BitFootball examines the most important Premier League developments from the second-last weekend of the season.
Conte unlocking Sessegnon’s potential
Tottenham Hotspur expected big things when they dropped £25 million on Ryan Sessegnon in 2019. Three years later, they’re finally starting to see it.
The 21-year-old started his fifth straight Premier League match Sunday, tying a personal best at the club, and marked the occasion with a brilliant two-way performance against Burnley and their stubborn defense. Sessegnon bombed forward with intent, won possession in key areas, and sent a number of tantalizing crosses into the 18-yard box. He would’ve finished the day with a couple of assists if Burnley goalkeeper Nick Pope hadn’t produced some of his best saves of the season.
But he had to wait for his moment.
Then a high-flying teenager ripping up the Championship with Fulham, Sessegnon looked like England’s next great talent before he joined Spurs in 2019. But he couldn’t find his footing in his first two-and-a-half seasons with Tottenham. After making just six Premier League appearances in 2019-20, Sessegnon ventured out on loan to Hoffenheim, where he finally gained meaningful minutes.
A hamstring injury scuppered his progress in September, and with Antonio Conte coming in midseason, Sessegnon had to convince a fourth manager in his short time in north London that he deserved a regular run in the team.
That part didn’t take long. Conte identified Sessegnon as a dual threat, slotting him into the left wing-back position, and watched as his pupil attacked space, tackled, and won battles in the defensive and offensive thirds. Sessegnon played as a wing-back at Hoffenheim but needed Conte to help him find a way to manage himself in such a physically demanding position.
It seems to be coming together now.
Leeds give themselves a chance
The crowd had enough. After chewing out Rodrigo in the first half for a couple of misplaced passes, the fans at Elland Road turned their ire toward Andrea Radrizzani, the majority owner of Leeds United who decided to fire Marcelo Bielsa midseason.
“Radrizzani, this (is) on you,” the crowd chanted as Leeds stared down the barrel of a fourth consecutive defeat. “Sack the board.”
The atmosphere in West Yorkshire had remained upbeat in the months after Bielsa’s controversial firing. But on Sunday, the fans simply reached their breaking point.
Then, Pascal Struijk scored late to secure a vital point in Leeds’ unsavory relegation scrap. It could change everything. With Burnley losing earlier in the day, Leeds moved out of the relegation zone and one point ahead of the Clarets. While their rivals have a game in hand, Struijk’s near-post finish lifted the Lilywhites just when things started to turn toxic.
Jesse Marsch, who replaced Bielsa in February, has struggled to find the rhythm for his team, but a return to Bielsa’s high-octane tactics did the trick Sunday. Leeds smothered Brighton in the second half, outshooting the Seagulls 10-5 while forcing visiting ‘keeper Robert Sanchez into a number of good saves. Leeds suddenly summoned the courage to fight. If they carry that same never-say-die attitude into their final match next weekend at Brentford, they could well pull off the improbable.
City hurt by top-heavy recruitment
The impending summer arrival of Erling Haaland is a miraculous piece of business by Manchester City. But their summer spending shouldn’t end there.
The Mancunians should look west down the M62 with envy. Liverpool demonstrated the immaculate balance of their squad during Saturday’s FA Cup victory over Chelsea as Joel Matip seamlessly replaced Virgil van Dijk in extra time and backup left-back Kostas Tsimikas scored the decisive penalty. City, meanwhile, countered their riches in attack with an out-of-form Aymeric Laporte and a 37-year-old midfielder in their backline for Sunday’s 2-2 draw at West Ham United.
Fernandinho should be regarded as one of the best defensive midfielders to grace the Premier League. But, as he eyes a career swansong away from City, he’s not equipped to hold a high defensive line against players of Jarrod Bowen’s caliber.
The West Ham attacker’s intelligent movement exploited a defense clearly hindered by the poor communication and flat-footedness of Fernandinho and Laporte. It could’ve been even worse for Fernandinho, who stumbled and sent a panicked back pass to Michail Antonio. The West Ham striker spared the City skipper’s blushes when he chipped the ball wide of Ederson’s net.
City are hindered by injuries to Ruben Dias, John Stones, and Kyle Walker. Nathan Ake, who was an unused substitute at the London Stadium, is struggling for fitness. But Pep Guardiola should have a fourth center-back he can trust, rather than the untested Conrad Egan-Riley, who sat dormant on the bench.
He should also have a left-back after years of calling on ersatz options such as midfielder Fabian Delph, playmaker Oleksandr Zinchenko, and right-back Joao Cancelo.
But for some reason, City’s transfer committee has disregarded leading teams’ basic requirement of having two good players for each position. It cost them at West Ham and it’ll cost them in the future – unless they recruit in the summer.
Bowen’s hot property
This summer will be rife with rumors about Declan Rice’s future at West Ham, but Bowen could be equally hard for the club to keep hold of.
Bowen carried Hull City at a young age, scoring 38 times and assisting on 11 occasions over his final 18 months on Humberside. His contributions accounted for over 45% of the Tigers’ goals over that spell, and they plummeted from mid-table to bottom place in the Championship after his January exit.
There were some raised eyebrows when West Ham agreed to pay up to £25 million for his services in 2020, but his maturity and work ethic made the deal a near-guarantee of success. He was already at Premier League level and would improve.
And his rise has been meteoric. The timing of Bowen’s runs for his first-half brace against Manchester City was immaculate, and his physicality shook the visitors’ wooden backline. In addition to his goals, Bowen won three duels and was successful in all of his aerial battles before halftime. He embraced the challenge of facing the league leaders.
He’s scored 12 goals in the Premier League this season – only three English players (Harry Kane, Jamie Vardy, and Raheem Sterling) have more. Bowen should be traveling with the Three Lions to the World Cup in Qatar later this year.
Inexperience hurts Everton
Everton missed Michael Keane. Yes, you read that right.
Keane has been wretched at the heart of the Toffees’ error-strewn defense this season, trapped in a cycle of poor performances eroding his confidence and his low confidence being detrimental to his performances. His decision-making has been woeful, and he appears incapable of being a seasoned leader at the back.
Despite this, Everton could’ve used his know-how for Brentford’s visit as inexperience denied their bid for the three points that would’ve ensured their top-flight survival. Keane was sidelined due to illness and replaced by Jarrad Branthwaite.
The game turned on a hopeful hoof upfield. Everton were pressuring Brentford at the other end of the pitch before the ball spilled to Mathias Jensen on the edge of his own box. Jensen only needed a quick glance before smashing the ball, no doubt seeing Everton’s high defensive line and Ivan Toney’s head start on Branthwaite.
There was no other choice when Branthwaite impeded Toney’s run on goal. He had to be sent off.
It’s unlikely the positioning of Everton’s rearguard would’ve been so bold if Keane was in the lineup. Three defenders were positioned well inside Brentford’s half – somewhat needlessly given they weren’t contributing to Everton’s attack – effectively inviting Toney to stay in an onside position before the halfway line and wait for the ball to come to him. It was so simple.
A team as well coached as Brentford knows how to face 10 men. The Bees stretched play, using their width to open more space for Christian Eriksen in the middle, and forced Everton’s players to cover even more ground. Richarlison’s penalty on the stroke of halftime was a mere inconvenience to Brentford as they engineered a deserved win in the second half.
Branthwaite wasn’t the only player whose inexperience was exposed. Anthony Gordon was caught on the wrong side of Rico Henry when he failed to track the left-back before Christian Norgaard’s cross. It was a powerful header from Henry but an avoidable goal from an Everton perspective.