Our Premier League winners and losers inevitably goes in two-footed like Granit Xhaka on Mikel Arteta…
Ferran Torres had 31 goals in his career, Harry Kane 277 and Cristiano Ronaldo 783. If age is the prime reason for the disparity, statistical comparisons did not flatter a youngster who, without Manchester City making a striking signing, appears the closest thing to a centre-forward at the Etihad Stadium this season.
As Pep Guardiola said after Torres struck twice against Arsenal, scoring five goals in one game does not mean City do not need a striker and not scoring in another does not mean they do. The Spaniard’s start to the season illustrates as much. Arsenal were obliging opponents and Torres was terrific, whereas he had been less impressive at Tottenham 13 days earlier.
But his goals were real strikers’ finishes. “Strikers is a smell of a goal,” Guardiola said in January 2020 and Torres is showing signs he sniffs out openings. His manager has compared his ability to run in behind defences to Jamie Vardy. And whereas most of City’s other wingers are false nines when they play in the middle of the attack, Torres is not. In his positioning and his style, he is more of a genuine No. 9.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has long insisted that Mason Greenwood is the best finisher at Old Trafford. It will be instructive if he maintains that argument once the competition for the title includes Ronaldo, but he can be grateful for the youngster’s prowess in front of goal after he became the first teenager since Robbie Fowler to score in the opening three fixtures of a Premier League campaign. Greenwood’s winner at Wolves was, in some respects, a mirror image of his strike against Leeds, a crisp drive from an acute angle. It illustrated one of his assets: that he can excel in the channels, which in turn enables him to play as both striker and winger. Another attribute is that he scores goals that matter: of his three this season, two have put United ahead and one has drawn them level. This was potentially shaping up as the season when he could emerge as Solskjaer’s first-choice striker, especially considering Anthony Martial’s unconvincing audition for the role at Southampton. Ronaldo’s return threatens Greenwood more than most but on current form, he should not be sidelined.
At half-time at Anfield, it was not looking too promising for Chelsea. Reece James had been sent off, Kai Havertz and N’Golo Kante were taken off, depriving them of their goalscorer and the protection the most hyperactive midfield ball-winner in world football provides. They seemed at risk of losing their discipline, and had to ready themselves for a probable bombardment.
Enter the oldest outfield player used in the Premier League thus far this season. Thiago Silva was a reassuring presence. The 10 men survived the second half with relatively few alarms. Liverpool were more muted than expected. It was not just a vindication of Silva: not when Andreas Christensen looked his long-term successor at the middle of the Chelsea defence and when, above all, it felt a triumph of Thomas Tuchel’s organisational powers, but Silva was at the heart of it.
It was a guarantee that Liverpool would dominate possession. Chelsea, with Mason Mount withdrawn into midfield, were trying to camp behind the ball and scarcely had an outlet. If 4-4-1 feels the default defensive formation for sides who are weakened by a red card, Chelsea suggested 3-5-1 is the way to go. But they had to be defensively flawless to snuff their hosts out. Thanks to Silva, they were.
Leicester’s 2016 champions
They are a diminishing band, the men who forged a miracle. Wes Morgan’s retirement means only three of Leicester’s improbable champions are left and if there are reasons to think that Kasper Schmeichel may be the last man standing, it was the two outfield players who restored Brendan Rodgers’ team to winning ways after the loss at West Ham.
If Jamie Vardy’s status as the pivotal figure in the attack was under threat after Kelechi Iheanacho’s spring scoring spree and Patson Daka’s summer arrival, he has spent years performing with the air of a man who feels he has to prove everyone wrong. He has kicked off the campaign with two goals and an assist; his opener at Norwich was a high-class finish. Marc Albrighton can be in an infrequent presence in the starting XI, summoned in times of hardship that call for his grit, sometimes discarded for glossier talents. Albrighton had only begun 30 of Leicester’s previous 92 league games. Brought in because Ayoze Perez was banned, he delivered the winner at Carrow Road. There is life in the old Foxes yet.
Some 91 Premier and Football League clubs had scored a goal in competitive football this season. The exceptions were Crystal Palace. Until Conor Gallagher intervened and, for good measure, got another. Patrick Vieira is burdened with constant comparisons to Frank de Boer, but this removes one similarity: the Dutchman never saw his side score a Premier League goal in his ill-fated reign. Vieira witnessed a 2-2 draw at West Ham in which Gallagher scored twice, from about five and eight yards respectively.
As Palace have had few goals from the centre of midfield in recent years, with the exceptions of Luka Milivojevic’s penalties, Gallagher can add a new dimension to a side whose strikers are often not prolific either. Those bursts into the box heralded a more adventurous approach. Vieira had urged him to get forward and a summer signing may be granted a licence Roy Hodgson’s midfielders lacked.
Perhaps that brace showed he has made the right choice. Gallagher was wanted by Leeds and appeared a more natural fit for Marcelo Bielsa’s style of play than Vieira’s (not to mention Sam Allardyce’s: he was arguably West Bromwich Albion’s best player last season until Allardyce’s arrival). But Palace probably offered a greater chance of first-team football and, much as Bielsa can improve players, he has also benched loanees, with the notable exceptions of Jack Harrison and Ben White. Vieira has made one pivotal.
Before the season started, Andros Townsend was reflecting on a winger Everton signed and he noted “who we have somehow managed to get on the cheap”. He was not referencing his own status as a free transfer, either. Three games in, Demarai Gray has two goals and Everton seem to have got plenty for their £1.7 million. His opener at Brighton, created by his pace, finished with precision, drilled into the far corner of the net, made this only the second time Gray has scored in back-to-back Premier League games. At 25, he is the prodigy who lost his way. He isn’t that young anymore but he looks a cut-price way of giving Everton more threat and a reason why Rafa Benitez, a manager who needed a good start more than most, has got one.
A first England call-up probably represented the highlight of his week, but an equaliser at Turf Moor might not rank too far behind. When on loan at Burnley, Sean Dyche told Patrick Bamford he was “born with a silver spoon in your mouth”. Dyche granted him just 34 minutes of Premier League football, spread across six substitute appearances. Then he seemed a player whose future lay in the lower leagues. Instead, Bamford became a firm favourite of Marcelo Bielsa, a manager whose players are charged with running further than anyone else’s, and last season he got 17 Premier League goals, which amounted to more than half of Burnley’s tally, and included a winner against them. His first of the new campaign denied Dyche a maiden victory: as it was against Bielsa, it is easy to imagine Tony Pulis and Allardyce were Burnley fans for the day.
Nuno Espirito Santo
Three games, three wins, three clean sheets, top of the league and having kept Harry Kane. It could scarcely be going much better. And the pragmatic Portuguese may note that while he has won 1-0 three times, Wolves have lost all three by the same scoreline without him.
Roma may have lowballed Arsenal with their summer offer for Granit Xhaka, but Mikel Arteta must be tempted to check if it is still on the table. The irony in Jose Mourinho pursuing the Swiss is that he is the manager who, in the All Or Nothing documentary, told Serge Aurier that he was always “capable of doing a shit penalty”. In the same vein, Xhaka always feels “capable of doing a shit red card”. That inability to change manifested itself in a two-footed lunge at Joao Cancelo and the inevitable early exit at the Etihad Stadium. No sooner had they parted company with David Luiz, whose Arsenal career was also punctuated by sendings-off, than Xhaka illustrated that another of the senior figures in whom Arteta has placed rather too much trust remains equally erratic.
The midfielder began the season with the captaincy, albeit on a temporary basis, and a new contract, until 2024. He started at the Etihad as the senior midfielder, and indeed the only specialist central midfielder. He was gone before half-time, living down to his reputation, letting his team down.
Bottom of the table after the worst start to a season in Arsenal’s history. Their first red card of the season came while the waits for a point or a goal go on. Arsenal had 19% possession at the Etihad Stadium and one shot. The closest thing they came to a defence was when Pep Guardiola stuck up for his former assistant, Arteta. He may wish some of his players had the same fervour. Xhaka showed the wrong sort of fight. Many of the others were too meek.
Arteta had changed shape, rotated the personnel and omitted Albert Sambi Lokonga, one of the few to impress in their first two defeats. At the moment, however, it feels as though everything he tries goes wrong: he had two who could be called left-backs in harness but Arsenal conceded three goals from crosses on that flank. On the other side, he had two who have played right-back this season and they could not contain Jack Grealish. But selection has been a recurring problem this season: Calum Chambers was exposed at right-back by Brentford, Pablo Mari at centre-back by Chelsea. Arsenal looked unprepared for either.
Rewind a year and Arteta felt like Arsenal’s meticulous mastermind, the strategist with the tactical nous to prosper in the defining matches and win the FA Cup. Now he seems a powerless prisoner of fate. Some of Arsenal’s issues are not Arteta’s fault, and it is a moot point how many others are, but he seems in a battle to regain the capacity to shape events.
Naby Keita, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Curtis Jones
None took the field, let alone did anything wrong, but Harvey Elliott’s precocious performance against Chelsea, in the biggest game of the 18-year-old’s brief life, threatens to effect a shift in the midfield pecking order at Anfield. Naby Keita, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Curtis Jones may all prefer a spot on the left of the trio whereas Elliott excelled on the right, but it is partly a question of balance. The teenager took the role of the most attack-minded presence in the middle, with Jordan Henderson and Fabinho charged with providing the ballast. Jurgen Klopp often looks for solidity in the centre anyway, but especially in the bigger tests, and while Liverpool have plenty of midfielders, many of those on the fringes of the side share a fondness for going forward. The fact Klopp cited Elliott’s understanding with Mohamed Salah and Trent Alexander-Arnold, forming a right-sided alliance, could help him cement a place. And that may come at a cost to others.
Many find consistency elusive. Not Norwich’s left-backs. Dimitris Giannoulis was definitely at fault for two goals against Manchester City last week; then Bali Mumba, who came on for the Greek at half-time, arguably was. Enter Brandon Williams, signed on loan from Manchester United, debuting against Leicester and at least partly culpable for each of their goals, particularly Vardy’s opener, when he was dispossessed by Ricardo Pereira. An inauspicious debut does not automatically render him a bad signing or a poor player but opponents have many a reason to target Norwich’s left flank now. City must wish that Jamal Lewis, yet to get a minute of top-flight football for Newcastle this season, was still at Carrow Road.
For contriving to find contrasting ways not to score. Moussa Djenepo mustered different types of misses at St James’ Park, most glaringly when he blazed the ball over an unguarded goal from four yards. It felt somehow in character that he came closer with a vicious curler than a couple of sitters. Djenepo has taken on Sofiane Boufal’s status at Southampton as the player who could score the goal of the season but it might well be his only goal of the season. And few really need a one-goal-a-season winger.
‘McFred’ is better than just Fred. The nadir of his performance at Molineux was when he contrived to accidentally cannon the ball into Francisco Trincao’s path, sending the Portuguese clear to shoot. The broader issue was that comparisons with Ruben Neves suggest Wolves have a far superior presence at the base of the midfield.
The Newcastle manager may also have a season ticket for Winners and Losers – or half of it, anyway – and makes an appearance even when he got a draw. Suffice to say that it is scarcely a good sign when fans are calling for their manager’s head before September. At least last season Steve Bruce could avoid social media and phone-ins. Now he has unwanted proof that many will never accept him.
Michail Antonio’s cardboard cut-out
Cruelly jilted after a one-night stand on Monday.