The Premier League are massive losers this weekend, though not quite as massive as Rafa Benitez.
Bielsa can seem a martyr, the naïve idealist who believed in playing youngsters when his more Machiavellian rivals’ gameplan was to run around calling games off. While others complain about injuries, he tends to pick whichever kids aren’t killed in Thorp Arch sessions of Murderball. The natural inclination was to fear for Bielsa when still more injuries meant he had to summon two teenagers, Lewis Bate and Leo Fuhr Hjelde, giving each Premier League debuts in the opening quarter at West Ham. After all, Leeds’ meetings with clubs with Champions League aspirations had included scorelines of 4-1, 5-1 and 7-0. They had been on the receiving end of all of them.
Instead, with a kid in defence, another in midfield and a winger masquerading as a striker in Dan James, where Rodrigo was the oldest player on the bench by a decade, Leeds recorded a gloriously unexpected triumph in quintessential Bielsa fashion, based around entertainment, energy and attacking excellence. In the process, Bielsa served as an indictment of many of his peers. Other managers seem to think Premier League clubs’ largely productive academies are irrelevances when selecting their side. The Argentinian has a belief in youth and reacts to the absence of more senior players by promoting the rookies. Bielsa is famously influential; it is to be hoped this influences some other managers to see what they can do when they actually play matches.
Harrison had been one of this season’s underachievers. A first league goal of the campaign hinted at a return to form. A first Leeds hat-trick was nonetheless an unexpected bonus, his third goal was taken brilliantly. It puts him in good company: the last winger to get a Premier League hat-trick for Leeds was Gordon Strachan. As Strachan will be 65 next month, it indicates that was not a recent feat.
Kevin de Bruyne
De Bruyne was not the best player in the Premier League last season. He was not Manchester City’s outstanding figure, which was Ruben Dias. He was not even City’s pivotal midfielder: that was Ilkay Gundogan. But there are days which demonstrate why his fellow professionals voted him the PFA Player of the Year. It is because De Bruyne’s best can feel better than virtually anyone else’s and because he has the combination of extreme talent and force of personality to decide major games on his own. “The individual quality of Kevin de Bruyne made the difference,” lamented Thomas Tuchel on Saturday, and considering the abilities of many in both the City and Chelsea ranks, it says something that De Bruyne could rise above everyone else. His strike against the Champions League winners featured two of his defining strengths, a driving run and a long-range shot. It was significant, too, that he shrugged off N’Golo Kante, often City’s scourge, to score; Chelsea can only imagine what it would be like had they been able to pair them in a midfield.
It probably wasn’t even De Bruyne’s most decisive goal against Chelsea – his September 2017 strike at Stamford Bridge was arguably the key moment in that season’s title race – or his greatest performance against them – perhaps a wonderful display as a false nine merits that billing – but it surely knocked Chelsea out of the title race.
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John Stones and Aymeric Laporte
There are times when City show they have enviable strength in depth. It was a surprise to see Dias, the cornerstone of their defence since his arrival, on the bench on Saturday and Pep Guardiola offered the most unilluminating of answers why. The Portuguese has seemed capable of combining well with anyone and last season City had two terrific centre-back partnerships: Dias and John Stones became the preferred duo, ahead of Dias and Aymeric Laporte. While the talisman had a watching brief, Stones and Laporte showed they are a third excellent double act, limiting Chelsea to a solitary shot on target. Because of Dias’ brilliance last season, Laporte’s injury the previous campaign and Vincent Kompany’s outstanding end to his City career, they have rarely started together since 2018. But the facts show City have only conceded once in the last 13 matches both have begun; they may be teamed up again more often.
Aston Villa’s newcomers
Villa are shaping up as an exciting blend of the expensive and the homegrown. Both elements were evident, and encouraging, in the 2-2 draw with Manchester United. Jacob Ramsey was the catalyst for a comeback, scorer of one goal and creator of another. In an age where there seem fewer box-to-box midfielders, there was something Gerrard-esque about the 20-year-old’s performance. He and Carney Chukwuemeka may have the ideal role model in their manager.
But, brilliant as Ramsey was, he was not the headline act. Philippe Coutinho’s debut goal, 14 minutes after his introduction, may have been a tap-in but, together with earning a point against United, it was the sort of start that can generate momentum and optimism. There were early signs that he and Emi Buendia will be on the same wavelength, Coutinho appears a natural for the narrow winger roles in Villa’s 4-3-3, with the lovely touch to allow him to find space and a part in the Brazilian’s goal, and he still looks a class act.
Perhaps Lucas Digne’s day was already progressing swimmingly before his Villa bow, with his Everton nemesis Rafa Benitez’s defeat at Norwich, but the left-back was outstanding when he overlapped. It was always the stronger aspect to his game but a system that gives him licence to roam forward seems ideal for him. Digne was influential in outflanking United.
Liverpool’s irregular scorers
The bare facts were that Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mane and Naby Keita were responsible for 26 of Liverpool’s 52 league goals. Deprived of them, they had recorded a solitary shot on target against the 10 men of Arsenal on Thursday. If the logical expectation was that Diogo Jota would have to supply the goals in the Africans’ absence, three less obvious candidates instead obliged. Fabinho scored his third goal in eight days, after four in three-and-a-half years. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain got his first at Anfield in the league for 18 months. Takumi Minamino got only his third in the top flight for Liverpool. If the first and third owed something to defensive errors by Brentford, Oxlade-Chamberlain’s wonderfully unexpected diving header showed Liverpool found other players to score and other ways of scoring.
For much of the last few years, Butland has been the goalkeeper the Premier League forgot, the future England No. 1 who was found either in the Championship, on the bench or the treatment table. For some, the error that gifted Millwall a goal in the FA Cup last week doubled up as a reminder that Butland is actually at Crystal Palace now. If it prompted questions if Butland would retain his place, he justified Patrick Vieira’s faith. A late Joachim Andersen own goal denied Butland and Palace victory against the odds but a terrific save from Leandro Trossard and a penalty stop to deny Pascal Gross meant Brighton’s 2.23 expected goals brought a solitary goal. Roy Hodgson took Butland to Euro 2012 as a teenager who had been playing in League Two. He left him at Palace for Vieira; a previously unheralded part of Hodgson’s legacy may yet benefit Palace.
They won a game. They scored a goal, and not just courtesy of Michael Keane. If Adam Idah belatedly became the second striker, attacking midfielder or winger to find the net for Norwich this season, finally giving Teemu Pukki company in the scoring stakes after an excellent display, Norwich now have more wins than Newcastle and Burnley combined. Perhaps they lulled everyone else into a false sense of security with their haplessness in recent weeks, when the assumption they were doomed seemed share by their fans. Friday’s game with Watford now has the look of a six-pointer.
Rafa Benitez and Farhad Moshiri
Few thought it would go well. Not too many can honestly say they expected it would go this badly. Everton were briefly level on points at the top of the table earlier in the season. Benitez was sacked after procuring just five points from his last 12 games, with the worst record in the league over three months and as the only manager to lose to all three promoted clubs this season. Norwich hadn’t scored in six games; they got two goals in two minutes against Everton. It summed up a self-destructive streak that the first was an own goal. Benitez is known as a defensive strategist, but no side has made more errors that have led to goals than Everton.
A manager who is no stranger to confrontation picked a fight with Lucas Digne, bought a replacement and saw Vitaly Mykolenko make a wretched Premier League debut. Moshiri’s backing, including in the January transfer window, had seemed absolute, but thus made the owner appear still more out of touch with supporter sentiment as it was ever more evident it was misplaced. Ultimately, his decision to appoint Benitez, against the advice of many others at Goodison Park, backfired. Benitez was right in identifying that many of the problems at Everton are long-term issues and in trying to reboot the club for the future. But results were so dire that this unlikely experiment had to be aborted, plunging Everton deeper into a crisis Moshiri has created. And yet he might not even have been the worst at Everton.
If one clip may be replayed time and again, it is of Romelu Lukaku clean through on goal, the £98million man signed to give Chelsea the clinical touch they lacked in a season when Jorginho was their top scorer, and having his shot saved. Lukaku may be an easy scapegoat and certainly Thomas Tuchel was critical, referencing “too many ball losses and a huge chance” in his assessment of his record buy’s performance at Manchester City. Lukaku and Chelsea remain a strangely imperfect fit.
And yet a focus on one shot – and one very good save from Ederson – should not obscure the reality that, as Pep Guardiola pointed out, the Champions League winners only had one shot on target in 180 minutes against City in the Premier League this season. Tuchel reflected on “zero touches” in the box in the first half; there were also zero shots. Lukaku apart, Chelsea were utterly impotent. Hakim Ziyech and Christian Pulisic were anonymous and if Tuchel looked to introduce some counter-attacking thrust by bringing on Timo Werner and Callum Hudson-Odoi, his team were a goal down within a couple of minutes, with City able to defend deeper and afford sprinters less room to run into.
Perhaps Ziyech’s two goals against City last season explained his selection but it felt a little odd that the Champions League final trio of attackers, in Kai Havertz, Mason Mount and Werner, all started on the bench. And while Lukaku commands the attention, Chelsea have also had too few goals from some of their other forwards this season. On Saturday, they had too little threat and too little creativity, too.
A fine first-half performance, perhaps Bruno Fernandes’ best display for months and a bright outing from Anthony Elanga and yet it still ended up being another game to underline United’s issues. They lost their way, control and a two-goal lead at Villa Park. Nemanja Matic certainly felt too old and slow and, for all the talk about Ralf Rangnick’s pressing game, United stopped regaining the ball anywhere remotely high up the pitch and were forced back, with their defence creaking.
The Premier League (again)
Once again, we have the farcical situation of clubs in the richest league in the world, with huge numbers of players, claiming they don’t have enough, of clubs who seem to think the purpose of football is not to play football and social-media supporters who celebrate when their games are called off. This is a mess of the Premier League’s making. Their rules, unlike the FA Cup’s, are not fit for purpose and are exploited by their own members, who seem to think postponements are a valid ploy like zonal marking at corners or three at the back. A section of Arsenal fans may complain, but these sentiments have been voiced before and about others. And while there are plenty of offenders, Arsenal seem an egregious case when reasons why their squad is smaller include loaning out Ainsley Maitland-Niles and Folarin Balogun, plus the rank idiocy of Granit Xhaka. As Tottenham’s statement made clear, rules are being abused; they have been for weeks, by multiple clubs. Meanwhile, Sunday’s flagship fixture was called off with 25 hours’ notice: supporters, once again, have been treated with complete contempt. Apologies for the inconvenience of postponing games are meaningless by now: deterrents are required instead, threats of points deductions and huge fines, to try and stop clubs gaming the system, and no more postponements should be granted.
It’s still the case that Chris Wood has played in all of Newcastle’s victories this season. Technically, he played in that one for Burnley but he has retained his 100% record. The bigger issue after Wood’s Newcastle debut is that his new employers, like his old ones, are stuck on a lone win. That United led against Watford and didn’t triumph felt typical, and not merely because they did the same in September. They have dropped 21 points from winning positions this season, including four against Watford and two each against Norwich, Brentford and Southampton. They are also still waiting to kickstart a season; neither a new manager nor a first recruit, in Kieran Trippier, or a second, in Wood, has had that instant impact. They could prop up the table before Saturday’s trip to Elland Road, which looks another chance to lose a lead, even if they don’t lose to Leeds.
Losers without playing, slipping to the bottom of the league. Burnley may have a host of games in hand but those are only of use if they produce any points.
A strangely prolific Wolves
Rather ruined their reputation as masters of efficiency by scoring three league goals in a game for the first time this season. They had kicked off against Southampton with twice as many goals as points, a ratio they will find it far harder to maintain if Adama Traore finds the net more often.
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