West Ham’s best supporting actors
Every season, this column has its least favourite club. That club loses shambolically and wins magnificently against all expectation from one week to the next, making me look utterly foolish as I have to pour scorn and praise in roughly equal measure over an eight-day cycle. In 2018/19, that club was West Ham. In 2019/20, that club was West Ham. This season, that club is West Ham.
One victory, however stirring it may have been, does not evaporate West Ham’s problems. Storm clouds this dark do not disappear that quickly. But there was something very interesting about West Ham’s thumping of Wolves and the star turns within it. Look who didn’t start: Felipe Anderson, Andriy Yarmolenko, Manuel Lanzini, Sebastien Haller – four expensive signings that arrived with lofty reputations and simply haven’t turned up over the last 18 months. Mark Noble was on the bench too, previously crowbarred into an attacking midfield role that seemed designed purely to make sure the captain was in the team rather than because he was the best option for that position.
Michail Antonio, Jarrod Bowen and Tomas Soucek may be on lower wages and have joined for lesser fees than those aforementioned four players, but they also look prepared to muck in and carry their team rather than holding out their arms in frustration and expecting others to do it for them.
That must set a precedent for David Moyes: Forget the reputation and the transfer fee and pick your team on personality and recent form. If those absentees want to get back into the starting XI, demand that they prove their worth in training and off the bench. If they do respond and create added competition for places, all the better. Right now, Bowen, Soucek and Antonio are the best three attacking players in West Ham’s squad. At least until they lose their next four matches by a combined scoreline of 12-1 and make me look utterly stupid again.
Jamie Vardy, efficient and brilliant
Brendan Rodgers’ greatest achievement as Leicester City manager is to change the way in which Jamie Vardy plays, refining a brilliant pest into a brilliantly efficient veteran centre forward.
Part of ageing as a player – particularly important as a striker – is to distil what makes you tick while reducing any unnecessarily expended energy. Rather than making 50 runs and getting the ball 15 times, make 15 runs and get the ball 10 times. Think of it like making the perfect sauce: reduce the liquid and the flavour gets more intense.
Against Manchester City, we saw the perfect example of this new age of Vardy. He touched the ball 21 times but scored a hat-trick and won both of the penalties he dispatched into top-left and bottom-right corners of the goal. Against a defence that defended as if it had never watched Vardy play before, he picked the perfect moments to steal a march and run in behind.
The build up (and finish from Vardy) is a thing of pure beauty. If this was Liverpool, Barcelona, Man Utd etc we’d be seeing it on a loop everywhere. Pure poetry 👏🏼 #lcfc
— Mr Geoff Peters (@mrgeoffpeters) September 27, 2020
Changing your game is far easier said than done, particularly for a personality like Vardy’s that thrives on being involved in play. But just as with every other step this remarkable striker has taken over the last five years, he has made it look frighteningly easy. That speaks to something very easily overlooked, given his combative style: A brilliant football brain.
Watch how often Vardy doesn’t just make a run, but the right run. Watch how often he scores with his first touch, proof of a perfectly-timed movement towards the ball and a telepathic understanding with his teammates. Watch how often he produces a shot that takes a goalkeeper completely by surprise (the volley away at West Brom, the long-range strike against Liverpool, the impudent chipped flick on Sunday). Every season he gets better. Every season he surprises us with the depth of his game.
I’m not saying that they’re going to win the league, but Leicester City have won their first three league matches and scored five goals in a match. They didn’t manage either of those in 2015/16.
Yet another winning goal. Since the start of last season, only one Premier League player has scored more goals than Ings and he’s above him in this section. Those goals have earned Southampton 19 points. For all the talk of Tottenham trying to prise him away in the final fortnight of the transfer window, Ralph Hasenhuttl will stress that Ings is irreplaceable however high the asking price.
The least surprising aspect of Ings’ performance against Burnley is that he scored with his only shot. His 25 Premier League goals since August 2019 have come from just 99 shots, and eight players in the league have attempted more. That hints at a remarkably efficient conversion rate, so let’s look at those figures too: Of the 168 players to have attempted 20 or more shots in the Premier League since the start of last season, none have a better shot-to-goal ratio.
Chelsea’s academy players
You buy four attacking players in Kai Havertz, Timo Werner, Hakim Ziyech and Christian Pulisic, and then you get back into your second league game of the season with goals from three academy graduates whose place in the team is at risk thanks to your spending spree.
Mason Mount had seven shots, but it was the introduction of Callum Hudson-Odoi that changed the game. Hudson-Odoi has become Chelsea’s forgotten attacker, playing 89 minutes in the Premier League since the end of January, but his creative spark and determination to drive at defenders (something absent from Havertz so far) makes him unique when Pulisic is unavailable. There’s a reason Bayern Munich were so keen.
Last week this column reflected upon Southampton’s inability to win possession as often as they need for their pressing to be successful in the absence of Pierre Emile-Hojbjerg. Against Burnley, Hasenhuttl had clearly told Romeu that he needed to be more active across the pitch to make up the shortfall and it worked brilliantly.
Against Tottenham last week, Romeu failed to win possession once in 90 minutes. Against Burnley, he did so 12 times. Evidence of him pressing higher and wider comes with his distance covered statistics: 10.9km vs 6.6km last week. Southampton may still need to dip into the transfer market to solve the issue – they’re still one senior midfielder short – but Romeu did a passable Hojbjerg impression to kick start Southampton’s season.
Trebled his top-flight career goals total during a first half in which Robinson produced two excellent finishes with both feet and took advantage of Thiago Silva’s brainfart. Robinson never really got a chance at Sheffield United last season (nine league starts) but is likely to start every league games when fit at West Brom and receive decent service from two creative attacking midfielders.
Have we found the reverse Robert Earnshaw, just-not-quite in the Championship but too good for the Premier League?
That same old Manchester City problem
This week Manchester City will sign Ruben Dias from Benfica for a fee of £65m. Perhaps he will be the defender that solves Pep Guardiola’s defensive headaches, making Sunday an aberration. But you’ll forgive me and many others from doubting it. John Stones wasn’t the answer. Danilo wasn’t the answer. Joao Cancelo wasn’t the answer. This type of defensive collapse has become ingrained in this club. If two seasons of high-end performance is too long a period to simply ignore, City’s defensive incompetence has come roaring back since.
Every one of these defeats contains the same hallmarks. City enjoy long periods of possession but are either unable to convert that into clear opportunities or take the clear opportunities that do come their way and kill off the game. They also allow setbacks to have a catastrophic impact on their state of mind. Far too often last season they conceded goals in clusters. Against Leicester on Sunday, they did it twice: Two in six minutes and then two in 12 minutes.
Partly this just comes down to defensive dimness. You know Jamie Vardy is going to run in behind you, so for goodness sake be prepared to watch him at all times and for goodness sake don’t bundle him over in the penalty area if you haven’t watched him. You know Harvey Barnes is going to sprint up the pitch when Leicester win possession, so for goodness sake press your opponent when you lose the ball.
But there is also a clearly mental deficiency here. This type of defeat doesn’t happen with such regularity without it. And perhaps that is an issue of Guardiola’s management. Everything is so exact, and the instructions so precise, that his style appears to have blocked City’s players from taking individual responsibility and seizing control of a situation when it goes wrong.
For all the capability in this squad, where are the leaders? Ederson is quiet, Fernandinho is quiet, Aymeric Laporte is quiet, Mahrez is quiet, De Bruyne usually leads by example but is quiet. The loss of Vincent Kompany on the pitch was not disastrous. In the dressing room, it might have been. Was he the perfect conduit between manager and players?
The cat is now out of the bag. Manchester City will still sweep teams aside with gay abandon when everything clicks, but there is no need to be afraid. Sit off without countering and you will pay the price, but look to unnerve City defensively and watch them capitulate like novices. If that fatal flaw remains throughout this season, it will surely be Guardiola’s last in England.
Frank Lampard, asking for trouble
Have you heard the children’s fable about the manager who only wanted to score goals? His team was brilliant in the final third but conceded far too many and then the manager was allowed to spend money. Exciting attacking players became available and he bought them because he could and not because he should.
Chelsea have become a control experiment for how a side can remain flawed if you attempt to fight fire with firepower. Lampard allows both of his full-backs to push forward – Reece James created six chances, a Premier League high this season. But that counts for precious little if the defence is exposed.
Of course this style of football can work. Liverpool do something similar, albeit with one extra central midfielder and one fewer attacker. But then Liverpool press far harder and more successfully than Chelsea and also seem to be more determined to sprint back into defensive positions when possession is lost high up the pitch. Liverpool also play with a higher defensive line, a risky strategy but one that reduces the gap between attack and defence. With a deeper defensive line, Chelsea were effectively playing with a 2-2-6 formation in the first half at the Hawthorns.
The other crucial difference between Liverpool and Chelsea is the pace of their central defenders. Leaving such obvious defensive gaps might work if Chelsea had Joe Gomez and Virgil van Dijk, but operating the same policy with Silva and Andreas Christensen is ludicrously naive. There’s no point buying an ageing – albeit excellent – central defender if you’re going to ask him to learn a completely new role that asks questions he cannot answer. Signing Ben Chilwell and Edouard Mendy won’t solve those issues.
Lampard is in a pickle here because his margin for error has been reduced while the issues of last season have not been solved. We expect a title challenge after such a significant transfer market outlay, but they won’t get close until their manager instils a better balance in the team. With four attacking players starting and full-backs bombing on, Chelsea created overloads in one final third and allowed them in the other. This was chaos football. You don’t challenge for titles with chaos and no control.
The new handball rule
No sport values its scores higher than football and its average of 2.5-3 goals per match. The only sports that come close are rugby and NFL (roughly five tries or touchdowns per match) and both provide teams with alternate methods for accumulating points.
That’s one of the reasons that there is so much pressure on refereeing decisions. It’s not just that the money makes it matter so much, but that every decision is potentially game-changing.
It also makes the laws that govern that decision-making crucial. Refereeing always – and will always – relies upon a margin for interpretation that is inevitable when human beings make judgements. The job of the rules is to reduce the amount of uncertainty and, ideally, reduce the amount in which borderline decisions affect the outcome of the result.
It’s early days, but I think we already conclude that they have got this new handball rule badly wrong. Watch Joel Ward’s ‘offence’ again. He’s two yards away from Lucas Digne, whose header gives him 0.2 seconds to react. His left arm is not touching the side of his body, but then that is an unrealistic expectation anyway. It also wasn’t flailing wildly above his waist or outstretched to deliberately block the ball.
Partly this is a VAR issue. When the referee is invited to check the replay by the VAR official, he is persuaded to agree with them. Their authority has been questioned, and it would take a bold referee to say “no, I’ve looked at that and I think you are wrong and I’m right”. Playing these incidents at super-slow-motion speed creates an air of guilt that is absent at full-speed, and thus over-penalises defending players.
But really this comes down to the law. If its interpretation at Selhurst Park was indeed correct (which given the use of multiple officials we have to assume it was), the law is an ass. Having your arm more than 10cm away from your body should not be an offence, and if the law uses the term ‘unnatural’ it’s far more natural for a defender to have his arm where Ward did than having it stuck fast to your side. The fact that defenders are finding this so difficult and managers are so despondent about the changes proves that.
This will not be the last controversy (although I won’t bother repeating myself every week). Games, seasons change on marginal decisions like this. The least we should expect of new laws is that they seem fair. The new handball rule doesn’t.
Manchester United’s attacking system
It might seem a little odd to include Manchester United’s attacking in the losers section after a weekend in which they scored three times, but any United supporter who watched their team toil against Brighton will agree. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s team suddenly look far less fluent and dangerous.
The numbers speak for themselves. Last season, United averaged 14.6 shots and 10.6 chances created per league game; so far this season it’s 12 shots and eight chances created per match. Even if we consider that they struggled to break down bottom-half opposition last season, they are 10 and eight down on the corresponding fixtures in 2019/20.
The problem appears to surround the inability of Manchester United’s attacking midfielders to get close enough to their attackers to link with them. In their eight league games post-restart last season, Paul Pogba and Bruno Fernandes had 39 touches in the opposition box. So far this season, they have had four between them and one of those was Fernandes’ comically late penalty.
Pogba is the one suffering most, asked to play as a deeper-lying midfielder to allow Solskjaer to shoehorn in all three of his attackers and Fernandes. In 2018/19, Pogba created 16 more chances than any other United player. He hasn’t created one yet this season.
This inability to get the best out of Pogba indicates how defending and attacking are two interconnected systems. With slow central defenders and a now-immobile Nemanja Matic (who was never rapid in his pomp), Pogba is used as a safety blanket for the defence rather than an attacking weapon. It’s exactly why United needed a new, fast centre-back and all-action holding midfielder far more than they needed Jadon Sancho for £100m. Unless that changes in the next fortnight, expect Pogba’s form to drift and his happiness to wane.
Brighton’s bad luck
If you were being a little obtuse, you might point out that hitting the woodwork isn’t pure bad luck – it’s a shot off target after all. But the margins are low. Attackers aim for the corners in a bid to beat excellent shot-stoppers. There is margin for error in every shot. No player can choose exactly where they aim at pace, under pressure and off-balance.
Brighton hit the woodwork eight times in the whole of last season and hit it five times in 90 minutes against Manchester United on Saturday. Since Opta started collecting the data, no side has ever done so more times in a single match. On the simple law of averages, they would expect at least one of those to go in.
It’s becoming a frustrating theme of Brighton’s early season. They dominated Chelsea for long periods and did the same on Saturday. No team has had more shots so far this season and only one has faced fewer shots, and yet Brighton have taken three points from a possible nine. Graham Potter will hope that gentler opposition and a turn in luck rewards Brighton further down the line.
Sheffield United and Burnley without their fans
No panic just yet because the short pre-season and relentless schedule dictates that issues may just take a little time to be ironed out. But Burnley and Sheffield United succeeded last season through their excellent home form that has fallen away badly. Burnley have taken two points from their last four games at Turf Moor; Sheffield United have lost three in a row at Bramall Lane. Are these the two clubs in the Premier League who would desperately like their supporters present to roar them out of their ruts?
West Ham have scored nine goals in six days to relieve the pressure on David Moyes and the poor bastard hasn’t even been there to see it. Still, one in the eye for the ‘People don’t work as efficiently from home’ crowd.