The deadline day chos that engulfed old Trafford less than three weeks ago is beginning to look like a double stroke of genius. At St Mary’s on Sunday, United started awfully and ended nervously but won, 3-2.
Southampton took the lead after 13 minutes and for 30 minutes seemed set to overwhelm United. They didn’t. The difference makers were Anthony Martial, seemingly a desperation purchase on deadline day, and David de Gea, who would have left the club that evening if the paperwork trail from United to Real Madrid to the Spanish soccer federation had not mysteriously broken down.
De Gea stayed calm and assured as the United defense struggled against high balls into the goalmouth. He made a string of good saves, the best when he reached back to claw away a header from José Fonte, after 60 minutes. At the time, United led 2-1. Both the goals had come from Martial, who has now scored three in his first two league appearances.
The first, after 34 minutes, should probably not have counted because Juan Mata was offside in the build up. Martial still had to finish. He swerved to shake a defender, lost control but recovered calmly and scored with cool aplomb. The second was a gift from Maya Yoshida, who hit a weak back pass in the 50th minute without looking up to check for danger. Martial is as dangerous as a tiger shark. He pounced on the present without a second thought and unwrapped it with calm certainty, waiting for Maarten Stekelenburg to move and then passing the ball into the net.
After the goals, Martial simply turned and jogged away before spreading his arms as teammates closed in. He does not look surprised when he scores. He is giving United the pace, poise and scoring punch Memphis Depay was supposed to bring. On Sunday, it was Memphis who looked like the over-awed teenager. When Mata struck in the 68th minute, it was United’s third goal from its third, and last, shot on target. Southampton shrivelled. United briefly took compete control.
Louis van Gaal, the United manager, again emphasized how different he is from Alex Ferguson when he told Sky TV that what most pleased him was “the way we killed the game.”
Yet when Graziano Pelle headed in with four minutes left, United allowed the game to come back to life. Van Gaal said after the game that his team was tired because it played in the Champions League in mid-week.
“We lost by ourselves,” Ronald Koeman, the Southampton manager told Sky. It has been a good weekend for United. The victory lifted it to second. It is only two points behind Manchester City. The table suggests United is a contender.
“You cannot expect from a team in transition already a title,” Van Gaal said. “But if we are close we shall grab it.”
If United keeps flying high it will be because of two players who spent deadline day on planes.
When Manchester United won the Premier League with kids in 1996, its squad was larded with veterans. Some of the over-30s, Paul Parker and Brian McClair, did not play much. But four over-30s–Steve Bruce, Gary Pallister, Dennis Irwin and Peter Schmeichel–were all regular starters. Eric Cantona turned 30 just after the end of the season. Alex Ferguson had experienced leaders on the field and in the locker room.
Tottenham is unlikely to win the league this season. But its third straight Premier League clean sheet, as it beat Crystal Palace, 1-0, on Sunday and the dodgy form of some of the habitual top-four teams suggest Spurs could be chasing a Champions League place. It would be remarkable if they did because Mauricio Pochettino is playing kids without a safety net. He does not have any grizzled veterans to turn to.
Apart from Michel Vorm, the backup goalie, Tottenham does not have a single player in its squad over 28. Two of Sunday’s starters, goalie Hugo Lloris and center back Jan Vertonghen, are 28. Eight of the players who started or came off the bench are 23 or less.
A youthful team would make sense if Tottenham was playing the type of high-tempo pressing game that Pochettino used at Southampton. They don’t appear to be. It might be that the age profile of the squad is a result of Tottenham unloading a busload of under-performing veterans acquired under previous managers. It might also be that the club is trying to hold down its wage bill as it spends £400 million ($620 million) on a new stadium.
Pochettino seems to be trying to create an intricate passing game. In a way the most encouraging sign on Sunday, in a game in which Palace hit the post twice, was that Spurs won even though the style isn’t really working yet. The attacking players still seem to be getting to know each other. That suggests the kids will grow more dangerous as the season goes on.
HATE FIGURE Diego Costa’s performance, in every sense, against Arsenal on Saturday divided soccer. On one side are the Chelsea fans, on the other there is everyone else.
“For me man of the match for sure,” José Mourinho, the Chelsea manager said of a striker who managed one shot on target in 82 minutes. “He played the game like a game like this has to be played.”
Mourinho must have known that this would not be a widely held opinion.
Costa’s chief contribution was to kick, shove, slap, scratch and ceaselessly insult the Arsenal center backs, Laurent Koscielny and Gabriel, until the latter lost his temper, aimed a tame little kick at the striker and was sent off.
That red card probably decided the game. Chelsea looked crisper than it had in any league game this season, but Arsenal was holding on. With 10 men, Arsenal fell behind. With nine, after Santi Cazorla was sent off in the 79th minute, the Gunners conceded again in the dying seconds. Chelsea won, 2-0.
Like almost every defender who has faced Costa, Gabriel has had bad-tempered run ins with the striker in the past. He should not have fallen for the provocation. But he did.
Former Arsenal men were particular indignant. George Graham, a former Arsenal player and manager, told the BBC: "Although you've got to keep that physical intensity, once you step over the mark he's got to be dealt with by officials, it's as simple as that - and I think he will be."
Martin Keown, one of three accomplished but thuggish center backs who formed the bedrock of Graham’s two title-winning Arsenal teams, tweeted what seemed to be an offer to come out of retirement and kick Costa.
Yet Graham’s point hints at part of the problem. Mike Dean, the referee, could have shown Costa three yellow cards and a straight red in the few minutes before sending off Gabriel. Perhaps referees reactions are deadened by the relentlessness of Costa’s nastiness. They know they should probably save time and show him a red card in the tunnel before every game even starts, but sending him off every week would be ridiculous. Costa is playing the percentages.
On the other hand, as Graham suggests, referees watch television and read the soccer news. There will be payback. Perhaps it will come at Newcastle next week where, inevitably, Costa will be up to his tricks again. But, after he has served a suspension, there will be a period when he referees, striving to be fair and ignore reputations, will let him get away with it until the outrage again becomes overwhelming.
CITY SLIP Chelsea’s much-criticized practise of warehousing players and then farming them out – 33 are at other clubs – paid dividends on Saturday. Victor Moses, on loan at another Premier League club for the third straight season, scored the first goal that Manchester City has conceded in the league this season to set West Ham on the way to a 2-1 away victory.
City showed frailties. Moses hit his shot well but Eliaquim Mangala should have closed the striker down faster and Joe Hart should have covered the near post, which was all Moses had to aim at. City also lost 2-1 home to Juventus in mid-week. Eve so, this does not look like a crisis - yet.
City lost David Silva just before kick off, but Kevin de Bruyne played well in his place and scored a sharp goal. In all, City enjoyed more than 70 per cent of possession and created 27 attempts on goal. This was simply one of those days.
West Ham played well. It has now won at Liverpool, Arsenal and Manchester City in its three away games this season. Slaven Bilic, the West Ham manager told the BBC that this was a much tougher victory than those at Anfield and the Emirates.
“City played much better in the second half,” Bilic said. “It was almost the Alamo.”
The victory lifted the Hammers, briefly, into second, three points behind City.
“Nine points from first three away games sounds like a dream not a plan,” Bilic said.
IT’S GRIM UP NORTH It’s mid-September. There are only eight points between second and 17th. A couple of victories can transform a team’s league position. So can a couple of defeats.
It is difficult to believe that Leicester and West Ham have the depth to finish in the top four or that Bournemouth and Watford will spend the season cruising along in mid-table, though it might happen. But two teams look particularly sickly already. Newcastle and Sunderland both seemed to upgrade significantly in the summer. Both produced periods of good soccer on Saturday. Both also lapsed horribly and lost to promoted teams.
“We started the first half totally hopelessly,” Dick Advocaat the Sunderland manager, told the BBC after his team lost at Bournemouth.
The problems in the Northeast aren’t just a six-game early-season blip. They are long-term. Mediocrity and fear have become engrained at both clubs and have infected their fans.
Newcastle barely escaped relegation last season after a run of 11 games with just one victory that included eight straight defeats. In all, Newcastle has won just three of its last 29 league games going back to last December. New players and a new manager, although Steve McClaren seemed a curiously timid choice, have not brought new confidence or confidence.
Sunderland has flirted with relegation in each of the last three seasons. That stress and the habit of losing can take a toll. Resistance can crumble. Advocaat is a good manager. He has some good players.
“Me and the players have to look in the mirror,” he said.
The danger is that when his squad look in the mirror they will see Sunderland players looking back and the hopelessness will return.