Absence makes the heart grow fonder. Whether it be the absence of goals in football matches, as witnessed during last weekend’s international fixtures, the absence of top flight club football, as witnessed during last weekend’s international fixtures, or the absence of a blue tick on Twitter, as witnessed during this week’s crackdown on hate speech. Prominent members of the so-called ‘Alt-Right’ woke up this week to find their social media verification had been withdrawn by the powers that be, after, what Twitter described as, breaking the agreement of terms and conditions. A stranger euphemism for being awful awful twats you’ll struggle to find. Sweeter still was the amount of toys (probably golliwogs) thrown from prams as they took to the platform to tell everyone their freedom of speech had been compromised. Oh, the delicious irony. Crying about the removal of a symbol next to your handle on a website obviously sounds pathetic, but for the likes of Tommy Robinson it’s important that his legion of knuckleheads actually know he is who he says he is rather than, say, just some bloke called Stephen Yaxley-Lennon who gets a stonk on by demonising Muslims. Political correctness is mad, and it’s not going to take it anymore. There were plenty of welcome returns within the Premier League this weekend too, as Manchester United welcomed back Paul Pogba and Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Vincent Kompany returned to the Manchester City starting line-up, and David Moyes returned to top flight management – admittedly the latter was welcomed more by his JobCentre advisor than West Ham supporters.
The absence of St Totteringham’s Day last season, the most pitiful celebration in football, helped to lend an extra bit of spice to the weekend’s opening game, as Tottenham Hotspur travelled the short distance to Arsenal. For the first time in living memory, Spurs were hot favourites to take all three points at the Emirates, having staked their claim as one of the best footballing sides in the country. In a surprise move, Arsene Wenger included his £50m summer signing Alexandre Lacazette in the starting line-up, joining a front three with Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil. Hugo Lloris returned for Tottenham, but it was expected that his opposite number would be the busier of the two ‘keepers. In the early stages both sides attacked at will and the game grew into that rarest of things – a local derby high on quality and feistiness. The two sides exchanged early chances, as Harry Kane saw a shot saved, Lacazette was millimeters away from converting Ozil’s cross, and Christian Eriksen’s toe-poke at the near post was smartly turned away by Petr Cech. Tottenham looked dangerous every time they came forward, but when an attack broke down the hosts quickly countered and Davinson Sanchez had to use his strength to prevent his namesake Alexis from racing clear. The Colombian’s tackle looked robust but fair, however the afternoon’s headline act Mike Dean saw things a little differently. From the free-kick, Ozil floated a ball into the box, and countryman Shkrodan Mustafi deftly headed past Lloris to give Arsenal the lead. Spurs looked sluggish in their response, and five minutes later the hosts had a second. A ball into the channel found Lacazette, looking suspiciously offside, and his low cross was converted from close range by Sanchez. The game, very quickly, was running away from the visitors.
Spurs boss Mauricio Pochettino’s game plan in the second-half was something along the lines of ‘just bloody go for it’ and white shirts were streaming forward at every opportunity, but a lack of guile and the luck of the bounce evaded Tottenham, with each foray breaking down before a meaningful chance could be fashioned. The attacking onslaught left Spurs vulnerable at the back, and Sanchez had the opportunity to bag his second of the game, but Lloris rushed out to thwart the Chilean. Spurs did have chances late on, as Eric Dier’s header was parried away by Cech and Son Heung-Min hooked the ball over with a half-volley before seeing another shot deflected, but Arsenal should have made the game safe when Sanchez found himself one-on-one with Lloris, only to strike the ball straight at the keeper again. A well-deserved, if slightly fortunate, win for the Gunners who on their day look as good as any of the other sides in the chasing pack behind Manchester City. It seems unlikely their fans will be celebrating St Totteringham Day this season, so getting one over on their neighbours will be a small crumb of comfort. For Spurs a title challenge is now looking a distant prospect, despite it being so early on in the season. If they’ve any hope of reviving it they’ll have to take something from their meeting with City in December.
With the Champions League returning this week, an all-star cast were involved in Saturday’s bumper programme, and eyes turned to the King Power stadium, where Manchester City were hoping to banish the memory of last season’s collapse at Leicester, a game that many have pinpointed as the beginning of the end of their title challenge. Two managers have been sacked by the home side since, and Claude Puel was looking to extend his unbeaten run in the Leicester dugout, having taken four points from his opening two games. Pep Guardiola was able to recall City captain Vincent Kompany to the starting line-up, and the bulbous headed Belgian was quick to make his mark on the game. As Jamie Vardy raced onto a through-ball Kompany used all his experience, class and defensive knowhow to stick his leg out and trip the wiry striker up. By the laws of the game it looked to be a red card, but coming so early in the match Graham Scott let the defender off with only a yellow. Seeing a chink in City’s armour, the Foxes took the game to their visitors, showing no lack of attacking intent. Unfortunately the emphasis on attacking left Leicester prone to the counter, and David Silva almost headed Manchester City into the lead, producing a smart save from Kasper Schmeichel. The hosts defence held out almost until half-time, but a quick passing move in the final third of the pitch saw a slide-rule ball reach Kevin De Bruyne, who unselfishly laid the ball into the path of Gabriel Jesus for the visitors opener.
The half-time message from Puel was ‘more of the same’, as the Foxes came out on the front foot in the second period. In the 48th minute, Vardy was unlucky to see his header turned away by Ederson, and Harry Maguire even more unfortunate to see his shot hit the post. From the rebound the visitors countered quickly and when Silva found De Bruyne on the edge of the box, the Belgian shuffled past his marker and walloped the ball into the top corner. The story of Leicester’s day was one of hard luck, but they would have conceded a third on any other day when Gabriel Jesus connected with Kyle Walker’s cross. Schmeichel had other ideas, however, and pulled off an acrobatic save to deny the Brazilian. Walker was then called into action at the other end, as Vardy outjumped Ederson, only to see his goalbound header cleared off the line by his England teammate. In the end another routine afternoon for Guardiola’s side, though Puel would have taken heart from the moments of panic caused in the City defence by his team.
In their latest bid to keep hold of Manchester City’s coat tails, Chelsea travelled to the Hawthorns to take on West Bromwich Albion, with manager Tony Pulis just hoping to keep hold of his job. The Welsh manager has done about as much harm to the reputation of attacking football in the West Midlands as he has for the wearing of baseball caps by The Kids. Pulis more than most will have been pleased to see former side Crystal Palace struggling this season, and not just because he’s miffed off about having to pay them millions of pounds in damages. West Brom’s awful start has gone somewhat under the radar thanks to the crises at Palace, West Ham and Everton, but those in the corridors of power at the Hawthorns have noticed that, under Pulis’ tenure, their side have averaged less than a goal a game. Getting a result against the incumbent champions would be a big ask, but it looked as though Pulis’ side had got off to a dream start when Salomon Rondon stroked the ball past Thibaut Courtois. With the flag raised, hopes were dashed and ten minutes later West Brom were behind. Eden Hazard took aim from long range, and though Ben Foster was equal to the shot, Alvaro Morata was on hand to tap home the rebound. The goal was followed with Morata’s trademark ‘bow and arrow’ celebration which to be honest is a bit naff. Remarkably, it wasn’t the most irritating goal celebration of the weekend. Six minutes later, Chelsea doubled their lead. Cesar Azpilicueta played a through ball to Morata, and the Spaniard’s delicate backheel was met by Hazard, who tricked his way round Foster and rolled the ball into the unguarded goal. If Pulis was staring down the barrel of a gun after 25 minutes, then he might have noticed a gunman with a pronounced twitch edging towards it seven minutes before half-time. Ahmed Hegazi, lauded for his good performances at the start of the season, conceded a ludicrous free-kick on the edge of the box, with Morata picked up off the ground by the Egyptian, who still had the gall to contest the decision. From the free-kick, Cesc Fabregas found Marcos Alonso at the back post, and the wing-back prodded home to give Chelsea a three goal cushion. It was all that West Brom could do to stem the tide in the second half, and rather than look for a way back into the game, the Baggies were content with keeping Chelsea at arms length. In the 62nd minute however, in a fitting tribute to Pulis, Fabregas played a long high ball from deep inside his own half and Hazard raced clear to score his second of the afternoon. Defeat to a clinical Chelsea side is no great embarrassment, but after witnessing some truly dreadful football over the course of Pulis’ tenure the board decided enough was enough and the naked headbutt fan was dismissed on Monday morning. Expect a week of Sam Allardyce ruling himself out of the job.
In the lower reaches of the league the big game of the weekend came at Selhurst Park, with Crystal Palace looking to capitalise on Everton’s managerial indecision and record their second win of the season. When the home side took the lead in the second minute, it looked as though it might be a straightforward afternoon as Ruben Loftus-Cheek, fresh from becoming England’s next great disappointment, saw his shot saved by Jordan Pickford, only for James McArthur to tap in the rebound. Four minutes later Everton were level. Oumar Niasse, one of the few bright spots for the Toffees this season, waltzed into the Palace area and took a tumble at the slightest suggestion of a challenge from Scott Dann. Despite protestations from the home side, Leighton Baines stepped up and tucked home his second penalty in the space of ten minutes of football. In what could easily have been a cagey affair it was refreshing to see both sides throwing everything into attacking the game, and when Joel Ward’s wicked cross from the right was slammed in by Wilf Zaha for Palace’s second it was no less than they deserved. It may have stayed that way had Eagles ‘keeper Julian Speroni not decided to introduce an element of slapstick to proceedings. His wayward pass conceded possession to Everton, and two touches later Niasse had levelled the scores. The introduction of Christian Benteke, a recognised striker, in the second half was met with great noise from the home faithful, but the Belgian marksman could only hit his best chance straight at Pickford. On balance a draw was a fair result, but both sides would have been hoping to allay relegation fears with a win here.
In the remainder of Saturday’s 3pm kickoffs, Liverpool handed out a three goal pummeling against feeder team Southampton, with Mo Salah scoring twice. Callum Wilson announced his return to fitness with a hat-trick for Bournemouth in their 4-0 dismissal of Huddersfield Town, while Burnley continued their excellent start to the season with a routine 2-0 win over Swansea.
The pre-Strictly slot took the BT Sports cameras to Old Trafford as Jose Mourinho offered a cold, belligerent welcome to old foe Rafa Benitez and Newcastle United. Mourinho’s side were boosted with the return of Paul Pogba, while past and future Sweden captain Zlatan Ibrahimovic took a place on the bench after seven months out. Benitez surprisingly stuck with two strikers in Joselu and Dwight Gayle, while Jacob Murphy took the place of the injured Christian Atsu. After fourteen minutes it looked as though Benitez’s bold move might pay off, as Gayle swept home DeAndre Yedlin’s cross to give the visitors the lead. The Magpies could even have had a second, when Murphy flashed a shot wide of David De Gea’s far post after good work from Jonjo Shelvey. Unfortunately for the visitors, the whole complexion of the game changed in the 35th minute. Goalkeeper Rob Elliott tossed the ball out of play and went down injured, and after a lengthy bout of treatment, the home side opted to use the throw as an opportunity to gain territorial advantage. The Magpies then found themselves boxed in and, when Pogba took the ball to the byline and crossed in, Anthony Martial had the simple task of nodding the ball home. To add insult to injury time, eight minutes were added on in the first half, during which Manchester United got their second. Another cross into the box wasn’t dealt with, and with Elliot reluctant to leave his line, Chris Smalling headed the home side ahead. There was still time for Newcastle to go close again, Isaac Hayden hitting a weak shot against De Gea, and Matt Ritchie’s volley on the rebound being deflected wide by Gayle.
Benitez’s desire to earn something from the game was clear, and the visitors came out in the second half looking to get back on terms. An uncharacteristic slice of tactical naivety from Benitez was duly punished, as Manchester United broke forward and Romelu Lukaku’s cross was nodded back across goal by Marcus Rashford for Pogba to tap in. In case you were wondering, Pogba took the award for most obnoxious goal celebration this weekend. Mind you, he is very very good at football. The home fans were treated to a display that confirmed what many already knew – they are a much better side when the Frenchman is the heartbeat. Murphy had another shot on goal in an attempt to reduce arrears, but De Gea was equal to it, and when Ciaran Clark mistimed his touch to leave Lukaku one-on-one with Elliott, the Belgian conveniently forgot playground etiquette and blasted the ball home from ten yards to secure the points for Manchester United. There was time for Zlatan Ibrahimovic to be introduced, earning a standing ovation, and the perfect return was almost sealed when his volley sailed towards goal, only for Elliott to beat the shot away. In the end a comfortable, but stylish win for Mourinho’s side, who on the basis of this performance could give their neighbours quite a game next month. A spirited performance from Newcastle will be scant consolation to Benitez, who may have thought he’d drilled the kind of suicidal defending on display at Old Trafford out of his squad. After three defeats on the bounce, next week’s visit of Watford to the north-east takes on added importance.
Speaking of Watford, fans of pessimism and weak excuses would have been delighted to see the return of David Moyes to our screens as the Glaswegian took charge of West Ham for the first time on Sunday. Vicarage Road was the scene of Moyes’ very first foray into management, when his Preston side were beaten 3-1 in 1998. Presumably no-one expected anything different from that game either. In a week in which Moyes’ former club Everton have been making kissy faces at Watford manager Marco Silva, the Portuguese would have been hoping for the win that took his side back up to eighth. A robust challenge from Andy Carroll in the second minute perhaps gave us a portent of things to come under Moyes, and the first concession of his Hammers career came after only eleven minutes. Andre Gray miscued a shot in the area, but the ball fell kindly for Will Hughes to stab past Joe Hart. Rumours that Hughes requested to wear a black armband in memory of Tommy Robinson’s blue tick are yet to be confirmed, but whatever despicable views the aryan youngster may have, he’s very quickly looking like an excellent piece of business on the pitch. Once they’d got the opener, the Hammers’ nerves began to jangle and Richarlison could have extended Watford’s lead, but saw his shot well saved by Hart. Cheydou Kouyate then spurned a golden chance to level the scores when played in on goal, seeing his tame shot turned round the post by Gomes. The Brazilian keeper then produced a fantastic double save to deny Marko Arnautovic, and it quickly started to look like it wouldn’t be Moyes’ day. Kouyate was guilty of further profligacy, looping a shot over the bar when well placed.
In the second half it was practically one way traffic as Watford capitalised on their opponents demoralising fifteen minutes in the company of Moyes. Abdoulaye Doucoure and Gray both shot wide, while Adrian Mariappa forced an excellent reflex save from Hart. It was becoming a case of when not if Watford would extend their lead, and when Hughes broke forward and got a lucky bounce off his hand, he fed Richarlison and the £11m man drove the ball into the bottom corner via Hart’s limp wrists. Manuel Lanzini had a shot cleared off the line late on, but anything less than 2-0 would have been harsh on a ruthless and effective Watford team. Marco Silva would be mad to jump ship at this point. Meanwhile, on the shipwreck, chants of ‘Sack their board’ went up the away end early in the first half and carried on well after the final whistle. David Moyes once again finds himself with an uphill struggle on his hands.
The final game of the weekend was hardly a pulse-racer on paper, with Brighton and Hove Albion hosting Stoke City at the Amex. The Seagulls have enjoyed a good start to life in the Premier League and Chris Hughton may have seen the visit of a Mark Hughes side slap bang in the middle of an identity crisis as the perfect opportunity to scurry away a few more points before the harsh winter hits. In keeping with the rest of the weekend’s action the game started out open and free-flowing, with both sides coming to attack the game. Brighton’s Dale Stephens saw his long-ranger float just over the bar early on, and Ryan Shawcross’ looping header from a corner almost caught Mat Ryan cold, with the Aussie ‘keeper backpedalling to tip over and prevent Stoke taking the lead. Jose Izquierdo looked dangerous cutting in from the left hand side, and his curling effort just evaded the far post. It was the visitors that finally opened the scoring, as Xherdan Shaqiri’s long ball in the box was delicated controlled by Maxim Chupo-Moting, and with Lewis Dunk at sixes and sevens, the Cameroonian striker slid the ball into the bottom corner of Ryan’s goal. A minute before half-time, the hosts were level. Davy Propper’s cross was controlled by Pascal Groß, and despite the German’s shot being weaker than a pint of Carling at V Festival, the ball squirmed through the legs of deputy ‘keeper Lee Grant. Parity was restored for only two minute though, as Stoke went up the other end, won a corner, and Chupo-Moting’s bundled header was nodded in by Kurt Zouma.
The attacking continued in the second-half, and on the hour Brighton got a deserved equaliser. Izquiero was played in by Glenn Murray on the left of the area, and though his attempted cross was cut out, the rebound fell kindly for the Colombian to lash the ball past Grant. For those wanting a defensive masterclass this wasn’t the game to watch, however the attacking intent from both sides made for an absorbing Monday night encounter between two unfashionable teams. Brighton saw the most of the attacking possession in the final half and hour, though Shaqiri’s bending shot was the closest the game came to a decider – the Swiss’ effort evading the post. A decent point for both sides in truth, with Brighton now unbeaten in five league games, and Stoke pulling themselves four points ahead of the bottom three.
A goal-filled weekend then the perfect antidote to last week’s succession of stalemates. Manchester United look to have rediscovered their groove with the return of Pogba, though Spurs’ defeat at the Emirates leaves them eleven points behind leaders Manchester City, and a mountain to climb if they’ve got aspirations of a title challenge. Crystal Palace’s evergreen shoots have masked the fact that they’re still sitting bottom on five points, and are two wins behind West Brom in 17th. The Baggies will hope a change of manager can improve their fortunes. Still – goals? Tick. Entertainment? Tick. Fascism? No tick.