5 key questions from the Premier League's midweek slate

BitFootball examines the most important Premier League developments by answering five key questions from the midweek slate of action.

Has Arteta lost control of his players?

The losing streak at the Emirates Stadium and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s goal drought both came to a merciful end during Arsenal’s 1-1 draw with Southampton. But another alarming trend emerged from Wednesday’s contest that will keep manager Mikel Arteta up at night.

After watching former Gunners star Theo Walcott pile on the pressure with his first-half goal, Arsenal’s attack sprang to life in the second frame, leading to Aubameyang scoring his first goal since Nov. 1. It looked like a pivotal moment and a change in fortune for the dejected Arsenal team that limped off the pitch at halftime.

But the momentum shift was short-lived thanks to another costly sending-off when summer signing Gabriel picked up his second yellow card within the space of five minutes. Arsenal’s attack was devastated as the hosts were forced to defend and hold off Southampton in order to secure their first Premier League point since Nov. 22.

Gabriel now has the dubious distinction of being the third Arsenal player to be sent off in the team’s last five Premier League matches. Granit Xhaka’s straight red card cost Arsenal in Sunday’s loss to Burnley, while winger Nicolas Pepe made headlines in November for his senseless dismissal in a goalless draw against Leeds United.

Arsenal’s disciplinary issues are undoubtedly an area of concern and one that needs to be addressed if the Gunners have any hope of climbing out of the bottom half of the table before the new year.

Has Jones nailed down a starting berth for Liverpool?

Curtis Jones could have been forgiven for thinking he was on the verge of breaking through as a first-team regular two years ago. He was only 18, but he illuminated several of Liverpool’s preseason fixtures ahead of the 2018-19 campaign with his intelligent movement and creativity. He outshone new midfield arrivals Fabinho and Naby Keita over most of those games.

Following his mature showing in Wednesday’s 2-1 defeat of Tottenham Hotspur, Jones should expect to be considered ahead of several senior players in Jurgen Klopp’s XIs. It was his coming of age. His composure while navigating through the muck and nettles of a Jose Mourinho midfield was a joy to behold. Most midfielders, especially those of his tender years, would’ve cowered.

Jones’ statistics vs. Spurs

Statistic Number Team rank
Aerials won 4 2nd
Interceptions 4 2nd
Passes 112 2nd
Passing accuracy 93.8% 3rd
Shots 3 4th
Touches 128 3rd

It wasn’t just a display of attacking mastery or defensive grit – it was both. Jones appears to be the perfect player to succeed Georginio Wijnaldum (who is out of contract at the end of the season) in one of Klopp’s No. 8 positions.

Simple fix for Guardiola’s sputtering attack?

Pep Guardiola, agitated after Manchester City could only muster a 1-1 draw with lowly West Bromwich Albion on Tuesday, delivered a cheeky response when asked to diagnose his team’s unexpected scoring woes this season. Why have City, so loaded with attacking firepower, been unable to replicate the free-scoring performances of recent years?

“Because you have to shoot one ball inside the net,” Guardiola offered.

Is the solution as simple as the frustrated tactician makes it sound? Are City simply suffering from a scoring slump that will correct itself over time, or is something more problematic going on at the Etihad?

Matt McNulty – Manchester City / Manchester City FC / Getty

It’s true, injuries to Sergio Aguero and Gabriel Jesus robbed the title hopefuls of their recognized strikers at various points of the season, and the underlying numbers suggest City have been a little unlucky in front of goal; from 20.2 Expected Goals on the campaign, they’ve scored 18 times.

Still, that xG figure is well below what you’d expect from this crop of players – it’s good enough for just fourth in the Premier League. Aside from a huge 5-0 win over relegation candidates Burnley, Guardiola’s team hasn’t scored more than two goals in a league match since the opening fixture of the campaign.

Are Aston Villa the top flight’s most-improved team?

Don’t be fooled by Thursday’s 0-0 scoreline at Villa Park. This was hardly a brave, disciplined showing by Burnley; they were merely spectators as Aston Villa wasted a series of chances to take a deserved, easy win and move nearer to the European places.

Anwar El Ghazi alone fired two more shots, completed one more dribble, and executed the same number of key passes as all of Burnley’s starters and substitutes combined.

Aston Villa haven’t played like a club that barely avoided relegation last season. Instead, their newfound defensive solidity is demonstrated by their league-best tally of six clean sheets, and confidence seems to be coursing through the squad. Their heads didn’t drop despite their misfortune and admittedly wayward finishing against Burnley, and they just kept on pummeling at the visitors’ rearguard.

Record after 11 matches:

Premier League 2019-20 2020-21
Position 16th 11th*
Goals for 16 21
Goals against 18 13
Points 11 19

* Team has played fewest matches in the division

Dean Smith also has a wealth of options to choose from when compared to last season. Ross Barkley, Douglas Luiz, Matty Cash, and Ezri Konsa were all missing from action Thursday, but the Villans easily kept Burnley at bay, dominating a team that finished seven places above them in the 2019-20 term.

It’s been quite the turnaround at Villa.

‘Best team lost’: Was Mourinho right?

“I told (Klopp) the best team lost. He disagreed and that’s his opinion,” outspoken Tottenham boss Jose Mourinho said after his side’s last-gasp loss to Liverpool on Wednesday.

Naturally, he was lambasted for that suggestion. After all, the Reds, now with a three-point lead over Spurs atop the league table, dominated proceedings at Anfield; Liverpool had 75% possession and fired 11 shots on target compared to just two for the visitors. The raw numbers indicate Mourinho’s claim was outlandish at best, and idiotic at worst.

But perhaps he’s wasn’t so out of line?

Tottenham arguably created the better chances over 90 minutes, looking menacing on the counterattack – particularly in the second half – with Harry Kane and Steven Bergwijn both failing to convert quality opportunities.

PETER POWELL / AFP / Getty

For whatever reason, there remains a prevailing sentiment in punditry – and fandom – that you only deserve to win matches if you play on the front foot, dominate the ball, and dictate the tempo. That’s never been true, really. There are multiple ways to win games, and they’re all valid, including Mourinho’s conservative, counterattacking method.

This is what he does. Whether he should be playing a more expansive style with the talent at his disposal is another issue, but his approach has, for the most part, been effective this season.

Liverpool are objectively a “better” team than Tottenham right now, but Mourinho’s argument that his side should have won Wednesday isn’t nearly as ludicrous as many painted it to be.

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