After an emotionally charged week in the world of football, in which a city mourned the sudden passing of its beloved club owner, a farcical reality check arrived just in time for the weekend, as proposals for an oft-slated European Super League were leaked by German publication Der Speigel. The leak revealed that a clutch of Europe’s most storied (read: wealthy) sides including Manchester United, Arsenal and Manchester City had held initial talks about a breakaway competition that would see those clubs leave their domestic leagues to travel across Europe competing against the sides they’ve failed to beat in the Champions League year after year.
Not only is this arrogant proposal the ultimate show of contempt towards each country’s respective football federations, but also removes the gossamer-thin veneer of respect that modern day ‘elite’ clubs purport to have for their supporters. For many, a breakaway league would spell the end of lifelong relationships with their football clubs; the final, gilded straw on the back of a camel fatigued by morally-dubious sponsorship deals, corportatisation of the matchday experience, and mercenary heroes. Sadly, to the men in suits who run the game, those fans who’ve stayed through thick and thin are ultimately disposable, and a chance to sell their product to cash-rich emerging markets in America and Asia is too tempting an opportunity to let things like tradition and history get in the way.
But until the Premier League is completely ransacked by avarice, the 2018/19 season rumbles on. Here are the Hitters and Shitters from Gameweek Eleven.
Leicester City – The tragic events that unfolded outside the King Power last weekend left the football world in shock, as five people, including Leicester City owner Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha, lost their lives in a helicopter crash. The scenes of mourning at the ground this week resonated with supporters of every club, and the move to fulfill this weekend’s fixture at Cardiff City was greeted by admiration for the mental strength of Leicester’s players and staff. At the Cardiff City Stadium and across the country, a minute’s silence was observed before kick-off, and black armbands donned in tribute to the Thai businessman.
Before the game got underway, the whole Leicester squad and backroom staff huddled together on the pitch in a show of absolute unity in the face of grief. Once kicked-off, it was clear that pre-match worries surrounding the Foxes’ focus would prove unfounded. Claude Puel’s team tore into their opponents, and were unfortunate not to go in ahead at the break, as Jamie Vardy’s goalbound effort was deflected over the bar by the thumb of Sol Bamba. In the second half, the visitors’ pressure refused to let up, and ten minutes after half-time Demarai Gray slotted Ben Chilwell’s cross home to spark a release of emotion among the travelling players and support. Tearing his shirt off to reveal the message ‘For Khun Vichai’, Gray was booked; the single sour note from a performance that provided the perfect tribute to Srivaddhanaprabha.
At full time, with the one goal victory secured, Leicester’s players and staff headed over to the away fans and shared heartfelt celebrations and appreciation, not only for their chairman but also for each other. At the end of the most difficult week in the club’s history, Leicester City showed once again that Foxes Never Quit.
Felipe Anderson – It’s been a strange season at the London Stadium so far, with a poor start and four defeats on the bounce giving way to renewed optimism in September, as Manuel Pellegrini’s new charges picked up seven points from three tough fixtures to drag themselves into mid-table. October, though, saw another dip in form with one point from a possible nine, and the visit of Burnley brought back memories of the corresponding fixture from last season, when the Clarets took advantage on supporter-led chaos to steal a 3-0 win.
The one real bright spot for the Hammers so far this season has been the form of record signing Felipe Anderson who, having been earmarked pre-season as a potential transfer flop, has shown in fits and starts why messrs Gold and Sullivan were prepared to part with £35m to prise him from Lazio. Against a combative Burnley side, the Brazilian’s enduring class shone through. By far the most effective and involved player on the pitch, with 103 touches and 75 passes, Anderson flitted between a direct approach down the left-hand side, and a more central role as a string-puller, dragging Burnley’s backline hither and thither with his silky touch and turn of pace.
His enterprising performance should have reaped rewards in the first half, with a delicious through-ball for Marko Arnautovic seeing former Hammers ‘keeper Joe Hart thwart the Austrian, before Ben Mee’s miraculous goal-line clearance denied Anderson a goal of his own. Unperturbed, the winger stepped up his game in the second-half and gave the hosts a 68th minute lead with an impudent nutmegged finish. Despite Chris Wood’s header restoring parity for the visitors, Anderson continued his one-man mission to earn all three points for West Ham, curling an effort against the post, before slotting home six minutes from time to edge the home side back in front. The cake might have been further iced had the Brazilian’s outrageous outside-of-the-boot volley not been beaten away by Joe Hart, but Javier Hernandez’s goal in stoppage time secured the points for Pellegrini’s team, and ensured Felipe Anderson’s performance reaped its deserved rewards.
Newcastle United – Apparently there’s no such thing as a must-win game this early in the season, but ahead of Watford’s visit to St James’ Park, Newcastle United manager Rafa Benitez will have been keen to avoid an unwanted record. The Magpies had never failed to win in their opening eleven games of a season before, but a chronic lack of goals and fortune, combined with an opposition off to their best ever start to a top flight campaign, meant the omens were looking decidedly bleak for the Spaniard.
Lady Luck, however, is a fickle mistress. Though losing three key players with injuries before the hour mark, Newcastle could consider themselves fortunate to be on level terms, having seen Adrian Mariappa and Gerard Deulofeu both spurn golden opportunities to give the Hornets the lead. A crossbar-rattling effort from in-form Roberto Pereyra early in the second half provided a further warning to Benitez’s backline, but substitutes Fabian Schar and Ki Sung-yeung soon grew into the game. It was South Korea captain Ki that ultimately proved the difference, being bundled over on the edge of the box by Will Hughes after an enterprising burst forward, before delivering a devilishly whipped free-kick that Ayoze Perez diverted past a prone Ben Foster.
Though there were still heart-stopping moments to endure, Newcastle held on for their second clean sheet in a row and, most importantly, three points that lifted them out of the relegation zone come Saturday evening. The likelihood is that, until January at the very least, the Toon Army are in a for a nervy season, but the sight of their team digging deep and getting results is enough to warm the cockles on those cold Tyneside afternoons.
Armchair Supporters – In this modern age of billion pound broadcasting rights and constant coverage, football finds itself as a more than simply a sport – it’s entertainment. That’s the reason millions of people pay frankly exorbitant prices to have Europe’s top leagues beamed into their living rooms every night of the week. This weekend, due to Spurs’ congested fixture list, the lesser spotted Saturday Night fixture made a return and capped off a sensational day of live sport for those averse to leaving their sofas.
We’d already been treated to a humdinger on the south coast, with this season’s surprise packages Bournemouth giving a bi-polar Manchester United a run for their money, playing some scintillating football but ultimately losing out to a stoppage time goal from Marcus Rashford. In perhaps the most high-profile undercard of all-time, Arsenal and Liverpool faced off in the Saturday evening slot, as two sides best known for living off past reputations showed that their futures are looking bright. On an atmospheric evening in north London, a genuinely absorbing encounter saw Alexandre Lacazette cancel out James Milner’s strike with a clever finish to split the spoils. Then, as a refreshing alternative to X Factor, the new kids on the block showed a spirited performance in front of some hasbeens, before ultimately being humiliated as millions watched on. No, sorry, that was X Factor. Wolves, in fact, might think they deserved a point from their display at home to Tottenham, with Hugo Lloris having to post the kind of inspired display that has become rarer and rarer in recent season. Clinical finishing from Spurs put the game beyond the promoted side, though late penalties from Ruben Neves and Raul Jiminez ensured a frantic finish at Molineux.
Subscription television has played a major part in wrenching football from its roots as a traditional working class pursuit, but when you can watch three thrilling games in your novelty slippers while cramming your face with a takeaway, its almost enough to make you think Rupert Murdoch’s not all bad. Then he goes and puts Huddersfield v Fulham on…
Lee Probert (and his colleagues) – Refereeing a game with the intensity of Cardiff v Leicester was always going to be a tough task, particularly with the likelihood of having to book a player for their celebration so high, and so when Gray wheeled away in celebration and immediately tore his shirt off, the wry smile on official Lee Probert’s face told the whole story. His decision (or non-decision, as far as the rulebook is concerned) to book the young Leicester forward provoked outrage amongst the professionally outraged, as even the porcine Piers Morgan opened his sewage pipe to condemn the referee.
Those criticising Probert are of course letting their heart rule their head. Regardless of outside factors, we can’t expect our referees to make exceptions when it comes to applying the rules, no matter how senseless those rules are. Bookings for celebrations are nonsensical, however as Foxes manager Claude Puel put it after the match, “We played like professionals and it was important for the referee to be professional too. He knows the rules and it was important for Demi to take this yellow card.”
Instead, Probert (who we consider one of the better refs in the top flight) should be condemned for missing Sol Bamba’s blatant, goal-saving handball in the first-half. Had Leicester not left south Wales with all three points, he’d have had more to answer for than his booking of Gray. It wasn’t just Probert that suffered a difficult day at the office on Saturday however, as Andre Marriner at the Emirates and Mike Dean at Molineux both disallowed perfectly legitimate goals. The abscence of an English referee in Russia this summer was supposed to be the wake up call our officials needed to up their game; so far it seems they’ve yet to get the message.
Juan Foyth – If Mike Dean was feeling a little mean on a brisk Saturday evening in Wolverhampton, Spurs’ young Argentinian centre-back Juan Foyth was prepared to be a little more generous. Deputising for Jan Vertonghen, and preferred to Davinson Sanchez, this was Foyth’s first foray into Premier League football, having been used in cup games since joining from Estudiantes in 2017.
Clearly the step up came as a shock to the 20 year old, with Wolves’ Mexican striker Raul Jiminez proving a thorn in his side all game. It was Jiminez that won the hosts first penalty after a foul from Foyth, and scored the second after the Spurs debutante bundled over full-back Jonny ten minutes later, earning a booking for his troubles. Admittedly, Foyth was hardly helped out by Kieran Trippier’s uncharacteristically slapstick performance, though one wonders whether Vertonghen or Sanchez may have proven a little more streetwise in the same position.
Mauricio Pochettino was complimentary about Foyth in his post-match interview, insisting that, apart from his two indiscretions, the defender put in an assured performance. From a neutral perspective, it looks as though Foyth has plenty to learn before becoming a reliable part of Spurs’ backline. Though the three points may paper over the cracks, the fact that Pochettino is having to start players that clearly aren’t ready to challenge in the Premier League is indicative of a flawed recruitment policy.
Mark Hughes – The good news this weekend for Mark Hughes is that Curl Up and Dye, his local hair salon, are offering 25% off every blue rinse and, after 515 minutes, Southampton’s goal drought ended at the Etihad with a Danny Ings penalty. The bad news is that his team shipped six, and he’s staring down the barrel of another sacking.
There’s a feeling among Saints supporters that Hughes was given the job purely on the basis of him keeping the team in the Premier League last year, rather than any belief that he can restore them as a top-half side. Unlike Everton, who wisely binned off Sam Allardyce at the first opportunity having brought him in in desperation, Southampton missed the chance to reset in the summer. Had they shaken hands with Hughes and expressed their gratitude, before deciding to “go in a different direction”, the strategy that brought in Pochettino and Ronald Koeman may have seen them enjoy a better start to the season.
Instead, another relegation battle beckons, and there are no guarantees that Saints will see this one out. With seven goals from their opening eleven games, they’re the joint second lowest scorers behind Huddersfield, and since Hughes took over in March they’ve won four times in nineteen Premier League games, just once at home. Most worryingly for Saints fans, their club sits fourth in the table for shots per game, with an average of 14.5, meaning they’re taking 23 shots for every goal scored. Charlie Austin and Manolo Gabbiadini have seemingly lost all ability to hit the target, and there are long-held concerns over Danny Ings’ injury record. Should their on-loan striker miss a run of games, its difficult to see Southampton scoring.
Plenty of teams will be on the end of a pasting at Manchester City this season, and some parts of the media will laud Hughes for ‘having a go’ against his former employers, but the manner in which Southampton caved, and their laugable approach to defending, is enough to give the most optimistic Saints fan sleepless nights. Should Hughes fail to bounce back from this result, it’s surely only a matter of time before he’s relieved of his duties.