10) Man City’s decision to sell Angus Gunn
As f*ck-ups go, this is hardly one to rival Deepwater, Chernobyl or the Titanic. But we have to squeeze City in somewhere.
You can’t blame Gunn for wanting to continue playing football, having spent last season at Norwich. So when the £10million offer came from Southampton, it seemed to suit all parties, with City making a huge profit on an academy graduate while retaining buy-back and sell-on clauses. For Gunn, it was seen as a step up, where he would compete for the No.1 spot with Alex McCarthy. Gunn didn’t know McCarthy would spend the first part of the season doing a passable impression of Peter Shilton.
Nor did City expect to lose Claudio Bravo for the season just a week in. That left Pep with no cover for Ederson which, given how important he is to City’s style, appeared to be a possible chink in their armour. Daniel Grimshaw – who was promoted to third choice after Gunn’s exit – was considered too raw to step up again, meaning City had to recall then-19-year-old Aro Muric from a spell on loan at NAC Breda. If Ederson gets crocked then City could be in bother, but it hasn’t hurt them so far and January is only around the corner now.
9) Maurizio Sarri playing N’Golo Kante out of position
Given how he has opened his Chelsea reign it’s difficult to be too critical of anything Maurizio Sarri has done. And Kante netting the opener to defeat the champions on Saturday makes this one harder to justify than most on this list. But against teams with a different mindset to Manchester City – that being all of them – Sarri’s midfield compromise could give the Blues boss his biggest long-term headache.
Prior to the weekend, Chelsea’s dip and signs of struggle from Jorginho were no coincidence. The Italian is sat at the base of the Blues midfield dictating their tempo with passes; but Chelsea’s opposition seem to have found a way to restrict his influence and the thinking now is that he can be exposed. Defending is not his strong point.
Jorginho is posted precisely where Kante usually roams, robbing anyone who attempts to cross his path. So to make room for the summer signing from Napoli, Chelsea’s Player of the Year has been shunted out to the right. By way of compensation, Sarri has given Kante greater license to get forward, which seemed somewhat akin to pulling a fish out of water and reimbursing it with a shiny new bicycle. That was, at least, until Kante expertly slotted home the opener on Saturday…
8) Jose Mourinho giving Paul Pogba the vice-captaincy
When Pogba strutted back into Carrington a World Cup winner, he did so amid a blaze of speculation over his future. Manchester United apparently had no plans to sell their record signing but Pogba and, crucially, Mino Raiola had other plans. The player fancied a couple of years of strolling around the Nou Camp, while his agent sniffed another pay day.
United stood firm in the face of what seemed like very flaky interest from Barca so Pogba was stuck until January. In an attempt to make the best of it, Mourinho offered Pogba the vice-captaincy. Pogba returned the favour by criticising Mourinho’s negative tactics and turning in one of the worst performances from a Man Utd midfielder in living memory at Brighton. At least Eric Djemba-Djemba looked like he was arsed.
Pogba was willing – perhaps too willing – to admit that his attitude was poor and Mourinho subsequently wrenched back the olive branch he had offered. The pair have barely bothered to hide their contempt for each other ever since.
7) Fulham making too many changes too late
Fulham received widespread acclaim for their summer recruitment following promotion through the play-offs. The Cottagers overhauled their squad with 12 signings in a £100million-plus spending spree, but you could argue that none have struggled more than the two-most eye-catching deals: the £27million record-signing of Andre-Frank Zambo Anguissa and the apparent coup to land Jean-Michael Seri.
Seri, thought to be a target for Barcelona, Man Utd and City, started impressively but his influence has declined by the week, while Anguissa has fared similarly but without the decent start. The two midfielders have sat in front of a defence that has changed so often, both in shape and personnel, that it became hard to keep track.
Despite signing two goalkeepers and five defenders, it was their woefully under-performing rearguard which cost Slavisa Jokanovic his job. After signing five of those defensive players with less than a week to go before the start of the season, with five in total arriving on deadline day, Jokanovic chopped and changed the make up of his back-four before doing away entirely with the system that earned them promotion. Three at the back was similarly ineffective; all the while Fulham languished at the bottom and players publicly questioned their team-mates’ attitude.
Vice-chairman Tony Khan, son of owner Shahid, claimed he went into the play-off final in May with a plan for either outcome at Wembley. The club cannot be accused of failing to invest, but many of those recruitment decisions and their belated implementation have to be seen as a factor behind their dreadful start.
6) Crystal Palace being content to stand still
A summer of relative stability may have felt like a refreshing change at Selhurst Park. But their creditable 11th-placed finish last season perhaps lulled some at Palace into a false sense of security. Instead of building on that success, the Eagles were too content to tread water.
Despite losing Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Yohan Cabaye in the summer, only Newcastle spent less than Palace. Roy Hodgson welcomed four new arrivals, with Cheikhou Kouyate accounting for the entire £10million spent during the window. He has made the biggest impact of any signing so far, slowly feeling his way into a central midfield role alongside Luka Milivojevic. Max Meyer – the most eye-catching recruit – is also showing signs that he too is adapting to the Premier League, albeit slowly and in an unfamiliar position.
Those two moves would have to be a success just for Palace to stand still. Keeping Wilfried Zaha was an essential bonus but the Eagles missed an opportunity to make progress. Now, they sit two points above the drop zone having waited until December 1 to score a goal at home from open play.
5) Jurgen Klopp putting Liverpool’s Champions League hopes at unnecessary risk
“We lost our mojo… We have to make sure it doesn’t happen again.” Unfortunately for Jurgen Klopp, it did happen again, during the last Champions League trip. Liverpool have lost all three of their group stage away games for the first time ever, leaving last season’s finalists in a perilous position going into the final matchday.
Of their three losses, the 2-0 reverse at Red Star Belgrade was the most galling, even in spite of the manner of defeat at Napoli and PSG. In Belgrade, Liverpool blew the opportunity to move three points clear at the top with two games to play. Against opponents they had swept aside a fortnight previously, they contributed to their own downfall.
Klopp opted to leave Joe Gomez, Roberto Firmino, Naby Keita and Fabinho on the bench, and Xherdan Shaqiri was left back on Merseyside while Joel Matip, Daniel Sturridge and Adam Lallana were given run-outs in a side which looked disjointed from the off in the white-hot atmosphere of Belgrade.
There were simply too many unnecessary risks on Klopp’s part, setting the tone for a lacklustre performance during which Liverpool lost with 72 per cent of the possession. Defeat to a side which had not won a Champions League game beyond qualifiers since 1992 when they were defending champions left the Reds needing something from the trip to PSG. They didn’t get it and now they need a huge effort to avoid joining this ignominious list.
4) Newcastle selling Aleksandar Mitrovic was fair enough. Not replacing him was not.
On the face of it, the decision to allow Mitrovic to walk away from St James’ Park seemed a strange one when the Serbia striker is the proven goalscorer that the Magpies lack. But Rafael Benitez had his reasons for cutting Mitrovic loose – and the forward understood the logic.
“Benitez plays defence and counter-attack,” Mitrovic said. “I tried to give my best but it wasn’t me. I was just running and getting in the team shape. He told me what he wanted and I tried but I am 90 kilos and if I run so much defensively I have no power left when I am in the box. He knew I couldn’t play in that style and I felt it too.”
The mistake was not reinvesting the £22million they received from Fulham to source a more suitable replacement. Mike Ashley will see it very differently, of course, but keeping his wallet closed when Benitez was crying out for more quality remains a gamble. Newcastle are among the lowest three teams for goals scored and they are only out of the drop zone because their manager can organise a defence.
3) Spurs’ decision not to sign anyone
“We have no regrets, we are happy,” said Mauricio Pochettino eight games into the season. It had been an eventful couple of months. Spurs entered the campaign as the only Premier League club to ever make no signings in a single summer transfer window, while their new stadium remained a long way from being finished, despite the expectation of moving in during the summer.
None of that gave any cause for concern after three games of the Premier League seaso,n by which time Pochettino’s men had capped three wins with a 3-0 triumph at Man Utd. Then September arrived and the next three games brought a run of 2-1 defeats which need to be put into context.
The first, at Watford, was a “massive and painful” loss after leading going into the late stages; supposed title rivals Liverpool battered them in a ridiculously one-sided 2-1; then they chucked it away again when they were leading 1-0 in the 86th minute at Inter Milan in the Champions League opener.
Pochettino’s side recovered their composure and they have lost two of the subsequent nine Premier and Champions League matches. But they remain six points off Liverpool and are most likely to go out of the Champions League this week. In the main, Spurs have been as impressive as we have come to expect. No worse, just no better.
During that losing run, Pochettino’s players looked shot physically and mentally. It was somewhat understandable given their players’ exploits at the World Cup and how little rest or preparation they had for the new season. What is more difficult to fathom is the refusal to add to their squad.
Pochettino says it was impossible to sign the players they wanted and spending money for the sake of it – especially when there is an unfinished stadium to pay for – is rarely wise. But Spurs just needed a shot in the arm, a new arrival who could have inspired the players upon their return to training a few days before the opener at Newcastle, and when they were knackered a few weeks later.
2) Southampton giving Mark Hughes a three-year contract
Saints brought Hughes in to fight the fire starting to take hold at St Mary’s in March after Mauricio Pellegrino had led them sleepwalking towards the drop zone. Hughes took over with Saints one place above the drop zone. Eight points in eight matches was just enough to ensure they stayed there.
Hughes’ reward for keeping Saints where they were? A fat three-year contract before the summer had even begun. But Hughes had already hit the nail on the head when he was brought back to the club he used to play for: “It’s about coming in and being that different voice that will enable the players to recognise and focus on what needs to be done.”
Saints gambled on a new manager bounce to keep them up and “that different voice” worked – just. But there were few signs that he might have been the man to take them forward in the long-term. That choice to give Hughes a three-year deal was presumably part of the reason vice-chairman Les Reed and technical director Martin Hunter lost their jobs shortly before the manager did. Ralph Hasenhuttl is an exciting appointment, but already his primary aim to simply to survive.
1) Ed Woodward deciding Man Utd’s centre-backs were good enough – and telling the world all about it
You can trace Manchester United’s problems far further back than this summer. But the circus really got started when Woodward put on a show for journalists in August.
On the eve of the new campaign, at the end of a pre-season during which Jose Mourinho made clear his desire for reinforcements, the United executive vice-chairman reeled off to journalists all the reasons why he believed he knew best. Harry Maguire: too expensive. Yerry Mina: his agent was too expensive. Jerome Boateng: too injury-prone. Toby Alderweireld: he never spoke to Daniel Levy. Nope, Woodward decided that none of Mourinho’s targets were any better than the players already at his disposal.
Woodward was in a generous mood. He discussed how Mourinho was keen to cut Anthony Martial loose; how he wanted to keep Martial, Luke Shaw and Pogba despite the manager’s short-term thinking; and all about how Man City and PSG had spoiled the transfer market for everyone else.
Mourinho began the season without the reinforcements he badly needed, all the while being undermined by his board. United’s dreadful defensive record suggests that former chartered accountant Woodward, in fact, wasn’t the best-placed figure at the club to be making football decisions, and the feeling of distrust running throughout the club has left them trailing not just in Manchester City’s wake, but everyone else’s too. These seeds were planted in the summer.