Premier League (nonsense) winners and losers

Date published: Monday 5th October 2020 3:03

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer gets a kicking in the losers. But first, how much fun is this?

Winners

Premier League nonsense

We’ll get onto the analysis soon, but can we just take a minute – actually, the whole international break – to bask in the glory of this nonsensical Premier League season. We entered September unsure of how a shortened break, relentless schedule and continued absence of match-going supporters might affect the quality of the top flight. The initial answer is that it has made the whole thing go batshit loopy.

We’ve already had more upsets, ludicrous scorelines and hat-tricks as we might expect over the course of a normal season. Nobody knows what foolishness the next week will bring. To clarify: I’m having the time of my sodding life watching it.

 

Jose Mourinho

A superb fortnight for a manager battling to prove that he is still relevant and capable of taking Tottenham forward. Spurs rampaged in the second half against Southampton, swatted aside their European opponents, dominated Newcastle United and should have won comfortably and then embarrassed Mourinho’s former club in their own home.

When Mourinho was appointed by Tottenham, he claimed that he had learned from his previous sackings and changed as a manager. That was probably a reference to the bridge-burning that haunted his inevitable decline at each club, but we also wondered whether the pragmatist could become an entertainer. Less than a month into the new season and Tottenham have already scored five, six and seven goals in a game. When Manchester United finished second in 2017/18, they scored 30 away goals in 19 matches; Mourinho’s Spurs have 11 in two so far. Maybe he has changed after all.

If you were to design the perfect recipe for a glorious Mourinho victory, there would be a few vital ingredients. You would want it to follow perceived injustice, Tottenham’s manager left fuming after the late penalty awarded against Eric Dier for handball. That has long been a fuel for Mourinho’s fire.

You would also want a high-profile match against an opponent with easily identifiable weaknesses. One of the criticisms of Mourinho is that he is – or has become – a reactive manager, altering his system to counteract the strengths of the opposition rather than imposing his own plan. But here, it felt like he did the opposite. Mourinho spotted that Luke Shaw could be Manchester United’s weak link and picked Erik Lamela with the instruction to drag Shaw infield. That created acres of glorious green grass for Serge Aurier to sprint into – he was picked over Matt Doherty because of his pace.

With Harry Kane dropping deep and taking the wretched Harry Maguire with him, another gaping hole was created in United’s defence and Son Heung-Min delighted in that. Ideally Maguire would have stayed put and allowed Nemanja Matic to pick up Kane, but Matic has the mobility of a wheelie bin these days and doesn’t get any support from his central midfield colleagues.

Finally, you would want Mourinho to have an added incentive to win and win big, and there’s no place like a former home to inspire his best work. We know enough about Jose to be sure that he believes his decline at Old Trafford was accelerated by the incompetence of those above him, and he will have winced at being replaced by a comparative novice. Mourinho was good enough to show sympathy for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer post-match, but inside he was dancing. There’s life in the old dog yet.

Now go and read 16 Conclusions

 

A new-look, new-feel Aston Villa

I do not like the phrase ‘won the transfer window’. It gives even more credence to football being played out in transfer rumour columns in a sport that has already become obsessed by the insatiable demand for new signings, diluting the focus on how coaches can – and should – improve players rather than just buying them.

But Aston Villa certainly did sensible business over the course of a shortened break. They needed a striker, right-back, goalkeeper and creative central midfielder to reduce the onus on – and create space for – Jack Grealish. Against Liverpool, all four of those players proved their worth and justified the investment. Matty Cash and Ollie Watkins look made for the Premier League. Ross Barkley played with a swagger and verve that we have not seen since the year before he made his move to Chelsea.

These performances come along once every five years, if you’re lucky, the nights when everything goes right and nothing goes wrong and everything you touch turns to goals and life feels temporarily slanted in your direction. But the rarity of these glorious passages of unspeakably enjoyable play only increases the joy supporters must take from them. Cling to these when you’re losing at home to West Brom and Burnley.

Sunday night also represents – albeit in an extreme way – this new-look, new-feel Aston Villa. They have rid themselves of last season’s hangover and the weeks in which it looked like Dean Smith might lose his job. Last season it took until Boxing Day for Villa to reach 15 points. They’re on nine after three games and they have already scored more than a quarter of last season’s league goals.

 

Everton, where hope lives again

It doesn’t take much to make football supporters feel better. It doesn’t require a miracle to lift the misery and the tedium. One signing, one result, one managerial masterstroke, one player improved by coaching – that is all it takes. Fans often get accused of being unnecessarily – and unfairly – pessimistic, but all we want is a reason to believe. Belief comes with the proof that everyone at a club is pulling in the same direction after weeks, months, years of piecemeal commitment to that principle.

Everton supporters believe again. In James Rodriguez they have an attacking midfielder who makes them impatiently anticipate Saturday 3pm rather than fear it. In Dominic Calvert-Lewin they might just have the new Harry Kane, a centre forward in whom we are waiting for a reversion to the mean that just never comes until the mean itself has shifted up. In Carlo Ancelotti they have a coach who they can have faith is truly the best man for his job.

And suddenly hope rushes in to fill the gaps created by past agony. The sporting cliche is that hope will eventually kill you but the truth is that without it you’re already dead. Of course Everton supporters are still waiting for the fall (probably delivered by Liverpool, naturally) because they have been hardwired to expect it, but that doesn’t stop them having fun along the way.

How couldn’t they when their team has won seven straight matches to start the season? How couldn’t they when Everton have scored four or more goals in four of their last five games? How couldn’t they when they finally have a functional midfield led by a purring South American gem who has already matched the goals and assists total of any Everton midfielder last season? And yes, how couldn’t they when Liverpool concede seven?

There is a handy comparison to make with Leicester City here, who also landed a coup when appointing a manager in mid-season and then saw him use his first season break to redesign his cub’s style of play and led them into the top six. Brendan Rodgers refined Jamie Vardy to make him an efficient attacking machine; Ancelotti has done the same with Calvert-Lewin.

We have heard plenty about the limitations of the relentless schedule this season, but it also creates opportunity. Playing more midweek matches than ever before dictates that momentum – good and bad – may well be more crucial than ever before and right now Everton’s players must want a match every other day. If Ancelotti can prolong this move after an international break and with their fiercest rivals to come next, there is no reason why Everton’s fine start cannot continue deep into the autumn and fuel a genuine top-six salvo.

Most importantly of all, one of the great pragmatists of modern football management has brought the fun back to Goodison. Long may it continue.

 

Chelsea’s goalscoring defenders

There is a degree of irony in Chelsea signing a group of expensive attacking players over the course of a single summer and then getting bailed out by those who typically operate in their own half of the pitch. Chelsea have scored 10 goals in their first four games. Jorginho and Kurt Zouma are their two top scorers. Jorginho, Reece James, Cesar Azpilicueta and Ben Chilwell have provided four of their five assists. James is their top chance creator.

But perhaps that makes some sense. After a shortened preseason, it stands to reason that Chelsea’s new attackers will take time to gel together. Timo Werner has had 11 shots without scoring, Kai Havertz has had just six touches in the opposition box, Christian Pulisic came off the bench against Palace and Hakim Ziyech isn’t even fit yet. On Saturday the 4-0 scoreline flattered Chelsea.

But you just see if Frank Lampard cares. Part of the reason for buying new players is to demand more from those existing options who must increase their own level to justify inclusion. Mason Mount and Reece James were both excellent in Chelsea’s first three league games but were benched on Saturday.

If Chelsea can share the goals around more than last season, all the better for it. Chelsea defenders scored nine league goals in 2019/20 but already have four this season. Lampard’s theory is that when the attack clicks – and it will – Chelsea will become irrepressibly free-scoring.

 

Leeds United vs Manchester City

The last 30 minutes on Saturday evening met all of our pre-match expectations. ‘Tactical’ is often used as a euphemism for stalemate, but here were two of the tactical behemoths of the modern game facing each other and the end result was chaos.

The final throes became an expanded five-a-side match with midfield almost entirely absent. You have a go, we have a go. You fire arrows, we shoot cannons. Rampaging, absorbing, cacophonous football, sport at its captivating best. Pep Guardiola and Marcelo Bielsa met at full-time with an embrace of mutual congratulation. Same again in Manchester, el compañero?

It is very difficult to draw any lasting conclusions from that 30-minute circus. Guardiola will clearly be the least happy, given how insistent he is on the importance of control and given how commanding Manchester City were in the first half. We can deduce as much from the introduction of Fernandinho, intended to wrestle back that lost control but merely equivalent to opening an umbrella in a hurricane.

But stuff the conclusions for now; they can come later. We can fall too easily – particularly in a weekly analysis column – of investing too much into both the result of a match and its minutiae. Sometimes boys and girls just wanna witness some fun. So embrace the chaos and revel in the mayhem. This is why we watch football.

 

Callum Wilson

The last Newcastle United player to score more than 12 league goals in a top-flight season was Loic Remy in 2013/14. Last season their top scorer was Jonjo Shelvey with six and he only started 25 league games. Joelinton toiled as the No. 9 in a role he’s rarely played before in a system that didn’t suit him and was often playing in his own postcode as Newcastle sat back and defended. Only Shelvey has scored more league goals for Newcastle since the start of last season than Callum Wilson and he’s been there five minutes.

On Saturday evening we saw the difference Wilson can make. He has always been prone to missing presentable chances, but this season Newcastle actually have a striker able and intent to make the type of penalty-box runs that make chance creation more likely. Too often the onus lies with creative players for that. It is a two-way street.

There is also good reason to think that this will get better. Wilson has scored his four goals from just nine shots and with 18 penalty-box touches. With Allan Saint-Maximin returning to his effervescent best against Burnley, Joelinton finally – and unsurprisingly – looking comfortable when allowed to drift wide (as he did at Hoffenheim) and with Ryan Fraser and Miguel Almiron offering better competition for places, Newcastle actually have a serviceable attacking plan. It’s no shock that they instantly look better for it. The hope is that Steve Bruce dares to persevere with it away from home.

 

West Ham

Their supporters are – rightly – furious with the owners, they have a collection of expensive attackers who they don’t really want and can’t really sell, they were plunged into crisis after one match of the season and that didn’t even feel like knee-jerking and they’re eighth in the Premier League. Nonsense club, I’m telling you.

 

Ollie Watkins

Less than five years ago, Watkins was still to make his first Exeter City start in League Two having been loaned to Weston-Super-Mare in the Conference South the previous season. Now he’s scoring hat-tricks against the Premier League champions. Dreams can come true.

 

Penalty-takers

This is getting silly. The most penalties awarded in a Premier League season is 112, but at the current rate (25 in 38 games) we will have 250 in 2020/21. The handball law changes only offer a part-explanation. We know have a firm hypothesis: Defenders that don’t enjoy full preseasons and spend enough time on the training ground make stupid decisions.

 

Losers

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer

The most dispiriting part of Manchester United’s latest dive into ignominy is that they lost Sunday’s game twice. In the first half they were undone by their own defensive sloppiness, inattentiveness and downright incompetence. To those who think that the manager can’t be blamed for that, think on. It is exactly their job to instil discipline, concentration and some, any sort of plan into a team; United had none of the three.

At half-time, with the game lost and United a man down, Solskjaer presumably demanded that his players show some resolve. Whatever happens, we do not get embarrassed. We play for pride, hold our own and stop this misstep from becoming a catastrophe. United promptly came out for the second half and did nothing of the sort. They conceded within five minutes, lost their heads, should have had another man sent off and conceded a penalty. If this was a team fighting for its manager, he’s already lost the war.

Unsurprisingly (and understandably, to an extent) there were Manchester United supporters lining up to blame those off the field. Everyone could spot the gaps in this squad and the answer appears to be an expensive, aged Edinson Cavani and a left-back that few other clubs were interested in even for a cut-price fee. That criticism is fair. United’s recruitment is shambolic and the club will not win the title until that changes.

But offering a prosecution of his seniors is not the same as offering a defence of Solskjaer. A man who has been in the job for almost two years is repeatedly proving that he isn’t up to the task. The third-place finish last season was clearly a success, but came with caveats. United lost their two biggest matches of the season when favourites (FA Cup and Europa League semi-finals) and they were hugely fortunate that a low points total was required for a top-four finish. Their 66 points last season was two more than David Moyes and Ryan Giggs achieved in 2013/14. Moyes lost his job and Giggs wasn’t kept on as caretaker.

Another excuse we hear is that the players aren’t good enough and so this isn’t Solskjaer’s fault. But that makes a mockery of what football management is – or least was – supposed to be. Of course squads need updating and improving, but you also might expect the manager of one of the biggest clubs in the world to command more from what he has. Manchester United’s starting XI on Sunday cost them £429m to buy and two of those were outrageously talented academy graduates. The defence cost £190m and has looked shaky in every match this season. If you can make a case that United will not win the title without improving the squad, that’s no excuse for Crystal Palace, Brighton and the shameful abdication of duty against Tottenham on Sunday.

United will go on good runs under Solskjaer. He seems to have a knack of provoking a winning streak with his ‘arm around the shoulder’ management and these players are too talented to always play badly. But we have seen nothing yet to suggest that he has the tactical depth to make United greater than the sum of their expensive parts and we know he lacks the successful experience too. Solskjaer described Sunday as his worst moment as a manager. That’s saying something given that he lost to Sunderland and Newcastle by a combined 7-0 in the space of a week to relegate Cardiff City in 2014.

As for the notion that changing the manager will make no difference – “Look at Moyes, Van Gaal and Mourinho” – well…maybe it won’t. But maybe it will. There might be doubts about both, but is Mauricio Pochettino a better manager than Solskjaer? Is Julian Nagelsmann? If so, why not try and approach them before someone else does?

Moyes was the misguided choice of his predecessor, Van Gaal was way past his best when he arrived and Mourinho took United to second on 81 points with a worse squad than the one Solskjaer possesses. Mourinho’s departure became inevitable when he succumbed to the usual combustion, but it worked better than this with worse than this for a while. The one thing United haven’t tried is a younger, more relevant coach with tactical acumen.

Solskajer could have no complaints if he was sacked this week. The bleak reality is that you could survey the fans of the other 43 clubs in the Premier League and Championship and only a handful would happily swap their own manager with the manager of Manchester United. That in itself should embarrass the club. Solskjaer’s deep connection with the club counts for something, but it is simply not enough to account for the shortfall on his CV.

This is not an attack on Solskjaer. He seems a manager desperate to succeed and who feels the pain of humiliating defeat more than most because of his affinity to the club. But this isn’t a school sports day. You can’t simultaneously demand that Manchester United become more ruthless and efficient off the pitch and believe that Solskjaer should stay in his position when he is so clearly not the best person for it. This experiment has now run its course.

 

Liverpool’s bombshell

Some – hi Roy Keane! – might say that chickens have come home to a roost. Marcelo Bielsa and Mikel Arteta both spotted the potential flaw in Liverpool’s high defensive line. If you could pass quickly and accurately to get beyond the press, one well-timed surge from midfield or a striker arcing their run could set you clear. Where Leeds and Arsenal tried and failed, Villa flourished.

Never before have the reigning Premier League champions conceded seven times. Never before have we witnessed Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool slump so limply and be humiliated so emphatically. Never before have we seen Klopp demonstrate such a lack of intent to immediately fix a system that simply wasn’t working.

Could this have a longer-lasting reaction? Perhaps. Klopp will be relieved to have the next fortnight free in which to work on an alternative defensive plan. The high line has great merit, but it relies upon the press further up the field being almost faultless. Jordan Henderson and Sadio Mane are two of Liverpool’s keenest pressers. Without them Liverpool were made to look fragmented and fragile, issues exacerbated by the absence of Alisson breathing confidence into those ahead of him.

But it will also have sent out a message to the other 18 Premier League clubs, if indeed Leeds’ three goals didn’t do that already. In 2018/19, Liverpool’s defence had an aura, Virgil van Dijk untouchable and the full-backs not worth attacking because if you lost the ball they’d counter you and create chances. Now it’s Liverpool who are vulnerable to the counter – Villa had 31 percent possession and scored seven times.

The aura has now gone. Liverpool conceded more goals on Sunday evening than they did before Christmas in 2018/19. They don’t possess a cheat code that renders them immune to pressure. They can be pulled out of position and – more importantly – you can get in behind them if you counter at pace. Watching how Klopp reacts to such a meticulous dismantling of his defensive system will be fascinating.

 

Burnley, finally succumbing to reality?

Burnley suffering a losing streak is nothing new: They have lost three league games in a row 10 times since August 2018. Burnley starting a season slowly is nothing new either: In 2018/19 they took one point from their first five matches to provoke talk of crisis before taking seven points from the next nine available.

There are also obvious reasons for the current slump. Jack Cork, Matthew Lowton, Jay Rodriguez and Ben Mee – all currently injured – started 99 league games last season and Burnley’s squad is not big enough to cope with those absentees. Sean Dyche will also claim misfortune; Burnley have allowed their opponents 12 shots on target and conceded eight goals. That run is unlikely to continue for long, even if Nick Pope has started the season in patchy form.

But there is an argument that this sluggish start should cause serious concern in Burnley’s boardroom and amongst their supporters. For the first time in years, there is a suspicion that those off the field are guilty of causing Burnley’s problems and preventing Dyche from solving them. Burnley’s only summer business was to replace one third-choice goalkeeper with another and sign Dale Stephens as a replacement for Jeff Hendrick. That represents a step down.

Crucially, that lack of transfer market action is affecting morale at Turf Moor. “I don’t think it is ideal,” said Dyche when questioned on that point on Saturday evening. “It is not the perfect situation for us but it is the reality of what it is.”

Morale is Burnley’s oxygen. They have succeeded so brilliantly in the brilliant because Dyche has motivated his players to bruise the noses of bigger and richer clubs. When his own contentment is dented, so too is Burnley’s ability to continue to over-achieve. Dyche has made no secret of the need to improve a small squad facing an intense season. The board will be due the blame if this goes south quickly.

And it might. Clubs like Burnley have no insurance policy against dropping like a stone and it doesn’t take much for everything to take on a negative slant. Last season Bournemouth proved the difficulty that long-serving managers can have in addressing problems that eventually haunt their clubs and relegate them. An unhappy Dyche is an unhappy Burnley and an unhappy Burnley are not good enough to stay up. A big 48 hours awaits.

 

Manchester City’s new problem

Defensive uncertainty and a tendency to collapse and concede goals in clusters has been an issue through Pep Guardiola’s tenure in Manchester, but until this season they were at least consistent on one thing. When they took the lead, City won matches.

Between Guardiola’s appointment in 2016 and the end of last season, City dropped between five and nine points in each season in those matches when they took the lead. This was a significant sample size – City either ranked first or second in the division in each season for the number of matches in which they took the lead. There was a general pattern: Score first against City and you unnerved them; concede first and you were done for.

This season, a new problem. City have taken the lead in all three league games so far but have already dropped five points when scoring first. That’s as many as they did the entirety of 2017/18 when winning the title.

It’s an issue that Guardiola could do without, given the questions accumulating over City’s apparent inability to remain dominant across large periods of matches. Instead they enjoy 10-15-minute periods in which they overpower opponents who know that they only need to weather the storm and wait for the inevitable drop-off in intensity, particularly when City are out of possession. The reasons to fear this City team are evaporating. The reasons to have hope that they might leave the door open for you to ransack their house are increasing.

 

Leicester City

Fair play, that’s how to kill the good mood in the space of one dismal performance. Get well soon, Wilfred Ndidi.

 

Daniel Storey

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