A wonderfully baffling Premier League
Arsenal are a defensive comedy act and are two points behind the reigning champions. Tottenham are in mini-crisis and yet are above the teams that finished one place above and one place below them last season. Chelsea are enjoying the glow of academy graduates in their team and yet are in the bottom half with the third worst defence in the league. Norwich have scored five times against Manchester City and Chelsea but were goalless against Burnley and West Ham. Marco Silva is the clear favourite to lose his job next and yet Everton are only one point behind three of last season’s top six.
The Premier League might settle down soon, but for the moment it is an absolutely nonsensical free-for-all. Drink it in while you can.
Kevin de Bruyne
A player who controls everything that he sees, and sees more than almost anyone else on every pitch he enters. De Bruyne got two assists on Saturday in Manchester City’s humbling of Watford, but had Sergio Aguero been on his game he would have had five. He has now created more chances than any other player in the league this season, and he’s played in less than 70% of Manchester City’s league minutes.
At this rate, De Bruyne is on course to register 42 league assists this season; he’d probably take beating Thierry Henry’s Premier League record of 20. More importantly, Manchester City are never out of the title race while De Bruyne is fit and in this form.
But who is that nudged in directly behind De Bruyne for chances created this season? Oh, no biggie, it’s just a 20-year-old English right-back.
He surges forward. He remains defensively resilient. He creates chances. He keeps his head in the manner of a veteran pro. He has the presence of mind to thwack the ball into the top corner and then has the confidence to carry out a pre-prepared celebration in front of supporters. He is, to repeat, 20 bloody years old.
Two years ago, Alexander-Arnold was establishing himself in Liverpool’s first team. Now he’s the most creative full-back in Europe and probably the one with the brightest potential. It’s just sodding ridiculous.
Liverpool’s remarkable run
During the last 10 minutes of their victory at Stamford Bridge, Liverpool were wobbling. Gone was the consummate composure to which we have become accustomed. Mason Mount should have scored an equaliser. Such are the likely margins of the Premier League title race, Monday’s back pages would have then been filled with talk of Liverpool setback.
But Liverpool did not crumble. They held on, demonstrating guts to match the glorious attacking verve. They have now recorded 15 straight league wins, the longest stretch in the history of this club. Put that into context for a moment. Throughout all of the boot room years, their seasons of domestic and continental dominance, Liverpool never put together a run of league victories to match this team.
It is astonishing how quickly the relentlessness of this Liverpool machine has become normalised. Two seasons ago, Jurgen Klopp’s team played Watford, Newcastle, Swansea and West Brom away from home and failed to win any of them; they played five away games against Big Six teams and took only a single point. Now we’re watching them win at Stamford Bridge and wondering whether the sight of late nerves demonstrate any weakness. Talk about altered expectations.
The only reason to think that this Liverpool team won’t win the Premier League title this season is because they never have before. We have become hardwired into assuming that they will fall away, or that Manchester City’s might will eventually prove decisive. We were proved right last season.
But this season feels different again. Liverpool have taken 97 points from their last 38 league matches. They have proved that they can last the course over an extended period of time. They have an exceptional defence, exceptional attack, more midfield options than any other team in the league and will have their first-choice goalkeeper back soon. So why doubt them?
Get through the next four matches against Sheffield United (a), Leicester (h), Manchester United (a) and Tottenham (h) unscathed, and Liverpool will have broken the record for consecutive league wins in English football history. They will also have established themselves as clear title favourites.
Pep Guardiola could not have picked two better opponents to get Manchester City back on track. Of all the teams to have faced Guardiola in his career, Arsenal have conceded the most goals with 37 but they can be dangerous. Next come Watford with 35. Shakhtar are joint-fourth with 33.
But results like these still set the tone, even if City remain five points behind Liverpool at the top. They now face a gentle-ish run of fixtures in which they can afford no slip-ups, but City are at their best when they go into matches with the opposition fearful of being drubbed. If Norwich peeled away that fear factor, City have to rebuild it. The more thrashings the better.
It has also been interesting to see how seamlessly Fernandinho slotted into central defence, albeit against two opponents who didn’t threaten in attack. City enjoy so much possession that Fernandinho can step up into midfield as the situation allows, but has the positional awareness to be a success in defence. Now to beat Everton and cross their fingers that Liverpool finally stumble.
West Ham United
They beat Manchester United in second gear, just like they did last season. They moved into the top six in the process. They have one of the best goalkeepers outside the top six (Lukasz Fabianski), one of the best defenders (Issa Diop) and a collection of attacking midfielders to match anyone bar Liverpool and Manchester City.
But most important is that West Ham finally look solid under Manuel Pellegrini. There was a six-game stretch in March and April when they conceded at least two goals in every game and those familiar aching doubts flooded back in, but four consecutive clean sheets has allowed positivity to reign again. Now comes a stretch of fixtures – Bournemouth (a), Crystal Palace (h), Everton (a) – where West Ham might make such optimism look foolish. There’s no club better at pulling the rug from under your feet.
Sheffield United’s efficiency
This isn’t an easy time to be Sheffield United’s manager. Those in charge of on-field affairs pray for off-field stability. Hearing the majority shareholder tell the waiting press that the Bin Ladens are a “good family” must have made Chris Wilder wince. But the best managers are able to absorb that noise themselves without passing on the burden to their players.
Sheffield United are the Premier League kings of efficiency, taking eight points from six matches while scoring only seven goals. But that is part of Wilder’s plan. He knows that there will be times when his team is being outplayed and forced to defend deep and defend desperately. But in those circumstances you stay calm, put out the fire and then try to make the most of your own opportunities.
The difference between Aston Villa and Sheffield United is striking. The former have led for 193 minutes in the league this season, and have four points. The latter have led for 93 minutes and have eight points. Keep this up, and Sheffield United will be halfway to safety by the end of November.
You know the Bournemouth season by now: Start quickly, eventually tail off, earn some notable victories and remove some of the gloss with some sloppy defeats. But slowly and surely, Howe is taking Bournemouth forward and he’s doing it sustainably.
The away form was always the weakness but Bournemouth have won 5-0 at Brighton, 2-1 at Aston Villa and 3-1 at Southampton since the beginning of March, evidence that they are learning their lessons. The Premier League table is bunched up, but Bournemouth are in the top six on merit and have already played two of the five teams above them.
The most impressive aspect wasn’t how comfortable Bournemouth found victory at St Mary’s on Friday evening, but how quickly Howe has integrated young players into his squad. Of the XI that started against Southampton, seven were aged 24 and under and none were older than 28. The bench also contained players aged 21, 22, 22 and 23. The quiet revolution continues.
As the camera panned to Jose Mourinho in the Sky Sports studio, he at least had the good grace to stop himself smiling straight down the lens. But when the question was put to him on a silver platter, it was too much for him to bear. What do you think is missing, Jose? “Pretty much everything.”
There are plenty of reasons for the king of self-protection to offer his critical two-penn’orth worth, but Mourinho was hardly wrong. Manchester United’s post-Alex Ferguson era has been a series of lamentable lows that tussle with each other to be defined as the one true nadir, but this was as bad as most. The greatest insult to United is that West Ham did not even have to play particularly well to beat them. A standard home performance is enough against this collection of aren’t any mores, aren’t right nows and probably never will bes.
Marcus Rashford is a good central striker and might even become a great one, but he’s desperately low on confidence. In those circumstances he needs to feel support around him, but instead United leave him isolated with the pleasant but ineffective Juan Mata and the still raw Daniel James for help. Playing two holding midfielders in Nemanja Matic and Scott McTominay makes for a pedestrian pace through midfield.
On Sunday, United effectively relied upon James carrying the ball 40 yards forward to service Rashford. No shock when that tactic doesn’t work often enough to be dangerous in open play. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s team have scored more than once in one of their last 11 league games, and have scored three times from open play in their last five. They have created fewer chances from open play this season than Aston Villa and Watford, two of the bottom three.
The problem is that attacking sluggishness is not effectively counteracted by defensive certainty. Watching United defend for West Ham’s opening goal was like watching a team reacting on half-second delay, as if they were a FIFA team being controlled by someone coping badly with a hangover.
United have kept two league clean sheets since February 24, and the addition of Harry Maguire has not solved their issues. Playing two holding midfielders should at least mean the defence is adequately protected. That it isn’t raises the question of what it is that Matic actually brings to the team. Answers on a postcard for that one.
Solskjaer is not the individual most deserving of blame; this obviously goes much higher up than him. United have spent around £830m on new players since July 2013, and it has been almost entirely wasted because the structure at the club does not exist to create a positive working environment.
But there is increasingly little reason to keep faith in Solskjaer, a man who never had the requisite CV for this job and who was appointed far too hastily because he was a helpful distraction tactic from larger, more serious issues. If the ‘knowing the club’ nonsense ever meant anything, it means nothing now. He got a short-term boost through lifting the gloom that Mourinho allowed to set in, but there is precious little substance to Solskjaer’s management beyond that.
Manchester United are in a serious fight to avoid dropping out of the top six, and in that scenario managerial aptitude makes far more difference than remembering the old training ground. If everything else improved, would Solskjaer be the right man for the job? No. So he can’t be now. Sticking with him just because everything else above him is broken is only doubling down on those mistakes.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Manchester United’s muscle injuries
This summer, Manchester United leaked to the media a number of stories about the club’s preseason training schedule. There was mention of double sessions, gruelling fitness runs, a manager taking things back to basics and several key players enthusing about the new regime.
We are now edging towards the end of September and Marcus Rashford, Anthony Martial and Luke Shaw all have muscle injuries. Rashford’s injury is particularly pertinent, because he is already being flogged to death by a manager that has given himself no choice.
When Romelu Lukaku was sold this summer (he scored the clinching goal in the Milan derby this weekend to keep Inter top of the table), Solskjaer was given the chance to replace him but opted against it. Lukaku’s form tailed off badly at United, but he was also not serviced correctly and isn’t the only key attacking player to have floundered there. On Sunday we saw United with Jesse Lingard up front because all three strikers were unfit.
A reminder: United potentially have another 59 games to play this season. This would all be shocking if it wasn’t so utterly predictable.
VAR-inspired confidence lapses
In the last nine days, Sheffield United, Chelsea, Tottenham and Leicester have all conceded goals shortly after having their own goal ruled out by VAR, long after their celebrations had ended. And those are only the games I’ve watched.
Teams are being undone by the short-term psychological impact of having a goal taken away from them in such unfamiliar circumstances, and it is costing them matches. Managers must learn to overcome the hurdle, even if it means instructing players not to celebrate as raucously.
It used to be that the most dangerous time to concede was when you had scored a goal. Now it’s when you thought you’d scored one.
A manager who has a huge problem on his hands, because Everton are finding new ways to lose. On Saturday they outgunned Sheffield United by 14 shots and conceded twice despite only facing one shot on target. But that offers little relief to those who booed at full-time.
Everton and Silva have three obvious problems. The first is the number of goals they concede from set pieces – 20 since Silva took over, the highest in the Premier League. The second is that they actually allow a low number of shots and shots on target, but the ones they do allow are particularly presentable. Only Manchester City have allowed fewer shots at their goal and only Liverpool fewer shots on target, but Everton are conceding goals at a rate of 1.5 per match.
Finally, Everton supporters endure sterile attacking football during which the ball is too regularly played in front of the penalty area without any moments of real danger being created. For all their dominance against Sheffield United, their expected goals total was only 1.03. That indicates a high volume of chances created, but shots being taken from typically non-dangerous areas.
Silva must solve these issues, and solve them quickly. Manchester City visit Goodison next weekend still stung by their own slow start to the season, and then Everton take on Burnley at Turf Moor. Lose both of those, and a top-six assault begins to look like toast for yet another season. Given the money spent over the last 15 months, that’s a tough look to pull off without losing your job.
Quique Sanches Flores
“To be competitive is the key. We were able to play like this, four years ago, we were very competitive,” said Quique Sanches Flores in his pre-match press conference.
“In a short space of time we lost against Manchester and we lost also at home against Tottenham in the same way. We were really close to them, we were really confident we want to win in the last five minutes and we concede on a counter attack or a cross and we lost so yes, the lesson for all this kind of thing is you need to be clever. Sometimes if you don’t win, it’s necessary to know the result is good, you need to be clever.”
Oh my. Watford’s season need not be defined by losing heavily to Manchester City, but it’s hard to see how a result like this, coming so soon in a managerial tenure, doesn’t act like a swift emotional punch to the gut. Where on earth does their confidence sit now?
Tottenham’s away form
A truly wretched run on the road, and until it improves there can be no guarantee of a top-four place. Tottenham are a mess outside London; they have not won away in the Premier League since January. If that run does include Manchester City (twice), Arsenal, Chelsea and Liverpool, it also includes clubs such as Burnley, Southampton, Leicester City and Bournemouth that supporters might expect their club to swat aside.
The most remarkable thing about Tottenham’s away day blues is that they were preceded by a magnificent run. Victory at Goodison on December 23, 2018 meant that Spurs recorded the highest points per away game of any team in the country in 2018. That has almost immediately been followed by this misery. Mauricio Pochettino might reasonably conclude that the weather might easily blow warm again just as easily, but run is becoming slump is becoming the new rule.
There are a few obvious things to note. Tottenham are starting away games with an uneasiness that stems from negative recent experience – bad form can breed bad form – and are ceding leads at least partly because they fail to take chances to extend it.
But there’s also a strong argument for changing the system away from home to accommodate a holding midfielder. Harry Winks is a passer, Moussa Sissoko and Tanguy Ndombele like to carry the ball forward and Erik Lamela played at the top tip of the diamond on Saturday. That leaves Tottenham exposed to the counter-attack and the defence vulnerable.
But there is no easy solution. Mousa Dembele has left, Eric Dier has struggled with injury, illness and poor form and Victor Wanyama’s career has been ebbing away for some time. Perhaps the answer is remodel Davinson Sanchez or Sissoko into that holding role, but neither are a natural fit.
Whatever the best option, Pochettino must hit upon a solution. The problems of their Big Six peers means that Tottenham are hardly cut off from the top four yet, but if this away form continues they soon will be. Four of their next five away league opponents? Liverpool, Everton, West Ham and Manchester United. It’s sink or swim time.
Steve Bruce, and the style
The results do give Bruce a little breathing room. The surprise victory over Tottenham means Newcastle United have more points than at the same stage of last season. Even if they are down on points from the corresponding fixtures last season, they do sit outside the relegation zone. End the season in 17th, and – rightly or wrongly – Bruce will consider 2019/20 to have been a success. In those circumstances, he reasons, the style doesn’t matter.
But Bruce must also concede that Newcastle playing like this is likely to push the whole club even further into a deep slumber. The 7,000 empty seats at St James’ Park on Saturday are a protest about the owner more than the manager (although the two are linked), but those absent were hardly likely to have been inspired to return by the unwatchable fare Newcastle served up.
Brighton were made to look like Barcelona. Graham Potter has had the same time, and less money, to stamp his own ideals and authority on the squad, and has genuinely revolutionised the football over the course of one summer. Newcastle are playing a worse version of the same football and the players still seem constantly unsure of how to do it. If Bruce’s football is supposed to bring with it a grim certainty, few in his squad got the memo.
Rafa Benitez was criticised for his defensive approach in big games, but he never sacrificed possession and control so readily against this level of opponent. He also didn’t have a striker who cost £40m (who Benitez didn’t think was worth the money) and an exciting winger in Allan Saint-Maximin. Both become spare parts when Newcastle so actively cede the run of the game.
Supporters are right to be worried. It is true that plenty concluded that Bruce wasn’t up to the task on the day of his appointment, but their worst fears about the football are being realised. Under Benitez, safety-first football was part of a process and Newcastle grew into their seasons. Between January 19 and the end of the season, Newcastle took 27 points from 16 matches and ranked fifth in the Premier League. Only four teams scored more league goals over that period.
Can we really expect the same rapid improvement under Bruce during the second half of the season? Is this part of some masterplan, or merely the only option for manager who is running out of ideas already? The answer to that question will define Newcastle’s season.
But one thing is true: Newcastle must improve their home form and their intent to score goals at St James’. They have played Watford, Brighton and a defensively vulnerable Arsenal at home and yet only two teams have had fewer shots on target at home. This isn’t going to get easier.
Success as a promoted club cannot be distilled into one factor, but if there is a golden rule it is to make the most of the chances that come your way. There will be teams who outclass and outpass you, and you will go through runs of poor form. So make the most of the sunshine.
This is where Aston Villa are letting themselves down. They led 1-0 at Tottenham and missed chances to extend their lead before succumbing 3-1. They played 25 minutes against ten-man West Ham and failed to score. And they led twice against ten-man Arsenal and somehow conspired to lose 3-2. These are the results that you regret come May.