Premier League winners and losers

Date published: Monday 9th November 2020 9:18

We will get to Arsenal but first, let’s give credit to…

 

Winners

Jack Grealish and Aston Villa

The ‘one-man team’ label is a hyperbole in team sport. Of course it doesn’t work like that. Without Ollie Watkins finishing the chances, Douglas Luiz biting into tackles, Tyrone Mings and Ezri Konsa clearing the ball and Ross Barkley and John McGinn offering their own creativity, Aston Villa are nothing.

But with Grealish in this form, they are closer to everything than any Villa supporter dared to think possible. There’s something deeply captivating about a skilful creator being the emphatic leader of the team, particularly when they have a licence to roam around the pitch and sprinkle their magic dust wherever their heart takes them.

So far this season, Grealish ranks first at Aston Villa for chances created. He ranks first for dribbles too. And total shots. And shots on target. And fouls won. And touches of the ball. And touches of the ball in the opposition box. The impact of that dominance is greater than itself. It creates space and time which those who possess less natural talent than Grealish can use to devastating effect. Suddenly you have a team in rude health that is able to confound even the best defences.

You’ll hear an awful lot this week about the merits of Grealish starting for England. Some Villa supporters have become angry about it, suspecting deliberate blindness on Gareth Southgate’s part. But forget all of that for now; it’s just noise really. England have a different set-up with different players that play a different style in which Grealish would surely have less responsibility (although I would have him as first substitute to change the game if required).

Instead, just take great pleasure about a young man leading his club by example and through the sheer force of his ability. Please ignore the fluttering eyelashes of bigger clubs. You might never have it better than at Villa Park. They are made for you and you are made for them. And my goodness it’s good to watch.

 

Hakim Ziyech

The arrival of Ziyech got a little lost this summer at Stamford Bridge. With Timo Werner and Kai Havertz the big-name (and higher-priced) arrivals that came after Ziyech, the two Germans overshadowed him. It didn’t help that Ziyech began the season beset by fitness niggles that limited his appearances until mid-October.

Ziyech is making up for lost time. In four Chelsea starts he already has three assists and two goals. Chelsea’s top chance creator in the Premier League this season has 11; Ziyech is on eight and has only started twice in the competition.

On Saturday, Ziyech was Chelsea’s difference-maker. His six chances match the highest total by any Premier League player this season, but more important is how he was able to link midfield and attack by dropping deep when needed or dipping in from the right and playing penetrative passes with his left foot in exactly the manner in which James Rodriguez did for Everton during his first games in England.

It is the composure of Ziyech’s passing that stood out most. He consistently picked the right option at the right time and delivered it with the right accuracy and weight. There may be an unprecedented competition for places in Chelsea’s attack, but Ziyech has already made himself undroppable. He’s contributed a goal or assist every 48 minutes so far in the Premier League.

 

Che Adams

Midway through last season Adams had become the punchline to a cruel joke, the striker who never scored. There were rumours in January of a loan move back to the Championship to rediscover his goalscoring touch. It didn’t matter so much when Danny Ings was in a goalscoring groove, but Southampton’s £16m signing had flopped badly.

Since then, Adams has come back fighting. Since football’s restart he has scored seven times and had more shots on target than Ings. If Southampton will struggle without their leading scorer while he recovers from another knee injury, Adams is prepared – and, crucially, confident – to take on the goalscoring mantle.

Adams is still not perfect. His chance conversion since March is exactly 20%, but he is making the right runs to receive the ball and the right runs to press opposition defenders to endear himself to Ralph Hasenhuttl. It is as if that goal against Manchester City, and the joyous support of his teammates in the seconds that followed it, have restored Adams’ love for his job.

 

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer

Another win when he needed it most, one which will surely postpone his sacking over a two-week international break that gave Manchester United the perfect window to source a replacement. Solskjaer now has a chance to try and mastermind a run of form against different styles of opponent that can boost his job security.

To repeat a point from last week, this is Manchester United now. They possess far too many players of individual quality to lose every week or even play poorly. Bruno Fernandes or Marcus Rashford will make a delicious run into the box, they will bring Paul Pogba or Donny Van de Beek or Edinson Cavani off the bench and they will make a difference. The component parts are expensive and potentially excellent on any given day. The lottery of when and where they perform and how often they do it as one unit is the sticking point.

But Saturday did prove something that we have always suspected. There was an awful lot of stinging criticism for Manchester United’s players last week, accused of letting the club down with their underperformance. But we have seen nothing yet that suggests that anyone has downed tools under Solskjaer’s management. One of the typical death knells of a manager has, as yet, been avoided. They’re still fighting when conceding first, as for every one of their league wins this season. It’s just a shame they have to react so often to starting slowly and conceding.

 

Manchester City vs Liverpool: The first half

A 1-1 draw that leaves both managers both happy and slightly irked that they could not take three. Ultimately the game did become a stalemate. Liverpool were a little spooked by Manchester City’s response and the missed penalty. Manchester City were a little spooked by Liverpool’s unexpected shape and lightning fast start. That persuaded both to effectively settle for shared spoils. The lack of substitutes (three out of six used, one of those enforced, despite the managers moaning post-game that they could not use five each) suggests as much.

But that first half was sensational. Jurgen Klopp’s plan was so surprising and so fluid. His 4-2-4 switched to 4-4-2 or 4-2-3-1 and back again within the same minute. We saw City perplexed by having the passing lanes to Rodri and the full-backs blocked so effectively, but then witnessed them learning to cope with it in real time as Kevin de Bruyne and Ferran Torres dropped into pockets of space in front of a two-man midfield. And we witnessed two supreme attacking teams surge at one another in a desperate attempt to impose their dominance.

For now, I simply urge you to go and read Matt Stead’s 16 Conclusions and meet me back here.

 

Leicester City and Tottenham

Grouped together after 1-0 wins that took them into the top two, but grouped together for many more reasons than the scoreline alone. Leicester City and Tottenham are winning games in which they aren’t playing well, fluctuating between grinding out victories and blowing teams away in the second half (5-2 vs Southampton for Spurs, 5-2 vs Manchester City for Leicester). Both have managers who are desperate to prove that they still belong amongst the absolute elite after spells at Premier League title challengers went sour.

They’re also grouped together because of the identical caveats. Leicester and Spurs have each played two fixtures against teams that sit within five points of the summit, and they both won and lost one each of those two games. They also both won handsomely away at a Manchester club as an emphatic retort to the supposedly gentle fixture list.

Finally, both clubs face a run of tricky fixtures that will help to determine just how high to set the bar for this season. Tottenham have Chelsea, Manchester City, Liverpool, Arsenal and Leicester in their next six games. Leicester have Liverpool, Manchester United, Everton and Tottenham in their next seven. Get through that schedule largely unscathed and we might have to consider both teams as title hopefuls in what already appears to be a unique Premier League season. Both have already earned the label of realistic Champions League qualifiers.

 

The power of community action

English supporters are, on the whole, not very good at protesting. There are pockets of mutiny amongst diehard supporters and fervent chants against owners, but when an issue requires leaving tribalism at the door and coming together we too often fall short. Plenty voice their righteous anger on social media, but that’s often where it ends.

There’s a logic to that. We know that boycott is usually the most effective form of protest, but boycott can also feel like an acceptance of defeat. Why should I not go and watch my team in protest of the owner’s actions when I want to? Football is my religion, my great love, so by not going the bad guy has won.

The pay-per-view debacle did make that easier. Money is tight in a financial climate governed by the ravages of Covid-19. The rise of illegal streams and the presence of radio and social media as alternative means of following the game persuaded supporters that they really could rail against the imposition of a avaricious money grab at a time when Premier League clubs had barely altered their transfer spending but were asking more from loyal supporters.

But the best thing about the pay-per-view boycott was not that supporters refused en masse to cough up £14.95 to watch a Premier League match at a time of financial hardship, but that they gave the money to food banks instead. That sent a message to Premier League clubs that their choice wasn’t forced but made through free will – “I could give you this money. I’d like to watch my team play. But I won’t”. It became a point of principle.

And they won. Those supporters groups and trusts, those who chose to miss out on doing something that love for the greater good – they all won. Had pay-per-view football been a roaring success then it wouldn’t just have carried on but provided the richest clubs with a mandate to extend it.

Now that mandate has evaporated. First they discussed a reduction in price and then they abandoned the project entirely amidst meagre viewing numbers and the community action that created a PR disaster for the clubs. We have our blueprint: Protest works. Boycott works. Take away their money and you take away their leverage and, ultimately, their oxygen.

 

Ollie Watkins

He’s played seven top-flight league games and he’s already scored a hat-trick in a 7-2 win against Liverpool and a brace in a 3-0 win at Arsenal. It’s not meant to be this easy, you know.

 

Eberechi Eze

This boy is a bit special. And now he must start every week for Palace. No ifs, no buts, no extra holding midfielder just in case.

 

Losers

Arsenal’s front three

We knew that Arsenal would suffer stumbles and occasionally trip over their own feet as Mikel Arteta attempted to overhaul their style of play, the team’s shape, the personnel and the mentality. Revolutions are not achieved via linear progression but through a series of fits and starts that, hopefully, produce a general upward curve.

But if there are numerous reasons to keep the faith – and nobody reasonable is suggesting that panicking now helps anyone other than Arsenal’s rivals – they fail to cover our concerns about their performance in the final third and the bluntness of Arteta’s attack.

Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang has had 25 touches in the opposition box in his first eight league games of the season. He looks lost on the left wing, like using a Ming vase as a bookend. I fully understand why Arteta wants to use Aubameyang from the left, but he’s being asked to learn a new role at 31 and his apparent disillusionment raises questions about the logic in Arsenal giving another 30-something a bumper new contract and then failing to play to his strengths.

The great cliche of strikers is that you don’t worry when they aren’t scoring goals but when the chances dry up. Alexandre Lacazette has had 21 shots in the league in his 17 appearances since English football’s restart – that too isn’t good enough. Willian was bright in early season, but was that simply him enjoying the confidence of a fresh start after landing the move and contract he clearly desperately wanted?

Arteta’s vision for Arsenal is built on hunger, a desire to improve what had gone stale in pursuit of redemption. But it’s reasonable to question whether that’s far easier to achieve with the younger players in the squad and the new arrivals than a front three that contains players aged 29, 31 and 32.

But the major sticking point is the lack of creativity that is making life so hard for Aubameyang and Lacazette. Aubameyang is the top chance creator with 10 from eight games, one fewer than Sheffield United’s John Lundstram. Arsenal do not have a single chance creator in the Premier League’s top 25. Cut to Mesut Ozil frantically liking tweets about his own absence.

Arteta’s theory is that he does not possess a No. 10 that he trusts (and Ozil’s form had tailed off long before he was appointed). Instead creativity will come not from individuals but the system. Arsenal will create danger through the speed of their transitions and overlapping wing-backs that allow the wide forwards to drift centrally. The problem is that it just isn’t working right now. That’s not merely a reaction to one defeat. Arsenal are 14th for chances created and 16th for shots per game, a fraction behind Burnley by that measure.

Arteta will insist that the process will win out. He’s unlikely to change things drastically, even if he might finally have to concede that Aubameyang as the central striker and Bukayo Saka wide left makes more sense. But there is a fine line between philosophy and dogma. It will be fascinating to see where this revolution lurches to next.

 

Brighton’s finishing

My kingdom for a reliable striker. In their first four league games of the season, it looked as if Brighton had solved their chance conversion issue: They just created more chances. They scored eight goals in their first four league games including fixtures against Manchester United, Chelsea and Everton. Their chance conversion still wasn’t above average (they had 55 shots in those four games) but they succeeded through the sheer volume of chances.

Now Brighton are back to the bad old days. In four games against Crystal Palace, Tottenham, West Brom and Burnley, Brighton have taken 50 shots and scored three times and one of those was an own goal. Against Burnley on Friday night, they had 19 shots without scoring. Brighton are far better than their results and league position suggest, but kind words and good intentions don’t pay the bills.

You can’t say Graham Potter hasn’t tried all options. In their last five league games, Potter has picked a front two of Danny Welbeck and Neal Maupay, Leandro Trossard as a lone central striker, Maupay as a lone central striker and Trossard, Maupay and Aaron Connolly as a front three. The harsh reality is that none of those four strikers is dependable as a regular top-flight goalscorer. It’s lowering the natural ceiling of Brighton’s ambitions this season.

 

Aaron Ramsdale

We’ve talked at length about the difference the change of goalkeeper has made at Chelsea. It wasn’t just that Kepa Arrizabalaga’s save percentage was pitifully low. It was that the low save percentage eroded the confidence in the defenders in front of him. Play elite football with doubts in the forefront of your mind and you’re already halfway to losing.

Perhaps the same is happening at Sheffield United. Aaron Ramsdale is far from Kepa’s level of disastrous form (70% save rate compared to 74% for Dean Henderson last season), but changing goalkeepers does seem to have unnerved Chris Wilder’s defenders. Ramsdale doesn’t appear to have the same leadership characteristics as Henderson and doesn’t claim crosses as well. The issue is exacerbated by Sheffield United winning possession less often in midfield and thus facing more dangerous attacks.

Ramsdale also has a nasty habit of failing the eye test in the same way as Kepa and Jordan Pickford. Too many shots go past him that aren’t in the corner, suggesting a flaw in either technique or concentration.

 

Newcastle’s grim reality

The issue is not that Newcastle United lose every week. This would be far easier if they did. They were deserved winners against Everton last weekend. They’re four points behind the top four and seven above a pretty wretched bottom three. They aren’t in any serious danger of being relegated.

But then the sanctuary of mid-table offers reason for criticism as well as praise. It should give Newcastle and Steve Bruce a freedom of expression that their manager seems intent to limit. Newcastle to not set up to impose their authority in the opposition’s half but to stymie their threat and hope something positive comes out of it. They seem to win by good fortune and lose by logical design.

If that all sounds a bit harsh on Bruce, the numbers back it up. Newcastle rank 20th in the Premier League for shots faced and shots on target faced. They rank 20th on shots taken per game and shots on target managed per game too. They are increasingly reliant on their goalkeeper being brilliant, their opponents missing chances and a determination to grind out points in adversity.

That last characteristic is clearly a strength rather than weakness, but it isn’t unreasonable to ask whether Bruce could be doing a little more to make Newcastle a team that at least shows an ambition to attempt free-flowing attacking football.

We’re not asking for Total Football here, just an attacking strategy that aims to get the best out of a collection of potentially excellent attacking players. Bruce does now have a reliable centre forward and exciting wide players in Miguel Almiron and Allan Saint-Maximin. But both those wingers are having their spirit broken by the necessity to drop so deep to pick up possession and their place in a team that averages 39% possession and plays more long balls than any other team in the league bar Burnley.

It’s something I wrote about here, but watching your team solely on television rather than live in the stadium changes the perception of this style of football. Grabbing an ill-gotten away point despite barely trying to create chances takes on a positive glow when you travel back up the country with your robbed spoils safely locked in the car boot. But watching Newcastle on television provides enjoyment only to the masochist.

Football isn’t only about entertainment; it’s silly to say as much. But there does need to be a balance, and when Newcastle are so deliberately blunt in the final third it’s fair to accuse Bruce of missing that balance. Newcastle can dream bigger than this. Bruce can dream bigger than this. They have the players that mean they don’t have to play this way anymore. If Bruce wants to stick to his Plan A, fine. But he can’t feign surprise at the resulting criticism when it fails.

 

Manchester City ‘s missed penalties

I haven’t got an answer for why it keeps happening, nor what the solution is other than to either keep faith in one penalty taker or continue this rotation as they miss them, but Manchester City have now missed six of their last 10 penalties in the Premier League and five different players have been responsible. It’s time for Pep Guardiola to put his money where his mouth is and let Ederson have a go.

 

Ademola Lookman

It’s unfair to hammer a player purely because he missed a Panenka. It can be an excellent – some research even suggests a better – way of scoring them. But my God you have to get it right if you’re going to try one. Lookman’s neither had the elevation nor power to beat Lukas Fabianski. In the 96th minute, for a point, away from home, having just been given the responsibility after Aleksandar Mitrovic missed against Sheffield United, Lookman went for impudence and ended up looking stupid.

 

Grady Diangana

How quickly things change. Two months ago, West Brom signed Diangana to send West Ham’s support, and West Ham’s club captain, into mutiny mode. West Brom fans delighted at the intent of their club to get such an exciting prospect over the line.

On Sunday, Diangana was left on the bench despite Matheus Pereira being absent after testing positive for Covid-19. In eight games this season he’s created four chances, not even in the top three within his own squad.

 

Daniel Storey

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