After the dismal spectacle of last weekend’s bore draw, the FA Cup produced a classic Manchester United vs Liverpool derby. Football is always more fun when the game matters but doesn’t matter too much; both teams played with freedom and attacking endeavour.
This was a team performance from Ole Gunnar’s Solskjaer’s side — derby victories are rarely anything else. But Luke Shaw was arguably the game’s best player, despite Mohamed Salah’s two goals. His outlet overlapping down the left flank allowed Marcus Rashford to drift inside and support Edinson Cavani.
Shaw is enjoying a redemptive period of club form, surely in part thanks to the competition provided by Alex Telles in his position. Were Gareth Southgate to pick his squad for Euro2020 tomorrow, Shaw would be a part of it and may well now be first-choice left-back. After three years of form and fitness issues, United are finally seeing the potential that persuaded them to pay Southampton £30m for him.
Steve Bruce is probably right that Newcastle United looked a little better against Aston Villa. They had chances to draw level after Ollie Watkins’ opening goal. They offered some attacking intent with a 5-3-2 formation, their third different shape in as many matches.
But Bruce has three distinct problems. The first is that improvement only came from a dismally low starting point; Newcastle had failed to score in six of their previous seven matches and hadn’t won in nine. That improvement was also not enough to spark a change in fortunes: Newcastle still lost and still failed to score. Finally, Bruce has already lost the support of Newcastle’s fanbase and they are unlikely to be swayed by an away defeat.
Sometimes the opinion of supporters can be skewed by social media noise; perhaps that is still the case. But with fans blocked from attending matches, Newcastle fans only have one outlet to voice their frustrations and they are not hard to find.
For all Mike Ashley’s flaws as an owner, impatience is not one. It seems clear that Bruce will be safe until relegation becomes a more present danger. But with Fulham enjoying a gentler run of fixtures and Brighton and Burnley improving, Newcastle must start picking up points soon.
It might seem a little misjudged to pour praise on Yves Bissouma having scored a wonderful long-range goal, given that is easily the least important part of his game. But Brighton supporters have long known that their central midfielder is comfortably their most prized asset. While big clubs fell over each other to be linked to Ben White, he is not the first Brighton player I’d put on my Big Six shopping list.
At just 24, Bissouma is a phenomenally rounded footballer. He breaks up play as well as any holding midfielder in the league, but also has a range of passing and composure on the ball to match. Brighton desperately need a goalscoring centre forward, but they would already be cut adrift without Bissouma.
“I think the best Yves Bissouma can, absolutely,” said Graham Potter when asked on Saturday whether Bissouma had Champions League quality. “He has got that quality, he has got the attributes you need at that level.” Potter is right. Expect clubs to come knocking in the summer.
2020/21 has been a rotten season for Sheffield United. Even halfway through the season it seems unthinkable that they will survive relegation; avoiding Derby County’s record low points total may be the only realistic challenge.
But the FA Cup does provide Chris Wilder and his players with some solace. Sheffield United haven’t reached a domestic cup final since 1936, but were handed gentle draws against Bristol Rovers and Plymouth Argyle in rounds three and four and face Championship Bristol City at Bramall Lane in round five.
If Wilder does indeed believe that survival in the league is an impossibility — and he is not at that stage yet — he may well prioritise the FA Cup in a way that bigger Premier League teams who are competing in Europe are unlikely to do. A trip to Wembley, even without their travelling support, would be a fine way to mark the end to their stay in the top flight.
An awful lot has been written about Frank Lampard’s future and there’s no doubt that Chelsea’s transfer spend last summer increased the pressure on him to keep them in the top four. But while Timo Werner and Kai Havertz take time to acclimatise to England and English football, Lampard is fortunate to have a wonderful crop of academy graduates to call upon.
You could almost name an entire starting XI of homegrown young players, but for now Tammy Abraham, Mason Mount, Reece James and Billy Gilmour will do. Abraham scored the first FA Cup hattrick by an Englishman for Chelsea since Lampard, but he was ably supported by Mount’s running, James’ overlapping and crossing, and Gilmour dictating the tempo of Chelsea’s play.
But with Werner toiling again — and missing a penalty — it was Abraham who took his chance most emphatically. He has 17 goals and assists in 1,300 club minutes this season. Were he the new signing boasting the same record, would we not be falling over ourselves to hail him as an elite-level centre forward?