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Can Everton get back to just being mediocre?
Image: Seamus Coleman apologises to Everton fans at the final whistle
As the Everton fans who had started their journey south at 5am in coaches on Sunday streamed for the exits at the Brentford Community Stadium, whether their team would return to just being mid-table drifters could well have played through their minds.
A protest had been planned prior to their latest setback – the 1-0 loss at Brentford was their fifth defeat in a run of seven winless games – with the fans’ anger directed at the board with the side floundering in the bottom half following a promising start.
- Brentford 1-0 Everton – Match report and highlights
- How the teams lined up | Match stats
A banner including the club’s Latin motto – ‘Nil Satis Nisi Optimum’ – demanded nothing but the best, but manager Rafael Benitez’s claim that finishing eighth barely a month ago would fall short of his expectations suddenly feels like a pipedream.
Rafa Benitez believes a change in fortune will come for Everton but was left frustrated after they lost 1-0 at Brentford
Everton arrived in west London with their troubles at defending set-pieces well documented in light of Brentford’s prowess from corners and throw-ins. But, in conceding the penalty which decided a contest low on quality, the visitors’ sense of panic contributed heavily to this particular demise.
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Andros Townsend has been one of Everton’s most consistent performers this term, but his challenge on Frank Onyeka was never likely to go by unpunished even if referee Darren England initially waved play on. It was a panicked decision borne out of an awareness of his own team’s fragility.
Benitez could hardly blame the match officials here as his side’s second-half resurgence ultimately fell short. As Hey Jude greeted the sound of the final whistle, the Everton players were met by a barrage of abuse from the away end. Benitez must take a poor team and make it better.
Image: Michael Keane looks dejected at full-time after Everton's defeat at Brentford
The Everton boss said: “We can understand the frustration of the fans as we’re also frustrated but you cannot complain about the effort of the players, who tried from the start of the game, put in many crosses and created chances. We’re obviously disappointed as we don’t want to lose.”
There was no lack of endeavour, but a worrying absence of quality. Until the likes of Dominic Calvert-Lewin, Yerry Mina and Richarlison are back available, Everton look set to remain on this downward spiral.
Frank toasts return of Bees’ defensive solidity
FREE TO WATCH: Highlights from Brentford’s win against Everton
Brentford had not played poorly throughout a run of five winless games, with the exception of the loss at Burnley, but manager Thomas Frank had lamented poor moments which had been punished at this level.
There were lingering fears of a long winter, but in ending a run of three straight home defeats, Brentford have given themselves some breathing space above the relegation zone.
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“We have to put things into perspective,” Frank said. “We’ve just got promoted while Everton have invested a lot of money and are targeting European football. We got back to a strong defensive mindset.
“In the last three games, we’ve conceded too many chances and goals but we wanted to still be aggressive and press high. I thought our defence was unbreakable today.”
Everton lacked penetration but could argue they should have taken something from the game were it not for Alvaro Fernandez, who made two good saves to deny Salomon Rondon and Alex Iwobi.
Image: Alvaro Fernandez made two big saves for Brentford
This was a welcome clean sheet, and first in the Premier League for Fernandez since deputising for the injured David Raya. Having kept three shut-outs and conceded just two goals (0.4 per game) in their opening five games, Brentford had conceded in each of their last seven in the competition (15 in total – 2.1 per game).
“It’s a massive win because we haven’t won in five and deserved more in those games,” Frank continued. “To get the win and to defend at a top level, I’m delighted. It was so important we did that and hopefully this is a win we can now build on. Alvaro made two very big saves and this is his first Premier League clean sheet so it’s fantastic for him.”
Frank said he would enjoy a glass of red wine on Sunday night – “possibly two” – and the sense of relief all around his supporters was palpable after a first home win since the opening weekend of the season.
If this was Rangnick, it wasn’t pretty
FREE TO WATCH: Highlights from Chelsea’s draw with Manchester United
There were suggestions that Man Utd’s selection and approach at Stamford Bridge on Sunday might have been curated by the incoming Ralf Rangnick.
With the top four slipping away, did Rangnick have a word in someone’s ear, with the aim of arriving at Old Trafford to some modicum of stability?
- Chelsea 1-1 Man Utd – Match report and highlights
- How the teams lined up | Match stats
Michael Carrick insists that was not the case, and Man Utd fans will no doubt be relieved if that is true.
This was not pretty, by any stretch. The result will say 1-1. The shorter highlights might even show some Man Utd chances. Carrick might have said he was “disappointed” not to win, and Thomas Tuchel might have been “happy”.
But do not be fooled. Nine times out of 10, Chelsea win this game comfortably. This is not an approach Man Utd should be deploying many more times this season.
It felt more like they were trying to avoid another humiliation against one of the three genuine title contenders – the Liverpool and Man City games have left scars at the club – rather than form a game plan to get a point.
Their goal, after all, came from a hazardous piece of arrogance from Jorginho, which, to his credit, he later atoned for by stepping up to score his penalty. Before that point, United had defended OK but tried nothing – one touch in the opposition box, and an xG of just 0.02.
The soundbites of Rangnick, the ‘Godfather of gegenpressing’, promise heavy metal football over the next six months. This was barely elevator music.
Werner still not quite right
Head coach Thomas Tuchel was happy with Chelsea’s performance but felt they failed to capitalise on some big chances to win the game against Manchester United
Every time it feels like Timo Werner’s Chelsea career is going to kickstart, something falls flat. After his goal against Juventus in midweek, Sunday’s game against a makeshift Manchester United defence looked a good opportunity for him to score in back-to-back games for Chelsea. He has not done so in over a year.
Granted, there was zero space in behind United’s back-line – this was about as compact an opposition as Chelsea are likely to face all season here – but there is something clearly missing for the German.
He cannot be accused of looking sluggish – his ability to get into good positions is his best trait – but Werner snatched at most of what came his way on Sunday. It is a familiar story.
Asked about Werner’s performance, Chelsea boss Thomas Tuchel let out a big sigh, then said: “I think we still see that he hasn’t played for a long time. Can we expect he’s at his peak? No we cannot. It’s always a bit like: ‘What can we expect in this moment?’. He looked very sharp in training, he scored many goals in the last two training sessions, that’s why I went with my gut and put him on the pitch.
“It’s not easy on him today and you can see he clearly lacks some games, but there we go.”
It is a fair assessment, given he had played just 18 minutes of football since mid-October before the game, but this felt more like a lack of confidence than a lack of physical sharpness.
With Romelu Lukaku now returning, and no European football until February after the second week of December, you wonder how many minutes Werner will get over the coming months.
Gundogan hitting top form again?
FREE TO WATCH: Highlights from Manchester City’s win against West Ham
It was around this time last year that Ilkay Gundogan hit the run of goalscoring form which allowed eventual champions Manchester City to seize control of the title race, scoring 11 times in 12 Premier League appearances between December and February.
Might history repeat itself this season? The Germany international had only scored once in his previous 10 appearances for City in all competitions before Sunday’s meeting with West Ham but he was certainly in menacing mood at the Etihad Stadium.
- Man City 2-1 West Ham – Match report and highlights
Gundogan scored City’s first goal, showing the same poacher-like instincts as last season when he prodded Riyad Mahrez’s low centre over the line from close range, and then turned provider for the second, his cut-back allowing substitute Fernandinho to convert.
The statistics underlined his influence over the course of the 90 minutes. In total, Gundogan had four shots, the joint-highest among City players, and created four chances, more than anyone else on the pitch.
His contribution was handily-timed for Pep Guardiola, given he was once again without Kevin De Bruyne, Phil Foden and Jack Grealish. Gundogan stepped up when City needed him last season. His performance against West Ham suggests he is capable of doing the same again this time around.
Vardy, Maddison partnership flourishes again
FREE TO WATCH: Highlights from Leicester’s win against Watford
The partnership between Jamie Vardy and James Maddison has been the heartbeat of Leicester City’s success in recent seasons, and it was on show once again as Leicester brushed aside Watford in the snow at the King Power Stadium.
Maddison, who looked back to his confident best, continued his goalscoring form, adding to the goal he scored in the Europa League in midweek with a smart finish for Leicester’s 16th-minute opener.
- Leicester 4-2 Watford – Match report and highlights
- How the teams lined up | Match stats
But it was his combination play with Vardy, which led to the Leicester striker’s double, that would have had the Foxes’ fans off their seats.
Leicester’s second was vintage Maddison, vintage Vardy and vintage Leicester. Vardy raced off the shoulder of the last defender to latch onto Maddison’s inch-perfect ball before his lifted finish nestled in the back of the net.
The pair combined again for the third with Vardy meeting Maddison’s corner with a deft header, and that was the story of the afternoon as the pair gave Watford a torrid time.
The victory ended a run of three games without a win in the top flight for Leicester, who also turned their Europa League campaign around in midweek with victory against Legia Warsaw, and they will hope their rise up the league continues with the Vardy and Maddison partnership at the helm.
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