Premier League Winners And Losers…

Date published: Tuesday 18th August 2015 10:59

SOUTHAMPTON, ENGLAND - AUGUST 15:  Romelu Lukaku celebrates after scoring his second goal during the Barclays Premier League match between Southampton and Everton at St Mary's Stadium on August 15, 2015 in Southampton, United Kingdom.  (Photo by Tony McArdle/Everton FC via Getty Images)

Claudio Ranieri tops the Winners, whilst Chelsea and Jose Mourinho have two weeks to stave off crisis. We also have lovely words for Lukaku, Sanchez and Coquelin…

Winners

Manchester City
A performance and victory to truly merit the tag of title favourites. Keep His Royal Highness Sergio Aguero fit and it is already difficult to envisage City being stopped.

City’s forward line looks imperious, whilst successive clean sheets go some way to eradicating the nightmares of past defensive unease. With Nicolas Otamendi and Kevin de Bruyne on the way as possible reinforcements, things look very rosy indeed for the blue half of Manchester.

Anyway, I’ve already said plenty so for much, much more from City’s victory over Chelsea, you should go and read 16 Conclusions right here.


Claudio Ranieri

Early days of course, but we all look very silly indeed right now. Not even the most optimistic fox (which sounds like a children’s book character) could have predicted two victories from two matches and six goals scored. Leicester are in dreamland.

There were concerns about Ranieri’s ability to cope without Esteban Cambiasso, but the Italian has responded by asking his side to play a high tempo, attacking style. They understandably retreated towards their own goal during the second half against West Ham, but the damage had been done during the first period. The tone was set by Shinji Okazaki and Jamie Vardy, hassling and harrying from the front. West Ham were suffocated in their own half.

Leicester’s manager played down the club’s start to the season following successive victories. “I may need to put the ice on their heads to keep them cool,” Ranieri said. “We can’t think about being top of the league. Having six points at this time of the season is far more important. I am not thinking too much at the moment. I am just happy.”

Ranieri is right to stay cautious. Leicester gained eight points from their first five matches last season, before then taking 11 from their next 24 league games. A good August can quickly become a fond but distant memory during a winter of discontent.

For now, however, there should be no ‘but’. Following predictions of struggle and farce, Ranieri has stuck two fingers up to the doubters, one for each of their wins. Metaphorically of course, for he is far too pleasant for such swears.


Romelu Lukaku

Scorer of his 106th and 107th career goals, having only turned 22 in May.

The common retort when mentioning Lukaku’s goal record (which I do, a lot) is to point out that he scored plenty of times in the weaker Belgian league, but here again there is an easy comeback. Since moving to West Brom on loan in August 2012, Lukaku has scored 44 goals in 106 Premier League games. In that time Wayne Rooney has scored 41. Rooney may have been deployed in a central midfield role for some of that spell, but he’s also not been playing for mid-table clubs. I’ll repeat it again: Lukaku has only just turned 22.

The Belgian’s performance against Southampton was a perfect demonstration of his arts. The first was a header that required Lukaku to strain his neck backwards to gain the requisite contact on the ball and guide it into the top corner. The second saw him win the ball back in midfield and exchange passes with Ross Barkley, before driving past two defenders and finishing coolly.

It was no coincidence that Lukaku looked more energised at St Mary’s, Roberto Martinez choosing to play him alongside the excellent Arouna Kone. One of Lukaku’s biggest limitations at Everton has been a lack of support in the final third. He’s too often been asked not just to score chances, but create them for himself. The initial signs of link-up between the pair are very promising indeed.

Despite my obsession with the goal record, it is Lukaku’s physical fitness which remains his most impressive attribute. On Saturday Mauricio Pochettino spoke of Harry Kane’s fatigue after a long season and short pre-season. Kane is only two months younger than Lukaku, and was equally relied upon last season to lead his club’s forward line in four competitions.

Yet Lukaku is rarely given a rest. Since the beginning of 2013 (and including friendlies), he has played 144 matches. By the time he turns 23, he will be closing in on 350 as a professional. That’s obscene.

At a time when England’s elite are all crying out for forward reinforcements, it seems bizarre that there is a young, prolific Premier League striker doing his thing for a club who would see a top-six finish as cause for celebration. If Lukaku was English, we’d be hailing him as the second coming.


Alexis Sanchez

Mesut Ozil played better and Olivier Giroud scored a wonderful goal, but there is something incredibly exciting about seeing Alexis Sanchez back on the pitch. His fight, determination and energy make him the sort of player who acts as the perfect link between a supporter and his club. As someone on Twitter (and I forget who) said, Sanchez is exactly the type of player who every fan imagines they would be.

Since arriving in England, Sanchez has failed to start five Premier League games for Arsenal. In that time they have dropped eight points, losing to West Ham and Tottenham and also drawing the north London derby at home. It is no coincidence that Arsenal’s season really started when Sanchez’s did too. When he plays well, so does his team; you suspect it will always be that way.


Francis Coquelin

A loser for his brainless overzealousness, but a winner for staying on the field. Coquelin should pop the words ‘Lee’ and ‘Mason’ onto his carte de Noël list.

“I felt that he was not fortunate,” said Arsene Wenger after the game. “I would like to see all that again, but in the end the pressure created by the crowd was so big that I took him off after 60 minutes. That’s not easy after 60 minutes when you are 2-1 up – to take off a player having quite a good game. It’s a very sensitive decision.”

Everybody may be discussing that match report on Chelsea’s website, but this was some Pravda-style rewriting of history from Arsenal’s manager. To suggest that Coquelin was the victim of crowd pressure and therefore forced into a withdrawal is laughable to anyone who watched the game.

On Sunday we saw the bad side of Francis Coquelin, and the reason why Wenger’s refusal to reinforce his central midfield is a spectacular gamble. He received his first booking before half-time, and then committed a second foul on Wilfred Zaha which clearly merited a booking. Mason’s decision to book James McArthur for a replica foul shortly after rightly left the locals angry.

For Coquelin to get away with it once was fortunate, but twice was negligence on Mason’s part. He clattered into another challenge before being promptly removed by Wenger. Forget ‘crowd pressure’, this was a manager’s sensible reaction to player stupidity.

As Thierry Henry remarked after the game: “You have to be smarter, play with your brain. Go, put pressure, stop. He left himself exposed for a red card and he got lucky as he was allowed to be substituted.” Quite.

Coquelin should not be censured too greatly. This was just his 30th league start for Arsenal – of course he will make mistakes. However, it highlights just how much faith is being placed in him. Is this a midfielder Wenger can really expect to start and finish 50-plus games this season?


Manchester United

“Yes, I am very happy that we have won. We started the competition with a win at home and a win away. The key for this season is to win more away games and I think we are capable of doing that” – Louis van Gaal.

Happiness by numbers for Van Gaal who, for the second weekend in succession, watched his side grind out a 1-0 victory without ever really impressing. There were as many reasons to be negative as positive, but the underlying conclusion is that United have enjoyed a far smoother start to this season than last.

It took Van Gaal’s side until November 8 to win their fourth league game of the 2014/15 season. Beat Newcastle and Swansea, and that mini-landmark will be reached in August this time around.


Adnan Januzaj

A first goal for 1,169 Premier League minutes on his first start since February. It’s amazing the effort players will put in to avoid going on loan to Sunderland.


Ross Barkley

It always feels as if the Ross Barkley swing-o-meter only has two labels; one marked ‘hot’ and the other ‘not’. He is either England’s central midfield saviour, or a wasted talent edging closer to Mr Just Not Quite.

It therefore gives me great pleasure to welcome the new Paul Gascoigne back into the fold. Against Southampton on Saturday lunchtime, Barkley was superb. A combative midfield of Victor Wanyama, Steven Davis (and then Oriol Romeu) was intended to starve him of both service and space. Barkley made that ambition look ludicrous. It is performances like these from Barkley that are inevitably accompanied by a tinge of remorse that they have been so sadly infrequent since the beginning of last season.

Still let’s focus on the silver cloud rather than the grey lining. For the first time in his career, Barkley provided a goal and assist in the same match. Now keep it up.


Stephen Ireland

A game turned on its head by the introduction of Stephen Ireland.

Watching the midfielder’s crosses and through balls on Match of the Day made you realise just how good the average Premier League footballer really is. Neither Juan Mata nor David Silva would have been ashamed.


Nathan Redmond

I wrote right here that I thought Nathan Redmond could be one of the stars of this season, and I’m already regretting not betting on him being part of England’s Euro 2016 squad. Stop me if I’m getting carried away.

After being (foolishly, in my opinion) left on the bench against Crystal Palace on the opening day as Norwich lost 3-1, Redmond was started by Alex Neil as the Canaries effected the opposite scoreline at the Stadium of Light. His second goal in as many games and more chances created than any other player on the pitch should ensure that Redmond remains in the starting line-up. He’s only nine months older than Raheem Sterling, remember.


Riyad Mahrez

Before this season, Mahrez had scored seven goals in 51 matches in England. After two games, he’s close to half-way to matching that total.

His finish at the Boleyn Ground was also made to look disgustingly easy. Not bad for 24-year-old who cost £350,000 from Ligue 2.


The New Breed

After I wrote recently on the rise of the Premier League ‘rest’, this weekend’s action generated further evidence. Goals for Shinji Okazaki (Germany), Andre Ayew (France) and Dimitri Payet (France) continued the trend set by Georginio Wijnaldum, Miguel Layun and Yohan Cabaye on the opening weekend.

It’s going to be a fine, fine season.


Losers

Sunderland
In Big Weekend on Friday, I labelled myself Mr Kneejerk for suggesting that Sunderland vs Norwich was a monumental game so early in the season given that it could crush the hopes of the loser.

If anything I underplayed it. Sunderland supporters could be seen streaming from the Stadium of Light after less than an hour played. This felt like the last days of Wearside. Again.

It’s hard not to sympathise with those supporters who have had enough. As the results remain painfully similar, the moment at which the masses voice their discontent gets earlier and earlier, their collective pain threshold diminished through experience. There are only so many times that you can watch an identikit horror show before thinking that, actually, it’s a lovely day and I could be walking through a park, sitting by the sea or drinking to forget the s**t-tip that my club has become.

Sunderland remains an exercise in sporting short-termism. This summer, another opportunity to create a steady foundation for sustainable development was shunned in the clamour to re-appoint Dick Advocaat. There is no doubt that the Dutchman captured the hearts of the Sunderland populace with his success last season, but the lunacy of giving a manager a one-year deal and then allowing him to sign players on three-year contracts should be obvious.

There is no magic recipe for Premier League relegation, but Sunderland are certainly having a go at writing a new cookbook. Take two parts expensive foreign recruits with no Premier League experience (Emanuele Giaccherini, Jeremain Lens, Ricky Alvarez), two parts ageing Premier League has-been or probably-never-will-be (Wes Brown, Younès Kaboul, John O’Shea, Jermain Defoe, Danny Graham) and one part Championship-level player (Liam Bridcutt, Will Buckley, Adam Matthews) and you have a squad capable of being worse than last season.

The surprise is not that Sunderland are set to struggle again; the surprise is that anyone could be surprised.


Chelsea

“I cannot say it [the match] is crucial, I cannot say it is decisive, I cannot say it is very, very, very important. It is always important, but it is not decisive” – Jose Mourinho.

Technically of course, Mourinho is right. Defeat against Manchester City was not terminal to Chelsea’s attempt to retain their Premier League crown, and his post-match insistence that there are still 36 games left rings true. However, let us not dismiss the low ebb to which Chelsea fell on Sunday. It represented Mourinho’s joint-heaviest defeat as Chelsea manager, and the first time since 1998 that they have failed to win either of their first two matches. This was far more than ‘just’ three points.

There is an odd occurrence in the Premier League, whereby league champions take their eye off the ball considerably after winning the title, as if blinded by the light glinting off the silver trophy. Manchester City fell from 89 points in 2012 to 78 the following season. Manchester United fell from 89 points to 64 points in 2013. Manchester City again fell from 86 points to 79 last season, and Chelsea are threatening to suffer another slump. Success should breed and inspire more success; instead complacency has reigned.

Mourinho’s squad is not short of talent, of course, but the manager has legitimate concerns about the lack of strength in depth. Radamel Falcao, Loic Remy, Juan Cuadrado and John Obi Mikel are not back-up players to be relied upon in a race for the top. Much of Jose’s recent public resentment stems from his club’s inability to kick on after success, failing to heed the warnings provided in recent seasons. Put simply, Chelsea face a mammoth fortnight as they attempt to get their title retention back on track.


Branislav Ivanovic

I covered Ivanovic’s travails on Sunday in some detail here, but the bigger picture is worth emphasising. The biggest positive from Chelsea’s sorry collapse in Manchester was the announcement of the signing of Augsburg left-back Abdul Baba Rahman midway through the first half.

Cesar Azpilicueta comfortably saw off the challenge provided by the arrival of Filipe Luis last summer, but the signing of Rahman gives Mourinho a different option. Now may be the time for Azpilicueta to move to his original position of right-back, with Rahman filling in on the left.

That would mean Ivanovic losing his place in Chelsea’s first team; many supporters would remark that is it not before time. The Serbian’s attacking endeavour, assists and recent goal record offer a façade for the significant decline in his defensive ability. The manner in which he clumsily gives away fouls, stands off to allow a cross into the box and loses possession in key areas has alarmed Chelsea fans for some time. On Sunday we saw those concerns played out on centre stage.

Now 31, Ivanovic has been one of the best signings in Roman Abramovich’s Chelsea reign, but all good things must come to an end. Sometimes it’s about knowing when to let go.


Manchester United’s Need For A Striker

I am still struggling to comprehend how The Sun’s man at Villa Park saw reason to make Wayne Rooney his ‘Star Man’, but needless to say I did not concur. Rooney’s dire performance, even if only repeated irregularly, makes a new striker Manchester United’s newest priority.

It has been a summer of changing priorities at Old Trafford. What started as a central midfield in desperate need of reinforcement and a vacant right-back slot then progressed into an evolving goalkeeping issue and a central defence that didn’t exactly scream top four. With Sergio Romero and his back four keeping consecutive league clean sheets, the chronic lack of options in attack now looks like United’s most obvious Achilles’ heel.

With rumours that Pedro has been listening to his mate Victor Valdes and may decide against a move, the shelves in the striker superstore look worryingly bare. Arsene Wenger last week spoke of a dearth of world-class strikers in today’s game, and Van Gaal would presumably nod his head in agreement.

The available supply does not change the demand, however. Van Gaal has no option; he simply must buy. The ‘who’ is the million dollar question.


Tottenham

“He was tired. He came later into pre-season but this is normal. He needs time,” Pochettino said after the game. “Last season we spoke a lot about Harry Kane and the consequence you can see now. Today my feeling was that he was tired and after 2-0 at 70 minutes I thought that was enough for him. Don’t take risks with his body.”

The manner in which clubs leave their business until the last days of the transfer window has always been deeply frustrating, but Tottenham are taking things into the realms of negligence this summer. When Kane left the field on Saturday against Stoke City, there was no striker on the bench to replace him. None were injured nor suspended; Kane is the only option. For a club who finished fifth last season, that is ludicrous.

Pochettino may not be taking risks with Kane’s body, but Spurs are taking a huge gamble with their progress. Having allowed seven of the first-team squad to depart, only one summer signing (Toby Alderweireld) has made an appearance thus far. The Belgian stupidly gave the penalty away that allowed Stoke back into the match.

September 2 is supposed to be a deadline for transfer activity, but Spurs are guilty of using it as a guide. The season is only in its embryonic stage, but they are in danger of allowing their rivals to gain a handy headstart. Given the budgets and spending of those around them, such generosity simply cannot be afforded.


Daryl Janmaat

Stupidity personified. To be booked once for a cynical foul 80 yards from your own goal is foolish; to do exactly the same 25 minutes later (and still before half-time) is laughable for an international footballer such as Janmaat.

It is precisely the type of decision-making that loses you your first-team place, and Janmaat is lucky that Steve McClaren has very few other defensive options. It’s hard to imagine Mike Williamson faring any better against a winger like Jefferson Montero.


Aleksandar Mitrovic

If a booking within 30 seconds on his Premier League debut didn’t persuade Newcastle’s new striker to tone things down a notch, a second yellow card within three minutes of being introduced against Swansea must do. McClaren has spoken of his admiration for Mtrovic’s aggression, but it has to be controlled. The Serbian striker is currently stuck in fifth gear, and it’s not a good look.

“We can’t take away that kind of devil, aggression that he’s got because that’s what we talked about a lot going into the first game, and definitely will talk about it going into the second game too,” McClaren said before the trip to Swansea. “The game is about physicality, it is about duels, it is about competing. Sometimes you have to be over-competitive.”

It’s also about adjusting your behaviour to the demands of the situation and environment in which you are playing. On initial evidence, Mitrovic has much to learn on that front.


Southampton

A domestic performance to raise doubts after serene European progress. One dead swallow doesn’t provide a reason for summer mourning, but Ronald Koeman will demand a response after such a defeat.

Daniel Storey

 

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