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Rasmus Højlund’s goalscoring binge offers Manchester United hope

The Caspar mattress award

Did anyone remind Liverpool to wake up for the top-of-the-table match at the Emirates? Cameras caught Darwin Núñez on the substitutes bench yawning 26 minutes into the game, which just about summed up Liverpool’s performance in their 3-1 defeat to Arsenal.

Liverpool were sloppy with the ball. They were passive without it. Mikel Arteta’s deployment of a pair of central, attacking midfielders gave Liverpool’s defensive backline fits. And when it mattered most, Jürgen Klopp’s most reliable players – Alisson Becker and Virgil Van Dijk – dropped clangers.

Klopp will probably put the performance down to just being one of those days. He fielded a starting 11 full of right footers, which offered little balance as his team looked to penetrate Arsenal’s well-crafted defensive structure. It was the first time they’ve lined up this season with neither Núñez nor Mohamed Salah.

Those are fine explanations. Defeats happen. But it felt like there were more than three points on the line on Sunday. It was a chance for Liverpool to all but knock Arsenal from the title race, to set up a head-to-head contest with Manchester City. A sleepy, error-strewn performance means Klopp’s side have handed the initiative back to City. Phil Foden’s hat-trick in a 3-1 win over Brentford on Monday means City are firm title favorites again. They’re just two points behind Liverpool at the top of the table with a game in hand.

We can still dream of a to-the-end, three-way-title race, but with Erling Haaland’s return and Kevin De Bruyne still at the peak of his powers, City strolling to a fourth successive title is looks increasingly likely.

Self-awareness award of the week

The movie Argylle, part-financed by a production company with backing from Chelsea co-owner Todd Boehly, was released this week. It is a “colossal, cumbersome dud,” according to the Observer’s Wendy Ide. She may as well have been talking about Boehly’s other investment.

Stop me if you’ve heard this before: Chelsea are in crisis. They were run over by Liverpool 4-1 last week and wilted against Wolves in a 4-2 defeat at Stamford Bridge on Sunday. Chelsea fans had no time for meta-texts. They let the club’s ownership group and manager Mauricio Pochettino know exactly what they think:

It was the manner of the defeat, as much as the result itself, that grated. Chelsea were outcoached and outplayed for 90 minutes. Their $331m midfield was outplayed by a Wolves duo that cost a collective $30m. When you drop a sum roughly the size of Finland’s GDP on your midfield, you do not expect to get outrun, outpassed and outclassed by a middle-of-the-table side.

Chelsea are now in the bottom half of the table. After signs that things were finally starting to coalesce under Pochettino over the past month, they look lost, again. And Pochettino appears to have few answers. He’s dabbled with tactical changes. He’s tried to build a core 11 despite the team’s sprawling squad and a growing injury list. Nothing has worked.

If Pochettino’s seat gets any warmer, they may convene a COP summit. But when you play fantasy chairman, remember: any new manager will inherit the same, fractured mess. Chelsea have a back four who cannot defend; a cramped, expensive, ineffective midfield; a Raheem Sterling, Mykhailo Mudryk, Noni Madueke, Nicolas Jackson forward line; a crop of key players who cannot stay healthy.

And, somehow, it gets even worse: Chelsea currently have 12 (!) players under contract until at least 2030. If you think there’s some creative accounting the whiz-kids at Clearlake can conjure to wriggle out of this, we have some concerning news.

It can’t be all bad for the Todster, though. Let’s check in on how Argylle performed at the box office … oh.

The papering over the cracks award

What do you get when you line up the world’s richest club against the side with the lowest payroll in the Premier League? Chaos. The game of the weekend belonged to the 4-4 barnburner between Newcastle and Luton.

Eddie Howe will point to his side’s resilience in fighting back from 4-2 down to snag a point. But the trendlines are worrying. Newcastle’s once-stifling style has disintegrated.

Here’s how Howe’s side stacked up defensively from the start of the season to the end of November:

  • Passes per defensive action, 9.89, 49th percentile

  • Shots conceded, 11.92, 59th percentile

  • Clear shots conceded, 1.62, 90th percentile

  • xG per shot conceded, 0.09. 89th percentile

They were not an all-action side, but one that pressed effectively and posted a stingy defensive record. Their back four played tight together, with a pair of midfield sweepers providing mop-up duty in front. When they conceded chances, they were low-quality chances – often low-percentage crosses into the box from wide areas.

Since December, that’s flipped:

  • Passes per defensive action, 9.01, 70th percentile

  • Clear shots conceded, 3.30, 4th percentile

  • xG per shot conceded, 0.12, 1st percentile

  • Shots conceded, 17.00, 3rd percentile

Welp.

Earlier in the season, Newcastle were a middling pressing team. In the past couple of months, they’ve cranked up the pressure. But there’s a distinction between an ‘active’ press and an ‘effective’ one. Out of possession, there’s too often a dull coexistence to the proceedings. Newcastle’s players share space, but they do not engage as a unit. Opponents can too easily bypass the midfield or isolate Newcastle’s fullbacks before pulling the ball back to free runners inside. The result: They’re conceding an eye-watering 17 shots a game. And the shots they’re conceding are high-quality shots. No team in the league has conceded more clearcut shots or allowed a higher xG in the last two months.

Injuries and suspensions can take the brunt of the blame. Newcastle had an awful run of injury luck late in 2023 – and that’s persisted into 2024. Superstar talent can paper over structural cracks. But due to injuries and FFP concerns, which have curtailed the club’s ability to add players in January, Newcastle have a lack of defensive studs. Howe looked to offset that by ratcheting up the team’s intensity without the ball. But it hasn’t worked. Luton represented the nadir. It’s over to Howe to find new solutions.

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Player of the week

Brighton had been on a sneaky poor run of form heading into their 4-1 demolition of Crystal Palace this weekend. They had failed to win in their last seven league games. For all of their attacking charm, they were weak to the point of derision defensively.

But their win on Saturday was Roberto De Zerbi’s side at their past: passing and pressing and then doing it all again at a disorienting speed.

Key to the action was Tariq Lamptey. De Zerbi switched to a back three against Palace to cram an extra body into the buildup phase and to overload the middle of the field, with a pair of wingbacks drafted in to give the team more width. Lamptey was positioned on the left, playing more as an auxiliary winger than a traditional wingback. His interplay with João Pedro was instrumental in the final third as Brighton rained down shots.

With Lamptey holding his position high and wide, he was able to isolate Palace’s fullback in one-on-one foot races. In that world, no one can live with Lamptey. An initial surge led to the corner that brought Brighton’s first goal, before Lamptey teed up the team’s second with a crossfield ball to his opposite wingback, Jack Hinshelwood.

Lamptey finished with just 89 total touches, the fourth-fewest of any Brighton player. But he made an impact on and off the ball, stretching Crystal Palace’s defensive line to breaking point and allowing the Pascal Gross-Billy Gilmour-Pedro axis the room it needed to control the game. Lamptey has been missing for much of the season due to injuries, making only three starts. But he adds a needed dose of unpredictability to De Zerbi’s careful choreography.

Goal of the week

Rasmus Højlund’s scoring binge has been a beacon of hope amid Manchester United’s recent malaise. United were far from perfect in their 3-0 win over West Ham on Sunday. West Ham had plenty of the ball and crafted decent chances – they led United in the expected goals race at half-time and were wasteful when presented with opportunities to equalize in the second-half. But United did take their chances. And none was taken more emphatically than by Højlund.

That’s four goals and two assists in Højlund’s last four Premier League appearances, after he failed to score in his first 14 league games.

There are still concerns below the surface. United’s lack of fluidity and combination play in the final third too often lead to a stilted attack that leaves Højlund isolated. There’s a Harden-on-the-76ers vibe to United’s play as they hit the opponent’s box. Everyone is too eager to work openings for themselves rather than feed a teammate. Marcus Rashford has a turn. Then Alejandro Garnacho gets a go. Then it’s over to Bruno Fernandes for a long-range pop. Then it’s Rashford’s turn once more. Højlund spends long stretches bouncing up and down in the middle of the box like a labrador who’s just heard her owner reach for the keys. Is it happening? Are we going out? Is it my turn? Guys?

It’s hardly the ideal environment for a young striker to grow. The “your turn, my turn” stagnancy is not good enough against the best teams; it’s made United laborious against some of the league’s worst teams.

Højlund has fed on scraps for much of the season, either having to attack ricochets in the box or create chances for himself. Even against West Ham, United’s service to the striker was poor: Højlund finished with just two shots; Diogo Dalot, the team’s right back, finished with three.

His goal on Sunday was Højlund at his best: alert to a second ball, creating an opening all on his own and driving a powerful shot into the bottom corner, on his supposed weaker foot. But it was again largely of his own creation. United have to find easier openings for their young striker.

Gulp-inducing performance of the week

The only manager who had a worse week than Pochettino was Roy Hodgson. Crystal Palace were drubbed away at Brighton. Supporters held banners in protest against the club’s US investors. Given how much he was shaking his head in the stands, chairman Steve Parish might have a case of whiplash.

Somehow, that was not the worst of it. Palace also bungled an injury to Michael Olise.

Olise is Palace’s most important player. Last week, he picked up a hamstring injury against Sheffield United and was deemed not fit enough to start against Brighton but was on the bench. “I was told that he couldn’t start the game and I was quite comfortable with that,” Hodgson said after the match. “They told me – and he told me – that he was fine to be on the bench and to play in the second half.”

With the team 3-0 down, Hodgson turned to Olise to inject some life into a dour performance. Eight minutes later, he sustained another hamstring injury and had to be taken off. It is Olise’s third hamstring-related injury this season. If he’s forced to miss an extended period, Palace will lose almost all of their creative verve as they creep closer to the relegation zone. They are now only five points above the drop with an inferior goal difference to the four sides below them.

The heavy defeat, along with the Olise episode, makes it increasingly likely that Hodgson will be on his way out sooner rather than later – if the club can find a replacement who’s actually interested. If there’s anything we know about private equity firms, and Palace’s ownership group features three PE big-wigs, they’ll spin their way out of a short-term, downward trend in the market. But mismanage a key asset? Hoo boy, then you’re in trouble.

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