It was a weekend for adjusting expectations in the Premier League.
Manchester City is still in first, having won its first five games, as it did last season. Now the teams immediately behind are Everton, Tottenham and Arsenal. Chelsea and Manchester United, who looked as if they were about to restore the familiar three-team rule of the first half of the decade, are fifth and seventh.
Some rising teams were extremely impressive while some losers have problems.
In the Premier League, there are no poor clubs, but some are much richer than others. Some of the better victories need to be viewed in that context.
The richest of them all, City was simply to good in every position as it beat visiting Bournemouth, Arsenal crushed one promoted team, Hull, 4-1. The home team played 50 minutes with 10 men, but the Gunners were in control before Jake Livermore’s daft handball. Leicester, the champion, showed it is not quite dead yet, as it crushed another promoted club, Burnley, 3-0. Islam Slimani added an aerial dimension to the Foxes attack with two headed goals. Everton, adding discipline and steel under Ronald Koeman, to the fluent attacking Roberto Martínez encouraged, crushed the third newcomer, Middlesbrough, 3-1
That game at Goodison produced a statistical anomaly. Boro did not have a shot on target yet scored once. It’s a trick that West Ham and Tottenham might like to learn.
Spurs moved up to third with a home victory over Sunderland on Sunday. Tottenham had 31 attempts on goal but scored just once. Even from good positions, Tottenham could barely hit the goal; only nine of those shots were on target.
On Saturday, West Ham outshot West Brom 23-8 and lost, 4-2. Yet West Brom, deserved to win. It had six shots on target, to five by the Hammers. With the addition of Nacer Chadli, who scored twice, and Matt Phillips and the return of Salomón Rondóm, the Baggies finally seem to have an attack. In defense, West Ham has achieved subtraction by addition. Arthur Masuak and Havard Nordtveit, the new fullbacks, had particularly bad days in a woeful back four.
West Ham’s chief aim is mid-table safety. It has time. So does Stoke which was horrible again as it lost, 4-1, at Crystal Palace. Chelsea and Manchester United have a smaller margin if they are to return to the top four this season.
The question for Chelsea is whether Friday’s loss was just one of those nights or the chronic lack of pace Liverpool exposed will prove a problem N’Golo Kanté cannot solve.
Manchester United has even more talent, but its problems might prove more profound.
Disunited — It’s taken almost a week longer, but Manchester United is already enjoying, if that’s the word, the José Mourinho effect.
On September 12th last year, Chelsea lost, 3-1, at Everton for its fourth straight defeat. On Sunday, United lost, 3-1, at Watford for its third loss in a week.
Club managers, especially at rich clubs like United, can go out and buy the pieces they need to complete the puzzling jigsaw of a winning team. At the same time, wealthy clubs give managers less time to put those pieces together. At Old Trafford, another challenge is that star names on the marquee matter.
Eric Bailly, one of Mourinho’s buys, looked good in early games. On Sunday he could not cope. That’s not a new phenomenon. Ángel di Maria, now in Paris, Anthony Martial, who went off concussed on Sunday, and Memphis, now a benchwarmer, all started well at Old Trafford.
Trickier is the riddle of how to use the team’s long-established star, Wayne Rooney, and the world’s most expensive player, Paul Pogba. Rooney wants to play behind the attack. Pogba is best just in front of the midfield. That’s essentially the same position. Neither played up to their billing on Sunday.
Mourinho has disciplined midfielders who can play a holding role: Ander Herrera, Michael Carrick, Morgan Schneiderlin and even Daley Blind or Bastian Schweinsteiger. Mourinho can sacrifice the big unit Marouane Fellaini. Yet at some point he is going to have to risk irritating those at the club who care about marketing and find out how the team looks without either Rooney or Pogba.
“Our individual and collective performance have to improve,” Mourinho told BT Sport, after the game.
Smart is as smart does — One of the striking aspects of Manchester City’s 4-0 victory over Bournemouth on Saturday was just how intelligently Pep Guardiola has his team playing and how ruthlessly it punished any slack or slow thinking by its opponent.
When Jack Wilshere went on loan to Bournemouth, Arsène Wenger, said the midfielder would one day manage Arsenal. The prediction looked bizarre after 15 minutes at the Etihad Stadium on Saturday. Wilshere, overplaying deep in his own half, gave the ball away and then, as so often, compounded one mistake with another, stupidly knocking over Nolito in pursuit of the ball.
Bournemouth formed a wall. As Kevin de Bruyne ran up, the wall jumped. The Belgian passed the ball under their feet and into the goal. On the sideline, Guardiola, pointed to an assistant, presumably in acknowledgment of an observant scouting report. It’s not just his staff who are showing intelligence. His players are too.
De Bruyne’s decision-making and execution was quick and lucid as always. So was that of every City player, but some really stood out. With City in control Aleksandr Kolarov had the luxury of playing center back 20 yards in the Bournemouth half. From there he ran the game, switching play or picking out attackers. Raheem Sterling repeatedly drew a crowd of defenders, squirmed past them and then, a skill that has not always been strength, picked out an open teammate. Kelechi Iheanacho cleverly adjusted his feet to score his 12th goal in 14 starts and 14 shots on target. The youngster also got his fourth assist. He worked tirelessly, repeatedly driving attacks forward with quick, clever passes.
Smart trumped dumb. In soccer, it does so every time. City has talent. If it keeps out-working and out-thinking opponents, it will be hard to stop.
Klopp’s options — The best team in the Premier League this season has been Liverpool: for 20 minutes at Arsenal, for an hour at Spurs and, on Friday, for 45 minutes as it beat Chelsea, 2-1.
Yet only in its one home game, against Leicester, has Liverpool been able to sustain its domination for close to 90 minutes. That was offset by a loss at Burnley where Liverpool was poor throughout. It has picked up seven points on its three visits to London, yet in each game it was totally on top only to allow its opponent back into the match.
Partly the swings of momentum in Liverpool games are born of a tactical choice by Jürgen Klopp, the manager. His team is built to play in the opposing half, both with and without the ball. It isn’t constructed to withstand a siege.
There might be a more profound problem. Liverpool runs further, and sprints more often, than any other team in the Premier League. Yet often it is the Reds who fade.
In building its squad, Liverpool has preferred speed and skill to size. That is paying off in some dazzling bursts of play. Yet, by Premier League standards, it is an under-sized team. That takes a toll during games and might help explain Liverpool’s injury problems. It suffered more than any team except aging Manchester City last season and is already top of this season’s “injury league table.”
That frailty compounds another problem: Liverpool’s lack of depth. Klopp was able to bring on Lucas and Divock Origi on Friday, but beyond that the bench was made up of the young and untested or, in the case of Alberto Moreno, the tested and failed.
For Liverpool each match is both a marathon and a sprint. The trick, as it is finding, is keeping that up.
The price of success — Tottenham’s 1-0 victory over Sunderland might assuage some of the hurt of losing its opening Champions League game to Monaco. But it also brought more pain.
Last season, Mauricio Pochettino, could rotate backups in for the Europa League.
On Wednesday, he fielded full-strength team but Spurs lost 2-1. The game was at Wembley, where he field there is 5 meters longer and one meter wider than White Hart Lane. Tottenham had to run for the full 90 minutes as it struggled to fight back. On Sunday, there was again no let up as Spurs battled to finish off Sunderland.
Perhaps the effort took its toll. Moussa Dembélé and Eric Dier both went off with thigh injuries. Kyle Walker also seemed to suffer a hamstring tweak but played on. Worse, Harry Kane, who had scored the only goal, was rolled away on a stretcher near the end with an ankle injury.
It could prove a painful and costly victory.