Another weekend of Premier League refereeing complaints, with a dash of football getting in the way, brought mixed results for Moyes, Newcastle and Everton.
There they are, precisely where everyone expected them to be after a difficult summer transfer window and an opening month which included games against an exciting team with a new manager, a side that has spent almost £1bn in a year and the current gold standard of how to operate below the gilded elite.
David Moyes was among the favourites to be sacked. West Ham had undeniably weakened a squad which struggled domestically last season up until they made their first signing two days before the season started. A reported internal conflict was undermining any attempt to reinvest the Declan Rice money. They were in disarray.
But Brighton were ripped apart by peak Moyesball. Edson Alvarez and James Ward-Prowse have been phenomenal additions and Konstantinos Mavropanos and Mohammed Kudus have strengthened their hand elsewhere. Alphonse Areola was exceptional. But when players who struggled last season are stepping up to create a goal as sumptuous as the second, set up by Said Benrahma and scored by Jarrod Bowen, it is a sign that everyone is finally pulling in the right direction again.
Things are not quite perfect, of course. Moyes might never fulfil his life’s dream of discovering the secret to eternal youth so that he can bestow it upon Michail Antonio. But this start is a fine consolation.
The flop that never was suddenly has 21 goals or assists in 45 games for a club in flux.
Jurgen Klopp “fell in love” with Nunez during a Champions League tie in which the Uruguayan scored three times against Liverpool in 2022. He had been heavily linked with Newcastle. But “the power and the mix-up with technique, the desire, smart moves, the problems he caused us,” lured the Reds and sunk the Magpies.
Those traits have not always been present and although this feels like a watershed moment, Nunez did have thrilling, transformative games like this last season. This needs to be the start of a consistent run, both in terms of playing opportunities and individual production.
Bloody hell, though. What a match.
It felt like it would never come but finally Mauricio Pochettino has drawn level with Steve Bruce on 133 Premier League wins as a manager. There can be no greater honour.
Chelsea’s second victory in 15 Premier League games has perhaps masked the fact it was only Pochettino’s third in 14. The indifferent end to his Tottenham reign feels like a lifetime ago but the Argentinean will be relieved to blow the cobwebs off regardless.
The opposition provides a caveat of sorts but Chelsea nevertheless grasped the opportunity to rediscover themselves and find a ruthlessness which has been lacking for months. Raheem Sterling has been rejuvenated as one of the elder statesmen in an exciting, young and vibrant side; Thiago Silva was the only other player older than 26 to feature for the Blues against Luton. Pochettino is back.
Richarlison has kindly sacrificed himself to shield Kulusevski from criticism, selfless teammate that he is. The Swedish forward’s first goal in 23 games, a run dating back to January, has been timed impeccably considering Tottenham’s intensified interest in Brennan Johnson.
It was more about the movement and the anticipation than the simple finish, but Kulusevski needed the confidence boost more than anything. The front three positions are under the most scrutiny at Spurs currently as Pedro Porro and Destiny Udogie are proving their compatibility as attacking full-backs, Micky van de Ven has settled well, the Bissouma-Sarr midfield is flourishing and James Maddison looks phenomenal. Being the first forward to score a goal at the club since Harry Kane left is no bad thing, with Kulusevski’s defensive contribution certain to impress the manager otherwise.
It took almost a year for his first Wolves goal to arrive, but then a second serious knee injury of his career is quite the mitigation.
Kalajdzic has had some rotten luck. A cruciate tear suffered during one of his first training sessions after signing with Stuttgart in July 2019 delayed his debut with the club until the following May. The striker did at least manage make his Wolves bow when he arrived as a deadline day addition in 2022, but he was taken off at half-time with the injury that would rule him out for the next 12 months.
On that level alone, it was a wonderful moment to see him celebrate scoring a goal of such importance against Everton. Of all the Like A New Signings across the Premier League so far this season, he could well be the most vital to the fortunes of his club.
Aston Villa’s full-backs
Six shots and two goals from one side, two key passes and an assist from the other. That opening-day thrashing was never more than a freak result but Aston Villa’s response to both that and injuries to Emi Buendia and Tryone Mings has been commendable: three wins, 12 goals, one conceded and a new formation which maximises everyone’s abilities.
As suggested in a recent edition of this column:
If every player in world football was given an accurate valuation of what their club would sell them for and what buying clubs would pay in the current transfer climate, Rodri would be the most expensive player in the sport’s history. No player anywhere is as valuable as Rodri. Not even Erling Haaland.
Didn’t dive, so that’s good. Did win a penalty, set one goal up and play a crucial part in another, so that’s really good. Did do it all largely from out wide to fuel more talk about where he should be deployed, which is bad because as long as he is on the pitch in some capacity, Rashford is liable to produce in those crucial moments.
Bruno Fernandes remains the heartbeat of this team but Rashford is not far behind in terms of importance. A first goal or assist since signing that new contract should do him and the club the world of good.
Since Crystal Palace appointed Hodgson, only Manchester City and Liverpool have lost fewer Premier League games than the Eagles, who have accrued as many points as Arsenal in that time.
0.75 – Since Roy Hodgson took over in April, Crystal Palace have faced 0.75 expected goals per game in the Premier League, the lowest figure of any side (penalties excluded).
0.75 – Crystal Palace
0.90 – Man City
1.09 – Newcastle
1.15 – Aston Villa
1.29 – Liverpool
— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) August 25, 2023
Three bookings in three Premier League games is genuinely impressive. And a win, a draw and a defeat from three games is impressively Fulham.
Sooner or later they will have to let him take one.
Them’s the breaks. Miguel Almiron hits the post and crossbar when a slight hint of more precision or less Alisson puts it in. Harvey Barnes bizarrely decides not to play the centre he’s built a Premier League career on, wasting a clear opportunity for Callum Wilson. These are the margins at this level.
Even for the winning goal, Bruno Guimaraes attempts to play a ball with the outside of his boot into space for Barnes to run onto behind the defence. The reward is a chance to win the game. The risk is that within seven seconds of it leaving the Brazilian’s foot, Nunez is celebrating scoring again after a Harvey Barnes interception and wonderful Mo Salah through ball.
Newcastle did not do a huge amount wrong, which perhaps explains the desperate plan to pin it on the officials. But losing at home after leading with a man advantage begs a certain brand of questioning. The Magpies have only lost consecutive Premier League games five times since Eddie Howe was appointed; that four of those instances have included back-to-back defeats against Manchester City and Liverpool (in December 2021, April/May 2022, February/March 2023 and August 2023) shows an evolving team precisely where they need to improve.
The decision to score five goals away at Brighton in May instead of spreading them out a little more evenly looks more foolish with each passing game. Everton have had 82 shots and conceded 61 in the six Premier League games since; the cumulative scores from those matches is 2-10.
Sean Dyche cannot be blamed for too much of that. This season alone his starting strikers have been the non-scoring Neal Maupay, injury’s favourite son Dominic Calvert-Lewin and three goals in 43 games for Derby last season’s Lewis Dobbin. Everton have been a budget version of that annual social media post asking whether you’d take £10,000 for nothing now or risk it all for £1m if you score one goal as a Premier League striker.
Perhaps Beto will be the answer. If not, maybe Youssef Chermiti. Some creative budgeting will see both bolster Everton’s options at the very least, while Dwight McNeil and Jack Harrison are yet to be properly factored in.
Dyche needs to hope one of them comes up with something, because Everton are battling against the tide currently. And with the manager’s usual defensive resolve as absent as his side’s goalscoring touch, that is not a particularly fruitful combination.
For those with half-full drink receptacles, Arsenal are slowly delaying what is apparently inevitable. The first team in Premier League history to concede a first-minute goal three times in the same calendar year though they may be, the Gunners have gone from being breached by Philip Billing within nine seconds in March to holding out for 28 seconds against Carlos Alcaraz in April, then keeping it tight for 57 seconds before Andreas Pereira scored in August. The 60-second clean sheet is within Aaron Ramsdale’s grasp.
Whatever the issue is which causes Arsenal to shoot themselves in the foot as early as possible at the Emirates, it needs to be addressed promptly. Mikel Arteta publicly stated he did not think it was something which was playing on the minds of his squad but it ought to be. Once is happenstance. Twice is coincidence. Three times is close to inexplicable.
Yet even then, Arsenal clawed themselves back into the game admirably and earned a win comparable to the three points Manchester City battled for at Bramall Lane a day later. They did the hard part. They recovered. They reacted excellently to early adversity, found a breakthrough with their substitutions and established a lead. Then they squandered it at home to ten men because they were slack at a corner.
Arsenal need to get back to basics not only in terms of team selection but defending. Three clean sheets in 14 Premier League games is not a title-winning foundation.
A quite pathetic reaction to an implosion of their own creation. It might be easier to place responsibility solely on the referees after becoming the first team in Premier League history to lose a match after leading by two goals as early as the second minute, but it is equally senseless.
The decisions themselves were borderline, and certainly not worthy of PGMOL complaints or fuelling suggestions of impropriety because of a match from more than a year ago. It is said that Nottingham Forest have ‘concerns’ around Stuart Attwell dating back to his display when officiating the club’s Championship defeat to Bournemouth in May 2022, and might air them with the relevant authorities. And frankly fair play, because the time and effort needed to sustain that chip on shoulders which seemingly refuse to bear any responsibility while simultaneously becoming a very good Premier League team should not be underplayed.
Willy Boly might have been covering Joe Worrall when he fouled Bruno Fernandes. Danilo did only make minimal contact with a challenge on Marcus Rashford he was trying to pull out of. But it was probably a red card. It was definitely a penalty. And Forest had already squandered their lead by those points, with momentum only heading one way.
For managers to point the fingers at referees as a matter of instinct is cowardly. For media outlets such as the Daily Mail to stoke those fires by claiming that referees are ‘in the pocket’ of Manchester United is rubbish at best and dangerous at worst.
Nottingham Forest could have focused on the clear improvements they have made away from home, on Boly’s excellent performance, on Taiwo Awoniyi’s brilliance. How lamentable that they have chosen to concentrate on calling someone’s professionalism into question after suffering the most regular of all Premier League defeats: to Manchester United at Old Trafford.
"Blatant dive from Rashford!"
— Match of the Day (@BBCMOTD) August 26, 2023
“After the game you think and probably I shouldn’t have taken Ryan out from the game,” said Iraola after the defeat to Spurs. “Especially without the ball, he was pressing really well. He was doing a good amount.
“Probably I wanted to go a little bit more offensive, but we were worse I think from that point,” he added. “I don’t know if it’s after the subs or after the 2-0, because it was just one minute later. But probably until the 62nd minute, we were playing well against a very good team.”
The Spaniard went on to admit Bournemouth lacked intensity and ceded control after Christie was replaced by Hamed Traore, Joe Rothwell having been taken off at half-time with a perfect passing accuracy.
And quite frankly that is absolutely amateurish behaviour from a manager who will hopefully learn soon enough that honest introspection and self-reproach gets you nowhere in the Premier League. What does Iraola think the referees are there for if not to blame?
There is one more thing to be said for the Cherries, mind: stop buying injured midfielders.
A weird stat for you: since April 8, the only teams to lose more Premier League games than Brighton (six) are Bournemouth and Leeds (both seven).
For all the talk of title challenges and Champions League tilts, Brighton’s Kryptonite of low-block counter-attacking teams with physical forwards remains prevalent. And as admirable as Roberto De Zerbi’s convictions in his style of play are, there needs to be an acceptance it can’t work against everyone, and a flexibility to adapt.
Brighton, brilliant as they can be and peerless as their set-up is, have a capacity for defensive collapse. Since April, five different teams have scored at least three goals against the Seagulls, and with no disrespect to Brentford, Nottingham Forest, Everton, Newcastle or West Ham, with one notable exception, those are not the sides Brighton should be struggling against.
That midfield suddenly looks physically unimposing and the shortfalls of a slow central defence are always prone to being exposed from there. There is a template for beating Brighton and while not every team will execute it with the direct brilliance of Antonio at the tip, De Zerbi does need to do something.
These are not the games on which the Clarets will be judged. It is worth pointing that out immediately. But equally Vincent Kompany needs to find a way to make things click pretty soon and the fact only Aston Villa have used more players (21) than Burnley (20), despite the promoted side playing fewer games than every club bar Luton, does not feel entirely coincidental when looking at their largely disjointed performances.
A total of 251 players across Europe’s top five leagues have played more minutes than Giles this season; four have attempted more crosses. And yes, Jesus Navas is one of them. But Luton probably need to be a bit more precise on the occasions they happen upon some space and time.
Buying Ryan Giles when you’re not a possession based team for a Premier League campaign is very very funny
— luke (@louorns) August 25, 2023
Brentford and Crystal Palace
Five Premier League games. Five Premier League draws. Six Premier League goals. The last time a league match between Brentford and Crystal Palace actually ended in a win for either side, Roy Hodgson was 16; it was a while ago.
Save time and just add a point each from December’s fixture at Selhurst Park now?
Whatever the opposite of shepherding a ball out is, that was it. And it wasn’t the best idea when the person chasing you down is the actual Kyle Walker.