Crystal Palace and hope
What a difference a game makes. On Saturday morning, Palace were pointless and goalless. By 5pm, they were one point from moving up a place, five points from survival with 30 games remaining and had joined Manchester United and Tottenham as the only teams to beat Chelsea in a home league game in the last year.
Suddenly, supporters could buy the Sunday papers. Suddenly, Match of the Day became something to be enjoyed rather than sacrificed in favour of an early night. Suddenly, Palace fans could watch Sunday’s football without wincing every time a goal was scored and muttering “why can’t we do that?”.
There is a long way to go to reach redemption and safety, but every journey begins with a single step, as renowned Crystal Palace fan Lao Tzu famously said. The hope might kill you in the end, but you would rather have hope to lose. Finally, Crystal Palace can believe. Their season starts now.
Kevin de Bruyne, the perfect time creator
The perfect way to mark his 100th appearance for your club, with a demonstration of skill and attacking pomp that only the greatest in the Premier League era have managed; think Bergkamp, Henry and Le Tissier. De Bruyne is the best player in the Premier League on current form, and probably the best player in the Premier League full stop. Wonder if Robbie Savage would pay to watch him yet?
De Bruyne is majestic at the things that can be practised and honed, of course. His passing and shooting with his weaker foot (see the winner against Chelsea) is far beyond many other Premier League players, and his stamina is also underrated. That’s not about merely distance covered, but having the energy to produce his best even late in matches. Despite his injuries, De Bruyne has started 66 matches since the start of last season, yet he rarely loses his exactness.
But De Bruyne excels most in the immeasurables, and thus his majesty is difficult to replicate and describe. His vision to pick a pass is as good as anyone in Europe, earning him a place amongst such company as Andres Iniesta, Xavi and Andrea Pirlo. De Bruyne’s ability to pick such intricate passing lanes even when playing against deep defences might just take him ahead of all three.
Also sensational is De Bruyne’s ‘right place, right time’ radar. Watch him play and see how often he doesn’t just receive the ball but receives it in stride, running onto it and in the perfect body position for his first touch to take him away from an opponent. The goal against Chelsea was again a perfect example, but it happened at least six times against Stoke too.
The sense that the best players have more time on the ball is not an illusion, merely an indication of their prowess. Positioning, control and vision create that time, and De Bruyne is the finest in the Premier League. It is not that things are never rushed, for they palpably are, but that the game is played exactly to the pace he dictates.
Manchester City and their Barcelona-like dominance
This Manchester City is not a replica of Pep Guardiola’s great 2010/11 Barcelona team, the side Alex Ferguson rated as the best he ever faced as a manager. In that La Liga season, Barcelona registered 67.4% possession, the highest in the division by 12.4%. They completed a ludicrous 752 passes per league game, more than 250 more than their nearest rival. That was domination through tiki-taka, constant, accurate, short passes pulling opposition players out of position until a gap could be detected. Then Lionel Messi, Pedro or David Villa would find that gap, receive the ball and Barcelona would score.
This season, City have registered 64.9% possession, only 4.2% more than their nearest rival. They are also completing 56 fewer passes per 90 minutes than Barcelona 2010/11. Close, but not quite.
And yet the dominance for long periods of games is the same. That Barcelona team had three of the best central midfield passers in world football within the same 40m² area of grass – Xavi, Sergio Busquets and Iniesta. It made sense for Barcelona to dominate through tiki-taka because they had the perfect players for that system.
Fernandinho is many things, but Busquets he is not. So rather than suffocate and eventually kill the opposition in central midfield, City have shifted the focus of their passing 20 yards further up the pitch. In De Bruyne and David Silva, Guardiola has two of the best players in Europe at playing through balls. Guardiola instructs Leroy Sane and Raheem Sterling to tuck inside and let the full-backs overlap, thus allowing both wingers to play short, intricate passes with Silva and De Bruyne. Guardiola never wants passes to be more than ten yards in length, because that allows for a greater number and speed of passing and moving. It is this speed that, when perfected, is impossible to defend against.
The effect is mesmeric. City are creating 2.5 chances per game more than Barcelona 2010/11, and having almost a complete shot on target extra per game. They have also enjoyed the most prolific start to an English top-flight season since Everton in 1894/95.
It may not continue, of course, but the only reason to doubt this Manchester City is because their form tailed off so sharply last season. Yet this is a squad that been significantly improved and has enjoyed an extra 12 months with one of the greatest coaches of the modern game. The reasons to fear collapse are disappearing with each majestic attacking performance.
Manchester City’s attack: the variation
Six different scorers. Six different players taking two or more shots. Five players assisting goals. Five players creating two or more chances. Seven players with a passing accuracy of 90% or higher, including two central midfielders and an attacking midfielder. This is Guardiola’s dream for Manchester City.
Forget the spats with ex-professionals and pundits with more airtime than sense, and focus on what Marco Silva is doing for himself. If Watford’s manager is partly fuelled by a sense of injustice, the motivation is working. Silva’s Watford will not end the season in the Premier League’s top four, but this is still the most eye-catching improvement of 2017/18. Watford have taken 38% of their points from last season in their first eight matches.
If there is one word to describe Watford under Silva, it is ‘efficient’. They are having fewer shots on target, creating fewer chances and making fewer tackles than they averaged last season, and yet they have only been beaten by Manchester City. Instead, there is a greater exactness to what they do. Shot conversion rate is much improved, for example. The decision-making at both ends of the pitch is also noticeably better, while they also have a manager who is not scared to make changes if he feels things are not working.
Silva is meticulous on the training ground, reflected in Watford’s improved defensive organisation this season. Three clean sheets might seem like modest returns, but Watford only managed seven last season. The number of shots and shots on target Watford have allowed are also down. Thirty per cent of the shots on target Watford have faced this season came in one game against Manchester City.
One thing is for sure: Watford’s players know who deserves to take the credit for this wonderful start. Tom Cleverley, Troy Deeney and Heurelho Gomes all spoke post-match about the belief Silva has instilled and how the manager in unafraid to demand more if he feels his team is not performing to their full potential. They are enjoying this wonderful ride as much as the supporters left rubbing their eyes at what they are witnessing.
Roy Hodgson and Wilfried Zaha
Our early winners, and with good reason. Zaha might just be the best player in the Premier League current bottom half, and Hodgson may just be the beneficiary of him being available again. Zaha is a player who doesn’t just provide end product but excites supporters and therefore generates goodwill. He is Crystal Palace’s most powerful tool in the fight against relegation.
So far this season, Tottenham have allowed just 14 shots on target on their own goal, a total bettered by no other Premier League team. As soon as the attack clicks at home, and they are not quite there yet, Mauricio Pochettino’s team have the defensive base to establish themselves in the top four again. Spurs are not yet in top gear, yet have opened up a four-point gap to fifth.
The argument that Guardiola is merely a chequebook manager falls down partly because every modern elite manager now spends vast sums on players, but also because Manchester City’s manager has improved the players he found.
Sterling is the most obvious example. Guardiola arrived in Manchester to find a young winger down on confidence and down on his luck, made the scapegoat for England’s Euro 2016 exit by the worst elements of our tabloid media and having scored only six league goals and registered two assists in the previous league season. He has already matched both of those totals in 2017/18.
Most importantly, Sterling is playing with a smile on his face again. After the hateful ‘footie idiot’ nonsense he was forced to suffer 15 months ago, it’s lovely to see.
Stones has attempted 539 passes in the league this season. Only 16 haven’t found a teammate. Excellent news for both club and country.
A sixth goal for club and country this season, and the last four have directly affected the result of the match. If only someone had written a piec…oh just read it.
A late equaliser against Tottenham, the winner against Crystal Palace and a late equaliser against West Ham. Wood may have cost Burnley a pretty packet, but he’s directly earned them five points in seven weeks at Turf Moor. Keep it up and he’ll soon look cheap.
A first Premier League goal, and his first anywhere in the top flight outside Belgium. For a player of his talent and at the age of 25, it’s been long overdue.
‘Moving up the list with each Premier League goal for Swansea. But not quickly enough,’ I wrote in the latest England World Cup ladder. It might still not be quickly enough, but taking two rungs at a time won’t do Abraham’s chances any harm. The only English players with more goals than him this season (Kane, Sterling and Vardy) were all called up to Gareth Southgate’s latest squad.
There were very few winners from Saturday lunchtime’s 0-0, and you should go to read 16 Conclusions to read many more excellent words on that game, but Joe Gomez deserves singling out for praise. A young man who has recovered from a potentially career-threatening injury is back in Liverpool’s first team and performing brilliantly. He was the best player in one of Liverpool’s biggest matches of the season.
“A really, really strong performance,” said Jurgen Klopp of Gomez after his display against Arsenal. “I told him after the game: ‘Welcome to adult football’ because that was 100% adult football – really strong challenges.” It was a reference to the psychological hurdle of making robust challenges after serious trauma. No Under-23 game or behind closed doors friendly can prepare you for that.
A month later, Gomez has now been trusted at right-back in two important home games, and flourished in both. No 18-year-old deserves to suffer a cruciate ligament injury, but the doubts that almost two years without league football might ruin his development look mercifully wide of the mark.
A first goal from open play in all competitions since March. As it says here, Southampton need that improvement to continue if they are to avoid trouble between now and the end of the year. They’ve frittered away their gentle run of fixtures.
Only an optimist or one of Nigel Pearson’s ostriches would have suggested that all was well at Chelsea even before defeat to Crystal Palace. Antonio Conte looks more and more likely to return to Italy next summer, a coach frustrated at missing out on his first-choice transfer targets.
In many ways, the failure to land Fernando Llorente was the final straw. It stopped Conte from playing with a different version of Plan A should Alvaro Morata be unavailable; instead he has to change his attacking system completely to incorporate Michy Batshuayi. Conte is understood to be fuming about Llorente joining Tottenham.
Many have been talking up Batshuayi’s abilities while he was out of the team, but on Saturday we saw why Conte might just know best. The Belgian was substituted after 57 minutes having barely laid a finger on a defence that has been conceding goals at will. He had just 19 touches of the ball, completed nine passes and failed to have a single shot or create a chance. It is far easier coming off the bench when defenders are tired.
The end result is that Chelsea are possibly out of the title race already. Conte engineered a magnificent run of form last season from a position of adversity, but that was a coach with the determination to fight for his relevance in English football. Conte seems a different man from this year to last.
“We mustn’t be happy,” Conte said after the Palace defeat. “This season will be very difficult for us. For this reason we have to put 150% in; 100% won’t be enough. I have players with a great will to work and fight. For sure we have to find the strength to overcome this moment. Everyone can see our situation.”
We can indeed. Chelsea added quantity to their squad over the summer, but Conte still has doubts as to whether it can sustain involvement in four competitions. Eden Hazard has been injured, Alvaro Morata has been injured, Victor Moses has been injured, Danny Drinkwater has been injured and N’Golo Kante has been injured. These are testing times at Stamford Bridge.
Like Manchester United last season, there is a growing feeling that Chelsea’s manager might prioritise European football over the Premier League if his side fall further behind. Is the wait for a successful Premier League title defence going to go on?
Arsenal without Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez
Our early losers. It’s not that Ozil is necessarily in great form, this is more about the prospect of Arsenal’s starting XI without their two most naturally talented attacking players.
A statistic to truly chill the bones of every Arsenal supporter: Since the beginning of 2015/16, Arsenal have created 1,005 chances in the Premier League. Sanchez and Ozil account for 414 of those, while 83 were by players who have since left the club. Next on the list comes Aaron Ramsey with 63.
You might not rate Ozil’s work rate (and be well within your rights to do so), but he has created 26% of Arsenal’s chances since August 2015. Replacing him and Sanchez in a summer when Arsene Wenger again has just 12 months left on his contract is going to be an incredibly tough ask.
Look at Granit Xhaka. Sell him in the summer man, he's costing us so many points. Unreal. pic.twitter.com/r4lWNnWvy4
— – (@WengerTactic_) October 14, 2017
When people say that Arsenal need leaders, they do not necessarily mean chest-beating calls to arms and diving in where you might get hurt. They mean they need players who go until the last whistle and whose hunger drives them on to do all they can to save the team. Look at the state of this and say that Arsenal’s key players really do enough.
Jose Mourinho and a title challenge
If Manchester City continue their superb form, it would seem likely that Manchester United will require more than 90 points to win the league, and that must surely be their aim for the season. With that in mind, and considering the defensive vulnerability Liverpool have demonstrated so regularly this season, was the reward for Manchester United proactively trying to win the game not worth the potential risk? It’s a statement of the bleeding obvious, but one point is closer to none than three.
Jose Mourinho’s post-game assessment that Liverpool did not allow him to find an opportunity to take victory is also a little disappointing. It suggests that he doesn’t have the attacking tools to unlock the door, rather than hoping Jurgen Klopp had left it swinging open. Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Anthony Martial, Ashley Young and Romelu Lukaku all struggled to impose themselves on the match, but are we to believe that all just played badly by coincidence? It seems more likely that Mourinho’s safety-first strategical plan hampered the performance level of his individual attackers.
The defence seems to consist of three words: ‘This is Mourinho’. He has always done this and isn’t about to change now. But is that not more of a prosecution than defence? If a manager looks at this Liverpool side in this form and judges them the same as Manchester City or Chelsea when in form, doesn’t that indicate that he has a potentially damaging unwillingness to change plans to match the situation? Is adaptability not a tenet of successful management?
Drawing an away game against a fellow ‘big six’ team is hardly catastrophic to a title challenge. In fact, Mourinho might argue that Manchester United gained a positive result on Saturday. Yet in terms of the message sent to likely title rivals, Mourinho surely made a mistake.
Ronald Koeman and Wayne Rooney
Still dancing that same old dance, despite stepping on each other’s toes and bumping into other couples on the dancevfloor. The music will stop soon, unless Koeman can play with a striker who is prepared to stay in the final third and play the centre-forward role rather than trudging around the centre circle haranguing teammates and the referee.
If Everton’s problems will only be addressed when Koeman treats Rooney like any other player rather than a VIP who can play his own game whatever the team might need from him, initial signs don’t look good.
“Taking penalties is not the most difficult job but at this moment yes, because it’s totally different, it’s 1-0 down in a difficult situation and the team needs points,” Koeman said after the game. “If you keep your calmness in these types of situations that is experience and world class.
“I’m really proud. We deserved something. We started well and controlled the game. I think we showed belief until the last second. I take several positives out of today. The aggression and commitment of the players.”
Having watched every second of that miserable Everton performance, I’m going to go ahead and assume Koeman is taking the p*ss. He sounds an awful lot like Roberto Martinez…
Mourinho’s big away game ambitions
0-3 vs Manchester City: Shots on target – 3
0-0 vs Tottenham: Shots on target – 1
At Manchester United:
0-0 vs Liverpool: Shots on target – 1
0-4 vs Chelsea: Shots on target – 5
0-0 vs Manchester City: Shots on target – 1
0-2 vs Arsenal: Shots on target – 4
1-2 vs Tottenham: Shots on target – 2
0-0 vs Liverpool: Shots on target – 1
Mourinho’s record in the biggest away league games since winning the title with Chelsea is appalling. His teams have scored one goal in eight matches, and had a total of 18 shots on target in those eight games.
If Mourinho’s tactic of playing for a draw and containment is intended to frustrate the opposition, it’s barely worked in the last two years. Given the standard of squads Mourinho has enjoyed at Chelsea and Manchester United, four points from eight games is an embarrassment.
More yellow cards than goals in the Premier League since the beginning of last season, and a liability for West Ham this season. Slaven Bilic’s misguided faith in a striker whose decision-making and movement make him unfit for purpose may be his eventual undoing.
If the muscles problems don’t get you, the dimness to elbow players might. And some people want him to go to Russia…
Manchester United’s best outfield player in 2016/17 has fallen spectacularly from grace. Before Saturday, the argument was that Herrera was simply being kept for the right occasion, a match that required his energy and hassling presence. Yet he would not have been selected against Liverpool had Paul Pogba or Marouane Fellaini been fit.
We saw why. Herrera might have made nine tackles, comfortably the highest in the game, but he played without positional discipline and too quickly chose to commit himself to the tackle rather than playing the percentage call. He was fortunate that Nemanja Matic was mopping up behind.
Perhaps Herrera was desperate to impress and so keen to be involved in as many phases of play as possible, but he should know by now that Mourinho is not a manager to be swayed by such statistics. Mourinho values circumspection and calm over rash and wasted energy.
Huddersfield without Aaron Mooy
Mooy amongst Huddersfield’s players vs Swansea:
Possession gained – 4th=
Touches – 4th
Passes – 3rd
Passes in opposition half – 1st
Crosses – 2nd
He came on at half-time, for goodness sake.
Perhaps it’s an issue of short-term memory loss, but I can’t remember the last time he dominated a game against half-decent opposition. Juan Mata can consider himself unfortunate if he is not back in the team soon.
We got our answer. No start against Manchester City. No start against Burnley. No start against Leicester. No start against Newcastle. No start against Manchester United. Liverpool paid £35m for a back-up midfielder who was available on a free transfer ten months later while the defence was crying out for investment. It might be one of the worst decisions of the season.
Another failure to beat a non-elite team at home. Given Southampton’s record against the best in the division, it’s time to get a little afraid.
Daniel Storey – Want to own a lovely book and give £10 to a lovelier charity? We’d appreciate the support.