From reasons for Manchester United to be cheerful to a relegation battle we didn’t think was possible, we’re back with our latest round of snap judgements to the weekend’s Premier League fixtures.
We Have a Relegation Battle After All!
It is in our nature to be reactionary in this weekly column (the clue’s in the headline, people), so there have been a few occasions when we have already declared the relegation battle over. The promoted sides – Luton Town, Sheffield United and Burnley – have struggled since arriving in the top flight; before this weekend they had just one win and 11 points from 30 games played – and a potential 90 points – between them. We, and many others, fairly – in our humble opinion – wrote them off.
One weekend is never going to be enough time to alter the course of fate for all three of these teams, but it is sufficient to change the perception of where their respective seasons are heading. With Sheffield United picking up their first win of the season by beating Wolves 2-1 and Luton coming within minutes of what would have been a sensational win over Liverpool on Sunday, maybe there is some hope for these teams after all?
Both teams rode their luck a little – Liverpool generated 2.85 xG at Luton but could only find a way through in the 95th minute, while Sheffield United’s late winner came from a controversial penalty that took their xG for the game from 0.26 to 1.05 – but it could also be argued they both deserved to win.
Unfortunately for Burnley, things look rather less positive. After their 2-0 home defeat to a Crystal Palace side that had scored only two goals in their last six games in all competitions, it is now only goal difference keeping them off the bottom of the table. Pressure is mounting on Vincent Kompany.
But even so, with Bournemouth stuck on six points and the looming possibility of a points deduction for Everton, each of the promoted sides could actually make this season’s relegation battle interesting.
Things Really Aren’t That Bad for Manchester United
Someone who has watched much of Manchester United recently could fairly reasonably say they aren’t very good. They’ve not played very well in a while, and some of the performances – particularly in successive 3-0 home defeats to Manchester City and Newcastle – were especially uninspiring.
Saturday’s 1-0 win at Fulham was a long way from the kind of convincing display Erik ten Hag needs his players to start producing, not only to buy himself more time in the job but also to build up his players’ confidence, which right now appears to be quite low.
However, the most important thing this weekend was getting three points, and they did just that. It might have taken a Bruno Fernandes strike from the edge of the box in the 91st minute following a string of failed attempts to clear the ball by the Fulham defenders and a weak hand from Bernd Leno, but a win is a win and that was what United needed more than anything else.
The really bad days at the office stick in the mind more than the not-so-bad ones like this win, but looking objectively at United’s results, they really aren’t that bad. They have won four of their last six games in all competitions and have an identical record in the Premier League, too. The Fulham victory leaves them just four points off the top five. Looking at the situation with your glass half full, you could say things could be much worse.
Brighton Aren’t the Team We Thought They Were
Six games into 2023-24, with five wins to their name and sitting third in the table, Brighton appeared the most likely team to challenge the Premier League’s elite this season. Roberto De Zerbi was roundly and rightly being praised for building a team that was capable of overachieving in a very difficult league, especially in light of how they finished last season, when they secured qualification for the Europa League in impression fashion.
But their form has dipped dramatically in recent weeks. A 6-1 loss at Aston Villa signalled the start of a run of five matches without a win, and the two most recent games in that run – successive draws against Fulham and Everton – were both matches most would have expected them to win.
But at Goodison Park this weekend they looked a shadow of their former selves. They were denied an equaliser by a tight offside call from the VAR, but even that goal – while a very, very good strike from Lewis Dunk – came from a set-piece, and then the legitimate goal they did later score was a massive deflection off Ashley Young from Kaoru Mitoma’s attempted cross. Their two shots on target and 0.51 xG were both their lowest tallies of the campaign, despite the fact they had 79.9% possession – the most by any team in a Premier League game this season.
The 778 passes Brighton completed against Everton was also a league high for 2023-24, breaking the record set by De Zerbi’s side only a week earlier against Fulham (746). It all points to a toothlessness that has crept in of late; they are seeing a lot of the ball but are struggling to break opponents down like they used to. Is this just a blip, or the start of something more ominous? Time will tell.
David Moyes Could Be in Trouble
Maybe slightly harsh, but after slipping into the bottom half of the table for the first time since the season’s first week – after they drew their opening game to Bournemouth – West Ham’s hopes of a top-half finish and maybe even another foray into Europe appear to be dwindling.
So impressive in the first few weeks of the season, David Moyes’ men have now lost three games in a row and their only Premier League win in their last seven was at home to Sheffield United who, before this weekend at least, had looked pretty hopeless.
Defensive solidity had previously been the hallmark of a good Moyes side, but West Ham have kept only one clean sheet all season – in that win over Sheffield United – and their defensive performance in losing 3-2 at Brentford this weekend had the Scot fuming.
“We’ve found that we’ve not dealt with things which as a player I would have been disgusted with myself for not being able to deal with them much better,” Moyes said after the game. “I don’t think my teams do that. That is why I am annoyed that I’ve come here and not been able to defend when put under pressure.”
He will need to shore things up at the back, because it isn’t difficult to see a situation in which the positive results in Europe and the run to the EFL Cup quarter-finals aren’t enough to keep him in a job for much longer.
Newcastle Can Survive This Injury Crisis
The concern – if there was one – for Newcastle fans this season might have been that the squad wasn’t going to be big enough to contend with Champions League football as well as another run at making the top four. Right now, that squad is being tested to its absolute limits.
Dan Burn has been added to an already lengthy injury list containing Harvey Barnes, Sven Botman, Alexander Isak, Jacob Murphy, Elliot Anderson and Matt Target, while Sandro Tonali will also be absent for the foreseeable future. With games coming thick and fast – Newcastle travel to Borussia Dortmund in the Champions League on Tuesday night – Eddie Howe has had to manage his players’ game time wherever possible. Top scorer Callum Wilson, for example, has only completed two full matches all season.
But there is a togetherness in the squad that has been hugely important to their current form with so many players missing. Saturday’s win over Arsenal was a case in point.
“We’re suffering a bit of bad luck at the moment, we’re losing players [to injury],” Howe said after the game. “But the response of the players that we do have fit and available has been incredible. You can see from the spirit at the end our determination to hang onto the lead.”
Having lost three of their first four games of the season, Newcastle are now on the Premier League’s second-longest unbeaten run, having ended Arsenal’s this weekend. Their slow start meant they were playing catch-up for a while, but having now clawed themselves back to within four points of the top four despite their many injuries, there are plenty of reasons to believe this squad can contend with the busy schedule.