Brentford should not be in a position to make Manchester United envious but here we are. Mikel Arteta and Nathan Ake are also flying.
Keep dodging that bullet, my guy.
It is not intended as a disservice to suggest that Thomas Frank has simplified Premier League management more effectively than any of his coaching contemporaries. That naturally undersells the more intricate aspects of his approach both generally and for specific games, but it is a fair reflection of a blueprint which seems perfectly suited to the top flight.
The Brentford manager spoke of the need to be more “pragmatic” against the established elite following the 4-0 victory over Manchester United. He highlighted a handful of things that are perhaps neglected or even frowned upon as rudimentary by some – their low block, set-pieces and long balls – but which paid the ultimate dividends in a statement victory.
Brentford have mastered those fundamentals. They collectively ran much further but crucially with infinitely greater purpose. They have a solid central base but will contribute extra runners from midfield when necessary. They recognise pressing triggers in their sleep.
Frank noted that he and his team followed what Brighton did so well against Manchester United – while acknowledging the Seagulls are ever so slightly further ahead in their development – but that Brentford put their own inimitable spin on that homework rather than explicitly copying it. His players were drilled to phenomenal effect in what they had to do because their manager had absolute clarity in disentangling the complexities of what he was asking of them.
“We’re not finished, go away,” works simultaneously as a plea to the overbearing Sky Sports cameras and to those who reckon 14 new signings is excessive.
Steve Cooper, for a variety of reasons covered in tiresome depth, had to restructure and reimagine his Nottingham Forest squad. He and they have done so with such breath-taking, almost video-game-like expedience.
That would ordinarily lend itself to a greater bedding-in period as new players grow accustomed to new teammates, new roles and new coaching ideals. But Cooper is no ordinary manager and so eight summer signings can be thrown into a game against perennial Europe botherers West Ham and emerge with all three points.
Not that Forest are done. Emmanuel Dennis joined too late to be considered for selection and Remo Freuler has been confirmed, while deals for Neal Maupay, Houssem Aouar and Djibril Sow are still being pursued.
As respectable as it is when Norwich or another club of their ilk come up and make a point of living within their means, it’s hard not to think Forest have got the right idea.
The term the Arsenal manager used when they last scored within two minutes of conceding a goal in the Premier League was “maturity”. Mikel Arteta felt his Gunners showed a lack thereof after leading, then trailing, then equalising and finally losing to a Cristiano Ronaldo-inspired Manchester United in December.
Much has changed since then – for both teams – but that level-headedness and composure in the face of adversity is a welcome and uncharacteristic addition to Arsenal’s bow. The fair-weather Gunners, who thrive in advantageous scenarios but crumble and collapse at the first sign of trouble, are no more.
There were signs of this against Crystal Palace, who had to be held at arm’s length before Arsenal scored a decisive second goal on the opening day. But twice against Leicester their lead was halved before being almost instantly redoubled.
Arteta will hope to render that new-found strength moot by eradicating those clumsy own goals, avoidable setbacks and other such mistakes we tend to associate with an Arsenal defence. But the Spaniard must have been emboldened by the way his players immediately found their stride after a stumble.
After ending last campaign starting three of Aston Villa’s last five Premier League games, scoring two goals and assisting one in a pair of matches against Burnley, Emi Buendia might have expected that his bright pre-season had solidified his place under Steven Gerrard.
There is a suspicion, however, that the Villa manager favours Philippe Coutinho in the role as chief creator. The pair are deemed too incompatible to play alongside one another and thus they are in direct competition to start.
The club’s record signing though he may be, Buendia was neither bought by nor played with Gerrard.
Coutinho has squandered that advantage and Buendia has overcome any such barriers. In a 30-minute substitute cameo at Everton the Argentinean had the most shots on target (two) and created the highest number of chances (three) of any player for either team.
In the previous hour, Coutinho had no shots and no key passes, while before Buendia’s introduction Villa had been out-shot three to nine at home to a relegation-threatened team; from the 60th minute onwards they had nine efforts to Everton’s six.
Villa simply looked better and more fluid with Buendia pulling the strings than they had when Coutinho was getting himself in a tangle. There is currently no contest between the two and Gerrard must have taken note.
Despite only starting 21 Premier League games for Manchester City, Nathan Ake has begun each of the past three seasons at the heart of Pep Guardiola’s defence.
In his debut campaign at the Etihad, the Dutchman partnered John Stones for a win over Wolves but lost his place and soon succumbed to injury after a 5-2 defeat to Leicester.
Last season, Ake featured alongside Ruben Dias in an opening defeat to Tottenham, playing just six more times in the league before January.
Manchester City have started this year’s title defence with Ake and Dias as a partnership again, but it was the latter who was sacrificed when Pep Guardiola sought to rotate John Stones in on the hour against Bournemouth.
“I feel like this is the season where everything is settled,” Ake himself said recently, with not even summer interest from former club Chelsea diverting a path finally bound for the Manchester City first team as a regular. The 27-year-old’s record over his past ten Premier League starts, dating back to September 2021, is: W10 D0 L0 F26 A2, with eight clean sheets and one goal for Ake himself while swapping between centre-half and left-back.
He is also only a couple of inches taller than Lisandro Martinez. Small world.
A stay of execution, perhaps. Those midweek reports of ‘unrest’, ‘dissent’ and ‘increased tension’ both in the Southampton squad and coaching staff would have been neatly compounded by a home defeat to Leeds as the precursor to a club statement and accompanying photograph of a corner flag at St Mary’s. It was difficult to see a way back for the Austrian at 2-0 down after the hour.
Whether the explanation is some form of footballing rigor mortis, a sudden pang of collective professional pride or simply Joe Aribo and Sekou Mara making things happen upon their introduction, signs of life were welcome on the south coast.
Hasenhuttl won’t be foolish enough to interpret that as absolute faith in his leadership, nor will he believe Southampton’s problems are solved. But it does give him something to work with while stopping that losing rut developing into something more substantial.
Marc Cucurella, Yves Bissouma and Neal Maupay all ranked within the top 11 Brighton players in terms of Premier League appearances last season. That trio was signed for less than £45m and their combined fees upon being sold this summer will stretch beyond £100m.
The Seagulls XI Graham Potter named to face Newcastle, without three of their most important players from 2021/22, was purchased for £50.3m.
Moises Caicedo and Alexis Mac Allister have formed part of a seamless midfield succession plan and the debuting Kaoru Mitoma showed enough to suggest he could at least try on, if not eventually fill, the left wing-back boots vacated by Cucurella.
These players – signed from Independiente del Valle, Argentinos Juniors and Kawasaki Frontale respectively, with Cucurella polished as a rough diamond purchased from Getafe – will be coveted by the elite soon enough, if not already. Brighton hammered and should have beaten a Newcastle team who would do well to imitate them rather than most of the Big Six they wish to infiltrate. No club has its sh*t in order quite so emphatically.
Graeme Souness can have his blow for blow man’s game but it’s difficult not to be delighted for a man who lives for the handshake drama.
The last month in which Manchester United played Premier League football and did not concede at least four goals in a game was February.
In 810 Premier League games under Sir Alex Ferguson, Manchester United conceded four goals or more 12 times.
In 344 Premier League games under David Moyes, Louis van Gaal, Jose Mourinho, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, Ralf Rangnick and Erik ten Hag, Manchester United have conceded four goals or more 13 times. Seven of those instances have come in the last ten months.
The identity of the teams to have put the Red Devils to the sword in such a decisive manner helps to sum up their plight. In order from first to most recent: Manchester City (September 2013), Leicester (September 2014), Chelsea (October 2016), Everton (April 2019), Tottenham (October 2020), Liverpool (May 2021), Leicester (October 2021), Liverpool (October 2021), Watford (November 2021), Manchester City (March 2022), Liverpool (April 2022), Brighton (May 2022) and Brentford (August 2022).
Manchester United have gone from being humbled on occasion by elite teams with better players, to being surprisingly overrun in aberrations by faster and stronger sides, to being exposed by superior coaches and finally humiliated by clubs with a fraction of the resources and advantages but infinitely more of a cohesive plan and vision.
It was after a relatively promising result – they had been beaten by Manchester City but only 3-0 – that Moyes once suggested Manchester United’s bitter rivals were playing at “the sort of standard and level we need to try and aspire to get ourselves to”. It is a damning indictment on the owners, the board, the recruitment staff, the coaches and the players – maybe even the fans themselves – that less than a decade later, there is bountiful evidence to suggest Manchester United ought to be just as envious of Brighton and Brentford.
Never one known for subtlety, Brendan Rodgers rather laboured his point. “It’s not just what he brings to the team, it’s what a new signing gives to everyone else, the confidence,” he said when discussing the impact Gabriel Jesus has had at Arsenal.
Soon after, the Leicester manager introduced Oleksandr Zinchenko and William Saliba into the conversation as proof that “bringing three starters into your team can make a big difference”.
“That’s what you miss,” he added. “It’s not just what a player brings to the team, it’s what it brings to the others, especially if you bring in big quality. If you bring in quality, it galvanises the others. That’s the nature of football. You’re always looking to recycle your squad, improve the team, which refreshes it.”
For a man who once said squad building was akin to “trying to build an aircraft while it is flying,” Rodgers would likely concede that the parts are falling off, a wing is on fire and some of the more notable passengers are scrambling for their parachutes. Alex Smithies is no fighter pilot.
You either die a managerial genius or live long enough to become the villain. Jesse Marsch deserved credit for his substitutions against Wolves but suffered the sharper end of that stick away at Southampton.
There was a strange reticence from the Leeds manager to look towards his bench as momentum swung at St Mary’s. Daniel James replaced Patrick Bamford due to injury in the 28th minute, before Rodrigo scored twice by the hour mark.
After the Spaniard’s second goal, Southampton sent on three substitutes over the course of the next ten minutes. Adam Armstrong, Aribo and Mara in particular helped change the game.
Then three minutes after Kyle Walker-Peters equalised, Leeds called for reinforcements. It was far too late.
“There are things that I’ve learned about how to handle fatigue, heat and managing matches that way,” Marsch said before the game. “When I was in New York the discussion was always ‘can you play pressing football in the heat?’ It’s about being aggressive in the right moments. This is a moment where five subs if we use them the right way can be really impactful.”
Use them in the wrong way, of course, and a perfect start is blemished as three points become one.
The contrast with their victorious opponents was stark. Nottingham Forest crammed their side with new signings while West Ham retained that “stale” sense of last season which David Moyes bemoaned after defeat to Manchester City.
Some might prefer to write it off as a relative freak occurrence. West Ham had a goal disallowed, hit the crossbar twice, missed a penalty, had an effort cleared off the line and encountered a goalkeeper with about 427 points to prove in Dean Henderson. There is no inquest needed.
But a half-fit Kurt Zouma was the most recent addition of West Ham’s starting XI, signed almost a full year ago. Although two summer signings made appearances from the bench, the Hammers undeniably need more in defence and midfield over the coming weeks.
Everton’s medical team
Those guys are up against it.
Imagine being an expensive centre-forward who has fewer than ten touches and completes just two passes but neither are an assist. How incredibly embarrassing.
Five games against Pep Guardiola and Manchester City. Five defeats. A 15-0 aggregate score. If only this was tennis.