* Of all the words Jose Mourinho had at his disposal, the one he chose felt significant. “I think everybody in attacking areas gave a good dynamic in the team, and especially happiness,” he said after Manchester United’s 4-1 win over Burton.
Maintaining said happiness in a squad full of elite and expensive players is a thankless task. Egos must be stroked, chances handed out and performances rewarded. Patience, a virtue rarely afforded in football, is of the utmost importance.
Anthony Martial, in and out of the starting line-up, had seven shots and completed ten dribbles. Marcus Rashford had four shots. Juan Mata had three. Jesse Lingard had two. Between them, the quartet created nine chances for teammates.
No wonder Mourinho was impressed. He made nine changes, Rashford and Mata the only players to retain their starting place from the 4-0 win over Everton, and both were praised by the manager post-match. Those who came in showed hunger, passion and a willingness to fight for their position in the squad. Victor Lindelof was given precious minutes, Michael Carrick made his first start of the season, and Scott McTominay was handed half an hour to impress. There was even a rare sighting of Luke Shaw in a United shirt.
Eight games into the campaign, United have already used 24 players in all competitions – only Arsenal (26) have used more. Keeping squad morale high is admittedly easier when delivering results, and Mourinho is doing precisely that. But he deserves great credit for keeping Anthony Martial, Jesse Lingard and the rest full even while rationing their minutes.
* For evidence of the above, look no further than Rashford. After being United’s most-used player in all competitions last season, ten players have featured more often this campaign. And yet the 19-year-old continues to impress with each passing game.
Just ask Phil Neville. “He is up there with Dembele and Mbappe,” said the pundit on Wednesday after Rashford’s two-goal salvo. “Everybody praises Ousmane Dembele and Kylian Mbappe but nobody talks about Rashford in this country.”
They do, of course, and so they should. Be it on the wing or, as against Burton, as a central striker, Rashford is showing a maturity and talent belying his teenage years. Instead of complaining about rotation and a lack of opportunities playing in his favoured position, he is happy to learn from his teammates and thrive.
One could debate whether he belongs in the same conversation as Mbappe, a striker who scored 26 goals last season, and Dembele, a winger who became the second-most expensive footballer in the world this summer. Such comparisons are almost always reductive. Rashford should be enjoyed for what he is: a brilliant player in his own right, and one who will only improve.
* When Arsene Wenger stated that Arsenal would seamlessly switch between a three-man and a four-man defence this season, fans were offered a semblance of hope that the typically belligerent Frenchman was open to change. After two decades of playing one formation, Wenger suddenly switched systems at the end of last season. To go from black to white with no grey area never felt like a long-term plan.
Arsenal were excellent in the 0-0 draw with Chelsea on Sunday with a three-man defence, but look beyond the starting XI and the cracks begin to appear. With no Sead Kolasinac, who is the reserve left wing-back? And is anyone capable of replicating Hector Bellerin’s strengths on the opposite flank?
Ainsley Maitland-Niles and Reiss Nelson were tasked with the roles on Wednesday against Doncaster and, not for the first time, both struggled in unfamiliar positions. Neither are particularly defensive-minded, and the role of a wing-back is a difficult one to learn.
Numerous forwards down the years plied their trade on the wing early in their careers. It helps players to learn new skills, and Wenger knows all too well the effect it had on Thierry Henry’s career. Marcus Rashford is the latest example of a forward deployed out wide, but the 19-year-old plays as a winger, not a wing-back. As a purveyor of potential, Wenger must surely realise that playing Maitland-Niles and Nelson in that position does nothing for their development.
* Tottenham’s arsenal to unlock increasingly deep and growingly frustrating defences has long needed strengthening. Harry Kane is the battering ram, Dele Alli is the lockpick and Christian Eriksen is the Danish Army Knife, but when the club’s three most productive players are incapable of making the difference, the list of alternatives is slim.
There is Heung-min Son, who offers skill but often lacks the end product. There is Mousa Dembele, a smooth operator whose mind is a step ahead but his body often fails him. Moussa Sissoko offers something of a Plan B, but struggled against Championship side Barnsley.
The winning goal eventually came from the usual source – a cross from wide courtesy of Kieran Trippier converted by Alli – but Spurs toiled for a full hour at an empty Wembley.
The slight positive comes in the substitute appearance of Georges-Kevin Nkoudou, a player capable of offering something none of his teammates can if he can marry his speed with consistency. Along with Fernando Llorente, the unsubtle brick who admittedly looked off the pace on his first start since May, Tottenham finally have numerous ways to hurt any defence. Mauricio Pochettino just needs to know when and where to use them.
* How Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain must yearn to relive the evening of Friday, August 11. Starting at left wing-back for Arsenal against Leicester on the opening day of the Premier League, it is the last time the 24-year-old has tasted victory.
Forty-one days, one transfer, six games, four defeats and no wins later, it really does feel as though the football world has conspired against the Ox. He deserves great credit for leaving his Arsenal comfort zone last month, but in trying to take a step forward in his career, he has tripped and landed flat on his face.
Not once since his move to Liverpool has Oxlade-Chamberlain started in central midfield. Not once since his move to Liverpool has Oxlade-Chamberlain looked like a £35million player. Not once since his move to Liverpool has Oxlade-Chamberlain created even a single goalscoring chance.
The England international was handed his first start for his new club against Leicester, but struggled on the wing. Ben Chilwell had few problems containing him, with four of his five tackles coming on Oxlade-Chamberlain.
Rotation is a necessary evil and Klopp deserves no criticism for that, but Oxlade-Chamberlain needs consistent games in one position. His manager’s heavy metal football is currently weighing heavily on his shoulders.
* There were only a handful of positives Liverpool could draw from defeat. Philippe Coutinho looked bright on his first start of the season, Andrew Robertson was solid at left-back and Danny Ward performed well. But it was Marko Grujic’s display that caught the eye.
“He has made a big step in his development but no-one could see it yet as he hasn’t played,” Klopp said before the game, and he was surely impressed with the midfielder. In his first start for the club since the fourth round of this same competition last season, Grujic did not miss a step.
The 21-year-old combined his attacking duties with defensive maturity, having four shots, creating two chances, completing three dribbles and making two tackles. Jordan Henderson and Georginio Wijnaldum had one shot, created two chances, completed one dribble and made two tackles between them.
Liverpool’s defence is an obvious problem, but the midfield three who are tasked with shielding them are a huge part of the issue. Klopp complained about his players not “properly defending in midfield” after the thrashing at the hands of Manchester City, and he is right. Without a midfield shield, his defence is too often exposed.
Grujic might not be the answer – certainly not immediately, given his struggles with injury since joining the club in summer 2016 – but at the very least, Klopp’s first signing as Liverpool manager illustrated just what the German wants from his all-action midfielders. Henderson and Wijnaldum should have been watching, because they weren’t doing a great deal else on Tuesday.
* Forget Rocky Balboa, because the only redemption story worth your time is unfolding over on Merseyside.
In October 2016, Oumar Niasse gave a rather depressing interview stating that he did not even have a locker at Everton. He had been demoted to playing for the club’s Under-23s just eight months after signing. Less than a year later, and Ronald Koeman, as the rest of us, might well be ordering the finest slice of humble pie this establishment has to offer.
“Everyone knows it was a difficult situation for him but it is about taking your chance when you get an opportunity,” Koeman said after Niasse’s “perfect goal” in the win over Sunderland. “He showed tonight that he is part of the team.”
Therein lies the lesson. Niasse could have refused to train, could have complained publicly or could have retreated to his homeland, easy paths that countless other players who have found themselves in a similar position have taken. Koeman has clashed with other Everton players, and Kevin Mirallas and Ross Barkley chose to throw their toys out of the pram instead of playing nicely and biding their time.
Niasse might not be the answer to the club’s striker problems, but he has earned the chance to state his case and show what he has in his locker – if he has finally been granted one.
* It is a scenario Michy Batshuayi has long envisaged and backed himself to realise, even if he has had to take an undesirable route. After Chelsea’s first seven games of the season, the striker is their top scorer with four goals.
A hat-trick against Nottingham Forest inflates those numbers considerably, but this is the latest example of Antonio Conte handing Batshuayi a chance and the striker grabbing it with both hands, pummelling it into submission and waiting patiently for more. He now has more goals (13) than he does starts in all competitions (10) for the club since joining.
Alvaro Morata is clearly Conte’s first-choice striker, and he fits into the Italian’s system better than Batshuayi. But the 23-year-old can do no more to persuade the manager that he is capable of leading the line too.
* A victory for Manchester City, progress to the fourth round, two goals for Leroy Sane and valuable minutes for fringe players, and yet they emerge from the win over West Brom with a familiar cloud looming overhead.
Rory Smith’s excellent piece on Ilkay Gundogan relays the unthinkable mental anguish placed on a footballer after suffering a long-term injury. “That is the most difficult thing: to feel that you are useless, not worth as much as before, not worth as much as the others,” the Manchester City midfielder told Smith of his recent battle to return from nine months on the sidelines with a knee injury.
One can only hope that Pep Guardiola’s initial diagnosis that this latest injury is “not too serious” is accurate. Just a day after Gundogan joked that he is “done with injuries”, Claudio Yacob happily delivered the punchline with a poorly timed tackle from behind. If it really is true that you make your own luck, the 26-year-old must have done some quite terrible things in a past life.
* David Gold perhaps has other things on his mind, but the performance of Declan Rice should not go unnoticed by the West Ham co-owner.
“There is nothing more pleasurable, for a fan, owner or manager, to have a young academy player breaking through,” Gold said in June. “However, I think we’ve got to be realistic and say that is now virtually impossible.”
Bolton, bottom of the Championship table and now without a goal in a club-record five games, did not provide the sternest test for the defender. But the 18-year-old was strong in the air, and looked comfortable and composed on the ball. In the Hammers’ first seven games of the season, Rice has featured six times. Only Javier Hernandez, Diafra Sakho and Andre Ayew have played more.
Alongside summer signing Sead Haksabanovic, another 18-year-old who impressed on his debut as a No 10, West Ham have another youngster to be proud of. Rice should take great pride in proving Gold wrong so far.
* Described by former Ajax midfielder Eyong Enoh as “Frank de Boer’s protégé” earlier this month, it always felt as though Jairo Riedewald was the only child stuck in the middle of a difficult divorce. De Boer got the money in the settlement but was not awarded custody; Crystal Palace were left having to care for their adopted son.
The smell of the club’s brief and failed totaalvoetbal experiment lingers with the Dutchman, who must now find a role under Roy Hodgson. A potential solution was provided against Huddersfield.
— Chris Waters (@Clapham_Grand) September 20, 2017
Stepping out of central defence and into holding midfield, the 21-year-old was at ease. His passing was crisp, his tackling and timing seamless. An unrecognisable Huddersfield side pressed and chased as David Wagner demands, but Riedewald was unperturbed. In a straight fight against James McArthur, Jason Puncheon and Yohan Cabaye for the honour of partnering Luka Milivojevic in central midfield, the Dutchman has landed the most telling blow so far.
* The Independent accused Demarai Gray of ‘trying far too hard to impress’ against Liverpool. As a player who has spoken only too often of his “frustration” at a lack of playing opportunities at Leicester, that is understandable.
The winger was finally let off the leash at the King Power Stadium, and was in no mood to let this chance pass him by. He had four shots, completed four dribbles and spent most of the evening tormenting Jon Flanagan like a bigger, better, faster, stronger sibling.
When Leicester take on the Reds again on Saturday, Riyad Mahrez will almost certainly regain his place, but the form – when he is given the opportunity – of perennial substitute Gray clouds the situation somewhat. Since joining the club in January 2016, the 21-year-old has started just ten Premier League games. With news of a five-year contract extension in the works, that has to change soon.
* Just five teams made more changes to their starting line-up than Leeds, and yet a team chasing Championship promotion were able to overcome a Burnley side who have thwarted Chelsea, Tottenham and Liverpool so far this season.
It was cup football at its finest at Turf Moor, the two clubs exchanging four goals in the final 16 minutes after a goalless first 74. Andy Lonergan then turned hero in the penalty shoot-out to send Thomas Christiansen’s side through to a meeting with Leicester.
That it was Pablo Hernandez who would change the game seemed fitting. Introduced in the 79th minute, the Spaniard played his part in the opening goal and converted a penalty for the second, before scoring again in the shoot-out. The only outfielder aged over 30 in the squad helped guide them to the fourth round, and will be key to their hopes of a Premier League return.
* For Juan Foyth, some things never change. The centre-half has now helped keep four clean sheets in his last four matches for two different clubs. He has not conceded in 437 minutes of action for Estudiantes and Tottenham.
Barnsley threatened that record as best they could but 19-year-old Foyth stood tall. He displayed the sort of composure on the ball in defence that gives many a manager heart palpitations, and dealt with the particularly Championship-striker level threat posed by Ike Ugbo. He even had the manners to thank central defensive partner Jan Vertonghen for “helping” him through his debut.
There were moments of uncertainty, as is to be expected in his first professional game in three months, but it was clear to see why Pochettino was so keen to sign him this summer.
* There is nothing like facing the exact same opponent twice to inspire some confidence in a flagging player. Jordon Ibe has threatened to become a considerably expensive mistake for Bournemouth since joining in summer 2016, but promising consecutive performances against Brighton offer hope.
After two assists in the 2-1 Premier League victory on Friday, Ibe was given only a second start in 14 games. A man-of-the-match display suggests that maybe Jamie Redknapp was right all along.
* Arsenal and Aston Villa made 11 changes. Brighton, West Ham and Middlesbrough made ten. There were 245 changes in total at an average of 7.66 per team. Five of the four clubs who made the fewest changes – Bristol Rovers, Doncaster (both 2), West Brom (4) and Barnsley (5) – all lost.
As ever, the discussion as to whether the League Cup should be scrapped or revamped was reopened this week. Jose Mourinho believes it would benefit Manchester United, who managed to win 4-1 despite making nine changes.
“If you ask me could English football survive or even be better without this competition? Maybe,” he said, cranking open a can of worms. “Maybe we would be fresher for European competitions, for example.”
As the only current manager of 92 in the Football League to have ever actually won the League Cup, one suggests Mourinho should know better. England’s fourth-most important competition still deserves its place in the calendar.