The Premier League was back for the last round of fixtures before the FA Cup weekend and it certainly wasn’t short of drama and entertainment.
Harry Winks’ stoppage time winner ensured that injury-hit Spurs stay five points behind City, whilst Chelsea fell further behind the top three by losing to fifth placed Arsenal.
The Gunners and Manchester United are now only three points away from fourth place, with the battle for qualification for the UEFA Champions League intensifying.
Wolves’ entertaining 4-3 win over Leicester sees them leap into eighth place, but losses for West Ham and Everton keep them in 10th and 11th place respectively.
Southampton’s second win in succession and Burnley’s draw with Watford takes both sides three points away from the relegation zone, which is occupied by Cardiff, Fulham and Huddersfield, who all lost.
Who is peaking at just the right time and who’s getting worse? Here are our winners and losers.
1) Diogo Jota – Wolves
The winger became only the second Portuguese player to score a hat-trick in the Premier League, the first being Cristiano Ronaldo.
Jota’s expert finishing proved to be the difference in a thrilling encounter with Leicester as he netted a late winner to snatch all three points for his side.
He’s had his fair share of injury problems recently, so this is a missive boost for his confidence as Wolves look to push for a Europa League spot.
2) Mohamed Salah – Liverpool
Salah has been Liverpool’s key man on multiple occasions already this season and he was the difference maker yet again as Liverpool battled to a 4-3 win over Palace.
His first goal was a clever finish with the outside of his left boot, whilst the second was tapped home from just a few centimetres after a howler by Palace goalkeeper Julian Speroni.
Salah did put a dampener on his performance with a clear dive, but he emerged with the last laugh at Anfield.
3) Fabian Schar – Newcastle United
Schar was only in the team because of an injury to Ciaran Clark and he took his opportunity with both hands.
The defender got his name on the scoresheet twice, his first a mesmeric solo run from the halfway line before a curling finish into the corner.
His second had an element of fortune as he prodded the ball into the net from a corner, but with a performance like that, Clark may find it hard to get back into the team.
1) Lucas Digne – Everton
Digne has been one of the signings of the season so far but he had an afternoon to forget at the St Mary’s Stadium.
The left-back was matching Nathan Redmond stride for stride before he accidentally poked the ball into his own net from outside the box.
It was a brilliant finish from Digne, but sadly for him, it was at the wrong end of the pitch.
2) Andy Carroll – West Ham
Carroll was handed a start by Manuel Pellegrini in the absence of Marko Arnautovic but he failed to prove himself.
The Englishman had the best chance of the match from one yard out but somehow managed to blaze the ball over the bar.
Pellegrini admitted that his miss was a turning point in the match and with West Ham looking to sign a striker this month, Carroll’s future at the club doesn’t look bright.
3) Fernando Llorente – Tottenham
Another striker who got his chance to start for his club but failed to make it count.
Llorente made the worst possible start to the match against Fulham as he diverted the ball into his own net from a corner.
The experienced forward then had a couple of great headed chances to make up for his error, but he failed to trouble Sergio Rico in goal.
As criticisms go, calling your own players difficult to motivate is pretty damning.
So does Maurizio Sarri deserve sympathy? After all, it must be frustrating to spend months trying to instill a certain philosophy and style into his team, only to see it fail in the big moments. Not to mention watching your team get dominated for a second straight time in a big London derby. Chelsea have now travelled to Tottenham and Arsenal this season and lost by a combined score of 5-1.
Yet motivating the players didn’t seem to be a problem when Chelsea beat Manchester City 2-0 – a result that came two weeks after their 3-1 humbling at the hands of Tottenham, which should be an indicator that they were learning their lessons. Or in a 1-1 draw against Liverpool earlier in the season, a game Chelsea could easily have won.
Those performances against Liverpool and City, the league’s top two, serve as a counter to Sarri’s belief that his players are difficult to motivate. To produce as limp a display as they did against Arsenal this weekend is inexplicable.
Perhaps he should be looking elsewhere for an explanation for the defeats against Tottenham and Arsenal. Like in the mirror.
“Do you know what? Resign.” 😳— ESPN FC (@ESPNFC) January 21, 2019
Steve Nicol wants Maurizio Sarri to step down if he's struggling to motivate Chelsea's players. pic.twitter.com/Ar1rIK3Gyr
There’s a basic tactical explanation for both losses. Chelsea’s rigid devotion to a possession-based, short-passing game came unstuck against a team that pressed high and hard and broke quickly. Much like how Pep Guardiola has often been undone by hard-working, high-pressing, counter-attacking teams, Sarri’s preferred style is vulnerable to a fairly obvious strategy.
Then there’s the Italian’s inability to adapt. His adherence to a 4-3-3 forces Marcos Alonso out of his preferred wing-back role and into that of a more traditional full-back. David Luiz is so clearly uncomfortable without the ball in a back two, and looks like a world-beater in a back three. Cesar Azpilicueta at right-back is not the same as Azpilicueta as the right-sided centre-back in a back three, where the Spaniard thrived for two seasons under Antonio Conte prior to Sarri’s arrival.
The attempted reinvention of N’Golo Kante as a box-to-box midfielder should also go down as a failure. As a holding midfielder, Kante led Leicester City to the Premier League title in 2015/16, repeated the feat with Chelsea the following season, and then completed a glorious three-season run by winning the World Cup last summer.
Yet Sarri’s devotion to Jorginho as a lone deep-lying midfielder has forced Kante to play further forward, neutralising what makes him one of the best midfielders in Europe, and Chelsea are suffering as a result.
Not to mention, Jorginho is easily countered. Ever since Everton came to Stamford Bridge in November and earned a point by having at least one man paying close attention to the Brazil-born Italian midfielder, teams have repeated the strategy to varying degrees of success. He’s often man-marked, or teams do their best to cut off his passing lanes, and he is reduced to playing non-threatening, often sideways passes that do nothing other than keep possession for possession’s sake.
Too much is being made of Jorginho’s lack of assists, directly setting up goals is not his role, but starting attacks is and he’s not being allowed to do that. And Sarri hasn’t figured out how to counter the tactic, a failure that is entirely on him.
Further up the pitch, he insists on playing Eden Hazard as a false nine, perhaps hoping that the Belgian responds much as compatriot Dries Mertens did at Napoli, by morphing into a prolific goalscorer. Though it’s not entirely the manager’s fault that he’s been able to do little to turn around the form of Alvaro Morata, whose confidence is shot, and who needs to move both for his own good and Chelsea’s, Sarri’s lack of faith in Giroud is baffling.
The Frenchman may not be a prolific scorer but team-mates enjoy playing off him – like Antoine Griezmann and Kylian Mbappe at the World Cup, and Hazard earlier this season, when he went as far as to say that Giroud was the best striker he’d played with.
Yet this is what Sarri has brought to the table so far. A refusal to adapt his philosophy. Playing players out of position.
Add in the willingness to throw his players under the bus without reflecting on his own shortcomings, and Sarri begins to seem less like Guardiola or Louis van Gaal and more like another celebrated manager who has recently struggled in England.
Welcome, Chelsea, to the third coming of Jose Mourinho.
Arsenal full-back Hector Bellerin could be sidelined for up to nine months after rupturing knee ligaments in Saturday’s win over Chelsea, the Gunners have confirmed.
Bellerin went down unchallenged during the second half of Arsenal’s 2-0 victory and was carried off on a stretcher.
The 23-year-old was making his first start since mid-December having overcome a calf problem but will now miss the remainder of the season, and possibly the start of the 2019/20 campaign.
Arsenal revealed the severity of Bellerin’s injury on Tuesday morning with a statement on their website.
“Further to the injury sustained during our match against Chelsea on Saturday, we can confirm that Hector has ruptured the anterior cruciate ligament of his left knee,” it read.
“Hector will undergo surgery to repair this in the coming days. The rehabilitation process is expected to take between six to nine months and therefore rules Hector out of action for the remainder of this season.
“Everyone at the club will now be working as hard as we can to ensure Hector is back on the pitch as soon as possible next season.”
More to follow…
🗞 We can confirm that @HectorBellerin has ruptured the anterior cruciate ligament of his left knee— Arsenal FC (@Arsenal) January 22, 2019