Manchester City top the winners as the juggernaut goes on, but there is praise too for Everton, Riyad Mahrez and second-half Manchester United. For Brendan Rodgers and Jose Mourinho, things look pretty sodding bleak…
This is all getting a little silly now. Manchester City have set a new club record for the number of consecutive clean sheets, only the fourth club in the Premier League era to go the first five matches of the season without conceding. They’re also shorter than 1/3 in places to win the title.
I have used this column already this season to praise Manchester City’s fringe players for their exceptional start, but it’s worth briefly reiterating that point. The win over Crystal Palace was achieved without David Silva or Raheem Sterling, and Sergio Aguero limped off after just 25 minutes. Last season City would have crumbled in such a scenario, but on Saturday it seemed to generate a much-needed resolve.
City were by no means as impressive without their three best attacking players, but who would be? It’s easy to make such sweeping epithets in September, but victories like these are what champions are made of.
The player of the season so far. Those ridiculous rumours of Barcelona interest look less and less silly (but still a bit silly) with each passing performance.
Leicester captain Wes Morgan insisted this week that his team-mates cannot rely on Mahrez’s excellence in every game, but the Algerian’s influence shows no sign of abating just yet. With Aston Villa 2-0 up and seemingly coasting to victory, the winger took it upon himself to take control of the ball and the game. In the space of 17 minutes he increased his goal and assist tally to six – no other player in the league can beat four.
“When I’m playing in this stadium it’s like I’m flying,” said Mahrez after the opening-day home victory over Sunderland, but the winger has since taken that feeling on the road. He is not the only reason for Leicester sitting second in the Premier League (Jamie Vardy, for one), but there is no doubting the identity of the division’s form player.
Second-half Manchester United
Manchester United avoided great censure in 16 Conclusions because beating their fiercest rivals 3-1 to (temporarily) go second in the table can only be celebrated, but the difference between their first- and second-half performances could not have been more different.
The issue with Louis van Gaal’s obsession with dominance through possession is that it can stagnate his side in the final third. It relies on the excellence of one pacey outlet, in this case Memphis Depay. When that outlet fails to perform, or is stifled out of the game, attacks soon become sluggish and one-dimensional. The only chances United had in the first half against Liverpool were through the visitors’ own defensive inadequacies.
After the break, we finally saw a spark from Van Gaal’s United. Both of the first two goals came from set-pieces, but the realisation had finally dawned that they were good enough to pick a rotten Liverpool side apart. Confidence finally showed. Praise be! A football team!
This safety-first attitude in the first half is a deliberate policy of Van Gaal’s, and United have now gone nine league games without conceding before the break. Unfortunately, they sacrifice ambition in favour of solidity, and their first-half record since losing 3-0 to Everton in April reads as follows: 0-0, 1-0, 1-0, 0-0, 1-0, 1-0, 0-0, 0-0, 0-0. Binary isn’t sexy.
This ‘wait and see’ approach can also leave United vulnerable when they do concede the opening goal. Since Van Gaal was appointed, United have conceded the first goal in 12 league matches. Their record of one win, five draws and six defeats from those situations is weaker than many others in the top half.
The underlying questions is this: Why does it take scoring the opening goal for such capable players to believe that they can outplay the opposition?
On Saturday, Odion Ighalo managed Watford’s first shot on target for 221 league minutes. He then followed it up with the winner, registering his side’s first Premier League win since May 2007.
There is no doubt that Watford must improve their record of 16 shots on target in five matches, but the flipside is the performance of Quique Flores’ defence. Only Arsenal, Manchester United and Manchester City have conceded fewer goals, and 12 teams have allowed more shots on target. As a comparison, Crystal Palace have allowed their opponents to take 95 shots; Watford’s figure is 56.
Finally, only Joe Hart has more clean sheets this season than Watford’s Heurelho Gomes. From the fourth-most miserly Championship defence to the fourth-most miserly Premier league defence. You’d take that.
A necessary home win that takes Norwich up to the heady heights of eighth, above four of last season’s top eight.
Whilst the rest of the Premier League have used their full pockets to recruit foreign players of a standing typically above their new stations, Norwich have done things a little differently. Regular footballing punchlines Cameron Jerome and Matt Jarvis scored their first and third goals against Bournemouth, but more eye-opening still is Norwich’s faith in homegrown talent.
It’s an incredible statistic in modern football: Only one of Norwich’s last 88 league goals was scored by a player born outside Great Britain and Ireland (Jamaica’s Jamar Loza vs Huddersfield in March 2015). That’s the effect spending £8.5m on Ricky van Dogc*ck can have.
Manchester City’s defence
The clean sheet statistic is the headline, but the most striking figure regarding City’s watertight defence is this: Champions Chelsea have allowed 38 shots on target this season; City have faced just eight.
They faced more that in 90 minutes during their final away game of last season.
Perhaps an indication of how low expectation has fallen that a win at a rank bad Sunderland side should see Spurs included as Winners, but you take what you can get when without a win in your opening four matches.
Plus, y’know, Emmanuel Adebayor is off the books. To the pub.
After the dealings between the two clubs, you just try wiping the smile of Martinez’s face this week. And smile he should.
The first player ever to score a league hat-trick past a Jose Mourinho-managed team. Naismith is doing things that Lionel Messi couldn’t do. And you thought it wasn’t the Best League In The World™?
The incredible technique and sumptuous finish of a striker who it might have been worth trying to support and service before the last 20 minutes of the match.
If Benteke had the flying kick, Martial had the arts. The Frenchman may deserve patience, but he’s now scored more Premier League goals since April 4 than Wayne Rooney.
Anything United can do, City do better. You bring on a 19-year-old who scores after 22 minutes of coming on, and we bring on an 18-year-old who scores the winner just 54 seconds after his introduction. Iheanacho is not a bona fide product of Manchester City’s new academy, but he might be its first true success story.
During Norwich’s last season in the Premier League, Hoolahan’s most noteworthy act was executing a muted celebration against a club he wanted to join. Mercifully, that’s all changing.
The Irishman has now scored one and assisted four of his side’s eight goals so far. He’s become a symbol for Norwich’s success equivalent to Delia Smith and Stephen Fry sharing a jar of mustard.
If Chelsea’s attempted title retention is not yet over, it would take the most extraordinary of turnarounds. Not just in points (although Mourinho’s side are already 11 behind Manchester City), but more in mood. The Chelsea dressing room must currently boast all the joviality of a crypt.
The most striking paradigm of Chelsea’s worst start to a season since 1987 were Mourinho’s words after the 3-1 defeat to Everton on Saturday lunchtime: “I am the man for the job. I don’t think there is a better man who could come and do my job.”
It’s an understandably public show of strength, but also inconceivable that Chelsea’s manager should have to issue such a statement so early in the season. In the absence of the club’s owner making any public statements, Mourinho was left to issue his own vote of confidence. That’s a low point. As Matt Stead wrote on Saturday, this is a crisis by no other name.
Mourinho was also keen to stress the importance of misfortune in Chelsea’s start, claiming that “everything is going against us”, but this is just a warped version of the siege mentality he typically creates around his side. In the face of such dire displays, blaming luck is as weak a defence as one that contains Branislav Ivanovic, hands behind back with his face turned away from the ball.
The only obvious conclusion is that every Chelsea player is currently playing below their capable level. Eden Hazard, Cesc Fabregas, Diego Costa, Ivanovic, Nemanja Matic (the stunning goal aside), all have offered a meagre attempt at flattering to deceive – only very occasionally have they bothered to flatter. Add in the inevitable subconscious complacency that comes with being champions, a chronically underwhelming transfer window and the increased transfer funds of the Premier League’s rest, and Chelsea have been found out.
For Mourinho, a familiar trend. This is only the third occasion on which he has embarked upon a third season in an individual tenure. At Stamford Bridge in 2007/08 he was gone by September 20 after regressing during his third season, whilst in his third season at Real Madrid they took just four points from their first four matches, eventually finishing 15 points behind Barcelona. Is Jose just more suited to the instant impact and medium-term fixing of two-year spells?
Brendan Rodgers and patience
“There is no magic formula. It will take time and patience” – Brendan Rodgers, September 2014.
“The problem is that players are judged so early now. You just have to be patient” – Brendan Rodgers, October 2014.
“We need the supporters to really get behind the team and stay with us all the way through. Their patience with the team is so important for us” – Brendan Rodgers, November 2014.
Rodgers is a man who continuously demands patience, in both his players and himself. It is his constant mantra throughout difficult times, used at least monthly as above. I could have continued producing examples at that rate until the present day. Speaking before the game with Manchester United, the same familiar call:
“We need to give this group a bit of time. That is something ill-afforded in modern football. This team will show its worth over the course of the season not just in these early games.”
Rodgers’ demand for patience is basically a psychological trick. In the eyes of many, this is a virtue which has become endangered in modern football. Rodgers is insisting that, given time, he will make things right. Sack him now, and supporters will never know what might have been, and thus an element of the manager’s reputation stays intact. His pleas for faith are a mild form of emotional blackmail. “Don’t leave me now, you’ll ruin something just before it gets special,” is the paraphrased message, with a dose of “don’t give in to modern football’s agitated demand for instant gratification” just for good measure.
Yet there is no set formula for patience. To keep faith in something that is not working is just as foolhardy as making the change before the chance has been afforded for a manager to fully prove themselves. In our commercialised game, with the vast riches on offer to the most successful, it is only logical that an inability to fulfill potential will be punished far quicker than in the past. Such intolerance may make you shed a tear for a lost era, but that fails to change the reality. Clubs are attacked for a lack of ambition, so blind perseverance must also be deemed ripe for criticism. Patience must be earned. It is a reward, not a right.
Rodgers cannot say that he has not been backed as Liverpool manager. He is the second-longest serving coach in the Premier League, and only eight out of the 92 clubs in the Football League have shown more faith. Managers often claim that “this is not my team”, but with Rodgers that falls on deaf ears, whatever the exact hierarchy of the club’s transfer committee. He has brought 31 players into Liverpool on permanent deals. A handful have been successful.
There are two distinct questions when assessing whether a manager, and in this case Rodgers, should be given more time:
1) Are things improving, or regressing?
Rodgers took over a team that had finished eighth and won a domestic trophy under Kenny Dalglish, if not on its knees then certainly staggering across the finishing line. In his three years in charge, Rodgers has enjoyed the highs of a title bid inspired by a wonderful strikeforce, and the lows of a worst league defeat in 52 years. This has been an extended exercise in one step forward, two steps back; two more forward, one more back.
Liverpool’s performance against Manchester United on Saturday was appalling and abysmal. Rodgers described the 3-0 loss at the same ground last season as the “best defeat of my career”, a reference to the manner in which his side attacked United. On Saturday, that was entirely missing. Liverpool aimed to keep it tight and hit on the counter-attack, yet are still unable to defend with the resolve and cohesion to make that strategy viable. If Rodgers were to leave Anfield this week, it is this shambolic defending that would be his lingering legacy.
This summer Sean O’Driscoll was recruited as a defensive coach at Anfield, but no improvements seem apparent as yet. Instead, the most meaningful change in Liverpool’s performance is a new-found inability to create chances. As I said in 16 Conclusions on Saturday, Liverpool’s shots on target per match (7.4 to 5.6) have noticeably reduced, despite the arrival of Christian Benteke. The Belgian’s finish on Saturday was wonderful, but he is suffering from exactly the same problem as at Aston Villa; a chronic lack of service.
Rodgers has spent over £280m on his Liverpool squad since arriving. He has suffered two big-name departures, but one of those carried the club through the previous season and the other evidently fell out with his manager and wanted something, and somewhere, better. Outside of football’s miniscule elite, managers must deal with such setbacks. They provide no viable excuse, because so many others are in the same boat.
Rodgers first 15 league matches in charge of Liverpool returned 19 points and 19 goals. His last 15 have returned 18 points and 13 goals. If there has been meaningful progression, it has slowed to a snail’s pace.
2) Is there anyone who could do better?
A question that can only be answered with the benefit of hindsight and so, at some point, a leap of faith must be taken, either in the current incumbent or someone new. In allowing Rodgers to spend big again this summer, Liverpool effectively placed trust in him to take the club forward. That only heightened the pressure to succeed, and lowered the patience on offer.
Jurgen Klopp is now looming in the wings, casting a shadow across Rodgers’ technical area. Even a man with a constant sunshine outlook can’t deny that the storm clouds are building.
Yann M’Vila, Patrick van Aanholt, Ola Toivonen, Jeremain Lens, Jordi Gomez, Younes Kaboul, Jack Rodwell, Duncan Watmore. The accusation against Fulham’s team in 2013/14 was that it was just too ‘weird’ to work. Step forward Sunderland in 2015/16.
“A player of that calibre £8m-£10m, you know what they bring,” said Dick Advocaat the week before the transfer window closed.
No shots on target, no shots, no chances created, no crosses (despite playing wide left), no tackles and a yellow card. That’s what £8m Fabio Borini (potentially rising to £10m) brings you on debut.
Twenty minutes from sitting in eighth place, Aston Villa’s implosion at the King Power stadium leaves them with four points from five matches. When you consider that Leicester, Sunderland, Bournemouth and Crystal Palace represent all but one of their league opponents, it’s not a good look.
The concern over Tim Sherwood’s management was a persistent optimism which may occasionally cross the line into naivety, and this was present in Sunday’s defeat. With his side 2-0 up away from home, why did he replace Carles Gil with Jordan Ayew, a winger not renowned for his defensive contributions? When Leicester had pulled one back, why did he replace Gabby Agbonlahor with Rudy Gestede rather than trying to close out the match? Jordan Veretout or Ciaran Clark were far more logical options.
“You make changes – sometimes they work for you sometimes they don’t,” was the manager’s quasi-philosophical post-match assessment. “I’m not sure if they were the reasons the game got away from us. People can draw their own conclusion.” And they will, Tim.
Sherwood’s Villa have now conceded 14 goals in their last five away league games. Add in the five goals shipped against Notts County and Sunderland in their last two matches at Villa Park, and the ability of Sherwood to organise a competent defence still looks suspect. That must change, and quickly.
Tim Sherwood the conductor
Alright Simon Rattle.
The highest number of times a player lost possession in the Premier League this weekend was 24. Depay managed 21 and he was removed at half-time. That wonderful brace against Club Brugge is the exception rather than the rule thus far.
One wonders whether Depay is suffering too for the lack of pace of those around him. With Rooney, Schweinsteiger, Fellaini, Herrera and Mata as support, Depay is the only United attacker with any notable speed (until Martial plays regularly). Opposition managers simply double up on Depay, strangling his impact. It’s working.
It’s difficult not to feel sorry for Bournemouth. In preparation for their debut Premier League season, Eddie Howe paid more than £5m for a player for the first time in the club’s history, and did so twice. The first of those signings (Tyrone Mings) has been ruled out for the rest of the season with a knee injury, while the other (Max Gradel) suffered exactly the same fate the week before.
That misfortune would curb the enthusiasm of any Premier League side, but there is no time for wallowing and self-pity. Any positivity taken from the victory over West Ham and draw against Leicester evaporated at Carrow Road.
Howe’s glowing reputation has been built upon an ability to make Bournemouth’s players greater than the sum of their parts. Now is the time to earn his distinction once more.
The introduction of goalline technology means that attacking players don’t need to appeal for the ball crossing the line, but it’s a very difficult habit to shift.
Against Manchester United on Saturday teatime, Liverpool’s players in general (and Roberto Firmino in particular) hopefully learnt a valuable lesson. In appealing that a goal should be awarded, the Brazilian reduced his own ability to react and score an equaliser.
Minor, geeky point. If Firminho doesn't (pointlessly) appeal for a goal here, he probably scores seconds later. Odd pic.twitter.com/A0iNtWRHdU
— Tom Casswell (@TommyCasswell) September 13, 2015
A reminder: You can’t appeal to Hawkeye. It isn’t sentient, so it isn’t listening.
A Leicester City security officer
Fan first, employee second. Just as it should be.
He’s a No. 10 who likes to drift left occasionally, which is very much Philippe Coutinho’s bag. So quite why Brendan Rodgers chose to stick Roberto Firmino out on the right of a 4-3-3 with Danny Ings on the left in the absence of Coutinho, goodness only knows.
A 4-4-2 diamond (actually predicted by Sky Sports) would have made much more sense. Whatever the reasoning, it didn’t work.