Questions About Ronaldo,Anger At Newcastle And Numo’s Tottenham Tasks
A review of this weekend’s action makes for grim reading for Spurs, but less so for Arsenal and Manchester City
Patrick Vieira (left) and Cristiano Ronaldo (right) both enjoyed their weekends but Japhet Tanganga did not (Photo: AFP/AP/Getty)
After Arsenal finally won their first league game of the season, Mikel Arteta described the last 10 days as his “best in management”. At first glance that seems deeply comical and self-damning, given that Arsenal had squeezed past the favourites to finish bottom of the Premier League and only just moved out of the relegation zone.
But Arteta was referring to the connections he has made between new players over the international break, bedding in signings and working on a selection policy that he believes can rid Arsenal of their historic – and current – headaches. You can see why Arteta was pleased with the response after stinging criticism.
This was only Norwich City, and it will count for nothing if Arsenal lose at Burnley next weekend (and you’d hardly bet against them crumbling and losing 1-0). But this was certainly a new-look Arsenal: five permanent summer signings in the starting XI, four in defensive positions, a clean sheet for Aaron Ramsdale on his Emirates debut. Arsenal also had 30 shots in the match, their highest in a Premier League game since December 2017.
Must-win, and Arsenal won; never before had the result alone that Arteta achieved been more important to postponing, delaying or arresting the emergency, depending on your optimism. Arteta will hope that he has taken the first step to marrying together long-term recruitment with the short-term demand for improvement.
Aston Villa’s time in the Premier League has broadly been an incredibly positive experience, but individual errors have consistently placed a ceiling on their potential. In 2019-20, their first season back after promotion, only two teams in the division made more individual mistakes that led to opposition chances. Last season, when they surprised everyone with their early-season form, exactly the same.
This season, it continues. It is not Tyrone Mings’ fault that Villa were unable to take any of the presentable chances that came their way before half-time, but it was his slack pass back to Jed Steer that allowed Mateo Kovacic to score Chelsea’s second goal and effectively kill off the game. Whether it’s an issue of concentration or technical ability, Dean Smith must look to identify a solution.
For the second game in succession, Brentford paid for their inability to take their chances. Against Aston Villa a fortnight ago, they outshot their opponent. Against Brighton on Saturday, they outshot their opponent and Brentford’s expected goals (xG) total was almost four times higher than Brighton’s.
Brentford are not a promoted team that will have a high volume of shots – they currently rank 19th for shots per game. Instead they rely upon efficiency in front of goal that they achieved in the Championship last season (second highest shot conversion rate in the division). So far in the Premier League, it’s the only thing holding them back.
Brighton really are a completely new team despite only starting one summer signing on Saturday (Marc Cucurella at left wing-back). Last season, Graham Potter’s team were nicknamed “The xG champions”, sarcastically referring to their high chance creation but lack of goals. On Saturday their xG was just 0.19, but they won the game 1-0.
Does the attack improve because the defence has become more solid, or does the defence improve because the attack gives them something to grip onto? In their first four games of last season, Brighton conceded 10 times; only three in four so far in 2021-22. They kept two clean sheets in their first 18 league games in 2020-21; two in four this season.
The obvious answer, and the one that Potter may stick to, is that everything depends on everything else. If you aren’t conceding goals, it reduces the pressure on forwards to score two or three goals just to take points. If you are more confident in your strikers taking their chances, you are less likely to overload the attacking third to create better chances and get caught on the break.
Either way, Potter will be happy. Brighton should still be cursing their inability to buy a striker in the summer (Odsonne Edouard was one rumoured name who scored twice on his debut for Crystal Palace). But for now, all is well on the south coast and Brighton are in the top six on merit.
One of the more intriguing deadline day moves was Burnley paying more than £13m for Maxwel Cornet. Sean Dyche’s last foreign first-team signing from a non-British club was Steve Defour in 2016. Dyche has a type and after Defour you can see why: he played 51 league games in three seasons after joining for £7m and was released on a free transfer. Cornet is an exception.
But Cornet’s signing also raises tactical questions. His two best positions are as a left-sided full-back or left winger, but Dyche usually prefers his full-backs to be defensively-minded and Dwight McNeil – Burnley’s best player – plays on the left wing.
We may not see Cornet at Goodison; Dyche is likely to ease him in and perhaps use him as a substitute on Monday evening. But it will be interesting to see how he intends to bring Cornet into the first team. At £13m, Dyche surely hasn’t bought him to make up the numbers.
The stereotype of Romelu Lukaku is as a flat-track bully. That’s a little unfair for two reasons: most of the best strikers in the world unsurprisingly score the majority of their goals against lesser opponents and Lukaku did score in all three Milan derbies last season. But it also fits Chelsea’s need. They dropped 21 points against bottom-half sides in the league last season, compared to Manchester CIty’s five. If that was the difference between a serious title challenge and finishing fourth, Lukaku was the perfect signing.
But Lukaku is also a cheat code for Chelsea, a shortcut striker in that he makes the difference even when the team doesn’t perform to its peak. Last season, Timo Werner’s profligacy meant that Chelsea needed to create a high volume of chances for him to score.
Lukaku might just be the opposite. Against Aston Villa on Saturday, Chelsea struggled for long periods and allowed more shots than they took. The difference was Lukaku: two shots, two shots on target, two goals. Keep this up, and he’s going to score a ridiculous number this season.
Edouard will understandably take the headlines, because he was so desperately needed and had such an emphatic immediate impact. Only three players scored more than twice for Palace in the league last season; Edouard has matched that in nine minutes.
But the victory over Tottenham was all about Conor Gallagher, who has been one of the best players in the Premier League during the early weeks of this season. He is the energetic midfielder this team desperately needed, the bridge between defence and attack. Before him, Palace midfielders tended to either be creative or combative; Gallagher does both. He ranks 16th in the Premier League for shots taken. No Palace player has made more tackles and only one has created more chances.
Further evidence too (I seem to be saying this every week) of the change in style under Patrick Vieira, who has his breakout win in charge against the opponent he would surely have picked given a choice. This was Palace’s highest possession figure for over two years in the Premier League. The last time they had more than a 50 per cent share of possession against a “Big Six” team was December 2016. Even considering Tottenham’s weaknesses, Palace increased that from 53 per cent (against Chelsea in December 2016) to 63 per cent here. There is a quiet revolution taking place in Croydon.
This is exactly the type of fixture that Everton usually mess up to evaporate any goodwill and momentum generated. They have lost five of their 10 league games against Burnley since the Clarets’ promotion, including a 2-1 home defeat at Goodison in March.
And Everton’s home record has been rotten. They lost six of their 11 home games against teams outside the top eight last season to finish 15th in the home table. They were fourth in a table based on away results; oh what might have been.
Everton now face Burnley, Norwich City, West Ham and Watford in their next four league fixtures at Goodison. Rafa Benitez has the chance to prove that he can thrive in precisely the scenarios where Carlo Ancelotti came unstuck.
Last season, Marcelo Bielsa repeatedly rejected – or maybe just deflected – questions from journalists about Leeds’ record of conceding goals from set pieces. Bielsa pointed to Leeds also ranking high to scoring from them, creating a “net set-piece table” that had Leeds only at -4. Manchester United, for example, sat on -7.
But the point stands: Leeds conceded more goals from set pieces than any other team in the Premier League last season. Their expected goals conceded from set pieces was a similar figure, suggesting that they cannot plead bad luck.
But you can also use your eyes to make the same conclusion. Every time a corner or free-kick is played into the Leeds penalty area, you expect one of their man-markers (and Leeds are not a tall team) to lose their opponent and a clear chance to be the result. Sunday afternoon was no different.
Has Brendan Rodgers got his attacking strategy all wrong? On 28 February, Rodgers started Jamie Vardy and Kelechi Iheanacho as a front two for the first time and it worked. Iheanacho and Vardy played every subsequent league game together. From then until the end of the season, Leicester ranked fourth in the Premier League for shots per game.
But Rodgers has reverted to the original plan this season, starting Vardy as a lone striker with a trio of attacking midfielders behind him. There is no great shame in losing to Manchester City – and Leicester did have occasional chances – but something isn’t clicking in the final third. It is a small sample size, but Leicester currently rank bottom of the Premier League for shots. Given their resources – Vardy, Iheanacho, Patson Daka, James Maddison, Harvey Barnes – that’s a little worrying.
Iheanacho might not be fully fit and Daka is still acclimatising to English football (and is young) and there were logical reasons to be a little circumspect against the champions, but you suspect that Rodgers might rethink his formation for Leicester’s next matches. He needs to make them dangerous again.
Mo Salah, welcome to the Premier League’s 100 club. It is truly extraordinary that he has reached that landmark in fewer games than every player in the division’s history bar Shearer, Kane, Aguero and Henry, given that three of those were No 9s and Henry was arguably the greatest player the Premier League has seen (I said “arguably”; please don’t shout).
The greatest thing about Salah as a neutral is that he is a glorious mix of dichotomies. There is surely no elite player in the world who can do three things that make you wonder how he is even an elite footballer – sloppy control, skewed finish, failed dribble – and then something so outrageously beautiful that precious few other players would be capable of. He’s also small in stature but extraordinarily strong, a constant smiler but with enough snide to get by and predictably unpredictable; just as you think he’s cutting to shoot on his left, back he dips again.
There was some talk, not without merit, that Liverpool might have been wise to cash in on Salah at the height of his powers and reinvest the proceeds, given how well it worked with Philippe Coutinho and how transfer funds seem to be at Anfield. The complication comes because there are so few players who can replicate his skillset and the sheer weight of his goal contributions. He’s ready to fuel another Liverpool title bid, and Jurgen Klopp will miss him terribly in January when he joins Egypt for the Africa Cup of Nations.
It would also be remiss not to wish Harvey Elliott well after his horrible ankle injury on Sunday. Elliott is a wonderful talent who would have played a significant part in Liverpool’s season. Liverpool will miss him, but that isn’t the point. The only hope is that Elliott can recover fully and be back fighting fit before the end of the season, or sooner.
Ignore the sloppy – and slightly unlucky – defeat to Tottenham on the opening weekend and Manchester City look a little daunting again. For all the worries about the lack of a No 9 (and one would surely have scored one of City’s first-half chances at the King Power), Pep Guardiola’s team look defensively sound and are taking shots at a rate of 21 per game. My theory is that it’s down to the remaking of Bernardo Silva, as explained here.
Cristiano Ronaldo dominated all of the coverage, because that is how these things work. It may well become a theme of Manchester United’s season, a slightly lacklustre performance that is given a shine when Ronaldo makes the difference. If Ronaldo can do one thing at Old Trafford, it is to paper over cracks: tactical questions, an occasional inefficiency in front of goal, the yawning gaps in midfield and the breakdown in relationship between supporters and owners. It was slightly ironic to see United supporters wearing replica “Ronaldo” shirts that had green-and-gold scarves draped around the collar.
The theory is that Ronaldo adds to what Bruno Fernandes did last season, piling more and more attacking brilliance onto the pitch until the weight of that brilliance renders all the other issues secondary. And there is some logic to that. If you have other problems in the team, why wouldn’t you just pick all the good attackers and attempt to blow teams away?
But those issues may well resurface because Ronaldo’s arrival has not extinguished them. Newcastle United scored once and would surely have at least doubled that total were passes across goal directed accurately or were Callum Wilson available. Newcastle are not one of the best counter-attacking teams in the division; United will have sterner tests.
There is also an issue with Jadon Sancho. He was signed to solve the problem of United’s attacking play being funnelled down the left wing, but Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has twice now picked him on the left. Sancho thrived in a quick passing system at Borussia Dortmund in which he would lay the ball off before darting in behind. Numerous times already at United he has attempted the same trick only for the subsequent pass to never arrive.
It’s fascinating to see how Ronaldo’s presence changes United’s attacking plan. Since March 2019, the most open-play crosses United have attempted in the first half of a league game is 13. Here they attempted 11, repeatedly trying to aim for Ronaldo’s prodigious leap. But that seems a waste given the attacking fluidity behind Ronaldo.
In the second half United worked it out: Ronaldo dropped deeper and ran in behind more (as for his second goal), United attempted only five crosses and the quick interplay for the fourth goal was a joy to watch. To repeat the point made here, it’s going to be fascinating to see how all this comes out in the wash.
It’s a sure sign that a manager is feeling the pressure when they lash out at the local media. Asked by the Newcastle Chronicle’s Lee Ryder about his decision to take a holiday over the international break, Bruce angrily said he was offended by the line of questioning before remarking that it was typical of Ryder and his newspaper in general. He then left the press conference with no further questions offered.
Perhaps it was a slightly inflammatory question in that it insinuated a lack of professionalism, but Ryder was only reflecting the opinion of supporters and said as much when posing it. Either way, burning bridges with the local media doesn’t often end well for managers. Leeds United at St James’ Park on Friday night is emphatically must-not-lose.
Another defeat against a higher-class opponent during which Norwich had chances to score but wasted them. Daniel Farke’s team have now had 39 shots in the league this season and scored one goal; this is becoming a serious issue.
So too is the pervading feeling that history is being repeated and that Norwich are caught in an uncomfortable middle ground, too good for the Championship and not good enough for the Premier League. Farke will insist to his players that the season starts now after a grim run of difficult fixtures, but it does create an awful lot of pressure ahead of their home game against Watford next weekend.
Southampton defended deep again, aiming to keep it tight against a dangerous opponent and then push forward in the last 20 minutes to try and win the game. As against Manchester United before the international break, Ralph Hasenhuttl will believe that one point should have been three. Armando Broja hit a post and had a chance cleared off the line as Southampton pushed for a winner.
But Hasenhuttl will be mighty pleased that Southampton finally got the first bit right. The suspicion is that his strategy of sitting deep breaks down because his team aren’t actually good enough at the defending bit. No better time, then, to register their first clean sheet against a current Premier League team since 29 December, 2020. That fixture? Also at home to West Ham. “Can we defend against you every week?”
Ah. All those suspicions, embedded deep in the minds of Tottenham supporters, that a run of nervy 1-0 wins were merely placing a thin veil over the myriad issues in the team look extremely pertinent now. Make no mistake: this was as bad as anything under Jose Mourinho. Tottenham had two shots, a miserable xG of 0.08 (for those not statistically savvy, that isn’t very good) and Harry Kane failed to have a shot in a completed Premier League match for the first time in his career.
There are excuses to reach for. Tottenham were without Son Heung-Min, Cristian Romero, Giovani Lo Celso and Davinson Sanchez. Eric Dier got injured early on to leave Spurs with a central defensive pairing of Joe Rodon and Japhet Tanganga and the latter got himself sent off. The three players who went on international duty without prior permission from the club will be particularly unpopular on the training ground this week.
But then Nuno must also take this fair share of the blame. The first half was entirely soporific, with little sign that Tottenham were likely to click into anything above first gear. Even after Palace’s first goal, there was obvious little shift in the patter of the game. Nuno might want to give Bryan Gil and and Tanguy Ndombele time to get up to speed for different reasons, but Spurs were crying out for some creativity and impetus from midfield. They laid down and waited for Palace to tickle their tummies.
The numbers make for far more dismal reading than the league table suggests; that’s no issue when you are winning but pulls into sharper focus when it goes wrong. Tottenham rank 16th for shots, 16th for expected goals, 18th for shot-creating actions and fifth for shots faced per game. The size of Nuno’s task was laid bare in 90 dispiriting, dire minutes.
Late on Friday evening, Fifa released a statement confirming that Chilean players would be permitted to play for their clubs this weekend. They had received a request from the Chilean FA asking for sanctions to be placed on those who had not joined up with their international squads during the break. One of those players was Watford’s Francisco Sierralta, who was made available for the home game against Wolves.
Good news, then? Well, not quite. Sierralta was told he could play, was picked in the starting XI and then scored a calamitous headed own goal to give Wolves the lead. There are some own goals where you sympathise with a player who has tried to perform an action and just got it wrong. There are others where you cannot fathom quite what the player was trying to do. File this one in the second camp.
We all know about the Manager of the Month curse, but on Saturday we witnessed the lesser-spotted hoodoo of the Player of the Month award. On Friday, Michail Antonio was named as the Premier League’s best player in August and was clearly deserved winner.
Fast forward 24 hours and Antonio had a single shot on target against Southampton, failed to create a chance, lost all seven of his aerial duels and was sent off in stoppage time, ruling him out of next weekend’s fixture against Manchester United. Lucky West Ham bought a backup striker in the transfer windo..oh
After 82 minutes and 16 seconds at Vicarage Road, Wolves had their 70th shot of the season without finding the net; it made total sense that their first league goal of the season had been scored by an opponent.
But this time, finally, there was an answer. Two seconds later, Marcal’s blocked header had fallen to the feet – or knee – of new signing Hwang Hee-chan. His finish was as scruffy as you could ever wish to see, but you see if he, Bruno Lage or the Wolves supporters who thrashed behind the goal care.
It is tempting to read a little too much into this: Wolves can’t score a goal, bring on their new striker and he immediately finds himself in the right place at the right time. Lage believes differently, and you can see his point: this much pressure and this volume of chances created was always likely to end in a goal, scruffy or otherwise.
Either way, Wolves are off the mark and fully deserved Lage’s first league win. With five league fixtures to come against clubs who have so far only managed one win or fewer, and Hwang now likely ready to start, Wolves could push themselves clear of the bottom three.