Premier League hits and misses: Steven Gerrard’s gritty tactics work on Aston Villa bow

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United made to pay for dithering on Solskjaer

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FREE TO WATCH: Highlights from Watford’s win over Manchester United in the Premier League

No-one likes to see managers sacked, aside perhaps from their accountants, but sometimes you have to know when the time is right.

There is certainly a balance to be struck. Look at Tottenham, who have spent two years looking for a man who can match Mauricio Pochettino, let alone better him, and short-termism has plenty to answer for in football.

Approaching £500m, three seasons, no trophies and a 5-0 tanking by Liverpool should be enough for the Manchester United board to realise Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is no longer the right man.

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Clearly, the players have realised it. They did not so much down tools but never picked them up against Manchester City before the international break, and whatever their manager’s game plan was at Vicarage Road on Saturday, they were totally incapable of enacting it as they lost 4-1 to Watford.

  • Watford 4-1 Man Utd – Match report and highlights
  • How the teams lined up | Match stats

This has been on the cards. David de Gea pretty much said the same. “We’ve been bad for a long time,” were his exact words after a fourth league defeat from five.

It appears it could be enough for Manchester United, finally, to act. But the regime which follows Ed Woodward’s departure by the end of this year must be more decisive to avoid a repeat performance of Ole’s demise.

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Such a club great deserves putting out of his misery before it gets to the point of his players – in this case Bruno Fernandes – arguing with fans booing the manager from the stands.

United have been found wanting in so many departments since Sir Alex Ferguson’s departure. This is just the latest.

Things have improved under Solskjaer’s tenure, the ‘toxic’ dressing-room atmosphere talked about under Jose Mourinho appears to have vanished, and the first XI, at least, are not far off rivalling any other across the league.

But United are, underneath it all, as far away from ruthless off the pitch as they are on it. This decline has been weeks, months, in the making, and their hesitancy has left them 12 points off Chelsea. Whoever follows Solskjaer must work under a boardroom for whom winning is everything, or bridging that gap will be hard work.
Ron Walker

Gerrard shows conservative approach

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FREE TO WATCH: Highlights from Aston Villa’s match with Brighton in the Premier League

You’d be forgiven for expecting Steven Gerrard to come out with a gung-ho approach in his first game as a Premier League manager, in front of a big home crowd desperate for entertainment, and having come from a league where his Rangers side dominated possession, chances and, well, everything.

But this was a considered tactical offering against a Brighton side who dominate the ball and get numbers back at double speed.

Patience was the name of the game on Saturday as Villa stood firm for long periods of simply watching Brighton pass the ball around the middle and defensive third. At times, the packed Villa Park crowd moaned and groaned at a perceived lack of ambition in possession, but when Brighton blinked first and left players upfield, Villa pounced superbly.

  • Aston Villa 2-0 Brighton – Match report and highlights
  • How the teams lined up | Match stats

“We wanted to pack the midfield, and when our moments come, we wanted to go and hit the opposition,” he said after the game. It perhaps wasn’t pretty, but it worked.

Ironically, it came through excellent work from sub Ashley Young from central midfield – Dean Smith had been criticised for playing Young in that position – and Ollie Watkins showed why he is Villa’s main attacking threat with strike-partner Danny Ings off the pitch.

Villa smelt blood and continued to push for a second with Brighton committing.

Gerrard’s doubters will have been impressed by that tactical dexterity. Appointing him was a risk, given Villa had lost five straight games and had five tricky games on the horizon. But playing like this, they will be absolutely fine.
Gerard Brand

Positives for Newcastle but no quick fix

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FREE TO WATCH: Highlights from Newcastle’s match with Brentford in the Premier League

It was not the first game Eddie Howe would have envisaged when he was named Newcastle boss, but he would have been pleased with plenty of what he saw from his side from his hotel room as they drew 3-3 with Brentford.

However, Howe, who was unable to be in the dugout at St James’ Park for his first game in charge after testing positive for Covid-19, would have also been given a glimpse of the huge task he faces at the club.

  • Newcastle 3-3 Brentford – Match report and highlights
  • How the teams lined up | Match stats

Assistant boss Jason Tindall, who took charge alongside Graeme Jones in the absence of Howe, re-iterated as much after the game.

He said: “When we arrived at the football club, the team were where they were and since we’ve been here, we’ve just tried to implement our philosophy on the group of players as quickly and the best we can. It was never going to be such a quick fix to do that.

“We can’t focus on the league table. We can’t focus on anybody else other than ourselves. We’ve still got a lot of work to do, but today, there were a lot of positives to take into next week.”

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Newcastle assistant manager Jason Tindall was pleased with their attacking intensity during their 3-3 draw at home with Brentford and felt there were clear positives to take from the game.

The league table does not lie, though. The topsy-turvy draw with Brentford meant Newcastle, who are still waiting for their first Premier League win of the season, slipped to the bottom of the table and that will not make pleasant reading for the club’s new owners.

In a 38-game Premier League season, three of the four sides who failed to win any of their first 12 games of a season have gone on to be relegated, so while there were positives for Howe to take, he, and the owners, will not want to take too much longer to get that first win and start climbing up the league table.
Oliver Yew

Immediate impact as Smith inspires Norwich comeback

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FREE TO WATCH: Highlights from Norwich’s match with Southampton in the Premier League

Before the 2-1 victory over Southampton, the last time Norwich came from behind to win a Premier League game was in May 2016.

There have been 36 occasions where the Canaries have fallen behind and failed to turn it around and pick up three points.

But after a half-time team-talk from new boss Dean Smith changed the course of the game, it would appear unlikely they will have to wait that long again.

  • Norwich 2-1 Southampton – Match report and highlights
  • How the teams lined up | Match stats

Despite bringing youngsters Billy Gilmour and Todd Cantwell back into the side after they were surprisingly underused by former boss Daniel Farke, Smith watched his new charges struggle before the break.

He knew Norwich were lucky to be level and sent his side out with renewed vigour – as well as hooking off Cantwell and replacing him with Josh Sargent.

They played higher up the pitch, pressed their visitors and looked like a side who believed they could pick up all three points.

It was the sort of intervention you need from a manager when you are bottom of the league and struggling.

At the end of October, the Canaries squad looked short of fight as they lost 7-0 at Chelsea.

In Smith’s first game, the fight they showed suggested all is not lost in their battle for survival.
Matthew Storey

Chelsea’s wonderful wing-backs do it again

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FREE TO WATCH: Highlights from Chelsea’s win at Leicester in the Premier League

There has been so much spoken about Chelsea’s wing-backs this season and with good reason given that Ben Chilwell and Reece James are the top scoring ‘defenders’ in the Premier League this season. But their role in their 3-0 win at Leicester was critical.

Right from the outset, they were threatening in behind the defence and both players registered assists in the opening half an hour of the game. When they provide the width high up the pitch it becomes a five-man attack and opponents struggle to stop them.

  • Leicester 0-3 Chelsea – Match report and highlights
  • How the teams lined up | Match stats

But what was noticeable at the King Power Stadium was the variation in the threat. James, in particular, would drift inside and either drive at the defence from there or take on a playmaking role in the middle. In this form, he looks like the complete player.

“I think the whole team understands better and better when we can take risks, when we can change positions,” Thomas Tuchel explained after the game. “Not to be overconfident and do crazy stuff but to have that freedom in our offensive movement.

“I think the wing-backs can adjust their positions to half positions to support our attackers. It is a matter of repetition and understanding with each other in the moment. We want to be dangerous from certain spaces and accelerate the game from certain spaces.”

The result is that while the two formations on show at the King Power Stadium were ostensibly similar, Chelsea looked much more fluid. The man on the ball always had options. It is a team that is growing together and their young wing-backs are leading the way.
Adam Bate

Neves helps Wolves halt Hammers’ progress

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FREE TO WATCH: Highlights from Wolves’ match with West Ham

West Ham have been brilliant this season, but as we entered a third international break, the question was ‘for how long they could sustain it?’. The Liverpool result, the Hammers’ fourth successive league win, saw David Moyes’ team replace the Reds in third place in the table, going three points behind leaders Chelsea.

  • Wolves 1-0 West Ham – Match report and highlights
  • How the teams lined up | Match stats

But as Moyes strode on to the pitch at the full-time whistle at Molineux, he could acknowledge that for one of the very few times this campaign, his team had deservedly been on the end of defeat as they lost 1-0 to Wolves.

Declan Rice withdrew from the England squad last week because of illness and he looked well short of his best here following the praise heaped upon him by Glenn Hoddle as “the best player in the Premier League”.

Image: Ruben Neves and Conor Coady celebrate at the final whistle

Joao Moutinho and Ruben Neves patrolled the midfield area to lay the foundations of a third straight home league win for Wolves. The latter, in particular, sparkled with 42 passes into the opposition half, more than any other player.

West Ham have clearly bought into Moyes’ methods after two years in charge, but after far less time in the dugout, Bruno Lage is showing encouraging signs of his players following the same upward trajectory.

This is no more than a setback for West Ham, Moyes will hope, and there is the Europa League trip to Rapid Vienna on Thursday that will provide his players with an instant opportunity to respond. One of the cornerstones of Moyes’ success at West Ham has been his ability to call upon a settled side with just four changes to the starting XI prior to Saturday.

Image: David Moyes issues instructions at Molineux

But with a raft of games coming up over the next month, this was not the perfect start to life without Angelo Ogbonna, whose season-ending injury will no doubt be addressed in the January window after the Czech businessman Daniel Kretinsky completed his purchase of a 27 per cent stake in the club this week.

The Hammers were hoping to go a ninth straight league game unbeaten for the first time since the 1985/86 season – when they finished third – but having suffered defeat on the road for the first time in any competition this term, this was not so much a reality check as a reminder that any drop in standard in this division will undoubtedly get punished.

You have to go as far back as the 1975/76 season for the last time West Ham started a top-flight campaign this well, but 16 games without a win meant this would eventually finish that term 18th. The wheels are not expected to come off as drastically this time around and this blip should sharpen the focus, with Manchester City next up in the league at the Etihad.
Ben Grounds

An opportunity missed for Crystal Palace

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FREE TO WATCH: Highlights from Burnley’s match with Crystal Palace in the Premier League

Crystal Palace and Burnley played their part in one of the most entertaining games in the Premier League season so far as they drew 3-3 at Turf Moor, but there was no question that the visitors needed to be more defensively disciplined to stop Burnley from profiting off set-pieces.

Burnley’s greatest strength lies in their ability to win aerial duels and capitalise in those moments, but Palace looked vulnerable every time a ball was directed into the box.

  • Burnley 3-3 Crystal Palace – Match report and highlights
  • How the teams lined up | Match stats

Patrick Vieira said post-match: “For the neutral it was a good game, but it was disappointing because they had space to score more goals. When you look at the chances they had at the end it was a challenging game.

“Burnley are really strong physically and at set-pieces they are a danger. It is a big part of the game we need to improve.”

Christian Benteke was instrumental in keeping his side in the game in an enthralling first half in drenched conditions at Turf Moor, but a third successive Premier League win would have lifted Palace into sixth.

Defending set-pieces better could prove vital for Palace if they are to claim maximum points in their next two games against Aston Villa and Leeds United.
James Kilpatrick

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