Sergio Aguero and Kevin de Bruyne
It’s a line repeated from a fortnight ago in this column, but Manchester City’s greatest achievement wasn’t reaching 100 points in 2017/18; it was pipping a marauding Liverpool to the title last season without Kevin de Bruyne. He is arguably the best player in the Premier League, and he’s back to prove it in 2019/20.
We have had four rounds of matches and De Bruyne has already assisted three goals for Aguero and two for Raheem Sterling. Last season Eden Hazard provided the most assists in the league with 15, and Thierry Henry holds the all-time competition record with 20. With five assists in four games, both should be in De Bruyne’s sights. Last season’s frustrations will fuel this season’s fire.
Aguero will also back himself to beat last season’s total of 21 league goals and perhaps even beat his career high of 26. The striker has scored with six of his nine shots in the league this season. He cannot be expected to maintain anything close to a 66% conversion rate, but Aguero had 118 shots last season. Get anywhere close in 2019/20 and 30 goals is a realistic target.
For all the concern about Aymeric Laporte’s injury (more on that later), City are scoring at a rate of 3.5 goals per game and have had 77 shots in four matches. Continue at that rate, and they can afford to lose a little defensive discipline. They’re also conceding the fewest shots in the division.
You can read much more about Sunday’s north London derby in 16 Conclusions, but the performance of Matteo Guendouzi deserves its own standalone praise.
This is the antidote to Granit Xhaka, a player who uses aggression not as a petulant reaction or a wild response to being out of position but as a tool to supplement his other attributes. When Arsenal needed a leader after falling two goals behind and needed a central midfielder to stand up and control the tempo of the match, Guendouzi was that leader and controller. Xhaka wore the armband, but Guendouzi led by example.
That’s far easier said than done for a player who only turned 20 in April. It’s one thing for attacking full-backs, wingers or strikers to be so mature as youngsters and cope with the intensity of Premier League football, but another entirely to do it in defensive midfield where lapses in concentration, discipline and positioning can be so easily exposed. Guendouzi is a gem, and Arsenal should build their midfield around him.
Liverpool’s front three
Sustained brilliance really can become normalised. Since August 2017, Liverpool have played 115 competitive matches in all competitions. In those games, their first-choice front three of Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino have scored 169 goals at a rate of almost 1.5 per match. From three of their players! You’d forgive the odd on-pitch falling out for that.
There were some obvious indicators that Vardy might fare well this season. The club, former manager and striker might have all denied a rift between Vardy and Claude Puel, but proof of the breakdown in relationship lay in his form. Between the start of last season and Puel’s sacking, Vardy scored eight times. But gone was the spark and feistiness that we associate with Vardy at his best.
Brendan Rodgers has his flaws as a manager, but you cannot doubt his ability to make a star player feel special and thus get the best out of them. Two goals and an assist against Bournemouth made it 13 in 16 league matches under Rodgers’ management.
But Vardy deserves the credit for this continued excellence. Since the beginning of 2015/16, he has scored 78 Premier League goals. He’s never injured, he’s almost never at anything other than full pelt when content and he has been the best striker outside the Big Six over that entire period. There has been no better spend of £1m in English football over the last decade.
Sheffield United’s fight
It is easy to spot the lazy pundit when they reference Sheffield United’s “back-to-basics” football, as if they are still managed by Neil Warnock with Chris Morgan and Robert Page as the central defensive pair.
But just because Chris Wilder is a tactical innovator does not mean that Sheffield United cannot rely upon passion and heart to drag themselves over the line. Wilder’s side clawed back a point against Bournemouth in the dying minutes, held off Crystal Palace to win 1-0 and on Saturday came from two goals down against Chelsea despite the game looking lost.
That’s particularly impressive, because conceding first isn’t something that Sheffield United are used to. Last season in the Championship, their opponents scored first in only 11 of their 46 league games. That was five fewer than any other team in the division (Norwich City were next with 16). Having the belief and energy to come from behind against stronger teams with deeper options is the sign of a well-managed and well-balanced squad.
The subject of slightly baffling criticism after Everton’s slow-ish start to the season. Richarlison celebrated pointedly after scoring in the EFL Cup in midweek and followed that by registering two goals in a match for the first time since November 2018. Richarlison may have plenty of experience in England, but he only turned 22 in May. To have scored 20 Premier League goals by that age for non-elite clubs deserves a positive spin, not negative.
Jordan Ayew and Crystal Palace
More Premier League goals this season than in his previous 27 matches, a run stretching back to March 2018. Crystal Palace supporters were rightly worried about their side’s distinct lack of firepower, but Ayew has allayed those emphatically for now. They’re bloody fourth!
Significant teething problems for Chelsea under Frank Lampard, but Abraham isn’t one of them. Had Gareth Southgate been picking his England squad this week rather than last, Abraham might well have been included in it. It’s now four goals from nine shots in the league this season, and that includes the difficult Premier League debut at Old Trafford.
The fear factor
For most of last season, the overriding theme of the Premier League season was Big Six teams enjoying near-total dominance against the rest. Tottenham and Arsenal were on long winning streaks, Manchester City and Liverpool were almost perfect at home and even Manchester United had only dropped points in such matches on occasion.
Between February 2018 and April 20, 2019, the teams who finished between third and sixth (Chelsea, Tottenham, Arsenal and Manchester United) played 67 league games against teams from outside the Big Six. The results were as follows:
Chelsea – 13 points dropped in 16 matches
Manchester United – 9 points dropped in 17 matches
Arsenal – 2 points dropped in 18 matches
Tottenham – 3 points dropped in 16 matches
Total: 27 points dropped in 67 matches
And then something changed. While Manchester City and Liverpool continued their relentless home onslaught, the four teams below them fell away alarmingly. In 13 matches against non-Big Six sides since, Chelsea, Arsenal, Tottenham and Manchester United have dropped a combined 25 points. That is a remarkable drop-off.
There are caveats to mention. Despite the battle for the top four going down to the wire, there may have been a fall in intensity towards the end of last season with Chelsea, Arsenal and Spurs all involved in European football. It is also a small sample size from which to draw conclusions.
But there is evidence to suggest that there is far less reason to fear being the away side at Stamford Bridge, Old Trafford, the Emirates and Tottenham Hotspur Stadium: Sheffield United at Chelsea, Newcastle at Tottenham, Crystal Palace at Manchester United. If you defend stoutly and look to counter, you can frustrate and ultimately unnerve your apparently elite opponent. Are those issues likely to ease when those four teams are forced into the cycle of twice-weekly football?
Chelsea’s second halves
In the second half at Old Trafford, Chelsea lost 0-3 to Manchester United. In the second half in Istanbul, Chelsea lost 0-1 (or 1-2, with extra-time) to Liverpool. In the second half at home to Leicester, Chelsea lost 0-1. In the second half at home to Sheffield United, Chelsea lost 0-2. They have a thing, and it is not a welcome one.
There are three possible explanations for that miserable post-half-time record. The first is that Chelsea’s players aren’t fit enough, or at least that the young players used are not yet accustomed to the intensity of Premier League football. The second is that Chelsea have played too gung-ho after the break, which was certainly an issue against Leicester City. The third is that Chelsea defenders are making sloppy errors in concentration, which was the case against Manchester United.
Frank Lampard’s task is to identify and iron out those problems, and fairly quickly. Chelsea have so far played Manchester United, Leicester, Norwich and Sheffield United and won only once. They are tenth in the league and only two teams have a worse goal difference. The general mood is still good thanks to the form of Abraham and Mason Mount, but by goodness they need Antonio Rudiger to return and hit the ground running.
One solution to Chelsea’s second-half itch lies in substitutions, and Lampard got those wrong on Saturday. Of course we want youngsters to be afforded opportunities, but bringing on an 18-year-old midfielder and a striker with eight minutes remaining of a game that Chelsea were winning 2-1 struck as an odd call at the time and proved as such when Sheffield United equalised.
The message will have gone round the Premier League: if you put pressure on Lampard’s Chelsea, they will make mistakes in defence. The least Lampard must do is make those mistakes less likely by shoring things up late in the game, or he’s only exacerbating Chelsea’s natural weakness.
Manchester United’s lack of oomph
Every week another indictment of Manchester United’s dismal mismanagement appears. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer looked to the bench in search of game-changers with the score at 1-1. His first two options were Nemanja Matic, a defensive midfielder who runs as if he is covered in PVA glue, and Jesse Lingard, the attacking midfielder who doesn’t score or assist goals. Colour everyone surprised that United promptly struggled to break down Southampton’s deep defence.
Solskjaer may concede that he made a mistake. Mason Greenwood looked bright when he came on and, having been talked up so much by Solskjaer, would surely have been a better option than Lingard to freshen up the attack. At worst, Greenwood should have been introduced within seconds of Kevin Danso’s sending off. Delaying that call for ten minutes might have cost United the chance of three points.
But there is a general lack of oomph in Manchester United’s performances, and they are becoming masters of ceding impetus. They were dominant against Wolves and allowed their opponents back into the match, and the same applied against Southampton on Saturday lunchtime.
Is this not the one thing that we might have assumed to be Solskjaer’s strongest suit? There were doubts about the tactical nous and coaching ability, but the 1999-inspired motivational bluster at least suggested that United would put faith in young players on an ASAP basis and inspire some evident hunger and desire.
Instead we have witnessed sluggish, insipid football as standard. The summer break has not improved my opinion of Solskjaer. He’s a boy in a man’s world. Upcoming fixtures against West Ham, Leicester and Arsenal will help to determine where realistic expectations lie.
Souness is not irrelevant as a pundit. There are times when he pithily encapsulates the mood, usually with a scathing remark about passion or defending. But he also makes the mistake of making definitive conclusions without knowing all of the information.
On Sunday, Souness opined that Moise Kean had arrived at Everton because there were problems with his attitude, and compared him to Emmanuel Adebayor. He said that those attitude issues had caused his exit from Juventus.
Except that there is no evidence for that fact. Keane was sold by Juventus because they have most of their financial eggs in the Cristiano Ronaldo basket, couldn’t shift Paulo Dybala and because he wanted regular league minutes that he couldn’t be promised in Turin. He also had a year left on his contract and so was worth cashing in on now rather than losing for free.
There have been no serious suggestions that Kean has an attitude problem. In fact, Kean himself addressed that issue when he was compared to Mario Balotelli.
“A lot of people compare me to Balotelli, but I’m different from him,” he said. “I do not know why people always make the connection, but I have ways of acting different from him, even if he’s a good person.”
So a) it is dangerous and unfair of Souness to suggest that his attitude might have caused his sale, and b) it is easy to speculate why Souness might have jumped to that conclusion. On the second question, the obvious answer is not particularly pleasant and does not reflect well on Souness.
Wolves, giving themselves it all to do
Our early losers. It’s all very well being brilliant at equalising, but eventually it might be nice to actually take the lead this season. Can you tell I’m a tactical genius?
Three goals from open play in his last 21 Manchester United matches. With Anthony Martial injured, the onus is on Rashford to score regularly. But while he had a wonderful two-month stretch between December 2018 and February when he scored eight goals in 13 matches, either side of that Rashford has scored 11 goals in 72 Manchester United games. That must improve if United are to reach the top four.
A brilliant – if now very typical – win, but one that came at a cost. Pep Guardiola spent part of his press conference this week labelling Laporte as the best left-sided central defender in the game, but days later he succumbed to a serious-looking injury. We have no official prognosis yet, but Laporte will surely not be back before Christmas.
That presents a problem for Guardiola, who has lost Vincent Kompany with John Stones not yet fully fit. One option would be to play Kyle Walker as a centre-back and bring in Joao Cancelo, or to play Fernandinho there as an emergency option. But neither can replicate Laporte’s passing and defensive reliability. Liverpool will sense a weakness and wait patiently for the results.
A sensational piece of acting before engaging his brain. Danso ran into his late challenge with all the composure of a teenage boy tumbling out of an upstairs window and over a garden hedge because he’s heard his girlfriend’s parents coming home.
The man who taught Danso how to do it, presumably. Xhaka no longer merits a starting place in this Arsenal midfield. There are others who do what he does better, and do it without being walking, talking yellow cards.
I know why I get stick every time I bring this up. Manchester City supporters are protective of Foden because he’s a local lad and the best talent their academy has produced in a long, long time. But he’s also the answer to significant criticism about the club’s carefree spending. If Foden succeeds, it demonstrates that City can nurture as well as purchase.
But here’s the thing: Foden needs more football. Manchester City have outscored opponents by 14 goals to three and yet he has played ten minutes across those matches. Despite comfortable leads against Bournemouth and Brighton, Foden stayed on the bench throughout both matches. He has still only started three Premier League matches. The suspicion that last season was the best chance to really stake his claim, with De Bruyne injured, grows.
Davinson Sanchez at right-back
File that alongside public rejection, emergency surgery and Victoria Beckham singing in the folder marked ‘things we never want to experience again’.