Mauricio Pochettino, Victor Wanyama, Toby Alderweireld and every other Tottenham player too
I wrote plenty of words right here, so go read them. The combination of young players, exciting manager, exact strategical plan, high-intensity football and a solid defensive unit is unlikely to produce bad football, but we never quite dreamed it would be this good.
Tottenham and another way?
I found myself re-realising on Sunday afternoon that Tottenham have never paid more than £30m for a player; Manchester City have done so five times in the last 14 months. The Premier League’s full pockets might create shop-a-holic clubs, but throwing huge sums of cash at a problem doesn’t have to be the only way to succeed.
Only four of Tottenham’s 18-man squad cost £13m or more; four of that Manchester City back five did. The difference was staggering.
Finally on Tottenham, for it really was a supreme performance, it’s worth taking your hat off once again to the fitness levels they demonstrated against City.
On Wednesday, Celtic harried and hassled Guardiola’s side during the first half, but effectively ran out of steam after 50 minutes. There is no shame in that, but the eventual result relied on some good fortune and wasteful finishing.
Twenty-four hours earlier, Tottenham were winning 1-0 in Moscow. Given the intensity of the work demanded by Pochettino, that the same five midfielders (Erik Lamela, Christian Eriksen, Dele Alli, Heung-Min Son and Victor Wanyama) from Tuesday also played so brilliantly against City is astonishing. Lamela, Eriksen and Wanyama played 90 minutes in both games, for goodness sake.
On Sunday, Tottenham players made 666 sprints, the highest in any Premier League game this season. Their total distance covered was the fifth highest this season, only 1.7km behind top spot. Pochettino might want to buy his conditioning coaches a pint (of green tea, or something, I dunno).
Finally finally on Tottenham, a little point but an important one. Against Middlesbrough last weekend, Christian Eriksen played 89 minutes and covered more ground than any other player on the pitch. On Tuesday, Eriksen played 90 minutes in the Champions League, a competition in which only two players have covered more ground this season. On Sunday, Eriksen played 90 minutes and covered more ground than any other player on the pitch. Don’t let looks be deceiving, this is a player determined to become the complete Pochettino attacking midfielder.
Liverpool’s team ethos
Sarah Winterburn pointed out the flaws in Liverpool’s performances, and the unusually calm response below the line tells you all you need to know. No Liverpool fan or neutral pundit can predict with any certainty where Jurgen Klopp’s side will finish; does the manager even have an idea?
Yet there is one point on which all can agree: Whatever Liverpool do, they will do it together. Just as with Pochettino at Tottenham, Klopp understands that, in the absence of winning experience, the power of collective morale is crucial to keeping players believing in the possibility of the end goal. Psychology is one of sport’s immeasurable performance indicators, but only a fool would dismiss its impact.
Eighteen shots, shared between 11 players. Fifteen chances created, shared between eight players. Nine players winning possession at least four times. Nine players crossing the ball into the penalty area. Eight players all covering more than 10km (not beaten by any other PL team). Seven players making more than 70 sprints (not beaten by any other PL team).
*Takes deep breath*
A player comfortable in midfield at left-back (Milner). A player comfortable in defence in midfield (Emre Can). Full-backs asked to provide in attack as much as defensively. Attacking midfielders (Philippe Coutinho and Sadio Mane) capable of playing anywhere across the line. Another attacking midfielder playing as a forward (Firmino). It’s not quite totaalvoetbal, but it’s a decent enough impression.
Klopp is a manager who demands that individuals commit entirely to a team dynamic. The justification for that demand is in the result.
Our early winner, and a man who we’re falling more in love with every week. After being England’s spatula, toilet brush, chopping board, colander and slotted spoon for years, James Milner’s turning himself into Jurgen Klopp’s most useful implement. He’s only 30, and yet we’re struggling to remember a time when we didn’t yearn to tousle Milner’s hair and give him a shiny penny just for being him.
Carrying on doing exactly what he does best. Benteke’s latest goal was a truly magnificent header, and there are few, if any, in the Premier League who are better at precisely that art. Now settling quickly at Crystal Palace, you do wonder exactly where Benteke would be had he left Aston Villa for a club who actually intended to play to his strengths.
A first away clean sheet since April, and with a new defensive shape. Antonio Conte must have been delighted with his first win in four league games, but limiting the opposition to three shots on target (and eight shots in total) in 90 minutes will have seen him pour himself a second glass of wine on Saturday evening.
“It can be a big change in the tactical aspect,” Conte said after the game, clearly invigorated after the performance. “More than the system, what’s important is the principles, then you can change. This week we’ve worked a lot, we must find the right way to be more compact. A clean sheet is important for the confidence. We are working very hard and we must continue in this way.”
There had been questions as to whether Gary Cahill would lose his place, but they were made redundant by John Terry’s absence. Instead, Conte chose to use Victor Moses and Marcos Alonso as wing-backs, with David Luiz, Cahill and Cesar Azpilicueta in central defence.
The formation will still take some getting used to, but there are promising signs. Luiz has licence to step out of defence without causing gaps to appear behind him, Nemanja Matic can surge forward (as he did for the second goal), N’Golo Kante can snap at heels further up the pitch and Eden Hazard and Willian can play far more centrally, with wing-backs overlapping. Six of Chelsea’s 17 chances were created by Alonso and Moses.
Conte now has the international break to work on his new formation, before Leicester and Manchester United arrive at Stamford Bridge. If the key to successful management lies in the response to adversity, the Italian may have found a solution to his first significant Chelsea setback.
One of the in-form players in the Premier League. The message from Stoke City fans and manager Mark Hughes all season has been clear: The performances have been rotten, but spare Joe Allen any blame.
“We are giving him that opportunity, and in every game he plays he has an influence,” said Hughes on September 25. “He has been the shining light for us this season – the one who has been really hitting the levels expected of him.”
If Allen could have rested on his laurels, against Manchester United he stepped up his game again. In the absence of any help from Wilfried Bony (more on that later), Allen effectively led Stoke’s line. He won eight of his ten duels, didn’t lose a header and won five fouls as his dribbling and shielding of the ball consistently caused United problems.
Yet it is Allen’s hard work and determination that are his greatest assets in this type of scenario. The gap between the distance he covered (11.88km) and the distance covered by the second highest player (Geoff Cameron) was 1.26km, meaning Allen ran 11.9% further than any other player on the pitch. Combine this effort with his quality on the ball, and it’s not difficult to see why Hughes is impressed.
“Sometimes you don’t understand how good a player you have in the building until you work with him day-in, day-out,” he said after the game. “He is an intelligent player. He’s got great energy levels, we all see that every day, but that’s not all. He’s got good awareness of situations and how to affect the game. His anticipation is first class in the box and in midfield.”
After his failure to establish a first-team place at Liverpool, Allen could easily have allowed his career to wane. Still only 26, he’s seized his latest opportunity with both hands and feet.
A computer game footballer, capable of something so beautiful you want to bottle it up and put it on display in a gallery. Payet’s goal against Middlesbrough had all the hallmarks of a Georgi Kinkladze special, the ball on a string as he plays with defenders as if they were little kittens. West Ham would be many more strands of borked without him.
When Lee Grant conceded both goals in a 2-0 Championship defeat for Derby at Middlesbrough on January 2, do you think he thought that his next competitive away game would be in the Premier League for Stoke, thwarting Zlatan Ibrahimovic?
His first goal since May, and first goal as a substitute since his debut against Liverpool. After a difficult start to the season, this was a timely reminder from Martial to Mourinho of his ability. A front three of Marcus Rashford, Martial and Juan Mata when Zlatan Ibrahimovic needs a rest makes me feel tingly inside.
While I’ve been getting excited about Tottenham, Manchester City, Criminal Minds and a nerdy football map I’m creating, Southampton have been busy keeping clean sheets. Claude Puel has now engineered a run of six consecutive clean sheets in all competitions. That matches Ronald Koeman’s record, and beats Mauricio Pochettino’s.
The cliche is that great teams win when they’re playing badly, but not many people realise that the phrase has actually been shortened over the centuries. The original cliche, first established during the Chinese game of cuju in the second century BC is that ‘great teams win when they’re playing badly, but it’s especially significant if they do it via a ludicrous combination of last-second handball and offside’.
That’s how you mark a 20th anniversary in style, Arsene.
He can score free-kicks too? Oh bugger, I’m going to burst.
Eighteen shots this season. Thirteen on target. Six goals. Two assists. While Ibrahimovic has a shot conversion rate of under 10%, Diego Costa’s is at 26%.
Chelsea might not be in full flight, but Diego Costa looks to have improved again over the summer. My brain struggles to compute that he can be younger than Sergio Aguero, and I hope yours does too.
“The referee gave the goal and you need to respect the decision.”
All you kids are bothered about flip-flaps and rabonas, but the real skill is in deliberately mis-controlling the ball to force your opponent to set up a goal. Tekkers?
The hero we could even never dream of deserving. Are there any jobs going just sitting near people and telling them they’re wonderful?
Leicester City’s squad depth
“I have to think when we play every three days and maybe at the end of the 22 days it was much better to give some rest to some players,” said Claudio Ranieri after the 0-0 draw with Southampton.
“Southampton played a couple of days after us but they changed seven players and I changed just one. It’s not enough but I’m very happy with a point for this reason. [After the international break] they come back two or three days before Chelsea. After that we have the Champions League. I have to think about it.”
Ranieri can think all he likes, but he simply doesn’t have the answers on how to shuffle the pack. The elite clubs deal with Champions League football (which is of a far higher intensity than the Europa League) by having engorged squads and suitable back-up in almost every position, but Ranieri doesn’t have that luxury.
A Leicester back-up XI might have options in goal (Ron-Robert Zieler) and up front (Ahmed Musa and Shinji Okazaki), but in defence and midfield they are lacking. A defence of Jeffrey Schlupp (at a push), Luis Hernandez, Marcin Wasilewski and Ben Chilwell and a midfield of Bartosz Kapustka, Nampalys Mendy, Andy King and Demarai Gray, to be exact. One is light on quality, the other on experience.
The concern for Ranieri is that this problem will exacerbate before it improves. The excellent Physioroom.com lists Matty James as the only Leicester player currently injured, with Mendy nearing a return, but surely that fortune cannot continue. As members of his squad get fatigued by the increased workload, the sort of soft tissue injuries will occur that get weird fitness egg Raymond Verheijen so hot in his (appropriately stretched) groins.
Incredibly fortunate to avoid a red card and subsequent three-game ban that is most unhelpful when you are trying to establish your place in the team. Herrera should offer thanks to the Gods of incompetent refereeing.
— Mirror Football (@MirrorFootball) October 2, 2016
“Yeah, because he made a bad decision,” said Claude Puel when asked if he was angry that Austin had tried to chip Kasper Schmeichel. “The solution is it is easier on the ground to put the ball in. It’s a shame.”
Jay Rodriguez and Shane Long have just pricked up their ears.
I’m still not convinced that he’s not a Ali Dia tribute act. Guardiola’s decision to give Fernando seven second-half minutes was generous after that first-half display, but he will surely not make the mistake of picking him for a big game again. I’m almost impressed that he only managed to make one tackle.
A setback, but not a calamity. Guardiola has always stated the the project will take time, and Sunday highlighted the areas of Manchester City’s squad that must still be improved upon.
Still, his side did get taught a proper lesson. One that you can read about here…
Hull City and Middlesbrough…
Since the second weekend of the season, Hull and Middlesbrough have played ten combined league games. They have taken three points between them, conceded 21 goals, scored seven and dropped a combined 23 league places. After bright starts, reality is biting.
…and their attacks
Again since those opening two games, Hull City and Middlesbrough have had just 21 shots on target between them and created 50 chances, at a rate of 2.1 and 5.0 per game. Not only are the league averages over double that of Hull and Middlesbrough, they rank 18th and 19th by the first measure and 18th and 20th by the second.
In that period, Hull’s only goals have been scored by Robert Snodgrass and David Meyler, while Middlesbrough’s have been scored by Cristhian Stuani, Ben Gibson and Daniel Ayala. Both clubs bought strikers in the summer transfer window; both clubs are struggling to get them to actually score goals.
It looked like the ultimate no-brainer. While Crystal Palace were busy signing their own out-of-favour, expensive Premier League centre-forward in Christian Benteke, Stoke City did the same. On the final day of the summer transfer window, Wilfried Bony escaped his Manchester City nightmare.
“Eighteen months ago, he was being bought for a hugely significant amount of money, so we know that we are bringing in a top-quality striker,” said Mark Hughes, and precious few people doubted him.
“Everybody is aware of Wilfried and what he is capable of, and it was no surprise that one of the bigger clubs came in for him on the back of his performances for Swansea. The only surprise has been that he didn’t enjoy the success with Manchester City that we all thought he would.”
Again, there was little to argue against. Still just 27, Bony had scored 26 goals in 54 league games (only 43 of which were starts) at Swansea City. When Manuel Pellegrini needed a back-up to Sergio Aguero, they paid a fee for Bony that could have topped £30m.
Even on £120,000-a-week wages at Stoke, Bony’s arrival potentially filled a long-term void in Hughes’ squad. Marko Arnautovic and Mame Biram Diouf have both helped out with goals in the last two seasons, but Stoke have never possessed a reliable Premier League goalscorer. The last Stoke players to score 12 or more goals in a league season were Ricardo Fuller and Liam Lawrence in the Championship in 2007/08.
So far, Bony has fallen short of even the lowest expectations. Not only has he failed to score, but hasn’t even offered a goal threat. His hold-up play, the strength of his game at Swansea and Manchester City, has been abject. There have also been reports that Stoke’s staff are unhappy with Bony’s effort in training and work-rate in matches. The highest-paid player in Stoke’s history may have soured his reputation within four weeks.
Against United, Stoke might as well have been playing with ten men. Hughes asked his Stoke team to sit deep and defend, thus relying on Bony to lead the line and relieve pressure. Instead, he won two headers, managed no shots, lost possession on 17 occasions and struggled throughout with his first touch. Bony shook his head when substituted after 77 minutes, as if unhappy with Mark Hughes’ decision to withdraw him. If anything, it came 32 minutes too late. Stoke’s equaliser would follow later, in his absence.
In 318 minutes this season, Bony has had one shot on target. A list of Stoke players with more includes Joe Allen, Arnautovic, Bojan, Ryan Shawcross, Geoff Cameron and Glen Johnson. In 318 minutes he has created two chances. A list of Stoke players with more includes Allen, Arnautovic, Bojan, Glenn Whelan, Xherdan Shaqiri and Erik Pieters; Phil Bardsley can match him on both in significantly fewer minutes.
Given Stoke’s difficult start to the season, Mark Hughes will be delighted at taking a point from Old Trafford; this must be the catalyst. However, while Lee Grant, Ryan Shawcross and Ryan Shawcross all impressed, the player at the top of Stoke’s spine was again hugely disappointing. The form of his highest-paid player will give Hughes some sleepless nights over the forthcoming international break.
No catastrophe, but a serious case of tempered expectations. Two weeks ago, Everton sat second in the Premier League with a home League Cup tie against Championship opposition to come. Now they’re out of one domestic cup competition, have moved down to fifth and next travel to a Manchester City who have won every home game so far this season. Sometimes it feels like Idrissa Gueye and Romelu Lukaku are carrying a team on their shoulders.
West Ham fans
West Ham fans: "Stratford's a shit hole, I want to go home."
— Matt Law (@Matt_Law_DT) October 1, 2016
Look away now…
The explosion? Upton Park⚒ pic.twitter.com/vN4wdcOghP
— Connor Mcintosh (@ConMcintosh) September 20, 2016
With Stoke (a), West Ham (a), Arsenal (h) next up, it’s not hard to imagine Sunderland earning just two points from their first ten games, a quarter of the season bringing only misery. It’s at that point that David Moyes is sacked, and Sunderland again gamble on a Great Escape. The only achievement might be in beating their own record low points total of 15.
Our early loser, and on his birthday too. No cause for widespread panic, but it would be nice to know Jose Mourinho has a plan B for when Ibrahimovic isn’t firing. It’s now 23 shots since his last league goal.
David de Gea
A rare mistake, but a mistake all the same. Whereas Ibrahimovic’s spurned chances will easily be put to the back of the mind, De Gea’s error cost Manchester United two points. Such is the lot of a goalkeeper.