Mikel Arteta tops the winners but Dean Smith gets credit too, while the losers are led by Tottenham…
‘Trust the process,’ tweeted the exiled Mesut Ozil (or someone managing his account) sarcastically when Arsenal lost 5-0 to Manchester City to end August bottom of the league. There have been plenty of reasons to doubt both the process and Arteta’s ability to implement it, days to wonder if talk of the future was merely meant to distract from the present, but Sunday was not one of them.
Arsenal destroyed Tottenham; they did so playing attacking, ambitious football, rather than the sterile, overly-structured stuff they produced last autumn. Not for the first time, the inspiration came from their two youngest players, in Bukayo Saka and Emile Smith Rowe, but in a side featuring six Arteta signings and five players given new contracts under the Spaniard, this seemed his team.
Victory felt a vindication for an ethos and justification for his decisions: Granit Xhaka, a liability when sent off at City, excelled on his recall, Aaron Ramsdale, promoted above Bernd Leno, made a superb late save from Lucas Moura, and the new-look defence showed resilience and organisation. Arteta’s Arsenal are no strangers to false dawns, and their heady summer of 2020 appeared one for much of last season, but for now there is evidence that trust in Arteta might not be misplaced.
Now read 16 Conclusions from the game and meet me back here.
Smith seems a throwback to an earlier time, the unpretentious local lad who manages the club he supports, the likeable everybloke in a world populated by philosophers, evangelists and footballing greats. He did not need to be told that Aston Villa had a dismal record at Manchester United; he knew it. It was rendered all the more meaningful when just their second win in 35 visits to Old Trafford came courtesy of a manager whose family were in the crowd.
Yet Smith’s resolutely normal persona should not detract from his skill or obscure his vision. Victory was partly the product of excellent coaching and tactical nous. Reconfiguring a Grealish-less team has entailed a switch to 3-5-2 and Danny Ings and Ollie Watkins gave a counter-attacking threat, primed to run in the channels either side of the United centre-backs.
There was ambition in the way Smith encouraged his wing-backs to get forward, and he took particular heart from the chance one, Matty Cash, laid on a plate for the other, Matt Targett. There was boldness in the use of the 20-year-old Jacob Ramsey and the decision to give the teenager Cameron Archer a Premier League debut as a substitute. And there was much an old centre-back should savour in the way that Kortney Hause, only playing because Axel Tuanzebe was ineligible, helped keep Cristiano Ronaldo quieter than anyone else in his brief second spell at United. Villa had been the better team in the first half at Chelsea two weeks earlier. They were deserving winners over 90 minutes at Old Trafford.
Manchester City’s Champions League final substitutes
Go back to the biggest game in Manchester City’s history and Joao Cancelo and Rodri were particularly well-paid spectators. The Portuguese had been a revelation that season, the full-back who doubled up as a playmaker. The Spaniard had been the constant, the man with the most appearances for City. Both were unused substitutes in the Champions League final defeat to Chelsea.
Fast-forward to Saturday’s rematch and perhaps their prominence was a sign of City’s strength in depth. Cancelo was the outlet, the player who gave City superiority on their left flank; part of his impact is unintentional as his shots have led to Bernardo Silva’s winner at Leicester and now Gabriel Jesus’ decider at Stamford Bridge, but he was arguably the man of the match. Rodri was the safety net, highlighting Pep Guardiola’s error in not fielding a defensive midfielder in Porto. Perhaps he could take satisfaction in the sight of his Chelsea counterparts being substituted: first N’Golo Kante, then Jorginho, neither having had the same impact.
The goal came from a third who began on the bench in Porto, albeit less controversially. Whenever Guardiola mentions that City do not have a 25-goal-a-season player, it is a reminder that Jesus was expected to become that finisher. But he does have a track record of scoring in major matches. Saturday’s winner could rank as one of the most significant goals of the season. Guardiola’s first Premier League title owed much to an autumn winner at Stamford Bridge from Kevin de Bruyne. This might prove a result of the same magnitude.
There was a moment in injury time when Thomas Frank and Jurgen Klopp turned to each other, smiling in disbelief at the save David Raya made to spare Pontus Jansson an own goal. And given his first-half stop to thwart Diogo Jota, perhaps it was not even his finest moment of the match. Brilliantly as Brentford did to conjure a comeback against Liverpool, it would have been in vain but for brilliant goalkeeping (and, courtesy of Kristoffer Ajer, a brilliant goal-line clearance). But for them, a scoreline of 3-3 could have been still more.
They run around a lot but never score or assist. So the theory goes, anyway. But if Liverpool’s midfield trio can often seem to rein themselves in for a greater cause, hiding their creativity and reducing their productivity, the 3-3 draw at Brentford was a game with a difference. Jordan Henderson has always been a fine, underrated crosser – not in the class of Trent Alexander-Arnold or Kevin de Bruyne but far better than many acknowledge – from either the touchline or the inside-right position and his curling centre led to Diogo Jota’s equaliser. Fabinho has a habit of chipping passes over defences from the base of midfield and one led to Mohamed Salah’s 100th Premier League goal for Liverpool. Curtis Jones has an ability to seize the moment and while his thunderbolt took a deflection of Ajer and did not prove the winner, it was a way to illustrate he can add goals. It isn’t often Liverpool’s midfield trio get one goal and two assists: then again, it isn’t often the defence they normally shield so well concede three goals. Perhaps Jones could have done better for the first; maybe one of the midfield should have supported Alexander-Arnold for the third.
The division’s most exuberant Golden Boot contender continues to suggest that spending part of your career at right wing-back offers a path to become prolific. It might not be logical, but it is wonderful. Antonio averages a goal or an assist every 56 minutes this season and if that number was still lower before kick-off at Elland Road, he delivered a last-minute winner.
Such an improbable signing for Sean Dyche that perhaps he wasn’t a Sean Dyche signing at all, but the most incongruous presence in the Burnley team began well. Cornet marked his first Premier League start with a thumping volley at Leicester. It suggested he might give Burnley’s prosaic midfield a new dimension; or he could when he overcomes the hamstring injury that curtailed his participation on Saturday anyway.
Now he’s really back. Jimenez had returned in the season opener against Leicester but, after fracturing his skull and spending nine months on the sidelines, it was understandable he had looked a shadow of his former self. His first 14 shots of the campaign brought no goals. His winner at Southampton was the Jimenez of old: the power, the confidence, the resourcefulness and forcefulness, the finishing that made him arguably the best all-round No. 9 in the country in 2019-20. Given what he has been through, there should be few more popular scorers this season.
Because, really, they all feel like losers. Daniel Levy promised “free-flowing, attacking and entertaining” football when searching or Jose Mourinho’s successor and it came: just from Arsenal, not from Nuno Espirito Santo’s team. Levy appointed a manager with a reputation for passive football and slow starts. Tottenham were outrun and out of the north London derby before they woke up. But Nuno’s Wolves were often resilient and his Spurs capitulate, conceding three goals in 15 minutes to Crystal Palace, three in 41 to Chelsea and three in 23 to Arsenal.
There were losers on the pitch: Harry Kane, denied a move, still to score and often looking off the pace, his day epitomised by the moment when he lost the ball for Arsenal’s third goal. Or Dele Alli, hauled off at half-time as the notion he will be revitalised under Nuno now feels less likely. Or Japhet Tanganga, another star of the win against Manchester City who did not make it out after the break. Tottenham had a void in midfield and a poor defence, but there were also systemic weaknesses: Arsenal exploited the flaws in Nuno’s narrow 4-3-3, running riot down the flanks. This was not just a defeat: it was a failing of tactics, management, attitude, personnel and boardroom strategy.
You might say that Spurs combined apathetic and pathetic to damn Nuno.
“Cristiano is probably the one who has scored most penalties in world football,” reflected Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. He nevertheless plumped for the man with the better conversion rate. That has gone down a little after Fernandes picked out the Stretford End, blazing over in injury time when he had the chance to earn a point against Aston Villa. In a pre-Ronaldo era, an isolated error would not cost him his status. But Ronaldo has not got a record number of goals by allowing others the most presentable opportunities. It felt an ill-timed miss in more ways than one. It will be intriguing if Fernandes takes the next spot-kick.
For once, Tactics Tom got his tactics wrong. Tuchel has displayed the surest of touches in his reign at Chelsea, identifying the right personnel for the right game. Yet that habit deserted him on Saturday. Tuchel had prospered in the second half at Tottenham by going to 3-5-2 and fielding three defensively-minded midfielders. Starting that way against Manchester City stifled his own side, invited pressure and was a reason why Chelsea recorded no shots on target.
That Tuchel, who had been so decisive in making influential half-time changes in the previous three league games, delayed before taking N’Golo Kante off for Kai Havertz ranked as unusual hesitation. Chelsea had won the Champions League final in part because Havertz and Mason Mount found space between the lines; they went into a rematch with no one in those positions and if that was partly because Mount was absent, it meant Tuchel had taken away some of their threat.
Marcelo Bielsa’s defence
There are plenty of mitigating circumstances. Leeds were without their three best centre-backs (albeit possibly not in Bielsa’s pecking order) in Diego Llorente, Pascal Struijk and Robin Koch, plus their finest right-back in Luke Ayling. Their new left-back, Junior Firpo, was luckless for the deflection that brought West Ham’s equaliser, even if he had been caught out of position beforehand and has begun his Leeds career in inauspicious fashion. The teenager Charlie Cresswell played well on his Premier League debut and Bielsa’s attacking ethos means their games tend to contain more chances than the average.
And yet Leeds have lost leads in their last two games and made their worst start to a top-flight season since 1986. They have allowed the most shots in the league this season, and Illan Meslier has made the most saves. Burnley had 12 shots against them, Newcastle and Everton 17, West Ham 20, Liverpool 30. It is scarcely suggesting Bielsa should turn into Tony Pulis but Leeds have to find a way to be a little more frugal; having better personnel available would help, but it goes beyond that. Right now, the statistical markers suggest Leeds, Norwich and Newcastle’s defences are significantly worse than anyone else’s.
Ralph Hasenhuttl’s new wardrobe
Yes, he’s better dressed but Southampton are winless since their manager got a makeover. Although some may attribute their inability to score a league goal in September to the sale of Danny Ings.
Since the start of March 2020, Norwich average 2.10 points per game in the Championship and 0.00 points per game in the Premier League. One of those figures is quite impressive. The other is not.