2019/20 season; a 5-0 defeat to Manchester City can be compartmentalised and excused in the same way losing 4-0 to the Seagulls cannot.
Brighton’s starting line-up cost less than £60m. West Ham’s was put together at the expense of at least £100m more. Yet the former dominated, with 12 players having at least one shot and eight creating a chance, in comparison to three West Ham players having just one effort each and only Lucas Paqueta and Said Benrahma making a key pass.
Plenty of that disparity can be traced back to the boardroom but it would be naive to overlook the difference in coaching ability and ambition between De Zerbi and Moyes. Brighton are exactly what West Ham should be but the direct antithesis of what they actually are.
A deflating defeat for a club which just seems a little lost. Uncertainty over the future of the manager and their star player has been allowed to fester and bringing on the departing Lucas Moura as a first substitute instead of January loan signing Arnaut Danjuma or actual apparent £50m footballer Richarlison when chasing a result against Wolves points to failures in at least two different departments of a broken structure.
A thorough appraisal over a deflating fortnight ought to keep any grand Newcastle ambitions in check. They remain sixth with a game in hand on each of the teams above them, but Eddie Howe and his players will hardly view any extra fixtures with relish right now.
While one win and three goals in eight league games is positively Bruce-esque, it is those consecutive 2-0 defeats to Liverpool, Man Utd and Manchester City which hurt the most, reminding Newcastle of the considerable work there is left to do to reach that coveted level.
The degree of ruthlessness with which they must navigate the summer transfer window has perhaps been underestimated. If Newcastle are to make the next step in this journey, Jamaal Lascelles, Dan Burn, Sean Longstaff, Miguel Almiron and Callum Wilson cannot be starting games of such magnitude. And Howe himself will know he could not be further from indispensable in this project.
Until then, it might be an idea to give other players more of a consistent chance. Alexander Isak and Allan Saint-Maximin improve that attack markedly every time they feature, even if that bar is currently set improbably low.
Ten games without a win in 2023 for a team whose attack belongs in the relegation battle Crystal Palace have stumbled upon. They rank 17th for goals, shots, key passes and touches in the attacking third, 18th for touches in the attacking penalty area, 19th for xG and 20th for npxG and passes into the penalty area.
Patrick Vieira can refer almost mockingly to the “process” but those stats are a damning indictment on either his coaching philosophy or ability. Or Jordan Ayew. But at any rate, three shots – all off-target – in a Premier League game is embarrassing.
It was a game against Chelsea which underlined the unbridled potential of Marschball as Leeds rose to second in the Premier League after a 3-0 victory at Elland Road in August. But in the return fixture at Stamford Bridge, Javi Gracia’s side were undone by familiar failings.
Their away form has been disastrous this season, matching West Ham and Nottingham Forest’s atrocious total of six points on the road. Liverpool are the only team Leeds have beaten away in the Premier League because this season makes no sense.
And Gracia has work to do to solve those burgeoning problems going forward. Brenden Aaronson tormented Chelsea seven months ago but he, Georginio Rutter and Jack Harrison – at least £80m worth of attacking talent by Leeds’ own valuation – were poor.
That goalless draw between Newcastle and Leeds on New Year’s Eve might have been the most transformative result of the campaign. Leeds scored 12 goals in the five league games immediately before then, and only six in nine since; Newcastle scored 14 goals in five league games immediately before then, and only three in eight since.
Taking a two-goal lead in five of 25 Premier League games as a newly-promoted side under an inexperienced manager is impressive. So is losing more of those games than you win, albeit in a slightly different way.
Five shots. None on target. A genuine achievement.
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