Premier League weekly awards: Liverpool’s chaos agent; Guardiola’s frustration

<span><a class="link " href="" data-i13n="sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link" data-ylk="slk:Manchester City;sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link;itc:0">Manchester City</a> have one once in their six matches against the traditional ‘big six’ this season. </span><span>Composite: Reuters; Walt Disney Co/Everett/Shutterstock</span>

Goal of the week

Darwin Núñez is a cackling delight. Every game is an adventure. Every finish, must-watch television.

Saturday’s goal in a 4-1 win over Brentford was Nunez at his chaos-inducing best.

Let’s play this out. So you’re through on goal, bearing down on the box. Diogo Jota is running free next to you, in the midst of his own scoring streak. You have a few options: you could shape your body, create an angle and slide it past the keeper; you could shut your eyes, blast it either side of Mark Flekken, and hope for the best; you could try to round the keeper and roll the ball into an empty net; you could slip the ball to Jota for a tap-in.

A typical striker would have settled on one of those options. This being Núñez, running at pace, he easily could have selected any of the above and fallen over in the process. But because this is Núñez, he did something only he could imagine: he chipped Flekken.

As the ball left Núñez’s boot, an audible ‘wheyyy’ drifted in from the Brentford crowd, thinking the forward had mis-hit the ball and skied it into the stands. Jürgen Klopp flinched, his face telling us what he was probably thinking. You have got to be kidding me?

We feel you, Jürgen.

Somehow, Núñez was able to get the ball up and over Flekken to give Liverpool the lead. It was the chaos agent at his most exhilarating best.

Underwhelming performance of the week

Was Man City’s 1-1 draw at home to Chelsea the result of an off-day from Erling Haaland or indicative of underlying concerns? The answer sits somewhere in the middle.

Haaland finished with nine shots but was unable to find the back of the net, including a hat-trick of chances that are old hat for the striker. Pep Guardiola was keen not to blame Haaland for the result. “It’s good to have nine shots, and next time he’s going to score,” Guardiola said post-match. “We create the chances, he had the chances and next time he’s going to score. I don’t blame him. It’s football, it’s human beings.”

Guardiola is right. The issues extended beyond his main man. City were flat with the ball, and too often exposed once they lost it.

City still have the best squad in the league. On balance, they’re still the favorites to win the title. But there’s more of a drop-off from City’s top stars to their replacements these days, particularly against the league’s upper half.

Swapping out John Stones (injured), Jack Grealish (injured) and İlkay Gündoğan (who left for Barcelona last summer) for the trio Manuel Akanji, Julián Álvarez and Jérémy Doku trio alters how City plays. Guardiola demands control – something that Grealish is happy to oblige – whereas the Doku-Alvarez duo bring a messy energy to the final third. Once they lose the ball, City are more vulnerable to counterattacks without Stones or Gundogan anchored in the middle of the pitch.

Finding a balance between the kinetic energy that Álvarez brings in a deeper role supporting Haaland and that Doku provides on the wing while limiting the team’s vulnerability on turnovers is a conundrum Guardiola is yet to solve. Against smaller teams that are happy to sit in and defend, with limited quality on the break, it works. Doku’s directness and Álvarez’s late runs are needed against inferior opposition. Against teams who can punish City on the counter, though, it’s been a struggle. City have won only one of their six matches against the traditional ‘big six’ in the league this season.

On another day, City probably run out comfortable winners against Chelsea, with Haaland walking off with the match ball. But it’s the second time this season they’ve struggled to deal with Chelsea’s pace on the break. There are nagging questions for Guardiola to solve against the league’s best, with games against Liverpool and Arsenal looming.

The Scrooge McDuck award for earning a new contract

The transfer vultures are starting to circle around Pedro Neto. And for good reason. Finally injury-free, Neto has put together the strongest run of form in his career. He added his ninth assist of the season as Wolves upset Tottenham 2-1 on Saturday. There is some noise in Neto’s assist total, but he’s proven throughout the season to be one of the most consistent creators outside the league’s top five.

As Neto pulled the ball back to João Gomes for the winner, you could almost hear the champagne corks popping at Gestifute HQ, the Portuguese agency with a clientele that includes a who’s who of Portugal’s great and good. A transfer to one of Europe’s biggest clubs – and a meaty new contract – will be on their desk by June.

The winger has always been a prodigious talent, but has been held back by successive injuries and a crop of managers that prioritized defensive stability over attacking output – Neto is nearing on playing more minutes this season than he has in the past two years combined. Neto has added more end product this season, but it’s his all-around game that will have the league’s table-toppers intrigued. He is a tidy player in crowded environments, but he can engage head-down, battering-ram mode when need be, turning on the burners to sprint away from defenders.

Comb through StatsBomb’s database, and Neto’s nearest corollary is Leandro Trossard during his final six months with Brighton, at least in terms of production. Trossard is now helping fire Arsenal to title contention after joining Arsenal for £26m in January 2023. With plenty of time left on his contract at Wolves, Neto should command a figure double that this summer.

Tottenham and Manchester United will probably lead the race for his signature, unless Todd Boehly finds £80m buried beneath the pillows.

Player of the week

Our first back-to-back winner! With Arsenal making scoring look effortless, it’s tough to look beyond Bukayo Saka. Saka has scored in four consecutive league games for the first time in his career and is playing his best football at the most important stage of the season.

For the second weekend in a row, Arsenal were rampant, putting five past Burnley on the road. Mikel Arteta’s side have been ruthless in the past two weeks, racking up an aggregate 11-0 result. They were excellent away at West Ham; they were even better at Burnley.

Saka was at the center of it all, again. He has been outstanding all season, but since the turn of the new year, he’s been the most potent player in the league:

Early in his career, Saka was defined by a slippery, dribble-first style. There was plenty of substance, but it was wrapped in a turbo-charged package. He knifed from out-to-in with jagged, sudden accelerations, sometimes into closed corridors. Now, Saka subtly shifts through the gears. He seems to apparate from place to place, always sitting neatly between two defenders. He’s too intelligent to allow defenders to get close before the ball arrives, and too quick allow them to nip the ball away when they encroach on his space. More than anything, he’s evolved into a more ruthlessly efficient finisher, the kind that can power a contender to a championship.

Saka and his teammates have been at their destructive best over the past month. They have tightened up at the back and rediscovered their goal-scoring mojo, without succumbing to screams to sign a traditional centre-forward in January. It’s now five wins on the bounce to open 2024, winning with an aggregate scoreline of 21-2.

Timing is everything in a title race. With City stumbling and Liverpool’s injury list mounting, Arsenal are peaking at the right time.

Video of the week

Warning: the following tackle is for mature audiences only.

Mason Holgate was shown a red card after a VAR intervention 11 minutes into Sheffield United’s 5-0 defeat to Brighton on Sunday for a shocking tackle on Kaoru Mitoma.

“In my opinion, it’s not a red card,” Sheffield United defender Anel Ahmedhodžić said after the match. He’s right. Forget talk of blue cards, we need a new system altogether to judge the severity of Mason Holgate’s tackle. Maybe we could move to a figure skating-style grading system. Or we could introduce flaming cards that carry an automatic five-game suspension.

Congrats to Holgate. He joins luminaires like Roy Keane, Jamie Carragher and Ben Thatcher on the Mt. Rushmore of hideous challenges.

At this stage, Sheffield United are all but relegated. To have any chance of competing in games, they need to be perfect. Brighton are a far better team than the Blades, but the home side fell apart after Holgate was sent off. It was their fifth defeat of the season by five or more goals.

Perhaps the most frustrating thing for Sheffield United is that they lack any discernible style. Burnley were thrashed 5-0 by Arsenal on Saturday, but the atmosphere around Chris Wilder’s team feels different. There may be a sense of naivety about what Vincent Kompany’s team are trying to do, but it’s clear that they’re trying to do something. Sheffield United look like a motley group of players who met at a bus depot 10 minutes before kickoff.

Does anything say you’re less serious about Premier League survival than donning this hairdo 4-0 down at home with your side down to 10 men?

At that point, don’t you race to find some trimmers to clean the lot off before entering the pitch?

Sheffield United are one of the most uncompetitive teams in league history. And their defining characteristic, at this point, is caving once things start to go wrong.

Embarrassing headline of the week

In case it escaped your attention, Nottingham Forest are appointing the first ‘referee analyst’, bringing Mark Clattenburg out of the podcast rounds to help prepare the team for upcoming match officials. Yes, that’s a real sentence.

“I’ll be working with Forest under the title of match and performance analyst,” Clattenburg wrote on Monday. “I will help in the understanding of how and why certain decisions are made, prepare pre-match packs on the officiating teams taking charge of their fixtures, and one of my other main aims will be improving the relationship between the club and the PGMOL.’’

Someone, somewhere, will point to this as an example of ‘marginal gains’. Maybe a former official with some insight into the profession can help show the tendencies of individual officials – something that has long been a tradition in the NBA, though provided by data analysts. Maybe they will use their inside intel to help the team navigate a murky decision. Tayls likes chocolate digestives, so make sure the ref’s room is well stocked.

But this is a low point for the league. You know things have fallen off the deep end when the answer to any concern is hiring Mark Clattenburg.

Trust between officials, clubs and supporters is at a crisis point. Putting an ex-ref on your books to help teach players and staff the rules or curry favor with his former employers is not a real solution to real problems.