Premier League: 10 THINGS WE LEARNED from the midweek action

It was another absorbing weekend in the Premier League, with a changeover of leadership at the top of the table and results of significance at the bottom.

We saw Chelsea knocked off top position following a 3-2 defeat at West Ham, Liverpool replace them thanks to Divock Origi’s stoppage time winner at Wolves and then Manchester City take over following an easy win at Watford.

Meanwhile, the Ralf Rangnick era at Manchester United began with a 1-0 win over Crystal Palace, while Tottenham easily brushed aside basement club Norwich.

At the foot of the table, Newcastle finally won for the first time this season as they beat fellow strugglers Burnley.

Here’s our weekly assessment of the top-flight action in our Things we Learned column.

Chelsea started Saturday leading the Premier League, Liverpool briefly overtook them but then Manchester City (pictured) assumed top spot after their win at Watford

1. Telles and Dalot step up to give Rangnick a full-back headache 

Luke Shaw and Aaron Wan-Bissaka were such regulars for Manchester United under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer their places on the teamsheet were practically set in stone.

England international Shaw enjoyed an excellent campaign last season and though Wan-Bissaka is usually reliable defensively, he has much to learn about the offensive side.

This season, both have struggled for form as Solskjaer crashed and burned out of the manager’s job and you wondered whether United had genuine strength in depth in a position so important in the modern game.

Alex Telles impressed as Manchester United began the Ralf Rangnick era with three points

Alex Telles impressed as Manchester United began the Ralf Rangnick era with three points

The performances of Alex Telles at left-back and Diogo Dalot on the right in Sunday’s win over Crystal Palace suggests there could finally be genuine competition for those places.

That will please incoming interim coach Ralf Rangnick. Shaw is still absent as a precaution after taking a couple of blows to the head in recent games, but Dalot was picked ahead of Wan-Bissaka.

It paid off – Telles touched the ball more than anyone else on the pitch and Dalot showed far more assurance going forward than Wan-Bissaka usually does. Both posed a threat to Palace with high average positions inside the opposition half.

Rangnick will have to decide which full-back pairing best suits his high-octane brand of football.

Rangnick also appeared impressed by Diogo Dalot, who received a rare chance at right-back

Rangnick also appeared impressed by Diogo Dalot, who received a rare chance at right-back

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2. Lukaku was rushed back… but Chelsea urgently need him to deliver

Thomas Tuchel admitted it was an error to rush Romelu Lukaku back into action so soon after the ankle injury he picked up in October.

But it was a case of needs must during Saturday’s 3-2 defeat at West Ham that saw the Blues cede first place in the Premier League.

Kai Havertz also hurt his ankle, just to compound Chelsea’s mounting injury woes, and Tuchel wanted more height to defend against West Ham’s set-piece threat. But Lukaku was clearly short of full match fitness.

The £97million Belgian hasn’t scored for Chelsea since September 14 and though he can hardly be blamed for being hurried back too soon, Tuchel will need him to start delivering goals again soon.

Thomas Tuchel rushed Romelu Lukaku back into action as Chelsea lost 3-2 to West Ham

Thomas Tuchel rushed Romelu Lukaku back into action as Chelsea lost 3-2 to West Ham

More often than not, you will need a 20-goal striker to win the title. Lukaku has four overall this season, one more than Timo Werner. Havertz also has four.

Their joint top scorers in all competitions are Reece James and Mason Mount with five apiece. You look at the contributions of Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mane and Diogo Jota, 37 goals combined, and Chelsea don’t compare favourably.

There are other ways to win titles but a steady flow of goals from a reliably prolific striker is best. Lukaku needs to get fully fit and get back to his best.

3. Origi among a unique breed who revel in super sub role

‘I hope he one day finds a manager who plays him more than me,’ was the brilliant line from Jurgen Klopp about Divock Origi after his latest heroics at Wolves on Saturday.

Origi has started only 34 Premier League games in seven seasons at Anfield and, by popular cliche, is entering his prime years at 26. Yet he seems perfectly happy to play the super sub role.

It isn’t like the Belgian has anything left to prove. He will always be an Anfield cult hero for his goals against Everton, Barcelona and Tottenham in the 2018-19 season.

Divock Origi scored Liverpool's late winner at Wolves and revels in his super sub role

Divock Origi scored Liverpool’s late winner at Wolves and revels in his super sub role 

Yet he remains the ace up Klopp’s sleeve and is happy to revel in his bit-part role, issuing periodic reminders of his existence as he did at Molineux.

Origi is clearly good enough to go elsewhere, even down the Premier League table, and contribute 15-20 goals a season. Yet he prefers to warm the bench.

He belongs to a unique and dying band of players who understand the sacrifices required of a back-up striker and is willing to accept it.

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, Kanu, Jermain Defoe and Olivier Giroud are others. Klopp is fortunate to have someone so understanding but also with a flair for the dramatic intervention.

4. Sterling rises as City hit ominous form

At a time of year when a busy schedule makes it more likely a big team will drop some points, Manchester City are clicking ominously into gear.

They have won seven consecutive matches in all competitions after Saturday’s easy 3-1 win at Watford that restored them to the top of the table.

Pep Guardiola said afterwards his side had ‘reached their highest standard’ of the season to date at Vicarage Road and while Bernardo Silva continued his outstanding form with a brace, their other goalscorer was noteworthy too.

Raheem Sterling headed City on their way after just four minutes, continuing a purple patch in a season that’s been far from straightforward.

Raheem Sterling was a blur at times for the Watford defenders in Manchester City's 3-1 win

Raheem Sterling was a blur at times for the Watford defenders in Manchester City’s 3-1 win

The England forward has scored against Club Brugge, Everton, Paris Saint-Germain and now Watford in recent weeks and has produced consistently good displays across the board.

Let’s not forget that Sterling was struggling to even get a start a couple of months ago with the goals dried up and uncertainty about his future at the club.

It helped his cause that Jack Grealish and Phil Foden returned from the last set of internationals with knocks and Kevin De Bruyne contracted Covid-19 but Sterling has certainly seized his chance.

The goals have helped Sterling’s confidence return and we’re seen him taking on and beating opposition defenders, leading City counter-attacks and getting in optimal scoring positions.

The England star continued his resurgence in form by heading home City's opening goal

The England star continued his resurgence in form by heading home City’s opening goal

It’s fair to say any talk of a January move away for more regular game time has evaporated.

Guardiola knew it would be thus. He’s won three Premier League title and knows players will come in and out of form at different points of what is a marathon season.

5. Spurs looking more resolute under Conte… or are they?

That’s four Premier League games in charge now for Antonio Conte and just the one goal conceded.

The switch to his familiar three-at-the-back with flying wing-backs seems to have brought some much-needed stability to a team that struggled for clean sheets under Nuno Espirito Santo.

Davinson Sanchez, Eric Dier and Ben Davies formed the back three in Sunday’s 3-0 win over Norwich but the scoreline can be deceptive.

Tottenham aren't conceding too many under Conte but that doesn't tell you everything

Tottenham aren’t conceding too many under Conte but that doesn’t tell you everything

For one thing, Teemu Pukki should have put Norwich ahead inside three minutes and Hugo Lloris, looking uncertain as Spurs tried to play their way out, gifted a pass straight to the Finn only eight yards out.

But Norwich are bottom of the table and quite profligate. They wasted other chances too. Better teams will punish Spurs, who of course remain a work in progress under the Italian.

Conte is probably still working out the best players to fit into his favoured system. But at least the wins are starting to come while the fixes are being made and the fans are warming to him.

Norwich's Teemu Pukki was guilty of squandering some excellent chances at Tottenham

Norwich’s Teemu Pukki was guilty of squandering some excellent chances at Tottenham

6. No point Newcastle getting too carried away

There was sheer euphoria around St James’ Park as they finally chalked up win No 1 of the season, the Saudi era and Eddie Howe’s tenure as manager.

It was a useful one, too, because it came against Burnley and meant the Toon had taken four points off their relegation rivals in five days.

You can’t blame the fans for drinking in a first home win since January 18, 2020, when Covid remained China’s problem.

The players and Howe’s staff did a celebratory lap of honour and then posed for an elated group picture in the dressing room.

Eddie Howe (right) and assistant Jason Tindall (left) celebrate Newcastle's win over Burnley

Eddie Howe (right) and assistant Jason Tindall (left) celebrate Newcastle’s win over Burnley

They moved off the bottom and are now only three points from safety but it’s still a case of steady, Eddie.

Newcastle’s next four games see them play Leicester, Liverpool, Manchester City and Manchester United.

It’s a daunting run, regardless of the new-found optimism on Tyneside. Indeed, you’d be surprised if they take a single point. But at least things, generally, are looking up at last.

7. What to make of Brighton?

Brighton have now drawn eight of their last 10 Premier League matches and haven’t won in the league since September 19.

Saturday’s 1-1 draw at Southampton equalled an unwanted club record for 10 top-flight games without a victory set between December 1982 and February 1983.

The brilliant winning start to the season made by Graham Potter’s team seems a distant memory and yet the feeling coming away from St Mary’s was one of jubilation.

Neal Maupay was Brighton's last-gasp hero once again as they drew at Southampton

Neal Maupay was Brighton’s last-gasp hero once again as they drew at Southampton 

That’s because Neal Maupay had followed up his stunning bicycle kick at West Ham in midweek with an even later equaliser to snatch another point.

Half of Brighton’s away goals this season have come in the 89th minute or later, so there must be plenty of resilience there. They also remain ninth in the table despite such a long winless run.

So the Seagulls are a swirl of conflicting emotions. Booed off last weekend, they were cheered to the rafters here. Potter will correctly argue that overall they aren’t doing at all bad.

8. Returning Bamford offers relief for Leeds

‘I felt rusty as hell,’ admitted Patrick Bamford in the aftermath of a dramatic Elland Road finale that saw his instinctive 95th-minute leg stretch snatched Leeds a point against Brentford.

That didn’t matter. Leeds will be so grateful to have the striker back from the ankle injury that has kept him sidelined since mid-September.

In that time, Marcelo Bielsa’s side had scored only eight goals in 11 matches. They need Bamford to power them away from the relegation fight.

Patrick Bamford's stoppage time equaliser sparked wild scenes at Elland Road on Sunday

Patrick Bamford’s stoppage time equaliser sparked wild scenes at Elland Road on Sunday

Even when warming up, the Leeds fans gave Bamford, who scored 17 and set up a further eight last season, a standing ovation. They sung his name until Bielsa relented and brought him on.

Leeds had been in front but Brentford had turned the game around in the space of seven second-half minutes. Bamford’s goal certainly changed the mood.

‘His opportunism stood out. You can’t teach that,’ said Bielsa.

9. Does rule that protects keepers need to be looked at?

It didn’t matter in the end but Aston Villa were left incensed after Jacob Ramsey saw a goal disallowed in the first-half of their win over Leicester.

Keeper Kasper Schmeichel had one glove resting on the top of the ball having punched it out but Ramsey was still able to kick the ball in.

Referee Michael Oliver and VAR Paul Tierney consulted and ruled it out. By the letter of the law, they were right to do so.

Kasper Schmeichel reaches out for the ball before Villa's Jacob Ramsey kicks it into the net

Kasper Schmeichel reaches out for the ball before Villa’s Jacob Ramsey kicks it into the net 

Law 12 states: ‘A goalkeeper is considered to be in control of the ball with the hand(s) when: The ball is between the hands or between the hand and any surface (e.g. ground, own body) or by touching it with any part of the hands or arms.’

But Schmeichel only had contact with the ball for a fraction of a second and surely if Ramsey could still kick the ball into the goal then the keeper didn’t have any ‘control’ at all?

Referee Michael Oliver initially allowed to goal to stand before ruling it out after a VAR check

Referee Michael Oliver initially allowed to goal to stand before ruling it out after a VAR check

10. 2pm blackout was a bit baffling

Quite a few armchair fans were caught out by none of the three Premier League games that kicked off at 2pm on Sunday appearing live on TV in the UK.

The spread of midweek games last week led to four matches being scheduled for Sunday afternoon but only Aston Villa vs Leicester was shown live on Sky Sports.

Viewers hoping to tune in and watch one of Man United vs Palace, Spurs vs Norwich or Leeds vs Brentford were left disappointed, with the Championship game between QPR and Stoke on instead.

It was a rare occasion when Sky’s Super Sunday was just the one match but they’d made their picks two months ago and the Thursday night games threw things out of sync.

We had every single Premier League game broadcast live when fans were locked out of stadiums because of Covid-19 – which, if anything, was too much.

But now we have a midweek round when all 10 games were live on Amazon Prime Video followed by a weekend fixture list that was a match light. A little odd. 

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