As the Premier League enters its final sprint, the top-four race promises to be as dramatic and tightly contested as ever before with potentially six teams battling for two spots behind the Manchester clubs.
After victories for Liverpool and Chelsea on Saturday, Manchester United might have felt that a top-four spot was not something to be taken for granted but a 3-1 victory at Tottenham pushed them nine points clear of fifth with seven games left and also opened up a welcome gap on Leicester City, whose defeat to West Ham earlier on Sunday means they look set for a scrap to retain the top-four berth they have occupied for the vast majority of this season.
Here are the winners and losers of the weekend:
Winner: Jesse Lingard
If you want evidence of the remorselessly ludicrous nature of the Premier League then a fringe Manchester United player helping carry West Ham United to a top-four berth a year after they nearly went down seems as good a place to start as any. Jesse Lingard’s revival was utterly unexpected even if few doubted he was still a good player. Good but not eight goals in nine domestic games good.
No player has scored more goals than Lingard in the top flight since his debut for West Ham on Feb. 3 and he has been involved in more goals on his own than Sheffield United, Crystal Palace, Fulham, West Bromwich Albion, Wolverhampton Wanderers, Aston Villa, Brighton, Newcastle and Liverpool. He looks utterly reinvigorated from the man who could not get on the pitch in important Manchester United matches this season.
That fact may explain why the 28-year-old is on such a remarkable hot streak, and that is certainly what it is when he has eight goals to his name from shots worth 3.57 expected goals (a metric that assesses the likelihood that any shot will end in a goal). The same is no less true for three assists that have come from 0.62 expected assists. Regression to the mean is inevitable but it is also feasible that a good player, motivated by a desire to prove Old Trafford doubters wrong, in a counter-attacking system that suits his qualities and without a huge weight of minutes in his legs could play as Lingard is right now.
As the rest of the Premier League wheeze their way to the finish line at the end of the most grueling season in memory a fresh, motivated Lingard with a place in England’s European Championship squad in his sight is serving as jet fuel for West Ham’s remarkable run toward the top four, one that sees them race out to 3-0 leads that they can scarcely hold on to.
In many ways the real losers of this weekend are the Hammers supporters who were once more suffering heart palpitations as their side once more responded to remarkable success by collapsing inwards into quivering wrecks, even if on this occasion they did just enough to hold on to a priceless three points that drags Leicester firmly into the battle for a top-four finish.
Winner: Edinson Cavani
Manchester United’s 3-1 win at Tottenham played to the script. Spurs took the lead through a moment of attacking excellence with Harry Kane and goalscorer Heung-min Son at its heart then sat back, inviting pressure from their opponent. Meanwhile Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side did what they do on the road, falling behind before battling their way back to three points.
That they did so may also save the footballing public from a tedious narrative about VAR after its intervention prompted Chris Kavanagh to review the build-up and rule that Edinson Cavani’s goal would not stand after Scott McTominay was adjudged to have fouled Son. That denied strike came about only through excellent movement from the veteran Uruguayan, whose intelligence in the penalty area was too much for the inexperienced Joe Rodon and Eric Dier.
His drift to the left in the 57th minute was judged to perfection and although Hugo Lloris saved the initial effort he could not stop Fred tapping home the rebound. Cavani then delivered the ideal header to Mason Greenwood’s cross to hand United the lead, doubled by the young forward late on.
Perhaps the luck that was not on his side when VAR intervened was balanced out when he rose up to defend a Spurs corner, flicking a header beyond the reach of his goalkeeper Dean Henderson and against his own post. What is most impressive about Cavani, however, is that he creates his own luck. Years of experience have taught the 34-year-old where he needs to be to punish mistakes and get on the end of crosses. He may be a temporary salve in United’s long-term search for a center forward but games like Sunday’s will be remembered as crucial in helping the Red Devils comfortably qualify for the Champions League again.
As for Spurs, United’s excellence in the first half only offers so much of a riposte to what is becoming an increasingly obvious reality. This team reflect their manager’s recent history in their conservatism, their inability to make the most of winning positions and the tendency for trivial fouls rather than any clear plan to mitigate their opponents in defense and beat them with possession.
Losers: Leicester City
This must be beginning to feel very familiar for Brendan Rodgers and company. Last season they returned to action in the summer firmly settled in third place but fell at the final hurdle to Manchester United after a woeful run in where injuries took their toll on them and Jamie Vardy’s scoring form largely left him (bar a three-game hot streak in early July). The signs of a repeat run are there after the defeat to West Ham, even if for now their destiny remains in their own hands.
Vardy has one league goal since Christmas and indeed only six from open play in the top flight this season. Key figures such as James Justin, Harvey Barnes and Caglar Soyuncu did not make the trip due to injury and COVID-19 in the case of the latter. Add to that the late absence of James Maddison, Hamza Choudury and Ayoze Perez after they breached coronavirus protocols and it was somewhat remarkable that Rodgers’ side looked as strong as it did.
Leicester’s issue was rather that their back three system left too much space on the flanks for Jarrod Bowen and company to attack into as individual errors such as the disorganized offside trap that allowed West Ham in down the right for Lingard’s second.
There is only so much Kelechi Iheanacho, scorer of seven of the last nine Premier League goals by the Foxes, can do to dig his teammates out. He will need others to step up if this season is not to take on a similar form to last year, an impressive campaign that ultimately feels a little sour for the way in which it ends.
Winners: Chelsea and Liverpool
Saturday’s games favored the big teams with Chelsea and Liverpool both getting the three points they needed albeit in extremely different circumstances. The latter rather wheezed back to winning ways at Anfield though three points against Aston Villa is never to be sniffed at, particularly when it comes after an Ollie Watkins goal sent familiar jitters through the empty stadium.
The manner of Liverpool’s comeback was all the more impressive, largely shutting down a Villa side that registered just one shot on target in the second half — albeit a remarkable strike from Trezeguet that clattered off the post — whilst upping the intensity of their own play after Watkins’ goal. Most encouragingly of all for Jurgen Klopp his full-back pair of Andrew Robertson and Trent Alexander-Arnold looked to have improved leaps and bounds, the former forcing a goal for Mohamed Salah having seen similar efforts for Roberto Firmino ended by VAR whilst the latter scored a brilliant late winner in front of watching England manager Gareth Southgate.
Meanwhile Chelsea’s attack looks to be clicking into gear after months in which Thomas Tuchel has prioritized the defense. The German’s argument that his side should have won at West Bromwich Albion based on their expected goals (xG) brought much merriment from the British press but the underlying truth is that his side have taken the sort of steps forward in attack that were reflected in a 4-1 demolition of Crystal Palace where Kai Havertz excelled and Christian Pulisic netted a brace.
In Tuchel’s first eight Premier League and European matches his side created shots worth 10.61xG, scoring nine goals. In the most recent seven their xG has increased to 13.24 and they have found the net on 13 occasions. Opponent xG has increased but going from 0.54xG to 0.71xG per game is hardly cause for a disaster. With momentum on their side Chelsea might be the surest thing for a top-four berth behind the Manchester sides.
These two traditional powers would also have been toasting West Ham’s win although a late equalizer for Leicester City would have been even more favorable. Still the margins remain very tight at the top of the table.