Plus: Man City put in muscle-flexing performance to thrash Watford, Erik ten Hag’s Man Utd task has just got bigger and Aston Villa’s scoring problems continue.
There’s been plenty of change at Arsenal throughout Mikel Arteta’s reign at the Emirates Stadium, but one constant has been Granit Xhaka.
Earlier this month, Xhaka admitted he was so close to leaving the club after clashing with the home fans during a 2-2 draw with Crystal Palace in 2019. “My bags were packed. The passports were out,” Xhaka told The Players’ Tribune. “I was done with Arsenal. Finished. There was a contract on the table from another club, and all I had to do was sign.”
However, it was Arteta’s arrival at the club months later and his intervention, which convinced Xhaka to stay, and two years later the Switzerland international is still just as important for the Spaniard.
Xhaka’s name is not always up in lights, especially for wonder strikes, but against Man Utd the 29-year-old provided what could be a huge moment in Arsenal’s season, and one that could propel them towards a top-four finish.
Arsenal were feeling the heat against Manchester United, who were piling the pressure on the Gunners’ creaking backline as they went in search of an equaliser, but Xhaka stepped up just when the club needed him with a thunderbolt of a strike to seal what could prove to be a vital win in his side’s season.
“I was dreaming of that because he deserves it,” Arteta said about Xhaka. “If any fan would spend two minutes with Granit they would understand the person that he is and how much he loves the club. He opened up because he feels the environment is there to protect him. Thank you to the fans for that.”
In Xhaka’s interview, he also mentioned the fans, who, it is fair to say, he has had an up and down relationship with.
Speaking about the Palace incident, he said: “I can’t pretend that my relationship with the fans will ever be the same, because that moment will always be in my heart. I would like us to have a better relationship. I would like us to understand each other better.”
The goal is obviously one way to improve that relationship, and in the celebrations it was clear what the strike meant to both the player and the fans. He blew a kiss to the stands and the love was reciprocated from the Arsenal fans.
It felt like a world away from that tumultuous October day back in 2019. It felt like a huge moment in Xhaka’s Arsenal career. It felt like the respect was there once again.
He may not have the captain’s armband anymore – he may not want the armband anymore – but his leadership and influence on Arteta’s Arsenal is clear.
Maybe, just maybe, everyone is starting come around to Arteta’s way of thinking and realising just how important Xhaka is to this side.
Were you watching Erik ten Hag?
It’s unlikely Erik ten Hag was able to tune in live to watch Manchester United’s 3-1 defeat at Arsenal as Ajax were playing at 3.30pm – a game they subsequently won 1-0 with a late winner to strengthen their title bid.
But when Ten Hag gets around to watching the video, it won’t be pretty viewing and will only further ram home the notion that he has a huge task on to rebuild this broken football team. It was another disjointed display where a lack of cohesion in defence was clear to see. In a game full of electric entertainment but such little quality, the back four played with no chemistry and made it relatively easy for Arsenal to create chances.
Maybe Harry Maguire isn’t the problem after all? The skipper was dropped to the bench for this game with Victor Lindelof and Raphael Varane starting as the pairing at the heart of the defence. After taking such a mauling at Anfield on Tuesday, you’d assume United would be absolutely switched on to do the basic rights when defending. Rangnick had even started to reveal his frustrations in the press about the state of his team’s defending.
Yet they fell behind after just three minutes at The Emirates owing to a completely avoidable goal.
Varane and Alex Telles failed to clear a simple ball into their box and from there Saka made them pay with a fine strike that was palmed out by David de Gea straight to Nuno Tavares. Telles was then at fault for the penalty too, recklessly flying in to challenge for a ball that he couldn’t win as Saka burst into the box. VAR spotted the infringement and United fell further behind.
There was little for the United fans to cheer about. Perhaps the only ray of light is that they only have to endure four more games before this forgettable and frustrating season draws to a conclusion.
Jesus inspires muscle-flexing Man City
In a Premier League title race worthy of the Sky Sports Box Office, Man City provided the latest punch as the games are ticked off one by one, edging closer to a victor.
There was never any real doubt that Pep Guardiola’s side would sweep relegation-threatened Watford aside. It was more a question of how many they could score, bumping up their goal difference that could prove to be vital on May 22.
And make no mistake about it – this was a muscle-flexing performance from Man City. They dominated possession and it was one of their better attacking performances of recent weeks, even against a side on the brink of a Championship return.
Their almost constant passing cut Watford open more than once. This was best demonstrated for Man City’s fifth goal – Sterling winning a loose pass in midfield, finding Jack Grealish then Gabriel Jesus, who played a neat one-two with Kevin De Bruyne before the Brazilian swept home.
It marked his fourth goal of the afternoon in an imperious performance. Jesus’ first two goals saw him turn home two wonderful crosses, and he showed no signs of nerves as he won and then lined up a penalty early in the second half.
Let’s not forget his assist for Rodri’s rocketed effort either, becoming only the second Man City player to be directly involved in five goals in a single Premier League game [four goals, one assist], after Sergio Aguero scored five against Newcastle in October 2015.
Perhaps the only question marks come in defence. Watford only really threatened twice – Emmanuel Dennis stopped by a well-timed Oleksandr Zinchenko tackle before Hassane Kamara fired home after some good play from Dennis. Ederson could arguably have done better at the near post too.
Guardiola told Sky Sports after the game: “We didn’t defend well in the back, we were not aggressive enough. Defending is a question of attitude, it’s not a question of skills or abilities, and we were not good.”
While Ruben Dias made his return after a hamstring injury on Saturday, John Stones was not included in the matchday squad, and there are question marks over other players.
With some absolutely vital games coming up – including Real Madrid in the Champions League semi-finals – Guardiola will need to focus the minds of his players for the challenges ahead over the next month.
Watford’s misery puts spotlight on owners
Even the Watford supporters travelling up to Manchester will not have expected much more than they witnessed – yet another heavy defeat to the Premier League champions. But there will still be a feeling of gloom as their team drifts towards the drop.
A 5-1 defeat might be accepted if it were the exception, but it comes after home defeats to Brentford and Leeds. They lost at Liverpool too but the away game prior to that one came at Wolves and they lost that by four goals. It has been dismal regardless of the opponent.
Roy Hodgson has been spared much of the blame from the wider media given the club’s predicament upon his arrival but eight points from his 13 games – not one of them coming at Vicarage Road – represents a grim return. Only Norwich have a poorer record in that time.
The Pozzo family have earned grudging praise, even while dispensing with coaches, on the basis that the club continues to have its moments. But both Hodgson and Claudio Ranieri have failed to improve things since Xisco was sacked with Watford 15th in the table.
Hodgson appears typically phlegmatic regarding his future. “If they think that the situation can be changed by getting rid of myself and Ray [Lewington], then that will be their prerogative. I’ve never asked for any assurances since I came to the club.”
But there is something amiss when Hodgson, Ranieri and Xisco can each feel that relegation should not really be seen as their responsibility. The players, operating amid such uncertainty, perhaps feel the same way. The fans? They can only watch on in frustration.
Where are the goals coming for Villa?
Steven Gerrard arrived at Aston Villa with a reputation for harbouring attacking football – his Rangers side scored 92 goals on the way to the Scottish Premier League title last season – but you wouldn’t think that looking at his current side’s last four matches.
Saturday’s goalless draw at a much-changed Leicester side is the fourth game in a row where Villa have failed to score from open play. Gerrard’s Villa are now without a victory in five games and the honeymoon period at the club is over.
Gerrard has still failed to find his favoured front line and attack combination to complement Ollie Watkins in the centre forward role. Leon Bailey has only just returned from injury and Bertrand Traore is on the treatment table, Emi Buendia has been hot and cold this season and Danny Ings was not even brought off the substitutes’ bench when Villa were in need of a goal.
Philippe Coutinho has been rotated between the attacking midfield and wing roles to add to Villa’s attacking conundrum.
Despite all those options, Gerrard’s side are still missing the major marksman they need. Their Expected Goals tally shows they create enough but the off-the-ball work that Watkins does shows that more firepower is needed.
It’s important to recognise that all of the aforementioned players – bar Coutinho – were brought to Villa by a different manager – and Gerrard admitted he is already thinking about his pre-season and transfer market plans.
When asked what Villa have to play for in the season run-in, Gerrard said: “To try to win as many games and we can get as many points on the board. To put us in a place to give us a positive base to build on for next year. Then we can try for the right players to help and support us and we can have a positive pre-season.”
Newcastle revolution hits new heights
Newcastle were bottom of the Premier League, without a win in their first 11 games when Eddie Howe was appointed manager in November. After 14 matches they were still yet to taste victory with no team in top-flight history having survived following a start like that.
But now they’re up to ninth with 43 points, 15 above the relegation zone, having spent 150 days in the bottom three this season. They have won more top-flight games in 2022 than they did throughout the whole of 2021.
Their midweek victory over Crystal Palace meant Newcastle had won six consecutive Premier League games at St James’ Park for the first time since April 2004, under the late Sir Bobby Robson.
Of course, the club invested heavily in January – they needed to – which has helped massively although doesn’t guarantee success. Bruno Guimaraes, in particular, has proved to be a crucial signing although Howe has also worked with what was already in the building.
Playing Joelinton as a midfielder has been a masterstroke and turned the Brazilian’s Newcastle career around. Joelinton showed his renewed confidence when he was moved back up front against Norwich, scoring twice, with Guimaraes netting the other.
Newcastle had only five points on Christmas Day before going on a nine-game unbeaten run although there were still miserable results against Cambridge in the FA Cup and at home to Watford.
“Those were difficult moments and we were a long, long way from where we are now,” said Howe after the Norwich victory. “It’s taken an incredible effort from the players, staff and supporters to lift us into the position we are. I can’t thank everyone enough what they’ve given me and the team.”
Since the turn of the year only Liverpool have taken more points. The Newcastle revolution has well and truly begun.