There might never have been a season of greater individual performance in Premier League history. Luis Suarez spent the summer of 2013 trying publicly to force his exit from Liverpool. The Reds did not relent, Suarez stayed and almost fired them to the title in a phenomenal campaign. Liverpool rewarded him by selling him to Barcelona.
‘I had been so confused; hurt, under pressure, a little desperate, unsure of where to turn, with contradictory thoughts swirling round my head,’ Suarez wrote in his autobiography in 2014. ‘It was one of the reasons they were so convinced that it was right to fight to keep hold of me: they knew I was never going to sulk or not give 100 per cent.’
History might be about to repeat itself. Philippe Coutinho was clearly affected by the events of this summer – confused, hurt, under pressure, a little desperate, unsure of where to turn, one might say. The emotional turmoil he suffered as a pawn of the chess game between Liverpool and Barcelona should not be overlooked or underplayed. Footballers are not robots.
But the question was always going to be of how Coutinho responded when it became clear he would not be leaving Anfield. Doubts were expressed as to whether his heart would still be in Liverpool, whether he could still conjure the same performances that interested Barcelona in the first place.
Consider those fears banished. On his second start of the Premier League season, the Brazilian scored one goal of the highest order and provided a similarly brilliant assist for another. He created five chances, and has now laid on ten chances for teammates in 157 minutes – only Roberto Firmino (11 in 461 minutes) has created more for the Reds.
There is still a legitimate belief that Liverpool might have been better off had they cashed in on Coutinho and used the subsequent funds to improve their defence, but his form is lowest on the list of their current problems. His talent was never in question. Neither is his dedication now.
A first win in four attempts after three straight defeats at the King Power Stadium, a first win in September, and a first win in five games overall. Issues remain, but the ‘we’re going to score one goal more than you’ philosophy does pay dividends more often than not.
Created two chances from four passes in 11 minutes as a second-half substitute, but most importantly was on the winning side of a club game for the first time since August 11. Someone likes playing against Leicester.
Mark Hughes was not alone in stating that Chelsea might struggle without their master of “the dark arts” when speaking at his press conference on Friday. Alvaro Morata continues to prove there is light at the end of the tunnel.
Chelsea’s goalless draw with Arsenal was typified with claims that this was what the Premier League champions were lacking – a striker capable of bullying any central defence. Morata ran the channels and tried to provide something of a focal point, but admittedly struggled at Stamford Bridge.
It was but one game, and yet the narrative was set in stone: Replacing Costa with Morata was a mistake.
In the same week Chelsea announced that they were selling their old Spaniard, the new one proved he was more than capable of stepping into those shoes. Morata was wonderful against Stoke, and even managed to score a couple of goals with his feet. A first career hat-trick was just reward.
Antonio Conte was criticised for alienating and selling Costa. In their last two games, two other strikers have scored a hat-trick apiece. He might just have got this one right. Again.
The yin to Morata’s yang. Chelsea’s most consistent performer has now assisted four of his compatriot’s six Premier League goals this season.
They have won their last three Premier League games at an aggregate score of 16-0, and could even afford to completely rest Gabriel Jesus against Crystal Palace. If you are not excited for their meeting with Chelsea next weekend, you are following the wrong sport.
Guardiola’s new Robben and Ribery
Sergio Aguero and Gabriel Jesus may dominate the headlines, but space on the back page must always be reserved for Manchester City’s other attacking pair. Leroy Sane and Raheem Sterling have now both contributed directly to five league goals apiece this season.
In the duo, Pep Guardiola finally has the heirs to a throne he helped construct in three years at Bayern Munich. He inherited both Arjen Robben and Franck Ribery, building his Bayern machine around the pair. It was in 2014/15 when the former enjoyed the most productive campaign of his career, scoring 17 goals in 21 Bundesliga games, while Ribery scored nine in 23 in between multiple injuries.
It was during Bayern’s struggles in one of those absent periods that Guardiola made clear the importance of the pair. “Without Arjen Robben and Franck Ribery, we are a different team,” he said. “We have big problems because we have no players for the one-on-one situations.”
For Robben and Ribery, read Sane and Sterling. Aguero and Jesus will get the goals, David Silva and Kevin de Bruyne will provide the chances and the signings of Kyle Walker and Benjamin Mendy illustrate just how key full-backs are in the manager’s system, but just like a first-year university student, Guardiola knows only too well the importance of his wing men.
Many will hold a 1-0 victory over Southampton as evidence that Manchester United are more equipped to compete for the Premier League title this season, that winning ugly is the sign of champions. That theory does hold water, but only when your closest rivals aren’t busy dispatching teams by four or five goals every week.
Still, this was the sort of game from which United would have take one point last season. Having taken the lead against Saints through Romelu Lukaku, the sole objective was to cling onto victory for dear life. Previous games have seen United wait until the dying embers to stamp their authority on tired teams with the introduction of more attack-minded players from the bench, but not this weekend.
“We had opportunities in the first half to score the second goal and then the game is different,” Mourinho said after the game. “Lukaku and [Ander] Herrera, too, and if we’d done that I would have brought on Martial and Lingard and go for a different result.”
The substitutions were instead defensive, as Mourinho dusted off his bus-parking manual for, in his own words, “20 to 25 minutes”. The result was United’s first 1-0 Premier League win since December 2016, and no ground ceded to City. One might suggest they invited more pressure on by retreating, but a leopard cannot change its spots. The ultimate pragmatist did what the ultimate pragmatist does: ensured victory. And got sent off.
Our early winner, because winning a London derby with a central midfield of Moussa Sissoko and Eric Dier is as difficult a party trick as it sounds.
Every season, Harry Kane has to endure a different set of questions. Every season, Harry Kane provides an emphatic answer. The 24-year-old has now scored 79 Premier League goals since the start of the 2014/15 season – Sergio Aguero (76) is the only other player to have scored more than 59.
First came the insult, Ronald Koeman grouping Oumar Niasse in with Aiden McGeady as players for whom it was “very difficult” to envisage a future at Everton. Then came the injury, the manager delivering the killer line to the striker’s Goodison Park career: “If he likes to play football then he needs to leave Everton.”
That was back in August 2016, seven months after Niasse joined the Toffees for £13.5m, and two months after Koeman was appointed as manager. It took the Dutchman just 45 minutes of a pre-season friendly to decide that the club’s one-time third-most expensive player ever was surplus to requirements.
It has taken Niasse 59 minutes to completely transform both his and Koeman’s fortunes. After scoring his first goal for the club in Carabao Cup action in midweek, Niasse struck twice to rescue victory from the clutches of a potentially devastating defeat to Bournemouth on Saturday. Everton’s joint-top scorer in all competitions has not yet played a full hour.
Little over 12 months after those damning public comments, Koeman is having to save room for a rather large serving of humble pie. “Everybody knew it was a must-win game,” he said after a first Premier League victory since the opening weekend. “If you win you are sure about your job, if you lose you are not so sure.”
Niasse has saved his manager’s skin, but it will not be in the striker’s remit to gloat. The 27-year-old would have every reason to. He was demoted to playing with the Under-23s, had his basic right to a locker revoked, was loaned out to Hull and is only at Everton now because they failed to sell him permanently in the summer. But that is not in Niasse’s nature. If Koeman needs him in the future, and the events of this past week suggest he does, the forward will be on hand to duly take the chance.
In Niasse’s renaissance is an example to any footballer who might feel hard done to. “If I turned the clock back, I would do it all over again,” he said in the midst of his Hull loan. He has never complained, he has never flown the white flag and retreated to his homeland, he never requested a transfer and he never leaked stories of discontent and unhappiness to the media. He knuckled down, he worked hard, he endeared himself to the fans, he took the opportunity when it presented itself, and he has proved his manager and pretty much everyone else wrong.
Everyone in football knows that Chris Hughton is too much of a gentleman to boast about beating former employers Newcastle, but he must have at least contemplated giving Mike Ashley a quick phone call on Sunday evening. Brighton are above Everton in the table, and it is not because of the alphabet.
Proof that everything Silva touches turns to gold. Watford’s ability to sign a whole new squad of unrecognisable players has been well established by recent managers, and few expected an unknown £13million signing who had never played outside of South America to make much of an impact. But the opener in a victory over Bournemouth and the winner against Swansea have seen a 20-year-old Brazilian endear himself to thousands in Hertfordshire.
Only eight players have completed more tackles (18) than the forward this season, each of whom are defensive players. This is Samba style infused with steel.
Burnley and Huddersfield
Both were heavily tipped for relegation, both avoided defeat, both stay in the top half after six games.
The accepted wisdom is that teams looking to survive in the Premier League must prioritise the signing of a prolific striker over anything else. Burnley and Huddersfield did not neglect the importance of attack – both spent club-record fees on forwards this summer – but they are providing unavoidable cases for the defence.
Many would view a combined 14 shots – five on target – as an example of the sort of profligacy that could hold these two sides back. But those who sip from a half-full glass would suggest Saturday illustrated what may set them apart from others battling against the drop. Huddersfield have scored five goals and Burnley six, yet they sit eighth and ninth in the table. Only the Manchester clubs have conceded fewer goals than the Terriers (3), while the one other side Burnley (5) are behind in that respect is West Brom.
Mauricio Pochettino was talking about his off-field behaviour, but his warning to Serge Aurier was stark, and did not feel wholly playful. “I said to him, ‘I will kill you’, I (would) head-butt him,” he said ahead of the right-back’s debut.
The Tottenham manager had Aurier’s previous conduct and comments in mind, but he might have been tempted to take a leaf of the Tony Pulis book of naked Premier League management at full-time on Saturday. The summer signing’s decision-making has been unwise at very best in recent years, but came into question for different reasons at the London Stadium.
Tottenham were already threatening to collapse against West Ham, but Aurier was the child crouching behind them waiting for his mate to push. West Ham had clawed one goal back through Javier Hernandez on 65 minutes, but the visitors were still expected to hold out. Five minutes later, Aurier’s first Premier League start was cut short with a second booking.
Pochettino was forced into changing both system and personnel, and although Tottenham did not let the three points slip from their grasp, the manager will not forget such irresponsibility quickly. Kieran Trippier might not offer the same in either attack or defence, but a consistent 6/10 performer is currently more reliable than the unpredictable Aurier.
Most would concede that West Ham are a club with no clear long-term vision, but they barely managed to stick to a plan for 30 minutes against Tottenham. Slaven Bilic showed mercy to the home fans on Saturday, starting Javier Hernandez as a central striker and benching Andy Carroll, but one injury caused the entire abandonment of a tactical system that, until then, had held firm.
One can sympathise with Bilic over losing Michail Antonio so early in the game, but when the manager looked to his bench he should have seen a simple solution. Andre Ayew or Diafra Sakho could have slotted into the formation seamlessly; Andy Carroll crashed into it with the usual flailing elbows.
There is a time and a place for Carroll, but Bilic is yet to find it while Hernandez is in the team. The Mexican was praised as a solid summer signing, a striker with proven credentials in the Premier League, but his mere existence in the squad is problematic. He is their most reliable goalscorer and so Bilic has to pick him, yet he is played in an alien position on the wing more often than not.
Of the club’s other four summer arrivals, three were made with the explicit intention of adding Premier League nous to the squad. “We have tried the route of going overseas to bring in players – that hasn’t worked,” said David Gold in June, the club lurching from one extreme to the other. “We had a very difficult season because players we brought in from Europe didn’t make the grade and we paid the price.”
The latest excuse is yet to be offered by the club’s co-owners, as culpable in this mess, if not more so, than the manager. They helped construct a horribly unbalanced squad, they send constant mixed messages, and they will point the finger elsewhere when Bilic is the eventual fall guy. West Ham can remove the limb, but the poison already travelled to the rest of the body long ago.
I was not at Dean Court on either Friday or Tuesday evening, so cannot confirm whether Bournemouth fans treated Brighton to a rendition of ‘can we play you every week?’ during either of their meetings. It would have been an earnest plea.
Eddie Howe might well have thought that Bournemouth had turned a corner with consecutive victories over the same opponent in the space of four days, but he and his players were simply greeted with a dead end against Everton. Only an abysmal Crystal Palace side are keeping them from the bottom of the Premier League table.
“The performance today is probably our best of the season,” Howe said after the defeat, which is as damning a reflection on his game management as possible. Josh King put the Cherries ahead straight after half-time, and by the manager’s own admission, they were in “total control” in the second half.
Koeman, himself hoping to engineer the sort of result that can kick-start a season, made two changes in the 55th minute. Oumar Niasse and Tom Davies replaced Wayne Rooney and Davy Klaassen, and brought with them purpose, drive and a modicum of pace. Howe’s reaction? To bring on a striker, Benik Afobe, for a striker, Jermain Defoe.
Two minutes later, Niasse equalised, and Howe responded by substituting a forward for a defender. Josh King was carrying a knock, and Steve Cook was his replacement.
Three minutes later, Niasse scored his second, and Howe was left examining the scene of yet another defeat. He might find that they are easier to stomach when the players are the problem; they can be dropped and interchanged. When the manager is the issue, there tends to be only one solution. The situation is not quite that drastic yet, but for the first time, it seems that Howe does not have the answer to the constant line of questioning.
Ever get the feeling you’ve made a terrible mistake?
A list of the teams who Leicester have lost to in the Premier League this season goes some way to explaining their poor start. Many sides will emerge from games with Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester United with four defeats; there is no shame in that.
The optimist’s view is that picking up points in both of their other games sums up a team capable of finishing in that echelon below the elite sides. The pessimist’s view is that both of those games were against newly-promoted opposition; the very least a team with Leicester’s expectations would hope for is four points.
Craig Shakespeare has now won 11 and lost 10 of his 24 games in charge. When one considers that six of those victories came in the first six games of his tenure, with the feel-good factor of his interim appointment still in full effect, and five of those early wins were at home, the outlook becomes slightly less rosy. His popularity as a coach is well-documented, but three wins in his last 14 Premier League games as a manager doth not a good record make.
Standing behind Daley Blind in the queue is regrettable, but understandable. Seeing Matteo Darmian in front of you is enough to force one into considering early retirement. Having Ashley Young jump to the front of the line and receive high praise from the manager might just be the final straw, and that is without taking into account Marcos Rojo’s imminent return from injury. It almost feels as if Jose Mourinho would rather play Marouane Fellaini or Jesse Lingard at left-back before Luke Shaw, his only actual specialist in the position, gets a meaningful game there.
Three clubs have conceded more goals than Liverpool this season. The highest-placed of those sides is Leicester; they are 17th. Anyone else longing for the days of Jamie Carragher and Pepe Reina?
Proof, were it ever needed, that my fiancée’s parents were right all along: I am a massive idiot.
But Peter Goldstein insists that there is some room for optimism in defeat.
British and Irish managers
Six of the Premier League’s current bottom eight teams are managed by British or Irish bosses. Chris Hughton was the only one to oversee a victory this weekend. Why don’t they get the big jobs?
On second thought, Gary Cahill might be the biggest winner of the weekend. A reminder that, for all Harry Maguire and Alfie Mawson’s strengths, their lower-league habits are difficult to kick.