Premier League winners and Solskjaer (plus other losers)

Date published: Tuesday 5th October 2021 8:22 - Richard Jolly

Mo Salah, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Rafael Benitez

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was the biggest loser on a weekend which saw Mo Salah and Bernardo Silva display some real brilliance…



Mohamed Salah
Salah in full flight can be an exhilarating sight and the reality that he seems to score every week should not blind us to it. Liverpool’s two goals against Manchester City were testaments to different types of thrilling running: the first in the middle third to slide a pass through to Sadio Mane for the opener, then the mesmeric dribble in the final third, spinning and slaloming away from a host of blue-shirted victims before an almost trademark finish from an acute angle. As Jurgen Klopp, with his gift for a quotable response, noted, it was the sort of goal that will be talked about at Anfield for 50 or 60 years. It had echoes of a similar sensational goal, against Mauricio Pochettino’s Tottenham, in another 2-2 draw and was further evidence Salah can torment both the rest and the best with equal relish.


Bernardo Silva
A second masterpiece in as many weekends. Like his performance against Chelsea, his display at Anfield was an indication he can be the slight figure for the big occasion. Silva can be technician, middle-distance athlete and driving force in one. The marvellous solo run that seemed to take him around in circles, past half the Liverpool team and forward by about 40 metres before he sent Phil Foden scurrying clear on goal was Silva in a nutshell, with a blend of persistence and quality. As Liverpool can testify, his best is very good. Perhaps the Portuguese’s finest game in a City shirt came against Liverpool, when he ran 13.7 kilometres in the 2-1 win in January 2019. It came during a season when he was one of the three outstanding players in the division (the best, Pep Guardiola felt). Carry on in this vein and he may touch those heights again.

Now go and read 16 Conclusions and then come back…


Rafa Benitez
Benitez’s flagship result at Old Trafford will probably always remain 2009’s 4-1 win. A draw ranks as a different sort of triumph but it was an illustration of Benitez’s acumen, his tactical nous and his capacity to configure teams. The Spaniard has given Everton the qualities they lacked at the end of Carlo Ancelotti’s reign: the sense of purpose, the attention to detail, the work ethic. And while Ancelotti held Manchester United at Old Trafford last season too, circumstances make Benitez’s draw more impressive.

Benitez can seem a paradox, a Champions League winner who is perhaps better suited to working with lesser players and on Saturday he had fewer: denied the services of Dominic Calvert-Lewin and Richarlison, he formulated a counter-attacking gameplan based around the pace of his cut-price signings Demarai Gray and Andros Townsend. They were superb. None of United’s galaxy of attacking talents shone brighter than either.

Each already has more goals than in the whole of last season while Abdoulaye Doucoure’s ball for Townsend means he has more assists. Benitez has shown a resourcefulness in making them productive. And if it feels unsustainable that Townsend and Doucoure are directly involved in a goal every 105 and 106 minutes respectively, they have earned Benitez breathing space and bought him credibility with Evertonians.


Hwang Hee-Chan
He’s only had five shots as a Wolves player. Three have been goals and they have produced two wins. The South Korean is shaping up as the new Diogo Jota, the anti-Adama Traore (given his capacity to do everything except score) and one of the season’s smartest loan signings. Quite apart from easing the scoring burden on Raul Jimenez, which is important given Pedro Neto’s absence and Wolves’ lack of other finishers, he has formed a promising partnership with the Mexican, who served as his supplier against Newcastle. Hwang also looks like the signing who has helped Bruno Lage feel at home at Molineux. The new signing has kickstarted the new manager’s reign.


Marc Cucurella
Not enough Premier League full-backs look like random members of Lynyrd Skynyrd in the 1970s but the free bird on Brighton’s left flank is much more than just a retro hairstyle. If much of the entertainment from watching Albion last season stemmed from the buccaneering runner Tariq Lamptey on the right, Cucurella’s first four games have suggested he can be a similarly compelling figure on the opposite flank; if the eye is drawn to him because of his unique look, his quality gives a reason to keep watching. He was outstanding against Arsenal and looks a terrific signing, even if it sadly means Dan Burn’s days as the world’s tallest wing-back may be over.


Arsenal’s defence
Arsenal went into the September international break with the worst defensive record in the division. They go into the October interruption with the best in the intervening period. Only Heung-Min Son, with an irrelevant consolation goal that scarcely consoled Spurs fans, has breached them.

Makeshift, ever-changing back fours were found wanting in August. Mikel Arteta’s new-look first-choice rearguard are the strangers who have shown a resilience since then and if Brighton had 21 shots in a stalemate when, with the notable exception of Emile Smith Rowe, many of Arsenal’s attack-minded players underperformed, the fact only two were on target reflected well on the overworked defence.

It was a game where they were required to excel; indeed, it was the stiffest test they have had as a unit. After his traumatic debut at Brentford, Ben White has improved and impressed, especially alongside Gabriel Magalhaes. Takehiro Tomiyasu, the right-back who can win headers, seems to have solved a problem position. Aaron Ramsdale’s mediocre start at Sheffield United cost the Blades but he has been more commanding in his first few games as a Gunner, a brilliant, diving late intervention endorsing his manager’s decision to parachute him in ahead of Bernd Leno. Factor in Kieran Tierney and it isn’t to say Arteta’s young and costly quintet are the new Seaman, Dixon, Bould, Adams and Winterburn, but Arsenal have a platform. As they used to, they may be building from the back.

Takehiro Tomiyasu urges his team on


Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Ross Barkley
Neither would be at Stamford Bridge if Chelsea had proved as adept at offloading senior players on sizeable salaries as they were at selling younger men in the summer. Chelsea’s less than subtle way of trying to usher Barkley to the exit involved initially denying him a squad number. Yet victory against Southampton came in part due to two they tried to exile and who have provided a response. Barkley’s diagonal ball to Cesar Azpilicueta led to Timo Werner restoring the lead. Loftus-Cheek got the flick-on for Trevoh Chalobah’s equaliser. More pertinently, he showed he can play the deeper role in midfield where, with Saul Niguez’s slow start to life in England, they feel short-staffed. As a presence from box to box, Loftus-Cheek may spend less time behind the ball than Mateo Kovacic or Jorginho, but reinventing himself could revive his Chelsea career. Given the competition for places as No. 10s, however, Barkley’s cameo, influential as it was, may lead to fewer opportunities.


Diego Llorente
Leeds’ first clean sheet of the season came with the return of their classiest centre-back; for good measure, Llorente showed a striker’s assurance with the finish for the only goal. And, after the basketball-like nature of Leeds’ earlier games, Llorente kept Watford so quiet Ben Foster thought they had no shots on target.


But for Leandro Trossard’s late goal for Brighton three weeks ago, they would still be unbeaten in the top flight since 1947. As it is, it remains a hugely impressive start and Yoane Wissa’s 94th-minute winner at West Ham means Thomas Frank’s team have had injury-time drama to savour. Their headline results may remain the opening win against Arsenal and last week’s draw with Liverpool. In a sense, however, beating West Ham may be the most admirable yet. Week by week, they show differing attributes to indicate why they should stay up with something to spare: their defence began with four clean sheets in five, but their attacking play has yielded seven goals in three.


Patrick Vieira
Two goals from two substitutions were further signs that, while Vieira has a solitary win, he has made an encouraging start.


Ole Gunnar Solskjaer
The increasingly beleaguered Solskjaer feels a loser too often of late but at half-time, he could reflect with some satisfaction on a choice which had confounded many. Antony Martial was goalless since February. His two starts this season had brought a dismal personal performance against Southampton and Carabao Cup elimination against West Ham. Even as Solskjaer made five changes and sought to rest Cristiano Ronaldo, Paul Pogba and Jadon Sancho after their midweek exertions against Villarreal, it seemed Jesse Lingard had presented a far stronger case to step in. And then Martial scored.

The sense of vindication did not last long. Solskjaer’s United often look susceptible on the counter-attack and duly conceded from one; not quite in as embarrassing a fashion as in the infamous goal Istanbul Basaksehir scored last season, but reviving memories of a chance Villarreal had on Wednesday and in turn suggesting lessons have not been learned.

Nor are other elements improving: they have a solitary clean sheet in 18 games and true as Solskjaer’s riposte that they only concede one a game is, others have the organisation to get rather more shut-outs. They look less a team than a collection of individuals, some mismatched. Neither the wholesale rotation nor the reversion to the expensive omissions, in Ronaldo, Sancho and Pogba, truly worked. And if the eventual sight of Ronaldo stalking down the tunnel after a draw with an injury-hit Everton may have merely reflected his expressive body language, it felt another indictment of Solskjaer. Bench Ronaldo and fail to win and it invites criticism of a manager with questionable credentials. Some of it, at least, is fair.


Xisco Munoz
It only took a first defeat in three games for Munoz to enter the Watford manager vortex, something that results in the sudden disappearance of coaches with more than respectable records. Admittedly, Watford were dreadful at Elland Road but the club’s statement that “recent performances strongly indicate a negative trend” felt an exaggeration. There was a paradox in arguing that Watford needed more cohesion and then making a change.

Munoz’s record would not be grounds for dismissal at any other club, but the revolving door carries on revolving. The likeable Spaniard surely knew how this would end and, if not necessarily when, probably didn’t bother transporting all his possessions to Hertfordshire.

He leaves with the joint highest winning percentage of any manager in Watford’s history and if the task has changed since his appointment, to avoiding relegation from winning promotion, it reflects a job well done last season. This was a pre-emptive streak and the wisdom or foolishness of it will be apparent in May. But the callousness leaves a sour taste. It is unlikely to worry Watford’s powerbrokers, but they should not expect much sympathy if a Munoz-less team go down.


James Ward-Prowse
The Southampton captain seems to have taken on still more responsibility at a club who have lost senior figures in Danny Ings, Ryan Bertrand and Jannik Vestergaard. With a quarter of an hour remaining at Stamford Bridge, there was further evidence he was relishing the greater burden: his penalty seemed to have put Southampton on course for a laudable point, to accompany hard-earned draws against both Manchester clubs.

Then came the lunge at Jorginho, the sort that, while not malicious, is sufficiently dangerous to merit a red card. Perhaps it showed the added risks of high pressing in slippery conditions. Maybe, as certain 9-0 defeats show, Ralph Hasenhuttl’s teams can find it particularly difficult to play with 10 men. Perhaps Chelsea’s extra quality would have told anyway, but they duly applied extra pressure and scored a further two goals.

And Ward-Prowse’s run of 7547 minutes of consecutive Premier League football, dating back to May 2019, ended. When he is suspended against Leeds in two weeks’ time, it will be the first time he has played no part in a Southampton Premier League game since 2018. It is good news for the former Saint Wayne Bridge, however, whose record of most consecutive minutes in the division by an outfielder – some 10,160 – will be unchallenged for a bit longer.


Brendan Rodgers
At least Leicester won’t spend about 90 percent of this season in the top four and then fail to qualify for the Champions League, but this feels the toughest spell of Rodgers’ time at Leicester. Even after Joachim Andersen gifted them the lead after Crystal Palace dominated at Selhurst Park, they contrived to give up a two-goal advantage. It had the feel of Rodgers’ Liverpool at their most careless and chaotic and suggests the Northern Irishman they may need to engineer a revival is Jonny Evans: yet to play this season, he has been sorely missed as Caglar Soyuncu and co have looked less secure in his absence.


Jack Grealish
Partly because Pep Guardiola gave an added threat by taking Grealish away from the left flank and putting Phil Foden there to have a meal of Milner on toast. But also because Grealish offered an illustration that not every attack-minded midfielder for a Pep Guardiola team is a natural false nine. He may only be City’s fourth finest false nine, but Foden, Kevin de Bruyne and Bernardo Silva were all required elsewhere. Yet the more worrying element for Grealish was that Foden’s display indicated he could be preferred to the £100 million man on the left more often.


Matej Vydra
And not merely because he only has three goals in his last 45 league games and the only strikers to score in the Premier League for Burnley this season are Chris Wood and Jamie Vardy, which suggests the Clarets are overly reliant on one of them. A stalemate with Norwich was more painful for Vydra than most, regardless of whether he retains his place. The Czech got punched in the head by Tim Krul; the ludicrous double standards around goalkeepers, who seem entitled to clatter anyone and expect a free kick whenever they are touched, somehow meant he did not get a penalty. Sean Dyche often likes to point out that Burnley get very few penalties, without mentioning that their players are rarely fouled in the box. This time one was. It ought to have brought a red card as well.


The winless four
Perhaps their only consolation is that, as three others are in the same situation, they can’t all be relegated. And yet this is a historically bad start from a group of teams, only the second time, after 1964/65, when four teams failed to win in the first seven. But as a quartet, they have work to do to avoid being cut adrift; they are already behind Watford and miles off Brentford, let alone Brighton.

Perhaps, as the league table is taking shape, it is taking on an accurate look, with Southampton just above the dotted line, though Newcastle may argue that 19th place is mildly unflattering when seemingly the two poorest teams met at Turf Moor. For Burnley and Norwich, the damning part is that they couldn’t even beat each other and couldn’t even score against each other. It doesn’t bode well for their chances of winning against anyone else.

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