Winners of the first four top-flight league games of the season for the first time in the club’s history, those of us who assumed Watford might flounder under Javi Gracia just because we would struggle to pick him out of a line-up even if he was wearing an ‘I am Javi Gracia’ badge feel rightly silly. Football is at its most wonderful when it surprises, and boy are Watford surprising us all.
Beating Crystal Palace, Burnley and Brighton is one thing, but coming from behind to beat a Tottenham side with a 100% record and who had just beaten Manchester United 3-0 at Old Trafford is something else entirely. This victory epitomised the hunger and team spirit that Gracia’s team now share. It is not always the case at Vicarage Road, but the stadium was jumping.
No Watford supporter is optimistic enough to believe that this heady run will continue. This is a club where the mood can change with the seasons and managers come and go just as regularly. The last boss to reach 100 matches in charge was Aidy Boothroyd, and he left in November 2008.
But there has been a quiet revolution at Watford of late, one which rails against the supposition that this is squad of players who merge into one, a transient group either passing through or pushed from Udinese and Granada. The matchday squad on Sunday may have contained 13 different nationalities, but it also boasted six players aged 25 or under. The club’s last ten signings have all been under 25.
Gradually, Watford are reducing their average age and creating a long-termist picture at the natural home of short-termism. Gracia is the unassuming circus master training them to perform.
Forget your Eden Hazards, David Silvas, Paul Pogbas and Christian Eriksens. If you want a player in your team to provide assists, an attacking left-back is this season’s must-have accessory.
The only two Premier League players with more than two assists so far this season are Benjamin Mendy and Jose Holebas. Two of the eight players with two assists? Andrew Robertson and Marcos Alonso.
Maurizio Sarri and Eden Hazard
On Saturday, Sarri became only the sixth manager in Premier League history to win his first four matches in charge. We were told to have a little patience in his ability to transpose his Napoli system onto a squad of players shaped by Antonio Conte, but the transition has been remarkably seamless.
The quick, short passing is in place (Chelsea have completed over 200 more passes than Manchester City so far this season), the number of shots faced has dropped since that chaotic victory over Arsenal and Chelsea are only one behind City on chances created too. If they could only get Alvaro Morata scoring, all would be well.
Most important to Sarri’s immediate success is Eden Hazard’s happiness, with Chelsea’s best player expressing his pleasure at playing within the new manager’s system, far more so than under Conte or Jose Mourinho. A cynic might remark that Hazard is happy with every Chelsea manager until he isn’t, but it’s no exaggeration to conclude that when the Belgian is content, so are most supporters.
Hazard has played only 223 minutes after a slow, post-World Cup start to the season, but still ranks first for chances created and third for total shots. Sarri’s system is not built around him, but it does allow the Belgian to spend far more time in the final third. Keep that up, and Chelsea may be able to ward off Real Madrid’s interest once and for all.
A fourth league win since November 2017, which sounds bloody ridiculous. What is more ridiculous is that Saturday was only the third time Southampton have won a league game by more than a single goal since beating Sunderland 4-0 in February 2017. The two sides that day were managed by Claude Puel and David Moyes. Plenty has changed since.
Wolves and Nuno Espirito Santo
Our early winners. If the endeavour against Manchester City offered hope that Wolves will look to attack the Premier League, a last-minute winner away from home shows that there is plenty of gumption to match the guile. Suddenly they’re a point off seventh and all is well.
A necessary step. Some supporters felt my post-match piece focused too much on Burnley’s flaws rather than Manchester United’s excellence, but you can only beat what is in front of you. Just as important as the three points was Mourinho’s post-match press conference joviality. Now to embark upon a run of victories.
The cliche is that beating the teams around you at home is the key to Premier League survival, but it doesn’t really matter where the points come. Having drawn 0-0 at home to Cardiff City, David Wagner’s team promptly took another point away from home against a much-fancied Everton side.
Despite their thrashing at Manchester City last month, Huddersfield’s away resilience has improved during their stay in the Premier League. Between September 2017 and March 2018 they lost 2-0 at West Ham, Swansea, Stoke, Everton, Tottenham and Manchester United, 3-0 at Liverpool and Leicester, 4-0 at Bournemouth and 5-0 at Arsenal, a team unable to stem the flow of goals – and even worse at scoring them. Since then, Huddersfield have drawn 0-0 at Manchester City and 1-1 at Brighton, Chelsea and now Everton.
His first Premier League goal since November 2015. The timing was as impeccable as the finish.
The danger with quick wide players is to fall into what we might call Theo Walcott syndrome, where goal tallies are massaged by scoring the third or fourth goal against mediocre opposition. It would be easy to assume the same about Sterling in this Manchester City team.
With that in mind, it’s worth pointing out that Sterling has scored the opening goal of the game seven times in the last 11 months. That’s twice more than Sergio Aguero.
Brighton’s resilience, finally
Brighton conceded the first goal in 18 of their 38 league games last season, better than nine other teams. But in those matches, Chris Hughton’s team took only three draws and scored only eight times. On both measures, they ranked in the Premier League’s bottom three.
Now, finally, some resilience. Brighton came back from two goals down for the first time since drawing with Brentford in February 2017 on Saturday, but most important was that a Hughton substitution again changed the game in his side’s favour. After his excellent mid-game changes against Manchester United, yet more evidence that the manager is learning on the job. All credit to him for that.
‘Winning is great, but the way you do it is almost as important as the result,’ wrote one perfectly sensible mailboxer on Sunday morning. ‘Liverpool can’t continue playing like that and expect a good one. A better attack would’ve taken us apart.’
And yet Liverpool have won their first four league games of the season for the first time since 1990, the only goal they have conceded was entirely self-inflicted and they sit top of the Premier League without their magnificent front three really clicking after the summer break.
Six years ago, Liverpool took two points from their first four league games including a 3-0 pumping by West Brom and were bringing Stewart Downing off the bench to try and change the game in a 1-1 draw at Sunderland. If there are imperfections now, the general mood should be buoyant. Remembering where you came from makes it easier to enjoy the journey up.
Tottenham spent all summer trying and failing to sign Jack Grealish for £40m, but they could have had Maddison for £25m. The Norwich attacker chose to take the halfway step to the top at Leicester, but it could prove a masterstroke. With Riyad Mahrez gone there is room for a dribbling creator with the confidence to take players on. Watching him earn the Man of the Match award even in defeat against Liverpool, it’s hard to believe that he’s still just 21. Your next England squad, Gareth.
A first away win under Unai Emery, and another chaotic match. They’re going to be damn fun to watch.
Scorer of two goals in the EFL Cup and one in the Premier League. Who the f*ck is Richarlison anyway?
Not only the second most prolific dribbler in the Premier League despite being on the pitch for only 91 minutes, but the scorer of a top-flight goal for the first time in his career. “End product!” shout the excited crowd.
There are changes for the better, I promise. We detailed last week how Manuel Pellegrini is trying to implement a number of tactical alterations to the West Ham team. They’re playing more on the front foot, trying to pass the ball more rather than going direct and trying desperately to avoid Marko Arnautovic becoming isolated as the centre forward.
Unfortunately, more has stayed the same than has changed. West Ham still look like a team of component parts who only met on the morning of the match, the defence has kept four league clean sheets in 2018, central midfield is still an empty space where the engine room should be and there is a general lack of energy that no amount of skill will atone for.
If the performance in defeat at Arsenal last week demanded a positive spin, Pellegrini has now lost home matches against Bournemouth and Wolves and thus cannot avoid the negatives. Crystal Palace proved last season that a dismal start need not mean relegation, but that change in fortunes was instigated by sacking the manager who had lost his first four league games in charge. It’s hardly comforting for Pellegrini.
Central midfield is the crux of the issue, where West Ham have somehow weakened their options after a summer of spending. Mark Noble was finally left out of the team on Saturday, starting a league game on the bench for the first time in 2018, but his replacement Carlos Sanchez is also not fit for purpose on this evidence. It was he who lost the ball for Wolves’ late winner, a true Hammer blow.
Next to him was Jack Wilshere, for whom West Ham felt like the natural fit. Wilshere has been played as a regulation central midfielder in a team with two attacking full-backs and three attacking midfielders. This firefighting role is patently not his area of expertise.
West Ham must surely give Pellegrini and this project more time to improve. The new manager was not only given a three-year deal but was allowed to choose the club’s new director of football Mario Husillos, who Pellegrini worked with at Malaga. Making a panicky change plunges this shambolic club back into extreme short-termism three months after extolling the virtues of a different path.
But panic cannot simply be locked away in a box and ignored; it seeps into the mind and body of every player, coach and supporter. The international break has come at the perfect time for Pellegrini, but he needs to spend the next fortnight drilling values into his players that would usually take months to absorb. If this gets any worse before it gets better, Pellegrini will – and should – be fearful for his job.
Crystal Palace without Wilfried Zaha
On September 24, 2016, Crystal Palace won 3-2 at Sunderland. The game was notable for two reasons: the last time that Palace have come from two goals down to win a game, and the last time they avoided defeat in a Premier League match that Wilfried Zaha has not started.
Since then, a ludicrous tale of woe. Palace have played 12 league games under four different managers without their best player. They have lost all 12, scoring four times and conceding 27. After the miserable home defeat on Saturday to Southampton, during which Palace had 20 shots without scoring, Roy Hodgson virtually admitted defeat in finding a way to succeed without Zaha.
“I don’t quite know what I can do about it until such time as we play a game without Wilf and win,” Hodgson said. “It’s a fact. Again he didn’t play and again we didn’t win. It’s a pure fact that we have to learn to live with.
“There will be games where Wilf doesn’t play and I would like to think that the squad that we have is good enough to win without him. But it’s a stretch to say that because when Wilf is unable to play, the other players can’t produce what they are capable of.”
The good news is that Zaha was somehow persuaded to sign a new contract and that his groin injury is not thought to be serious. The bad news is that Crystal Palace are the closest the Premier League has to a one-man team. Wrap him up in cotton wool and find him an elixir to drink twice daily.
Tottenham’s game-changing options
On Monday we saw the benefits of Tottenham’s quiet summer, a team brimming with cohesion containing nine regulars from 2015/16 that picked apart Manchester United during the second half. By Sunday, we saw the pitfalls of failing to sign a single player.
The return of Heung-min Son and Erik Lamela will give Mauricio Pochettino added strength in depth, but on Sunday Tottenham’s manager desperately needed an attacking option off the bench. He could choose between a goalkeeper, two full-backs, three central midfielders and Fernando Llorente, a striker with one league goal since May 2017.
Harry Kane still doesn’t look fully fit, but what option does Pochettino have? Play, play, play and hope that injuries do not push this squad beyond its limits.
But Pochettino does not escape the blame. Quite what made him think that going away to a team in form that delight in pressing high up the field with Mousa Dembele as the sole defensive midfielder was a good idea isn’t clear, but it was a bloody rotten plan.
One mistake doesn’t mean that Alisson or Liverpool should change their entire goalkeeping philosophy, but a goalkeeping philosophy does not mean that Alisson should have attempted that Cruyff turn – the two things are not mutually exclusive. Joe Gomez should perhaps have cleared the ball himself or run into more space, and Virgil van Dijk’s pass was poor, but this was still a bona fide ricket from the Brazilian.
As Jurgen Klopp said after the game: “No goalkeeper in the world should dribble in that situation.” Well quite.
Two goals from open play in his last 35 league games for Benteke, who is quickly following Saido Berahino and Wilfried Bony in becoming a Premier League ghost striker. The Belgian has had only eight shots on target in his last 15 matches and created five chances in his last ten. The chances are drying up and the goals did so a long time ago.
Jose Mourinho’s critics might say that he needs no excuse to be hard on young players, but you could not blame Manchester United’s manager for being angry at Rashford for his foolish indiscipline. Pushing his head into Phil Bardsley’s face may not have been an act of animalistic violence and did not cost his team any points, but it was dim in the extreme. These are the kind of actions that really stick in the throat of football managers.
Burnley’s defensive malaise
Understandably low on energy after Thursday night’s exertions, but that doesn’t entirely explain away Burnley’s dismal first half. It might be the worst non-West Ham display I’ve seen this season.
If playing in the Europa League would make Burnley regularly perform like that on a Sunday, they are best out of the competition. If fatigue is a problem in early September, a team should at least try and start the game quickly to unnerve their opponents and try and get something to hold on to. Instead, Burnley’s players sat back, allowed United to have the ball in time and space and promptly conceded twice (and could have lost by four or five).
A team supposedly built on defensive resilience has suddenly become disorganised and leaky. Last season, Burnley allowed 164 shots on target in 38 matches. After four games in 2018/19, they’re already on 30 and rank 20th in the Premier League by that measure. A reminder that they have only faced one team from last season’s top half.
Marco Silva’s teams are always likely to concede goals due to the very nature of how he sets them up to play. The Portuguese has now gone 15 Premier League games at Watford and Everton without keeping a clean sheet.
That’s not necessarily a serious problem, but it does mean that his teams have to make the most of their attacking opportunities. Until Saturday, Everton had done exactly that, but against Huddersfield they had 10 shots and only one was on target. Profligacy will hurt them.
Pep Guardiola quickly dismissed the notion, but the reports were too widespread and have been going on too long to be false. Sane was left out of Manchester City’s matchday squad on Saturday amid concerns over his attitude in training. Given the identity of the manager and the attacking options at his disposal, this might just be the worst club in the world for resting on your laurels.