Pep Guardiola’s Anfield complex completed a phenomenal week for Arsenal, while Kepa Arrizabalaga and Liverpool both defied their critics.
The concept of title-winning nous in a relatively callow team is a little like job advertisements for teenagers that request five years of prior work experience in the chosen field: it can often be a nonsensical, intangible and contradictory stick with which to beat and undermine someone or something.
One can only ascertain the knowledge and understanding of how to win a title by doing precisely that, at least in a literal sense. Those fluent in footballspeak know grinding out victories when not playing well is a necessary trait of the champion but only through practice can that muscle memory be established.
In the space of seven days, Arsenal have beaten Liverpool by taking the lead on three separate occasions, before travelling almost 2,000 miles and back to win a midweek European game 1-0 on a plastic pitch, then returning to win a difficult away league game despite playing poorly. Mikel Arteta made numerous changes in the interim but his young team still prevailed.
Results like these – weeks like these – strengthen the will and belief both individually and collectively. It cultivates a winning mentality and becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. It’s part of the reason why Arsenal dare to celebrate wins in the way they do.
Even before results elsewhere could be considered, it was an excellent result at Elland Road. William Saliba and Gabriel Magalhaes both seemed nervous and Gabriels Martinelli and Jesus were subdued but Aaron Ramsdale and Granit Xhaka showed impeccable leadership while Martin Odegaard and Bukayo Saka made the telling contribution in the decisive moment. This was the precise kind of game Arsenal would have lost in seasons gone by. It is now the exact sort of experience they can recall in similar struggles.
Manchester City’s stumble at Anfield was a further boon but it was really just the icing on the cake for an Arsenal side developing quite the sweet tooth. Unless you are a Liverpool fan/journalist of course.
Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool inheritance
Four players remain from the Liverpool squad Jurgen Klopp took over from Brendan Rodgers in October 2015. Roberto Firmino has been his player of the season and both Joe Gomez and James Milner were sensational against Manchester City.
Jordan Henderson has a lot to live up to. In Klopp’s time of great need, and amid accusations of favouritism and a reluctance to change, the German was able to rely on those he has worked with the longest at Anfield.
The statistic about Bournemouth being the only Premier League side who have remained unbeaten since they themselves were hammered 9-0 by Liverpool in August is one of the all-time greats.
Bournemouth’s run of fixtures after facing Manchester City, Arsenal and Liverpool in succession – three games they lost by an aggregate score of 16-0 – have been relatively kind. Wolves, Nottingham Forest and Leicester should provide no fear for opposing teams and the Cherries picked ideal times to face Newcastle, Brentford and Fulham.
But their response to such a public humiliation has been remarkable. And as phenomenal a job as caretaker Gary O’Neil has done in tidying up Scott Parker’s almighty mess, all parties deserve credit for not diving unnecessarily into making a snap decision on a permanent appointment. It has been a surprisingly sensible reaction in a sport laughably prone to hysteria.
This remains likely to simply be a great run of form rather than anything more substantial. From the hierarchy to O’Neil and his players, such humility, realism and pragmatism is paying dividends.
In his 100th appearance for Brentford, Ivan Toney scored his 53rd and 54th goals for the club. Only Mo Salah (70), Harry Kane (69) and Jonson Clarke-Harris (55) have netted more times for English clubs since Toney made his Bees debut in September 2020.
He should absolutely be on the England plane, not least because every other potential back-up to Harry Kane is not playing close to as well or with the same confidence as Toney. And good on him for calling out the abhorrent racist abuse he was subjected to the morning after the game. Those who feel perpetrators of such hateful behaviour should not be named publicly for fear of ruining their future or any other such nonsensical excuse are missing the point. There are consequences to our actions and the individual who posted the message is no child – Toney is only three years older. A harsh learning curve, perhaps, but an absolutely imperative one.
It feels strange to praise the world’s most expensive goalkeeper for actually living up to such a lofty status, but Kepa Arrizabalaga has earned this turnaround.
Kepa has shown remarkable mental strength to even make it this far. The 28-year-old seemed doomed after the debacle of the 2019 League Cup final, and failing to save a single penalty while being thoroughly belittled by Liverpool in the 2022 edition’s final, having come on as a substitute specifically for the shootout, felt like the end of his road at Stamford Bridge.
Under his fourth different manager in as many years, Kepa has at least clawed back some pride and dignity. That triple save was wonderful and the stop to keep out the most point blank of Danny Ings headers was stunning.
3.2 – Despite only playing in three matches, Kepa Arrizabalaga has prevented more goals than any other goalkeeper in the Premier League this season with his saves (3.2).
3.2 – Kepa
2.7 – Alisson
2.7 – Pickford
2.6 – Neto
2.2 – Pope
— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) October 16, 2022
It’s hardly the Invincibles but not since November have West Ham been on a longer unbeaten run than their current five games without defeat. They have also come from behind to gain four points from losing positions in their last two Premier League matches. Once David Moyes stops pretending to be confused by the notion of garlic bread and answering his phone by going ‘Wazzup?’, he might be fairly pleased with those signs of necessary progress.
Nottingham Forest snookered themselves somewhat with their pre-match social media shenanigans which fell neatly into the category of ‘ultimately harmless but completely pointless and inevitably used as ammo by the opposition to inspire, motivate and unite’.
“We were aware of it,” said Wolves caretaker Steve Davis. “We were going to use it in the talk, but I spoke to Ruben and he said he already put it on the players’ chat, so I didn’t really need to say any more.”
He added that the post “gave us a little bit more, gave us an edge” and that was clear in the celebrations for Neves’ penalty, Jose Sa’s spot-kick save and as Wolves scrapped to defend a crucial lead. There was a team spirit that had not been present under Bruno Lage for quite some time.
Davis is unlikely to remain in temporary charge; Wolves seem more intent than others to find a more enduring solution to their current predicament. But he will always have that moment and that win. A lifelong supporter of the club cannot ask for much more.
The disconnect between overall fan sentiment and results at Tottenham is startling. The general consensus seems to be that they are not playing particularly well, certain individuals should be dropped, the style is too basic, unimaginative and restrictive and the attacking gameplan is simply for Harry Kane to conjure something out of nothing.
The reality is that Tottenham have never had more points after 10 games of a Premier League season, are the third-highest scorers and only Manchester City have kept more clean sheets.
Yves Bissouma was the perfect substitute against Everton and his reconfiguration is complete. Matt Doherty has been rejuvenated yet again. Eric Dier and Ben Davies look impenetrable. Tottenham did not concede a single shot after the 44th minute. That pilloried midfield of Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg and Rodrigo Bentancur perfectly sums up a team which is picked apart online considerably more often than it is on the pitch.
Antonio Conte is not the most expansive coach but few are as effective. Lament the method but respect the results.
Fulham’s half-time changes
Only two players have been subbed on in 10 Premier League games this season. Eddie Nketiah might at least have expected to play such a role for Arsenal but Tom Cairney was a relative regular and captain for Fulham in the Championship during their promotion campaign; a perpetual place on the bench was not part of his plans.
The midfielder has played 195 minutes across those substitute appearances, while waiting patiently for the sort of starting chance that was mistakenly afforded to Nathaniel Chalobah against Newcastle.
Some players might lose focus and form in that situation but Cairney has remained professional and bided his time. Introduced for the second half against Bournemouth, the 31-year-old still had at least 15 more touches than every Bournemouth player and helped wrestle back control of a game the hosts could not get a foothold in.
Marco Silva’s other half-time change, Willian for Daniel James, had a similarly positive impact as Fulham’s underrated strength in depth came to the fore. It’s surprising what having actual viable options and alternatives can do for a team.
Officially the best defence in England’s top flight. Newcastle have kept 11 clean sheets in 37 Premier League games, the equivalent of one every 3.3 matches. Steve Bruce’s Magpies kept 18 in 84 (one every 4.6) and Eddie Howe’s Bournemouth managed 38 in 190 (one every 5). That is some improvement from a manager who couldn’t coach defensive structure.
With that unexpected new contract has come a shift in approach from Steve Cooper and Nottingham Forest. Unfortunately for them, that has not yet constituted a change in results.
Forest have been far more defensive in their last two games. The 12 shots they restricted Aston Villa to last week had been the second-fewest an opponent managed against Cooper’s team this season, behind only Bournemouth in September. Wolves were kept down to eight attempts, the same as the Cherries managed a month ago, yet Forest contrived to lose both of those games.
Cooper deserves credit for compromising on his ideals in search of an answer but the problem for a manager in his position is that he has nowhere else to go now. He has tried his way and the opposite and both have thus far failed. The only hope is establishing some sort of middle ground but time truly is of the essence.
For such a significant level of summer investment to be at least partially brought down by a self-inflicted gunshot wound in the hunt for online engagement is damning. For exciting academy products to be abused online is pitiful. Many aspects of the club are in complete disarray and it shows.
Rarely before has the ‘This is Anfield’ sign had such a profound impact on an opposition manager. Pep Guardiola repeated those three words during the game and in every single post-match media appearance, so embedded into his psyche is Manchester City’s complex when visiting the red half of Merseyside.
The reaction of the manager and players has confirmed it is certainly A Thing within the squad. And that “soft” nature Guardiola alluded to before the game was once more the chink in an otherwise watertight armour.
Manchester City are far better than they were at coping with adverse circumstances. The improvement in their mentality was clear to see with those dramatic comeback victories at the end of last season which carried into this campaign. But an Anfield packed with fans remains a sticking point which takes them back to their days of inferiority. It was only one game but it is still shocking to see their mortal, petulant side.
That’s what you get for only playing football with the outside of your foot.
“This year we have not seen the continuous improvement in results, performances and league position which we have all been looking for. For this reason we have decided to make a change now to allow time for a new head coach to make an impact.”
Those were the words of chief executive Christian Purslow, explaining why Aston Villa sacked Dean Smith in November 2021. The club were 16th and two points above the relegation zone after 11 games.
Not even those who would see a drop of water in their glass and consider it half full would deem “continuous improvement” to have been delivered by Steven Gerrard. Aston Villa are 16th and one point above the relegation zone after 10 games and considerable investment, with it no clearer what his team’s identity is.
The buck should stop with the hierarchy that pursued him, celebrated his appointment as a coup and have continued to operate with no obvious direction in the transfer market. Sacking Gerrard will not solve Villa’s problems. But it has long felt like an unavoidable course of action. Not that he’ll mind, considering the Liverpool job is waiting for him.
Since Roberto de Zerbi’s appointment as manager, Brighton have won all three of their Premier League games on xG but drawn one and lost two on actual scorelines. Never before has a coach so quickly understood and embraced the heritage of his new club. May he similarly never sign a prolific striker.
It was a home game against Crystal Palace that signalled the end of Claude Puel’s forgettable tenure as Leicester manager. But while Brendan Rodgers avoided the 4-1 defeat which sealed his immediate predecessor’s fate, a goalless draw still resulted in anger, frustration and confusion within the fanbase.
Blaming a slow start and reduction in overall energy levels on it being a “hot day” in mid-October has to sit alongside other such gems as “it’s not just about training players, it’s about educating players. You train dogs”. Even after a respectable draw, Rodgers seems determined to spoil a mood he no longer nurtures.
Losing successive games to Manchester United and Tottenham is no disaster but it does feel ever so slightly as though Everton’s recent improvement was built on quicksand. This was their first game to have been settled by more than one goal this season and Frank Lampard knows his side was thoroughly outclassed in the second half.
He and Everton will justifiably point to presentable chances for Demarai Gray and Amadou Onana before half-time. If the Toffees score one of those it might well have been a different outcome. But Tottenham proved that quantity can often beat quality in this game. Put it this way: don’t expect too much if you have four shots with your last coming in the 43rd minute.
A decent point but 10 teams have scored more goals and that bench was rotten.