There are not many strikers who have got the better of John Stones and Ruben Dias this season and we can now add Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang to the list of those to have tried and failed.
A week on from his scintillating, hat-trick performance against Leeds United, the 31-year-old looked like a different player against City. The quality of opposition must be taken into account, of course. But it was still striking just how little he impacted the game.
Aubameyang’s contribution against Leeds supported the argument he is most effective when used centrally rather than off the left. But with Stones and Dias breathing down his neck at the Emirates Stadium on Sunday, he looked ill-equipped for the task at hand. “He got bullied,” as Sky Sports pundit Jamie Redknapp put it afterwards.
Aubameyang is devastatingly effective when running in behind an opposition defence but he is not naturally suited to playing with his back to one and there was plenty of evidence of it against City.
Arsenal needed someone to hold the ball up, relieve the pressure on their backline and allow them to move up the pitch. Instead, Aubameyang could only surrender possession meekly, allowing City to continue pushing the hosts back.
He received little in the way of service in an attacking sense, only touching the ball 19 times and failing to muster a single shot on goal. But nor was there any of the movement that makes him such a dangerous prospect when running inside from the left.
In fact, it was only after Alexandre Lacazette’s introduction in the closing stages, once he had moved away from the central striking position and back to the flank, that Aubameyang began to look more comfortable. Perhaps that is his best position after all.
There was a feeling at Manchester City they would never see the like of Vincent Kompany again when he hung up his boots. Well, not only have they replaced him they may just have surpassed him with the talents of the imperious Ruben Dias, who was magnificent as City made it 18 wins in a row in another defensive masterclass performance against Arsenal.
Jamie Redknapp called him “phenomenal” in the aftermath while Gary Neville awarded him the man-of-the-match award, saying: “It was an absolutely fantastic performance again. I thought that (Aymeric) Laporte would be the rock of this defence for many years to come but Dias is turning out to be the star man. We asked how they would replace (Vincent) Kompany. Well, watching Dias week-in, week-out, he’s so young, physically brilliant, great on the ball, and he’s got real leadership qualities. He was outstanding today.”
Talk has been relatively quiet surrounding the PFA Player of the Year vote, which is undertaken by the professionals in the spring, but Bruno Fernandes is seemingly the hot favourite. Yet, it will surely to be hard to pick against a player from a club that is cantering towards the Premier League title with the potential to break all defensive records in the process. It’s 11 clean sheets now and just two goals conceded in 13 Premier League starts alongside John Stones for the brilliant Dias. They are quite the pairing.
Is it possible for a defensive player to receive the votes from his peers for the award? History does suggest it’s tough but doable. Virgil van Dijk was the most recent winner in 2019 while N’Golo Kante edged out the more obvious case for Eden Hazard in the 2017 award. Dias deserves a shout.
It’s a question which took root in his second spell at Chelsea, surfaced throughout his ill-fated tenure at Manchester United, and has reared its ugly head once again at Tottenham – has Jose Mourinho still got it?
Managers and players all go through difficult spells, true greatness is measured on one’s ability to bounce back from such setbacks, but there comes a time when poor form can no longer be classed as a blip, when problems appear endemic.
Tottenham’s alarming slump of five defeats in their last six Premier League games has not just jeopardised their chances of qualifying for the Champions League, it has shaken the foundations of Mourinho’s elite-level reputation to the core.
Spurs were top of the Premier League in mid-December, Harry Kane and Heung-Min Son were working in perfect harmony, ripping teams to shreds, and talk of the title was rife.
But since surrendering top spot to Liverpool at Anfield, Spurs, just like the Premier League champions, have endured a wretched run, managing just three league wins since.
Mourinho’s powers have steadily tapered down over the years and he finds himself in a similar position to the one he endured at Old Trafford, with the very philosophy which propelled him to stardom at the turn of the century bearing the brunt of the criticism.
81 – José Mourinho has earned 81 points after 50 league matches in charge of Spurs, his lowest total at this stage in any managerial stint:
124 points – Porto
126 – Chelsea (1st spell)
113 – Inter
123 – Real Madrid
114 – Chelsea (2nd spell)
95 – Man Utd
81 – Spurs
— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) February 21, 2021
Given Spurs’ current form, and Mourinho’s continued struggles to get a tune of his Spurs squad, securing a top-four finish looks a tall order. After defeat at the London Stadium he admitted it himself, but far from conceding defeat, he hinted where he believes salvation lies.
Tottenham turned to Mourinho for one reason and one reason alone, and that was to win silverware. The Premier League is gone, but with a Carabao Cup final in April presenting the chance to end Spurs’ 13-year wait for a trophy, and a Europa League campaign offering a route into the Champions League, it would be foolish to write off Mourinho just yet.
Now for the real tests.
The overarching mitigation for Manchester United’s laboured display against Newcastle was that it occurred just three days after a taxing European excursion. But there was also a sense United knew not to push themselves too hard. Partly, perhaps, because Newcastle were indeed ultimately there for the taking and crumbled when United finally roused themselves. And partly, maybe, because United were keen to save themselves for the encounters to come.
Once Real Sociedad are dispatched in the Europa League – and given the size of their away-leg victory, it is all-but certain United will finish the job – Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side face the toughest month of their season: Crystal Palace, away; Chelsea, away, Manchester City, away. After that it is West Ham, currently fourth in the Premier League table, and then away to Leicester in the FA Cup.
While the recent, costly results against Sheffield United and West Brom are relevant reminders of the risk of fixture forecasting based on league position, United’s upcoming schedule is daunting by any measure.
Sunday night’s mitigations aside, United will surely need to play better than they did against Newcastle between now and April if their season is not to derail. Edinson Cavani’s fitness will be vital. He was badly missed against Newcastle, which is the polite way of saying that Anthony Martial, passive and pedestrian, was beyond disappointing. Given that Marcus Rashford clearly prefers to start from the left, and Mason Greenwood is seemingly not yet quite ready or entirely trusted to lead the line, there’s an interesting centre-forward dilemma ahead for United and Solskjaer this summer.
But for now, United’s focus must be on what’s coming in spring. After a winter of contentment, the next month both threatens and promises make-or-break.
A victory of any kind against Tottenham is usually enough cause for fervent celebration in West Ham circles, but this one felt different.
The predatory instinct of Michail Antonio, another magical moment from a revitalised Jesse Lingard and an element of luck, which saw Spurs twice denied by the woodwork, moved the Hammers into the top-four places in the top flight at the 25-game mark for the first time since 1985/86.
That season they finished third in the old First Division, a repeat this term would see the Hammers qualify for the Champions League for the very first time, and David Moyes is relishing the prospect of making that a reality.
At the same stage of last season West Ham were in the bottom three, 21 points worse off than they are now and fighting for their top-flight status, but having held on by their fingernails, the Hammers have come of age under Moyes.
Thirteen games stand between West Ham and the holy grail of a European campaign, and while they are under no illusions the hard work has only just begun, they are daring to dream about the adventure which could lie ahead.
“Where does it take us? I am really hoping we can get in one of the European competitions,” Moyes said after Sunday’s 2-1 victory over Spurs. “But if it doesn’t and we finish outside it, I think it would be hard to say the players have not had a good year.”
From recruitment, to the way he has set up his team, that statement is another example of Moyes’ habit of getting things right this season. The Hammers have been so superb that this campaign should not rest on whether they make Europe or not. But were they to make it, there would not even be a debate.
There’s no stopping Harvey Barnes, at the moment.
The winger put in another brilliant performance as Leicester beat Aston Villa 2-1 at Villa Park to move second in the Premier League.
Barnes grabbed an assist for James Maddison’s opener before reacting quickest to power home the rebound after Emiliano Martinez parried Jamie Vardy’s shot, but it was his impressive direct play that would have caught the eye of watching England manager Gareth Southgate.
He now has nine Premier League goals this season, moving him ahead of Marcus Rashford and Raheem Sterling in the top goalscorers charts and his form has impressed Sky Sports’ Jamie Redknapp.
“I’ve been so impressed with Harvey Barnes all season,” he said on Super Sunday. “He has so much power and pace. He must be a nightmare to play against. He’s a player who is so high on confidence with a manager who really believes in him.
“You could see before half-time that Brendan was telling him, ‘every time you get the ball, I want you to run with it’. It helped that he was up against a right-back in Ahmed Elmohamady that hasn’t played a lot of football, but he’s been doing it all season.
“He’s got tremendous quality and I’m really enjoying him at the moment. He might not get into the Euros as he’s got a long list ahead of him in Rashford, Grealish, Sancho, Sterling, Saka to name but a few.”
Barnes has already revealed his desire to seal a place in England’s squad for the upcoming European Championships, and if this form continues, it will be almost impossible for Southgate to ignore him ahead of Euro 2020.
When you’re a young player it’s about adjusting and adapting. His confidence and finishing is much better. He looks like he’s going to score in every game he plays. He’s a great learner and a big talent.
“I hope he’ll be back for Leeds next week,” said Dean Smith after Jack Grealish missed Aston Villa’s 2-1 defeat through injury.
They are not only the words and hopes of Smith but every single Aston Villa fan.
Any side in world football would miss Jack Grealish. He’s been phenomenal this season and his form so far led to a glowing reference from Sky Sports‘ Paul Merson on Soccer Saturday.
“I think that much of him and I think he is one of the best around. I think if I’m a manager at one of the big boys and no disrespect to Aston Villa here, but if you’re looking to go through your career and try and win something, I’m looking at £120/130m for him, I would pay. If I’m Barcelona I’m buying him tomorrow morning it doesn’t matter how much it is I’m buying Jack Grealish because Jack Grealish at the Nou Camp would absolutely rip it up.”
Villa certainly did miss him against Leicester. Smith’s side looked extremely flat and did not have any real spark in attack in the absence of their skipper and talisman.
I expect him to be pushing, if not for Leeds, then the week after but I’ll be guided by the medical staff. They haven’t told me how long he’ll be out for yet, so the speculation is great. We’ll just see how it goes.
The stats also show how important he is to this Villa side. Under Smith, Villa have averaged 1.5 points-per-game in league competition when Grealish has featured compared to 0.9 points-per-game without him, losing all three Premier League matches without the midfielder since the start of last season.
0.9 – Under Dean Smith, Aston Villa have averaged 1.5 points-per-game in league competition when Jack Grealish has featured compared to 0.9 points-per-game without him, losing all three Premier League matches without the Englishman since the start of last season. Centrepiece. pic.twitter.com/QafEdQ7IKY
— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) February 21, 2021
Smith will be desperate to get him back as quickly as possible, but they must resist the urge to rush him back and face any further setbacks.
Further down the line, speculation will always continue to surround Grealish’s future. Links to a move to some of Europe’s top clubs always not far away from the England midfielder’s name, but his absence against Leicester underlined his value and importance to Villa.
There were green shoots of recovery for Newcastle in the first half at Old Trafford. Steve Bruce’s side amassed more shots (six) and more attempts on target (four) than Manchester United and Allain Saint-Maximin’s strike had deservedly restored parity at the interval.
The winger is slowly returning to fitness having missed two months of the season from suffering long-term effects of coronavirus, but getting the Frenchman back up to full speed cannot come soon enough for Bruce.
Only Callum Wilson (15) has been directly involved in more Premier League goals than Saint-Maximin’s five for Newcastle this term, despite this only being his 11th start in the competition.
Figuring out where the goals will come from in Wilson’s current absence will continue to alarm supporters. Joelinton was handed a start in place of Dwight Gayle, and for 55 minutes during Sunday’s 3-1 defeat, the Brazilian made life awkward for Harry Maguire.
But the sight of the club-record £40m striker subsequently hobbling off only adds to growing fears Newcastle will get sucked into the relegation zone, with Fulham now just three points off safety.
“We stayed in the game for an hour and a big turning point for us was the loss of big Joe,” Bruce said. “We hope it’s not too serious. It’s a groin or a hip problem but he’s not quite so sure yet.
“The fans don’t want to see their team at the wrong end of the table and I understand that totally. We’ve got a unique fanbase who make us the club we are, but I’m still confident that we’ll be fine.”
Newcastle have taken just eight points from their last 14 Premier League games, compared to 15 taken in that time by their nearest relegation rivals Fulham. Bruce remains bullish he will improve on that record in the remaining 13 games, but such confidence among supporters is running out.