Premier League winners and losers

Date published: Monday 15th August 2016 11:56 - Daniel Storey


“Vibrancy doesn’t make you win games,” said Arsene Wenger on Saturday, defending Arsenal’s lack of first-team signings. “What makes you win games is the quality of the performance and the quality of your football. And you have to focus just on that.”

Watching Manchester United, Liverpool and Manchester City this weekend, one word sprung to mind: vibrant. For Wenger to separate “vibrancy” and “quality of performance” as if to make them mutually exclusive is a ludicrous stance that only he could take without blushing.


Manchester United
Top of the league after the opening day, and the only side to win by more than a single goal this weekend. This was not the perfect Manchester United performance, but it contained plenty to suggest that a title challenge is well within their reach. Paul Pogba and Henrikh Mkhitaryan are still to come, remember.

For more on United, including kind words for Juan Mata and less kind words for Wayne Rooney, go here.


Zlatan Ibrahimovic
As box office as we had been promised. Those expecting Ibrahimovic to dominate matches from minute one to 90 are set to be let down, but those who expect him to disappoint at Manchester United will be equally crestfallen.

For periods of matches this season you may forget that Ibrahimovic is even on the pitch, but he will always provide at least one moment of pure excellence. And that’s why they’re paying him the big bucks.


Eric Bailly

‘Showed outstanding composure for his Premier League debut and excellent passing, as if he has played in that back line for years. Polished, already’ – Daily Mail.

‘An excellent Premier League debut from the defender that saw him launch into some clattering challenges’ – Independent.

‘It was his Premier League debut but you wouldn’t have known it. Didn’t try anything fancy, just defended properly whenever he had to’ – Manchester Evening News.

‘Highly impressive Premier League debut, powerful and strong’ – Daily Mirror.

Yeah, this boy could be a star. He fancies a challenge like Nemanja Vidic and looks comfortable on the ball like Rio Ferdinand. It’s an alluring combination.


Antonio Valencia
Our first ever early winner, which is something of an honour. He’s probably delighted.


Jurgen Klopp’s entertainers
You can read plenty more about Liverpool in 16 conclusions, but it’s worth reliving just how exciting they were to watch.

Four goals, sixteen shots, eight outfield players creating chances, eight outfield players taking shots and a casual attitude to their defensive responsibilities. Move over Keggy Keegan, there’s a new team of ‘Entertainers’ in town.


Sadio Mane
I’m calling it Thierry Henry-esque, and not regretting it for a second.


Pep Guardiola and his tactical ingenuity
Forgive me for breaking this down into a list, but it’s easier to a) write and b) read:

1) Sterling as a central option
Raheem Sterling started on the right, but actually swapped positions with Sergio Aguero on numerous occasions. The sight of the Argentinean on the right wing jarred against our expectations, but it allowed City to unnerve Sunderland’s central defenders, dragging them out of position to create space. Sterling and Aguero’s average positions during the game were in identical spots.

2) David Silva as deep-lying playmaker
The issue of where David Silva would play was solved by Yaya Toure’s absence, with Silva dropping into a deeper position in central midfield, but with licence to roam left when City had the ball. There is no doubt that Kevin de Bruyne has overtaken Silva in the attacking midfield queue, but nor too that the Spaniard can still be influential from deep.

3) Full-back fluidity
City’s formation was a fairly regulation 4-1-4-1 without the ball, but as soon as they gained possession the tactical fireworks started. Fernandinho dropped slightly to almost create a back three, pushing John Stones and Aleksandar Kolarov wider. The full-backs were then pushed centrally and up into midfield, allowing Silva and De Bruyne to roam at will and Sterling and Nolito to have the wings to themselves. Whether it was 3-2-2-2-1, 2-1-2-1-3-1 or some other variation of numbers that give me a headache, it was certainly interesting.

4) Sweeper-keeper
In his four games last season, Willy Caballero never touched the ball outside his penalty area on more than four occasions. Against Sunderland he did so seven times, three of which were further up the pitch than at any point under Manuel Pellegrini. Caballero may only be the stop gap until a new goalkeeper is signed, but he is at least trying to embrace Guardiola’s demands.


Hull City
I couldn’t say it any better than Matt Stead did here. Go read that piece, but make sure you come back. Please come back.


Ronald Koeman

“It’s always nice to start the season, but we are not at the level we need to be. Not in terms of players’ physical states. I think we are, in terms of physical state, 70% of what we need to be. We are working hard and we will improve. We need to improve.”

Koeman’s assessment of his Everton squad is a pointed criticism of his predecessor, but we saw plenty enough on Saturday to believe that he can get the most out of this group of players. As Matt Stead wrote after the game, ‘given time to implement his ideals and improve the fitness of his players, this should be a successful marriage’.


Maarten Stekelenburg
From back-up at Southampton to the front of the queue at Everton. Stekelenburg will be crossing his fingers that Koeman does not sign another goalkeeper with Joe Hart being linked, but his first battle has already been won. Joel Robles’ spell as first choice at Goodison did not last long.


Alvaro Negredo
One shot, one goal. Those high wages will soon pay for themselves.


Nathan Redmond
A first goal for his new club on his debut for an English player who is still just 22. When you consider the £15m paid for Jordon Ibe, £10m for a winger with nine Premier League goals and assists for a relegated team last year might turn out to be wonderful business.


Southampton’s attacking fluidity
In fact, it may be inaccurate to call Redmond a winger now. Claude Puel tried Redmond in a central attacking role in pre-season, and again asked his attackers to interchange positions against Watford.

The Frenchman nominally picked a diamond midfield, but Southampton’s average positions told a different story. Both full-backs were indeed asked to play high with Oriol Romeu sitting in front of the defence, but the three attacking players (Redmond, Shane Long and Dusan Tadic) all had an average position almost on top of each other in central areas. Their touch maps (left to right as in the list above) show the same picture.

This is a strategy that still needs work, for Long in particular was unable to impact upon the game as often as he would like, but does offer a solution to Southampton’s lack of focal point up front in the absence of Graziano Pelle. With work, it could be both effective and enjoyable to watch.


Raheem Sterling
It started with The Sun’s ‘Life and times of Three Lions footie idiot Raheem’ on June 30, and pretty much continued from there:

‘Revealed: The stats that show Manchester City’s Raheem Sterling is under threat following arrival of Leroy Sane’ – Metro, August 2.

“Sane’s arrival puts Sterling’s Man City place at risk” – Dietmar Hamann, August 2.

‘Raheem Sterling gets some serious Twitter trolling after Pep Guardiola’s latest Man City signing’ – Daily Mirror, August 3.

If these three headlines were deliberately written to cause controversy, the Daily Mirror’s man in Manchester David McDonnell had equally strong words for Sterling.

‘Raheem Sterling is facing an uncertain future at Manchester City following their £13.8million capture of Spain winger Nolito,’ McDonnell wrote on June 30, the day of that ludicrous ‘Footie idiot’ headline from The Sun. ‘New City boss Pep Guardiola called Sterling personally to reassure him he has faith in him, despite the 21-year-old having failed to live up to his £49m transfer fee.

‘But actions speak louder than words and City’s decision to buy Nolito, beating Barcelona to his signature, suggests Guardiola is not entirely convinced by Sterling. With Kevin De Bruyne likely to start the new season on the right for City, David Silva in his favoured playmaker role and Sergio Aguero up front, that leaves only the left-wing position up for grabs.’

That last paragraph couldn’t have been more wrong. With Silva deeper (not in his favoured role) and De Bruyne central (not starting on the right), Sterling was indeed given his favoured position on the right. He was probably their most dangerous player, picked as Man of the Match by three national newspapers. 

“We need that – people who stay wide and have the quality one against one,” Guardiola said after the game. “He has the quality to play right or left, go to the byline or inside. He is a fighter. Of course we want more from him but we are very happy. He is a very nice guy and from the beginning I had a feeling this guy is good.”

I’m not even going to try and pretend not to be chuffed for him.


Tony Pulis’ smash ‘n’ grab
Three shots on target, 37% possession, a passing accuracy of 59% and one outfield player (Matty Phillips) who doesn’t prefer to play centrally. Those are sounds of the Pulis; have you missed that ear-splitting siren?


Swansea City
One step along the road to making me look stupid. It’s a well-trodden path.


‘Good on the BBC for allowing Lineker to present in his pants,’ came one social media view.

Good on them? This has been the BBC’s goose that laid the golden trending topic, and they have milked it dry. Turns out you can milk a goose after all. 


N’Golo Kante
On this evidence, our shower of compliments were not enough. With Kante, Leicester looked secure. Without him, they looked more open than Waylon Jennings’ door. Those expecting Nampalys Mendy to fill the gap are misinterpreting what type of player he is.


Leicester City’s fight
The glory of last season will never be forgotten, but title celebrations felt an awful long time ago during Saturday lunchtime’s game at the KCOM Stadium. Last season, Leicester made an average of 21.6 interceptions per game and 17.3 tackles per game. They allowed an average of 3.7 shots on target per match, and made just ten errors all season that led to shots.

Against the favourites to finish bottom this season, Leicester were down by every measure. They made just nine interceptions and ten tackles, significantly worse than last season. They allowed Hull to have five shots on target, and made 20% of last season’s errors leading to shots in the space of 90 minutes. As title defences go, this one started off abysmally.


Arsene Wenger and his perfect straw man

“United and City signed a lot of players the year before as well…if you want to make everybody happy, then just buy 20 new players and everybody is full of hope until the first game starts and then we’re back to reality” – Arsene Wenger.

*Counts to ten to avoid screaming*

They don’t want 20 signings, Arsene, so you can put that ridiculous straw man away until next time. They didn’t want – or expect – Paul Pogba, either. What they wanted was a club with large cash reserves to solve, or at least attempt to solve, the problems in their squad before the season began, problems so obvious that they are the first words on the lips of every single supporter. What they wanted was their manager to accept that he might need to find a different transfer window gear in order to address these issues.

As horrible as it is for Wenger, clubs sometimes do overpay for players. Manchester United paid a high price for Anthony Martial and Eric Bailly. Chelsea paid a high price for Michy Batshuayi and will do for whichever central defender they finally land. That’s the reality of the footballing world we live in, where finishing bottom of the table lands you £97m in broadcasting revenues alone. This is football’s new reality, and Wenger would do well to open his eyes to it rather than burying his head in the sand.

Supporters and critics aren’t asking Wenger to make the impossible possible, just stop the possible becoming so damn improbable every damn time.


Arsene Wenger and calling out youth
You can read much, much more on Arsene Wenger allowing the rot to set in right here, but you should also read John Nicholson on how Wenger gets away with saying things like “the players weren’t ready”.

Never has that been more true than in the case of Arsenal’s young players, who were unable to halt the Liverpool tide after half-time.

“I have a few options as you’ve seen in pre-season,” Wenger said on Friday before the game. “The players available at the moment are quite young but they’re keen to do it. Holding has played in the Championship, which is good experience. Now he has to deal with one level higher.”

Lovely, so Wenger was turning the frowns upside down. Don’t worry about the crisis, because it gives these excellent young players a chance.

“We paid for a lack of experience at the back and the fact some players are not ready physically to compete at this level,” said Wenger after the defeat.

When I get angry, I resort to lists:

– Cultivating young players is not about throwing them in at the deep end, but playing them alongside experienced defenders to give them confidence in their ability and experience at the highest level. You didn’t help Rob Holding and Calum Chambers on Sunday; you risked damaging them.

– It’s one thing picking young players through necessity, but another thing entirely pinning the blame on their inexperience. How does that help their confidence?

– Why were those players forced to play, Arsene? Yes, that’s right, it’s because the man paid £8.3m a year to avoid such scenarios once again proved himself incapable of doing so. Still, you can’t doubt his buck-passing.

– And why do you think transfer targets are proving so difficult to land? Is it possibly because they see a club continually forced to live through Groundhog season, where the continuity of having the same man in charge has become a negative?


Granit Xhaka
Came on for Mohamed Elneny after 67 minutes. Attempted five tackles (winning one), gave away four fouls and was booked. Nobody in the entire match conceded more free-kicks, and he only played for 28 minutes.

In his last three seasons in the Bundesliga, Xhaka got 25 yellow cards and five reds. He’s going to have to sort out that disciplinary record if the third most expensive central midfielder in the history of the game is going to be value for money.


Daniel Sturridge
A wonderful afternoon for Liverpool, but not so for Sturridge. Not only did a niggling injury keep the striker out of yet another league game, but his peers performed wonderfully in his absence. In his ten years as a professional, Sturridge has started just eight competitive matches in August.

The problem for Sturridge is just how fluid Liverpool looked in attack, with Roberto Firmino and Philippe Coutinho trading places and Sadio Mane bursting through the defensive line from deep. Klopp is selling Christian Benteke precisely because he doesn’t want or need one focal point in attack. Can Sturridge really offer the same versatility as Firmino or Coutinho? If Liverpool can score four goals away from home at a top-four rival, do they really need Sturridge as anything other than a Plan B?

Sturridge also suffered in comparison to Divock Origi off the bench, who noticeably held the ball up, won set pieces and generally helped to run down the clock with a level of expertise not seen in the England international. Joe Hart isn’t the only national team squad member now fighting for his first-team place.


Joe Hart
Our first ever early loser, which is something of an honour. He’s probably fuming.


Yaya Toure
“Against Sunderland I needed a player, a team more aggressive without the ball because we have to create team spirit. My teams always run a lot. They were lucky [to have] players with big talent but always they were winners and conceded few goals in the season – because 11 players run, 11 players play with the ball and 11 run without the ball” – Pep Guardiola.

What he’s done there, Yaya, is describe the opposite of what you bring to a team. Also left out of City’s Champions League squad to travel to Bucharest, Toure might be looking for a new home sharpish. How’s your Chinese?


Kasper Schmeichel
Brilliant last season, but at least partly culpable in both of Hull City’s goals at the KCOM Stadium on the opening day. Schmeichel failed to get sufficient distance on his parry of Curtis Davies’ header for the first goal, and then was guilty of literally throwing away possession in the build-up to the second. Schmeichel is a long, long way from losing his first-team place, but in Ron-Robert Zieler Leicester now have a very capable No. 2.


Harry Kane
A pretty awful start to the season. If Kane looked tired in the European Championship in France, that fatigue has not worn off.

At Goodison, Kane failed to have a single shot. According to Opta, he won one of his 11 duels and none of his seven aerial duels. He managed two touches of the ball in Everton’s box in 90 minutes.

It is no exaggeration to say that Tottenham looked a different team when Vincent Janssen came on. Mauricio Pochettino will hope that this is just another slow start; Kane failed to score in his first four games of last season.


John Stones
Stones surged up the pitch in the second half, trying to cut out Jack Rodwell’s pass. That left space in behind for Jermain Defoe to exploit, with Rodwell’s pass nutmegging the defender for good measure. Just another reminder that changing the colour of the shirt isn’t a magic fix for the clear weaknesses in Stones’ game. A promising debut, but the lapses remain.


Jamie Vardy
Bad. I mean really bad. Last season in the Premier League, Vardy averaged 11.2 completed passes, 1.5 shots on target, 33 touches and just over one tackle per 90 minutes away from home. Against a Hull City side that had Jake Livermore in central defence, Vardy completed only seven passes, failed to have a single shot on target or make a single tackle and had just 20 touches of the ball.

Sky Sports might have opted for the euphemistic ‘Leicester City striker Jamie Vardy could not hide his frustration against Hull City’ headline, but should probably have simply stated the fact: Vardy punched himself in the face in frustration. It looked as silly as it sounds.


Andre Gray could well be superb this season, but he is surely the exception to a pretty grim rule. Matthew Lowton, Ben Mee, Stephen Ward, Dean Marney, David Jones, Sam Vokes, Lukas Jutkiewicz and Johann Berg Gudmundsson – are these players really good enough to survive in the Premier League? Suddenly I feel a bit sad inside.


Alan Pardew
It would be nice to think that new season equals clean slate, but that just doesn’t represent the reality. Crystal Palace’s 13 Premier League defeats in 2016 is equalled only by Championship Norwich and beaten only by Championship Aston Villa. It’s seven points and seven goals in ten home games since the turn of the year.

If Pardew thought that the summer break would give his team a renewed energy, he was much mistaken. West Brom did little to merit their victory, but neither did Palace do enough to thwart it. Wilfried Zaha failed to create a single chance in 90 minutes, and any opportunities that were sculpted were wasted (more on that next).

“Playing West Brom in our first game was always going to be tough,” Pardew said after the game.”You know what to expect. Better teams than us have struggled against West Brom. I thought we defended well and that they didn’t create that much, but they are always dangerous at set-pieces.”

All very frank, but it won’t fly for long. Pardew has already been pushed into second favourite in the ‘next manager to leave their job’ market by some bookmakers.


Crystal Palace’s striker crisis
The list of highest-scoring Palace strikers last season was pitiful: Connor Wickham (five), Dwight Gayle (three), Emmanuel Adebayor (one). Yes, that’s it.

So far, Alan Pardew’s solution to that conundrum has been to allow Adebayor to leave and sell Gayle, with Marouane Chamakh also leaving on a free transfer. None of those decisions were illogical – given the money offered for Gayle, but it did leave Wickham as Palace’s only centre forward.

The problem is that Wickham himself is not up to task, however harsh that may sound. Despite the service from wide areas provided by Yannick Bolasie, Wilfried Zaha and Jason Puncheon and the passes into feet from Yohan Cabaye in central midfield, Wickham’s ability to record shots on target was appalling last season. The striker played 21 times in the league (starting 15), but managed shots on target in only five. His average of 0.6 shots on target per 90 minutes was lower than Jonjo Shelvey, Marc Pugh, Ramires and Steven Naismith, to name a selection from a very long list.

On Saturday, Palace again suffered from the same issue. In his 90 minutes on the pitch, Wickham had three shots; none were on target. He is a willing runner and may well succeed more as part of a front two, but as a lone striker he fails to offer enough to trouble any capable central defence.

With a move for Christian Benteke reportedly in danger of breaking down, Palace’s need is urgent beyond belief. Fail to land one of their transfer targets, and they really could be in relegation trouble. Never has the destination of their £30m Yannick Bolasie money been more crucial.


Paddy McNair
Signed on Thursday, trained on Friday, scored a costly own goal on Saturday. McNair has an awful lot to learn from Craig David.


Andros Townsend
Townsend: Six shots
Every other Crystal Palace player combined: Eight shots.

During his five months at Newcastle, Townsend changed our perception somewhat. Gone were the wild shots from 25 yards, here was the fine set-piece delivery and determination to address a dire situation. Don’t go back to the old Andros now.


Daniel Storey

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