Here at TLF Towers, we believe a change is as good as a rest, which is why, rather than taking a week on the Norfolk Broads, we’re revamping our Premier League round-up. Each week we’ll be looking at the big hitters from the weekend’s action, and also pointing and smirking at the players, managers, owners and teams that have had an absolute shitter.
Before we get started on Gameweek Eight, it would be remiss not to spare a thought for Alan Pardew. Now six months into his enforced unemployment, things went from bad to worse this week for the former West Brom manager, as he finally lost his cherished title of ‘Most Embarrassing Dance in a Public Place’ to Prime Minister Theresa May. Speaking from his bedsit in Walton-on-Thames, Pardew said “She’s absolutely raped me”. The Prime Minister was unavailable for comment but, based on the shit-eating grin she’s been walking around with all week, we can only assume she’s delighted to have taken the title. Either that or she’s disproportionately pleased about the illegal deportation of British citizens, stripping her countrymen of their right to free movement, and 1.3 million people being forced to use foodbanks. But it’s probably the fictitious prize we’ve just awarded her.
But who are the hitters and shitters from this weekend?
Jose Mourinho, Football Manager – Two-nil down at home to a side yet to win this season, with rumours of your imminent sacking circulating around the stands, you could be forgiven for losing your head a little. When Manchester United emerged for the second half against Newcastle, it looked as though Mourinho had. Sporting his now trademark ‘I’m expecting to have a lot of free time on my hands any day now’ buzz-cut, the United manager’s pre-match gameplan had gone out of the window after first Kenedy, then Yoshinori Muto had breached David De Gea’s goal with ease in the opening ten minutes, with Eric Bailly was withdrawn after nineteen. After an undoubtedly fraught half-time team talk, Nemanja Matic and Paul Pogba returned to the field to take up their position in a back three with Chris Smalling.
From then on, it was practically one way traffic at Old Trafford. Pogba, playing as an ersatz sweeper, controlled the game. Setting the tempo, playing out from the back, and pushing the visitors’ front-line into their own half with every attack. It was he who was felled for the free-kick from which Juan Mata scored, and it was he who provided the assist for Anthony Martial’s equaliser. Substitute Alexis Sanchez headed the winner in stoppage time, and in the space of 45 minutes Mourinho had gone from Dead Man Walking to tactical genius.
Given the cult of personality that goes along with football managers in the modern game, it’s easy to forget they have the ability (and suffer the associated pressure) to turn a game. Staring down the barrel of the sack, Jose Mourinho offered a timely reminder that he remains one of the best in the business. No matter the result, he’d be hogging the headlines this weekend, but it makes for a refreshing change that we can discuss the football manager rather than the attention seeker.
Gylfi Sigurdsson – After toiling out of position under a manager that’s clueless when it comes to utilising creative players under the age of 35, Gylfi Sigurdsson is finally beginning to look like the player Everton parted with £50m for. In his last two games, the Icelander has been the best player on the pitch, and against Leicester he netted his fourth goal in four games, matching his tally for the whole of last season.
Moved to his preferred #10 position by Marco Silva, his new manager is finally reaping the benefits of the player that almost single-handedly saved Swansea from the drop two seasons ago. Sigurdsson’s statistics have improved across the board, as his more central role offers a greater goal-threat and more scope to thread passes through to his attacking team-mates. An average of 2.3 shots per game, markedly improved by his last four outings, far outstrips last season’s tally, while he’s registered double the average amount of key passes so far this season.
At the King Power, Sigurdsson registered more crosses than the entire Leicester team put together, along with the most shots on target and the most key passes. In the 77th minute, with the game on an even keel, the Ice Man stepped up with a breathtaking lob-cum-volley that sailed into the top corner and left Kasper Schmeichel beaten all ends up. After an iffy start to Marco Silva’s Everton reign, it looks as though things are starting to click, and Gylfi Sigurdsson is the driving force.
Arsenal 2.0 – A fortnight into the season, amused onlookers were already wondering when the ‘Emery: Thank You For The Memories But It’s Time To Go’ banners were going to make an appearance at the Emirates. Seven weeks later, and the man charged with following in the footsteps of Arsenal’s most successful manager appears to have settled into the old size nines.
Against the free-flowing, gung-ho football of Fulham, Arsenal were back to their clinical, punishing best. Level at half-time despite facing a barrage of shots from the Cottagers, four goals from five shots on target in the second half underlined the difference that Emery has made since arriving in the summer. Two months into the season, and they’re currently the second highest scorers with nineteen goals, behind Manchester City. At this stage last season, they’d scored seven fewer.
The flourishing partnership of Alexandre Lacazette and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, which Wenger struggled to harness in the second half of last season, has played a massive part in the Gunners’ good early season form, with both having helped themselves to four goals each, and bagging a brace apiece on Sunday. Alex Iwobi’s resurgence, too, has alleviated pressure on Mesut Ozil, who’s yet to rediscover his best form. With summer acquisition Bernd Leno finally being given the opportunity to demonstrate his superior footwork in goal, there is suddenly a sheen to Arsenal not seen in the past few seasons.
For their supporters, seeing their team win away from home represents a massive improvement from the lukewarm cup of piss served up by Wenger’s 2018 vintage. After just one away win in the final five months of last season, the Craven Cottage demolition made it three Premier League wins on the bounce away from Ashburton Grove, and extended their winning streak in all competitions to nine in a row. The nights may be getting darker, but things look a lot brighter in North London.
Cardiff City v Burnley – Sky Sports’ decision to pick a fixture between two unfashionable and under-represented sides as their sole ‘Super Sunday’ fare last weekend invited much derision from neutrals, and is rumoured to have broken records for the lowest viewing figures for the channel’s flagship show since football was first invented in 1992.
But why are we talking about a game from last weekend? Because the Clarets’ smash and grab in South Wales turned out to be ten times more exciting than this weekend’s clash of the titans. Liverpool v Manchester City was supposed to be a ninety minute slobberknocker between the two most exciting sides in the country, boasting the cream of the Premier League’s attacking talent, and two of the world’ best coaches. We were promised an orgy of football; what we got was a difficult wank in a wet sock.
Yes, the infamous ‘intriguing tactical battle’ that you only get between two big sides when commentators and pundits are to afraid of putting off their viewers to call it what it is. For 85 minutes, Sunday’s showpiece was an absolute snoozefest. There were zero shots on target in the first half, and barely a chance of note in the second. Late drama was all that could save this clash of the titans from being a complete washout, and that arrived with Virgil van Dijk’s clumsy challenge on Leroy Sane in the penalty area. Pushing Gabriel Jesus out of the way, Riyad Mahrez stepped up to apply the match’s moneyshot. Though he wasn’t old enough to appreciate it in real time, the Algerian grew up modelling his game on Marseille’s Chris Waddle, which was confirmed by his penalty blazed over the bar and across Stanley Park.
The draw suits Pep Guardiola more than Jurgen Klopp, but if either side produces many more performances like this one, I vote we just hand the title to Chelsea.
Mike Ashley – It was another quiet week for Britain’s Most Bastardly Businessman. Last weekend he dropped in on his £400m asset for the first time in eighteen months to witness an ailing performance while 50,000 people told him where to go, and in midweek he took the staff out for a quiet meal, only to be doorstepped by a group of disgruntled customers. That £5.95 per head morale boosting experiment must’ve had seemed like a stroke of genius as he watched his club take a two goal lead at the most famous club in the country.
Sadly for Mike, things quickly unraveled in the second half, as the paucity of options available to his manager off the bench became clear once again. While Manchester United could call upon £300k a week Alexis Sanchez, Rafael Benitez was forced to introduce Christian Atsu and Joselu, who are paid in pats on the head. Having busted a gut to get themselves in a winning position, the resolve of Ashley’s employees slowly crumbled to dust, as they finished the match broken, battered, and beaten. Much like the staff at Sports Direct.
If the Newcastle United owner thought the club’s ills could be solved by a few bowls of pasta, he’s even more ignorant than most give him credit for. A more transparent PR move than the midweek ‘team-bonding’ exercise you’d struggle to find, with his promises of January spending carrying about as much weight at the restaurant’s dessert trolley at the end of the evening. His embarrassing offer of an ‘end-of-season holiday’ to the players should they avoid relegation provides further evidence of how out of touch the businessman is.
Ashley has pledged to take a more ‘hands-on’ approach to the running of the club after their poor start to the season, with securing Benitez’s services his top priority. But unless this latest change of heart stretched to investing in the club’s facilities and playing staff, Benitez, and large swathes of the fanbase, won’t be sticking around.
Watford – Just as time flies when you’re having fun, it seems incomprehensible that it was only a month ago that Watford were being talked of as surprise contenders for a Champions League place, such has been the darkness cast over Vicarage Road. The victory over Tottenham on 2nd September left the Hornets as one of three Premier League teams carrying a 100% record into the international break.
This weekend, off the back of defeats against Manchester United and Arsenal and a draw at Fulham, Javier Gracia’s side looked a completely different outfit to the team that had overpowered Spurs in the late summer sunshine. Three goals and a man down before half-time, it was only Bournemouth’s inclination to declare at 4-0 that prevented a rainy afternoon in Hertfordshire becoming a seismic embarrassment.
Simply put, everything Watford did well in the opening weeks of the season was done badly on Saturday. The Cherries, themselves enjoying an impressive start to the campaign, were first to every ball, and tigerish in the tackle, winning more aerial challenges and turning over possession a staggering fourteen times compared to their hosts’ three. Eddie Howe’s trusted backline, still comprising three of the defenders that helped them to promotion in 2015, literally stood firm as Troy Deeney and co battered shot after shot at them, with Asmir Begovic forced into just two saves all afternoon.
Against Spurs, the Hornets were disciplined, compact and well-drilled, with only Etienne Capoue picking up a booking. Against Bournemouth, they were a shambles, with Christian Kabasele’s two first-half challenges earning him the rest of the afternoon off, while Jose Holebas, Craig Cathcart and Abdoulaye Doucoure all picked up yellow cards. With Ben Foster offered little protection in the face of a revitalised Josh King and Callum Wilson, there was little the former England ‘keeper could do to prevent the visitors racking up the goals. The next four games will provide Gracia and his team the opportunity to get their season back on track, but based on their performance on Saturday, they’re only headed one way.
Wes Morgan – Two and a half years ago, Leicester City captain Wes Morgan led his team to a miraculous Premier League title, played his way into the PFA Team of the Year, and marked himself out as one of the best defenders in the top flight. It’s fair to say that, since then, his form has gone downhill faster than his countrymen in Cool Runnings.
On Saturday, for the second time in three games, Morgan received his marching orders for persistent fouling. At the Vitality Stadium, it was Bournemouth full-back Adam Smith that got the better of the Jamaican international, while on Saturday, Richarlison spent the whole day tormentor a defender thirteen years his senior. Recieving a booking in each half, in truth Morgan could have been off long before his mistimed challenge on the halfway line forced Andre Marriner to produce a second yellow. The Foxes captain had felled Everton’s summer signing four times before his inevitable expulsion, as the skill and pace of his opposite number proved too much for a player on a fast decline.
In his Premier League winning pomp, Morgan was the rock at the heart of Claudio Ranieri’s defence, averaging 1.3 tackles per game, 2.5 interceptions, 5.2 clearances and 1.1 blocks, and committing an average of 0.7 fouls. Those stats have slowly dwindled in the past few seasons and in this, his potential annus horribilis, Morgan looks well off the pace. Committing an average of 1.7 fouls per game (when he’s not suspended), and recording 0.3 blocks and 1 interception, it’s clear that his best days are behind him.
Fortunately for Puel, big money was spent on defensive reinforcements in the summer, and Jonny Evans looks the perfect replacement for the club captain. It still leaves the Leicester City manager to make a big call on Morgan’s future.