Mesut Ozil

Premier League is better with unique Fernandes magic

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It has been a while – if ever – since the Premier League has seen a player like Bruno Fernandes.

The Manchester United midfielder, who joined this January from Portuguese club Sporting CP, has so far been worth every single penny of the $70 million the Red Devils forked over. At 25 years old, Fernandes was minted as the PFA Player of the Month for February on Monday, and it’s no surprise to see him garner plaudits left and right since his arrival a month ago.

What makes Bruno Fernandes so wonderful to watch – and concurrently so valuable to Manchester United – is also what makes him look on paper to be total chaos personified. He is, quite literally, everywhere. When his movements are transcribed onto graphical images, Bruno Fernandes appears to be a chicken with his head cut off. He kind of is, but it’s obviously more nuanced than that.

First, the fun part. Here’s what his last three matches before that look like on paper, followed by his heat maps for the entire season thus far, from both Sporting CP first and then Manchester United. (Click here for a key of the StatsZone app dashboards)

As you can see, the new Manchester United talisman covers nearly the entire attacking half of the field. He also contributes a heavy amount defensively, to moderate success. This isn’t exactly what sets him completely apart, but it’s the start. Few players are able to cover this amount of attacking ground while having such an effect on the game. Kevin De Bruyne is a player with similar freedom, and he has budded into maybe the most destructive creative force in Europe.

Yet while de Bruyne is more of a facilitator, Fernandes is more of a nomad. The Portuguese international doesn’t exactly feature on the ball nearly as much as his Belgian counterpart across town, instead choosing to float and wander looking for pockets of space as his teammates share the workload. If you watch Bruno Fernandes off the ball, he’s continually serving as a foil for his fellow attackers, often drifting away from a ball-carrier’s direction where space is available hoping to either carry too many defenders or none at all.

Bruno Fernandes picks his spots.

That was never more evident than against Manchester City, where the midfielder had to take special care and not waste what precious little possession the Red Devils had. With the visitors holding an enormous possessional advantage at Old Trafford – Man City out-passed Manchester United 671-215 – Fernandes was forced to make the most of the scraps he could find. He started the game out on the right flank as Anthony Martial found joy down the opposite end, but soon drifted centrally and then to his favored left edge as Daniel James grew in influence on the ball. He eventually found his moment, first earning the key 29th minute foul before serving up the game’s most critical moment.

When he did deliver, it highlighted another of his wide-ranging skill set: Bruno Fernandes is a set-piece wizard. Not only does he consistently deliver excellent corners into dangerous areas, but his chipped free-kick was left on a platter for Anthony Martial on the opening goal. All told, Fernandes seemingly did more with his limited touches – 25 received passes, 24 attempted passes – than Manchester City did all 90 minutes while hoofing a massive 33 crosses and appearing devoid of any creative flair. At the end of the match, despite the huge gulf in possession, Manchester United had somehow out-shot Man City 12-7.

Watch the Every Touch video posted above. What do you notice? Yes, Manchester United was sloppy against Manchester City at times, and Fernandes included. That’s what happens when you play the Pep Guardiola swarm and press. Still, every time he loses the ball he races back to try and challenge, and every time he connects with a teammate there’s a calming presence before he races off to find space of his own off the ball.

Where else can you find a player with this varied and unique skill set?

De Bruyne is the most obvious comparison, but the Belgian does not tackle at such a rate – Fernandes has him almost double, with two tackles per game to de Bruyne’s 1-3. Tackling is still an area of improvement for Fernandes, having whiffed on all five of his attempts against Manchester City to leave him 10/29 so far in Premier League play, but the pressing output is the important part for an attacking player like Fernandes. Otherwise, statistically KDB has a mimic on his hands, which is high praise.

Mesut Ozil is a player that, when at his best, can be a versatile and diverse attacking player but he also wouldn’t dare produce the defensive contributions (0.9 tackles, 0.3 interceptions, and 0.1 clearances per game to Bruno Fernandes’ 2.0, 1.0, and 1.8). Mason Mount will track back every so often, but his usage is far more one-sided as the Chelsea youngster favors the left flank. Fernandes’ countrymate Joao Moutinho is closer statistically than one might think, considering he currently sits eighth in the Premier League in chances created, but he still does not get forward with the fluidity and consistency that Fernandes does, instead anchored in the middle of the Wolves formation and favoring the left side.

In typical Ole Gunnar Solskjaer fashion, the Manchester United boss compared his new signing to a Red Devils great in Paul Scholes, in part thanks to the number of the back of his shirt, and Wayne Rooney echoed that comparison just a few days ago, according to the Mirror, after Derby County was dropped by Manchester United in the FA Cup. In truth, Fernandes has a bit more flair than Scholes did, and that’s not a knock on the midfield legend. Fernandes simply seems to play with a little less strength and a little more finesse than was Scholes’ calling card.

There really is no other player quite like Bruno Fernandes, and he could be the foundation upon which Manchester United builds its new era. There is a new great player who calls the Premier League home, and that should excite fans of all teams, even those who are adversely affected by his magic.

Arsenal snatch victory against West Ham

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Arsenal beat West Ham United 1-0 in the Premier League on Saturday as Mikel Arteta‘s side rode their luck but kept their unlucky push for Champions League qualification alive.

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A late goal from substitute Alexandre Lacazette, which was awarded via VAR after it was initially ruled out for offside, was the difference as West Ham’s Michail Antonio was guilty of missing several glorious opportunities.

The Gunners are in ninth place on 40 points and are five points off the top four. West Ham remain in 16th place on 27 points.


3 things we learned

1. West Ham unlucky: The Hammers came up against an in-form Arsenal goalkeeper and missed plenty of good chances throughout. David Moyes‘ side played well and were solid enough defensively but they couldn’t take their chances.

2. Arsenal have Leno to thank: The German goalkeeper has had a very good season for the Gunners with a few errors here and there more than canceled out by consistently decent displays. Leno denied Antonio and Haller on multiple occasions and has been a big part of their newfound defensive solidity.

3. Lacazette continues to fire: He’s now scored three goals in his last four games and Lacazette has found his mojo. With Eddie Nketiah doing well in recent weeks, Lacazette has had to be patient and he keeps giving Arsenal a cutting edge off the bench when they need it most. He may not be around next season but right now Lacazette is doing his best to make sure the Gunners stay in the top four (or five) battle.

Man of the Match: Bernd Leno – Several fine stops and a calming influence on his defensive unit. Jarrod Bowen also played very well for West Ham.


The Hammers squandered a glorious chance to take the lead early on as Michail Antonio raced clear and tried to set up Sebastien Haller but got it all wrong as he two v. one situation didn’t work out.

Moments later Arsenal almost went level as Mesut Ozil‘s shot was blocked superbly by Aaron Cresswell. Haller then had a great chance after being played in by Mark Noble but his first touch let him down and the chance came and went.

Arsenal then went closer to taking the lead as Sokratis hit the bar with a header from Aubameyang’s cross as the end-to-end nature of the game continued.

Antonio then missed a glorious chance from inside the six yard box as he somehow flicked wide.

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At the start of the second half the game continued to be open as Eddie Nketiah was played in by Bukayo Saka but his shot was blocked. Then Antonio had another great chance but his header was saved by Bernd Leno as the West Ham forward should have scored.

Arsenal struggled to take the game to West Ham late on as the Hammers launched several dangerous counter attacks through Jarrod Bowen and Antonio.

But then Arsenal snatched all three points as a deflected shot found Ozil who nodded the ball onto Lacazette to finish and although the offside flag was raised, VAR was used and Ozil was clearly onside and the ruling was overturned.

West Ham still had time to squander a few more chances as Haller went close and so too

PL Sunday preview: Wolves, Man United, Everton, Arsenal in action

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Sunday’s slate of Premier League fixtures promise to have a wide-range of action, as Wolves, Manchester United and Arsenal all take the field.

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Wolverhampton Wanderers vs. Norwich City  — 9:00 a.m. ET, on NBC Gold and NBCSports.com

Wolverhampton Wanderers are heading into Sunday’s match against bottom dwellers Norwich City with fresh, positive inertia.

On Thursday, Nuno Espirito Santo‘s men thumped Espanyol 4-0 in the knockout stages of the Europa League, giving Wolves a much-needed boost of confidence. The club, who has yet to win in Premier League play since January 18, ended a two-game streak without generating a goal against the Spanish side.

Wolves are the clear favorites heading into Molineux Stadium on Sunday. But on the other side stands a well-rested and hungry Norwich, who before going to winter break, showcased class and discipline against Liverpool in their last league showing.

Daniel Farke‘s side are eight points out of the safe zone but time is running out. The sense of urgency is at an all-season high for the Canaries, believers of their under-appreciated strengths.

“They (Wolves) are playing in Europe, they have kept three clean sheets, they have individual quality and it is a huge task,” Farke said. “But I don’t see any easy fixtures at this stage. It is about us. We always have a chance if we are good at our topics.

“People can write us off and say we have no chance to close the gap. But I don’t agree. It is possible.”

INJURIES: Wolves — OUT: Ruben Vinagre (hamstring) | Norwich — OUT: Timm Klose (knee), Sam Byram (hamstring)

Manchester United vs. Watford — 9:00 a.m. ET, on NBCSN and NBCSports.com

History and data say Watford, who have never won a league game at Old Trafford, stand no chance against Manchester United on Sunday.

But if one victory inspired a mostly-lethargic Hornets this season under Nigel Pearson it was the 2-0 win over United at Vicarage Road. The second-to-last side went on a six-match unbeaten streak following the said victory. It brought the club back to life, lifting them out of the bottom three.

Watford have since faltered and dropped back below the red line, but Pearson promises to stick to his philosophical guns.

“We approach every game in a very similar way and that is to try and be as positive as we can,” he said. “We’ll go out there and we’ll do what we can to win the game, we’ve not changed our approach, it’s just that results sometimes change how people perceive things.”

United will certainly look different, as Odion Ighalo is expected to make his home debut against his former club following his arrival in earlier this month.

United, who stand in the seventh spot with 38 points, have a clear window of opportunity to surpass fifth-place Tottenham with a victory. Prior to Sunday’s match, manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer addressed questions regarding consistency.

“It is team selection – you’ve got to maybe rotate in Europe like we’ve done, then maybe go back to what we were at Chelsea this week,” Gunnar Solskjaer said. “I feel that Bruno [Fernandes] and Odion [Ighalo] coming in will get more goals in the team. That’s been lacking. The games we’ve lost – West Ham, Burnley, Palace, Bournemouth – we’ve had chances but we haven’t scored goals.”

Perhaps Ighalo could finally contribute towards a win at Old Trafford with Watford jerseys on the field.

INJURIES: Manchester United — Paul Pogba (ankle), Axel Tuanzebe (thigh), Marcus Rashford (back) | Watford — OUT: Daryl Janmaat (knee), Tom Cleverley (match fitness)

Arsenal vs. Everton — 11:30 a.m. ET, on NBCSN and NBCSports.com

Subplots reign supreme ahead of Everton’s visit to the Emirates.

Mesut Ozil, who missed the Gunners’ 1-0 Europa League victory, and Andres Gomes, 16 weeks after an ankle dislocation and fracture, are both expected to return to action. Meanwhile, Mikel Arteta and Carlo Ancelotti will meet for the first time after being linked to each other’s position before the start of the new year.

Perhaps the most significant one, however – at least to Everton – is that it’s been 24 years since the Toffees won at Arsenal. If they can pull it off this time around, the Liverpool-based side will be one step closer to the European dream.

“We have to be focused on Arsenal,” Ancelotti said. “Then there are very important games after. There’s [Manchester] United, Chelsea, Liverpool. After these four games, we can see what is going on for Europe.”

“This is a really important game against a strong team, away, but we have to have confidence to do our best and try to win. We’ve got 13 games to go and have got ourselves in a decent position,” he said. “It gives us the platform to have a decent season. I think we’ve done okay. We’ve had huge problems over six weeks and fair play to the squad for showing that resilience.”

Everton have picked up 17 points out the 24 possible under the Italian, while Arsenal have only experienced two wins under the Spaniard.

INJURIES: Arsenal — Cedric Soares (knee), Kieren Tierney (shoulder), Callum Chambers (knee), Sokratis Papastathopoulos (knee) | Everton — OUT: Jean-Phillipe Gbamin (thigh)

Pepe stars, Arsenal crushes Newcastle

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Nicolas Pepe had a goal and two assists as Arsenal handled Newcastle United 4-0 at the Emirates Stadium on Sunday.

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Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Mesut Ozil scored the other goals as Arsenal moved into 10th place, seven points back of the top four.

It was a tale of two very different halves for Newcastle, who entered the day even with Arsenal on 31 points, and leaves it in 13th place. The Magpies were very good in the opening 45, and dismantled in the second stanza.


Three highlights

1. Arsenal defense finally approaching Leno’s level: There were moments for Newcastle’s tricky wide men, but Mikel Arteta‘s defense continued its improvement under his watch. Bernd Leno saved Arsenal’s lives on so many cases earlier in the season, and he’s finding life a lot easier as the Arteta era finds its footing.

2. Pepe powers Gunners attack: Nicolas Pepe entered the day leading Arsenal in assists and dribbles per game, and was second in key passes despite starting just 14 of his 21 appearances. Mikel Arteta trusted the Ivorian on Sunday, and boy did he deliver the goods in being involved in all four goals. But there’s so much more.

Pepe was credited with four key passes and three big chances created, winning 7 of 13 duels with an interception and two tackles. Three of his seven crosses were on target and he passed the ball at 83 percent.

3. Saka continues to impress: We’ve had to remind ourselves that Bukayo Saka is still just a teenager so many times this season. The 18-year-old burst onto the scene as a fun winger, but has become an able left back with incredible threat moving forward. The Gunners have a wealth of fine young players with promise. Imagine if they’ve found the boss to organize them.

Man of the Match: Pepe, with notes of appreciation for Saka, Saint-Maximin, and Aubameyang.


Arsenal held the ball for most of the first four minutes, but Joelinton drove past Shkrodan Mustafi to pick out Valentino Lazaro, whose shot was blocked for a corner.

Allan Saint-Maximin wanted a penalty call when fouled by Granit Xhaka, but neither Lee Mason not VAR thought it the case.

A training ground routine off a corner kick led to a Sean Longstaff rip from 25 yards, and Leno had to act quickly to stymy a deflected effort.

Joelinton then just missed a near-post chance after a bit of Saint-Maximin wizardry. The Frenchman soon drew a dangerous free kick that Longstaff sent into orbit.

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The game was wide open, Bukayo Saka missing with an arrow meant for the upper 90 and Miguel Almiron wasting the end of a long, wonderful dribble.

Arsenal grew into the game and Eddie Nketiah looked more and more dangerous in tearing into a shot that Dubravka caught in the 38th. Dubravka then tipped a Nicolas Pepe free kick over the bar.

Saint-Maximin then dribbled the Arsenal team to push a pass through the six, but Joelinton was hobbled and didn’t follow the play.

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Arsenal burst out of the halftime gates and Nicolas Pepe set up Nketiah for a point-blank chance cranked off the top of the crossbar.

Aubameyang pushed Arsenal onto the score sheet in the 54th minute, heading home from close range after a terrific Pepe cross.

Pepe got on the board soon after, the Ivorian star igniting the Gunners.

Ciaran Clark ripped a Saint-Maximin pass that was deflected out for a corner, and Saint-Maximin later smashed the far post with a shot from distance.

The third Arsenal goal was a Dubravka error. Ozil led a rush and spotted Pepe, who passed to Lacazette before Ozil pushed a clumsy shot to goal that defied Newcastle’s star keeper.

Pepe was back involved in the fourth, Joe Willock‘s incisive pass to the winger doing the heavy lifting en route to Lacazette’s finish.

Three things we learned: Arsenal v. Newcastle

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LONDON — Arsenal beat Newcastle United 4-0 at the Emirates Stadium and it is time to have a look at three things we learned from Mikel Arteta‘s second home win as Gunners boss.

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Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Nicolas Pepe struck in quick succession in the second half to surge past a spirited Newcastle side who hit the post and looked a threat on the break throughout but Mesut Ozil and Alexandre Lacazette finished things off in style late on.

Here are three things we learned from north London.


STRETCHED ARSENAL FINALLY THROW CAUTION TO THE WIND

Arteta has brought in a new pragmatism to Arsenal but it seems like they’ve gone too far to the defensive side of the spectrum. They started with pretty much six attacking players on the pitch if you count Bukayo Saka who is operating out of position at left back but had no real attacking spark in the first 45 minutes.

Arsenal were slow, predictable and languid in possession and with Arteta wanting them to press high up the pitch the gap between midfield and attack was just too big. Yes, they were playing against a Newcastle side who put 10 men behind the ball whenever they could but there was a severe lack of intensity. Newcastle threatened with counters as the pace of Almiron and Saint-Maximin caused problems but Arsenal were playing it safe with plenty of sideways passes and didn’t take enough risks. Then it all changed.

Whatever Arteta said at half time worked a treat as Arsenal were a totally different team in the second half and their increased intensity caught Newcastle cold. In the space of a few minutes Saka tricked his way past several tackles, Pepe scored one and set up and another, Aubameyang nodded home and Nketiah hit the bar and should have had another. It will take time for Arteta to turn this Arsenal side into what he wants them to be but he has improved them defensively. They have conceded just four goals in their last six Premier League games and Arteta is making Arsenal hard to beat, while knowing they have the attacking weapons to fire them to victories. They are seven points off the top four and six off fifth (which now looks likely to secure Champions League qualification given Man City’s European ban) and Arsenal have lost just once in eight PL games under Arteta. They are becoming tougher to beat and Arteta’s message is getting through to the players, at least for a 20-30 minutes at a time.


CEBALLOS CAN BE ARSENAL’S TEMPO SETTER

Dani Ceballos doesn’t possess the pace to have a huge impact in the final third but in a deep-lying role he is pretty effective. The Spanish midfielder is finally fit and Arteta lined him up in a defensive midfield role alongside Granit Xhaka. Ceballos demanded the ball at every opportunity and has the quality to see passes and find the likes of Ozil with ease. Having the right partner alongside him in the engine room will be key to seeing if he can flourish is a No. 6 role with Lucas Torreia and Mateo Guendouzi more defensive-minded. Granit Xhaka was alongside him and he isn’t exactly the true destroyer who would allow Ceballos to pick up the second balls and get attacks going. If you look at Man City’s midfield, Ceballos can be Arsenal’s Ilkay Gundogan. The difference is, Gundogan has Fernandinho alongside him breaking up the play. Arteta has clearly taken inspiration from his last three seasons as an assistant coach at Man City as his decision to push Ceballos a little deeper looks like it will work. Ceballos has to be playing regularly if he’s going to play for Spain at EURO 2020 and that dangling carrot will also benefit Arsenal as he tries to secure a permanent move from Real Madrid as his loan spell is over in January. Ceballos is finally fit and it seems like he has finally found his spot in the Arsenal lineup as he received a standing ovation when he came off with 10 minutes to go and got a big huge from Arteta.


ALMIRON, SAINT-MAXIMIN A JOY TO WATCH

On paper, Newcastle under Steve Bruce should not be exciting to watch and for vast swathes of the game they aren’t. That said, whenever Miguel Almiron and Allan Saint-Maximin pick up the ball the excitement is palpable and those two alone make it worthwhile watching this Newcastle side. Time and time again they broke free, surged upfield and took on four Arsenal defenders on their own only to look up and not have another teammate within 25 yards of the goal. Joelinton just can’t keep up with their speedy attacks and if Newcastle had a forward who could keep up with them, he’d get four or five big chances per game. Saint-Maximin hit the post late on and Newcastle were unlucky to not be ahead after a fast start and several superb counter attacks led by the aforementioned duo.