Nuno Espirito Santo has paid for that performance with his job; his dullness has damned him from the start. But first, some Manchester United…
Manchester United’s old forwards
There are times when Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s Manchester United seem a project rooted in the past but old-timers can continue to defy the ageing process. As Solskjaer changed system in a bid to extend his tenure, he selected a strike partnership with a combined total of 1218 career goals for clubs and countries. By the final whistle, it was 1220, with Cristiano Ronaldo and Edinson Cavani twinned on the pitch and the scoresheet.
Theirs were the finishes of old masters, Ronaldo pulling away behind Ben Davies to volley United ahead at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, Cavani latching on to the Portuguese’s improvised pass to dink a shot over Hugo Lloris. It was Ronaldo’s first assist since his return to United, Cavani’s first goal in the No. 21 shirt he adopted so satisfy two brands. Cavani was the signing who ran counter to Solskjaer’s beliefs, the ageing hired gun with little seeming affinity to United, but a pragmatic recruit has been a talismanic figure. In times of strife, Solskjaer turned to Cavani ahead of a younger generation of forwards – Marcus Rashford, Mason Greenwood, Anthony Martial and Jadon Sancho – but the old warrior was superb.
An even older goalscorer had much to savour, too. Much of Solskjaer’s decision-making this season has lent itself to criticism. This time he got it right, taking an attacking player out of the team, getting a defensive base and allowing three men licence to advance. Bruno Fernandes set up Ronaldo’s opener and then the Portuguese pair combined to release Cavani. And a manager whose changes have not always worked this season could savour the sight of Rashford adding a third after a pass from his fellow replacement Nemanja Matic. Solskjaer had named his oldest ever Manchester United team, deciding there was no substitute for experience; although in bringing Rashford on for Ronaldo, there really was, and he scored.
Now go and read 16 Conclusions.
Some exaggeration can be understandable in the moment but when a goalkeeper of the stature of Peter Schmeichel pronounces “best save I’ve seen for years”, it is a sign it must have been good. Ramsdale’s flying effort to keep out James Maddison’s free kick certainly was; otherwise excellent stops from the substitutes Ademola Lookman and Harvey Barnes were overshadowed and, while a clean sheet against Leicester appeared the finest shut-out Mikel Arteta’s new-look defence have mustered so far, it owed far more to one man than the unit as a whole.
But another individual deserves credit. Rewind a couple of months and there were grounds to be sceptical about the signing of Ramsdale, the relegation specialist who scarcely looked an upgrade on Bernd Leno. There was a theory he might serve his apprenticeship on the bench. Arteta parachuted Ramsdale into the team. Seven games later, he has only conceded four goals, a save percentage of 85.7% is among the division’s best and, at Leicester, he showed he can perform when it matters against immediate rivals. He looks a big personality with the presence Arsenal have sometimes lacked. Their heavy summer spending under Arteta needed to lend the impression that the young players brought in would set Arsenal up for years to come. Ramsdale had the potential to look among the most dubious of those buys. Instead, there is now the possibility that Arsenal have found their goalkeeper for a generation.
Patrick Vieira and Conor Gallagher
Vieira was a World Cup winner before Gallagher was born but midfielders of very different generations were architects of a superb win at Manchester City. Vieira showed a sure touch tactically, bringing Wilfried Zaha in as the striker, in place of the in-form Christian Benteke, but it was part of a broader pattern of improvement under his manager. He arrived at the Etihad Stadium with a 10% win rate, a deceptively low figure given Palace’s performances. Victories and clean sheets had eluded them, until they secured both with Joachim Andersen and Marc Guehi, the centre-backs who have arrived on his watch, bastions of solidity.
But Gallagher was the bundle of energy ahead of them, setting up the first goal, scoring the second. He is the player who has given them another dimension, the attacking central midfielder they lacked and who can link up with the forwards, but with the energy and responsibility to double up as the third player shielding the back four. He lined up in midfield against Kevin de Bruyne and Bernardo Silva and was man of the match. That is no mean feat.
Winners without winning, Brighton became the first team to take a point at Anfield after being two goals down since 2016. It was testament to resourcefulness and quality. Enock Mwepu’s first Premier League goal was superb in both its audacity and its execution. Leandro Trossard went to Roberto Firmino’s backyard and gave an inventive, elusiveness interpretation of the false nine’s duties, evading Liverpool before he equalised against them. Adam Lallana spent the second half doing a man-marking job on his friend Jordan Henderson to reduce the Liverpool goalkeeper’s influence. Graham Potter again illustrated that he can make a difference with his half-time interventions. He has high-profile admirers and one of them, Jurgen Klopp, was typically eloquent in his praise. “They might not win 35 games a season, but they give teams a game over 38 games,” he said.
These are heady times for the Hammers. Fourth on merit, scorers of four goals away at Aston Villa, they look a team with that rare combination of confidence and chemistry, solidity and an ability to score. They have the resolve to be unbeaten away from home and the consistency to suggest last season was no one-off. They are in the sweet spot when a team is performing well, but so are plenty of individuals within it. All four scorers feel cases in point: Declan Rice’s excellence is so regular that it can be taken for granted but his fellow scorer Ben Johnson has seized his chance at right-back. Jarrod Bowen and Pablo Fornals are very different examples of players who have kicked on under David Moyes, the signing from the Championship and the flair player imported by his predecessor, Manuel Pellegrini.
When Chelsea signed Romelu Lukaku, they acquired a Golden Boot contender. It seemed the safest of bets that, whether or not he would be the division’s top scorer, he would be theirs. Not now. Lukaku has three Premier League goals. One player in Thomas Tuchel’s squad has four: Reece James. After four goals in the first 102 league games of his career, he now has four in six. The brace at Newcastle were taken brilliantly, struck with power, arrowed in with accuracy. “He shoots like a horse,” said Tuchel, who would presumably rather have Red Rum in attack than Blue Rom, but perhaps unaware a Newcastle fan was once jailed for punching a horse.
But one of the most potent elements of Tuchel’s tactics is the way he repeatedly manages to get wing-backs into goalscoring positions and Ben Chilwell’s finest ever goalscoring run has coincided with James’. That their wing-backs (eight) have more league goals than their various potential No. 10s (Mason Mount, Kai Havertz, Timo Werner, Christian Pulisic, Hakim Ziyech and Callum Hudson-Odoi have seven between them) may not feel a sustainable formula but it has helped Chelsea compensate at a time when Lukaku was first out of form and then injured and when, apart from Mount’s hat-trick against Norwich, many of his supposed sidekicks have found goals elusive.
The exuberant, entertaining Maxwell Cornet was one catalyst for Burnley’s belated first win. The other was more unexpected but Matt Lowton epitomised the positivity and creativity Sean Dyche’s team are often accused of lacking: his wonderful pass led to Chris Wood’s opener against Brentford while he materialised in the six-yard box to head in the second goal. It came three days after Connor Roberts, perhaps the Championship’s best attacking right-back last season, made his Burnley debut. It was quite a reminder of the incumbent’s qualities.
A sublime opener at Norwich helped elevate Leeds from the relegation zone. It was apparent last season that he was the classiest attacking talent in Marcelo Bielsa’s squad. As others’ form have dipped this season, the reliance on Raphinha has grown, but, with four goals already, the Brazilian is shouldering that burden admirably.
Nuno Espirito Santo
Manchester United had conceded four goals in the first half the previous week. There were frailties to be exploited in a defence with a solitary clean sheet in 21 games, with a manager who felt beleaguered. And so, with a certain inevitability, Tottenham had no shots on target as they proved ideal opponents for United in a game that doubled up as a 90-minute indictment of Nuno Espirito Santo, crystallising the case against him and earning him the sack.
He has become a byword for a counter-productive sense of caution. A lack of early attacking intent has been a recurring theme of Nuno’s teams but that passiveness was still more of a problem when he needed a result himself, when the Tottenham faithful dislike his inherent defensiveness and when the supporters chorused: “You don’t know what you’re doing” As far as entertaining football is concerned, they are probably right: certainly substituting Lucas Moura, a decision that was booed, did not add any threat; a team with plenty of attacking talent now have fewer goals than Burnley. Afterwards, Nuno looked drained and deflated; occasionally, a result, performance and reception are all so bad that they can permeate a manager’s air of self-confidence.
The mutiny highlighted a fundamental difference in ‘El Sackico’. Solskjaer may be loved and respected more for his playing days at United than his managerial career, but he commands a loyalty from many in the fanbase. Nuno was already disliked for his dullness.
Aston Villa’s defence
If Sunday was an awful afternoon for Villa as a whole, it was particularly bad for a defence breached 12 times in October. Perhaps Matty Cash, who made a goal-saving intervention, may be exempt but there were indications of struggles for everyone else. Matt Targett, who is having a dreadful campaign, probably didn’t close Ben Johnson down enough for the first goal. Emi Martinez perhaps should have stopped the second, Declan Rice’s long-range shot. Kortney Hause was fortunate to escape a red card for his forearm smash on Pablo Fornals. Ezri Konsa was probably unfortunate to be sent off, following a VAR review, for his foul on Jarrod Bowen. Tyrone Mings was dropped and then sent on to try and shore things up for the 10 men. Somehow, some combination of the out of form – but minus the banned Konsa – have to try and keep a clean sheet at Southampton on Friday.
A half-time double substitution can be a sign the initial gameplan had certain flaws in it. It definitely looked that way as Arsenal rushed into a two-goal lead. That they conceded from a corner was indicative of slipping standards at the back: when Emile Smith Rowe then added to Gabriel’s opener, Leicester had conceded twice for the fifth time in six games. That Smith Rowe was elusive at that stage underlined issues with Rodgers’ system. Playing 3-4-1-2 had worked wonderfully well against Manchester United and it was understandable the Northern Irishman stuck with the shape. But Arsenal had dominated against an Aston Villa team playing 3-4-1-2 eight days earlier and Mikel Arteta’s 4-4-2 feels ideal for such tests. Leicester were better when Rodgers changed to 4-2-3-1 in the second half and gave his team some attacking width; by then, however, the damage had been done.
It is easier said than done, but perhaps other managers will try to copy Patrick Vieira’s tactic of isolating Laporte against a quick, direct runner, in Wilfried Zaha. There are occasional hints that a usually assured defender is susceptible to pace, as Heung-Min Son showed in the 2019 Champions League. On Saturday, Laporte’s combination of an error that cost a goal and a first-half red card rendered it arguably his worst performance in a City shirt. It could be a costly one, too: rewind to last autumn and he was Ruben Dias’ regular partner. Then he lost his place after he was culpable in defeat to Tottenham. With Laporte banned for the Manchester derby, John Stones has the chance to supplant him for the second successive season.
On a weekend when Burnley, Southampton, Crystal Palace and Leeds won, Newcastle recorded their first shot on target in the 84th minute and ended up six points from safety. Graeme Jones’ attempt to bring greater defensive solidity showed Newcastle’s limitations: they still conceded three times, had just 21% of possession against Chelsea and looked a team in desperate need of the reinforcements the January transfer window could provide; the danger, though, is the gap to 17th has become a gulf by then. Still, at least Steve Bruce looked relaxed and happy as he had a good day at the cricket.
Last season, minus crowds, was supposed to be the year of the away win. Then seven home sides lost this weekend; the five on Saturday did not even score. It was only a good weekend for season ticket holders at Turf Moor.