Hits and misses: City slicker without Haaland?

Foden show against Villa raises Haaland question

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FREE TO WATCH: Highlights from the Premier League clash between Manchester City and Aston Villa

This was stunning from Phil Foden. Two goals from outside the box, including his first Manchester City goal direct from a free-kick, the one from inside the area might have been the most picture perfect of the lot, beautifully placed into the bottom corner.

He was not credited with the assist for the opening goal but he was its architect, splitting the Aston Villa defence to find Jeremy Doku. It was a joy to watch him enjoying himself in that central role and with freedom to burst into the spaces vacated by Julian Alvarez.

Pep Guardiola will be reluctant for the aftermath of this victory to morph into a conversation about whether City are more fluid without their star forward Erling Haaland, dropped to the bench for this 4-1 win. But it is a legitimate topic for debate given the performance.

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Sky Sports’ Adam Bate and Ben Ransom discuss how Phil Foden is thriving in a central role for Manchester City as they chase a fourth Premier League title in a row.

City have won six and drawn one of the seven Premier League games that Haaland has not started this season. Perhaps even more significantly, given that they win most of the ones he plays too, they have scored at least two goals in each of those seven games.

They average more goals per game without him than with him. And the sight of Foden, Bernardo Silva and Rico Lewis popping the ball around, made it easy to see why. This felt like City close to their best, how a Guardiola team tends to look. With Foden at its heart.
Adam Bate

Arsenal’s brick-wall defence is phenomenal

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FREE TO WATCH: Highlights from the Premier League clash between Arsenal and Luton

Rarely does a Premier League game feel like a training session. This was Arsenal at half speed. You sensed with his team selection that Mikel Arteta wanted two key outcomes from this clash with Luton. Rest key limbs and win the game. Tick. Tick.

His boys put on a job-done performance. Declan Rice was rested from the start, while Bukayo Saka was given the night off. Emile Smith Rowe and Reiss Nelson got some important minutes, showcasing that they remain an option for Arteta if required to change a game during a hectic period of fixtures.

Arsenal rarely dazzled in a timid attacking performance, but they were not required to. One goal is enough when you have a centre-back pairing that is able to restrict opposition forwards to such low-quality chances. Arteta told my colleague Nick Wright last week that this Arsenal team “have a love for defending” and it was on show yet again.

Luton had scored in their previous 17 Premier League games. They are a hard team to keep quiet. Yet Arsenal restricted them to just five shots, one on target, to a backdrop of expected goals against of just 0.27.

This phenomenal defence has now conceded just three goals in their last nine matches and have conceded just a per 90 average of 0.4 worth of expected goals across their last 10 Premier League games. A remarkable number considering they have played Manchester City and Liverpool in that period. It is a title-winning defence. No question.
Lewis Jones

Brighton’s scoring problem could cost them

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FREE TO WATCH: Highlights from the Premier League clash between Brentford and Brighton

Brighton’s inability to keep clean sheets this season has been seen as their Achilles heel in their pursuit of European football again.

But when the dust settles on this campaign if they do finish outside the top seven, or eight, it could be their goalscoring which sees them fall short.

You could easily point to the Seagulls’ goals-for column. They have netted one more than seventh-placed West Ham, and 11 more than Man Utd in sixth.

But 18 of those came in the first six games of the season, when they were scoring for fun and set an early marker for a Champions League spot.

More recently things have gone south. Their last 14 games have given rise to only 18 goals and four wins.

Defeats have still been few and far between but it does not take an xG model to work out where things need to improve when five of those matches have been 0-0 or 1-1 draws, each against teams they would expect to beat.

Roberto De Zerbi pointed to his players’ performance and said they should have won, because of the 24 shots they racked up at the Gtech. But how many of those would have made a highlights reel?

Losing players like Kaoru Mitoma and Joao Pedro for long periods of the season and Evan Ferguson not hitting the same heights as the last campaign does not help.

Brighton do not have the deepest squad in the league by a mile – hence De Zerbi’s public call for investment last week.

But he has made his name with attacking football, with or without his star players. And it would be a shame if losing that cost them in the end.
Ron Walker

Luton winning hearts but not points

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FREE TO WATCH: Highlights from the Premier League clash between Arsenal and Luton

Luton’s survival chances will not be decided with results like the 2-0 defeat at Arsenal but – make no mistake – they are in a rut.

For all the plaudits and goodwill in their direction, it is now just one win in 13 Premier League matches, losing seven of their last nine. It would have been nine straight defeats but for two late equalisers vs Crystal Palace and Nottingham Forest. They lost both of those games on the expected goals battle too.

Late goals are a great sign of their never-say-die attitude, yes, but performances are on the wane according to the underlying numbers. In their last five games they have averaged just 0.8 worth of expected goals and conceded 2.1 worth of expected goals against. On current form, that type of expected goals difference calculation ranks them as the worst team in the league – by a distance.

Of course, this can all be caveated with the injury issues. Rob Edwards’ squad is decimated and his players are giving everything for the club and its likeable manager. But, to be ruthless, it might not be enough.
Lewis Jones

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