This week the news was dominated by a man with a daft haircut who’s spent the last eighteen months locking horns with his boss, being caught on camera laughing at inopportune moments, living off his former reputation, and regularly inviting the question: What does he actually do? In Paul Pogba’s defence, at least he’s furthered the achievements of his country by winning the World Cup. Boris Johnson, on the other hand, has been the spearhead to a movement that has crashed the pound, sunk the government into crisis, and created a potentially everlasting schism in the country, all while attempting to maintain his buffoonish comedy persona. Head-wobbling and gross incompetence quickly lose their charm when you publicly get into bed with a fascist. Pogba appears to have the upper-hand at Old Trafford, on account of not being a scruffy weirdo that’s spent the last two years living in a hotel. The Frenchman’s cause was only furthered in Saturday’s East London horrorshow. Here are the talking points from Gameweek Seven.
It’s Deja-vu for Mou…
Act three of Jose Mourinho’s Manchester United comi-tragedy lurched back towards farce this weekend, as Manuel Pellegrini picked up his first Premier League win at the London Stadium since taking over as West Ham United manager. The Scowly One had already endured a difficult week, exiting the Carabao Cup on penalties to Frank Lampard’s Derby County™, before footage from training showed him wiping the grin off Paul Pogba’s face by telling him he’d cropped and re-posted the Frenchman’s killer meme rather than retweeting it. In such situations its not unusual for Mourinho encourage a siege mentality within his squad, a tactic that has, more often than not, paid off throughout his career. This time around, however, he opted to drop the highest paid player in the Premier League from his matchday squad, and play a rookie midfielder in a three man defence. That’ll show ‘em.
The talk surrounding Mourinho and Pogba’s tiff suggests that, like a bizarre remake of Highlander set in modern-day Salford, there can only be one that remains at Old Trafford. Based on the performance of his team on Saturday, the manager might want to start putting his Corby Trouser Press back together, since his charges look to be voting with their feet. Felipe Anderson’s opening goal for the hosts may have arrived with a degree of fortune – at least one and perhaps both of the players involved looked to be offside – though nothing should be taken away from the Brazilian’s delightful backheel finish. If Lady Luck laid claim to the assist for the first, then Manchester United’s backline have a case for the second, giving Andriy Yarmolenko all the time in the world to retrieve a half-cleared corner, make half a yard for himself in the box, and fire a shot at goal that hit late arrival Victor Lindelof before looping over David De Gea to double the Hammers advantage.
A slight improvement in the second half saw Lukasz Fabianski pull off a stunning save from Marouane Fellaini’s header, though it was the withdrawal of Paul Pogba minutes later that drew the most attention of the afternoon. In fairness the midfielder had put in one of his most lackluster shifts in a United shirt, though how much of that is down to the toxic atmosphere surrounding him is up for debate. Within seconds of Pogba leaving the pitch, the visitors were back in the game, as Marcus Rashford applied a deft backheeled finish to Luke Shaw’s corner. The game was settled three minutes later however as Mark Noble picked the ball up following a robust challenge on Rashford from Pablo Zabaleta, and threaded a pass into Marko Arnautovic, as a statuesque United backline watched agog. The Austrian was given the freedom of Stratford to saunter towards goal and sidefoot into the bottom corner, earning West Ham their biggest league victory over Manchester United since 1982.
Mourinho has now presided over the Red Devils’ worst start for 29 years, back when Sir Alex Ferguson was just Alex Ferguson and everyone thought he was a bit cack at this football management malarkey. It’s looking like crisis time again at Old Trafford.
…and City go top too
By Gameweek Seven last year, Manchester City had been top of the league for a fortnight and wouldn’t be displaced for the rest of the season as Pep Guardiola and his team marched unbidden to a record points total and their third Premier League title. In those opening weeks they’d put five past Liverpool, and ended September with a deserved win at Stamford Bridge, as Chelsea unceremoniously handed over their Premier League crown to City. This time out, the champions have found it a little harder to regain their perch at the top of the league, dropping points at Molineux at the end of August, and watching on as their potential challengers notched up a string of early season wins. The meeting between Chelsea and Liverpool this weekend provided the perfect opportunity for Guardiola’s gang to reach the top of the pile, and Brighton and Hove Albion offered minimal resistance.
It may have taken 29 minutes for Raheem Sterling to land the first punch in the game – a tap in after a rapid midfield turnover had seen Sergio Aguero feed Leroy Sane on the left hand side of the box, before the wunderkind had laid the chance on a plate – but in truth the hosts had been batting their visitors around for the opening half-hour, like a particularly sadistic tomcat with a winged seagull. Brighton’s goal lived a charmed life for most of the afternoon, as ‘keeper Mat Ryan kept City at bay with a string of saves, his opposite number a veritable spectator throughout. When his goal was finally breached for a second time, it was Aguero again at the heart of the move. Picking the ball up thirty yards out, the Argentinian played a slick one-two with Sterling before slotting into the bottom corner. Game, set and match, and an easy load for the kitman, with very few of the home side forced into breaking a sweat.
Though they may be back on top after just two months of the season, Guardiola will surely be under no illusions that the fixture computer has been kind to the title holders. In their opening seven games, City have faced all three newly promoted teams (though, as they’ve already shown, Wolves are no soft touch), along with the three promoted sides last season. The only hint of a test was their trip to Arsenal on the opening weekend and, let’s face it, lads – it’s Arsenal. A trip to Anfield next weekend – scene of their first defeat last season – will be the first indication of whether a successful title defence is on, while trips to Tottenham and Chelsea and a home game against Manchester United all follow before Christmas. If City find themselves sitting at the top of the tree come New Years Day, the chasing pack may struggle to catch them.
Harry Kane rediscovers his shooting boots…
Three defeats in a row had the usual suspects in the football media sharpening their knives for Mauricio Pochettino, while the long-time whispers over Harry Kane’s form and fitness had started to develop into op-eds and frank discussions. Given the startling amount of football Kane has played over the past eighteen months, there was a school of thought that the England captain was due a rest, while tactical perverts peers above their transparent-rimmed specs to scoff that ‘aaaaactually, Pochettino isn’t playing him in his preferrrred position’. Either way, the noise was quelled somewhat by his goalscoring return at Brighton last week with the opener from the spot in a 2-1 win, and this weekend Huddersfield provided a happy hunting ground once again.
Kane could have opened the scoring early on with a smart piece of play that saw him turn Christopher Schindler and charge towards goal, though Jonas Lossl was quickly out to save the striker’s attempted dink. He wouldn’t have to wait long to put his name on the scoresheet, however, as Kieran Tripper’s homing missile of a cross was directed towards his widow’s peak, and the striker did the rest. Nine minutes later the result was put to bed, as Florent Hadergjonaj took his frustration at constantly exceeding the character limit on application forms out on Danny Rose, and the full-back took a leaf from his namesake and took an autumnal tumble in the box. For the second week running Kane stepped up, shot low, and put his team on their way to three more points. Perhaps more disheartening for the Terriers, the Spurs’ striker became the top Premier League goalscorer of all time at the John Smith Stadium, with four goals.
The key to Kane’s astronomical rise as one of the most prolific goalscorers in England has been his steadfast belief in the Lottery Concept. Last season he averaged five shots per game across thirty-five games, scoring a goal with roughly every sixth shot. Since becoming a regular at Tottenham, his shots per game average stands at 4.05. The equation for Kane, and indeed all strikers, is simple – the more shots you take, the more goals you score. So far this season, the chances simply haven’t arrived. In all three Premier League games in which Kane has failed to score, against Newcastle, Watford and Liverpool, he was afforded just two shots on goal. Against Inter Milan in the Champions League, he wasn’t given a sniff. It’s no surprise to see that, against Brighton and Huddersfield, his team mates created a total of eight chances for their striker, and were rewarded with three goals.
Perhaps more interesting for Pochettino is that, in the past two games in which Kane has received better service, Danny Rose has completed the most key passes with for Spurs with three per game. If the left-back can start to rediscover his form from 2016, both Tottenham and England will reap the benefits.
…and its honours even in the battle of the great contenders
Liverpool were anticipated to be the closest challengers to the Manchester City juggernaut this season, despite finishing fully twenty-five points behind Guardiola’s side last time out. The summer additions of Alisson and Naby Keita, along with the squad-strengthening signing of novelty pencil topper Xherdan Shaqiri and the enigmatic Fabinho, looked to have plugged all the obvious deficiencies in Jurgen Klopp’s squad. After six wins out of six, those pre-season predictions of a potential title race look closer to the mark than first expected. A trip to Chelsea, though, would offer Klopp’s gang a big test, for the Reds aren’t the only ones chasing the sky blue tail this year.
Maurizio Sarri’s start at Stamford Bridge has been the stuff of dreams. Only last weekend’s frustrating goalless draw at West Ham provides any kind of blot on the Italian’s copybook, while summer signings Jorginho and Kepa Arrazibalaga have quickly adapted to life in the Premier League. The former set a new Premier League record for passes in a game at the London Stadium, a far cry from the instruction to ‘lump it up to Dixon’ some of the battle hardened faces in the Shed End will remember fondly. Key to Chelsea’s good run of results, as always, has been the form of Eden Hazard. The Belgian looks more desperate to force a move to Real Madrid than usual this season, and his goal against Liverpool in the midweek Carabao Cup clash provided a timely reminder of just what the little Belgian is capable of.
The build-up to the game was framed around two star players in differing form, as Hazard faced-off against Mohamed Salah. The Egyptian has hardly endured a disastrous start to the campaign, but is yet to reach the heights of his golden season last time out. Salah’s lack of confidence was evident in the visitors’ promising start, as chances fell his way but were squandered time and time again – first an effort straight at Kepa, then an attempted curler that flew well over. Chelsea, too, were carving opportunites at will, as a swashbuckling game traversed both ends of Stamford Bridge. David Luiz’s inch perfect long ball fell at the feet of Willian, but the winger’s compatriot in the Liverpool goal was quick off his line to snuff out any danger.
There was little Alisson could do when another slice of thigh-rubbing interplay between Hazard and Mateo Kovacic released the Belgian on goal, and his arrowed effort thundered into the far corner to give the Blues the lead. Salah had another opportunity to add his name to the scoresheet shortly before half-time, squeezing past Kepa and rolling the ball goalwards, but a lack of power in the shot and the late arrival of Antonio Rudiger saw him foiled again.
Any suggestion that the second half would be less frantic than the first was soon quashed, as Klopp’s side went hunting for an equaliser off the bat. Roberto Firmino, ever the glamourous work-horse, stood firm to hold the ball up by the goal-line and find Sadio Mane, who twist and turned his way around three blue shirts, but saw his low effort palmed away by Kepa. The breathless, end-to-end nature of the game continued, as Hazard was put clean through with a quick free-kick, only for Alisson to play the hero once again, charging off his line to save. At the other end, Shaqiri missed a gilt-edged chance from Robertson’s cross, and Firmino saw Luiz clear his header off the line. By hook or by crook it looked like Chelsea would become the first side this season to successfully hold off the red tide.
Klopp’s last throw of the dice was to introduce Daniel Sturridge for Salah. The former Chelsea striker had looked likely to leave Anfield this summer after being farmed out on loan to West Bromwich Albion in January and succumbing to injury almost immediately, but a fine start to this season has resurrected his Liverpool career. With two touches of the ball, he’d repaid his manager’s faith. Receiving possession thirty yards from goal, Sturridge teed himself up, took a quick look and goal, and unleashed a pinpoint shot that curled and arced and dipped and landed millimetres over the outstretched hand of Kepa and inches under the crossbar. A point apiece in the season’s first big top-of-the-table clash, and a result that neither side will have too many complaints about. Next up for Liverpool: Manchester City.