Premier League weekly awards: Bailey shines; United’s Fernandes problem

<span><a class="link " href="" data-i13n="sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link" data-ylk="slk:Bruno Fernandes;sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link;itc:0">Bruno Fernandes</a>; <a class="link " href="" data-i13n="sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link" data-ylk="slk:Leon Bailey;sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link;itc:0">Leon Bailey</a>; Antoine Reinartz as the prosecutor in Anatomy of a Fall.</span><span>Composite: Guardian Picture Desk</span>

Player of the week

Aston Villa’s Leon Bailey was in the middle of all that was right and good about his team’s 4-2 win over Nottingham Forest. Bailey finished with a goal and two assists, tormenting the left side of Forest’s defence.

Unai Emery’s arrival has revitalized a bunch of Villa players who were flagging at the end of Steven Gerrard’s tenure, but none more so than the Jamaican winger. “I’ve been working on trying to be more consistent,” Bailey said post-game. Against Forest, he delivered. Bailey has mastered dozens of tricks designed to take advantage of his speed and drive him into space.

There’s some throwback to Bailey’s game. He’s happy to slingshot in from the sideline in the modern fashion but just as comfortable driving towards the byline. He has added – as the cliche goes – more end-product to his dazzling style. The goals and assists are flowing. His passing when cutting inside has become more deft. He ranks seventh among wide-forwards in xGChain this season, a measure of a player’s creative impact. In the real world, he has eight goals and seven assists, double his output from last season.

Disappointing performance of the week

It’s become a familiar pattern for Manchester United: a slight uptick in results, some signs of life, followed by an inevitable defeat. A handful of late goals – and some Rasmus Højlund excellence – has bailed United out of tepid performances in recent weeks. But they couldn’t escape against Fulham, losing 2-1 thanks to a 97th-minute winner from Alex Iwobi.

Højlund has helped paper over some of United’s cracks in the last month. Dig through the numbers, though, and they paint a grim picture:

  • They have conceded more shots than any side this season other than Sheffield United.

  • They have conceded more shots in February than Manchester City have all season.

  • They rank 13th in goals per game.

  • They’ve scored the eighth fewest goals in open play.

  • They’ve been outscored in the expected goals tally in open play.

The performance against Fulham was the worst elements of the Erik Ten Hag era packaged into 100 minutes. United struggled to create chances in open play until the 90th minute. With injuries to the left-side of their back four, there was no balance with or without the ball. When they lost the ball, they showed no tenacity to win it back, allowing Fulham to steamroll through the middle of the pitch.

The looseness of United’s attack remains confounding. In an era of programmed moves, United are scattershot. Everything is off the hoof. Nothing is repeatable. And yet that lack of structure has not led to a free-flowing, goal-fest – as was the case under Ole Gunnar Solskjær – but an arrhythmic style relying on individual players to conjure a moment of brilliance amid the muck.

There are plenty of culprits, but none worse than captain Bruno Fernandes.

Fernandes has had a poor year. But he’s vanished when United have needed him most. His body language for much of the season has been appalling. His tactical discipline – stretching back years – has been lacking.

The wrap on Fernandes is that you can put with the antics – the arm waving, the sulking, the headless chasing after the ball – because of his impact with the ball at his feet. But that impact has vanished.

Fernandes’s form since the turn of the year has been dismal. His role, even in the darkest times, has been to bring a jolt of electricity to United’s staid buildup play. Now, his haphazard style submarines any sense of cohesion in the final third. When teams sit in, Fernandes short-circuits. He approaches everything in a rush, like it’s a race to see who can get a shot away quickest rather than a competition over who can put the ball in the net most often.

Scan the numbers and a couple of things leap out: Fernandes is taking a ton of low-quality shots; his impact in open-play has disintegrated.

Shut your eyes and you can picture a Kevin De Bruyne assist. There it is, in crystal-clear 4k. He’s probably in the inside-right channel, arcing a delivery towards the middle of the box. Run the same test with Bukayo Saka, Trent Alexander-Arnold, Martin Ødegaard, Mohamed Salah, James Ward-Prowse, Pedro Neto or any of the league’s top creatives and you can visualize the where and how. With Fernandes, it’s murkier. Who in United’s forward line does he have natural chemistry with? Who does he elevate? What is his trademark? More than anything, it’s flailing his arms, barking at a referee and abdicating his defensive responsibilities.

Another side could live with Fernandes’s lack of craft in the final third, but not United. Fernandes is supposed to connect the team’s disparate pieces and point them toward an identity.

Ten Hag is running out of time to get his disjointed crew to coalesce. The expected goals table pegs United as the 11th-best team in the league, which is a fairer reflection of how the side has played this season than their points total. Fernandes alone is not going to fix United’s attacking problems. But rediscovering his old creative verve and tuning into the team’s collective defensive frequency would certainly help.

Goal of the week

Arsenal’s goalscoring binge continued in a 4-1 win at home to Newcastle. The team’s second goal, slotted home by Kai Havertz, summed up the game. Arsenal played with confidence, intensity and ingenuity. Newcastle were off the pace, second best at everything:

That, in microcosm, is Mikel Arteta’s team at the moment. For those keeping score at home, that’s a 25-3 aggregate scoreline for Arsenal since they returned from their winter break. There are no signs of fragility. They’re defensively solid and lethal going forward. They turned what should have been a tricky matchup against a spiky Newcastle side into a procession.

Apart from a trip to Manchester City, Arsenal will be firm favorites in all 11 of their other remaining league games. To hold off City, they may need to win out.

Relegation subplot of the week

We need to talk about Project Vincent Kompany. Last season, Burnley won the Championship with more than 100 points. They shelled out more than £100m in net transfer spend last summer. They tagged on an additional £50m-plus on loan signings and free-agent deals, according to Transfermarkt.

The output for the outlay: 13 points from 26 games and a minus-29 goal difference, the second worst in the league. And in case you’re thinking Kompany and Co went all Forest, importing a new starting XI for the big boy league, six of Kompany’s most used XI this season were part of last season’s table-topping side.

How is that even possible? Someone call Antoine Reinartz to prosecute the proceedings.

Somehow, as the season has progressed, Burnley have regressed. They were hammered 3-0 by Crystal Palace this weekend by a coaching staff with only three days on the job. According to the data dorks, Burnley registered a paltry 0.08 xG, which is about as much as you amassed while reading that sentence. They didn’t come close to threatening the Palace goal until the 60th minute, in part due to a Josh Brownhill red card after 34 minutes, though they were just as dire before that.

That lack of attacking intent – 10 men or not – has been a through line this season. It shouldn’t be possible to be this bored by a team trying to play attractive football. But there’s a lack of purpose to Burnley’s game. They just kind of swing the ball around until someone shrugs and burps the ball up to the opposition. They’re a tick slower to the ball once they lose it. Out of possession, they’re fragmented. Kompany’s team plays like a youth travel team where nobody is keeping score and everyone gets a juice box at the end. At this level, it’s not good enough.

Kompany is keen not to betray his principles. In some senses, that’s admirable. But Burnley would surely have scrounged a few more points and put themselves in a position to stay in the league if they’d dragged more games into the mud like Luton.

Bridging the Championship-to-Premier League divide is tough. But Burnley’s plan for this season – building around a young core, playing Guardiola-inspired football – has been a complete misfire.

Video of the week

When your season is spiraling, managers and supporters alike ask for one thing from players: show a little bit of fight. But that usually means toward the opposition, not each other. In their 1-0 defeat to Wolves, Sheffield United’s Vinícius Souza and Jack Robinson turned on each other after Paulo Sarabia gave the home side the lead.

It has long been an NBA true-ism that high-fives signify a healthy culture and can even contribute to winning. Has anyone studied teammate-on-teammate fighting? “We don’t want to see that every week but if it takes something like that to get them going, I’m happy,” Chris Wilder said after the game. “That happens at every club up and down the country three or four times a year.”

If Wilder was looking for a spark, he kind of, sort got it with the fisticuffs. Sheffield United are on pace to be one of the worst teams in Premier League history, but they showed more spirit against Wolves than last week against Brighton – and they’ll feel hard done by that they weren’t able to sneak a point.