theScore examines the most important Premier League developments from the weekend, dissecting the biggest talking points after a busy slate of action.
Norwich’s survival bid might have substance
Norwich City seem to win in pairs. Their first two victories of the season came in twos, a 2-1 result at Brentford preceding another by the same score against Southampton. Their last two wins arrived consecutively as well, with last weekend’s 2-1 defeat of Everton setting up Friday’s 3-0 humbling of relegation rivals Watford.
Norwich couldn’t sustain the momentum the first time, picking up just two points over the eight contests that followed, but there’s enough evidence to believe Dean Smith’s side can turn its latest run into something more substantial. It’s now outside the relegation zone for the first time in 53 top-flight matches, albeit with one more game played than 18th-placed Newcastle United.
Despite controlling just 31% possession, the Canaries showed a clinical edge their opponents lacked. Josh Sargent ended his 18-match scoring drought with an out-of-this-world scorpion kick and headed in another shortly after, and Juraj Kucka’s mishap gave Norwich three goals in an away fixture for the first time since August 2015.
Norwich simply couldn’t score earlier in the season, managing just one tally over the eight games that followed their first two wins. But with Sargent’s goalless run over, talisman Teemu Pukki looking more lively up front, and a relegation specialist in Smith now behind the bench, the East Anglia side might have the conviction to stay up.
“To get the win was the main thing,” Smith said afterward, according to The Guardian’s John Brewin. “There was a calmness that came over the players after the goals.”
Gerrard revives role as Goodison Park villain
It might not have been obvious that Steven Gerrard was buzzing in the days leading up to Saturday’s match against former rivals Everton, but the Aston Villa manager revealed his hand shortly after setting foot on the Goodison Park pitch again. The former Liverpool captain seemingly couldn’t resist engaging with Everton supporters ahead of his first game at the stadium as a manager.
As was the case throughout most of his illustrious career in the red side of town, Gerrard had the last laugh as Aston Villa secured three points with a 1-0 victory over Everton. The contest wasn’t pretty, but Villa managed to scrape their way to victory over a poor Everton side that lacked quality and struggled to create scoring chances in their first match of the post-Rafa Benitez era.
Emiliano Buendia’s goal to close out the first half was the difference, as the Argentine winger delivered a beautiful header off a corner despite being the smallest player on the pitch. Aston Villa continued to control the match in the second half on their way to winning and helping Gerrard pile more misery on a club he loved to torment throughout his playing days.
As the old saying goes, you can take the man out of Liverpool, but you can’t take Liverpool out of the man.
Digne shines in Everton return
If archrival Gerrard celebrating another victory at Goodison wasn’t bad enough, former defender Lucas Digne rubbed salt in the wounds of the Everton faithful by playing a crucial role in the Villa win
Less than two weeks after his transfer from Everton, the French full-back made his second appearance for Aston Villa and provided the assist to set up Buendia’s decisive goal. Overall, it was the type of performance that Everton supporters were accustomed to during Digne’s spell on Merseyside before his relationship with the club unraveled this season.
Digne’s return, however, was marred by an ugly incident in which he appeared to be struck by a plastic bottle near the Gwladys Street End as Aston Villa players celebrated Buendia’s goal. Digne, along with teammate Matty Cash, crashed to the ground after a projectile was thrown from a section of Everton supporters.
Thankfully, both players avoided serious injuries and managed to stay on until the final whistle.
Willock’s unsexy yet necessary graft
Joe Willock was close to scoring his first Newcastle United goal since his loan was turned into a permanent transfer in the summer, only to be thwarted by an excellent save by Illan Meslier. But the graft that preceded his stoppage-time opportunity was a key feature of the Magpies’ huge 1-0 win at Leeds United.
The midfielder was excellent at doing the unsexy work when Newcastle were ahead. He ran from the center circle and held off Stuart Dallas before winning a corner kick. He squeezed Rodrigo off the ball and then played it off the Spaniard, allowing Martin Dubravka to drain the clock as he prepared the resulting goal kick. And he did well to ride Robin Koch’s challenge and tempt Luke Ayling out of the backline in the buildup for his chance.
His goal rate at the end of last season – he scored in seven consecutive games – was unsustainable, and it created the perception that Willock is primarily an attack-minded midfielder. However, his display in West Yorkshire can serve as proof that he’s also willing to do defensive drudgery while Newcastle are mired in a relegation battle.
Outcast Martial flourishes in rare cameo
The Anthony Martial era at Manchester United isn’t over just yet.
Just when it seemed that the French forward was on the verge of leaving Old Trafford, Martial made a surprise cameo appearance Saturday and went on to help Ralf Rangnick’s team pull off an important victory over West Ham United.
Martial made headlines at the end of December when news broke that he notified Rangnick of his desire to leave United. The situation deteriorated in the weeks that followed amid Rangnick’s claim that Martial refused to be included in the squad for their clash with Aston Villa on Jan. 15.
But earlier this week, Rangnick said that the situation had been resolved, proving as much by introducing the 26-year-old with less than 10 minutes left in Saturday’s contest. The French forward didn’t disappoint in his first Premier League appearance since Dec. 2, providing a much-needed spark in attack before playing a pivotal role in the buildup to Marcus Rashford’s injury-time winner.
Although whatever friction he had with Rangnick seems to be a thing of the past, it would be premature to write off the chances of Martial leaving before the transfer window closes at the end of the month.
Salisu is hot property
Mohammed Salisu’s dedication to honing his craft at Southampton was indicated by recent reports from his homeland that he resisted a call-up for Ghana’s ill-fated Africa Cup of Nations squad. While he may live to regret denying himself the experience of representing his country at the tournament, there’s no doubting that Ralph Hasenhuttl’s coaching is greatly improving his game.
Salisu’s name rung out around St. Mary’s as Southampton’s 1-1 draw with Manchester City approached the final whistle.
The defender’s effectiveness in possession has developed to the extent that he’s given license to trigger attacks with long-range passes. But what stood out against City was his proactiveness without the ball as he led the fixture in blocked shots (three), interceptions (four), tackles (seven), and clearances (14). His immaculate challenge on Kevin De Bruyne in injury time was a particular highlight that demonstrated his quality in one-on-one duels.
Another element that suggests a bright future for Salisu is the strength of his decision-making, which is far advanced for a 22-year-old with only 33 Premier League appearances to his name.
Southampton bought Salisu for under £11 million in the summer of 2020. A year later, they sold the underwhelming Jannik Vestergaard to Leicester City for £15 million. That’s excellent business.
Once again, we’re not talking about actual football
The dominance of Liverpool’s first-half display and Crystal Palace’s excellent response in the second period provided plenty of talking points from Sunday’s game at Selhurst Park. Could the Reds use the result as a springboard in the title race? What did Patrick Vieira say to his players at halftime?
But the post-match conversation was instead dominated by yet another dubious decision.
It was a bewildering call. Diogo Jota lost control of the ball and ran into Eagles goalkeeper Vicente Guaita, but somehow, after referee Kevin Friend checked the monitor, a penalty was awarded. Fabinho’s spot-kick made it 3-1 in the 89th minute and killed any prospect of a Palace comeback.
“For me, it spoiled a really good game of football,” former Palace striker Glenn Murray said on BBC Radio 5 Live.
The standard of refereeing is a legitimate concern and one that needs to be addressed at the grassroots of the English game, but the influence of VAR also deserves scrutiny. Has it greatly improved officiating at the top level? That’s debatable. Have the delays and repeated slow-motion replays made the game as a spectacle slightly worse? Absolutely.
As an entertainment industry, the latter answer should be of the utmost concern to the game’s top figures.
Leicester’s late slumps continue
Brendan Rodgers’ plea for his players to “get up and fight again” for Brighton & Hove Albion’s visit seemed to be taken aboard as Leicester took the lead through Patson Daka early in Sunday’s second half. It was exactly what the Foxes deserved after creating the best chances of the opening stanza.
However, their midweek collapse to the Steven Bergwijn-inspired Tottenham Hotspur seemed to weigh heavily on Rodgers’ men as the second period wore on. Their play became desperate as their bodies tired – and only Manchester City have scored more goals in the final 10 minutes than Brighton this season.
An equalizer, and maybe even a winner for the Seagulls, seemed inevitable.
Kasper Schmeichel did well to keep out a Danny Welbeck header, but he couldn’t repeat the trick nine minutes later when the former Manchester United and Arsenal frontman nodded inside Schmeichel’s near post. Panic set in at that point for the Foxes, and they would’ve lost the game if it wasn’t for Youri Tielemans’ goal-line clearance and another great Schmeichel save.
A season like this wasn’t in the script for FA Cup holders Leicester. Riyad Mahrez, Harry Maguire, and Ben Chilwell left the club in turn over the previous three summers. But there were no such departures ahead of this campaign, and improving on back-to-back fifth-place finishes seemed a real possibility. They should’ve only gotten stronger.
Instead, Leicester are 10th – four points off ninth place but also only four points above 15th – and have logged two straight league wins just once back in October. Rodgers needs to find a way to refresh things at the King Power Stadium.
Arsenal’s scoring woes persist
Arsenal have a scoring problem.
The Gunners couldn’t muster a goal in Sunday’s draw with basement dwellers Burnley and have now found the net just once in their last five matches across all competitions. They’re getting goals from other sources – Emile Smith Rowe leads the north London outfit with eight league markers on the season – but the lack of a standout presence up front is hampering the club’s push to re-establish itself as a top-four threat.
Disciplinary issues have made former captain Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang an outcast, while Alexandre Lacazette has two goals in his last 17 games. This isn’t exactly Manchester City that we’re talking about here, with their abundance of attacking options everywhere on the pitch. It’s no wonder Arsenal are chasing Fiorentina striker Dusan Vlahovic this month.
The numbers from Sunday’s affair, per Opta, make for grim reading. Arsenal attempted 25 crosses against a Burnley team known for its size in defense, and only two of those open-play crosses found a teammate. Knotted at nil-nil and needing a goal, Mikel Arteta’s team managed only one shot in the last 20 minutes of the match. The Gunners have failed to score in four straight games for the first time since 2005, and, perhaps most damning of all, Arsenal finished the month of January with more red cards than goals.
Unless this drought ends, and quickly, Arsenal will be watching the Champions League on television for another year.
Chelsea superior to Tottenham in all facets
For the third time in just three weeks, Chelsea asserted their absolute authority over Tottenham, winning 2-0 on Sunday after shutting out Antonio Conte’s side 3-0 on aggregate in League Cup action. Up until the final 20 minutes, when the Blues were content to defend their lead, the hosts controlled more than 70% possession and allowed just two straightforward shots on target.
The gulf in class between these two sides is significant. It’s a credit to Conte that Sunday’s defeat was only Spurs’ first in the Premier League since the Italian manager replaced Nuno Espirito Santo in November.
This is a broken team. Conte has a surfeit of reliable players in his squad, particularly in midfield and on the flanks, where Tottenham so often cede control to their opponents. Conte has every reason to demand reinforcements, because even when his team wins, it does so in the scrappiest fashion possible.
Meanwhile, Chelsea can take comfort in a win that should buoy their spirits after going winless in four league matches. They’re now a point behind second-placed Liverpool, albeit with two more games played, and should kick on from here with nine of their remaining 14 fixtures against clubs in the bottom half of the table.