Manchester City and Aleksandar Kolarov top the winners, but Pedro’s seamless transition also features highly. Not good for Ander Herrera, Ellis Short, or Slaven Bilic…
A third consecutive victory. A third consecutive clean sheet. A third consecutive time this column has been further convinced that Manchester City will be the ones to catch this season. It’s also nine in a row in the league for City, equalling a club record set in 1912.
The important point to make on City’s improvement is that Raheem Sterling is the only new arrival from last season currently part of the first team. Their summer signing provided his first assist of the new season at Goodison but, him aside, this is simply a case of every player performing at a higher level. Eliaquim Mangala, Bacary Sagna, Fernandinho, Yaya Toure, Aleksandar Kolarov, Vincent Kompany – all are generating applause to replace the angst of six months ago. That produces an undeniable sense of sustainability to City’s form; this is not just the temporary lift that new signings often deliver..
City’s next five home games are against Watford, West Ham, Newcastle, Bournemouth and Norwich, and they’ve scored five goals away from home without conceding. Add Nicolas Otamendi, Fabian Delph and potentially Kevin de Bruyne and you have a nigh-on perfect recipe. Things are already looking ominous for the chasing pack.
There still remains the suspicion that Kolarov could slip back to the frustrating inconsistency that has tainted the edges of his Manchester City career, but for now those fears must be placed to one side. Kolarov has scored a goal, created seven chances (more than Gylfi Sigurdsson and Cesc Fabregas, amongst many others), had four shots (no defender has more) and been part of a defence which is yet to concede its first goal. With David Silva and Raheem Sterling drifting inside, he has been charged with being City’s entire left side. He’s embracing such responsibility and attacking licence.
At his worst, Kolarov looks like a jack of all trades, but so far, he’s looked like the master of many. The Premier League season is still in its embryonic stage, but City’s left-back/left winger has been its best player so far (sorry Riyad Mahrez).
Matt Stead wrote here on Pedro’s Premier League debut, but never let it be said that I don’t offer my two cents. As my favourite F365 comment of all time once went: ‘Daniel Storey? Daniel Borey more like.’
The impressiveness in Pedro’s performance lay not in that he was spectacular, but that his transition from Barcelona to Chelsea, Spain to England and sunshine to teeming rain was so seamless. I watched the game on a smallish screen in a pub, and at times it was difficult to tell the difference between Pedro and Eden Hazard as he picked the ball up from deep and ran past defenders; that is the most emphatic of compliments. Close control, pass-and-move and creativity in tight situations are the nutrients on which his Barcelona diet was founded.
The obvious retort to any praise for Pedro is the “knee-jerk” argument, the newly-born younger sibling of the “lazy journalism” accusation fired in my (and many others like me) direction. Yet it would be far more foolish not to praise the Spaniard. The established norm is for foreign recruits to watch from the sidelines for the first fortnight, taking in the footballing culture and building up an understanding with team-mates in training. Pedro has bypassed that stage, and yet still performed at least as well as any other Chelsea player.
‘But Angel Di Maria started brightly and faded’, I hear you say. Indeed so, but – and unlike Di Maria – Pedro 1) has arrived at his first-choice club, and 2) is not solely responsible as the outlet for pace and creativity in tandem. Watching him dovetail with Hazard could become a deeply pleasing pastime this season.
His manager was in accordance with that opinion. “He wasn’t quite Maradona but he was close,” Jose Mourinho told Chelsea TV. “He’s a very good player. There is always a question mark because of how many top players come to England and don’t perform immediately. We have examples in our club.” Juan Cuadrado, absent at the Hawthorns, should shower in lukewarm water to treat such an obvious burn.
Finally, Pedro also offered something in addition to Hazard. Last season, the Belgian attempted just 57 crosses from open play in the league across his 3,372 minutes, effectively one for every hour spent on the pitch. Hazard instead prefers to dribble and pass than cross, even with the physical presence of Diego Costa in the box.
In contrast, Pedro attempted six crosses to Hazard’s one during his 84 minutes, more than Hazard in any league game last season. It should come as no surprise that Costa therefore had four shots against West Brom, double his total in the two other league games combined. Chelsea’s attack, flat against Swansea and Manchester City, suddenly has a third dimension.
In short conclusion (he says after 500 words), Pedro at Chelsea just makes an awful lot of sense. Will he be the Player of the Year? Who knows. Will he be vital in Chelsea’s season? Almost certainly. Would he have improved Manchester United in the final third? Hell yes.
Undoubtedly a loser for his missed penalty (and therefore missed hat-trick), but a winner for equalling his league goals total from last season in an hour against Chelsea.
Interestingly (to me anyway), that was also the first time in his career that Morrison has scored more than once in a game. His header for West Brom’s second was a thing of pure beauty.
With Chelsea (a), Manchester City (h) and Tottenham (a) in their next three league fixtures, it was vital that Alan Pardew’s side took maximum points from their two more gentle early games. A late winner from new boy Bakary Sako only adds to the suspicion that Palace have bagged the free transfer of the summer.
“Until I’m selected for my first game in the Premier League I don’t think it will really hit home,” said Wilson when I interviewed him in July. One suspects that Saturday evening also contained a fair amount of self-pinching. The striker seemed as down-to-earth and humble as it is possible for a Premier League footballer to be, but continue like this and his star will only rise higher.
Sixteen months ago, Wilson played for Coventry City in League One, his goals ensuring his boyhood club survived in the third tier. It is not long since he was loaned to Tamworth and Kettering in non-league, and yet he has now become the first Premier League hat-trick scorer of the season. Diego Costa, Luis Suarez, Robin van Persie, Edin Dzeko (and Wayne Rooney on the same day) and Didier Drogba are the previous names to enjoy that particular honour. Pleasant company indeed.
Last season, Bournemouth’s league matches contained 143 goals, a total bettered by only two clubs in the country (Fulham and MK Dons). After two 1-0 defeats, on Saturday we saw why.
Watford were expected to be this season’s Premier League entertainers, but Bournemouth’s optimism in attack combined with a certain naivety (and lack of top-flight experience) in defence promises to make them a tremendous watch.
More importantly, three points on the board. Six years ago to the day, Bournemouth were losing 2-0 at Northampton Town in League Two. On both occasions they were led out by Eddie Howe.
Salomon Rondon and Yaya Toure
Two assists in two Sunday games that made you put down your roast dinner and applaud. The vision of some Premier League players is an absolute joy to behold.
(That’s a long roast dinner given that they came two hours apart, but don’t spoil my imagery).
Coloccini’s form has declined sharply over the last two years, to the extent that Newcastle supporters met the news that he could join Chunky Pardew at Selhurst Park with a shrug of shoulders and a disparaging “I’m not too fussed, like”.
For his part, Steve McClaren was adamant that his central defender would be staying, confirming too that Coloccini would be his captain.
“Coloccini has always been the captain, for seven years, our most experienced player,” McClaren said. “What’s disrupted Colo has been the speculation about Crystal Palace. I just said let’s work with each other for two or three weeks to see if I like you and you like me and we get on. His choice is Newcastle United and he wants to stay here. I am absolutely delighted with that.”
On Saturday against Manchester United, Coloccini was magnificent. United’s sluggish play through midfield allowed him to stay deep and effectively make it a game of attack vs defence, and the Argentinean is at his best when in that mentality.
“I think you saw out there today Coloccini was the leader,” was McClaren’s simple post-match message. It is on such points that a new manager earns the respect of supporters.
Jack Butland and Costel Pantilimon
A total of 14 saves between them to rescue 1-1 draws for their sides. The likes of Xherdan Shaqiri and Jermain Defoe may take the headlines, but it was the Stoke and Sunderland goalkeepers who were their sides’ best players.
Louis van Gaal and the striker issue
“I have a lot of options. I have chosen Chicharito, because he is another type from Rooney, and we have also Fellaini, who is another type, then I have Wilson and Januzaj, so I don’t think we need a striker” – Louis van Gaal.
Now just you look here, Louis. We watched you against Newcastle, remember.
Wayne Rooney is struggling, of that there is no doubt. He has now played 665 career matches having started at 16, and looks half-broken. Rooney seems incapable of leading Manchester United in one competition, let alone four.
Javier Hernandez has started more international matches (28) than domestic league games (23) since May 2012.
James Wilson has scored four career goals, and has played 17 competitive minutes for United since February 11.
Marouane Fellaini is a midfielder.
Of course it may merely be an elaborate ruse to distract from Manchester United’s impending purchase of the striker they so desperately need, but I’m cynical on that front. The talk of Neymar, Thomas Muller and co. remains nothing more than fanciful PR bluster. Meanwhile, Pedro might not have been ideal, but would have represented significant improvement. Those still clinging to claims that United didn’t want him are being one-eyed in the extreme.
This United season was meant to comprise of a serious title bid and an extended Champions League campaign. The next week will be mightily important in realising those not far-fetched ambitions.
After United’s 0-0 draw with Newcastle, I wondered here how on earth Van Gaal could leave Herrera on the bench whilst bringing off Matteo Darmian for Antonio Valencia. I’m still wondering; it was a substitution that offered a grim reminder of the David Moyes era.
Herrera was Manchester United’s best player in the second half of last season. He is able to dictate the tempo at a quicker rate than Michael Carrick, Morgan Schneiderlin and Bastian Schweinsteiger and from a more advanced position, thus making him unique amongst United’s central midfield options.
After the game against Aston Villa, Van Gaal explained why Herrera comes off the bench rather than starts matches. Even if you agree with that summation (and I don’t), it doesn’t explain his complete lack of action against Newcastle with the game needing a spark.
Herrera has played 1,920 minutes out of a possible 3,690 in the league under Van Gaal, yet many supporters consider him their club’s best option in midfield. It’s not a great look for a £29m signing.
As I wrote in my piece on the game, Depay lost possession 35 times on Saturday lunchtime, the most in the Premier League this season. It’s the statistic everybody is talking about.
On Wednesday, the morning Mailbox hailed Depay as the perfect blend of Cantona, Beckham, Ronaldo, Jesus Christ, Mother Theresa and James Dean. This was the necessary reminder that he is a young kid in a new league in a new country. Patience, please.
Sam Allardyce picked an opportune weekend to be on our screens every time we turned on the television. Bilic might be the new gunslinger in town, but he’s been looking suspiciously at his pistol before clumsily shooting himself in the foot after finally finding the trigger. That victory at the Emirates suddenly feels a long time ago.
For a former defender, Bilic seems to be struggling to organise a defence. The Croatian blamed his players’ incompetence and inability to do the basics right, but the buck stops with the man in charge. Conceding six goals to Bournemouth and Leicester is not a good look. On Saturday, the West Ham defending sat somewhere between laughable and non-existent.
Worryingly, what was considered a strength has become a weakness. In his three seasons with Lokomotiv Moscow and Besiktas, Bilic’s teams conceded 101 goals in 98 league games; it was scoring goals that proved the bigger issue. Outside the top four last season, only two teams conceded fewer goals than West Ham. Again, that feels like a distant memory.
One pattern to Bilic’s management that has continued is an unfavourable disciplinary record. Last season Besiktas received ten red cards, more than any other team in the Turkish Super Lig, impressive for a club that finished third. Since August 2013, Bilic teams have received 25 red cards in domestic league and Europa League games only, at a rate of one per month. That indicates a damaging underlying issue.
Much work to do, and many at the Boleyn Ground are already beginning to wonder. Rafa Benitez in by January?
The first of three Chelsea players included as losers despite their side’s victory at the Hawthorns. Any hope that Ivanovic could respond positively to his stay of first-team execution soon dissipated as the Serbian again fell woefully short of standard.
All that you want from a full-back is lacking. Ivanovic’s travails have understandably curbed much of his attacking enthusiasm (his average touch position was virtually level with Cesar Azpilicueta’s – a marked change from last season), but it does not seem to have instigated an improvement in defence. Ivanovic is playing in ‘frown mode’, unable to proactively anticipate what a winger will do next, whilst lack of speed makes reaction an inadequate option.
Yet again, West Brom’s first goal came from a Chris Brunt cross with Chelsea’s right-back on the floor with both feet in the air, while the second also came from a left-wing delivery. Ivanovic has become more accommodating of crosses than a Tic Tac Toe board.
‘Sometimes it’s about knowing when to let go’, this very column wrote last week. Sharpish, would be the advice. Alan Pardew is salivating thinking about Bolasie vs Ivanovic next weekend, and that’s not an image anyone wants.
Subbed off at half-time a week ago after being given the runaround by Sergio Aguero, Chelsea’s captain went one step worse by being sent off for pulling back Salomon Rondon.
It was a soft dismissal, but indicative of a central defender enduring a rough start to the season. Kurt Zouma and Gary Cahill can use the home fixture against Crystal Palace as a 90-minute audition to keep their places in the side.
It’s now six Premier League matches without a clean sheet for Chelsea. Jose Mourinho has never gone seven when in charge of Chelsea.
It was a headbutt. I saw it. You saw it. Crucially, Mark Clattenburg did not see it.
If you thought Mourinho was in a grumpy mood before, just wait until that letter from the Football Association lands on the mat whilst he’s trying to enjoy his toast and marmalade.
Name: Chris Brunt.
Specialist subject: Hitting penalties really hard.
When someone else is picked to attempt your forte and promptly fails, you’re forgiven for asking why you’re there at all.
The Premier League entertainers, they said. Whatever happens, it’ll be interesting, they (and I) said.
We should be made to watch Watford’s home game against Southampton on loop as punishment.
“We are all working with one target – to make this club a better club,” said Dick Advocaat on Saturday morning. “But knowing what has happened in the past and knowing what kind of salaries average, and even below average, players have had here, a lot of people have made a lot of mistakes and the president has to pay that. I think it is a little bit unfair to only blame Mr Short. People are writing that we discussed figures, no – we discussed about how we improve the team.”
Sunderland’s owner and chairman will have been pleased to hear the backing of his manager. When you have to use your programme notes to defend yourself from the criticism of an ex-player, they’ve already won.
Since Short arrived at the Stadium of Light, the club have bought 13 players for between £5m and £15m at a cost of £112m. Those players have so far raised only £24m in re-sales. If Short is guilty of anything it is putting faith in poor managers, not being stingy with his transfer budgets.
Unfortunately, that backing from Advocaat lasted less than eight hours, after a fortunate home draw with Swansea.
“If we don’t get players in it will be the same as last year,” the manager said, delivering a thinly-veiled jab to Sunderland’s owner. “So we definitely need new players. We need two or three to get competition in the squad during games but also in training.” Cheers, Dick.
Short faces a huge week. Fail to get any more signings over the line and Sunderland’s owner risks the loss of his manager, Sunderland’s Premier League status and a mutiny from frustrated supporters. Good luck fella.
Managers of wantaway players
‘The Manchester United boss does not believe the Real Madrid target is in the right frame of mind to play in the Premier League opener at Old Trafford’ – The Sun on David de Gea, August 8.
‘Nicolas Otamendi asked Valencia to be excused from training as he is “not in the right frame of mind”, according to reports in Spain’ – Independent, August 15.
“Over the last 24 hours, the physios and I spoke to Michail on this matter and we made a decision that he wasn’t in the right frame of mind to play football” – Nottingham Forest manager Dougie Freedman on Michail Antonio, August 18.
‘Despite the interest, Juventus felt that Pogba was in the right frame of mind to play in their opening match of the season against Udinese’ – Independent, August 23.
‘It is understood Pulis decided Berahino was not in the right frame of mind to play the match’ – Daily Mail, August 23.
It is a very modern footballing occurrence. Whereas once managers would have to consider only injuries and suspensions, the ‘right frame of mind’ is truly something to contemplate. As your aged relatives will be only too happy to tell you, it wouldn’t have happened in their day.
The comments from Pulis after the defeat to Chelsea reflect those of Arsene Wenger (and many others besides): “Why are we talking about Saido? Because of the transfer window. It’s absolutely ridiculous. For it to be going through the start of the season is ridiculous. We should be talking about this game.
“This wouldn’t be an issue, a problem. It happens where it can be disruptive, and it has been disruptive. It’s the transfer window. Why can’t we have a system where it finishes before the start of the season?”
Wenger is concerned with the potential for players appearing against his side three times and against other clubs only twice, whilst Pulis bemoans the inability to plan for the new season with such uncertainty hanging over his most valuable asset. It’s a valid point from both angles.
The transfer window has become a vital part of football’s shift to a 24-hour show. BT Sport commentator Darren Fletcher pushed his tongue deep into his cheek ahead of Manchester United vs Newcastle United by apologising for football getting in the way of the transfer rumours, but good satire has its foundation in reality.
It’s time to stop the madness. Even with Euro 2016 next summer, if we opened the transfer window on the last day of the season clubs would have three weeks before the tournament and almost five weeks afterwards to complete their deals. That should be plenty.
When the football season starts the primary focus should be on the pitch. It’s time for football to claw something back from the yellow ticker soap opera.