Virgil van Dijk
The leader of Liverpool’s defence, by example and by personality. What seemed an astonishingly high fee when he signed (and rival supporters were only too happy to tell Liverpool fans as much) is now great value, and seems like a bargain in initial comparisons with Harry Maguire and Lucas Hernandez.
If the footballing gods built a defender, he would have so very many of Van Dijk’s characteristics. Whereas once we divided centre-backs into cultured passers or physical specimens, Van Dijk is proof that defenders can now be complete all-rounders. He is tall and wins header after header, but is more than capable with ball at feet and can step out from the back and into midfield to start attacking moves. He is physically strong but far quicker than you might expect. He has an authoritative air but is composed and calm. What more do you want, other than him to be English?
And Van Dijk also scores goals. Since the start of last season, he has scored nine times for Liverpool. That’s more than any of the club’s midfielders. The first top-flight hat-trick by a defender since 1986 stayed sadly out of his grasp on Saturday, but you suspect Jurgen Klopp might forgive him.
Leicester have established themselves as Liverpool’s main rivals for a second title in four years. See Matt Stead’s piece on their supreme planning.
West Ham and Manuel Pellegrini
This ridiculous bloody club is enough to make me go on strike. The term ‘banter club’ has entered the vernacular of modern football culture, used to describe the history of pretty much any team. But for confounding lurches from the sublime to the ridiculous and nothing in between, West Ham beat most hands down. Just when you think they are finding a little form, they trip over their own feet. Just when you think their manager has lost the dressing room and with it his job, they win at Stamford Bridge and keep a clean sheet just for good measure. Absolute nonsense merchants.
A week ago against Tottenham, West Ham barely looked bothered. The change of goalkeeper from Roberto to David Martin clearly helped to instill some confidence in the defence, but this was also a team playing with a completely different intensity. Declan Rice protected the defence rather than drowning against the counter-attack. Mark Noble kept his positional discipline rather than getting over-excited and pushing too far forward. Ryan Fredericks didn’t commit himself to the tackle and get exposed by the opposition wide player. They didn’t bottle 50-50 challenges, or pass the ball straight out of play.
If we can praise West Ham for their brilliant win at Stamford Bridge – this is a weekly column after all – it is also permissible to ask where on earth this has been over the last few weeks, and why it takes until West Ham reach the point of near-disaster for them to muster up the urgency and fight to produce something of note. Seeing the full extent of their potential so infrequently only makes the usual mediocrity more galling.
We are desperate for footballers to show emotion, and prove that they care almost as much as us, and then when they do show raw emotion it totally catches us off guard. Martin admitted after the game that he struggled to eat without being sick during the two days before his Premier League debut. When the final whistle blew at Stamford Bridge, all of those pent-up nerves were released as one and Martin fell to his knees.
Martin’s embrace with his father Alvin in the stands after the match were just as emotional. It may be Premier League football to you and me, but sometimes it’s also just a dad watching his boy play and crossing everything that he does himself proud.
Boy did Roy Hodgson need that, after a run of one point from five matches that had seen Palace tumble down the table. Palace hold a curse over Burnley. Not only have they beaten them in each of their last four league meetings, they join Leicester City, Manchester City, Arsenal, Liverpool and Chelsea and the only teams to win in the league at Turf Moor in 2019. Unlike the rest, Palace have done so twice.
Dele Alli, Tottenham’s No. 10
And thank you Seb for making this section very easy.
Newcastle United against better teams
It’s hardly surprising that Steve Bruce’s Newcastle might perform better against teams who will let them sit deep and play on the counter. If Rafael Benitez’s Newcastle used the direct pass to Salomon Rondon as the outball and Miguel Almiron as the surprise option, the summer signing of Allan Saint-Maximin gives Newcastle a double threat on the quick counter-attack.
Newcastle are averaging 0.5 points per game against the six teams below them, and 1.2 points per game against last season’s top six. They are the new Wolves, and Bruce will take it as a compliment.
There is a debate about talent vs position for Gareth Southgate to wrestle with. Grealish’s absence from the latest England squad caused an entirely manufactured outrage given that he was absent through injury from Aston Villa’s matches both immediately before and after the break. But next time he might be available.
Southgate does not play with a No. 10 because he prefers a 4-3-3 formation; that plays against Grealish. Southgate also prefers to use prodigious wide forwards as the outball who then link with a wonderful centre-forward in Harry Kane. That also goes against Grealish because he is an attacking midfielder who likes to spend time on the ball. It might well be true that he is better suited to a team in which he can dominate possession and run the game at his tempo, which is not guaranteed with England. And then there’s the other options: Dele Alli, Mason Mount, James Maddison. It is a position in which England are well-stocked.
But there comes a point when the natural talent overrides all those concerns and Grealish will justify a run in an England shirt just to see what he can do. If he’s not a natural starter in England’s shape, there’s space for a mercurial option in an international tournament squad.
Until then, Villa supporters should not concern themselves with angrily stating Grealish’s international credentials. He is a young man who loves playing for your club, and he’s doing his damnedest. Just bask in that wonderful fact.
A year ago today, Cantwell had just started his ninth Championship fixture of the season, fewer than half of Norwich’s 20 games. Daniel Farke believed his young midfielder had some talent, but he was far from guaranteed his starting place.
Still just 21, Cantwell has now scored against three of the Big Six after only four months in the top flight. He has taken to the Premier with an assuredness that nobody could have predicted.
Watford and Quique Sanchez Flores
The kindest thing we can say about Watford is that at least they corrected their mistake. If it wasn’t entirely beyond the realms of possibility that Flores’ appointment might have heralded a much-needed improvement in Watford’s defensive stability, and he did at least know how the club operated. But the reality is that Flores didn’t leave on brilliant terms, and that he barely improved the club’s defending. Conceding eight at Manchester City was an inauspicious start. Flores won one of his ten games in charge.
As I wrote when Watford appointed Flores, ‘the sheer rarity of re-appointing a manager invites criticism if the gamble backfires. But Watford will suffer far worse than sharp words if Flores cannot pick up roughly where he left off after a gap of over three years. There is no safety net for clubs of Watford’s ilk. Get this wrong, and they will fall.’
And fall they will, with the potential appointment of Chris Hughton surely the move of a club with one eye on the Championship. Whoever replaces Flores will make the right noises about pushing for survival, but no club in good health goes through three different managers before Christmas and the league table does not lie.
Watford were once the model, like Southampton before them. But the problem with being a non-elite club that gets rightly showered with praise is that the masterplan only works until you suffer one bad period of recruitment decisions. Without financial might, Watford were never insured against repeated error. It’s far easier to fall off the wagon than get back on it.
A day to sum up Silva’s Everton tenure. They enjoyed bright spells, failed to take advantage when on top, were subsequently punished for their own defensive deficiencies and lost to leave everyone shell-shocked and unsure quite how it had happened. Silva is unlikely to get a statue outside Goodison, but there is no doubt which pose the sculptor would choose: arms folded, black coat, pensive frown, broken spirit.
We have surely seen it for the last time. Everton’s performances have not all been disastrous, but their league position is. They are typically a patient club and stuck with David Moyes through a lamentable league season, but Moyes had a body of work at the club to rely on and hadn’t enjoyed the squad investment provided to Silva.
Perhaps Silva will be given the trip to Anfield, a chance for one final touchline stare as his team suffers ignominy. Perhaps that will see Everton drop into the bottom three and make the club’s decision even easier. Perhaps that would make the return of Moyes easier for supporters to stomach (but don’t bet on it). But the truth is that Everton are floundering over this sacking because they never thought it would go this badly.
Manchester City’s title challenge
Football continuously fascinates with its ability to catch you off guard. Just as you have established something as footballing truth, along comes the wonderful bastard to flip those expectations upside down and make you look stupid.
In May, when Manchester City humiliated Watford in the FA Cup final to accompany a remarkable run of victories that took them to the Premier League title, we asked questions not just of next season but of the competitive nature of English football. How could anyone match City with their financial might and expertise? A new dynasty was being formed before our eyes, and there was nothing anyone could do about it.
A touch over six months later, all change. We questioned whether Liverpool had the resolve to go again after last season’s title heartbreak, but it is Manchester City and Pep Guardiola who are struggling more. The latest setback, at St James’ Park, puts them 11 points behind Liverpool with 24 games left. Liverpool have dropped four points in their last 25 league games. City need snookers.
From such rude health, City suddenly look weary. Count the problem positions: The first-choice left-back not trusted, Kyle Walker struggling but Joao Cancelo not eclipsing him, Aymeric Laporte’s injury creating a central defensive crisis, Rodri not yet settled or at his best, Bernardo and David Silva both failing to hit last season’s heights, Leroy Sane laid low with injury, Sergio Aguero now out too.
Saturday was not a disaster. Newcastle scored two good goals but City had all the play and should have won the game. But that’s not the point. During the second half of last season, City simply weren’t giving their opponents the opportunity to unnerve them and certainly didn’t let them back into the game twice.
The soundtrack to this City slump will be produced by the world’s smallest violin; no financial superpower should expect much sympathy. But it is interesting how quickly fragility can set in even at the best clubs. Success this season now depends upon winning the Champions League, but it’s bloody hard to turn it on for big European nights while you’re limping a little in the league.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer
How long does this charade continue for? How many weeks does this column ask the same questions while Manchester United limp on with a manager who is unfit for his purpose?
This weekend, Gary Neville tweeted that Solskjaer needed three or four transfer windows to sort out the squad and turn it into title challengers. It is true that the playing staff needs major surgery, but true too that you can only give that time and responsibility to a manager who you are sure is the right man for the job. What evidence is there for Solskjaer being that right man?
Manchester United sacked Jose Mourinho for picking up 26 points in his first 17 league matches of the season, and they were right to do so. Solskjaer may have avoided the ‘scorched earth’ method of self-preservation, but he has not achieved better results than Mourinho. United must win each of their next three matches (against Tottenham, Manchester City and Everton) to eclipse Mourinho’s 26 points. For all Mourinho’s faults – and, to repeat, they were right to sack him – he has a better CV than Solskjaer.
United appointed Solskjaer because he breathed some life into their attack and shored up the defence during his temporary reign; all evidence of that has evaporated. The club spent £130m on two defenders in the summer and have got worse at defending. They last kept a clean sheet in the Premier League on September 14. The list of clubs United have failed to beat in the league since Solskjaer’s appointment includes Bournemouth, Sheffield United, Aston Villa, Huddersfield Town, Newcastle United, Southampton, Crystal Palace and Cardiff City. By any measure, that is abysmal.
With no offence to Wolves and Sheffield United, this is not a particularly strong Premier League. Tottenham are fifth having won five of their 14 matches. There are reasonable excuses for Manchester United not being in the top three, but to be ninth at this stage should be a cause of deep embarrassment. Two Big Six clubs who sit above them have already sacked their manager.
So why keep on keeping on with Solskjaer? He pledged to bring a youthful exuberance to the team, but United are a dirge. He – repeatedly – pledged to invoke the magical spirit of 1999 but now Manchester United can’t even beat low-level opposition and the nostalgia just looks like a replacement for tangible coaching aptitude. He pledged to push for structural change including the appointment of a sporting director, but mysteriously went quiet on the issue over the summer.
Sacking Solskjaer – and appointing Mauricio Pochettino – will not solve all of Manchester United’s problems. This club will never soar again without structural change at the top and the appointment of experts in vital roles. But these are not mutual exclusives; you can want change at the top while still believing that Solskjaer is not good enough. Allow capable coaches to slip through their grasp because of some misguided romanticism and misplaced loyalty, and United deserve all they get.
Way to land back to earth with a bump. Chelsea are still well ahead of schedule, but Saturday was a reality check for those who believed Frank Lampard had a magic wand he was waving over the squad.
The absence of Tammy Abraham clearly hurt Chelsea. Olivier Giroud is a completely different type of striker and they wholly failed to service him. Mason Mount in particular was poor, but Jorginho not much better. The defensive openness continues to haunt Chelsea. Reece James made a mistake for the goal and Fikayo Tomori is also struggling for consistency. Chelsea have four clean sheets in 22 matches this season. At the same stage last year, Maurizio Sarri’s team had 11.
But these things happen when you are in charge of a young team. Young players make mistakes and novice managers do too. Chelsea supporters must keep patience and hope that those clubs below them continue to make a top-four place a probability.
Arsenal’s defensive problems
Nobody reasonable thought that Arsenal’s problems would disappear with the change of manager, particularly given that Freddie Ljungberg only had one training session. Unai Emery was a human shield for the incompetence of those above him, but those below him too. There is some rank ineptitude within the team that Ljungberg picked at Carrow Road.
Look at that five of defence and holding midfielder: Chambers, Kolasinac, Luiz, Mustafi and Xhaka. How far down the Premier League do you have to go before you get a worse option? Bournemouth in 12th? Not really. Newcastle in 13th? At least they are defensively sound. Everton in 17th? They have in-form full-backs at least. Southampton in 18th? Probably them, yes. Good luck to whoever gets this job on a permanent basis.