The Goth Juice cup kicked into gear this week, with four of the Premier League’s predicted strugglers taking one look at the ever increasing likelihood of having to travel to the Far East for a Tuesday night meeting with Morecambe and firmly demonstrating which side their bread is buttered. The excitement of Huddersfield Town reserve Juninho Bacuna scoring an own goal from forty yards was just about matched by the interminable draws for this season’s European competitions, which sees Tottenham travel to Barcelona, Liverpool take on PSG, and Chelsea host a team of cobblers from deepest darkest Hungary. All of which means that the season can now be officially described as ‘well under way’. Though not until all the goodwill and enthusiasm surrounding the England national team has evaporated during another timely international break. Before that, Gameweek Four, and all it’s associated talking points.
Sarri’s perfect start continues…
He might have packed up the snouts, but Maurizio Sarri has soon found something else besides paper and dried leaves to set alight, as his Chelsea side head into the international break with four wins out of four. The hard-earned victory against Bournemouth at Stamford Bridge made the ex-Napoli boss the fourth Chelsea manager to win his first four games in charge, following Jose Mourinho, Carlo Ancellotti and Guus Hiddink, and puts a side barely considered challengers for the title joint top of the pile after the opening month. There are of course sterner tests to come for the Blues, but having taken eight more points than his predecessor did in the corresponding fixtures last season, Sarri can look back on an agreeable start to life in West London.
Unlike BBC Director of Programming Tony Hayers, Sarri opted for revolution over evolution when arriving at Stamford Bridge. Immediately tearing up Antonio Conte’s Big Book of Tactics, and reverting to a flat back four in defence. Not only risking the wrath of Victor Moses, who’d carved out his niche as a handy wing-back in Conte’s system, the new manager also aroused suspicion in the ranks of his sceptics, convinced that the effectiveness of Marcos Alonso – Chelsea’s tormentor in chief down the left-hand side last season – would be compromised. On the basis of his first four games, which have harvested a goal and two assists, these doubts were unfounded. Similarly, the centre-back pairing of defensive error’s David Luiz and Antonio Rudiger, two continental style ball-playing defenders, would upset the balance in Chelsea’s backline. Whilst it hasn’t exactly been plain sailing for the pair, two clean sheets from four is a decent enough return.
As well as injecting a laid back atmosphere into the club following the iron-fisted rule of Conte, Sarri has also drilled the importance of possession into the players, with new boy and teacher’s pet Jorginho setting an example to his teammates. Against Bournemouth, Chelsea attempted 704 passes, with the Italian midfielder chipping in with 80. That brought the Blues total up to 2,996 passes for the season, a league high average of 759 per game. Last year they managed an average of 556. Once games against the likes of Liverpool, Manchester City and Tottenham arrive, these impressive passing stats are likely to drop off, but encouraging his players to keep the ball is the first step in nullifying those dangerous opponents.
The Italian made his name at Napoli by playing beautiful, expansive and attacking football, though more often than not I Ciucciarelli were found wanting when it came to grinding out results and keeping pace with serial Scudetto winners Juventus. In their last two games, Chelsea have been made to work for their points, as a stubborn defensive showing from Newcastle United almost held out for a point, and Bournemouth were whiskers away from taking the lead at Stamford Bridge. Whether by luck or design, Sarri may be starting to learn the meaning of pragmatism, and Chelsea’s chances of a title challenge are all the better for it.
…while Pellegrini’s bubble is well and truly burst.
From the summit of the Premier League to rock bottom, West Ham have emerged as this season’s snail-pace starters, as a stoppage time winner from Adama Traore for Wolves left the Hammers heading into a two week break with zero points from four games. It hasn’t been the kindest of starts for the Chilean manager, with a trip to Liverpool on the opening day never likely to be anything more than an exercise in damage limitation, while he may rue last week’s defeat at Arsenal having watched his side create enough chances to have staked a claim for at least a point. The defeats to Bournemouth and Wolves, and their associated performances, will rankle most with the ex-Manchester City boss.
Against the Cherries, West Ham were wasteful in possession, creating fewer chances than Eddie Howe’s team despite seeing 61% of the ball, and exhibiting the kind of naivety in defence that can only be bred between a back four that lack familiarity. Pellegrini has made at least one change to his defence in each of the Hammers four games, having tried out Ryan Fredericks at right back; Fabian Balbuena, Angelo Ogbonna and Issa Diop at centre-back and, on Saturday, Arthur Masuaku dropping out against Wolves to be replaced by Aaron Cresswell. Compared with Liverpool’s back four, who boast the best defensive record in the league having named the same defensive line-up in all four games, it’s clear that Pellegrini’s rotation policy is flawed.
This weekend, a far more even game against Nuno Espirito Santo’s promoted side should have seen the Hammers register at least a point on the board, though its difficult to argue that Wolves didn’t deserve to win a match in which they looked like the established Premier League team. Matt Docherty, Raul Jiminez and Leo Bonatini all had glorious chances to score before Traore’s late winner, with a mixture of Lukasz Fabianski and a lack of poise preventing the visitors scoring earlier. West Ham, on the other hand, had little joy in front of goal, save for one excellent stop from Rui Patricio to deny Marko Arnautovic. Their reliance on the Austrian forward has quickly become apparent, with Arnautovic the only West Ham player to have scored so far this season, adding two more goals to the eleven he netted last time out, as he finished the season as top scorer at the London Stadium. His six shots on target represent over 35% of the Hammers’ accurate efforts so far this season, but if they’re to start picking up results his teammates will need to start helping him out.
Much like last season West Ham are yet to look the sum of their parts, as an impressive transfer window on paper has already begun to tear at the edges. It’s vital that Gold and Sullivan give Pellegrini the time to implement his own identity onto this team, and there have already been glimpses to suggest that, once things click, West Ham can become one of the most attractive sides in the league. Crystal Palace proved last season that a slow start doesn’t necessarily spell trouble, but with fixtures coming up away at Everton and at home to Chelsea and Manchester United, there’s no guarantee things won’t get worse before they get better for the Hammers.
The evergreen Glenn Murray continues to see off his competition…
It’s difficult to work out what kind of season Brighton and Hove Albion are embarking on based on their opening results. A spectacular win against an awful Manchester United and a battling performance in a narrow defeat at Liverpool have been sandwiched by their complete no-show against Watford on the opening day, and a game against Fulham in which, for sixty minutes and despite winning and subsequently missing a penalty, they looked decidedly second best. Cometh the hour mark, cometh the man as the 34 year old Glenn Murray, Brighton’s top scorer last season with twelve, added his second and third of this season to salvage a point against the newly promoted side. His first, a reminder that positional awareness and well-timed runs can be just as effective as raw pace, saw Brighton’s #17 latch onto Anthony Knockaert’s through ball before sliding it into the bottom corner. After ceding spot-kick responsibility to Pascal Gross in the first half, only to see the German’s effort saved by Marcus Bettinelli, Murray pounced on the opportunity to bring the home side level after Aleksander Mitrovic had been adjudged to have handled in the area.
There were question marks over Murray’s ability to lead the line for a Premier League team upon Brighton’s promotion last season, and with manager Chris Hughton spending big in the last couple of transfer windows on attacking talent, it looked as though his time as the Seagulls first choice striker would shortly be coming to an end. With four starts from four, Murray has once again emphatically silenced the doubters. The Cumbrian forward had previously shown the ability to mix it with the best of the lower mid-table strikers when he first arrived in the Premier League with Crystal Palace in 2013. Eight goals from thirty-three appearances is about par for a forward in a team scrapping against relegation, but injury curtailed his career at Selhurst Park, just as it did when Bournemouth signed him ahead of their maiden Premier League campaign.
Having made eighty league appearances in his first two seasons on the south coast as Brighton completed their comeback from oblivion, it’s clear that those injury worries are now a thing of the past, despite Murray now being well into the autumn of his career. Hughton’s faith in the second most senior member of his squad is clear, with Murray playing all 360 minutes of Brighton’s season so far, a stark contrast to Jurgen Locadia and Florin Andone, Hughton’s two other striking options, who’ve amassed 87 minutes between them. Since Murray joined in 2016, Tomer Hemed and Sam Baldock have been forced to leave the AMEX to seek out first team football, and should the evergreen forward continue his good form, Andone and Locadia might soon be joining them.
…whereas the revolving door policy is paying dividends at Watford.
Even in the current short-termism culture that has engulfed English football, Watford owners the Pozzo family have taken chasing the ‘new manager bounce’ to the extreme. Javi Gracia, a relative unknown when he arrived in Herfordshire to replace the flirtatious Marco Silva in January, became the ninth full-time manager appointed by Gino Pozzo since his takeover of the Hornets back in 2012. Having watched as Gianfranco Zola, Giuseppe Sannino, Oscar and Billy Mckinley (given just six games between them) failed to deliver the promotion that the Italian so desperately craved, Slaviša Jokanović, now of Fulham, finally brought Watford back up to the Premier League in 2015. Since then, Quique Sanchez Flores, Walter Materazzi and Silva have all tried and failed to settle into the job at Vicarage Road, staying for at most a season each before being instructed to clear their desks. There’s little to suggest that Gracia will be afforded any more than the statutory twelve months in the job but, much like his predecessors, he’s overseen another flying start to the season.
Much like their aggressive airborne namesakes, the Hornets from Herts bloody love August. They came into this weekend’s game against Spurs with maximum points from their opening three games, carrying on a rich tradition of strong starts. Since their return to the top flight in 2015, the only sides to have beaten Watford in the opening month of the season have been Manchester City, Chelsea and Arsenal, a run that now extends to thirteen games, and includes creditable results against Liverpool and Everton in the past two seasons. For all the talk of their impressive beginning to this season, though, few expected Gracia’s side to make it four wins from four against a Tottenham team fresh from hammering another nail into Jose Mourinho’s coffin. It looked even less like when, after a first half in which Spurs saw 66% of possession and limited Watford to just two effots on goal, last season’s standout player Abdoulaye Doucoure bundled Lucas Moura’s cross into his own net to give the visitors the lead.
This, though, is Watford’s modus operandi this season. Across their opening four games Gracia’s side have maintained an average of just 45.5% possession, a total that only Cardiff, Huddersfield, Brighton and Newcastle have yet to exceed. They’ve also managed a lowly average of twelve shots on goal per game, despite being the joint fourth top scorers in the league. Evidently, Gracia has discovered the purest form of Back to Basics Football, doing away with needless possession that does little to alter the result, and encouraging his players to find those fabled Positions of Maximum Opportunity. Incidentally, POMO in Spanish translates to ‘knob’, which conjurs a wonderful image of Gracia charging round the training ground and chuckling to himself. That’s not to say that Elton John’s favourite team have resorted to kick and rush, with only three of their nine goals so far this season (two of them, ironically, against Spurs) arriving from set pieces, though they do rank top for inaccurate long balls. The burgeoning relationship between Jose Holebas and Roberto Pereyra, two players you’ve definitely heard of but probably couldn’t pick out of a line-up, down the left-hand side has so far borne plenty of fruit – four goals and four assists between the pair.
It was Holebas’ set pieces that set up both Watford goals, as the hosts turned up the pressure on Tottenham and reaped the reward. It seemed fitting that, for a club whose revolving door policy extends to the playing staff, with 56 players signed in the three years since their promotion, it was Troy Deeney and Craig Cathcart, relative stalwarts with a combined twelve years at Vicarage Road, that earned Watford the win, each powering a header past Hugo Lloris.
There are already whispers that Watford are on the verge of ‘Doing A Leicester’ and mounting a serious title challenge. Though it might be premature to suggest this is anything other than their annual commitment to making hay while the sun shines, they are certainly comparisons to be made with the way Claudio Ranieri set his team up during their incredible title-winning season. In the meantime, Elton and his fellow Watford supporters can just enjoy being Top of the Pops for a couple of weeks.