* Yeah, sorry, but we’re starting with Wayne Rooney again. Jose Mourinho gave his midfielder/attacking midfielder/forward a shot as a No. 9 against Northampton, but it required the introduction of Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Marcus Rashford to turn the tie.
Rooney was not awful against League One Northampton Town, but those are a collection of words that damn with the faintest of praise. The joke was that Rooney had finally found his level, but even that failed to land on the truth. There were six or seven Manchester United players who outperformed him.
If Rooney’s role, putting him in direct competition with Ibrahimovic, did not offer convincing enough evidence that he will be dropped against Leicester on Saturday, his time spent on the pitch might have done the trick. After resting him against Feyenoord last Thursday, will Mourinho really play Rooney for 90 minutes on Wednesday evening and then start him on Saturday lunchtime?
Rooney has started only two of Manchester United’s last 118 Premier League games on the bench. Prepare yourselves for change.
* Manchester United and Mourinho may have had little to gain and everything to lose from a trip to Northampton, but a few individuals had the perfect opportunity to improve their standing under the new manager. Of those, Ander Herrera tops the pile. He’s the kid sitting at the front of the classroom raising his hand so violently that his mouth is straining. “Please Sir, please Sir, I have the answer.”
In fact, Herrera and Rooney are Manchester United’s two midfield opposites potentially fighting for the same position. One is English, his country’s record appearance-maker, loved by pundits but disliked by most United supporters. At his worst, he is a clumsy midfielder who slows down the pace of his team’s attacks. The other is Spanish, yet to be capped by Spain, largely ignored by pundits but loved by most United supporters. At his best, he is a delightful, delicate midfielder who quickens the pace of his team’s attacks.
If Mourinho goes for a 4-3-3 against Leicester, there can be no doubt as to who gets into the team on form and ability. De Gea, Valencia, Shaw, Smalling, Bailly, Fellaini/Carrick, Pogba, Herrera, Rashford, Martial and Ibrahimovic would be a very popular starting XI.
* Another player who improved his chances of first-team football is Loris Karius, who is now a viable challenger for Simon Mignolet’s No. 1 spot after recovery from hand injury. Karius kept a clean sheet on his competitive debut at Derby, and has made it clear that he has not joined Liverpool to be a back-up goalkeeper.
The most impressive aspect of Karius’ performance was not his saves (Derby had just two shots on target), but his sweeping-up of danger outside the penalty area. The Daily Mail labelled it a ‘Neuer Mk II’ display. That’s a big statement, but Karius is prepared to come 40 or 50 yards out of his goal if required; is Mignolet?
‘The moment Loris Karius raced from goal and executed a perfect sliding tackle to snuff out Derby Country forward Darren Bent, Simon Mignolet must have realised his long reign as Liverpool’s No 1 goalkeeper was over,’ Joe Bernstein wrote in that Daily Mail piece. As with Guardiola and Claudio Bravo, is this the style of goalkeeper Jurgen Klopp wants?
‘Tall, blond and Germanic, Karius doesn’t just look like the iconic World Cup winner Manuel Neuer, he plays like him too. This is goalkeeping 2016 style and the £5million signing from Mainz is destined to be Jurgen Klopp’s man between the sticks for many years to come.’
Big talk, but reasons to hold that belief. Mignolet is still likely keep his place for the visit of Hull on Saturday, but his form will be dissected in even greater detail. That No. 1 spot is up for grabs.
Jurgen Klopp says he has to think about who will play in goal for Liverpool against Hull.
— Tony Barrett (@TonyBarrett) September 22, 2016
* We’re not quite sure that Granit Xhaka and Lucas Perez were bought with the EFL Cup in mind, but their presence in Arsenal’s starting line-up against Nottingham Forest did offer evidence of the improvement in squad depth this summer. Rob Holding and Gabriel as central defenders, Mohamed Elneny and Xhaka in central midfield and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Perez in attacking areas.
Arsene Wenger chose to give young players a chance to impress at the City Ground, but there was still experience. Six of the players in that starting line-up cost £82m between them.
* Sticking with Arsenal, and this is a competition that Wenger can finally win for the first time. While the fourth-round draw paired Chelsea with West Ham, Manchester United with Manchester City and Liverpool with Tottenham, Arsenal were given a gentler task.
From sixth favourites on Monday to outright favourites by Thursday, with none of those other five even being knocked out. That’s what you call a lovely cup draw.
* When victory can still be a negative – West Ham struggled and strained their way through their tie against League Two Accrington, eventually relying on a 96th-minute free-kick from, guess who, Dimitri Payet. Six shots on target vs four shots on target is far from inspiring against at home to a team that lost 2-0 15 miles up the road at Barnet last month.
West Ham did improve after the introduction of Payet, Manuel Lanzini and Michail Antonio, but the problems at full-back show no sign of abating. When Sam Byram (no form), Arthur Masuaku (no form) and Alvaro Arbeloa (33) are your only fit full-backs, they’re unlikely to improve any time soon.
It’s hardly a technical assessment, but West Ham’s starting XI against Accrington makes you wonder whether Slaven Bilic has just made things too weird. Like the Fulham team that was relegated in 2013/14, you can make so many changes – and bring players in from so many different teams and countries – that things just become an incoherent mess.
Here’s those ten outfield players in full: Masuaku, Arbeloa, Ogbonna, Nordtveit, Obiang, Fernandes, Tore, Calleri, Feghouli, Zaza. Nine different nationalities, eight players bought this summer, one with any previous experience in England. To repeat: It’s just too weird.
* ‘But I could’ve told you Vincent
This world was never meant for
One as beautiful as you
Starry, starry night
Portraits hung in empty halls
Frame-less heads on nameless walls
With eyes that watch the world and can’t forget
Like the strangers that you’ve met
The ragged men in ragged clothes
The silver thorn of bloody rose
Lie crushed and broken on the virgin snow
Now I think I know
What you tried to say to me
And how you suffered for your sanity
And how you tried to set them free’
Now I’m told that Don McLean was warbling on about Vincent van Gogh, but I simply can’t believe that there aren’t strands of Vincent Kompany running through that song. The virgin snow refers to the Manchester City captain’s first start of the season after injury. The lying crushed and broken came later, as Kompany walked off the pitch with another knock. Pep Guardiola confirmed the injury after the match, but will have to wait for the prognosis.
Kompany has now suffered 17 separate injures since the start of 2014, and last played more than 75% of league games in a season in 2011/12. It’s a question we’ve asked before, but when do City finally lose patience in their captain?
The arrival of John Stones clearly adds to the debate, as does Guardiola’s decision to play Aleksandar Kolarov as a central defender. The Spaniard has only been in charge for three months, but he must already be getting sick of the issue.
* Oh Mark Hughes. There is no doubt that Stoke were unfortunate to lose to Hull City on Wednesday after dominating the match, but nor too that Hughes needed cup progression to keep the wolf from the door.
Stoke had 21 shots to Hull’s five, and 12 from inside the penalty area to Hull’s three, but what Hughes didn’t mention in his post-match hard luck story is that he picked a near-full-strength side for the visit of one of the Premier League’s weakest teams. His opposite number made eight changes.
You don’t have to be an Einstein (sorry Jose) to identify Stoke’s weakness. No Premier League team have conceded more times in 2016, and their list of clean sheets in all competitions since the start of the year is embarrassingly brief: 0-0 vs Arsenal (h), 1-0 vs Newcastle (h), 4-0 vs Stevenage (a).
That reflects particularly badly when you consider this quote from Marc Wilson, made before he left for Bournemouth this summer: “I think we’ve gotten away from being a tight compact unit when we lose the ball. It would actually help if we ever did any defensive training, which we don’t.”
The accusation is damning. Hughes is not only struggling to improve Stoke’s defence, he’s actively ignoring the issue while it gets worse. With 16 goals conceded in seven games this season, Hughes better change tack sharpish before the goodwill runs out completely.
* Boy did Vincent Janssen need that goal. There are two caveats to the Dutchman’s first goal in English football – it came against Gillingham and was a penalty – but he will care not a jot. After seven games, Janssen is finally off the mark.
Say it very quietly, but Janssen’s early weeks are reminiscent of Roberto Soldado’s first games for Tottenham: Plenty of hard work and promising link-up play, but lacking in front of goal. Soldado also scored his first goal via a penalty, but Mauricio Pochettino will hope that the similarities end there. With Harry Kane ruled out for two months, the pressure now falls upon Janssen’s head, shoulders, knees and toes. It’s sink or swim time.
* There are many different types of wonderful goal, but we should all keep a special place in our hearts for a player thrashing the ball into the net from six inches out. Step forward Marcus Rashford, who I fall a little bit more in love with every week.
— Manchester United (@ManUtds_News) September 21, 2016
* Eddie Howe generally gets a favourable ride. He’s young, he’s English and he looks like he could be a damn fine manager. Yet there are relevant questions to be asked about his team selection for the EFL Cup tie against Preston.
Howe expressed his disappointment in the players that lost to Championship Preston: “I don’t give these opportunities lightly. I give them because I believe in the players and think they deserve that by how they train and their attitude day-to-day. But very early in the game I think it was evident that there was something not right with us tonight. It disappointed me immensely. We have let the fans down.”
All very honest, but Howe must at least accept his own role in the defeat. Making five changes can allow a team to flourish with new, hungry players competing for places in the Premier League; making 11 changes looks like you don’t care too much about the competition.
Bournemouth supporters would be forgiven for being hopping mad. They have enjoyed a wonderful journey to the Premier League and survival last season, but football fandom is about the moments of glory. Howe risked that with his team selection. It causes a slight chip in the imaginary (but deserved) statue of Howe outside Bournemouth’s stadium.
Bournemouth have never got past the quarter-finals of the EFL Cup or FA Cup. They threw away the chance to beat that, and both players and manager are to blame. A shot at glory, gone.
* Ronald Koeman has done enough to make Everton fans forget about a particularly unpleasant end to the transfer window. Their start to the league season has been exceptional, albeit against some of the Premier League poorer teams.
Yet Tuesday night’s cup defeat to Norwich will again have caused fans to think of September 1, the end to a week of missed opportunities. Koeman’s first-choice team is strong, but what is left in reserve are the old spices and packets of jelly at the back of the cupboard.
Sarah Winterburn headlines their match report as ‘No Lukaku, no party’, but Everton are actually short in plenty of other areas. Gerard Deulofeu as a central striker, Enner Valencia looking exactly like he did in the latter stages of his West Ham days, Ramiro Funes Mori at left-back. Urgh, urgh and urgh.
* Talking of a lack of strength in depth, we now go to Chunky Pardew’s team of funsters. The defeat at Southampton was annoying, but the injury to Scott Dann will prompt a longer-lasting worry.
Palace now have three first-team defenders injured, with Dann, Papa Soare and James Tomkins all now out. If Tomkins doesn’t return for the trip to Sunderland on Saturday, Pardew faces picking a defence of Joel Ward, Martin Kelly, Damien Delaney and Zeki Fryers. Ouch.
* Cesc Fabregas gets a fair bit of flak, but deserves credit for his reaction to being left out of the Chelsea midfield by Antonio Conte. Rather than sulking or looking for a move, Fabregas has instead identified what his new manager wants from the role, and has vowed to push harder to win back that place.
“He wants the midfielders to be very complete, to be physically strong,” said Fabregas. “We are training very hard for it. If you have to analyse me, maybe I’m a bit more the playmaker, creative going forward, and he wants me to be a little bit more stable and compact in defence. For Matic, who is the opposite of me, he wants him to be better offensively. For Oscar, for Kante…he works with every aspect for us to be the best we can.
“It’s a new situation for me in my career after 13 years of basically playing everything for my club and national team, and it’s been tough, I’m not going to deny it. But the last thing I will do is complain or put my hands up and give in. Something from inside is coming out stronger than ever and I just feel like a little boy in training, trying to win my spot back as I used to do at Arsenal when I was 16. I’ve been training very hard. You have to be professional. You have to keep your attitude. All my team-mates deserve respect.”
A manager communicating with each player, but never hanging them out to dry publicly. Leading to players working hard and respecting their manager, rather than leaking things to the press. It’ll never catch on.
* The one time I get to include Nottingham Forest in 16 Conclusions, and it’s going to be negative.
Philippe Montanier has made himself a popular man at the City Ground, with his media friendliness, faith in youth and attacking football. But the Frenchman will not become the first man since Billy Davies to stay in charge of Forest for an entire season unless he improves the club’s defensive record.
There is no shame in conceding four goals to Arsenal. There is shame in not keeping a clean sheet in any competition since April 16. There is shame in conceding 23 goals in 11 games this season.
* It might be the thinnest end of the thinnest wedge in the ‘Leeds United being ridiculous’ stakes, but the club’s decision to charge £25 on the day for their EFL Cup tie with Blackburn Rovers was brainless in the extreme. The game attracted 8,488 people, with Elland Road 22.3% full.
The following evening, QPR charged £6.70 a ticket and the attendance was almost double that at Leeds. The ground was 77.6% full.