The title race
Last week this column worried about the unpredictability of the Premier League dying away after an extraordinary start to the season, pointing out that Big Six clubs had played 23 recent matches against non-Big Six clubs and lost only three; Arsenal counted for all three and they are surely in danger of making it a Big Five anyway.
A week on, more evidence that I’m a (non-bald) fraud. Arsenal lost again, but what’s new. The real surprises came at Goodison, Selhurst Park and Craven Cottage. For the first weekend since December 2008, all of the established Big Six played and failed to win. You wanted unpredictability – are you not entertained?
I still can’t shake the suspicion that Liverpool and Manchester City end up as the top two, but that’s as much about hardwired expectation than current form. No team in the Premier League is on course to record more than 79 points this season. The lower the points total required, the more chance there is for a surprise challenger and the more likely it is to involve multiple clubs until late season. If the Manchester clubs won their games in hand, seven clubs would be separated by three points.
We’ve played more than a quarter of the season and the team in 13th is within eight points of the leaders. Long may that continue.
At the start of the season, David Moyes clearly made a conscious decision to ease some of West Ham’s highest earners out of the first-team picture. He couldn’t do it in one fell swoop without causing disharmony within the playing style but, over time, he has worked on a plan.
That plan chiefly relies upon workmanlike players, although endeavour need not be mutually exclusive from quality. Tomas Soucek, Jarrod Bowen, Michail Antonio, Declan Rice, Vladimír Coufal and Angelo Ogbonna have become the leaders of the movement. That makes perfect sense: These are players whose characteristics as players match Moyes’ managerial identity.
But it still took a great deal of courage. Had it not worked, West Ham would have a number of expensive players who could make it clear they were unhappy with their manager and the club could easily use poor results as a persuasive argument to agree with them. Instead, Moyes is producing his best work since leaving Goodison in 2013.
On Friday night, West Ham’s starting XI excluded club captain Mark Noble. It excluded two mercurial attacking players in Andriy Yarmolenko and Manuel Lanzini. Felipe Anderson has already been loaned out to Porto. Sebastien Haller will surely drop out of the team when Antonio is fit. Issa Diop was dropped from the match-day squad at the expense of Craig Dawson.
And West Ham produced a performance of great dominance. They responded to early adversity and wrestled the game back in their favour. They identified Leeds’ most obvious flaw and repeatedly won free-kicks in the final third. They scored two set-piece goals. They were only the fourth opponent in 13 months to out-shoot Leeds at Elland Road.
And this run can continue. West Ham welcome Crystal Palace, Brighton, West Brom and Burnley in their next four home league games. By the end of that run they may well be firmly ensconced in the Premier League top half and all those grim predictions of relegation will have been made to look foolish by a manager who is thoroughly enjoying himself again.
Just as doubts were seeping into the cracks about Ancelotti’s ability to take Everton forward after a mesmeric start to the season, back came those eyebrows to outwit his former club.
Let there be no argument: Ancelotti totally outwitted Lampard tactically. Everton hadn’t kept a clean sheet since the opening day, but he sacrificed attacking, aesthetic football in favour of a double defensive screen in midfield with the two wide players – Richarlison and Alex Iwobi – asked to muck in as cover in full-back areas.
What came next was the perfect counter-attacking performance. Everton had just 28% possession but had more shots on target than Chelsea. They outran Chelsea, shuttling them into wide areas where they were able to stifle their dribbling and force them to cross from deep. Gylfi Sigurdsson produced in the No. 10 role that he might well lose to James Rodriguez if this strategy sticks, but Sigurdsson has always been a better creator than midfield passer.
Having supporters back at Goodison may have helped Everton’s players, but the vice versa is true. Those fans were waiting for proof that the fine start was more than another false dawn. They will have left confident that there is plenty of life left in their old dog manager.
Aston Villa’s away record
Home defeats to Leeds and Southampton – conceding seven goals in the process – looked to have snuffed out Villa’s early-season promise, but Dean Smith has engineered a run of away form that is one of the most surprising aspects of this Premier League season.
Villa ended last season with one win in their last 17 away games in all competitions. They have begun this season with six wins in seven away games in all competitions and were hugely unfortunate to lose at West ham. That alone will be enough to ensure a third consecutive top-flight campaign.
The joke is that Gayle is Robert Earnshaw of the Snapchat generation, prolific in the Championship but just not good enough for the Premier League. But here’s the thing: Gayle has scored five goals in his last nine Premier League matches. He’s probably never going to be dangerous enough to start over Callum Wilson, but that goal record alone should put him comfortably above Andy Carroll in the Newcastle United pecking order.
Fulham’s late-window recruitment
Fulham’s starting XI to face Arsenal on the opening weekend: Rodak, Odoi, Hector, Ream, Bryan, Reed, Cairney, Kebano, Onomah, Cavaleiro, Kamara.
Fulham’s starting XI to face Liverpool on Sunday: Areola, Aina, Andersen, Adarabioyo, Reid, Anguissa, Lemina, Robinson, Loftus-Cheek, Lookman, Cavaleiro.
Only one crossover player in the space of three months is remarkable. Scott Parker deserves credit for knitting them all together, but most credit must go to those who got the deals over the line. Six of the team that started against Liverpool joined Fulham after September 1.
Back in business. Sean Dyche allowed Arsenal to implode rather than pushing for victory themselves, but that was proven to be a perfectly viable strategy. Burnley have now lost one of their last five league games; that was away at Manchester City.
Only the second time in his career that Maddison has scored more than once in a match, the other being Norwich City’s 4-3 Championship loss to Hull City in March 2018. After starting five league games this season on the bench as he tried to get back to full fitness and form, Maddison is back.
You’re my new favourite. It’s probably not that heavy a burden to bear.
There are three sure-fire signs that a club is in turmoil:
1) The metrics – Arsenal are not in a poor position through misfortune or fine margins. They rank 15th in the league for chances created, 16th for shots on target, 15th for expected goals and 10th for shots faced.
2) Dismal home form – Arsenal have now lost four consecutive home league games for the first time since 1959. Their opponents in those four matches – Leicester City, Aston Villa, Wolves and Burnley – were all second favourites at kick off. Arsenal have scored one goal in those games.
3) Ill-discipline – Arsenal have received six red cards in the Premier League since Mikel Arteta was appointed, double the number of any other team. Nicolas Pepe was sent off for a ludicrously stupid headbutt. Granit Xhaka was sent off for a ludicrously stupid throat grab.
This isn’t all on Arteta, although there must now be severe doubts about his ability to ride out the on-pitch crisis. He has a role in his demise, picking the same senior players who are consistently failing to produce and persevering with an attacking strategy that doesn’t seem to work. We must also point out that Arteta’s fingerprints can be found on some of the disastrous transfer business. He pushed for Willian’s move and he pushed for Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s new contract only to farm him out on the left and ruin his confidence and cheer.
But chickens are coming home to roost at Arsenal. This is the result of disorganisation and upheaval behind the scenes, the end game of a series of questions to which there are no easy answers: How much did the redundancies break the trust of the players? Has freezing out Mesut Ozil so emphatically caused a schism within the playing staff? Was this really the time to jump into bed with a super agent? Is there a group of senior players who simply don’t care enough, as Freddie Ljungberg warned Arteta? Was this the best time to appoint a rookie manager?
If the defeats keep on coming, those questions will be repeated at an increasingly loud volume. We’re quickly learning that the natural floor of a Big Six club is lower than we thought. Arsenal barely merit inclusion in that group anymore.
They’re done, I’m afraid. No team since 1930 has taken one point or fewer from their opening 12 matches of a top-flight English league season. Even if Sheffield United match their performance from across the whole of last season they will still only reach 37 points. Right now, even a first win looks distant.
Do not allow any of this to overshadow Chris Wilder’s monumental achievement in getting Sheffield United into a situation where they could suffer such an embarrassing decline in the Premier League, but this is the reality of ‘other’ clubs in the top flight: Your last season means nothing.
But if that good work can never be undone, it is being rendered meaningless in the moment. This started with a marginal drop in standards, was accentuated by a summer of poor recruitment decisions and is being extended by the subsequent drop in confidence bad results provokes. What a bloody shame.
Manchester United vs Manchester City
Was the hype all too much? Was a Manchester derby without supporters, with two teams in inconsistent form and two managers under some pressure, always likely to end in a dour draw? Manchester United were guarding against a defeat that might take Ole Gunnar Solskjaer to the brink. Manchester City were guarding against their well-documented problems defending the counter-attack and faced a team that often exclusively attacks via that method.
But we are still allowed to be dispirited by the half-paced nature of a seismic fixture (there are 16 Conclusions here and that feels like a miracle). This felt like a fixture that sat uncomfortably halfway between preseason friendly and one of those World Cup group matches before which both teams know that a draw will see them through. Having talked up the title race in the first section of this column, one of the inevitable effects of a tighter pack is that elite teams can be risk-averse in matches between themselves. Half of the 0-0s in the Premier League this season have been between Big Six clubs.
Solskjaer will probably be the happier of the two managers, the draw moving him further from imminent danger rather than closer towards it. But there are two caveats to that. The first is that Manchester United have still only scored one goal from open play in the league at Old Trafford this season and still only won once in the league there (1-0 against West Brom).
The second is that Solskjaer cemented his reputation as a viable candidate to take Manchester United forward through his results against Big Six opposition; that ability is fading away. His last six matches against them have produced three draws and three defeats. United have scored three goals in those six games.
For Manchester City, the disappointment will be that they could not imprint any of their usual passing verve at Old Trafford. At their best, every player has at least two passing options on the ball. This was the opposite: pass, pass, pass and pass rather than pass and move. There was a moment in the second half when Fernandinho and Rodri exchanged two one-twos, with no other option free, before Rodri eventually attempted a 40-yard pass to Kyle Walker that sailed over his head and out of play. On occasions such as these, City really miss David Silva’s quick exchanges of possession in tight areas.
Perhaps that was deliberate, Guardiola aiming to be functional rather than flamboyant and in doing so reducing the natural floor to their result as well as the ceiling. City have now gone six games without conceding and Guardiola may reason that defensive solidity offers the key to getting back into the title race, particularly when Sergio Aguero is fully fit. City had the better of the half-chances, almost doubling United on expected goals; De Bruyne and Mahrez should have done better with chances in either half.
But that pragmatism is in itself strangely un-Guardiola-like. We are used to his teams imposing their football on the opposition. The shift in strategy suggests that he has become haunted by City’s vulnerability to the quick break and repeated incapability to respond after conceding first.
The result was a game that largely passed Manchester United, Manchester City and all of us watching by. When the biggest fixture of the programme is a non-event, the entire weekend can easily feel like one too.
Chelsea’s top-half record
What are we to make of Frank Lampard and Chelsea? For all the plaudits bestowed upon him over the last two months, admittedly fuelled partly by an excellent Champions League group stage campaign, Chelsea are still to prove themselves as likely title candidates.
We asked Chelsea to be more solid, and they have been. The arrival of a left-back, central defender and goalkeeper has alleviated those nagging concerns about overloads in the final third leading to an exposure to the counter. Chelsea have conceded five fewer goals than at this stage of last season, although they have allowed an extra shot on target.
But they have still not found the right balance. We assumed – and perhaps Lampard did too – that the sheer volume of individual attacking talent at Chelsea would allow them to score goals regularly, but they rank sixth for chances created per game and fifth for total shots per game.
And just look at the split between their performance against top and bottom-half opposition. Chelsea have played seven league games against clubs currently in the bottom half, winning six and drawing one while scoring at a rate of over three goals per game.
Against top-half teams, they have drawn three and lost two of their five games and scored only three times. All of them were in the 3-3 home draw against Southampton when again the balance was wrong – they conceded three times. Against Tottenham, Everton, Manchester United and Liverpool, Chelsea have failed to score and had just ten shots on target in total.
That is the next step for Lampard and Chelsea and they will not challenge for the title without taking it. A cynic might conclude that they have proven nothing yet.
Leeds’ set-piece problems
It’s all very well publicly naming your starting XI two days before the match, but when you then lose and have your weaknesses exploited it does look like a foolish move.
There was no secret to West Ham’s plan either, although Moyes did cause a stir with his switch back to a four-man defence. Before kick-off, Leeds supporters on social media fretted about their team’s continued tendency to allow their opponents to create clear-cut chances from dead-ball situations. That wasn’t helped by West Ham creating more chances from set pieces than any other team in the league.
And so it came to pass. Soucek climbed above his man and headed through the limp hands of Islan Meslier from a first-half corner. Angelo Ogbonna found a criminal amount of space in the penalty area from a late free-kick. Three points became one point became none.
Marcelo Bielsa has to correct this issue. Leeds do lack height in defence, but there is no excuse for the slack marking that brought West Ham’s winner. For a coach who presides himself upon his monastic dedication to match preparation, this is an alarming blind spot.
No reasonable Wolves supporter will be asking serious questions of the best manager the club have had since Stan Cullis, but the problem with consistent overachievement is that it too quickly becomes normalised. Having finished in the top seven twice in a row, Wolves’ standards do indeed seem to have slipped slightly.
But Nuno also got it wrong against Aston Villa. Without Raul Jimenez as the focal point and presence in the final third, it became crucial for Wolves to win the midfield battle. By pitching Joao Moutinho and Leander Dendoncker against John McGinn, Douglas Luiz and Jacob Ramsey, Wolves lost that fight and therefore left Adama Traore, Daniel Podence, Pedro Neto and Fabio Silva a little isolated. Moutinho’s ageing legs meant that Dendoncker had far too much work to do; he was often swarmed.
Nuno’s Wolves established a reputation in their first Premier League season for troubling the best teams in the league. With Chelsea, Tottenham and Manchester United to come in their next four league games, they need to rediscover that trick or risk dropping into bottom-half mediocrity.
Maybe he’s just a bit thick? And maybe Arteta continuing to put faith in him despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary is his biggest mistake.