Though the heatwave may be over and summer all but a distant memory where the days seemed to stretch on forever, there was always football on the telly, everyone had a plausible excuse to go to the pub five times a week and, for a couple of months, we were able to forget about the geopolitical shitshow unfolding day after day, the impending changing of the seasons brings new and exciting possibilities. It’s only a matter of time, for example, before Donald Trump gives himself a caps lock induced aneurysm live on social media. The ever increasing possibility of a No Deal Brexit means we can finally experience time travel as Britain slowly reverses through the 1970s, the 1940s, the 1800s and, if we’re lucky, straight back to the beginning of time. Speaking of which, The Big Bang Theory is finally ending: Reasons To Be Cheerful, Part Three. But if Fake News, fantasy, science-fiction and abysmal comedy aren’t your thing, then you can at least take comfort in the football. Unless you’re a West Ham supporter of course…
Here’s the talking points from week three:
Cherries continue to defy expectations…
Though the 2018/19 season is still in its infancy, there will be pundits well-prepared to backtrack on their pre-season predictions (yours truly included) as teams tipped to struggle fly out of the traps. No team has defied expectations since arriving in the Premier League more than Bournemouth who, though blessed with a kind set of opening fixtures, ended August by having a cursory glance around the Champions League places. In fact, the Cherries best start to a Premier League season is also the first time they’ve gone into September unbeaten since the promotion season from League One in 2012/13. In each of their four seasons in the Premier League, Eddie Howe’s team have been earmarked as potential relegation fodder. This opinion has partly been informed by the disturbing sight of a sub-12,000 capacity stadium in “The Greatest League in the World”, along with the likes of Steve Cook and Adam Smith marshalling the Cherries defence from the third tier up, but still they thrive.
Saturday’s battling draw with Everton – the fourth time they’ve fought back from two goals down to take points since being promoted in 2015 – was the embodiment of what Bournemouth bring to the Premier League. Guts, goals and entertainment, with the kind of hair-tearing, nail-biting tension that makes you wonder how Dorset has the highest life-expectancy rate in the UK. After a fairly even first half at Dean Court which had seen Everton reduced to ten men following Richarlison’s tete-a-tete with Smith, Marco Silva’s side took the lead ten minutes after the break through a trademark Theo Walcott goal. Howe would have hoped to see his side level things up quickly, but when Smith saw red for a professional foul on Walcott to make it ten men apiece, the Cherries manager might have felt his instructions had been misunderstood. Michael Keane’s goal five minutes later looked to have sealed the win for Everton, but the visitors quickly found themselves pinned back as Bournemouth discovered a new gear. The opening seventy minutes had seen the Cherries hit the target with only two of their nine shots on goal, but as Silva’s side withdrew from the contest, the hosts found a little more joy, starting with Josh King’s penalty after Leighton Baines had felled Callum Wilson. Just four minutes later Nathan Ake restored parity, and from then on it was one-way traffic. Ryan Fraser, Dan Gosling and Wilson all had chances to win it, but Everton held firm to escape with a point that, given the circumstances of the match, will have disappointed the travelling Toffees.
Though they’ve scored twice in all three of their games so far this season, Howe will have some minor concerns surrounding his side’s cutting edge, something their twelve efforts off target this weekend attest to. His team’s reliance on the inconsistent form and fitness of Wilson and King mean that maintaining the kind of blistering form that has seen them rubbing shoulders with Manchester City and Liverpool in the opening weeks of the season is nigh on impossible. Any worries about being a peripheral figure in the relegation battle will have been suitably eased, however.
…while Liverpool present a case for the defence.
Do not adjust your television sets: Liverpool have the best defence in the Premier League. In fact, the Reds are the only team in English league football yet to concede a goal, and that privilege has only cost them £141.9m. Yes, there are caveats – we’re only three games into the season, they’re yet to play a team from last season’s top-half, and they’ve only faced six shots on target in 270 minutes of football, but since they conceded twice in the corresponding fixtures last year, Jurgen Klopp will be happy to label this as progress. Watching his side pick up their seventh straight clean sheet at home, miserliness not seen since 2007, will be an added bonus. A home win against Brighton on Saturday evening maintained the Redmen’s 100% start to the season and once again the back five starred as the team that put three past Manchester United last weekend struggled to break down Liverpool’s newly resolute defence.
The pre-season pelvic injury picked up by Dejan Lovren would have been an early blow for Klopp, particularly given that he became ‘The Best Defender in the World’ over the summer, but Joe Gomez’s performances while deputising for the Croatian have been a revelation. The 21 year old has primarily been used as a full-back since signing from Charlton Athletic in 2015, but at 6’2” his aerial presence at the heart of defence is a useful asset – the eight aerial duels won against Brighton are testament to that. Alongside him, the bedrock of Liverpool’s newfound defensive parsimony Virgil van Dijk who, should the Reds finally pick up some silverware this season, will surely be pinpointed as the signing that set them on their way. Whilst £75m may have seemed steep at the time, there’s no doubting that Klopp’s defence has improved immeasurably since his arrival – his nine aerials won and eight clearances against Crystal Palace pushed his side on to seal their second win of the season, whilst against Brighton two timely interceptions prevented the Seagulls a clear sight of goal. Alisson, too, has enjoyed a successful start to his Liverpool career with three clean sheets out of three, though given he’s only faced two shots a game so far, the jury remains out. There is arguably defensive weakness in the full-back positions, where Andrew Robertson and Trent Alexander-Arnold play a vital part in Liverpool’s attacking play. Aged just 24 and 19, both still have some developing to do, and playing alongside van Dijk and Alisson their defensive awareness will surely improve, but Brighton soon identified that far-post crosses were more likely to cause panic in the hosts ranks. The addition of Fabinho to the starting XI, once the Brazilian is fit, will also add further protection to a solid defence.
If there are to be any concerns for supporters of a team that head into September with three wins, seven goals, and nine points, it’s that arguably the front three are yet to rediscover the magic that dazzled the league last season. Klopp’s team finished last season with a shots to goal average of 7.6, a figure that has so far risen to 8 in August. Against West Ham and Crystal Palace they missed the target ten times each, while Brighton breathed a sigh of relief no fewer than fifteen times. The chief offender was, of course, Mohamed Salah, guilty of missing a league high twenty-three big chances last season, with another three added so far this season, the Egyptian can thankfully rely on the creative talents of his teammates to carve out opening after opening. Once Salah and his cohorts do click, the rest of the league will need to come up with something pretty special to get anything from the Reds.
Aleksander Mitrovic is ready to prove the doubters wrong…
If we’ve learned just one thing from Fulham’s opening three games, its that they’re unlikely to finish last on the Match of the Day running order this season. After unfortunate defeats to Crystal Palace and Tottenham in which Slavisa Jokanovic’s expansive style of football was brutally exposed at the top level, The Cottagers picked up their first win of the season at home to jet-lag’s Burnley. Not known for their entertaining football (only six of the Clarets games last season finished with more than three goals), even Sean Dyche’s side couldn’t resist being drawn into a humdinger at Craven Cottage, as the sides shared six goals. There was plenty for Jokanovic to be happy about beyond the three points, as transfer record buster Jean Michel Seri opened the scoring and enjoyed a fine game controlling the midfield, while Luciano Vietto, ostensibly back-up to wonderkid Ryan Sessegnon, laid on two assists. The performance of on-loan forward Andre Schurrle too, would have given the 23,000 congregated in West London hope that a bright future lies ahead. The German’s late goal to seal the points was the sriracha on the avocado toast, having given Burnley’s feted backline a torrid afternoon.
Perhaps the most eye-catching performance though was that of Fulham’s #9. Signed from Newcastle for £22m after a stunning run of form in the Championship that aided Fulham’s promotion, there were question marks over Aleksander Mitrovic’s ability to cut it in the Premier League, having largely been a disappointment in the north east. In his debut season with the Magpies, the Serbian scored nine and assisted four, but evened it out with two red cards for violent conduct. Under Rafa Benitez, it was clear that Mitrovic’s time at St James Park was limited. Four goals in twenty six appearances in the Championship (albeit from eleven starts) smacked of a player who’d either lost the trust of his manager or simply wasn’t cut out for life in England. A retrospective ban for violent conduct against West Ham last season was the final straw, and Mitrovic was packed off to London via Anderlecht. The twelve goals in twenty appearances that followed, many of them match-winners, suggested the former Partizan Belgrade man had finally found his home.
Playing Benitez’s style of football clearly didn’t sit well with Mitrovic. The pragmatic Spaniard expects his frontman to provide a focal point for the team, paroling in front of the opposition’s back four and using their strength and guile to hold up the ball and bring his teammates into play, as well as provide the first line of defence, whereas Jokanovic is happy for his 6’1” striker to play as a classic target man – the same role Mitrovic has flourished in for the national team. That freedom combined with Fulham’s propensity to scurry down the wings at pace and float balls into the area provides the Serbian with the thing he needs most – chances to shoot. Besides his abysmal disciplinary record and perceived lethargy, one of the biggest criticisms he faced during his time at Newcastle was the amount of chances he missed. At St James’ Park, Mitrovic averaged around 2.3 shots per game, scoring with every 5.7th shot. At Fulham, the Serbian has been afforded around 4.5 shots per game, with a goals-per-shot rate of 6.3. The equation to get the best out of the Serbian is simple – more shots = more goals. But as his brace against Burnley demonstrated (as well as his goal at Wembley last weekend), the quality of chance is the key factor. The striker was afforded four chances by an unusually generous Clarets defence, three of which arrived between the penalty spot and goal-line, leading to two goals with a combined distance of around 12 yards. Having developed a reputation for missing sitters, Mitrovic might finally be unlocking his inner poacher.
…as Tottenham demonstrate that a rest is as good as a change.
Sixty-five summer signings made appearances across the ten Premier League fixtures this weekend, with Fulham and West Ham parading the most new faces with eight each. Only two sides finished gameweek three without giving minutes to recent acquisitions, one of which was Burnley, whose paper thin squad is already tearing at the seams thanks to an intensive continental fixture list. The other was of course Tottenham Hotspur. Much has been made of Daniel Levy’s iron-stitched pocket over the last couple of months, but given that nine of Spurs’ starting eleven comprised the bulk of the side that challenged for the title in 2015/16, it appears there’s more to the masterplan in N17 than testing the manager’s ability with limited resources. Mauricio Pochettino’s is a squad that has slowly grown and blossomed together, with only minor adjustments for squad depth and plans B, C, and D added where necessary. In a league that has become better known for its player trading than beautiful football, Tottenham have become role models for stability.
With Davinson Sanchez, one of the more successful recent additions to Pochettino’s squad, Ben Davies and Erik Lamela all dropping out of the team, there were landmark returns for Toby Alderweireld, Danny Rose and Moussa Dembele – the first time all three had started a league match together since January 2017. It speaks volumes that the Argentinian can confidently change three of his back four from game to game without concern, though there has always been the constant worry that an injury to Harry Kane could put the kibosh on any kind of title challenge. After the performance of Lucas Moura at Old Trafford, that anxiety could be a thing of the past. Usually deployed on the right of a three behind Kane, Pochettino pushed the £25m man further up to pitch to play as a second striker, and his pace caused Manchester United a world of problems. Phil Jones, recalled to the starting line-up along with Chris Smalling after Eric Bailly and Victor Lindelof’s horrorshow on the south coast last weekend, was given a torrid evening by the Brazilian, and should have been penalised for a trademark clumsy challenge in the first half, but was given a reprieve by Craig Pawson. Jones would finally be at fault for Tottenham’s opener, as Kane easily lost his marker to head Trippier’s corner beyond David De Gea, before Moura ghosted into the area to slide an effort into the bottom corner and double the visitors lead. The former PSG man’s outstanding performance was capped with a devastating third for Spurs as, with United pushing to get a foothold back in the game, Moura drove past the flimsy resistance of Smalling before smashing an angled effort into the bottom corner to provoke bedlam in the away end.
How significant this result will be in the context of the season remains to be seen, but to record such an emphatic victory on a ground that has seen them pick up a total of just eight points in twenty-five visits before this weekend feels like something of a watershed moment for Pochettino and his team. In recent seasons they’ve been criticised for failing to pick up results in the big games, and of course the state of crisis that Jose Mourinho and United find themselves in currently must serve as a caveat, but they went to a fellow top six side and scored three goals. Respect, respect, respect.