Premier League winners and losers

Date published: Tuesday 29th August 2017 1:25

Winners

Jurgen Klopp and the early onslaught
You can go here to read Matt Stead’s 16 Conclusions from Liverpool’s emphatic win over Arsenal, but Klopp can still take his place atop the winners list. On the morning of the game, Roberto Firmino insisted that this would be an open Premier League title race and thus there was no reason why Liverpool couldn’t stake a claim. The same afternoon, their actions spoke louder than his words.

Pulverising Arsenal is no guarantee of a title challenge, of course. Crystal Palace, West Brom and Liverpool themselves all forced Arsene Wenger into his now customary pose of body slouched forward, head in hands last season. Wenger is lucky that the statue outside the Emirates is already in place capturing him in a more positive moment, for this is becoming the new Arsenal norm.

Yet there were aspects to Liverpool’s performance that mock the theory that Klopp’s football is not sustainable. If the accusation is that Liverpool will tire in the latter quarter of matches, winning games in the first 30 minutes is the perfect answer. That is precisely what they did against Arsenal.

In the early winner piece on Sadio Mane, I made a brief reference to Liverpool’s front three of Raheem Sterling, Daniel Sturridge and Luis Suarez under Brendan Rodgers, and the hallmark of that 2013/14 Liverpool season was an early assault in big games. Two in the first 25 minutes against Manchester City, two in the first 25 minutes against Tottenham, four in the first 20 minutes against Arsenal, three in the first 35 minutes against Everton. Woe betide those who showed up late to Anfield.

In total, Liverpool scored 37 times in the first 30 minutes of league games that season, eight more than the team ranked second on that list and 19 ahead of the team in third. Rodgers’ team won games early through high-intensity, attacking football, particularly against their peers and regularly at home.

With an even higher intensity, that too is Klopp’s big-game plan for Liverpool. Last season’s goal split between first and second half was exactly 50:50, and they scored only 12 times in the first 20 minutes of league matches, but look at which games were included in those 12 goals: Champions Leicester (h), Arsenal (h), Everton (h), Tottenham (h), Manchester City (h), Chelsea (a).

Against Arsenal, they carried out Klopp’s plan to perfection. The midfield swamped around the player in possession, forcing mistakes from those low on confidence. As soon as the turnover was completed, full-backs streamed forward to overlap and the three forward players ran directly at central defenders when they had the ball. Two of the four goals came directly from turnovers of possession in the Arsenal half.

During Dortmund’s first league title under Klopp in 2010/11, they won away at Bayern Munich for the first time in 20 years. In that 3-1 victory, Dortmund blew Bayern away in the first 20 minutes with a goal following a turnover and then a breathtaking counter-attack. German football writer Rafa Honigstein called it ‘a thrilling, immensely pleasurable and satisfying rite of passage’, while Franz Beckenbauer described Dortmund’s high-energy defensive work and counter-attacking speed as “swarming out like bees”.

That is not to say that Liverpool will win or even challenge for the title this season; their squad surely contains too many defensive flaws for that. Yet in periods of big matches, we can again see that Dortmund gelb-print shining through. Heavy metal has never been so enjoyable to hear.

 

Sadio Mane
Our early winner. More valuable to Liverpool than Philippe Coutinho. Few were thinking of the Brazilian as Liverpool pumped Arsenal.

 

Antonio Conte
As dominant and comfortable a home performance as you are likely to see. Chelsea were hardly rampant in the same style as Liverpool, but were the steamroller to Klopp’s supercar. Everton failed to have a single shot on target; Chelsea could have scored five or six had they cared to push down on the accelerator pedal and the second half became a gentle procession in the sun. As I wrote after the game, this had all the hallmarks of a Chelsea home win in 2016/17. We know how that season ended.

 

Newcastle United
There is something about beating another side in trouble that gives the victors an added layer of enjoyment. If Newcastle’s 3-0 victory piled the misery on West Ham and Slaven Bilic, it blew away the grey storm clouds that had formed over St. James’ Park. As Louise Taylor joked in the Guardian (and our own Peter G, too), the only downside is that Mike Ashley has probably concluded that he doesn’t need to spend after all.

The result and the performance, albeit against a desperately poor opponent, were welcome, but most instructive were the words of Rafael Benitez after the game: “It’s the fans, the city, the stature of the club, when everything is right, you can enjoy it – and today everything was right. The way we won, the performance of the team and the connection between fans and players was, for me, ideal.”

If that doesn’t have Newcastle supporters hugging each other with misty eyes, nothing will. In the battle for Premier League consolidation, Benitez is not just on the side of the fans; he is their leader. When he is happy, so are they. When they are happy, so too generally is the club as a whole.

 

Manchester United’s late goals
While Liverpool do their best to win games in the first quarter, Manchester United do the opposite. If the starting XI doesn’t get you, those coming off the bench will.

“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,” said Jose Mourinho in January after a spate of late United goals.

If Mourinho is right that added belief leads to more late goals, that is aided by an increased strength in depth that allows Anthony Martial, Marcus Rashford and Jesse Lingard to be introduced as late substitutes with the pace to hurt tired defenders.

Six of United’s ten league goals have come in the last ten minutes of their three matches, and substitutes have now accounted for four goals and two assists. Paul Pogba, Romelu Lukaku and Henrikh Mkhitaryan rough them up; the speedsters (and Marouane Fellaini) deliver the knockout blow.

 

Henrikh Mkhitaryan
Last season, Mkhitaryan registered one Premier League assist and created 29 chances. In three games this season, he has five assists and has created 16 chances. A player reborn, just as we hoped.

 

Tammy Abraham
Eight English players scored in the Premier League this weekend, but only two have yet to be capped. Keep starting and winning games for Swansea, and Abraham’s chance will come before Charlie Daniels’.

 

Peter Crouch
The year is 2028, and Peter Crouch is still celebrating goals in the Premier League and is still Stoke’s top scorer despite starting four league matches all season. Crouch’s first Premier League goal came on April 2, 2002.

 

Burnley
Four points from three games against Chelsea (a), West Brom (h) and Tottenham (a). Burnley are now only three points away from their entire away total in 2016/17.

 

Chris Wood
A second Premier League goal, almost eight years after he made his debut. After nine clubs in three divisions in the meantime, Wood will hope to have found his permanent top-flight home.

 

Huddersfield
No goals conceded in their first three Premier League games, level only with Manchester United. Outrageous.

 

Losers

Arsene Wenger

The performance
The temptation is to become accustomed to such shambolic big-game performances from Arsenal, and therefore less angry. Predictability is not something that typically provokes the strongest emotions.

Yet it is exactly this repetition that is most galling. Almost six years to the day of their 8-2 humbling at Old Trafford, Arsenal were just as rotten in a 4-0 defeat at Anfield. Nothing has changed and nothing will change, because nothing ever changes. Martin Keown called it a “crisis” and Thierry Henry called in “unwatchable”; even Wenger’s disciples are sick of the dirge.

The same defensive incompetence was on show, as were the same weak-willed midfield displays and the same attack that barely even got a chance to make its mark and failed to impress in the brief moments of promise that did come its way. This was a greatest hits of Arsenal’s problems of the last six years in one 90-minute horror film. That it comes so soon after Wenger preached the benefits of continuity and his new contract should be embarrassing for all involved.

Arsenal’s away league record against Tottenham, Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester City and Manchester United over the last five years reads as follows: Played 24, Won 2, Drawn 6, Lost 16. Neither of those two wins have come in the last two-and-a-half years, and Arsenal have conceded three or more goals in half of their last ten away games against those five opponents. A wretched record gets worse, not better.

The team selection
After the defeat at Stoke nine days ago, Wenger spoke of a defensive incompetence that allowed the home side to score their winner. Virtually every Arsenal supporter pointed out that a system in which a right wing-back was at left wing-back, a midfielder was at right wing-back and two left-backs were in central defence might have contributed to that.

One of Wenger’s two defensive changes from that Stoke selection was to change the only natural central defender – and therefore only player in their natural position – for another. Shkodran Mustafi dropped out for Rob Holding, who was picked in exactly the same role that had caused him such trouble against Leicester City. Funnily enough, the same problems remained.

One of the most pleasing aspects of Antonio Conte’s management at Chelsea is a flexibility in shape and style to match his opponents. That is not an admission of weakness but demonstration of strength, an acceptance that different plans will work for different tests. Wenger is the opposite.

To take a side to Anfield and set up with two wing-backs who are invited to push forward, thus leaving Mane, Mohamed Salah and Roberto Firmino one-on-one with their opposite numbers, was suicide. Mane and Salah revelled in the wide spaces, dragging Nacho Monreal and Holding into places they didn’t want to be. Again, embarrassing.

Don’t forget the attacking selection too. As Matt Stead discussed in 16 Conclusions, Wenger actually decided to leave his new striker and record purchase on the bench for his team’s toughest assignment of the season so far. It’s as if Lacazette is not yet browbeaten enough to fit in at Arsenal, and so must have his belief punctured. Which brings us to…

The leavers
It’s one thing talking up the benefits of players wanting to leave the club and thus having a final season to push on and impress new suitors, but it is just another example of Wenger’s ‘head in the clouds’ mentality. The alternative take is that having key individuals wanting out causes general de-motivation among other players in the squad.

Liverpool have chosen to omit their wantaway player despite insisting he will stay for the general happiness of the whole, and it showed. Wenger picked two key players (Alexis Sanchez and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain) who may still leave and another (Mesut Ozil) who quite obviously wants to but hasn’t attracted the offers he would like, and that showed too.

The selection of Oxlade-Chamberlain is most extraordinary, his presence causing the entire defence to be imbalanced for the sake of persuading a squad player not to join a rival. Instead, Arsene, why not ask why these players want to leave at all? Which segues nicely into…

The coaching
On commentary, an apoplectic Gary Neville remarked that Arsenal should “stick them all up on the transfer list. There aren’t many of them that would get a better club than where they are at”.

Neville’s anger was appropriate, but he is overlooking the impact of the coaching at Arsenal. These are not bad players, but good players being coached appallingly. That is the only explanation for a succession of teams who have failed to perform at a level greater than the sum of their parts. After Wenger signed his own two-year contract, he gave out similar deals to his coaching staff. For all the talk of changes in process at the club and the arrival of a director of football, the only real change was the arrival of Jens Lehmann.

The same is true of Neville’s other bugbear: the lack of obvious fight from Arsenal’s players. This is not fight as a synonym for aggression, but the determination to improve as players, and that is where Arsenal are most lacking. Ozil and Petr Cech may have posted defiant social media messages after the match, but that is a show of PR, not fortitude.

Yet again, this is a top-down problem. How can you expect players to pull together in times of crisis when their manager is rewarded for stagnancy? How can you expect players to be highly motivated when their club preaches the message that treading water is acceptable? This is the direct result of having players who don’t want to be there managed by a coach who shouldn’t be. Which takes us, finally, to…

 

Arsenal’s hierarchy
They allowed this. They facilitated this decline. They invited this – and other – sh*tshows upon themselves. A club can only move forward if it is given a stable platform for progress. Arsenal’s hierarchy confused misplaced loyalty for that stable platform.

They rewarded failure, or worse still allowed a manager to reward himself for failure. They fed lines to the media about transfer budgets and warchests in a bid to shift season tickets, safe in the knowledge that it would never happen. They sat back when only one or two players were brought in and suddenly the benefits of “cohesion” were pledged. They allowed one man to be virtually omnipotent, and thus ensured that the entire club would be a mirror image of that man, for better and now for much worse.

Wenger is a huge part of the problem, but his addiction to the club stops him walking away. This is on those who allowed the situation to fester and thus rot. If everyone else could see it coming, so should they.

 

Frank de Boer and Steve Parish
The news filtered through on Sunday afternoon that Crystal Palace were planning talks with De Boer after a miserable start to the Premier League season in which they have failed to take a single point or score a single goal. De Boer is not likely to be sacked, but the club have questions about his inability to get anything out of his squad.

While De Boer is hardly blameless, chairman Steve Parish might want to look in the mirror as well as at his new manager. At Ajax, De Boer forged a reputation as a coach who wished to follow the traditions of that club with passing football and players capable of swapping roles. The Dutchman has hardly made that intention a secret, speaking of “recreating Ajax” at Selhurst Park at his unveiling while Parish excitedly ushered in a new era at the club.

Altering Palace’s style of play from Sam Allardyce’s brand of pragmatism would be a difficult task even with a smattering of new signings already educated in De Boer’s philosophy, but Parish has sold his manager up the river. Jairo Riedewald is the only new arrival for a transfer fee at Selhurst Park this summer. One defender is unlikely to prompt a transformation to Totaalvoetbal.

Perhaps De Boer was the wrong appointment at the wrong time, but having surprisingly managed to tempt the Dutchman to Selhurst, why on earth would you leave him high and dry by failing to make any movement in the transfer market? Doing so has only made Palace’s Premier League status uncertain yet again.

 

Slaven Bilic, using up the sympathy
Co-owners whose misguided social media declarations speak louder than their actions. Transfer activity that constitutes throwing enough money at Premier League players they have heard of to make some stick. A mismanaged stadium move and a new home that has forced the club to play their first four games away from home. Their best player sold in January and replaced by another who has now been loaned out to the Championship. At some point West Ham’s co-owners might start asking why no managers have improved the club sustainably under their watch, but for now it is easier to just sack another manager and replace him with someone else they can talk up on Twitter.

There are plenty of reasons to be sympathetic towards Bilic, and yet he has still used up all the goodwill generated by that list above. The Croatian looks incapable of organising a defence – bizarre given his own playing career – and West Ham hardly look much better going forward. Javier Hernandez must wonder what he has got himself into.

It is not certain that Bilic will last the international break, but West Ham’s next game is at home to Huddersfield, live on Sky Sports on a Monday night. Lose that, and Bilic’s time will be up.

 

The treatment of away supporters
I can see why players are booked for celebrating with supporters, I really can. This is a health and safety issue to stop swathes of people rushing to the front of a stand and causing a crush, and there is no doubt that the chance of injury is increased by players embracing fans. It might seem slightly joyless to police such incidents, particularly when it leads to a sending-off, but I understand the principle.

Yet there was another issue at play on Saturday, the image of Sergio Aguero trying to assist a supporter who had spilled onto the side of the pitch in celebration. His arms were being pulled behind his back by two stewards, and his face pushed into the turf. One steward initially accused Aguero of striking him, before the recorded footage became available and the claim was sheepishly withdrawn.

The aim of stewarding is to ensure the safety of supporters, so how in that incident is it useful to aggressively manhandle that fan? It stems from a culture whereby supporters, particularly away from home, are treated as criminals rather than loyal, paying customers. Too often stewards seem to look for trouble and even engineer it through their heavy-handed policing, treating fans like animals in a cage whose wild instincts must be tamed. That’s a ludicrous strategy.

There is always a minority that will spoil it for the majority, but the role of an effective steward – alongside the police – should be to identify and monitor genuine troublemakers rather than those supporters who have travelled hundreds of miles in the hope of a last-minute winner. Blurring the two only leads to ill feeling on both sides.

 

Brighton
A point, but still no goals despite playing for 70 minutes against ten men. Six shots on target in three matches, and only one from a striker, tells you all you need to know. Chris Hughton has to sign a forward this week or Brighton are in serious trouble. They might well be regardless.

 

Miguel Britos
Almost made it onto the winners list for the cheek in arguing against his red card. What a bloody idiot.

 

Harry Kane
Now up to 24 shots this season without a goal, and still without a Premier League goal in August. If only Mauricio Pochettino had a decent striker to ease Kane’s workload and relieve the pressure…

 

Tottenham
Tell you what’s more powerful than the ‘Wembley curse’: the limitations placed upon a club’s reasonable ambition by leaving their business until the last days of the transfer window. In the last three seasons, Tottenham have played ten games in August, dropping 18 points. It’s almost like it would be worth getting the squad Pochettino wants together before the campaign is three weeks old.

 

Sergio Aguero
Our early loser. One of the best strikers in the league has gone back to being second-choice for his club. Pep Guardiola has a band of shiny attacking midfielders and a new-ish Brazilian striker. Having given two forwards a go, Guardiola went back to one on Saturday. Aguero will forever lose out when his manager decides upon that formation.

 

Everton
A wretched performance to take the wind out of the sails after a fine start to the season. For all the investment in attacking midfield areas, Everton need someone to score the goals on the days when Wayne Rooney is running around like he has a sack of potatoes tied around his middle.

Daniel Storey – If you have enjoyed this piece, please buy a copy Portrait of an Icon here and raise money for charity. We are relying on your kindness.

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