Premier League winners and losers is back, baby

Date published: Monday 16th August 2021 6:49 - Richard Jolly

Paul Pogba and Bruno Fernandes, Nuno Espirito Santo and Ben White

We have your first Premier League winners and losers of the season and it is led by Nuno. What an opening performance from his Spurs side…

 

Winners

Nuno Espirito Santo
His name must have been there somewhere, beneath Julian Nagelsmann and Antonio Conte and Mauricio Pochettino and Brendan Rodgers and Paulo Fonseca and Gennaro Gattuso and the ghost of Bill Nicholson and Christian Gross’ tube ticket and Sandra Redknapp. Tottenham’s managerial shortlist was anything but short and Nuno Espirito Santo emerged from the depths of it. He looked an uninspiring appointment, drained by the dullness of his underwhelming final year at Wolves, bearing too many similarities with the sacked Jose Mourinho. Maybe the Harry Kane saga would sink him from the start.

Or maybe not. Beating Manchester City was both a much-needed result and a magnificent one. If Nuno mislaid his Midas touch in his last year at Molineux, he may have found it. He found immediate vindication. His greatest successes with Wolves came with a back three. His decision to field a defensive quartet worked well for Spurs. Matt Doherty improved exponentially when they were together at Wolves but Nuno preferred Japhet Tanganga, who excelled in a terrific contest with Raheem Sterling, at right-back. Heung-Min Son was the obvious candidate to operate as the striker in Kane’s absence, but he scored. The use of the relentless runners Lucas Moura and Steven Bergwijn on either flank proved effective. The choice of Oliver Skipp, parachuted into midfield ahead of more senior figures, was justified. Spurs seemed to have the spirit and resolve Nuno’s Wolves possessed in their first two years after promotion.

 


16 Conclusions: Tottenham 1-0 Manchester City


 

Paul Pogba and Bruno Fernandes
“Good players can always play together,” said Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. It is the sort of upbeat statement the Manchester United manager likes to make, decomplicating the game, insisting everything is rosy. In the case of Paul Pogba and Bruno Fernandes, however, it feels true. They could be rivals for a role: each wants to be the most attacking of a central midfield trio. But with Fernandes installed as the No. 10 and Pogba roaming from the left, they combined brilliantly. Sometimes Pogba took up Fernandes’ position as the Portuguese ran in behind Leeds. Sometimes Fernandes wandered out to the flank so the Frenchman could go into the middle.

Fernandes ended with three goals, Pogba with four assists and United struck five times against Leeds. Sometimes good players really can play together.

 

Mohamed Salah, record-breaker
Mohamed Salah started last season with a hat-trick. He began the current campaign with a different treble: two assists, one goal. His finish at Carrow Road was the least significant in terms of victory and the most important statistically: it made Salah the first player in Premier League history to score on the opening weekend of five successive seasons. It is not merely a numerical quirk. Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool tend to start seasons well. Salah is a major reason why.

 

Thomas Frank
Brentford’s first top-flight game for 74 years ended with them top of the league. Admittedly, playing first helps. But if everyone at the club felt a winner, their 2-0 victory against Arsenal was a particular triumph for Frank. His upbeat attitude – the Dane is probably the most positive Premier League manager since Nigel Adkins, in that respect – was mirrored in the stands and in the performance.

Brentford boasted virtually no Premier League experience but were fearless. Frank’s decisions paid off. A high pressing game upset Arsenal and could have produced a goal. An emphasis on long throws did. So, too, a decision to send all 10 outfield players up for a corner. There was a boldness in choosing the winger Sergi Canos as a wing-back, but he scored Brentford’s first goal at this level for 74 years. And while Frank has often played 4-3-3, his choice of 3-5-2 was justified as it allowed twin strikers to torment Arsenal’s defence.

 

Bukayo Saka and the Brentford fans
It was the most heartening sound of the weekend. Arsenal made their first substitution and the majority of Brentford supporters got to their feet to give Bukayo Saka a standing ovation. Racially abused on social media after his Euro 2020 final penalty miss, he was applauded in person. Perhaps it reflects the way the eminently likeable Saka feels both the kind of player and person most of us want at our club, no matter who we support. Certainly the Brentford faithful deserve plenty of credit, too, just as the Spurs fans who unveiled a banner in support of Saka at the previous week’s pre-season friendly did, too. Certainly it feels a sign that times are changing. The silent majority are making themselves heard in a rejection of racism.

 

Rafa Benitez
No matter how often a new manager seems to have to win his first game, it is rare he actually needs to. Rafa Benitez increasingly feels the exception to many a rule. The first man to manage both Liverpool and Everton since the 19th century saw his new side go a goal down to a Danny Ings-less Southampton. If it prompted the question of how soon fans inside Goodison Park would turn on Benitez, his side postponed the first crisis of his reign. A three-goal comeback was impressive enough in itself. The prominence of Benitez’s cut-price wingers, Demarai Gray and Andros Townsend, and the importance of crosses, upon which the Spaniard has placed a renewed emphasis, turned it into a fine display of management. But strip away everything else, difficult as it is, and Benitez has always been a fine manager.

 

Trevoh Chalobah
There is something special about the kind of arrowed, angled shot which barely seems to go more than a foot off the ground but which skims the turf and nestles in the far corner of the net. It is still better when it caps a week like Trevoh Chalobah’s. A surprise selection for the Super Cup, he was superb on his debut. He was equally good on his Premier League bow, a forceful defender showing a sense of adventure and attacking ability when he came forward. Chalobah’s tears after his goal against Crystal Palace made it all the more endearing: if he thought this chance would never come, most others probably agreed. Frank Lampard’s departure seem to signal the end of the experiment with youth. Instead, Thomas Tuchel sold Fikayo Tomori and Marc Guehi and still found a product of Chelsea’s prolific academy who could slot straight into his defence.

 

Newcastle’s No. 9 shirt
Spare a thought for one of football’s most revered shirts, which had sat happily on the shoulders of Jackie Milburn, Hughie Gallacher, Alan Shearer, Andy Cole, Les Ferdinand and Malcolm Macdonald but which was condemned to spend two years in particularly close proximity to Joelinton. Callum Wilson – focal point, penalty-box presence, predator – showed he is a more fitting wearer on a scoring first appearance in the shirt. They could be very happy together.

 

David Moyes, great entertainer
David Moyes has more goalkeepers than strikers but the fewer forwards West Ham have, the more excitement they bring. The irrepressible Michail Antonio has spent more of his career as a winger and is now deemed the sole specialist centre-forward the Hammers have, but less can produce more. They went 1-0 down at St James’ Park and came back to win 4-2. It took the tally, at both ends, to 41 goals in their last 11 games. Comebacks have been a theme in Moyes’ unlikely transformation into the great entertainer. In that spell, West Ham have come from behind to win 2-1, 3-1 and now 4-2. They have led 3-0 twice and drawn 3-2 and led 3-0 on another occasion and drawn 3-3.

 

Cucho Hernandez
An overnight success, four years into his Watford career. Hernandez marked his Hornets debut with a spectacular, and ultimately decisive, goal against Aston Villa. The chances are the majority who do not always keep track of Watford’s Byzantine dealings had either forgotten they had signed him or never knew to begin with. It makes you wonder who else they have hidden out on loan.

 

The atmosphere
It turns out football is better with supporters in stadia. Who knew?

 

Goals
A healthy 34 of them.

 

Losers

Harry Kane
The Tottenham fans inquired if he was watching as they won without him. Son provided a reminder that there was a time when some thought the South Korean was even better in Kane’s absence. And the reigning champion is already three behind Fernandes in the race for the Golden Boot.

 

Ben White
Last season began with a deceptively good Arsenal debut, when Willian excelled against Fulham. They must hope Friday at Brentford was a deceptively bad bow for Ben White. But, unless this was an inverse indicator, it was a wretched way for the £50 million man to mark a new era for Arsenal.

The premium price Mikel Arteta paid was a product of White’s prowess as a passer. Brentford may have exposed some shortcomings as a stopper. White has spent the last two seasons alongside defenders who are more dominant in the air, in Liam Cooper and Lewis Dunk. His former Peterborough team-mate Ivan Toney bullied him whenever Brentford went long. Arsenal exuded nervousness when corners and long throws came in. White looked frozen in the headlights as he let the ball bounce past him before Christian Norgaard headed in the second goal.

Ben White

At 23, White remains a work in progress. Part of the problem is that Arsenal looked in need of a leader at the back. It is not to say they were wrong to release David Luiz, but if he often had too much self-confidence Arsenal showed too little personality at the back in their first game since his departure.

White was far from the only culprit. Pablo Mari and Bernd Leno were particularly unconvincing in unconvincing attempts to play out from the back. Calum Chambers did not close Canos down enough when he scored the opener. Only Kieran Tierney of the rearguard should be spared blame, but that is scarcely a new sentiment.

 

Nathan Ake and Benjamin Mendy
Much of the talk about Manchester City has revolved around the £100m man. Behind Jack Grealish, though, were a pair whose combined cost was almost as high as his transfer fee. Benjamin Mendy and Nathan Ake amount to two of the costliest defensive reserves around, only fielded because international exploits delayed others’ return to pre-season training. Mendy has become the third-choice left-back, after Joao Cancelo and Oleksandr Zinchenko, Ake the fourth-choice centre-back. Each has shown why: Ake conceded the crucial penalty in the Community Shield. Mendy was abject against Tottenham. It scarcely felt a coincidence that Heung-Min Son cut in from City’s left flank to score Spurs’ winner, when Ake afforded him too much room to shoot. The right half of Pep Guardiola’s defence – populated by Ruben Dias and Cancelo – always felt stronger than the left side. Spurs seemed to target them. Lucas Moura troubled two men whose immediate future seems to lie on the bench.

 

Robin Koch and Bielsa’s policy of playing centre-backs in midfield
Marcelo Bielsa was discussing Robin Koch’s display in Leeds’ 5-1 defeat at Old Trafford. “He had a presence throughout,” said the Leeds manager. It was an interesting interpretation: as Fernandes scored a hat-trick, he was Koch’s immediate opponent and Bielsa likes man-marking, it was tempting to say the German was absent at all the key moments.

But if it also highlighted how Kalvin Phillips, not deemed ready to start after Euro 2020, is indispensable for Leeds and how his role goes far beyond that of the defensive midfielder in some other teams, it also shone a light on Bielsa’s selection. There is no natural deputy for Phillips and centre-backs, whether Diego Llorente, Pascal Struijk or Koch, have all taken their turn in midfield when he has been absent. They have all demonstrated they are far better as defenders. Perhaps Leeds suffered on Saturday for the way Bielsa has turned Phillips into an England international.

 

Victor Lindelof
The Swede played the pass of his life and was upstaged by a Manchester United centre-back who did not even play. Raphael Varane was unveiled and is set to end Lindelof’s time as Harry Maguire’s regular partner. Still, his assist for Fernandes’ third goal was very good.

 

Wolves’ finishing
Wolves spent much of last season being sadly tedious. Bruno Lage arrived promising a more attacking style of play. “Football without goals is nothing,” he said last week. So, inevitably, his reign began with football without goals. The positive elements were that Raul Jimenez returned and that at least Wolves had 17 shots; the negative was that only three were on target and none went in. But at least a bumper xG of 1.56 shows they were creating better chances.

 

Matt Targett
It is probably safe to assume a few Championship left-backs celebrated Watford’s promotion last season; less for any fondness for the Hornets than for the self-serving reasons that it would spare them trial by Ismaila Sarr this year. Matt Targett’s opening-day ordeal lasted 45 minutes. His respite came only in the form of an ignominious substitution with Watford 2-0 up and Sarr having scored, albeit courtesy of a deflection, and having played a part in Emmanuel Dennis’ opener. Targett’s pace has never been his greatest strength but it hardly looked good that a 36-year-old was charged with halting the speedy Sarr thereafter as summer signing Ashley Young went to left-back in the second half. As Targett was voted Villa’s players’ player of the year last season, he has plenty of credit in the bank but the arrival of high-class competition, in the Serie A winner Young, meant a dismal display felt ill-timed.

 

Draws
An endangered species after a weekend without any.

 

Richard Jolly – follow him on Twitter

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