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The Guardian - US
The Guardian - US
Oliver Connolly

Premier League weekend awards: Casemiro woes and Newcastle’s cutting edge

Ollie Watkins, Alexander Isak and Casemiro.
Ollie Watkins, Alexander Isak and Casemiro. Composite: Guardian Picture Desk

Goal of the week

Arsenal were stunned by Aston Villa 2-0 at home to hand Manchester City the advantage in the title race. If you’re looking for a microcosm of Ollie Watkins’s season, look no further than his goal on Sunday:

That is Watkins at his best. He makes an intelligent run, lingering just inside his own half, knowing he cannot be offside. Once space is available, he explodes. But he doesn’t rush his finish. He waits. He knows Emile Smith-Rowe is tracking him. Rather than rev up and force an early shot, making life easier for David Raya in goal, he slows down, holds off Smith-Rowe, and then waits for Raya to commit before elevating the ball into the net. As center-forward play goes, it doesn’t get much better.

From front to back, Villa were better than Arsenal. They were tactically disciplined, aggressively defended their own box and were clinical on counterattacks. Emi Martínez made a crucial save to keep it at 0-0 at the half. They hit the post twice in the second half. They could have run out 4-0 winners.

Arsenal’s defeat leaves them two points behind City with six games to play. So much for the most exciting title race in a generation.

Player of the week

It’s difficult to find a forward anywhere in Europe in better form than Alexander Isak, save, perhaps, Isak’s teammate Anthony Gordon. Isak scored twice as Newcastle hammered Tottenham 4-0 on Saturday, taking his tally to 18 league goals in 24 games.

Look under the hood, though, and what Isak is doing is even more impressive. He’s rounded into one of the most clinical finishers in Europe:

Isak is the prototypical modern striker, capable of linking up play when a defensive line sits in deep or happy to sprint into space when playing on the break. And then when he has an opportunity, he’s lethal in front of goal.

Newcastle’s young forwards are taking the leap together. As a collective, they’re smart, quick, relentless and ruthless – the holy grail.

(Own) Goals of the week

What a week for own goals.

Manchester City were comfortable 5-1 winners over Luton, but a special mention should be reserved for their opener: A delightful Daiki Hashioka own goal.

Think you’re having a bad day? Imagine how Luton boss Rob Edwards feels. You spend all week training and working to contain Erling Haaland. You map out the runs. You imagine his movement. You build a defensive shield to ensure there are bodies in the box when the ball is fed to his feet. You plan for every eventuality, knowing one opening could be enough for him to get on the scoresheet.

What you can’t plan for is Haaland mis-hitting a volley, blasting the ball toward the sideline and the ball cannoning in off the face of a defender. Oof.

Not to be outdone, Burnley’s Arijanet Muric added to this weekend’s blooper reel, gifting Brighton an equalizer in a 1-1 draw.

It has been a brutal season for Burnley’s goalkeepers, but Muric’s mistake is the nadir. After dropping two points, Burnley are six behind Nottingham Forest in 17th and look adrift in the relegation scrap. Can somebody check on JJ Watt?

The call the Palaeontologists Award

Two questionable penalty calls bailed Manchester United out of another feeble performance away at Bournemouth. It ended 2-2, but the manner of the result heaped more pressure on Erik Ten Hag.

United’s results have been poor for weeks. They’ve picked up just seven points in their last six league games. Through 32 games, they’re four points worse off than they were under David Moyes in 2013-14. Somehow, the process behind those results is even more discouraging. No team is easier to play through than United. No team is so wasteful – or clueless – in the final third.

Ten Hag’s most pressing concern is that his midfield remains an incoherent mess. And the chief concern there is that Casemiro; Ten Hag’s supposed defensive anchor, looks increasingly fossilized.

Playing a man-marking system in midfield, as is Ten Hag’s wont, requires midfielders to track and stick with the player they’re marking. With Bruno Fernandes charging off anywhere he likes, it’s left to Casemiro to cover two players. Even the Casemiro of yesteryear would have struggled with that assignment; the Casemiro of today looks like a fan who has won a competition to play for United. He consistently lurches out of play, trying to make some impact on the ball before he has to turn and run back. Once the ball is knocked past him, he’s a non-factor. If someone asks you what it looks like when a player’s legs have gone, pull up this video.

Here is Casemiro’s pressure map from the Bournemouth game. The dots are where Casemiro pressures the ball. The arrows are where he is pressured:

No, your eyes are not deceiving you. In the middle of the pitch, where the holding midfielder typically sits, roughly in the greyed-out area and running from one end of the penalty box to the other, Casemiro pressured the ball zero times. He was pressured four times and coughed the ball up once.

Casemiro’s decline has infected the rest of United’s team. United are fragile to counterattacks in part because of Ten Hag’s defensive system and in part because their midfield rock is frozen in amber once they turn the ball over. It’s a rotten recipe. Ten Hag has paired a slow defensive shield with a group of players who consistently give the ball away once they cross the halfway line. United give away more turnovers than any team in the league and are the least well equipped to handle them.

Casemiro is not the lone culprit. But he is a glaring minus in whatever it is United are trying to do.

United treated Bournemouth to 20 shots on Saturday, taking their total this season to 574 shots conceded. Only Luton (576) have conceded more shots – and Luton have played one more game. It’s the most shots any United team has faced since the stat has been tracked.

Ten Hag continues to live in denial about United’s defensive woes. Talking about the volume of shots conceded is “ridiculous,” Ten Hag said last week. “I can do nothing with such stats”.

Diogo Dalot, United’s right back, disagrees. “It’s been one of our concerns,” Dalot said of the shots conceded against Bournemouth. “Maybe [we should] try to be more compact as a team – don’t try to make the gap between defenders and midfield too big.”

Measuring shots alone is thorny. Ten Hag would be right to pooh-pooh the conversation if United were conceding low-quality chances. They’re not. They’re conceding some of the best chances in the league. United sit in the bottom three in the league in non-penalty xG against, according to Opta, just three expected goals ahead of Sheffield United. That’s relegation stuff.

Stat of the week

And just like that, Liverpool’s season has been wrapped up in four days. After being thumped at home to Atalanta in the Europa League on Thursday, they were sloppy and wasteful in a 1-0 defeat at home to Crystal Palace.

Arsenal’s defeat will make Liverpool’s slip-up to Palace all the more painful for Jürgen Klopp. “[I] feel really, really rubbish,” Klopp said after the game.

Once again, Liverpool missed a mountain of chances. They finished with 2.87 expected goals, a measure of the quality of chances a team creates, but failed to hit the back of the net. It’s the highest xG Liverpool have recorded since 2010-11 without scoring.

The defeat shouldn’t come as a surprise, though. There have been red flag for weeks. Liverpool have won just three of their last eight games in all competitions. And those three wins have come against Sparta Prague, Sheffield United and Brighton. In those eight games, they’ve kept zero clean sheets. All the hallmarks of the team at the midpoint of the season – the intensity, crisp passing and smart decision-making – have evaporated.

In front of goal, they’ve been careless. But it’s the team’s defensive record that will cost Klopp a fairytale send-off. Liverpool have played 51 games in all competitions this season. They’ve fallen behind 1-0 in 21 of those games, having to fight, scratch and claw to pick up results. Doing that every once in a while, we are told, is the sign of champions. But when it becomes an every-game habit, it’s the sign of a slovenly team unable to take control of a game from the off.

Falling behind in 41% of games is unsustainable. It adds increased pressure – physically and mentally. Over the past two weeks, Liverpool have buckled under that weight. And their title hopes, seemingly, have gone with it.

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