The top-four race
If Liverpool and Manchester City’s form, coupled with Chelsea’s renaissance under Maurizio Sarri, has us convinced that we might get a title race that goes beyond December this season, the top-four race looks more exciting still. Should Unai Emery’s Arsenal beat Leicester on Monday evening, the top five will be separated by two points. Tottenham in fifth will have taken 2.33 points per game. Extrapolated over a season, that would have been enough to finish seven points ahead of second last season.
Manchester United are seven points off the pace, but even their pursuit of Champions League football will be fascinating. Having fallen into the Europa League under Louis van Gaal, United can ill-afford to miss out on the Champions League while attempting to overhaul their squad. That’s true whether Jose Mourinho stays or not.
Six clubs, each with a unique outlook. One club at the top of its game hoping to retain their crown. One club desperate for a league title after a 29-year wait. One club whose recent cycle of short-termist success suggests that they will peak again this season. One club whose long-termist manager has created an overachieving project. One club welcoming in a new dawn after the departure of a dynastical leader. One club battling to escape accusations of decay. It’s going to be bloody brilliant.
If comeback victory over Newcastle did not solve the issues at Manchester United, nor did a draw at Stamford Bridge. After nine Premier League matches they sit nine points behind the top two and seven points from a top-four place. Those gaps still represent crisis.
But we do have evidence that reports suggesting senior players were waiting for Mourinho to be sacked were wide of the mark. In both Newcastle and Chelsea fixtures, United overcame initial incompetence to haul themselves back from the cliff’s edge. If the incompetence itself cannot be ignored, neither can the resolve.
Crucially, United’s comeback was inspired by two of the players who have suffered under Mourinho. Anthony Martial made no secret of his desire to leave Old Trafford in the summer. Fined for his lack of communication over his return to training following the birth of his child, he was persona non grata in Mourinho’s book. Juan Mata was in danger of becoming United’s forgotten man, starting only an EFL Cup tie against Derby County since defeat at Brighton in August. Yet it was they who masterminded the response to adversity.
Mourinho’s late aggression also seemed significant. When Mourinho lets himself go, appearing dishevelled and deflated on the touchline, his race has run. While he is still reacting to provocation, it demonstrates that there is fight left in the beast.
Mourinho’s future is still uncertain, albeit assisted by Ed Woodward’s own incompetence and presumed lack of succession plan. Lose to Juventus on Tuesday evening and their group stage qualification probably hinges on avoiding defeat in Valencia. Everton, Bournemouth and Manchester City come next in the league, and none will be easy. The opposition now senses a weakness in United.
But, for now, avoiding further crisis can only be considered as a significant weekend success. Now go and read 16 Conclusions.
The biggest concern about young attackers who are starved of minutes is that they become too eager to please. When chances eventually do come their way, opportunities are snatched out of a desperation to impress. It’s fully understandable, but it becomes a vicious cycle. The more you snatch chances, the less often you get picked. The less often you get picked, the more you snatch chances.
So it is to Martial’s immense credit that he took his opportnities at Stamford Bridge with such composure. The first required a magnificent first touch and guided finish, while the second needed calmness to curl the ball around Kepa’s outstretched dive. If these are the types of goal that we expect Alexis Sanchez to score – but hasn’t – perhaps Martial will now get a run in the team. Quite frankly, after that he damn well deserves it.
Silva has not yet convinced every Everton supporter that he is the right man to take the club forward in the long term, but weekends like these really help his case. When your three substitutes contribute two goals and assist, it gives the impression that fringe players are fighting damn hard to be part of the first-team picture. Everton are now up to eighth in the table, above Manchester United ahead of a trip to Old Trafford next Sunday. Portuguese men of war, assemble.
Tottenham, getting it done
Tottenham have now won their last four league games in a row – against Brighton, Huddersfield, Cardiff and West Ham – by a combined margin of five goals. The negative sell is that even against some of the weaker teams in the league, Mauricio Pochettino’s team are failing to click as they did last season. The positive spin is that they are getting it done. And right now, that’s all that matters.
The similarities with Liverpool are striking – two teams whose top goalscorer from last season is not quite at his best and thus whose results are being slightly propped up by mean defence. In the four rounds of league games since the two sides met, both have conceded a single goal.
But the two clubs’ vastly different summers mean that Pochettino and Tottenham deserve a little extra credit. No team in Europe had more representatives in the World Cup semi-finals, no team in Europe bought fewer players in the transfer window and no team in the Premier League have had more injuries since the beginning of August. That could easily have been a crippling combination.
Add in the lingering farce of the delayed stadium move, and Pochettino deserves immense credit for having Tottenham two points from the Premier League’s summit. Get Harry Kane, Dele Alli and Christian Eriksen firing, and they can secure a top-four place once again.
Manchester City’s variation
Really starting to click. Since home defeat Lyon provoked Pep Guardiola to raise his voice to players who he believed were guilty of mild complacency, Manchester City have scored 17 times in five games and conceded just once. They were a Riyad Mahrez missed penalty away from topping the Premier League by two points, and have become utterly ruthless against the Premier League’s weaker teams.
Impressive too is City’s variation. Against Burnley, Guardiola could afford to rest Raheem Sterling. Last season, the one reason to doubt City was how they could cope with Kevin de Bruyne’s brilliance, but Bernardo Silva’s form since August has evaporated those concerns. Their last 12 goals in all competitions have been scored by nine different players.
The mini-blip is over. After taking one point from four league games and being eliminated from the EFL Cup, Javi Gracia’s side caused another shock. This was arguably Watford’s best result since the 4-1 victory over Chelsea in February and the standout result of the Premier League weekend.
Watford inflicted only Wolves’ second home defeat since August 2017, achieved with a two-minute salvo that rocked the hosts. There won’t be many teams who win by a two-goal margin at Molineux this season.
Chris Hughton and Brighton
A manager backed by his forward-thinking club and an owner determined to turn a vision into reality. An excellent coach, who can rely on the support of those above him and thus harbour a positive working environment that is so crucial to overachieving clubs hoping to mix with the elite.
Brighton are everything that Newcastle are not. Hughton, who already has experience of working in the circus, must thank his stars that Brighton know to cherish him. He is flourishing because of who he is and what he does, but also because of what his club allow him to be.
On Friday, Warnock was misquoted by various social media bantz accounts as telling a Sky Sports reporter that he would not put money on Cardiff staying up this season. Actually, as interviewer Michelle Owen explained, Warnock said that he wouldn’t put money on Cardiff staying up, but that he also wouldn’t have put money on them going up last season. When everybody doubts us, we flourish. It could be the mantra of Warnock’s managerial career.
We did all doubt Cardiff, and we still do. But Warnock could not have picked a better weekend on which to record his first top-flight win since November 2014. Cardiff also scored more than three goals in a top-flight match for the first time since September 1961. More importantly, and way from the stats, they are outside the relegation zone. Surely Warnock isn’t going to prove us wrong all over again?
Six chances created, a total not bettered by any Premier League player this weekend. The poor bugger.
Slavisa Jokanovic and Fulham’s defence
A manager who began the season with plenty of goodwill is quickly burning through it. After his departure from Watford following promotion, there was a general sense that Jokanovic had been hard done by. How could you not let the man who took you to the Promised Land lead you once you had arrived?
Well, maybe that man can’t organise a defence properly. As this column has previously said, Fulham over-invested on glittering attacking names and failed to adequately improve a defence that was already the second worst in the Championship’s top eight last season. Add to that a manager who seems to pick the team by throwing a few dice on a table and whose only response to a strategic problem is to attack more and more, and Fulham are struggling.
The list of goals conceded in the league is ridiculous: 2, 3, 2, 2, 3, 1, 3, 5, 4. Fulham are on course to concede 106 this season, which would break the Premier League record for a 38-game season set by Derby County by 17 goals. For that reason alone, it would be no surprise if Jokanovic became the first manager to lose his job this season.
Rafael Benitez, not waving but drowning
The best advice you could give to Benitez now: Go. Leave. Get out. Save yourself. The financial implications may sting more than diving into a pile of nettles, but this is doing you no good. Somewhere in a sado-masochistic club, a man is getting his kicks out of imagining being Newcastle manager.
There is no fun here anymore. Throughout his reign at St James’ Park, Benitez’s reputation has been unaffected by the constant loop of stasis followed by crisis. Mike Ashley’s miserable parsimony has crippled this club, but Benitez was the antidote to the footballing antichrist. The love of the supporters was enough to keep him sated and motivated.
Now, even that is being tarnished. Benitez is not to blame for Newcastle’s woeful start to the season because everything stops at the feet of the owner. The owner refused to sanction new players and the owner played on the idea of potential sale but saw it fail. Ashley created this sow’s ear from which nobody could fashion a purse.
But nobody escapes. Benitez is now drowning in the same flood as the supporters, players and staff.
The misery that hangs over St James’ on a Saturday afternoon has caused Newcastle to record five straight home league defeats at the start of the season. It’s only the fourth time in top-flight history that any club has sunk so low.
Every supporter would forgive Benitez for walking out. Hell, they would have forgiven him at any point over the last 14 months. But the defeats are now not just hurting Newcastle, but hurting Benitez too. He deserves far better than this.
So leave, walk away and take your fingers out of the holes in the dam. Because when Benitez leaves, the flood really will come. Think you’ve seen Newcastle United fans in mutiny? You ain’t seen nothing yet.
The biggest surprise in Chelsea’s team. Olivier Giroud had played more football than the Spaniard over the international break, but his game is hardly based on high-intensity pressing and he’s presumably desperate to play every game he can right now.
In Giroud’s absence, Morata floundered but more important was that Hazard’s relationship with him his far less effective. Hazard labelled Giroud the best target man in the world last month. Morata isn’t the best at anything at Chelsea right now.
Morata’s hold-up play is well below par, he goes to ground far too easily when he would be better staying on his feet and protecting the ball, he doesn’t win enough aerial battles, he doesn’t take up good positions in the box, his finishing is unreliable and his general demeanour is one of sulking frustration. In this form, he is Chelsea Fernando Torres by another name.
Three straight league defeats and a lack of confidence in front of goal that is really beginning to gnaw away at Hodgson’s cheer. A manager cannot account for a player missing a penalty, but this is becoming Palace’s new rule. They have scored three goals in their last eight league games, and their next four league opponents are Arsenal, Chelsea, Tottenham and Manchester United. Cripes.
Hmmm. The display in drawing against Chelsea suggested newfound resolve, and the 3-1 victory over Manchester United caused a stadium to erupt like it never has before during West Ham’s tenancy. But there’s nothing like consecutive 1-0 league defeats to take the wind back out of those sails.
West Ham’s next three league games (Leicester away, Burnley home, Huddersfield away) may well dictate the mood for the rest of the season. Take fewer than four points, and mid-table mediocrity looks to be the reasonable ceiling. How utterly depressing.
Issue 1: Vincent Kompany should have been sent off.
Issue 2: Leroy Sane should have been sent off.
Issue 3: Sane went down too easily.
Issue 4: The ball went out of play before one goal.
Issue 5: The corner from which they conceded another goal was debatable.
Dyche went on to say that he was baffled with what football was becoming, regarding diving and refereeing decisions. You can’t help but think he might have wasted a month’s worth of excuses on a 5-0 defeat to a team who (quite understandably) outplayed them in every area of the pitch.
Huddersfield, for whom home is where the brainfart is
The rules dictate that one of Southampton or Huddersfield must feature in this section for their miserable finishing. This week, it’s a bonus double rollover. Huzzah.
I can wait no longer to bring you my favourite ongoing Premier League statistic: Since the beginning of March, Huddersfield have had 121 shots at home. They have scored one goal. One!
But don’t think you are getting away with, sinning Saints. Southampton have had 124 shots this season; that’s the fifth most in the Premier League. Southampton have scored six goals this season; that’s the 18th most in the Premier League.
Any team that converts 4.8% of its shots either needs to be bloody brilliant at the back or outrageously effective at creating clear-cut chances. Sadly, Southampton are neither. They better hope that the finishing gets better rather than the number of shots tails off, or they really could go marching in to the Football League.