1) How much longer can Conte stay?
Will Antonio Conte be in charge of Tottenham for their next fixture, on 3 April at Everton? Those in the St Mary’s press room on Saturday evening were in little doubt that his instant-classic rant – two questions batted away during 10 minutes of fury – was a kiss-off, an ejector seat activated. Conte levelled blame at everyone but himself and even threw an olive branch to his predecessors, a list including arch-rival José Mourinho. “They can change the manager, a lot of managers, but the situation cannot change,” Conteclared in a critique of the club’s culture, and by extension, the owners Enic and the chairman, Daniel Levy. It was the players who received the most bilious invective, creating a potentially awkward situation post-international break, should Conte still be around. “They don’t want to play under pressure, they don’t want to play under stress,” he hissed. Listening back to the tape, it was amusing to hear Conte entering the room with a demure apology for being late.
2) Weghorst still not bringing enough
Since joining Manchester United, Wout Weghorst has started every game, his team winning 12, drawing four and losing two. But in that time he’s scored twice, the second in a 3-0 win and the fourth in a 4-1 win. It’s easy to see what he adds, defending from the front while showing aggression and trying hard – contributions that should be the minimum expected, from any player – and he also adds height to a short side, useful when defending set-pieces and launching clearances over the press. However, United have plentiful attacking options and, though Weghorst is a stop-gap pending the summer arrival of a serious striker, they would surely be a more cohesive and dangerous side, now, with Marcus Rashford in the middle of a fluid front-three flanked by two of Antony, Jadon Sancho, Facundo Pellistri and Alejandro Garnacho. It’s harsh to say, but a centre-forward who isn’t a goal-threat is barely a centre-forward at all.
3) Doyle delight spoiled by City draw
“My wish is that we don’t draw Manchester City,” said the Sheffield United manager, Paul Heckingbottom, a couple of hours before they drew Manchester City in the semi-finals of the FA Cup. And so amid the euphoria of their last-gasp victory over Blackburn, there was disappointment for James McAtee and winning goalscorer Tommy Doyle, who as City loan players will be ineligible to play against their parent club in the semi-final. Were it not for competition regulations, Pep Guardiola would probably be tempted to let McAtee and Doyle get some big-game experience at Wembley. As it is, both players will be there, but only as spectators. Doyle, for his part, was sanguine about the prospect: “If it happens, it happens.”
4) Holding role is key with Saliba out
It says everything about Arsenal’s changed priorities that losing William Saliba to a back injury against Sporting in midweek felt more damaging than going out of the Europa League. Where, in the first two seasons under Mikel Arteta, the second-tier competition became a final lifeline in the struggle for Champions League qualification – slipping out of Arsenal’s hands on both occasions – this season’s title challenge made it peripheral. Saliba, by contrast, has been absolutely central to the team’s success this term and the sight of him leaving the field accompanied by medical staff must have left Arteta with a queasy feeling. The Arsenal manager will have been relieved at the way Rob Holding deputised against Crystal Palace, delivering a confident performance alongside Gabriel Magalhães. Other than the lapse at a corner which allowed Jeffrey Schlupp to score a consolation, Arsenal’s defence was solid. While the international break provides some breathing space, Arteta can take solace in having decent cover while Saliba recovers.
5) Chelsea need creators to deliver
It’s hardly a secret that Chelsea’s great problem is their inability to turn possession into decent chances, but the stats are nevertheless striking. No player in this Chelsea squad has registered more than two league assists this season. Kai Havertz is their top scorer with seven and Raheem Sterling second in that list with four. Saturday’s draw with Everton was very familiar: lots of pretty possession, but the only real penetration came through the wing-backs. As Reece James and Ben Chilwell return to fitness, that offers a little more thrust, but also takes Chelsea back to where they were under Thomas Tuchel. The incoming Christopher Nkunku may or may not be the No 9 who unlocks everything, but somehow they have to find threat through the middle. They have the creators, but they need to get them creating.
6) Break threatens City momentum
Manchester City are set for a crucial April after the upcoming international break. It will start with the visit of Liverpool in the Premier League, before both legs of their Champions League quarter final with Bayern Munich, an FA Cup semi-final and then the visit of title rivals Arsenal. The combined 13-0 scoreline in routs of RB Leipzig and Burnley – including eight Erling Haaland goals – would have been ideal preparation for those upcoming fixtures. Before then, though, the majority of Pep Guardiola’s squad will be heading all over the world to represent their countries. Pep Guardiola, who will travel to Barcelona and Abu Dhabi during his time off, will be hoping they all return fit and healthy, with the same spirit and quality they have shown in recent matches. Very few things are as useful in football as momentum and it is worth harnessing at such a crucial point in the season.
7) Has Emery finally found best system?
Unai Emery took over from Steven Gerrard in October, and since then Villa have been better but still erratic, winning two consecutive league games just three times. The problem has not been a lack of good players – the club has plenty – but which of them to deploy, and in what formation. Perhaps, though, the right blend has finally been found, a 4-2-3-1 giving good balance between attack and defence – especially in midfield, with John McGinn and Douglas Luiz driving from deep while Leon Bailey, Emi Buendía and Jacob Ramsey dash and prompt in behind Ollie Watkins. All five were excellent against Bournemouth with Luiz, Ramsey and Buendía scoring. Emery faces a difficult decision when Boubacar Kamara is fit again – prior to his injury, McGinn was being crowbarred into the team on the right of a 4-4-2. In the meantime the current starting XI, which looks far more flexible than previous iterations, can bed in, allowing those in it the opportunity to make themselves undroppable.
8) Ferguson shows his elite quality
Evan Ferguson’s first touch was perfect to bring the ball under control, his second set him up for a shot and his third was a perfect finish into the corner. The striker did everything in one movement, ensuring the Grimsby defenders were unable to tackle him. He added a second with an efficient drive into the box and precise shot. The Irish teenager has impressed since making his first-team debut last season but is now firmly part of the squad and is clearly growing in confidence under Roberto De Zerbi. The striker does not turn 19 until the autumn so still has plenty of time to improve but the signs are positive for Ferguson. Brighton owner Tony Bloom says “the world is his oyster” and with composure like he possesses, Bloom might have to fend off some big bids for the Ferguson in years to come.
9) Henry to join Toney in England setup?
While Ivan Toney had a rare off-day as he hopes to become the first Brentford player to represent England’s senior side since Les Smith in May 1939, it was another of Thomas Frank’s side who caught the eye in the draw against Leicester on Saturday. Rico Henry – the 25-year-old signed from Walsall in 2016 for an initial £1.5m – has developed into a rampaging left-back who looks capable of making the step up to international level sooner rather than later. Gareth Southgate is said to be keeping a close eye on the former England youth player’s progress in a position where he has limited options at present. “I’m sure that Gareth is considering him for the future,” said Frank. “All you can do as a player is keep doing well and adding layers. He’s been very consistent after recovering from a couple of injuries.”
10) Wolves howl over refereeing calls
When do refereeing decisions against your team justify suspicions of a conspiracy? Julen Lopetegui, the Wolves manager, said he could “write a book” about the list of calls that have gone against his team this year. Wolves have been on the wrong end of match-changing decisions against Liverpool in the FA Cup, Nottingham Forest in the Carabao Cup, and Newcastle in the league – never mind Mario Lemina’s red card at Southampton. Howard Webb, PGMOL’s chief refereeing officer, has apologised to the club for the first three decisions. It will be interesting to see what he makes of Junior Firpo’s penalty-area tackle on Nelson Semedo, with Leeds winning 1-0, after the referee Michael Salisbury refrained from checking the pitchside monitor. “At the end of the season things normally even out, but we are very unlucky,” Lopetegui said. “The referee decisions until this moment – it’s incredible.”
Bonus ball: VAR keeps confounding fans
Dull, yet wholly necessary: it can only be more VAR chatter. On Friday night, Elliot Anderson nodded in what would have been his first Newcastle goal. But Paul Tierney, at VAR official Peter Bankes’ direction, determined Sean Longstaff offside. Indisputably, Longstaff was stood offside when Alexander Isak initially crossed. He was not, though, interfering, preventing, challenging, gaining an advantage etc. That centre was first blocked by Felipe, before Moussa Niakhaté’s attempted clearance struck Longstaff. Isak then found Anderson. Several minutes later, Tierney determined that neither Forest defender had played the ball deliberately. Subsequently, the play was one ‘phase’ and the goal was disallowed. Observers were perplexed, and the decision only added to the burgeoning sense that VAR’s faults lie less with the technology, and more with those implementing it. What can be done? Mic the officials up for a start. And simplify the rule: Longstaff could simply be deemed offside from the initial cross. It would interrupt the flow a little to start with, but at least everyone would know where they stand.