It might just be the last Premier League winners and losers appearance for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. At least he is accompanied by Harry Maguire.
Normally when a Watford game prompts a board to sack a manager, it is further proof there is a revolving door at Vicarage Road. This time, it seemed another indication Watford were right to sack Xisco Munoz. Claudio Ranieri’s results have been wildly erratic but the 5-2 win at Everton and 4-1 demolition of Manchester United are almost surreal scorelines. It is the fate of clubs such as Watford to be demoted to a subplot in a tale of elite crisis but the Hornets were superb. They outran, outworked and out-thought their more illustrious visitors. They had a group of United cast-offs in Josh King, Tom Cleverley, Craig Cathcart and Ben Foster, who each outperformed the current crop. In Emmanuel Dennis, who has four goals and five assists already this season, they have an early contender for the unofficial title of bargain of the season. And in Ranieri, they have a manager who is doing a better job than the dismissed Munoz at perming from Watford’s quixotically assembled squad and making the right choices at the right time.
Liverpool’s front three
For much of Jurgen Klopp’s reign, the quintessential Liverpool victory seemed to feature a goal each from Roberto Firmino, Sadio Mane and Mohamed Salah. Now they have other front threes: Diogo Jota has succeeded where others failed and proved a genuine alternative to Klopp’s holy trinity. With Firmino injured, the Portuguese was guaranteed to start and he, Salah and Mane struck in the 4-0 win over Arsenal. He made it four goals in three games against the Gunners, Mane showed again that he is a deceptively big threat in the air and Salah was irrepressible. Even without Firmino, Liverpool showed they can press from the front with frightening intensity. Arsenal arrived with a frugal new-look defence and departed demolished. But while Liverpool had a fourth scorer – substitute Takumi Minamino – arguably their quartet of potent attackers were the three forwards and the right-back with two assists, in Trent Alexander-Arnold.
Now read 16 Conclusions from Anfield.
Chelsea’s Leicester old boys
A win secured in Leicester was made in Leicester too. Ben Chilwell got the assist for the first goal. N’Golo Kante scored the second. Each is an example of football’s food chain: Leicester tend to sell one starter every summer and while upwardly mobile players sometimes have reasons to regret their move – see Drinkwater, Danny – Kante and Chilwell have benefited from a bigger stage. There is a sense that Thomas Tuchel has freed each up to venture into the final third by fielding a team with fewer ostensibly attacking players; a team that Mauricio Pochettino branded defensive certainly did not look it at the King Power Stadium.
Kante has had more licence to burst forward under Tuchel. His goal had echoes of his strike at Tottenham, another effort from the edge of the box. Chilwell, after his summer of inactivity, has reached a new level this autumn. He was irrepressible and elusive with everything but the goal, hitting the bar, being denied by Kasper Schmeichel and taking the corner Antonio Rudiger headed in for his regular goal against Leicester.
Chelsea may have many a reason to be grateful to the Foxes: Frank Lampard’s defeat there ushered his exit, and two who kicked on at the King Power then helped make their current employers champions of Europe. Now Kante remains a unique force in midfield and Chilwell a rival to Joao Cancelo for the title of the division’s most in-form left-back.
Many of us felt he had leapt aboard a sinking ship with no chance of making it seaworthy. Smith begged to disagree, showing both a faith in his own ability and more in Norwich’s players than many outsiders have. Yet a debut win against Southampton, besides avenging the defeat that cost him his job at Aston Villa, suggests they have hope. Smith’s decision to recall Billy Gilmour and his half-time changes both contributed. He already looks better suited to managing Norwich in the Premier League than the increasingly flummoxed Daniel Farke.
Perhaps Smith would have overseen a 2-0 win over a toothless Brighton. But the fact that Gerrard did on his debut reflected well. So did a clean sheet for a defence that has had too many slapdash moments in recent weeks. The important opener spoke to a managerial alchemy: Gerrard brought on Ashley Young, who got the assist, and moved Ollie Watkins, the scorer, from the left wing into the middle, allowing him to sprint clear and finish. Admittedly, a decision to start with a semi-fit Danny Ings looked less inspired, but the result and the manner of it lent a sheen to the manager’s introduction. And the sight of a celebrating Gerrard remains compelling viewing.
David de Gea and Donny van de Beek
After developing a reputation for haphazard penalty goalkeeping, De Gea stopped two – or the same one, arguably, as Ismaila Sarr’s spot kick had to be retaken – in swift succession. He then delivered some punditry more honest than many a former United player, continuing his habit of doing everything in pairs by using the words “embarrassing” and “nightmare” twice. Van de Beek, meanwhile, has perhaps suffered more than any other player because of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s management but was a rarity in making a valiant bid to extend the Norwegian’s reign. Belatedly given his chance in the second half at Watford, he scored. It made it all the more perplexing that Solskjaer started him in just four of 50 league games.
Newcastle and Burnley, the great entertainers
It isn’t often that there are two 3-3 draws on the same day and still rarer when they are at Newcastle and Burnley. It might have been even odder were Steve Bruce still in charge of Newcastle, though there was a certain strangeness that his replacement, Eddie Howe, instead spent the afternoon isolated in a hotel room. But the two teams’ six-goal thrillers with Brentford and Crystal Palace did demonstrate the capacity for excitement the entire division has. And as Burnley have already drawn 2-2 twice this season, they are becoming the improbable entertainers. The Premier League’s new £2billion television rights deal for the United States is basically down to the thrills and spills Sean Dyche provides for the people of the Dakotas.
The defensive midfielder who really galvanised Tottenham to turn defeat into victory was surely Antonio Conte. But while Harry Kane then ended their wait for a shot on target in the Premier League after a mere 273 minutes, perhaps it was significant that Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg got the first top-flight goal of the Italian’s reign. Like his new manager was in his playing days, the Dane is the sort of industrious figure more associated with perspiration than inspiration. His leveller was scarcely the cleanest of strikes. But the pertinent part may be that he was in the box, some 14 yards from goal to shoot. In a season when Hojbjerg and Oliver Skipp have been Tottenham’s version of McFred, the two defensive midfielders at the heart of a civil war, and when Spurs have had too little attacking intent from the centre of the pitch, it was the kind of decisive contribution they have lacked too often, especially when they were too passive under Nuno Espirito Santo.
If Conte is to carry on only fielding three attacking players, and if goals continue to elude Kane, then it is imperative that midfielders and wing-backs like Hojbjerg and the matchwinner Sergio Reguilon get in the box. Each did.
Another holding midfielder, which is an indication such players sometimes require goals to linger in the limelight. Rodri’s piledriver against Everton was spectacular. It also garnished a typical display of accurate passing as he helped control a game where Manchester City had 77 percent of the ball. In the unobtrusive fashion that feels a feature of his position, he is having an excellent season.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer
He contrived to be the greatest loser in a match that featured Imran Louza. Certainly it was not supposed to end for Solskjaer with the away fans booing after the Watford supporters spent much of the preceding 90 minutes taunting “Ole’s at the wheel”. The hero of the Nou Camp became the victim at Vicarage Road, sacked the day after a fifth defeat in seven games.
The last few weeks have brought untold ignominies for Solskjaer and United, exercises in abjectness that have merely highlighted the failures of the Old Trafford board in not acting sooner, in not recognising the severity of their plight. Even by their own standards, United were shocking and shambolic at Watford, from Bruno Fernandes’ early aimless punt up in the air that led to Scott McTominay conceding a penalty, to Harry Maguire’s clumsiness that brought his red card, to the two late goals that rendered it a thrashing. In between, there felt a lack of effort, of attention to detail, of defensive diligence, of everything required in a team.
United showed much of their recent rhetoric has been delusional. Solskjaer’s post-match interviews demonstrated his fundamental decency; someone who loves United more than feels healthy has his own romantic image of what the club is about, but the image and the reality have rarely felt more distant.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's last Premier League win as Man Utd manager was against Nuno Espirito Santo, whose last Premier League win as Tottenham manager was against Dean Smith, whose last Premier League win as Aston Villa manager was against Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.
— Richard Jolly (@RichJolly) November 21, 2021
Technically, Maguire is suspended for United’s trip to Chelsea. He may also be unavailable if he is hung, drawn and quartered by Roy Keane, his limbs fed to the Irishman’s dog and his head displayed on the ramparts of Old Trafford as a punishment for apparently betraying his mate Solskjaer.
But if the Maguire-Solskjaer double act was a qualified success, a broadly successful partnership, this season it has become an axis of incompetence. On Friday, the Norwegian described his captain as “a true example of a Manchester United player” and “a stalwart”. In a particularly atrocious prediction, Solskjaer added: “He’s going to prove his critics wrong.” On Saturday, Maguire was duly and needlessly sent off, with the stupidity of a foul on Cleverley after his own poor touch. And if he should be afforded some sympathy for his performance at Leicester, when he clearly wasn’t fit, United’s most chastening defeats – Leicester, Liverpool, Manchester City, Watford – all seem to have featured particularly wretched displays from Maguire. His best is sometimes very good, but when he is bad, he can be very bad.
Brendan Rodgers had suggested it was disrespectful to link him with the Manchester United job. He nevertheless staked a case with the sort of result with which Solskjaer has become familiar of late: a heavy defeat to title contenders featuring some dreadful defending.
Leicester conceded three to Chelsea, who had three more goals disallowed and hit the woodwork. They were opened up with ease by the team they beat in the FA Cup final. A theme of Rodgers’ reign has been Leicester’s ability to beat their supposed superiors, but this time they were outclassed. But by conceding again from a set-piece, they were also beaten at the basics.
The circumstances have been difficult in a season when Wesley Fofana is yet to play and injuries have meant a game of musical chairs at the back, but only Norwich and Newcastle conceded more and they do not have a clean sheet since their opening-day win over Wolves. Defensively, Rodgers’ Leicester are starting to resemble his Liverpool – and that is not a compliment.
Nuno Tavares and Mikel Arteta
Being preferred to Kieran Tierney seemed a reward. It became a punishment. More seasoned left-backs than Tavares have been tormented by Salah but Mikel Arteta’s decision to stick with the man in possession and form instead of the fit-again regular backfired. The irony was that the Portuguese was most culpable for Diogo Jota’s goal, not Salah’s, but Arsenal’s youthful defence, breached only four times in nine games, then leaked four in 90 minutes. Arteta’s vaguely comical touchline row with Jurgen Klopp almost resulted in a hair coming out of place, did get him a booking and seemed to rouse the Liverpool crowd: their opening goal came a few minutes later. As significant was a policy of playing out from the back, which the best pressing team in the league exploited and, indeed, proved Tavares’ undoing.
Their last five games have produced a solitary point. There is no shame in losing to Manchester City, and Rafa Benitez did so while conceding two fewer goals than Carlo Ancelotti did on the final day of last season, but after a fine start, Everton are sliding down the table as more key players are ruled out. When Demarai Gray hobbled off at the Etihad, their two wingers were Anthony Gordon and Alex Iwobi. Their squad looks stretched and of the five players who started in the attacking half of the side on the opening day, Andros Townsend may be the only one available at Brentford next week, with Abdoulaye Doucoure, Dominic Calvert-Lewin and possibly Gray injured and Richarlison now suspended. And even Townsend has had to become an auxiliary central midfielder.
Even when they played well, they lost. A weekend when Norwich, Watford and Villa won and Burnley, Newcastle and Brentford picked up points left Leeds as perhaps the biggest losers in the bottom half.