Another week in the books, a whole lot of controversy arising from multiple games and some of the worst defending the Premier League has ever seen.
This season is shaping up to be very interesting for a number of reasons, not least of them the fact that Leicester, Everton and Aston Villa currently sit in the top four alongside Liverpool. Only Leicester and the Merseyside clubs have won three from three, with Villa sitting on two wins from two.
Those teams will be delighted with their starts, others will be happy about good performances or good results, while a couple will be extremely worried about how they’ve opened up.
With that in mind, here’s the good, the bad, and the ugly from matchweek three.
First points on the board for West Ham:
When the computer within the Premier League headquarters spat out this season’s fixtures, it did West Ham no favours. Newcastle at home in their first game seemed a winnable game but it was followed by six games against teams who finished in the top eight last season. After defeat to Toon, many West Ham fans must have been looking at the fixtures and wondering where their first points would come from.
Arsenal, Wolves, Leicester, Tottenham, Manchester City and Liverpool were the games that lay ahead, and the outlook was bleak. Despite losing to Arsenal, the Hammers showed plenty of fight and carried that into their home game against Wolves. Aided by some appalling defending by their visitors from the Midlands, more on that in a bit, West Ham romped to victory with a very impressive 4-0 victory.
Pablo Fornals, Jarrod Bowen and Michail Antonio caused Wolves endless problems, while the midfield pairing of Tomas Soucek and Declan Rice controlled the centre of the pitch admirably. Bowen opened the scoring, and then added a second, to get himself off the mark for the season. He’s going to be hugely important to West Ham this season if they are to beat the drop. These three points get them going in the right direction.
Leeds United’s diverse tactics, and continued ambition:
After giving a good account of themselves on the opening day against Liverpool, followed by winning a seven goal slugest against Fulham, Leeds settled down with a hard fought 1-0 win away to Yorkshire rivals, Sheffield United. In a match between two of the best tacticians in the division, it was Marcelo Bielsa who took the spoils over Chris Wilder, with subtle changes to the shape and style paving the way for victory.
After playing a 4-1-4-1 in their opening pair of Leeds games, Leeds switched to 3-1-4-2 to give Bielsa his desired “plus one” in defense, and it worked very well. Leeds were able to limited the Blades to mostly half chances, those they did rely on Meslier to pull off two very impressive saves. A second win and first clean sheet means Leeds can be very happy with their start to Premier League life.
It might get even better for the men from Elland Road as they continue to push the envelope in the transfer market. Having already added German international Robin Koch, as well as Spanish internationals Diego Llorente and Rodrigo, Leeds had been chasing Argentine international Rodrigo DePaul but seem to have hit a bit of a dead end in that pursuit. Fear not, there’s a plan B in place. Reports over the weekend claim that Bayern Munich’s French midfielder Michael Cuisance and Norwich’s Todd Cantwell could both be heading to Elland Road.
Cuisance is a classy, left footed box to box player with excellent passing range and a fantastic engine. He could be the perfect compliment to Kalvin Phillips in midfield, while Cantwell could fill a number of roles in the squad and is potentially seen as a successor to Pablo Hernandez. While neither is quite of DePaul’s level at the minute, as a pair they could represent better business for Victor Orta and company.
Leicester City shaking off last season:
The possibility of Leicester carrying over the terrible form they displayed from January onwards last season, especially post lock-down where they somehow managed to throw away a near-certain top 4 finish, had to be a worry for Foxes fans. Brendan Rodgers and his men seemed to lose their way, and then their confidence, as Champions League football slipped through their grasp. Brendan has struggled to turn things around in the past when his teams form has collapsed, but seemingly not this team.
After a comfortable win on the opening day against West Brom, Leicester beat Burnley 4-2 and headed into the Etihad feeling confident. A Jamie Vardy hat-trick, a worldie from James Maddison and a late penalty by Youri Tielemans later, and they were heading home with a 5-2 win to their name.
Leicester aren’t yet playing close to the best level, they’re still without a couple of key starters, but three wins from three is a perfect start. They’re scoring for fun, Harvey Barnes and Jamie Vardy are both off to flying starts and they’re making it work at the back despite key absences. There’s a long way to go, but the early signs are promising for the Foxes.
It’s often been said that while it’s hard to win the Premier League title, it’s even harder to repeat as Champions. Reigning Champions Liverpool, fresh off a dominant 2-0 victory over Chelsea and a 7-2 thrashing of Lincoln in the Carabao Cup welcomed an in-form Arsenal to Anfield and put on an absolute clinic. Had it not been for a bad mistake by the otherwise flawless Andy Robertson, Liverpool would have enjoyed a 3-0 victory that, in truth, would have flattered Arsenal.
Arsenal have made good strides under Mikel Arteta, they’re dogged, well drilled, hard working and tough to play against, but Liverpool swept them aside and made it look effortless. The gulf between a good team in Arsenal, and a great one in Liverpool was staggering. Liverpool controlled every aspect of the game and outside of the Andy Robertson assisted goal, limited Arsenal to only one other chance of note.
Arsenal’s attempts to play out from the back were thwarted by Liverpool’s front three, aided by Naby Keita and Gini Wijnaldum. That fivesome hunted Arsenal’s weaker ball players like a pack of Velociraptor’s tracking their prey. With Fabinho in imperious form behind them, they were freed to endless push forward and torment the Arsenal defense.
After extremely impressive wins against top four challengers in back to back games, Liverpool look a truly formidable outfit again this season and must be considered as favourites to win back to back titles.
Three defeats from three for the Blades:
It has not been a good start to the season for Chris Wilder and his men. Defeat to Leeds means they’ve taken zero points from three games they likely would have been targeting five points from before the season started. They’ve struggled to create real chances, and they’ve yet to score. They’re the only team without a goal from the opening three weeks of the season.
Without action from Wilder and the recruitment team, the rot could set in quickly. There have been some positives from each of the games but those are heavily outweighed by the lack of goals and lack of points. Sheffield United need a goalscorer, and they need more creativity. For the Blades to maintain their Premier League status, they need to be active in the transfer market over the next week.
Rhian Brewster appears to be the top target but with no progress having been made of late, they may need to move on to another target. They also need to get Sander Berge some help in midfield. The gulf in quality between him and the other midfielders at the club is, with all due respect to those players, drastic.
So far this summer Wilder has spent money on Aaron Ramsdale, who at this point is a sizeable downgrade on Dean Henderson, Jayden Bogle who’s deemed not quite ready to be first choice, Max Lowe who’s in the same boat, and Oliver Burke who’s a gamble. More investment is needed, and it needs to be in starting calibre players.
Burnley’s lack of depth:
Speaking of teams who need to make signings, Burnley’s board of directors should be hanging their heads in shame at their lack of business this summer.
The lack of fresh faces is even more apparent when Burnley have to deal with an injury crisis like the one they’re experiencing right now. Burnley’s squad to face Southampton included five players with zero Premier League appearances to their names. Of those five, only back-up goalkeeper Bailey Peacock-Farrell is a first team player. The bench had four defenders, and no attacking players.
The starting 11 featured Dale Stephens who only joined two days previously. Stephens hadn’t played a competitive game of football in two months, and it showed.
Reports suggest that James Tarkowski is keen to join Leicester City, and that Scott Dann, Steve Cook and Craig Dawson are the options to replace him. That tells you all you need to know about the ambitions of the ownership and board. Sean Dyche deserves better, and he’ll need better if Burnley are to avoid a relegation battle all season long.
Fulham’s chances of survival:
Three game, two of them at home, three defeats. It’s the worst possible start for Scott Parker’s team, who crumbled to a 3-0 home defeat to Aston Villa on Monday evening. Parker changed a back three for this game, in the hopes of strengthening a Fulham defense that has struggled greatly in the top flight. It’s fair to say it didn’t work.
Villa scored after four minutes, with Jack Grealish latching on to a lofted John McGinn throwball into acres of space. They scored again after 15 minutes, with Grealish allowed to dribble into the box as defenders ran away from him as if he was carrying a nuclear weapon, a simple pass to Conor Hourihane left the Irishman with a simple finish. As that second goal went in, the fight left Fulham. They put up very little in terms of a fight after that.
Fulham face a big week, and they have nobody to blame but themselves. It’s unfortunate that the Marlon deal fell through, but it’s their own fault that they’ve left it so late in the window to try and address their enormous defensive issues. It’s their fault that Mitrovic is left carrying the goalscoring burden all by himself. Fulham need at least one attacker, and two central defenders, before the window closes. Just to give themselves a fighting chance of survival. One has to wonder how much rope Scott Parker will get before his position comes under question.
Moaning about the rules of the game:
Is the new handball rule a bit silly? Yes. Could it be improved upon? Of course. Is it being correctly applied? Without doubt. Is “the game’s gone” a hilarious over-reaction? You better believe it.
The weekend saw three controversial game changing penalties given, and each have been moaned about as examples of how the “game is gone”. Let’s look at all three.
The first was to Manchester United after the final whistle had blown. Harry Maguire’s header hit Neal Maupay’s arm before being cleared off the line. The final whistle blew and United players surrounded the referee to complain. The referee took the time to review it, and restarted the game while awarding United a penalty. There’s no debating the handball, but the final whistle had gone before the decision were given. If the rule says that because the action took place before the final whistle, then the game can be restarted to deal with it, then that’s fine. No debating it.
The second was given to Everton when Joel Ward was adjudged to have handled the ball in his attempt to block Lucas Digne’s header. Ward seemed bemused by the decision as his arms were close to his body, unlike the other two this weekend. According to Dale Johnson of ESPN, who has put together a detailed thread of analysis which you can find here, this is the one that is the harshest of the three.
The last one was awarded to Newcastle in the dying seconds against Tottenham, Andy Carroll’s header hit Eric Dier on the arm and a penalty was awarded after review. The argument is that Dier wasn’t looking at the ball and thus isn’t aware of where it is, but unfortunately his arm was in an unnatural position meaning that it is a stonewall penalty according to the new rule. Whether or not Dier’s arm is out because he’s trying to regain balance after a nudge from Lascelles is, unfortunately for Dier, irrelevant. The rule is clear, and the referee had to award a penalty.
Some people have argued that the Premier League didn’t use this rule last season and shouldn’t use it now. FIFA have decreed that it be used, and it is now being used in all leagues that are using VAR technology. The penalty statistics for other league, who implemented it a year or two years before the Premier League, suggest that we will likely see a spike in penalties this season, which will tail off next season and should return to a level not much higher than they were before the rule change was implemented. Short term pain for long term uniformity.
There’s no reason for pundits to be crying over the game being “gone” when the game we see today is vastly different to what it was when they played 10+ years ago, and is basically a different sport to what Gary Linekar played in the 80s and early 90s. The rules have been changed constantly to give attackers an advantage, this is just another example of it. Defenders will just have to make adjustments, and keep their hands closer to their bodies.
Where have all the defenders gone?
Manchester City, Wolves and Chelsea combined to concede 12 goals this weekend, and all bar James Maddison’s incredible curler can be put down to bad defending.
City’s defensive performance at home to Leicester was nothing short of a disgrace, with three penalties conceded due to a combination of bad defending and laziness. For a club who has spent so much money on defenders over the last four years to defend like that is an embarrassment to the coaching staff, and surely the players themselves. Ruben Dias is set to join from Benfica and he should help, as will the return of Aymeric Laporte, but the issues seem systemic as much as personnel related.
Wolves defense has always been stronger as a unit than the individuals suggest it should be, but when those individuals get isolated the entire thing falls down. Each of Boly, Coady and Saiss had nightmarish performances against West Ham with the captain in particularly struggling to deal with Antonio. Teams will be come more and more keen to isolate any of these three against pacey attackers as the season progresses. Wolves could really do with dipping into the market and adding real quality in defense, unfortunately for them Jorge Mendes doesn’t represent any central defenders who are of the required level outside of Ruben Dias.
Chelsea gave us some of the more comedic defensive moments of the weekend as individual errors galore saw them fall 3-0 behind to West Brom, before clawing their way back to take a draw with a last gasp goal from Tammy Abraham.. Thiago Silva was hailed as the answer to the defensive problems upon arrival. Handed the captaincy for his debut, he only made things worse. His lack of pace and inability to defend in space, saw Chelsea fall apart at the back against a West Brom team who, with respect, are hardly potent in attack. Chelsea will hope that Edouard Mendy and Ben Chilwell can make a big difference, they’re going to need to.