Thomas Tuchel really is the don of half-time substitutions while Pep Guardiola has a problem with Raheem Sterling…
Tottenham v Chelsea felt an appropriate fixture on the day Jimmy Greaves died but he is not alone in linking London rivals. Jose Mourinho did and, during his first spell at Stamford Bridge, he earned a reputation as the finest exponent of substitutions around. Now that mantle surely belongs with Tuchel; in particular, he is the GOAT at half-time changes. Against Aston Villa, he removed an off-the-pace Saul Niguez. At Anfield, with Chelsea reduced to 10 men, he showed he can reorganise a team to make them more defensive. At the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, he introduced an attacking threat along with a defensive midfielder.
Chelsea had no shots on target in the first half and 10 in the second. One of their three goals came courtesy of the substitute N’Golo Kante. Tuchel’s half-time change nullified Tottenham’s 4-3-3 and released Chelsea’s wing-backs to get forward. Marcos Alonso had one of those days where, spared many defensive duties, he looks a formidable attacker as Tuchel conjured three second-half goals from a team with three centre-backs, three (relatively) defensive midfielders and two wing-backs. And when he has a defence this well organised, it scarcely matters if Kepa Arrizabalaga is in goal.
Read 16 Conclusions here and then come back…
David de Gea
Go back to May and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer made late substitutions with penalties in mind. But while he brought on Juan Mata and Alex Telles and each scored his spot-kick in the Europa League final shootout, he left De Gea on and Dean Henderson, who has a far better record in such situations, on the bench. De Gea failed to save any of Villarreal’s 11 penalties, with even goalkeeper Geronimo Rulli scoring, and compounded that by missing his own spot-kick. Fast-forward four months and David Moyes was the manager to use the prospect of a penalty to make a change. Enter Mark Noble, scorer of the third most penalties in Premier League history, to face De Gea, who hadn’t saved any of the 40 spot kicks he has faced since 2016. But this time a goalkeeper who had seemed to lose all confidence he would stop any effort from 12 yards in Gdansk made a terrific stop. Factor in a fine winner from Jesse Lingard, four days after he gifted Young Boys of Berne victory, and it amounted to a redemptive afternoon for United.
Southampton had already conceded 14 goals in Manchester in 2021. In a sense, Bednarek had not: he was sent off while conceding the penalty for Manchester United’s seventh of nine (a decision that was later overturned). That said, the Pole’s own goal was the third of those nine goals. And if Southampton are tired of references to it, the context made their stalemate at the Etihad Stadium all the more admirable. When they visited in March, they allowed Manchester City 10 shots on target, yielding five goals. A return contained a solitary effort on target. Bednarek’s valiant efforts – two tackles, three blocked shots, four interceptions, five clearances – were a reason why Southampton, a confusing side who can get thrashed or trouble the best, secured a second draw against Mancunian opposition already this season. They may remain winless, but Bednarek was a winner nonetheless.
Brighton tasted victory three times in their first 20 league games last season. Now they have four wins in five. Beating Leicester feels more auspicious than defeating Burnley, Watford or Brentford but perhaps the most impressive element is simply that Brighton have learnt to win. Potter amassed plenty of plaudits last season but points matter more. Only Liverpool, Manchester United and Chelsea have taken more than Albion.
The magnificent, marauding Ivan Toney was one architect of victory at Molineux. The others attracted less attention, partly because they are defined more by what didn’t happen than what did. Wolves didn’t score. They didn’t even muster a shot on target. Brentford’s defence kept a third clean sheet in five games; in the other two, they have conceded just once each. It is rendered all the more admirable by the reality that Brentford’s defence – goalkeeper David Raya and centre-backs Pontus Jansson, Ethan Pinnock and Kristoffer Ajer – began the campaign without a minute of Premier League experience between them. Brentford have frustrated attacks and defeated received wisdom alike.
It was quite a day for Senegalese wingers. As Sadio Mane brought up a century of goals for Liverpool, his friend Sarr again suggested he is Watford’s best chance of survival. A brace at Carrow Road decided a six-pointer and took Watford to six points. Minus Abdoulaye Doucoure, Roberto Pereyra and Gerard Deulofeu, there is arguably less match-winning quality in this Watford squad than the group relegated in 2019/20 but Sarr, who scored in victories over Liverpool and Manchester United then, looks a potential difference-maker.
As Rodrigo has done too little in his time as Leeds’ record signing, perhaps there was something perversely fitting that even one of his finest contributions came when he did not touch the ball. But there was almost something ingenious, the Spain international showing the awareness to realise Raphinha’s cross would curl in if he did not touch it. And Friday’s 1-1 draw at St James’ Park was a relatively rare occasion when Rodrigo did appear in sync with his Leeds team-mates. He interchanged positions well with Patrick Bamford; if the Englishman’s form has meant a player who often led the line for Valencia has usually ended up in midfield for Leeds, on Friday, he was more of a forward and more influential. Marcelo Bielsa plays a one-striker system but if Leeds can get Rodrigo into advanced areas, perhaps they will see more of him.
The other encouraging element was that he combined well with Raphinha, too, and if the Brazilian has proved the best buy from Leeds’ 2020 spending spree and their classiest player for the best part of two decades and Rodrigo the man who has failed to justify his £27 million fee, this marked a welcome improvement for a player taken off at half-time in two of his three previous league games this season.
He gives Newcastle supporters a reason to look forward to games, which they have had too few of in recent years, and to look back fondly on at least some. A sparkling solo goal kept up his record of either scoring or creating a goal in every league match at St James’ Park this season. Saint-Maximin may be an oddity of a crowd-pleaser, given the crowd dislike both the manager and the owner, but he offers them at least some semblance of the Newcastle they want when he is on another of his manic solo runs.
When Florentino Perez argued 90-minute football matches are too long for young people, he probably didn’t have Bailey in mind. Aston Villa’s summer signing packed a lot into 21 minutes against Everton: a corner Lucas Digne headed into his own net, a thumping goal and an injury. Perhaps the substitute who was substituted was man of the match despite neither starting nor finishing it. Certainly a first meaningful contribution had a significance: each of the three attacking players Villa have bought this summer is not a direct replacement for Jack Grealish but all have now got off the mark. Like Danny Ings, like Emi Buendia, Bailey has offered early evidence that Villa have not squandered a windfall.
Two games, two clean sheets, two wins: Tomiyasu must think playing in the Arsenal defence is easy. Plenty of others can testify to the contrary, tortured souls chastened by harrowing experiences in embarrassing defeats, but if Arsenal’s upturn in form is not solely attributable to the Japanese, his has been a hugely impressive start. Calum Chambers was wretched at right-back against Brentford and Cedric Soares dreadful against Manchester City but Tomiyasu kept Dwight McNeil quiet on Saturday.
Add up his appearances for his various clubs, England and England Under-21s and Milner has played 885 games in his career. The 885th pitted him against Wilfried Zaha. He coped far better than logically he should have done. But then there is something wonderfully illogical about Milner.
Sterling was one of Pep Guardiola’s great success stories; now he feels one of his great conundrums. Benched for much of the run-in last season, summoned surprisingly (and wrongly) for the Champions League final, he then saw City spend £100 million for a player in the position, on the left, where he became most prolific. When City failed to get Harry Kane and when Gabriel Jesus was reinvented as a winger, it felt more likely that Sterling’s immediate future would lie as Ferran Torres’ rival for the striking spot. That City, who had scored five, five, five and six in their previous four home games, drew a blank against Southampton on Saturday was certainly not just down to Sterling: a couple of poor touches came at a cost but some jinking runs threatened to unlock the Saints defence. Yet when a predatory finish was disallowed for a marginal offside, it seemed to sum up his fortunes for his club: go back to 2017 and Sterling was scoring late winners at home to Southampton. Now he is seeing them chalked off.
Two of Chelsea’s centre-backs, in Thiago Silva and Antonio Rudiger, outscored Kane on Sunday. Both had twice as many shots on target, as did the wing-back Marcos Alonso. If that indicates how ineffectual Kane was, it also reflects the lack of service he has had. It is hard to retain a Golden Boot without a supply line and at the moment Kane and Heung-Min Son are not creating chances for each other, while no one else is making many for either of them. With every week, Kane must think he was right in wanting to leave, even albeit very wrong in his ham-fisted attempts to engineer an exit. Although it does raise the possibility his performances are a part of a cunning strategy to reduce Daniel Levy’s asking price.
When you are a low-scoring team, it is more important to be flawless defensively. Suffice to say that Wolves were not. Marcal showcased his rugby-tackling skills to foul Ivan Toney for Brentford’s penalty. For their second goal, Max Kilman slid in at Toney, missed him and allowed him to cross, so that Romain Saiss could lose the scorer Bryan Mbeumo. The defensive midfielder Ruben Neves got in on the act by being dispossessed to gift Mbeumo a chance immediately after half-time while Conor Coady had one of those days when he looks better at shouting than defending. It amounted to a shambles; perhaps, as Wolves had only conceded three times in four previous games, an uncharacteristic mess. Let’s hope they got all their errors out of the way in one game.
It is a moot point whether statistics that straddle two seasons which are not consecutive have any merit but, separated by a promotion-winning campaign, Norwich have lost their last 15 Premier League games. To put it another way, Daniel Farke is only manager to suffer 15 top-flight defeats in a row. Take out those at the end of 2019/20 and it is only five. Yet remove the cruel start the fixture list handed Norwich – Liverpool, Manchester City, Leicester and Arsenal – and Saturday’s 3-1 reverse to Watford still represented a hideously bad result. Partly because it felt a six-pointer which leaves Watford six points ahead of their victims. But more because it suggested that history will repeat itself and that negative assumption about Norwich is true: that they are defensively naïve and error prone, that the spine of the side is too weak, that many of their players belong in the no-man’s land between the Premier League and the Championship and that their recruitment model equips them to win promotion but not to avoid relegation. And while it is far too early to make definitive judgments about the summer arrivals, the nature of defeat to Watford, who seemed to have more resolve, nous and incision, meant it was one of the worst days of Farke’s reign.
Burnley only took one point from their first six games last season and eventually stayed up relatively comfortably. That does not make it a failsafe formula. They are on one from five now and while there are mitigating factors, from injuries to an overturned penalty decision on Saturday to a delay in signings that meant they started the season short-staffed, it is hard to play catch-up on an annual basis, especially when you can’t win at home. Burnley have not tasted victory in 14 matches at Turf Moor. That their next home game is against Norwich means it assumes huge proportions for a manager whose lucrative new contract is based on his status as a guarantee of Premier League survival.
It is little more than a year since Everton were displaying Rodriguez’s face on billboards in Times Square. He was nowhere to be seen at Villa Park on Saturday when, with Dominic Calvert-Lewin and Richarlison injured and Salomon Rondon substituted on his first start, Everton ended with Alex Iwobi, that guarantee of one goal a season, masquerading as a false nine. None of which is to suggest that Rodriguez is a bona fide centre forward, but a flair player with the finishing prowess to be top scorer in a World Cup has the ability to offer the incision Everton lacked. Instead, he wasn’t even on a bench that only featured eight players after failing to secure a summer exit.
Perhaps Rafa Benitez is wasting a talent, but Rodriguez’s questionable commitment to the Everton cause he had alienated some supporters long before the Spaniard turned up. But if it is unrealistic to expect him to turn into a Demarai Gray or Andros Townsend clone, Rodriguez ought to at least be able to offer a deluxe Plan B, rather than a player who is deemed a worse option as a substitute than an empty seat.
Yes, his late substitution backfired. That said, some of the criticism feels excessive, given a record that shows West Ham tend to miss penalties Noble doesn’t take and seem a team with no obvious other penalty takers. But it rarely looks good when a player is brought on for a solitary task and he cannot perform that task.