Arsenal title hopes ruined by stubborn Arteta as Guardiola, Aurier and Alexander-Arnold impress
Pep Guardiola truly was masterful against his stubborn Arsenal apprentice. Serge Aurier is doing what Javi Gracia cannot in the relegation battle.
That is one low bar. Although he might want to free his schedule up just in case Chelsea need him to start a little earlier.
Pep Guardiola and Kevin de Bruyne
Since imploring De Bruyne to “go to the easy principles and do it well” and improve “the simple things”, Guardiola has seen his club’s greatest player score four goals and assist seven in eight appearances, having previously taken 23 games to rack up those numbers.
It has been a clinic in man-management and timing, with De Bruyne hitting his stride in a Treble-hunting home straight. The Belgian might have let his standards slip – as if us mere mortals could have noticed – but that hunger has been restored.
De Bruyne has scored and assisted in both league meetings with Arsenal this season, a show of dominance that Manchester City’s closest contenders have found it impossible to cope with. Their game at the Emirates in February ended with Gunners fans throwing objects at him and inevitably missing; how any Arsenal player would hope to have got even that close at the Etihad.
Do enjoy 16 Conclusions on that ruthless dismantling of the concept of a title race.
Hands up who had Serge Aurier down as the inspirational captain capable of dragging a team out of the relegation zone as a battle-hardened central defender?
While Nottingham Forest’s 11-game winless run started with Aurier in the team, things looked significantly worse in his absence. One draw and five defeats from the six matches he missed through injury plunged Steve Cooper’s side into a situation which seemed close to irredeemable.
Yet upon his return after more than a month out, that doggedness, organisational brilliance and leadership stirred something within Forest to earn their first comeback win since a 3-1 victory from behind against QPR last March. Kaoru Mitoma didn’t study for that.
Aurier is on 1.32 points per game this season; the next best Forest player is Dean Henderson on 1.11. That is a huge difference over a season and more than enough to keep them up.
Heading into the January transfer window, Wolves were 18th in the Premier League table, a point above Southampton and ahead of Nottingham Forest on goal difference alone. Coming out the other side of the month, they were 17th and out of the relegation zone once more only by virtue of goal difference, two points off 20th.
With May on the horizon, Julen Lopetegui’s side are 13th and closer in points terms to the top half than the bottom three. This has not been a resounding, swashbuckling transformation – including the EFL Trophy, Wolves have scored more than two goals in one of their 43 games this season, and Jurgen Klopp retrospectively disallowed their third at Molineux in February – but results have taken precedence over performances for some time.
There is a functional quality to Wolves best encapsulated by two impactful January arrivals. Craig Dawson and Mario Lemina might not get pulses racing but they have restored a healthy heartbeat to this team. Exciting, Jorge Mendes-flavoured signings are not always needed when such reliable, consistent competence can be added to the spine of a team for £13m. They have had an invigorating effect alongside Diego Costa and Wolves have dragged themselves clear of the drop at the comparative cost of one Helder Costa.
The entire reign of Unai Emery at Aston Villa thus far has been a masterclass in improvement through coaching instead of spending. Players who looked stale, spent and downright poor under the previous regime have been reenergised and refined.
Tyrone Mings has been excellent, as has Ezri Konsa. Douglas Luiz and Emi Buendia are repaying renewed faith with interest. Jacob Ramsey’s development has accelerated. Ollie Watkins has been phenomenal. And John McGinn has never looked better, not coincidentally restored to his most effective position and thriving with the responsibility. His versatility, intelligence and work-rate has been invaluable and it restricted Fulham to a single shot at Villa Park. McGinn was also fouled six times by the Cottagers, a tally few players will have beaten in one game.
He and Ashley Young are Emery’s chief lieutenants, guiding a club which was 16th on 12 points from 13 games upon the Spaniard’s appointment to fifth on 54 points from 33 games in late April. Emery’s personal record of 42 points since November is more than the entire bottom half have managed all campaign. Beyond 2022/23 Tottenham, it is difficult to think of many better mid-season managerial changes.
Comforting as it is to see Jamie Vardy sh*thousing opposition fans after scoring again, that Leicester equaliser was down to the fortitude of Iheanacho to play the move’s penultimate pass to James Maddison with a seemingly pulled groin.
With Vardy being phased out and Maddison presumably off to wind up opposition fans in a different kit, Leicester need to plan their attacking future around Iheanacho’s unique skillset as a twin creator and goal threat. The Championship ain’t ready.
Brentford’s three defensive musketeers
In 631 minutes together as a defensive unit, Ben Mee, Ethan Pinnock and Zanka have conceded just seven goals this season despite facing Manchester City, Spurs, Liverpool, Newcastle and Chelsea twice. Thomas Frank knew precisely what to do once Brentford went six games without a clean sheet: go to Stamford Bridge. But also play those three.
Five assists in April – the most any Liverpool player has ever provided in a single month – all coming after his change in role, after two assists in his prior 27 Premier League games. And the first time Alexander-Arnold has assisted in four consecutive appearances since the end of the 2018/19 season. Gareth Southgate had better prepare himself for the impotent rage.
Perhaps a lack of proper flexibility from an individual whose philosophy revolves around ‘non-negotiables’ should come as less of a surprise. But having brought Arsenal to the brink of something glorious, Arteta has pulled them back into reality.
There were some stark mismatches in Manchester City’s win over Arsenal but the biggest might have been between the managers. Guardiola’s innovation and rotation has stimulated his side when they started to waver. A lack of comparable squad depth notwithstanding, Arteta has been unable to arrest a similar slump.
The only two changes Arsenal have made to their starting line-up over the past four games have been enforced – Tierney in for Zinchenko at West Ham and Vieira replacing Xhaka against Southampton – with the Gunners dropping nine precious points in those fixtures. There has been seemingly no effort to prevent the continued overexposure of Rob Holding. Leandro Trossard has conversely been underused despite his impressive form, while Jorginho would surely have helped establish some midfield control in these chaotic past few weeks.
As damaging as that William Saliba injury has been to Arsenal and their title prospects, Arteta’s response has arguably made things more difficult than they ever had to be. A potentially sensational season has been downgraded to an excellent one with a tinge of disappointment in the (trust the) process.
Any goodwill Gracia might have initially engendered with the Leeds fanbase has dissipated through the sort of unambitious management the “flexible contract” he signed in February ought to have prevented. Given three months in which to pitch for a longer-term future at Elland Road, the Spaniard has instead meticulously removed himself from the running.
The handling of Wilfried Gnonto has been peculiar, the club’s best player being given 160 of a possible 810 Premier League minutes since the start of March. There is a wider issue of substitutions as a whole, of which Gracia made only one of his own volition against Leicester despite the entire tactical framework of the game changing so indelibly and obviously.
That refusal or inability to react made a possible Leicester equaliser likely and then inevitable as a Leeds defence not good enough to sit back and soak up pressure decided to make sure that was still the case. The hosts could have gone for the jugular against a similarly flawed opponent but the Foxes were encouraged by such a meek, fearful side: between the 51st and 87th minute, Leeds had a single shot to nine as their lead evaporated.
Only 20 players have scored more own goals in Premier League history. And of those, just Jamie Carragher, Martin Skrtel (both seven), Richard Dunne, Lewis Dunk, Gareth McAuley, Ryan Shawcross (all six), Seamus Coleman, Phil Jagielka, Zat Knight and Ben Mee (all five) have scored more Premier League own goals for the same club than Joachim Andersen, whose record of four in 61 games for Crystal Palace is elite.
Missed the start of the season after suffering a knee injury during a friendly with Aston Villa in July. Could not break into a solid team with a productive attack which had performed beyond expectation this season. Finally given an opportunity just as Fulham donned their shorts for the beach, Wilson marked his first consecutive starts since November with goals in wins over Everton and Leeds. Then illness curtailed that run after 17 minutes against Villa. Must be something in the Birmingham air which doesn’t agree with him.
A barely believable statistic: Brighton’s longest run of consecutive Premier League wins this season is two – and they have only achieved that many three times. Phenomenal as they are, that ingrained inconsistency is the difference between Champions League qualification and probable Conference League consolation.
Chelsea have failed to win any of the last nine Premier League games Cesar Azpilicueta has started, a run dating back to early October. And he was substituted at half-time in two of those. The only teams to lose to Chelsea when Azpilicueta started this season no longer employ the same manager – Steve Davis at Wolves and, of course, Frank Lampard at Everton.
For the whole ‘bring in the experienced players you can trust to show the other lads how it’s done’ shtick to work, they do still have to be a bit good.
Nine consecutive defeats. One win in 19 games. The longest run of consecutive Chelsea defeats in three decades. A personal 2022/23 Premier League record of P23 W3 D6 L14 F16 A33 for a points-per-game total of 0.65 which, extrapolated over a full campaign, would put Lampard on 24 points, the same tally as Southampton currently have after 32 games.
Make no mistake: this has been an impressively awful season up there with the absolute worst of any Premier League manager ever.
And while the overpromoted Chelsea caretaker asked to temporarily preside over a billionaire’s second-hand plaything into which more than £600m has been pumped in the last year alone “would love a magic wand”, it might be time to at least update the self-exonerating language from his Derby and Everton days. It reveals an awful lot about a manager if they consider competent coaching to be tantamount to sorcery.
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