They say ‘better late than never’ and that can certainly be applied to Arsenal’s away form this season as well as their form since the restart.
Heading into Saturday’s 2-0 win against Wolves, Arsenal had failed to beat a current top-half team away from home in the Premier League this season – taking only three points from a possible 21 – and had not won any of their last 17 Premier League away games against sides starting the day higher in the table (D5 L12). It was a run stretching all the way back to September 2015.
But Arsenal have now won their last two away games in the Premier League, including a 2-0 victory against Southampton last month, after failing to win their previous seven away league games before then. There was another clean sheet at Wolves as well, taking their tally to five on the road this season, compared to just one away clean sheet last term.
After a slow restart, Arsenal are finally hitting their stride and at just the right time. They have catapulted themselves into contention for Europe next season when hope had almost been lost and are into the FA Cup semi-finals.
It would be a remarkable achievement if Mikel Arteta can secure any kind of European place or even win a trophy in his first few months in the job. He said after the game that this Arsenal team is ‘alive’ and you can see his plans starting to come to fruition.
If tickets were on sale, then Manchester United would be the hottest in town. They are box office. Gone are the days of onlookers facing trepidation when a United game comes around, it’s now an exhilarating experience watching this cohesive unit putting on electric attacking performances.
Even when questions were asked by Bournemouth, who gave hope to their followers regarding their survival hopes with an early goal, there was no panic or stress.
On show was an unerring calmness – instilled by the addition of the majestic Bruno Fernandes – that chances would come. It was the kind of match where the absence of supporters was a cruel twist as United, with Mason Greenwood at the forefront, put on an attacking masterclass as they hit five at home in a Premier League game for the first since December 2011.
Two weeks ago, this very writer wrote an article encouraging people to back United to win next year’s Premier League title at 25/1. Three Premier League games and 11 goals later, the bookmakers are now just offering 10/1. United are crashing the markets – the next step is the crash the Manchester City-Liverpool party.
After watching Leicester and Manchester United secure comprehensive wins, Frank Lampard knew the pressure was on his Chelsea side to respond in this intriguing race to qualify for next season’s Champions League.
Replacing Marcos Alonso and Antonio Rudiger as part of four changes, Lampard was rewarded for his courage with three goals and a clean sheet as they cruised to victory over Watford, the perfect counter to the chastening denouement at West Ham.
While the Chelsea boss admitted afterwards that the margin of victory might have been wider, he highlighted the show of character from his players after overcoming this test of nerve to return to fourth spot.
“Pre-West Ham, we could have gone third and we let ourselves down,” Lampard told Sky Sports. “Today, there was a bit of pressure to get back to fourth and we produced – so get used to that pressure, whatever way it looks, because it’s going to be tough all the way through.”
This was comfortable because Chelsea made it so, moving the ball at pace through the lines with the irrepressible Mason Mount linking up with Ross Barkley and Christian Pulisic to monopolise possession. The only concern was the sight of N’Golo Kante hobbling off with a hamstring injury, which is likely to rule him out of the trip to Crystal Palace in midweek.
Jorginho remained an unused substitute for the fourth successive game since his return from suspension, but Lampard insisted afterwards that the Italian remains in his plans, and Chelsea must remain fully focused on the collective if they are to return to Europe’s elite competition.
“We cannot get too caught up with what everyone else does at the moment,” Lampard added. Two points in front of United and a further three ahead of sixth-placed Wolves, there is no margin for error but Chelsea are back in the box seat.
It was bound to happen. Wolves have been imperious since the Premier League restart but they finally wobbled against Arsenal to show that they are human after all.
Nuno Espirito Santo’s side were unbeaten in five league games overall and had won all three since returning as they headed into Saturday’s tie, with a week between their last win over Aston Villa and the visit of Arsenal.
But the extra rest did not seem to have much effect. Adama Traore looking his usual lively self and was arguably Wolves’ best player on the day, but he didn’t quite connect with Raul Jimenez as he usually does. Other players who usually provide moments of magic couldn’t find their groove and even Joao Moutinho’s set pieces weren’t quite on the button.
The defeat was compounded by wins for Manchester United, Leicester and Chelsea, but Nuno said: “Other results and the table is not what guides us.”
It’s certainly not time to start panicking and Wolves remain in a strong position to secure European football next season, but was far from the ideal day or performance.
There were a few concerns for Sheffield United after their first three games back. Humbling defeats at Manchester United and Newcastle, plus a goalless draw at struggling Villa, had many thinking that Chris Wilder’s side had been found out. But on the last two showings, they look back to their sharp selves.
In their first three games of the restart, Sheffield United were running 110km on average, with 87 sprints per game. In the previous two that is up to 115km and 97 sprints per game.
Found out? More a case of easing back into a formula that works. Both Burnley and Tottenham struggled to deal with the tricks Sheffield United used throughout the first period of the season, both tactically and physically, and their sights are set back on a finish in the European spots.
It won’t come easy. They have Wolves (H), Chelsea (A), Leicester (A) and Everton (H) in their upcoming games, plus a trip to in-form Saints on the final day. Nevertheless, Wilder’s Blades are visibly match fit to meet the challenge head on.
It has not been the happiest of restarts for West Ham but after a dramatic 3-2 win against Chelsea in midweek, things were starting to look up for the Hammers. Next came a daunting away trip to Newcastle but there were more signs of improvement at St James’ Park on Sunday as well.
When West Ham were on top, they played some wonderful football with Michail Antonio, Declan Rice and Jarrod Bowen up for the fight. They scored twice with both goals well taken and have now netted five goals in two games with none scored in their previous three Premier League outings.
But there are still big question marks at the back. West Ham led twice but could not hold onto it, conceding the second equaliser just 87 seconds after they went ahead again. They have now lost 24 points from winning positions – the most of any Premier League side this season. It’s not the form you want to be taking into a tight relegation battle.
However, four points from six against two of the league’s in-form teams – Chelsea and Newcastle – is positive. In their final three games, West Ham face three teams below them in Norwich, Watford and Aston Villa which they will be expecting to take points from.
The Hammers are in pole position to stay in the Premier League and must take the chance with both hands and not, like their leads this season, let it slip.
You’ve probably heard the line that when Jamie Vardy scores, Leicester tend to win, and vice versa. Their dreadful form and his own dry spell have gone hand in hand. So having registered his Premier League tonne with a double against Crystal Palace on Saturday, Brendan Rodgers will be delighted.
Vardy looked every bit a man down on his luck during the opening half, but once Mamadou Sakho gifted him an early present to net his 100th top-flight goal, his 101st in injury time was every bit the touch of class that we’ve come to recognise from him down the years.
Leicester were far from vintage but against a largely organised Crystal Palace side – for 77 minutes at least – it was a positive performance where their work-rate got the job done. And if Vardy now has the bit between his teeth again, it won’t be long before their exciting style returns.
It’s a trap many promoted teams fall into. Come up, play the football that brought you success in the second tier, and hope for more of the same.
But time on the ball in the Premier League is at a minimum, and in a game where Norwich needed to go back to basics, show steel and get a result, this 90 minutes epitomised their season.
Brighton’s only goal in their 1-0 win at Carrow Road magnified Norwich’s naïve approach; overplaying in midfield, easy on the eye but with no bite, they lost out high up the pitch, Brighton countered and grabbed the three points. In fact, it happened several times in that first half.
If they are to be relegated, which seems increasingly inevitable, Norwich are well placed to return, but a change of tack was required midway through this season to save Norwich.
It never came, and they will likely taste relegation from the Premier League for a record fifth time.
The average number of points required to stay in the Premier League over the past three seasons has been 36 points, and while Brighton reached that milestone with victory over Norwich on Saturday, Watford will be anxiously looking over their shoulders.
Chelsea were home and hosed by half-time, the Hornets consigned to a fourth consecutive away defeat for the first time since the final six on the road during the 2017/18 season under Javi Gracia.
Their fate won’t be decided by losses such as these against Champions League contenders, and Watford seem to have acknowledged that by failing to collect a point or score a goal from trips to top-six sides this season.
Nigel Pearson’s side remain outside of the relegation zone by a solitary point, but they have lost the defensive solidity and the swagger of their manager’s first eight games in charge, when they secured 14 points.
“We are having to play our way back into nick,” Pearson said after the 3-0 defeat at Stamford Bridge. “Time is not on our side but we have to be brave enough and want the ball. The second-half performance was one we can build on.”
With Norwich and Newcastle visiting Vicarage Road over the next seven days, Pearson will call on his players to grasp the opportunity to pull away from danger.
What do all the relegation threatened teams have in common? An inability to win football matches, of course – that’s a given, but almost all of them have received plaudits over the season for a performance here or there against elite teams in this division. This was Villa’s. Plaudits are all well and good, but points are what is needed, especially with just five games to go.
Villa will get their tummies tickled for their committed showing at Liverpool, where they contained the rather lacklustre and disinterested Premier League champions for 60 minutes. It’s a harsh reality but containment ended up not being enough as they didn’t punish Jurgen Klopp’s men for failing to turn up at full-tilt for the second game in a row since they were officially crowned champions. As soon as Liverpool injected pace into their play through substitutes Jordan Henderson and Roberto Firmino there was an air of inevitability about Villa’s fate in the final quarter of the game.
They are now without a victory in nine Premier League games, the longest current winless run in the competition. Hope still springs eternal though as Watford and Bournemouth also both lost this weekend. Nothing lost, nothing gained – but now is the time points rather than a performance.