Your reaction to Saturday’s draw at Brighton probably depends on whether you are more willing to look at Arsenal with an eye of optimism or pessimism. The optimist reasons that Arsenal would have lost this game in recent seasons. They displayed defensive resilience despite not playing well. Their two best players – Gabriel and Aaron Ramsdale – form part of a new-look defence that Mikel Arteta believes aids that resilience. They have taken their unbeaten run to five games since the 5-0 defeat to Manchester City and have three consecutive home matches to come.
But the pessimists are clearing their throats. Arsenal have still only scored five goals in seven league matches this season, and three of those came in 22 minutes against Tottenham. There’s no doubt that Arsenal performed well in the north London derby, but what if that said more about their opponents than their own strength?
And Arsenal were wholly unable to extend the themes of the victory over Tottenham. They did not link play with the quick interchanges of passes that were littered across the first half last weekend. They were outplayed by Brighton and surely were lucky not to lose.
But then isn’t that just classic Arsenal under Arteta, the constant flitting between positivity and negativity that leaves most of us unsure as to which direction they lurch to next. The only reasonable end point is that we must wait another month before drawing any lasting conclusions.
A disappointing defeat not because Villa should expect to beat Tottenham, but because they were a little flat throughout and failed to take advantage of an opponent that would surely have panicked if they had conceded the first goal.
Dean Smith has made the decision to switch to a back three to try and give Villa a little more defensive security, a move that makes sense. They also have Matty Cash, who is the perfect fit for the right wing-back role, although Matt Targett isn’t quite as comfortable in his role.
But the problem with that formation is that it relies upon the wing-backs to provide the pace out wide, when Villa have two wingers – Bertrand Traore and Leon Bailey – who arguably deserve to start on talent alone. It also means that the central midfield is made up of largely workmanlike players, leaving Emi Buendia on the bench.
That leaves a front two of Ollie Watkins and Danny Ings, who must work together as a partnership to create chances without the creative forces behind and wide of them. Against Tottenham, there was certainly evidence of them trying to do that but neither Ings nor Watkins created a chance.
Villa would surely be more dangerous as an attacking force in a 4-4-2 with Buendia and Bailey or Traore as wingers, or a 4-2-3-1 with Buendia central and Watkins wide left or on the bench (as harsh as that sounds). Unfortunately, Smith believes that makes Villa a little open at the back.
Yoane Wissa must be wondering what the fuss is all about. The Premier League is easy, no? You come off the bench against Liverpool and score within four minutes. The next weekend you come off the bench against West Ham and within 12 minutes score the winner.
This was a brilliant result for Brentford because it looked as if they had missed their chance. They were at their scintillating best in the first 30 minutes, trampling all over West Ham before eventually taking the lead. But when the Hammers fought back and pulled themselves level, the home crowd urged them to push for a winner. Brentford got the better of an established Premier League team with brains and then they did the same with brawn when the game situation demanded it.
Wissa’s starring role is important too. Brentford’s excellent recruitment provides so many low-cost signings that they have players on the bench who are pushing for starts and have the potential to change a match. The last 15 minutes are often when promoted clubs suffer as star players tire. Thomas Frank would stress that there is no such thing as a star at Brentford.
A temporary return to last season’s infuriating habit. Brighton had moved on from their tendency to create many more chances than their opponents but fail to capitalise upon that territorial dominance, but they had 60 per cent possession against Arsenal and took 21 shots compared to Arsenal’s eight.
Still, Brighton are owed a little leeway. If the end result was irksome, the general direction of travel from last season to this remains emphatically positive. It’s true that Brighton are yet to play an elite Premier League club, but they have beaten Leicester City and drawn with Arsenal. If this is to be their lot for this season, its biggest headache will be a battle to hold onto the excellent Graham Potter.
If there is to be a golden rule of 2021-22, namely that failing to beat Norwich City at home is a sign that you are in poor form, this was worrying for Burnley. They had several penalty appeals (the first one was probably the most convincing) and had 14 shots, but they again failed to score. Burnley have actually improved their chance creation from last season to this, but their finishing has dropped away badly. Chris Wood, Dwight McNeil, Matej Vydra and Jay Rodriguez have taken 40 shots between them and scored once.
Saturday’s result was particularly bad timing given that it came a few days after Sean Dyche signed the contract extension that will not expire until July 2025. There’s little doubt that it was in Burnley’s best interests to keep Dyche – he carries this club on his shoulders – but neither does a new deal evaporate their myriad on-field issues. Burnley haven’t won a home league game since January 27. That’s going to become an emergency situation soon.
A necessary win, again provoked by Thomas Tuchel’s substitutions. There was some surprise amongst Chelsea supporters when forgotten man Ross Barkley was introduced, but he played a number of direct balls into the box and delighted in the space created by James Ward-Prowse’s sending off.
But there is a Romelu Lukaku problem emerging for Chelsea. When he signed, I expressed some concerns about Tuchel’s comments regarding Lukaku’s ability to play with his back to goal in a target-man role. Lukaku was rejuvenated at Inter by Antonio Conte deliberately increasing that role to make Lukaku a complete striker with licence to drop deep and wide and drive at defenders.
Over Chelsea’s last three games, we have seen “old” Lukaku. Against Southampton, he only had 24 touches of the ball in 90 minutes, repeatedly waiting for service that never came. That matters, not only because it wastes Lukaku’s talents but also because it threatens to destroy the confidence that is so vital to his finishing. He takes more chances when he feels involved and snatches at them when he believes he will only get one or two per match. Tuchel would be advised to work on an expansion of Lukaku’s game over the international break.
Another step in the right direction. It might seem as if Crystal Palace are being showered with a little too much praise for a club that has taken seven points from as many matches, but we have to put into context the overhaul Patrick Vieira has attempted to take on. They also completely outplayed Leicester City for long periods at Selhurst Park and probably should have won the game in the last 10 minutes.
Having fallen behind to goals from Kelechi Iheanacho and Jamie Vardy, Vieira will take a draw. Sunday was the first time in almost two years that Palace have come from two goals down in a league game to avoid defeat. Last season they would have crumpled after such a disastrous first 40 minutes – they took a point or more in only four of the 19 matches in which they conceded first.
This time Palace stuck to their manager’s ideals and got their rewards after the introduction of Michael Olise. He return to fitness will surely improve Palace’s fluidity in attack, particularly when flanking a fully acclimatised Odsonne Edouard.
As the fallout from Everton’s draw with Manchester United focused on the home side’s need for a new world-class central midfielder, a handy reminder that good managers improve what they inherit. There are few midfielders in the Premier League who have started the season in better form than Abdoulaye Doucoure.
Doucoure was fabulous at Old Trafford. He created a couple of chances, broke up play with well-timed tackles or simply being in the right place at the right time and was Everton’s most accurate passer too. He was a bundle of energy, covering more ground than any other player on the pitch.
And Doucoure has no doubt who to credit for his improvement this season. “I am learning with the manager every day,” he said after the game. “Everything changed in my game and my understanding of the game improved. The manager gave me a lot of advice — simple advice that makes a difference — and I try to take that on the pitch and help the team as much as I can.”
A first win of the season, achieved through and despite the two sides of Leeds United. Leeds were dominant in the first half, creating chances that they failed to take but overpowering a Watford side whose performance caused such concern for the owners that they sacked Xisco Munoz by Sunday morning.
This was the Leeds that we – and their supporters – like to see. Stuart Dallas piled forward at every opportunity, taking five shots. Rodrigo played the selfless centre-forward role, creating four chances. Raphinha consistently beat his man and took shots from outside the penalty area. Dan James’ direct running is going to be a significant threat this season. Leeds should have been three or four goals in front by half-time.
And then came bad Leeds, just as against West Ham and Newcastle. They eventually ground out the win, but needed the referee’s whistle to save Islan Meslier’s blushes and threatened to undo that early good work. Marcelo Bielsa insisted after the game that “the triumph was never in danger”, but those at Elland Road who roared in relief at full-time may disagree.
And boy did Leeds need that win. Saturday marked the start of a run of four league games against Watford, Southampton, Norwich and Wolves from which they must surely take at least seven points to allay any fears about lost momentum. They are now well-placed to surpass that goal.
It was all going so well. Leicester overcame a slow start to the match and then reaped the rewards of Brendan Rodgers’ decision to finally give Jamie Vardy a strike partner. Vardy didn’t create a chance but had three shots, Kelechi Iheanacho had only one but created three chances and both forwards scored.
But even before Leicester’s two goals there were signs of their defensive uncertainty. Leicester are conceding shots at an alarming rate this season (16.3 per game vs 9.7 in 2020-21). It’s hard to diagnose the reason for that slump, but the absence of Wilfred Ndidi didn’t help on Sunday.
Nor too does this new central defensive partnership. Caglar Soyuncu is no longer a defender that inspires confidence in his colleagues and Jannik Vestergaard is still settling in. The biggest issue appears to be movement; they are big, physical defenders but Palace were able to leave them flat-footed. Leicester have played five matches in all competitions with that pairing and are yet to win. They have conceded two goals against Burnley, Crystal Palace and Brighton, hardly the most elite attacks in the division.
Jurgen Klopp – and most of the 52,000 supporters leaving Anfield – will have been bitterly disappointed to twice let a lead slip and miss the chance to establish a lead at the top. This is becoming a bit of a theme of late. Liverpool ceded a lead against Milan before recovering their position and then twice led against Brentford before allowing them back into the match.
But waking up on Monday morning, the red half of Liverpool will accept that they were fortunate to take a point. Manchester City suffocated Liverpool after a bright opening 10 minutes. Anfield was filled with groans as those in red struggled to clear their lines without immediately handing back possession to their visitors.
The difference between defeat and draw was the best player in the world on current form (that’s a bold statement, but becomes harder to argue against the more you think about it). Mo Salah was quiet for large periods of the match in exactly the same way that Lionel Messi used to be at Barcelona: his run and pass for Liverpool’s first goal and breathtaking skill for their second was distinctly Messi-esque. As this post-match piece says, when you have him you always have a chance.
It is to Manchester City’s credit that they twice hauled themselves back into the match away at a title rival, particularly given that has been their Achilles’ heel over the last two years. Until Phil Foden and Kevin De Bruyne’s goals, this had a very familiar feel: City domination and regular chance creation, opportunities wasted and then plans scuppered either by defensive mistake or individual brilliance. We can safely file Salah’s virtuoso second half as the latter.
Even then, as explained in this piece, City exposed James Milner at right-back and created plenty enough chances to win the game. A draw is no problem, but in that first half Pep Guardiola’s side did miss the chance to lay down a marker with league victories at Stamford Bridge and Anfield on consecutive weekends.
This has a strong stench of David Moyes, 2013-14. Manchester United’s league position is certainly better, but then Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has far better players and has had far longer to stamp his authority on the team. The lack of attacking cohesion, the dullness, the lack of confidence going into any home game, the manager lacking any convincing diagnoses of the problems; it’s all there.
Even Manchester United’s league position is a slight misnomer. Liverpool, Chelsea and Manchester City have all played league fixtures against each other; United haven’t. So far this season, those four clubs have dropped 11 points against non-Big Six opponents. United account for seven of those 11 points.
United’s form at Old Trafford is becoming a real concern, despite the impressive unbeaten away run. United have taken 40 points from their last 25 home games. By way of comparison, Manchester City have taken 57 points. Opposition teams no longer travel to Old Trafford intimidated by what they will face.
Were Manchester United entertaining but flawed, we might have some sympathy. Solskjaer has been handed two new attacking superstars. Had they been free-scoring and leaky as the manager attempted to find the perfect balance, supporters would reason that improvement may lie just around the corner. But United are just… middling. They have scored six goals in their last six games against Young Boys, West Ham (twice), Villarreal, Southampton and Everton.
Solskjaer may well improve, but what on earth is the reason for this much patience? Why is a club of this size and with their resources appointing a manager who might learn on the job and then giving him almost three years to prove that theory correct or otherwise? The reality is that on Saturday evening, Newcastle United supporters were probably the only ones in the Premier League who would happily trade their manager for Manchester United’s. That is an absurd situation for them to be in.
While Steve Bruce is keeping Newcastle United’s head above water, he will not be sacked. He has a rolling contract that necessitates a compensatory payout. Mike Ashley is happy while Newcastle are a Premier League club and up for sale. There may be updates on that in January.
But this situation is getting a little more critical as Newcastle’s miserable run continues. They have now won seven of their last 37 matches in all competitions. Over their last 38 league games, a full season, they have taken 37 points. If that’s not necessarily form that would lead to certain relegation, it’s as near as dammit.
After Saturday’s defeat to Wolves, Bruce claimed that Newcastle failed to get what they deserved. There’s something in that: they had chances to score against Wolves and should have comfortably beaten Watford last weekend. But ever since Bruce was appointed, the accusation from his critics is that Newcastle’s underlying numbers were worse than their results suggested. That luck is now balancing out.
The trust of the majority of supporters has now gone. The trust of the players is repeatedly the subject of leaks to the written press. Newcastle are winless, sit second-bottom of the Premier League and are yet to play five of the Big Six and neither of Everton or Brighton, the two surprise successes of the season so far. Were this any other club, they would surely be considering the international break to be the perfect time to make a change.
Better, I guess. Norwich avoided defeat for the first time in an age. They only had two shots on target and were probably fortunate not to concede a penalty, but they will take it. Their defence finally avoided any catastrophic errors and even displayed some resilience against physical pressure.
Daniel Farke stressed after the game that a point can never be truly celebrated while you are winless, but a clean sheet can be. With plenty of players remaining for training throughout the international break, and three other winless clubs stopping Norwich from being cut adrift, it’s time for Farke to accentuate the positives.
Three distinct issues, each less obvious than the last:
1) The disappointing run continues, albeit against a probable title challenger. The scoreline may have looked close until the final two minutes of the match, but Southampton were grateful to Alex McCarthy for keeping them in the contest during the first half.
2) The red card for James Ward-Prowse will cause a negative effect that will last far beyond Saturday. Ward-Prowse has been carrying two slight injury problems and has not been at his best this season (the set-piece delivery has even been off), but he is still Southampton’s best central midfielder. He will now miss games against Leeds and Burnley in the Premier League – vital if you take a cursory glance at the league table – and another trip to Stamford Bridge in the League Cup.
3) Last season, Danny Ings’ chance conversion dug Southampton out of a number of holes. He was amongst the most efficient strikers in the league, scoring 12 times from just 57 shots. The good news is that Adam Armstrong is having shots at a quicker rate than Ings managed. The bad news is that he has scored only once from 21 attempts.
In part that is down to where Armstrong takes his shots from. Nine of his 21 have come from outside the penalty area and a third of his shots have been blocked, evidence that he sometimes tries his luck despite a crowded path to goal. But then Southampton must also look to service him better. Often Armstrong takes shots because there is little support to give him an alternative option.
A precious victory to keep the wolf from the door. Given all we have heard about the mood amongst Tottenham’s players recently, Aston Villa scoring a late equaliser after Spurs’ best spell of the game could easily have caused the home team to lose their heads. Instead, they resolved to go again and achieved what they deserved.
During the second half, we saw the best bit of Nuno’s Tottenham. They were finally able to create chances with regularity against a decent opponent. Son Heung-Min’s runs into space were a constant threat. Harry Kane must wait until after the October international break for his first league goal of the season, but there were signs of improvement there too. Kane had six shots and eight touches of the ball in the opposition penalty area. Both are far above his season average.
Nuno has plenty of work to do to convince Tottenham supporters that he is more than a make-do, temporary answer, but he is at least going to survive the international break. If they had lost on Sunday, that must surely have been in doubt.
The performance against Leeds in the first half was terrible; nobody is arguing that. Watford were also highly fortunate to get a point against Newcastle, and haven’t been particularly convincing since beating Aston Villa on the opening day. But then they are still 14th in the Premier League, did sign a number of players who must get used to each other and have won two of their opening seven games. It’s hardly an obvious situation in which a club sacks a manager after promotion.
But then this is what Watford do. If you are surprised at the sacking of Xisco Munoz then you haven’t been paying enough attention to Watford over the last five years. One of their last 12 managers have remained in their job for more than 40 matches in all competitions. They are an enclave of Serie A impatience – under Italian ownership – in Hertfordshire.
More pertinently, Watford have made this work. Between May 2015 and December 2019, they sacked Slavisa Jokanovic (who had just taken them up to the Premier League), sacked Quique Sanchez Flores (who had kept them there), Walter Mazzarri (who had done the same), Javi Gracia (the same again) and Sanchez Flores for a second time. Managerial short-termism is often derided as an unpleasant strand of modern football, but there’s little to criticise when it is successful. Any manager appointed knows the deal.
Whichever manager Watford choose to replace Munoz will be instructive. Reports suggest that Diego Martinez (the Granada connection to the owners makes sense) and Claudio Ranieri are the two names most prominently linked. Ranieri would be a gamble given how badly it worked out for him at Fulham.
But then Watford have built up enough faith in their lurching strategy that we owe it to them not to make snap judgements. Munoz will consider himself highly unfortunate to lose his job. The six managers before him probably thought the same.
Did David Moyes make a costly mistake on Sunday? On Thursday evening, West Ham beat Rapid Vienna 2-0 in the Europa League. Their starting XI for that game included Rice, Cresswell and Antonio who also started on Sunday. Soucek, Bowen and Fornals were used as substitutes.
Those six outfield players all started on Sunday against Brentford. There’s nothing wrong with that per se, but it was interesting that Moyes then didn’t make a single substitution given the workload over the last few weeks.
It’s the sort of criticism that is result-oriented. If West Ham had scored late and then held on for a draw, Moyes would probably have been praised for sticking with the starting XI. But having conceded late to lose at home, West Ham’s manager must be cursing his decision not to add extra energy or bring on substitutes to see out the match.
Does Bruno Lage have his tactical plan to pull Wolves up the Premier League table? In each of their last two league games – both of which Wolves have won – Lage has operated with a lopsided 3-4-3 formation with Hwang Hee-chan on the left of a front three.
The theory is that Hwang drifts centrally when Wolves are attacking to create a strike partnership with Raul Jimenez. That creates space for Marcal to overlap down the left flank and whichever winger is picked on the right (Trincao on Saturday, Adam Traore against Southampton) can look to service the two strikers.
It also allows for the two forwards to work together, and that is where Wolves are having the most success. Against Southampton, it was Jimenez who scored the winner. Against Newcastle, Jimenez twice created identical goals for Hwang to score his second and third league goals since arriving in England.
And their teammates are impressed. “We’re excited and I think everybody associated with our football club is excited too,” said Conor Coady after Saturday’s win. “They’re two phenomenal footballers, but more importantly they’re brilliant people as well. To see them linking up well in the games is fantastic to see, and they’re a pleasure to play with, both of them. It was fantastic today just to watch them link and come together.”