Hits and misses: Harry Kane’s show of strength, Newcastle’s title challenge, Everton falling into trouble, Darwin Nunez’s finishing problem | Football News
Kane displays his world-class mental strength again
Harry Kane’s mental resilience was at the fore again as he bounced back from his World Cup disappointment – both personal and collective – to score on his Premier League return.
Kane has never had an issue with moving on from bad memories, and they don’t come much worse than missing a crucial penalty for England in a knock-out World Cup game.
If anything it would’ve just made a player with the 29-year-old’s character more determined than ever to find the net as soon as possible, and he kept up his 100 per cent record on Boxing Day with a superb header.
It was a very un-Kane performance on his return to club football, but ruthlessly effective. Kane had fewer touches than any of Tottenham’s outfield starters, making fewer passes too. For a striker who can be criticised for being too involved in the build-up, it was a rarity to see him this quiet.
But just as the headlines about World Cup hangovers were starting to form, up he popped with a bullet header past David Raya to spark yet another Spurs comeback this season.
That goal completes his full set in the top flight. He’s now scored against every single one of the 32 sides he’s faced as a Premier League player.
With consistency like that, little wonder few would’ve expected anything other than an immediate return to form from the England captain.
Brentford must keep Norgaard fit to keep pushing
Brentford fans probably asked for a lot for Christmas, but a fit Christian Norgaard is likely to be high on that list.
Playing in his first league start since August 27, Norgaard was one of the best players on the pitch and crucial to Brentford making this a contest against a stronger opponent.
Only Vitaly Janelt managed more tackles than the Danish midfielder, while he also topped the on-pitch statistics for interceptions and possessions won in the middle third. That last statistic is crucial not just for his side’s overall play, but also for in matches against bigger sides where other teams looking to stay in the division rarely pick up points.
“We had three things that we wanted to win the game: stop [Harry] Kane, win the set piece battle and win the transition battle,” Thomas Frank said.
Norgaard dominated those transitions on Boxing Day, while also screened off passes to Kane to make Tottenham weaker. He also brings a set piece threat too, starting the game with the third-highest Expected Goal tally from set pieces in the league and ending it with an assist from a corner.
“Christian is so important for us… [by] winning second balls and getting in front, then always finding a safe pass for the counter attacks.
“He’s crucial on set pieces, made an assist for Ivan Toney goal. And he’s a leader. He’s a big player for us to keep the team ticking.”
Together with Ben Mee and Ivan Toney, Brentford have an axis that cannot be broken if they have aspirations for the top half and beyond.
Newcastle prove their title credentials
With a sixth successive Premier League win that lifts them up to second in the table, there is no doubt Newcastle are in the title race.
The 3-0 victory at Leicester, that saw them score all three goals in the first 32 minutes, was a clinical and professional display that leaders Arsenal and champions Manchester City would have been proud of.
There had been doubts whether the Magpies could continue their impressive form from the first-half of the season after the World Cup break, but those were immediately put to bed within seven minutes as they raced into a 2-0 lead.
The scorer of the second, Miguel Almiron, who netted his eighth goal in his last nine league games, is one of the season’s standout players and his fine form is helping drive this momentum.
But it is defensively where Newcastle look like genuine title contenders, as Howe’s side kept their eighth clean sheet of the campaign – the most of any Premier League side.
This defensive solidity combined with the quality from the likes of Bruno Guimaraes, Joelinton and Almiron have seen Newcastle lose just one of their 16 league games this season.
It is a record that is allowing Newcastle fans to dream of a title challenge, but they have the perfect boss in Eddie Howe to keep a lid on things in-house.
“I have no problems with the supporters dreaming and talking and speculating about what we can achieve,” he said after the victory at Leicester. “And no doubt the media will, I can’t control that.”
What Howe could potentially help control is Newcastle’s transfer business and it will be extremely interesting what the club does in January with a potential title tilt on the horizon, just ask Leicester boss Brendan Rodgers who certainly believes Newcastle are genuine contenders.
“There’s no reason why they can’t be in it if they can make the squad stronger in January,” he said. “So if they can cover players that might get injured and keep everyone else fit, they can be up there and about it.
“With the home support and the fanatical fanbase, they’re going to have a great chance.”
Jones hits sour note on PL debut
It was a rude awakening. Discontent was rife. Not quite from the first whistle, but there were discernible boos just 25 minutes into Nathan Jones’ St Mary’s Premier League debut. Top-flight management is an unforgiving arena.
Error-strewn Southampton looked no different from the previous regime. Disorganised and muddled. Formations were interchangeable but equally confusing. Brighton, comparatively, played with confidence and clarity.
Roles were clearly defined and they went about their business diligently. They had eight players returning from respective World Cup campaigns – Southampton had two – but Roberto De Zerbi’s side showed no signs of hangover. They were positively buoyant.
If opposite number Jones – who actually launched his coaching career with the Seagulls – was unsure of the size of the task ahead of him, he’ll have a much better idea now. It’s gigantic. He needs help in January, that much is clear.
Only Leeds (69) have conceded more Premier League goals than Southampton (68) in 2022. Fortunately this time of the year is for resolutions. Change is required – and quick.
Everton have lost all momentum under Lampard
The Boxing Day visit of bottom side Wolves represented a hugely-significant restart to the Premier League for Everton. Lampard’s side had lost five of the previous seven, taking just four points from a possible 21, and sat just a point outside the bottom three.
They had won just three times as last season’s dreadful form continued into another campaign so the break for the World Cup did them a favour in stopping the bleeding for a time at least.
It was a chance for the hosts to reset. Come May, the outcome of this fixture could well be viewed as a significant moment, and the manner of Wolves’ late victory could have serious ramifications for Everton.
It would have been a mixed reaction to the final whistle had this game ended 1-1 but the mood sharply turned toxic. “It was a real sickener,” defender James Tarkowski admitted. “We’re together as a group. We back the manager and he backs us.”
Would a draw have put pressure on Lampard? It felt like a game he could not lose, but the manner in which his side contrived to throw away a point will have alarm bells ringing once more among supporters and members of the Everton board.
They performed well in the practice games leading up to this in Australia and behind closed doors in beating Aston Villa but Lampard is starting to feel the heat.
The Everton boss had defiantly said prior to kick off that his side were motoring along nicely before a final week pre-World Cup which ‘tainted’ the first 15 weeks of the Premier League season. Certainly the events at Bournemouth across two resounding defeats changed the complexion of Everton’s start to Lampard’s first full season in charge, but all momentum has now been lost.
Lampard had told his players to be ‘grown-ups’ about their predicament by rolling up their sleeves in the hectic festive schedule but they could not cut out the noise here. Not with their fans urging them forward and leaving the back door so wide open.
The club are staring at another relegation battle unless significant moves are made in the transfer window to rectify their shortcomings and they could be in the bottom three by the time they travel to Manchester City at the weekend.
Julen Lopetegui has wasted little time in strengthening his Wolves squad with the arrival of Matheus Cunha from January 1 and Lampard must hope for the same if he is to be afforded time to cure Everton and avoid another winter of discontent.
Lopetegui already masterminding change
The spirit of Wolves is being breathed back into them by an established manager, whose substitutions highly influenced proceedings on Merseyside.
Lopetegui opted to move to a back five in the closing stages as Toti was brought on alongside Max Kilman and Nathan Collins. With the pace of Ait-Nouri and Traore on the counter, it would prove a very shrewd move and the first return on the club’s investment.
This game was meandering towards a draw between two teams low on confidence when Lopetegui turned to his coaching staff and plotted a route to victory which played out just as he would have imagined it. Three of his five replacements were involved to rouse Wolves from the foot of the table.
Max Kilman’s important intervention wiped Abdoulaye Doucoure out of the game as Matheus Nunes drove forward and immediately found Traore down the right. Tarkowski backed off to allow his team-mates time to retreat but after his cross seeking Diego Costa deflected kindly off Vitaliy Mykolenko, Ait-Nouri took one touch and finished beyond Pickford from close range.
Earlier, Toti had superbly taken a Patterson cross off the head of Tom Cannon, denying a certain goal. Raul Jimenez was so often the man both Espirito Santo and Bruno Lage would turn to, but after the Mexican made his allegiances known prior to the World Cup by conducting his own personal training from afar, the striker was snubbed here.
Lopetegui is sending the message that he has options and wants only those who are fully committed to his project.
Traore was so often Wolves’ not-so-secret weapon off the bench to stretch tired defences but after scoring in the midweek victory over Gillingham, Ait-Nouri is developing his own knack of arriving into the box at the right moment.
Given Wolves’ historical struggles in front of goal, Lopetegui’s encouragement towards his new set of players to be more creative is already bringing about the much-desired managerial bounce.
Consistency the next test for De Zerbi’s Brighton
Succeeding Graham Potter as Brighton head coach seemed an almost impossible task, but Roberto De Zerbi is showing exciting glimpses of what he can bring to the club since taking charge in September.
There were already some notable highlights of his short tenure so far before the season was paused for the World Cup, including an impressive 4-1 win over Potter’s Chelsea and a 3-1 victory at Arsenal in the Carabao Cup.
A dominant 3-1 win over Southampton on Boxing Day can now be added to that list. Brighton’s return to Premier League action after a six-week hiatus appeared effortless as they brushed aside a team that, although struggling at the foot of the table, should feel rejuvenated under new manager Nathan Jones.
Brighton, who were without their World Cup-winning Argentina midfielder Alexis Mac Allister, outclassed and outworked their south-coast opponents to move two points behind fifth-placed Manchester United in the Premier League table. It was a performance oozing with sophistication and quality for long periods.
They may have won just four of De Zerbi’s 11 games at the helm, but they are quickly improving under the Italian. If they can build some momentum and become more consistent, European qualification is surely a realistic aim for the rest of the campaign.
Mitrovic shows Crystal Palace what they are missing
Aleksandar Mitrovic is the difference-maker for Fulham.
When it was confirmed that the striker – who had been a doubt following his World Cup exerts with Serbia – was fit enough to start, Fulham’s chances looked a lot better at Selhurst Park.
They’ve lost all three Premier League games that Mitrovic has missed this season.
Fulham came into the game with more cross-assisted goals than any other in the division and the greatest proportion of headed goals. His role as the lone striker is clear.
Mitrovic stepped out of the mould to deliver a perfect cross for Bobby Decordova-Reid’s opener – his first assist of the season – but reverted to type as he nodded down to assist the second and headed home for the third.
The 28-year-old’s performance will be remembered for two assists and a goal. But it was the hard graft he put in during the smaller moments that set Fulham and Palace apart.
When the game is scrappy, as this one was, Mitrovic is at his best. He threw himself about and was a nuisance to opposition defenders, winning more duels than anyone on the pitch (9).
Fulham and Palace were both unable to keep hold of the ball early on, but the presence of Mitrovic as a target man gave the visitors an easy out. His size and strength allowed him to soak up the Palace pressure and bring others into play, especially around the box.
His eight touches in the box were not bettered by anyone on the pitch. Michael Olise registered the most for Palace with just three.
For so long, Palace have lacked a real focal point up top. Wilfried Zaha has been used there to great effect but on Boxing Day he was left isolated and struggled to find a way into the game.
Zaha so often helps move Palace up the pitch from deep when playing out wide. Recreating that same outcome with his back to goal has proved far tougher.
The Ivory Coast international failed to register a single shot on goal or a touch in the opposition box. It is tough for Zaha to make any real impact in these conditions. He needs more help.
Palace head coach Patrick Vieira has shown by sticking with Zaha that he doesn’t fully trust the other options at his disposal. He could really do with his own Mitrovic in January.
Hardworking Nunez divides opinion
Former Republic of Ireland international Andy Townsend, on co-commentary for Liverpool’s win over Aston Villa, named Darwin Nunez as his player of the match and that made some sense given his willing running, but the striker’s wastefulness will not have impressed everyone watching.
Nunez jumped over the ball when it looked easier to finish with his left foot then misdirected a header wide when unmarked. He shinned a volley after running clean through on goal and then failed to beat Olsen from point-blank range. That was all in the first half. It is fair to say that he can frustrate.
His touch is far from sure, his decision-making less than exemplary, but such is his running power and appetite to work that few forwards in the Premier League are able to find themselves in such good positions as often as Nunez. In terms of the quality of his chances, even Erling Haaland cannot match him.
His enthusiasm proved decisive in the end. One final run in behind the defence led to Liverpool’s third goal. That is why the long-term prognosis for Nunez’s Anfield career remains optimistic. Surely anyone who is able to be on the end of this many chances is going to score goals – and lots of them.
Emery has Villa on the right track
Aston Villa supporters wanted entertainment and attacking football – Unai Emery is already delivering it.
The stale performances which led to Steve Gerrard’s sacking are long forgotten now. Emery has not only taken the handbrake off but put the wheels back on and connected the engine.
They went toe-to-toe with Liverpool and fell on the wrong side of the result. Douglas Luiz impressed in midfield, delivering the cross for Ollie Watkins’ goal – the striker was also denied by Alisson and the offside flag yet looked confident in leading the line.
Luiz’s performance, meanwhile, will raise interest from clubs ahead of the January transfer window. Villa will hope they can hold on to the Brazilian, who will be a key part of Emery’s plans moving forward.
Villa are on the right track now with some favourable fixtures to come once they have gone to Tottenham on New Year’s Day.