Arteta finally knows his best side
Three weeks ago, after starting the season with three defeats, nine goals conceded, none scored and two dozen players used, it felt like the first move Mikel Arteta needed to make to save this season was find consistency in selection. The criticism thrown at him during his time at the Emirates was that he didn’t know his best XI.
Injury and Covid recoveries means he has it now, and the tables are turning for Arsenal.
This felt like the first game in recent memory that Arteta had a near-full squad to choose from, and having made a Premier League high 14 starting XI changes in the four games before the Burnley win last week, he’s made only three since. In truth, it feels like the first time since Arteta joined that he has enjoyed this kind of steadiness in personnel.
The narrative around goalkeeper Aaron Ramsdale has now completely changed, and the £30m move makes sense: he’s their No 1, and a very good one on early viewing.
The back-four look settled – right-back Takehiro Tomiyasu looks like he’s had years of Premier League football under his belt, not 242 minutes, and Ben White is silencing the criticism from that horrid opening-night defeat at Brentford.
If he avoids injury, Thomas Partey is the key anchor, Arteta still has huge faith in Granit Xhaka next to him, and the exuberance of Bukayo Saka, Emile Smith Rowe and Marten Odegaard is infectious in the front line. Even Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang looks happy.
This was Arteta’s best day as manager at the Emirates – “It was one of the nicest feelings I had, certainly in this stadium” he said afterwards – but he’ll be hoping it’s the start of many, and not the false-start we’ve seen before.
Jimenez’s magical moment worth waiting for
Raul Jimenez has had to wait for his moment but when the goal finally came it was a special one. Eleven months after his last goal, the Mexican striker was the difference between the teams as Southampton were beaten 1-0 by Wolves at St Mary’s.
There was an outpouring of emotion from the away supporters but what of Jimenez himself? The head injury that he suffered against Arsenal in November of last year might have ended his career. He did not play a game for nine months.
His performances had been encouraging since returning, ranking among the top 10 players in the Premier League for shots and chances created over the first five matches. But until the ball went into the back of the net there were always going to be whispers.
With that one moment, outmuscling Jan Bednarek, skipping past Mohammed Salisu and slotting beyond Alex McCarthy, he banished any doubts. It was a sensational solo goal that should ease any fears of Wolves being dragged into trouble down the bottom.
As for Jimenez, it makes for a moment of reflection. He had been one of the most complete centre-forwards in the competition prior to his injury, outscored by only seven players since his arrival in England in the summer of 2018. Now, he can truly believe he is back.
Southampton are missing Ings’ goals
It was always going to be a tall order to replace a player like Danny Ings after he left Southampton this summer.
Adam Armstrong was earmarked as his replacement, and he has undeniable talent after impressing in the Sky Bet Championship with Blackburn. Armstrong has begun well with Southampton too – scoring on his Premier League debut – but as Che Adams has proven, it can be difficult to find your feet in the top flight.
But without the player who Graeme Souness described as having ‘single-handedly kept them in the league last season’, Southampton are struggling for goals and, even at this early stage of the season, it is starting to cause concern.
Looking at the personnel, it’s a bit of a head scratcher as to why. Southampton line up with two strikers and have other talented attacking players in Nathan Redmond and Mohamed Elyounoussi, with the Premier League’s best set-piece taker in James Ward-Prowse in their ranks.
Against Wolves, they had 18 shots but were unable to find a way past a Wolves defence that had lost four of their opening five Premier League games. This followed on from two goalless draws – although they did come against West Ham and Man City – and Ralph Hasenhuttl has a problem on his hands that urgently needs solving.
It is a sentiment the manager agrees with, telling Sky Sports: “A few inches [are missing] all the time. If you want to score in the Premier League, you have to have something special and at the moment, we are a little bit too easy to read. We are having interesting situations, but the last pass is not there or the last shot or the last lay up is not good enough. Then you get blocked and at the moment, this is what our biggest problem is.
“We need wins, we need to score again and I think we know how to score but at the moment, it doesn’t work in the league and this is what we have to change quickly.”
Man City make a statement
The pressure was on. Man City’s stutter against Southampton last weekend, when they were well below par, had reduced the margin for error. At the start of a potentially defining nine days, Man City went to Chelsea knowing they could not afford to see their title rivals pull away.
The pressure was on, but City delivered. Rather than shirk from the challenge, Pep Guardiola’s players seized it and turned it their way.
For an hour, they were utterly dominant over a Chelsea team no other Premier League side has been able to master this season. A Chelsea team City have their own history with, after three straight defeats to Thomas Tuchel’s side last season, which culminated in the Champions League final loss.
City camped in Chelsea’s half. They refused to give up possession. The hosts at Stamford Bridge survived the first half but were repeatedly forced back. On 53 minutes Gabriel Jesus finally broke the resistance.
A thrilling, end-to-end battle broke out but even then it was City who had the upper hand and perhaps should have extended their winning margin, with Jack Grealish (twice) and Jesus going close to adding a second. Chelsea couldn’t manage a single shot on target.
Afterwards Guardiola said the victory would give his players confidence they can defend their title. The win – and the performance – will most likely knock the confidence of some of their rivals, too.
Tuchel’s intervention comes too late this time
In Chelsea’s three previous Premier League games Thomas Tuchel had made game-changing half-time substitutions.
Against Liverpool, with Reece James just sent off, he sent on N’Golo Kante and inspired his 10 men to a memorable point at Anfield.
Against Aston Villa, he boldly removed new signing Saul Niguez and took control of the midfield battle with Jorginho.
Against Tottenham, Kante was sent on for Mason Mount to give Chelsea greater presence in the middle of the park.
So it was a surprise at Stamford Bridge, after Man City had totally dominated the opening 45 minutes, that Tuchel didn’t move again. It wasn’t until Chelsea fell behind on 53 minutes that the manager turned to Kai Havertz and took a man out of midfield to go with three in attack in search of an equaliser.
The game opened up dramatically but Chelsea were unable to find the goal they needed.
Afterwards Tuchel said his players should have taken more risks earlier in the game. Perhaps he will feel he should have too.
Pressure on Solskjaer as Bruno pays rare penalty
Manchester United very nearly got away with one. As was the case in their previous Premier League outing at the London Stadium, there was more late penalty drama, only this time it didn’t unfold in their favour.
Bruno Fernandes, United’s trusted penalty taker with just a single miss on his record since moving to Old Trafford, stepped up ahead of compatriot Cristiano Ronaldo for a pressure stoppage-time penalty. His task? To cancel out Aston Villa’s 1-0 lead and rescue a point few would have felt was deserved.
But a combination of the expectancy on his shoulders, and Aston Villa’s gamesmanship before the penalty was taken, weighed too heavy on Fernandes, who could not follow in David de Gea’s footsteps and failed to deliver the crucial final word in a contest where United were second best.
Fernandes’ uncharacteristically woeful attempt from 12 yards, which sailed over the bar and high into the Stretford End, typified another frustrating outing for Manchester United at Old Trafford, where Solskjaer’s side have slipped to successive defeats in the League and Carabao Cup.
Perhaps the most alarming aspect to Aston Villa’s victory was that Manchester United could have few complaints. Not even an expectant Old Trafford crowd could get a tune out of Solskjaer and his players, who missed a golden opportunity to climb to the summit of the Premier League after Chelsea’s defeat to champions Manchester City.
Defeat in their Champions League opener to Young Boys, elimination at the hands of West Ham in the League Cup and now defeat to Aston Villa in the Premier League has seen Manchester United’s encouraging start to the season unravel. Solskjaer must get a grip fast before it gets out of control.
Villa have Old Trafford Hause party
Having given Chelsea a run for their money a fortnight ago, and dismantled Everton last weekend, Aston Villa arrived at Old Trafford buoyant and in belief they could end their Old Trafford hoodoo.
Twelve years had passed since Gabriel Agbonlahor headed Villa to victory at United’s iconic stadium, their only win in their previous 21 visits to the red half of Manchester.
The platform was there for Dean Smith’s side to finally convert a string of encouraging Old Trafford performances into that elusive first victory of his tenure, and Villa delivered just that in assured style.
The victory could and probably should have been secured before the interval, with Villa squandering three gilt-edged chances.
It required Kortney Hause’s late header and Bruno Fernandes’ dramatic stoppage-time penalty miss to seal the three points but, in the end, it didn’t matter how it came. Villa were worthy winners and the Old Trafford drought was over.
Liverpool feel the force of Brentford
There was a point late on during Liverpool’s 3-3 draw at Brentford when Virgil van Dijk looked around at his teammates seemingly wondering what on earth was happening. He was standing firm but Jurgen Klopp’s side had no control over the game at all.
The Bees were good value for the draw and the expected-goals numbers reveal exactly why Van Dijk was so perplexed. It was no freak occurrence that Brentford found three goals – that metric showed their chances would be expected to yield an average of 2.66 goals.
For comparison, that is the second highest figure that a team has managed against a Liverpool team including Van Dijk. The highest? That was the 7-2 defeat to Aston Villa in the early part of last season – even that was only 2.70. That is how good Brentford were.
How concerned should Liverpool be? Having conceded only once in the first five games of the Premier League campaign, perhaps not too much. Maybe this was more about Brentford and the remarkable threat that they are capable of posing under the lights.
Ivan Toney and Bryan Mbeumo are a genuine strike-partnership and the ambition of Thomas Frank’s team made for first-class entertainment. “This is the game of the season so far,” said Alan Smith on co-commentary for Sky Sports. He was right.
Klopp will rue the missed opportunities. There was Mohamed Salah’s casual chip over the bar when it appeared easier to slot the ball to David Raya’s right and give Liverpool a two-goal lead. There was Sadio Mane’s skied effort just moments later when through.
Van Dijk knew that the way the game was going, there was always going to be another Brentford chance. The rest of us could just enjoy the show.
Sloppy moments cost Norwich again
It has been a tough time for Norwich at the start of the 2021/22 Premier League season. They are yet to register a point and on Saturday, there were two glaring errors that cost them.
Firstly, Ozan Kabak’s clumsy challenge on Allan saw Everton awarded a penalty after a VAR review. It was a clear, high foot from Kabak – who did not have a happy return to the city of Liverpool – and it was rather a surprise that the VAR official, Lee Mason, took so long to overturn the original decision.
Norwich were improved after the break and had they drawn, you would not have begrudged them a point. But Kenny McLean’s sloppy control in midfield allowed Allan and Demarai Gray to combine to set up Abdoulaye Doucoure, with Norwich again architects of their own downfall.
But Norwich were the better side for much of the second half, and should have scored their chances when they came. Mathias Normann forced two leaping saves from Jordan Pickford, while Ben Gibson had a free header that he could not direct goalwards.
Norwich manager Daniel Farke told Sky Sports: “Today, we were much improved in many topics. We’re not far from winning something in this game and we were certainly not the worst side. But key moments were against us and that’s why we lost this game.”
It leaves Norwich without any points yet on their return to the top flight, but they face Burnley next weekend. It will be an absolutely vital game to keep them from being cut further adrift, even at this early stage of the season.
Vardy still the cream of the crop
Jamie Vardy’s remarkable journey from Stocksbridge Park Steels to Premier League legend is well enough known. Perhaps not as readily appreciated is his equally impressive longevity.
True, this is only his eighth season in the Premier League. Many others break into the English top flight as a teenager and can only endure the most physically demanding league in the world for a certain amount of time before their bodies don’t allow them to continue.
Vardy also stepped down from his international career after only 26 games, potentially giving him more mileage as a top-level club player. But he had to battle tirelessly on his way to the top – the lower leagues of England are hardly renowned for being soft.
Aged 34, he’s still doing the business. For comparison, at the same age Dwight Yorke, Robbie Fowler and Michael Owen – three of the only 17 players to have scored more Premier League goals – were at Sydney FC, North Queensland Fury and retired, respectively.
Vardy’s two goals against Burnley took three touches. First goal, he doesn’t even need to look up. He knows where the goal is. Bang, bottom corner. Second goal, one touch around England goalkeeper Nick Pope, one to shoot with his weaker left foot and he’s celebrating before it crosses the line.
‘We want Brucie out’ – but shoots of hope for Newcastle
It was a surreal backdrop to Newcastle’s performance at Watford.
I’ve never been in a football ground where a crowd, whose team are 1-0 up and playing relatively well, are, en masse, calling for the manager to be sacked. Steve Bruce was standing there, taking it full on the chin in his technical area as his team carved Watford open time after time in the first 45 minutes.
“We want Brucie out,” was a common chant from the vocal away end, amongst other anti-Mike Ashley songs. It’s got to the point now where Bruce can’t win whatever he achieves with this team over the course of the season. As shown at various points of this campaign, there is a team capable of exciting the St James’ Park faithful when the match situation allows it and when of course the brilliant Allan Saint-Maximin is playing. To have 20 shots away from home in a game is an impressive feat. The goals will come.
Yes, the result didn’t go their way at Vicarage Road but as Bruce stated afterwards, his team were clearly the better of the two. They won’t be winless for long playing like this. Watford’s equaliser with 12 minutes remaining was hard to see coming and perhaps Newcastle deserved the slice of luck needed to avoid a defeat with VAR overturning what had looked a winner for Josh King.
It’s a sorry sight to see a club so at odds with their fanbase. A cold, frustrating winter lies ahead for the Toon Army.
Early signs show Brentford can mix it with the best
Brentford head coach Thomas Frank called it right saying his team had gone toe-to-toe with Liverpool in their 3-3 draw on Saturday night, which made their draw against the early league leaders all the more creditable.
There are many ways to take on a Jurgen Klopp side, but better teams than the Bees have tried to play them at their own game and failed. In truth, the west Londoners might have snatched all three points with the chances they created.
As Adam Bate states above, this xG is not a figure Liverpool are used to facing. Nor a side who, even after pulling back level late on, will not settle for a point and push for all three.
“I’m crazy proud of the way the players kept going,” said Frank after the game. It’s not just the way that his side played, it’s the way their heads never dropped. Brentford have not been in the top flight for more than 70 years. They do not have an illustrious trophy-filled history on a scale in the same universe as Liverpool. That did not over-awe them in any way.
Just as they did against Arsenal, they had the belief to take the game to their opponents, where possible, and were more concerned with what they could do to hurt Klopp’s side than the other way around.
“We’ve played the best offensive side in the league in Liverpool, and I still think we can do a little bit better,” added Frank. That relentless search for perfection has served his Brentford side well so far, and believing that they can mix it with the best – because they look like they can on this evidence.
Antonio now a deadly Premier League striker
This perhaps wasn’t the game for a deep-dive analysis from David Moyes. With 35 shots and barely any of the game played in the middle third, it was enthralling, but the total lack of defensive discipline and overload of attacking risk from Leeds won’t be repeated by too many of West Ham’s opponents this season.
One conclusion can be taken, if indeed it wasn’t already cemented: Michail Antonio is a difference-maker for West Ham.
Antonio, the match-winner at Elland Road, was relatively quiet for the majority of the game, but his goalscoring knack is up there with the best.
Since the start of last season, he has a conversion rate of 23 per cent. Only Heung-min Son’s is higher, of players who have scored over 15 Premier League goals. Only Mo Salah and Harry Kane have a lower minutes per goal ratio (161 mins per goal).
This infectious, agile, former non-League full-back is now a deadly Premier League striker.
“It was not his best game, but his finish was magic,” said David Moyes after the win.
There was ice through Antonio’s veins as he composed himself to slot home in the 90th minute on Saturday, going joint-top with Jamie Vardy at the top of the Premier League charts.