theScore examines the most important developments and biggest talking points from Saturday’s slate of action in England’s top flight.
Odegaard leading by example
Coming out of the World Cup break, the havoc that a well-rested Erling Haaland would wreak on the Premier League dominated much of the conversation around the title race. Norway’s inability to qualify for the tournament figured to be an enormous boon for Manchester City.
But Arsenal are benefitting, too.
Martin Odegaard, the soft-spoken Arsenal captain, prefers to let his play do the talking. It’s speaking volumes right now. The Norwegian midfielder scored once and created another goal in the Gunners’ 4-2 win over Brighton & Hove Albion on Saturday. He continues a rich vein of form that has helped Arsenal go into 2023 with a seven-point lead atop the Premier League table.
Odegaard, whose appointment as captain was once questioned, has been involved in 12 goals in his last 13 league appearances, scoring seven himself. He had 11 goal involvements in 36 matches all of last season.
“Our captain is playing amazing,” fellow standout Bukayo Saka said after Saturday’s entertaining victory. “He does so much for the team. He is the orchestra of our team. He is a really efficient captain. He does a lot of talking on the pitch.”
Arsenal have dropped only five points this season, making one of the best starts to a campaign in English top-flight history. Odegaard’s creativity and outstanding passing ability have been critical, of course, but the maturity he provides can’t be overstated, especially for a team relying so heavily on a large collection of young players. When the Norwegian is on the ball, he emits a calming influence, always seeming to make the right decision, especially when under pressure. That emanates throughout the team. Arsenal, once easily rattled, have developed a steelier temperament thanks in part to Odegaard’s quietly confident leadership style.
Ten Hag’s Rashford gamble pays off
It’s not often that a manager comes out looking like a genius after dropping his best player ahead of a tricky away game. But that’s exactly what Erik ten Hag managed to achieve Saturday after benching Marcus Rashford for disciplinary reasons before Manchester United’s 1-0 victory at Wolverhampton Wanderers.
Three points were far from guaranteed after Manchester United’s listless first-half display against a Wolves side that’s toiled in the relegation zone for much of the season. But everything changed when Rashford returned from exile after halftime.
The improvement in attack was undeniable. Rashford was at the center of all of United’s positive attacking plays in the second half and scored the decisive goal in the 76th minute after impressively shaking off his marker inside the box.
The 25-year-old revealed after the match that he’d been reprimanded for oversleeping and showing up late to a team meeting.
While the gamble could’ve easily backfired, Ten Hag further stamped his authority at Manchester United with another bold decision to penalize a star player following the infamous Cristiano Ronaldo saga. The Rashford situation, however, couldn’t have played out any better for the Dutch manager.
“He was bright, he was lively, he scored a goal, that is the right reaction,” Ten Hag told reporters after United’s fifth straight win in all competitions. “Everyone has to match rules and values and if you react like this, it is the right answer.”
Ten Hag and Rashford shared a warm embrace post-match in celebration of United’s return to the top four, a sign that there are no hard feelings between the two.
Everton take confidence from battling draw
Pressure was mounting on Frank Lampard after a heart-wrenching home defeat to Wolves on Boxing Day extended Everton’s winless run to five matches across all competitions. Saturday’s 1-1 draw at Manchester City, then, was just what the Toffees needed. Lampard’s side revived its grittiness from earlier in the campaign at the Etihad Stadium, defending resolutely and constantly interrupting City’s rhythm. Demarai Gray’s splendid finish in the 63rd minute was Everton’s first shot of the match, but the team’s stubbornness and cohesion were encouraging. Hours before kickoff, Everton also made a shrewd move to boost their attacking contingent: Ellis Simms was recalled from his loan with Sunderland in the Championship after four goals over his last six appearances. His pace and strength up front could be valuable as Everton try to resist relegation.
Manchester City can’t afford to sleepwalk
Manchester City have almost perfected the art of taking a one-goal lead and then passing their opponents into submission before putting the match out of reach with another goal – or two or three or four. The danger in taking your foot off the gas was made clear on Saturday, though. City didn’t press hard enough for a second goal against Everton despite their obvious superiority and paid the price when Gray unleashed a wicked strike to score the equalizer in the eventual draw. The beautiful curling effort was Everton’s lone shot on target. That’s the type of variance you can get in football. City pushed for a winner late on – a flurry that would have been welcome when it was 1-0 – but couldn’t find a second goal. With margins so thin, these are the types of results that could end up deciding the title race. Now seven points adrift of Arsenal, City can’t afford to sleepwalk through games anymore.
Missed opportunity for Newcastle
A home draw on New Year’s eve to cement a top-three spot would’ve been cause for celebrations in the past for Newcastle United. It’s something that fans could’ve only dreamed of just a few years ago. But times have changed since the Saudi-backed takeover concluded in late 2021, with expectations soaring for a fan base that angrily let Newcastle players know Saturday’s goalless draw against Leeds United wasn’t good enough. Newcastle have improved so much over the calendar year under Eddie Howe that dates with teams such as Leeds have regularly resulted in three points. Howe’s men, however, fell below their own high standard throughout the match, as boos rang out around St. James’ Park. Newcastle continued their stellar defensive play, but countless failures in the final third cost the Magpies a golden opportunity to strengthen their bid to qualify for the Champions League.
Saliba needs to shake off rust
William Saliba is having a World Cup hangover. The Arsenal defender, so imperious prior to the pausing of the domestic campaign, has looked shaky in his first two matches since returning from Qatar. The Frenchman has now made glaring errors leading to goals against both West Ham and Brighton, each time being punished for uncharacteristically hesitant play in his own end. It’s far too early to sound the alarm – the 21-year-old has still been exquisite overall on the campaign – but he needs to get back to his best quickly, especially with matches against Newcastle, Tottenham, and Manchester United on the horizon over the next couple weeks.
Stat of the day
Maybe Rashford should sleep in more often.
Tweet of the day
Everything’s coming up Arsenal.