10 thoughts from the weekend's Premier League action
theScore examines the most important Premier League developments from the weekend, dissecting the biggest talking points after a busy slate of action.
Pickford the hero in relegation fight
Everton are out of the relegation zone, and it's thanks to Jordan Pickford. Just as he did in last weekend's stunning win over Chelsea, the 28-year-old goalkeeper produced a sequence of dazzling saves Sunday at Leicester City, powering Everton to back-to-back victories for the first time since September. The 2-1 result at King Power Stadium allowed the Toffees to leapfrog Leeds United into 17th place, putting Pickford's side in good stead ahead of a winnable Wednesday match against already-relegated Watford.
Pickford has picked the right time to contribute. He's made 12 saves in Everton's last two matches - many of them of the acrobatic variety - and shown incredible leadership between the posts. Always vocal and never satisfied with his defenders, Pickford has desperately thrown his body across the goal line to keep as many balls out of the net as possible. He's the picture of a man who wants to avoid relegation at all costs.
After dashing the width of the goal to deny Cesar Azpilicueta's near-post effort last weekend, Pickford flung himself to the same left post to keep Leicester from equalizing in Sunday's second half. He denied shots from point-blank and long range, coming up with something big just as Everton began to feel the pressure.
He hasn't always been reliable for Everton. At one point, England's No. 1 had committed the most errors leading to goals in the Premier League. Pickford has since enlisted the help of a psychologist, and he believes he's become more mature "as a player and man" as a result of those sessions. He now feels like a leader on this team, and he's made his mark in more ways than one.
"Sometimes, it looks like I'm shouting ridiculously," he said before Sunday's match. "But it's talking and giving information and trying to lead in that manner. The more leaders you have in the team, the better."
West Ham smell blood
Once the disappointment of their team's Europa League elimination has subsided, West Ham United fans will truly appreciate the continued progress made this season.
David Moyes took the reins on the penultimate day of 2019 when the Irons were one point above the relegation zone. They'd lost nine of their past 12 outings and been kicked out of the League Cup by third-tier Oxford United. The atmosphere at the London Stadium was toxic.
It's very different today.
"We're really pleased with the players we've got, we reached the (Europa League) semifinal, and we're in a good league position," Moyes reflected before Sunday's match at Norwich City. "Overall, the players have done a really good job."
That league position may get even better. The weekend's 4-0 bashing of the Canaries nudged West Ham just three points below the Europa League place currently occupied by Manchester United, and it boosted a goal difference that was already superior to that of Ralf Rangnick's stuttering outfit.
6. Manchester United (58 points, plus-1 goal difference)
- May 22 - Crystal Palace (away)
7. West Ham (55 points, plus-11 goal difference)
- May 15 - Manchester City (home)
- May 22 - Brighton & Hove Albion (away)
There are few tougher home matches than those against Manchester City, but this is the time of year when peculiar results can happen. West Ham are chasing a target, while City have plumped up a cushion in first place. If any team is more prone to complacency in next weekend's clash, it's the visiting side.
Even if West Ham take nothing from that match, pinching sixth spot on the final day isn't far-fetched. Crystal Palace have only lost at home to Liverpool and Chelsea since early January and should provide a stern test for United. Brighton, meanwhile, have been largely wretched at home - excluding Saturday's decimation of United - and could secure their target of a top-half finish in their prior match at Leeds.
The battle for sixth could be the most thrilling subplot when the campaign concludes in two weeks.
Rodri repaying Guardiola's faith
Rodri's unhurried style used to be a hindrance. Without a full grasp of Pep Guardiola's approach over his first year-and-a-half at Manchester City, Rodri sometimes dwelled on the ball, interrupting his team's tempo or forfeiting possession with his slow decision-making.
Rodri's first touch is now tighter and wiser. He pushes the ball into space, broadening his horizons to allow him to distribute longer, more probing passes into City's attackers. He rarely tries to beat someone one-on-one. He's naturally good in the air, can outmuscle opponents, and has a powerful shot; a greater appreciation of those strengths has enabled him to score more this season than his previous two campaigns combined.
Rodri's goal in Sunday's 5-0 win over Newcastle United was his third header. He's bashed in two from outside the area and grappled to secure a crucial 92nd-minute winner at Arsenal on New Year's Day.
Rodri vs. Newcastle
|Fouls won||4||Joint 1st|
Players sometimes take a while to completely comprehend Guardiola's demands - ask Sergio Aguero, Joao Cancelo, Kyle Walker, and many others who have passed through the Etihad Campus during his six-year reign. Jack Grealish is climbing a steep learning curve of his own.
Rodri has completed it. Many clubs have struggled to fill the No. 6 position after a talismanic figure has departed, but City sought Fernandinho's successor early and stuck with him. Their faith has paid off.
Here are the main talking points from Saturday's matches ...
Lukaku makes his case
Chelsea are, quite incredibly, flirting with top-four danger following their latest setback, a 2-2 draw with Wolverhampton Wanderers that saw Conor Coady score a 97th-minute equalizer for the visitors. The Blues, once an absolute lock to finish third, are mired in a malaise and suddenly under pressure from London rivals Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur. Todd Boehly, fresh off leading a £4.25-billion purchase of the club, could scarcely believe what he was witnessing from his seat in the stands on Saturday.
It wasn't all bad news for the Blues, though.
For the first time in ages, Romelu Lukaku looked like the player Chelsea spent a small fortune to sign ahead of the campaign. The Belgian has endured a frustrating first season back at Stamford Bridge, largely appearing to be a shadow of the unstoppable force that powered Inter Milan to a Serie A title. But he didn't magically become a bad player overnight, and there is reason to believe he can still be the focal point of Thomas Tuchel's attack.
Lukaku harried Romain Saiss to win a penalty, which he then converted, for the first goal of Saturday's match, showing desire and perseverance on a play that others might have abandoned as futile. He then sprung into action for his second goal, turning on a dime when Wolves coughed up possession and creating a passing lane for Christian Pulisic. The American rolled the ball into Lukaku's path, and the striker took care of the rest with a slick finish into the bottom corner.
Those were Lukaku's first league goals since December. And yet, despite that gargantuan drought, Lukaku is now the team's top scorer in all competitions this season. With the FA Cup final quickly approaching, the 28-year-old is making a case to start against Liverpool.
Buendia shows Gerrard's gamble didn't pay off
The false resurgence of Philippe Coutinho's career under former Liverpool teammate Steven Gerrard (as documented in last week's post) came at a cost. Emiliano Buendia, the space-invading visionary plucked from Norwich last summer, found it harder to log minutes in Aston Villa's starting XI.
Before Saturday's trip to Turf Moor, Buendia had only started 58% of the Villans' Premier League matches this term. The Argentinian made 13 of those 19 starts before Coutinho's January arrival.
He might be an automatic pick for the rest of the campaign.
Buendia's movement before Aston Villa's two first-half goals during the 3-1 defeat of Burnley was immaculate. He was on his toes, skipping and scuttling into gaps between the Clarets' midfield and defense. He slid a measured ball to Danny Ings for the first strike and scored himself with a side-footed effort through a crowd of players.
His head is always up, surveying what's around him. His smart switch to the left flank stretched Burnley's backline before Ollie Watkins headed in Villa's third goal.
Signing Coutinho on loan was worth the gamble. He's still only 29 and brings experience from hoarding silverware in Italy, Spain, and Germany, as well as in the Champions League and on international duty. But, following his fast start, the Brazilian has effectively become a roadblock for players who deserve a place in the first team.
Aston Villa could be on the cusp of a fruitful era. The club's thriving academy is freshening up the squad with exciting players, most notably midfielders Jacob Ramsey, Tim Iroegbunam, and Carney Chukwuemeka (if he stays). Blocking their paths - and, indeed, those of Buendia, Douglas Luiz, and other defensive or attacking midfielders - would be detrimental to the growth of Gerrard's side.
The £33-million option to buy Coutinho from Barcelona this summer, then, is best spent elsewhere.
By the numbers: It gets even worse for United
Many forecasted a Manchester United title challenge following the summer arrivals of Cristiano Ronaldo, Raphael Varane, and Jadon Sancho. At long last, the Red Devils seemed to be on an upward trajectory after a litany of lows since Sir Alex Ferguson's 2013 departure.
However, United are sleepwalking toward statistically the worst Premier League season in the club's history after Saturday's 4-0 humiliation at Brighton. They're 25 points behind archrivals Liverpool and could be 28 points adrift of crosstown foes Manchester City when the weekend is over.
It wasn't a freak result. Marc Cucurella and Leandro Trossard tore United's right-hand side to shreds, and Moises Caicedo - an exciting talent in midfield - summed up the differences between the two sides with his controlled aggression and wise use of the ball. Brighton were easily the better side.
Here are some standout stats from United's latest setback:
1 - The result marked Brighton's first home win in 2022.
2 - Ronaldo has only suffered two heavier league defeats over his whole career. He was subjected to a 5-0 reverse at Barcelona in 2010 and lost by the same scoreline to Liverpool earlier this season.
4 - Brighton enjoyed their largest top-flight win with the 4-0 conquering of United. They've played 356 matches at this level.
5 - Consecutive away defeats for United. Over those matches, Rangnick's side has scored just twice while letting in 16 goals. It's the Red Devils' worst run on the road since the 1980-81 campaign.
25 - Brighton scored 25% of their league goals at home during United's visit.
56 - Manchester United have conceded more goals this term than in any season in Premier League history. There are teams battling to avoid relegation that have conceded fewer goals.
58 - United's points tally with one match remaining. They're guaranteed their lowest sum in a Premier League campaign, falling short of the 64 total racked up by Moyes and caretaker boss Ryan Giggs.
Hodgson leaves with head held high
Roy Hodgson deserved a better farewell than to be relegated in his final season as a Premier League manager - the first time he's suffered such a fate, no less - but the curtain coming down on the 74-year-old's career should be a moment to look back in celebration, not disappointment.
"I think possibly now I've earned the right to step back and enjoy some free time and spend time with my wife and son," said the Englishman.
He sure has.
A younger generation may only associate the veteran tactician with that infamous clip from the 2014 World Cup, but Hodgson, who was made a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) for his services to the sport, has amassed a remarkable career. He's taken charge of 16 teams in eight different countries over 46 years on the touchline, starting in Sweden, where he crafted a strong reputation before taking on jobs at Inter, Liverpool, and England, among others.
He was unable to rescue a poor Watford side after being brought in on an emergency basis in January, but he has no regrets.
"Today I have a lot of good feelings, really. Firstly from the reception, from a personal point of view, that was fantastic and great to go out in front of that incredible Palace crowd again and get that reception again," said Hodgson, who spent four seasons at Selhurst Park. "That was obviously something that was very touching, but on a secondary note I was also very proud of (my) team's performance."
A staple of the Premier League for so long, not seeing a pensive Hodgson on the sideline anymore will take some getting used to.
Decisive day in the title race
Jurgen Klopp put on a brave face after Liverpool's 1-1 draw with Tottenham Hotspur, but even for someone who operates with the utmost optimism, it was clear Saturday's result could end up being the final twist in the title race.
The German, after all, is also a realist.
"I would love to sit here and say, 'Yes (Manchester) City will drop points.' The problem is I can't see it," Klopp admitted.
Perhaps that was Klopp's best attempt at a reverse jinx, but Guardiola's team, level on points with the Reds but having played one fewer match, is now firmly in control; City are putting all their eggs into the Premier League basket after their infamous Champions League ouster, while Klopp's men still have two other competitions to try and win.
There has been a feeling the last couple weeks that this type of result was coming for the Reds, and Tottenham's defense-first, counterattacking style always looked like a stumbling block. So it proved.
"There are other games to play, we just have to keep going," Klopp said.
He was referencing the league, but perhaps internally he was talking about the FA Cup and Champions League finals.
Son leads Conte's clinical frontline
Tottenham's 1-1 draw at Anfield was almost exclusively down to resolute defending from Antonio Conte's side.
The visitors' eagerness to throw themselves in front of shots and crosses bordered on masochism. Thirty-three of their 51 clearances were throttled away with a head. Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg led the match in interceptions (four) and also stood out for his sneaky tactics that disrupted Liverpool's rhythm and ran down the clock.
Conte is pragmatic. He set up Spurs in this manner because he thought this was the best way to thieve three points from Merseyside. And with Harry Kane, Heung-Min Son, and Dejan Kulusevski in attack, you can't fault that line of thought.
Spurs boast one of the most clinical frontlines in the country when the trio's on form. Kane's unique ability to both orchestrate and finish counterattacks is well known, and Kulusevski's midseason arrival has lifted some creative burden from the England captain. And then there's Son, one of the greatest two-footed finishers of the Premier League era.
Son's 6-yard tap-in to open the scoring was his 12th goal of the season with his left foot, drawing him level with Robin van Persie for goals scored with a "weaker" foot in a single Premier League campaign. Van Persie hit a dozen with his right peg during Arsenal's 2011-12 term.
Son is also the Premier League's top scorer for non-penalty goals with 20, which is three more than Mohamed Salah and five more than Ronaldo. There are 11 players across Europe's top five leagues with 20 or more goals, and Son is the only one who hasn't scored a penalty.
Kane's relentless shooting, sumptuous diagonal passes, and high profile has led to the assumption that the beloved academy product is Spurs' leader in attack. Perhaps, Son has been the main man all along.
The team everybody wants to win the playoffs?
Luton Town seem to be the neutrals' most popular team entering the Championship's promotion playoffs.
Although Nottingham Forest, two-time European Cup winners and winners of seven major domestic honors, would be warmly welcomed into the Premier League, the Hatters' tumultuous 15 years and humble home ground combine for an incredible tale.
Luton suffered three straight relegations beginning in 2007, with their fall into non-league football made inevitable by a 30-point deduction due to financial irregularities ahead of the 2008-09 campaign. They spent four seasons outside English football's professional leagues but have since enjoyed an incredible eight-year rise, aided by strong fan involvement behind the scenes and the expertise of Nathan Jones over two managerial stints.
And then there's Luton's legendary Kenilworth Road home, which has an away-end entrance nestled between terraced homes. The stairs taking fans through the back of the stand overlook the locals' back gardens.
If the club has its way, opportunities to visit its unique stadium are dwindling. Luton Town hope to move into a new 23,000-capacity venue, Power Court, as soon as financing and building issues are resolved.