Premier League winners and losers…

Date published: Monday 16th September 2019 7:04

Winners

Norwich City and the power of courage
There has long been a suspicion that the best way to beat Manchester City is to surprise them with the intensity of your pressing high up the pitch early in the match. So dominant are City in the vast proportion of their league matches that unnerving them and scoring first can cause them to panic at the unfamiliarity of the situation.

It is the one oddity of Pep Guardiola’s success at the club. Manchester City have come from behind to win one league game since December 2017, the final day of last season against Brighton when the league title was on the line. That shows firstly that City so rarely concede first, but that when they do they can find it oddly hard to respond. Liverpool, Wolves, Chelsea and now Norwich have all scored first against them in the league; City’s return from those four games is just one point.

But more on City later, because that advice to put them under pressure high up the pitch is several times more easier said than done and even tougher for a club like Norwich City, who have far sparser resources than their lofty opponents and were so decimated by injury problems that Daniel Farke was forced to name two goalkeepers on the bench. It takes a huge leap of faith from the players and coaches to risk being picked off by better players. Norwich had to back themselves to match City.

It also takes extraordinary discipline and planning. Manchester City’s defensive shambles was remarkable to watch, but it was inspired by having every usual passing lane shut down and blocked by Norwich attackers and midfielders so intent on carrying out the plan. In every situation, every Norwich player knew instinctively what he needed to do and how he needed to do it in harmony with his teammates. Farke made that happen.

Norwich actually beat Manchester City twice. They had the courage to press hard and got a foothold in the game, but then they defended so smartly in the final 40 minutes to retain it. Of course there was pressure put upon them by such an effervescent attack, but this was hardly soldiers defending the Alamo. There was an assurance to Norwich’s defending that was only pierced by Tim Krul’s late error.

This magnificent result will only define Norwich’s season if they progress from it. The moments enjoyed by those fevered, jumping supporters who hugged each other in celebration of what they thought could never happen will mean more if Norwich make them commonplace. But this does send a message to the rest of the Premier League, that well-drilled, disciplined and courageous teams can still humble a financial behemoth, and remind any other opponent that Norwich will not roll over and have their tummies tickled.

I wrote a piece last week on why we should laud this current crop of promoted clubs. Within it, these two paragraphs:

‘The manner in which weaker/promoted clubs approach those matches against the stronger clubs can help to define the gap between the best and the rest. Last season, Fulham and Cardiff only took three points from a possible 72 against the top six (Cardiff’s 2-0 victory at Old Trafford), and scored 14 goals in those 24 games. These were not competitive matches but tedious walks in the park.

‘Again, this season’s small sample size suggests different: Six goals in four matches by promoted clubs against last season’s top four. If Aston Villa can attack Tottenham and take the lead on the opening weekend, Norwich can have five shots on target at Anfield and Sheffield United can come from two goals down at Stamford Bridge, it sets the tone for the rest of the bottom half.’

Bloody hell I love it when a plan comes together.

 

Chelsea’s transfer ban
It isn’t hard to see how this could have played out very differently. Without a transfer ban looming, Chelsea opt for another glamorous name to replace Maurizio Sarri, who arrives with a list of potential new signings and is able to convince the club on three or four of them. Those ready-made players make minutes for Mason Mount, Tammy Abraham and Fikayo Tomori hard to come by, so they are loaned out again under the vague guise of gaining experience but actually just treading water until a permanent move comes at the right price. Any Chelsea supporter who doubts that hypothesis – look at the last decade for evidence.

Instead of harming Chelsea, their transfer ban has helped them. Forced parsimony created some patience and goodwill and created a mandate for Frank Lampard’s appointment. Even if Chelsea’s manager fails in his first season and is sacked at the end of it, thus becoming the club’s sacrificial lamb(pard), this process still has great merit. It has allowed a hard reset to take place at Stamford Bridge.

The results are startling, even if Chelsea are far from perfect. Their 11 league goals this season have all been scored by academy graduates. Before the start of this season, 16 of Chelsea’s last 424 league goals were scored by academy graduates. A revolution has taken place.

Lampard also deserves some credit here. He was advised to give Chelsea’s young players the chance to thrive, but it still takes some courage to do it. Olivier Giroud, Ross Barkley, Kurt Zouma and Pedro were all on the bench at Molineux and could easily have been preferred for a tough away assignment. The call to persevere with youth paid off spectacularly.

This is another effective argument against rampant transfer culture. Tottenham didn’t sign a player for a year and reached the European Cup final. Chelsea signed one new player, relied upon academy graduates and in doing so have injected a shot of goodwill into the entire club. In both cases there was a better middle ground (not having a deep squad and getting banned from signing players are not inherently good things), but football has gone too far beyond that middle ground amid the constant demands for more and more signings. Fans must also accept their role in this. They clamour for expensive new arrivals and act like spoilt children at every setback; some attach more weight to the transfer window than the season.

I’ve long bleated on about pathways for English youngsters, but this is why they are so important. The adage of ‘if they’re good enough, they’ll play’ is not true. Young players get lost amongst the transfer noise and the constant stream of new arrivals. At Stamford Bridge we can see what they really can do with a little faith.

 

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer
There were plenty of reasons for Leicester supporters to be optimistic heading to Old Trafford on Saturday, but the reaction of those Manchester United fans who believed that their team had lost before the match even began was pretty distasteful. Presumably they will reserve more judgement next time?

A clean sheet and three points against the supposed biggest danger to United’s top-six place, given their injury issues, was just what Solskjaer ordered. But so was being proved right in opting for experience over the enthusiasm and exuberance of youth. Had United lost with Nemanja Matic, Ashley Young and Juan Mata starting over academy graduates, the knives would have been out. Put them back in the drawer for now.

 

A fast Tottenham start in their new stadium
A list of minutes in which Tottenham had scored the first goal of the game in their new stadium, before Saturday: 55, 78, 24, 88, did not score, did not score, 3, 73, did not score. Liverpool and Manchester City have carved reputations for blowing teams away at home, but Tottenham have been wholly unable to follow that lead.

Until now. Son Heung-Min dazzled, Danny Rose and Serge Aurier surged and Christian Eriksen got back to picking locks in the way that so few can. Tottenham’s season had the cobwebs blown off it by Mauricio Pochettino’s team scoring more than twice in the first half of a match for the first time since New Year’s Day.

Seb Stafford-Bloor was there; read his piece.

 

England’s Under-21 players
Aaron Wan-Bissaka kept another clean sheet and so did Angus Gunn. Mason Mount, Fikayo Tomori and Dominic Calvert-Lewin all scored. Tammy Abraham scored a hat-trick. Of the 23 players picked in England’s Under-21 squad for this summer’s European Championship, 11 started in the Premier League this weekend and another got an assist in a 5-1 win in the Bundesliga.

 

Roberto Firmino
You can go here to read about the wonderful third wheel in Liverpool’s strikeforce. Underestimate or undervalue him at your peril.

 

Losers

Manchester City’s defensive headaches
There are not many weaknesses in the Manchester City machine, but one has long been apparent and stretches back to before Pep Guardiola’s time at the club. City have a weird habit of making mistakes and conceding goals in odd clusters against supposedly weaker clubs.

Guardiola did largely eradicate the issue last season, but City still conceded three times to Crystal Palace and twice each against Schalke, Swansea and Newcastle United. Despite their ludicrous dominance in 2017/18, they allowed West Brom, Stoke City, Bristol City, Shakhtar Donetsk and Basel to score twice against them.

It is as if City are so used to enjoying the majority of possession, territory and goalscoring that they become instantly troubled when things go awry and are undone by unfamiliarity. Early setback sets defenders off-kilter, and they then immediately look haunted and are therefore prone to mistakes.

The biggest worry for Guardiola is that the shambles of Carrow Road came so soon after Aymeric Laporte’s injury. Since the end of January, Laporte has played in 15 City matches and conceded only six goals. But without him, City are far weaker. Nicolas Otamendi has always had the potential to suffer unforgivable lapses in concentration. John Stones’ form has dropped off a medium-sized cliff over the last year.

This may well be a one-off, but it’s one too many for Guardiola. Liverpool now have a five-point lead at the top and it will take some work to claw it back. A reminder: Liverpool have dropped 13 points in 34 league games and now won 14 in a row during a run that includes victories over Tottenham, Chelsea, Arsenal and Wolves. If Guardiola might fairly reason that playing catch-up might suit City and put pressure on Liverpool, he would much prefer to be ahead.

But it also raises the question of City’s transfer business, for which Guardiola is not largely responsible. They spent the summer chasing a full-back in Joao Cancelo when Kyle Walker was a perfectly serviceable option, but saw Vincent Kompany leave without being replaced and knew the doubts surrounding Otamendi and Stones. Right now, that call looks like a mistake.

 

Unai Emery
It might seem a little odd to make far-reaching conclusions after a draw away from home, given Arsenal’s historic struggles on the road. It might also seem a little harsh to do so with so many Arsenal players missing through injury. This might well be a very different side with Hector Bellerin, Kieran Tierney, Rob Holding and Alexandre Lacazette all in it.

But then this was an afternoon that damned the Emery tenure because it distilled and encapsulated it. It’s one thing to be surprised and then beaten by adversity, but another when your downfall is self-inflicted and so entirely predictable to the watching world. We have watched this episode on repeat so many times that we can quote the lines to each other at will. The One With The Defensive Clusterf*cks.

There were bright points, as ever with Arsenal. Like a magician’s trick, the eventual collapse is made more infuriating by the initial set-up; constant dreariness would be easier to take than bright promise that is extinguished by sloppiness and stupidity. Arsenal are/were efficient going forward, but then they should be given their attacking talent. That is one of the biggest issues of Emery’s reign: Success usually comes through individual brilliance, but problems come through collective and strategic brainlessness.

What better way to prove that than by examining the two goals they conceded. The first came because Emery is so insistent on Arsenal passing out from the back despite next to no evidence it does them any long-term good and next to no evidence that they are even improving at doing it. It only invites the pressure that Arsenal are so wholly incapable of dealing with.

The second came because they bought the one high-profile central defender from an elite club who could somehow make their defence more shambolic. David Luiz is not a bad defender, but he thrives when surrounded by certainty. Arsenal’s defence has all the predictability of a clown show.

This is not just about Vicarage Road. This is about Arsenal somehow getting worse defensively, conceding shots at a cataclysmically high rate (more than any club in Europe’s top five leagues). It is about Arsenal showing all the teething problems of a new managerial cycle when Emery has now had 15 months to make improvements. It is about the lack of obvious identity in the team beyond ‘let’s hope Matteo Guendouzi makes some tackles and Lacazette or Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang do something brilliant’.

All is not lost. Emery can salvage this situation. But it needs to happen quickly and he needs to stop saying things like “we need more than a 2-0 lead to win games”. Arsenal supporters who were already unimpressed are becoming militant, while those who sat on the fence are quickly lowering themselves down one side. Four games in three competitions over two weeks, ending with a trip to Old Trafford, must bring improvement.

 

Everton, it’s happening again
Premier League clubs quickly become defined in negative ways. Tottenham are ‘Spursy’, Arsenal hold attacking promise but defensive ineptitude, Watford start the season well and end it badly, Liverpool do everything but win the title.

Everton’s thing is spending big in a summer only to finish eighth, and it’s happening again. They did it in 2017/18. They did it in 2018/19 and they did it in 2019/20. If Marco Silva doesn’t change that run he should not expect to manage this club in their new stadium. One point and five goals conceded away at Crystal Palace, Aston Villa and Bournemouth is not the way to go about it.

 

Brendan Rodgers
Really disappointing. With great hope comes expectation. Rodgers will have pleaded patience to his club and has done so to supporters, reminding them that it is a long-term project to take Leicester back into the top six. But those above Leicester have obvious flaws and have European football to contend with. Rodgers has a deep squad that blends youth with experience. They went to Old Trafford without the consideration of a midweek European fixture to face an opponent flummoxed by injuries and patchy form.

The frustration is not that Leicester lost, because that can happen. But that they barely failed to land a significant blow and were held largely at arm’s length by a Manchester United side who should cause Leicester no fear. They fell behind through defensive mistake, but had already allowed United to take a foothold in the match.

No crisis for Leicester, but still great disappointment and a firm checking of early-season optimism. This was meant to be the match where they demonstrated how far they had come. In fact, it showed just how far Leicester still have to go.

 

Wolves and a new-found defensive frailty
It took Wolves until November 3 – and their 13th match – last season to concede their 10th goal in all competitions. This season they conceded their 10th league goal in their fifth game. If there was no reason to panic before conceding five at home to Chelsea, some supporters now will.

Wolves have not stopped doing everything that made them brilliant last season. They tackle and intercept slightly less often, press with slightly less intensity and allow shots slightly more regularly. But then that’s the problem with following up a season in which everything went perfectly: fail to achieve perfection again and results will inevitably drop.

 

Some Sheffield United supporters
Judging anything based purely on Twitter replies is a fool’s game, but it was still disturbing to watch the social media reaction to Sheffield United’s home defeat to Southampton on Saturday. David McGoldrick isn’t good enough, there’s not enough creativity and the result was unacceptable. Supporters should remember where their club has come from rather than merely focusing on where they want them to go.

 

Daniel Storey

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