The fans were outraged. A plane had been arranged to voice displeasure over his position. Before that, supporters aimed to rip off the banner which had his face and the message ‘The Chosen One’. David Moyes’ post-match, after Manchester United lost heavily at home to Manchester City in March of 2014, was famous for the manager speaking about United having to get to City’s level. That caused some displeasure, to say the least, among the Old Trafford faithful, over their manager stating that the team have to get to the level of a side whom they finished 11 points above in the previous season.

A month later, fans got their wish, Moyes was axed, but it’s been over four years since that statement, and not only do the Scotsman’s words seem true, they have also been echoed by the current United manager. Jose Mourinho says things that many disagree with, and some disagree with the fact United aren’t at City’s ilk because they don’t spend as much, but one thing that’s not debatable is the fact that United are not at City’s ilk.

In the past five seasons since Sir Alex Ferguson retired and Moyes came in, the position differences between City and United have been six, two, one, three and one place respectively, and in none of those seasons have United been the top Mancunian side in the league. In that time, City have been league champions twice, while the only semblance United had of competing in a title race was last season, when they finished 19 points behind, there you go, Manchester City.

Not only are they seemingly on different planes, they look to be heading in different directions. At the start of the season, talk was of whether City would go on to win the title at a canter and with such a margin like last term; while at United focus was on whether there would be Third Season Syndrome with Mourinho at United. It looked to be heading that way in August, after two defeats from their first three league games, it also looked to be heading that way in September, after a hapless loss at West Ham, but things have steadied so far, just one defeat since that game at the Olympic Stadium, at home to a Juventus side whom they beat in Turin last Wednesday.

Yet despite the positives that that win brought, it still says much of the current times that it was deemed as a famous victory, a monumental achievement rather than a norm. It says so much of how far United have fallen that any rise should be celebrated, any punch high is deemed above their weight.

Not that winning against a solid Juventus side shouldn’t be celebrated, beating a hitherto unbeaten side who hadn’t conceded a goal in the Champions League this season until that night is a definite positive. But the sense of inferiority United had going into both games against the Italian champions, shows the fact that the Red Devils will have the underdog tag in big games.

That’s the tag Mourinho seems to have wanted to have with United, the Portuguese has always thrived when seen as the unfancied side, the ‘little horse’ in his words, and that’s the tag United look to be holding so far, not least as they visit the Etihad for the Manchester derby this weekend. The title already seems gone, United already look like outsiders for the top four, so the small fry status is already in play.

Victory at the Etihad is not impossible, neither is it improbable, United have been improving lately, and they did win at the Etihad in April. But this isn’t just about victory. It’s about the fact that the outcome of this game only happens in the moment. The Manchester derby is still a huge game between bitter city rivals, but it is hardly much of a big game involving title rivals.

Elsewhere:

  • Things aren’t going well for Fulham, the Cottagers dropping to the foot of the table after defeat at Huddersfield on Monday night, and it doesn’t look to be getting any better, as they travel to Anfield. It may be a good time to face a Liverpool side who looked awful and commonplace in their Champions League defeat at Red Star Belgrade on Tuesday, but with Fulham not knowing how to defend, advocates of Slavisa Jokanovic will hope the Serb’s future doesn’t hinge on this.
  • After the raving and praise over their start to the season, Wolves have been brought well back down to earth with three defeats in a row. Nuno Esprito Santo’s team visit a high-flying Arsenal side this weekend, so they’ll have to get statement result to get back on their feet.

Fixtures

Arsenal v Wolves

Crystal Palace v Tottenham

Cardiff v Brighton

Chelsea v Everton

Liverpool v Fulham

Manchester City v Manchester United

Huddersfield v West Ham

Leicester v Burnley

Newcastle v Bournemouth

Southampton v Watford

Published in International Watch

Two defeats in 10 league games. Two defeats in 15 in all competitions. You can forgive an Arsenal fan for expecting a higher number in the loss column at this stage of this season back in August. Then, the Gunners began the season with back-to-back defeats, a hapless loss at home to Manchester City and a narrow defeat at Chelsea; the uncertainty that met pre-season was getting replaced with dread just two games into the Unai Emery era.

But the Gunners have rallied since then, unbeaten in the next 13 games to date. In fact they have won all but one of those games, a 2-2 draw at Crystal Palace last weekend, amassing 11 successive wins. The North Londoners haven’t completely convinced in those games, but have managed to get the result, as well as showed signs of things clicking into gear.

One point of note that has caught the eye is the fact that Emery’s side haven’t beaten any side in the Premier League’s current top six, the two games they’ve played against sides in that bracket were the defeats to City and Chelsea. Simply put, the Gunners have beaten the sides below them, and lost to the ones above them, showing that we should neither get carried away, nor fail to see the feel-good atmosphere building at the Emirates.

That feel-good atmosphere is likely to face its biggest test since the opening day of the season, with Liverpool coming to the capital this weekend. Liverpool haven’t show total conviction themselves so far, Jurgen Klopp’s team getting a few hairy wins, but the Reds remain unbeaten in the league and are second, only behind champions City on goal difference. Their fearsome front three haven’t quite clicked into gear so far this season, but look to be on the way, with Sadio Mane bagging a brace and Mohammed Salah getting a goal and two assists last weekend, and, along with Roberto Firmino, are likely to be the biggest test the Gunners defence will face so far.

That backline has been one of the areas which have served as cases in point for sceptics to sniff at Arsenal’s run of form. Emery has seen his side keep just two clean sheets in ten league games so far, owing as much to defensive soft-centeredness as it does to the team acclimatising to the ‘playing from the back’ philosophy. The Gunners have also not started games in the best way this term, they haven’t led at halftime in any league game so far this season.

Those are traits they’d hope to not show this weekend, with a ruthless Liverpool team coming to visit, who, unlike most of the teams Arsenal have faced so far, will hardly offer up any room to recover in games, or make-up for or get away with slapdash defending. But the Gunners are seen as underdogs going into this game, a lack of pressure, unlike the past, that could well play into their hands.

Arsenal have been making progress. No matter how little or flawed, no matter how unconvincing or the sniffs of ‘yeah, but…’- they’ve been making progress. Defeat at home to Liverpool might not even dampen that progress, but it will show how much progress still needs to be made. A win, and suddenly that progress becomes a statement.

Elsewhere:                                                                                                   

  • The last time Southampton went to Manchester City, they suffered a late defeat, and the Saints’ Nathan Redmond was told by opposition manager Pep Guardiola that he didn’t do as much as he could, didn’t do as much as he did in his previous game at the Etihad. In the 34 league games since then, Redmond has scored once, 3.5% of the Saints goals since – which is 28 by the way. The Saints have failed to score in 14 of those 34 games in that time, and haven’t scored in five in the league this season. Doesn’t make for good reading as they visit the champions.
  • Slavisa Jokanovic may have been backed by Shahid Khan lately, but the Serbian knows results have to come much sooner for him to stay in the Fulham job. The Cottagers have conceded 28 goals this season, haven’t kept a single clean sheet so far, and have slipped into the relegation zone in the past couple of weeks. They visit Huddersfield on Monday night, the Terriers themselves in no better mood, as they remain winless in the league. Cliché it; it’s a six-pointer.

Fixtures

Manchester City v Southampton

Chelsea v Crystal Palace

Cardiff v Leicester

Wolves v Tottenham

Bournemouth v Manchester United

Arsenal v Liverpool

Newcastle v Watford

Huddersfield v Fulham

Everton v Brighton

West Ham v Burnley

 

 

Published in International Watch

One on hand: Tottenham Hotspur look fatigued and unable to convince and kill-off games, managing meagre one-nil wins that sometimes relied on luck in the league while flailing in Europe, lie outside the top four, and are bound be found out on the domestic front sooner or later. On the other: Tottenham Hotspur may look fatigued and spent, but an injury-hit side are managing to grab league wins despite all not going well, are only two points off the top of the table, have been unlucky in games in Europe, and are bound to find their groove sooner than later.

Either way you look at it, Spurs are not particularly everyone’s go-to side for comfort and well-being right now, Mauricio Pochettino’s side coming off a damaging draw at PSV in the Champions League in midweek, which leaves them with just one point from three games, and on the tethers of group stage elimination for the second time in three seasons. On the domestic front, things are quite better, Spurs haven’t lost since mid-September, have garnered four successive league wins, with three successive clean sheets.

But if those wins have been helpful, they’ve been far from convincing, a 2-1 win at Brighton, 2-0 at Huddersfield, then 1-0 victories at home Cardiff and at West Ham, some of which they have been a bit lucky, especially the win at the London stadium. It’s almost a contrast to their European fortunes, Spurs winning without really being at optimum in the league, while on the continental front, they’ve looked in control in two games, but have gotten a point from both matches combined.

Yet, despite their lack of conviction, the Lilywhites lie just two points off the top, in fifth place. Their run has been effective, if nothing else; but on Monday night, they’ll surely finally need to show semblances of sustained persuasion, with champions Manchester City coming to town. The holders are also the league leaders, who dismissed Burnley last weekend without really having to leave third gear. City have the best attack in the league, and their current goal difference section trumps the goal scored of every other team in the division, absurd form.

That’s just an inkling of the task that lies before them, not that the North Londoners wouldn’t know the full scale of it, though, having lost both games lasts season to the champions by an aggregate score of 7-2. But the silver lining is if Spurs find that missing gear, pull off a performance that has made so likeable and formidable under Pochettino, they could as well end the tenth week of the season in top spot.

But you need more than just an extra gear to take on this City side, you need a complete optimum performance, both up front, in the middle, and at the back, as well as the stars to align and god of footballing luck to be rooting for you. For a Spurs team still having injury problems in the side and not in the best mood, that seems to be asking quite a lot.

This has the look of a game where Spurs will either step up to the plate and produce a top performance, the kind that can really kick-start a season; or be brought well back down to earth and given a harsh lesson on how much ground they still have to make up, and how much they need to be at full-strength. Either way, if they’ve been playing on luck all this time, it will have to run out.

Elsewhere:

  • Another weekend, another must-win game for Newcastle, who have sunk to the foot of the table. But this time, the same can be said of their opponents; as an increasingly toothless Southampton side host the Toon, with four places and four points separating both sides. This wreaks of a goalless draw, so we have to jinx it.
  • For Huddersfield, their trip to Watford also has the look of one which victory is not optional. The Terriers gave a much-improved performance at home to Liverpool last weekend, and that might set them in a decent mood ahead of a trip to the only side against whom they have a 100% Premier League record.
  • The last time Everton came to Old Trafford, a Ronald Koeman-led Toffees were starting to come under pressure, as they lost heavily to a Manchester United side with so much attacking abandon then, their manager accused them of ‘PlayStation’ football. Things are different this time, Marco Silva’s Everton have won three in a row, and are a point and two places above a United side that still bears semblance to an unstable nuclear reactor. Jose Mourinho’s men can ill-afford not to win at home.

Fixtures

Liverpool v Cardiff

Crystal Palace v Arsenal

Watford v Huddersfield

Fulham v Bournemouth

Southampton v Newcastle

Manchester United v Everton

Leicester v West Ham

Brighton v Wolves

Burnley v Chelsea

Tottenham v Manchester City

Published in International Watch

 

If ever you could say a club are doing a ‘go unnoticed’ challenge at the moment, then it’s Arsenal. The Gunners have won nine successive games in all competitions, have the second-best attack so far, have won four straight away games for the first in almost two years, have racked up 60% of their away league goals of last season, and are just two points off the top of the table. Yet Unai Emery’s men have hardly graced the spotlight, operating in the shadows, unnoticed but effective.

Perhaps there is a fair amount of reasoning to that. The Gunners are still adapting to life under Emery and the sense of building up expectation this early is still very much ill-advised. But life under Emery is going well so far, and there’s a different feel to things as an Arsenal fan, no sense of dread at the expected fatalism that’s bound to come, rather than continuing to dive into the unknown with a sense of adventure and excitement.

There’s no building angst for home games, and away matches are not approached with a defeatist atmosphere even before kick-off, as it had been for some time in the past. Players have also spoke of the increased intensity in training, which has shown in matches, and there’ also being improvements in forms of players, the likes of Hector Bellerin and Alex Iwobi finding their feet after an almost regressive stagnation last term.

There’s always the check on Arsenal’s form, on the point that the defence still looks very much shaky, and has only kept two clean sheets so far. Plus, there’s the fact that for all of Arsenal’s improvements, they’ve hardly completely convincing, and the highest-placed side they’ve beaten in the league so far are ninth-placed Watford; the two games in which they’ve come up against teams whose levels they aim to get to, they’ve suffered defeat, played off the park on home soil by Manchester City on the opening day, before looking defensively haphazard at Chelsea a week after.

So, it’s important to keep things in perspective. The Gunners host Leicester on Monday night, and with the glass half-empty perspective of their form meaning that every win so far has come with at least an ounce of ‘yeah, but’, this is not the time to slack off. Because nobody expects the problems that have dogged Arsenal to be gone after just four months, wins will still be met with scepticism for now, and failures to attain victory will be followed up by derisive snorts of ‘see, there you go’.

But right now, the Gunners should continue to go about their business quietly and away from the limelight. Operating in the shadows hasn’t failed them so far, and the chance of a perfect ten looms very large.

Elsewhere:

  • It’s a return to Stamford Bridge for Jose Mourinho, as he takes his squad on another save-the-boss quest, this time in a trip to the capital. Whether their comeback win over Newcastle was a form of defeating defiance or a turning point will certainly get more evidence, as they face a Chelsea side with a number 10 in absurdly good form.
  • Sit back and ignore them and check the scores after, or see them on the goal rush, it’s the first six-pointers of the season. First off, bottom-placed Cardiff host fourth from bottom Fulham, with the Welsh side still seeking their first win of the season; a clash of lacklustre attack against leaky defence. Then the other is the clash between Newcastle, second from bottom, host Brighton, six points ahead of the Toon.

 

  • Sticking with the bottom-dwellers, Southampton are winless in five league games, losing four, their only win of the season coming in a game where they managed to be so poor yet won at Crystal Palace. The Saints visit sixth-placed Bournemouth (can’t believe that was mentioned so casually), and a defeat at the Vitality stadium will surely see the start building on Mark Hughes at the South Coast… or maybe not.

Fixtures

Arsenal v Leicester

Chelsea v Manchester United

Everton v Crystal Palace

Bournemouth v Southampton

Wolves v Watford

Huddersfield v Liverpool

Manchester City v Burnley

Cardiff v Fulham

Newcastle United v Brighton

West Ham v Tottenham

 

Published in International Watch

The climb. The climb is strenuous. Harsh and gruelling. Every move done with care and thoughtfulness; the climb may be hard but the fall is unpleasant. But there are not many better feelings than a successful climb. You get to the top of the mountain, and amidst the satisfaction and sense of accomplishment, you savour the view from the top. But here’s one thing you overlook when standing at the top, one thing you never think of when admiring that sight from up above: the only way now is down. The climb was gruelling and rewarding, but to be mobile and prevent stagnation, the only move you have is to go lower. The cruel and unyielding reality that is.

So, Mohammed Salah. The Premier League’s latest golden boot winner. The record-breaker for goals in a 38-game season. 32 league goals. 44 in all competitions. The man who reached ludicrous heights for Liverpool last season. There were always going to be eyes around waiting for Salah in his second season at Anfield, can he do it again? 44 goals as a winger is a preposterous record, expecting it to be done more than once at any point is a little impractical, expecting it to be done in successive seasons is almost herculean.

But that’s the issue Salah faces now. Because he bagged over 40 last term, a current read of three league goals in three months is almost unacceptable by the Egyptian’s standards. But should those be his standards? Shouldn’t there be a difference between reaching a height, and setting a bar? In this modern football world of black and white, perhaps. Don’t meet up to your previously supercilious standards and you’re disappointing. Don’t recreate such outrageous levels you once did and you’re criminally underperforming. Leicester City’s fairy-tale league-winning season will never be forgotten, yet the fact that they’re on a third manager since then means they’ve struggled to get out of the shadow of that 2015/16 season: the Foxes know that season was a one-off and can hardly ever be repeated, yet a taste of what has been achieved, however unfancied or unlikely to happen again, is also a prospect of what can be achieved.

Failure, in most cases, is relative. Little success is comparatively seen as no success. So, in the eyes of many, Mohammed Salah is currently failing, as a result of three league goals of in seven games, his current goal to games ratio in the league will be absurdly compared to that of the whole of last season; 0.4 to 0.8. In truth, Salah has looked less of himself, not just in the goals, but his overall influence on a game, his movement et al. But again, failure is relative, which means this would have been next to no big deal had Salah scored, say, 14 goals last term.

However, this is what Salah has to live with now, and the onus is on him to return to a semblance of last season’s form. And what better way to make known your that you’re still king, than with a top performance against the champions. Liverpool host Manchester City this weekend, a side they beat in three out of four games last season, Salah scoring against City in each of those three victories. The Reds have been tipped by many as the side to run City close in the league this season, so a this game poses a chance to make a statement that they can indeed push the champions to the limit, and for Salah it represents a chance to make a personal statement of his own.

Salah will probably not reach the level he did last term, and he’ll probably not avoid the analysis that will come with that. But he can start to find a middle ground, a consistent level of performance that shows he’s no one-off and takes him out of the shadows of last season’s heights. The only way from the top of the mountain is down, but it’s up to Salah to land, not fall.

Elsewhere:

  • Things are at a stage for Manchester United, where every failure is met with a dagger of criticism, whether or not it’s merited, whether or not it’s over the top. They host winless Newcastle this weekend, a game Jose Mourinho has described not winning as unacceptable. Right now, that’s quite an understatement.
  • Fulham have been branded as entertainers in the Premier League so far, but that’s starting to look like a smokescreen tag to cover their failings, the Cottagers are one place above the relegation zone, with just one win all-season. So perhaps this is not the best time to face an Arsenal side who have won eight games in a row, and despite their entire lack of convictions, will be chockfull of confidence as they travel to West London.
  • And in the biggest contender for least exciting match of the weekend, Huddersfield travel to Burnley this weekend. The Terriers are lodged at the bottom of the table, winless and remarkably toothless, and it’s not outlandish, even this early, to say this game is vital to their survival chances.

Fixtures

Manchester United v Newcastle

Burnley v Huddersfield

Crystal Palace v Wolves

Leicester v Everton

Southampton v Chelsea

Tottenham v Cardiff

Watford v Bournemouth

Fulham v Arsenal

Liverpool v Manchester City

Published in International Watch

Time will never not keep making fools of us. A year ago, a meeting between Chelsea and Liverpool had very different headlines; the champions against a Reds side who are soft-centred and increasingly vulnerable at the back, a game between Antonio Conte’s Blues who rose to every adversity and Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool side who didn’t look like they could compete on two fronts. When the season began, this fixture, still some two months away back then, was seen as a Chelsea side who’d take an enormous amount of time to achieve cohesion and buy into Maurizio Sarri’s philosophy against a Liverpool team who are Champions League finalists and now look the most furnished to challenge league champions Manchester City.

It’s still mostly seen as the latter, but Chelsea beginning the season in much more upbeat fashion than many thought makes it look like both sides are closer than initially assumed. Not that Sarri is among those who think so. ‘They (Liverpool) are a step ahead of us at the moment’ said the Italian manager. ‘We have started to work all together only about 40 days ago, less 10 for the international break, so for us it’s a bit early. We have to work then, maybe, in one year we will be at the same level as Liverpool’.

Chelsea began the season with five league wins from five, then preceded to play out a goalless draw at West Ham in their sixth, in a game that serves a timely reminder that the Blues are far from fully acclimatised to Sarri-ball. ‘We need to move the ball quicker, I think’ Sarri added. ‘We need more improvement without the ball. We are improving in the defensive phase. In the last two or three matches we’ve done very well. But we have to improve in the offensive phase, especially in this kind of match’.

And the Italian is not wrong on the Blues having to improve on the offensive and defensive fronts. Liverpool are increasingly becoming a balanced side, offensively formidable and defensively resolute, which means Chelsea have to set up an unlockable defence and find a key up front. Eden Hazard has shown he could be that key, the Belgian skipper who seems to be enjoying life under Sarri, and whose moment of individual audacity decided events when both teams met in the League Cup on Wednesday.

That game may be likely to be taken in sequestration, as League Cup fixtures generally are, but it should do no harm to Chelsea’s confidence as they host the would-be champions this Saturday. Chelsea are still as a bit of underdogs in this game, but the Blues have always seemed to love being in unfancied positions, and coming up with the goods.

For the acclimatisation that the Blues still have to do, for all the general consensus about Liverpool being a cut above the Blues, a win at Stamford Bridge this weekend and the Blues go above them, and have a chance of starting October as the country’s top side. It’s always being parlous to write them off.

Elsewhere:

  • Newcastle know they can ill-afford another result that’s not a win, especially at home. Rafa Benitez’s Toon Army host Leicester this weekend, and there’s the fear of whether the Spaniard’s demeanour over players is rubbing off on the squad. Another defeat, and the questions won’t go away.
  • A win at Everton, a clean sheet against Chelsea, West Ham are starting to look an actual team, with a plan. But whatever progress they’ve made will be tested this weekend when they host Manchester United. United are not in the most bubbly mood themselves, with potential civil war and mutiny probably making it the right time to face the Red Devils.
  • Cardiff remain winless, and the Bluebirds still seek lift-off. They host Burnley this weekend, who, for all their overachievement last season and them getting their first win last weekend, are the kind of opponents whom a win against won’t be too fanciful.

Fixtures

West Ham v Manchester United

Arsenal v Watford

Cardiff v Burnley

Everton v Fulham

Chelsea v Liverpool

Huddersfield v Tottenham

Manchester City v Brighton

Newcastle v Leicester

Wolves v Southampton

Bournemouth v Crystal Palace

Published in International Watch

Despite his ultimate fate of having two fatal bullets put in him, it was hard to not admire Paul Devereaux in Frederick Forsyth’s The Cobra. The meticulous Sun Tzu-admiring retiree who’s ability to disrupt calm with chaos is as enviable as his knack for exuding calm in chaos, he was the Cobra after all.

But in terms of admiration and giving due credit, Devereaux’s old foe-turned-friend is also worth a mention and a half. Cal Dexter was just as calm and collected as Devereaux, not least when it came to operating in the field, every move calculated, every tactic to the point, every act done with caution. Dexter was cautious in the project to curb drug-dealing in the United States, yet when seeing the tons of seized and intercepted cocaine in storage, the temptation to let caution to the wind rose. Dexter just about had to know what it felt, what the rush was all about.

Then he took a little chunk, then another, and another, and then some other. Dexter never crossed over to the dark side of narcotics and became a druggie, but he just had to know, perhaps his mind was troubled by a mix of, ‘what does it feel like’, ‘throw caution to the wind’ and ‘live a little’.

None of which should bring us to Rafa Benitez, but somehow will. Newcastle’s manager has always been a man of calm, collected and calculated caution in the dugout, the man who ‘celebrates’ his side scoring with what FourFourTwo once referred to as the ‘buzzkill’ ‘celebration’. A man whose reaction to Liverpool’s first goal in that famous night against Olympiakos in December of 2004 was a detached look at his watch, and even after the final whistle, after the miracle was completed, his facial mien barely changed.

No one is a stranger to Benitez’s continuous displeasure and complaints over Newcastle’s reluctance to substantially act in transfer windows, his hinted excuse whenever he’s asked about his side being cautious and going safety-first. Short blanket analogies have been made, calls for understanding as well, ‘I can only play the hand I’ve been dealt’ is the message keeps Benitez trying to pass across. In this poker game of the Premier League, Newcastle have been nit, folding, mucking. Four of their first five games of the season so far were against Spurs, Chelsea, Manchester City, Arsenal, so the cautious and damage-limitation attitude was more than understandable, so were the defeats that followed.

But the reality is the Toon have lost their first three home games of the season for the first time since 1987, have just a point so far (away at Cardiff), and are in the lower reaches of the table. As they proved last season, in games against sides of similar ilk, the Magpies are capable of doing more than enough. So, after their recent game-plans of preparing to take beatings, a trip to Selhurst Park to face Crystal Palace this weekend is surely a game where Newcastle should throw punches of their own, as they bid to get their season up and running.

Benitez has been playing the hand he’s been dealt, but this surely has to be time to go all-in. Throw caution to the wind, Toon, it’s surely time to see what getting high feels like.

Elsewhere:

  • Cardiff are also winless in the league, last weekend’s loss at Stamford Bridge had Neil Warnock fuming over mistakes the side made. They can ill-afford any errors this weekend as well, as Champions Manchester City come to town, although their only previous Premier League meeting with City in South Wales ended in a famous 3-2 win back in 2013. How they could do with something similar again.
  • Last weekend was a shambles for Leicester, a 4-2 humbling at Bournemouth in a game which saw them exposed at the back, and their skipper Wes Morgan saw red. Perhaps the unavailability of Morgan is a blessing to the Foxes, as their captain has looked off the pace for a while now. Johnny Evans is likely to come in for the home game against Huddersfield, and it seems like the right time for the Ulsterman to start forging a lasting partnership with Harry Maguire in defence.
  • For Spurs, another defeat is nigh-unthinkable. Three losses in a row has brought the question of whether the squad is tired, complacent, or in decline. Some, all or none of the assertions may be true, but a win at Brighton this Saturday is imperative. The Seagulls, however, are a threat from, among other routes, set-pieces, where Spurs have been vulnerable so far, seven of their nine goals conceded in all competitions have been headers.
  • Watford’s start to the season has been impressive, despite defeat at home to Manchester United last time out. That loss to the Red Devils, where they came close to snatching a point, was their first setback of the season, but how they bounce back will be of interest to a few. Recover well, and win at Fulham this weekend, and their start to the season looks even less of a fluke.

Fixtures

Cardiff v Manchester City

Crystal Palace v Newcastle

Leicester v Huddersfield

Liverpool v Southampton

Brighton v Tottenham

Manchester United v Wolves

Fulham v Watford

Arsenal v Everton

West Ham v Chelsea

Burnley v Bournemouth

Published in International Watch

For a West Ham fan, it wasn’t too hard to sense this. Following the cautious optimism that crept in in the summer, of course something had to burst that bubble. After all, it’s West Ham, where sanguinity and hope are almost destined to be short-lived.

The arrival of Manuel Pellegrini to the dugout in the summer, as well as the signings of Felipe Anderson and Andriy Yarmolenko among others, brought something of a feel-good factor to East London, a manager and a set of players to finally do things the ‘West Ham way’. But four defeats out of four so far this season, and things feel sullen again, the Hammers lie bottom of league table, having scored only twice so far. In fairness to them, two of those defeats have come away at Liverpool and Arsenal, the latter of which they showed signs of positivity and could consider themselves unlucky to have lost, but home losses to Bournemouth and Wolves are the principal causes for concern.

West Ham were always going to need time to become cohesive this season, and they still do, but this sort of start means that panic button is starting to glisten, and it doesn’t look like it might get better soon. The Irons have a trip to Everton this weekend, followed by three home games against Chelsea, Manchester United and Tottenham, with a trip to Brighton somewhere in-between.

Hence, the visit to Goodison Park bears some form of semblance to a must-win game: lose, and there’s pressure on Pellegrini to deliver results in the games where his side are meant to be the underdogs. Lose, and the jeers might start coming in louder. Lose, and the not-so rational Hammers board will just about start considering the manager’s fate.

Everton themselves are in no formidable form, despite being unbeaten so far. The Toffees have won just once this season, their last two league outings have involved blowing a two-goal lead at Bournemouth and looking tepid in a draw at home to Huddersfield. Marco Silva’s side look less fluid and threatening up front without the suspended Richarlison, who serves the final of his three-game ban. For a side who have looked soft in the centre, either in defensive midfield or in defence itself, West Ham might just be playing the most appropriate opponents to help them out of their rut and ease their trepidation, but the history books are not on their side, Everton haven’t beaten any side as much as they’ve beaten the Hammers in the league (24 wins), and have scored against them more than they have any other side as well (80 goals).

There have been some positive signs for West Ham in their past three league games, plus the League Cup win over Wimbledon, and in truth it would be outlandish for the Hammers board to dismiss Pellegrini four games into a project that will certainly take a fair amount of time. But in this game of ruthlessness that is the Premier League, panic sets in quick, projects go out the window when trouble comes, and short-termism takes hold, as managers have found out all too often. Pellegrini is no stranger to the managerial revolving door, and he’ll know there’s only so much time positive signs can buy you if there’s a continued lack of substance.

Elsewhere:

  • Liverpool have four wins from four, but haven’t quite convinced. The question so far is whether the Reds are lacking fluidity or learning how to win ugly. Right now, it seems like a bit of both. The Reds face their biggest test so far this weekend, when they face Spurs at Wembley. In fact, it’s the start of a testing run for Jurgen Klopp’s side, with a Champions League home game against Paris St. Germain, as well as League Cup and league clashes with Chelsea this month, and then meetings with Napoli and Manchester City at the start of October. The sort of games to truly test how much they’ve improved from last season.
  • Speaking of tests, Watford passed one excellently right before the international break, the Hornets coming from to beat Spurs and maintain their 100% start to the league. Another test comes their way in the form of Manchester United. United are far from settled though, and for a Watford side who have used the same startling line-up in all four league games so far, this should be worth a go.
  • Newcastle have setup to defend in their past two games (putting it lightly), but given that those games were against Chelsea and at home to Manchester City, you could hardly begrudge Rafa Benitez opting for (the ultimately inevitable failed tactic of) ultra-caution. Now with Arsenal coming to St. James’ Park this weekend, another defensive setup wouldn’t be out of the picture. But Arsenal have looked vulnerable when gotten at so far this season, and they did lose here in April.
  • Crystal Palace travel to the John Smith’s to face Huddersfield this weekend. Palace haven’t scored in two of their games this season, have a striker who can’t seem to find the net, and are waiting on the fitness of Wilfried Zaha, whom they can’t seem to score without. Huddersfield have scored twice this season, from a corner and a throw-in, and have failed to score in more than half of their 42 Premier League games since last season. This might have jinxed it, but it doesn’t make for the most anticipated game.
  • It’s that time of the season when we take a deep breath and ask the big question: when will we see Fabinho turn out for Liverpool?

Fixtures

Chelsea v Cardiff

Huddersfield v Crystal Palace

Watford v Manchester United

Tottenham v Liverpool

Newcastle v Arsenal

Everton v West Ham

Southampton v Brighton

Wolves v Burnley

Manchester City v Fulham

Bournemouth v Leicester

Published in International Watch

 

There’s something surprisingly quite normal about the top of the table at this embryonic stage of the Premier League season, Liverpool, Tottenham and Chelsea making up three of the current top four. That three sides are part of the four teams with 100% records so far is barely surprising, even despite the Blues being at infancy stage under Maurizio Sarri and Spurs having spent nil in the summer transfer window.

But take a look at the fourth side completing the current Champions League quartet, and there’s a touch of normalcy over an unfancied side being that high, mixed with a side of surprise that the team is Watford. The same Watford that have never had a manager for more than a season since 2013, that are having a manager who finished a season start the next one for the first time since 2014. It’s the same Hornets whose form away from home last term was horrendous, and whose previous season petered out in the final months. They were tipped by many for relegation, especially after losing Richarlison, and manager Javi Gracia was seen by many as the first to get the sack.

It could still happen, Gracia might well still be the first manager to get the boot, and Watford are far from immune to relegation talk right now, but three wins from three, with seven goals scored and two conceded, make for very good reading. ‘I have no complaint with our start), really’ said Gracia to Spanish newspaper AS. ‘And less with this beginning of the season, so… you see everything looks better’.

Gracia does deserve credit for the way the team has begun this season. The first few weeks of Watford’s previous Premier League seasons have always symbolised a raft of changes and a side whose cohesion was a work in progress, but not this time; the summer transfer activity was minimal, and Gracia is taking it slow to insert his new signings into the side, Ben Foster the only summer arrival that has really been part of the first-team furniture so far. The notable change has been with the system rather than personnel, a 4-4-2 style that seems to suit the squad, not least Will Hughes and Roberto Pereyra, and perhaps the primary reason behind their upbeat start to the campaign.

Despite the feel-good atmosphere and the praise that deservedly comes with the Hornets’ start to the campaign, though, it’s worth noting that those triad of games have come against Brighton, Burnley and Crystal Palace, games you might not expect them to win, but certainly won’t be surprised if they did. And so, when Spurs come to Vicarage Road on Sunday, that is likely to be the first real test Watford will go up against this season. Spurs are in a buoyant mood of their own, as they also have three wins from three, the latest of which was that victory at Old Trafford.

Watford don’t have the best previous when it comes to facing Spurs in the league, their record reads one draw and five defeats since gaining promotion in 2015. But as they have shown with their start to this season, they’re paying little attention to recent past.

Elsewhere

  • Three- number of league games played each so far this season.
    Three- number of points Manchester United have this season.
    Three- number of goals United conceded in that defeat to Spurs on Monday night.
    Three- number of Premier League titles Jose Mourinho has won, as he pointed out.
    Three- number of defeats United could have this season if Burnley pull off a disrespectful result at home to the Red Devils.
  • Imagine that theme playing in Avengers: Infinity War, when Thanos steps into Wakanda, that air of inevitability and realisation of defeat that came with the entrance of Josh Brolin’s character. A bit much? Perhaps, but it’s not hard to liken that mood to what’s bound to happen when Newcastle face Manchester City this weekend, a fixture in which the Magpies haven’t celebrated victory since George Bush was America’s president. Their start to the season and the usual angst that comes with Mike Ashley tightening the summer purse strings haven’t helped.
  • Three wins into the season, yet it’s not too early to say that Southampton’s game at Crystal Palace is a must-win. The Saints have one point from their opening three games, but their biggest problem of failing to find a way to score remains, the lack of invention that comes with the Saints in the final third is still palpable.
  • Speaking of might-be-must-wins, West Ham host Wolves this weekend, and after three defeats from three, victory here would come in handy for the Irons, though Wolves, having given champions Manchester City a run for their money last weekend, will be no less-difficult than the previous opposition.

Fixtures

Manchester City v Newcastle

Watford v Tottenham

West Ham v Wolves

Crystal Palace v Southampton

Burnley v Manchester United

Brighton v Fulham

Cardiff v Arsenal

Everton v Huddersfield

Leicester v Liverpool

Chelsea v Bournemouth

Published in International Watch

It’s that time again, a Jose Mourinho third season at the same club, where things are expected to go south. Players are expected to fall out of favour, a title challenge is expected to be non-existent, and a potential physio may well be the on cusp of the limelight. As it stands, the first one looks in full flow, and the second is anticipated to follow. But is it really?

By the start of pre-season, Mourinho had seemingly already begun fuelling bad blood, talking about how Paul Pogba, recently crowned a world champion with France, should replicate his best performances with France for Manchester United, and then criticising Anthony Martial for spending too long away from training after the birth of his child. Then came the dissatisfaction over a lack of signings, how second-place last season was an achievement for United, how the players were not happy, and how the media portrayed the other clubs as gems, despite them winning little.

But what’s so wrong with that? What’s wrong with challenging your club’s most expensive signing to shake off his palpable inconsistency? It’s a source of no surprise to say Pogba hasn’t quite played to his ability since re-joining United from Juventus in 2016, and that he definitely hasn’t played with any consistency. So, when Mourinho watched Pogba put in his consistent best with the French national team in Russia, surely he had every right to demand the same level of dependability from the man who has begun the season as his captain. That Pogba put in a masterclass on the opening night of the season against Leicester and then produced a shambles a week after at Brighton only serves up Jose’s point of clamour on a silver platter.

Then there’s the racket over a lack of signings. United spent almost 50million to lure Fred from Shakhtar Donetsk, a seemingly solid signing, yet their other two transfer activities involved 19-year-old Diogo Dalot joining and the signing of a backup goalkeeper in Lee Grant. Surely, Jose could be excused for feeling begrudged over that. His ultimately futile search to sign a centre-back this summer shows his conviction that it is an area that requires bolstering, and also shows him being left hanging by United. The Red Devils possess five centre-backs in the side, yet anyone who’s ever watched them would know they are likely to cost you a title than get you one. United look like being at the point where the priority is more on ‘Super Club’ than stronger team, hence the fact that they signed as many players as they signed new sponsors this summer.

And then there is Mourinho stating that finishing second was an achievement. On face value, definitely not: finishing second with occasionally dour football and getting knocked out of the Champions League last 16 by Sevilla at Old Trafford is no cause for partying. On a deeper look, it probably still isn’t quite the achievement to finish 19 points off the champions in a league season. But United clocked 81 points last term, higher than they’ve ever done since Sir Alex Ferguson left, and bagged a top-three finish for the first time since… you guessed it, under Fergie. Part of the reasons their achievement- or non-achievement- seemed so banal was because Manchester City produced the extraordinary, doing an excellent job of being that brother whose accomplishments yours just won’t match, no matter how big they are. City’s manager Pep Guardiola has received merited praise for his swash and buckle style of play, and his ability to foster remarkable improvements in his players, but there’s also the case of City spending in the transfer window last term; areas of weakness bolstered, players unsuited let go, and improvements began. Mourinho hasn’t quite had that at the Theatre of Dreams. Sure, what’s a coach’s job if he can’t improve his side, actually coach, and garner a team greater than the sum of its parts, yet there’s only so much a coach can do. That United are suddenly playing the ‘sell before acquiring game’ means they are likely to have a bloated squad, with too many doing too little, as they are now.

And so, crisis. August and the C-word is already being used in Red Manchester. But is it really the time for the C-word? The defeat at Brighton was undoubtedly hapless, and the win against Leicester before that had its ‘what ifs’ and ‘yeah, but’s’, and Mourinho’s track record and fiery personality is likely to make him at the centre of any ticking time bomb about to go off, but surely it’s a touch over the top. Despite the pre-season kerfuffle, it’s still early in the campaign, rusty performances are not unexpected, and Jose Mourinho going off in the media means he’s being Jose Mourinho.

However, we probably are not probably to wait and see, rather assume that the Portuguese’s house of cards will fall off soon. After all, by December, we should be vindicated

So, as Spurs come to town on Monday night, it’s a case of the world watching, for the crisis to take another step closer, for another bump in the inevitable Mourinho-United crash and burn. Roll up your sleeves and brace for impact, Jose.

Elsewhere

  • No such supposed crisis at Chelsea, who have begun the season with two electric-yet-shaky wins in two games. They head to Newcastle next, where no Chelsea manager has won since Andre Villas-Boas did in 2011.
  • Last November it was Puel’s Not Good Enough against Puel’s Definitely Good Enough. Now it’s Puel’s Not Good Enough against Is Puel Not Good Enough. Leicester quelled talk of their manager Claude Puel being on the verge of the sack with that win over Wolves last weekend, and they head to Southampton, who continue to struggle to put the ball in the net. The Foxes will be without the suspended Jamie Vardy, but a win here isn’t fanciful, and it would surely start making Mark Hughes a little uncomfortable in the Saints dugout.
  • Two defeats in two for Arsenal in their start to the season, as the expected teething problems continue. That those two losses were against Manchester City and Chelsea buys Unai Emery more than enough slack, but with West Ham- also pointless after two game- coming to town, steady progress will be expected to get substantial points on the board soon. At least one manager is likely to have another sore week. Welcome to the job, lads.
  • And with Cardiff going to Huddersfield this weekend, whose penalty will Neil Etheridge save next?

Fixtures

Manchester United v Tottenham (Monday Night)

Southampton v Leicester

Liverpool v Brighton

Newcastle v Chelsea

Watford v Crystal Palace

Bournemouth v Everton

Wolves v Manchester City

Arsenal v West Ham

Fulham v Burnley

Huddersfield v Cardiff

 

 

Published in International Watch

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