Premier League Playback: Man Utd’s revival begins, AVB gone, Arsenal’s bad luck

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LIFE AFTER VAN PERSIE… THERE’S HOPE FOR UNITED

In the midst of Manchester United’s run of no wins in four Premier League games, the news earlier this week that talismanic striker Robin van Persie is out injured for over a month and may miss eight games added to the misery.

But in United’s dominant 3-0 win over Aston Villa on Sunday, several stunning performances proved there may be life after RVP (those strands of dyed jet-black hair won’t hide the wrinkles, Robin) as David Moyes’ men produced an attacking masterclass to potentially reignite their campaign. Moyes has been under-fire for most of this season but managed to crack plenty of smiles in his post-game conference as Danny Welbeck, Antonio Valencia and Adnan Januzaj tore Villa’s defense apart with their desire, speed and skill in a three-pronged assault that left Villa’s young defense in ruins. Yet Moyes wasn’t happy with the way his youngest pretender, Januzaj, was treated as several late tackles flew in.

It’s been a reoccurring theme.

“In every game recently, I don’t know how many tackles have been on Januzaj but the last two, three games that’s why I’ve been annoyed with the fourth officials. Before you know it, the boy will get a sore one because he’s definitely not getting protected by the officials. It’s terrible what they’re allowed to do at the moment because this boy’s an incredible talent. The opposition are queuing up and taking turns at who’s going to have a kick at him next. But Adnan will just get up, walk away and get on with it, he’s a great lad. That’s maybe one of his biggest attributes apart from his outstanding ability, he will just get up and walk away and say ‘go on then, kick me again if you want, I’ll get up again.’” – David Moyes on Januzaj being targeted.

Aside for being worried about his starlet being physically assaulted in most games, Moyes has plenty to be happy about.

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Click to enlarge – Welbeck is about to enter the box, as his desire to get to the ball first seems him bag a crucial second goal for United. Note: Rooney on the edge and Januzaj slashing in from the left flank.

He spoke about his delight in seeing Welbeck get back on the score sheet, as the United forward grabbed his first PL goals since the opening day of the season with two predatory strikes in the box. Welbeck, 23, showed his vast hunger and desire to finish both off, just look at the image on the left as Valencia (who was outstanding on the wing) prepared to cross the ball in for Welbeck’s second goal. From that position, you see how much ground the England international has to make up but he got to the ball first, tellingly ahead of his teammate Januzaj, who was always extremely hungry and eager to attack. The Belgian born winger was ready to prove a point all afternoon as his terrific header, which cannoned off the post to give Welbeck his first goal, proved.

Plus his relentless running down the left saw his slight frame breeze past players as if they weren’t there, with the 18-year-olds pace a real asset.

Moyes mentioned that you have to “show what you can do” when opportunities arise.

Welbeck, Januzaj and Valencia all did that with RVP and Javier Hernandez on the sidelines. The pressure looked off for the Red Devils as the feel-good factor returned following a horrid month in which their last PL win came on Nov. 10 against Arsenal. They proved that their attacking juggernaut can be in full flow without being directed by RVP and that bodes well for the rest of the season. Also telling is that United have scored 17 away from home but just eight at home… Are the shackles loosened when they’re away from the 75,000 home fans scrutinizing their every move at Old Trafford maybe?

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Click to enlarge – My prematch thoughts on United were answered with resounding displays from Januzaj, Welbeck and Valencia

Before Sunday’s game as I sipped on a cup of coffee in the press box under the grey clouds forming above Birmingham, I circled Welbeck, Januzaj and Valencia’s names on my team sheet, linked them together and put a question mark next to them… Honest. Look at the picture on the right. I did that because I was unimpressed with them so far, they had to show everyone they had the desire to be winners.

They did that. And some.

Those three were the shinning lights, along with Wayne Rooney, in a dazzling display in the damp drizzle at Villa Park. United’s new-look attacking trio with Rooney orchestrating things from a deep-lying role offers cause for optimism amongst United’s fans who chanted “we are staying up” with heavy irony when the Red Devils went ahead. They’ve had their struggles this season, that’s been well documented. But with a run of three very winnable games coming up in the league (against West Ham, Hull and Norwich) the likes of Darren Fletcher returning from a long-term illness to rapturous applause in the second half and even the much-maligned Tom Cleverley getting a goal and playing well, there’s plenty to be cheerful for this Christmas at Old Trafford.

Just ignore the fact that they’re in 8th place and 10 points behind leaders Arsenal. The way this PL season’s going, United will be back top of the table by the end of January…

If they keep attacking like they did against Villa, they have every chance.

Premier League Schedule – Week 16

Result Recap & Highlights
Aston Villa 0-3 Man Utd Recap and watch here
Cardiff 1-0 West Brom Recap and watch here
Chelsea 2-1 Crystal Palace Recap and watch here
Everton 4-1 Fulham Recap and watch here
Hull City 0-0 Stoke City Recap and watch here
Man City 6-3 Arsenal Recap and watch here
Newcastle 1-1 Southampton Recap and watch here
Norwich 1-1 Swansea Recap and watch here
Tottenham 0-5 Liverpool Recap and watch here
West Ham 0-0 Sunderland Recap and watch here

HIGH-LINE, TRANSFER MEDDLING SEES AVB’S TIME TICKING

Number one, Tottenham is in trouble. Number two, so is Andre Villas-Boas.

UPDATE: Andre Villas-Boas has been sacked as Spurs’ manager. But the rest still applies…

After seeing his side collapse once again to a team full of attacking creativity and nous, AVB’s time at Tottenham Hotspur has now run out as Spurs were humiliated 5-0 by Liverpool at White Hart Lane. Sad fact is, it could’ve been more.

Do Spurs work on defending during the week at the training ground? It doesn’t seem like it. To be fair they had Ettiene Capoue, usually a central midfielder, playing at center back and he looked all at sea as he pushed up high and Tottenham kept a criminally high-line against one of the deadliest strikers in world soccer Luis Suarez, who made them pay with two goals and had a hand in the others. The defending was extremely poor and it shows Spurs have got insufficient cover at the back due to injuries.

That brings me to my next point.

When AVB and Franco Baldini ‘masterminded’ one of the biggest roster reconstructions in PL history over the summer, many (including yours truly) were hailing Tottenham’s manager and the Sporting Director as geniuses for the way they worked the market and brought in eight top-class players for one, when they sold Gareth Bale to Real Madrid for approximately $132 million.

Hindsight is a wonderful thing.

Baldini and AVB forget that more defenders were needed and just went out and bought a ton of midfielders who were either industrious wide players or industrious central guys. They were all clones of each other. Now, when Spurs are looking for a change and fresh impetus off the bench, the players they bring on all do the same thing. New guys Paulinho, Nacer Chadli, Erik Lamela and Capoue are the same as Aaron Lennon, Andros Townsend, Mousa Dembele and Lewis Holtby. Did nobody think of that?

Asked of the transfer policy after the game and if he had made the signings or was given the players by Baldini, AVB gave a strange answer as he mumbled through his answer and backed the players, completely dodging the issue.

The fact that his side has had their pants pulled down and their backsides smacked twice in the last five PL games won’t help his cause, as the Portuguese managers’ future is hanging in the balance at Spurs.

He was fired less than 24 hours after the humbling loss. Nobody was surprised.

Liverpool were fantastic and look like title-contenders, let alone settling for a top four finish. Tottenham are a million miles away from that and AVB is history.

Note: Steve Clarke lost his job as manager of West Bromwich Albion after their defeat to Cardiff on Saturday. Just nine wins in 41 games in charge isn’t a great return but many thought the sacking was harsh. Five managers and counting in this season sack race, so far…

ARSENAL HARD DONE BY TO LOSE 6-3? PERHAPS…

Okay, Manchester City were sublime going forward and in the grand scheme of things deserved all three points in their brilliant display of finishing when beating Arsenal 6-3 on Saturday at the Eithad. But it all could’ve been so different if a few pivotal calls would’ve gone Arsenal’s way.

In the first half two clear offside calls were somehow flagged as Nacho Monreal and Theo Walcott raced through on goal. Both, more than likely, would’ve resulted in goals for Arsenal. In the second half Olivier Giroud was adjudged to be offside as a telling cross approached him in the box. Like the other decisions, replays showed he wasn’t offside.

And finally, to cap it all off, Niklas Bendtner’s goal late in the game was ruled out when he was clearly onside to infuriate Arsenal’s fans, players (so much so that Jack Wilshere is facing a ban as he flipped the bird) and their manager.

Do they have a point? City were incredibly good going forward but Alvaro Negredo did stray into an offside position for his goal. Sooo, if we add those mistake by officials up, Arsenal win 7-6 or 6-5… There’s a small margin for error in this game and the officials are just as capable as the players for some results. Believe me, I’m not taking anything away from City for winning this game. I’m just chucking the evidence out there. Regardless, Wenger wasn’t happy with the defending and Mesut Ozil is in hot water after refusing to go and applaud Arsenal’s fans despite captain and fellow countryman Per Mertesacker telling him to.

THROWING PUNCHES AND PULLING TRICKS

We’ve talked about some pretty heavy stuff in playback this week, so it’s time to tone things down.

Have you ever seen a ref take a dive? That’s right folks, it happened.

First up, we all love the referees (deep down) and realize the game couldn’t happen without them. Moussa Sissoko’s right fist struck poor Mike Jones with an accidental uppercut to his nose from Newcastle’s French attacker with he was involved in ‘handbags’ with Saints’ ‘keeper Paolo Gaazaniga. In the same game, Newcastle and Southampton’s benches cleared as a huge scuffle broke out between the coaching staffs just after Jones had his nose reattached and plugged up to continue. What a crazy ending to that game at St. James Park. Enjoy, or grimace, as you watch it all unfold above.

Finishing on another light note, don’t adjust your displays when looking at the image below. Yes, Peter Whittingham and Peter Odemwingie do both look like they’re about to strike the free kick at the same time, one with his left foot and the other with his right, in Cardiff’s 1-0 win over West Brom on Saturday.

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Click to enlarge – who took this free kick… Whittingham or Odemwingie?

Can you work out which players actually hit the ball? Bizarre.

I’ve seen this before and if it comes off, it utterly bamboozles the ‘keeper and could be a trick we see deployed more often as the season goes on. Hilarious, devious and downright genius.

Premier League Playback comes out every Monday and takes an alternative look at the PL weekend gone by.

Manchester United: Solskjaer hopeful of new Paul Pogba contract

Paul Pogba contract
Photo by Matthew Peters/Manchester United via Getty Images
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Manchester United boss Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is singing a new tune, hopeful that star midfielder Paul Pogba will stick around Old Trafford for the long term.

Reports say that United has an option to extend Pogba’s contract by an extra year beyond its 2021 expiry, but Solskjaer is thinking bigger. He has been praising Pogba plenty since the World Cup winner returned to the lineup.

[ MORE: Premier League summer schedule ]

It’s a bit surprising given Pogba and his super agent’s constant time in the rumor mill, with Real Madrid often linked with the Frenchman. And that agent, Mino Raiola, has not been so nice when it comes to judging Solskjaer.

But Solskjaer is reportedly hopeful that Pogba can join Bruno Fernandes, Marcus Rashford, and others in building a new power.

“I can’t comment on discussions between player and the club but. of course, we want to keep the best players around the club,” Solskjaer said. “We want to build a squad for the future and Scott and Nemanja are a similar position but at different stages in their careers. One at the start, one really experienced one.”

Pogba leads United in key passes per game with 2.3, though his minutes have been severely limited by injuries this season. He had 13 goals and nine assists last season, and turned 27 in March.

The way United’s performed in recent weeks it would not be a surprise if keeping its main talents while adding another stalwart center back and wing would propel it into a more serious table discussion.

Do you buy the idea that Pogba could be with United well into the future?

Suarez goal gives Barcelona win, relegates neighbors Espanyol

Espanyol relegated
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Seventh-place one season ago, La Liga mainstays Espanyol are being relegated from Spain’s top flight.

The final decision came at the hands of their Catalan neighbors Barcelona, who got a second-half goal from Luis Suarez to relegate Espanyol.

[ MORE: Premier League summer schedule ]

Espanyol are 11 points back of 17th place and can only capture nine more points this season following the 1-0 loss in a match where both teams had a player sent off.

Suarez’s goal was a nice one after Antoine Griezmann’s back heel pass to Lionel Messi saw the Argentine’s shot deflect onto the path of the Uruguayan finisher.

Espanyol had been in the top flight since 1994 and has only spent four single seasons outside La Liga since 1929. Leganes and Mallorca may join them soon.

Barcelona moves a point back of Real Madrid. Real has four matches left to Barca’s three and holds the tiebreaker.

Klopp reacts to Liverpool wins, says Henderson injury ‘not nothing’

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Liverpool’s 3-1 win over Brighton and Hove Albion was a bit more what we’re used to from the Premier League champions.

But that wasn’t the focus of the post-match despite a highlight-reel show from Mohamed Salah, as Reds boss Jurgen Klopp sounded an ominous note when asked about Jordan Henderson leaving the match with injury.

“I don’t know exactly but it was something with the knee I think. We know it’s not nothing.”

[ MORE: Premier League summer schedule ]

Henderson’s not exactly a player to hit the deck unless he’s feeling pain, and Klopp removed him for James Milner with 10 minutes to play.

That’s about the only bad news from the win, as Liverpool became the first team this season to breach the 90-point mark and saw Salah’s brace move him within three goals of the Golden Boot lead.

Salah would only say, “Let’s take it game-by-game,” but it’s clearly on his mind.

Trent Alexander-Arnold says the Egyptian is hungry to get a share of a third-straight Golden Boot.

From the BBC:

“He has his targets, he’s around the Golden Boot and it’s something he wants to retain,” Alexander-Arnold said. “He’s a world class player who scores so many goals for us and we try to get him on the board as much as possible.”

As for the match, Brighton almost as missed some big chances as Liverpool before the game was out of reach. Klopp admits that it was a challenge.

“We started really well,” Klopp said. “We had to adapt a little bit as we knew what they wanted to do but it was a little bit hard to defend. We left one or two players in a position where if we won the ball we had players in the counter-attack position. We got the first two goals with super balls but we could have scored more. I said to the boys at half-time they could have been 2-2 too. It was a nice game to watch.”

The Reds finish with Burnley, Arsenal, Chelsea, and Newcastle United.

Liverpool march continues with 3-1 win at Brighton

Brighton - Liverpool recap
Photo by DANIEL LEAL-OLIVAS/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)
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Mohamed Salah had two goals and an assist in the first eight minutes of Liverpool’s 3-1 win over Brighton and Hove Albion at the Amex Stadium on Wednesday.

Salah is now three goals behind league leader Jamie Vardy, and Liverpool’s 92 points are 23 more than Man City. Jordan Henderson also scored for the Reds.

BRIGHTON – LIVERPOOL FULL MATCH REPLAY

Leandro Trossard scored for Brighton, whose 36 points are nine clear of the bottom three with four matches to play (The 18th and 19th place sides do have a match each in hand).

[ MORE: Premier League summer schedule ]

Liverpool’s 30 wins through 34 outings is a Premier League record and Jurgen Klopp’s men are chasing several PL records. The Reds finish with Burnley, Arsenal, Chelsea, and Newcastle United.


Three things we learned

1. Salah somehow under the radar: Look, the Egyptian star’s 32-goal league season was an outlier. Not a lot of guys consistently hit 25, let alone the 30 mark in the Premier League. But Salah has rather quietly put together another amazing season with 19 goals and nine assists in PL play plus another four and three in cup competitions. Salah is one assist of joining the a small group of players to get double digit league goals and assists in a top five European league this season.

While it’s become sexy to praise Sadio Mane as the Reds’ top winger, Salah has been just as good. He could’ve had another goal in the 53rd but Mat Ryan made a fine intervention at close range. If Salah is under the radar, it’s because Liverpool has spread the wealth this season and had so many heroes in close matches. But boy, oh boy, is he their best weapon.

2. Lamptey shows glimpses, then youth: The sample size is very small, but 19-year-old Chelsea outcast Tariq Lamptey has played well at right back in most of his outings for Brighton since the return from the coronavirus pause. Lamptey was at blame for Liverpool’s third goal in both the chance conceded and actual finish from Salah, but the $4 million January buy looked well worth the price tag in a terrific first half at the Amex.

3. Seagulls still missing final ball: Brighton produced four big chances in the game to Liverpool’s two, but only put one in the back of the net (SofaScore). That’s sadly been par for the course this season, as Brighton’s style has been worthy of a top half place. Brighton entered the day with seven fewer goals than its expected goals total. Only Everton, Watford, and Norwich have been less fortunate.

Man of the Match:

Salah.


Brighton – Liverpool recap

Salah had a goal and an assist within 500 seconds of kickoff.

The Egyptian took a feed from Naby Keita to score off a Davy Propper giveaway and then set up Henderson’s second to have the Seagulls’ heads spinning early.

Brighton found a chance in the 19th but Neco Williams recovered with a slide to block Leandro Trossard from slotting a point-blank goal.

The Seagulls pulled within one just before halftime when in-form youngster Tariq Lamptey swept a cross into the mix for Trossard to punch home.

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights ]

Salah could’ve had it 3-1 at one end but Brighton’s Dan Burn asked the Egyptian to hold his drink with a butchered wide-open shot at the back post in the 60th minute.

Jurgen Klopp didn’t like the close score, and brought on Fabinho, Andy Robertson, and Sadio Mane in the second half. One of the players he removed, Naby Keita, had a strong hour before departing the contest.

Henderson almost produced a third Liverpool goal after a rare Lamptey error spring a chance that took a wicked turn off Dale Stephens.

The Reds made it 3-1 off the ensuing corner, Salah’s clinical header in front of Lamptey. Henderson limped off for Liverpool late in the contest.

Ryan denied Salah a hat trick in stoppage time and the Egyptian headed over the bar at the final whistle. He could’ve had five.