And so the fledgling 2018/19 Premier League season continues with Game Week 4…
All 20 Premier League teams were in action across the UK, with the key headlines being:
- Watford, Chelsea and Liverpool maintain their 100% winning start to the season
- Manchester United returning to winning ways after two consecutive defeats
- West Ham remain pointless after Manuel Pellegrini’s team suffered fourth defeat on the bounce
- Two week break follows for International fixtures
Here are five key talking points from this weekend’s action:
1. Style finally equalling substance at Chelsea
Let’s face it: since Roman Abramovich bought Chelsea football club back in 2003 (15 years ago, can you believe), no one could argue against the success that has followed. His millions (many hundreds of them), have paved the way for the club to enjoy by far the most successful period of its 113-year history. Five Premier League crowns, a further five FA Cup victories, three League Cups, a Europa League winners medal and of course, a Champions League. Everything on offer then. That is as good an argument as any for why money can buy you success, certainly in the long run.
Almost as long as their list of trophies during this period is their list of discarded managers. Those who have tasted success have rarely been afforded the chance to become used to it. Jose Mourinho in his first spell at the club lasted just over three years, the longest reign of any manager under Abramovich. The Russian, and many of his supporters, will argue that his policy of short-term success or the sack for his managers has kept things fresh at the club. When you examine their trophy haul across his tenure, there have been precious few seasons which have ended up without a piece of silverwear. It goes without saying that Arsenal Wenger would not have been afforded so long without a trophy had Mr Abramovich been the one to sign off his salary each month. A new manager brings about a sense of urgency and purpose, something perhaps lost under the recently departed. Probably a timely awakening to the players too, with the new man through the door less attached to any driftwood in need of disposing.
With this policy, however, it becomes incredibly difficult to forge a particular identity on the pitch, in contrast to the consistent leadership off it. In cycling through so many managers (newly appointed Maurizio Sarri is now the 13th full-time manager of Abramovich’s Chelsea), not only does a new man in the seat barely have opportunity to bring in the specific players he wants, he neither has the time to properly instruct his players in the brand of football that he wishes them to play. There are exceptions to the rule, of course. Mourinho is well known for quickly implementing his pragmatic, efficient style of football wherever he manages, and Carlo Ancelotti received plaudits for his free-scoring, title-winning team of 2010. But generally speaking, you would look to other teams in the Premier League when considering who played the most attractive football.
Although this season is still young in the making, Maurizio Sarri has done unbelievably well in developing his squad to play an attractive, stylish brand of attacking football which so nearly served up the Serie A title for his Napoli side last season. Using new signing Jorginho as his side’s creative focal point, it’s clear that his players are enjoying the freedom that master-tactician Antonio Conte did not allow.
Time will tell whether as a coach he can galvanise his players in the same fashion as Pep Guardiola at Manchester City, or Jurgen Klopp at Liverpool, but if he can keep his key players firing throughout the season, then they should be in with a shout for silverwear next Spring.
2. Klopp’s MoJoe has never been stronger with Liverpool
Despite being a tender 21 years of age, Liverpool’s Joe Gomez cannot really be described as a ‘new find’. Thrust into the Liverpool senior setup shortly after signing from Charlton Athletic as a fresh-faced 18 year old, Gomez needed two years, a serious knee injury and a bit of good fortune to go his way before his first real run in the team was given to him. Just as injury robbed him during his first season at the club, first-choice right-back Nathaniel Clyne suffering a season-ending injury presented him with the opportunity to show his worth at such a young age, and he certainly took it. One of the real breakthroughs during the first half of the season, Gomez made the role his own and earned his first call-ups to Gareth Southgate’s England squad. Naturally, when injury struck again the young lad was devastated, and could only watch as his Liverpool team-mates carried on the good work he had been part of and went all the way to the Champions League final. On top of that, he missed out on an almost certain chance of being called up to the World Cup that summer.
This season, it already looks as though he is keen to make up for lost time. As good as Liverpool have been going forward, continuing their scintillating attacking form from last season, they have had a steel to them at the back that their fans will not have seen for many years. Much of the credit has been draped around the shoulders of last season’s marquee defensive signing Virgil van Dijk, and rightly so. The Dutchman has added world-class defensive capabilities to Liverpool’s backline in a way in which they’ve not had previously under Jurgen Klopp. At the weekend against Leicester City however, it was his young protege, Gomez, who took many of the plaudits after a man of the match performance in which he and van Dijk marshalled their opponents competently.
Late last week he was named again in Gareth Southgate’s latest squad for the games against Spain and Switzerland, and the money on him starting at least one of those matches is a probability, given his sparkling form.
Sterner tests will come for the youngster, and there may be occasions when Klopp chooses to favour more experienced hands at the back. Should he finally stay free of injury, however, the sky is the limit for this young man.
3. Tottenham’s soft underbelly exposed against Watford?
Watford are in a purple patch right now, there’s no mistake to be made about that. They are the outsiders to the top four in the sense that they are not one of the big teams (alongside Liverpool, Chelsea and Manchester City), but they still have a 100% winning record at the start of the season and that is certainly not to be taken lightly.
Unfortunately for Mauricio Pochettino on Sunday afternoon, that is exactly what his Tottenham side appear to have done, as they lost 2-1. Speaking himself of complacency after the game, it is too early in the season to judge whether this group of Spurs players will have the mentality required to challenge for the league title this year, but they can little afford any repeats of the defeat against Watford.
In truth, it was a dour match which only began to liven up after half time, and neither side really showed the impetus to take the game away from the other. Having been in front with only twenty minutes to play, however, manager Pochettino will surely have been livid with his players, who showed the same lack of fortitude in key matches against Juventus in last season’s Champions League and Manchester United in the FA Cup semi-final.
Despite an empty list of new faces arriving at the club this summer, Pochettino was convinced that his squad had the quality and the depth to challenge on all fronts again this season. Before Sunday, few would have argued with him on that point. His side had stormed to three wins on the bounce, including comfortably turning over Manchester United at Old Trafford, and with Lucas Moura, although purchased last season, injecting new life into the attack.
The defeat to Watford is certainly one that Spurs fans will want to see as an exception rather than the rule this season, and if more of these results creep into play over the next couple of months, then greater scrutiny will once again be placed on the lack of summer transfers.
In all likelihood Mauricio Pochettino will be hoping that the International break provides the boost that his players need, especially with fellow title-challengers Liverpool next up around the corner.
4. No red faces, just pink shirts for Mourinho at Burnley
Manchester United’s win at Burnley on Sunday afternoon certainly had a feeling of business as usual for Jose Mourinho. Another change of partnership in central defence, some notable omissions from the match-day squad entirely, a brace of goals for Romelu Lukaku, and his team turning out in pink shirts.
Well, maybe not that last one.
New this season, and worn by the players for the first time against Burnley, the new pink away kit pays tribute to local publication, the Manchester Evening News, and is sure to cause a stir among fans. Luckily for Mourinho, the only tributes he needed to pay were towards his players come the full-time whistle as his side rather comfortably saw off an uncharacteristically listless Burnley side at Turf Moor.
A 0-3 battering at home to Tottenham the week before had followed a meek reverse against Brighton, leaving them with three points from three games. In the build up to this fixture, all the talk had been of Mourinho appearing well on his way to succumbing to his infamous third-season meltdown that has seemingly been the case at his previous clubs. Whether or not this may yet prove to be on the cards for the three-time Premier League winner remains to be seen, but this was a performance a far cry away from a meltdown. Every player turning out for United on Sunday afternoon gave his all for the manager, and all (apart from an over-exuberant Marcus Rashford) showed utter professionalism throughout, which cannot be underestimated after the scrutiny that has been placed on the club recently, even by Manchester United’s standards. Even Luke Shaw was afforded praise by the manager in his post-match interviews. A change of fortunes for the youngster, indeed.
A number of issues still continue to pile up on Mourinho’s desk, most notably how to ensure that his defence stands up to better teams going forward than Burnley. And of Anthony Martial, left out of the squad completely? Of Fred, who was benched after last week’s humiliation against Tottenham?
At least he has the luxury of a two-week International break to get his thoughts on those, and other matters in order.
5. Deadly duo could paper over defensive cracks this season for Arsenal
Even through many of Arsenal’s darkest days that often came during Arsene Wenger’s final years in charge, his sides were damn good at attacking the opposition. Scoring goals was rarely a problem for Arsenal. So much so that even last year, Wenger’s final season in charge and arguably his worst, the team still finished third in terms of hitting the net.
Therefore, it works out really quite nicely that the man they have subsequently hired to replace Le Professeur, former Paris Saint-Germain manager Unai Emery, is a man who will stay true to the club’s attacking principles. And really, he has to. Examining Arsenal’s four Premier League matches so far this season, it’s painfully clear where the squad’s strengths, and more damningly their shortcomings, are.
In truth, when the team are called upon to defend, it’s often hard to think of a less capable bunch of players in the Premier League. Manchester United lost in a calamitous fashion against Tottenham last week, but those sorts of results for the Red Devils are few and far between. For Arsenal, they seemingly happen at regular intervals throughout the season. Or at least they have done in recent years.
It is in attacking positions where Emery must place his focus, for this season at least. It is there, fortunately for him, that he has inherited two of the most potent strikers in league who, despite laying dormant for too long, can be coaxed into scoring sackfuls of goals between them for Arsenal if used properly this season. Against Cardiff at the weekend, both Lacazette and Aubameyang were named together in the starting line-up for the first time this season, and with both getting on the scoresheet (the former scoring the winning goal for his side), Emery now has a taste of what they can achieve when playing upfront together.
Of course, they also conceded two goals. Playing away to Cardiff is no easy trip, for sure, but Arsenal have already demonstrated consistently throughout the four games so far this season just how many chances they will concede to their opponents. It is not through sacrificing one of their strikers that they can increase their chances of victory, however, rather by unleashing them both in order to outscore their rivals.
Emery should take heed from another big team who have firmly overtaken them in recent years, Liverpool. Until the purchase of Virgil van Dijk last season, Liverpool were a team apt to leak goals against whomever they played, but overcame this, in part, due to their cavalier approach to attacking and ultimately, out-scoring the opposition. Now that they have added a genuine world-class defender to their ranks, they now look like title contenders.
Arsenal will not have the opportunity to do that for some time, and they certainly don’t currently possess anyone of that level already within their setup. By aiming to attack as often as possible, they will take much of the pressure away from a paper-thin defence. They’ll concede plenty of goals, but the likelihood is that they’ll score many more, and could be their best chance of playing Champions League football next season.
The old adage of attack is the best form of defence may ring true for the Gunners this year.
…And finally, the Sports Outlook Team of the Week: