Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester United have all spent loads to become worse. One ‘super-important’ Liverpool signing has not lived up to the billing so far.
10) All the chat about referees
So much of it. So very boring.
9) Jordan Henderson
Four assists in six games for fourth-placed Al-Ettifaq. Not bad. Did play one of those matches in front of 976 fans. Not great. Does presumably still have his values and beliefs, although only if they do not even vaguely clash with those very publicly held by his employers. Not good enough.
8) Sandro Tonali
“I don’t think we can judge Sandro Tonali, or any signings, within a month,” was the recent view of Eddie Howe, the complete and utter nerd that he is. Wouldn’t last one day in the online football content world, him. If you think turning Joelinton into one of the Premier League’s most effective midfielders, sharing a touchline with Jason Tindall and sidestepping uncomfortable questions in press conferences is difficult then just try thinking of enough feature ideas to survive an international week.
After a quite stunning debut against Aston Villa, Tonali has stumbled awkwardly through his first weeks in England. The Italian started the three successive defeats to Manchester City, Liverpool and Brighton, with that run culminating in a minor Magpies panic over the configuration of their engine room. It remains to be seen precisely where the £55m signing fits in and who it is alongside, but that burst out of the blocks at St James’ Park on the opening weekend perhaps raised early expectations to a place that was never going to be maintained.
The international break, an injury suffered during that same season pause and a natural period of acclimatisation after an emotional departure from a club with whom he shared such a close bond has not provided an environment conducive to excellence, through the fault of no-one in particular. But the alpha male’s strut has been conspicuous by its absence.
Five wins from the final six matches of last season applied a top-half sheen to Brentford and ensured that for the fifth campaign in a row – every full year under Thomas Frank – the Bees improved on their league finish or points total from the previous season, if not both.
It is already difficult to envisage them continuing that impressive sequence. The novelty of Ivan Toney’s absence has thoroughly worn off, their famously strong record without him has been shattered and the decision not to directly replace him in the summer has been exposed; no, bringing Neal Maupay back on loan does not count. That transfer window increasingly looks like a misstep as a thin squad looks shorn of alternative options to help dig them out of a rut.
A five-game unbeaten start has bled into a five-game winless run. Their aura at home has vanished. The breath of fresh air has gone stale. For the first time since promotion, it feels as though forward-thinking Brentford have taken a clear, tangible step back.
6) Wataru Endo
It is a long season with numerous plates to spin and the squad will have to be utilised accordingly, but already Endo seems to be gathering dust in the cupboard. His arrival captured the essence of a quintessential Liverpool transfer: from out of nowhere, sensible and greeted with ludicrous fanfare because This Means More. His start has comprised 90 broken Premier League minutes spread across four substitute cameos, and an hour-long run-out in Europe.
Jurgen Klopp has already felt the need to clarify that the “super-important” 30-year-old “will start games” and “is not a short-term project”, yet the continued experiment with Alexis Mac Allister in a deeper lying role, or Dominik Szoboszlai dropping back as and when the situation demands, seems more indicative of the situation.
5) Mauricio Pochettino
Gary Neville reckons “he’s got a huge pack of cards and he’s probably struggling to know which hand to play”. Pochettino himself believes he has “a big box of lemons” that “need a long time” to develop properly. Todd Boehly can’t wait for 2042, when these contracts properly start paying for themselves under interim manager Conor Gallagher.
It is a bit of a muddle at Chelsea but there was a belief that Pochettino could rise above it and find sense in the madness. His experiences at Paris Saint-Germain, Spurs and Southampton primed him for this challenge; the delicate management and egos and construction of young, exciting teams almost from scratch were tailor-made for The Chelsea Project. And the near four-year wait for the follow-up Premier League album to his seminal hit in north London created a certain buzz.
But Pochettino seems to have already been consumed by it all in the same way Thomas Tuchel, Graham Potter and Frank Lampard were. Chelsea’s underlying numbers are promising and have earned a degree of patience that things will eventually come good through the Argentinean’s processes, but it was meant to be so much better than this.
It is purely hypothetical but there cannot be many runners-up in Premier League history who spent more than £200m the subsequent summer while losing only one starter whose time was coming to a natural end anyway, only to look considerably worse.
There are caveats: Jurrien Timber’s injury was unfortunate and Gabriel Jesus has only just returned from a knee problem. Arsenal also remain unbeaten and strolled back into the Champions League as though they had never been gone.
But expectation has raised in a way Arsenal’s performance levels have not. Avoidable individual mistakes, a bizarre inability to create chances, unnecessary tactical innovations and £65m dumped on Kai Havertz has made the margins weirdly fine for a club in such an enviable position to evolve at the end of last season.
3) The promoted clubs
Only once before have all three promoted teams remained winless through the first five games of a Premier League season. Crystal Palace, West Brom and Norwich started dreadfully in 2004/05, taking eight, eight and 14 matches respectively to register a victory. Only the Baggies stayed up – and that was after a small amount of drama on the final day.
None of them lost 8-0 either. In fact, the three of them spent an awful lot of time drawing. Which isn’t to say Zoltan Gera, Leon McKenzie and Mikele Leigertwood enjoyed getting the crayons out. Just five teams had more stalemates than Norwich and Palace’s 12, including the league leaders by that particular metric, Bryan Robson’s West Brom (16).
Luton, Sheffield United and Burnley have played 16 games so far, drawn three, lost the rest, scored 12 goals and conceded 41. The Clarets have had some rotten fixtures and might feel aggrieved to be grouped in with their former Championship brethren, while the Hatters and Blades have shown fight at times, albeit not when Anthony Gordon is prowling. In any case, it would be nice to see them cobble a few more points together, if only just to shut up the usual people saying they’re wasting a place in the Premier League.
Between them, Burnley, Sheffield United and Luton won 78 league games last season and have won none so far this season.
— Richard Jolly 🇺🇦 (@RichJolly) September 23, 2023
2) Moises Caicedo
Chelsea’s brand of disappointment requires a couple of entries, because as dissatisfying as it has been to see Pochettino stutter through his triumphant return to England, it always bears repeating just how much the Blues have invested to reap just so little.
Around half the add-ons in Caicedo’s potential British record move were described as ‘quite easily achievable’ but on the basis of his start it might actually take some doing. The bloke never conceded a penalty for Brighton but managed it within half an hour of his debut; he gave the ball away for the only goal in defeat to Nottingham Forest; he was utterly schooled by Douglas Luiz and Boubacar Kamara in an Aston Villa win.
Perhaps he always played like this and the scrutinous spotlight is simply brighter. But at the minute Liverpool must be thanking their stars for those Stamford Bridge hijacks.
1) Manchester United
All of it. The clear on-pitch regression; the absence of any clear patterns of play; the stark deterioration in form of Casemiro, Lisandro Martinez and Marcus Rashford; the lack of a takeover; the handling of certain difficult situations; the Mason Greenwood stuff; the fact, as pointed out by the perceptive Arturo Vidal, that Erik ten Hag remains bald.
They spent about £170m after finishing third and winning a trophy, yet their best signing has been a 35-year-old free agent they sold eight years ago. Circus.