We’ve played more than a quarter of the season, and the only teams with more league victories than Bournemouth are Liverpool, Manchester City, Tottenham, Arsenal and Chelsea. If Eddie Howe’s team must face three of those plus Manchester United home and away before the end of December and thus are likely to fall back into the pack, they should also fear nobody.
This is proof of what a long-term plan, extraordinary attention to detail and a manager who understands the importance of harnessing a positive working environment can do. This column asks the question at least three times a season, but when does a high-profile European club knock on Howe’s door? If this were the Bundesliga or Serie A, he’d already be at a Champions League team.
It is difficult to have great faith that casting Martial as Manchester United’s season-saver was ever part of a grand plan. This is an attacker who started one of United’s first six league games of the season, a 3-2 defeat at Brighton during which he had one shot, failed to create a chance, got booked and was substituted after 60 minutes. That came off the back of a summer when Martial was fined for leaving the club’s preseason tour and failing to communicate his return date; he was the subject of regular back-page reports linking him with a move to Italy, Spain and Tottenham.
But Martial would not be the first United player to sing his Old Trafford redemption song. Luke Shaw was a dead man walking last season, but signed a new contract last week. Martial is reportedly less enthusiastic about signing on, but the club have hardly given up. It could yet happen.
The only reason for Martial to stay at Manchester United is if he feels more wanted, and the only way Manchester United might truly save their season is by hitting upon some attacking fluency. On Sunday, we saw evidence that the two might just go hand in hand.
Martial was comfortably the game’s best player, the constant out-ball and a thorn in the side of Seamus Coleman. He scored, he created more chances than any other player and he was fouled for the penalty.
It’s amazing what a little confidence and a run in the team can do. Martial’s finish for the second goal, taken first time and curled wonderfully around Jordan Pickford’s outstretched dive, gave him a moment of deserved individual recognition. Martial kneeled on the turf in front of the Stretford End. He thanked God as 70,000 supporters thanked him.
United can never truly escape themselves. They have still not ended their long run without a home win by more than a single-goal margin – 16 matches and counting – and Chris Smalling’s rash tackle made the last ten minutes far more uncomfortable than they should have been.
But Manchester United should at least have a plan that they can take forward into difficult matches against Bournemouth, Juventus and Manchester City. This team plays its best football on the front foot. In Martial, they have a player who must now be given the trust of his manager.
Five shots on target against Everton, albeit one of them afforded only after a saved penalty. Given that only three times since the start of last season has a player managed more in a Premier League match, it’s fair to say that Pogba was involved against Everton. When Pogba is involved, it generally mean he’s played very well.
Callum Wilson and Ryan Fraser
A list of Premier League players with at least three goals and three assists this season:
Mohamed Salah – Liverpool (eight in total)
Eden Hazard – Chelsea (ten in total)
Callum Wilson – Bournemouth (nine in total)
Ryan Fraser – Bournemouth (eight in total)
Paul Pogba – Manchester United (six in total)
Ross Barkley – Chelsea (six in total)
Further proof that Howe is an alchemist.
Chelsea without Eden Hazard
Any team would be forgiven for relying on a player who is increasingly learning to dominate matches as we have always known he can. But Maurizio Sarri will be mighty pleased to see his team scoring freely without Hazard.
Since the Community Shield, Hazard has failed to start seven matches and Chelsea have won every one. If the standard of the opposition in the Europa League qualifies this statistic slightly, they have also scored three times against Arsenal and Huddersfield and four against Burnley. In two of the three league games during which Chelsea have created the most chances this season, Hazard has been largely absent.
Our early winner and now properly cooking on gas. Barkley may not have signed for Chelsea expecting to be coached by Sarri, but he should be immensely grateful. Having a manager who challenges him every day in training and micro-manages his game is crucial to getting the best out of Barkley. The suspicion was that his natural talent allowed him to coast at Everton, and that Antonio Conte did not have the patience – or necessity – to focus his energies on a backup player.
Now with the carrot of a regular first-team place and international career if he takes his chance, Barkley is noticeably enthused and Chelsea are reaping the rewards. The last English player to score in three consecutive matches for Chelsea? Derby County’s Frank Lampard.
Pretty close to the complete striker, on current form. Given his advancing years, Arsenal needed Aubameyang to hit the ground running at a new club in a new league – hardly a guarantee. In 23 Premier League appearances, he’s now scored 17 goals and assisted a further five.
Against Crvena Zvezda last Wednesday, Salah should have scored five times. He flunked one chance with a virtual air-kick, stuffed up another one-on-one and put one chance wide after dallying over his shot. There is an exactness to his game that was ever-present last season that has not quite reappeared since he left the field in the Champions League final.
But here’s the thing: It might not matter. Liverpool are so intent on attacking and Salah is so involved in those attacks that the percentages are still in his favour. His shot conversion is down from 22.2% last season to 12.5% this, and his shot accuracy is also down. But when only one player in the Premier League is taking more shots, you’ll still score goals when not quite in top gear.
And so to Cardiff City on Saturday, against whom Salah lost possession 21 times but still had more shots than any other player on the pitch, assisted two goals and scored another. He is too good not to be heavily involved and too involved not to score and assist goals whatever his form.
Put it this way: There will be clubs that face Liverpool with an in-form Salah in November and December who will wish that they had played them before the clocks went back. He’s just warming up.
In May, Shaqiri scored for Stoke against Crystal Palace. No teammate had more shots on target, or created more chances or was fouled more often, but it was not enough. Stoke lost 2-1 at home, and their relegation to the Football League was virtually sealed.
Come October, and Shaqiri is far less important to his club’s fortunes. He has been used as a bit-part player in the Premier League, starting against a rotten Crvena Zvezda side in midweek. If he’s lucky, Shaqiri will start 15 league games this season.
But you just see if he cares. Shaqiri is no longer the talisman, but this new role might just work out perfectly. Jurgen Klopp sees him as Liverpool’s impact substitute, and has already waxed lyrical about his new signing’s natural talent. There’s nothing wrong with being a small fish in a title-challenging pond.
Enough gumption displayed in 90 minutes to prove that Roy Hodgson deserves more patience and that Palace will be safe from major relegation headaches. There are teams with worse team spirit and far less attacking quality.
Has now equalled his highest ever tally of league goals in a season. He’s played 881 minutes.
Only two players in the Premier League have more goals than Murray. At the age of 35, Brighton’s leader has adapted his game to reduce the toll on his body and in doing so fine-tuned his performance. There are few better target men in the top flight, which is bloody remarkable.
Beating Huddersfield Town at home is no cause for wild celebration, but it does demonstrate just how far Watford are ahead of the Premier League’s strugglers. Javi Gracia has created a squad and a team spirit which makes consolidation a virtual certainty for Watford for the first time in over 30 years.
This column may have slightly misrepresented the power within Fulham’s transfer dealings. I understood that Jokanovic had wrestled back control after the departure of Craig Kline while the club were still in the Championship. Some Fulham supporters say instead that Tony Khan’s (the owner’s son) fingerprints were all over this summer’s dealings, and that Kline was simply the fall guy. If that’s true, it alleviates some of the responsibility from Jokanovic.
Some, but not all. Even if Jokanovic has been dealt a difficult hand with his club focusing their attention on big-name attackers and leaving an already vulnerable defence light on experience and quality, the manager is playing it badly.
Almost every week, Jokanovic picks a different defence. Almost every week, he picks a central defender at full-back or vice versa. Almost every week, Fulham’s defenders look confused by the tactical plan and the midfield fails to protect them. Almost every week, Fulham concede too many chances and too many goals.
Jokanovic’s biggest issue is not that Fulham are conceding in threes and fours, but that they are doing so against non-elite clubs. They have indeed conceded five to Arsenal and three to Manchester City and Tottenham, but that’s no cause for panic. Conceding 11 goals in four matches against Crystal Palace, Brighton, Bournemouth and Cardiff really is.
After the latest shambles against Bournemouth, Jokanovic insisted that he was not worried about losing his job. But that was only a strategy to reduce the pressure upon himself and his players. Suffer any more drubbings and Fulham will have to make a change. Lose by any scoreline to Huddersfield next Monday, and that should do it.
Did we all get a little carried away there? When Wolves won four games out of five in September and October – the exception being a 1-1 draw at Old Trafford – we all wondered whether this was a genuine top-six contender, likely to be the highest-placed promoted side for over a decade. The defence looked solid and the attack exciting enough to get it done against bottom-half teams.
Since then, Nuno’s team have lost against Watford and Brighton without scoring, and face Tottenham and Arsenal in their next two league games. By the next international break, they could quite easily be 12th in the Premier League and back in the middle of a pack that has seventh place as the ceiling of its ambition. Boo to us for getting so giddy.
Yessss. I remain committed to including one of Southampton or Huddersfield here, but they really are making it very easy for me. Southampton’s shot conversion rate has now dropped to 4.1% after registering 22 attempts without scoring against Newcastle. They have had 69 shots in their last five league matches and not scored a single goal. Not nice.
The key to a successful managerial career is not just doing a fine job at every club, but making your move at the perfect time. Move too early and you gain a reputation as a gun for hire who doesn’t have much loyalty. Leave it too late – failing to make the leap when your stock is at its highest – and you risk missing out.
There is no suggestion that Wagner regrets still being Huddersfield Town manager, but you do wonder. Next week he will celebrate three years in charge, an astonishing spell during which he has engineered an unlikely promotion and even more unlikely top-flight consolidation. By rights, all he deserves are compliments and love letters from higher-profile clubs in England and abroad.
But for the first time, there are signs that Huddersfield are regressing to their level. They have three points from ten matches, are now bottom of the table and look more likely than most to slip into the Championship. There is no secret to Huddersfield’s problem: They have not scored more than once in any game since February 24, a run of 21 matches in all competitions. The summer transfer window business has not addressed the situation.
Of course relegation should not dent Wagner’s reputation. It is impressive that Huddersfield are even in the Premier League. Their squad is weaker than any other in the division bar Cardiff City, and was the weakest last season when Wagner masterminded survival.
But it will be impossible for Wagner to shake off the decline. In March and May, he was linked with the Chelsea and Borussia Dortmund jobs. That’s unlikely to happen again, however unfair that is.
Arsenal’s nagging reminder
Supporters of West Ham, Watford, Leicester might conclude that Arsenal had this coming. Despite Unai Emery’s team embarking on a run of 11 straight victories, no reasonable supporter believed that problems had been solved. In most of those 11 wins, Arsenal made defensive mistakes and were fortunate not to be fully punished.
Against Crystal Palace, they were punished. Shkodran Mustafi remains the vase teetering on the edge of the shelf – enough movement around him will cause him to topple over and crash. Granit Xhaka is that most frustrating of footballers, clear talent hampered by dim decision-making and occasional lapses in positioning. It was fitting that it would be two clumsily conceded penalties that ended this 100% run.
It’s hardly panic stations for Arsenal, but this is exactly why Emery was preaching calm when some were getting a little carried away. A new manager can address issues with training, fitness, discipline and team spirit, but Emery cannot turn defensive water into wine. That will take a little more investment.
There is no shame in losing to Chelsea at home, a club operating on a completely different financial plane. But there is a new Burnley trend that will worry Sean Dyche slightly. Between November 21, 2016 and the end of April this year, Burnley went 62 Premier League games without conceding more than three goals in a match. For a club of their size and budget, that was an astonishing run. Burnley did not always trouble the best teams in the league, but they never capitulated.
Since then, in 12 matches Burnley have lost 5-0 to Arsenal, 5-0 again to Manchester City and 4-0 to Chelsea, also conceding four times to Fulham. Dyche will be wary of the lasting effects a drubbing can have.