Garth Crooks’ team of the week: Leno, Hause, Sigurdsson, Saka, Rashford


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Garth team of the week

Leaders Liverpool were held by struggling West Brom, Everton climbed to second with victory at Sheffield United, while Leicester and Manchester United shared four goals.

Arsenal returned to winning ways by beating Chelsea, Manchester City overcame Newcastle while Southampton were held at Fulham and Tottenham drew at Wolves.

Check out my team and then make your own selections towards the bottom of this article.

Garth Crooks' Team of the Week: Bernd Leno, Joao Cancelo, Semi Ajayi, Kortney Hause, Granit Xhaka, Bruno Fernandes, Gylfi Sigurdsson, Jack Grealish, Bukayo Saka, Ollie Watkins and Marcus Rashford

Goalkeeper – Bernd Leno (Arsenal)

Arsenal goalkeeper Bern Leno

Bernd Leno: I remember a famous sports writer suggesting, over a large glass of Merlot, that Cristiano Ronaldo’s goal tally couldn’t be taken seriously as it contained too many penalties. The gentlemen in question wasn’t impressed when I responded by saying: “Now there is a man who has clearly never taken one.”

The late penalty save by Arsenal’s Bernd Leno was superb. It didn’t only stop a last-minute onslaught by Chelsea – it would have it 3-2 with minutes to go – but put the game to bed and gave Arsenal manager Mikel Arteta a massive reprieve.

Jorginho has now missed three penalties this season which rather amplifies the point that scoring spot-kicks is far more difficult than it appears. It also provided Leno with some justification for Arsenal keeping him and letting the impressive Emiliano Martinez go to Aston Villa.

Did you know? Leno made his second Premier League penalty save for Arsenal and first since November 2019 v Southampton.

Defenders – Joao Cancelo (Man City), Semi Ajayi (West Brom), Kortney Hause (Aston Villa)

Manchester City's Joao Cancelo, Semi Ajayi of West Brom and Kortney Hause of Aston Villa

Joao Cancelo: How can you play in a back four and still find yourself spraying goalscoring opportunities everywhere?

Right-back, left-back it doesn’t seem to matter if your name is Joao Cancelo. The pass from the Portugal international for Raheem Sterling to lay the ball on a plate for Ilkay Gundogan was quite brilliant. He then did the same for Ferran Torres, who got City’s second goal, before he went on to present Sterling and Sergio Aguero with similar chances which they promptly missed.

Newcastle could do absolutely nothing to interrupt the flow of City’s dominance. All that Steve Bruce was left to do to complete the day’s activities was shake Pep Guardiola warmly by the hand for fulfilling the fixture and wish his team a safe journey home.

Did you know? Cancelo contested more duels (16) than any other Man City player in their win over Newcastle, while his three tackles was also more than any of his team-mates.

Semi Ajayi: This is the second time this season that Ajayi has pulled a rabbit out of the hat for West Brom. His first touch of magic was against Manchester City where the defender’s shot led to Ruben Dias’ own goal and gained a valuable point for the Baggies.

Sadly it didn’t save Slavan Bilic’s job but gave the team a sense of what they could achieve. Enter Sam Allardyce whose record at Anfield isn’t bad.

But while no-one was expecting the former Bolton, Newcastle and Crystal Palace manager to get anything from the title holders – Allardyce did.

Ajayi was once again brilliant in defence and scored a vital goal in a result that gives West Brom a real fighting chance of Premier League survival. Forget trying to guess how many points you need to stay up. Just remember you only need one more point more than the team that finishes in 18th place.

Did you know? Among defenders since the start of the 2018-19 season, only Virgil van Dijk and Aaron Pierre (both nine) have scored more headed league goals in England’s top four tiers than Ajayi (eight).

Kortney Hause: The clean sheet gang are at it again. The Villa back four, well they were before Tyrone Mings got sent off, kept another clean sheet. This time it was Hause who held the fort in the absence of Mings who foolishly got caught up in what became a personal spat with Wilfried Zaha.

I have a lot of time for Zaha’s game but he can’t invite his opponent to make a tackle or compete for the ball and, when he does, then have an expression on his face of ‘how dare you?’ with eyes bulging as though he’s just seen the ghost of Christmas Past.

Regardless, it was Hause who unceremoniously booted the ball out of the Villa defence only to see his clearance eventually find its way to the feet of Anwar El Ghazi, who finished magnificently. Sometimes the most unsophisticated hoof can be the best pass of all.

Did you know? Hause’s eight goals in English league football have come across seven different seasons, since his debut in 2012-13.

Midfielders – Granit Xhaka (Arsenal), Bruno Fernandes (Man Utd), Gylfi Sigurdsson (Everton), Jack Grealish (Aston Villa)

Arsenal's Granit Xhaka, Bruno Fernandes of Manchester United, Gylfi Sigurdsson of Everton and Jack Grealish of Aston Villa

Granit Xhaka: When I saw Xhaka in the line-up to face Chelsea, I thought Arteta had finally lost the plot. How could any manager trust the midfielder, having practically throttled Burnley’s Ashley Westwood in a previous fixture, initiating his own downfall and marching orders during Arsenal’s hour of need?

With Gabriel, Willian and David Luiz all out for various reasons and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang on the bench, Arsenal were in desperate need of Xhaka’s experience in a team full of kids. What I didn’t expect was for Xhaka to play such an influential part in, what was without doubt, their most important result of the season.

It takes manager Arteta off skid row, and puts some very important confidence back into a side that is struggling at the moment. The Swiss international’s free-kick to put Arsenal 2-0 up wasn’t bad either.

Did you know? Of all Arsenal players to score at least five Premier League goals, Xhaka has scored the highest ratio from outside the box (78% – 7/9).

Bruno Fernandes: The beautifully floated cross by Fernandes for Marcus Rashford in the opening minutes at Leicester was just glorious but thrown away by the England striker. However, the flick by the Portuguese maestro’s left boot that threaded a ball between James Justin and Wesley Fofana was just exquisite and left Leicester totally exposed.

This time Rashford didn’t miss. It’s not just Fernandes’ ability to make goals for his team-mates that is exciting but he has the ability to score them himself, as he did for United’s second.

It’s rare in the modern game for midfield players to reach double figures in a Premier League season before the start of the new year. Fernandes is one of the few in that class.

Did you know? Fernandes has been directly involved in more than half of Manchester United’s Premier League goals since his debut (31/60), scoring 18 and assisting a further 13.

Gylfi Sigurdsson: Against Leicester and Arsenal it was his quality of pass that was impressive, however, against Sheffield United it was the Icelandic midfielder’s finishing that took Everton to second in the table.

Carlo Ancelotti is doing something quite special at Goodison Park. It was an ambitious acquisition by Everton to get the Italian manager and brave of Ancelotti to accept the offer. Since his arrival, however, Ancelotti has got a number of players wanting to play for him including Sigurdsson.

While I don’t see the Toffees as a credible threat to Liverpool’s title they will certainly have a say in who wins it.

Did you know? In all competitions, Sigurdsson has been directly involved in seven goals (three goals, four assists) in 18 appearances for Everton this season, one more than he recorded in the whole of 2019-20 (6 in 38 games).

Jack Grealish: His contribution to Aston Villa’s victory over Crystal Palace, who looked like a side still recovering from the mauling they suffered from Liverpool, was even more impressive than the one in his side’s previous game, against West Brom.

Grealish seems to be getting better with every game. This lad should be playing regular Champions League football and the first name on the England teamsheet. This in itself poses Aston Villa a problem. Do they build the team around Grealish with the ambition to become a top-four side or do they resign themselves to eventually letting the midfield star go?

Arsenal, Spurs and Manchester United are all spluttering their way through the most open Premier League season on record. What a difference Grealish could make.

Did you know? Grealish has created 49 chances in this season’s Premier League, more than any other player.

Forwards – Bukayo Saka (Arsenal), Ollie Watkins (Aston Villa), Marcus Rashford (Man Utd)

Bukayo Saka of Arsenal, Ollie Watkins of Aston Villa and Manchester United's Marcus Rashford

Bukayo Saka: I hope Arsenal realise what they’ve got here. This kid could be anything he wants to be. How anyone could even suggest that Saka didn’t mean to chip Edouard Mendy for Arsenal’s third against Chelsea, having seen the analysis, is a mystery to me.

You see the lad look at the keeper before he attempts to execute the skill. The only people who could possibly suggest this magnificent goal was anything other than a fluke are those incapable of displaying such ability.

Saka was one of the few players who never gave up against Burnley in an otherwise abject performance – a 1-0 defeat 13 December – while his build-up play for Aubameyang’s goal in the 1-1 draw against Southampton three days later was outstanding.

The Gunners have developed some great players in the past and if they play their cards right they may be on the verge of creating another.

Did you know? Saka has two goals in 13 Premier League games this season, having only netted once in 26 league appearances last term.

Ollie Watkins: He’s not scored in six games and the Villa striker could have played until midnight against Crystal Palace and he still wouldn’t have hit the back of the net.

Nevertheless, Watkins ran Palace ragged and his efforts deserved at least a hat-trick to match his trio of assists. In fact he should have had one. The former Brentford star hit the bar and rattled the post and had another two shots well saved.

Watkins has made the transition from Championship to the most demanding league in the world extremely well. However, strikers thrive on goals and while they are in rare supply he must hold his nerve.

Did you know? Watkins had nine shots against Crystal Palace, the most by a Villa player in a Premier League game since Juan Pablo Angel’s 11 v Bolton in October 2003.

Marcus Rashford: Regular readers will know how highly I rate Rashford but I sense, and I have thought this for a while, that his finishing could be more clinical.

Rashford may have celebrated his 50th Premier League goal against Leicester but there is nothing worse than a striker that squanders chances – even when you’re as good a footballer as Rashford. We know the England striker can play but he should have come away from the King Power Stadium with a hat-trick and given Manchester United all three points.

Rashford has Robin van Persie’s skill but lacks Ruud van Nistelrooy’s finishing. Combine the two and Rashford is not just competing for the Ballon d’Or – he’s winning it.

Did you know? Aged 23 years and 56 days, Rashford is the third-youngest Manchester United player to reach 50 Premier League goals after Wayne Rooney (22 years 157 days) and Cristiano Ronaldo (22 years 341 days).

The Crooks of the Matter

I said only a few weeks ago that Jose Mourinho was up to his old tricks again. He can’t help himself. This time he’s using Dele Alli in order to shine the media torch on himself.

After Tottenham’s dismal performance against Leicester – losing 2-0 at home in the league – Spurs went on to beat Stoke and reach the Carabao Cup semi-final. Instead of being content with simply congratulating his players, Mourinho goes out of his way to publicly humiliate Alli.

Mourinho has made a habit of treating big names with contempt. He did it with Joe Cole when he was at Chelsea, Iker Casillas at Real Madrid and Paul Pogba at Manchester United, just to name a few. He even tried it with Marcus Rashford which I thought was outrageous and I said so on a number of occasions in my team of the week. So, Alli is in good company.

Nevertheless, there is a solution to all of this for the former MK Dons player and that is to get out – leave.

Alli is barely 25 and has enough time, and most definitely the ability, to recover from these difficult times at Spurs. However, what is essential is Alli must put a stop to this public onslaught and not allow himself to be used as Mourinho’s media punchbag. There is no doubt the former England international had lost his way but anyone who saw the player’s reaction when he was substituted at Stoke after 66 minutes could see how much it meant to him – so why couldn’t Mourinho?

Meanwhile, the rumours persist that Alli could be on his way to Paris St-Germain. Well, in light of Thomas Tuchel’s departure, and the prospect of former Tottenham manager Mauricio Pochettino taking over, I’ll be more than a little surprised if Alli isn’t his first signing. What is vital is Alli has to get away from Mourinho and do it now.

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