Premier League: 10 talking points from the midweek action


Cesc Fàbregas is struggling, Emre Can may be the man to take over from Steven Gerrard and Roberto Martínez must get serious about the threat of relegation

Superpixie1) Fàbregas looking like a depleted force

This has been a funny-looking Chelsea team at times recently. The last four days have brought a first domestic trophy since 2012 and the kind of victory at West Ham that title-winning seasons are made of. Both of which have been the work of a team that seems to be doing without a midfield right now. At West Ham, Kurt Zouma continued his convincing take on an eager, intelligent, well-meaning centre half pretending to be a defensive midfielder. The real concern though is the player alongside him, Cesc Fàbregas, who right now looks an alarmingly depleted force.

It is no secret that Fàbregas has a tendency to wane as the season progresses, or that his influence has been in decline at Chelsea since Christmas. Fàbregas had nine assists in his first nine games in September and October: in his last nine for Chelsea he has none. The sublime passing range is still there, as it was when he helped create the only goal of the game at Upton Park. But Fàbregas looks too easy to play against right now. Opponents know he has no burst of speed, no lateral spring to shift the angle of an attack, with little option in possession beyond shuttling the ball on. Here he was simply bullied off the ball at times by Kevin Nolan and Mark Noble.

The fine statistics of Fàbregas’ season tell a different story to the player of the last two months, an influence that has receded as the finishing line approaches on three fronts, and a player who is currently failing to provide the metronomic, controlling central presence of early season. José Mourinho is lucky: this team has leaders elsewhere. But Fàbregas looks a rather sickly influence right now in a midfield that will surely be rejigged and reinforced once again in the summer. Fresh legs and fresh creative energy are required to relieve a player who bloomed in Autumn and has faded with the old year. Barney Ronay

Match report: West Ham 0-1 Chelsea
Barney Ronay: Terry feels his age against West Ham

2) Nasri needs to do his talking on the pitch

It’s not just Vincent Kompany who has plenty to contemplate after Manchester City’s laboured win over Leicester City. Manuel Pellegrini’s decision to leave out his captain was always going to attract a lot of attention but he is not the only player to suffer recently. Pablo Zabaleta’s form has also deteriorated, albeit less markedly, and he was sat alongside Kompany and the others substitutes against Leicester. As for Samir Nasri, he did not even get on the bench and it did not say a great deal for him or Fernandinho, perhaps, that it was scarcely noticed. Nasri said recently that Chelsea were “nothing special at all”. Yet he was substituted after a poor performance against Barcelona and it was a feeble attempt to close down Philippe Coutinho before his winning goal for Liverpool last weekend. The Frenchman needs to start creating headlines because of how he plays rather than what he says. Daniel Taylor

Match report: Man City 2-0 Leicester
Pellegrini defends decision to drop Kompany
Jamie Jackson: Pellegrini’s drastic action yields little

Video: Manchester City manager Manuel Pellegrini says he left captain Vincent Kompany out against Leicester in order to ‘refresh the team

3) The welcome return of Gutiérrez

Unfortunately it was overshadowed by a spitting controversy, but the best moment came when Jonás Gutiérrez stepped off the bench to replace Ryan Taylor at left-back for Newcastle. It was Gutiérrez’s first appearance in a black and white first team shirt since being diagnosed with testicular cancer 17 months ago, and he only completed his chemotherapy in November. St James’ Park can be a bit flat these days but the atmosphere was electric when the Argentinian stood on the touchline. “The crowd came to life,” enthused John Carver, Newcastle’s head coach. At the time, the fact that Taylor – who has had two cruciate ligament repairs in swift succession, necessitating lengthy lay-offs – was limping and clearly had a problem with his knee represented a cause for concern but happily the injury was minor. “I was worried,” said Carver. “But Ryan’s OK.” Back out on the field Gutiérrez received a hug – and the captain’s armband – from his friend Fabricio Coloccini before promptly being booked for clattering into Adnan Januzaj. It was good to see him back and judging by Carver’s current casualty list it could be the first of several first-team appearances between now and the end of the season. Louise Taylor

Match report: Newcastle 0-1 Manchester United
Man Utd delay decision on Falcao’s future until May

Video: Manchester United manager Louis van Gaal said he did not see the incident between Johnny Evans and Papiss Cissé but added he ‘cannot imagine’ Evans spitting at an opponent.

4) Martínez cannot take threat of relegation lightly

There was not an awful lot between the two sides in terms of style or sophistication, but Stoke had a clear edge in confidence and the league table tells its own story. Not only have Stoke now passed the traditional safety measure of 40 points, they are 14 points ahead of Everton. In the general scheme of things, that is not where the erstwhile School of Science likes to see itself.

The scare stories going around about Roberto Martínez completing a unique double by qualifying for the Champions League while simultaneously being relegated to the Championship can probably be dismissed. Everton do not look good enough to do the winning the Europa League part, while Wigan always caught the eye two years ago in the FA Cup. Relegation, however, is not something that a team with one win in the last 12 league matches can easily ignore. Everton are only six points clear of real trouble, and until they pick up another couple of victories, will still be looking uneasily over their shoulder. There does not seem anything too wrong with the squad on paper – most sides would pay good money for a Romelu Lukaku, a James McCarthy or a Ross Barkley. Even new left-back Luke Garbutt looks a find. But something in the collective is not clicking, Barkley is not even playing, and clean sheets have become a rarity. Perhaps most of all, Martínez is under scrutiny. “We haven’t got the points we wanted but we have 10 games left, six of them at Goodison,” the Everton manager said. “We are not looking down, we have confidence in the talent in the squad. We have just played five games in two weeks and what we need now is to recover properly and prepare for the challenge ahead.”

Martínez even ventured, in response to a question about being afraid of relegation, that there is no such thing as fear. In fact there probably is. He did his relentlessly positive act at Wigan right up to the point where his side were relegated, when he professed himself surprised. The Wigan supporters most definitely were not. There were boos from the travelling support at the end at the Britannia. Martínez must be careful to keep those same supporters onside if he is to take full advantage of his six remaining home games. Paul Wilson

Match report: Stoke City 2-0 Everton
Dynamo Kyiv must close part of stadium for visit of Everton

5) Sherwood silences the doubters

Tim Sherwood enjoyed that gesture as he came off the pitch on Tuesday night, when he pretended to check his pulse. The Aston Villa manager later explained that he was making the point that his team are “alive and kicking” and that some have been too quick to write them off. As well as the obvious concerns about Villa’s dreadful form prior to their 2-1 win over West Bromwich Albion, the doubters wondered whether there was substance to Sherwood as well as soundbites. Against West Brom there was evidence of both. Not many Villa supporters would have picked Gabriel Agbonlahor in their starting XI but Sherwood was totally vindicated on a night when the former England striker rolled back the years. The first-half performance from Villa was their best 45 minutes of football for a long time and, whatever anyone thinks of Sherwood’s antics on the touchline, in particular that 45-yard sprint down the line to celebrate Agbonlahor’s opening goal, it is easy to imagine the manager inspiring players in the dressing room with his passion – not something many would have said about Paul Lambert. There is still plenty of work to do over the remaining 10 games of the season, and Sherwood remains realistic about Villa’s predicament, but at the very least it should be an entertaining ride, off the pitch but also on it if Tuesday evening is anything to go by. Stuart James

Match report: Aston Villa 2-1 West Brom
Paul Wilson: The Alan Hutton conundrum

After a tough start, Tim Sherwood’s enthusiasm – and his faith in the out-of-form Gabriel Agbonlahor – paid dividends against West Brom. Photograph: David Davies/PA

6) Sunderland draw closer to survival

The general rule for clubs attempting to successfully circumnavigate the Premier League trapdoor is to target a number of victories. However, Sunderland’s fight against the drop is not necessarily founded on winning, but not losing and the tetchy stalemate at Hull was their 14th in 28 matches, a statistic that has them on course to break the record of 17 in a 38-game season, held jointly by Newcastle (2003-04) and Aston Villa (2006-07 and 2011-12). Gus Poyet has spoken about morphing their purist style into something more progressive for the run-in but at the KC Stadium, with width reduced by the loss of the suspended Adam Johnson, they fielded four central midfielders and only upped the tempo and employed the flanks in the final quarter of an hour following a trio of substitutions. Jack Rodwell’s equaliser denied Hull a record of their own – they were just 13 minutes from registering three consecutive top-flight home wins for the first time. Richard Gibson

Match report: Hull 1-1 Sunderland
Poyet plays down touchline clash with Hull’s Steve Bruce
Nick Ames: bargain recruit N’Doye could prove a saviour for Hull City

7) Saints cling to Champions League dream

It is beginning to look like a huge task for Southampton, but Ronald Koeman’s side are still in the hunt. A top-four Premier League finish is still a possibility for Saints, and one has to think that would not have been the case had Sadio Mané not popped up with a late winner against Crystal Palace. Southampton had not scored a home league goal in 387 minutes before Mané’s determination and deft finish secured the late win. In truth, they had laboured throughout a match that saw Fraser Forster twice come to the rescue, while Wilfried Zaha hit a post for Palace.

Yet Koeman’s side go to their training camp in Switzerland on the back of a crucial win. The Dutchman called it “one of the key moments of the season” – one that means they at least stay in touch with Arsenal, Liverpool and Manchester Unitedand, perhaps, will restore some confidence. Graziano Pellè still looks terribly short of form, and getting the Italian firing once again may be crucial. Regardless, this was a crucial three points and a potential turning point after a steady decline.James Riach

Match report: Southampton 1-0 Crystal Palace
Guardian Football meets: Matt Le Tissier

8) Austin shoulders too much striking burden for QPR

A total of 15 goals for a team in the relegation zone is not to be sniffed at. Charlie Austin put in another powerful performance, in front of the England manager Roy Hodgson, and was rewarded with a sweet consolation strike late on. But QPR’s reliance on him is unhealthy in their perilous situation. Their head coach Chris Ramsey said as much after the game. Apart from Austin, only five players have chipped in with Premier League goals this season (Leroy Fer, who is now injured, is next best with four, Niko Kranjcar and Bobby Zamora each have two, and Steven Caulker and Eduardo Vargas one). The lack of alternative goal threat really told once Austin had got that goal back against Arsenal. Could QPR pile the pressure on in search of an equaliser? The reality was it felt like Austin or nothing, and nothing materialised. The squad left behind by Harry Redknapp does not have enough options in the striking department, with Vargas not delivering much in the box in QPR colours and Mauro Zárate barely figuring at all. Goals from midfield are scarce, too. QPR have the fewest different scorers among the main relegation candidates and it is making their job all the more difficult. Amy Lawrence

Match report: QPR 1-2 Arsenal

With 15 league goals, Charlie Austin has scored more than half of QPR’s total tally of 28.Photograph: Christopher Lee/Getty Images

9) Could Can be the next captain of Liverpool?

The stand-off over a new contract between Jordan Henderson and Liverpool is mirrored by Brendan Rodgers’ reluctance to confirm his vice-captain is in pole position to replace Steven Gerrard as club captain. A coincidence is unlikely and Rodgers’ reticence is understandable – how can Liverpool hand the responsibility to a player who will enter the final 12 months of his current deal this summer? Maybe it is all part of the bargaining and the armband will be Henderson’s when or if he signs up to Liverpool’s terms. Or the Liverpool manager has someone else in mind? Rodgers paid credit to Henderson’s growing influence on Liverpool’s young team after the win over Burnley but the tribute was nothing in comparison to the effusive praise he showered on Emre Can after the game. “I look at Emre and I think in a couple of years he could play in any team in world football, that’s how highly I rate him,” said Rodgers. “He’s settled into the game in this country very well and the crowd love him. He does the dirty work as well. He doesn’t just look nice, he is aggressive, has great composure and he’ll develop into a world-class player.” Andy Hunter

Match report: Liverpool 2-0 Burnley

10) Mason building his game at Spurs

Ryan Mason’s timing was finally in. With Tottenham Hotspur level against Swansea City and labouring under the pressure of getting the victory that was demanded for several reasons – chiefly, to ease the post-Capital One Cup final blues – the midfielder sensed his moment. Sprinting into the box, he took the ball in his stride, following Christian Eriksen’s incision and Ashley Williams’ prodded challenge before lashing his shot high into the net. The goal was the spark that Tottenham needed.

Mason has heard criticism for his lack of end product. As the more attacking of the club’s midfield partnership with Nabil Bentaleb, he has to provide more goals and assists. He has the ability but before Wednesday night, his only goal in Tottenham colours had come in the Capital One Cup against Nottingham Forest. Mason is 23. He has been around and, as he always says in interviews, he is not a youngster any more. (He gets some ribbing at the club for his repeated use of that line). This was a big step in the right direction. David Hytner

Match report: Tottenham 3-2 Swansea
Gomis collapses during Spurs-Swansea match



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