Newcastle United and the siege mentality
Three consecutive league victories are not enough to absolve Mike Ashley of any blame for Newcastle United’s lethargic summer of transfer activity, and that is a view that would be privately shared by their manager. Yet amid the in-fighting and sniping between supporters and their infuriating owner, the last three weeks have demonstrated that Newcastle fans do have someone in a position of responsibility of which they can be proud: Rafael Benitez.
There are not many better managers at making a team greater than the sum of its defensive parts and certainly none better in the Premier League’s predicted bottom half. Benitez’s response to transfer market disappointment was to make the best of a bad lot. Newcastle sit fourth in the Premier League. Only the two Manchester clubs have won more of their first five matches. Crisis, what crisis? (And I’m as guilty as anyone of crying disaster).
If pragmatism is a trait of successful Premier League firefighters, Benitez is streets ahead of most around him. Newcastle sat back against Stoke and allowed the away team 58% of possession. Stoke completed over 100 more passes than Newcastle, but had almost half of their shots from outside the box and had one shot on target before the 50th minute. The difference between the first two games and now is that Newcastle’s defenders now believe that they can withstand pressure. That belief is slowly being reflected in the stands.
This is the flipside to the negativity over the lack of summer spending. After the match, Benitez spoke of needing to rely on players “who really want it and are not always making excuses when they make mistakes”. In seasons past, Newcastle have had transient footballers who have not fully submerged themselves in how much the performance of this club truly matters. Perhaps now they do.
It is a simplistic equation, but a small squad means that each of Newcastle’s players will get more of the Benitez effect. If that enables this team to be created in their manager’s image, defensively resilient, passionate and committed, it can be no bad thing.
Manchester City’s attacking prowess
I’m not making the same mistake as last season, heralding this all-conquering Manchester City team only to watch them limp through October, December and March. The limited options in central defence and central midfield are enough to hold me back.
Yet if we cannot be truly confident that the results will continue, you cannot doubt that City will remain a potent attacking force. This might be the best collection of attacking players the Premier League has ever seen.
If the master Sergio Aguero doesn’t get you (and he probably will), the apprentice Gabriel Jesus will. If the intricate majesty of David Silva or Kevin de Bruyne don’t get you (and they probably will), the pace and dribbling of Leroy Sane and Raheem Sterling will. If even that isn’t enough, City have the best pair of attacking full-backs in Europe and we haven’t even mentioned Bernardo Silva yet. And then you realise that City’s three central defenders have scored three goals in their last two matches. And breathe.
City have now scored 17 unanswered goals in their last 340 minutes of football, or a pleasing one goal for exactly every 20 minutes played. It’s all getting a little silly.
A Manchester title race
They have scored 26% of all the goals in the Premier League this season, have conceded four goals between them and were the only two teams from last season’s top seven to win this weekend. The more games you watch, the more an intra-Manchester title race seems the likeliest headline story of this season. In terms of intrigue and interest, we’re absolutely fine with that.
Manchester United’s late goals
According to the excellent OptaJoe, Manchester United account for 38% of all the Premier League goals scored in the last ten minutes of matches this season. Two against West Ham, three against Swansea, one against Leicester and three against Everton; the sample size is small, but a pattern is emerging.
The comparison with Jose Mourinho’s predecessor is stark. United scored nine goals in the last ten minutes of league games between March 2015 and Louis van Gaal’s sacking in May 2016. They have equalled that total over the first five matches of this season. United ranked 16th in the division for late goals in 2015/16. Last season Mourinho took them up to seventh, and he will now hope to lead the way.
We must be careful of reading too much into the sample size, but Mourinho is a manager who cherishes late goals as proof of the fight from players to impress their manager.
“I think the team goes until the end and when you go until the end and you have the public behind the team, believing the same way, everybody believes, I think it can happen,” he said in January after United had scored late against Crystal Palace, Hull, Middlesbrough and Liverpool. “The mentality that I want and the mentality that I also think the fans want is to fight for the result and have no problem to risk. If one day it goes wrong, it goes wrong.”
The trend also says a good deal about the depth of Manchester United’s squad. Seven of their 20 goals in all competitions (and four of their late nine in the league) have been scored by substitutes, with Marcus Rashford, Anthony Martial and Marouane Fellaini all benefiting from entering the fray when defenders are low on physical and mental energy.
To repeat: Manchester United have scored 38% of all late goals in the Premier League this season. They have scored 24% of all the goals by substitutes. Those figures will level out over the course of an entire campaign, but you can be certain that Mourinho is damn proud of both.
Manchester United’s pace of attack, in one statistic
Manchester United’s rank in the Premier League according to the number of dribbles attempted:
2013/14 – 9th
2014/15 – 10th
2015/16 – 11th
2016/17 – 4th
2017/18 – 1st
A change has come.
A raft of criticism following the victory over Everton, including Danny Murphy’s MOTD2 assessment that Lukaku will struggle in the biggest games because he doesn’t take enough chances. This site and column has continually wondered why the focus is on what Lukaku can’t do rather than what he can, but criticising the joint-top scorer in the division for something that hasn’t happened yet is just weird. For the record, Lukaku has a better shot accuracy this season than Harry Kane, Sergio Aguero, Gabriel Jesus and Alvaro Morata.
Five goals in 13 career games against Manchester City and five goals in 12 against Liverpool – Manchester United’s two biggest rivals – suggests that everything might just be okay. Lukaku has at least earned the chance to prove it before the reproval comes.
Burnley and Sean Dyche
This summer, Burnley sold two first-team players for fees totalling more than their entire player sales between 2008 and 2016. Andre Gray had not flourished as Burnley would like, but the departure of him and star defender Michael Keane could easily have caused a slump in form and belief.
It was a slump that Burnley could hardly afford. Dyche’s team survived relegation by six points last season, but were saved by their early-season home form. Burnley took 11 points from their final 15 league games. The suspicion was that that form would continue and, what’s worse, Burnley did not even replace Keane. The club’s current central defensive options are Ben Mee, James Tarkowski and, erm… that’s about it.
With all that in mind, this has been an astonishing start to the season. For Burnley to sit seventh in the table having already played away from home against Chelsea, Tottenham and Liverpool, and be unbeaten in all three, is the stand-out achievement of this Premier League season to date. Huddersfield supporters (sorry Winty) may cry foul, but consider the strength of opposition and the summer transfer activity.
The run may not last, of course. Burnley have faced at least nine more shots than any other team (and 28 more than the side in third on that list), only five clubs have allowed more shots on target and yet only seven have conceded fewer goals. With Tom Heaton out for a number of months and central defensive back-up so lacking, they could come unstuck.
Yet that only provides more reason to revel in the now. By the time that Burnley’s game against Huddersfield at Turf Moor ends next Saturday, Sean Dyche could well be manager of a team in the top four heading into October. No Keane, no Gray, no problem.
His sixth hat-trick in 186 Premier League games. If Aguero’s confidence has been pricked by Jesus’ position as Pep Guardiola’s first-choice, it really doesn’t show. The Argentinean is already a quarter of the way to a fourth consecutive 20-goal-plus Premier League season.
Arsenal’s high press
You can go to 16 Conclusions to read many more words about Arsenal’s encouraging performance at Stamford Bridge, but it’s worth giving their work without the ball some extra praise.
Arsenal made more interceptions against Chelsea than they have in any Premier League game since January. The last time Aaron Ramsey made more tackles in a match was in 2015/16. Both are rudimentary statistical indicators of Arsenal’s midfield energy, but the proof was in the mistakes made by Chelsea’s defenders and midfielders in possession.
Alex Iwobi, Danny Welbeck and Ramsey operated as a pressing three while Alexandre Lacazette led the line and Granit Xhaka sat behind them as an extra layer of defensive protection. Those three got under Chelsea’s skin and ruined the home side’s chances of finding the fluency through midfield that would surely have allowed them to dominate the game. A job well done.
Paul Clement and Swansea’s defence
Our early winners. The last away league goal conceded by Swansea was scored by Wayne Rooney. For Manchester United.
Back on track after limp defeat to West Ham. The last thing David Wagner would have wanted is top drop out of the top six. God forbid. For more on Huddersfield, I will hand you over to Peter Goldstein.
Last week’s early winner repeated the trick against Stoke. Go on Gareth Southgate; he’s only 23.
Tottenham and Wembley
The notion of a Wembley curse is obvious piping hot nonsense, but even used in jest alleviates Tottenham of responsibility. Their struggles in their temporary home are not through some ethereal crisis that can only be solved by Barry Fry urinating in each corner of the ground. The only solution is significant improvement and better back-up plans.
Watching Tottenham at Wembley is a different experience to watching them at White Hart Lane, for sure. Their former ground was not daunting or unnerving for the opposition, but it was special. The stands were close to the pitch and that could help create a surge of atmosphere and goodwill that occasionally dragged the team on.
That atmosphere is lacking at Wembley, which truly does still feel like a neutral ground for Tottenham. On Saturday evening, supporters were waiting for something to happen rather than assisting it, and that was reflected in a ponderous first-half performance. When it became clear that Tottenham were running out of time, the reaction was to groan and gripe at individual players and the team as a whole.
Yet the biggest issue is not the stadium or the atmosphere, but how opposition managers have worked out the best way to combat Tottenham: give up the ball.
In their three home league games this season, Tottenham have registered possession of 67% (Burnley), 68% (Chelsea) and 75% (Swansea). The exception is Borussia Dortmund, who had 68% possession and conceded more goals in 90 minutes than Burnley, Chelsea and Swansea combined. Perhaps it was arrogance or just poor planning, but Dortmund got it wrong.
The difference between last season (when Tottenham dropped just four points at home) is obvious. Rank the 22 home games since the start of last season according to Spurs’ total possession, and Swansea would rank first, Chelsea fourth and Burnley fifth. Teams have calculated that by sitting back they can negate the threat of Tottenham’s counter-attacks led by Dele Alli and Christian Eriksen and typically finished by Harry Kane.
In fact, last season offered hints of this possible strategy. Three of Tottenham’s tightest home victories over bottom-half teams (1-0 vs Sunderland, 1-0 vs Middlesbrough and 3-2 vs West Ham) came in the five home games in which they ranked highest for possession. As Swansea showed, these tactics require some good fortune and perhaps even refereeing incompetence, but they provide the best hope of frustrating Mauricio Pochettino’s team.
That would also explain why Tottenham have been more effective away from home. They dominated possession against Newcastle, but struggled to break down Rafa Benitez’s side until Jonjo Shelvey’s sending-off. Against Everton, Tottenham had less possession than their league opposition for the only time this season, and won emphatically.
Pochettino’s challenge is to find a way to overcome this latest roadblock, but the performance against Swansea contained little to please the manager. Having looked sluggish in the first half, as if waiting for Swansea to make a mistake rather than pushing the issue, Tottenham veered straight from patience to desperation.
Supporters may wonder how on earth Tottenham failed to score with any of their 17 second-half shots, but only five were on target. Sixteen of their 26 attempts were from outside the area. For all Tottenham’s dominance, Lukasz Fabianski did not make a save that prompted standing applause.
Improvements will come. Pochettino is too good a coach not to work on another Tottenham USP that can overcome this difficulty. Yet until he does, Burnley and Swansea have offered a blueprint of how to thwart Tottenham. Blaming some abstract notion of a curse does those two teams a disservice.
Liverpool and a new, old problem
Liverpool only conceded one goal against Burnley at Anfield and didn’t even look weak when defending set-pieces, yet improvement in one problem area only allowed another to rear its unwelcome head.
Perhaps it is mere coincidence that the return of Philippe Coutinho to the Liverpool starting line-up prompted them to wastefully shoot from distance, but the Brazilian’s own personal statistics offer damning evidence for the prosecution.
Coutinho had seven shots against Burnley. All seven were from outside the penalty area. None were on target. For all the headlines over Liverpool’s number of shots, their (and Coutinho’s) propensity to get frustrated and shoot from distance is infuriating. It limits their chances of scoring and thus winning games.
I understand why Pochettino wants to keep faith in Sissoko after a summer in which Tottenham failed to sign a midfielder, but at some point he’s going to have to accept that the Frenchman just isn’t fit for purpose. When he’s blocking Harry Winks’ potential route into the first team, that time has arrived.
Our early loser. In four games against teams that Everton’s owners have ambitions of competing with, Everton managed six shots on target. That’s absolutely wretched.
See the section in the winners list on Arsenal’s high pressing. It only works when it’s done as a cohesive, coherent unit. Is that really Ozil’s game?
You can and must read the piece from Selhurst Park, but here’s the abridged version: Crystal Palace were far worse at home to Southampton under Roy Hodgson than they were away at Burnley under Frank de Boer.
With Manchester City, Manchester United and Chelsea to play in their next three games, will they sack this manager after four games before leaking stories about him scoring too many goals in training?
Seven league goals in 2017. Three shots on target this season. Four chances created since April. These are not the statistics of an in-form Premier League striker.
Even if you consider that Luiz’s challenge was not worthy of a straight red card, and that seems a difficult argument to sustain, it spectacularly misses the point: Luiz had already been booked.
The best Luiz could have expected was a red card and one-match ban. The stupidity alone merited the extra game.
— Photos of Football (@photosofootball) September 16, 2017