Leeds, Howe and Zaha are thriving but Rodgers, Moyes, Gerrard and Tuchel are all losers

Matt Stead
Leeds manager Jesse Marsch celebrates

There are more winners but far bigger losers from a Premier League weekend in which Leeds and Zaha shone, but Rodgers and Chelsea failed.

 

Leeds United
The moment of realisation was almost immediate under Marcelo Bielsa. Every Leeds fan recalls that game against Stoke, the eye-opening first taste of a faster, more intense, pulsating and visceral style of football.

It has taken a little longer to arrive for Jesse Marsch, but this was every bit as enlightening, extraordinary and potentially era-defining.

“I think I was identified by the club as a good follow-up to what Marcelo has created,” Marsch said upon his appointment five months ago. “I think my style of play, my aggressiveness, the desire I have for teams to be intensive and to run and to make things difficult for the opponent fits with what has been done over the last three-and-a-half years.”

Those words have not always aligned with what Leeds have produced on the pitch under the American but it is a dictionary definition of what they did to Chelsea. The Blues were caught in the headlights at Elland Road.

Marsch once spoke of mastering “the important and simple things right away” before “building complexity as we continue to move forward”. He separated his task into two distinct parts: avoid relegation and push on from there. While the former was hardly achieved convincingly, even the most optimistic supporter would have struggled to keep their half-full glass down when predicting this start to Leeds’ season.

That this has come after not only the departure of Bielsa but the sales of Raphinha and Kalvin Phillips is remarkable. Leeds have lost their three key individuals, the men who perhaps best encapsulated their identity, but the American Express is in full flow. Marsch deserves the utmost credit, Tyler Adams has reimagined the most difficult role in this team and Brenden Aaronson is presumably still running.

 

Eddie Howe
In 12 prior games against Manchester City, Eddie Howe’s record with Bournemouth and Newcastle was W0 D0 L12 F5 A39.

In 10 prior games against Pep Guardiola, Eddie Howe’s record with Bournemouth and Newcastle was W0 D0 L10 F4 A30.

Some will lazily put a 3-3 draw in which Newcastle led Manchester City for 25 minutes and trailed for 23 down to the obvious increase in investment. Nick Pope, Kieran Trippier and Dan Burn were excellent and Bruno Guimaraes rose to the occasion, while it was a chastening afternoon for Sven Botman.

But this was proof of Howe’s development as a coach. His ambition in taking the game to Manchester City was rewarded as Newcastle contributed a quite literally and figuratively striking number of players to every attack. The forward trio, each of whom he inherited, was superb. And their defensive line was higher than Manchester City have become accustomed to facing.

Even when the game seemed to be slipping from their grasp, Howe stemmed the tide and protected a point with his changes. Sean Longstaff offered more stability than Joe Willock, Chris Wood gave Newcastle an outlet in place of the superb Callum Wilson, and even Jacob Murphy contributed in his cameo.

 

Wilfried Zaha
Crystal Palace supporters noticed a theme a few years ago in the reaction from opposition fans after an Eagles win. The beaten side would lament how Wilfried Zaha had saved his best performance specifically for them and that he was rubbish against everyone else. This happened against so many teams as to render it obviously and unavoidably moot.

Only Mo Salah (46), Harry Kane (42), Heung-min Son (40) and Jamie Vardy (30) have scored more Premier League goals than the useless, diving, petulant Manchester United flop Zaha (28) since the start of the 2020/21 season. Bruno Fernandes can only match his tally and Raheem Sterling (23) is among those to trail that total when they really ought not to.

Considering he also played one of those campaigns under Roy Hodgson, perhaps it’s time to accept that Zaha doesn’t just Turn Into Prime Messi when he plays the team you happen to support; he is simply very good, incredibly effective and still improving at 29.

 

Tim Ream
Beyond a respectable full Premier League debut for teenager Jay Stansfield, the emergence of a confident Aleksandar Mitrovic who doesn’t allow missed chances to effect him, and the foundation of a quietly brilliant and complementary central midfield trio, Fulham were even given cause for defensive optimism despite shipping two goals against Brentford.

Tim Ream has had two cracks at the Premier League before. In the 2018/19 season he played the full 90 minutes of just four victories: over fellow relegated sides Cardiff and Huddersfield, as well as lowly Bournemouth and Everton because obviously.

He was deemed too slow and sluggish, not sharp or agile enough then. By the time Fulham returned for the 2020/21 campaign the American had been deposed, consigned to watching the central pairing of Tosin Adarabioyo and Joachim Andersen from the bench. Ream played seven games that season and the Cottagers didn’t win a single one.

Yet Ream has been superb in Fulham’s opening three games, captaining them to two draws and a win. He has made the most interceptions (15) of any Premier League player so far as a more combative rather than passive approach is paying dividends.

Fulham have signed Issa Diop and Shane Duffy this summer but both are having to wait for their chance: the former has been an unused substitute for the last two games and still awaits his debut, while the latter has been a time-wasting substitute and no more twice. Ream on, fellas.

 

Ralph Hasenhuttl
Southampton wrestling four points back from losing positions in their last two Premier League games is a double-edged sword: impressive as their ability to respond has been, questions must be asked of how they are set up in the first place.

But considering less than two weeks ago it was being reported that Ralph Hasenhuttl had ‘lost the trust of several players’, had become ‘increasingly detached from his squad’ and that there was ‘surprise and disappointment’ at him not being sacked in the summer, it is difficult not to focus on the positives.

It might also be that facing a team whose manager is in an even more precarious position has offered an unlikely fixture schedule boost but Hasenhuttl and his players earned that comeback win.

“It was a little bit of a different shape today, a different way of defending,” the manager explained of his shift to a four-man defence, with seemingly lost cause Moussa Djenepo successfully deployed at left-back.

That certainly engendered an improvement but when Gavin Bazunu left nothing to James Maddison’s imagination, inspiration was needed.

The quick introduction of Che Adams helped swing the game but so too did the decision to swap Mo Elyounoussi and Joe Aribo mid-game from No. 10 and right winger respectively.

On the brink 11 days ago to 11th and thriving. It would be naive to consider this a corner turned but it does feel as though the air has been cleared and a cloud lifted from Southampton’s collective shoulders.

 

Bukayo Saka
Only eight of Arsenal’s 22 Premier League wins last season did not feature either a goal or an assist from Bukayo Saka. Their perfect start after three games this campaign has been achieved without his direct input in scoring any of the club’s nine goals.

The following is a list of statistics by which Saka ranked first for Arsenal in 2021/22, with his placing in this season so far in brackets: xG (6th), xA (3rd), shots (4th, having had at least 42 more than any teammate last campaign), shot-creating actions (2nd), touches in penalty area (2nd), dribbles (joint 3rd) and progressive passes received (3rd).

It is admittedly a limited sample but Arsenal have gone from relying on an ever-present 20-year-old bearing the almost exclusive burden of their attacking output, to the load being shared not only by new signing Gabriel Jesus, but established players such as Gabriel Martinelli, Martin Odegaard and Granit Xhaka taking on more responsibility through tactical shifts. Both Arsenal and Saka have already benefited.

 

Tottenham without Cristian Romero
The instinctive reaction to losing your best centre-half to injury or suspension is panic and anxiety. They are the fulcrum around which a settled defence can be built, the leader who can be relied upon to guide and organise his teammates under immense pressure.

Cristian Romero is not only Tottenham’s best centre-half, but also theoretically their most difficult to replace. His aggression, timing and ability on the ball cannot be duplicated. It requires not only a change in personnel, but a slight tweak in approach.

Romero has missed 17 Premier League games since joining and Tottenham’s record in those fixtures is: W12 D2 L3 F30 A14. The Argentine also played a cursory debut minute of the win over Manchester City in August 2021.

Under Antonio Conte, they have been beaten once in 13 Premier League matches without Romero – by Chelsea in January 2022.

Eric Dier has stepped up. Ben Davies has stepped up. Against Wolves, Davinson Sanchez stepped up with an imperious, determined and uncharacteristically composed performance. Tottenham are better with Romero, but not even close to dependent on him.

 

Danny Welbeck
“I am still feeling good. I can still breeze past players in this league,” said Danny Welbeck in an interview with The Athletic earlier this month, shortly before signing a two-year contract extension at Brighton.

Thilo Kehrer can attest to that. The West Ham debutant seemed to take great relish in falling for Welbeck’s trap. The Brighton striker needed just one touch to send the Seagulls on their way in London, cleverly stepping over Leandro Trossard’s pass to gather it in his stride, lure Kehrer in, tap it beyond him and draw the penalty.

Welbeck is in his 15th season of Premier League football but the 31-year-old has rarely looked so assured of his own ability. This might be the most productive iteration of the centre-forward we have seen.

 

Alex Iwobi and Joelinton
The two best central midfielders in the Premier League. Insert paul-rudd-hot-ones.gif here.

 

Losers

Brendan Rodgers
The way in which Leicester actively planned for one major sale every summer has been well-documented. But most striking was in how efficient the process was and how they kept the conveyor belt constantly moving in a positive direction.

In many cases the players whose exits were sanctioned had already either been replaced in that transfer window or long before. Nampalys Mendy was signed before N’Golo Kante left – although he was a fraction of the player. Wilfred Ndidi was in months before Danny Drinkwater went. James Maddison joined nine days before Riyad Mahrez was shipped out. Caglar Soyuncu was given a season to acclimatise before stepping into Harry Maguire’s boots. James Justin and Luke Thomas deputised ably for Ben Chilwell, having been young understudies.

That churn helped Leicester stay fresh and motivated players by keeping paths both into and out of the team clear. The marked change this summer has seen Wesley Fofana banished to the stands, Youri Tielemans demoted to the bench and none of their in-house replacements coming close to the standard that has made them expensive targets for better clubs.

There are obvious caveats but Leicester have shed at least some of their identity on the boardroom as much as they have on the pitch. They look lost and it is difficult to see how Brendan Rodgers turns it around.

 

David Moyes
West Ham supporters have grown tired of hearing David Moyes lament how “stale” his squad has become.

“I think it’s how quickly the new players integrate into the training and get used to it,” he said after defeat to Brighton. “If they don’t get used to the Premier League quickly then we have to keep going with players we’ve had, which at the moment looks like we could do with some freshening ourselves up.

“If they integrate very quickly and they can make an impact in the Premier League, then we will get them in right away. At the moment, we are seeing flashes of it, I’m not seeing wholehearted things to make me go ‘yes, they are ready to start.'”

Yet it is worth wondering how much worse Gianluca Scamacca, Maxwel Cornet and Flynn Downes could do. West Ham have started this season with three consecutive goalless losses, having ended the previous campaign with a single victory – over Norwich – in their last seven games.

When Cornet has already assisted a Scamacca goal in the admittedly far kinder surroundings of the Europa Conference League, while Michail Antonio runs himself further into the ground, Declan Rice rushes around to simultaneously put out and start fires and West Ham continue to embrace injuries like an old friend, the manager cannot use the “stale” excuse for much longer. He is putting out the same players in the same formation with the same approach and expecting different results.

There is mitigation in last season’s remarkable Europa League run – which also impacted that Premier League form – and the manager and players have earned enough faith to grant them patience from the fanbase through a rough opening month at the very least. But a side that has raised expectation levels over the past couple of years already feels up against it.

 

Steven Gerrard
Attention has already turned to the transfer market, with a deal for Ismaila Sarr on the rocks and Jan Bednarek being targeted in the sort of move that will get Aston Villa pulses flatlining. But at some point Steven Gerrard will have to look inwards, both at his squad and himself.

Four players joined in January, along with four more – two of whom were winter loans made permanent – this summer. There has been significant investment for scant improvement.

Even beyond the results, it’s often tough to work out the intricacies of what Aston Villa are trying to do.

The Konsa-Mings partnership was abandoned and reinstated within three games, with the injury to Diego Carlos only partially excusing that for as long as Calum Chambers is available.

John McGinn was given the armband to rouse him but the Scot completed fewer passes before being substituted in the 72nd minute than replacement Douglas Luiz in his short cameo.

Leon Bailey continues to be drip-fed opportunities – on the wrong side – before often being the first player to make way when changes are needed.

Ollie Watkins and Danny Ings are a strike pairing until they aren’t.

Options and tactical fluidity are an advantage to a point, but Gerrard doesn’t seem sure of what to do with the hand he has demanded to be dealt at Villa and that uncertainty is pouring out into their performances.

 

Chelsea
We were all sucked in by the Barclays vibes. The amount of backtracking over Chelsea after their excellent performance in the draw against Tottenham was startling but perhaps a little more perspective was needed: the Blues overran a team they faced and beat four times at an aggregate score of 8-0 last season. And they still didn’t win.

Between the stuttering win over Everton and their humbling at Leeds, perhaps those pre-season forecasts of an awkward slide down the table were accurate after all.

Prior transfer plans will likely be accelerated by the nature of the display and the starkness of the result. And while Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang might score one of those few chances and Wesley Fofana may not succumb to sprightly, nippy forwards in quite as cataclysmic a way as Kalidou Koulibaly, new signings solve few of the problems that were laid bare at Elland Road.

Thomas Tuchel waited almost pointedly late to make a series of substitutions which ended up leaving Ruben Loftus-Cheek stranded alone in central midfield.

This sort of capitulation has happened before to Chelsea under the German but when your manager is partly blaming such a harrowing defeat on the coaching staff – not the players – having to take the bus to the game, it begs old questions that many felt were answered against Spurs.

 

Brentford
Thomas Frank’s side have conceded both two goals and the opening goal in four of their last five games. Either that has to be addressed directly or they ought to petition for the Premier League to let them exclusively play Manchester United.

 

Wolves
The only teams Bruno Lage’s side have beaten since the end of February are Watford, Everton and Aston Villa. Unless there are any more Premier League outfits managed by alumni from England’s 2014 World Cup group-stage exit, Wolves might need to change something. An actual centre-forward wouldn’t go amiss.

 

Kyle Walker and John Stones
There goes their chances of joining the Arsenal revolution. Who knew Nathan Ake was the stitching holding the entire fabric of Manchester City’s defence – both title and general – together?