Premier League winners and losers

Date published: Monday 29th August 2016 11:53

Arsenal Watford

Winners

 

Marcus Rashford
‘It is becoming difficult to make an argument for Rashford’s exclusion from the starting XI against Manchester City after the international break,’ writes James Riach in The Guardian, but that’s the kind of simplistic thinking that leads to ignorance from the masses. One goal from the bench does not make him better than Zlatan Ibrahimovic as a No. 9 and certainly not better than Wayne Rooney as a No. 10, or even a candidate to replace the struggling Anthony Martial on the wing. He is the second-choice striker for one of the Premier League title favourites and that is astonishing considering his age and experience; he does not need anybody to fight his corner because his corner is looking pretty sodding rosy.

Jose Mourinho describes Rashford as “our striker number two at the moment” and at 18, that is a not-inconsiderable achievement for a player who had not sat on a Premier League bench ten months ago. Mourinho is not a natural truster of youth, whatever he would have you believe, so for him to push just one (legendary) striker ahead of Rashford is a massive compliment.

Rashford came off the bench at Hull and gave United added vim and vigour, which is exactly what you would expect from a precociously talented 18-year-old. He will start games in the League Cup and the early stages of the Europa League, but when it comes to a Manchester derby, it would be more helpful to Rashford if we all just eased off on the pressure.

He does not need a Sun journalist saying he has the right to be feel ‘miffed’ at being in the England Under-21 squad and he does not need a – you would think – more sensible Guardian man suggesting he should start the Manchester derby. What he needs is for us all to be really bloody impressed with what he has achieved. We are.

 

The Mailbox
As long as Wayne Rooney is playing terribly but scoring/creating goals, it will tear itself asunder.

 

Jose Mourinho
With Chelsea already on nine points and Manchester City odds-on to join them on Sunday, Jose Mourinho – even in late August – needed rather than merely wanted that victory. With the Manchester derby next up after the international break, Rashford’s goal has changed the narrative. Instead of Manchester City having the chance to move five points ahead of their city rivals, we have a scenario where a draw at Old Trafford – surely the sensible bet already – will leave them on level pegging. All United must do now is not lose to City at Old Trafford and the opening month of the season will have been a success. And if there’s one situation Mourinho relishes, it’s playing a must-not-lose game against a rival.

This season has been been billed ad nauseum as a battle of elite managers and the first crack in the campaigns of the three new mouth-watering protagonists will be seized upon, analysed and counter-analysed. That late goal from Rashford has rescued Mourinho from two weeks of questions about whether this United side is ultimately as toothless as the team Louis van Gaal left behind.

There’s a reason his second reaction to Rashford’s goal was to get another defender onto the pitch; he wasn’t letting those three points slip through his grasp.

 

Eric Bailly
He’s just really bloody good, isn’t he? Who knew?

 

Joel Matip
See above.

 

Arsenal
It’s wonderful what can happen when you can get your best footballers on the pitch. It’s only the second time since November that Petr Cech, Laurent Koscielny, Santi Cazorla, Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez have started a Premier League game together (the first was a 4-0 win over Aston Villa), and in the opening 45 minutes at Watford, the Gunners were irresistible, with Cazorla pulled back into his most effective position pushing and probing from deep, Ozil and Sanchez combining beautifully as world-class players really should, and Cech keeping Arsenal in the game when the inevitable meltdown came.

Ozil’s goal was a very pleasant surprise and was only really possible because of the supposed weakness of Sanchez in not playing as a conventional striker. With the Chilean pulling wide, Ozil believed in his ability to deliver the right ball and he made the kind of run that looked rather more like the dynamic no. 10 thrust of Frank Lampard than the orchestrated beauty of Ozil’s usual style. That goal is not possible if Olivier Giroud is occupying the space Ozil is tempted to attack. Sometimes having no focal point is no problem.

 

Theo Walcott
He was our early winner because he is showing signs that he is finally willing to fight for that right-wing place.

 

Eden Hazard
It’s almost like Antonio Conte has decided that to win the Premier League, allowing one of the game’s most intoxicating players to be intoxicating might be a fine idea. Eden Hazard looks like he is having a massive amount of fun again and that’s down in part to a system that encourages him to push as high or higher than Diego Costa. Never mind the tackling and the tracking back, son – that’s why Matic pushes left of Kante – just get out there and run at defenders, take people on and shoot. Yes, shoot. After all, scoring goals is kind of the point of this whole footballing lark.

Hazard averaged 1.2 shots per game in his last treacherous season, but in just three games of this campaign, he has taken 14 shots; that’s 4.7 per game. That’s a player being told that his responsibility to the team is to win football matches, not to help out his full-back. We would like to think that every drift inside and shot from distance is two fingers up in the direction of Manchester.

 

Nemanja Matic
Encouraged to be an all-round footballer by the presence of the machine that is N’Golo Kante, Matic is showing he is rather more than a destroyer. Mourinho famously likes his ‘specialists’ but footballers like being able to prove that they can do more than one thing well. Matic’s range of passing when given the freedom to be more than a foil for Cesc Fabregas has been one of the unexpected delights of this nascent season.

 

Victor Moses
The beneficiary of playing under a manager who values good old-fashioned wing play. If you have the ball, beat the man; if you don’t have the ball, get to the back stick.

 

Sadio Mane
For more on the electric forward – and indeed lots more on a game neither won nor lost on Saturday – read our 16 Conclusions from the game.

 

Raheem Sterling
‘Can we just write about him every week?’ asked Matt Stead just five minutes into Manchester City’s win over West Ham. We’re afraid not, Matt, as tempting as it might be. Sterling feels like our boy after we extensively defended him over his attempts to leave Liverpool, reminded everybody with annoying consistency that he was only very young, lauded his achievements at Manchester City and suggested that perhaps villifying a man for buying his mum a house was a tad unfair. Every goal, every performance, feels like one in the eye for the ‘fans’ who boo him, the racist idiots who troll him and the journalists happy to hold him up as an example of everything that is wrong with football.

It turns out – as we suspected – that Sterling is rather a good footballer. And it didn’t take any magic from Pep Guardiola to make that happen, just a gentle reminder that playing wide means playing wide. And presumably reassurance that Guardiola was judging him on highlights rather than headlines.

“He’s so dynamic, so aggressive with and without the ball – I’m so happy he’s playing good. I just tried to help him, to tell him he’ll received the ball more often if he stays in his position. After that, it’s his talent.”

Thank you, Pep.

 

Ronald Koeman
The keeper you signed with little fanfare has been so impressive that the clamour for a first-choice replacement has all-but disappeared; the central defender you bought has integrated seamlessly into your side; the midfielder you have brought in to add bite is tackling more than anybody else in the Premier League; the winger you added for directness is beating people for fun; it’s all going rather well for Ronald Koeman.

And the rather good news for him is that Romelu Lukaku will regain his confidence, Seamus Coleman will return from injury and the fans are already won over by a combination of style and pragmatism they have not seen for many, many years. It’s like David Moyes and Roberto Martinez have been tossed into a melting pot and the result is a manager encouraging an attacking front four but discouraging unnecessary risks.

Would Martinez have taken off Ross Barkley to throw on an extra defender for the last ten minutes? Would Moyes have played Barkley from the start? Koeman could well be the manager the Toffees have been waiting for.

 

Danny Drinkwater
That weighted pass for Jamie Vardy’s opener was simply lovely. And his England recall entirely deserved after a performance that suggested he is adapting to life without Kante. It helps when Daniel Amartey looks like a Premier League player. It helps when Jamie Vardy looks sharper than in any other game this season.

 

Alan Pardew
Jesus Christ, he needed that. And no, Alan, we are not comparing you to Jesus Christ; we will leave that to you.

Lucky to still be in the game at all at half-time, Pardew then fixed his self-imposed problems by taking off Connor Wickham – inexplicably picked as a No. 10 – and bringing on Wilfried Zaha and Lee Chung-Yong to spark an assault that finally brought a deserved equaliser. The pressure on Pardew would have been deservedly mounting if they had gone into the international break with no goals and no points from the first three games of the season.

Now he can spend the next two weeks licking himself and staring at a Premier League table that shows Palace in 17th. It’s what you dream of when you spend over £50m in the transfer window.

 

Jay Rodriguez

His prize? Not having to join West Brom.

 

Losers

 

Sergio Aguero
One in the eye (or neck) for the ‘not that kind of player’ brigade, Sergio Aguero proved that even the most mild-mannered of footballers is prone to a moment of sheer lunacy. A three-match ban would indeed be the least that the Argentine deserves and that the first of those banned games is the Manchester derby is a fitting punishment for a heinous crime.

‘Apart from those connected with Manchester United, no-one would want to see Aguero miss the derby but if he does, he only has himself to blame,’ writes Jamie Redknapp, and we are inclined to agree. It’s taken a little bit of shine off the anticipation for the Manchester derby on September 10; we wanted to see Eric Bailly try to thwart Aguero, not Kelechi Iheanacho. Or Kevin De Bruyne as a false nine. Scratch that, we have just got a little bit excited again because we want to know exactly what Pep Guardiola has planned for life without Aguero.

 

Mark Hughes
It was a particularly soft penalty, but this “one rule for us and one rule for everybody else” is a) tiresome and b) a predictable and ineffective smokescreen for a pretty rotten start to the season. That you have one point from three games is not because you have been punished twice for questionable offences in the box (particularly when you were given a penalty of your own against Manchester City that was similarly questionable), it is because of massive deficiencies in your squad and tactical changes you seem reluctant to make.

That Stoke ended up resorting to Peter Crouch by the third game of the season is a damning indictment of the Potters’ summer search for a striker, while the trio of Giannelli Imbula, Joe Allen and Glenn Whelan is clearly nothing other than functional.

A couple of damning stats: No Stoke player has created more than three chances in the first three Premier League games of the season. Even Sunderland have had more shots this season.

Without Xherdan Shaqiri the creative pressure on Marko Arnautovic must feel suffocating; his reaction to Jon Walters fluffing his chance was telling. Watching Everton at close quarters must have made him wonder if he made the right decision. He might be the only one feeling regret.

 

Anthony Martial
He’s struggling with not being a big fish in a small pond. He was our early loser.

 

Ross Barkley
We have written at length about the collective goodwill towards Barkley – adding a note of cynicism about a player who has yet to add consistency to his game – but you can’t help but feel sorry for him after seeing an England squad without his name. Especially after extensive quotes about how Roy Hodgson has not given him a chance. And especially after attracting extensive plaudits for his performances so far this season.

But Sam Allardyce watched him on Saturday and saw a player who lost the ball more than anybody else in an Everton shirt against Stoke. The groans from the Goodison Park crowd were obviously clearly heard in the box.

 

Harry Kane
For lots more on him and his woeful performance against Liverpool, read our 16 Conclusions.

 

Charlie Austin
Miserably failed his audition for the vacant role of Southampton striker. Only Harry Kane can get away with a pass completion rate less than 50%.

 

Fernando Llorente
Just before the highlights of the Leicester v Swansea match on Match of the Day, the commentator said that perhaps the wing talents of Wayne Routledge and Modou Barrow were what was needed to get Fernando Llorente off the mark. At this point, most of us knew that Swansea had lost 2-1 but even the most optimistic of ostriches would struggle to see Routledge and Barrow as the answer to anybody’s hopes of scoring a goal.

In the end, Routledge was taken off after 58 minutes in which he did not beat a single Leicester player, did not attempt a single cross and completed only five passes. Can you hear the drums, Fernando? I remember long ago when you were playing with proper wingers and not Wayne sodding Routledge.

 

Bournemouth
One win in their last 11 Premier League games, and that was against Aston Villa. The problem for Eddie Howe is that desperation has set in as early as August, as evidenced by their fatal retreat further and further back towards their own goal as Palace’s bombardment gathered pace.

Howe admitted that his side could not resist the temptation to “sink very deep, trying to protect what we had, which wasn’t our wish”, and that must be deeply worrying for the Cherries boss. His philosophy of patient, possession-based football has gone out of the window now the sun is not shining so brightly.

Callum Wilson has started the season in awful form, Jordon Ibe looks exactly as out of his depth as we forecast and the full-backs still look massively susceptible to pace. If I hadn’t predicted relegation and been wrong last season, they would have been in my thinking this year. As Watford are also finding, it’s very, very difficult for even summer business to reverse poor late-season form.

 

Burnley
Mind you, I wouldn’t change my mind about Burnley. They will bloody a few noses at home, but they simply do not have the quality to survive.

 

Tony Pulis
The problem for the West Brom manager is that patience was already very, very thin. To watch mind-numbing football and then be told that you should be very grateful for survival is only vaguely palatable if there is some acknowledgement that change is required. None has been forthcoming. West Brom are still playing the sort of football that makes you want to actually cry. If anything, they are actually getting worse; a 70% pass completion rate has dropped to 65.6%.

It doesn’t matter how many times you are told that Tony Pulis does not get teams relegated; most Baggies fans are willing to roll the dice. They see what happened at Leicester. They see what happened at West Ham. And they want more than the slow, long, long, long, slow march to 40 points.

At home against newly promoted Middlesbrough they had 41% of the ball and managed two shots on target. They were booed off the pitch at the end of 90 awful minutes.

“We’re the top team in the West Midlands and that’s where we want to stay,” said Pulis, which is yet another tacit admission that survival is all that can be expected. The message is clear: Don’t you dare dream of more.

 

Slaven Bilic
Stop playing Michail Antonio in defence, for a start. Our Matt Stead was unimpressed.

 

Troy Deeney and Odion Ighalo
Three games in and only six shots and zero goals between them. Last season already seems an awful long time ago.

 

Jordan Pickford
Poor bugger. Then despair exacerbated by David Moyes taking the opportunity to talk about the pifalls of having a young goalkeeper. Translation: Get me Joe Hart.

 

Sarah Winterburn

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