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The need for crisis is understandable, even if it is manufactured. It helps create the stories that link the live football, provides the soap opera that maintains discussion and ensures back-page headlines for the interim periods. Fans of the Premier League feed off these crises.
Yet even by normal standards, the alarm bells around Antonio Conte have been a little louder than necessary. One column this week blamed Chelsea’s manager for the supposed deep-rooted problems around the club, concluding:
‘None of the above would be a problem if Chelsea were winning, but results are going against them and Conte’s recent mistakes will return to haunt him if his team fails to find some form quickly.’
When reading lines like that, you have to remind yourself that Chelsea had only played one competitive match since lifting the league title. Were ‘results’ really going against Conte’s team, or had they just failed to complete a comeback with nine men in their first league game of the season?
Elsewhere, the Daily Mail followed their explosive Diego Costa interview with a story claiming that Chelsea’s star players backed their striker in exile over Conte, with Willian and David Luiz two of the three players mentioned by name. Conte may subsequently wish to point out that both were excellent during the defeat of Tottenham at Wembley.
The first top-six crisis of this Premier League season has been averted, then. Despite reading that there was ‘something sinister going on at Stamford Bridge’, Conte inspired a response from his squad that eliminates more doubts than any signing would.
Chelsea were outplayed at times by Tottenham, dominated in terms of possession and territory and forced to dig in and defend for most of the second half, but that only adds further evidence that they are a different beast to the club that flunked their last title defence. Those concluding after one match that this was Jose Mourinho Mk II were guilty of selective vision.
If Chelsea truly had been broken, they would have crumbled under pressure. If they had been all at sea, Andreas Christensen would not have recovered from a difficult start to be exceptional in the final 30 minutes. If David Luiz did back Costa over his supposedly unfair treatment by Conte, would he have had the motivation and energy to rob Victor Wanyama in the game’s dying embers and create Chelsea’s winner? If this was not a team playing for its manager after a week of strong criticism, it certainly did a damn good impression.
For Conte, blessed relief and sweet vindication. There are few coaches more prepared to change his team’s personnel, style and shape in order to overcome problems. On that point, fortune favoured the brave.
There are also few coaches better when their back is against the wall. He did it at Bari, he did it at Siena and he did it with the Italian national team, taking an unfancied squad past Belgium and Spain and into the quarter-finals of Euro 2016 and penalty defeat to Germany. This is a phemonenal coach when the chips are down, il pompiere straordinario.
Combine these attributes with last season’s revelation from a position of difficulty, and Conte has earned the right to be treated as more than just another Chelsea stooge. Those who predicted he would leave Chelsea within a fortnight of the new season beginning (yes, really) owe him an apology. Conte should be judged on his own merit, rather than as a replica leading man from Chelsea’s 2015/16 dirge.
Our early winner, and deservedly so. This was emphatic evidence that Stoke’s players are still fighting for their manager, and that the club’s long wait for new signings was worth all the worry.
“No, they [Watford] will get relegated,” was Paul Merson’s forthright view when doubling down on Marco Silva. “To have a manager who has enhanced their reputation by being relegated is remarkable. He had the chance to bring in players and didn’t achieve what he was brought in for.”
Having attacked Silva’s appointment at Hull, Merson wasn’t about to stop now. There was no appreciation that Hull actually ranked 14th in a Premier League table of matches since Silva’s appointment, with more points than Stoke, West Brom, Watford, Burnley, Middlesbrough and Sunderland. Hull’s mistake was not in appointing Silva, but not appointing him earlier.
Watford finished 17th last season, so predicting relegation was hardly an outlandish shout. Yet there is evidence in the club’s first two games of the season that Silva merits far more respect than some choose to give him. Watford gave Liverpool plenty of food for thought on the opening weekend, and outclassed Bournemouth on Saturday.
In my kneejerk Premier League predictions from last week, I suggested that Watford might be this season’s entertainers, given Silva’s style at Hull last season. In the first two games of the season they have scored five goals and had 11 shots on target. Liverpool, Arsenal, Manchester United and Tottenham are the only other Premier League teams to reach double figures.
Initial signs are that Silva’s recruitment, best described as scattergun at Hull, has also found a natural home at Vicarage Road. Saturday’s team contained five new permanent arrivals, but there was no sense of players needing time to forge an understanding between each other. Andre Gray (new signing) assisted Richarlison’s (new signing) opening goal, while Nathaniel Chalobah (new signing) looks like an ever-improving player, barring his naivety in the vicinity of Harry Arter.
Labelling Klopp a winner for beating Crystal Palace at home is too generous, but the German does get points for winning while resting several Liverpool players in the middle of a busier August than any other Premier League club. If he had dropped points with Mohamed Salah, Dejan Lovren and Emre Can on the bench, the knives would have been sharpened to a point.
From nowhere to somebody. Robertson wasn’t even named in the match-day squad for Liverpool’s first two competitive games of the season, with Klopp confirming that it was a question of quality, not fitness.
“Whether he’s overly happy, I didn’t ask, but he’s in a good moment,” Klopp said on Wednesday. “He has developed really well so far. He’s a really good player but it’s how it is with specialist left full-backs. You either play or it’s possible you aren’t in the squad. Everything is fine from my side. It’s still early. He came in late and still has to adapt to our style of play and all that stuff.”
Fast-forward three days, and Robertson seems to have done some very quick adapting. The left-back was Man of the Match against Crystal Palace, creating more chances than any other player on the pitch and dominating his individual battle with Andros Townsend. Townsend did not have a shot and failed to create a single chance. And there should end the Alberto Moreno experiment: 2017/18 edition…
Pogba may not be judged definitively on his performances against Swansea City and West Ham, but that doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy them all the same. There is no more attractive central midfielder with the ball at his feet outside of Real Madrid.
Three assists away from equalling Philippe Coutinho’s best ever tally in a league season. After a difficult first season in England, Mkhitaryan looks like the player of old. In this kind of form, he is unstoppable.
Pressing his way to second place in the formative stages of Huddersfield’s first ever Premier League season. If Newcastle looked worryingly light on Sunday, Wagner’s squad already look well-drilled and aware of their responsibilities despite the new arrivals. You couldn’t tell that five of the 14 players used on Sunday only joined the club this summer.
Five tackles (the most of any Huddersfield player), 11 clearances (the most of any Huddersfield player), five interceptions (the most of any Huddersfield player), 97 touches (the most of any Huddersfield player) and 71 passes (the most of any Huddersfield player). Schindler’s list.
As Ian Watson wrote on Saturday, this Manchester United side just make you smile. In contrast to the last one, two, three and four seasons, this is a team that are hugely enjoyable to watch. Now go read the piece…
Leicester’s difference-maker. They will miss him when he’s gone, but thank him as he’s going.
Two 1-0 wins to start the season, and make those (including me) who thought West Brom might struggle look utterly foolish. This is the Tony Pulis way, and he doesn’t give a shiny sh*te if you don’t like it.
And there was still time for No. 39…
Newcastle, giving up their goodwill
If Rafael Benitez looked deflated after the defeat to Tottenham, his demeanour in the post-match press conference at Huddersfield was one of resignation. It’s at times like these that Newcastle United supporters can take comfort in the fact that leaving the club would cost Benitez significant financial expense. It may be the only thing keeping him in place.
The change in mood at Newcastle is stark. From the joyous celebrations when the Championship title was confirmed in May, with Benitez heralded as their hero on the pitch, pessimistic supporters are worried about a relegation battle in August.
On the evidence of the first two weekends, Newcastle have the weakest squad in the division. It is tempting to say that the gulf in quality between the top two divisions was hammered home when watching Dwight Gayle on Sunday, but only one of Huddersfield’s defenders didn’t play in last season’s Championship. In midfield, Isaac Hayden looked lost and Christian Atsu abject. Again, this is against a team they defeated in the same fixture last season.
That suggests that this is not a question of ability – or at least not solely that – but mood. Mike Ashley’s insistence that the club cannot afford any new players until Benitez sells has once again driven a wedge between the club, its manager and its supporters; the latter two are on the same side.
One thing that was emphasised on Sunday is that Newcastle need more, not just to improve the squad depth but to lift the clouds that are gathering and allow the sun to shine through. If the inaction of the owner continues past the end of the current transfer window, it is easy to see this great club once again thrust into an unpleasant civil war. Welcome back to the Premier League, where dreams are made.
Mauricio Pochettino and Wembley
It is true that only the result can dictate the mood. Pochettino might reasonably point out that his Tottenham side had double the number of shots of Chelsea, three times as many shots on target and that 32.2% of the match (and 36.5% of the second half) was played in Chelsea’s third of the field compared to 19.3% in their own defensive third. He might point out that Tottenham dominated the team that dominated the Premier League last season. It’s at that point somebody would point out that Tottenham lost the game, and cast aspersions on Tottenham’s difficulties in playing at Wembley.
As Matt Stead pointed out in 16 Conclusions, we must beware of blaming Wembley and its pitch for every Spurs issue. It did not make Dele Alli commit a stupid foul, Eric Dier and Jan Vertonghen make wild challenges or make Hugo Lloris let Marcos Alonso’s shot go under his body, for example.
Yet it is clear that no place quite feels like home. Tottenham dropped four points at White Hart Lane last season, one of the best home records by any club in any top-flight season. Nobody at Tottenham truly wanted to move to Wembley, even temporarily. Players talk about the psychological comfort of knowing their surroundings, even to the minutiae of having reference points in your eyeline when passing and shooting. All that has been lost.
And then there is the atmosphere. “In this stadium, Wembley, a fantastic stadium, to feel this atmosphere is amazing,” said Conte after the game. “Also for the opponent. Honestly. It was amazing. In this atmosphere, so strong for us. Our fans tried to push the same, despite 70,000 Tottenham supporters. But, honestly, I think to see this atmosphere is great also for the opponents.” Conte was keen to labour the point, seizing his opportune timing to kick a potential title rival when they were down.
Whether the poor form has come because of the stadium or the stadium issues have become a story because of the poor form isn’t really clear, but it also doesn’t really matter. Pochettino will be confident that Tottenham will win far more Wembley games than they lose if they repeat their performance of Sunday, but also aware of the alleged issue of an unfamiliar temporary home. Humping Burnley next Sunday would be appreciated.
Arsenal’s defensive “sluggishness”
“We knew it was important in this type of game not to make a defensive mistake, and after halftime straight away we come out and we are too sluggish on defending and pay for it,” Wenger said after his side’s defeat at Stoke.
“First of all we lose the ball in the middle of the park and after that I believe we gave him too much freedom at the back through the middle and basically gave them a goal. You need always to improve the connections between the players, but I was not convinced by our central defence today.”
Wenger had scolding words for the officials and his strikers’ finishing too, but reserved the majority of his blame for his side’s defending. Yet if his accusation is valid, Arsenal’s manager must accept his own share of the blame rather than censuring individuals. His back five against Stoke consisted of a right-back at left wing-back, last week’s left wing-back at right wing-back and two left-backs in central defence. And they looked a little uncertain, you say?
Wenger gained deserved credit for changing Arsenal’s defensive shape towards the end of last season, but is now guilty of trying to be too clever to make it work. The back five that beat Manchester City in the FA Cup semi-final in April had Nacho Monreal on the left, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain on the right and Gabriel Paulista, Rob Holding and Laurent Koscielny in central defence. Round pegs in round holes.
With Per Mertesacker on the bench and Holding left out of the squad entirely on Saturday, those round pegs were left unused. The team selection felt like an attempt to crowbar Oxlade-Chamberlain and Hector Bellerin into the same team despite there really only being room for one. Sead Kolasinac on the left with an extra central defender would have made much more sense. It might have cost Arsenal.
Our early loser, but in a very good way. A strong time for those who read the headline and nothing else before getting angry, according to my Twitter feed.
At some point he will stop getting away with those kind of idiotic challenges that merit red cards. Perhaps Dier should make the most of this unmerited lenience and learn his bloody lesson.
Peter Goldstein wrote it so I didn’t have to. Bournemouth were picked by many to be the surprise achievers of this season, but it has been a miserable start to 2017/18. Losing at West Brom was no catastrophe, but being outplayed by Watford might be. Some serious thinking to do for Eddie Howe.
Jordon Ibe, Harry Arter, Andrew Surman and Ryan Fraser, with Marc Pugh introduced. Compare that with Watford’s midfield of Nathaniel Chalobah, Tom Cleverley and Abdoulaye Doucoure, with Etienne Capoue introduced as a substitute, and Bournemouth’s looks distinctly Championship. Would it not at least be worth giving England’s Under-20 World Cup captain Lewis Cook a place in the match-day squad?
Singled out because he is Bournemouth’s second biggest signing in their history, and he has been dire almost from minute one. Still, at least Ibe created his second chance in the Premier League in 2017 on Saturday. He’s still only had one shot on target in the league since joining the club in July 2016. Ouch.
Now I’m not saying Brighton need Anthony Knockaert fit and Chris Hughton to make some more new signings, but Brighton have never won a match in which Glenn Murray, Solly March and Jamie Murphy have all started. That hardly looked likely at the King Power Stadium on Saturday.
Huge fan of a red card involving a challenge so dim that you can see it coming a few seconds before it actually happens. Shortly before Arnautovic’s replacement at Stoke was scoring the winner against Arsenal, he committed an offence so stupid it deserves a significant club fine. Silly boy.
Winston Reid stretchered off before the game, Arnautovic embarrassing himself to get sent off and Jose Fonte and Pablo Zabaleta giving away brainless penalties. Slaven Bilic can’t even rely on his key players to play with competence. Bilic’s critics may suggest that they are only following their manager’s example.
We should not lose sight of the fact that this is very funny indeed, but you really do have to question what on earth West Ham’s co-owner is playing at. How on earth is it possibly helpful to lambast the club’s three expensive January signings in the name of social media banter? What does it achieve, other than presumably angering those players and making West Ham look stupid?
Bilic is clearly not blameless in West Ham’s struggles, but the inability of the owners to realise that the tone they set inevitably drips down through the club is the most effective handbrake on progress. At no club in the division is there such an obvious lack of thought and due planning before decisions are made.