Arsenal gave their fans a scare against Leeds, their four-goal advantage halved in the space of 11 second-half minutes as the visitors threatened a comeback. But while the win was not as emphatic as it might have been, it was still an overwhelmingly positive evening for Mikel Arteta’s side.
Not least because of the way in which their attack clicked.
Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang marked his return to the team with a clinical hat-trick, claiming the man-of-the-match award and walking off the pitch with the ball safely stowed under his arm. But it was the trio of players behind him who provided the ammunition.
Emile Smith Rowe, Bukayo Saka and Martin Odegaard, the latter making his full debut, were outstanding, their one-touch combination play and intelligent movement pulling Leeds apart and creating the gaps which Aubameyang gleefully exploited.
Saka was the pick of them, his determination to make his mark on the game seemingly growing every time he was brought tumbling to the turf by a Leeds player. The teenager won five fouls and two penalties, if you count the one dubiously overturned by VAR, his speed and acceleration terrifying the visitors.
Smith Rowe will be told he didn’t mean the assist for Aubameyang’s hat-trick goal but it was typically selfless of him to pick out his captain rather than shoot himself and while the shape on the cross was unusual, his eyes, directed across goal rather than at it, showed the intention.
Odegaard, meanwhile, had Arteta practically purring in his post-match interview with Sky Sports. The Norwegian did not score or set up any of Arsenal’s goals but there were some brilliant touches and plenty of industry too. At the time of his substitution, he had covered more ground (10km) than any other player on the pitch.
“Big credit to him to play his first Premier League start against Leeds after not playing a lot of football in the last three months,” said Arteta. “To run the way he did, how confident and creative he was on the ball and the personality he showed was great.”
This was only the second time since July that Arsenal have scored four goals in a Premier League game. Carry on with Smith Rowe, Saka and Odegaard behind Aubameyang, however, and there will surely be more examples to come.
Before facing West Brom, Man Utd manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer declared to Sky Sports: “This won’t be fun” – and it most certainly wasn’t.
They once again conceded early on – now winning a league-high 22 points from losing positions this season – and their first-half play was slow and laborious. You’d have to point to a marathon FA Cup fifth-round tie against West Ham as being a factor, with six players starting again at The Hawthorns.
But that man Bruno Fernandes popped up with another moment of magic that ultimately rescued a point for Man Utd, sending a thunderous volley home. While the midfielder cannot profess to having been at his best on Sunday, he was ultimately vital to the result.
Man Utd were improved after the break, but despite seeing a huge 73.1 per cent of possession, you cannot profess to recall many chances for them, bar two quickfire chances in the middle of the half and a late strike from Harry Maguire tipped over the crossbar. In fact, it was West Brom who could have scored a couple on the counter, missing some truly glorious chances.
Against a side who have just 13 points and have won only two Premier League games this season, Man Utd toiled to a point. After conceding a late equaliser against Everton last weekend, it’s another stumble for United as they target a title challenge up against Manchester City.
“That is an exceptionally poor performance and result for Manchester United,” summarised Graeme Souness on Sky Sports.
United have taken just 10 points from their last seven games, with only two wins against struggling Fulham and out-of-form Southampton. They returned to second in the table on goal difference after Sunday’s draw, but are seven points behind a Man City side who are on an incredible winning run.
While Solskjaer said Man Utd will not be settling for second, the reality is they will need to find a lot more to push for that top spot because Man City are close to running away with the Premier League title once again.
Mbaye Diagne has been threatening his first Premier League strike for a few games now. He had two goals ruled out for offside against Tottenham last weekend, and it took him just 83 seconds to finally open his account against Man Utd.
It was clear that West Brom’s game plan was to pump the ball into the area for Diagne to get on to. It’s a simple but effective plan that led to the opening goal as he nodded home from Connor Gallagher’s cross.
In a physical league like the Premier League too, his ability to outmuscle defenders – as he did with Victor Lindelof for his goal, and later against Maguire – will be a huge asset. As a former striker, even Solskjaer did not think his tussle with Lindelof for the opener was a foul and that is the fine line Diagne will need to walk.
He could have added two more late on too. The first saw two quick saves from De Gea before Diagne blazed wide of the post in what should have been the West Brom winner. Misses like that could be the difference between survival and relegation for the Baggies.
Before his January arrival on loan for Galatasaray, Sam Allardyce had been crying out for a player who could score goals. He has certainly found the potential in Diagne and now he needs to be scoring more of the opportunities that fall his way.
It has been a few weeks of severe discomfort for Southampton. Six consecutive league defeats marks the worst run in their history. The Saints were top of the Premier League barely three months ago, but they have become a team of extremes, and right now they cannot buy a point let alone a win.
Ralph Hasenhuttl did find solitude in the FA Cup in midweek and a place in the quarter-finals was secured at the expense of Wolves, but the alleviation in pressure has proven only temporary.
There were signs of the old Southampton in the first half with Danny Ings’ sumptuous volley taking them into the break deservedly in front, but their confidence drained away from them following a marginal penalty decision involving Ryan Bertrand that swung the momentum in Wolves’ favour.
Hasenhuttl contested: “The referee explained that Ryan’s arm was stretched away from the body but it was the shot which took the arm away. I’m normally a big fan of VAR and if it followed the rules, it would be easy. I don’t know what Mr Atkinson saw today but they’re not doing a good job at the moment. Then, it does destroy the game.”
The defeat will certainly sting for Hasenhuttl, but his players must take the positives from a vibrant opening hour into their home game with Chelsea next weekend if they are to demonstrate how their position in the bottom half is merely a temporary arrangement.
The taskmaster Austrian had hoped the cup win at Molineux would prove the catalyst for a return to league form, but instead Saints’ wait to put that 9-0 hammering at Manchester United fully to bed goes on.
It will take more than Sunday’s 2-1 win over Southampton for some Wolves fans to forgive Nuno Espirito Santo’s decision to field a weakened team in their FA Cup tie against the same opposition three days earlier. But the result does at least provide a degree of vindication for the under-fire manager.
Pedro Neto and Adama Traore were among those rested for the 2-0 loss at Molineux which cost Wolves a place in the FA Cup quarter-finals, and after a wretched first-half display at St Mary’s, the duo were instrumental in helping Wolves fight back to claim three points as the two sides locked horns again.
Wolves were perhaps fortunate to be awarded their penalty after Ryan Bertrand’s inadvertent handball, but they were the superior side throughout the second period, with Pedro Neto’s stunning individual strike clinching a win they deserved on the balance of play.
Neto and Traore’s energy and directness was too much for Southampton and, given the packed schedule this season, Nuno can justifiably argue that his young stars might not have had those performances in them had they started Thursday’s FA Cup tie.
Nuno still has work to do to turn Wolves’ season around – this was only their second win in 10 Premier League games – but his jubilant celebration with his coaching staff at the final whistle showed how much it meant. A satisfying afternoon for the man in the dugout.