Premier League winners and losers

Date published: Monday 20th August 2018 10:30

Winners

David Silva, and the things that matter
A brilliant day not because he scored his first ever Premier League free-kick. A brilliant day not because he played his 250th match for Manchester City. A brilliant day not because his team won 6-1 and their city rivals lost. A brilliant day not because he was cheered on and off the pitch by a support that loves him so dearly.

A brilliant day because Silva walked onto that pitch before the game with his son Mateo in his arms. A son who spent the first five months of his life in hospital having been born prematurely, fighting for his life just as it had begun. His father made regular trips between Manchester and Valencia to be with his wife and child as football rightly took a back seat. A brilliant day, because after months of having to keep his career and personal life separate, Silva was able to allow them to meet.

“He was so motivated because his family, parents, wife, and especially Mateo were here,” said Pep Guardiola after the game. “His son will never forget the first time he saw his father play football. Last season was a tough moment for all his family. Fortunately the little boy fought a lot and he is here. It’s a special day for him, for us, for David.”

Silva’s wife Jessica beamed in the stands, his teammates cooed over his beautiful boy and David’s smile was as wide as the gap between the two teams. Good things happen to good people.

 

Chris Hughton and game management
Our early winner, and boy did he deserve it. If Hughton has learned to be more tactically courageous, then Brighton really will be fine this season. They took the game to Manchester United, but then also managed not to hand their opponents the initiative. A wonderful performance from all involved.

 

Callum Wilson
Shortly before his first Premier League season, I spoke to Callum Wilson about his rise to the top flight. In 2012 he had been playing in the Conference, 2013 in League One, 2014 in the Championship and in 2015 was preparing for a first ever Premier League season at the age of 23. Having scored 20 times in Bournemouth’s promotion campaign, Wilson was expected to spearhead an unlikely survival bid.

In August 2015, Wilson scored a hat-trick against West Ham to register his first three Premier League goals; he had the world at his feet. There were even whispers about a call-up to the England senior squad. A month later, in a league game against Stoke City, Wilson ruptured the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee.

Having battled back within seven months to play again in the 2015/16 season, disaster struck once more in February 2017. Wilson ruptured his anterior cruciate ligament again, this time in his other knee. After recovering from a potentially career-limiting injury once, Wilson now had to retrace the exact same steps.

“As I was driving home I got upset,” he said in an interview with the Guardian in January. “I was punching the hell out of my car and everything. I got home. My wife wasn’t there and I threw my keys through this window and nearly cracked this door. I went upstairs, lay on the bed, got upset and fell asleep. I was sobbing. I was fuming. There were tears, tears for how long it was going to take.”

For Wilson to have made that return journey twice demonstrates that he has plenty enough mental strength to flourish in the unforgiving world of the Premier League, and the talent was never in doubt to anyone at Bournemouth. After two league games of the season, Wilson has two goals and an assist and still missed a penalty. How could you not wish him well?

 

Watford
In two games, Watford have eased concerns that they would flounder this season, scored their first away league goal under Javi Gracia – he was appointed in January – and had two strikers score in the same league game for the first time since September 2017. Some start.

Andre Gray and Troy Deeney might be the big man-big man strike partnership you didn’t know you needed, while behind them Will Hughes has reinvented himself as a high-energy pressing attacking midfielder; no Premier League player has made more tackles this season. Add in Roberto Pereyra’s trickery and you have a front four that has already scored 12% of Watford’s league goal total from last season in two matches.

 

Gylfi Sigurdsson
Richarlison took the headlines after his third goal in two games, but the improvement in Sigurdsson from last season is already obvious. No Premier League player created more chances this weekend.

Under a manager likely to embrace attacking play and relieve him of defensive duties and with a wide forward capable of latching onto through passes, Sigurdsson could flourish.

 

Sergio Aguero
This is not the hardest attack in which to regularly score goals, and Aguero had a whopping nine shots against Huddersfield, but this was still Premier League hat-trick number nine. Aguero is now only two behind record-holder Alan Shearer. He has the small matter of 233 games in hand.

 

Glenn Murray
The type of finish I didn’t realise he was capable of, which probably only highlights my ignorance. Murray bamboozled David de Gea with one flick of his right boot. One of the best goalkeepers in the world was left grabbing at thin air like a man attempting to hug a ghost.

 

Marcos Alonso
Four touches in the opposition penalty area, more than Alvaro Morata and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. He’s not even playing as a wing-back anymore and Alonso is still attacking at will. Wonderfully bonkers.

 

Chelsea
If the scoreline doesn’t give it away, read 16 Conclusions to find out why.

 

Bournemouth, finally starting quickly
The Premier League’s usual slow starters are already up to full speed. In 2017/18, Bournemouth lost their first four league games. In 2016/17, they lost their first two league games. In 2015/16, they lost their first two league games.

Next Saturday, Bournemouth have the chance to win their first three matches of the season for the first time since Bury, Rotherham United and Aldershot Town in League Two in 2009. Just another reminder of just how far Eddie Howe has taken this club.

 

Lucas Moura
Harry Kane will be delighted to dispel the nonsensical curse, but Mauricio Pochettino will be just as pleased by Moura’s curling opener. With Heung-min Son soon off to the Asian Cup, Pochettino will need someone to step up and support Kane.

With only seven starts in a Tottenham shirt since arriving in January, it has been a slow beginning to life in English football. But two goals and four assists in those starts demonstrate that he can be an invaluable player after a full pre-season. The £25m price tag could still prove to be a sensational bargain.

 

Losers

Manchester United…
There are three lines of thought regarding Manchester United’s current situation, with most inside and outside the club’s support having adopted their own stance on how blame should be apportioned:

1) Manchester United have let down Mourinho.
2) The players have let down Mourinho.
3) Mourinho has let down the players and Manchester United

It would be foolish to expect to achieve a majority agreement among supporters, because it is an emotive issue. Part of Mourinho’s managerial method is that fans are coerced into investing in him personally as well as the club. The strength of his personality demands as much.

But it is certainly true to say that Manchester United’s problems are interconnected between the three points on this triangle. The club failed to land the targets the manager wanted. The club feel that Mourinho has enough to work with and improve. Mourinho feels that some players have not got the correct attitude to succeed. Some players feel that Mourinho is scapegoating the players as a means of self-preservation. Some players believe that the club is not showing enough ambition in the transfer market.

The end result is a mess. One of the telling things about Manchester City and Liverpool is how much every strand of the club has bought into the project. Hear Roberto Firmino discuss how he is treated at Anfield and witness David Silva’s words about the overwhelming support he received last season, but look too at how Manchester City play on the pitch.

Everyone knows and accepts their role within the team structure; they have total direction. On Sunday, United had none.

 

…and Jose Mourinho
And so Mourinho is right. He has been short-changed by a club that has the financial capability to artificially bridge the gap to Manchester City, just as Pep Guardiola was able to recruit players to fit his own vision.

But that’s where the sympathy ends, for Guardiola also improved plenty of City’s existing players and designed a system to get the most out of them. Jesse Lingard and Ashley Young are the only two players that you could definitively conclude that Mourinho has improved at Old Trafford. After two years, there is still no coherent system for how this team is supposed to attack and defend as a collective rather than an assortment of component parts.

The moment the transfer window closed – or it became clear that Mourinho was not going to get the central defender he wanted – his task was to make the best of the situation. Mauricio Pochettino wanted new players, but got none. Maurizio Sarri wanted more than two central midfielders, but his wishes were not realised. Both immediately played down any discontent and talked up what they had. Both have won their opening two matches of the season.

Mourinho went for the opposite approach, saying it would be difficult for Manchester United to finish in the top four and expressing his discontent, thus piling more pressure onto his club. If that is an understandable exercise in self-preservation, it’s hardly a masterful motivational tool. Constantly say that you need more players, and the ones you have will start to believe that they aren’t good enough. And so you get the indecision and basic errors that are inevitable when confidence is low.

Effective management is about making the best of what you have, whether that be vast riches or a difficult hand. Mourinho used to be the expert, but that ability is fading as his mood worsens. If this result felt significant, it was because Manchester United were entirely out-thought and out-fought by Brighton, a team expected to struggle against relegation.

That Brighton team contained seven players that regularly started for the club in the Championship two years ago, and contained no player signed for more than £10m. Manchester United’s XI was signed for combined fees of £430m, five of them by Mourinho.

If a supposed lack of spending can be used as an excuse not to properly challenge for the title, it does not explain being embarrassed by bottom-half opposition. Sorry Jose, but the excuses don’t wash this week.

 

Eric Bailly and Victor Lindelof, and coaching
Ed Woodward is a man who has continually shown himself to be incompetent at his role, and Manchester United’s apparent assessment that only Raphael Varane could improve the defence is laughable.

But then, given Mourinho’s own history, his club are entitled to point at the two central defenders that looked so shambolic on Sunday and ask what happened to the £60m spent on the pair. If the retort is that Mourinho needs one ready-made central defender rather than two who must be improved, it doesn’t say much for his coaching.

In 2016 and 2017, Duncan Castles – well-connected with Mourinho – talked up Lindelof as ‘first on a list of central defenders drawn up by Jose Mourinho to strengthen a back four’ whose ‘ability to build play from the back is understood to be an important factor in Mourinho’s pursuit of the player’. That ability looked apparent for Sweden during the World Cup, but has been entirely absent during his time at Old Trafford.

So do United just keep buying until they find a defender good enough to play well whatever the circumstances? And, if so, what does that say about the management at the club?

 

Paul Pogba
Paul Scholes chose to jump on Pogba’s post-match words, but that seems a little harsh. Pogba was clearly hurting after defeat and accepted his own role in the poor performance. We admire honesty in players, so lambasting them for being honest would seem a little two-faced.

But we can criticise Pogba – again – for the lack of consistency. An excellent display against Leicester City was followed by frustrating mediocrity against Brighton. That simply isn’t good enough.

 

Granit Xhaka
In two games this season, Huddersfield Town have faced the most shots with 45. Second come Arsenal, on 41. If Xhaka is supposed to be an effective screen for a defence, he’s a wall with more holes than bricks.

Most damning of all is that Xhaka has been substituted after 70 and 45 minutes of Arsenal’s two league games while Matteo Guendouzi has started and finished both. Guendouzi had not played a single top-flight match in his career before last week, and yet it is his senior partner who has twice been sacrificed and twice failed to support him adequately.

 

Arsenal
Seriously, those conclusions were lovely.

 

West Ham’s central midfield
I was all ready to write a large section on West Ham’s central midfield, but then Peter Goldstein did the job for me in typically excellent fashion.

West Ham bought a host of players this summer, but sold their only defensive midfielder in Cheikhou Kouyate. The Senegal midfielder’s form had indeed tailed off badly over the previous 18 months, but it leaves West Ham with a central midfield of Jack Wilshere and Mark Noble, with Carlos Sanchez in reserve. Wilshere is no holding midfielder and Noble is good at pointing, fronting up and moaning at referees but too little else.

Watching West Ham get picked off on the counter-attack against Bournemouth with a central midfield that was helpless to stop it happening, it was hard not to surmise that they have bought a few pretty paintings to hang on a wall that still has cracks from floor to ceiling.

 

Mark Hughes and his excuses
Two games into the new season, and Hughes is already blaming referees for his own side’s poor results. In April, Hughes said Mike Dean’s performance was why England had no referee at the World Cup. In May, Hughes said that Jon Moss was “getting his breath back” and so incorrectly gave a free-kick against his team. In August, Hughes says that the failure to send off Jordan Pickford cost his team a result against Everton.

Hughes failed to point out that his own team were guilty of handing out some rather physical treatment themselves, committing 20 fouls and having five players booked. Sigurdsson was the principal target. Southampton were also guilty of poor defending and missed chances.

Hughes occasionally has a point, but his semi-constant blaming of officials for his side’s defeats creates an image that nothing is ever his fault. That lack of introspection can rub off on players, and soon both are making the same mistakes over and over again while heads stay buried in the sand.

 

Southampton’s finishing
Taking their customary place in this list, where they will presumably stay for the rest of the season. Southampton have created 27 chances in two matches, the third highest in the Premier League after Manchester City and Chelsea. Those two teams have scored 14 times between them, Southampton just once.

Normally you’d say to keep creating chances and the goals will come, but this has been an issue for Southampton for over two years. If Danny Ings’ goal on Saturday offers hope that he can finally engender an improvement in shooting performance, he’s going to bloody have to.

 

Manchester City’s title rivals
Our early losers, because there are fewer and fewer reasons to think that Manchester City will be weaker this season. Liverpool are the second favourites for the title and yet finished 25 points behind them in 2017/18. As Manchester United discovered yesterday, the margin for error when looking to keep pace with Pep Guardiola’s team might be tighter than ever before.

 

Wolves
Two games against teams who will hope to compete with Wolves for a spot between seventh and tenth, and two tough lessons learned. Wolves have taken 22 shots and allowed only 12 – the fewest of any team to have played twice – but conceded four times and scored twice. This is a division in which you are punished for not taking your chances.

 

Daniel Storey

 

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