Following the latest round of Premier League action we look at five things we learned from final fixtures of 2023, featuring Ross Barkley and Arsenal.
Miserable Manchester United flounder at Forest
Manchester United fans will be glad to see the back of 2023. The club’s six-year wait for silverware might have ended with League Cup success in February, but this has been a miserable year for the Red Devils.
Defeat at Nottingham Forest on Saturday evening was their 14th of the current campaign in all competitions, a woeful record that has resulted in a Champions League group stage exit and rapidly disappearing top-four hopes.
It’s been 92 years since Manchester United last lost this many games at this stage of a season, in a 1930/31 campaign that saw the club lose their opening 12 league games and ended in relegation.
21 – Manchester United have lost 21 games in all competitions in 2023 – only in 1930 (28), 1972 (25) and 1921 (24) have they ever lost more in a calendar year. Defeatist. #NFOMUN pic.twitter.com/zVd15K4MRm
— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) December 30, 2023
This was a performance that has become all too common, with big-money signings failing to convince and a lack of intensity or ideas across the pitch.
Erik ten Hag said he has not spoken to INEOS yet after confirmation of the club’s new investment. The Dutchman might just want to hurry those talks, to secure assurances over his own future and set plans in motion for change. For too long, the club’s recruitment – and performances – have been littered with mediocrities. A new year, and new investment, might just offer some hope.
Ice-cold Cole is one of the signings of the season
Cole Palmer took a leap of faith last summer after trading in the treble winners for a Chelsea side surrounded in chaos. It would have been easy for the 21-year-old to remain part of Pep Guardiola’s plans, working under the game’s greatest manager in the comforts of his home city.
Palmer, however, knew what the rest of the Premier League now does – a fringe role was not sufficient for a player of his talent. Palmer’s delightful debut season at Chelsea continued with a match-winning performance at Luton this weekend, as the forward scored twice and created another at Kenilworth Road.
Ice cold. ❄️ pic.twitter.com/qXa2i5FPts
— Chelsea FC (@ChelseaFC) December 31, 2023
Palmer can find himself on the periphery of games on occasion, but when in possession in pockets of space is a joy to watch. His first goal exemplified his technique with a laser-like drive into the far corner, before scoring a sublime second as Palmer showcased his class and composure inside the box.
It’s been a strange season at Chelsea, though the performances of Palmer have been a shining light. Only Jude Bellingham has more goals and assists among u-21 players in Europe’s top five leagues. Palmer’s faith in his own talent has been rewarded.
Watkins is the complete package for Aston Villa
Erling Haaland might be the finest finisher in the Premier League, but there’s arguably no number nine who offers an all-round package quite like Ollie Watkins.
Watkins dragged Aston Villa to a 3-2 win over Burnley this weekend, ensuring a below-par performance passed without dropped points. Though the forward, celebrating his 28th birthday, did not end up on the scoresheet, his high-octane showing was the driving force behind Villa’s win.
Watkins created the home side’s first two goals for Leon Bailey and Moussa Diaby, taking his total to eight assists for the campaign. No player in Europe’s top five leagues has more assists, while just four players can better his combined goals and assists (17).
🅰️ No player has registered more assists than Ollie Watkins in Europe’s top 5 leagues this season (8) pic.twitter.com/ajrN8bwz2U
— WhoScored.com (@WhoScored) December 31, 2023
Unai Emery asked Watkins to remain in central positions during his first months in charge and was rewarded with the best goalscoring run of the forward’s career, but the England international delved into his full repertoire of centre-forward play against Burnley. Working relentlessly in the channels and battling the Clarets centre-backs, he was a fantastic focal point all afternoon.
Villa’s hopes of a top-four finish will hinge on whether Watkins can remain fit and firing.
Ross Barkley’s renaissance continues
Ross Barkley might have ended on the losing side this weekend, but the midfielder’s renaissance in a Luton shirt continued.
Barkley’s career has not reached the heights it was once expected to, with his move to newly-promoted Luton as a free agent symbolic of a player who, despite his natural talent, has flattered to deceive.
The 30-year-old continues to shine for the Hatters, however, and produced another standout showing against former club Chelsea this weekend. Barkley toyed with the Chelsea midfield on occasion, impressing as a deep-lying playmaker for Rob Edwards’ underdogs.
Another stellar performance from Luton’s number six! 👏 pic.twitter.com/u8spwDmRPA
— Luton Town FC (@LutonTown) December 31, 2023
Edwards deserves credit for taking a chance on Barkley, whose brilliant glanced header brought Luton back into the contest as the Hatters threatened a late comeback. Though unlikely this close to a major tournament, if Barkley can continue his current form an England recall for the 33-cap midfielder might not be as far-fetched as it appeared last summer.
Arsenal title challenge wobbling
For the second successive season, Arsenal celebrated Christmas Day top of the Premier League table. Less than a week later, the Gunners have dropped to fourth and could find themselves five points behind the leaders if Liverpool beat Newcastle on Monday night.
Back-to-back defeats have derailed Arsenal’s title challenge, as the Gunners followed a midweek setback to West Ham with another London Derby loss to Fulham. The former of those defeats came amid wasteful finishing, as Arsenal dominated the contest against West Ham before being punished, as the Irons took their chances in clinical fashion.
4 – Arsenal have conceded four goals from corners across their last six Premier League games, having conceded just one goal in this manner in their first 14 games this season. Routine. pic.twitter.com/HQHIkWAvoG
— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) December 31, 2023
Fast forward three days, however, and there will be worry over Arsenal’s latest showing. Against Fulham, Mikel Arteta’s side lacked their usual sharpness and energy, struggling to create chances at Craven Cottage. Bernd Leno, facing his former side in the Fulham goal, made just two saves.
Gabriel Martinelli’s form is concerning with just two goals in 18 games this season, while the lack of an out-and-out goalscorer is an issue that could be addressed in the January transfer window.
Arteta called his team’s performance their worst of the season, while Declan Rice insisted now was not the time to panic. But after topping the table during last year’s festivities before a fall, Arsenal will need to hope – and prove – that history is not repeating itself.
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