Knowing Me, Knowing You (Za-Ha): Premier League Week 5 Talking Points.

After a fortnight in flip-flops revisiting your summer romance, only to discover that, in the harsh light of oncoming autumn, they’re just as dull, frustrating and disappointing as you’d previously suspected before the relentless sunshine, airborne pints and endless nights had convinced you otherwise, it’s nice to return to your multi-billion pound slippers. The gold-leaf meat and potatoes of the Premier League; reliable in its chaos, intoxicating in its toxicity. The cause and solution to all football’s ills. Three teams started Gameweek Five on maximum points, while a further five were looking for their first win of the season. Here are the talking points:

 

Liverpool throw down the gauntlet at Wembley…

Liverpool

Liverpool amassed a total of fifteen points on the road against their fellow top six sides in Jurgen Klopp’s first two seasons at Anfield, with breathtaking 3-1 and 4-1 victories at Stamford Bridge and the Etihad the standout results. Last season, with arguably the best side since Brendan Rogers’ title contenders, they earned just one point, in an absurd 3-3 draw with Arsenal. In contrast, Manchester City won four out of five. Though it wasn’t the only contributing factor, Klopp will surely have pinpointed that poor away form against their rivals as one of the reasons for his side finishing twenty-five points behind the champions. If the Reds are to mount a serious title challenge this season, they’re going to have to pick up the lion’s share of the points in the big games.

All of which gave their trip to Wembley, scene of a Dejan Lovren inspired collapse last October, a frisson of intrigue. Klopp’s team have flown out of the traps this season with four wins from four, but the corresponding fixtures last time out reaped the same amount of points. This was Liverpool’s first real test. For Tottenham Hotspur, any notion of a title challenge may have evaporated at 5pm on Transfer Deadline Day. Their opening trio of wins, including a clinical dismantling of Manchester United at Old Trafford, had gone some way to allaying fears over squad depth. The defeat at Watford before the international break brought those concerns back into focus. Nine of Mauricio Pochettino’s players were involved in the final weekend of the World Cup, less than a month before the opening weekend of the Premier League. Without a prolonged period of rest and an adequate pre-season, it’s clear many of those players are struggling with fitness and fatigue. Harry Kane has played a staggering 4791 minutes of football since the beginning of last season, which includes a month off with the ankle injury sustained at Bournemouth in March. Mohamed Salah has played more than three hundred minutes fewer, despite reaching the Champions League final.

It was perhaps that tiredness in Tottenham ranks that inspired Klopp’s gameplan at Wembley. So often champions of possession, having racked up an average of 61.7% in their opening four games, Liverpool surrendered custody of the ball in the first half, allowing Spurs to knock it around to no great effect, and more often than not playing themselves into trouble – Eric Dier’s languorous back-pass forcing Michel Vorm into a smart save from Salah. Indeed, the corner from which Gini Wijnaldum headed the ball inches over the line to open the scoring came from a sloppy passage of play in which the hosts gifted possession to Liverpool twice more.

Seeing slightly more of the ball in the second half, the Reds’ high-press was enough to disturb Spurs’ possession and create chances, with Vorm again required to pull of a decent stop, this time from Sadio Mane. The Dutch stopper would play a part in Liverpool’s second, however, failing to grasp the rebound as Jan Vertonghen slid Mane’s cross onto the base of the post, before Roberto Firmino applied the finishing touch. Erik Lamela’s consolation, deep into stoppage time, offered a timely reminder that Liverpool’s defence still isn’t the finished article, as the Argentinian met Christian Eriksen’s corner unchallenged to send a low volley past Alisson. Regardless, Klopp and his team have passed their first big test with flying colours, and thoughts can now turn to the visit of Paris Saint Germain in the week. Back-to-back meetings with Chelsea and Manchester City at the end of the month will give us a better idea if this Liverpool team is the real deal.

 

…while Eden Hazard sends out a warning to Chelsea’s fellow contenders.

Hazard

In his six full seasons at Stamford Bridge, Eden Hazard has only twice failed to contribute to 20+ goals in the Premier League for Chelsea. The outliers are of course the year he and his teammates ‘betrayed’ Jose Mourinho, where the Belgian managed just four goals and two assists, and last season. Even in those four excellent years, there have been a couple of phenomenal ones. In 2014/15, before things went south under The Special One, Hazard’s blossoming relationship with Diego Costa saw the #10 score fourteen and create a further nine as the Blues cantered to the title. Two years later, under Antonio Conte, Hazard again was the driving force behind Chelsea’s league win, adding another sixteen goals to his tally, laying on five more. While the departure of Costa may have played a part in a relatively quiet season for Chelsea’s star man, there is a sense that, from time-to-time, he just doesn’t fancy it. Under Maurizio Sarri, that doesn’t look to be the case.

Already this season Hazard has been one of the star performers in the Premier League. Assists in Chelsea’s opening two games were followed by goals in the following two. The Belgian has been the driving force behind the Blues 100% start, and it was only a matter of time before he turned in a vintage Hazard performance. A goal down thanks to Sol Bamba’s sixteenth minute volley, Chelsea refused to panic, passing between the lines and using the slick interplay of Mateo Kovacic, Olivier Giroud and Hazard to open Cardiff City up. After missing two gilt-edged chances, it was Hazard’s typically crisp finish that restored parity eight minutes before the break. The second, just seven minutes later, combined Sarri’s methods with a slice of luck, as a quick free-kick found Marcos Alonso, Pedro slid the ball into the area, and Olivier Giroud teed up Hazard to slip the ball into the bottom corner via the backside of Bamba. Giroud, making his first start of the season, already looks a superior foil to Hazard than the floundering Alvaro Morata, and the relationship between the two could hold the key to a potential title challenge.

Any doubt about the destination of the points was put to bed ten minutes from time, as Hazard produced a luscious crossfield pass for Willian, and Sol Bamba’s rollercoaster of an afternoon took another dip with a clumsy tackle, allowing Chelsea’s main man the opportunity to complete his hat-trick, which he duly took. Willian’s outstanding strike added gloss to a consummate performance, exemplified by the majesty of Hazard. Another perfect day in the garden of Eden.

 

Zaha remains the wind beneath The Eagles’ wings…

Zaha2

Barack Obama was still President of the Unites States of America, Fidel Castro was still alive, and Brexiteers still had a a shred of credibility. That’s how long ago Crystal Palace last won a game without Wilfried Zaha in the team. If the form of Eden Hazard could be the difference between Chelsea mounting a title challenge this season, then the fitness of Zaha almost certainly holds the key to The Eagles maintaining their Premier League status. It’s nearly two years since that 3-2 victory at the Stadium of Light, thanks to goals from Joe Ledley, James McArthur and Christian Benteke, and so far none of the four managers that have followed Alan Pardew have managed to secure three points without their talismanic forward. Since the start of last season, Zaha has missed eleven Premier League games, and Roy Hodgson’s side have lost every single one. You wouldn’t call them a one man team, but they’re a team markedly improved by one man.

At the John Smith Stadium, against a Huddersfield Town team still scrapping around for their first win of the season, Zaha provided the flash of quality to separate the two sides.  With four shots on goal, two of which provided Palace’s only efforts on target throughout the game, two key passes and two successful dribbles, the Ivorian was by far the most effective player on the pitch, even if the Terriers were taking a more hands-off approach to containing him. In the past three seasons Zaha has drawn an average of three fouls per game, largely thanks to his pace and direct running, and though he was only fouled once this weekend, the resulting booking of Matias Jorgensen gave Palace’s main man free reign to drive down the wing. A freedom which directly influenced the visitors’ winning goal.

Having missed an average six games a season since his return to south London, Zaha’s absence mightn’t impact too heavily on his side’s final league position, but expecting him to carry the burden across thirty-eight games could be asking too much. Hodgson will hope Benteke – or January signing Alexander Sortloth – can rediscover some form.

 

…but Marco Silva looks to have lost his golden touch. 

Silva

The Underachievement Derby at Goodison Park on Sunday afternoon offered two of the summer’s managerial recruits the chance to kick-start their seasons. Manuel Pellegrini, identified as the man to make a team out of West Ham’s scattergun approach to recruitment from the past few years, may have started to feel the pressure as his new charges headed towards the Mersey having failed to record a point in their opening four games. A traditionally sticky visit to Everton should have given the Chilean plenty to worry about, but when Andriy Yarmolenko capitalised on Jordan Pickford’s mistake to add his second of the game and put daylight between the Hammers and their hosts, all the pressure was transferred to the home dugout. After an indifferent start, Marco Silva’s dream move to Everton looks to be on the turn.

The Portuguese coach can point to certain caveats to explain his new side’s below-par start to the season. Two of his summer transfers in Yerry Mina and Andre Gomes are yet to reach full fitness, joining Seamus Coleman, Michael Keane, James McCarthy and Phil Jagielka on the sidelines and drastically reducing Silva’s defensive options – Jonjoe Kenny was drafted in at right-back against West Ham, forcing Lucas Digne into an unfamiliar left-back position. Richarlison, Everton’s marquee summer signing and most in-form player, has been suspended for the past three games, leaving the Toffees’ frontline imbalanced, and requiring Dominic Calvert-Lewin, another player in the midst of development, to step in the the left flank. Regardless, Silva was able to name a starting XI containing £200m worth of talent.

More than his ever-growing list of absentees, the lackadaisical nature of much of Everton’s play in possession against West Ham will be the main concern for the new manager. The hosts lost possession thirty times over the course of game, a tally only Bournemouth, perhaps complacent with their four goal lead over Leicester, could exceed this weekend. Nine of those turnovers occured in their own half, and two led to goals for the visitors – the disappointing Cenk Tosun was nudged off the ball for the first, and Pickford’s poor clearance straight to Mark Noble brought about the second. Overran by West Ham’s packed midfield, the substitution of Morgan Schneiderlein a minute before the break had an immediate impact, as Gylfi Sigurdsson halved the half-time deficit. A second-half tally of zero shots on target tells the story of Everton’s profligacy.

This was supposed to be the easy bit. Silva has made a name for himself as a Honeymoon specialist. At Sporting, it took nine games before his side tasted defeat on their way to third place in the Primera Liga. At Olympiacos, Silva’s team didn’t drop a point between August and the middle of January, losing just once all season and finishing thirty points ahead of second-placed Panathinaikos. His first four games at Hull, doomed to relegation by all and sundry, brought victories over Bournemouth and Liverpool and a draw at Old Trafford. It took the Manchester City machine to knock Watford off their stride at the beginning of last season. Received wisdom suggested Everton would fly out of the traps, but a solitary win in their opening five games, with a fixture list that could be described as kind, has seen optimism replaced with mild concern. Next stop, Arsenal, and an improvement on last season’s 5-1 gubbing would do nicely.

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