Have Liverpool added another layer? Aston Villa enjoy a new balance, Tottenham suffer late hit, concern for Sheffield United, Man City may still need a Fernandinho replacement, and a stunning win for Leicester.
Last Updated: 28/09/20 11:43pm
Are Liverpool adding another layer?
Liverpool’s well-documented attacking dominance was on display yet again as the champions made it three wins from three to extend Arsenal’s Anfield woes.
Ominously for their title challengers, the zip, precision and arrogance to Liverpool’s game that had only been present for spells against Leeds and Chelsea was constant against the Gunners, only this time it applied more to when they were out of possession.
Liverpool pressed with purpose and precision, which when coupled with Jurgen Klopp’s gamble to deploy a high defensive line, suffocated the Gunners and limited them to just 33 per cent possession.
Alexandre Lacazette’s two second-half chances showed certain aspects of this new Liverpool approach need fine-tuning, but with many questioning where Klopp’s title-winners can improve ahead of this season’s defence, the victory over Arsenal shed light on a fascinating new dimension to the champions.
Such tactics may not be used against all opposition this season, but if Liverpool can deliver such clinical results without the ball as we know they can with it, the Reds may just have taken on a new edge to elevate themselves even higher.
A fully-fit McGinn like a new Villa signing
With a few days of the window remaining, Dean Smith says Aston Villa will be talking to “plenty of clubs” in search of players to improve their squad.
But if John McGinn can reach 100 per cent fitness, they have a brand new signing under their nose.
The Scot – Villa’s best player in their promotion season in 2018/19 – was back to his best with two assists in the 3-0 win at Fulham, as he pushes towards full fitness following an ankle break in December. It was by far his best performance since then.
He himself admitted after the game he “hung himself out to dry” post-lockdown, playing as much as he could through pain, and though he’s not quite at 100 per cent, he’s edging closer.
That’s hugely promising for Villa. At his best, McGinn has everything you want from a central midfielder: an attacking eye, tireless energy and discipline. He’s also streetwise, something Villa need after going gung-ho too often before lockdown last season.
It’s clear everyone at the club recognises the need for that balance now, and fully fit, consistent McGinn should help.
Arsenal’s wait for milestone away win goes on
Despite Liverpool’s dominance, Arsenal remained in the game at 2-1 at Anfield when, just after the hour-mark, Alexandre Lacazette broke the offside trap to collect Dani Ceballos’ delightful pass only to shoot tamely straight at the onrushing Alisson. It felt a big save.
In these early weeks of the new season, Leicester’s 5-2 victory over Manchester City is the stand-out result but this could yet prove to be as significant a moment for Arsenal and Lacazette.
Ten minutes later, the Frenchman was pictured with his shirt over his face on the substitutes’ bench still ruing his inability to convert and adding to his first-half opener.
This was a far better display than 12 months ago when Arsenal succumbed to the same scoreline, but a point away to the Premier League champions would have represented a major statement, another step in the right direction under Mikel Arteta and a sign of his side’s growing resolve.
As it is, Arsenal extended their wretched away record to 18 defeats and 10 draws from their last 28 games against the traditional ‘big six’ in the Premier League, dating back to January 2015.
Since the Spaniard’s first game in charge in December 2019, the Gunners have dropped more points from losing positions than any other side in the Premier League (18), and for all the positivity since his arrival, it will only be after a milestone result on the road that a culture change will truly gather momentum.
Fulham’s defensive frailties exposed again
No one can accuse Scott Parker of not trying to improve things in Fulham’s defence. He switched to a back five against Aston Villa with Tim Ream coming in as an additional centre-back, providing some much-needed extra cover.
Except it did not quite come off like that. Within 15 minutes, some sloppy defending saw Aston Villa 2-0 ahead and Fulham never recovered. Even bringing on Aboubakar Kamara in the 39th minute and changing to a back four with Dennis Odoi slotting in at right-back did not improve things.
At half-time, Sky Sports pundit Roy Keane described Fulham’s defending as “brutal” and “shocking”, adding: “There’s no aggression. People are ball-watching, not smelling the danger… Fulham are making Aston Villa look like Bayern Munich. Scott Parker will be disgusted.”
Then three minutes after the break, a complete lack of awareness allowed Tyrone Mings to beat the offside trap and poke home, taking Fulham’s goals conceded to 10 in three games. Only once has a team shipped more in their first three matches of a Premier League campaign (West Brom with 11 this season).
Things were not much better up front either as luck continued to work against Fulham. Bobby Decordova-Reid had a goal ruled out after Aleksandar Mitrovic fouled Ezri Konsa in the build-up and the Serbian striker was guilty of wasting chance after chance.
All of this adds up to some real early season worry for Parker and the gaping defensive hole needs urgent attention. He has a week to go in the transfer window and signing a defender or two – or even three – must be a top priority.
Sure, spend £400m on defenders, but Fernandinho replacement most key
Manchester City need better defenders, there’s little doubt about that. If Ruben Dias joins, Pep Guardiola will have spent £400m on that position since arriving. But many of their problems are coming in the seconds before the opposition get anywhere near their back four.
Over the past year, maybe more, their back line are staring at more attacking runners than ever before, and that’s not necessarily the defence’s fault. In transition against Leicester, Pep Guardiola’s side were all over the place.
At present, City have two very distinct layers – defence and attack – and not much in between. That front layer, the attack, is irresistible, and that’s why City are so deceitful. One week we’re saying they’re the best to watch, the next they look brittle.
That’s because some sides will struggle to break through it even once over an entire game. Keep the ball in the opposition’s defensive third for 90 minutes and you can’t lose, and that’s what City do so often.
But it’s risky, and papers over big cracks. Leicester had just enough quality and patience to break through that six-man wall – only on a handful of occasions – and had free rein to run at a back-tracking back four making silly challenges.
The second half on Sunday is all the evidence you need that Rodri may not be the man to replace Fernandinho as that layer between defence and attack in the long term. A calm, precise passer? Yes. A human wall to stop teams on the transition? No. Fernandinho is that, and his absence from the 53rd minute was clear.
You can spend over £400m on defenders all you like, but City may still need to find his long-term replacement.
Leicester’s stunning start to the season
How do you overcome the disappointment of missing out on the Champions League? Start the next campaign by winning the opening three games of a top-flight season for the first time in your club’s history. That is precisely what Leicester have done under Brendan Rodgers.
Big wins over West Brom and Burnley were impressive. A 5-2 thrashing of Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City at the Etihad Stadium is something else entirely. This was an astonishing win. Leicester even came from behind to do it before punishing their opponents on the counter-attack.
Jamie Vardy’s hat-trick just adds to his legend but there was also a wonderful strike by James Maddison and a penalty from Youri Tielemans in what was a fine team performance. Any gloom over the end of the previous season has been lifted. Excitement is the prevailing mood now.
Tottenham hit hard by low blow
Let’s ignore that penalty decision for a moment and temporarily focus instead on the excellence of the home side’s performance in Tottenham’s 1-1 draw with Newcastle.
Jose Mourinho has rarely struggled with accentuating the positives of his side’s performances, but he was right to call Newcastle goalkeeper Karl Darlow’s showing “phenomenal”. But for the Newcastle keeper’s shot-stopping, and the width of the woodwork to twice deny Heung-Min Son, Spurs could have registered a cricket score.
But they didn’t – and ultimately, if unjustly, Tottenham were made to pay for that profligacy.
These are, of course, early days in the new Premier League season and even after the opening-weekend defeat to Everton and the two squandered points on Sunday, Tottenham are still level in the table with Chelsea and above Manchester United. There was certainly enough in the display against Newcastle, a world away from their lethargic struggle against Everton, to strongly argue that a top-four finish isn’t beyond them.
But heading into a week in which Spurs will face Chelsea in the Carabao Cup, Maccabi Haifa in the Europa League, and then travel to Old Trafford for a Premier League meeting, the comfort blanket of three points would have been reassuring.
What Spurs, faced with what is surely an unprecedentedly hectic autumn, could have done without is another injury and more selection issues. But with Son now ruled “out for a while” due to a hamstring injury, the ongoing unavailability of Gareth Bale and the disappearance of Dele Alli takes on a new dimension.
No wonder Mourinho walked out before the final whistle. Spurs’ big week has started with a low blow that hurt.
Meslier and Leeds prove defensive mettle
Leeds United have shown they can mix it with the very best in the Premier League when it comes to scoring goals, as their seven goals from their first two games against champions Liverpool and Fulham will attest.
But Marcelo Biesla’s open and expensive style of play has had a price to pay since being deployed in the top flight: Leeds have conceded exactly the same number as they’ve scored.
History has proven that sooner or later, shipping goals at such a rate spells disaster for newly-promoted sides, so to claim a first top-flight clean sheet since Boxing Day 2003 was a welcomed early milestone in their bid to stay in the Premier League.
Patrick Bamford may have stolen the headlines with his late winner at Bramall Lane, but a resolute defensive display punctuated by two outstanding saves from baby-faced 20-year-old goalkeeper Illan Meslier were crucial components as the Blades’ wait for a goal extended to three games.
It’s common knowledge Leeds have an attacking philosophy that will cause teams problems, but now there are signs they have the first and last lines of a defence to match.
Penalty controversy papers over Magpie cracks
That Newcastle’s only shot on target, in the 97th minute, a penalty awarded in controversial circumstances by a much-maligned handball rule, was one thing.
That Steve Bruce’s five-man defence dealt quite so badly with Tottenham’s forward line throughout, and had Karl Darlow’s magnificent performance – including more saves than any Newcastle goalkeeper has made in a Premier League game in seven years – to thank for keeping them in the game, is quite another.
It was not that Spurs were tearing apart the Magpies before the break with great quality, they were seemingly second to every ball and often oblivious to their basic defensive duties, summed up perhaps best when Eric Dier was given a free header from a corner before the break which he should have buried.
Even Bruce had to admit after full-time that Darlow’s performance had “got us a point”, alongside that questionable VAR decision – and while a draw at Spurs will never be a bad thing for his side, their performance did not provide much encouragement after last weekend’s drubbing against Brighton.
Three games into the new season, Newcastle have registered a grand total of three shots on target. Alarm bells are sounding.
West Ham’s not so tricky run?
There was almost a doomsday feeling surrounding West Ham at the start of the season, especially after the controversial sale of Grady Diangana to West Brom. Then there was a run of fixtures that saw the Hammers face six of last season’s top eight in their first seven games to add even more worry.
But after a good showing against Arsenal went unrewarded last weekend, it was the visit of Europa League quarter-finalists Wolves on Sunday that West Ham finally got off the mark with their first Premier League win.
They did it in some style too. They dictated the play throughout and looked dangerous with every attack. Michail Antonio once again spearheaded proceedings with the Wolves defence unable to deal with his direct style – an irony considering they have Adama Traore as a team-mate.
Jarrod Bowen scored two wonderful goals with Pablo Fornals having a hand in both, Tomas Soucek set up the third with a fine header – and arguably should have been awarded it – while Declan Rice, Arthur Masuaku and Angelo Ogbonna were also incredibly impressive.
West Ham scored their first goals against Wolves since Nuno Espirito’s side were promoted back to the Premier League and kept a home clean sheet for the first time since New Year’s Day – all with manager David Moyes running things from home.
And now, their next four games against Leicester, Tottenham, Manchester City and Liverpool doesn’t look so scary. There have been some surprising results already this season and if West Ham play in the same way, they will be a worry for anyone.
Out-of-sorts Wolves well beaten
It was a very odd performance from Wolves at the London Stadium – they just weren’t themselves. One thing you can count on from Nuno’s side is that they will create some chances but in truth, Lukasz Fabianski did not have a save to make.
Wolves have enjoyed success against West Ham in their recent meetings but looked to have underestimated a side who had not won a Premier League game this season heading into the encounter.
They were restricted by a well-drilled West Ham defence to mostly shots from distance. Indeed, seven of their 11 shots in the game came from outside the box and only two of that overall total was on target.
Speaking after the game, Nuno said: “Since the beginning [of the game], we were definitely very bad. Every time West Ham had an attack or counter-attack, there was a goal and we were not able to break them. In the second half, it was very bad defensively.”
But Nuno is blessed with time to work with his side, having no Europa League or Carabao Cup commitments on the horizon. He will certainly want to put his squad into shape after an ultimately heavy defeat.
Sheffield United’s problems are mounting up
It’s fair to say Sheffield United will be pleased to see the back of September.
The optimism of a new campaign has well and truly evaporated in a wretched month in which the Blades have failed to score and fail to win any of their opening three Premier League games.
There was the opening-day defeat to Wolves, a Carabao Cup exit on penalties at the hands on Burnley, another nightmare trip to Villa Park and John Egan’s red card that never was, and the problems continued to mount as Leeds travelled to Bramall Lane.
First came the crushing news that a knee injury may have ended Jack O’Connell’s season before it even started, and then there was no way past the inspired Illan Meslier before Patrick Bamford delivered his late blow to leave the Blades rock-bottom of the Premier League.
Things surely can’t get any worse for Sheffield United, but with four of their next five league games coming against Arsenal, Liverpool, Manchester City and Chelsea, maybe they can?
Top-heavy Chelsea desperately need balance
It may seem unfair to label Chelsea as top-heavy in terms of quality in this season of all seasons. After all, questionable defences have dominated the first three weekends of the season, and how the goals have flowed.
But if Frank Lampard is going to be successful at Chelsea, he won’t do it without balance. He certainly won’t do it if his defence keep making mistakes.
It seemed ironic that barely an hour after Lampard had justified making Thiago Silva captain – he may not speak the language much but his leadership qualities are key, Lampard said – the Brazilian was miscontrolling the simplest of balls and watching Callum Robinson race in to put West Brom 2-0 up.
But Silva wasn’t alone. Marcos Alonso struggled again, and at one point was “almost going backwards”, according to Alan Smith on co-commentary, as he was easily beaten in a foot race by Semi Ajayi despite having a five-yard head start. Ben Chilwell’s return could not come soon enough.
Meanwhile, Reece James again showed he is twice the player attacking than he is when defending. The 20-year-old, undoubtedly a talent, provides so much for Chelsea going forward. He made 19 crosses in the game – the rest of the Chelsea players made 18 between them, West Brom made just 12 – but the gap he leaves in defence is too large to ignore.
Chelsea were actually impressive going forward, and have options galore, exemplified by Callum Hudson-Odoi’s arrival and impact, but sorting that defence should be first on Lampard’s list.
Man Utd up and running, somehow
At this stage of the season, it does not matter how you win games.
For Manchester United, having slumped to such a disappointing defeat to Crystal Palace on the opening weekend, three points from the first of two trips to Brighton this week were essential, and three points they got – but that does not even begin to tell the story.
Outplayed, outfought and outthought for large periods, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side somehow found themselves seconds away from the unlikeliest of away victories.
In a game that ebbed and flowed, most of the time against their will, Lewis Dunk’s own goal and a sensational solo effort from Marcus Rashford had seen the Reds overturn Neal Maupay’s first-half Panenka penalty. And then mayhem broke out.
Solly March’s header looked to have snatched a deserved point for a Brighton side who had struck the woodwork on no fewer than five occasions in the fifth minute of stoppage-time but another there was another twist to come.
Maupay’s handball, the full-time whistle, remonstrations from both sets of players and a VAR review saw the drama reach a dramatic 100th-minute finale where the ever-reliable Bruno Fernandes secured the win.
Solskjaer joked that he had never witnessed a winner after the final whistle before, and he is unlikely to see such events unfold again. Brighton’s astonishing bad luck – from hitting the woodwork five times to their overturned penalty to the concession after the full-time whistle – was extraordinary and utterly unprecedented. If Solskjaer’s United side are to achieve their objectives this season, the script this game followed cannot be repeated again either.
Everton show off their defensive qualities
Everton’s last two games have all been about goals, winning 5-2 against both West Brom and Fleetwood. Their new-look attack of James Rodriguez, Dominic Calvert-Lewin and Richarlison – plus the likes of Alex Iwobi in midweek – have swept aside those in front of them.
But their 2-1 win against Crystal Palace showed off a different dimension as Everton repelled wave after wave of attack in the second half. They packed out their defence with everyone helping out – Richarlison made the most tackles in the Everton side with four – and an under-pressure Jordan Pickford was barely tested.
Even Carlo Ancelotti admitted that some attacking prowess made way, saying in his post-match press conference: “The spirit defensively was good, we worked hard. We left out the quality, but the attitude defensively was good from all the players.”
But as the Italian will be well aware, there is still work to be done. Cheikhou Kouyate scored a powerful header from a corner and Everton have conceded more goals from set-pieces – 18 – than any other current Premier League side since the start of last season. That will be a sticking point.
For now though, Everton are among the early pace setters and got the job done at Selhurst Park.
Brighton can take heart after bizarre setback
The circumstances of Brighton’s bizarre defeat to Manchester United would have been difficult to stomach for manager Graham Potter and his players.
On another day, the Seagulls could have been basking in the glory of a fourth league home victory over Manchester United in five – and by the biggest margin yet – after a dominant attacking display hampered only by the frame of the goal.
Brighton laid United’s defensive frailties bare but were denied by a combination of post and crossbar for a record five times – the most by a Premier League side since Opta began collating such stats in 2003/04 season.
The unfortunate Leandro Trossard claimed a hat-trick of sorts by striking both posts and the crossbar, with Adam Webster and Solly March the other men denied by the woodwork.
When you hit the woodwork with such ridiculous efficiency you simply have to hold your hands up and concede that it was not your day.
But if Brighton can replicate a fraction of this performance, and the run-around they gave one of last season’s staunchest Premier League defences, their day will come.
Old problems rear their head for Crystal Palace
Roy Hodgson spent much of last season bemoaning a lack of goals from his side. They scored just 31 times – the second lowest with only relegated Norwich scoring less – and only netted five goals after the season restart.
Things had been looking up though. Eberechi Eze arrived in the summer from QPR to try and fix the problem – making a positive full Premier League debut on Saturday , while the Eagles had scored four goals scored in two Premier League wins prior to Everton’s visit.
Crystal Palace notched another in the first half against Everton with Kouyate’s equaliser and dictated the majority of the play in the second half. There were multiple set pieces and plenty of possession, but they did not carve out any chances of note with Pickford only touching the ball a handful of times.
It will be a concern for Hodgson. Eze replaced the more defensively-minded Jeffrey Schlupp and looked lively, while Wilfried Zaha tried his best to the creative spark. However, Jordan Ayew was anonymous and the substitutions of Christian Benteke and Michy Batshuayi brought little improvement.
But it is only game three of the season and despite a 2-1 defeat – not all of Crystal Palace’s own doing – there were positives to take alongside those from the opening two victories. There will be no need to despair just yet.
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Source : Sky Sports