Arsenal top the winners for the first time this season, while Louis van Gaal, Jose Mourinho and Brendan Rodgers form the podium in the losers section…
Arsenal and Arsene Wenger
You can go to 16 Conclusions to read plenty about Arsenal, Alexis Sanchez, Mesut Ozil et al, but Wenger’s side deservedly top the winners for the first time this season. The ease of their victory and the manner in which their game plan was executed was a joy to behold after extreme recent disappointment. If Manchester United’s non-existent central midfield provided the assist, Arsenal hammered the ball into an unguarded net.
Speaking before the game, Wenger spoke of his desire to press United high up the pitch when in possession. Louis van Gaal’s side have preferred to start slowly in matches, growing in confidence and endeavour. The perfect way to counter that was to harry them all over the pitch, forcing the mistake before overloading them on the counter. This is the Gegenpressing that Jurgen Klopp made so famous at Dortmund. The way Arsenal did it on Sunday, Blitzkrieg would seem a more appropriate term.
Wenger deserves great credit for his courage of conviction. After the defeat to Olympiakos on Tuesday, he could have used the first 20 minutes to establish his bruised side in the game, but instead chose to be proactive rather than reactive. His bravery was rewarded handsomely.
Where Arsenal go from here is relevant, of course. Too often a significant stride forward has been followed by another lurch back into the mire. This was proof that Arsenal still can be the best team in the country. Consistency is now the next hurdle to cross.
NB – Just look at that picture at the top of the page. Doesn’t it warm your heart? It’s like an excitable puppy being licked clean by a mother cat.
How quickly things change. After half an hour against Newcastle on Saturday, Aguero had scored one goal from open play all season, a striker subdued by his lack of sharpness. By 62 minutes, he had six. There’s nothing quite like this Newcastle defence for solving striking problems.
Aguero has become only the third Manchester City player to score five goals in a game, and the fifth Premier League player to achieve the feat. It’s something we’ve said before on this site, but we are in danger of under-appreciating just how special Aguero is, and taking his majesty for granted. Despite a series of muscle injuries, he has scored exactly 100 goals for City in the Premier League and Champions League. He’s only started 130 times in those competitions.
Yet the true beauty lies not in the figures, but the finesse. Watching Aguero with ball at feet on the edge of the area, dropping his shoulder in order to find the requisite space, is to watch an artist at work. It is an over-used word in football’s constant flow of hyperbole, but, on form, Aguero is truly unplayable.
The most incredible thing about Aguero’s five-goal clutch (and that’s my new official word for scoring five) is that he received treatment on his thigh at half-time. It was a phenomenal passage of play from the greatest pure striker in world football. Anyone who says different is lying to you.
While Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil confirmed what we already knew against Manchester United, Walcott offered new evidence of why he has jumped ahead of Olivier Giroud in the Arsenal pecking order.
“I must say Walcott had a hugely committed performance today in a hugely convincing way,” said Wenger after the match, only too happy to pour praise on his striker. “He didn’t score but I like to praise the strikers when they don’t score and contribute and give assists.
“He did really fight today and showed he can fight, commit and protect the ball as well. He is gaining some aspects of his game as a centre forward and they are improving.”
It was this ability to shield the ball that was so impressive (and surprising) against Chris Smalling and Daley Blind. Walcott will face more physical tests, but passed this one with distinction. If he can add this strength to his game on a regular basis, the advantages of Giroud ebb away.
The other beauty of having Walcott over Giroud is his propensity to drift wide rather than just drop deeper as a typical lone striker might. Arsenal’s midfielders and defenders are not tempted to knock the ball into his chest or head, but instead send the ball low down the channels for him to chase.
A map of average touch positions from Sunday’s game show Walcott almost as wide right as Sanchez was wide left, indicative of him running wide to leave a space that Sanchez or Ozil could fill. That was made most obvious during the move for the second goal – Walcott sent wide (left this time), Ozil arriving to fill the space and score. Who needs a typical centre-forward when fluidity looks so sexy?
In late September, Martin Samuel wrote in his Daily Mail column about just how little and stupid were those who thought that Southampton might do well again this season. It was similar to the piece he wrote the previous summer about just how little and stupid were those who thought that Southampton might do well.
‘There was a sizeable amount of conceit around Southampton at this time last year,’ Samuel wrote, apparently without a shred of self-awareness. ‘After six games, they were second in the league, one place behind Chelsea, an outstanding start that was widely stated to have proved their critics wrong. It had foolishly been suggested that selling five of your best players was a bad idea.
‘Fast forward a year and Southampton are still selling and still a place behind Chelsea, except now this pegs them in 16th. Their foray into the Europa League got them as far as two qualifying rounds and defeat by Midtjylland, and Manchester United are the only big hitters they have faced in the league.’
For the record, Southampton have now won three matches in a row, scoring 12 goals, and have become the first side to score more than twice at Stamford Bridge against a Jose Mourinho-managed Chelsea.
Koeman’s side now sit four points behind Arsenal in second place, and their next four home league opponents are Leicester, Bournemouth, Stoke and Aston Villa. It’s almost as if crowing about Southampton’s doom was a little previous before the end of September.
Plenty of Tottenham supporters have been worried about the drop in Eriksen’s performances over the last year, but this was a handy reminder of the permanence of class. The Dane scored more than once in a game for the third time in his Spurs career, and rescued a point against Swansea. More of the same, please.
6 – Since his Premier League debut in Sept 2013, Christian Eriksen has scored more direct free-kicks than any other player. Whipped.
— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) October 4, 2015
He’s scored 13% of all the goals scored by Englishmen in the Premier League this season – this is getting silly now.
It’s impossible to do anything but stand up and applaud Vardy’s achievement. Every one of his goals is a victory for graft and determination, and the Premier League’s top scorer should feel rightly proud of his achievements. Hodgson can hardly leave him out of his squad now.
City’s league record without David Silva this season: Played 3, Won 1, Drew 0, Lost 2, Goals per game 1.0
City’s league record with David Silva this season: Played 5, Won 5, Drew 0, Lost 0, Goals per game 3.2
It’s a small sample size, but provides further evidence for an argument we’re all utterly convinced by. Any team in world football would miss someone as wonderful as City’s little magician.
Kevin de Bruyne
This column gave De Bruyne some stick for his role in Manchester City’s defeat to Tottenham last week, so it’s only fair that he is praised to high heaven for a sumptuous display against Newcastle. It’s now a goal or assist for every 67 Premier League minutes played back in England.
De Bruyne still has some proving to do. He has neither grabbed a ‘big’ game by the scruff of its neck nor convinced Manuel Pellegrini that he is not merely a sunshine player, going missing when the clouds come out and times get tough. Yet there is no doubting De Bruyne’s incredible talent. When City are in the ascendancy, he is at the heart of their attacking verve.
One of the most impressive things when watching De Bruyne is his sublime first touch. The Belgian goes far beyond the simple matter of keeping close control, but instead manages to turn that first touch into a pass to himself. Receiving the ball, he knocks it with one foot before placing his weight on the other and pushing into a sprint. The touch is invariably towards goal, immediately leaving a defender on the back foot. It’s a very small thing – and De Bruyne is obviously not alone in this ability – but it makes it no less effective.
The potential accusation labelled at De Bruyne is that he is a luxury player, but as a non-City supporter I couldn’t give a damn. Give me silk over polyester any day of the week.
Crystal Palace and Leicester
Sadly lost into the ether after the events of Saturday evening and Sunday, but two more victories for the surprise packages of this season so far. Being able to buy very good players from established European leagues really helps your chances of improvement, it turns out. Who knew?
He may be the wrong side of 30 but, like all good Italian footballers, Pelle is getting better with age. He already has seven goals this season, and has now matched his total number of assists from 2014/15.
It’s now 23 Southampton goals for Pelle. That £8m transfer fee looks like one of the bargains of the last five years.
The honourable exception. Jose Mourinho may have dried the creative juices out of many players, but Willian has managed to combine hard work with attacking effervescence. He’s sticking out like a unharmed thumb on a desperately sore hand.
Liverpool’s best player of the season so far, and a first England call-up to boot. It’s not quite the days of Shearer, Fowler, Cole, Sheringham, Le Tissier, Ferdinand, Collymore, Wright and Sutton all competing for places, but Ings should be congratulated for the manner in which he has settled in at Anfield. Many others haven’t.
Asked to lead the line on his own again, Lukaku gave a near-perfect rendtion of the role. He forced Martin Skrtel into fouls, riled Mamadou Sakho up to the point of near seizure, dropped deep to hold off his opponent, brought others into play and scored his only presentable chance. You can’t ask for much more.
Lukaku now has seven goals for the season, and it’s 60 in total for Everton and West Brom in just over three seasons. Not half bad.
We included Galloway at No. 6 on our list of the Premier League’s top ten teenagers. After his performance on his Merseyside derby debut, he’s closing in on the top three. It’s absurd to think that left-back isn’t even his favoured position.
I wrote here on Sunday morning about why Mourinho was struggling to motivate his squad after losing their respect over the Eva Carneiro incident and its aftermath. It’s only a hypothesis, of course, but Mourinho does seem unable to inspire any improvement or effect any change, either inter or intra-game.
Mourinho’s decline at a club typically follows the same rough pattern. He starts by blaming anyone but his own team, with referees, governing bodies, the decline of Strictly Come Dancing and the Norse god Thor all potential candidates for his censure. Then comes the attack on senior players, as if to suggest that they are not following orders. Both of those stages have now been passed in the opening two months of the season.
Next comes the displays of defiance, something Mourinho progressed towards following the latest episode in a sorry series on Saturday. “This is the crucial moment in the history of this club. Do you know why? Because if the club sacks me, they sack the best manager this club ever had,” Mourinho said, virtually puffing out his chest as he spoke.
On Sunday, it continued: “I think you should go straight to the players. Get a table at Cobham next week – John Terry doesn’t go to the national team, Diego Costa doesn’t go, Ramires doesn’t go. Ask them.”
Unfortunately, and as Mourinho well knows, Terry, Costa and Ramires are not in charge at Chelsea. Roman Abramovich must be growing more uneasy by the week as Chelsea lurch further into crisis. This already feels like the worst title defence in Premier League history.
I’ve explained here what I think about Rodgers’ sacking. If you don’t like those words, try these from John Nicholson, these from all of you lovely readers and these from the man himself.
Louis van Gaal
16 Conclusions gave Van Gaal and United plenty of stick for their catastrophic strategy at the Emirates, but those singing the praises of United as they reached the top should feel rightly foolish at their haste.
United have been ponderous for months. They look hampered between midfield and attack, as if unable or unwilling to take the risks that so often lead to reward when you possess good players. Against a team as bad as Sunderland, United were sluggish. Against Arsenal, they were punished for their stagnancy. The message will have reverberated around the Premier League – attack them early, and they’ll cave.
Van Gaal admitted his “amazement” at United’s performance against Arsenal, but they have come unstuck against the best team they have faced this season. Too often his side have been guilty of waiting for something to happen rather than making it happen. Fortune favours the brave, Louis.
United’s first-half dirge
Since beating Manchester City in April, Van Gaal’s side are scoring first-half league goals at a rate of one per month. One of those was a penalty, another an own goal and a third scored by a player now loaned out for the season. It’s a dreadful record that must improve if United are to challenge seriously for the title.
As a winger playing at full-back, Ashley Young had an excuse for being exposed; Darmian didn’t.
Injuries don’t give Van Gaal much choice but to stick with the Italian, but a vast improvement is needed. That first-half display was possibly the worst I’ve seen this season from a player in their favoured position.
Unless he scores against Everton or Crystal Palace, Rooney will make it one calendar year without an away league goal. He’s never looked less likely to score.
At his previous worst, Rooney’s effect on this United side was negligible, a stagehand surrounded by actors and directors. He’s now found a new low, acting as a visible hindrance to United’s attacking play. Rooney currently resembles a man playing with lead weights in each boot and a sack of potatoes on his back. Any number of PR propaganda documentaries won’t change that.
The lowest ebb for the professional footballer – the substituted substitute.
“It was not humiliating,” Mourinho said after questions over Matic’s withdrawal. “It was not the case. I do not do that to anyone, in football and in life.”
It would be interesting to get your former club doctor’s thoughts on that, Jose. The one you publicly labelled as a “naive, celebrity doctor” after reportedly calling a “son of a bitch”.
Eden Hazard and Cesc Fabregas
Hazard: A goal or assist contributed for every 147 minutes played in the Premier League last season. One for every 360 minutes so far during this campaign.
Fabregas: A goal or assist contributed for every 138 minutes played in the Premier League last season. One for every 690 minutes so far during this campaign.
Chelsea’s defence is the biggest issue, but their lack of spark in attack is only the lesser of two evils.
“I keep changing the system and formations in search of that spark. We need to find it. We need to find the right formation and the right players to play in it” – Tim Sherwood.
“I will use the international break to get my players fitter because they are not fit enough yet to play the way I want them to play” – Tim Sherwood.
One of the biggest concerns over Sherwood’s ability to succeed at Aston Villa was that he had never before experienced a pre-season. Both of those quotes above, made in separate post-match interviews following defeat at home to Stoke on Saturday, prove such doubts as valid. Both are issues that should have been sorted out in July, not October. The Premier League is no place for slowly warming to the task.
Villa have not won a league game or kept a clean sheet since the opening day. The only point they have picked up since day one was at home to a dismal Sunderland side, even that rightly considered two points dropped. Supporters are already calling for his head, and it’s difficult to blame them. For a man obsessed by win percentages when in temporary charge at Tottenham, the flip side makes for miserable reading; Sherwood has lost 62% of his league matches in charge.
A few weeks ago, Sherwood described Villa’s upcoming period as the most important in the club’s history. If that was true, the last manager you’d want in charge is someone high on talking the talk but low on walking the walk. The result has been four straight league defeats.
“I want this to be the birthplace of the new generation,” was one of Sherwood’s typically grandiose summer statements. Rather than any resurrection or rebirth, Aston Villa are merely suffering another slow death. Premier League management is a cruel world of sink or swim. Right now, Sherwood is not waving, but drowning.
Sunderland and Dick Advocaat
One of the most shambolic appointments in Premier League history ended in predictable fashion.
If you have to beg a manager to take a job after rejecting it and he still then only signs a one-year deal, it’s probably worth appointing anyone else. If you then allow that manager to sign players on two and three-year contracts after he threatened to walk out over a lack of arrivals, the alarm bells should have been ringing at deafening volume. Advocaat will be cherished by Sunderland supporters for his Great Escape last season but, like so many before him, he has left the club in no better state than when he arrived.
In his parting statement, Advocaat expressed that this was a decision made at a time to suit the club, not himself. “I want to thank everyone who has stood behind me. This is a very special football club, with so many great people, but I feel it is the right time to do this – not for me, but for the club.”
Sorry Dick, but that’s a very one-eyed way of assessing the situation. After signing a contract with the club, Advocaat regularly made public his desire for Sunderland’s owner Ellis Short to bring in more players for him to use. When the club struggled to attract signings, it was Short who therefore received the ire of supporters.
After further demands for investment, Advocaat got his wish. Sunderland ended the transfer window having recruited seven players on permanent deals (at a cost of over £30m) and three more internationals on season-long loan deals. The manager’s response was to get nothing out of those signings, root Sunderland to the bottom of the league and then resign five weeks later.
Sunderland deserve their misfortune for continuing their absurd commitment to short-termism, but Advocaat must take his own share of the blame. It’s all very well displaying great emotion when your side score, but the mess left behind as he walks off into the sunset should cause supporters to shed their own tears.
Even by their own appalling record against Manchester City, this was something else. Newcastle should have been more than one goal ahead by the time Aguero scored his first, but that fails to alter their alarming slump into incompetence. If a team can concede six goals in 20 minutes to any team in the league, they are far from ‘too good to go down’.
Steve McClaren also has a growing issue of effecting any form of defensive stability. Across his last 26 league matches at Derby and Newcastle, his teams have kept four clean sheets. They’ve conceded two or more goals in 17 of those 26 games.
In every single Premier League season, the team with the worst defence has been relegated. Newcastle conceded the second-most goals last season, and they’ve conceded the most so far this. Gulp.
He is the banker, the Premier League survival guarantee, but in West Brom Pulis might have his toughest task yet.
Keeping hold of Saido Berahino gave the club a shot in the arm, but he can’t play at centre-back. The Baggies have now lost three consecutive matches, conceding eight goals in the process. They’ve also conceded two or more goals in 42% of their league games under Pulis. Those are not the statistics on which his reputation was founded.
West Brom are the joint lowest scorers in the league, and two-thirds of those goals have come in defeat. That’s a horrible look.
Removed at half-time, prompting five goals in the first 17 minutes of the second half. That might just be coincidence, but Sterling will be alarmed to see how devastating De Bruyne was when moved onto the left wing, with Jesus Navas on the right. Competition for places behind Aguero is massive.
A league position of 13th would be celebrated across Norfolk come May, but there is a sting in the tail. Defeat at home to Leicester made it four home points from four home games, and one league win since August 15.
The problem comes when you examine the standard of opponents that Alex Neil’s side have faced. Ranked by their league position last season: 10th, 16th, 9th, 7th, 21st, 6th, 12th and 14th. The season only promises to get tougher.
In May, Howard released a book entitled ‘The Keeper: A Life of Saving Goals and Achieving Them’. I haven’t read it yet, but I’d be surprised if there’s a chapter about staying on your line when a corner comes four yards from your goal.
Howard has been an excellent goalkeeper, but that’s a statement now firmly positioned in the past tense. Since the start of last season, he hasn’t been fit for purpose.
It was fitting that in Rodgers’ last game it should be Emre Can’s mistake that allowed Everton to equalise, and therefore the manager to ultimately pay the price. Rodgers’ obsession with playing people out of position, as if he had found something that nobody else had spotted, played a huge role in his downfall. Putting Can in central defence, a position he initially impressed in before being found out, was one of his most foolish calls.
Joe Gomez (a central defender played at left-back) was on the bench, with Kolo Toure not even making the squad. One wonders if Rodgers regrets those decisions.
Back to zero club goals for the season. You’ve got to talk about net goals, fella.