Premier League winners and losers

Date published: Monday 19th September 2016 12:21

Manchester United fans

Winners

Manchester City
There are four Premier League players who have registered more than one goal and assist in the first five games of the season. One of them plays for Arsenal and takes penalties (Santi Cazorla), and the other three look utterly devastating for Manchester City.

Where once there was an over-reliance on Sergio Aguero, now there is merriment to be had in his absence. On Saturday against Bournemouth, Kevin De Bruyne, Raheem Sterling and Kelechi Iheanacho all added another goal and another assist to their tallies as they continued an irresistible start to the season. They are quite simply brilliant. The movement, the pressing, the selflessness, the sheer joy to be found in football that is so very much better than anything we have seen in the Premier League over the last five years.

Cynics may point out that City also started last season at a canter but Manuel Pellegrini’s City never played quite like this. It’s the selflessness that impresses time and again – persuading ambitious, competitive footballers that true rewards comes to those who sacrifice their own goal tallies at the altar of team success cannot be easy but the result is 15 points, 15 goals and an air of superiority that already seems to have cowed their title rivals.

They are already odds-on to win the title with William Hill sports betting and most other bookmakers. Is it over already?

 

Kevin De Bruyne
We predicted this. We said last season that the Belgian was so astonishingly good that he was a potential player of the year for 2016/17. He does not scream superstar; we don’t know what his wife looks like and he probably doesn’t eat at Wing’s. But he is a truly wonderful footballer – Ronaldo at Manchester United wonderful, but with a far, far smaller ego. He is the best player in the Premier League right now and there’s a good chance that nine out of ten people stopped on the street would not recognise his face or be able to pronounce his name. That’s an endearing combination.

Pep Guardiola says that he could sit at the table next to Lionel Messi’s, but De Bruyne would probably prefer to go home and eat with his family. Apparently he bakes. Could we love him anymore?

 

Kelechi Iheanacho
You will have heard by now that he has scored ten goals from 14 shots on target. That tells you two things – a) he is an instinctive goalscorer and b) he knows when not to shoot.

 

Liverpool
There’s a whole lot of praise for Liverpool in 16 Conclusions and specifically for Jordan Henderson elsewhere.

 

Tony Pulis
Four goals. Four sodding goals. It’s amazing what you can achieve when the opposition is awful, you don’t field seven centre-halves and you have a genuinely creative No. 10.

After yet another blank at Bournemouth last week and mounting pressure, Pulis had no choice but to act – in came Salomon Rondon and James McClean and inside came Nacer Chadli, instantly looking like a £13m bargain with two goals and two assists. He had the gumption to take a penalty, the intelligence to link beautifully with Rondon and the hunger to push for more, presumably against his manager’s instincts.

The Baggies still had only 30% possession at home, but – as Leicester showed last season – you can go a long way with 30% possession if you have pace and precision.

It might not feel like it but this is West Brom’s best start since 2012/13. Altogether now…Tony Pulis’ blue and white army.

 

Ross Barkley
We have perhaps been a tad harsh on Barkley over the last few years but sometimes we feel compelled to provide an antidote when media and pundits so blindly champion a player or manager and ignore any contradictory evidence. It’s not that Barkley is not a very good player, but to anoint him the new Gazza or Rooney was counter-productive when he clearly has flaws in his game.

Having praised Ronald Koeman for refusing to mollycoddle Barkley, we have to praise the player for listening when the Dutchman talked. After the deserved embarrassment of a half-time substitution at Sunderland on Monday came the maturity of Saturday evening. It’s not that Barkley was even the best player on the pitch – step forward Idrissa Gueye with a more-than-passable impression of N’Golo Kante – but he was a team player, protecting the ball, making intelligent decisions, helping rather than hindering the players around him.

Everton don’t need him to be the new Wayne Rooney; they just need him to be this version of Ross Barkley a little more often.

 

Gareth Barry
What a gent. It’s not the sexiest trick in football but still being effective long after the pace has gone deserves to be applauded. Ronald Koeman has given him the gift of Idrissa Gueye’s energy but Barry is contributing a f***-tonne of nous.

 

Alex Iwobi
Preferred to Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, he responded with an effervescent performance that should secure his place for next week’s clash with Chelsea. Manager Arsene Wenger was quick to underline the need for humility but that’s three assists already (one a glorious flick for Theo Walcott) in this campaign and deserves celebration – it’s been four years since the Ox reached that total for the whole season.

 

Arsenal
Granit Xhaka made it eight Premier League goalscorers for the season already; even Manchester City can’t make that boast.

 

Tottenham
Mousa Dembele is back and so are Tottenham. Read Matt Stead’s excellent piece here.

 

Walter Mazzarri
At a club where the manager’s tracksuit comes with stick-on initials that can be removed with a little soapy water, Walter Mazzarri is making a case for a little more permanence. It has taken him only a few months to solve the problem of the Hornets’ over-reliance on Odion Ighalo and Troy Deeney, quite rightly spotting that the considerable talents of Etienne Capoue were under-used in a 4-4-2 that required him to sit far too deep and hit the ball far too long.

Mazzarri has introduced a three-man defence and given Capoue enough freedom to make runs into the box, safe in the knowledge that the back door is not wide open. He has already scored more goals (four) than any Watford midfielder managed in the whole of last season.

Oh, and extra credit is due to Mazzarri for believing that one point could become three with a little positivity; there are many Premier League managers who would have turned to the bench and told Ben Watson to strip off instead of Camilo Zuniga. Fortune sometimes really does favour the brave.

 

Crystal Palace
“We knew if we started fast, got in behind them and got crosses in, we’d be a threat,” said Andros Townsend. It sounds simple because it is simple – Palace have an astonishingly effective front four for a club of their size. Even when Christian Benteke has an off-day – and he was pretty average against Stoke – he unsettles, while the dynamism of Townsend, the trickery of Wilfried Zaha and the delivery of Jason Puncheon are potent weapons against a defence lacking in confidence.

Palace have bought the right players at the right time this summer – Townsend after he learned the value of industry under Rafa Benitez and Benteke after a sobering season at Liverpool that left him in dire need of a loving home. They may not have the grand surroundings of an Olympic stadium, but right now they look rather more cohesive than their east London rivals.

 

Charlie Austin
Three goals in four days despite us forgetting he existed. That’s a neat trick.

 

Leicester City
Such is the ridiculousness of their achievement last season that a convincing opening win in the Champions League and a spot in the middle reaches of the Premier League probably merits a B+ for the Foxes. We simply have to treat their title win as a bizarre anomaly and – having lost the most important player in that win – anything more than a top-eight spot and the knock-out stage of the Champions League is a bonus.

Thankfully, Leicester fans seem to be under no illusion about their place in the pecking order and have thoroughly enjoyed two 3-0 tonkings in a week. The party might have now reached the 3am flagging stage but it’s still a party and there’s still fun to be had.

 

Islam Slimani
Ah, so that’s what £29m buys you. That’s 22 goals in 23 league appearances in 2016. Let’s consult an expert…

 

Losers

Slaven Bilic
Daniel Storey (happy birthday, Daniel) gave Bilic the full ‘early loser’ treatment last week and we suspected that was just about as low as he could possibly fall (Slaven, not Daniel) but Saturday was abysmal. Awful. Amateurish. Atrocious. Abominable. Appalling. We will move onto B next week if they refuse to improve.

One point made by Storey that deserves repetition: ‘While Bilic was quick to blame the individuals in question, the performance does raise pertinent questions about West Ham’s summer transfer activity. Only three Premier League teams scored more goals than the Hammers last season, yet they had the worst defence in the top eight; Watford and West Brom conceded fewer goals.

‘Given these issues, and given that Enner Valencia was the only first-team forward who departed, why were eight of West Ham’s summer signings attacking players? And why, when James Tomkins was allowed to leave for Crystal Palace, did the club only sign a left-back and right-back?’

So when Bilic says – after his team conceded another four goals against supposedly inferior opposition – that “it happens so many times since the start of the season – too many times”, we cannot help but think that you had fair warning, fella, and you chose to do nothing about it. Were the Hammers so obsessed with buying all the fancy cushions and pelmets for their lovely new home that they forgot that they would need a fridge and a washing machine?

“We have a problem we have to solve and that starts with me. I am the manager and have to do everything to turn this around and solve that problem,” says Bilic, but has he missed his chance? There was already a problem and yet West Ham have started the season without a single centre-half that a top-six club would covet. Everton have Ashley Williams, Southampton have Jose Fonte and Virgil van Dijk and even West Brom have Jonny Evans. West Ham have James bloody Collins.

 

Mark Hughes
Talking of failing to heed warnings. Stoke may have finished the season in their customary ninth position but a table comprised of games played in 2016 shows the Potters a little lower, with a frightening 36 goals conceded in the second half of the campaign; only Aston Villa were worse.

While fellow late strugglers Palace reacted by buying four new key players – solving their goalkeeper issue and their chronic lack of goals – and Watford changed managers, Stoke and Hughes apparently thought that more of the same would work just fine. ‘Just keep on keeping on’ is almost never the right approach in football.

“It’s almost all the same players,” said Hughes with obvious bafflement about Stoke’s awful start. Well, there you go right there, Mark. There’s your issue. You tried to stand still – in a pretty boggy place – while everybody else was moving on.

Oh, and it’s pretty risible that some are trying to blame the new grappling laws for Stoke’s defensive woes; they didn’t come in at Christmas.

 

Jose Mourinho
He probably gets enough of a kicking here and here but one point that is often overlooked by a media who have collectively decided to ignore what happened last season is that a large number of Manchester United fans did not want him anywhere near their club. They were uncomfortable with his brashness, embarrassed by his lack of class, wary of his pragmatic tactics and suspicious that last season’s disaster was not a blip but the new normal.

Although it’s tempting to paint this union as the perfect marriage between serial winners, there were plenty of people willing to raise objections at that point in the service. Add the game-changing amount of money spent this summer and the seemingly seamless integration of Pep Guardiola’s ideas at Manchester City, and you get fans whose patience is thinner than ever before.

Being outclassed by City was difficult to swallow under Sir Alex Ferguson, but under Jose? Unforgivable. When you have reluctantly accepted that having an obnoxious manager is the price of success, you must feel cheated when you are denied that success. City already look like a dot on the horizon and that’s not a comfortable vista for United fans.

Beating Watford with Marcus Rashford in the side would have felt like redemption on a small scale. Having asked for pace and youth, and been heard, victory would have brought vindication. Instead, defeat just brought further humiliation and it’s already easy to say “I never wanted him anyway”.

At the very time when Mourinho needs unity, he might find there are a lot of people in the stands unwilling to stand shoulder to shoulder with him.

 

Jack Wilshere
‘Can he haul Bournemouth closer to his standard and stymy the kind of panic that set in last week against Crystal Palace as they continued a run of just one win in 11 Premier League games? Or will the Cherries pull him down to their lower-reach level as he is forced to play with Andrew Surman rather than Mesut Ozil and Jordon Ibe rather than Alexis Sanchez?’

That’s the question I asked last week ahead of his debut and the immediate answer was a hesitant ‘maybe the former’ after a promising if understated cameo against West Brom. If that persuaded him that life might be rather pleasant on the south coast, he was in for something of a shock in Manchester.

The good news is that he completed all his passes; the bad news is that he barely touched the ball as City – managed by a man oft counted amongst his fans – made every Bournemouth player look like they were playing an entirely different sport on an entirely different day. Wilshere did not just drop down to Bournemouth’s level…he plummeted past them. It’s only September but he already needs a performance.

 

Sunderland
When you field three defensive midfielders and the opposition still has 31 shots, you know it’s going to be a long old season.

 

Swansea
When your next three games are against Manchester City, Liverpool and Arsenal, was it really the best idea to go to Southampton – who has played three days before – and look to soak up pressure? Swansea look toothless and without Ashley Williams, do not have the defensive solidity to deflect a kitchen sink.

 

Antonio Conte
He really did get it very, very wrong. For details of how wrong read 16 Conclusions. We expected rather better.

 

Branislav Ivanovic
He was our early loser but it could so easily have been the equally awful Gary Cahill.

 

Shinji Okazaki and Leonardo Ulloa
Will we ever again see those grins that say ‘I don’t really know how that went in off my head/heel/knee/arse’?

 

Middlesbrough
No shots on target and looking very flat. In 2016, Stewart Downing taking pot-shots from 25 yards should not be any Premier League club’s idea of tactics.

 

Andre Gray
Dispossessed five times, lost the ball through poor control four times, caught offside three times, out of depth once again. It couldn’t happen to a nicer fella.

 

Sarah Winterburn

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