theScore examines the most important developments and discusses the biggest talking points from Saturday’s busy slate of Premier League action.

Leeds’ improvement counts for naught

Somehow, Kasper Schmeichel was there again. The Leicester City goalkeeper made his fourth save of the game when his left foot repelled Raphinha’s effort from three yards after almost an hour had elapsed.

Then, just seven minutes later, Harvey Barnes scored the goal to puncture what was arguably Leeds United’s most dominant performance of the season.

The traveling Leeds supporters sounded their appreciation for their side’s fresh look – they often formed a 4-2-2-2 out of possession – and better defensive organization after the final whistle of Saturday’s 1-0 loss. New head coach Jesse Marsch delivered a similarly positive message to his team at the end of the match.

“I told the players that if we keep playing like this, we’ll get all the points we need,” Marsch said, according to The Athletic’s Phil Hay. “The only negative is the result.”

Mike Egerton – PA Images / PA Images / Getty

But that negative represents the only thing that matters, especially at this stage of the season.

The American now has a few days on the training ground to help Raphinha rediscover his best form and get Kalvin Phillips and Patrick Bamford closer to full fitness. No three players are more important to Leeds’ fortunes. However, Raphinha hasn’t taken on opponents with the same relish in recent weeks, while Phillips and Bamford have just 17 Premier League starts between them this season.

The Yorkshire club is only two points above the relegation zone before potentially season-defining encounters against Aston Villa and Norwich City at Elland Road.

Eriksen’s set-pieces boost Brentford

There were occasional bright spots when Christian Eriksen returned 259 days after his cardiac arrest to make his Brentford debut last weekend, but the Dane showed how important he could be to his new team in his first start at Norwich City.

For a club focused on using statistics to get an edge over its opponents, the Bees’ goal return from set-pieces has been distinctly average in recent years. Last season, Brentford finished as the Championship’s top scorers but ranked 12th for set-piece goals.

They’ve improved in the Premier League – entering Saturday’s 3-1 win at Norwich, a third of their goals came from set-pieces – and Eriksen adds more quality to Thomas Frank’s ranks in dead-ball situations. Before Eriksen’s arrival, Ethan Pinnock’s flung throw-ins were considerably more dangerous than free-kicks from the likes of Bryan Mbeumo and Sergi Canos.

Joe Giddens – PA Images / PA Images / Getty

Eriksen was key to two of Brentford’s goals at Carrow Road. The Bees’ opener was satisfyingly simplistic: Eriksen sent a corner-kick to Kristoffer Ajer at the near post, and the ball was duly flicked on toward the back stick where Ivan Toney finished. The playmaker then caused more havoc with another corner when his offering appeared destined for Pontus Jansson’s head. In his desperation to prevent another Eriksen-crafted goal, Ben Gibson almost took Jansson’s ear off with a swing of his boot. Toney scored the resulting penalty.

Eriksen’s set-piece brilliance – and, indeed, Norwich missing Grant Hanley’s aerial presence in the backline – was a huge deciding factor in Norwich and Brentford’s meeting, helping the visitors end a winless run of nine matches across all competitions.

A little levity

Speaking of Eriksen, the Danish midfielder was at the center of Saturday’s most whimsical moment, along with Norwich’s Brandon Williams. After being dragged down by Eriksen, Williams was ready to react with fury.

Then he realized who was responsible for the tackle.

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Both players walked away with smiles. The Brentford midfielder seemed to appreciate the humor of it all, and Williams was surely relieved not to go down in history as the guy who took a swing at Eriksen.

Magpies’ January gets better and better

There could’ve been a temptation to bring some glitz and glamor to St. James’ Park in January. Manchester City unveiled Robinho, and Chelsea paid big fees to acquire Hernan Crespo, Adrian Mutu, and Juan Sebastian Veron soon after their respective takeovers.

But Eddie Howe was determined to strengthen nouveau-riche Newcastle United’s defense, so he picked up players named Kieran, Dan, and Matt. It seems Bruno Guimaraes – the closest thing Newcastle got to an exotic marquee signing in the winter window – was signed more for next season as he’s made only five substitute appearances thus far.

The Magpies’ sensible approach has paid off. Kieran Trippier’s impact was monumental before suffering a foot injury last month, but Dan Burn and Matt Targett are working assiduously at the back to ensure Trippier’s absence isn’t critical.

Richard Sellers – PA Images / PA Images / Getty

Burn was again imperious for Newcastle against his former club Brighton & Hove Albion, blocking two shots, stepping in with three interceptions, and whacking away seven clearances. Unless Luis Diaz’s bright start at Liverpool gets even better, Burn could be the Premier League’s best January signing.

Targett, who is on loan from Aston Villa, has brought discipline and positional sense to the left-back role that was lacking while players such as Matt Ritchie and Jamal Lewis operated in that space. Left-winger Ryan Fraser will undoubtedly credit the balance and protection that Targett brings to the lineup for helping him on his way to a goal, an assist, and his best outing in black-and-white stripes against Brighton.

The 2-1 victory gave Newcastle a seven-point cushion above the bottom three. The threat of relegation is almost dispelled.

Reece James back with a bang

Oh, how Chelsea desperately missed Reece James.

The Englishman, now fully recovered from a hamstring injury that forced him to miss 12 matches across all competitions, made his first start since December in Saturday’s 4-0 victory over Burnley. He stole the show.

James twisted Dwight McNeil inside-out before finding the bottom corner for the match’s opening goal, was involved in the buildup on Kai Havertz’s first marker of the contest, and then teed up the angular German for another.

In his extended absence over the last couple of months, Trent Alexander-Arnold and Joao Cancelo have ping-ponged acclaim between themselves, dominating the discourse as the preeminent attacking full-backs in England’s top flight. But James reminded everyone that he belongs in that conversation, too. Yes, an accommodating Burnley defense made his life a little easier at Turf Moor, but the 22-year-old showed off his entire repertoire in Chelsea’s straightforward triumph.

On the back of that superlative attacking showing, James is now the only defender in Europe’s top five leagues with at least five goals and five assists this season. Alexander-Arnold has a more creative passing range, and Cancelo is a better dribbler, but James is the more consistent scoring threat of the distinguished trio.

Cezar Azpilicueta has been an outstanding player for Chelsea during his decorated tenure at the club, and he continues to be a solid, if unspectacular, option for Thomas Tuchel. But the gulf in attacking quality between the veteran Spaniard and explosive Englishman is stark. Saturday was the latest reminder; James makes the Blues a more credible attacking unit.

Would Chelsea still be in the title race if James was healthy all season?

Wolves’ big dream dissipates

After beating Tottenham Hotspur last month, we tipped Bruno Lage’s Wolverhampton Wanderers as candidates to make an unlikely Champions League charge. Wolves were rolling, after all, and sat within four points of the top four.

“We are always confident,” Raul Jimenez said at the time. “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 followed that up with another victory, this time over Leicester. The dreams kept growing.

And then someone popped the balloon.

Laurence Griffiths / Getty Images Sport / Getty

In the wake of Saturday’s 2-0 defeat to Crystal Palace, Wolves have now lost three consecutive matches, scoring just once in that time, and have slipped to eighth place. Positionally, they’re closer to the bottom half of the table than a Champions League spot. How quickly things change.

Those setbacks may have been slim in nature – blowing a late lead against Arsenal now feels like a key turning point – but this illustrates just how difficult it is for one of the “outsiders” to gatecrash the top four.

There’s virtually no room for error, no room for even a slight dip in form. A Europa League berth would still be a good accomplishment for Lage, especially after the team’s torrid start to the campaign, but a place in Europe’s showpiece tournament now seems out of reach.

Alexander-Arnold better than ever

Even shots are turning into assists for Trent Alexander-Arnold these days.

The 23-year-old was outstanding in Liverpool’s narrow win over West Ham United on Saturday with a vintage performance at both ends of the pitch. In solidifying his reputation as one of the game’s best providers, Alexander-Arnold now finds himself on the cusp of shattering his personal records.

Whether his strike into the box on Sadio Mane’s game-winning goal was a shot or a cross is up for debate. What matters, though, is the English right-back was responsible for another quality ball into a dangerous area, which proved crucial in helping Liverpool collect another three points to stay within reach of leaders Manchester City.

Along with ending the day as the Premier League assists leader with 11 – two shy of his personal record – Alexander-Arnold recorded his 16th assist in all competitions Saturday to match his best output. With one more, he’ll surpass Liverpool legend Steven Gerrard’s highest total in a season for the Reds.

Given that there are just under three months left in the season, the English international has a golden opportunity to reach unprecedented heights for a defender if he can maintain his unbelievable form and avoid injury.


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