It isn’t supposed to be this easy. There is a formula for buying players with a history in the Scottish Premiership: They excel north of the border, are bought at a cut-price fee because the quality of the division creates doubts about their true ability and then they promptly make that fee look ludicrously low. Think Virgil van Dijk, John McGinn and Andrew Robertson. Keiran Tierney might be next.
Pukki is here to rip up your rulebook. The Finnish – he’s no Finnish, he’s 29 – striker managed a measly seven goals in 32 matches in all competitions for a Celtic team in 2013/14 that scored 102 times in 38 league games. When he was loaned to Brondby with an option to buy after a single season, few supporters batted an eyelid.
Now the sky’s the limit. Norwich took a punt on Pukki scoring goals at Championship level, backing a scouting and recruitment department that has got far more right than wrong over the last two years. If Pukki’s record in taking Norwich to unexpected promotion was striking, he hasn’t stopped surprising us yet.
The goal at Anfield was a mere consolation. On Saturday at Carrow Road, he wrote the headlines. This was the first hat-trick by a Finnish player since March 2008 and the first by a Norwich player since Efan Ekoku in the second month of the Premier League.
Watch those finishes – not even bothering to make the laboured gag now – and witness a striker at the very top of their game. The technique to control the volley for the first goal was supreme, and the second and third owed everything to his composure. Both made Martin Dubravka look weak, but that lies in Pukki timing the shot for when he believed the goalkeeper would not be settled and so catch him off guard.
The Premier League – and therefore its list of top scorers – is still in its embryonic stage, but a few of us weren’t convinced Pukki would score four league goals all season. We already look like faithless fools.
Sadio Mane and Liverpool
Other than the looming omnipresence of Manchester City, fatigue is the biggest barrier to Liverpool’s success this season. The lack of investment in attackers is entirely deliberate, rather than the result of being knocked back by Europe’s biggest and best. Jurgen Klopp reasons that it is worth putting faith in Divock Origi’s improvement and Rhian Brewster’s development rather than upsetting his squad balance.
But we are allowed to have doubts, and none more so than when examining Mane’s energy levels. He played 50 club games last season and only finished his 2018/19 on July 19 in Cairo when defeated in the AFCON final. Mane missed the Community Shield in favour of rest, and could be forgiven for easing himself slowly into this season.
Unfortunately, Liverpool cannot afford any August sluggishness. Last season they let a seven-point lead at the top slip, and the lasting suspicion is that Manchester City will once again enter steamroller mode after Christmas. In those circumstances, Liverpool cannot drop silly points. Mane had to hit the ground running.
As if there was any doubt. Mane was kicked twice in the opening stages and did take a little time to stamp his authority on the game back at his former stadium, but his part-curler, part-thrashed finish from the edge of the penalty was proof that he is ready to pick up exactly where he left off. His simple pass to Roberto Firmino for the second goal was just reward, having seen his teammate previously miss a presentable chance.
One of the most surprising aspects of Liverpool’s attacking verve last season was Mane leading the line while Mohamed Salah played second fiddle. On initial evidence, expect more of the same in 2019/20.
Sheffield United and Norwich City
This is a crucial time for promoted clubs. History has repeatedly proven that a strong start to the season is vital in securing survival from relegation. Burnley are the most obvious recent example to use a fast start as succour during the long, hard winter.
It is also easier to win league games immediately after promotion, when the goodwill from your success thrives and provides energy and spirit that can override a supposed gap in quality. Winning and losing are both habits.
Most important of all are the matches at home to potential strugglers, established Premier League teams who you can hope to drag into trouble and in doing so establish an advantage over. Winning at home helps to maintain that lingering post-promotion positivity among supporters. The Premier League can be an unpleasant place for a season ticket holder when your team is losing most of the matches you attend. Postponing that negativity for as long as possible is advised.
Norwich City and Sheffield United were predicted – according to the bookmakers at least – to finish as the bottom two clubs in the Premier League. That may well still occur, but both clubs have made as good a start as they could realistically have wished for. Both are well-organised and prepared well enough to give the Premier League’s bloated bottom half some bloody noses and busted lips.
Lucas Moura, big game player
A non-exhaustive list of the clubs against whom Lucas Moura has scored in the last 12 months: Manchester United (two), PSV, Barcelona, Liverpool, Ajax (three), Manchester City.
Moura might not appreciate being cast as Tottenham’s super-sub; he will surely have ambitions of starting regularly. But this status certainly works for Mauricio Pochettino and Spurs. Moura is a brilliant back-up option for a team who for too long had very little in the back of the cupboard.
There were two understandable charges to label against Everton as the new season began. The first was that the club had focused too much of its investment in the previous three seasons in collecting attacking players whole ignoring their defence. First came The One With All The No. 10s, Everton buying a series of players to operate just behind the striker when what they needed was a replacement for Romelu Lukaku. Then came this summer, with Alex Iwobi and Moise Kean the highest-profile additions and Idrissa Gueye the big-name departure.
The other accusation was that Marco Silva was a sunshine coach, happy to play expansive attacking football but incapable of organising a defence. In fairness, his tenures at Watford and Hull City offered some credence to that take. But a quiet revolution is taking place at Goodison, one that disproves both of the above assertions and has transformed the reputation of Everton and Silva.
On Saturday, Everton kept their 16th clean sheet since the start of last season. Only Liverpool and Manchester City can boast a better record. Lucas Digne is becoming one of the best full-backs in the Premier League, Jordan Pickford has his mojo back and Yerry Mina and Michael Keane are forming a formidable partnership after early difficulties at Goodison. Jean-Philippe Gbamin has some way to go to replace Gueye, but he will be given time and the stewardship of Andre Gomes.
Everton are not perfect. There will be teething problems and setbacks. But the only way for a non-elite team to break into the top six is by establishing a strong defensive platform and then building upon it. Everton at least have that foundation.
‘Another one of those rare mistakes from Hugo Lloris’. It had become one of those comfortable, easy jokes, up there with ‘another one of those rare rash tackles from Vincent Kompany’ or ‘another one of those rare waffly, over-written paragraphs from Daniel Storey’. Lloris was/is a fine goalkeeper, but at elite level you get judged by your mistakes more than your successes. That was Lloris’ lot.
For all the positivity of ending Manchester City’s 15-match winning run, this was a loose, chaotic Tottenham performance. That can be a strength; a freeform, fluid tactical plan can occasionally unnerve an opponent, but if that was Spurs’ aim at the Etihad it fell far short and City weren’t spooked. They swamped Tottenham, who seemed oblivious to runs from midfield and should have been punished accordingly.
Lloris was not heroic, the type of last-man standing performance we might expect from a non-league goalkeeper in an FA Cup tie. He was not perfect either; the kicking remains an issue. But in the face of a Manchester City onslaught, Tottenham’s goalkeeper remained firm and commanding. More of this please.
Arsenal’s striking pair
Unai Emery’s biggest challenge – and the one that will define his tenure – is to balance Arsenal’s attacking talent with some defensive security. Those supporters who travel the length and breadth of the country will tell you that a Nicolas Pepe-type was needed to unlock defences in away games. But for all the brilliance of Alexandre Lacazette and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, they have not helped make Arsenal successful.
In 15 matches between New Year’s Day and the end of last season that Aubameyang and Lacazette started together, Arsenal won eight and lost six. Arsenal scored more than twice in two of those 15 matches (in the Europa League against Rennes and Valencia) but conceded more than twice five times.
On Saturday lunchtime we saw the obvious benefits of this exciting attacking line, the ability to wear down a stubborn opponent and stodgy midfield battle with brief flashes of excellence. Throw Pepe (and Dani Ceballos) into the mix and there are plenty enough bangs and whizzes to make any supporter giggle. Now Emery must make sure they aren’t overshadowed by a more general malaise.
Neal Maupay comes off the bench to score on his debut in their first game, and Trossard is the game’s best player in their second. Graham Potter is making this managerial lark look easy. Nobody is missing Anthony Knockaert now. Or Chris Hughton.
Kevin de Bruyne
Manchester City’s greatest achievement wasn’t getting to 100 points or breaking the record for consecutive Premier League victories. It was holding off a Liverpool team at the peak of their powers and confidence in the absence of the division’s greatest technician. Home supporters at the Etihad might have rued City dropping two points, but the rest of us considered ourselves fortunate to have watched Kevin de Bruyne at his surging, sauntering, storming best.
In any normal situation, there might be a little more calm. Newcastle United failed to win both of their opening two league matches last season against Huddersfield Town and Cardiff City, two clubs who would be relegated by May. Only a late penalty miss robbed them off defeat in the latter game, but Newcastle failed to win any of their first ten matches in 2018/19. Two defeats need not define a season.
But this is no normal situation. How could it be at Newcastle United, the club who sees normality approaching and hides close to the bosom of incompetence and farce. Supporters are angry not because Steve Bruce’s tenure has started badly, but because they saw this coming and the situation was completely avoidable.
Under Rafael Benitez, Newcastle lost plenty of matches. But they never lost a match because they lacked any semblance of a strategy. They may have tried and failed in pursuit of their goal, but at least you could see the cogs turning.
They also conceded more than twice in an away game on only two occasions in 2018/19, the 3-2 defeat at Manchester United and 4-0 drubbing by a rampant Liverpool. They never had the looseness of Saturday’s abject, dismal defeat to Norwich City. Newcastle conceded three times and scored a late consolation, but the margin should have been greater. Bruce’s 3-5-2 formation was a mess, a group of players who either looked unsure of what they were supposed to be doing or unclear how they were supposed to be doing it.
For Bruce, some difficult questions already sitting on his desk and at the front of his mind. Blaming the players and calling them in for extra training on their day off might well provoke a positive reaction, but it is a risk so early in his tenure when many will remain unconvinced of his aptitude and disillusioned by the circumstances that led to his tenure.
Things are unlikely to get much easier, at least away from home. Newcastle’s next five opponents on the road are Tottenham, Liverpool, Leicester City, Chelsea and West Ham. That takes us to November, when owners with itchy trigger fingers typically first consider making a change. If Bruce is to keep his head afloat, he needs wins and performances at St James’ Park where mutiny only makes things harder. The default suspicion is that he’s simply not up to the task.
The new handball law
As I’ve hardly tried to keep quiet, I don’t agree with the introduction of VAR. The alteration of football as spectacle and fan experience wasn’t worth it for getting a set of particular decisions absolutely right. You are allowed to disagree with my opinion, by all means, but you’ll struggle to change it.
But one thing VAR has done – and through no fault of its own – is to expose that some of the laws governing the game are not fit for purpose, and that includes some that have been recently changed. There are too many grey areas where only black and white should exist. Referees, lambasted in a culture of abuse that only serves to alienate and disenfranchise them, were operating within a flawed system.
Getting those laws addressed should have been a priority before VAR’s introduction. If the Premier League is so important that every decision must be right, it is not good enough for our game to learn on the job through trial and error. It is not good enough to be experimented on.
The handball law is now an ass. How can it be appropriate that one type of contact with the arm can be deemed illegal when committed by an attacker deemed legal when by a defender? How can the law move so far away from its original intention and current logic? If the handball law decrees that any contact, even if incidental, with the arm will cause a goal to be disallowed, must we not end up with a cricket-style snickometer in order to determine contact?
Rules are supposed to create certainty. Rules are supposed to establish a framework and provide immediate answers to debate. But they are also supposed to uphold the spirit of the game, as preferred by its competitors and spectators. We are currently experiencing the introduction of a system that is not perfect (see margin of error stories this weekend) that is exposing flaws in laws that are wholly imperfect. The revelation of those flaws threatens to impact people’s enjoyment of the game as a spectacle.
Frank Lampard and Chelsea’s shape
It wasn’t meant to be like this. Lampard’s homecoming should have been a glorious affair, celebrating either a victory at Old Trafford or a first trophy of his managerial career earned late on a balmy Istanbul evening. Instead Chelsea were chasing their tails, and promptly tripped over themselves again.
There are positive signs; it would be silly to ignore them. Chelsea created four chances in the opening five minutes and dominated the first half against Leicester. Mason Mount scored his first goal on his competitive home debut. Kurt Zouma was far better than against Manchester United while N’Golo Kante looks fully fit.
But the truth is that Lampard’s tactics are exposing Chelse’s own weaknesses. Picking a 4-2-3-1 with three attacking midfielders is one thing, but doing so while simultaneously telling Kante he can push forward and allowing Emerson to surge on from left-back is leaving Chelsea open to being picked off on the counter.
Lampard might argue that he has been unfortunate to face three opponents – Manchester United, Liverpool and Leicester City – who excel on the counter, but that’s not good enough. Everyone knows how dangerous those teams can be, and Chelsea should have had a plan to stop them. Leicester left with one point but should have taken all three despite their dismal opening half.
At their worst on Sunday, there was a strong whiff of the 6-0 defeat to Manchester City last season to Chelsea’s performance. Maurizio Sarri hauled Chelsea on following that naivety, and Lampard must quickly do the same. Without Eden Hazard, it will be far harder to paper over the cracks.
Now read 16 Conclusions from Stamford Bridge.
Properly dismal. Crystal Palace have played a home game against a team with ten men for the final 20 minutes and an away game against a newly promoted side. Not only have they failed to score a goal, but they have had fewer shots than any other team to have played twice.
The chronic lack of goals always threatened as an issue, but on Sunday even Wilfried Zaha looked off the pace. That spells bad news for a Palace team who veered dangerously close to one-man band last season.
Add another one onto those clean sheet statistics from last week; the run since February 9 goes on. More worrying for Javi Gracia is that Watford have now taken 32 points from their last 30 league games. It’s long-term bottom-six form.
Are they ‘doing a Fulham’ after all?
“Simple. Ban them. It would be out of football within a month. It’s not about Arsenal. It’s about the greater good of the game.”
“Have you ever thought about that? I don’t know any sport where they tell you that you can cheat once a game. I’ve never seen that in sport before. The game is in a really poor state with players literally falling on the floor. If you’re a manager, why would you want to lose your best players? It’s got to the level where it’s every week now.”
Two things, Sean:
1) No Arsenal player dived on Saturday. You appear to have pre-prepared a rant and run with it despite the actual events. This is like when I started at Football365 in 2014 and I’d try to tell Winty what I was going to write about before the match began. She would then punch me in the face, but that’s a different story.
2) Presumably you’d have been happy for Ashley Barnes to be banned after he was booked for simulation in February? He scored three goals in his subsequent four games, remember, including the winner against Tottenham a fortnight later.
So near but yet so far. A first top-flight career start – at the age of 35 – eludes him for now.