The Lost Art of Keeping a Clean Sheet: Premier League Week 2 Talking Points

For those of you reading this just days after flunking your A-Levels, it’s worth remembering that for every morale-boosting pearl of wisdom handed down on social media from D-List celebrities that claim they found success after failing their exams, there are a hundred people that have perished in the gutter because they didn’t bother re-reading Othello. Doing badly in your exams isn’t the end of the world, it’s just the end of anyone you know or love having any kind of respect for you. Your correspondent should know, for he failed with distinction.

But at least the football’s back, and what better to help you forget those shitty grades than a turgid 0-0 draw between two terrible teams? It’s the Week Two talking points.

Premier League penny-pinchers lack a cutting edge…

CARNEW

The third and fifth lowest spenders in the summer transfer window met in south Wales on Saturday lunchtime, both looking for their first points of the season after a summer of differing fortunes. Cardiff City manager and part-time dinnerlady Neil Warnock proudly trumpeted that he wasn’t jealous of the spending power of fellow promoted sides Fulham and Wolves as Vincent Tan sanctioned £28.5m on new signings, while Rafa Benitez had vowed to concentrate on matters away from the boardroom after the early closure of the window. Still at a stalemate with owner Mike Ashley over a contract extension that would see him remain in the north east beyond the end of this season, Benitez rightly feels he has been let down by the club’s owner time and time again in the window, with loan-signing Salomon Rondon and the untested Yoshinori Muto the only attacking additions to a squad that has seen Aleksander Mitrovic and Dwight Gayle depart. Warnock opted to bench summer signing Bobby Reid for last season’s nine goal striker Kenneth Zohore in a bid to outmuscle Newcastle’s backline, while the much-maligned Joselu was given the nod for the Magpies.

Given that the two strikers lining up for either side had hit double figures in just three of their combined nineteen seasons of first team football, it’s fair to say no-one was expecting a goal-fest. What followed was an early contender for worst game of the season. Cardiff, 90% brawn and 10% technique, opted to spend much of the match lumping balls into the Newcastle penalty area, while the visitors struggled to get a foot on the ball, with Jonjo Shelvey looking the only likely player to fashion an opportunity for his ailing strikeforce. Between them, the two sides attempted 208 long balls across a quality-free ninety minutes, with Shelvey providing the most from outfield – though more often than not he discovered his team-mates  operating on an altogether different wavelength. That proportion of long balls, the highest across the league this weekend, predictably had a negative affect on the ebb and flow of the game, with just 62% of passes completed in the match – a weekend low.

Chief culprit, in the first half at least, was Newcastle’s on-loan winger Kenedy, who had an afternoon to forget. After failing to complete a pass in the first half, as well as aiming a petulant kick at Victor Camarasa, the Brazilian then spurned two late chances – driving a free-kick straight into the wall, before his weak penalty with virtually the last kick of the game was saved by Neil Etheridge to spurn the chance of nicking all three points. Considering he was one of the Magpies brighter players against Tottenham, it’s perhaps little suprise that Kenedy’s performance was brutally dissected by pundits afterwards, though compared with Cardiff’s Junior Hoilett, who received praise for his enterprising play, the Brazilian could consider himself harshly judged. Hoilett completed two dribbles, drew two fouls and posted a pass completion of 55.8%, Kenedy was fouled twice more and completed 57% of his passes. That said, it’s a damning indictment on the club’s summer transfer business that they’ve already become reliant on the 22 year old playing to the best of his abilities.

The final score of nils apiece was hardly unjust, with those pesky xG stats showing that both teams could only carve open one clear cut chance each – and Newcastle’s was a penalty. As for those strikers? Zohore managed four efforts with one on target, while Joselu failed to cause Etheridge any trouble with his three shots. Even at this early stage, its looking like a being a long old season for both Warnock and Benitez.

…and positives in defeat don’t mask the size of Emery’s rebuilding job.

CHEARS

After the dirge served up on Saturday lunchtime, there was hope that Chelsea v Arsenal could act as a palate cleanser in the tea-time kick off, as two of the Premier League’s newest managers came head-to-head. Like his opposite number, Sarri had begun his reign in London with a 2-0 defeat to Manchester City, but unlike the man currently trying to fit into Arsene Wenger’s worn out old loafers, the Italian’s first league game had harvested three points. A top six ding-dong would offer the former Napoli chief his first big test however, and when all was said and done he just about passed. There was plenty for Sarri to be concerned about as he watched his side relinquish a two goal lead against the official banter club of the Premier League, particularly the acres of space afforded to Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Alex Iwobi on the flanks, but the luxury of introducing his best player from the bench in order to nick a late winner will have satisfied Chelsea’s manager almost as much as that first cigarette after full-time.

For Unai Emery, the magnitude of his rebuilding job at Arsenal is slowly becoming clear. Like a cartoon sailor plugging a leak on a sinking ship, each time he appears to have fixed a problem, another one pops up instantly. Arsenal are Newton’s Third Law in action. But first: The Positives. Watching their team ship two early goals is hardly a new experience for the Gunners faithful, but both they and the manager will have taken heart at the fightback that ensured they went in level at the break. Most notably the aforementioned Mkhitaryan and Iwobi who completed twice as many dribbles between the second Chelsea goal and half-time, and bagged a goal each to complete the comeback. The performance of Matteo Guendouzi, too, will have pleased Emery. The young Frenchman was either quietly encouraging or an absolute liability on his debut, depending on who you listen to, but at Stamford Bridge he was the driving force that dragged Arsenal back into the game. His five interceptions – the most of any player on the pitch – saw him out-Kanteing Ngolo Kante, and Chelsea struggled to outmaneuver the teenager in midfield.

But for every positive action there is a negative reaction. Petr Cech is still demonstrably uncomfortable playing out from the back, and his heatmap from the match shows a goalkeeper failing to adapt to the modern game. Rooted to his six-yard box, the former Chelsea stopper was powerless to intervene as the hosts broke past Arsenal’s high-line time and time again. For each time Guendozi won back possession, his team-mates lost it thrice – Iwobi and Hector Bellerin the main offenders, with six turnovers each. The unforced errors by summer signings Sokratis and Lucas Torreira won’t have pleased their new manager either.

All that said, Emery’s reign at the Emirates is still in its infancy, and two narrow defeats against their top six contemporaries are no yardstick to judge the new Arsenal by. They now begin a run of six ‘winnable’ games, starting with a West Ham side themselves already lurching towards crisis. If they can pick up a run of wins, the negatives of the opening weeks will quickly be cast aside as mere teething problems.

Sergio Aguero once again proves himself a man for all seasons…

MCIHUD

Fantasy football mini-leagues were won and lost over the weekend, depending on who’d broken their neck to get Manchester City’s Argentinian marksman into their team ahead of the game against Huddersfield Town. Despite being regularly rotated last season, and rumours that Pep Guardiola was on the lookout for a replacement, Aguero remains among the most popular picks on the FPL website, being selected by 37% of teams and, more crucially, City’s most prolific source of goals. The 30 year old’s treble on Sunday took him into joint second behind Alan Shearer with the most hat-tricks in Premier League history, just two shy of the Newcastle and Blackburn legend, but with an impressive ratio of a three-goal haul in every twenty-three games, Aguero will be expecting to at least halve Shearer’s lead by the end of the season.

In what has now become a regular occurrence, Guardiola’s side tore their bottom-half opponents apart in a scintillating display of attacking football, and as usual Aguero was at the forefront of the action. Paired alongside Gabriel Jesus, the three-time Premier League winner showed that a striker’s instinct doesn’t dull with age, opening the scoring from the edge of the area after 25 minutes after a stupendous pass from goalkeeper Ederson. After his strike partner had added a second, Aguero helped himself to a trademark poachers goal, while his third was a feat of ingenuity, the fifth of six for City as any pre-season question marks over their motivation to retain the title were emphatically cast aside.

Aguero, now embarking on his eighth season at the Etihad, has often found himself overshadowed by the leagues other leading lights – Mohamed Salah last season, Harry Kane the last few – and often seems harshly overlooked in discussions surrounding the quality of Guardiola’s team. While pundits are right to salivate over the ability of Kevin De Bruyne, David Silva and Jesus, it is Aguero, perhaps more than anyone else, that has come to define City’s rise to prominence over the past decade. Signed at the beginning of their first Premier League winning season, and scorer of that dramatic title-clinching goal, the Argentinian has slowly seen his playing time diminish, from thirty starts in 2014/15 to twenty-two last season, though only twice in seven seasons has he failed to reach the twenty goal mark in the Premier League. Averaging a goal for every six shots taken, you’ll be hard pushed to find a more incisive, prolific striker in the last 25 years of English football. Regardless of whether he breaks Shearer’s record, he’ll rightly go down as one of the league’s all-time greats.

…while Manchester United emerge as the poster boys for defensive deficiency. 

BRIMUN

Sunday swayed from the sublime to the ridiculous for the Manchester clubs as, less than an hour after the final whistle at the Etihad, City’s neighbours found themselves two goals down on the south coast. The victory against Leicester City on the opening night of the season had been battling if not necessarily deserved, but any suggestions that Jose Mourinho had landed on his new first-choice centre back pairing in Eric Bailly and Victor Lindelof were quickly proven fanciful. Glenn Murray and Shane Duffy’s goals in the opening thirty minutes for Brighton punctuated an abysmal start to the game from Mourinho’s side, with his new look defence and brand new midfield enforcer the architects of their team’s downfall.

Though commanding in the air, the almost stubborn refusal of Bailly and Lindelof to close down their opponents and attempt to dispossess them played into the hands of the host’s creative players, as the Ivorian centre back played a massive part in Brighton’s second and third goals, needlessly conceding a corner and clumsily handing the Seagulls a penalty. Anthony Knockeart put in his best performance for Brighton since their promotion, while Pascal Gross went some way to showing that last season wasn’t just a flash in the pan, as he outshone Paul Pogba and the dreadful Fred in midfield. The Brazilian’s contribution to the first half amounted to losing possession five times, though as a team United contrived to give the ball away on eighteen occassions all told, with Pogba and Anthony Martial just as guilty. With his team 3-1 down at the break, Mourinho opted to introduce Marcus Rashford and Jesse Lingard for the second half, with Marouane Fellaini following later in the game, though they too appeared to have been bitten by the carelessness bug – a further fifteen turnovers followed in the second half, with the substitutes accounting for three apiece.

An out of sorts midfield can be brushed under the carpet if your defence is at the races, though, and the fact of the matter is that United’s backline couldn’t have looked more disinterested at the prospect of battling for possession, maintaining their shape, or pushing their team forwards. Full backs Luke Shaw and Ashley Young rarely ventured past the halfway line throughout, and yet Shaw was so often caught out of position that Lindelof spent much of the game being drawn out of central defence to cover for his intrepid partner. Perhaps that explains why the Swedish centre-back attempted just one tackle throughout and failed to intercept the ball in ninety minutes, though Bailly’s excuse for identical stats is mysterious, particularly when Leon Balogun and Duffy completed four tackles and five interceptions respectively. A word too for former Best Goalkeeper in the World David De Gea, who’s going through a Joe Hartesque run of form. Against Brighton, the Spanish stopper faced three shots and conceded three goals and in his last six games for club and country he has only made four saves. Form is temporary, of course, but De Gea could do with picking up a clean sheet soon.

Pogba’s late penalty reduced the lack of pride somewhat, but Mourinho will insist on far greater intensity from his side, who were outfought and outthought by the seaside. Perhaps one consolation for last year’s meanest backline is that every team appears to have forgotten how to defend. Only once in the last fifteen seasons have more teams seen their goal breached after two games – presumably the Premier League has been inspired by some of the shambolic defensive performances at the World Cup.

Let’s also not gloss over Brighton’s contribution to the game. Full-blooded and thunderous in the tackle, clinical in front of goal, and capped off by a second half that was a testament to Chris Hughton’s game management. In years gone by, a ‘mid-table’ side might have expected Manchester United to find a way back into the game by hook or crook – at the AMEX, the Seagulls simply didn’t allow it. On this evidence relegation should be the last thing on their minds.

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