Premier League: 10 talking points from the weekend’s action | Soccer


1) Pulisic pulls off a disappearing act

Expectations were high when Chelsea’s executives shook hands on the £58m deal that brought the much sought-after signature of Christian Pulisic, the man who the club’s director, Marina Granovskaia, hoped would “become an important player for many years to come”. Three years and 95 Chelsea appearances later, the American is yet to match that description and has too rarely given the impression that he might ever do so. At Manchester City he was a non-presence, seeing little of the ball and doing nothing with it when he did. City are about as tough as opponents come but big money demands to be repaid on big occasions. Pulisic has the talent and temperament to deliver in such fixtures – his elegant goal against Liverpool this month was proof of that – but too often he seems content to exist on the periphery of matches rather than bend them to his will. At 23, time is on his side – though the Chelsea hierarchy are not exactly known for their patience. Alex Hess

2) Martial flare-up the mark of a club without a plan

The dispute between Ralf Rangnick and Anthony Martial is the latest
unwanted vignette in a Manchester United season heading for the annus horribilis file. After Saturday’s 2-2 draw at Aston Villa the interim manager claimed the forward refused to be part of the squad for the trip. Martial’s response was to vehemently deny this on Instagram. If United’s position on Sunday – offering no clarification – was a clear backing of Rangnick’s words, the real issue here is how the contretemps shines more light on an institution seemingly on a one-way ticket to the wilderness unless someone sorts it, soon. As a mid-season Mr Fixit this is not Rangnick’s concern. It is Richard Arnold, Ed Woodward’s replacement as United’s highest-ranked executive from 1 February, who must have a forensic and wide-ranging plan. For a blueprint, the 50-year-old should study Manchester City, who under Khaldoon al-Mubarak’s intelligent chairmanship, are the industry leaders. United are coming up to a decade since their last title, and the question is starting to become: when will the next one ever arrive? Jamie Jackson

3) Watford’s new signings hit the ground running

If there’s one thing guaranteed to fill fans of a relegation-threatened club with dread, it’s a frenzied splurge of unheard-of January signings. From the outside looking in, then, Watford’s activity over the last fortnight – which has seen the recruitment of Maduka Okoye from Sparta Rotterdam, Hassane Kamara from Nice, Samir from Udinese and Edo Kayembe from KAS Eupen in Belgium – seemed to have all the hallmarks of a doomed trolley-dash. Yet any such notions were quickly shown up as parochial nonsense during a battling draw featuring three standout debutants. The dynamic Kamara slotted in smartly at left-back, while at centre-half the Brazilian Samir showed his nationality was no barrier to him enjoying a good old-fashioned tussle with Chris Wood, who he kept quiet. But the visitors’ best performer was Edo Kayembe, who patrolled the area in front of the back four with poise and authority, and showed a nice eye for a defence-splitting pass. João Pedro’s equaliser kept Newcastle in the bottom three, and Watford out of it. Will the same be said for Watford’s January arrivals come the season’s end? Alex Hess

Edo Kayembe made his Watford debut at Newcastle.
Edo Kayembe made his Watford debut at Newcastle. Photograph: Richard Lee/REX/Shutterstock

4) Norwich triumph in old-school tactical battle

There were a few memorable details from Norwich’s victory over Everton at Carrow Road, including the pitch invader who furiously flicked the ‘Vs’ at Rafael Benítez, and the 20-year-old Adam Idah beginning to confirm some of his promise with a first Premier League goal for the Canaries. But the match was also a curiosity in that it saw two teams pair up against each other in 4-4-2 formations. Once a shape so quintessentially English it was assumed players could not adapt to any other, 4-4-2 is now largely adjudged to be antiquated. Watching Salomón Rondón alongside Dominic Calvert-Lewin for the Toffees, that verdict seemed fair; two big men standing around waiting for crosses like a pair of forlorn hitchhikers. For Norwich, however, it was more fluid and seemed a considered solution from Dean Smith to both a lack of cutting edge and the need to protect his full-backs. By the time the match reached 55 minutes with the Canaries 2-0 up, Benítez abandoned his experiment, going 4-2-3-1 in a desperate search for salvation. Despite Richarlison’s excellent overhead kick, however, it never arrived. Paul MacInnes

5) Uninspired Toon give Howe little to work with

Newcastle have played 10 games under Eddie Howe, winning one, drawing four and losing five. The latest, a damaging home draw with Watford, emphasised the manager’s need for not only at least one new centre-half but a defensive midfielder able to shape and control matches. With the £25m striker Chris Wood virtually anonymous on his debut, Newcastle needed a wonderful solo goal from Allan Saint-Maximin to go 1-0 up but their longstanding inability to retain a lead soon resurfaced, permitting João Pedro to register an 88th-minute equaliser. It was a gut-punch for the St James’s Park crowd, though Howe may draw some consolation from the returning Paul Dummett’s intelligent marking of Emmanuel Dennis. Louise Taylor

Match report: Newcastle 1-1 Watford

6) Gallagher’s star continues to rise

Conor Gallagher may have laughed off the comparisons to Frank Lampard but the loanee’s performances for Crystal Palace this season have been reminiscent of his parent club’s record goalscorer. Gallagher’s excellent strike against Brighton to cap off a brilliant team move means that he now has seven goals and three assists since moving to Selhurst Park on loan, but he insists his focus remains on this season. “Let’s be serious, I can’t be compared to someone like that,” he said. “Chelsea is one of the best teams in the world right now, it is a tough team to get into. I’m not really thinking about that at the moment, I’ll try and do my best for Crystal Palace. The way football is goals and assists gets you praise like I have been getting. I need to continue to perform, not just goals and assists. But I am happy with the way it is going so far.” Ed Aarons

7) A new home-grown hero at Villa Park

The glamorous debutant who struck a late equaliser understandably took all the headlines at Villa Park, but there’s a fair argument that Philippe Coutinho was only his side’s third most impressive midfielder on Saturday. Emi Buendía, whose place looks most obviously threatened by the Brazilian’s arrival, put in a probingly creative display and showed enough flashes of link-up play with Coutinho to suggest that the two playmakers needn’t be competing for one position. But Villa’s star performer was Jacob Ramsey, who scored one and set up the other in a riveting all-action central midfield performance that would have had the manager furrowing his brow in approval. Ramsey has already started more games since Steven Gerrard took charge in November than he did over the whole of last season, and the early signs are that the new boss’s judgment is spot on. After losing the beloved Jack Grealish last summer, have Villa found a new local hero? If so, then he’s already got the perfect mentor. Alex Hess

Philippe Coutinho came off the bench to score Aston Villa’s equaliser.
Philippe Coutinho came off the bench to score Aston Villa’s equaliser. Photograph: Marc Atkins/Getty Images

8) Ward-Prowse hot of the tail of his idol

The ball zoomed into the top corner like a tungsten dart but, as Ralph Hasenhüttl said, James Ward-Prowse’s preposterous free-kick from 30 yards out deserved to finish as more than a footnote to a frustrating defeat at Wolves. Last week the Brentford head coach, Thomas Frank, suggested Ward-Prowse could be the best free-kick taker on the planet and only David Beckham can better Ward-Prowse’s tally of 12 free-kick goals in the Premier League. His latest strike was surely his best yet, not that he basked in it for too long: the second the ball cannoned into the net, Ward-Prowse headed back towards the Southampton half, ready for the restart with six minutes left to play. “If there’s a stipulation that I have to beat his record in order to meet him [Beckham] then I’ll be looking to do that as soon as I can,” Ward-Prowse said last year. “He’s an absolute legend, a great of the game, a huge role model and inspiration for me even now, and I’m 27.” Ben Fisher

Match report: Wolves 3-1 Southampton

9) Relentless Raphinha is the jewel in Bielsa’s crown

The London Stadium offered the latest proof that in Raphinha, Leeds have one of the best in the Premier League. Jack Harrison scored a hat-trick but it was the Brazilian’s passing and verve that cut West Ham’s defence to ribbons. Leeds had a fourth goal ruled out when an offside Rodrigo failed to get out of the way of Mateusz Klich’s shot, the ball having been laid on a plate by Raphinha after he had left Issa Diop with twisted blood. “We still have half a season left,” shrugged Marcelo Bielsa when asked where Raphinha’s future lies. A bidding war in the summer is certain for a player whose class is matched with a work ethic equal to any of Bielsa’s squad. Leeds, riven by injuries, were reduced to bringing on two Premier League debutants, Lewis Bate lasting just 43 minutes, but their star man inspired them to thrilling victory. John Brewin

10) Liverpool clear first hurdle of Afcon month

January has been long marked out as a danger-month for Liverpool because of the loss of two of the team’s much-lauded front three to the Africa Cup of Nations. To an extent, rightly so: Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mané have averaged 52 goals between them in their four full seasons together. But it is also true that this campaign has probably been Mané’s patchiest in a red shirt, and a return of one goal in his last 10 outings means that his absence may not warrant the gloomy prognosis many have offered. It may even be a good thing: Sunday’s win featured goals from two of his ostensible competitors for a place in the team, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Takumi Minamino, while Mané himself has already found the net on international duty. Win-win? Perhaps – although a quick glance at Jürgen Klopp’s substitutes on Sunday (average squad number: 37) suggests that Liverpool might not want their big guns missing for too long. Alex Hess


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