Premier League Takeaways – GW 34+

The latest set of Premier League fixtures saw Leicester relinquish third place to Chelsea after a 1-1 draw with Arsenal, while Sheffield United kept their European dream alive with a 1-0 win over Wolves. Watford took another step towards safety with a 2-1 win over Norwich, while Bournemouth earned a crucial point in a 0-0 draw with Spurs.

 

Jamie Braidwood – Golden Boot race going down to the wire

The race for the Premier League golden boot is hotting up. With four games of the season remaining, Premier League top scorer Jamie Vardy leads with 22 goals, but Arsenal’s Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang (20), Southampton’s Danny Ings and Liverpool’s Mohamed Salah (both 19) are in close pursuit. All four players netted in their respective Gameweek 34+ fixtures, with two-time golden boot winner Salah scoring twice to underline his desire to retain the award, so who looks likely to finish the season on top?

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Despite a slow start to life following football’s restart, Jamie Vardy has scored three goals across his last two games to solidify his position at the top of the Golden Boot race.

Vardy is the favourite, with a two-goal lead and competitive fixtures to come. As Leicester look to cling onto fourth place, Vardy’s goals will be crucial if Brendan Rodgers’ side are to clinch Champions League football, and the 33-year-old will look at upcoming games at Bournemouth and against Sheffield United to extend his advantage. Vardy could have a clear lead over Aubameyang by then, with the Arsenal striker facing Jose Mourinho’s Tottenham and champions Liverpool in their corresponding fixtures, although the Gunners are in better form.

It would take a huge effort for either Ings or Salah to bridge the gap, and even an average of a goal per game is unlikely to be enough. But anyone who saw Salah’s performance against Brighton, as well as his disappointment at missing presentable chances while his side were 3-1 up, will know that the Egyptian is a man on a mission. Salah is notorious for racking up goals at Anfield and against weaker opposition, which makes Saturday’s game against Burnley an inviting opportunity. Ings, meanwhile, has perhaps the most favourable run-in, and will target games against Brighton, Bournemouth and Sheffield United as he looks to end an excellent personal season with a final flourish.

 

Jack Donnelly – Zouma a much-needed presence in a weak Chelsea backline

I wanted to write about this topic in the last takeaway article, but didn’t feel as though the man in question had done enough to warrant his own opinion piece. However, after his performance in a back-and-forth London derby on Tuesday night, it has become clear to me and many others – Kurt Zouma needs to be a constant fixture in Chelsea’s defence.

BIG DADDY KURT

Kurt Zouma produced a perfectly-timed last-ditch tackle against Christian Benteke to protect Chelsea’s 3-2 lead in the last minute, effectively winning them the game.

Zouma started this season firmly in manager Frank Lampard’s plans, forming a formidable partnership with Fikayo Tomori as Chelsea racked up an unbeaten run of seven games, spanning the entirety of October. However, with Antonio Rudiger returning from injury, and Lampard preferring Andreas Christensen due to his ball-playing ability, Zouma saw himself relegated to the bench – Lampard went on to stick with the Rudiger/Christensen pairing after football’s return in May. As with any player spending most of their time watching from the sidelines, transfer speculation began to swirl around the Frenchman’s name, but after a disastrous performance in a 3-2 loss to West Ham, Lampard hooked Rudiger from the starting XI, giving Zouma a chance to prove his value which, in my opinion, he has succeeded in doing.

For me, Zouma is the best centre back that Chelsea have at their disposal. While each of the other three centre backs excel in one area – Rudiger’s defensive capabilities, Christensen’s composure and passing, Tomori’s speed and athleticism – Zouma has shown he can match, if not surpass the level of each of his teammates in each category. Zouma is one of the strongest players in the Chelsea squad, let alone the defence, and was the only one capable of standing up to a very physical Crystal Palace team. His aerial presence is unmatched, a valuable asset for Chelsea in both penalty areas. We’ve seen his confidence on the ball in numerous situations this season, most notably against Ajax in the Champions League, where he glided past five different players before skying his shot. Finally, Zouma is intelligent in the tackle and times his challenges to perfection – case and point, his last-ditch recovery challenge against Christian Benteke. Had fans been in the stadium, every single one would’ve held their breath as Zouma came streaking towards Benteke in the box, sliding in at the crucial moment to produce a tackle that was celebrated as much as any of Chelsea’s three goals that night.

In a defence that has received much criticism throughout the season, Zouma brings a commanding, assured presence that gives fans and teammates alike a bit more confidence in that Chelsea might be able to keep a clean sheet. Seeing as how vocal Rudiger has been in convincing both Timo Werner and (potentially) Kai Havertz to come to West London, fans will be hoping he prolongs his Director of Football role so that Zouma’s time as first-choice centre back is extended.

 

Graeme Sinclair – There’s plenty of talent at the bottom

Obvious statement here – the teams at the bottom of the Premier League are bad. If we take the current bottom six, with perhaps the exception of Brighton, there’s been a point in the season where the other five have looked doomed to go down. That’s especially the case in lockdown, where the current bottom three have amassed a grand total of two points between them since football returned.

However, there’s a bright side to all this, and that is that the amount of quality players at the bottom is of a much higher standard than usual.  There’s been some excellent seasons from players at the foot of the league. Some have shown they belong at the top, most notably Aston Villa’s Jack Grealish. Others are young players who have shown some fantastic potential and have given fans reasons to be hopeful for the future.

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Todd Cantwell has been one of the biggest standouts in the pool of talented players in the lesser teams, with many predicting that he will move back to another Premier League team when Norwich get relegated.

Take Norwich, who are almost definitely going to finish at the bottom of the table. When you look at Norwich’s squad there’s at least five players (Max Aarons, Emi Buendia, Todd Cantwell, Ben Godfrey & Jamal Lewis) who teams are already scoping for their transfer plans during the next window.

It’s a similar story amongst the other sides at the bottom. At West Ham, it’s not the high-profile flops they’ve spent tens of millions of pounds on, but some of the more lowkey moves that have impressed in Issa Diop & Jarrod Bowen.

There’s a number like Diop, who have gone under the radar, either because of the club they play for, or being overshadowed by the club’s biggest names. Yves Bissouma of Brighton is one of those players so. Bissouma has impressed in the holding midfielder role, and comparisons have been made to N’Golo Kante. He’s been slightly overshadowed by Aaron Mooy, Neal Maupay & Leandro Trossard, but he’s started to get the praise that he’s quietly earned over the course of the long season.

The quality’s there, but it’s just not worked for the teams at the bottom for a number of reasons. Here’s hoping that the stars in the squads find the ideal situations to maximise their potential.

 

Jamie Mcintosh – West Ham once again fail to deliver when the stage is set for them

A West Ham victory over Burnley would surely have been enough to see the Hammers remain a Premiership outfit for another season. That should have been a big incentive for David Moyes’ side, however once again, they put in a fairly underwhelming performance.

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Despite a very impressive performance against Chelsea that seemed to kickstart a solid escape from relegation, West Ham’s loss to Burnley has put them right back into the conversation.

This has often been the case with the Hammers this season – when three points has been expected of them, they often flatter to deceive. West Ham have been really poor since they left Upton Park, I’m not sure anybody could really argue otherwise. However, surely the problem lies a bit deeper than that…

For me, the managerial struggles in recent years have been their main downfall – they haven’t really been able to stick with a a manager for a reasonable amount of time since Big Sam Allardyce and Slaven Bilic were at the club.

Although you can’t say the managers haven’t been given funds to spend. Sebastien Haller cost the Hammers £45 million, whereas Pablo Fornals cost them £25 million. Haller is clearly a good player, however I really have my doubts about Fornals. He should’ve been hooked at half-time against Burnley – I thought he was really lethargic and was barely putting in 50% effort, never mind 100%.

Fornals’ performance on Wednesday epitomises West Ham’s problems this season. They clearly have good quality players in that team somewhere but there seems to be no togetherness and effort to fight for the badge. In my younger days whenever I watched West Ham under big Sam, they always gave 100% but really lacked in quality. Guys like Kevin Nolan, Andy Carroll, Joey O’Brien, Carlton Cole, Marlon Harewood, Marty Upson and James Tompkins to name a few that spring to mind.

Now it seems to be the complete opposite at West Ham – in my opinion, they have too many prima donnas who don’t fancy a relegation battle. Whether West Ham stay up this season or not is unclear. However, what is clear is that big changes are needed in East London, both on the pitch and possibly in the dugout again too.

 

Taylor Murray – The United of Old

With their 3-0 win over Aston Villa on Thursday night, Manchester United became the first team in Premier League fixtures to win four consecutive matches by a margin of three goals or more. Since football’s return, United have looked like a completely different animal – they’re playing slicker football, creating more chances and, clearly, scoring for fun. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has gone through some tough criticism – some warranted, some not. However, one thing that you can’t criticise him for is his love and passion for the club. A memorable moment that highlights how deeply he cares for his club came in United’s EFL Cup tie against Manchester City. Jesse Lingard repeatedly tried to take on any City player in his vicinity whenever he picked up the ball – unsurprisingly, he was wholly unsuccessful. The camera panned to the usually calm Solskjaer to see him screaming towards Lingard, saying: “One more f***ing time and you’re off!” This burst of frustration shows that he holds his players to a high standard – the United standard – and regardless of the media’s perception of him, Solskjaer only cares about one thing – winning.

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Mason Greenwood has been a revelation for Manchester United since football restarted, with the 18-year-old drawing comparisons to Robin van Persie with every passing game.

With their new record, United stuck three (and more) past Sheffield United, Brighton, Bournemouth and Aston Villa. While it could be easy to write off at least three of these teams against United, this is the Premier League – there’s no such thing as an easy game. City lost 3-2 to Norwich earlier in the season, Liverpool saw an unbeaten run ended in a 3-0 loss to Watford. With that in mind, it is to the credit of the United players to not only have the ability on the pitch, but the mental strength to avoid complacency and strive to build on one or two-goal leads. It’s a trait that many have praised the likes of Jurgen Klopp and Pep Guardiola for instilling in their teams

Solskjaer is proving that he knows what it takes to be the United manager. With many writing him off at the beginning of this season, some questioned the United board’s decision to keep him on, especially when the likes of Crystal Palace had been ruthless in parting company with Frank de Boer after a mere five games. It proved the faith that the club had in Solskjaer and while his first full year in the job hasn’t produced anything monumental, he’s steadied the ship and established a foundation on which the club can build on. The goal for next season should be to fight to secure a significant trophy next season and begin to instil the winning mentality into the players. With a number of high profile transfer targets, such as Jadon Sancho, in sight, there’s a chance that they could end up pushing for the title as of next season, although it will take a lot to do so.

 

Raph Boyd – Continuous mistakes prove that VAR still needs improvment

Last week’s round of Premier League games provided possibly the greatest evidence yet that the Video Assistance Referee system isn’t working. All three of Thursday’s fixtures saw wrong decisions involving penalties. Tottenham should have been awarded a penalty against Bournemouth for a foul on Harry Kane, whilst both Southampton and Manchester United were the recipients of penalties that many feel were given without proper reason. Whilst Southampton missed their penalty against Everton in an eventual draw, United’s was scored by Bruno Fernandes, breaking the deadlock in an eventual 3-0 win over Aston Villa. 

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The penalty that Bruno Fernandes received for this “challenge” kickstarted a 3-0 win for United, but it also highlighted the problems and inconsistencies that VAR has experienced. throughout the season.

This is far from the first time that VAR seems to have messed up. Whilst it’s only been in use for less than two years, the amount of mistakes attributed to VAR is becoming worrying.  

Outside of not making the right decision, others have critiqued VAR for following the rules too closely, to the extent that it ruins the game. Examples include Tomas Soucek’s goal against Chelsea being ruled because one of his teammates was in the way of the goalkeeper, albeit on the floor unable to move, and Riyad Mahrez having a goal disallowed against Liverpool due to the ball touching his teammates hand in the build-up, despite the fact that the player couldn’t move his hand out of the way in time and that direction of the ball was barely altered as a result. 

VAR has received its fair share of criticism throughout the season – numerous pundits have accused it of ruining the game – but this week’s fixtures have been the worst examples of its implementation yet. With the season now only a few games away from completion, it will be interesting to see how the FA handles VAR come September. Whether they should amend its use or scrap it entirely is up for debate, but the vast majority of fans, players, managers and pundits will agree that it cannot continue to be used as it has been so far.

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