Liverpool and risk-free recruitment
There are those who accuse Liverpool of trying to ‘buy’ the league as though it were some kind of heinous crime against football, but sometimes you have to stand up and applaud the kind of ruthless, ultra-focused recruitment that solves a team’s problems in two fell swoops. Need a commanding centre-half? Break the world transfer record for a defender. Desperately require a goalkeeper with neither chocolate wrists nor a broken soul? Break the world transfer record for a goalkeeper. Liverpool decided which two players they needed to transition from plucky entertainers to title contenders and they relentlessly pursued those targets and only those targets. Southampton pocketed £75m, Roma received an initial £56m, two extremely talented players made deserved progress to an elite club and Liverpool look like an entirely different team that can win games 1-0 when the magic further up the pitch refuses to ignite. Never in recent history has a Liverpool side looked so balanced.
They could afford to spend enormous sums on those large round pegs for large round holes because they already had a good left-back they picked up for a pittance and made very, very good, a centre-half that cost them half a pittance as a teenager and a right-back that cost them nothing as a six-year-old at a summer camp. Excellent decisions made in 2005, 2015 and 2017 meant that they could break records in 2018 and still have a back five that cost only marginally more than that of Manchester United, which shipped three goals against the same opposition last week.
With such spending, they have created expectation. But three games, nine points and three clean sheets into the season, they seem to be handling things just fine.
— Match of the Day (@BBCMOTD) August 25, 2018
Liverpool spent just a little under £100m on two central midfielders this summer and their captain is a central midfielder who was instrumental in helping his country to the World Cup semi-finals. Three games in, Gini Wijnaldum really has no right to be pretty much undroppable for this all-conquering Liverpool side. Against Brighton, he was sublime, misplacing just one of his 76 passes. When Jurgen Klopp was asked about the absence of Fabinho, perhaps he should have said just one word: Gini.
Our early winner because he is the first Watford manager to survive a Premier League summer under the Pozzos, and he has responded with three consecutive victories. Since his appointment as Watford manager in January, he has picked up more points at home than Manchester City. He may yet survive a whole year.
The early leader in the ‘most tackles in the Premier League’ table. Playing football suits him better than yellow.
Their approach against Manchester City had won hearts and minds even before Sunday brought the opposite, much-criticised tack from Rafa Benitez. Wolves may now only sit one point and two places above Newcastle, but they are left with a great deal more pride and a lot fewer ‘what ifs’ on Monday morning. If only goodwill was worth points…
They were by no means gung-ho in their approach against the champions – and at times they had just as many players behind the ball as Newcastle on Sunday – but they at least showed attacking intent. They pressed from front to back, and they broke with pace and accuracy, though admittedly that is easier when your central midfield is Joao Moutinho and Ruben Neves rather than Mo Diame and Ki Sung-yueng.
“They don’t behave or play like a Championship team that has just been promoted,” said Vincent Kompany, and there can be no greater compliment. That Pep Guardiola was absolutely unperturbed by dropping two points at Molineux is telling; they know they will not be the last to trip up against opposition boasting resources far beyond those of newly-promoted clubs who have come before. Nobody will have an easy game there.
“Of course, for the spectators in the stadium, everyone on TV, they enjoy it because we had chances, they had chances, and for the Premier League it’s good,” said Guardiola. Indeed. There’s a reason we told you to watch in Big Weekend. We bloody knew this one would be good.
But we cannot leave without a slightly sobering reminder: For all the plaudits, they still have exactly the same points as Cardiff.
Winners because they, well, won, but – and there was always going to be a gigantic but here – they look so vulnerable and disjointed that you wonder if they could win against a team that was not matching them stride for stride in a race to be the most vulnerable and the most disjointed.
Only Huddersfield have allowed more shots on goal in their opening three games than Arsenal. Now there is a caveat that they have played the last two champions in their opening three games, but they have now also played West Ham, and they allowed West Ham not just a quantity, but a quality, of chance that is not befitting of a side with top-four ambitions. Can they really play with a split centre-half system for as long as their centre-halves are Sokratis and Shkodran Mustafi? And can they really play that system without Lucas Torreira?
“It’s clear we need to improve and we need to improve on working to not concede many chances,” said Unai Emery, which should provide some comfort for Arsenal fans. He knows this is not going terribly well even though he now has his first three points on the board. There is no papering over cracks (or chasms).
The rather excellent news for those of us who are as close as damn it to neutrals is that this is going to be a fascinating season of Arsenal-watching after several years of seeing the same, turgid story unfold in ever so slightly different ways. This new era is fun, at least.
It just makes us smile.
Easy-going Eden Hazard
Take that, Graeme Souness.
The last time Chelsea won their first three games of a Premier League season, they won the title under Antonio Conte in 2016/17.
The second-to-last time Chelsea won their first three games of a Premier League season, they won the title under Jose Mourinho in 2014/15.
Now nobody is going to claim that Chelsea were excellent against Newcastle on Sunday – in truth, they found it very difficult against obdurate opponents – but they eventually found a way, and if you can take over a club in some degree of disarray and win your opening three games while still very much looking like a work in progress, you can ask for little more.
There are massive question marks about the suitability of David Luiz to playing in a back four, the suitability of N’Golo Kante to a less pivotal role, the suitability of Alvaro Morata to Sarri-ball and the over-reliance on the wonderful Hazard, but it is far better to be asking questions while winning games than to be asking questions from the bottom or middle reaches of the Premier League.
Just the 25 points picked up from losing positions since the start of last season.
It took them nine games to score six goals last season; this year, they have done it in three. With largely the same players. This is a surprisingly fine start.
Now feeling really stupid for even thinking that they might struggle this season, and feeling rather glad that I plumped for Southampton in the end.
Only Mo Salah has created more chances in the Premier League this season. Being level with David Silva puts you in pretty good company.
All they were saying…was give us some goals. From the famine to the feast. Not since March 2017 had Everton scored at least two goals in three consecutive Premier League games.
Contrary to what Sam Allardyce or Richard Keys may tell you, Everton fans are absolutely not expecting to challenge Liverpool for the title; they simply want not to be bored sh*tless. So far, so good for Marco Silva’s entertainers.
Leicester City have not won a game away in the Premier League without Jamie Vardy since December 2014. No wonder he went bloody mental.
We will never know how they persuaded Jean-Michael Seri to join Fulham. We presume it involved kidnap. And that is absolutely fine. What a hit. What a player.
15 – Since his debut for Fulham in February, no player has scored more league goals in the top four tiers of English football than Aleksandar Mitrovic (15, level with Mo Salah). Fire. pic.twitter.com/alpe3k9NuK
— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) August 26, 2018
The only team without a point and the only club to have ever started two successive Premier League seasons with three straight defeats.
The glass-half-full version of that sentence is that the Hammers probably did deserve a point against Arsenal because their performance was much improved – the additions of Felipe Anderson and Carlos Sanchez threatened to give them a balanced central midfield, which would truly blow the mind of all supporters – while the second part of that sentence is only true because West Ham bucked the trend and survived despite such a disastrous start to last season. The signs are that they will survive with a little more room to spare simply because they now have better players and a better manager.
The real worry is that they are massively over-reliant on Marko Arnautovic, who has been directly involved in more Premier League goals in 2018 than every player bar Mo Salah. Since mid-April, no other West Ham striker has scored a Premier League goal.
Wherever the truth lies on the scale of ‘massive bust-up’ to ‘poorly boy’, it’s fair to say that this is a weekend that has not elevated Mesut Ozil in anybody’s eyes. If he refused to be on the bench, then he looks like a dick. If he refused to play out wide, then he looks like a dick. If he was merely ill and Arsenal won in his absence, with Aaron Ramsey displaying energy and effort in the No. 10 role, then he simply looks surplus to requirements and not fit for the task.
Ozil might well have caught Unai Emery at exactly the wrong time. At PSG, he was very much the power-poor stooge as their transfer spending rendered him roughly the fifth most important man in the dressing-room, but he will clearly allow no such dynamics at Arsenal. If Ozil does not want to be part of this all-pressing, all-harrying, altogether now era at Arsenal, then he will simply be left on the sidelines. The giant pander is now an endangered species in north London.
“My only argument is with the initial yellow card. I thought it was really soft and didn’t merit a yellow card in my view. It was a clear foul but it wasn’t a blatant yellow card and that was my frustration. Clearly if you know you’ve been booked you need to make sure you don’t get into that situation.
“In Pierre’s defence initially I think he did feel something as he tried to burst through and he felt a clip on his heels and he felt he could still get a shot off and that chance went and then your mind plays tricks on you and you think ‘because I felt something I will try and go down to claim the penalty for the initial touch.’
“That was my take on it and I am probably completely wrong because I haven’t spoken to Pierre about the reasons for going down.
“At that point you would have thought the referee would have shown some common sense and that he had got a clip and just have given the free kick and carried on but it’s Jon Moss.”
And you are Mark Hughes and nothing is ever your fault.
We have just belatedly noticed that Southampton’s strike options are Danny Ings, Shane Long and Charlie Austin, who are basically the same player three times over. Oh and they have scored 20 Premier League goals between them since the summer of 2016.
Remember when Southampton were at least interesting? Hughes has stripped every remaining shred of interesting out of this squad.
“This isn’t football,” said Jamie Redknapp, while Graeme Souness scoffed at the notion that he would have ever been allowed to play that way as Newcastle manager. Of course you wouldn’t, Graeme – you took over a side that had finished in the top five for three successive seasons and you had Alan Shearer, Kieron Dyer, Craig Bellamy, Lee Bowyer, Laurent Robert and James Milner. And then you were allowed to break the club transfer record to sign Michael Owen.
Rafa Benitez has Joselu and Salomon Rondon. And that club transfer record still stands.
The truth is that Benitez chose the tactics best suited to his personnel and he came damn close to claiming a point; Chelsea only managed three shots on target in 90 minutes and were only actually ahead for a tiny percentage of the game. There is no doubt that Newcastle’s players executed the game plan to near perfection and the vast majority of fans left the ground cursing the referee rather than their manager for its failure.
Of course, those tactics have made Benitez an easy target (and a loser) and he may well have upset some of his key players by insisting that they heartily embrace their role as underdog, but this is Rafa Benitez and he really can do no wrong on Tyneside. Without him, they have a Kinnear’s chance of survival.
Those who suggest that a Champions League and La Liga winner should be ashamed of his tactics can ask themselves one question: Do you really want to find yourself on the same side as Richard Keys?
If Big Sam sent a team out to play like this he’d get hammered. This isn’t Newcastle. Toon fans I know would rather lose 5-4 than win 1-0 like this.
— Richard Keys (@richardajkeys) August 26, 2018
Chelsea’s English brigade
Ross Barkley was relegated to the bench alongside Ruben Loftus-Cheek. Gary Cahill, Danny Drinkwater, Tammy Abraham and Callum Hudson-Odoi did not even make it that far.
A full list of the English players to start this weekend in the Premier League:
Conor Coady, Ryan Bennett, Kyle Walker, Raheem Sterling, Ryan Fredericks, Michail Antonio, Jack Wilshere, Adam Smith, Steve Cook, Charlie Daniels, Dan Gosling, Callum Wilson, Jordan Pickford, Michael Keane, Leighton Baines, Theo Walcott, Tom Davies, Ben Hamer, Jonathan Hogg, Sean Morrison, Joe Bennett, Joe Ralls, Nathaniel Mendez-Laing, Josh Murphy, Alex McCarthy, Ryan Bertrand, Nathan Redmond, Danny Ings, Harry Maguire, Ben Chilwell, James Maddison, Demarai Gray, Joe Gomez, Trent Alexander-Arnold, James Milner, Dale Stephens, Solly March, Glenn Murray, Ben Foster, Will Hughes, Andre Gray, Troy Deeney, Joel Ward, Martin Kelly, Andros Townsend, Jacob Murphy, Marcus Bettinelli, Joe Bryan, Joe Hart, Matt Lowton, James Tarkowski, Ben Mee, Aaron Lennon, Jack Cork, Ashley Westwood.
We have helpfully highlighted the players who Southgate took to this summer’s World Cup.
Good luck, fella.
(And yes, we do realise that rather a lot of English players will start on Monday night. But still).
They have allowed the opposition 59 shots and taken just 16 of their own. By any measure, these are not the foundations of a second survival campaign. And believe me, it gives me no pleasure to write this. Yes, the opening two fixtures were difficult but Cardiff at home is the easiest fixture in the calendar and Town mustered just one shot on target in 90 minutes. That is unforgivable.
The red card to Jonathan Hogg in the second half gives the 0-0 result an excuse it really does not deserve; once again, Town struggled to create chances from wide areas, with Rajiv van La Parra and Adama Diakhaby forging not one single opportunity or even producing one accurate cross between them. That leaves an awful lot of pressure on Aaron Mooy to deliver accurate set-pieces.
This is going to be a sodding long season.
The only consolation is that they are even worse. How are they ever going to score a Premier League goal?
“They were the better side. More inventive, more productive and possibly signs that their £100m has been spent well it seems on that performance.”
Ah, here we go. Welcome back, chippy Sean Dyche, bitterly pointing out that Fulham have spent rather a lot more money than Burnley this summer.
And actually, he does have a point because the only new player in the Clarets’ line-up outclassed at Craven Cottage was Joe Hart. Even without the added effort and distraction of the Europa League, Burnley have sleepwalked into what already looks like a relegation battle. An average bunch of players performed and produced at the very heights of their powers last season, and it really was folly to ever expect that they could do that again without significant resources.
When you are spending less than Newcastle, you are handing your manager two slices of bread and a pile of poo and then expecting him to come up with something other than a sh*t sandwich.
Simply looks broken and it is pretty sad to see. He has scored just two Premier League goals in 2018.
“He needs that break that all front players need. Unfortunately when you are a front player and you are signed for relatively big money and you are a big name player, if you are not scoring goals then you unfortunately you are going to be under the microscope,” said Roy Hodgson.
We cannot fathom whether Hodgson is helping or hindering that process by continually playing Benteke and then having no choice but to bring him off when Palace are in need of a goal. Jordan Ayew really cannot get fit quick enough.
Our early loser. It may be time.
It’s definitely time.
Just a really bloody stupid thing to do.
Tell-tale tit. No tears when he was also sent off unnecessarily.
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