Crystal Palace, the Premier League’s banter club
A truly unfathomable football club. Crystal Palace could barely create chances against Sheffield United but scored twice at Old Trafford. They lack an obvious identity and yet are able to come together and fight to thwart Manchester United. They looked in serious relegation trouble even this early in the season a week ago and yet now have their tails up.
Do you write a weekly column in which you are tasked with drawing conclusions? Well then Crystal Palace are here to make you look stupid. Take some comfort in the fact that their own supporters are just as baffled.
It is the most remarkable statistic in the Premier League. The last team to win at the Etihad? Crystal Palace. The last team to win at the Emirates? Crystal Palace. The last team to win at Anfield? Crystal Palace. The last team to win at Old Trafford? Crystal Palace. In the last eight months they have taken maximum points away at Manchester City, Arsenal and Manchester United yet taken only 13 points from their 12 home league games.
There is something in that, of course. The pressure of playing at home and the onus on them to attack suffocates Palace, who thrive only when they can defend deep against an attacking opponent and use Wilfried Zaha on the counter attack. This was a fortunate win, but then you need good luck if you’re to beat one of the big boys in their own home.
There are two options for Palace to extrapolate this nonsensical form into their supposedly easier matches, and neither is straightforward. Roy Hodgson either finds a way to play successful attacking football without leaving the defence exposed, or persuades opposition teams to attack them.
But, for now, those thoughts can wait for another week. Crystal Palace fans haven’t had much to shout about, but those that travel the length of the country to follow their team do so with hope in their hearts. Even if that life is sometimes dull, days like these make every second worth it.
Liverpool at Anfield, where they always find a way
In the wave of Manchester City’s brilliance over the last two seasons, it’s easy to overlook Liverpool’s remarkable league form. That statement will make some scoff and laugh, given the airtime afforded to this club and their manager and the fact that they are European champions.
But it’s also easy to take their brilliance for granted and trick yourself into believing that it has always been like this. In the full season before Jurgen Klopp arrived at Anfield, they drew five and lost four of their 19 home games. They were vulnerable defensively and mediocre in attack. That season, Stoke City scored more home goals than Liverpool.
Saturday’s victory over Arsenal – during which we drew 16 Conclusions – made it 42 unbeaten league games at Anfield. Liverpool have scored three or more goals in 23 of those 42 matches. Arsenal did not play poorly, but were blown away by a team that has so many strategies for hurting you. They can hit you with the early wave, play on the counter attack, use the front three to cause havoc in the middles or the full-backs to create problems out wide. They grind you down through the sheer number of chances created.
That is the key difference between Manchester City and Liverpool’s attack. City have perfected one way of scoring and do it repeatedly to put a team to the sword; Liverpool’s strength lies in variation.
They did not win the title last season and they may not win the title this season. But if Manchester City slip even slightly from their imperious best, Liverpool will be there to take advantage. They are a wondrous team to watch at Anfield, for their own supporters and neutrals alike.
Liverpool's relentlessness at Anfield really is something to behold. Manchester City have perfected one way to score and do it repeatedly, Liverpool's strength lies in variation and surprise. Which is what promises to make it another wonderful title race.
— Daniel Storey (@danielstorey85) August 24, 2019
Much, much better. You can read far more on both Newcastle and Tottenham in 16 Conclusions, but Bruce still merits a section here after the outpouring of worry following the dismal display at Norwich last week.
Bruce did make mistakes at Carrow Road. The formation looked wrong, the attack looked wrong and the defence made enough individual and collective errors to have lost three matches. Nor does one victory at Tottenham solve everything and ease every concern. Pessimistic supporters will note that Newcastle won away at the same club under Steve McClaren. That was merely an exception, and there is something in the theory that Newcastle may be best equipped to annoy the bigger clubs and struggle against those around them. See the Crystal Palace section above for details.
But Newcastle also looked better on Sunday because Bruce recognised the flaws in his 3-5-2 and changed it, even if it meant dropping Jonjo Shelvey and even after losing Allan Saint-Maximin to injury. Playing with a front three got more out of Miguel Almiron and Joelinton. The former surged back to help out defensively and the latter took his goal superbly after wretched misses against Arsenal and Norwich.
Defeat to Watford next week will leave Bruce under pressure heading into the first international break of the season, but beat the only team currently below them and Bruce can plead patience and presume that his difficult start may well be over.
Tammy Abraham, Chelsea’s youngsters and having some fun
Frank Lampard has his breakout win, important not just because it allays some of the most immediate concerns about the lack of league points but because it was achieved in precisely the manner that Chelsea’s manager intends to succeed.
There was Mason Mount, the academy talent of which there is such great hope, ducking and weaving in the final third and scoring his second goal in as many games. Mount tailed off badly in the second half against Leicester City, but we have already seen enough to offer evidence that the loan deal to the Championship was probably a step too low. Joining up with Lampard made it make sense.
And there was Tammy Abraham, shaking off the doubts of last Sunday and the penalty miss the previous Wednesday with two excellent opportunistic finishes. The best strikers score a high percentage of their goals through sheer instinct. The timing and direction of their runs and the shape of their finishes come entirely naturally, learned through years of coaching and development. It would be interesting to know if Lampard has considered playing Abraham off Olivier Giroud.
And, finally, there was the defensive uncertainty, because not everything can be perfect and Lampard’s Chelsea are unlikely to be anywhere close during this season. They will be brilliant to watch for the neutral, as Lampard tries to get the balance right in central midfield and at full-back. The manager might well reason that fluid attacking by young, quick players is the best form of defence.
Mings has a checklist in his back pocket, a recipe for how a central defender quickly establishes himself as a cult hero. He’s busy ticking every item off.
Buying into the culture of the club after arriving on loan? Check. Dramatically improving their defence to push them towards promotion? Check. Pushing for a permanent move having spoken of your love for the club and their supporters? Check. Towering clearances in your first game of the season, in difficult circumstances? Check. Playing a game despite hurting yourself in the warm-up? Check. Going on to marshal the defence and earn your club’s first clean sheet back in the big time? Check, check and check again.
An open Premier League?
It is still far too early to be making sweeping conclusions, but the start to this Premier League season has been extraordinary. If it began with us all hoping this could truly be the campaign of ‘everyone can beat everyone (other than the top two)’, we have witnessed nothing to change our mind.
After three matchweeks, 15 Premier League teams have registered exactly one win and half of the division has one won, drawn one and lost one. Manchester United have dropped four points in two matches against non-Big Six teams and are fourth in the table. Newcastle United have won away at a Big Six club and are second bottom. Everton are the only club to have kept more than one clean sheet, and last season’s top four have only kept one between them. Bring on the madness.
West Ham’s historic lack of a prolific goalscorer is one of the oddest quirks in the Premier League, given the club’s usual intention to play attacking football. Only one West Ham player in the last 13 seasons has scored more than 12 goals in all competitions. That was Carlton Cole in 2011/12, who scored 15 goals in 43 Championship appearances and then scored twice in 27 games the following season.
We must beware another false dawn, because we have burnt this was before. But there were signs in Haller’s double against Watford that Frenchman is West Ham’s next realistic hope in their search for a regular goalscorer. The bicycle kick alone was enough to make every away supporter believe.
One of the clutch of teams on four points thanks Wolves’ late equaliser, but Sean Dyche will me mightily pleased to have come through fixtures against Southampton, Arsenal and Wolves unscathed and with a positive goal difference.
John Nic’s hero is only the second player in Premier League history to score five goals in his first three matches in the division. The bad news is that Pavel Pogrebnyak – the other – only scored six more before being relegated and eventually winding down his career.
Look, just deal with it for this once.
Manchester United and the lack of backup options
Whenever Manchester United lose unexpectedly at home, it creates at least three days of fallout and a raft of damning conclusions. That is your lot when you are manager of this club, even during times of strife. It will never change.
The initial reaction is to marvel at the manner of the defeat, only the second time in Premier League history that Manchester United have conceded a game-winning goal in stoppage time at Old Trafford. The cliche about this team was that it found a way to snatch late victory from the jaw of dropped points. Not any more.
The second is Paul Pogba losing possession for Patrick van Aanholt’s winner, because everything that Pogba does badly these days is amplified and extrapolated into the noise surrounding his performance level, happiness and future. Forget that the midfield looks weak with him and would look weaker without him, because they allowed one first-team midfielder to leave this summer and did not replace him.
Next comes David de Gea’s role in the defeat. There was a time when De Gea was comfortably the most in-form goalkeeper in world football, but that time has now passed. We were told that improvements in central defence would offer him better protection, and that may well still prove true. But individual errors have crept into De Gea’s game and they are hurting United. The aura has gone.
And, finally, there’s the most worrying conclusion of all. When Manchester United were struggling to break down Palace, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer looked to his bench for game-changers and saw only a 31-year-old who is now apparently no longer first choice and a 17-year-old forward who has been thrust into the role of next striker off the rank.
There are no injury issues in United’s squad. They have sold one striker and are trying to loan out another. They face the prospect of four competitions and regular Thursday-Sunday football with two senior forwards, neither of whom have scored regularly before and both of whom will be prone to muscle injuries if this workload continues.
That is a damning indictment of Manchester United’s mismanagement, their scattergun recruitment and their abject lack of planning for even the most predictable eventualities. The sight of Martial limping his way through the match’s final moments should cause those in charge to wince at their own incompetence.
Tottenham and Mauricio Pochettino, who gambled and failed
It’s never a good sign when a team is announced and every supporter can predict how the next 90 minutes will play out. Newcastle United were always going to sit deep and try and frustrate Tottenham, in exactly the same manner Aston Villa had on the opening weekend. That Newcastle were able to complete their mission where Villa failed owed much to an even more laboured and lethargic attacking performance from Spurs.
You can go to 16 Conclusions to read more overarching words on the problems of Tottenham and Mauricio Pochettino, but more immediately he must solve the lingering personality problems within his squad. Leaving Jan Vertonghen and Christian Eriksen out of the team might teach them a lesson if the team are successful in their absence, but on Sunday Pochettino cut off Tottenham’s nose to spite their face. Moussa Sissoko was too sluggish, Erik Lamela too wasteful and Lucas Moura too ponderous. Harry Kane was forced to roam 30 or 40 yards from goal in order to seek possession, like a wild animal during drought travelling miles in search of water.
In this mode, Tottenham enjoy only sterile domination. Watching them slowly pass the ball around the edge of the opposition penalty area while defenders easily adjust to thwart danger is like watching the great Barcelona teams play at half-speed. The brilliance of that careful passing lay in the switching of speed to catch out an opponent. With Spurs on Sunday, the end result was usually a chipped, hopeful cross from a full-back who had run out of other options having received the ball four times in the same move.
A message has now gone around the Premier League’s non-elite clubs: dig in and frustrate. Without Eriksen, this Tottenham team is not currently in form good enough to dance and shimmy around and past you.
David Luiz and old Arsenal
For a large part of the game at Anfield, Arsenal played like new Arsenal. There was a defensive plan that wasn’t without risk, but risk is inevitable against Liverpool. They shuttled the ball out to Liverpool’s full-backs and backed themselves to defend the crosses. They also backed themselves to create chances on the counter attack, and should have scored twice in the first half.
But if there were problems with the accuracy of Arsenal’s shooting, never doubt their ability to aim squarely at their own feet and hit the target. Despite the improvements in defensive plan, and the purchase of players to address those problems, Arsenal cannot quite escape old Arsenal. Liverpool suspected that if they kept waiting patiently outside the door, eventually Arsenal would forget to lock it. They were right.
The most disappointing aspect of Arsenal’s eventual collapse was that David Luiz was the circus ringmaster. Luiz foolishly pulled at Mohamed Salah’s shirt, and then doubled down on that mistake by careering out of position to try and make amends. Salah is cute enough to sidestep a charging bull. Five seconds later, game over.
Luiz was the only central defender to arrive at Arsenal this summer. In an otherwise settled defence, Luiz’s penetrative passes forward can be useful and his occasionally haphazard defending accounted for. But Arsenal needed someone to stabilise the defence, not make it more unpredictable. During forthcoming fixtures against Big Six opposition, expect more of the same.
The strongest argument for Rashford taking the penalty against Wolves last week was that he’d never missed one in senior football. Good to get that argument scratched off so quickly. Solskjaer has created a farce through his lack of clarity and decisiveness. The next penalty Manchester United get is going to be worth a watch.
Watford’s defending and Javi Gracia
It’s good to get a running theme through the losers section so early in the season. Watford have now taken 31 points from their last 31 games. Do some strenuous maths and that works out as 38 points across the course of an entire season, probably enough to avoid relegation but with no degree of certainty. Lose at Newcastle next weekend and Javi Gracia will probably be sacked. Things change bloody quickly in this game.
The cup run was brilliant, but 32 points from last 31 games is long-term relegation form. Sacking now would be really harsh, but it is a bit worrying.
— Daniel Storey (@danielstorey85) August 25, 2019
Wolves after the Europa League
That’s now three points from three games post-Europa League matches, at a time of the season when the impact of playing extra football should be positive rather than negative. Being one of only two winless Premier League teams is a slightly pessimistic way of viewing draws at home to Manchester United and away at Leicester City, but we will be watching with interest for further developments. This is a small-ish squad.
Idrissa Gueye had left for Paris Saint-Germain. Jean-Philippe Gbamin had sustained a muscle injury. Morgan Schneiderlin had been sent off on the opening day, and so was presumably out of favour. If Tom Davies can’t get a run out in these circumstances, with multiple absentees and Everton’s midfield being humbled at Villa Park, he must surely believe that his immediate future lies away from Goodison.
Davies played 1,899 Premier League minutes in 2017/18. Since February, he has played just 20. At 21, he needs regular football.