Kevin de Bruyne
The last time Manchester City lost a Premier League game in which De Bruyne played a part was December 21, 2015. Anyone claiming that as mere coincidence should be forced to reconsider their judgement; De Bruyne would be a game-changer for any club in Europe. He is the best player in the Premier League, bar none.
‘The £60m reject’ was the Daily Mirror’s back-page in summer 2015, when it became clear that Manchester City would finally land their man. ‘Manchester City ready to smash British record for Chelsea flop De Bruyne (who started just two league games),’ was David Anderson’s very snarky reminder. That went well.
De Bruyne’s actual fee was £55m. It’s unfathomable that a price tag of such magnitude could ever be considered a bargain, but the Belgian is doing his best to make Anderson’s view look utterly foolish. De Bruyne now has 31 league assists and 18 goals since the start of 2014/15. He only turned 25 in June.
Against Manchester United, De Bruyne did several jobs expertly. Not only was he Manchester City’s creative outlet, with Raheem Sterling and Nolito both comparatively quiet, but he also pushed up to support Kelechi Iheanacho, far closer to a second striker than No. 10. When Iheanacho was substituted after 53 minutes, De Bruyne then became City’s false nine, pressing central defenders and acting as the focal point of City’s irregular attacking endeavours.
When Pep Guardiola tried to substitute Nolito in injury time, De Bruyne intervened and asked to be withdrawn. The tank was empty, but De Bruyne had earned his rest. Like Sergio Aguero, he is not just a top performer but a big-game player.
De Bruyne had six shots against Manchester United, double the number of any teammate. De Bruyne created six chances, triple the number of any teammate. De Bruyne won possession from opponents on ten occasions, beaten only by David Silva in that regard. He also ran over 11.4 km despite not lasting the full 90 minutes, surpassed only by City’s two central midfielders.
Not only was this the complete performance, it also mocked the assumption that De Bruyne is a flair player. Under Pep Guardiola, flair and hard work are not only mutually inclusive but happy bedfellows. Jose Mourinho’s accusation that De Bruyne could not cope with battling for a place on his team now looks worse on him than on the player in question.
For more on De Bruyne and City, go right here.
This is getting a bit silly now. Iheanacho has only played 821 minutes (eight starts) of Premier League football since the beginning of last season; he’s scored nine goals and assisted a further three. Any more of this and he’ll take over Harry Kane’s crown of excellent, but clearly fictional, young striker.
There is a slightly more serious point to make regarding Iheanacho and the treatment of young players in the Premier League. The conventional wisdom is that academy graduates don’t get given enough opportunities at elite clubs, and clearly that argument holds weight. Yet it is not that no chances are afforded, merely that young players must perform as soon as they are put into the team. It’s not the initial opportunity that is lacking, just the lack of bedding-in period. Young players must hit the ground at sprinting speed.
It might sound a tough prospect, but Iheanacho has made it work to perfection. Few expected him to make any inroads on the Manchester City first team at the start of last season, yet the Nigerian’s performances have made him impossible to ignore. So much so that Guardiola was prepared to sell Wilfried Bony despite reservations over Sergio Aguero’s hamstrings. A youngster has earned his subsequent chances rather than been given them simply because he was young.
Guardiola’s most obvious impact at City is to effect a changing of the guard. No longer will age and experience be a substitute for quality, as Bony, Samir Nasri, Yaya Toure and Joe Hart have quickly found out. Saturday was only the 14th start of Iheanacho’s club career; Marcus Rashford has comfortably made more. Yet the forward’s maturity and ability to thrive when afforded brief windows of opportunity mean he’s already halfway to becoming a senior player. It’s an obvious thing to say, but Iheanacho is right up Guardiola’s street.
Add Ilkay Gundogan and Sergio Aguero to that first-half performance, and there are 19 other Premier League teams hurriedly checking the fixture list and hoping for an injury crisis.
Still far away from his best form, but goals are the most valuable currency. Mauricio Pochettino claims that Kane will still score 25 times this season, and the Argentinean has earned our faith; so has Kane.
Scorer of two goals in a league game for the first time since Bayer Leverkusen’s 3-0 win at Paderborn in March 2015, Saturday was an opportune time for Son to remind Tottenham supporters of his potential worth. There’s nothing wrong with being back-up if you take your chances – metaphorically and literally – like that.
A shot in the arm too for Pochettino, who came close to letting Son return to the Bundesliga this summer.
“Last season was tough for him and we have to make the decision, in or out,” Pochettino said after the game. “We took the decision for him to stay with us and I’m very pleased now. He had the opportunity to play and show he can help us. We’re very pleased for him.”
Son’s indirect message is clear: Just try and drop me now. With a Champions League campaign starting on Wednesday, it’s a damn handy time to have increased competition for places.
When a 31-year-old midfielder suffers a knee ligament injury and then follows it up with Achilles tendonitis, concerns over his long-term future are both inevitable and understandable. The purchases of Mohamed Elneny and Granit Xhaka bolstered Arsenal’s central midfield options. Were Aaron Ramsey and Santi Cazorla fighting for one position?
Give Arsenal’s infamous injury issues, it’s a virtually redundant question. No sooner had Arsene Wenger been given a selection headache than Ramsey’s hamstring problems resurfaced. In the Welshman’s absence, Cazorla was supreme against Southampton.
There is no doubt that Arsenal rode their luck on Saturday, but Cazorla made his. This was a central midfield masterclass, dictating the pace of the game with quick short passes and more ranging, probing balls into the attacking third. You know what this graphic (from FourFourTwo’s StatZone) says to me? Busy, that’s what.
The following list shows the number of times that each Arsenal starter lost possession against Southampton. I’ve included only those who played the full 90 minutes, for ease of comparison:
Hector Bellerin – 20
Mesut Ozil – 18
Santi Cazorla – 14
Nacho Monreal – 13
Francis Coquelin – 10
Petr Cech – 10
Shkodran Mustafi – 10
Laurent Koscielny – 2
This is not intended as a criticism of Koscielny’s teammates, but the difference is stark. Not only is Koscielny an excellent defender, but he played 36 passes into the opponent’s half against Southampton, completing 35 of them. When your best central defender scores an overhead kick equaliser with supporters getting restless and then passes the ball like an expert central midfielder, you’re within your rights to ask if there is anything he can’t do.
Comments are now closed on the Daily Telegraph’s gallery (always a gallery) of the 20 worst signings from summer 2015; it’s probably just as well. Published in January, that list contained one Roberto Firmino. Since then, the Brazilian has scored 13 Liverpool goals. He might just be their best player.
As with Eriksen under Pochettino, Firmino has been asked – perhaps even forced – to learn the power of hard work under Jurgen Klopp. It is not enough to create chances and take shots, for those represent the shiny exterior, not the engine. Like Eriksen, Firmino has embraced the responsibility. He is Liverpool’s workaholic entertainer.
The attacking talent has never been in doubt, but Firmino gave Anfield a wonderful reminder after long absence. The construction work on the new Main Stand forced Liverpool to play their first three games away from home, but the highest home crowd since 1980 saw their attacking midfielder bamboozle Leicester players with his skill. Firmino also retains that ability to convince the opposition that he has switched off, only to pop up unmarked in an advanced area; see his second goal for details.
Still just 24, Firmino can truly kick on after a year settling in England. Now with the full backing of the Anfield crowd and support from Philippe Coutinho, Sadio Mane and Adam Lallana, there is no ceiling to his potential at Liverpool. Only consistency stops him from being a Player of the Year contender, and, on current evidence, Klopp is halfway to solving that issue.
You should also go here to read Matt Stead’s piece on Liverpool’s exciting attacking instincts. He can drive now, you see.
The only player to run further than 13km in the Premier League this weekend. After starring for England with his distinct brand of stamina and skill, Lallana did precisely the same for Liverpool against Leicester. It was always likely that Klopp would be good for Lallana, but we are currently seeing emphatic proof. Witness the fitness.
With a new contract signed and two assists in a league game for only the third time under Mauricio Pochettino, Eriksen was our early winner. Go read.
Some in the comments section saw this piece as critical of Costa, but it was intended as anything but. Trying to change this magnificent bastard’s magnificent bastardry risks losing part of what makes him useful. When the suspensions inevitably come, Michy Batshuayi can step up.
Four goals in a top-flight away game for the first time since 1986, Walter Mazzarri deserves immense credit for Watford’s start to the season. They may only sit in mid-table, but fixtures against Southampton (a), Chelsea (h), Arsenal (h) and West Ham (a) made for the toughest start of any Premier League team. Reasons to have faith that Mazzarri was not the foolish choice many (yes, me too) predicted.
Troy Deeney and Odion Ighalo
The first time in 2016 that Ighalo and Deeney have scored in the same league game. Mazzarri will hope that the former’s second league goal since January is a sign that Ighalo is re-finding his touch. When he fires, so do Watford.
But who needs strikers when you’ve got the Premier League’s most deadly marksman in midfield? During the last two full seasons, Capoue took 26 shots in 3,723 minutes and got just nine of them on target, failing to score a single goal. In four games this season, he’s had five shots, got four of them on target and scored three goals. I think we all saw him challenging Sergio Aguero and Zlatan Ibrahimovic for the Golden Boot.
A first away league win of 2016 at the 12th attempt. Chunky will hope that his new signings stave off that lingering threat of the P45.
Crystal Palace chairman Steve Parish might have described Benteke’s transfer fee as “madness”, but it took less than 20 minutes of the striker’s away debut to repay a chunk of that fee. During a time of unprecedentedly full pockets, it doesn’t take long to justify even the most striking of price tags.
It was an archetypal Benteke goal, too. His ability to shake off a marker and hang in the air can turn a hopeful cross into a dangerous one, and his looping header was expertly placed. Connor Wickham should not expect a recall any time soon.
In his Team of the Week feature, Garth Crooks claimed that Payet’s Rabona assist would be viewed as ‘unnecessary and humiliating’ by his fellow professionals, but I’m calling b*llocks. When you deliver a ball with such shape and accuracy using that technique (and it was clearly instinctive), why would you ever considering doing anything else?
After individual mistakes against Manchester United and West Ham, huge improvement against West Brom. Saturday was Bournemouth’s first clean sheet in any competition since March 1.
The links to the Arsenal job look far less ridiculous when your team isn’t sat winless in the Premier League’s bottom three.
At what point does Ranieri begin to worry?
It’s the impossible question, really, or at least the question with no reasonable answer. Leicester’s unprecedented rise meant that their 2016/17 season had no blueprint. It’s not that their early-season struggles are unexpected, it’s that we had no expectations to begin with.
My summer poll of three Leicester supporters brought three very different responses: “Top eight”, “mid-table” and “anywhere outside the bottom six”. So far, Leicester are staying true to precisely none of those ambitions. Defeat to Hull was intensely disappointing, but Arsenal draw and Swansea victory represented a steadying of the ship. At Anfield on Saturday, they sank without trace.
Perhaps this was the N’Golo Kante effect at its most stark, but Leicester suddenly look incapable of repeating last season’s sponge trick, where attacks are soaked up before being wrung out on the counter. Daniels Amartey and Drinkwater were unable to cope with runs from midfield, and Joel Matip dealt excellently with any Leicester threat. Last season, Ranieri would have licked his lips at an opposition midfield containing no true holding player. Liverpool made it look a cinch.
For Leicester supporters, the obvious answer is to embrace this season’s Champions League campaign and not give two hoots about a league season that was only ever going to come after the Lord Mayor’s show. The memories from that season in the sun will last a lifetime, and the tans have barely worn off.
Unfortunately, that’s not how football works. Leicester’s title victory cannot be taken in glorious isolation, because it gives the club the opportunity to maximise the resulting benefits. Lose in Bruges on Wednesday, and Ranieri will be urging his players to shake off the anticlimactic mood ahead of a difficult run of games. Five of their six opponents after Wednesday are Chelsea (twice), Manchester United, Porto and Southampton.
Sarah Winterburn wrote plenty of lovely things on this issue in 16 Conclusions, but Mourinho’s decision to start Jesse Lingard and Henrikh Mkhitaryan deserves a second kicking. When even Jose accepts blame for defeat, you know he cocked it up good and proper.
What a difference a formation makes. With Mourinho opting for a two-man central midfield in the first half, his team were overrun by David Silva and Kevin de Bruyne. Paul Pogba was one of the game’s worst players, evidently wanting to play further up the pitch when United’s shape did not afford him that licence. Marouane Fellaini was asked to deal with two players, which forced a central defender out to try and fill the space, leaving gaps in behind that De Bruyne revelled in. City’s first goal highlighted that exact issue.
There is no doubt that Mourinho’s second-half 4-3-3 vastly improved United’s chances, but by then the Portuguese was playing catch-up. Pep Guardiola flourished in shutting down the game and playing on the break, the pace of Raheem Sterling, Leroy Sane and De Bruyne constantly giving City an attacking outlet. The damage had been done.
Until now, Mourinho has been showered with praise for his transformation of United’s fluidity and tempo. With one mistake, United’s manager undid much of his good work. Guardiola is too good a coach not to exploit that kind of error.
Remember when he was Manchester United’s most important player? Suddenly, under a manager whose treatment of wingers is infamous, that feels an awfully long time ago.
West Ham’s manager was our early loser. He had the perfect view of his side’s atrocious defending.
A rotten decision to allow Leroy Fer’s challenge, but Cahill has little to gain out of airing his views on social media. With David Luiz waiting in the wings, the last thing Cahill needs is a nasty letter from the Football Association landing on the doormat. Is there anything more useless than deleting tweets after two hours that were sent to almost a million followers?
There was an excellent mail in the Sunday Mailbox regarding Mark Hughes’ special brand of griping. Stoke’s manager conceded that he was deservedly sent to the stands for moaning about Marko Arnautovic’s first-half booking, but then continued to hint at some form of plot to conspire against him and his team. Yes Mark, it’s all about undermining that mid-table club from the Potteries. The Illuminati have nothing on this.
Hughes would do well to desist with these claims of foul play and misfortune, and attempt some form of introspection. The Welshman’s attempts to lead Stoke out of the Tony Pulis age and into the light are admirable, but the manager must beware of throwing the baby out with the bathwater. The conventional wisdom that the Britannia Stadium is a “difficult place to go” is being increasingly undermined by Stoke’s rotten defending. Hughes’ team had the 11th best home record last season, and the 13th best home defence.
In the first two home games of this season, Stoke have conceded eight goals; during one of Pulis’ campaigns they conceded 15 all season. Hughes is struggling to find the right balance between pragmatism and aesthetics.
No chances created and no shots on target, Oxlade-Chamberlain’s latest audition for a first-team place went as well as most of the others. Would he be anywhere near the England squad if he didn’t play for a big club?
At what point do West Brom and Tony Pulis just need to walk their separate ways, rather than messy divorce played out in front of a waiting media? So little of what Pulis does on the field is easy on the eye, but his recent schtick about not wanting the club’s summer signings stinks of a manager engineering his exit.
At fault in some part for both of Crystal Palace’s goals at the Riverside on Saturday. The left-back’s form over the last year means Aitor Karanka will want keep his Friend close, but Middlesbrough’s defenders will quickly learn that mistakes are punished far more clinically in the Premier League. Friend’s cost his team their unbeaten record.
Good for Arsene Wenger that his side can salvage victory without Ozil or Alexis Sanchez playing a prominent role, but a bad day at the office for Arsenal’s most creative player. He still made more chances than any other player on the pitch, mind.
More flat-footed for Manchester City’s opening goal than a platypus in sandals. That’s how a month’s good work is undone, and Chris Smalling will be heard clearing his throat at training this week.
As Sarah Winterburn wrote in 16 Conclusions, there is hardly any need to panic. Those crowing about Joe Hart’s treatment on Saturday were a lot quieter after the England goalkeeper’s mistake for Torino on Sunday. Sometimes these things happen.
Bravo is an international goalkeeper who has won league titles, Champions League, Super Cup, Club World Cup and Copa Americas; this is not a chancer. Whatever his post-match words, Pep Guardiola will expect a significant improvement from his new No. 1. He’s more than likely to get it, too.