We are living in a time of spin. Whether it’s a football manager turning a 3-0 home defeat into a reminder of how many league titles they’ve won, or the right-wing press turning the incompetence of a nation’s leader into a show of strength and steel, we can no longer judge anything at face value. This week, Theresa May threw a strop after being laughed out of Salzburg by the European Council, and declared that Brexit was now in the lap of those who have no vested interest in fulfilling “the will of the people”. Like an overexcited adult at Christmas, who hauls the fairy lights out of the attic only to get bored of untangling them halfway through and insisting someone else does it, our Prime Minister has defaulted responsibility on the most important deal for the country in our lifetimes because she’s been made to look ridiculous. And if you think the partisan coverage by the usual suspects is brazen now, wait until the 32 page glossy pullouts detailing the nutritional value of hair.
Anyway, sticking to football, a full Premier League programme across two days saw plenty of action at both ends of the table. Here’s the talking points from Gameweek Six:
Old habits die hard for Mourinho’s Manchester United…
Three wins on the bounce in all competitions had assuaged talk of an early season crisis at Old Trafford, as those back-to-back defeats against Brighton and Tottenham disappeared in the rear view mirror. The visit of Wolverhampton Wanderers, a team that hadn’t earned so much as a point in Stretford in almost forty years, should have provided the ideal opportunity for Jose Mourinho’s men to continue gathering momentum. Wolves, though, are a different proposition these days. Newly promoted yes, but clearly equipped to give any side in the Premier League a game, as evidenced in their battling 1-1 draw with Manchester City at Molineux in August.
Given the talent at their disposal, it was perhaps no great surprise that Nuno Espirito Santo’s side left Manchester with a richly-deserved point, with Joao Moutinho’s blockbuster of a strike equalising Fred’s first half effort. On the pitch, it won’t be Manchester United’s worst point of the season, but on paper it points to another short coming for The Special One. In his first season at United, dropping points at home against the so-called lesser sides in the league proved to be his undoing, with newly promoted Burnley and Hull City both leaving Manchester with a point apiece. Last year, it was on the road that Mourinho’s men struggled, as Brighton, Huddersfield and Newcastle all collected maximum points when hosting the Red Devils, making them the only side in the top six to lose against all three promoted teams.
In fact, since assuming the top job at United, Mourinho has managed to pick up just 24 of possible 39 points against promoted sides – the lowest total in the top six, and closest competitors Liverpool and Arsenal by five points. Tottenham, with 37 from 39, have the best record against Premier League newcomers. Whether it’s a case of beginners luck (United dominated possession and created the most goalscoring opportunities against Wolves), or a lack of intensity in the less prestige fixtures (Nuno’s team won more aerial duels and completed the most turnovers of possession), isn’t clear, though given the Manchester United manager’s post-match comments, he clearly ascribes it to the latter “[they] were more aggressive, had more intent and were more motivated”. An opinion supported by the fact that all ten of Wolves’ outfield starting XI completed at least one successful tackle in the match, compared to eight for United, while the centre back pairing of Ryan Bennett and Conor Coady made more interceptions between them than the whole of United’s team put together.
Regardless of how deserving Wolves were of their point, it’s obvious that Mourinho needs to address his side’s inability to grind out wins against mid-table sides if United are going to build on last season’s second place finish. On current form, top four is beginning to look like the ceiling of their ambitions.
…while the bottom three struggle to find a cutting edge.
“Sometimes in football you have to score goals.” Thierry Henry’s entry for the Stating The Bleeding Obvious Award garnered ridicule when it first emerged, and has gone down as a classic example of a ‘Colemanball’. For the current tenants of the bottom three however, it couldn’t be more appropriate. In their opening six games, Cardiff City, Huddersfield Town and Newcastle United have mustered just ten goals between them, and on a sodden afternoon across the country, only the Terriers could give their supporters something to cheer with the opening goal in a 3-1 defeat at Leicester. For Cardiff, the dreaded visit of Manchester City provided little joy for most of the 32,000 in attendance, as Pep Guardiola’s side ran amok in south Wales, scoring five without reply. A goalless draw at Selhurst Park provided the Magpies with just their second point of the season.
Though none of those fixtures will have been pinned as ‘must-win’, supporters of all three teams will be anxiously peering at the bottom of the table and wondering where the wins – and goals – are coming from. Cardiff’s striking options of Kenneth Zohore and Bobby Reid scored 31 goals between them in the Championship last year, but neither had played a minute of football in the top tier before this season. Steve Mounie and Laurent Depoitre managed just 13 between them for Huddersfield last time out, while Mike Ashley’s insistence on leaving Rafa Benitez with two out-and-out strikers, Joselu and Salomon Rondon, is already looking like a gamble too far, particularly with Aleksander Mitrovic and Dwight Gayle racking up the goals at their respective clubs.
A lack of proven goalscorers mightn’t be such an issue were the sides in the bottom three creating chances but, after six games, the statistics are damning. Along with Brighton, Cardiff, Huddersfield and Newcastle account for the four least effective attacks in the Premier League, with the Magpies managing a league low of 7.7 shots per game. The silver lining for Benitez is the 36% of shots his side are getting on target, razor sharp compared to Cardiff’s 22%. Huddersfield, meanwhile, are yet to score from open play.
Burnley proved last season that scoring goals wasn’t the be-all and end-all, managing to hit the net just 36 times across 38 games and still finish 7th. Sean Dyche’s team were one of four sides that failed to register a goal-a-game average and still maintain their Premier League status. The silver lining for Newcastle fans is that, having already met four of last season’s top six, they’ve got the second best defensive record in the bottom half. Cardiff and Huddersfield have the joint worst. It promises to be a slog of a season.
James Maddison continues his impressive duck-to-water act…
Had Richarlison not completed his £40m move from Watford to Everton in the summer, then it might have been Leicester City’s £24m purchase of James Maddison from Norwich City that provided the most ‘game’s gone’ moment of the transfer window. Brought through the youth ranks at Coventry City, with two seasons of Championship football under his belt at Carrow Road, the fee for a player who’s only experience of top tier football came with a loan spell at Aberdeen seemed inflated to say the least. True, Maddison had enjoyed an outstanding season with an average team last time out, securing a midtable finish for the Canaries with fourteen goals and eight assists, but replacing Leicester’s Manchester-bound creator-in-chief Riyad Mahrez was always likely to be a tall order for the 21 year old. Thankfully for Claude Puel, Maddison has taken to the Premier League like a fox to a binbag.
Against Huddersfield, not for the first time this season, Maddison was among Leicester’s star performers, adding his third goal of the season with a delightful free-kick, and posing a constant threat with his driving runs all afternoon. Deployed on the left of an attacking trio behind Jamie Vardy, combining frightening pace and devilish trickery, Maddison proved himself more than capable of inheriting Mahrez’s throne, having so far provided consistent performances in his opening six games since moving to the King Power, an attribute often found wanting in the Algerian’s game.
Rumour has it that Puel’s job is under threat once again, having seen his team endure a mixed start to the season with three wins and three defeats. Jamie Vardy’s return from suspension will undoubtedly increase Leicester’s chances of picking up points over the next couple of weeks, while Kelechi Iheanacho is finally beginning to repay the £25m the Foxes parted with last summer. It now falls to Rachid Ghezzal and the supporting cast in midfield to reach the same levels.
For Maddison, an England call-up is surely not too far away, despite the youngster occupying a position rarely utilised by Gareth Southgate. His attacking intent and eye for a pass have seen him earmarked as an early contender for signing of the season, and should his impressive performances continue, that £24m will begin to look like a bargain. Puel will be praying they do – it could be the difference between him staying in a job or seeking employment elsewhere.
…and Burnley benefit from a week off.
No doubt there would have been a pang of regret for Burnley and their supporters as Olympiacos stumbled to a goalless draw against Real Betis on Thursday, in the opening match of the Europa League group stage. The Greeks, who escaped Turf Moor with a 4-2 aggregate win at the end of August, head to the San Siro next to face AC Milan, the kind of trip that Burnley fans will have been daydreaming about all summer, only to have the opportunity torn away from them at the final hurdle.
As it was, Sean Dyche and his team prepared for the visit of Bournemouth by staring up at the rest of the Premier League from the foot of the table, having managed to pick up just one point from their opening five games. Last weekend’s defeat at Wolves, in which the Clarets were fortunate to concede just once, was the first game this season that hadn’t been preceeded by a European distraction, giving rise to concerns that extra commitments had caused more damage to reserves than expected. Given the performance against the Cherries this weekend, however, it appears Dyche’s team have now fully recovered from their exertions on the continent.
On the face of it, there wasn’t much difference in Burnley’s gameplan compared to their opening five games (or indeed the entirety of last season). Happy to cede possession to Eddie Howe’s side (the Clarets have the 7th lowest total possession this season), and not placing too much emphasis on the accuracy of passes (5th lowest), the introduction of Matej Vydra for his first start since signing from Derby County did at least offer a different dimension to the hosts frontline, having watched target men Chris Wood and Sam Vokes labour up front so far this season. The Czech forward repaid his manager’s faith by poking in the opening goal shortly before half-time, pricking a pin in Bournemouth’s balloon that would see the deflated visitors slowly capitulate. Aaron Lennon’s goal two minutes later – Burnley’s second shot on target in the half – doubled the Clarets half-time lead.
Back to their attritional best in the second half, Dyche’s side were happy to soak up pressure from the visitors, and rely on Joe Hart to maintain their two goal advantage. The former England #1 has been a rare bright spot at Turf Moor in the opening weeks of the season, putting in a string of impressive performances that hint at his form of old. A further four good stops in the second half will only further improve his damaged reputation. After much huffing and puffing and failing to blow Burnley’s house down, substitute Ashley Barnes hit a late double to add a lick of gloss to the scoreline; the first time Burnley have hit four in a match since New Years Eve 2016.
Whether this result is the catalyst for Burnley’s season remains to be seen, but meetings with Cardiff City and Huddersfield Town before the international break provide ample opportunity to add points to the board. If this is what a revitalised Burnley team looks like, then the rest of the league best watch out.