The worlds of politics and football reached peak 2018 this week as, in the UK, Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab publicly revealed that he had only just realised the importance of the Dover-Calais crossing for trade into the country. Just to reiterate, the person responsible for engineering the United Kingdom’s exit from the European Union didn’t ‘fully understand’ that the watery expanse surrounding the island was used to transport goods. Evidently he’s never been on a booze cruise. Meanwhile over the pond, the President of the United States took a break from rolling around in Wotsit dust to shout at a journalist following the midterm vote that saw the Democrats regain the House. Either you know what that means, or you’re a British person that’s been feigning an interest in American politics for the past week.
In matters more spherical, Jose Mourinho gave his most convincing performance as football’s biggest shithouse (a remarkable feat in such an abundant field), giving it the big one at the end of his side’s barely deserved 2-1 victory at Juventus, explaining afterwards that the nasty men in the stands were calling him bad names. Back home Sam Allardyce, the Jabba the Hut to Mourinho’s Darth Vader, somehow ended up back on our screens and took the opportunity to label suggestions that he plays negative football as “fake news” in a moment so cringeworthy it might just surpass your Dad doing his Kim Jong-un impression at Christmas dinner. Having been presented with the miserable statistics during his time at Everton, Allardyce had the temerity to claim the players at his disposal weren’t good enough. £50m Gylfi Sigurdsson might have something to say about that.
Fortunately, there was some actual football to help us forget all this unpleasantness, with concerns as the wrong end of the table taking precedence on Saturday, before all three unbeaten sides looked to extend their run on Sunday. Here are the Hitters & Shitters from Gameweek 12.
Manchester City – Were it not an editorial decision to spread the plaudits across the league this season, picking up on notable performances from teams, players and managers on a week-by-week basis, its likely that Manchester City would make the cut in this column 99% of the time. This week their inclusion is unavoidable. Though their trophy-laden neighbours have increasingly become a parody of a team in decline, City’s dismantling of Manchester United, even 2018’s Manchester United, was stirring in its efficiency and professionalism.
When the inevitable opener arrived for the Premier League Champions, its was via a familiar source. David Silva, tormenter of Manchester United for the past eight years, slamming namesake Bernardo’s cross-cum-shot into the roof of the net. The second, shortly after half-time, was a classic Sergio Aguero finish, thundering through the hands of David De Gea after a slick one-two with Riyad Mahrez. The only blot on the afternoon was Ederson’s momentary headloss, bringing substitute Romelu Lukaku down to gift Anthony Martial a penalty and Jose Mourinho’s team a lifeline. They’d get no chance to use it, as City continued to dominate and, in the ultimate pisstake, strung together before finding Ilkay Gundogan unmarked eight yards out to prod the ball home.
There’s been an unspoken feeling among neutrals that Pep Guardiola’s side aren’t quite the runaway freight train they were last season. Whether its the two fewer points they’ve picked up after twelve games or the four fewer goals they’ve scored we’re not sure. More likely, its that Liverpool and Chelsea have so far managed to cling onto the Cityzens coat-tails by the skin of their fingertips. By this time last season second-placed Manchester United already trailed the leaders by eight points. All the pressure is on Jurgen Klopp and his charges, and it shows in the way City have gone about their business.
Salomon Rondon – After their first win of the season last weekend, Newcastle United had the opportunity to make it back-to-back victories over in-form teams as Bournemouth arrived at St James’ Park looking to record their third win in a row in the north-east. An entertaining, end-to-end, blood and thunder match was decided by the quality of the home side’s finishing, as one man in particular finally made his mark in the black and white stripes. Salomon Rondon start to life as Newcastle’s number nine hasn’t exactly been storybook, with a lack of pre-season and a string of niggling injuries limiting the Venezuelan to just 233 minutes before his start against Watford last weekend.
Against Bournemouth, Rondon posted the consummate centre-forward’s performance. A bustling, bruising battering ram, the on-loan striker caused havoc for Eddie Howe’s backline all afternoon. In the seventh minute, with both sides having set out their stall, a clever chipped pass from Mohamed Diame landed in the path of the speedy DeAndre Yedlin, and the full-back’s centre was turned towards goal by Rondon. Denied at first by Asmir Begovic, the Venezuelan kept his cool and rifled in the rebound to give the Magpies an early lead.
Though the Cherries would enjoy a decent spell of pressure midway through the first-half, the hosts advantage would be doubled five minutes from the break with a sumptuous team move. Ki Sung-yeung, deputising for the injured Jonjo Shelvey, fired a crossfield ball towards Kenedy, and the young Brazilian’s pinpoint cross was hammered into the top corner via the head of Rondon. Not so much a bull in a china shop as Minotaur at a Ming vase exhibition. Though Bournemouth would pull one back in first-half stoppage time through Jefferson Lerma’s header, Rondon could and should have completed his hat-trick in the second half, first spinning a header from Matt Ritchie’s cross wide, before Begovic’s big toe turned his goalbound effort past the post.
It wasn’t just the penalty box threat that Rondon offered that impressed the gathered Toon Army, as every rushed clearance seemed to stick to his 6’1” frame, and every long ball forward was chased down like a juggernaut. Benitez said after the match that his first-choice striker wasn’t yet fully fit, and there’s plenty more to come from the West Brom man. If Rondon can find some kind of consistency, Newcastle United might just have found their latest striking hero.
Marco Silva’s new-look Everton – It was fitting that, the day after Fray Bentos Ambassador Sam Allardyce appeared on BT Sport bemoaning his reputation for negative football, Everton faced the team they failed to register a shot on target against under their former manager last season. That goalless draw at Goodison, the first of two consecutive home games in which the Toffees failed to trouble the visiting goalkeeper, marked the moment any shred of goodwill for the Count of Monte Bisto dissolved like his beloved gravy granules.
Now, though, things are different. Though Kepa Arrazibalaga was only tested once on an overcast afternoon at Stamford Bridge, Marco Silva’s charges were able to dig in at a ground in which they’ve conceded ten goals in their last three Premier League visits, heading back to Merseyside with a point and a clean sheet. It leaves them a point behind the chasing pack for a top six finish, surely the ceiling target for the Portuguese manager in his first season.
After a wobble in September, where West Ham were able to capitalise on some sloppy defending, the Toffees are beginning to build some momentum. Silva, too, looks to be learning from his mistakes. His gung-ho approach at Watford, which saw the Hornets concede three or more goals on seven occasions, has been replaced by a modicum of defensive solidity – Everton have conceded nine fewer goals than at this stage last season, though that’s damning with faint praise.
Crystal Palace’s Home Form – Even before Wilfried Zaha’s omission from the starting line-up, the omen’s for Crystal Palace’s match against Tottenham Hostpur were grim. After all, they were playing at home. The Eagles are yet to win at Selhust Park this season, and the visit of a team they’d only manage to beat once in their last five meetings in South London hardly inspired confidence.
The inclusion of Jordan Ayew in place of hamstring victim Zaha was of little solace either. The on-loan forward has managed a solitary assist in his eight appearances for Roy Hodgson so far this season, and even that was for a goal made by Zaha’s brilliance. In the event, the Eagles were narrowly beaten by Juan Foyth’s second-half header. The Argentinian defender feeling far less charitable than his slapstick performance at Molineux last weekend, as he and his defensive cohorts kept the hosts largely at bay. Only Alexander Sorloth’s effort in stoppage time caused Hugo Lloris momentary discomfort.
There tends to be one team a season that are apparently too good to go down. Given the plaudits Palace have received for their performances, and the lack of correlation in points, they might just find themselves the most suitable candidates, particularly if Zaha’s injury keeps him out for any significant amount of time. Should this barren spell of home form continue for much longer, could Croydon Roy be for the chop?
Simon Hooper – The VAR debate was reignited last weekend by some particularly poor decisions by referees in the matches at Cardiff, Arsenal and Wolves, but taking the heat off his colleagues this week was Simon Hooper. The Swindon official, making just his third appearance in the Premier League, was the man in the middle at St Mary’s, as goalshy Southampton welcomed high-flying Watford looking to record a rare home victory.
Things looked to be going Saints way at the break, with Manolo Gabbiadini giving Mark Hughes’ side a half-time lead and, when Hooper inexplicably missed Ryan Bertrand’s clattering challenge on Nathaniel Chalobah in the hosts penalty area, the St Mary’s faithful could have been forgiven for thinking it was their lucky day. Sadly, though, Hooper’s incompetence ran both ways, and when Charlie Austin netted Saints’ second to surely secure the win, an erroneous offside flag for Maya Yoshida denied a game-settling goal, paving the way for Jose Holebas’ to score a late equaliser for Javi Gracia’s team.
In a refreshingly unhinged post-match interview Austin ripped into the officials, declaring the need for VAR to be introduced to the top flight, and conveniently forgetting that Southampton had been fortunate to be leading before his ‘goal’. Austin, however, does have a point. Year on year we seem to be spending more time talking about bad refereeing decisions than anything else, and clearly the Premier League needs to adjust and evolve with the game it promotes. The days of plodding part-timers being able to keep tabs on the action are a thing of the past, and clearly technology is the only way to eliminate these clear and obvious errors. With every refereeing mistake, more and more are converted to the VAR cause.
David De Gea – On a personal level, last season was perhaps the best of David De Gea’s career. It mightn’t have ended with trophies or trinkets, but his stance as one of, if not the, best goalkeepers in the world was boosted tenfold thanks to a series of miraculous performances in the Manchester United goal. From the World Cup onwards, however, the Spanish goalkeeper’s mojo has been majorly misplaced.
On Sunday, given little protection by his defence, De Gea could do little to fend off Manchester City’s assault on his goal, but the panicked, indecisive manner in which he failed to face up to David Silva for the hosts’ first was a far cry from his one-man wall performances of last season. For the second, United’s #1 did a mighty good impression of someone with sandwich bags for hands, as Aguero’s vicious effort faced more resistance from the Manchester drizzle than the Madrilenian’s digits. The nutmeg from Gundogan for City’s third was the poisoned cherry on a cake of excrement.
After twelve games last season, Jose Mourinho’s men had conceded six goals, and had a goal difference of +21. This year, they’ve conceded 21 and, incredibly, are the only team in the top half with a negative goal difference. Much of their defensive issues are down to the personnel in front of De Gea, but the former Atletico Madrid man doesn’t escape criticism. So far this season’s he’s conceded a goal from roughly every seventh shot faced – last season it took on average sixteen shots to breach United’s goal. The xG against for Mourinho’s team last year was 37, nine more than the amount they actually conceded. This year it’s 19.
If United are going to turn their season around, their leaky defence should be the first port of call. Otherwise De Gea might soon be seeking a career-saving move.