Patrick Bamford’s finishing
Everything we worried about has evaporated in the early weeks of what now appears to be Patrick Bamford’s breakout season. It’s a shame that it took until he turned 27 – why does he still feel so young? – to score regularly in the top flight, but his motivation to transform his reputation is to Leeds United’s significant gain.
We suspected that the signing of Rodrigo for a club-record £30m might see Bamford become the de facto back-up centre-forward, but he has started every league game so far and missed just 48 minutes of Leeds’ league season.
We suspected that Leeds might struggle to service him as effectively in the Premier League as they had in the Championship, but Bamford’s 23 shots ranks third in the division and Leeds look to be hitting their straps.
Most of all, we suspected that Bamford might struggle to take his chances and necessitate an attacking plan that did not involve him. Last season his chance conversion was just 11.2%, well below the average of a starting striker for a team promoted automatically. But Bamford is thriving in the Premier League, enjoying the benefits of supreme confidence. His current conversion rate of 26.1% might not be sustainable over the course of a whole season, but who cares? None of the 25 players to score ten or more Premier League goals last season had a better conversion rate than Bamford’s now.
On Friday, Bamford produced a No. 9 masterclass. The first finish was opportunistic, the poacher’s reaction. The second was thrashed into the top corner with minimal backlift to surprise goalkeeper and defenders that foolishly believed they had more time to react. The third was probably the best of the lot, shades of Dennis Bergkamp in the way Bamford opened up his body and used the covering defender as a guide to curl the ball into the far corner.
Bamford had one career top-flight goal before turning 27 – the ultimate ‘What if?’ centre forward. Now he has six goals in six games and the second hat-trick of his career. Good on you, fella.
If this was Bamford’s breakout performance, it was Leeds’ too. The loss to Liverpool and draw against Manchester City contained hallmarks of Bielsa’s deliberately chaotic press and plan to unnerve high-class opponents that we assumed would see Leeds safe by Easter. At Villa Park, they proved that they possess plenty enough to outclass those who sit outside the Premier League’s elite.
Suddenly the doubts of Monday evening dissipate. Leeds are in the top six having played both of last season’s top two. Now a run of six matches against teams in first, fifth, sixth, seventh, eighth and 11th will give us a firm indication of Leeds’ likely ceiling this season. Replicate this type of performance and that ceiling is higher than most Leeds supporters even dared to believe.
It’s amazing how quickly things can change. A year ago, it seemed unlikely that any English striker could offer a natural replacement for Harry Kane’s extraordinary goal record. Gareth Southgate was blessed with a collection of bright, young wide forwards but everything depended upon Kane’s fitness and form.
Since then, three English strikers finished in the top four goalscorers in the Premier League for the first time since 1990/00 and Kane was not amongst them. Somehow they’ve kicked on again. In the last ten Premier League gameweeks, six different English players have scored Premier League hat-tricks. To put that into some context, between August 2013 and July 2020 only 13 managed it.
The complete Southampton performance, a year to the day since The Loss That Shall Not Be Named. Ralph Hasenhuttl’s defenders were resilient and restricted Dominic Calvert-Lewin to scraps of service, the midfielders pressed and tackled and hassled and harried as if the safety of their friends and family depended upon it and the two strikers never stopped trying to win the ball back when they didn’t have it, nor stopped trying to link up with each other when they did.
This is the identity that Hasenhuttl has built over the last 12 months, a team that lacks superstars but shares a monstrous work ethic and desire to establish themselves as a top-half Premier League team. After a messy three years, Southampton finally have their USP back and this time it doesn’t seem to rely upon selling players for huge profit and getting every one of their replacements exactly right.
Let’s let Opta’s finest say everything I want to:
24% of Jamie Vardy's PL goals have come vs Arsenal, Liverpool or Man City and you have to say fair enough.
— Duncan Alexander (@oilysailor) October 25, 2020
Wilfried Zaha’s new role
Last season, Zaha played 23 Premier League appearances from the right, ten from the left and just four down the middle. He contributed four goals and three assists, ostensibly asked to be a creator but often given double coverage by opposition managers. Stop Zaha and you stop Palace. He created 36 chances, the most at the club but only enough to rank 42nd in the division.
Playing out wide didn’t affect Zaha’s ability to get into the penalty area (his 239 penalty-box touches ranked third in the Premier League), but too many of his shots were from outside the box. In reality, Zaha became a jack of all trades who was more frustrated by professional life and thus became doubly determined to seek a move elsewhere that would never come.
With no club meeting Palace’s asking price, Roy Hodgson instead changed Zaha’s role in two distinct ways. Firstly Hodgson made Zaha the club’s new captain, handing added responsibility to him in a message of trust that he hoped would increase Zaha’s desire to lead the team by example. Hodgson also switched formation, using Zaha as a centre-forward with licence to roam but one who he wanted to do far more work between the posts.
Zaha has been reborn. His goal against Fulham on Saturday means that he has already surpassed last season’s league total. With Michy Batshuayi or Jordan Ayew as a strike partner, opposition teams are less able to double up on Zaha, affording him the space in which he can delight but also meaning he has teammates closer to him. Zaha is creating chances at a faster rate than last season, having more shots closer to goal and maintaining his volume of touches in the box.
“It gives me a lot of freedom to move around and I’m in and around the box more, so it gives me more of a scoring opportunity,” Zaha says. “I’m just trying to be more efficient in certain areas. Obviously what really counts is what I do going forward, so that is the frame of mind I have got.”
That improvement in efficiency is the headline statistic. Zaha has scored his five league goals this season from just 15 shots, indicative of his individual improvement but also the logic in keeping him central. Suddenly a disillusioned winger has become a creative, versatile centre-forward and Palace are on the cusp of the top six.
Crystal Palace’s away record
It deserves its own section: since mid-December 2018, Crystal Palace have won 13 of their 31 Premier League away games. Only Liverpool, Manchester City, Chelsea and Manchester United can beat that.
A third Anfield goal since April 2019. Firmino has become the non-scoring centre forward whose all-round game reduces the pressure on his goal return – before Saturday he had scored nine of Liverpool’s last 115 goals in the Premier League.
He will always be cherished by Jurgen Klopp, but he could do with improving his efficiency in front of goal. That meagre return is not due to a lack of chances, more a deficiency in his finishing; Firmino attempted 117 shots for those nine goals. A solid run would be a wonderful way to account for the new lack of defensive stability.
Manchester City’s new normal
The only surprise is that anyone is still surprised. The only reason to be caught off guard by this type of Manchester City display is if you haven’t been watching over the last 18 months and assume that Pep Guardiola’s team are in rude health. They conceded with their first shot on target – a goal resulting from defensive disorganisation and a temporary drop in concentration – and failed to win the match because they were profligate in front of goal in the second half. Welcome to City’s new normal.
Guardiola has had rotten luck with injuries (Sergio Aguero, Kevin de Bruyne and Aymeric Laporte) but a financial superclub doesn’t get to plead such misfortune for long. Not when the problems have become so endemic that a win without setback has become such a clanging exception.
This column has discussed City’s defensive issues at length, but it’s worth focusing on a central midfield that looked totally unfit for purpose in the first half against West Ham on Saturday. It was an expensive version of Everton’s last season, lacking the creativity or speed to cause the opposition defence any serious headaches while simultaneously failing to protect City’s.
Rodri is not the right type of player to hold the fort on his own, Fernandinho’s ageing legs can no longer cope with that role and Ilkay Gundogan now appears to be nothing more than a jobbing central midfielder. Riyad Mahrez’s form has dropped off a cliff – majestic Leicester goal aside – while Bernardo Silva’s brilliance against Arsenal was the exception to his new rule. It is a compliment to Phil Foden that he changed the game on Saturday, but a damning indictment of those around him given his inexperience and youth. Is he now City’s most important player at 20?
This all matters more now because Guardiola’s contract expires at the end of this season. It would have seemed unthinkable 18 months ago that supporters might feel a change of coach may give City a much-needed shot in the arm, and will be unthinkable again if Guardiola reverses the current trends that hamper his team’s progress.
Before then, Guardiola faces the biggest challenge of his City tenure. His team dropped 14 points in 2017/18 and 16 in 2018/19. They have dropped seven points in five matches and the psychological advantage they held over upcoming opponents has disappeared without trace. No team is scared of Guardiola’s City anymore; no team should be.
Some matches are stalemates because two excellent teams counteract each other’s strengths, defenders thwarting forwards or both attacks firing and cancelling each other out. Some matches are stalemates because both teams – and therefore both managers – are haunted by the potential for failure. Had you offered Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Frank Lampard a 0-0 draw as they embraced pre-kick-off, they would have taken it. Across the subsequent two hours, they did exactly that.
Solskjaer’s post-match comments proved his own fear. He talked up the merits of a home point by referencing United’s miserable form after their last win in Paris. But this is a club that has spent £270m on players since, including a new central defender, right-back, left-back, two creative midfielders and a winger. It’s a self-evident statement we’ve used regularly (as has he), but this is Manchester United. They should not be hamstrung by their own fear.
For all that midweek victory against Paris Saint-Germain strengthened Solskjaer’s position, United have now gone five home league games without a win for the first time since 1990 and have opened a season with three winless home games for the first time in almost 50 years. This unique season, in which title challengers all have obvious flaws caused by form or fitness, creates an opportunity for Solskjaer to seize. Settling for a point because you won only two of 12 matches after a similar victory 18 months earlier strikes as unnecessarily limiting your own ambition.
Lampard has more reason to be happy with the result. He shifted the formation to a back three and registered Chelsea’s first away clean sheet since December 2019, itself a damning statistic. He has engineered a run of defensive resilience that offers hope Lampard has solved some of the clanging problems with his management to date and finally has a goalkeeper he can trust.
Burnley, Sheffield United and Newcastle are Chelsea’s next three league opponents – they could well be back in the top four by then.
But we must caveat their progress in the context of Saturday evening’s meagre fare. Success comes against Solskjaer’s Manchester United when you defend deep and then hit them with a quick counter. Chelsea did the first part but forgot to do the second. Lampard did indeed solve Chelsea’s problems of defensive vulnerability, but this was not balance. They had a single shot on target for the second league game in a row against this opposition.
The bunched-up nature of the Premier League dictates that both managers can reasonably upsell their league position – both remain within touching distance of those clubs they must finish above to improve their reputations. But Manchester United and Chelsea have still only won four of their combined 11 league games this season and the relentless Champions League schedule has just begun. Framing that as a positive only survives scrutiny if this is used as a platform for consistent improvement rather than another false dawn.
Everton’s strength in depth
For all the positivity accrued during their first seven matches of the season, here was proof that Everton’s lack of strength in depth places a natural ceiling on their ambition this season.
Without Seamus Coleman and Jonjoe Kenny, Ben Godfrey was forced to start at right-back and was repeatedly targeted by Ryan Bertrand and Nathan Redmond with James Rodriguez a luxury wide midfielder unlikely to sprint back and help out. Without Richarlison, serving the first match of a three-game suspension, Carlo Ancelotti turned to Alex Iwobi and witnessed surely the worst individual half of football by any Premier League player this season.
And when Ancelotti turned to his bench in hope of second-half salvation, Anthony Gordon, Fabian Delph and Bernard were his only options. Bernard had not played a minute all season, Delph is a workmanlike central midfielder who offers nothing more than Abdoulaye Doucoure and Allan can and Gordon is a willing teenager but not one who can yet seize a game and wrestle it back from an opponent. With James limping, Lucas Digne joining Richarlison on the naughty step and Iwobi surely unlikely to start again soon, Ancelotti has selection headaches ahead of Newcastle and Manchester United.
Arsenal’s lack of finesse
A return to old Arsenal, a team that earned the run of the game in the first half and then passed it up with sterile possession that came without attacking invention and a lack of final-third penetration that gave Leicester City enough heart to stay in the game and win it late on.
Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang still seems uneasy about playing as a wide forward suffering from a lack of touches in the opposition box (15 in 540 league minutes so far this season). Alexandre Lacazette is simply not clinical enough to lead the line for a team with top-four aspirations. Nicolas Pepe produces in flashes but experiences long periods of games where he is far too easily shackled by competent defenders.
Behind those three, Arsenal desperately lack a creative influence. Since the start of last season, Mesut Ozil is the club’s second-highest creator of chances with 38, three behind Pepe; Ozil has started 18 of a possible 44 matches and is now permanently out of Mikel Arteta’s picture.
Arsenal’s top chance creator this season has just nine – 13 clubs have a player with more. Arsenal rank 13th for shots on target per game, 14th for shots per game from inside the box and 17th for chances created per game. That simply has to improve.
Sheffield United’s defending
It may seem a little harsh to pick on Sheffield United after they conceded twice at Anfield to a Liverpool team that have scored three, four and five goals in their last three home games. Liverpool have scored twice or more in 27 of their last 29 home league games.
But Sheffield United’s defending has dropped off a cliff since June’s restart and that five months since represents a substantial enough sample size for us to be a little worried about Chris Wilder’s ability to address it.
Between the start of last season and lockdown, Sheffield United ranked seventh for shots faced. Since then, they rank 17th by the same measure. They’re also allowing far more chances from crosses into the box, something they largely avoided in their pomp last season.
When Sheffield United’s defensive structure fails, Sheffield United fail. They do not possess the strikers to fire their way out of this mess, currently recording the worst shot conversion in the league and without a dependable top-flight goalscorer or creative influence. Because their rise under Wilder was founded upon guts, hard work and resilience rather than individual magic, they can only dig their way out of their rut via the same process. It’s far easier said than done.
Fulham rank 11th in the division for touches in the opposition box and fifth for shots. They rank 18th for goals per game.
Those three statistics suggest two things: Fulham are taking too many of their shots from places that are unlikely to end in goals (only five sides have taken a higher proportion of their shots from outside the penalty area) and they are missing too many chances for a team with their defensive frailties. Fulham are 19th in the Premier League for chance conversion and shot accuracy. If both of those don’t improve significantly – and quickly – they will go down.
Back to earth with a bump. Villa’s renaissance has been founded upon defensive solidity. In 19 second-half minutes they conceded one fewer goal than they had in their previous eight league games combined.