The English are pretty fascinated with their midweek evening fixtures. There’s only a few per season, when the whole league trots out under the lights Tuesday-Thursday (instead of under the lights on Saturday and Sunday because the sun never actually appears in the UK between Halloween and St. Patrick’s Day, but that’s another talk). If you’ve watched the Premier League for even a few minutes, you’ve assuredly heard about, “On a wet night in Stoke…,” the litmus test for players and teams. Can you do it as a team or as a player when it’s colder than a well digger’s ass, the rain is smacking you in the face like a toddler who somehow got hold of a golf club, and thousands of punters who got more time in the pub before the match than they probably should have are screaming their lungs out at you? This is otherwise known as my family’s usual Thanksgiving.
There is something special about these midweek fixtures, though. The atmosphere does seem turned up just a little more, a little more desperation to it, a little more sharpness. Think what Monday Night Football used to be, and what Sunday Night Football wishes it was that it lost under the gloss of their overproduction.
And this week, with the first full set of mid-week games, we got a lot out of it. Let’s kick this pig!
5. Arsenal pass the Sgt. Hartman “guts is enough” test
Only two days after their closest challengers (now) Liverpool pulled a rabbit out of their ass with a late goal to win a surprisingly tricky match, Arsenal did the same when Luton took them to the wall at Kenilworth Road (where one fan had a Bass Pro Shops hat on and we have questions!).
It’s Rice’s second savior goal of the season, as he also kneecapped Manchester United late at the Emirates earlier in the season. He does so much more than that to justify his transfer fee, but it’s good to sprinkle in some easy to find highlights.
Much like Liverpool against Fulham on Sunday, Arsenal were kind of trash in their own half to make the match much harder than it needed to be, while thanks to Gabriel Jesus, they were pretty irresistible attacking. This heatmap shows just how involved Jesus was all over the field and linking the attack together. Maybe his end-product isn’t quite what you’d want from a starting No. 9 at one of the world’s best teams, but everything else is.
Arsenal’s main bugaboo is the same one that Mikel Arteta created for the sake of it, which is that his keeper was a clown. David Raya basically gave away two of Luton’s goals, whiffing on one punch on a cross and then getting beat by a Ross Barkley shot that basically went under his hip.
Arteta bouncing between them for his own entertainment has provided him with two keepers who are playing on edge, wondering if each mistake will cost them their position the next game or if each save will keep them in the lineup the next game. In a vacuum, it should be that keepers are no different from any other position and should be rotated or switched on form. But that doesn’t work for relief pitchers in the real world, and it doesn’t really work for keepers either.
Arteta wants to just choose Raya and keep him there due to his better ball-playing ability, but Raya isn’t letting him with his play. And they have Villa and Liverpool away dates in the next couple weeks.
4. Aston Villa put in the performance of the season
Sure, Manchester City aren’t quite the same force they’ve been, at least not yet. But 1-0 does not tell most of the story of what went down at Villa Park on Wednesday, where Aston Villa kicked City’s ass up to their ears for 90 minutes.
Pick a stat: 22-2 advantage in shots. 2.38-0.65 advantage in xG. From about the 15th minute on, Villa simply smothered the Citizens.
Perhaps the root of it all was that Villa’s midfield trio of Youri Tielemans, Douglas Luiz, and Boubacar Kamara were able to run roughshod over a City midfield that didn’t have any midfielders. John Stones and Manuel Akanji are defenders, Rico Lewis is a fullback, and for some reason, Bernardo Silva was pushed out wide on the right and Phil Foden wide on the left, though with both Doku and Grealish unavailable, that might have been due to a lack of other options.
That wasn’t the only space where Villa were pillaging City. Leon Bailey, the eventual scorer of the game-winner, absolutely roasted Josko Gvardiol on the right of the Villa attack.
Pau Torres in the middle of the Villa defense looks like absolute larceny at £37 million or so over the summer. Is there a cooler defender in the league? Torres always prefers to chest a ball down and play it to a teammate rather than punt it away, which constantly recycles possession for Villa. Facing City’s doomsday array of attacking talent, he was dribbled past once and snuffed Erling Haaland out of proceedings after back-to-back chances in the 11th minute.
Another jarring aspect of it all was how thin and how out on their feet City looked. City were without Rodri due to suspension, Jeremy Doku to an injury, Jack Grealish to illness, and Kevin De Bruyne has been a long-term absentee. But are those four absences enough to make City look like this? Mateo Kovacic, Matheus Nunes and Oscar Bobb were summoned from the bench to try and change the match. Reader, they did not. Even Villa had Moussa Diaby and Jacob Ramsey to sub on, two far spicier attackers than what City offered. As the match wore on, Villa found it easier and easier to keep the ball, and start attack after attack, while City looked exhausted. Whereas we’re used to seeing City dance through other teams’ pressing, they kind of wilted against Villa’s.
As we keep saying, Godzilla will rise from the ocean at some point. But if there’s a time to try to open up as big of a gap as possible for Arsenal and Liverpool (and Villa now), it’s at this very moment to maybe, maybe outrun the Kaiju in the spring.
3. Bless this mess
Two clubs that are desperately in need of a bath met up at Old Trafford when Chelsea visited Man United. There was always going be some level or area of comedy, and this one mostly centered on Chelsea’s multi-billion dollar midfield, or whatever it cost, getting totally roasted by Scott McTominay.
Oh, that and Mikaylo Mudryk, who apparently can only run and kick the ball in a straight line.
Granted, he runs in that straight line really fast. But that appears to be it and all he knows how to do. He even managed an assist doing that after Cole Palmer was able to corral one of his aimless punts forward without looking. He’s like the real-life version of a player out of “Behold The Kickmen,” where a player had to earn the right to use even basic skills like passing. The first one you received was shooting, which meant for a bit you had to figure out how to pass or move the ball up the field simply by shooting it. That’s Mudryk.
2. An apology to Bournemouth
We feared for Bournemouth before the season, when they fired Gary O’Neil after he kept them up last season in an attempt to update the football they played with the hiring of Andoni Iraola to replace him. Trying to turn a limited club into a true footballing outfit can be fraught with peril and the Cherries looked it for the first part of the season.
Well, in their last six matches they’ve only lost to City, drew with Villa (whom they should have beaten and were unlucky not to), and have fairly well whacked Uniteds Newcastle and Sheffield at home, and Palace away. They’re nine points clear of the relegation zone.
While they’ve played some good stuff, their defense has come to the fore, surrendering less than 1.0 xG in their last four matches and five of the last six. The real star has been Ryan Christie, playing as part of a double-pivot in front of the defense with Lewis Cook. He has been an all-everything for Bournemouth, and one can’t help but wonder how he’ll dovetail with Tyler Adams should the latter ever come back to life.
1. They’re just like us
Let’s end with Pierre Højberg and Dominic Calvert-Lewin making us all feel just a little bit better about ourselves:
Follow Sam on Twitter @Felsgate and on Bluesky @felsgate.bsky.social