Mikel Arteta, Javi Gracia and Sean Dyche are working wonders, with Jacob Ramsey and Theo Walcott thriving. But Graham Potter, Spurs and Wolves can do better.
There aren’t enough flowers in the world to give him and do that moment or his courage justice.
The Premier League’s least likely firefighter
When Javi Gracia was appointed Watford manager in January 2018, the Hornets were one of 10 teams separated by six points between 9th and 18th. In his 14 games to finish the season, the Spaniard beat three of those sides, drew with another three and lost only two.
When Gracia was appointed Leeds manager in February 2023, the Whites were one of nine teams separated by eight points between 12th and 20th. In his four games thus far, the Spaniard has beaten both Southampton and Wolves while losing and drawing to a couple of sides clear of a congested relegation battle.
Gracia knows to plot a route to safety which revolves around success – or at the very least avoiding failure – in those six-pointers when things are so tight. The game management and substitutions in particular against Wolves were exemplary. With the same 33% career Premier League win percentage as Sam Allardyce and Roy Hodgson, Gracia has emerged as an improbable yet seemingly reliable top-flight firefighter.
Everton’s January signings
“I think the thing that gets overviewed is that they’ve got to be better than what we’ve got here. I think we’ve got some very, very good players. They may have lost their way but there’s some very talented players here. They may not have shown that but we need to remind ourselves of the good players here. We’ve got to polish them up a bit.
“I’ve never been one for signing players for the sake of it and then you never see them again. They’ve got to affect what we’re doing and they’ve got to be good enough to affect what we’re doing, otherwise I don’t see the point in it.”
Man of his word, Sean Dyche. Abdoulaye Doucoure started the first two games of the Premier League season in August but had to wait until the new manager’s first game in February for his third; the formerly marginalised midfielder has been a revelation. And Ellis Simms, recalled from his loan at Sunderland on December 30, drew level with Dominic Calvert-Lewin and Neal Maupay as Everton’s joint highest-scoring striker in the Premier League this season.
Dyche, the most important addition of all, has stabilised the Toffees in the least surprising turnaround of the campaign. Only Arsenal (19), Manchester City (16), Liverpool (13), Spurs (13) and Brentford (12) have picked up more points than their 11 since the 51-year-old’s appointment. Spending nothing in January to expose the shortcomings of a side which broke all winter transfer records going is some feat.
There are two elements to this Arsenal squad. The first and more obvious is those who are guaranteed to start: Aaron Ramsdale, Benjamin White, Gabriel Magalhaes, Oleksandr Zinchenko, Martin Odegaard, Thomas Partey, Granit Xhaka, Bukayo Saka and Gabriel Martinelli were all excellent against Crystal Palace as a supposedly leaderless team had numerous players queuing to step up in difficult circumstances.
The second is those who feature less often but, in the words of Saka on Rob Holding, are “coming in to stay at the level that we’ve been playing”. The centre-half was brilliant in William Saliba’s place. Leandro Trossard was once again influential and has more Premier League assists this season than every player bar Saka and Kevin de Bruyne. Kieran Tierney was wonderful when he came on. Jakub Kiwior was granted a Premier League debut on merit rather than sentiment. Reiss Nelson was an unused substitute but has been a model of professionalism and taking the chances he has earned before.
It is all down to the sort of impeccable squad management which has meant Gabriel Jesus is happy to play his part in a successful side instead of being thrown straight back into the line-up, with Jorginho one of the club’s biggest cheerleaders from the sidelines despite not starting for three consecutive Premier League games. That spirit and togetherness will be onerous for Manchester City to overcome from eight points back.
The most routine of victories over Bournemouth lifted Aston Villa to sixth in a table of Premier League results since Unai Emery’s first game; only Arsenal (38), Manchester City (29) and Man Utd (27) have picked up more points than Steven Gerrard’s former side since November 6.
So for Emery himself to call that Jacob Ramsey’s “best match since I’m here” is quite the compliment. The midfielder scored and assisted in the Spaniard’s first match, that 3-1 win over Man Utd at Villa Park, but Bournemouth found his performance on the left side of the attack in a 4-2-3-1 impossible to handle. Jack Stephens is still reeling.
Talent and ability was enough for Ramsey to be one of precious few players to impress during the aimless Gerrard reign. Under a more tactically astute manager, the Villa youth product is starting to thrive and properly evolve his all-round game.
Bukayo Saka, Jude Bellingham and Folarin Balogun are the only English players aged 21 or younger to have featured more often in Europe’s top five leagues this season than Ramsey. That is not bad company to keep.
A first Premier League goal since May 2021. A first Premier League assist since April 2021. A first goal and assist in the same Premier League game since August 2018, which quite inevitably came against Southampton.
Theo Walcott had been quietly fulfilling his role as experienced head and squad mentor, starting one Premier League game for Saints from Boxing Day 2021 to March 2023. Ruben Selles might otherwise have preferred for Southampton to keep leaning on their youthful core – and it should be noted that Romeo Lavia was brilliant – but the manager himself said the 34-year-old “knows the triggers, the shadows” and “how to read situations” better than any teammate.
Walcott is the only Southampton player other than James Ward-Prowse to feature in every game of the Selles reign and that is no coincidence. Even after all this time he still gets the better of Tottenham – eight goals versus Spurs is the most he has scored against any opponent.
The brilliance of Alexander Isak turned no points into three for Newcastle but that neat trick would not have been possible without the beautiful assistance of Elliot Anderson at Nottingham Forest.
Though the 20-year-old’s goal was ruled out on questionable grounds, he ought to reflect fondly on the longest appearance of his Premier League career thus far. A half-time introduction for the inhibited Allan Saint-Maximin, Anderson posed a challenge Nottingham Forest were entirely unprepared for.
No player completed more dribbles for either team than the Newcastle academy product, who forced a fine save from Keylor Navas in an encouraging run-out. Eddie Howe needs more reliable and consistent players across that front line and with Isak’s foot finally in the door as a starter, Anderson provides an enticing option on the left.
No player has won a higher proportion of their aerial duels in the Premier League this season than Harry Souttar (90.3%). Kurt Zouma (86.7%) and Tosin Adarabioyo (81.8%) are the only others to emerge victorious more than three-quarters of the time when they go up for a header. Leicester have found themselves a proper defender there.
This pretty much covers it.
While Julen Lopetegui “could make a book of the different mistakes” made by the officials at Molineux, he might consider flicking through the catalogue of errors made by his Wolves side against Leeds.
Even if there is a full and frank conversation to be had about the sense of perceived refereeing injustice Wolves feel they have been subjected to recently, it must not drown out a necessary period of introspection.
Nelson Semedo was bypassed too easily by Wilfried Gnonto for the first goal – and the Leeds forward had his presence on the left wing completely unchecked twice in the build-up to Jack Harrison scoring. Luke Ayling was inexplicably inundated with space to score from a corner. Jonny was tackled in his own penalty area by Rasmus Kristensen for the third. None of those mistakes can be traced back to Michael Salisbury or his team.
Perhaps the fourth goal was a little different in that Adama Traore felt he was fouled, but for he and his teammates to simultaneously stop playing as they waited for a whistle that was never forthcoming was amateurish. Funny as the idea that an ingrained conspiracy or unconscious bias exists against Wolves is, those smoke and mirrors cloud a worrying run of results and performances over the past month.
Kepa cost £71.6m and cannot save shots hit straight at him. Kalidou Koulibaly was signed for £34m and can probably be stored back in the cupboard after being completely rinsed by a goalless 22-year-old who started the season in the Championship. Graham Potter and his staff was brought in for £22m and could not assist their team in defending two separate leads at home to a struggling side.
Conor Gallagher as the earliest substitute has become a trademark of sorts for Potter. The midfielder has risen first from the gilded Chelsea bench in each of their last four games, his impact and diligence praised after coming on in the 68th, 67th and 45th minutes to help see out wins over Leeds, Dortmund and Leicester. But the negative nature of such a change – Gallagher has come on for the more forward-thinking Joao Felix every time in those four games – makes criticism inevitable when it backfires. Chelsea could have pushed for more goals against Everton instead of quickly sacrificing one of their better attacking performances and settling.
Ross Barkley for Mateo Kovacic became the substitution through which much of the criticism of Maurizio Sarri’s in-game management was framed. Potter has to be careful not to make Gallagher for Felix his calling card.
From the start of the 2017/18 season, Andre Ayew has started 20 Premier League games and won only two: for West Ham against Swansea in September 2017, and for Swansea against West Ham in March 2018.
There was little specifically wrong with his performance against Newcastle but the presence alone of an understandably rusty 33-year-old in the line-up at such a crucial juncture of the season sums up the plight of a Nottingham Forest side suddenly without a win in six games. No side has scored fewer than their 22 goals and just Bournemouth (54) have conceded more than their 49.
If there has been a flaw in this remarkable Brentford season, it lies in their results against the weaker sides. Every other team from 1st to 11th has a better points-per-game record against the relegation-battling bottom nine than the Bees, whose average of 1.6 is also lower than Crystal Palace (2) and level with Leicester – although the Foxes have played five fewer matches against such opponents.
Liverpool (1.62) and Aston Villa (1.67) have the closest numbers to Brentford in fixtures against Palace, Wolves, Leeds, Everton, Nottingham Forest, Leicester, West Ham, Bournemouth and Southampton. Brighton (2.38) and Fulham (2) have built their equally unlikely European pushes on bullying those worse off but Thomas Frank’s side steal from the rich – gaining 1.71 points per game against the Big Six – while giving to the poor. The room for improvement is clear.
There are more pressing questions from a game in which Emiliano Buendia is allowed to score a header two yards out directly from a corner. But at least it is known that Bournemouth can defend. It is something they have proven themselves to be intermittently capable of.
Less certainty surrounds whether Dominic Solanke can be relied upon to lead an attack in a relegation battle. The striker has only scored three Premier League goals all season, and none since November.
Gary O’Neil trusts the 25-year-old and values his work-rate and link-up play; Liverpool struggled to deal with it in that famous Cherries victory. But the severe lack of confidence and purpose in front of goal which saw a one-on-one chance when put in behind the Villa backline by Hamed Traore at 1-0 down become a tame effort easily blocked by Tyrone Mings, is something a club in Bournemouth’s situation cannot afford.
Kieffer Moore might offer a more rudimentary route but it is worth at least trying to knock the door down instead of waiting for Solanke to meticulously unlock it whenever Philip Billing cannot slip through.
Scoring an actual goal does not quite cancel out four consecutive defeats and 12 games without a win. But Crystal Palace and their decision to part with Patrick Vieira will not be measured by results against the runaway league leaders. An awful stretch of fixtures is over and after the international break come half a dozen relegation six-pointers in succession.