The first Premier League winners and losers of the season…

Date published: Monday 12th August 2019 12:24

Winners

Graham Potter
Of course it is incredibly early in the season, and of course nothing has been decided yet. But how you start a season does matter. That’s particularly true when you have a new manager in charge, and even more pertinent in the age of knee-jerk reaction and when that manager has never been a Premier League manager before. Put it this way: If Brighton had lost 3-0 on Saturday, plenty of their supporters would be getting a little jumpy.

Last month, ESPN produced a power rankings of Premier League managers. That kind of feature is a slightly thankless task – you will only ever annoy supporters and never please them – but it was mildly interesting to see Potter ranked in 20th. For all he had achieved in Sweden and south Wales, this was a fresh start. Sometimes a blank canvas can be refreshing; sometimes it can make people nervous.

In his first competitive match as Brighton manager, Potter equalled the club’s biggest ever top-flight away win. Far more important than the result was the manner of Brighton’s performance. They adapted wonderfully to Potter’s 3-4-2-1 formation, Dan Burn particularly superb and now providing genuine competition to Lewis Dunk, Shane Duffy and Adam Webster. They hassled and harried when possession was lost, something Potter had demanded in preseason. If Potter cannot dominate through force of reputation, he is prepared to do so through logical tactical plans and sensible man-management.

But the most promising aspect of Brighton’s 3-0 win was how Potter’s substitutions helped shift the match in Brighton’s favour. Last season, the accusation was that Chris Hughton went into his shell far too much. When Brighton held the advantage he would instruct the team to sit back and protect the lead, often leaving Glenn Murray horrible isolated up front. Brighton created their own problems with that strategy.

On Saturday, Potter suggested that he might have a good deal more courage. Murray and Jurgen Locadia – Brighton’s two most attacking players – were both substituted, but Potter replaced them with strikers. Florin Andone scored within 40 seconds of his introduction; Neal Maupay scored his first goal for the club 12 minutes later.

These are embryonic stages, but Brighton won three way league games last season and never protected a lead with this level of comfort. If the battle for Potter was to change the mood after the Hughton slump, he has already taken several steps forward in the right direction. Some managers can stamp their authority with personality and reputation. If Potter doesn’t have that option, he might well not need it.

 

Raheem Sterling and Manchester City
The new football season comes around quickly, but Manchester City make it feel like it’s never been away. They played at 70%, initially offered some evidence that the opposition might have a chance and then batted them away like an irritating fly. When City decide that they are going to click, nobody stands a chance.

The style won’t change; of that we can be sure. Pep Guardiola is constantly striving for marginal improvement – it has been interesting to hear him talking about the change to the goal-kick rule, for example – but in the final third City have already neared perfection. They play quick passing triangles, passing and moving to create overlaps and getting near the byline before pulling the ball back to one of two or three runners in the penalty area. The closest of those to goal is usually Sterling.

Last season, Guardiola converted Sterling into a six-yard box poacher. Sergio Aguero had improved his all-round game sufficiently to play as a complete forward, holding up the ball and bringing others into play. Guardiola identified that Sterling’s greatest asset wasn’t his dribbling or pace, but the ability to time runs and find space close to goal.

In some ways, this role is a back-handed compliment because it covers for Sterling’s greatest weakness. Getting so close to goal drastically increases his number of one-touch finishes. Given time to think in front of goal (see the Community Shield for details) and doubts creep in to Sterling’s mind and he can flunk chances. Given no time at all, playing only on natural instinct, and he is lethal.

But it sure works for City and it sure works for Sterling. The opening goal in the Community Shield from close range, and three more on the opening day of the season. Pep’s turned him into Gary bloody Lineker. Shat on racists and doubters.

 

Manchester United’s new signings
The mood was low, and it was right to be low. By any reasonable measure, Manchester United didn’t do enough in the transfer window. They hadn’t replaced the departing central midfielder and hadn’t replaced the departing centre forward either. That only increased the pressure on the three players who had arrived. They had to come good.

We have become far too obsessed with transfer culture, but this is the benefit of signing players. Not just for their obvious qualities, although Harry Maguire, Aaron Wan-Bissaka and Daniel James clearly have those, but for the manner in which new blood can lift the mood by their sheer presence and freshness alone.

Every time Maguire headed the ball out of defence, Old Trafford cheered. Every time Aaron Wan-Bissaka stopped a winger from advancing, Old Trafford cheered. When James came off the bench to score on his debut, Old Trafford cheered and roared in a very distinct way, the likes of which we have not heard since the earliest days of Marcus Rashford. The sound contained happiness for the team, but pride in a young player taking his first successful steps.

Too many players have been left water-damaged by decay at Manchester United for us to be convinced that all three signings will be unqualified successes. Paul Pogba, Romelu Lukaku, Nemanja Matic and Angel di Maria all started brightly. This club manages to bring expensive signings to their level rather than allow them to drag it up.

But it’s far better to have a promising start than a bad one. There may or may not be trouble ahead, but thoughts of the future can wait for now. Time to bask in the adoration of their new supporters.

 

Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial
Manchester United have the fewest striker options of any club in the top six. Even Chelsea, with their striker ban, have three senior centre-forwards. United have two, and you might argue that both are better cutting in from the wing. Then they have Mason Greenwood, who had played 115 minutes of Premier League football before yesterday. That would be an unideal situation for any club, but United will play Thursday-Sunday football for much of this season. There will be rotation, but rotation between precious few combinations.

As with United’s signings, these circumstances only increase the responsibility on Rashford and Martial to hit the ground sprinting in slightly unfamiliar roles. They do at least have the option to flitter and flutter: Martial started as the central striker but regularly switched positions to allow Rashford to drift infield. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer couldn’t have asked for a better start then his two strikers scoring the first three goals of United’s league season.

There will be harder tests than Chelsea’s self-implosion – rash tackle, poor positioning, defensive brainfart – but you can only take the chances that come your way. Watching Rashford and Martial smile as they embraced at full-time really did give you hope that everything may be okay. If they are happy, Manchester United are happy. Their smiles were as wide as the Bridgewater canal.

Go and read 16 Conclusions by the way. And then come back.

 

Harry Kane and Tottenham
Boy did he need that break. There were long spells of last season – including in the European Cup final – when Kane was there in spirit and mind but not in body. This was a compliment to Kane, the result of him being so damn important to club and country and therefore rushed back from injuries and picked in every team for which he was half-fit.

There is no guarantee that Kane will stay fit in 2019/20, but initial signs were incredibly promising. Gone was Kane played at 75% speed and back was the complete centre-forward, as capable of playing a first-time pass around the corner or a cross into the box as he is slipping the ball past a goalkeeper or curling a free-kick into the top corner. At times on Saturday teatime, Kane was a one-man attack.

Mauricio Pochettino certainly agrees. “He’s had a nice holiday, an amazing wedding and when you are a professional like him, the pre-season is not to try to get fit but to try to improve,” Pochettino said after the game. “Some players get it wrong and kill themselves in the summer, but the key to Harry is to be able to improve in the four or five weeks before the season. Now, I hope he does not stop scoring.”

Bringing on Christian Eriksen changed the game for Tottenham, an effusive answer to those supporters who have deemed the Dane worthy of staunch criticism recently. Eriksen’s ability to play between the lines allows Kane to stay more central and higher up the pitch. But when chances come his way, there is no player in the country who you would rather have in front of goal. Get Giovani Lo Celso, Dele Alli and Heung-Min Son into this team, and Kane will be confident of scoring 30 league goals in a season for the second time.

 

Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang
Now the scorer of 33 goals in his first 50 Premier League games, the most prolific Arsenal player over that initial period since the league was formed. Since Aubameyang signed for Arsenal, only Mohamed Salah has scored more Premier League goals. He really is the business.

 

English players at top-six clubs
Harry Winks, Ross Barkley, Marcus Rashford, Harry Kane, Tammy Abraham, Kyle Walker, Luke Shaw, Mason Mount, Harry Maguire, Raheem Sterling, Calum Chambers, Ainsley Maitland-Niles, Trent Alexander-Arnold, Jordan Henderson, Danny Rose, Reiss Nelson, Joe Willock, Joe Gomez, John Stones, Kyle Walker-Peters, Jesse Lingard, Aaron Wan-Bissaka. Twenty-two English players started for Big Six teams on the opening day, and plenty of them were aged 25 or under. That figure may not be sustained as new signings become acclimatised and start regularly, but it’s still a bloody lovely start to the season.

Billy Sharp
What a story. After 227 Football League goals and 18 career minutes in the top flight, Sharp finally has his first Premier League goal. Plenty of strikers have proved that they are not good enough for Premier League football after thriving in lower leagues, but Sharp was never given that chance. He intends to make up for lost time.

Sheffield United
They aren’t what Danny Mills thinks they are.

 

Burnley, playing that familiar tune
A typical Burnley summer, really. They bought a defender from Stoke City, a reserve goalkeeper and a couple of old-fashioned English players. They were tipped to finish in the bottom three and they ran hard in pre-season to make sure that wouldn’t happen.

A completely atypical first match, really. Burnley had won two of their previous 95 Premier League matches by three or more goals. Three points on the way to 40, as Sean Dyche will stress on Monday morning. But it’s a damn fine start against a team expected to finish ahead of them.

 

Divock Origi
Mohamed Salah was back and was dangerous again. Trent Alexander-Arnold was clipping through balls in like a veteran full-back. Andy Robertson was surging up the left wing, a man who sees energy as an unending commodity. But it was Divock Origi who stole the show again, his goal and assist continuing last season’s remarkable late run. A year ago he was in the process of seeing a loan move to Huddersfield Town fail to come to fruition.

Losers

Frank Lampard
An odd game, one in which Chelsea dominated in the opening 30 minutes and continued to win the midfield battle but were badly let down at both ends of the pitch and in doing so imploded against a top-four rival.

“I want us to be an exciting team to watch,” said Lampard in his pre-match press conference, and you can’t doubt that. With the midfield getting caught high up the pitch and defenders making shambolic errors of judgement, Chelsea certainly made it an entertaining spectacle. But Lampard will soon learn that free-flowing, attacking football comes second to results. At Derby County last season, you could argue that he mastered neither.

At Old Trafford, Lampard had three significant issues:

1) Chelsea were defensively catastrophic. Kurt Zouma was abysmal, Cesar Azpilicueta wasn’t much better and Andreas Christensen couldn’t hold back the tide on his own. Given that Lampard told David Luiz in no uncertain terms that he wasn’t wanted, it isn’t a great look.

2) Every team, even those towards the top of the league, will suffer in-game adversity. Manchester United took the lead against the run of play, and Chelsea can feel a little aggrieved by that (although the mess was of their own making). But how you respond to adversity helps define a team. Chelsea showed all the resistance of wet tissue paper. Given that Lampard’s obvious strength at Chelsea will be motivation, that’s not promising.

3) Some of the selections and tactics were a little odd. N’Golo Kante wasn’t fit to start the match, but picking Pedro, Mason Mount and Ross Barkley and allowing all to stay high up the pitch left Chelsea open to the counter, particularly when Mateo Kovacic ventured forward. Jorginho is not a player to protect a defence by himself. Elsewhere, Olivier Giroud should probably have started and certainly should have come on earlier.

Lampard knew he had a long-term job on his hands at Chelsea, but even those projects are shaped by short-term impact. Chelsea host Leicester City next week, who might well have a greater attacking threat than Manchester United and certainly have stronger midfield options. Already there’s a good deal of pressure on Lampard to effect an immediate improvement.

Watford’s defence
“Maybe it’s a good wake-up call for the rest of the season,” said Javi Gracia after Watford had been humbled by Brighton at Vicarage Road. That’s a fair spin from a manager (he’s hardly likely to say “Oh God we’re three different types of buggered” after the first game), but Watford’s defensive ineptitude will worry him. Watford do have new signings to come into the team, but Danny Welbeck and Ismaila Sarr are hardly likely to shore up the defence,

Were this a one-off, we might put it down as early-season teething problems. But Watford haven’t kept a clean sheet until February 9, and have bought just one defender over the summer. Last season’s cup run was wonderful, but it provided a helpful distraction from the fact that Watford only took 32 points from their final 28 matches. Gracia et al coasted following a wonderful start to 2018/19, but coasting can quickly become sliding.

Southampton and Ralph Hasenhuttl
Much is expected of Southampton this season. They avoided relegation trouble last season only after the arrival of Hasenhuttl, but the manager with the best CV in the bottom half left supporters confident that they would be knocking on the door of the top-half once again. Pr-eseason, with plenty of pressing from the front and promising combinations in attack, offered persuasive evidence.

Good to get that new season hope pierced nice and early. Southampton were rotten at Turf Moor, particularly after falling behind. If Hasenhuttl instilled some fight and heart into his players last season, it was absent against Burnley.

Southampton’s manager will hope that this was a wretched one-off, but it needs to be. Hasenhuttl’s side face Liverpool next week and Manchester United in their next home game. Their next two away games are at Brighton and Sheffield United, two teams who – like Burnley – promise to be well-organised and prepared to wait to sniff out the opposition’s weakness.

Any potential new title challengers
Liverpool looked a little weak but scored four, Manchester City played at a touch over half-pace and scored five away from home. You should have to produce excellence as standard to be involved in the title race, but we have seen nothing to suggest that it will take anything less than 90 points to be even considered part of a title race this season.  Good luck with that.

 

West Ham’s attacking obsession
West Ham’s front five is top six quality, perhaps even top four. But behind them, Declan Rice looks around for help like a soldier exposed on the front line and Issa Diop frantically tries to do three jobs at once.

Losing to Manchester City is no problem. Even being beaten 5-0 by City is not disgraceful, given their quality, but West Ham have invested significantly over the summer and the defence has not been improved. Having a forward line of Sebastien Haller, Felipe Anderson, Pablo Fornals and Manuel Lanzini and a back four containing Fabian Balbuena and Ryan Fredericks – with very little back-up behind them – strikes as transfer market negligence.

 

Kurt Zouma
These first couple of weeks are an audition for Chelsea centre-backs. Antonio Rudiger is still recovering from an injury sustained in April, leaving Frank Lampard without his best defender. Lampard’s decision to sell David Luiz on the cheap meant he was left to pick two from three relative novices.

I don’t want to be too disparaging about Zouma, but don’t be too surprised to see Fikayo Tomori start alongside Andreas Christensen next week. At times, it was embarrassing.

 

Morgan Schneiderlin
Your team has just signed a new defensive midfielder to replace Idrissa Gueye, but he’s not ready so you get a chance. Your supporters have expressed concerns about your positional awareness and discipline, but you’ll show them. Just try not to commit any rash fou…oh. Thanks but no thanks, Morgan.

Daniel Storey

 

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