While 700,000 people marched on London in a bid to convince the British government to reconsider the multi-lorry pile-up that the current “plan” for Brexit appears to be, and 1,200 people attended Nigel Farage’s Leave Means Leave rally in Harrogate, a further 298,139 were spending their Saturday afternoons reacquainting themselves with the Premier League. After an unusually lively international break, The Most Self-Important League In The World™ resumed this weekend, in association with The Neverending Jose Mourinho Sideshow. A return to his old haunt had the Portuguese manager playing the classics (“Three! Three! Three!”), while his old mate Rafa Benitez ended the weekend rock bottom of the league. But besides beleaguered football coaches and rabid Brexiteers, who were the real Hitters and Shitters from Gameweek Nine?
Cardiff City – Worst Premier League side ever. Will be lucky to beat Derby’s lowest points record. Not enough quality in front of goal. Warnock completely out of his depth. While it’s only one game, Cardiff City and their part-time dinnerlady of a manager managed to hush the gums of a few of their doubters against Fulham this weekend in a game that, should the Bluebirds have any aspirations of survival, they had to win. With that in mind, everyone’s favourite rude anagram Neil Warnock went for a bold attacking lineup, playing converted full-back Callum Paterson up front alongside Bobby Reid. That gamble looked to have backfired when Andre Schurrle’s spectacular long-ranger gave Fulham the lead in the eleventh minute but, against the worst defence in the league, Cardiff were always likely to get chances.
Josh Murphy, one of the South-Walians’ few bright spots in the opening weeks of the season, had already caused Calum Chambers problems in the opening quarter-hour, before receiving the ball on the right hand side of the area and stroking a finish beyond the reach of Marcus Bettinelli to level the scores. Five minutes later, Bobby Reid capitalised on confusion in the area to put Cardiff in the lead, and though Ryan Sessegnon equalised for the visitors ten minutes before the break, further goals for the hosts looked likely.
Happy to allow Fulham the lion’s share of possession in the second half, Warnock’s trademark direct football paid dividends, as Cardiff patiently but purposefully bombarded the visitors penalty area and awaited their rewards. They arrived in the 65th minutes, as rudimentary target-man Paterson worked a yard of space to bury the ball into the bottom corner, and then again three minutes from time, with substitute Kadeem Harris arriving at the back post to poke home Victor Camarasa’s low cross.
There won’t be many occasions this season that Cardiff are offered 22 shots on goal, but the important thing for Warnock is that, for once, his players were able to take those opportunities. Too often this season the Bluebirds have looked overawed by their Premier League opponents, and while victory over a fellow promoted side might not suggest progress in that regard, it does at least give them a vital starting point.
Ross Barkley – It’s been a decent week for Ross Barkley. Earning his first England cap in almost two-and-a-half years against Croatia, before putting in an eye-catching performance in that remarkable victory against Spain, the Evertonian clambered off the bench this weekend to net a last-gasp equaliser against Manchester United.
When Chelsea moved for the midfielder once dubbed ‘The New Gazza’ in January, questions were raised over where he would fit into Antonio Conte’s system. The answer, simply, was nowhere, as he made just two appearances for the Blues in the second half of last season, with his erstwhile manager humiliatingly using him as an example of Chelsea lack of strength in depth. Under Maurizio Sarri, however, Barkley has been reborn. Still only used sparingly from the start of matches, the £15m man registered his first goal and assist away at Southampton last time out, and had an unsettling effect on Manchester United when introduced this weekend.
Looking leaner, fitter and stronger, Barkley appears to be maturing into the footballer that many hoped he might become, combining flair and footballing intelligence alongside his obvious physical attributes. On Saturday, in the throes of stoppage time, Barkley was able to keep his head while all around him were losing theirs, and slot home from close range to salvage a point from a disappointing team display. If Chelsea are to mount a serious title challenge this season, it’ll be the form of players like Barkley – who really do underline Sarri’s strength in depth – that holds the key.
The Department for Tinkering – Saturday’s meeting at Molineux between Wolves and Watford pitted two distinct attitudes towards team selection against one another. For the home side, Nuno Espirito Santo named an unchanged side for the ninth consectutive game, a Premier League record, while in the visiting dugout Javi Gracia made four changes from the team that lost 4-0 to Bournemouth in their last game. While three of those changes were enforced thanks to injuries and suspension, the omission of Andre Gray in favour of Isaac Success was particularly striking, with the Nigerian making only his third start for the Hornets since joining in 2016.
Whether it was down to fatigue, complacency, or simply being outfought and outthought, Nuno’s team were markedly second best in a first half that saw the game won and lost. With Gerard Deulofeu and Roberto Pereyra causing problems out wide, and the physical dominance of Success through the middle, Watford were able to pin Wolves back for much of the opening half, and deservedly took the lead through Etienne Capoue’s howitzer in the 20th minute. Sixty seconds later, Wolves were two-down, as Pereyra was released into the penalty area, and the Argentine’s cute finish arced beyond Rui Patricio to put the visitors on easy street. Despite a spiritied second half display, in which Ben Foster’s goal was peppered by Wolves’ frontline, Watford held firm to pick up a deserved three points and get their season back on track.
Watford’s dip in form coincided with the knee injury sustained by Daryl Janmaat, but it looks as though Gracia may have found a way to deal with the missing Dutchman, while all eyes will be on Nuno’s team selection next weekend. Stick or twist?
Slavisa Jokanovic’s defence – Conceding five goals at home to Arsenal, even 2010s, butt-of-every-joke Arsenal is the kind of thing that can be swept under the carpet as a one-off, freak result. Following that up by shipping four in Neil Warnock’s lair warrants cause for concern. When Fulham came up to the Premier League, they were followed by a marching band of doe-eyed neutrals that had been seduced by Slavisa Jokanovic’s dedication to playing football the ‘right’ way. Their work in the summer transfer market was ambitious, if not a little over-indulgent, and many believed the Serbian manager had the tools at his disposal to push Wolves in the ‘best promoted side’ stakes.
Nine games in, and this top flight lark is a little more difficult than it looks. Even before they stepped out for their sacrificial slaughter at the beaks of the Bluebirds on Saturday, Fulham had the worst defensive record in the league. After ninety minutes of calamity in Wales, it was easy to see why. A laughably poor offside trap had let in Murphy for Cardiff’s first, and a complete lack of communication gifted Reid the second. For the third, Callum Paterson was able to waltz across the area unchallenged before firing past Bettinelli, and Edwards arrived at the back-post completely unmarked to stab home the fourth.
Beyond these basic defensive errors, perhaps the most worrying thing for Jokanovic is that the Premier League’s former basement club could have had more. Cardiff were allowed to take an unprecedented 22 shots on goal, taking Fulham’s total shots faced this season to 151 – almost 17 per game. In fact they top the charts for most shots on target faced, with 60, with their xG Against standing at 19.75. No wonder then, that they’ve already conceded 25 after nine games.
One of Jokanovic’s key problems in defence is continuity, with Dennis Odoi, Maxime Le Marchard and Timothy Fosu-Mensah making the most starts in Fulham’s defence this season, with only five apiece. All in, Fulham have used eight defenders in the opening nine games of the season, as the manager constantly shuffles his pack in a bid to get the mix right. The injury to Fosu-Mensah, one of the West-Londoners outstanding perfomers in the opening weeks of the season, has undoubtedly been a blow, while Alfie Mawson is yet to string a run of appearences together, but the issues appear to run deeper than personnel. If Fulham put on many more defensive perfomances like Saturday, they might be on for a record-breaking season – they’re currently on course to concede 105.
Joe Hart – This weekend saw Captain Dandruff return to the Etihad Stadium as an opposing player for the first time since ending his twelve year association with Manchester City in the summer, with an impressive start to his Burnley career seeing the entire stadium express their appreciation for the former England #1. Hart’s early season form even had some pundits with incredibly short memories shouting for a recall to the national team squad in recent weeks, and in fairness to him, there aren’t many goalkeepers who’ve played as integral a part in their team’s results as Shouty Joe. With 40 saves he’s been the busiest keeper in the top division, though so far he’s only kept two clean sheets. How dearly he’d loved to have added to that against his former employers.
Despite a bright start and a terrific save from Sergio Aguero, it wasn’t to be. Within 17 minutes Hart’s goal had already been breached by the Argentinian marksman, tapping in David Silva’s centre from close range. Burnley resisted the Champions onslaught for a further thirty-seven minutes, and when Bernardo Silva did double City’s lead, in was in controversial circumstances. Firstly, Leroy Sane dropped to the floor like a sack of spuds, which prompted the Burnley defence to stand statuesque as David Silva retrieved the ball from an offside position, before carrying out of play, crossing for Bernado and watching his Porguese namesake hammer into the top corner. Justifiably incensed, there was little Hart or his teammates could do about the third two minutes later, as Fernandinho met a half-cleared ball on the edge of the box and guided into the top corner to secure the win for the hosts.
Hart’s nightmare wasn’t over there however, with Riyad Mahrez atoning for his abysmal penalty at Anfield with a delightful long-range finish, before Leroy Sane rounded the scoring off in stoppage time, leaving Burnley’s keeper to do what he does best – have a little shout and kick the post in frustration. In truth, there was little Hart could do to stop the majority of City’s goals, and there aren’t many keepers in the world that could have kept the score respectable, but when you bump into your ex and their new beau, the last thing you want to do is end up shitting your pants and crying.
Crystal Palace’s blunt strikeforce – If the first few months of the season are anything to go by, pundits will be going on about the way Crystal Palace turned their season around after failing to win their opening seven games last year until the end of time. That entirely irrelevant change in form seems to have masked a chronic lack of goals in the Eagles team, and even a helping hand from referee Anthony Taylor against Everton couldn’t change their luck. When the Wythenshaw born official charitably awarded a penalty for a Seamus Coleman’s trip on Wilfried Zaha, the usually reliable Luka Milivojevic stepped up for his first penalty of the season, only for Jordan ‘SEVEN?!’ Pickford to keep the Serb out with his trailing leg.
With Christian Benteke and Alexander Sorloth both injured, it fell to Zaha to lead the line, which conversely dampened the Ivorian winger’s goal-threat. Not that the inclusion of either the Belgian or Norwegian would have guaranteed goals, given the pair’s contribution of three Premier League goals between them since the start of last season. The late introduction of Connor Wickham (remember him) served as a reminder of the paucity of options in attack for Roy Hodgson, with the former Ipswich and Sunderland man making his first appearance in a Palace shirt for nearly two years.
Though they’ve managed 100 shots on goal so far this season, the Eagles sit fourth bottom for xG, which perhaps tells us that its not just the strikers that should bear the blame for Palace’s woes in front of goal. Regardless, the two late goals conceded at Goodison Park will have been a sickener for Hodgson, who somehow has to start getting results out of a side that have failed to win in over a month. In their next four games they face Arsenal, Chelsea, Spurs and Manchester United. No pressure, then.