Premier League winners and losers is giddy after that weekend…
Wilfried Zaha and Crystal Palace
This has not been an easy summer for Wilfried Zaha (and that was before Patrice Evra fuelled inaccurate and harmful rumours to millions of viewers on live television). He has long been adamant that he wants to leave Palace for a second time in search of European football and instructed his agent to sound out potential suitors. But with Palace understandably holding out for a huge fee and a soon-to-be-28-year-old having little sell-on value, Zaha is stuck at Selhurst Park.
That might have caused other players to throw their toys out of the pram or be left on the bench while the transfer window remains open. Zaha saw one big-club move go sour and he may now have missed a chance to enjoy his best years at another. We have seen the strategy before: Leaks that you are disillusioned and a victim of your previous loyalty, subsequent patchy form.
Instead Zaha has driven Palace on again, scoring three goals in two early-season wins to evaporate doubts about a club drifting under Roy Hodgson and in danger of being sucked into a relegation battle. If the victory over Southampton came via a dose of good fortune, they fully merited their win at Old Trafford with Zaha the catalyst and Zaha the captain. Handing him the armband was a masterstroke of man-management by Hodgson.
It might get better still. With Eberechi Eze and Michy Batshuayi to come into Palace’s first-choice starting XI, Zaha finally has players around him who will demand the ball and thus attract opposition markers. There were stages of last season when teams doubled up on Zaha, targeting him with fouls and effectively negating his potential impact.
In that scenario, Zaha can thrive again. He may yet get a move away from Palace this summer or next (though we have said that before), but more importantly he has the chance – and supporting cast – to re-establish himself as one of the hardest attacking players in the Premier League to handle.
Harry Kane and Heung-Min Son
An astonishing performance from two forwards who dragged their team on after they had offered next to nothing for the first 44 minutes of the match (and very little last week). If the broad definition of the best players is that they give you the advantage when all else looks lost, Tottenham have two game-changers. Working in tandem on Sunday lunchtime, they produced one of the most extraordinary spells of attacking football in recent Premier League history.
Harry Kane’s brilliance as a finisher has always overshadowed his ability to link play. Kane’s party trick is to drop deep for the ball and – rather than hold it up – to play a first-time pass around the corner for an overlapping teammate to run onto and catch out a flat-footed defensive line. But Kane also has the vision and passing range to mix it up. He can play those passes around a defence that curl away from the goalkeeper and meet a wide midfielder’s feet at pace. We know them best as the De Bruyne ball.
On Sunday, Kane produced a complete creative performance. With Jose Mourinho presumably spotting Southampton’s high defensive line, he instructed Kane to drop in between the lines where central defenders were unable to track him and central midfielders were unable to spot the danger quickly enough to thwart him.
In a barmy 28-minute period he contributed 13% of his career league assists. Each time, Heung-Min Son was the recipient. Son might just be the most underrated finisher in Europe. Tottenham found a cheat code to break Southampton and if we know one thing about Mourinho’s management it’s that he’s more than happy to keep his foot firmly placed on an opponent’s neck.
This creates an opportunity for Tottenham moving forward. Too often under Mourinho they have been stagnant in possession and struggled to break down opponents, but this gives them a majestic Plan B. If you thought Spurs looked dangerous with Kane playing passes in behind to Son, just wait until he has Gareth Bale as a second passing option.
While it doesn’t solve the issue of a lack of pure chance creator to unlock deep defences (as seen against Everton last week), against a high line Kane really could thrive as a creative false nine with two wide forwards who tuck in to create a striking pair.
A striker transformed under Carlo Ancelotti, who now has the first hat-trick of his senior career. Calvert-Lewin was already the best header of the ball in the Premier League, but the improvement in his ability to find space and his finishing have jumped forward under the Italian. That speaks of some tremendous coaching.
The numbers are a little ridiculous. Since Ancelotti was appointed, only one Premier League player has had more shots on target and for most of that period Everton didn’t possess a functioning midfield. To back up the heading praise, Calvert-Lewin has six more headed shots than any player in the league over that period.
With Lucas Digne’s set-piece delivery, James Rodriguez supplying crosses from the right in open play and Richarlison an almost equally adept header of the ball, Everton have their new masterplan. Who said direct football and crossing can’t be sexy?
Bamford started the season under immense pressure. We always expected Rodrigo to be eased gently into Marcelo Bielsa’s starting while he learns the demands of the manager’s style, but promoted clubs don’t sign £30m centre forwards to leave them on the bench all season and Bielsa’s Leeds play a 4-1-4-1 formation. Bamford had one top-flight career goal before this season. The majority verdict is that he wasn’t good enough for the Premier League.
The biggest issue for Bamford in his career has been chance conversion. Last season, his shot-to-goals conversion was 11.2%. Of all the players to take 30 or more shots in the Championship last season, Bamford ranked 71st. Too often he missed presentable opportunities to kill off matches, particularly at Elland Road.
It’s a tiny sample size, but Bamford has started the season brilliantly. He has found his opportunities limited – not surprising given the step up to the Premier League – but has scored with two of his three shots in his opening two matches. For now, Bamford justifies Bielsa’s faith in him leading the line.
Liverpool’s front three and their intensity
A damn effective way of removing lingering doubts about complacency is to have a front three that seem intent on eclipsing their previous high performance on a season-by-season basis. In two matches this season, Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino have scored five goals between them and created 16 chances.
That chance creation represents a significant rise from last season – continue at this rate and they will almost double last season’s total. Salah has already created 15% of last season’s chances in 180 minutes. As so often seems to happen at Liverpool, he and Mane take turns to play the starring goalscoring role while Firmino offers the selfless running, creation of space and consistent performance without necessarily being as prolific.
The obvious retort is to conclude that it’s still very early days. The retort to the retort is that Salah, Firmino and Mane have given us very few reasons to doubt them over the last three years. Maybe they get better, not worse?
Read 16 Conclusions, by the way.
James Rodriguez and Everton fans
Supporting a competent football team is satisfying. Supporting a football team that seems intent on having some fun is life-affirming.
That’s what happens when a well-coached team at a well-organised club with everyone pulling in the same direction clicks against a lethargic side playing under a cloud. Brighton could have won by five or six goals and Newcastle could not have complained.
Regular readers of this column (thoughts with you etc and so on) will know that I love latching onto a young player and investing emotionally far more than I should in that player being brilliant. Romelu Lukaku has held my heart for five years, but now he’s cemented in Serie A it’s time to move on. The Tariq Lamptey Fan Club will soon have badges available for order.
Top of the league but near the bottom of the winners due to the standard of teams they’ve faced. There was a massive advantage to being West Brom’s first Premier League opponents and Burnley’s first opponents of the season. Take anything away at Manchester City next weekend and we’ll meet again further up the page.
We’ve already had as many hat-tricks this season as in the whole of 2006/07. I’m a fan.
Kepa Arrizabalaga and his manager
There’s no position like goalkeeper for having your technical weaknesses and lack of confidence feasted upon by ruthless opponents. A striker can miss a chance and a midfielder play a rotten pass and can quickly compensate for it with a moment of match-changing excellence. Make the same mistake as a goalkeeper and you remain firmly in debt.
In their interviews after the game, Liverpool players and Jurgen Klopp spoke about their plan to get at Kepa. They would hunt him down as soon as he got the ball to his feet, banking on a player shorn of belief taking an extra half-second to make his decisions and invariably likely to make the wrong one anyway. Rewind to Liverpool’s second, game-clinching goal for all the proof you need. Just another dismal low in Kepa’s terrible Chelsea career to date.
Nobody wants to spark a mass pile-on, but this must rank as one of the most unsuccessful transfers of all time. The transfer fee wasn’t his fault; Chelsea agreed to pay a ludicrously high release clause that created a rod for Kepa’s back. But we have seen nothing to suggest that he was worth even half as much. There is a technical flaw in the way he sets himself up that renders Kepa unable to make full-length dives to shots from distance, he struggles with crosses and makes questionable decisions. If he hasn’t been helped by a regularly rotating cast of just-not-quite central defenders, a good goalkeeper breathes confidence into a defence. Kepa does the opposite.
But this is on Frank Lampard too. Having dropped Kepa last season, effectively ending his Chelsea spell at that point, Lampard targeted a goalkeeper all summer and will this week sign Edouard Mendy. For all the transfer activity this summer, why not complete the goalkeeper deal before the start of the season and thus avoid Kepa playing in this weird purgatory where he knows he will be replaced within three games?
If the delay in signing Mendy was unavoidable, surely it was better to pick Willy Caballero, a goalkeeper used to being second choice, rather than hanging Kepa out to dry when he knew he wasn’t trusted? Instead he has damaged his confidence even further, and cost Chelsea the game on Sunday.
Manchester United, club and manager
There are two issues at play here, and we should treat them both separately. Firstly, Manchester United remain an unhelpfully inefficient off-field operation when it comes to recruitment. They came into this summer needing a centre-back, left-back, holding midfielder and extra attacker and have so far signed an attacking midfielder, the position in which they were best covered.
United’s public pursuit of Jadon Sancho, accompanied by drip-feeding hard-ball leaks to favoured media outlets, came with an apparent surprise that Borussia Dortmund might not budge from their transfer fee expectations for a player who has years left on his contract at a club that has no reason to sell and is in better shape than them.
But when United embark on this sort of pursuit it seems to take away all focus from any other target. The defence still isn’t good enough, and yet we have heard precious few concrete rumours about potential improvements. That is mirrored by their inability to shift unwanted deadwood, presumably because those players have been handed long, lucrative contracts.
That indecision and inefficiency brings down the ceiling on Manchester United’s expectations. They won’t mount a title challenge with this squad, least of all during a shortened season in which depth of quality will be key and managers will be forced to rotate (something Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is pretty terrible at). The drop-off from the first team to the bench is stark.
But if that’s a reasonable excuse for not launching a title tilt, it isn’t a valid reason for being humbled by Crystal Palace at home. Only one of the players in that Palace starting XI would get into the Manchester United team that started on Saturday evening. He was moved on by them for a cut-price fee several years ago because they couldn’t get a tune out of him.
There are caveats to their comprehensive defeat: Solskjaer had precious little preparation time and there were notable absentees on the right side of the pitch. But that’s only an acceptable explanation if the performance and result doesn’t contain the same problematic hallmarks that have repeatedly peppered Solskjaer’s tenure to date. Allow United to play on the counter, natural talent, instinct and pace combining to unnerve opponents, and they can fly. Allow them to have the ball and ask them to break you down and they don’t so much run out of ideas as barely begin matches with any.
For all the issues over personnel, Solskjaer should have been able to solve this clanging issue or at least ease it. In fact, the problem plays into his own identity as Manchester United manager: A breath of fresh air, go-out-and-play mentality but with little tactical substance. Why has he so regularly been unable to construct a gameplan that helps United swat aside supposedly lesser opponents at will?
These two separate Manchester United limitations – off-field and on – combine to create an unpleasant truth for Solskjaer. To be more successful he needed his club to be more dominant off the pitch and use ample resources to create a squad capable of competing with Liverpool and Manchester City over the course of a season. But if Manchester United were that efficient operation, Solskjaer would not have been appointed manager in the first place and certainly wouldn’t be the manager now. For all the positive inflections of their form in 2020, nothing changes that.
Promoted clubs and their defending
How many goals you concede in the Premier League matters more than how many goals you score. The team with the worst attack often avoids relegation. The team that concedes the most almost always goes down.
This summer, Leeds United signed Robin Koch but lost Ben White after his loan deal ended and Brighton rejected every bid to sell him permanently. West Brom signed Cedric Kipre and Branislav Ivanovic but lost Nathan Ferguson – we’ll call that one a draw. Fulham signed Ola Aina, Kenny Tete and Antonee Robinson but only one of those has made a matchday squad so far and they still have most of a back four that had the worst defence in the league two years ago. In six matches, those three teams have conceded 22 goals and faced 89 shots.
One of the inevitable results of a transfer window that stays open long after the season starts is that it can guide managers’ behaviour by bringing into focus where their teams must improve. Bielsa, Scott Parker and Slaven Bilic must surely have been persuaded to invest in their defences between now and October 5. The success of their seasons may depend upon it.
Southampton’s broken pressing
We expected lovely things of Southampton this season having overcome last season’s woes, but Ralph Hasenhuttl’s team are currently doing a pitch-perfect impression of the side that tied themselves up in knots 12 months ago. Then the issue was that players weren’t up to speed with the demands of Hasenhuttl’s pressing demands. Now the worry is that they lack the personnel to execute the plan.
The secret to success under Hasenhuttl isn’t just pressing but successful pressing. There’s precious little to be gained from expending energy without actually winning the ball. If Southampton are going to play with a high defensive line that allows the midfield to pin back Tottenham’s midfielders, they actually need to force the turnovers that Hasenhuttl believes creates enough moments of danger to win the match.
And that’s precisely the problem. In the 15 league matches that Southampton won last season, they won possession from their opponent an average of 59 times. In the same fixture last season on New Year’s Day, they won possession 68 times. But so far this season, they have won possession an average of 46.5 times. That drop-off is killing them.
If this is a personnel issue, Hasenhuttl must solve it quickly. Last season, Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg won possession 325 times, 76 more than any other Southampton player. Oriol Romeu, his replacement, is more of a holding midfielder than a presser. So far this season, Romeu has won possession every 48.3 minutes; Hojbjerg did it every 8.5 minutes in 2019/20. By selling Hojbjerg and failing to replace him, Southampton’s pressing plan looks half-broken.
Call me a cynic and a pessimist, but I’m not sure an attacking strategy of launching the ball to Andy Carroll’s chest, failing to chase after second balls and leaving Callum Wilson isolated while Carroll stands virtually motionless after connecting with the ball is viable over the course of a season. I’m not saying Ben White and Lewis Dunk had a comfortable afternoon, but they can both probably use the same shorts and shirts next weekend and save money on the laundering.
Premier League defending
High defensive lines, brilliant strike forces and hapless marking have combined to create a ludicrous start to this Premier League season. Since 2012/13, there has never been more than seven matches containing seven or more goals in a completed season. So far in 2020/21, we’ve had four. Good God it’s fun.
The new handball rule
It’s such disgusting nonsense that I don’t want to talk about it right now while I’m still basking in the glory of this Premier League weekend.