Deja vu for United, Ronaldo
As frustrating as it may be for fans to watch Manchester United drop points yet again, it must be as equally maddening to see Cristiano Ronaldo in the midst of his worst scoring drought in over a decade.
On the heels of a strong first half against Southampton – highlighted by Jadon Sancho’s first Premier League goal at Old Trafford – the Red Devils seemingly took their foot off the pedal and let the lead slip moments after the break. Days after coughing up their advantage in Wednesday’s draw with Burnley, it was deja vu for Ralf Rangnick after the Saints drew level in the 48th minute on their way to securing a massive away draw.
Ronaldo did little to help United build on their strong first-half performance and ended the contest without a goal for the sixth game in a row – his longest goalless streak in competitive matches since his first spell at United in 2009.
However, the Portuguese superstar did have a glorious opportunity to open the scoring against Southampton, but his soft attempt at an open goal was comfortably cleared away inside the opening five minutes. From there, Ronaldo continuously roamed offside and offered few solutions for an attack that would be better off if it didn’t have to rely on the 37-year-old so much.
Manchester United mailing it in?
Speaking of those Manchester United offsides … this is likely the most egregious offence you’ll see this season:
VAR wasn’t required here.
This obviously makes for an uproarious image that can – and will – be widely mocked, but it also legitimately brings into question the level of engagement from the Manchester United squad. Offside by a toe? Understandable. A mistimed run? It happens. But six players clearly offside from a set piece is, frankly, embarrassing, and it sums up United’s season all too well.
Southampton can hang with the big boys
Southampton showed the same verve and spirit in Saturday’s 1-1 draw with Manchester United that fueled their 3-2 comeback win over Tottenham Hotspur a few days prior. With a little more composure in the final 18 yards, the Saints could’ve even won the match. Armando Broja, Southampton’s emergent striker, humiliated Harry Maguire on more than one occasion, turning United’s captain inside out on one particularly damning play before cutting in and fashioning a chance in the penalty area.
But Broja wasn’t simply a one-man wrecking crew at Old Trafford. He was part of a greater tactical scheme that played out to perfection in the second half. Southampton sliced open United’s midfield time and again – playing vertical passes with ease, hitting fast on the counterattack, and showing yet more fearlessness against one of the Premier League’s biggest clubs. Saturday’s comeback followed Wednesday’s ransacking of the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, a pair of draws with Manchester City, and a 3-2 triumph at Champions League-chasing West Ham United.
Ralph Hasenhuttl’s side is on a great run, having lost just one of its last 10 matches across all competitions. Southampton are Liverpool without the big names, a high-tempo unit that, on its best day, can handle any opposition. They’d be far higher in the standings if they hadn’t gone winless over a five-game span in November and December.
Brighton’s Lamptey a hidden gem
Graham Potter is quietly developing Tariq Lamptey into one of the most explosive two-way players in the Premier League.
The 21-year-old put in an incredible shift in Brighton & Hove Albion’s 2-0 win over Watford on Saturday. He won three tackles – including a perfectly timed challenge in the area to deny Watford’s Emmanuel Dennis early on – and assisted Neal Maupay’s opener with a smart cross into the box toward the end of the first half.
A versatile speedster who can attack and defend in equal measure, Lamptey has thrived as a right wing-back in Potter’s 3-5-2 formation, charging up and down the flank to retrieve balls in either half. Lamptey drew gasps from the crowd at Vicarage Road when he chased down Watford’s Hassane Kamara to win possession in the opposing half. He then fended off Kamara once more before laying off a pass, peeling around the defender, and running clear into open space. All Kamara could do was scythe him down and concede a free-kick.
Lamptey attacked Chelsea with similar gusto in Brighton’s 1-1 draw with the European champions last month, completing a game-high four dribbles while tallying up several tackles, interceptions, and key passes. Not bad for a player Brighton signed from the Blues for under £1 million in January 2020.
Everton cruise as Lampard picks up 1st win
Relegation concerns could be a thing of the past if Frank Lampard’s Everton can come close to replicating Saturday’s emphatic victory moving forward. With Goodison Park rocking before the match, Everton produced their best all-around performance of the season against Leeds United to deliver Lampard his first win since taking charge.
Although it might’ve been premature to label it a must-win match for the home side, desperation was undoubtedly setting in for an Everton team that hadn’t registered a Premier League win since early December.
But there was a celebratory atmosphere ahead of Saturday’s contest. As Lampard made his home debut, the pessimism and trepidation that permeated throughout Goodison in the months before his appointment were replaced by unmistakable confidence among the home supporters.
And the Toffees didn’t disappoint. New signing Donny van de Beek enjoyed a strong outing while Everton’s other high-profile arrival last month, Dele Alli, also showed positive signs during his cameo off the bench. But it was the opening goal from veteran defender Seamus Coleman that set the tone in a match that could turn out to be a turning point in Everton’s turbulent season.
Smith’s improvements evident, but probably in vain
Among the greatest peculiarities of this Premier League season is why Dean Smith, eight days after Aston Villa sacked him in November, rushed into the managerial vacancy at Norwich City. His reputation should’ve earned him a job at a midtable team rather than one at an ailing outfit circling the plughole into the Championship.
It was a low bar to begin with, but Smith has improved Norwich since his appointment. The Canaries performed surprisingly well in the first half of Saturday’s 4-0 home defeat to Manchester City, with Milot Rashica’s menacing counter-attacking play drawing an early yellow card from Ruben Dias while goalkeeper Angus Gunn offered another much-improved display between the sticks.
And the undefeated four-game streak that preceded the weekend’s fixture proved Norwich have more defensive ability (see the 1-1 draw with Crystal Palace and the 1-0 FA Cup victory at Wolverhampton Wanderers), attacking punch (the 3-0 win at Watford), and better team spirit (the 2-1 triumph over Everton) than perhaps we gave them credit for.
But ultimately, it probably won’t be enough. The Premier League’s bottom three are fiercely competitive, with a proven manager overseeing each club; Smith sits above Watford’s Roy Hodgson and Burnley’s Sean Dyche in the table. And that’s before you consider 17th-placed Newcastle United’s January spend and the quality of teams on the edge of the relegation battle.
If anything, the next few months are a free hit for Smith. Keep Norwich up, and he’s credited as a miracle worker. But even if the club takes the expected descent into the Championship, there’s a great chance to mastermind a promotion campaign.
Tottenham don’t pay attention to detail
Tottenham started Sunday’s match against Wolverhampton Wanderers exactly as they ended Wednesday’s 3-2 defeat to Southampton: with zero trust in themselves or one another.
Conceding two goals in the opening 20 minutes is bad enough. But on top of giving up a 2-0 lead to an opponent that rarely gives up goals away from home, Antonio Conte’s side looked completely rattled in front of their own fans. Tottenham gave away cheap fouls, fielded sloppy passes in vulnerable areas, and, on the first goal, quite literally stood around and watched as goalkeeper Hugo Lloris flapped at a pair of shots in quick succession. Lloris compromised himself again in the 18th minute with a poor sideways pass to Ben Davies, and it was the defender’s weak clearance that led directly to Wolves’ second goal.
It was much of the same to start the second half. Davinson Sanchez and Harry Winks blamed each other over a misplaced pass two minutes after the interval, and in the 53rd minute, Sanchez’s horrific giveaway put Raul Jimenez clear on goal.
Perhaps in an attempt to boost the confidence of his flailing unit, Conte said afterward the performance was one of Tottenham’s best since he took over in November. But it was most certainly not.
Conte wouldn’t criticize his players’ commitment – “until the end, we pushed and tried to score,” the Italian said proudly – but perhaps he should. He’d have every right to scold his team for a lack of care and consideration in the opening half hour, which ultimately caused their third straight defeat in the Premier League.
Lage has Wolves dreaming big
Prior to Sunday’s clash with Wolves, Tottenham boss Antonio Conte praised the job his opposite number Bruno Lage has done this season. His words weren’t platitudes, either.
The Italian was right to be wary of the threat posed by Lage and his squad.
Spurs played their part in gifting Wolves a pair of early goals – Lloris, as discussed above, had a horrible day at the office – but outside of some desperate late pressure from Tottenham, the visitors were full value for a win that puts them well within striking distance of an unlikely Champions League berth.
Since slim 1-0 defeats in early December to Liverpool and Manchester City – the nation’s two best teams by some distance – Wolves have five wins in their last seven league matches, a run that also includes a goalless draw with Chelsea. After a rocky start to the campaign in which Lage was being touted as a candidate to be sacked, the Portuguese tactician has quietly steadied the ship. Wolves are now just four points back of West Ham United for the final Champions League place and have two games in hand on the Hammers.
Lage has made some subtle tweaks and built on the defensive solidity that his predecessor, Nuno Espirito Santo, instilled – only Manchester City have conceded fewer goals this season than Wolves’ 17.
“We are always confident,” said striker Raul Jimenez, who opened the scoring on Sunday. “We know what we can do. We are in a good period and we can keep improving and go higher in the table. We are dreaming big.”
They should be.
Red-hot Newcastle climb out of bottom 3
It wasn’t a classic but Eddie Howe’s rejuvenated Newcastle United got the job done against Aston Villa. In collecting another three valuable points Sunday with a 1-0 win, the Magpies have their relegation fate in their own hands – for now, at least.
Just short of a month after a draw against Watford left Newcastle pitted near the bottom of the table, Howe’s team is now in the midst of a three-game winning run that’s helped create precious breathing space between them and the relegation zone. Newcastle now sit one spot above the drop and four points clear of last-place Watford.
The scrappy victory at St James’ Park was highlighted by another stunning free-kick by Kieran Trippier – the England international’s second such goal in as many matches – and a strong defensive effort that was vital in neutralizing Villa’s attack.
Dan Burn was immense at the heart of the Magpies’ defense, winning several key battles during his debut to help Newcastle record their third clean sheet of the season. The imposing center-back was named Man of the Match to mark a memorable beginning to his career at Newcastle.
Wheels falling off for Leicester?
Leicester City are in a funk.
The Foxes haven’t won a Premier League match since December, their latest setback coming on Sunday when Craig Dawson earned West Ham United a 2-2 draw with a 91st-minute equalizer at the King Power Stadium.
There’s a palpable tension around the club right now, highlighted by manager Brendan Rodgers’ post-match comments in the wake of the disappointing stalemate. A gruff Rodgers engaged in a prickly conversation with a reporter when asked about the status of star midfielder Youri Tielemans, who is reportedly uninterested in extending his contract with the club.
Amid a frustrating season disrupted by injuries, COVID-19 postponements, transfer speculation, rumors about Rodgers’ own future, and dispiriting results, Leicester are stuck in 11th place in the Premier League.
It’s difficult to envision them making a late surge. The feel-good factor at the club appears to have disappeared, and with it a place among the contenders for European places.