Premier League winners and losers

Date published: Tuesday 15th August 2017 9:17 - Daniel Storey


Huddersfield Town
And still they are dancing.

The unwritten rule is that you aren’t allowed to look at the league table until after the third game of the season, but Huddersfield Town fans should have been setting their alarms on Sunday morning to arrive at the paper shop the minute they opened, before getting to work on the kitchen table with a pair of scissors, Pritt Stick and a scrapbook that will become dog-eared over the next 30 years. For the first time since August 1970, and the days of Trevor Cherry and Frank Worthington, Huddersfield were top of the pile.

This was a day of dreams. Huddersfield’s away support went wild at their team’s first and second goals, but by the third – at least for a number of fans – pandemonium had given way to stunned amazement. Men and women held their arms aloft, but were stood still with open mouths, as if moving would be like pinching yourself during a dream. Their Huddersfield were winning 3-0 away from home in their first ever Premier League match.

David Wagner’s side were the beneficiaries of a Crystal Palace team who looked utterly confused by their new manager’s plan until they were two goals behind. They were then the beneficiaries of good fortune and excellent goalkeeping, as the home side’s assault on Huddersfield’s goal produced nothing but frustration to pile onto the dismay. Palace ended the game with 14 shots to Huddersfield’s eight, and led 10-5 on shots inside the penalty area. Only seven players in the Premier League this weekend created more chances than Palace’s left wing-back Patrick van Aanholt. Saturday also offers little indication of how Huddersfield’s season will pan out. The last time they topped the First Division table, Ian Greaves’ side promptly lost 4-0 at Anfield and failed to win another game for two months.

Yet the point stands: Still they are dancing. The rarity and probable unsustainability of Huddersfield’s league position makes it more special, not less.

“David Wagner, he’s better than Klopp.”


Steve Mounie
As the pundits on Match of the Day reminded their audience, Mounie scored only one fewer Ligue 1 goal than Kylian Mbappe last season. That is a slightly reductive statistic given the position of the two players, but it helps to demonstrate that Ligue 1 can still be a happy hunting ground for bargains despite the necessary Premier League premium.

The Premier League’s three value-for-money stars of the last two seasons (Riyad Mahrez, Dimitri Payet and N’Golo Kante) were all imported from France. Wagner will hope that he has found the fourth. Mounie can make their world go round.


Romelu Lukaku
Nobody reasonable was saying that Lukaku would definitely be a roaring success at an elite club, but that his form for Everton merited the chance to try.

Within 90 minutes of his first touch on home soil in a Manchester United shirt, we had proof of the potential. Those who were mocking him for missing chances in pre-season should feel silly. Those who believe he is not “intelligent” enough for Manchester United should watch the run for his first goal and his flicked header for the second. It might sound crazy, but Lukaku knows what he is doing. Never before have we seen so much focus on what a 24-year-old proven Premier League goalscorer can’t do, rather than what he can.

There were two prominent accusations against Lukaku when he joined United. The first was that he was a ‘flat-track bully’, an inaccurate allegation given Everton’s struggle as a whole to create chances against the best teams over the last two years. Even if the accusation was founded in fact, Manchester United’s record against the bottom half at Old Trafford last season hardly made it the worst reputation to carry.

The second was that Lukaku did nothing outside the box, being a finisher but little else. On that point, it’s worth mentioning that no striker in the Premier League created more chances this weekend.

These are early days, of course, but Lukaku is already 10% of the way to being a 20-league-goals-a-season striker at an elite club. If the worry was that it would take time to settle in at a club challenging for the title and take time to forge an understanding with United’s midfielders, there was no evidence for either on Sunday.


Mauricio ‘phew’ Pochettino
Our first early winner of the season. After the week he’d had, any win was enough for Pochettino. He can thank Jonjo Shelvey and delight in his two deputising full-backs playing very well indeed.


Christian Eriksen

Perhaps the question isn’t why so many Tottenham players have been targeted this summer, but why more of them haven’t been? Find me a better player on £70,000 or less per week in the Premier League; Mathieu Debuchy just misses out.


Kyle Walker-Peters
While Eriksen danced and delighted and Dele Alli scored, were you to press Pochettino for the individual performance that most pleased him, he would surely plump for his right-back.

After all, this is exactly what Pochettino has been preaching. With Kyle Walker departed and Kieran Trippier absent through injury, Tottenham’s manager could have asked Eric Dier to fill in at right-back and played Victor Wanyama as a holding midfielder, but that would have reduced the side’s attacking impetus from full-back, a highly useful weapon last season. Instead he trusted his new second-choice right-back, and such faith was justified.

There is a tale about Brian Clough’s management at Nottingham Forest, when he was questioned about asking players to fill in in unfamiliar positions. His typically forthright response was that if the first choice in a particular position wasn’t available, he would pick the second choice. If the second choice wasn’t available, he would pick the youth team specialist. If none of them were good enough for the role, they shouldn’t be at the club in the first place.

Pochettino is keen to prove that such principles are not necessarily anachronistic. His insistence that the club’s younger players will never improve if they are not given a chance is risky, but Walker-Peters’ Premier League debut is proof enough that Pochettino’s record at Tottenham has afforded him the patience to give his way a go.

The only player who cost more than £15m in the Tottenham starting XI against Newcastle is the one that supporters would have been least happy to see in the side, while five of the 14 players used on Sunday were given their Premier League debuts by Pochettino at the age of 20 or younger. August, rather than June and July, was always likely to be Tottenham’s best time to shine. They are off and running again.


Young English players
On the opening weekend of last season, 11 English players aged 21 or under made Premier League appearances. Two of those were teenagers: Mason Holgate and Lewis Cook.

On the opening weekend of this season, 16 English players aged 21 or under made Premier League appearances. Six of those were teenagers: Rakeem Harper, Trent Alexander-Arnold, Tom Davies, Sam Field, Marcus Rashford and Tammy Abraham.

It might sound like baby steps in the right direction, but each one of them should be cherished. Give these players a chance and some will flourish.


Manchester United’s intelligence, pace, power and dynamism
Let Sarah Winterburn tell you all. That was a heck of a performance.


Sam Vokes
A list of the top five British goalscorers in the Premier League since the start of last season:

Harry Kane
Dele Alli
Jamie Vardy
Jermain Defoe
Sam Vokes

Vokes cost Burnley £500,000 five years ago and is still only paid £20,000 a week like it’s 1996. Fair play that man.


Sean Dyche
The highest-ranking English manager in the country, on the second lowest budget and wage bill in the Premier League. You can forgive Dyche for his passionate celebration at full-time at Stamford Bridge after the summer he has had. Selling your two most valuable assets and failing to replace them? No problem.


Wayne Rooney
You already knew the name, but it was still wonderfully endearing to see Rooney slide on both knees in front of an adoring Goodison support. He could not have hoped for more than scoring the winner on his second home league debut.


Tony Pulis
When West Brom signed Ahmed Hegazi, plenty of West Brom supporters were audibly underwhelmed. If there’s one thing that Pulis knows, it’s a central defender.


Olivier Giroud
The most handsome super sub in all of Christendom.


Jamie Vardy
In World Cup season, Vardy knows that only by scoring regularly can he guarantee himself a place on the plan to Russia. Two goals against Arsenal on the opening night, even in defeat, will have done that cause no end of good.



Roman Abramovich
A club owner at the top of the losers list; how very modern.

Antonio Conte has made no secret of his need for investment. In our match reaction piece on Saturday, I wondered whether Conte was sending a message to his club with the standard of his bench, but the truth is that Chelsea’s manager had little choice. Loic Remy and Baba Rahman were the only two fit senior first-team players omitted, and neither are wanted by the club. Caballero, Scott, Tomori, Kenedy, Musonda, Christensen, Morata. With one obvious exception, this is not the bench of a defending Premier League champion.

So just what is Abramovich playing at? Chelsea’s squad is crying out for added depth ahead of a Champions League campaign and Premier League title defence, the Russian is a squillion different types of filthy rich and Financial Fair Play is that distant memory you vaguely remember being relevant but were never quite sure of the rules. Chelsea’s owner is risking Conte’s contentment and thus his continued employment, and for nothing. There is little to be gained for Conte in staying in a position where he feels undermined from on high.

Most damning is that Abramovich cannot even plead naivety, because he has seen this before. After Chelsea’s title victory in 2014/15, the club stalled and stagnated over the summer, started the season badly and eventually sacked their manager and limped out of the Champions League in the first knockout round having been given a gentle group stage draw. Why would he risk another dismal year for the Roman empire?

If that wasn’t enough, Conte then had to witness a wonderful Manchester United debut from Nemanja Matic, a sale which the Italian has been keen to point out was nothing to do with him. There is a reason why selling any player to a title rival is a bad idea – it invigorates the player to prove you wrong. Even Arsenal finally learned that the hard way.

Matic’s sale is another decision that lands at the feet of Chelsea’s owner. If the opening weekend didn’t provoke Abramovich into urgent action, nothing will.


Mike Ashley
A club owner second on the losers list; how very modern. But if we’re speaking of embarrassingly inactive owners, there is only one place to end.

“It is the same situation we had before. We know what we need,” said a clearly frustrated Rafael Benitez after full-time on Sunday. “We need some new players that bring some new energy to the team. It is important to challenge your players.

“For me, we need to sign some players until the end of the transfer window. It is important to refresh the squad to create more competition between us. We have ten months and we are involved in four competitions. We need more competition, more quality, more players who can play in the team to keep the level we want.”

You might be able to read between the lines and see Benitez’s subtle message that he would quite like Newcastle to sign some new players, and you can see his point. The manager was told that he would be backed if he achieved promotion, and that has not occurred. Newcastle have either been slow to tie up deals, slow to move for players at all or not prepared to match wage demands that are hardly unrealistic. As so often over the last five years, their owner is the one to blame.

“As I said the other day, it is like wallpaper. I don’t have that cash in the bank so I don’t have the ability to write a cheque for £200m. I don’t have it, it’s simple,” said Ashley in an interview with Sky Sports last week. “And I have to make it clear that I am nowhere near wealthy enough in football now to compete with the likes of Man City and others.”

How good of Ashley to answer the questions that no Newcastle supporter was asking. They are not hoping to compete with Manchester City, but to allow their manager to have the best shot at consolidating this club in the Premier League. Given the revenues Newcastle will make through broadcasting rights this season, it is ludicrous that Benitez can only spend what he makes in player sales.

Does Ashley think we are stupid enough to believe his lines about his own lack of available wealth or funds for players? Seventeen of the 20 Premier League clubs have paid more than £12m for a player since the start of last season; Newcastle are operating on a different level to Brighton and Huddersfield, the other exceptions. Nineteen of the 20 Premier League clubs have broken their transfer record since the beginning of 2016; Newcastle are the only exception.

Every time Newcastle take steps forward under Ashley’s ownership, he seems intent of kiboshing all progress. His meanness is placing a ceiling even on Newcastle’s most reasonable ambitions, and threatens to again plunge this club into crisis.


West Ham’s defending
Liverpool, Arsenal, Crystal Palace, Watford and Chelsea all looked rotten in defence for at least some part of their games. But for the truly hapless, helpless, looking-around-for-answers-as-to-what-in-shuddering-hell-is-going-on-here type of defending, you can’t look past West Ham. Against Manchester United’s creativity and verve, Slaven Bilic’s back four were as useful as asking a pet hamster to guard the house while you go away for the weekend.


Winston Reid
“We just had keep tight to him,” said Reid after Lukaku had failed to score against West Ham in April. “Don’t let him turn. If he’s not going to turn then he is not going to score, is he? It’d be pretty difficult. We wanted to try and keep him away from the goal.

“I know it’s pretty boring but it’s pretty simple I guess. We just had to be on him in the box and make sure he couldn’t turn.”

Shame you didn’t cover letting him run behind and have free headers from set-pieces, eh Winston.


Liverpool’s set-piece defending
Nothing changes, Jurgen. Just like Brendan Rodgers before him, Klopp is in a fight to ensure that Liverpool’s defensive incompetence does not undo all of his good work. That asking price for Virgil van Dijk may just have risen by another £10m.


Gary Cahill
You’re taking over from John Terry, who gained a reputation for leadership but diving into challen… Oh. Never mind. Too late. Let’s have a chat soon.


Frank de Boer
“I won’t be making any changes to our tactics,” De Boer said after the 3-0 defeat in his opening Premier League game. “We lost the Huddersfield game in 15 minutes and we just have to make sure next week that if we do concede we react in the right way.

“The team must adapt when the opposition is playing a high press and know when it is suitable to play the ball on the ground or to be more direct. We spoke about that before the Huddersfield game but we made the wrong decisions and learned a very difficult lesson.”

De Boer better hope that Palace’s players did indeed learn their lessons rather than simply being confused by the teacher. Because if there’s one manager that will demand his team presses high up the pitch more than David Wagner, it’s his best mate Klopp.

On Saturday, De Boer suffered the heaviest defeat by a manager on their Premier League debut since Gus Poyet’s Sunderland lost 4-0 to Swansea in October 2013. It all worked out fine for Poyet, whose job at Shanghai Shenhua in the Chinese Super League is currently under increasing pressure after he was sacked by AEK Athens and Real Betis.


Stoke City
Had their first shot on target after 92 minutes and 39 seconds of the match. Stoke have won three league games since February, and two of those were against teams now in the Championship. There’s a reason why four of Football365’s six predictors plumped for Mark Hughes to go first.


Granit Xhaka
A winner for the assists, a loser for being the only Premier League player on the opening weekend to make an individual error that directly led to a goal. All’s well that ends well, but Arsene Wenger will have been deeply disappointed by the slack pass for Leicester’s second.


Pablo Zabaleta
I picked out Zabaleta as one of my signings to stink the place out, and I still can’t believe that West Ham are paying him £90,000 a week over two years.

Nothing about Zabaleta’s inability to deal with Marcus Rashford or Anthony Martial persuaded me that splashing out on a 32-year-old full-back with half-knacked legs was not a bloody foolish thing to do.


Craig Shakespeare
After 81 minutes at the Emirates on Friday evening, Leicester City were leading 3-2 when Shakespeare decided to take off a central midfielder in Matty James and replace him with a striker in Kelechi Iheanacho, who was making his debut for the club. Four minutes later, the score was 4-3 to Arsenal. Iheanacho finished the game having touched the ball twice; one was a kick-off.


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