Tottenham top the winners with their young team and English central midfield. Lovely. There’s also space for Alexis Sanchez, Daniel Sturridge and Manchester United, while Manchester City and Kevin de Bruyne are prominent in the losers section…
As a Premier League neutral (or as near as it is ever able to be), there is plenty to enjoy about this Tottenham team playing well. The side selected against Manchester City was the youngest in the Premier League this season (with an average age of 24 years and 40 days), breaking their own record. Having a front six aged 19, 21, 23, 23, 23 and 22 is extremely unusual in Europe’s ‘big four’ leagues, more common in Dutch and French football. In Dele Alli and Eric Dier (plus Harry Kane up front), they also have an English core. That can only be good news for Roy Hodgson.
Yet the greatest thing about Tottenham in recent weeks is the sense that the club is finally pulling in the right direction. Many supporters will celebrate the departure of Franco Baldini, but it is from the pitch that the most positivity can be drawn. Heung-Son Min’s arrival has ignited a spark of understanding in the final third, the vital missing link between attack and midfield. For too long Christian Eriksen and Nacer Chadli were forced to carry out that task alone, but they can now concentrate on other roles.
I’m a soppy sod, but I watched on with a huge grin as an inexperienced Spurs side responded after falling behind (aided by a huge slice of offside fortune, it must be said), and then exploited the weaknesses of their opponent to maximum effect.
The second-half performance was precisely the blueprint that Mauricio Pochettino is working from. Possession was won by pressing the opponent with the ball, those not tasked with the press closing off the passing options to force the mistake. When the ball was won, Spurs immediately attacked at pace. Having pacey options like Clinton N’Jie and Chadli makes that possible deep into matches, and N’Jie assisted the fourth goal with brilliant skill and vision.
One of the benefits of such a young team is that they should be able to fight until the last. Spurs beat Crystal Palace and Sunderland in the final quarter of the match, and powered over City in the latter stages.
The mood among Tottenham supporters was one of resignation during August, but three consecutive victories have reversed that. Long-suffering supporters may opine that the hope will kill you in the end, but you’d rather be hoping and failing than never hoping at all.
A standing ovation from the White Hart Lane crowd. It seems highly patronising to congratulate a £30m player on an impressive performance, but we might finally be seeing the benefits of a player settled in England and enjoying his football. It’s just a shame it’s taken over two years.
The top section of Friday’s Big Weekend column focused on the struggles of Arsenal’s strikers:
‘Arsenal’s lack of goals is an oddity. They are registering more shots per game than last season (20.2 vs 16.1), shots on target (6.8 vs 6.0), shots in the penalty area (12.2 vs 9.0) and shots in the six-yard box (1.5 vs 0.9). Their shot accuracy is slightly down (50.0% vs 51.7%), but that does not explain the incredible loss of chance conversion, down from 16.2% to just 6.1%. Basically, they’re just missing chances and coming up against inspired goalkeepers. Something has to give.’
Something did give. Having registered a chance conversion of 6.1% until Saturday, Arsenal promptly scored five goals. Each of their three forwards found the net – that will make the manager a happy boy.
Wenger will also be reassured that there is still more to come from his attackers. Between them, Alexis Sanchez, Olivier Giroud and Theo Walcott had 16 shots against Leicester. That’s a figure beaten by only four teams (Southampton, West Ham, Liverpool and Manchester City) this weekend.
It was worth the wait. Following a run of 10 Premier League games without a goal, Sanchez treated us to a 90-minute show of just what we’ve been missing.
Various people on this site have written at length about why the Chilean is perhaps the country’s most enjoyable player to watch as a neutral. Anyone left unconvinced should be forced to watch Sanchez’s third goal. A dink round the defender and snapshot, taken so early that Kasper Schmeichel had no chance to settle himself for the dive. As Arsene Wenger described in midweek, it is this “explosive” aspect of Sanchez’s game which makes him a) so watchable, and b) so wonderful in tandem with the insouciant Mesut Ozil. The German’s assist for Sanchez’s second was something to behold.
As a statistical aside, it was also the fourth hat-trick scored by an Arsenal player against Leicester in the Premier League (Thierry Henry, Nicolas Anelka and, of course, Dennis Bergkamp with the others). That is a joint record with Manchester United players vs Newcastle.
When analysing United’s performance against Sunderland on Match of the Day, the panel’s points were overwhelmingly negative, and not without reason. Louis van Gaal’s side were again disturbingly pedestrian during the first half, the stupor lifted by Memphis Depay’s first Premier League goal. I have mentioned United’s first-half dirge before in this column and, until Depay struck, it looked like being five first-half goals in their last 13 league matches.
Yet in the debate over their style or accused sluggishness, there is only one undeniable truth: United are top of the league. For the first time since the departure of Alex Ferguson they are looking down from the top of the perch.
No side deserves to be showered with praise for beating this Sunderland, but praise is comprised of nothing but empty epithets. All that matters is achievement. If United have reached the top of the table without playing their best, that is more of an issue for the other 19 managers than for Van Gaal.
This United squad is far from perfect, but their own flaws are matched by those around them. United’s Achilles’ heel was supposed to be in attack, but the arrival of Anthony Martial has relieved that fear. It’s now nine goals in their last three league games, more than any other team.
Van Gaal has continuously played down United’s chances of winning the title this season, but with Manchester City, Arsenal and Chelsea all suffering their own headaches, there should be no doubt that United are contenders. You don’t sit top of the table at the start of October for nothing.
Matt Stead wrote here about the potential impact Sturridge’s return could have on Brendan Rodgers’ chances of Anfield redemption, but it’s worth reiterating just how impressive his link-up play was with Philippe Coutinho after such a long time out. It’s no exaggeration to say that Liverpool’s second goal against Villa was steeped in their 2013/14 vintage. Pass, pass, pass, outrageous finish.
Christian Benteke has taken ten shots for Liverpool this season, and 50% have been off target. Daniel Sturridge has taken five so far. Not only have all five been on target, but two have been goals. While Coutinho has laboured to a miserable 4.76% conversion rate this season, Sturridge’s is almost ten times higher. Patience must be afforded with Liverpool and England’s best out-and-out striker after such a long lay-off, but it’s sure nice to see him back.
This came in just before my”Oh s**t, I really need to start reading this” deadline, but Rodgers saying “I am the same guy who nearly won us the league, but better” might just be my new favourite Brendan Rodgers quote.
A much less publicised goal drought is over. Mane had not scored in the league since his record-breaking hat-trick against Aston Villa in May.
The attacker’s goal against Swansea complements his three assists already this season. Less ‘Mane the moment’ and ‘Mane the last six months’. Doesn’t quite have the same ring, I grant you.
A wonderful goal against Newcastle to follow his strike against Walsall in midweek. Who are you, and what have you done with Ramires?
Three league goals this season, a total bettered by only two English players. One of those is now out for the forseeable future.
That’s the bright side, but now for the bad news. Two of Redmond’s best performances (and goals) have come from off the bench. Nobody wants to be known as a ‘super sub’ at 21.
While the end result looked as if it would be better for long periods of the match, there was plenty for Newcastle’s debutant to enjoy against Chelsea on Saturday teatime. Newcastle’s season needed a bright spot or two, and the performance of Mbabu provided just that. The 20-year-old won eight tackles, a total beaten only once in a Premier League match this season, and kept Pedro largely quiet on the right wing.
Joe Gomez, Brendan Galloway and now Kevin Mbabu. What is it about clubs giving young central defenders their chance at left-back this season? In a game of sink or swim, all seem to be doing handstands in the deep end.
The relief was palpable, not just on the face of Kane himself but those of his team-mates and the thousands of Tottenham fans who witnessed the end of the drought.
For an hour against Manchester City, Kane’s confidence remained noticeably low. He twice spurned opportunities to pass to colleagues in better positions through sheer desperation to break his duck.
Importantly, the goal he did score came as a result of pure instinct, the ball falling at his feet after Christian Eriksen’s free-kick shot had struck the bar. Without the time to think about the chance (and allow the seeds of doubt to be sown), Kane hit the ball first time high into the net. Time can be a healer, but also a hindrance.
“Maybe I shut up a few people who have been talking over the last few weeks,” Kane said after the game. “Only seven games and a few people said ‘one-season wonder’. People can judge me at the end of the season and we will go from there.”
If one swallow doesn’t make a summer then one goal doesn’t make a season, but Kane is insistent that his own belief has never ebbed away. Tottenham supporters will be mightily relieved to have him back.
As I wrote in Big Weekend on Friday: ‘Having scored against one Championship defence in midweek to register his first goal in six months, Rooney has another chance to do the same on Saturday.’
And he did.
Fans of Saturday goals
It’s a niche fetish I grant you, but bear with me.
Number of goals scored on each Saturday of the league season so far: 20, 16, 16, 16, 16, 15, 35. That’s quite the jump up to this weekend.
Because I’m a dreadful nerd and have nothing better to do on Sunday evenings, I calculated that this was the highest-scoring Saturday in the Premier League since November 27, 2010.
I then went onto Twitter and realised that Opta had already provided that information, and felt like crying. Pretty sure they didn’t have to go through every round of matches to do it.
Manchester City and resilience
I wrote at some length here about City’s achingly familiar Achilles’ heel, but one point from that piece bears repetition.
Resilience is a vital tool in a title challenge. Manuel Pellegrini has repeatedly talked about a need to “play the right way”, and pointed out that his City side still scored the most goals in the Premier League despite Chelsea winning the title last season. Utilising a ‘we’ll score one more than you’ strategy is more likely to end in glorious failure than success. Just ask Kevin Keegan and Brendan Rodgers.
It is this resilience that seems to be so lacking in Pellegrini’s City. When things are going well they appear capable of beating any and every side in the land, but have repeatedly shown a propensity to let mistakes and goals conceded bring further mishap. When Manchester United conceded first against Southampton ten days ago, they responded in admirable fashion and won the game. When City conceded their equaliser against Tottenham, it was as if Dier’s goal had counted as three.
This inability to respond leads to odd runs of form when extrapolated to the bigger picture. Even in their title season of 2013/14, City followed up defeats to Chelsea and Liverpool with draws against Norwich and Sunderland respectively. Last season they ended a run of 29 points from a possible 33 with a nervy draw against Everton, and then promptly went three more league games without a win. A club record 11 straight league victories was pierced by home defeat against West Ham ten days ago, and then came Saturday’s collapse. It was as if the loss against Juventus in the Champions League had emptied the belief bank in one 90-minute transaction.
This lack of resilience is becoming a worrying trait of Pellegrini’s time in Manchester, summed up by the following statistic. Since New Year’s Day, City have fallen behind in nine league matches. They’ve won just two points from those losing positions. That’s simply not good enough – titles are won in high winds and rainstorms, not when the sun is shining.
The ligaments of Bournemouth
One of a promoted club’s key players suffering a serious ligament injury would be hard to take (Tyrone Mings), but two was incredibly unfortunate (Max Gradel). On Saturday, Bournemouth suffered their third when top goalscorer, and best remaining hope, Callum Wilson was stretchered from the field.
“It is a difficult one for the players – we have had that three times now this season, which is unbelievable luck from our perspective,” said a shellshocked Eddie Howe after the game.
“To get three in one team, to key players as well, is mystifying really. There is nothing you can do about it – it is just one of those things that happens on a football pitch from time to time. But to get three similar ones…I don’t know what to say about it really.”
The only thing you really can say is tough luck, but that doesn’t act as any consolation to Bournemouth and their supporters. The dream is becoming an injury nightmare.
Jose Mourinho may consider it one point gained after Chelsea’s late salvo, but there remain far more reasons for negativity than happiness. If Chelsea had turned in that first half against a top-six team, they could not have complained at being four goals down by the break.
The manager’s anger after the game was apparent. “In the first half, from 0-10, we were minus one,” Mourinho said. “It was that bad. We were so poor, so bad. At half-time I said I was sorry I only had three subs as I wanted to change six.”
At the start of October, the current champions will be closer to the bottom three than the top four. How quickly a victory over Arsenal can disappear into the cracks.
A few of our top ten kneejerk reactions unsurprisingly look silly, but predicting Sunderland to struggle couldn’t have been more correct. They’re not included as losers because they lost at Old Trafford; they’re included because it looks like they’ll never win again.
‘236 minutes. One shot, not on target.’
It’s a more melancholy diary entry than Captain Scott’s anecdote about Oates.
Moral of the story: If you’re first name’s Willy, don’t expose yourself if you want to avoid being the subject of a thousand jokes. Pellegrini will hope that his Hart is not broken for long.
Kevin De Bruyne on the right wing
A performance to demonstrate the best and worst of De Bruyne, who followed City’s opener with an assist for Tottenham’s reply. His weak and rushed left-footed clearance fell to Eric Dier, who finished like a striker. De Bruyne managed a pass completion of just 38.1% in the first half.
While it would be easy to attack the Belgian for his display (and there is no excuse for his role in Dier’s goal), it is important to note the altered role that De Bruyne is being asked to carry out by Manuel Pellegrini.
In the Bundesliga last season, De Bruyne won the Player of the Year award through his excellence as a No. 10. He was not required to work back continuously, but instead act as Wolfsburg’s counter-attacking weapon. Yet at Spurs on Saturday lunchtime, De Bruyne was asked to play on the right wing, given more defensive responsibilities than Sterling on the opposite side.
Last season in Germany, De Bruyne averaged 1.2 tackles per game and 0.7 interceptions, figures which have increased by 42% and 143% respectively during the early stages of his time in England. During the first half against Spurs, 35% of De Bruyne’s touches were in his own half. That’s a criminal waste of his talents.
The obvious conclusion is that it was a strange decision from the club, and unfair on the player, to pay £54m for the best No. 10 in Europe last season if you’re then going to play him out of position. It’s an interesting conundrum when David Silva is fit, but the absence of the Spaniard on Saturday should have made it a no-brainer.
Kurt Zouma and Branislav Ivanovic
During a weekend of poor defending, Chelsea’s defensive uncertainty for Newcastle’s opening goal took Worst in Show.
The lack of understanding and communication between Ivanovic and Zouma epitomises Chelsea’s malaise. One (Zouma) inexplicably letting a high ball drop over his head without jumping to head clear, the other failing to plan for such an eventuality. Ayoze Perez’s proaction beat Ivanovic’s reaction.
It was exactly the type of issue that made you yearn for John Terry’s organisational ability. Has he really slipped so far from last season that he doesn’t merit a place?
Having been allowed to leave Southampton after struggling to earn a first-team place, Cork’s improvement at Swansea has generated talk of an England call-up. Back at St. Mary’s again, the midfielder had a chance to show his former employees what they were missing.
It didn’t go well. Cork was removed at half-time by Garry Monk as the game passed him by in central midfield. He won possession only once, losing the ball five times, as Southampton dominated the first period. Put the Cork back in the bottle.
Aston Villa and errors
After the 3-2 defeat at Leicester earlier this month, Tim Sherwood lamented the individual mistakes made by his side.
“The game should have been finished with 30 minutes left because we were 2-0 up,” Sherwood said. “It was individual errors – we aim to stop that. On reflection them goals from Leicester, they didn’t have to work hard for them.”
A manager earns his crust not just by identifying the problems, but solving them. Against Liverpool, Villa made three individual errors which led to chances, a joint high in the Premier League this season. That’s the joint highest with their own record.
There were several concerns about Sherwood’s management aptitude going into this season (never having managed a full season and never having bought a player to name but two), but his ability to organise a defence was the most prominent.
“I wouldn’t like to single anyone out,” said Sherwood after defeat at Anfield. “But when they make individual errors you don’t need me to tell you, they’re there for everyone to see. It’s making the correct decisions at the right time both defensively or in attacking thirds.”
Sherwood might not wish to name names, but I’m happy to do so. Maybe if he keeps saying these things out loud he’ll realise that the buck ultimately stops with him.