Following the latest round of Premier League action we look at five things we learned from the midweek fixtures.
Rice repaying record spend
Declan Rice was not signed to score the goals that led Arsenal to the title, but the club-record signing has already delivered moments of real consequence in the North London side’s title charge.
Rice recorded his first goal for the Gunners with a last-gasp winner against Manchester United in September, and repeated the trick to settle a chaotic clash with Luton this week.
The England midfielder met Martin Odegaard’s cross to head home a 97th minute decider at Kenilworth Road, settling a seven-goal thriller that had seen The Hatters threaten an upset.
Rice rises highest in the last-minute 😍
— Arsenal (@Arsenal) December 6, 2023
The ball-winning ability and forward drive of the former West Ham captain was sought to strengthen the spine of a side that faltered during last season’s run-in. The goals, and strength of character, have been a welcome bonus. Arsenal, with six straight wins in all competitions, are beginning to find momentum.
Are Aston Villa title contenders?
Unai Emery refuted Pep Guardiola’s suggestion that Aston Villa are title contenders, after the former’s in-form side beat the Premier League champions this week. Villa are up to third, above City, after a 1-0 win that made it 14 consecutive league wins at Villa Park.
It was the manner of the performance, not the result, that has led some to suggest Villa could spring a surprise and last the distance. Villa were superior in every aspect, a rarity during Guardiola’s time in charge of Manchester City. Villa hounded the champions from the first minute, with their 22 shots on goal the joint-most a Guardiola side has ever conceded. At the other end, City managed just two of their own, unsurprisingly the lowest return from Guardiola’s coaching career to date.
10 – Aston Villa have won 10 of their 15 games in the Premier League this season, their most victories at this stage of a league campaign since 1980-81 – the last time they won the title. Contenders? pic.twitter.com/cLJwpTEmtU
— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) December 6, 2023
Villa’s midfield bulldozed a path through the Citizens and with Ollie Watkins in the goals, and Emi Martinez keeping them out at the other end, Emery’s team are flying.
A title challenge might be ambitious (though stranger things have happened) but the Champions League must be the aim. Villa have not finished in the top four since 1995/96, and have not competed in Europe’s elite since 1983. In what appears an open season, that could end.
Next up: League leaders Arsenal at Villa Park.
Has the Premier League’s panic button been activated?
Paul Heckingbottom became the first managerial casualty of the Premier League season this week, as Sheffield United sacked the coach who had led them to promotion just months earlier. Heckingbottom became a victim of his own success at Bramall Lane, as the Blades found life difficult in the Premier League after climbing out of the second tier.
Heckingbottom might not be the only Premier League coach heading for the job centre however, with Steve Cooper under real pressure at Nottingham Forest. Four consecutive losses, including a 5-0 shellacking at Fulham this week, have piled the pressure on the 43-year-old.
“I don’t think like that, it’s not a thought process i believe in” 💬
Steve Cooper on whether he ‘is fighting to save his job’ after the club has suffered four consecutive league defeats 🗣👇 pic.twitter.com/V0xe3k8dgs
— Sky Sports News (@SkySportsNews) December 7, 2023
Forest flirted with dismissing Cooper last season, but held their nerve and were rewarded with a run to safety. Evangelos Marinakis, whose accreditation pass at Fulham was allegedly found in a bush outside Craven Cottage, might just be sharpening his axe.
Julen Lopetegui, who walked out on Wolves in search of a more ambitious project before a ball had been kicked this season, has already been linked.
Is Ten Hag right? Are Manchester United improving?
Erik ten Hag has been staunch in his stance that Manchester United are heading in the right direction. The Dutchman’s soundbites have often been at odds with on-field performances, but Ten Hag has found a welcome habit of finding results just as the pressure begins to mount.
This week, reports of discontent in the dressing room surfaced. Manchester United banned the media outlets who had published such stories, taking a stance against those spreading unwanted narratives. On the pitch, the Red Devils responded with a win over Chelsea and a much improved performance from recent fixtures.
Ten Hag’s team won 2-1 to move within three points of the Champions League places, with Scott McTominay’s double downing the Blues at Old Trafford.
United’s first-half xG of 2.78 was the highest recorded in the Premier League this season, while the game concluded with a figure of 4.07 expected goals for the home side. Only Chelsea, who recorded 4.12 against nine-man Tottenham, have bettered that total this season.
4.07 – Manchester United accumulated an xG of 4.07 tonight, the second most of any side in a Premier League game this season, behind Chelsea against Spurs in November (4.12). Reaction. pic.twitter.com/pepIm4V7iP
— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) December 6, 2023
Everton mentality ‘growing’ amid sanctions
Three wins from four games and a 3-0 humbling of Newcastle United at Goodison Park, if there’s doom and gloom away from the pitch at Everton, there’s certainly optimism on it.
Everton are much improved under Sean Dyche this season and took another step in their development with an impressive win over a Champions League side. Dwight McNeil is growing in influence and followed his winner at Nottingham Forest with the opener against Newcastle, before efforts from Abdoulaye Doucoure and Beto sealed a huge win.
Olé x29 pic.twitter.com/jZ7cBZiHHR
— Everton (@Everton) December 8, 2023
The result lifts Everton out of the bottom three. Without the deduction, the Toffees would be in the top half. For the players, it would have been easy to feel aggrieved at the off-field issues that have contributed to their situation, but the sanctions have instead galvanised the group. Clearly, this side are playing for the fans whose club have been put in turmoil by mismanagement in the boardroom.
“Without those 10 points [deducted], we’d be in an amazing position – 20 points would be amazing relatively to the last two seasons here,” Dyche told BBC Radio 5 Live.
“We will see what the appeal brings. The mentality is key for me, we took a knock but there have been a lot of knocks here over the last couple of years. But the team mentality is growing. I can’t emphasise it enough, the commitment to each other and the connection is a powerful thing because I know we’ve got quality.”