10 things we learned as Premier League title race hots up but Man Utd take step backwards

Guardiola hails Sterling after 100th Premier League goal

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The Premier League continued its relentless schedule over the weekend, with all of the top three winning to keep pace in the brewing title race. Manchester City, Chelsea and Liverpool all picked up much-needed victories, but all three needed penalties to secure three points on another dramatic weekend of action.

Manchester United also won thanks to a spot-kick, while there were morale-boosting victories for Arsenal and Leicester.

Things are much less rosy at the bottom of the table, with Newcastle, Watford, Southampton and Everton suffering damaging defeats.

Teams will barely be able to catch their breath before yet more matches. But before the attention turns to the mid-week round of fixtures, here are the Premier League talking points.

Rangnick’s Man Utd overhaul needs work

Ralf Rangnick can take some positives from their 1-0 wins against Crystal Palace and Norwich City in the Premier League under his tenure, but a six-point haul from the two games flattered their performances.

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United showed signs of defensive improvement after the German took charge, albeit against modest opposition, with his all-out pressing tactics consolidating a shaky rearguard which leaked goals under his predecessors.

However, United looked bereft of cutting edge up front in both games and although Rangnick may argue the team showed the patience they had lacked, he will be aware that moving up a level will not be an easy task

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Maddison back to his best

Leicester City midfielder James Maddison has a good claim as being the most in-form player in the Premier League at the moment.

Maddison made a slow start to the season, taking nine games to record his first goal or assist for Brendan Rodgers’ side, but he’s now back to his best.

The 25-year-old was the star of the show on Sunday, scoring and picking up two assists in the Foxes’ 4-0 win over Newcastle.

He now has three goals and four assists in his last four Premier League games. If he keeps it up then calls for an England call-up will surely resurface.

Aubameyang captaincy under threat

Arsenal had a good weekend, thrashing Southampton 3-0 at the Emirates Stadium to bounce back from their defeat at Everton.

And yet the events off the pitch somewhat undermined the good work on it for the Gunners, with Mikel Arteta forced to talk about Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang.

Aubameyang was dropped from the squad for the match after reportedly returning late from a trip abroad for personal reasons.

It was the 32-year-old’s second such misdemeanour of the year, following a similar incident before the 2-1 win over Spurs in March, and Arteta must be giving serious consideration to stripping him of the captaincy.

Chelsea defence creaking

Thomas Tuchel was full of praise for Jorginho after the Italian netted two penalties in Chelsea’s 3-2 win over Leeds on Saturday, but he must also be concerned about the team’s defensive woes.

The Blues have been rock-solid for the vast majority of Tuchel’s time at the club, with all their good play built from the back.

Yet they have been wobbling of late, conceding eight goals in their last three games. Chelsea have now gone five games in all competitions without a clean sheet. Their defence has turned from their best asset to a real problem.

Thursday’s match against misfiring Everton at Stamford Bridge represents a good opportunity to get back on track.

Ranieri facing crunch game

Claudio Ranieri was known as the great entertainer during his successful spell in charge of Leicester and that title is still apt at Watford.

But that for all the wrong reasons at the moment: the Hornets are very watchable, yet are losing every week.

Watford have scored in six of Ranieri’s eight Premier League matches and in all of their last five, yet they have lost all of the last four following Friday’s 2-1 defeat by Brentford.

Ranieri’s brief stint has included unforgettable high-scoring wins over Everton and Manchester United, but they are losing the matches they perhaps shouldn’t be.

Watford haven’t kept a clean sheet this season and that could be their downfall, with the team sitting in 17th place, two points above the drop zone.

Penalties in fashion

All of the top three, and fifth-placed Manchester United, all won over the weekend, but all four teams required a helping hand from the officials to do so.

Jorginho netted two penalties for Chelsea, while Man City’s Raheem Sterling, Liverpool’s Mohamed Salah and United’s Cristiano Ronaldo all scored the only goals in their games from the spot.

Some of the decisions were more controversial than others – Ronaldo and Salah were both accused of going down easily – but such a weekend is still unprecedented.

All teams need a bit of luck over the course of a long season and four of them got it on the same weekend.

Covid threat ramps up

There were only nine games over the weekend, rather than the usual 10, following an outbreak of coronavirus at Tottenham.

Their game against Brghton was postponed due to a lack of players available, while Leicester, Norwich and Manchester United have all returned positive tests.

With the Omicron variant sweeping the country it seems as though things are only going to get harder for Premier League clubs to deal with.

League officials wrote to clubs last week to reinforce the importance of adhering to Covid protocols as they try to keep the show on the road.

Sterling joins 100 club

Sterling is not always the first name on the Manchester City team sheet, but he made the most of his chance against Wolves on Saturday to join an elite group of Premier League players.

The England international’s 66th-minute penalty was enough to earn his side a sixth successive league victory, as Sterling showed great composure under pressure, slotting the spot kick down the middle.

City boss Pep Guardiola was full of praise for Sterling and his willingness to step forward and take the penalty, given he had missed his last three, with the strike crucial to earn a below-par City victory against a determined Wolves side.

Gerrard handles Anfield return

Few players are as connected with one club as much as Steven Gerrard was with Liverpool and with many observers feeling he would one day return to Anfield as manager, his move to Aston Villa was widely viewed as a stepping stone switch.

But Gerrard is astute enough to know that fans of a club with a rich history like former European champions Aston Villa, would not take kindly to their club being viewed as merely a stopping off point on the way to the ‘real job’.

So Gerrard was quite right to keep the focus of his return to Anfield on Saturday with his current club, refusing to be drawn into nostalgic talk of his time at Anfield and barely acknowledging the applause and chants from the Liverpool faithful.

After the game he remained resolutely on message, ducking invitations to talk about the ’emotions’ of the occasion.

Everton relief short lived

There was a glimmer of relief last Monday when Everton came from a goal down to beat Arsenal but manager Rafael Benitez is back in the firing line after Sunday’s loss at Crystal palace.

While he might argue Everton had a chance to leave London with at least a point, they only performed for the last 20 minutes of the 3-1 defeat and dropped down to 14th in the table.

Everton looked timid and bereft of confidence as Palace dominated the first half, going ahead at half-time and then 2-0 up after an hour thanks to Everton’s defensive frailties.

Benitez prides himself on his defensive work and will be mortified by their sloppiness at the back, and irritated by the petulant response of Richarlison to being substituted.

It was always going to be tough for an ex-Liverpool boss to win over Everton supporters, even with his track record, and a run of one win in their past 10 matches means he is now feeling the heat.

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