Alex Keble runs through the best and worst from the Premier League games around the inaugural mid-season break.
- Fernandes & Fred building a strong partnership
It was a low-quality game on Monday night defined mostly by familiar Chelsea flaws and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s overly defensive formation – as well as some infuriating VAR decisions.
But leaving to one side that Harry Maguire should have been sent off and Kurt Zouma’s goal was an iffy call, Chelsea’s porous midfield and stunted creativity in the final third is what allowed United to do the double over them for the first time since 1987-88.
Bruno Fernandes and Fred capitalised on this with excellent performances that signal the start of a new era in midfield for Man Utd.
Fernandes linked the play brilliantly, demanding the ball and always seeking a cleverly angled pass, and yet it was Fred’s movement that led to the opener.
The Brazilian ran into the 20-yard-radius hole between Chelsea’s defence and midfield to break the lines and set up Aaron Wan-Bissaka to cross for Anthony Martial’s precise header.
We didn’t learn anything about the two managers last night. Both remain tactically substandard; Chelsea are poor in the transitions while profligate in attack, and United have a solid defence but can’t build into the opposition area.
None of that is new. However, Fernandes’s arrival could – in time – be a watershed moment for the club.
- Statement Arsenal win can inspire upturn in results
Arsenal’s first half performance against Newcastle United on Sunday was arguably their worst under Mikel Arteta, a hesitant and clumsy attacking display that looked more like the final days of Unai Emery than the start of something new.
But four goals in the second period have made that slow start irrelevant; for all the tactical improvements made by Arteta so far, sometimes you need a big win to really get things going.
Arsenal have been far better than their results in the new regime, so it is about time they reverse that trend. By scoring four, with promising young players like Nicolas Pepe and Bukayo Saka starring, Arsenal now have the feel-good factor to super-charge Arteta’s tactical preferences.
From here, a strong end to the season seems likely, even opening up the possibility of Champions League qualification. Winning without playing well is something Arsenal haven’t done for a long time. Sunday’s 4-0 win could be a landmark moment in the project.
- Everton enter Champions League race
A third win in their last five league games has lifted Everton to within a mere four points of fifth, the likely new position for Champions League qualification following Manchester City’s two-year ban.
Carlo Ancelotti deserves enormous credit for turning things around at Goodison Park with several key tactical tweaks that were in full view in last week’s 3-1 win over Crystal Palace.
The first is using a hybrid 4-2-2/4-3-3 that appears to have simplified their defensive roles, improving on a ropey defensive record while allowing Everton to break with three up front.
These counter-attacks are becoming a key feature, with Richarlison scoring from another classic counter against Palace in a sign of Ancelotti’s resourcefulness; he has quickly worked out how to get the most out of a squad with too many speedy wingers.
Those wingers are now getting into the box more frequently, arriving at the back post when the ball is crossed from the other side. Theo Walcott was the first to benefit from this, and now Bernardo – scoring against Palace – has joined in.
A tough run of games probably means a top five finish is beyond Everton, but nevertheless this is a time of great optimism for the fans.
- Man City’s Champions League ban
Clearly a momentous moment in football, City’s Champions League ban is a battle that has only just begun. Initial reports focused on whether this was the end of an era for the club.
However, Pep Guardiola will see out his contract until 2021, which should ease concerns of a summer exodus or difficulties with replacing an ageing squad. City’s vast income suggests they won’t suffer too much in the long run; this story isn’t really about football on the pitch.
Instead, this is a battle for football’s soul, a battle between UEFA and wealthy owners that will decide who really holds the power. Should UEFA’s punishment stick then FFP will stay and the age of sportswashing could draw to a close, but if City’s lawyers manage to overturn the ban then FFP – and UEFA itself – will crumble.
European football’s governing body, and by association the likes of FIFA and the FA, will be revealed as hollow shells incapable of dictating terms to all-powerful clubs.
The impact of that would be seismic to say the least. It could ultimately mean a breakaway from the current governing bodies and the victory of hyper-capitalism; a European Super League is but one of our concerns if UEFA’s power is humiliatingly stripped.
- Mounting injuries suggest the winter break has not worked
Players have fallen like flies during the last couple of days, seemingly a direct consequence of the warm weather training camps clubs have flown to during their week off. It is the icing on the cake of a winter break that has been a failure on pretty much every count.
First, the fan experience has suffered – and that ought to always be the sport’s priority. A split weekend created two unsatisfying weeks of football rather than a refreshing rest. Beyond that, the break clearly came too late given the number of injuries and the low-quality football we saw in early January, while most of the clubs playing in Europe this week were inexplicably in action over the weekend just gone.
Finally, the FA Cup has been undermined and the break itself has been undermined by FA Cup replays being organised within it.
- Porous Villa aren’t learning from their mistakes
The best game of football over the fortnight was Aston Villa’s 3-2 defeat to Tottenham Hotspur in a game defined chiefly by the hosts’ porousness in defence.
Dean Smith continues to play an expansive 3-4-3 that leaves huge gaps all over the pitch, essentially deploying progressive tactics without any of the detailed positional work to match.
They are the opposite of Norwich despite their aesthetic similarities: Premier League players in Championship tactics.
Danny Drinkwater clearly isn’t fit enough to be starting matches, especially in a two-man midfield, and sure enough Spurs easily attacked through the centre of the pitch. They could have put the game to bed long before Bjorn Engels’ unfortunate late error.
Smith is simply reacting too late, sticking with systems and players long after they have been shown to fail. For that reason, Villa should be considered favourites for the drop.
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