The transfer window circus came to a close on Wednesday night, with Arsenal, Chelsea and Borussia Dortmund partaking in the most extravagant three-way since Elton John, David Furnish and [Redacted] proved they were very much Ready For Love. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang arrived in North London having spent the last month telling the Dortmund bosses they weren’t his real Dad, and Olivier Giroud made the switch from Islington to the Kings Road, which fortunately isn’t too far from his favourite hotel. Michy Batshuayi, a striker with a goal every 100 minutes so far this season, was packed away to Germany quicker than a ginger stepson. Elsewhere Manchester City demonstrated their humility by baulking at Leicester City’s £95m valuation of Riyad Mahrez, and had to do with the £57m signing of Aymeric Laporte, while Swansea returned 90% of the money West Ham paid them to reunite the Ayew brothers for reasons best known to themselves.
While everyone was getting wrapped up in watching other people shop, a Premier League gameweek broke out. A full midweek programme began at the Liberty Stadium, with Swansea hoping to build on their recent excellent form against an Arsenal side refreshed from their weekend off, having opted to exit the FA Cup at the first opportunity this season. Arsenal new boy Henrikh Mkhitaryan started the game on the bench, while Carlos Carvalhal lined up his side looking to engulf the visitors attack and look for chances on the break with an ultra-defensive 5-4-1 formation. In fact it was the Swans that carved open the first opportunity of the game, as Alfie Mawson reacted first to a half-cleared corner and curled a shot just wide of the post. With the home defence congested, Arsene Wenger’s side knew it would take some quick and clever passing to find a way through to Lukas Fabianski’s goal, and a slick one-touch move involving Mesut Ozil and Alexandre Lacazette allowed the France forward to slide a ball through to Alex Iwobi, but the winger could only power his shot at the Swans ‘keeper. Slowly but surely gaps began to appear in the hosts backline, and a pinpoint inswinging cross from Ozil evaded a cluster of white shirts to find Nacho Monreal ghosting in at the back post to stab the ball under Fabianski and give Arsenal the lead. Sixty seconds later Ozil was involved in another goal. Looking to play a long pass from his defensive third, the Arsenal schemer was robbed all too easily of the ball, and Mawson was given time and space to play the ball straight into the path of Sam Clucas, who steered a shot into Petr Cech’s near post to level the scores.
In the second half Arsenal, sensing their hosts wouldn’t be committing too many bodies forward any time soon, began to push further up the pitch in the hope of forcing a mistake, but there were audible groans of frustration when Monreal allowed a Swansea punt upfield to trickle out for a throw and relieve the visitors pressure. Worse was to follow as, from the throw, Shkodran Mustafi played a weak pass across his penalty area to Cech, and with three opposition players bearing down on him, the experienced ‘keeper miskicked and allowed Jordan Ayew to tap in and give the struggling Swans the lead. Mustafi’s evening didn’t get much better shortly afterwards, as his attempt at a headed clearance fell straight to the feet of Nathan Dyer, but fortunately for the World Cup winner, the diminutive winger could only shoot wide. Swansea weren’t finished at 2-1, however, and as another long ball pumped forward unsettled the Arsenal backline, Ayew was allowed to circumnavigate Mustafi and pull the ball back for Clucas to volley in a decisive third. A frustrating evening for Arsenal who will no doubt benefit from the arrival of Aubameyang, but perhaps could have done with investing in their brittle backline. For 24 hours at least Swansea emerged from the relegation zone, having looked buried a month ago. Carlos Carvalhal might just be the man to pull off another great escape in South Wales.
Over in Yorkshire, fellow relegation strugglers Huddersfield Town welcomed a Liverpool side who had managed to beat the league leaders, lose to the team at the bottom of the league, and get knocked out of the cup by another relegation struggler in the matter of three games. David Wagner will have been hoping to see the kind of performance from his team that beat Manchester United and took Manchester City to the wire, rather than the side that succumbed to heavy beatings from Tottenham Hotspur and Chelsea. The early signs looked good as Laurent Depoitre tested Loris Karius with a shot from the edge of the box, but with just over a quarter of the game gone, Liverpool took the initiative. A cross from James Milner was headed away by the Huddersfield defence, and Emre Can took aim and thundered a half-volley into the bottom corner to put the visitors in front. On the stroke of half time, one became two as Roberto Firmino skipped through the Terriers backline, took the ball the byline and, after giving Terriers’ stopper Jonas Lossl the eyes, slipped the ball through the Danes legs and into the bottom corner.
Liverpool, having seemingly recovered from the crisis of confidence that had befallen them for the previous fortnight, began to find their groove and almost added a third early in the second half, with Sadio Mane bringing an acrobatic save from Lossl to keep out the Senegalese’s header. Huddersfield’s hopes of getting back into the game faded by the minute, and when Colin Quaner looked to be tripped in the box as he reached for Aaron Mooy’s ball over the top, the home crowd saw a chink of light. Referee Kevin Friend, on the other hand, saw nothing doing, and that brief hope was snuffed out. Mo Salah then raced through and rounded Lossl, but with the ball rolling away from goal, the Reds top-scorer could only shoot into the side netting from a tight angle. Twelve minutes from time, Salah finally got the opportunity to add to his season’s goal tally as Emre Can was bundled over in the area. The Egyptian made no mistake, rounding off a comfortable win for Jurgen Klopp’s side. Eight without a win now for Huddersfield, who appear to be sliding inexorably towards the relegation zone.
In the other Tuesday game, Mark Noble’s first half penalty earned injury-hit West Ham a point at home to Crystal Palace, as both sides edged further away from the bottom three.
On Wednesday the ever improving Bournemouth made the trip to Chelsea looking to build on a run that had seem them unbeaten in five. Antonio Conte, having sent Michy Batshuayi out on loan to Borussia Dortmund earlier in the day, once again put his faith in Eden Hazard playing as a false nine, with Alvaro Morata out injured and Olivier Giroud’s signing still to be confirmed ahead of kick-off. There had been some confusion over Chelsea’s need for another striker throughout the window, but during a dour first half it became apparent that the West London side lacked a certain cutting edge, particularly when faced with the game plan executed by Bournemout – sit back and soak up the pressure and try to nick something on the counter. Gary Cahill and Marcos Alonso both had half-chances in the first half, but both missed the target with headers, while Josh King saw his attempt saved by Thibaut Courtois.
Five minutes after the break the deadlock was finally broken, but it was the side in red and black stripes that got it. Jordan Ibe’s through ball found Callum Wilson with space to shoot, and the porcelain boned striker slipped a shot under the advancing Courtois to give the visitors a surprise lead. The hosts looked to hit back from the off, but continued to struggle in their efforts to break down an uncharacteristically organised Bournemouth defence, and fifteen minutes after their opener the Cherries had a second. Wilson this time turning provider as his slide-rule pass was toe-poked in by Junior Stanislas. There was little time for the home side to rally before Bournemouth took a scarcely believable three-goal lead. Stanislas, following Wilson’s lead, curled a ball into the box, and former Chelsea defender Nathan Ake was on the end of it to divert the ball past Courtois and effectively end the game. Ironically Chelsea’s best period followed, but besides a shot on target from Pedro, Asmir Begovic was barely troubled against his former employers. An extremely lacklustre performance from the Blues, but a richly deserved three points for Eddie Howe’s side who, after a fantastic run of form, look as though they’ll be sticking around next season.
A trio of relegation six-pointers took place on the Wednesday evening, though they transpired to be two pointers as Newcastle & Burnley, and Southampton & Brighton both played out score draws, while Stoke and Watford shared a stalemate at the bet365. Elsewhere Theo Walcott registered his first goals in an Everton shirt as a Mahrez-less Leicester were beaten 2-1 at Goodsion Park, and West Brom became the latest victims of the Manchester City juggernaut, soundly beaten 3-0 at the Etihad.
The game with the biggest humdinger potential of the midweek fixtures took place at Wembley, with Tottenham Hotspur, fresh from their FA Cup scare in South Wales, hosted Manchester United. Jose Mourinho named a terrifying forward line including Romelu Lukaku, Anthony Martial, Paul Pogba and Alexis Sanchez, while Tottenham were able to recall playmaker Christian Eriksen, who’d missed the last two games with illness. It didn’t take the Danish dribbler long to make up for his absence as, from the kick-off, a long ball was nudged on by Harry Kane, Dele Alli touched on the knock-down, and Eriksen arrived, in plenty of space, to drill the ball past David De Gea. With just eleven seconds on the clock, the Dane became the scorer of the third quickest goal in Premier League history, just don’t tell your Dad because he’ll go off on one about football not being invented in 1992. United, though, had plenty of time to hit back, and could have equalised when Pogba looped a ball into the box for Jesse Lingard, but Hugo Lloris had read his compatriot’s pass and was quick off his line to clear the danger. Harry Kane, starting the game on 99 Premier League goals, was given the Martin Tyler treatment every time he went near the penalty area, but could only shoot straight at De Gea after a one-two with Eriksen. Just before the half-hour mark Tottenham double their lead, as Kieran Tripper’s drilled cross looked to be covered by Phil Jones, but the Lancashire Gurning Champion could only sidefoot it into the top corner. A helluva finish from the big man, but one that left him headbutting a foam post. Martial came close to halving the deficit just before the break, but once again Lloris was equal to the effort, and Spurs’ two-goal advantage was preserved at half-time.
An even second half saw both sides struggle to carve out clear cut chances, though Lukaku was unlucky to see his shot tipped over by Lloris, having cleverly worked some space for himself inside the Spurs penalty area. Down the other end, Heung-Min Son looked to add to his eight goals this season with a snapshot at goal from Alli’s pass, but De Gea was able to beat the South Korean’s effort away from danger. With the game petering out, there was still time for Mourinho to steal some of the limelight as, after sending on Marouane Fellaini for Lingard in the 63rd minute, he substituted the gangly Belgian for Ander Herrara just seven minutes later. It transpired later that Fellaini had tweaked his knee during his short time on the pitch, but at least he’d picked up his hefty appearance fee. A defeat then that puts to bed any notion of a miracle title bid for the Reds, but an excellent result for Pochettino that puts Spurs right back in the race for the top four.
With it now becoming just a matter of weeks before Manchester City are crowned Premier League champions, focus can be directed to what is shaping up to become the most exciting relegation battle in Premier League history. With ten teams still very much in the mix, and the likes of Swansea and Bournemouth beginning to string together excellent runs of form, its anyone’s guess who’ll finish in the bottom three come the end of the season. At the very least, we’ll all get to see some grown men cry.