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Premier League winners and losers: Arsenal and awful Antony receive a New Year’s lashing

Premier League winners and losers: Arsenal and awful Antony receive a New Year’s lashing

There are kinder words for Nottingham Forest, Fulham, Nicolas Jackson and the player Darwin Nunez wishes he was. But Arsenal and Antony get both barrels.


Nottingham Forest
After a first league win at St James’ Park since 1988 came a first victory of any kind at any venue against Manchester United since 1994. Nottingham Forest picked quite the week to enact revenge decades in the waiting on their former title rivals.

The counter-attacking masterclass which conquered Newcastle was swapped for a slightly more patient, considered approach which still exploited familiar Manchester United weaknesses. The thriving partnership of Murillo and Moussa Niakhate, the drive of Ryan Yates, the combative intelligence of Morgan Gibbs-White and the grudge-bearing fuel of Anthony Elanga were the composite ingredients moulded into a delectable meal by Nuno Espirito Santo, whose pointed tribute to the supporters after the game continued his note-perfect handling of a precarious managerial situation.

Even his customary players brought in from the cold – Nicolas Dominguez and Gonzalo Montiel – combined to produce the first goal. One curious refereeing performance against Bournemouth aside, Nuno has been close to faultless on his return.

Only once since promotion have Forest won consecutive Premier League games; Southampton and Leicester were both beaten by the Tricky Trees last January en route to relegation. The same fate probably won’t befall Newcastle or Manchester United, but it is looking increasingly unlikely that Forest will slip into the Championship either. They are new manager bouncing their way to safety while exorcising a few old demons along the way.

Led by ‘an enormously entertaining and relentlessly watchable defender’ in Calvin Bassey, Fulham won a Premier League game from a losing position for the first time since October 2022, and wholly deserved to end that run.

Their struggles without Raul Jimenez and Willian were typified by those consecutive 5-0 victories being followed by the Cottagers conceding eight goals in three games without scoring. The former might well consider no longer tackling people with his actual arse, at least for a bit.

Tosin Adarabioyo has been impressive since returning to the heart of a defence which was expected to struggle in the injury absences of Tim Ream and Issa Diop, while Antonee Robinson might be one of the league’s most quietly effective left-backs. Add Bukayo Saka to the list of those elite forwards he has shut down, including Mo Salah.

Orchestrated by Marco Silva, whose ability to organise and drill a side has advanced drastically since his first Premier League job almost seven years ago, the yo-yo seems to have stopped. This is Fulham now: an accomplished mid-table side which opponents can choose not to take seriously at their own peril.

Raul Jimenez celebrates Fulham's equaliser in a 2-1 Premier League win against Arsenal

Raul Jimenez celebrates Fulham’s equaliser against Arsenal

Michael Olise
A gargantuan result for Roy Hodgson, whose much-vaunted CBE for services to football might nevertheless not have provided a great deal of job security had Crystal Palace’s miserable run been extended against Brentford.

The return of Olise could hardly have been planned better in that respect. Despite not starting a game until late November due to a hamstring injury, the Frenchman has scored more goals this season than in both of his previous two Premier League campaigns combined. No-one has stepped up more to bear the vacated Wilfried Zaha burden.

Five goals and seven assists in 17 league starts under Hodgson is a fantastic return, almost bordering on witchcraft considering the attacking fare served up in Olise’s absence. He and Eberechi Eze should help steer them to safety. Beyond that, Palace would be fortunate to keep either.

3PM BLACKOUTAston Villa’s ‘big problem’, Palace to drift on with Hodgson, City and Blades happy

Jhon Duran
The player Darwin Nunez wishes he was. None of Duran’s 23 Premier League career appearances have extended beyond the half-hour mark but he has become the wildcard Unai Emery turns to when Aston Villa need to introduce mayhem to a troublesome equation.

This season alone, Duran has scored off the bench in wins over Everton and Crystal Palace, and is one booking from a suspension despite exclusively playing cameos worth little over two hours; the Colombian ranks second in the entire league for yellow cards per 90 minutes (2.22).

Only Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg (15 times) and Harvey Elliott (14) have been used more frequently as substitutes this campaign than Duran (13), whose purchase of a penalty against Burnley was controversial and hilarious but also brilliant and quick-witted.

A tiring, jaded Aston Villa might soon need these bit parts to become longer lasting roles, but Duran is matching Emi Martinez for South American chaos merchantry so has already shown himself capable of rising to such a challenge.

Nicolas Jackson
The praise for Cole Palmer is as universal as it is entirely warranted
; the 21-year-old has embraced a level of responsibility most have shirked at Chelsea over the past 18 months and is subsequently beloved by the supporters as much as he is praised by the more general public.

Nicolas Jackson has, conversely, been pilloried by a certain section of the fanbase, had at least one of his substitutions audibly cheered, been widely mocked and faces constant questions over his performances and output. Yet Palmer (12), Saka (12) and Elanga (10) are the only players younger than Jackson with more combined goals and assists than the forward’s nine so far this campaign. His hold-up play and pass for Palmer’s silliness at Luton was sublime.

Three consecutive Premier League victories for the first time since January 2022, while Wolves had not won successive games by at least three goals since January 2019. As the calendar flicks over into January 2024, they are level on points with Chelsea and just one behind Newcastle.

Beating Everton so handsomely without Mario Lemina was both impressive and necessary proof they can thrive without his destructive brilliance, as the Premier League’s most-booked player remains on the brink of a two-game suspension. Tommy Doyle was excellent in his place on only his third start for the club, the previous two having ended in defeat.

Gary O’Neil is otherwise coaxing career-best form out of Max Kilman, Nelson Semedo, Hwang Hee-chan, Pablo Sarabia and Matheus Cunha, culminating in a club-record run of scoring in 17 consecutive home league games and Wolves not losing at Molineux since September.

A word, too, for Craig Dawson scoring perhaps the finest Actual Goal Which So Perfectly Resembles An Own Goal of all-time. The man saw a dangerous delivery put into the box and his muscle memory kicked in.

Giovani Lo Celso
Before this season, Lo Celso had scored one goal and assisted three in 55 Premier League appearances. In four starts under Ange Postecoglou, he has two of each. Considering the injuries, suspensions and international commitments Spurs have faced and must continue to contend with, the Argentine’s open-armed embrace of a clean slate has been welcome.

The tackle-pass for Pape Matar Sarr’s opener was less characteristic of his creative edge than the outside-of-the-boot ball for Heung-min Son’s goal, but it underlined how Lo Celso has committed himself to a cause unlike any other his previous five Spurs managers have served up.

Lo Celso will slide back down the pecking order at some point for that is the natural way of things, but not before Spurs come to rely on his unique skillset even more in the next two months.

Manchester City
“What we have done in the past doesn’t mean that it’s going to happen in the future,” said Pep Guardiola, yet the expectation remains that it surely will. Manchester City have emerged from a supposedly disastrous run of form two points off the Premier League summit, with Kevin De Bruyne back in the matchday squad and Erling Haaland not far behind, and their trademark stretch of wins still to come.

Luton at home
The actual thing never quite transpired on what can technically be described as ‘Saturday’ but Kenilworth Road has been the great equaliser for Luton in the Premier League, as many expected. Arsenal, Manchester City, Newcastle and Chelsea all visited in December and while three of those sides emerged victorious, none of those title challengers, expensively-assembled squads of seasoned internationals, billionaire playthings or all of the above left without the scars to prove it.

The Hatters have had arguably the most difficult run of home fixtures as any side, hosting the teams currently in 1st, 3rd, 4th, 5th, 6th, 9th, 10th, 11th, 13th and 19th over the first part of the season, yet they have outshot their opponents in half of those games and not lost by more than a single goal despite the gulf in resources and quality.

And they never sodding give up. Home and away, only Liverpool (15) have scored more Premier League goals than Luton (13) from the 76th minute onwards this season. Their remarkable resilience means they are never out of a game.


Remove any club’s starting wing-backs, two best forwards, best back-up attacker and one of their best centre-halves, with an unremitting series of absences littered in between, and they would struggle. Beyond the absolute elite, no team can possibly equip themselves for such problems.

But this is sliding towards an unsolvable mess for Brentford. They cannot place all their eggs in Ivan Toney’s basket when they have kept three clean sheets all season and conceded seven goals in three days to two bottom-half sides. They cannot rely on a transformative January transfer window when the mistakes of last summer are one of the biggest contributing factors to their abysmal form. They cannot ignore a wave of momentum that has seen them lose seven of their last eight matches, but their alternative options are so severely restricted that they can hardly change too many things either.

Thomas Frank has pulled Brentford out of similar fires in both of their previous two seasons at this level, but these Bees do not resemble those resolute, unwavering sides that had faith in the journey and the manager. Rather, this team is meandering towards relegation.

There might be a certain relief in Mikel Arteta identifying that as “the worst we have played all season”, instead of scrambling for excuses or focusing on refereeing decisions. Arsenal were aimless in defeat to Fulham and it needed calling out.

The next step is rectifying those issues – and that is far less simple. Arsenal scoring with three of their last 66 shots is an obvious shortcoming with a less straightforward solution.

A January solve-all striker signing has been mooted for some time but systemic problems on the left wing as a whole and both flanks in a general attacking sense would persist. As prominent Arsenal writer James Benge pointed out, they didn’t complete a pass into the penalty area between the 67th minute and the 95th, which points to a litany of faults in the build-up.

Arteta accepted responsibility for how his change of system to a 3-5-2 only exacerbated the issues. Chasing a decisive result at 2-1 down for the final half an hour or so, Arsenal had fewer shots than a Fulham side which ought to have doubled their lead.

The winter break might help in terms of some sort of reset but Arsenal dropping points in four of the last five games does bring a sense of the damage already having been done in terms of a title challenge. The Gunners are typically better in the first half of seasons under Arteta so trends will have to change for the process to continue on an upward trajectory.

The continued decisiveness of Elanga makes for an unflattering comparison. The forward Manchester United sold for £15m has as many goals and more assists in 20 Premier League appearances for Nottingham Forest than £82m Antony has in 41 under Erik ten Hag.

That is not to say selling Elanga was a mistake. It was the right thing to do for a variety of reasons once a fair fee was offered for a player not of the requisite quality for a Champions League side. Signing Antony was the error Manchester United will keep paying for in so many ways: his own overinflated price; the disillusionment of players like £73m Jadon Sancho; the blocking of pathways for young talents; the sunk-cost fallacy of spending so much on someone only one specific manager would likely depend on, and that manager subsequently having his own future come under intense weekly scrutiny.

No signing sums up this catastrophic era of Manchester United transfers quite like Antony, a player previously internally valued at £25m being signed in a panic at £60m more and thus having his and his manager’s future intrinsically entwined.

In all competitions, Antony has more yellow cards (12) than combined goals and assists (11) in 65 matches for Manchester United. A more horrible investment would be difficult to find.

READ MOREManchester United fail to threaten Forest and reverse out of another turning point…

Sean Dyche
A seemingly unnecessary formational switch, compounded by the decision to change nothing until the game was long gone, at least partially because of an overreliance on a core group of understandably knackered players.

Dyche has done some excellent work at Everton this season but the immediate drop-off once the points deduction had been eradicated – the power of the siege mentality seemingly disappearing with it – has been extreme. They still cannot win without Abdoulaye Doucoure and for all the anxiety over Dominic Calvert-Lewin’s availability, he has not scored in nine Premier League games.

There is also precisely no need to be using Michael Keane outside of emergencies. Even then…

Minutes Everton players have played in December 2023. #EFC pic.twitter.com/j27mPHdr8r

— EFC Statto (@EFC_Statto) December 31, 2023

The last time Vincent Kompany earned points from a losing position in the Premier League, it was Manchester City recovering from the shock of Glenn Murray’s opener on the final day of the 2018/19 season.

Burnley have not earned any points from games in which they have trailed since a stoppage-time Michael Obafemi equaliser against Watford in the Championship in February. Harsh as the Aston Villa defeat ultimately was, the Clarets equalising twice and still losing was hardly out of character.

Four wins in a row was already their Premier League best, but Bournemouth fell one game short of setting a new outright unbeaten record. How mortally embarrassing, even if no team has had more shots against Spurs since April. That extra shot Newcastle had then inspired them to win 6-1 instead of losing 3-1. These are the lessons Andoni Iraola must learn.

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