Premier League winners and losers is back…

Date published: Tuesday 15th September 2020 9:58

Mo Salah tops our Premier League winners while the losers starts with West Ham. Oh dear…

 

Winners

Mohamed Salah
Liverpool’s front three have established themselves as one of the best forward lines in the world by performing as one band rather than a group of component parts, but at Anfield on Saturday, Salah stepped up as the clear leader. With Roberto Firmino again guilty of missing clear goalscoring opportunities and Sadio Mane shackled by the excellent Luke Ayling, Salah won the game on his own.

Salah’s penalties were expertly taken and his second goal thrashed into the top corner, but it was the manner in which he dropped deep to interchange play in some situations and stayed high up the pitch in others that won Liverpool the game. The last four Liverpool players to have more shots in a single Premier League game: Luis Suarez, Daniel Sturridge, Philippe Coutinho and Mario Balotelli. The last of those came four-and-a-half years ago.

But Salah’s hat-trick will take the headlines, evidence that he will once again be the leading contender for the Premier League’s Golden Boot. Since he joined Liverpool in June 2017, Salah now has 11 more goals than any other player. Mark it down as a good start.

 

Willian
It’s hardly a secret that Arsenal desperately needed to improve their chance creation if they were to have any hope of breaking back into the top four. They ranked 15th in the Premier League last season on that measure, fewer than Aston Villa, Watford, Brighton and Norwich amongst others. Their top assist provider for Arsenal last season that started against Fulham was Alexandre Lacazette with four; their top chance creator Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang with 26. They ranked joint-39th and joint-93rd in the league respectively.

Willian might change all that (and I’m happy to admit that I didn’t fully appreciate what a good fit he might be). The Brazilian was the Premier League’s seventh best chance creator last season despite only starting 29 league games for Chelsea. On his Arsenal debut, he became the club’s joint-second highest assist provider this year.

The other standout conclusion from Arsenal’s comfortable win at Craven Cottage is the competition for places Arteta has established in the final third, with Aubameyang’s new contract signed. None of Bukayo Saka, Dani Ceballos, Nicolas Pepe or Eddie Nketiah started against Fulham. When was the last time Arsenal had so many young, in-form players in reserve?

 

Arsenal’s passing out from the back
A team choosing to pivot to passing out from the back creates a philosophical punditry debate like nothing we’ve seen since zonal vs man marking. For those hardwired to mistrust it, raised on the doctrine of ‘if in doubt, kick it out’, every mistake that results from short passing and possession play in your own third becomes a meme that justifies your steadfast belief. Beneath the debate sits a strand of English vs the rest of the world. “See, I told you it was all nonsense.”

The strategy isn’t perfect – nothing is. Occasionally passing out from defence will end in a calamitous mistake, and clearly those mistakes stick out. But watch goals like Arsenal’s third against Fulham, when a team controls possession, invites the opposition onto them and then exposes the gaps in midfield by transitioning quickly with two or three choice passes, and you understand the methodology. Suddenly the naysayers go a little quiet.

One of the most important soundbites of Arteta’s time at Arsenal came in July. Asked whether he got nervous watching his team play out from the back against Manchester City, Arteta offered the type of reply that usually ends in ‘gave perfect response to’ headlines all over the football internet: “No. I get nervous when we kick the ball long! The quicker it goes there, the quicker it comes back.”

These types of strategic shifts usually take time, and will inevitably involve setbacks. The tactic will cost Arsenal goals this season, and may well cost them points. But one of the biggest wins of Arteta’s short tenure is how quickly Arsenal have become a completely different team with and without the ball. The contrast between this side and Unai Emery’s at their best is night and day. Under Emery, Arsenal were a team on which results seemed to happen, for better and worse. Now they make them happen.

That speaks of two things, both of which are hugely promising. The first is that Arteta is clearly a courageous coach, keen to imprint his own style on a new team so early in his career despite the obvious reputational damage that comes with failure. It is far easier to be a ‘see what happens’ coach than a ‘make things happen’ one – you die by the same sword that you live by.

But it also speaks to Arteta’s man-management and communication, facets of his management that ex-Arsenal players have been queuing up to praise. You can’t just choose to implement a new philosophy and impose it upon a squad and expect it to deliver results. Any new implementation must come with a buy-in from senior professionals that the younger players then follow.

Beating Fulham on the opening day need not cause any knee-jerk conclusions about Arsenal this season nor how far along the road in Arteta’s vision they are. But at Craven Cottage, we at least saw reason to believe that this group of players are on the same page. In recent years, they’ve barely been reading from the same book.

 

Everton’s new midfield
There are reasons to avoid overhauling one area of a team in the same summer, particularly a shorter one than usual. It can create a lack of unity, a lack of communication and a lack of cohesion. But then anyone who watched Everton much last season will tell you that their midfield lacked all three of those intangible attributes anyway. It neither protected the defence nor assisted the attack, neither harried and hassled the opposition nor thwarted them by sitting deep. In those circumstances, rolling the dice became the obvious option.

Very early evidence, of course, but plenty of reasons to be excited. Allan wins back possession and plays simple passes, but also has that innate ability to be in the right place when danger looms. Abdoulaye Doucoure is the box-to-box midfielder, albeit comfortably the quietest of the new trio on Sunday. Having changed the personnel, Carlo Ancelotti changed the system too by switching Everton to a 4-3-3 and asking Allan to tuck back left when Lucas Digne pushed on.

And so to James Rodriguez, who looks like the Rolls Royce attacking midfielder we are desperate to see after four years of toil, immediately revitalised under his favourite manager. James skipping infield with the ball, drawing himself away from a marker before curling the ball out to Digne to cross from the left wing to Dominic Calvert-Lewin and Richarlison while he waits on the edge of the box might be Everton’s new signature move.

Because it is so incredibly unusual for a manager to commit to such a wholesale shift in one part of the pitch from one season to the next, it makes Everton the most intriguing team in the league to watch over the early weeks of the season. Their own supporters will be wary of another false dawn, but the opening weekend could not have gone better for Ancelotti. They face West Brom, Crystal Palace and Brighton to fine tune their new system before the first Merseyside derby of the season.

 

Leeds United’s intent
They were ultimately undone by their set-piece defending and clumsiness in their own box, but Leeds’ task for their first Premier League match in 16 years was to demonstrate that they will embrace their opportunity to atone for their long top-flight absence and stay true to their manager’s principles. With Marcelo Bielsa in charge, that second point was never in doubt.

Leeds enjoyed more possession than their hosts – that was the first surprise. The only other time during Jurgen Klopp’s tenure that Liverpool have enjoyed a lower share of the ball in a home league game against non-Big Six opposition was against Brighton in November 2019, when they played out the last 20 minutes with ten men. Oh and…

Jurgen Klopp’s defending champions were unnerved. They were regularly exposed by Leeds’ lightning quick transitions and wide midfielders who dipped and nipped inside and outside Liverpool’s full-backs like the first swallows of summer. They ended up grateful for Leeds’ own ineptitude, sandwiching an extended period of angst with two penalties that ultimately won the game. Had Liverpool supporters attended the match, they would have left Anfield singing from the same cliche hymn sheet: “At least we only have to play them once more this season.”

Most importantly for those of those watching, it made for a brilliant spectacle. For probably the first time since the Premier League’s post-lockdown restart (with the possible exception of Liverpool’s 5-3 win over Chelsea), we were able to forget about the empty stadia and necessary evils and focus on a remarkable on-pitch spectacle that seemed unaffected by the thousands of notable absentees. Football is at its best when two excellent attacking sides with definite plans and haphazard defences collide at pace.

If Leeds can do this against the defending champions at Anfield, they can do it against your team; that is the theory. Whether the logic carries through when Leeds’ legs are tired and the games come quicker than the recovery remains to be seen, but it will certainly be watchable. If there is some over-extravagant fawning over Bielsa, Saturday proved why it exists. Witnessing the transposition of his football to this league is appointment television.

 

Crystal Palace
A win that came slightly against the run of the game – Southampton had more shots and shots on target – but one achieved without Palace’s captain, most exciting summer signing, new striker and best two central defenders. Given the doubts about the lack of depth in Roy Hodgson’s squad and the valid concerns over the rotten end to last season, that matters.

 

Newcastle’s new signings
Jamal Lewis was tidy, keeping Jarrod Bowen quiet and showing more intent to get into the final third than Paul Dummett was ever able to. That allows Allan Saint-Maximin to drift infield, although the problem of Saint-Maximin having to drop deep to pick up possession still lingers.

Callum Wilson scored on his debut, the type of opportunistic poacher’s finish that Joelinton and Andy Carroll will never specialise in. Wilson also put pressure on West Ham’s central defenders and his runs to the front post twice stole a march to produce chances.

Jeff Hendrick was the best of the three, providing a goal and assist but – more importantly – displaying the work rate that made him such a success at Burnley. Hendrick was caught on the ball in midfield once or twice, which was a frustration at Turf Moor, but he is exactly the type of central midfielder that Steve Bruce will adore.

 

Leicester City, needing to start quickly
As Matt Stead explained right in his piece right here.

 

Losers

West Ham, a broken club
It takes a special breed of ineptitude to earn the reputation of ‘crisis club’ after 90 minutes of the new season, but we always believed that West Ham’s owners had it in them. This is what happens when you replace sustainable investment and due care with mean-nothing cliches and believe wearing a club blazer and occasionally crossing your arms to look like the club badge can cover for any lack of insight, imagination or input.

I’ll happily admit my surprise that it was the sale of Grady Diangana – a 22-year-old with a handful of top-flight appearances and a single England Under-21 appearance – for £18m that broke the camel’s back, but Diangana’s departure represents something deeply broken within this club. They need to sell to buy because they spent exorbitant amounts of money on fees and wages to collect an ensemble of exotic attacking players who don’t really fit and probably aren’t hugely bothered about what happens next. Unsurprisingly, those players are proving hard to shift because they are living in London and being paid lavishly to do so.

But watching West Ham launch direct passes from back to front to the head of Sebastien Haller, entirely bypassing those midfielders other than to ask them to feed off any scraps on the occasions he actually won the ball, and you begin to see why they might be fed up. Every time a West Ham player received possession in the last 30 minutes, they were forced to create their own plan – which pass, which option, which move? It isn’t supposed to be like that. Teams should have pre-planned plays and deliberate passing combinations. They should know what they will do before they get the ball. This wasn’t football by plan, it was football by guesswork. And that rarely works.

One thing West Ham’s owners have been clear on is that David Moyes is the answer (except for that time they sacked him because he wasn’t the answer before reappointing him because he was the answer). But you’ll forgive me for remaining entirely unconvinced. That brilliant late-season run that took West Ham to safety consisted of three wins in their last 10 matches, and Moyes has now taken 20 points from his 20 league games in charge.

The only caveat to criticism of Moyes and the players is that it is the owners who set the tone, painting the club with their claret-and-blue incompetence. We’ve written it so many times before, but this is the house that the Davids built: Unhappy players, unhappy supporters and a manager not inspiring enough to change the mood. It’s hardly likely to improve soon, with six of last season’s top eight next to come in the Premier League. West Ham will be firefighting again, another manager hanging onto his job by a thread while he works on an emergency plan to stay up with a club that should be nowhere near the bottom.

That is the most frustrating thing as a supporter. You can stomach setbacks and even extended periods of poor form if they come in pursuit of some worthwhile ideal. But when you watch your club falling down a well, rebounding into the walls as it tumbles, all because years of off-field mismanagement has created a miserable, mutinous atmosphere, there’s nothing really to believe in at all.

 

Jose Mourinho and Tottenham on the back foot
There is nothing inherently wrong with setting Tottenham up as Mourinho did on Sunday, sacrificing possession so deliberately in the first hour at home to a supposedly weaker opponent. Lucas Moura, Harry Kane and Heung-Min Son should be an excellent counter-attacking threat, for starters. But the success of the plan relies upon three things:

Pressing – Mourinho complained after the game about the “lazy pressing” of his team, but his teams historically have hardly been renowned for the high intensity press that has become the cause celebre of several exceptional modern coaches. Mourinho also complained about a lack of fitness after a short and complicated pre-season, which begs the question why he thought the pressing plan was the answer in the first place.

Defensive solidity – We expect Mourinho to immediately improve a team’s defending, but that hasn’t really happened so far at Tottenham. They conceded twice or more in 13 of his first 29 matches and, although they improved that record after lockdown, are still far from perfect. They have now kept seven clean sheets in 36 matches under Mourinho.

Toby Alderweireld and Eric Dier are one of the slowest central defensive pairings in the division, which becomes an issue when Matt Doherty pushes high up the pitch as a full-back rather than wing-back (see Richarlison’s one-on-one for details). One thing Spurs were very good at last season was defending from set pieces (no side conceded fewer than their six goals), but if Dier is going to succeed at centre-back he’s going to have to get better at tracking runs in the penalty area. Dominic Calvert-Lewin had it too easy.

Response to adversity – If you let other teams have the ball, they might just score first; it happens. Tottenham were excellent last season in such situations – only Arsenal and Liverpool took more points per game when conceding the first goal. But what was so disappointing about Sunday was how comfortably Everton defended their lead. Spurs unsurprisingly saw more of the ball as Everton dropped a little deeper, but sacrificed possession became sterile possession. Tottenham managed four shots in 39 minutes after going 1-0 down, fewer than Everton.

Mourinho is not stupid. He knows that playing in this way invites more criticism when it goes wrong because supporters – not unreasonably – wonder what might be if they tried to be a little more proactive and front-footed. That explains the myriad post-match deflections tactics: fatigue, referees, Dele Alli, laziness.

The immediate question is whether we can expect a quick improvement, or if this is the new Mourinho norm that will eventually cause his undoing again. Tottenham face a relentless run of early fixtures that takes them to Bulgaria on Thursday and Southampton on Sunday. One of the results of such a schedule is that momentum, for better and worse, becomes key. This was the worst possible way to mark a season that Mourinho identified as the only acceptable time for him to be judged.

 

Fulham’s Championship defence
Almost immediately after Fulham’s re-promotion to the Premier League, Scott Parker spoke about his intention for the club to avoid making the same mistakes as in 2018/19. That’s completely understandable; last time, Fulham squandered their vast broadcasting revenues by signing players because they were available and willing rather than because they would fit the club or would connect with one another to create a team. ‘Doing a Fulham’ became the new ‘Doing a Leeds’, a warning message labelled at other clubs who made the same mistake. Repeating the trick with a shorter break would be nonsensical logic.

But there are two extremes: Doing too much and doing next to nothing at all. There are still over three weeks left in the transfer window, but the only two permanent new arrivals at Craven Cottage are Kenny Tete and Antonee Robinson. Neither of those made the match-day squad against Arsenal. Fulham were outplayed in every area of the pitch, barely laying a finger on Arsenal’s defence and being cut apart by the type of quick passing Fulham should expect far more of this season.

It is in defence that Fulham look most short. Denis Odoi, Tim Ream and Joe Bryan started 18 Premier League games together in 2018/19 when Fulham had the worst Premier League defence and started the club’s first game back in the top flight. I don’t think I’m doing a grave disservice to Michael Hector by suggesting that his presence doesn’t adequately address the problem. On this and previous evidence, Parker at least needs to buy a right-back and a central defender.

 

Liverpool’s defending
Klopp may reason that his team were unfortunate to concede three times given that Leeds had six shots (including those blocked) and scored three goals. A 15% shot conversion rate is a reasonable long-term expectation; 50% not so much. But Liverpool have now conceded three times in each of their last two league games at Anfield, as many times as they did in their last 65 league matches there.

That plays into our only significant worry about Liverpool: How do you avoid an inevitable drop-off in performance level. Complacency often gets overstated; it isn’t a deliberate flaw and we’re not talking about players taking a sigh of relief and looking fondly at their handiwork for the next nine months. But history suggests that a slight, inadvertent loss of focus can occur post-success, and its inadvertence is exactly what makes it so difficult to account for and solve. Klopp will, must demand better concentration moving forward.

 

Southampton
No disaster, but still infuriating. Southampton have been widely touted (*raises hand*) as this season’s surprise package, but they started with a dud. Ralph Hasenhuttl’s team only failed to score in two away games in all competitions last season – the opening-day loss to Burnley and at Anfield. Hasenhuttl will hope history repeats itself, at least.

 

Hippy crack
Have you even made it as a young England international if you’ve not been thrown into a crisis by a wonderfully tabloid two-word phrase that you’d never hear in everyday life? Is it even worth being Mason Greenwood if they aren’t linking some irrelevant boring noun-and-verb combination – in this case eating jelly babies – to add spin to a negative hit piece? Still, I’m sure Phil ‘Became dad at 18 with childhood sweetheart Rebecca Cooke and bought £2m home for his parents’ Foden will get the same treatment…

 

The promoted clubs’ defending
Ten goals conceded and four penalties given away. Can only get better, I suppose.

 

Daniel Storey

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