Premier League winners and losers

Date published: Tuesday 12th September 2017 9:34

Winners

Manchester City
You will find plenty of lovely words on Saturday’s game in 16 Conclusions, but City still deserve their place on top of the winners. Had they lost to Liverpool, as many were predicting, there would have been serious questions asked of Pep Guardiola ahead of a first Champions League assignment of the season.

Liverpool might have made it easy, but City still wowed in making their own significant statement. When this team finds its swagger, teams won’t need to have a man sent off to look inept in the face of such attacking verve.

 

Kevin de Bruyne
If he isn’t the best footballer in the league, he’s certainly the one I most enjoy watching. De Bruyne has now provided 39 assists and scored 23 goals since arriving from Wolfsburg, but the joy is in the aesthetics rather than the statistics. The first touches, weight, accuracy and spin of passes and jolts forward with the ball to evade danger are all supreme.

Some players are accused of being highlights footballers, their best bits a facade for a general lack of consistency. De Bruyne is the opposite. Every touch, pass and movement is so deliberate and done with such purpose that you’d be stupid to condense performances such as the one on Saturday. Just watch the lot, and consider yourself bloody privileged.

 

Benjamin Mendy
We’re going to have fun with this one…

 

Harry Kane, selfless and brilliant
The next time you watch Tottenham, focus solely on Kane’s movement and vision. It’s one thing being a prolific goalscorer, but another entirely being a prolific goalscorer while also being a team player. Kane is one of the league’s most selfless strikers.

Look at the two images included. The first shows Kane’s heatmap against Everton (left) and the second Alvaro Morata’s heatmap against the same opponent a fortnight ago. This is no criticism of Morata, for he is asked to carry out a different role for Chelsea, but the contrast is apparent. Rather than remaining as the focal point up front or dropping deep solely in central areas to pick up possession, Kane drifts left and right more often than a central striker in a 4-2-3-1 normally would. Kane covers far more areas of the pitch, if not necessarily more distance in total.

That has two obvious effects: It creates space into which principally Dele Alli but also Christian Eriksen can surge and delight, making Tottenham far harder to defend against. Yet it also helps to drag central defenders into positions in which they are uncomfortable. Against Kane on Saturday, Ashley Williams looked lost. He is not the first and won’t be the last.

Kane’s greatest asset is not this movement per se, but the manner in which he combines creating space for teammates with being in the right place when the ball is loose in the penalty area. No strikers in the Premier League have had more shots or shots on target than Kane this season, and only one has created more chances.. Kane is the Premier League’s ultimate centre-forward.

 

Marco Silva
This column mentions Paul Merson’s comments on Marco Silva quite regularly, but there’s a reason for that. It is not through blind loyalty to Silva – although he has started superbly at Watford – but because of what comments like Merson’s represent. They are scathing not just against an individual but an entire swathe of managers because of their nationality. “What is this geezer?” was the stand-out line. Not even “who”, but “what”.

I could have stomached Merson and Thompson’s Sky Sports rant when the Portuguese was appointed at Hull City had there been no repeat. Yet having watched Silva improve Hull City despite taking over after the abject reign of Mike Phelan, Merson went in again. So, for the last time, a retort:

“They will get relegated. To have a manager who has enhanced their reputation by being relegated is remarkable. He had the chance to bring in players and didn’t achieve what he was brought in for.”

They also took more points than Stoke, Watford, Burnley, West Brom, Middlesbrough and Sunderland since he took over. And the players he brought in improved Hull.

“The problem is Watford will go to grounds and get dominated.”

Two away games played. Two wins. Four goals scored. No goals conceded.

“I read that they might not give Troy Deeney the captaincy and for me he’s kept the club together. If they left him out they’d really struggle and I don’t think they’ve bought well.”

Deeney is yet to start a league gameWatford have taken eight points from four games.

“I don’t think they’ve bought very well when they needed to strengthen so their weaknesses are exactly the same as last season. They’ve not really bought anybody with Premier League experience, and that’s why I worry about them.”

Initial evidence would suggest that, as with Silva, Premier League experience isn’t necessary to hit the ground running. Although they did buy Nathaniel Chalobah, Tom Cleverley and Andre Gray.

The most surprising aspect of Watford’s start to this season is not their goalscoring (seven in four matches), but their defensive solidity. A team that conceded 68 times last season (only one side who survived relegation conceded more) has not had its defence breached since the 57th minute of their opening match. Watford looked haphazard and incoherent in defence against Liverpool; the change is remarkable.

It’s hardly a question of mere good fortune, either. Tottenham are the only Premier League team to have allowed fewer shots on target than Watford. I picked them as this season’s potential entertainers after the 3-3 draw with Liverpool but, since then, Silva’s side have allowed only five shots on target in three matches. That includes playing for three-quarters of the match against Brighton with ten men.

Silva is not a man to launch tirades against his critics; quiet progress is more his thing. Yet his initial achievements merit being shouted from the rooftops, if only to drown out those who rejected him on the grounds of everything but his CV. Despite managing Hull and Watford, two supposed strugglers, the exhaustive list of managers with more Premier League points than Silva in 2017 is as follows: Mauricio Pochettino, Antonio Conte, Pep Guardiola, Arsene Wenger, Jose Mourinho, Jurgen Klopp, Ronald Koeman, Paul Clement.

 

Chelsea’s squad crisis
Chelsea’s bench against Burnley: Willy Caballero, Andreas Christensen, Kyle Scott, Fikayo Tomori Charly Musonda, Kenedy, Alvaro Morata.

Jeremie Boga and Michy Batshuayi started the game.

Chelsea’s bench against Leicester: Willy Caballero, Andreas Christensen, Davide Zappacosta, Danny Drinkwater, Willian, Eden Hazard, Michy Batshuayi.

Ten of Chelsea’s 11 starters won a league title last season, including two summer signings.

One of the indirect results of moving the transfer deadline is that it should stop seasons being incorrectly written off after one or two weeks of a nine-month campaign when there is still time to buy new players.

Antonio Conte and Chelsea were placed under huge pressure after failing to complete a comeback against Burnley with nine men. Talk of a squad needing improvement was valid; talk of ‘crisis’ and ‘something sinister’ was not. Suddenly Chelsea are a point behind the leaders having already beaten two of last season’s top seven.

 

Ben Davies
Four chances created, one assist, ten crosses and more touches of the ball than any other player. A good time for Davies to prove that there is more than one attacking left-back at White Hart Lane. And this one doesn’t go crawling to The Sun to blow off steam.

 

Danny Welbeck
The beneficiary of Alexis Sanchez’s transfer saga and now apparent lack of fitness, Welbeck is the third top goalscorer in the Premier League. That gives Arsene Wenger an interesting selection headache ahead of Stamford Bridge next week, when one of Sanchez, Welbeck, Mesut Ozil and Alexandre Lacazette will surely be benched. Does Wenger truly believe that Sanchez is fully motivated?

Still, this is a discussion for further down the line. For when Danny is happy, we are happy. Long may it continue.

Mind you, he is no Thierry Henry.

 

Brighton
Go read the excellent Peter Goldstein on Brighton’s first ever Premier League win.

 

Pascal Gross
Or, to be more exact, anyone who predicted him as a bargain signing of the season. As if you ever doubted whether I was *that* guy.

 

Jamaal Lascelles
Our early winner. The Premier League’s youngest captain is leading by excellent example.

 

Mark Hughes
Four points against Manchester United and Arsenal have earned Stoke’s manager at least another half-season in charge. More important was the fevered atmosphere amongst home supporters at the Bet365 Stadium that has been absent for too long. It’s far too simplistic to say that Stoke City fire when they sing, but it certainly helps.

 

Losers

Everton’s stodge
There’s nothing quite like being dismantled by last season’s top two to make Everton realise how big the gap between the Premier League’s best and rest really is. For all the summer investment, we always expected Everton to remain in their league of one. After watching their team barely fluster Chelsea and Tottenham, most Everton supporters may well agree.

There is no shame in losing to the two best teams in the land last season and no crisis talks will follow. Yet watching Ronald Koeman’s team barely reach Tottenham’s front door, let alone attempt to knock it down, Everton’s one-dimensional attacking play was concerning.

Koeman’s principal issue is that he has recruited a forward line so low on pace it becomes farcical. Sandro Ramirez was substituted at half-time and looks far short of the quality required for the Premier League’s top half, while Wayne Rooney has now fallen back into the form we expected of a 31-year-old in the body of someone at least five years older. And that’s without the drunken escapades.

That lack of pace can only work if it is complemented by pace and trickery in wide areas, players who can hit the byline or drift infield and cause havoc for central defenders and thus create the space for two forwards. In Davy Klaassen and Gylfi Sigurdsson, who both played wide against Tottenham, Koeman has a proficient No. 10 and competent central midfielder. Neither would list pace in their top five attributes.

In Big Weekend on Friday, I wondered whether Rooney’s misdemeanours might actually help Everton. It could have persuaded Koeman to drop him, play Sigurdsson as a No. 10 and pick one or both of Dominic Calvert-Lewin and Ademola Lookman in wide areas. Instead Koeman stuck to the original plan and Rooney was not punished, but he must be considering a more permanent change to his strategy. This was the second game in succession that Calvert-Lewin has been brought on at half-time.

The truth is that Everton and Koeman need Calvert-Lewin’s pace, but that the youngster is not yet rounded enough to command a regular starting place. Which begs the question of why Everton bought an entire attacking unit this summer and yet didn’t think to recruit anyone with enough pace to give the attack a second dimension.

Pace has become the stand-out attribute in successful Premier League sides. Everton have got far less than most.

 

Southampton’s attacking dirge
Southampton have avoided Winners and Losers treatment until week four, the last team to get a mention this season. Given how dull they have been to watch in their opening four matches, I’m offering no apologies.

Being an uninteresting team to watch is no barrier to success and certainly not to Premier League consolidation, but on Saturday Southampton took it to a new level. Mauricio Pellegrino’s team were completely lacking spark in attacking midfield, something of an achievement given that Sofiane Boufal, Nathan Redmond and Dusan Tadic all played a part. Manolo Gabbiadini was so isolated that he has applied for his own postcode, while another new central defensive pairing was breached twice.

Given that Pellegrino started with three regulation central midfielders (Oriol Romeu, Steven Davis and James Ward-Prowse), it is unacceptable that Watford’s players were not closed down for either goal. Both Abdoulaye Doucouré and Daryl Janmaat’s finishes came from 25 yards after they were afforded the time to set themselves before shooting.

Yet it is for the attack that the strongest words of censure are saved. Southampton have actually created 47 chances this season, ranking sixth in the league, but only two clubs take a higher percentage of their shots from outside the area and only one has seen a lower percentage of their shots go on target. Only four teams have attempted more crosses from open play. A reminder, to finish the statistical list, that two of Southampton’s three league goals have been penalties.

That is all persuasive evidence for an attack that is far too ponderous and thus allows an opposition defence to get set, thus leaving a low expectation shot or hopeful cross as the only remaining option.

It also suggests that teams have worked out how to defend against Southampton, which is one of the arguments for a team spending money to freshen up over the summer. Of the 14 players to make an appearance against Watford on Saturday, only central defender Wesley Hoedt is new to this squad. Like Frank de Boer and Crystal Palace, are Southampton another club guilty of not backing their new manager and then asking him to perform tricks?

 

Liverpool’s capitulation
There may be no harder team in the Premier League to face with ten men than Manchester City, but it would have been nice for Liverpool to at least put up some meagre resistance.

Sadio Mane’s red card (short take: it was a red card) hampered Liverpool’s attacking potential, but it should not have rendered a 5-0 defeat as the only possible outcome. Jurgen Klopp will argue that Liverpool’s game plan was to soak up pressure before hitting City on the break in the same manner that Leicester did in 2015/16, and that the counter-attacking element was made impossible by Mane’s dismissal, but there must be a Plan B. What happened to gritty determination?

As it was, Liverpool waved the white flag and accepted any punishment City wanted to hand out. Even at 2-0 at the start of the second half, staying resolute and hoping for an individual mistake or defensive set-piece incompetence was a viable tactic, given City’s history of committing both. Liverpool didn’t come close to managing it.

Mane’s red card may well have changed the game, perhaps even decided it. Yet there are ways to lose, particularly to potential title or top-four rivals. Liverpool found the worst way: limp capitulation.

 

Sadio Mane
And now the slightly longer take:

“He wasn’t looking at the goalkeeper.”

That’s more of a prosecution than a defence. The laws of the game stipulate that a tackle or challenge that endangers the safety of an opponent must be sanctioned as serious foul play, and that serious foul play must be punished by a red card. If you are raising your foot to the height of a goalkeeper’s face without looking where it is going when you can reasonably expect that goalkeeper to be rushing out to meet you, you are guilty of endangering his safety.

“He had to go for the ball.”

No he didn’t, he chose to go for the ball. And he chose to go for the ball with his boot raised at face height. Those using this defence are guilty of administering their subjective view of how football used to be played or how they want it to be played rather than the laws of the game. Players have less right to go for the ball than they do to remain safe.

“Matt Ritchie didn’t get sent off.”

No, and he was fortunate not to, even admitting as much after the game. Using one lenient decision as evidence for Mane not being sent off is to deliberately obfuscate the point.

 

The art of defending
Our early loser, after a Saturday in which Liverpool and Manchester United showed the soft underbellies that most other teams in the Premier League also possess. Chelsea are the reigning champions and have kept four clean sheets in their last 20 league matches.

 

Mikel Merino
The new Premier League rules indicate that you can be retrospectively banned for a dive if it causes a penalty to be awarded or a red card to be issued, which seems backward. Surely the offence is what should be punished, not the referee’s response to that offence?

Either way, Merino is incredibly fortunate that Mike Jones apparently saw the incident well enough not to award a penalty for his dive, but also chose not to book him for it. It was cheating, pure and simple.

 

Phil Jones
We are forever destined to exist in a constant cycle whereby our time is spent wondering whether Jones is a good defender playing badly or an average defender playing very well. That we are still asking that question in 2017 probably shows that Manchester United will ultimately need to upgrade and move on.

 

Lee Chung-Yong
Right, it’s my first league start in 2017. Supporters are worried about my team selection, thinking I’ll be rusty and potentially a liability. Best thing to do is get a couple of early touches of the ba… Ah bollocks.

 

Frank de Boer and Crystal Palace
The first team for 93 years to lose their first four top-flight matches of the season, so it’s not going that well for De Boer. Yet as I wrote after the defeat at Burnley, that’s hardly his fault. Crystal Palace are a club with diamond ideas that they afforded a rhinestone budget, and De Boer is just the latest fall guy. Steve Parish now accounts for three of the top 20 shortest managerial reigns in Premier League history.

 

Daniel Storey

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