It has been a long and arduous journey, and while a first Premier League goal since March 2016 is an artificial milestone in the greater picture, it is testament to the strength of Aaron Lennon. He has finally found a loving home at Burnley.
“Moving to Burnley is one of the best decisions I’ve made football wise,” said the winger in the summer, and this is certainly a relationship built on a mutual understanding. The 31-year-old is capable of offering a different dimension to a team otherwise lacking incision, while Turf Moor provides regular football and a strong support network as their part of the deal.
But Lennon would have been the first to admit that while his lack of end product could be excused in a team performing well above their station, patience can only extend so far when results suffer too. The winger had managed just two assists in 25 games for Burnley and was in danger of losing his place.
He matched that record and added a goal for good measure against high-flying Bournemouth on Saturday in a performance as hard-working as it was scintillating. No player made more tackles (4) at Turf Moor as Lennon finally married steel with style for the Clarets.
“It’s been preying on my mind to be honest,” said Lennon of his lack of goals after the game. A burden has been lifted and that smile has returned.
It takes three consecutive defeats to plunge a club into crisis, but just one victory to rescue them from the depths of despair. Tottenham have emerged from their worst run of form under Mauricio Pochettino in fifth place, with five Champions League games remaining, and both the FA and Carabao Cups to come.
As fine as the line is between success and failure, Tottenham were failing to straddle it. A defeat in difficult surroundings at Brighton would have rendered this their worst run since the caretaker management and 14th-place finish of David Pleat in 2004: an unthinkable fate for a club on a seemingly permanent upwards spiral.
Yet there they were, stumbling back to work, stinking of p*ss but sat upright and mumbling coherent sentences. Pochettino’s side were enjoying the basics once more, with their improved passing reaching a gradual crescendo before the masterful zenith that was Erik Lamela’s goal. “Of course,” was the manager’s simple response when asked whether his players had distributed the ball better than against Liverpool and Inter Milan.
That is an admittedly low bar, but failure to clear it may have been disastrous. Toby Alderweireld and Kieran Trippier were both scapegoated for the Liverpool loss, paying the price for their sloppy defending and distribution with their Champions League places. Both were significantly better against a Brighton side that afforded perhaps too much respect to the opposition, proving that Pochettino’s power has not waned.
Tottenham have become adept at ignoring external noise over the years, but even they would have been forgiven for listening to the growing dissent as on-pitch displays and off-pitch issues combined to create a damaging concoction. They needed a result to part the clouds and duly delivered.
As it is, Tottenham have as many points after six games than in the 2015/16 season when they finished second, and more than at this stage last campaign when they eventually placed third. Games against Huddersfield and Cardiff, with the visit of Barcelona sandwiched in between, provide an opportunity to shift perceptions from disaster to delight.
Tottenham remain the last team to beat Paulo Gazzaniga in the Premier League. The 26-year-old has won every top-flight game he has played since December 2015.
That’s only two matches of course, but still.
“We were at home, we had to respond, we had to win the game,” said Claude Puel. “This team plays deep. It was important to put another striker in the box with Jamie Vardy.”
Thus began a potentially fruitful new relationship at the King Power Stadium, with Kelechi Iheanacho scoring and assisting in the same Premier League game for only the second time in Leicester blue. After sharing the spotlight with Riyad Mahrez, Jamie Vardy might finally have found a new partner in goalscoring crime.
Many players will enjoy a peaceful Saturday afternoon at home to Huddersfield this season, so only so much can be read into the Nigerian’s performance. But Iheanacho was excellent, creating four chances in a more reserved centre-forward role. It was ‘one of the best striker performances of the season’, according to one very clever man.
He brought out the best in his teammates, too. Vardy had just five shots in his first three games this season, and managed seven in 90 minutes on Saturday. With James Maddison roaming behind, Claude Puel might have found his best attacking formula.
Our early winners, with a squad finally deep enough to change not only personnel but systems. Michail Antonio remains the last opposition player to score a Premier League goal at Anfield; the Reds have not conceded a league goal at home in 751 minutes.
Has one fewer Premier League goal than at this stage last season and exactly as many assists. The drought is real.
Arsenal, second-half kings
They would be 14th in a Premier League table comprised entirely of first-half results, above Newcastle on goals scored; they would be fifth in a Premier League table comprised entirely of second-half results, below only Manchester City, Chelsea, Watford and Leicester.
They are sixth in a Premier League table comprised entirely of actual results, above Manchester United after a more difficult start. Those still searching desperately for signs of tangible progress and change should remember that Arsene Wenger won five or more consecutive games just three times in his last 36 months in charge. Unai Emery has managed it within his first seven matches.
It is still weird that Arsenal signed the most expensive goalkeeper in their history in the summer and are yet to use him outside of the Europa League, but Petr Cech finally offered irrefutable proof as to why on Sunday. The 36-year-old’s previous performances this season had been tinged with at least one moment of uncertainty in possession, but he was as sure with his feet as he was with his hands against Everton.
Alexandre Lacazette and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang will receive the plaudits on an afternoon that conjured more questions of how Aaron Ramsey and Mesut Ozil can work together in the same system. But the platform for success was built by a player many had written off long ago. Six saves, more passes and touches than Ramsey and a distinct lack of heart-in-mouth moments makes this a well-earned first clean sheet of the season.
“I have to get an X-ray but I played with three broken toes last week so it will be all right. I may have a broken bone or two but we’ll crack on. It is what it is. I am a tough, ugly boy.”
Fulham’s centre-halves discovered that to their detriment on Saturday. Alfie Mawson and Calum Chambers will be on the England radar, but were exposed time and again by a player likely to be overlooked for international duty. Deeney was excellent at Craven Cottage, a fine foil for Andre Gray once more.
Could he force Gareth Southgate into a rethink? Probably not. But could he force Watford to their highest-ever Premier League finish? Almost certainly.
Whisper it really, *really* quietly, but they look like an actual team. Manuel Pellegrini is the only man in England fond of the international break.
Still has more goals than Newcastle this season.
There are many different ways of responding to suggestions that Eddie Howe is England’s leading managerial light. Making him the victim of your biggest ever Premier League win is one.
Three passes completed, two goals scored in 22 minutes. Strong effort.
The chances of a first Premier League clean sheet in ten games dissipated within 87 seconds, but Fulham at least avoided becoming just the third side to concede two or more goals in ten consecutive top-flight fixtures. That is unlikely to please Slavisa Jokanovic, who has an awful lot of work on his hands to overhaul this under-performing defence.
The manager deserves credit for identifying the issue and solving it with two half-time changes, but the horse had almost bolted long before his intervention. Fulham were painfully lacking in discipline against Watford, and while their attacking approach is admirable, defensive improvement is a must.
Perhaps inexperience was the problem. A defence of Timothy Fosu-Mensah (20), Alfie Mawson (24), Calum Chambers (23) and Ryan Sessegnon (18) had no discernible leader, and the deficiencies of a centre-half pairing that had already each suffered one Premier League relegation was laid bare.
Only when Denis Odoi was introduced for the awful Mawson did Fulham find a foothold, while Floyd Ayité infused some midfield steel where a chasm once gaped. “I make two changes; if I’d had the opportunity I would have made four, I would do it,” was Jokanovic’s post-match message, and he is not a man whose words ought to be taken lightly.
Make that one clean sheet in 18 Premier League games. Yerry Mina had better be bloody good.
Jose Mourinho, bully no more
Jose Mourinho was once your classic bully. He could more than hold his own against those of similar or greater stature, but he would truly come into his own when faced with a smaller opponent. The likes of Norwich, West Brom, Crystal Palace and Hull have been handing their lunch money over to the Portuguese.
In his first 23 Premier League games against promoted teams, Mourinho’s record was unparalleled. His teams scored 57 goals and conceded just 12 times, winning 22 of those matches. The solitary draw came against Reading in December 2006 – the first time a Mourinho side had conceded more than once to a promoted team in England.
Then came a defeat to Crystal Palace in March 2014, and the mask slipped. Including that loss, Mourinho has now drawn four and lost five of his last 22 games against promoted teams, scoring 31 goals and conceding 13. Manchester United have already dropped as many points in their first game against a promoted team this season as Mourinho’s two Chelsea sides in his first 23.
The manager deems it an issue of attitude. He made a point of praising Wolves for playing “like the World Cup final” at Old Trafford, then turned to his own players. “I can’t explain the difference of attitude because I never had a difference of attitude. For me it is difficult to explain that,” he said.
There is an element of sympathy, for while these players are clearly fighting for this manager, there remains a disconnect. But it is in Mourinho’s remit to identify the problem and solve it, not simply play the ‘mentality’ card and pass the buck. He has to inspire his squad, to instil in them the idea that every match is as important as the last, regardless of the opponent.
United lost three league games against promoted sides in the same season for the first time since 1989/90 last campaign. In their first opportunity to rectify that, they failed. The bullies are no longer feared – even in their own home.
There are only so many excuses, only so long you can plead patience. Our early loser has talent queuing behind him to take his place, and dwindling support for him to keep it.
Chelsea’s lack of squad goals
It was bound to happen sooner or later. Chelsea started the season far better than anyone imagined or predicted, but finally came up against a side able to defend deep and resolutely for 90 minutes. Newcastle tried and failed, Arsenal took an entirely different approach, and Huddersfield, Bournemouth and Cardiff put up little resistance. West Ham are the first obstacle Maurizio Sarri has failed to clear in England.
As Chelsea pushed for a late winner at the London Stadium, their obvious issue was exposed. They had four attempts in the final 15 minutes, each by different players, none of whom are particularly famed for their goalscoring. First came a David Luiz free-kick, then a poor miss from N’Golo Kante, followed by a well-saved Ross Barkley effort and a blocked Willian shot. There was never a sense of impending doom for a well-drilled West Ham defence. Rather, there was always the feeling that the hosts could score on the counter-attack.
It will not become a pressing issue, but Chelsea have no safety net for when Eden Hazard and his strike partner are unable to parachute them into a two or three-goal lead. Of Sunday’s starting XI, Luiz has the most career goals of any player behind the front three, with Marcos Alonso a close second. Only Hazard (15) and Pedro (13) have had more shots than Alonso this season (13), while no midfielder has had more attempts than Antonio Rudiger (9).
The burden of chances is being shared, but the burden of scoring is not. Sarri’s system is clearly working, as only Manchester City (94) have made more key passes than Chelsea (86) this season. But using these current players in this system means that those opportunities will often fall on the wrong boot. Jorginho, Mateo Kovacic and Kante are phenomenal midfielders, but none are even average goalscorers.
Allan was the perfect man for the right-sided central-midfield role under Sarri at Napoli, and it is no criticism of Kante to suggest he is not a natural fit there. The best defensive midfielder in Europe might not even be the third most suitable option in his current position.
One win in 11 Premier League games. Eurgh.
Four wins at Selhurst Park in 2018. Eurgh.
The bottom two
The season may be just six games old, but Huddersfield and Cardiff already seem doomed. I shall boil my hats for consumption, just in case.