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Premier League: 10 talking points from this weekend’s action

Pep Guardiola makes a strangely conservative call, Burnley’s tailspin continues, and the irresistible smell of schadenfreude wafts from the London Stadium

The Dozen: the weekend’s best Premier League photos

Clockwise from bottom left: Demarai Gray, Sean Dyche, Sam Allardyce, Raheem Sterling, Jordan Pickford.

Clockwise from bottom left: Demarai Gray, Sean Dyche, Sam Allardyce, Raheem Sterling, Jordan Pickford. Composite: Action Images, Reuters, LCFC/Getty Images, AMA/Getty Images, PA

1) Sterling’s withdrawal took sting out of City

Pep Guardiola said his decision to replace Raheem Sterling with Yaya Touré at half-time was a tactical one, intended to give Manchester City an edge in possession. Statistically his decision was justified – his team played over 100 more passes in the second half than the first – but they were also more predictable and slower in their transitions. Sterling did not have his best half of football but with Leroy Sané and the England winger on the pitch City have two ultra-mobile options who can stretch opposition defences. Touré’s introduction, with City 2-1 up, slowed their play and gave Arsenal’s defence a bit of respite when they were there for the taking. Guardiola’s tactical tweaks are usually bold. Introducing a leisurely midfielder for an effervescent attacker was not from this school of thought – it was a conservative switch that played into Arsenal’s hands. Gregg Bakowski

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 Wenger: Show of mental strength against Manchester City will help rebuild confidence

2) Could Burnley be in danger of the drop?

Could Burnley yet be dragged into the relegation equation? Sean Dyche’s team were in the top half of the Premier League at the start of February but a return of only three points from a potential 21 since then has seen the gap between them and the bottom three eroded to just five. Dyche, however, contextualised their current standing when he said: “As the season goes on and things adjust due to results, people soon forget that everyone gave us no chance of even being in the division let alone anything else. We haven’t lost sight of the realities, we know it’s a tough challenge and it still will be. There are important games coming up and they will be important for everyone.” Indeed, victory over Stoke would alter the landscape once again, taking Burnley to 35 points, and almost certainly one win from safety. Richard Gibson

3) Hats off to Allardyce for finding value in the January sales

Finding value for money during the January transfer window is not always easy. Yet Sam Allardyce has often negotiated the winter market successfully. When he kept Bolton Wanderers up in 2003 his loan signing of Florent Laville from Lyon steadied his team’s leaky defence, while bringing in Jan Kirchhoff, Wahbi Khazri and Lamine Koné helped save Sunderland last season. Now Crystal Palace are feeling the benefits of Allardyce’s canny transfer work. Mamadou Sakho, on loan from Liverpool, has been superb in the middle of defence and Luka Milivojevic has been inspired in central midfield since signing from Olympiakos. “There’s no doubt the transfer market has been a massive influence,” Allardyce said after the shock win against Chelsea. “Our selection of players, as you saw today, have done exceptionally good, and that’s made a difference.” Jacob Steinberg
January signing Luka Milivojevic keeps an eye on Eden Hazard.
 January signing Luka Milivojevic keeps an eye on Eden Hazard. Photograph: TGSPhoto/REX/Shutterstock

4) West Ham are floundering with Bilic

It takes a strong constitution to find no humour, black or otherwise, in the goings-on at West Ham. A board which was certain it knew best, using taxpayers’ moneyto relocate their club – from a tight, intimidating ground to a soulless hangar – in order to contest the Champions League places, only to end up in a relegation scrap. West Ham have lost their last four games and while two of those came against Leicester City and Chelsea, the champions and champions-elect, they have also been beaten by Bournemouth and, on Saturday, Hull. Like Crystal Palace, Hull look likely to stay in the top division thanks to momentum generated by clever management while, on the other hand, Slaven Bilic is floundering. And though in one significant aspect the fault is not his, he has had seven months to make things better and must find something that works soon. Daniel Harris

5) Gray seizes his unexpected chance

Until Saturday Demarai Gray was one of the few Leicester City players who had not experienced a radical upturn in form since the ousting of Claudio Ranieri. Craig Shakespeare has remained as reluctant as the Italian to entrust Gray with a starting place, and the 20-year-old would have been on the bench again for the visit of Stoke City if not for Marc Albrighton’s illness. But Gray seized his chance with style, in a performance that may make it difficult for Albrighton to get back in the side and which increases the pressure on Riyad Mahrez to regain top form. Gray’s display was all the more impressive given he was, in is own words, “wiped out” by Ryan Shawcross in the 17th minute. “I just take it as a compliment,” Gray said. “If they see me as a threat it’s a good thing and that’s good for the team because if they focus on me that could take the focus off other players.” Paul Doyle

6) Koeman’s ‘master tactician’ dig backfires

Maybe it was just a blatant attempt at protecting his players, but Ronald Koeman’s post‑match press conference was as weak as the performance that preceded it. Everton were woeful at Anfield, with Ross Barkley and Joel Robles a greater threat to their own team than Liverpool. Koeman said: “I’m really proud of my team. We controlled the game. I’m proud of how we played, that’s the way I like.” Injuries had forced his hand to some degree but he shares responsibility for a display that bore no resemblance to how he described it. His formation allowed Liverpool to dominate central midfield and the selection of so many young players, while a boost to the Everton academy, was reckless with Gareth Barry and Kevin Mirallas on the bench. Having spent the night before the derby criticising Martin O’Neill on social media, Koeman’s dig about being “the master tactician” rebounded badly. Andy Hunter
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 Merseyside derby: Klopp praises Liverpool after 3-1 win over Everton

7) Shaw’s Manchester United career in jeopardy

Luke Shaw’s Manchester United career is in crisis after José Mourinho questioned the left-back’s ambition, focus, commitment and training. The manager left the England man out of the squad for this goalless draw with West Bromwich Albion, playing Ashley Young at left-back and selecting Matteo Darmian and Daley Blind on the bench. Asked why, Mourinho said: “It’s difficult for Shaw to be on the bench because I cannot compare him with Ashley Young, with Darmian, with Blind. I cannot compare the way he trains, the way he way he commits, the focus, the ambition. I cannot compare. He is a long way behind.” Mourinho was particularly scathing when it was put to him that Shaw was in Gareth Southgate’s most recent England squad. “Joe Hart is an English international and is playing on loan in Italy,” he said. It seems a very long way back for Shaw. Jamie Jackson

8) Stephens shines to fill Van Dijk’s boots

Much of the discussion at St Mary’s after this stalemate inevitably involved Jack Wilshere, who was superb off the bench, but another Jack was again mightily impressive. Jack Stephens, a defender making just his sixth Premier League start, stood firm and calm amid Bournemouth’s late onslaught. Southampton’s academy has been quite the conveyor belt in recent years, especially developing defenders, and Stephens, who joined the club as a 17-year-old from Plymouth Argyle, has more than looked the part since being asked to fill Virgil van Dijk’s sizeable boots. His performances have prevented Martín Cáceres from making his first‑team debut. Cáceres has had to bide his time – building his match fitness with the under-23s, where Stephens began the season – as the England Under‑21 international goes from strength to strength. Ben Fisher

9) Lack of risk doesn’t pay off for Clement and Agnew

Games are running out, with the situation desperate for Middlesbrough and precarious for Swansea City in the relegation scrap, yet an opportunity passed them both by on an afternoon when neither manager seemed willing to take the risks that could have led to victory. Gambles, of course, can go wrong, yet a point was not enough for these teams in the context of results elsewhere. Paul Clement decided against making a single substitution, which seemed strange given Swansea’s failure to find a way through a stubborn Boro defence. As for Middlesbrough, the Premier League’s lowest scorers registered only one shot on target against the worst defence in the top flight. They still have Arsenal, Manchester City, Chelsea and Liverpool to play in the run-in. Surely the match at Swansea was an occasion when they had to go for it. Stuart James

10) Sunderland going down, but Pickford won’t go with them

Sunderland took another trudging step towards relegation and the narrow but meek nature of their defeat was all too familiar. With Jermain Defoe subdued there was one exception to the general malaise: Jordan Pickford will surely remain in the Premier League regardless of what happens to the Wearside club. The goalkeeper made at least four excellent saves to keep his side in the match, and the 23‑year‑old looks like the real deal. His mentality was just as notable, staying calm in key moments and taking charge of a defence inadequately protected by the players in front of them. “He’s a top young goalkeeper and now beginning to look like a top senior goalkeeper,” David Moyes said. “If he keeps up his form there’ll be few keepers who can produce what he can.” His opposite number, Walter Mazzarri, echoed the praise: “I’ve never seen a keeper so good with his feet.” Paul MacInnes
Jordan Pickford, who might not be with Sunderland for much longer.
 Jordan Pickford, who might not be with Sunderland for much longer. Photograph: Ian Tuttle/BPI/REX/Shutterstock

Source: The Guardian UK