Harvey Elliott’s emergence at Liverpool should not be taken for granted. Nor should Brighton. But McGinn and Vardy are in the oh dear pile.
The Liverpool midfield search should and will continue but it is always worth pointing out how extraordinary it is for a teenager to grow quite so accustomed to such a tasking role, not least after suffering a long-term injury.
This is the second consecutive season Harvey Elliott has started in eye-catching form. The dislocated ankle he suffered last September officially sidelined him for four months but it essentially curtailed his campaign: his three starts from January onwards all came in different competitions and they understandably contained more flare than flair.
The “new signing” shtick was wheeled out by Jurgen Klopp in the summer but Elliott’s place should be protected once a new addition is actually made to the squad. That level of tactical intelligence and poise for a player so young is stunning.
“Hopefully I can go out and prove again why I could be, and should be, starting in this team,” Elliott said upon extending his contract after an “intense” pre-season. Mission accomplished.
Fair play for trying something different – bringing the three-man defensive system from the Europa Conference to the Premier League, playing Pablo Fornals as a No.10 and starting as many as three summer signings.
Credit, also, for having both the awareness to realise it was not working and the humility to change it quickly. Ben Johnson’s first-half injury and the removal of debutant Emerson Palmieri at the break facilitated a shift in approach as the Hammers moved towards a four-man backline. Said Benrahma, Emerson’s replacement, soon started to find the pockets of space which eluded the deeper Fornals and West Ham reaped the rewards.
With Kurt Zouma ensuring a sound base from which to build alongside the improving Thilo Kehrer, Declan Rice approaching something close to his old self, new signings settling and Lucas Paqueta soon to join, the parts are starting to fall together again for West Ham. Moyes has earned plenty enough time to prove he is the best man to put them together.
A move finished by Brighton’s first ever Premier League signing and started, at the time of writing, by their last. The second-highest top-flight appearance maker in the club’s history combined indirectly with a player making his full debut to finally overcome Leeds.
It was a victory Brighton entirely deserved, secured by the player of the nascent Premier League season and contributed to by the weekend’s second most effective Estupinan. So in control of their own destiny are the Seagulls that the solitary goal they have conceded after four games was scored by themselves.
They are the envy of most clubs outside the current elite – and indeed perhaps at least one within that cabal. The supreme coaching of Graham Potter has been aligned with the sort of transfer mastery that makes you wonder why every team doesn’t just identify talent in under-scouted areas for cheap, invest time and money into developing them, sell them at a considerable profit and already have their replacement embedded in the squad.
None of it is even vaguely that simple, of course. Brighton just make it look as such.
Put Mitrovic in this Brighton team and there is no way we don’t make europe
— Michael Welch (@michaelwelchhh) August 27, 2022
Their starting XI against Leeds cost £65.3m in transfer fees and was signed from, in position order from goalkeeper to striker: Levante, Ajax, Bristol City, Independiente del Valle, Argentinos Juniors, Lewes, Villarreal, Ingolstadt, Genk and Watford, with an academy graduate thrown in for good measure.
These are selling clubs a certain level of team wouldn’t even consider looking at for fears that players would be unsuitable, not immediately ready and, frankly, not illustrious, prestigious or indulgent enough for executives or supporters. Brighton are content to take the time in polishing potential diamonds, aiding their growth and ultimately benefiting all parties.
That might ordinarily make them something of a stepping stone and truthfully their place far from the top of the food chain is established and embraced. But only a fool would willingly leave such green pastures right now and the mere suggestion that Potter might have his head turned by Aston Villa is as preposterous as it is hilarious.
For all the necessary scoffing at offers ranging from £60m to £25m plus two players in part-exchange, or a forward with five career goals being “in that bracket” of players “worth triple figures”, there is a great deal to be said for Anthony Gordon’s conduct through all this.
It is barely worth citing any of the endless contrary examples but Gordon has been refreshingly different as one of Everton’s brightest players at a time of immense uncertainty, when he would be forgiven for falling into those familiar mortal pitfalls of doubt and temptation.
Chelsea would offer him riches, Champions League opportunities, a potential back door into England’s World Cup squad. These are short careers with no guarantees: debilitating injuries could be suffered as a result of the next tackle – and this situation has certainly placed a target on Gordon’s back – while such interest can wane as quickly as it emerges.
But this 21-year-old head is screwed firmly on shoulders which bear the weight of potentially crippling expectation. Gordon has not missed a single minute of the Premier League season, was on a League Cup bench away at Fleetwood a week ago and extended those mocking highlight reels by at least a few more seconds with an excellent run, touch and finish at Brentford.
With all eyes on him, both admiring and sneering, Gordon is thriving when many before him in a similar situation have crumbled. That’s a testament to his character.
In a half an hour cameo when introduced at 1-0 down to Fulham, Eddie Nketiah had more shots than every teammate bar Gabriels Martinelli and Jesus, completed more dribbles than all players except for Martin Odegaard and irrevocably shifted the momentum in Arsenal’s favour.
Mikel Arteta deserves credit for the substitution. Fulham had contained Arsenal well and so the Gunners, already shorn of key personnel in Oleksandr Zinchenko and Thomas Partey, changed both their shape and approach. A left-back being swapped for another striker was a signal of intent at the perfect time.
It also proved Arsenal have a legitimate Plan B, even if Nketiah has displayed all the hunger of a player determined to force himself into any Plan A as soon as possible. As Arteta himself said after the game, the forward “came on the pitch again with blood in his eyes, ready to go in every action”. The 23-year-old looks stronger, fitter, faster and sharper than ever.
Not quite the most impactful attacking addition Manchester City made to their squad this summer, but an important one nonetheless.
Even if the tide was turning already, Julian Alvarez helped his team ride the wave to a comeback victory. The phenomenal Bernardo Silva had halved the deficit against Crystal Palace eight minutes prior to the Argentinean’s introduction, a minute after which Manchester City were level.
It was Alvarez’s flick from a Kevin de Bruyne cross which led to the equaliser, before his touch and quick thinking helped create the third goal.
Erling Haaland’s hat-trick and mere presence makes it difficult for any other forward to get noticed. But as sensational as the Norwegian has been, Pep Guardiola has geared an entire system towards maximising his ability. Alvarez has had no such luxury yet is taking his opportunities and has many more to come.
Alvarez did not misplace a single one of his 20 passes, completed the only take-on he attempted, was fouled the most often of any Manchester City player and had more touches than Ilkay Gundogan despite being brought on at the same time. He has settled immediately on a drip-feed of minutes, which is almost unheard of for any Guardiola signing, but particularly when it comes to forwards.
There are necessary jokes to be made about how funny it was for Raul Jimenez’s pirate celebration to be scuppered by something called VAR, but the focus should eventually fall on the difference in Wolves with and without their talismanic striker.
His battle with Sven Botman was engaging and both men had their moments. But it was like watching the Jimenez of old when he isolated Kieran Trippier and muscled him away from the ball before delivering a cross which Matheus Nunes had to finish.
Between that and his disallowed goal, there was hope for Wolves that any new striker signed this summer can complement and support Jimenez rather than replacing him outright. The Mexican still has a great deal to give.
The reincarnation of Erik Lamela. Richarlison’s decision to commit an even worse footballing crime than spitting will overshadow another game-changing display in what is becoming a veritable catalogue. Perhaps spending £60m on a wide Everton forward isn’t such a bad idea.
There are different ways of dealing with a 9-0 defeat and it should be said that none of them are specifically correct.
George Burley declined to fulfil his post-match media duties after Ipswich were humbled by Manchester United in 1995. The Tractor Boys lost their next six games and were relegated.
Ralph Hasenhuttl assumed “100% responsibility” for Southampton’s first such “disaster” in 2019, insisting that “we have to stand up again and show a different face”. Saints lost their next two and then drew but survived comfortably.
Hasenhuttl then declared that “the only way for us to go on is to show that we are a better team that we showed today” after Southampton lost by the same scoreline in February 2021. They lost four of their next five, drawing the other.
So ignoring such a humiliation is as effective in the aftermath as meeting it head on and demanding improvement. Perhaps Scott Parker has found the answer.
“I feel sorry for the players because we are ill-equipped at this level,” he said. “The touchline today was pretty painful and I could sense it was painful for the players as well. They need some help. It doesn’t surprise me. I can see some more [routs]. There will be days like this. I have been clear how this season could look for us and I stick by that. We need to make a decision and try and help this young group who at times are struggling for air.”
It’s a bold strategy, Cotton. Let’s see if it pays off for ’em.
Parker can grovel for new signings all he wants but Bournemouth’s most recent one was a £12.6m centre-half whose three Premier League appearances have ended in 4-0, 3-0 and 9-0 defeats respectively.
It is starting to feel as though John McGinn will be the hill Steven Gerrard is willing to die on.
The Aston Villa captaincy decision was designed to ideally benefit both the previous incumbent and the usurper: McGinn would thrive with the responsibility and Tyrone Mings could benefit from having his game streamlined. It did make sense.
But the entire scenario could not have played out more awkwardly for Steven Gerrard. Mings was dropped, then restored to the starting line-up and is now out through injury. McGinn has barely missed a minute despite his form collapsing in on itself.
Therein lies a problem with imbuing the armband with such importance: McGinn is being relied upon too heavily to drag the team through a dark period based purely on his dressing-room role rather than anything being produced on the pitch.
When Gerrard sought to alter the course of the game against West Ham, he deduced that a midfield change was necessary. Jacob Ramsey was the appropriate player to call on from the bench but Douglas Luiz would have deemed himself unfortunate to be sacrificed.
With the Brazilian went Villa’s defensive solidity as Boubacar Kamara was gradually swamped. The hosts exerted more dominance in terms of possession, going from 55.4% of the ball with Luiz to 64.5% without. But Villa became increasingly susceptible to counter-attacks after he went off: four of West Ham’s seven shots overall came in those final 24 minutes.
One thing is yet to be opened this season. It’s……… Jamie Vardy’s account.
The Leicester striker was wasteful in the extreme against Chelsea. He had almost as many shots (4) as he completed passes (5) and often actively detracted from attacks against 10 men.
Perhaps Vardy is becoming more of a flat-track bully in the twilight of his career. Ten of his 15 goals last season came against the three relegated sides; the highest-placed team he scored against was Manchester United in October.
For a player whose three favourite career opponents in terms of goals scored against are Arsenal (11), Liverpool (10) and Manchester City (9) – with Tottenham (8), Manchester United (6) and Chelsea (4) not considerably far behind – those numbers are stark.
Vardy is a known and brilliant quantity at 35 but especially for a club in such dire straits, his brand of centre-forward play is counter-productive. Leicester need more than to rely on an off-the-shoulder striker but if they are going to lean on the player with the Premier League’s best conversion rate in 2021/22, he has to deliver.
Leeds have done an excellent job in blooding their new signings this summer. Brendan Aaronson and Tyler Adams have adapted seamlessly to the style and system. Marc Roca has generally fared well. Luis Sinisterra has been dropped into the squad slowly.
For Rasmus Kristensen it has been far less fluid. The right-back still seems uncomfortable in the role, neither stable enough defensively nor close to effective in attack. Cody Drameh could be worth a try in the position, while Luke Ayling returns to full training this week. A couple of games on the bench should do Kristensen some good.
Frank Lampard’s children
Conor Gallagher’s season thus far reads: last-minute substitute at Everton; came on at 2-1 with five minutes left against Spurs, who soon equalised; taken off after an hour in defeat to Leeds; red card after half an hour against Leicester.
There is no similarly crass and simple way to sum up the negative nature of Mason Mount’s campaign thus far but a half-time substitution rather captures the current mood.
Thank the lord for Reece James and Ruben Loftus-Cheek.
That performance against Liverpool was supposed to have unlocked Marcus Rashford more than anyone at Manchester United but he reverted to the mean at Southampton. Something is not right and the signing of an £84m forward will either cajole an improvement or further the spiral.
This line from the weekend deserved more so let’s use it again:
‘It did not require a great deal of thought to imagine the Manchester United striker asking, “Are you here to solve my Kotchap problem?”” as his replacement escorted him towards the bench, but it wasn’t to be.’
It’s good to recycle.
The Golden Boot sharers
Mo Salah neither scores nor assists in a 9-0 win and Heung-min Son is taken off for tactical reasons before the 90th minute in a third consecutive Premier League game for the first time since March 2019.
Considering Cristiano Ronaldo finished third on the podium behind those two in the Premier League top scorers chart last season, it’s safe to declare the 2021/22 Golden Boot race to have been cursed.