„If you don’t love watching that you shouldn’t be watching football.“
Steven Gerrard was effusive in his praise for Philippe Coutinho’s performance in Aston Villa’s thrilling 3-3 draw against Leeds. Sky Sports’ Jamie Carragher was also somewhat lost for words after his magical turn and pass to set up Jacob Ramsey’s first goal.
The Brazilian was the star of what was a breathtaking first half of football.
There were a few contenders too as Dan James, who caused Villa problems every time he got on the ball, and Ramsey staked their claims with two goals apiece. However, it was the Brazilian who had the Villa fans on their feet on more than one occasion on a dramatic evening at Villa Park.
Coutinho’s goal, which brought Villa level, was a wonderful finish after a perfect first touch to take Matty Cash’s cross under control set the strike up. The pass to release Ramsey for Villa’s third was also perfectly weighted, but the turn and through ball for Ramsey’s first was magical. It was sublime.
After a difficult spell at Barcelona following his move from Liverpool, there were doubts as to whether Coutinho could rediscover his brilliant best, but not from Gerrard. Coutinho’s former Liverpool team-mate still had plenty to give, and he is being proved right after his brilliant start to life at Aston Villa.
„Looking at Philippe’s performance tonight, not just his goal and assists, that was absolutely beautiful, some of the stuff he has done. It was vintage Philippe Coutinho tonight,“ he said. „He’s certainly getting back close to where he was when the whole world was speaking about him.“
The Brazilian has not been back in English football long, but he is quickly showing his quality once again, and it is Aston Villa, and Gerrard, who are reaping the benefits.
As Southampton’s players protested Heung-Min Son’s goal in vain and Antonio Conte’s touchline histrionics whipped the home crowd into a frenzy, it seemed it was Tottenham’s night after all.
The hosts had been comprehensively outplayed in the first half at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, their goal peppered with shots as Southampton sliced through them with ease, but the scores remained level at the break and Son’s goal, scored while Armando Broja lay stricken on the turf, put them on course for a scarcely-deserved victory.
In the end, though, their luck ran out.
Southampton roared back again – and this time they scored twice, the goals, headed in by Mohamed Elyounoussi and Che Adams, arriving just three minutes apart and sucking the life out of the previously buoyant stadium.
Conte bemoaned his side’s „mental instability“ afterwards, insisting they need to learn how to manage games more effectively. But the bigger concern, although he did not say it himself, is that they are struggling with the very basics of defending.
Southampton’s performance was excellent but every one of their goals was calamitous from Tottenham’s perspective.
The first involved Ben Davies losing his footing and Davinson Sanchez failing to clear his lines. For the second and third, an absence of marking gave Southampton the freedom of the Tottenham penalty box.
There were other moments where the defensive shortcomings were even more striking. Take one in the first half, when Broja found himself through on goal from a hopeful ball over the top by Kyle Walker-Peters having not even made a run.
Sanchez and Cristian Romero were static as Broja spotted his opportunity and what’s really galling is that their performances were no worse than those of the players around them. In fact, Emerson Royal endured an even more chastening evening.
It seemed they might get away with it when Son scored their second but what can Conte do when his defenders appear incapable of the basics? This was another reminder of the size of the task he faces.
If Joao Cancelo was a fabric, he’d be pure silk.
Cancelo’s development under Pep Guardiola has been pretty astonishing this season, revelling in a tucked-in position off the left. He is becoming Pep’s most important player as City have followed Liverpool’s lead in building a team around a full-back. When he receives the ball in the final third you just know something special is about to happen.
His clever positioning is proving a difficult role for opposition players to stop. Brentford allowed him to have six shots on their goal in City’s win which takes his overall shots tally for the season to a whopping 52 – the most posted by a defender and only nine more players have had more this season. Even Bruno Fernandes sits behind him in the list on 49.
What is missing is his ability to turn his savvy build-up play into goals. His effort at Newcastle remains his only Premier League goal this season. But is there a better full-back in the world in terms of playing the right ball at the right time? His decision making when tasked with creating a final ball is a joy to watch.
His low goal return will matter little if City keep winning games. And with their playmaking full back in this type of form, City are going to be hard to stop on all fronts.
James Ward-Prowse hit the headlines last month when Brentford manager Thomas Frank labelled him the „best free-kick taker in the world“, but it was his quality deliveries from open play that helped Southampton to their memorable win at Tottenham.
Spurs may have been leading 2-1 going into the final 10 minutes at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, but they were asking for trouble when they allowed Ward-Prowse the freedom of the right-wing to whip in a cross for Mohamed Elyounoussi to head home and level the score.
You would have thought Spurs may have learned their lesson, but no – two minutes later, Ward-Prowse again made them pay for giving him the chance to cross into the area, this time expertly picking out Adams who finished off a remarkably similar move.
Ward-Prowse ended the game with the most assists (2), most chances created (5) and the most crosses (11) of any player on the pitch.
It wasn’t just Ward-Prowse’s creativity that made him stand out, either. From his position in the centre of midfield, he drove Southampton forward, recording the most final-third entries (13) and most passes in the final third (28) among all players.
Ward-Prowse also had the most touches in the game (95) and the joint-most accurate passes (62). In short, it was a quality all-round performance from the Saints captain that helped to lift his side into the top half of the Premier League and prove there’s far more to him than simply being a dead-ball specialist.
In football, there is such a thing as scoring too early. At first glance, this draw for Norwich may look to fall into that category. Pukki scored the fastest Premier League goal of the season and that lead was pegged back by the time the final whistle sounded.
But on this occasion, rather than scoring too early, it was more a case of failing to put the game to bed, with Pukki guilty of failing to finish off the assignment he and Norwich had started so well.
On a night when victory would have lifted Dean Smith’s Canaries out of the drop zone 24 hours after Newcastle’s victory over Everton had demoted them back into the bottom three, victory was there for the taking. Had Pukki been more clinical and decisive, Norwich would have been out of sight before half-time.
In the end, they had to settle for a point, although settle doesn’t do justice to the second-half onslaught they had to withstand from a markedly improved Palace side who woke up after the interval. That said, it was still a night packed full of positives for Norwich.
Milot Rashica was superb, as was Angus Gunn between the sticks. Better still, Smith appeared to have a squad packed full of options capable of navigating a Premier League game – and the survival battle that lies ahead – and the performance level was well received by the Carrow Road crowd.
A Premier League point is never to be sniffed at, especially for a club who many consigned to relegation before a ball had been kicked this season. Come May, you just wonder how big a point it could prove to be for Norwich’s survival bid.
The celebrations from his stunning equaliser had barely subsided when Wilfried Zaha was handed the chance to fire Crystal Palace into the lead at Carrow Road – and on course for only their second away win of the season.
A vintage strike from Zaha, on his return to the Palace starting line-up after a six-game absence due to suspension and Africa Cup of Nations duty, which arrowed into the top corner, drew an emphatic line under an abject first-half performance from the Eagles.
Having won just one of their six games since Zaha’s last appearance, the goal was the perfect reunion gift. And more should have followed, but when Tyrick Mitchell was felled by Max Aarons in the area, Zaha produced a penalty he’ll want to forget.
Complaints were directed towards the penalty spot, perhaps it had been overwatered. Canaries boss Dean Smith took a light-hearted view: „I have absolutely no idea at all, maybe he should have had bigger studs in.“
Wayne Rooney references to one side, Zaha’s costly miss was ultimately the difference between a Palace victory and a point. But by contrast, with the Eagles having won just two of their last 12 games, his earlier moment of brilliance proved he remains the talisman they were craving in his absence.