Premier League winners and losers: Ten Hag’s blueprint and Conte’s lack of ambition

Matt Stead
Antonio Conte and Erik ten Hag

Erik ten Hag showcased his definitive Manchester United blueprint, Newcastle have a fortress again and Antonio Conte needs a different excuse.

 

Winners

Erik ten Hag
Jurgen Klopp’s first statement win in the Premier League, when his Liverpool side showed those initial alluring glimpses of his ideals and philosophy, came in October 2015. The Reds beat Chelsea convincingly at Stamford Bridge, pressing their hosts ferociously, playing with absolute confidence and having twice as many shots as Jose Mourinho’s limited, unimaginative and stale side.

“We have to think about the next game, about improving our game and our style. We can do much better than today,” Klopp said in the aftermath, keen to focus minds which had proven themselves eager to learn.

There was plenty of that victory in the lesson Manchester United delivered to Tottenham. This was an Erik ten Hag team. An early version but one in which the impact of proper coaching and guidance was patently clear. The pressing, the patterns of play, the crisp passing, the dynamism. Even down to Ten Hag insisting “I would not say I am totally satisfied” with Chelsea on the horizon.

Antonio Conte had no answer as Manchester United produced their best performance in recent memory. There remains a great deal to do but Ten Hag has his definitive blueprint and tangible proof that his way works.

 

Newcastle at their fortress
“It’s an incredible power for us at the moment, our home crowd,” said Eddie Howe in September. “They are so energetic, there’s a great feel and as I say we need to harness that and keep that, embrace it to its fullest.”

Mission accomplished. Two teams have beaten Newcastle at St James’ Park since Howe’s appointment almost a year ago. And there is no shame in losing against Manchester City or Liverpool in any stadium.

A record of 12 wins, 10 draws and two defeats is remarkable when put into the context of what came before. Steve Bruce also won 12 home games as Newcastle manager but he drew and lost 15 each in the process.

He also made Miguel Almiron and much of the rest of this Newcastle squad look entirely hopeless and bereft. The Howe transformation is real and it all started with some necessary renovations at home.

 

Crystal Palace and Wilfried Zaha
For the first time in the relationship between Crystal Palace and Wilfried Zaha, there is neither a settler nor a puncher. It is a far healthier balance of responsibility and reliance, with both parties thriving as a result.

“Wilfried knows what the club thinks about him and we know what he thinks about the club,” said Patrick Vieira after the win over Wolves. Asked about the forward’s expiring contract, the manager said it was “not an issue at all” and instead put the focus on Zaha remaining “consistent” and setting “a positive example” to the younger members of this exciting team.

Fifteen goals in his last 27 Premier League games indicates a player embracing his status as role model. There was no doubt he would complete Palace’s third comeback victory of the season when presented with the opportunity. But this was not the usual individualistic brilliance with which Zaha became synonymous under the previous manager.

Eberechi Eze (24) was excellent, taking his goal well and earning his reported place in the extended England World Cup squad. Michael Olise (20) thrived on the right, creating five chances. Odsonne Edouard (24) was a phenomenal centre-forward foil. Cheick Doucoure (22) was a wonderful midfield fulcrum.

Zaha is still the absolute jewel but that crown has been polished and ain’t half-bad either.

 

Darwin Nunez
Ever so fun
and now has three goals in his six Premier and Champions League starts, with another strike off the bench. Darwin Nunez is scoring or assisting at a rate of once every 108.4 minutes for Liverpool, which leaves clear room for tantalising improvement while also suggesting he has been far better than many have given him credit for.

Liverpool's Darwin Nunez celebrates

 

Ainsley Maitland-Niles
A composed central midfield performance away from home by a player who wasn’t “ready” this time last month. Patience is paying dividends for Ainsley Maitland-Niles, who has been crucial to Southampton’s small-scale resurrection of drawing with West Ham and beating Bournemouth.

His awareness and presence of mind was imperative at the Vitality Stadium. Maitland-Niles misplaced a single pass in 87 minutes and contributed to a dogged defensive performance; every outfield Southampton starter bar Adam Armstrong made at least one tackle in the 1-0 win.

Southampton are an absurd football club, capable of ending the longest unbeaten runs off the back of five winless games. Reports that Ralph Hasenhuttl was treated to chants of ‘you don’t know what you’re doing’ and ‘you’re getting sacked in the morning’ during the game from an element of the travelling support have been denied by many match-going fans but it does sum up the delicate situation at St Mary’s. Maitland-Niles has done well to emerge as a sensible addition who has been coached and dealt with superbly.

 

Brentford
Almost a year to the day since Edouard Mendy’s heroics preserved a 1-0 win for Chelsea at Brentford, Kepa Arrizabalaga maintained the cleanliness of his sheet against the Bees with a fine performance.

“Every time Chelsea come here, their goalkeeper is man of the match,” Thomas Frank lamented after the game, with Brentford unable to capitalise on their early dominance before weathering a relative Blues storm towards the end.

It was a fine home display against an excellent Chelsea side – and the first time in six attempts that Frank has avoided defeat against Graham Potter, who had won each of his previous five games.

Frank also spoke about how his tactical plans are developed through “a lot of trial and error”, with many of his “brilliant, brilliant ideas” turning out to be “good on paper, but shit on grass”. The template he uses against the Big Six – low block, high press, second balls and relentless energy to destabilise and unsettle the opponent – certainly works well enough.

 

Nottingham Forest
It would be outcome bias to suggest Nottingham Forest have found a blueprint for success. Only on the opening day away at Newcastle have they conceded more shots (23) than Brighton managed against them at the Amex (19). Manchester City and Leicester stuck six and four goals past Steve Cooper’s side from 17 efforts each. This stalemate was more down to profligate Seagulls than it was unwavering Trees.

But there was a doggedness to their display that will be required in the coming months. Steve Cook, Scott McKenna and Ryan Yates bolted the door, Dean Henderson earned his clean sheet and Brennan Johnson, bless him, completed a single pass.

Cooper will know it is not a sustainable approach; that game ends in a comfortable home win nine times out of 10. But confidence is crucial and this was an important building block upon which something more viable can be established.

 

Losers

Antonio Conte
The specifics vary based on the circumstances of defeat, but there is one common strand in Antonio Conte’s post-match reaction to every Tottenham loss.

“We have to continue to work to try to improve, to work on the pitch and to work outside the pitch,” he said after the Manchester United humbling, alluding yet again to hierarchy and boardroom issues that are out of his control.

“We can improve, we need to continue to work and for sure it is right with the club also to analyse very well why when we are going to play this type of game where the level is very high and we are struggling,” he added.

However legitimate a point it is to say Tottenham must change certain aspects of their operations off the field, it comes across as desperate in the aftermath of such a performance. Conte can’t in good conscience keep pointing to an open flame and preach fire safety while presiding over a blazing dumpster of such disastrous proportions, especially in matches of such magnitude.

Tottenham have allowed 66 shots in three games against Chelsea, Arsenal and Manchester United this season. They struggled to pass to each other and summarily failed to track runners while simultaneously creating absolutely nothing in attack.

Twenty-eight efforts is the most a Conte team has ever faced in a league game. He is right in suggesting that is down to a lack of ambition; he is wrong in implying it is in the transfer market.

 

Nelson Semedo
Perhaps there should be no surprise that Nelson Semedo suffered from apparent cognitive issues against Crystal Palace, considering the sheer violence Diego Costa inflicted on his teammate and fellow passenger on the flight to south London.

It really was the best connection any Wolves striker has managed for a good couple of years.

The right-back was clearly still suffering the effects at Selhurst Park. After a great first half in which he helped shackle Wilfried Zaha, Semedo was caught under the ball as Eberechi Eze headed a back-post equaliser. Then came one of the most egregious cases of tracking back ever recorded, the former Barcelona defender first accidentally tripping Zaha and then jogging back while admiring his front-seat view of the match-winning move. It feels as though Mick Beale or any other incoming permanent manager won’t really stand for that.

 

Everton
Only Wolves have scored fewer goals. Only Crystal Palace (who have played one less game) and Bournemouth have managed fewer touches in the attacking third. Only Nottingham Forest and Bournemouth have managed fewer touches in the attacking penalty area.

Everton have had one shot – an off-target Dominic Calvert-Lewin header from a corner – in their last 136 minutes of football. Frank Lampard needs to figure out how to increase their threat in open play but considering only Bournemouth have completed fewer live-ball passes, there could be more of the same to come from these resolute but uninspired Toffees.

 

Brighton
The perennial claim is that Brighton need a striker who will guarantee 20 goals a season, as if that is a) a solution to their profligacy that they had not previously considered, and b) an easy thing to source without facing competition from clubs who have far more money to spend.

A more accurate assessment would be that they need more goalscorers. The idea is that the attacking burden can be shared across the squad instead of falling squarely on the shoulders of a single player. Fifteen different players (only three clubs had more) netted for the Seagulls in the 2020/21 Premier League season, with 14 (10 clubs had more) scoring in 2021/22.

So far this campaign, only Leandro Trossard, Alexis Mac Allister, Pascal Gross and Moises Caicedo have contributed in front of goal. Wolves are the only club with fewer scorers.

The frustration at selling Neal Maupay, their top scorer in each of the last three seasons, to a rival while not reinvesting the funds in a direct replacement is understandable. But a more realistic Brighton fix than finding an unknown assurance of goals that no other club has heard of would be to get others to pitch in as usual.

 

Bournemouth
The Invincibles are no more. But there should be little surprise at their ultimate demise. In that famous six-game unbeaten run immediately after their 9-0 thrashing by Liverpool, every Bournemouth game was decided by a single goal at most: four draws and wins by 3-2 and 2-1. Those “fine margins” that Gary O’Neil referenced after the game will fall on the wrong side eventually if you keep dancing around them.

And only once in those half-dozen games did Bournemouth win on xG. Based on the quality of chances created and conceded, the Cherries should have been beaten by Wolves, Nottingham Forest, Newcastle, Brentford and Fulham, while overcoming Leicester.

Gary O’Neil has done an excellent job of settling Bournemouth at a difficult time but it was a strange formation compounded by puzzling tactics and questionable use of substitutions at home to a team struggling for confidence and results. And that can happen when the caretaker is in charge for almost two months.

 

David Moyes
The wait for a Premier League away win at Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool or Manchester United continues and ticks over into a not-so-nice 69 games.

West Ham improved immeasurably as the match went on and really should have equalised in the closing stages, having also wasted a penalty. But starting so passively gives them a mountain to climb and invariably creates a gradual panic as they chase a goal. Bowen’s miss from the spot in the 45th minute was their first shot and that isn’t close to good enough.

No club has conceded the opening goal in more Premier League games than West Ham so far this season (8). Liverpool (6) are third behind Southampton so he who struck first was always likely to strike hardest at Anfield. That just makes such an acquiescent early approach all the stranger.

 

Chelsea without Reece James
Reece James has missed three Premier League games this season. Chelsea lost to Southampton without him in August, were fortunate to beat Aston Villa last weekend and struggled for large periods at Brentford.

Ruben Loftus-Cheek is a fine player but the wing-back drop-off from James is as obvious as it is understandable. Potter’s tactical malleability should come to the fore as he considers inventive solutions to a substantial issue of balance, cohesion and creativity.

 

Cristiano Ronaldo
Fucking grow up. And get your entourage to think for themselves and develop some original, worthwhile opinions.