The forecast ahead of this weekend’s Premier League action made for grim reading. After Ophelia left a wake of destruction in its path across Ireland at the beginning of the week, Brian appeared on the horizon promising to wreak havoc across England, Scotland and Wales. Wind speeds as high as 84mph were recorded, while severe flood warnings were announced across much of northern England. Many fans travelling long distance to games had to reassess their plans, but a full programme of top division football took place with a high chance of goals. In East London, Merseyside and Yorkshire storms were brewing.
The return of Friday night football took place at the London Stadium, where ironically the rent for its tenants is cheap, but you can guarantee you’ll either be mugged or unappreciated. That’s certainly how West Ham’s players felt as they suffered a sound beating at the hands of promoted Brighton and Hove Albion. Lining up without the suspended Andy Carroll, who presumably spent the evening sharpening his elbows, the Hammers looked light up front and Brighton had the scent of a smash and grab in their beaks. The visitors took the lead in the tenth minute, as Glenn Murray glanced a Pascal Groß free-kick past the outstretched arm of Joe Hart to score his first Premier League goal since a winner at Stamford Bridge for Bournemouth in 2015. West Ham came forward looking for an equaliser, but Manuel Lanzini could only shoot over when well placed, and as the first half reached its denouement the impressive Colombian winger José Izquierdo doubled the Seagulls lead. His 25-yarder was too powerful for Hart to keep out, though the England #1 may have fared better had he opted to wear gloves instead of discarded crisp packets. Izquierdo raced over to the Sky cameras on the touchline to perform a knee slide celebration, completely unaware of the comedy pratfall undertaken by team-mate Anthony Knockaert behind him.
Lanzini continued to pose the greatest threat for the home side in the second half, but couldn’t hit the target with a free-kick from thirty yards, and the points were wrapped up for Brighton with fifteen minutes remaining. Pablo Zabaleta, whose free signing is looking like a belting bit of business from Manchester City with each passing game, hauled down Murray in the area, and the striker dusted himself down and rolled the resulting penalty straight down the middle as Hart dived the wrong way. Another poor performance from the stopper means that’s now 17 goals conceded in 9 games. Given that three of those were clean sheets West Ham’s alarming ability to collapse is something manager Slaven Bilic may want to address, if he’s given time that is. Brighton move up to 12th in the table and don’t seem overawed by the Premier League in the slightest. Picking up points in their next three games, against Southampton, Swansea and Stoke, could see them heading into the busy festive period a healthy distance from the relegation zone.
The lunchtime kick-off on Saturday saw Chelsea entertaining another local rival after last week’s surprise defeat at Crystal Palace. Watford headed into this game buoyed by victory over Arsenal as the Marco Silva revolution has hit full flow at Vicarage Road. A trip to the defending champions is exactly the kind of fixture Silva’s side are relishing at the moment, having established themselves as this season’s surprise package. Any hope that they could escape West London with three points may have diminished after twelve minutes though, when Pedro received a short corner and placed a blockbuster of a shot into the top right of Gomes’ goal. Watford responded the only way they know how and immediately attacked Chelsea’s defence, leading to the home side swiftly countering, only for Cesc Fabregas to shoot straight at Gomes. On the stroke of half-time, just as he had against West Brom, Abdoulaye Doucouré brought Watford back into the match, finishing with the outside of his boot after Chelsea had failed to clear their lines.
Watford should have taken the lead shortly after half time as Richarlison blasted over with just Courtois to beat, but the young Brazilian was at the heart of the move that gave Watford the lead. A slick passing move found Roberto Pereyra unmarked, and the Argentinian dinked the ball over the onrushing Courtois. Minutes later, it should have been game over. A whipped cross from the right found the head of Richarlison, but he was only able to direct his header wide with the goal gaping. Those chances would come back to haunt the Hornets, as Michy Batshuayi – on for Alvaro Morata – headed Chelsea level in the 71st minute. Worse was to follow with only three minutes remaining as a Willian cross glanced off the head of Miguel Britos and was met by Cesar Azpilicueta, who headed home from five yards. The air was visibly knocked out of Watford, and some suicidal defending allowed Batshuayi to tuck the ball past Gomes and give the scoreline a misleading level of comfort for Chelsea. Silva will rue Richarlison’s profligacy in front of goal, but may also wonder if tightening up at 2-2 would have been the more sensible option given his side’s late collapse. Even so, Watford won’t lose many friends if they continue to be this entertaining week after week.
The top two were both assigned 3pm kick-offs, and while Sergio Aguero was setting Manchester City on their way to a comfortable 3-0 win over Bournemouth at the Etihad, Manchester United were heading to Huddersfield Town. Mourinho’s side put the handbrake on against Liverpool last weekend, happy to take points from a fellow title challenger rather than going for broke, but as they struggled to break down a Benfica side that had previously shipped five goals in Basel this season during the mid-week European action, the sense was that some of the momentum gathered earlier in the season may have started to ebb away. A Huddersfield side that have started to sense the harsh reality of the Premier League could provide the perfect tonic for Manchester United to build on their swashbuckling form of August and September. In a scrappy first half that badly missed the guile of a Pogba or Fellaini, both sides had chances to open the scoring, and when Aaron Mooy capitalised on a rare moment of indecision from Nemanja Matic it looked for all the world that Tom Ince would give the hosts the lead. David De Gea managed to parry away Ince’s shot, but Mooy was there to gobble up the rebound like one of those barbecued prawns his countrymen are so fond of. Five minutes later the Terriers were in dreamland, as a long punt upfield was badly missed by Victor Lindelof and Laurent Depoitre rounded De Gea and tapped in to an empty net.
The expected second half onslaught from the visitors never really materialised, though Marcus Rashford did halve the deficit by nodding in a Romelu Lukaku cross, and Manchester United were condemned to their first defeat of the season. With their noisy neighbours making a helluva racket already this season, dropping points at so-called ‘struggling’ teams is the last thing Mourinho’s side needs.
In South Wales, a former Manchester United player was making his bow as caretaker manager at the Liberty Stadium, as Leicester City travelled to Swansea. One win in their first eight games was enough for the Foxes owners to dismiss Craig Shakespeare, and Michael Appleton, resplendent in his Lord Voldemort mask, has been tasked to get the ship back on course in the short term. Having impressed in the lower leagues at some basket case clubs, as well overseeing a well-deserved cup win against Swansea while at Oxford United, Appleton has done more than enough to earn himself an audition at a Premier League club. It seems that no team in England enjoys a new manager bounce quite like Leicester, turning around a relegation scrap last season after the departure of Ranieri, and winning the chuffing league off the back of Nigel Pearson’s sacking, so it should have come as little surprise when they flew out of the traps in this game. Jamie Vardy and Shinji Okazaki both had excellent chances to open the scoring, and when Riyad Mahrez managed to prevent the ball going behind for a goal-kick and turned it back into the box, Federico Fernandez provided the unfortunate decisive touch, heading past his own keeper.
Any fears that the half-time break would stymie Leicester’s momentum were quickly banished as Mahrez beat the Swans offside trap to set up Okazaki for a tap-in. A striker’s finish from centre-back Alfie Mawson gave Swansea hope of getting something from the game as he turned and volleyed home from a corner, but Leicester held out to give Appleton a golden debut.
Elsewhere at 3pm, Bournemouth surprised Stoke with a 2-1 win at the bet365 Stadium with two goals in the first twenty minutes, while Newcastle left it late to record a 1-0 victory against Crystal Palace – Mikel Merino’s 86th minute header sealing the points for the Magpies. In an otherwise forgettable evening kick-off, the softest wondergoal you’re ever likely to see from Sofiane Boufal gave Southampton victory against West Brom.
North London was pitted against Merseyside in Sunday’s tasty looking pair of games, though it appeared those flood warnings hadn’t reached the north-west before kick-off. In the first Underachievement Derby of the season, Arsenal travelled to Everton to face a manager that until a few months ago many Gooners saw as the ideal replacement for Arsene Wenger. Ronald Koeman’s stock has fallen considerably thanks to his team’s dreadful start to the season which saw them just above the relegation zone before kick-off, and knew that a poor result against his potential future employers could see him heading to the Job Centre sooner than he might like. A game more open than your mum’s legs after a night on the Cinzano Rosso saw Alexandre Lacazette spurn three glorious chances in the opening quarter of an hour, but it was Everton that took the lead as Wayne Rooney rolled back the years to hit a rasping shot past Petr Cech that was more than a little reminiscent of his first ever goal for Everton. In 2003 it ended Arsenal’s long unbeaten run, but in this game it was a mere footnote. Jordan Pickford in the Everton goal was kept busy throughout the first half, and though he did well to palm away Granit Xhaka’s drive from distance, the rebound was stroked home by Nacho Monreal to send the teams in level at the break.
The second half followed the pattern of the first, and the minds of the Everton defence appeared to be elsewhere as Arsenal continually broke with ease. Mesut Ozil took advantage, ghosting into the box and meeting Alexis Sanchez’s cross to give the visitors the lead less then ten minutes after half-time. A late challenge saw Idrissa Gueye dismissed for his second booking and without their midfield fulcrum Everton quickly disintegrated. Another Arsenal counter led to Lacazette stroking home the third, and a well-worked passing move led to Aaron Ramsey making the game safe as the clock ticked onto the 90th minute. Oumar Niasse chased down a poor backpass to tap in a consolation for Everton, but there was still time for Alexis Sanchez to waltz round the home defence and slot home a fifth for Arsenal. In truth the scoreline flattered the Toffees, who could have had few complaints if they’d conceded double. Allowing 28 shots on goal to a forward line of Lacazette, Sanchez and Ozil is asking for trouble. Twenty-four hours later, Koeman was given his marching orders. Misguided business in the transfer market and a tough fixture list that didn’t allow time for his new signings to bed in are major factors, but based on this game it looked as though the dressing room had been well and truly lost. Sean Dyche is rumoured to be the favourite to replace him, and it would be interesting to see how the sandy ballbag fares with a squad packed to the rafters with playmakers. Whoever comes in will have a serious job on their hands if they’re to turn Everton’s stuttering fortunes around.
The final game of the weekend saw Liverpool make the trip to Wembley to take on Tottenham Hotspur. After scoring seven in midweek against Maribor, attention had been deflected away from the omnishambles that is Liverpool’s defence, but with his hero Diego Maradona watching on, the gooey-eyed Mauricio Pochettino would have been keen to put on a show. The Spurs forward line smelled blood early on, and when Dejan Lovren tried to play Harry Kane offside without notifying his teammates, the striker took full advantage, steaming into the area and knocking the ball past a prone Simon Mignolet. Suddenly Liverpool’s defence looked shakier than a shitting dog with Parkinson’s, and in tribute to his favourite Coldplay album, Lovren suffered a rush of blood to the head as Hugo Lloris’ goalkick hurtled towards him. The Croatian completely missed the header, allowing Kane to break down the right and curl a sumptuous cross into the path of Heung-Min Son. A composed finish from the South Korean had Tottenham two up in twelve minutes, and the danger of another rout was on the cards for Klopp.
As Spurs got carried away looking for more goals, Liverpool sneaked one back. A seemingly innocuous long ball was chased down by Mo Salah, who scuffed a finish into the bottom corner via the post. Suddenly, it was game on. Lovren was put out of his misery in the 31st minute, Klopp reshuffling his pack and sending Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain on in the defenders stead. Still, Tottenham poured forward with gumption, and their dominance told on the stroke of half-time as Dele Alli volleyed in a third. The game continued in the same vein after the restart, and when it looked as though Jan Vertonghen had spurned the chance to score his first club goal in three years, Kane was on hand to stab home the rebound. Liverpool rallied, with Coutinho, Salah and Milner all seeing chances saved by Lloris, but the damage had been done in the first half. Having been outplayed by two of the big six so far this season Klopp may need to do some serious soul-searching if he’s to get his side’s season back on track. First and foremost, he desperately needs some new defenders.
It seems as though a new challenger has emerged. The early season hype has all been around the two Manchester sides, but Tottenham have finally put their Wembley hoodoo to bed, recording back-to-back wins there. The manner in which they dismantled Liverpool will be most pleasing to Pochettino, and a juicy looking visit to Old Trafford next weekend gives them an excellent chance to stamp their authority at the top end of the table. Down the bottom Everton have slipped into the relegation zone, but have taken decisive action, while West Ham sit on the same points and are still keeping faith in Slaven. Swansea and Stoke will also be starting to sweat, having recorded only 8 points apiece from their opening nine games. Palace’s late defeat leaves them stranded at the bottom of the table, five points away from safety. It never rains, does it Roy?