Aston Villa top Premier League winners and losers

Date published: Monday 19th October 2020 9:15

Premier League winners and losers begins with the only team with a 100% record…

 

Winners

Aston Villa

The only team in England with a 100% record intact. One of only two teams in Europe’s top five leagues to have an unblemished record. Three top-half teams from last season dispatched, including the runaway champions. The joint-best attack in the Premier League by goals per game. The best defence too. The ability to both swat teams aside in a blur of counter-attacking swagger (Liverpool) and grind out results in uncompromising spectacles (Sheffield United and Leicester City). New signings adding the necessary sprinkling of extra quality to cause a shift in competition for places.

I don’t know what’s happening at Aston Villa. I don’t know how long it lasts. But it should be celebrated by those of us who watch the Premier League without tribalist loyalty. There are no hidden tricks here. This is a club that has thrown its weight behind Dean Smith, learned from the transfer market mistakes of last summer and engineered one of the most impressive starts to a season in Premier League history.

 

Harry Kane, doing it all

Throughout the best years of Mauricio Pochettino’s tenure at Tottenham, one constant: Christian Eriksen was the creator. Between August 2015 and May 2019, when Spurs qualified for the Champions League four seasons in a row, Eriksen contributed 50 assists. No other player at the club managed 30. Kane, who during that period established himself as a consistently elite goalscorer, assisted 14 goals.

When Eriksen left for Inter, supporters were therefore right to worry about Tottenham’s creativity. Eriksen’s form dropped off in his final 18 months as his desire to leave grew; that hampered Spurs. Without their elite creator, Son Heung-Min stepped into the breach but it was a different form of creativity. Son dropped deep to pick up possession and drove directly at defenders rather than played intricate through balls and crosses. Son registered 10 league assists last season, Kane just two.

And yet Mourinho has turned that plan on its head to make a creator out of Kane. He was always brilliant at playing first-time passes around the corner and his crossing was better than we gave it credit for, but Kane has now become a No.9-No.10 hybrid by design. His seven assists in five games matches his best ever return in a full Premier League season. The pass for Son’s first goal was as good as anything an elite Premier League midfielder might produce.

But what is most impressive about this new age of Harry Kane is that creativity is an add-on to his goalscoring rather than a replacement. Continue at his current rate and Kane will manage more shots than he ever has before in a league season, despite often dropping into  withdrawn role to link play. He’s writing the theme tune and singing the theme tune.

That suggests two things. Firstly, Kane’s all-round play, fitness and determination to do both roles makes him one of – if not the – most complete forwards in world football. But it also proves that Mourinho has found his perfect creator. He has always adored players who are prepared to run faster, longer and harder to give his teams an extra edge. Mourinho banked on Kane’s love of scoring goals, confident that creating chances alone would never sate him. Kane plays the passes and then bust a gut to get into the penalty area to finish the move. If someone else scores once, he wants to score twice.

In doing so Mourinho has found a potentially devastating attacking plan, particularly when Gareth Bale takes away markers and offers another option to do the same thing as Son. Tottenham now have three forwards who are as comfortable dropping deep to play their part in moves as they are staying high to complete them. They have a front three, a split-striker formation with Kane deep and a centre forward with two wide players without changing the team selection. That’s damn difficult to defend against.

 

Timo Werner through the middle

If it was a little odd that Chelsea’s summer budget was skewed – in terms of transfer fees at least – so firmly towards an attack that already seemed to work rather than a defence that didn’t, it was stranger still that they focused on players who were so comfortable operating out wide.

Even with Willian and Pedro leaving, Frank Lampard had Callum Hudson-Odoi – who they were desperate to block from leaving for Bayern Munich – Christian Pulisic and Mason Mount. Kai Havertz either played on the right or as a No. 10 for Bayer Leverkusen last season, Hakim Ziyech operated almost exclusively on the right for Ajax and Timo Werner started on the left against Crystal Palace and West Brom.

Saturday’s 3-3 draw contained more reasons for disappointment than cheer (more on that later), but Lampard surely does now have his best attacking plan sorted. Werner was excellent as the central striker with Havertz in behind, and the pair linked up regularly to excellent effect. Pulisic played on the left and surely will keep that role, with Mount on the right of a 4-2-3-1. He will compete with Hudson-Odoi and Ziyech for that position.

Although it may not please Hudson-Odoi, Tammy Abraham and the entirely forgotten Olivier Giroud, that must be Chelsea’s Plan A in the Premier League, namely one that gets the best out of Werner and gets him and Havertz working in partnership. Just the other end of the pitch to sort out now…

 

Theo Walcott

I had (and still have) a few doubts about Walcott’s return to Southampton working out. Ralph Hasenhuttl likes his wingers to press (not necessarily Walcott’s strongest suit) but also asks them to play infield in a 4-2-2-2 formation.

Walcott is more of a throwback winger, chalk on the boots as he takes on a full-back on the touchline, gets close to the byline and then looks to cross or tuck back in for a shot. He also spent several years trying to be judged as a central striker. At 31, he’s having to learn a third role.

But it can succeed. Nathan Redmond was a natural winger converted by Hasenhuttl, albeit at a much younger age. Walcott is also desperate for this to work, his last shot at consolidating himself as an automatic Premier League starter after the Everton move quickly went sour.

First impressions help. Walcott’s volley for Southampton’s late equaliser was scruffy, bouncing into the ground and finding the head of Jannik Vestergaard, but the joy on Walcott’s face suggests that he will do anything to flourish back on the south coast. More importantly, he was still on the pitch to play a part. This was only the second time since the start of last season that Walcott has played 90 minutes in a Premier League match.

 

Kyle Walker

For an experienced defender, Walker still does plenty of things wrong. He is occasionally rash in the challenge (see his recent England sending-off) and suffers lapses in concentration that are punished by strikers that delight in picking the perfect moment to run in behind him unspotted (see Jamie Vardy against City last month).

But in the context of what he was asked to do against Arsenal, Walker is brilliant. Pep Guardiola selected him as a right-sided central defender, but in fact Walker was asked to cover across the pitch. When Arsenal attempted a longer direct pass to beat the City press and hoped Nicolas Pepe or Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang could get through on goal just inside City’s half, Walker was expected to snuff out the danger. Several times he sprinted back or across the pitch to head the ball out of play or nick it away from an Arsenal attacker. His recovery pace is up there with any defender in the world.

That makes playing Walker as a central defender in a three-man defence make sense, despite the criticism Gareth Southgate got for doing so (the reasonable criticism of Southgate is that England are too unadventurous in getting players forward – see this City midfield vs England’s). Pushed high up the pitch as a full-back, Walker is unable to get back to make the recovery runs that are so crucial to City’s defensive strategy. As a central defender, he’s in the perfect position. The Joao Cancelo renaissance starts here.

 

Everton’s resilience

The circumstances of Everton’s comeback were both highly fortunate and highly controversial, but they at least made the most of both to maintain their momentum and retain their place at the Premier League’s summit. Against the one team that conceding goals might have caused the fear to set in, Everton resolved and fought back. Twice.

This is a happy new side of Everton – they have perennially been dismal in these circumstances. Last season, they took just seven points from the 18 league games in which they conceded first. In 2018/19, even worse – three points from 15 matches.

It is a small sample size, but Everton have already secured four points from the two matches in which they conceded first (West Brom and Liverpool). That speaks of a greater belief instilled by Carlo Ancelotti that immunises them from shambolic collapse at the first sign of adversity.

Now go and read 16 Conclusions.

 

Harry Maguire

Maguire will offer a more effusive response to recent criticism in his own box rather than the opponents’, but this was still a timely boost to both his reputation and confidence.

 

Ademola Lookman

Has that Ross Barkley tendency to take four touches when two might do and so sometimes ends up with the ball in a blind alley, but Lookman might just be Fulham’s season-changer. Starting 15 league games in almost four years since moving to Everton could easily have irrevocably dented Lookman’s confidence, but on this evidence he is desperate to establish himself as a Premier League regular. More of the same, please.

 

 

West Ham

West Ham have finally stopped lurching from the sublime to the ridiculous from week to week, thus becoming the bete noire of this column. Now they’re just fitting it all into the same match. Perfect.

The best moment of this weekend? West Ham not even bothering to get the ball out of the net when they scored their first goal because they had given up, only to score twice more. Classic 2020/21 Premier Leagueing.

 

 

Losers

Virgil van Dijk and Liverpool

A catastrophic incident in Liverpool’s attempts to defend their title. The anger of supporters (which bordered on the ludicrous in some corners of social media) stems not only from the unpunished incident that caused Van Dijk’s injury, but the longevity of the impact it has on his team.

Liverpool considered buying a back-up central defender this summer. They were dissuaded partly because Jurgen Klopp believed that Fabinho could be an effective option, particularly with a superb technical central midfielder arriving. But they also knew that they could never replace what Van Dijk does, at least not for a player happy to sit on the bench or without paying a monstrous transfer fee.

One of the reasons for Van Dijk establishing himself as the world’s best central defender is his performance level at Liverpool, but it’s also a question of physical resilience. Since his second league start for Liverpool, a 2-2 draw with Tottenham in February 2018, he had played 7975 of a possible 8.010 league minutes. Klopp has credited him with playing through pain and fatigue, unsurprising given the physical relentlessness of Premier League football.

Now Liverpool will be forced to cope without their defensive leader, potentially for most – or even all – of this domestic season. That presents Klopp with a problem over utilising a high defensive line – Joe Gomez and Joel Matip do not have Van Dijk’s pace or sense danger as well – and in defending set-pieces.

Whether this injury undermines Liverpool’s title defence remains to be seen, but it is at least a possibility. Last season, the same happened with Aymeric Laporte at Manchester City after he sustained a serious ACL injury in early season. Now it’s Liverpool’s turn to cope. Or not.

 

Newcastle’s self-imposed limitations

Last season Steve Bruce set up Newcastle to be defensive by design because he felt he had no other option, and there was merit to his argument. Andy Carroll was rarely fit, Dwight Gayle was not good enough and Joelinton was rarely fit. Bruce saw little point in overcommitting players forward or using expansive football that might produce little positive effect and leave Newcastle exposed defensively.

Newcastle were hardly miserly, though. Six teams did concede more league goals than their 58, but Martin Dubravka was their clear Player of the Season. Only two teams (Aston Villa and Norwich) had a higher expected goals against total and only the same two allowed their opponents more shots. Newcastle got pretty lucky, to be blunt.

This season, the same problem. Newcastle have allowed 86 shots in five league games. Extend that over a season and the last team to allow more was a Sunderland team in 2016/17 that finished bottom with 24 points. Newcastle have still had some luck (Tottenham) and still relied upon a goalkeeper in excellent form (Karl Darlow rather than Dubravka), but they are conceding shots in such volume that you cannot expect to get away with it for long. There’s also a fatigue issue: Only two teams conceded more goals in the last 10 minutes than Newcastle last season and they’ve already conceded four this season.

The clanging difference is that Newcastle do not have to play this way anymore. Bruce has been allowed to sign eight players on permanent deals since his appointment. He has spent £76m on four attacking players. Allan Saint-Maximin and Joelinton have had pre-seasons and are settled in England. Defensiveness is not an inherent weakness. But bad defending and a lack of attacking when you have some of the best attacking options in the likely bottom half is.

On Saturday, Manchester United came to St. James’ under pressure and with several regular starters missing from the first team. Newcastle have a sturdy central defence, an excellent attacking full-back, a combative central midfield, mercurial attacking midfielders and a reliable centre forward. They could have been proactive and unnerved United, particularly after a disastrous own goal. Instead they sacrificed possession (36%), sat back, allowed 28 shots on their own goal and then looked surprised when their opponents eventually scored three late goals when they tired.

Again, there is nothing wrong with defensive football. Rafael Benitez largely used a similar strategy. But then in 2018/19 – Benitez’s last season – Newcastle faced only 489 shots all season, fewer than Manchester United and Arsenal amongst many others. Then, the defending worked. Now, with better, more expensive attackers, Bruce is doing the same to lesser effect.

That is what frustrates Newcastle United supporters. They are already forced to suffer an owner who neglects their priorities at every turn. The least they can demand is a team that tries to make the most of its clear attacking potential rather than attempting – and failing – to be dour and frustrating. Bruce must either learn to compromise on his rampant pragmatism or improve upon it.

 

Frank Lampard’s chaos football

How many times? How often can Lampard watch his side be so open against an opponent at pretty much every stage of a match and not believe he must make systemic changes to the way his team plays?

After full-time on Saturday, Kai Havertz spoke to the media and accepted responsibility for the individual mistake that allowed Southampton to make it 2-1 and haul themselves back into the game. But this isn’t on him. Southampton had more shots and more shots on target than Chelsea. They fully merited a point and may feel aggrieved that they didn’t take three.

You know the theme of the argument by now. With at least one full-back pushing forward, Chelsea too often have six players pushed up to try and break down their opponents. All it takes is one tackle or misplaced pass and a savvy opponent will counter at pace and expose the gaps in Chelsea’s half. If that doesn’t get Chelse,a an individual mistake will. There is a shared lack of confidence that stems from the goalkeeper situation (admittedly now hopefully solved) and the use of central defenders who are still raw.

Why has this not yet been addressed? We could forgive the transfer expenditure being weighted towards the final third if it came with a new plan to protect the defence, but at best Lampard’s Chelsea are making the same mistakes as last season and at worst the problems have been exacerbated. Chelsea have conceded three goals in five of their last 12 league games either side of the season break.

This matters to Chelsea and ultimately matters to Lampard if he cannot solve what has become an established issue of tactical balance. Van Dijk’s injury and the obvious flaws in those clubs around them creates a huge opportunity for Chelsea’s exceptional attack to spearhead a meaningful title challenge. It’s hard not to wonder what a higher-class manager might do with this squad and this budget.

 

Tottenham’s collapse

We should avoid making lasting conclusions based on an unthinkable few minutes of nonsensical football that Tottenham might not succumb to again in the next 10 years, but that doesn’t mean it won’t have angered Jose Mourinho. After 20 minutes, people were starting to talk up Tottenham as potential title winners. By full-time, Spurs had matched their longest winless home league run in seven years.

But if the remarkable late collapse was a freak, Tottenham conceding goals at an unhelpful rate is not. After 44 matches in charge, Mourinho’s Tottenham have conceded 57 goals and kept seven clean sheets. Are Spurs changing him as much as he’s changing them?

 

Sergio Aguero and Pep Guardiola

Firstly, Sergio Aguero should not necessarily have been punished for laying a hand on the official. No law of the game bans it explicitly, instead barring aggression towards them. But that’s not the point.

Secondly, and most importantly, this does matter more because of the identity of said official. Cue the frothy twitter replies accusing me of overreaction. “Oh you want equality but now you’re treating this differently because it was a woman. In a way, that makes you the sexist.”

Well, no. It’s different because it reflects a weariness on the part of women to the patronising they so regularly face (and men don’t face), in the workplace and in life. Sian Massey-Ellis knows all too well about the manner in which women officials are treated differently thanks to Richard Keys and Andy Gray’s public display of rampant male banterfication.

Perhaps Aguero would not have put his arm around a male official, perhaps he would; we cannot know and it is unhelpful to speculate. Because he should know that doing so would be interpreted – whether or not that was his intention – as a deeply patronising act. It is the cousin of the ‘Listen love’ mansplaining that permeates so much of male workplace culture.

And Guardiola should have known better too. It isn’t enough to say that Aguero is a nice guy and so did nothing wrong. Nice guys can and do make mistakes, and being one isn’t a vaccine against inappropriate behaviour. Rather than rush to a player’s defence as an automatic reaction, how about saying that he probably shouldn’t have done it and that he’d have a quiet word with him?

 

Jordan Pickford

There’s no point being nasty for the sake of it, but with Robin Olsen signed to provide competition for places how long before England’s No. 1 becomes Everton’s No. 2? Pickford is a goalkeeper who plays entirely, and almost deliberately, on the edge. His wild, lunging tackle on Van Dijk was not born out of malice, but the desperate desire to stick out that once made Pickford’s reputation but now threatens to dismantle it.

 

Aleksandar Mitrovic

Well he did make a nuisance of himself in the penalty area. Both, in fact.

 

Daniel Storey

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