Leicester City: Find the reasons why not
There is more to be concluded from their victory from behind against Tottenham than a humping of a rotten Newcastle United team, but in the absence of other big-name winners this Premier League weekend it seems like an opportune time to examine Leicester City. And rampant optimism is the result:
– They have one of the most reliable strikers in the Premier League, who is capable of scoring against high-class defenders and appears to have done a deal with the devil (possibly giving him a few crates of that Skittles vodka) to avoid the ageing process. Jamie Vardy’s movement in the penalty area is truly world-class. Take your mind off him for a second and he will cause you pain.
– Leicester boast the joint-best defence in the league, at least in terms of goals conceded. Only Liverpool have conceded fewer shots on target than them. And in Caglar Soyuncu they have the perfect replacement for Harry Maguire, prepared to win headers and do the dirty work but also to step up out of defence and into midfield as opportunity allows.
If there was any disillusionment when Maguire was sold, there shouldn’t have been. Not only did Leicester have Soyuncu and Filip Benkovic as potential replacements, they also knew that clubs on their level can only operate by selling high and investing the proceeds accordingly. Leicester made a £68m profit on Maguire, enough to cover the costs of James Maddison, Ricardo Pereira and Wilfred Ndidi.
– Liverpool have comfortably the best full-back pair in the Premier League in Andrew Robertson and Trent Alexander-Arnold, but Leicester have a strong case to boast the second best (Arsenal may well protest when Hector Bellerin and Kieran Tierney are fully fit, but let’s go on what we know).
Ricardo Pereira could play as a winger and not look out of place, such is his speed and dribbling ability. Ben Chilwell is slightly less impressive going forward, but is a very capable defender and so offers great balance. The midfield can shuffle over to fill in when Pereira attacks, safe in the knowledge that Chilwell can cover his flank.
– If the full-backs are exceptional, the same is true of Brendan Rodgers’ midfield. Playing Tielemans and Ndidi as a two is risky given the former’s fondness for pushing forward, but they are two of the best young midfielders in Europe and Leicester City somehow bought one and kept the other without any elite club seeming to bat an eyelid. Bizarre.
– The balance of the squad is pretty much perfect. Tielemans, Chilwell, Harvey Barnes, Hamza Choudhury, Soyuncu, Maddison, Ndidi and Demarai Gray are all aged 23 or under. Vardy, Kasper Schmeichel and Jonny Evans add a perfect spine of experience to complement that young crop.
– They have no European football to contend with. We have already seen how stretched Manchester United’s squad is after only seven weeks of the season. For all Leicester’s good points, they would surely be scuppered by injuries to Chilwell, Vardy or Tielemans. Being able to keep them rested in midweek is precious, particularly as we go further into the season.
There are still a few doubts about Leicester, not least their away record against the best clubs and Rodgers’ occasional lack of a tactical Plan B. But the top six look likely to take points off each other this season, and Plan A is working; Leicester and Rodgers can take advantage. Compare the starting XIs this weekend, and they have no reason to fear anyone bar the top two.
Crystal Palace (and not just Zaha)
Another good weekend for those of us who picked Crystal Palace to be relegated at the start of the season. I’ll plead that that prediction was made when it looked certain that Wilfried Zaha would leave, but then that only leads to another conclusion: Finally, Palace are not merely relying upon him.
Of course he’s still absolutely crucial. Zaha sits joint-second for chances created of all Palace’s players, and his dribbling statistics continue to be pretty ridiculous. But he has not scored yet this season. Instead Jordan Ayew is chipping in, to the surprise of most Palace supporters.
Palace’s new-found reliability at home (six home Premier League games unbeaten at Selhurst Park for only the second time since 1993) is not founded upon Zaha’s attacking verve but a defensive solidity that was wholly lacking last season. They have conceded once in four home league games this season, keeping three clean sheets. That’s as many as they managed between January and May last season.
For that, we must give Gary Cahill immense credit. Defending is a collective effort, but Cahill’s arrival has brought with it an air of composure and competence that Palace also lacked last season. His signing might just be the bargain deal of the season so far.
Our unsexy (some may disagree) early winner.
Kevin de Bruyne
If he keeps assisting, I’ll keep picking him. De Bruyne now has eight assists in seven league games. Only nine players in the league managed more than that in the whole of last season, and there are still 31 games left. Silliness.
Moussa Sissoko, right-back
Tottenham have a few problems, not least having a goalkeeper who is intent on practising his Cruyff turns in high-profile, high-pressure situations. But Mauricio Pochettino has been umming and ahhing over his right-backs for a while. Kieran Trippier has been sold, Serge Aurier is as consistent as train WiFi and the Davinson Sanchez experiment was a disaster. Pochettino clearly doesn’t rate Kyle Walker-Peters, or he’d already be first-choice.
Aurier’s latest show of indiscipline might just have allowed Tottenham to hit upon a solution. Moussa Sissoko was used as an emergency full-back following the sending-off, and was effective in thwarting the Southampton threat. When everyone is fit (stop laughing, Spurs fans) Sissoko will struggle to start in central midfield, so it makes sense for him to diversify and thus increase his usefulness.
For all Sissoko’s limitations, he is dependable, hard-working, positionally disciplined and enjoys surging forward with the ball. There are far worse options for the role (and Tottenham have tried most of them).
Callum Wilson’s accuracy
Tammy Abraham might be making his case for inclusion in Gareth Southgate’s next England squad with regular minutes and goals for Chelsea, but the current back-up option to Harry Kane won’t cede his own place easily.
Callum Wilson scored his fifth league goal of the season on Saturday, but more impressive than that is his accuracy. Thirty-four Premier League players have taken at least ten non-blocked shots this season, but none of them hit the target with a higher accuracy than Wilson. He’s missed the target once in seven matches.
Liverpool will play better this season than they did at Bramall Lane and drop points. Pockets of Sheffield United supporters laughed as they filed out of the stadium, unable to comprehend how they had not taken at least a point but proud of their side for matching Liverpool in most areas.
Chris Wilder’s side shut down Liverpool’s full-backs, forced them to go direct and persuaded Jurgen Klopp to try a 4-2-4 formation in the second half to force the issue. They were fortunate that Dean Henderson picked the worst moment to produce a Massimo Taibi-style clanger.
But Klopp will be buoyed that his side were able to continue their run of victories despite being so obviously unnerved and despite Mohamed Salah performing particularly badly. They are now three league wins against three top-four hopefuls (Leicester, Manchester United, Tottenham) from breaking the record for consecutive top-flight wins. In those circumstances, any win will do.
Jorginho, Chelsea’s penalty-taker
Does the uncertainty continue, or have Chelsea finally landed back where they started?
Against Valencia in the Champions League, Ross Barkley took the late penalty despite Jorginho and Willian being on the pitch. Frank Lampard insisted that nobody had broken protocol, because Barkley was the club’s No. 1 penalty taker. Barkley had not taken a penalty since February 2016.
Against Grimsby in the EFL Cup, Pedro took the penalty despite Barkley being on the pitch. Lampard explained after the match that nobody had broken protocol because he had picked Pedro as the penalty taker for that match.
Against Brighton in the Premier League, Jorginho took the penalty despite Pedro, Willian and Barkley all being on the pitch.
Now it might be that Lampard has different penalty takers for different competitions or different penalty takers for different matches, but that nonsense should stop. Jorginho has never missed a penalty in England and has missed only one in his career (Napoli vs Udinese, November 2017). Quite why he was ever taken off the duties is unclear, but it shouldn’t happen again. Sorry, Ross.
Boy did they need that. The earliest of six-pointers never seemed in doubt once Matt Doherty had given Wolves the lead, and it jolts them up to 13th in the table. Wolves can now head into away trips at Besiktas and Manchester City with a ‘nothing to lose’ mentality before they face Newcastle and Southampton in the Premier League. Late-summer panic can quickly become autumn mid-table comfort.
Just read this.
Early loser Steve Bruce
Let’s start with a statistic, if only to give you something before it all gets a bit ranty. Rafael Benitez managed Newcastle United for 146 matches, and in that time they conceded more than three goals in a match on two occasions. The first of those was a 4-1 defeat at Old Trafford in November 2017, when Newcastle took the lead but eventually succumbed to United’s pressure in the second half. The second was in December 2018, when Liverpool scored two goals in the final 12 minutes at Anfield to beat Newcastle 4-0.
That is important, because it partly explains Benitez’s reason for often playing defensive football in away matches that Newcastle were favourites to lose. He figured that the chance of winning away at Big Six clubs was far smaller than the chance of getting a thumping, and a thumping can cause lasting psychological damage on the squad.
Even at the start of last season, when Newcastle were wretched, Benitez will argue that he was working on defensive organisation that would benefit the team later in the season. Only with that organisation in place could Newcastle look to attack. Over the last 16 league games of last season, only four teams scored more goals than Newcastle. They were transformed because they had a platform from which to attack.
Then there was a process. Now there is nothing. It isn’t just that Newcastle conceded five for the first time since the month before Benitez arrived. It isn’t just that this was a team that has had all the useful elements that Benitez forged unpicked and dismantled. It isn’t just that Steve Bruce is consistently picking players out of position, and then saying after the match that tactics are “nonsense” and it’s all about playing with pride despite Newcastle showing none of that either. It isn’t just that Bruce has a £40m centre forward that Benitez warned the club would be worse than Salomon Rondon and already looks vindicated on that point.
It’s that this was so utterly predictable from the moment it started. Bruce is not the disease, merely a symptom thereof. Newcastle allowed Benitez, the most capable manager they have had in 20 years, to walk because they couldn’t muster enough competence to convince him to stay. Benitez didn’t want vast transfer budgets. He didn’t even want the club to be jolted forward, merely pointed in the right direction. And in his place they appointed a Championship-level manager because he was likely to say yes and come cheap. This disarray is the result of that strategy.
Newcastle’s players have got worse since last season. The defence is far more open without Benitez’s defensive coordination (they have already conceded almost 30% of last season’s goal total). Sean Longstaff, Miguel Almiron and Isaac Hayden have all suffered a drop in form that coincides with the new manager’s arrival. Newcastle offer little as a counter-attacking threat. They are making individual and collective mistakes that Premier League teams are too good not to punish.
Finally, spare me the ‘poor Steve Bruce’ angle that I’ve seen in some places. He backed himself to do this job, and he deserves to be judged on what happens on the pitch as Benitez was. And what took place on Sunday was a total abdication of responsibility. The “tactics nonsense” quotes speak of a manager out of his depth and out of step with the modern Premier League.
This wasn’t a Leicester victory through excellence, because they did not need to be excellent. It was a victory through surrender. Leicester exploited the obvious flaws and Newcastle were lucky that they stopped pushing on at 4-0. The worst a struggling team should be is hard to break down. And goodness me, Bruce should know that more than most managers.
This might get a little better. Newcastle will not be drubbed every week and they may claw a few more unexpected points over this tricky run of fixtures. But make no mistake, they are now battling for survival and no well-timed takeover rumours will appease the wrath of supporters if the worst befalls them. Newcastle have been sleep-walking for half a decade. Maybe Benitez was the only thing stopping them slipping into a coma.
Aston Villa and those wasted chances
Last season, Southampton were the kings of dropping points from losing positions and it almost cost them their place in the Premier League. They dropped 29 in total after taking the lead, 11 more than any other team.
This season, Aston Villa have the same tag. In only seven league matches they have dropped eight points from winning positions. Even worse is that they held the lead twice against Arsenal and now Burnley and still failed to win against either. Hold onto even half of those points and Villa would be in the top half rather than the bottom three. They can ill afford such generosity.
It would be possible for an expensive new signing to suffer a worse start to his career at a new club – serious injury, catalogue of errors, breach of discipline – but not a more irrelevant one. Pulisic has played 277 minutes of a possible 630 for Chelsea this season. He is already fighting at Stamford Bridge.
Pulisic has entered the imperfect storm. He was signed by the club under a different manager, with Lampard presumably not consulted about the transfer. Lampard has been given a mandate to pick young players and surround them with experience, but is clearly going to favour the academy graduates that Jody Morris has worked with previously. If the likes of Abraham, Fikayo Tomori and Mason Mount have a bank of goodwill, Pulisic does not.
Because Pulisic arrived for a handsome price, he comes with baggage and an expectation to hit the ground running. But that is deeply unfair. Pulisic is having to settle into a new club in a new league in a new country, and he is younger than both Tomori and Abraham. This will take time.
Unfortunately for Pulisic, things aren’t going to get much easier. Callum Hudson-Odoi made his return from injury on Saturday and was brought on as a substitute while Pulisic remained on the bench. There is a competition for places at Chelsea which means no player gets a free pass.
Watford have already changed their manager, and conceded 12 goals in three league games since. They have faced teams currently positioned 13th, 15th, 16th and 19th in the table and still haven’t won a match. They are now winless in 11 league games stretching back into last season. That equals their longest run without a win in the competition, level with 2006/07 and 1999/00. Watford finished bottom in both of those seasons.
The only ray of hope is an upcoming run of gentler home fixtures – Sheffield United, Bournemouth, Burnley and Crystal Palace in their next five – but Watford have hardly offered persuasive evidence that they will win more than two of those. The only two clubs Watford have beaten away from home in the league since mid-January are now playing in the Championship and it’s now 19 league games without a clean sheet. They need a shot in the arm, and quickly.
Norwich City and those injuries
Consecutive 2-0 away defeats following the majestic victory over Manchester City to bring everyone down to earth with a bump. The greatest impact of that win wasn’t setting Norwich on a run of excellent performances, but currently keeping them out of the relegation zone.
However, any sense that Daniel Farke or his players might be due some stern words of criticism dissipates when you see just how many players Norwich have injured. Take a deep breath:
Timm Klose has a knee injury that is likely to rule him out for the entire season. Christoph Zimmermann has an ankle injury that is likely to rule him out until January. Jamal Lewis has an elbow injury that is likely to rule him out for several months. Onel Hernandez has a knee injury that is likely to rule him out until December. Tom Trybull has an ankle ligament injury that is likely to rule him out at least until next month. Tim Krul sustained a back injury last week and there is currently no date set for his return. Ralf Fahrmann sustained a muscle injury on Saturday and there is currently no date set for his return. Mario Vrancic has been suffering with a calf injury, although he could well return this month. Alexander Tettey has been suffering with a groin injury, although he could well return this month. Ben Godfrey has been suffering with a facial injury, although he could well return this month.
There ends the Norwich medical report. That list of absentees would be enough to floor any Premier League team, but it is particularly damaging for a promoted side with a smallish squad. It would be a great shame if injuries ruined Norwich’s chances of staying up.