Forest’s wide men provide hope

The academies of Manchester United and Chelsea have a decent reputation for bringing through highly talented and technical players. Anthony Elanga and Callum Hudson-Odoi both got a taste of Premier League football with their first clubs but for various reasons were allowed to leave in the summer to join Nottingham Forest. Aged 21 and 23, respectively, the duo have time on their side. Against Newcastle Elanga’s pace was a constant danger, helping him kick dust into Dan Burn’s face as he sprinted beyond the full-back, who had no answer to the Swede’s pace. Hudson-Odoi’s threat comes from cutting in from the left, which brought him his goal on Saturday. Nuno Espírito Santo was eager to bring in a winger in January, acquiring Gio Reyna, another 21-year-old, from Borussia Dortmund because he thinks counterattacking football could be key to Forest’s success. Will Unwin

Southgate left to feast on Rice

If Gareth Southgate was hoping to pore over this game for clues as to which of West Ham’s eligible midfielders might be best qualified to partner Declan Rice, he will have probably given up and gone back to scanning the Eredivisie highlights after the opening half-hour. James Ward-Prowse is a long-term squad absentee, but still on the numbers the most effective England-qualified backup in the league. Deployed in an unhelpful advanced scrapping role, he had to wait 14 minutes and 48 seconds here for his first slightly exasperated touch. Kalvin Phillips came on with the score already 4-0. By the final half hour, with Arsenal taking turns to tee up Mohamed Elneny for a final banter-goal, the notion there was anyone in the West Ham team with a compelling claim to match Rice’s levels at the Euros seemed a little distant. Perhaps there was also a clue as to why Rice has sharpened his all-round game under Mikel Arteta, for whom midfield is an obsession, as opposed to a coach in David Moyes who seems at times to want to play without one. Barney Ronay

United suddenly looking up

Whatever befalls Erik ten Hag, there is hope of leaving a better legacy than his predecessors from Manchester United’s lost decade. To accompany the youthful promise of Alejandro Garnacho, Kobbie Mainoo and Rasmus Højlund, whose opening goal made it five in five matches, a couple of other United careers, previously believed to be unsalvageable, have been resurrected. Harry Maguire, besides gaining aerial supremacy at set pieces, dominated Ollie Watkins when pre-match analysis, including that of Roy Keane, had pinpointed the England pair’s battle as one the United player was likely to lose. Match-winner Scott McTominay meanwhile, set for sale last summer, has become a supersub in the club’s finest traditions, a latter-day Ole Gunnar Solskjær or Javier Hernández. “I know big Scottie’s great at coming in like that,” said a rueful Aston Villa captain John McGinn of his Scotland colleague’s winner, scored from a pearling cross by Diogo Dalot, himself another Ten Hag salvage job. John Brewin

City revving up for double-treble

Cometh the defining phase of the season, cometh Manchester City. Pep Guardiola’s sky blue machine are second, two points behind Liverpool with a game in hand, have an FA Cup fifth-round tie with Luton Town, and are at Copenhagen on Tuesday in the Champions League last 16, first leg. The double-treble is firmly on, despite the manager rating this a “99.99%” impossibility. Instead, Guardiola wishes to focus on the Danish side. “Maybe we rotate on Tuesday,” he said. “We won all the [group] games and now are there. So much we want [to win the Champions League again] it will be a problem for the opponents. But Copenhagen were in a group against Bayern Munich, Manchester United, and they went through. We played there last year and didn’t win. From my experience the first leg of the last 16 is always tricky.” Jamie Jackson

Supersub Elliott making his mark

It was more by accident than design but the introduction of Harvey Elliott against Burnley provided another example of Liverpool’s ability to turn a game thanks to the quality and mentality of their substitutes. Elliott replaced the injured Trent Alexander-Arnold after a subdued first half from Jürgen Klopp’s team and lifted their afternoon with two pinpoint assists, propelling Liverpool back to the Premier League summit in the process. He may crave more starts but, at the age of 20, the gifted midfielder is only two shy of 100 appearances in a Liverpool shirt. As Virgil van Dijk said: “He goes through a lot of things personally. He would love to be playing week in, week out but playing at the highest level you also have to be patient and grab your moments when you get them. He has to keep going, don’t be frustrated that you don’t play as sometimes it is part of the business, but when you get your opportunities you have to perform and that’s what he has done again.” Andy Hunter

Sarr’s energy transforms Spurs

Tottenham were one of the busiest clubs in the January transfer market as they brought in the defender Radu Dragusin and the forward Timo Werner on loan but perhaps their most important signing of the month might turn out to be the new six-and-a-half year contract handed to Pape Matar Sarr. The 21-year-old was outstanding in the pulsating late victory over Brighton on Saturday, scoring on his return from Africa Cup of Nations duty during an all-action performance in central midfield that showed why the Senegal international is valued so highly by the manager, Ange Postecoglou. Schooled at Génération Foot – the same Dakar academy that helped to produce Sadio Mané – Sarr joined Tottenham from the French club Metz in 2021 and is quickly developing into one of the league’s best young midfielders who seems to cover every corner of the pitch. “He’s one of those midfielders who causes the opposition real problems because whether it’s him running with the ball or without the ball, he runs forward, he runs aggressively and he disrupts the opposition,” Postecoglou said of Sarr after his goal at Old Trafford in August. “He’s just got a great temperament for a young guy.” Ed Aarons

Toney gets Bees buzzing again

It is no great surprise that, in the absence of Ivan Toney, Brentford dropped a little this season, beginning the weekend just three points above the relegation zone. But now he is back, it is no great surprise to see Thomas Frank’s men improving quickly – though they remain without Bryan Mbeumo, Rico Lewis and others. Brentford played well in defeat against Spurs and Manchester City, and having earned their first away win and clean sheet since October, a rise up the table seems inevitable. Naturally, Toney was instrumental, a confident finish giving him his third goal in four games. “When you think you’re the man you put in a ‘Him’ performance,” he said afterwards, referencing the new tattoo to which he pointed in celebration. But it is his all-round contribution that is most impressive: a leader and focal point oozing composure on the ball and mongrel off it. Given his probable summer departure, we should enjoy him in this team while we still can. Daniel Harris

Wilder unconcerned by safety gap

Incredulity greeted Chris Wilder’s claim that, despite winning at Luton, he still had no idea how many Premier League points Sheffield United have collected. “Nobody has talked about the gap,” he said. “We’ve just talked about the next game ever since we’ve come through the door. I know we’ve got 12 or 13 now, you don’t know what’s going to happen. You’ve just got to get your head down.” For Wilder, a lifelong Blades fan, the main function of a well-constructed tactical coup at Kenilworth Road was as penance for last week’s 5-0 defeat by Aston Villa, a theme he repeatedly returned to: “The biggest thing for me was the connection back with the supporters, it was 100% that was what was needed.” It was left to goalscorer Vinícius Souza to tot up the maths: “Seven points behind Luton and safety. That is not impossible. I have seen similar escapes in my time in Brazil.” JB

Villa must find a Plan B

Unai Emery’s touchline restlessness suggested fears his Aston Villa team would get caught out. Afterwards, he did not take kindly to the suggestion that his removal of Leon Bailey for Mousa Diaby on Villa’s right flank had been crucial; Bailey had the beating of Victor Lindelöf. In the moments before Scott McTominay’s winner, Emery was urging his players forward. They appeared to be settling for a draw to retain their eight-point gap on United. André Onana had to deliver one of his better United performances, but the points were eventually surrendered. Perhaps the surprise element that took Villa so far in 2023 has lost its potency. United conceded territory but the speedy counters that previously took Emery’s team up the table and into Champions League positions were not so apparent as in the autumn. Harry Maguire and Raphaël Varane were usually lying in wait, reducing many of those opportunities to snatched-at half-chances. JB

Silva strikes gold with Muniz

With all due respect to oil, goals remain the most precious commodity in football – especially in the current climate, where there is a relative dearth of centre-forwards. So Marco Silva will be hoping he’s found one in Rodrigo Muniz, whose double secured Fulham a comfortable and crucial win. Muniz has made a slow start to his career in England, a knee injury sidelining him for six weeks. But he’s into the flow of things now, scoring in last weekend’s draw at Burnley before adding two poacher’s finishes to give his side the win over Bournemouth. It was not, though, just his goalscorer’s intuition that impressed. “He has worked really hard,” said Silva after the game. “He’s fighting for what he wants and he’s showing the desire to play as the Fulham striker. The way he linked our game and played behind the pressure of the midfielders was really good.” And with Raúl Jiménez injured and Armando Broja settling, an unexpected opportunity to establish himself in Silva’s starting XI surely awaits. DH

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