We’ve reached the second international break of the season, and we can now pause and reflect on what we’ve seen so far in the 20/21 Premier League season. It’s all been a bit mental. It’s hard to decide whether Southampton being fourth or Sheffield United and Burnley being the bottom two is more surprising. It’s impossibly to figure out what was the most surprising result of the season thus far.
Everyone has at least one loss, zero teams have a goals against record of one or lower. Three teams are still averaging two or more goals against per game. Ten teams already have a negative goal difference. It’s been such a hectic start for teams with the League Cup and European games every midweek, along with the Premier League games every weekend. Some teams, looking at you Sheffield United, already look a little bit exhausted. This break has come at the right time for them.
The newly promoted trio of Leeds, West Brom and Fulham have had contrasting fortune so far. Leeds have been the most impressive, they’ve had the best results but their defense has been a disaster the past two weeks conceding four goals in both games. West Brom are yet to win a game, one of three teams who’ve failed to do so. They had an opportunity to put some distance between themselves and the bottom three but lost to Fulham. Fulham, packed with loaned in talent, should really be a lot better off than they currently are. They have four points, they should have eight. Two converted penalties would have given them a far more positive outlook, they missed both and Scott Parker is likely on the hotseat right now.
With all that taken into consideration, here’s the good, the bad and the ugly from matchweek 8.
Southampton, and the benefits of patience.
Consider this, exactly 12 months ago Southampton had just lost their third game in a row, their sixth in seven matches. It was their eight defeat from their first 12 matches. They had eight points. They sat in 19th place. They had conceded 29 goals, including nine in one game. A defeat, at home, by Leicester. Media talking heads decided it was time for Ralph Hasenhuttl to go. He wasn’t up to it. They needed a Big Sam.
Southampton ignored the noise, they understood what a deep hole they were in and the ramifications of a potential drop into the Championship, but they knew they had the right man in charge. Appointing Hasenhuttl had been something of a coup for them. He also marked a step back towards the mindset that saw them appoint Mauricio Pochettino, that saw them recruit really well in the transfer market. That saw them become widely regarded as one of the best run clubs in the land.
They’d gotten lost somewhere along the way, poor signings and poor managerial appointments had dug a big hole. Confidence was gone. Quality was in short supply. Ralph was the right man to change that when he was appointed, he was the right man to change it this time last year, and he’s showing now that he is absolutely the right man to change it. Southampton have been impressive in attack all season, and other than their calamity against Spurs, they’ve been solid defensively.
This weekends win over Newcastle, without Danny Ings, should a lot of what is good about the Hasenhuttl approach. Aggressive, penetrative, creative and balanced. Solid in defense, proficient in attack. They still have their two big summer signings to integrate into the team. Salisu should provide an upgrade in defense, Diallo has massive potential in midfield. Both are young, with massive potential and room for development.
Another marker of this team’s development, and the benefits of the patience shown by Southampton to Ralph, and by Ralph to his players, is how well Che Adams is playing right now. Having failed to score in his first 28 appearances for the club, Adams has eight goals in his last 15 games. And it’s not just the goals, it’s the allround play and the versatility he offers. He’s becoming the ideal foil for Danny Ings, and a reliable understudy for him when Ings is out of the team. There was a lot of talk during the lockdown that Adams would definitely be on his way out of Southampton once last season wrapped up. Such talk seems foolish now. They only way Adams leave St. Mary’s is if Saints are making a substantial profit.
Summer Signings Making A Mark
There are players, like Adams, who take a lot of time to settle in and adapt to the required level when they move to another club. There are others who just hit the ground running. This weekend we saw a number of excellent performances from players who’ve barely unpacked since moving clubs over the summer.
Eberechi Eze sprinkled some stardust on Crystal Palace’s 4-1 win over Leeds United on Saturday with inventive dribbling, creative passing and set pieces that make your jaw hit the floor. The corner delivery for Scott Dann’s goal was inch perfect, the freekick for his own goal was sensational. There’s already some sense of understanding being developed between Eze and Wilf Zaha, and you can already see Zaha benefit from having the young playmaker on the pitch. Zaha gets to operate in more space because teams have to split focus defensively. Zaha has had to carry the creative load in attack for years, but now he has an able lieutenant who can share that responsibility and give Palace a far more diverse attack.
Hakim Ziyech toyed with a Sheffield United team that are shorn of confidence, getting two assists and playing a part in a third goal. His long range passing, ability to switch the play and split defenses were all on display as he stood out head and shoulders above everyone else on the pitch. Ziyech arrived at Chelsea with an injury, so he’s only recently begun to make his mark but a goal and three assists across his first two Premier League starts is very promising.
Wesley Fofana is very quickly establishing himself as an automatic starter for Leicester City, which is very impressive when you consider they have Jonny Evans and Caglar Soyuncu at the club. Fofana has now made four Premier League starts, and he has stood out as the most impressive defender on the pitch in each and every one of them. For a 19 year old with only 30 senior games in his locker prior to arrival in the Midlands, that’s hugely impressive. He’s a physical speciman, who’s a dominant powerful defender. And he’s showing more than expected on the ball as well. The Foxes have pulled off quite to coup to land him.
Ollie Watkins arrived at Aston Villa from Brentford for a fee of £28mil. That was seen, by many, as an overpay. Eight goals in 10 games later and nobody is talking about the price any more. Watkins has tortured Liverpool and Arsenal already this season with his high energy performances where he roams across the frontline, making darting runs into the channels, chases balls in behind the defense and battles endlessly for aerial balls. For a guy who’s got less than a season and a half of experience playing as a number 9, the early signs are that Villa got themselves a fantastic deal.
Fulham and Penalties
October 18th, 57mins into the game. Jack Robinson handles the ball in his own area and Fulham get a penalty. Mitrovic steps up, and decides to try and kick the leather off the ball. His penalty hits the crossbar and almost exits Bramall Lane due to the force of the shot.
October 18th, 86mins into the game. Mitrovic fouls Robinson in the Fulham box and Sheffield United get a penalty. Fulham, in search of their first point of the season, are 1-0 up and holding on for the win. Billy Sharp steps up and scores. He gives United an arguably undeserved point.
November 8th, 97mins into the game. Benrahma lazily hangs a foot out and trips Tom Cairney and Fulham get a penalty. 1-0 down, they have an opportunity, right at the death, to rescue a point. Ademola Lookman steps up and decides not to do a Mitrovic. In fact, he’s going to do the opposite. He attempts a panenka, barely puts enough power behind the ball to reach the goal and sees it easily saved.
Those three moments, from eight games of football, are the difference between Fulham having eight points from eight games, and their actual return of four points from eight games. Rather than being one point above 18th as they are now, they could be five points above 18th. That sort of gap can be massive, even at this point. That sort of buffer is the difference between coming back from this international break confident and eyeing Leeds United and Manchester United, who would only be two points above them, and coming back looking over their shoulder at West Brom, Burnley and Sheffield United.
Fulham fired Jokanovic in 2018 after taking six points from 12 games. Fulham’s next four games are very difficult. It’s hard to see them picking up more than two points over the next run of games. Those three moments, gone differently, could have seen them already past that total. They could have given Scott Parker a nice buffer to work for. Instead, he’s firmly on the hot seat right now.
The Continued Morass of Sheffield United and Burnley
15 combined games, zero combined wins, three combined points. Seven combined goals scored, 26 combined goals conceded. 9th and 10th in the Premier League last season, 20th and 19th right now.
It’s been a disaster on the pitch for both teams. Burnley earned their points against West Brom and Brighton, Sheffield United got theirs against Fulham. Those three teams are 18th, 16th and 17th in the league respectively. They haven’t been a whole lot better than Burnley or the Blades. The two differences between them, and these two, is that 1) everyone expected them to be in this position, and 2) they all seem to understand their position in the league and the urgency required to rectify the issues.
Burnley and Sheffield United don’t seem to have grasped just what a mess they’ve dug themselves into. The lack of urgency, desire and fight that we have seen from these two teams over the past few weeks has been startling. Burnley had an opportunity to get their first win, up against a Brighton team missing Lewis Dunk, struggling for form and carrying some empty shirts. Instead they had to rely on Danny Welbeck doing Danny Welbeck things when presented with good chances just to come away with a point. The return of Ben Mee is a big positive, but they have so much work to do. Sean Dyche needs to go full drill sergeant over the international break to get his team back on track.
Facing bigger problems are Sheffield United, who just look completely lost against Chelsea. They went 1-0 up and then seemed to just stop playing. Nobody expected much from games against Man City and Chelsea, but we expected fight. Desire. These are free hits. Nothing to lose. Go for the win. If you lose, you lose. The Blades allowed Chelsea to do pretty much everything they wanted with little or no resistance.
Burnley spent next to nothing over the summer, that lack of investment has massively hurt them but it gives Sean Dyche an excuse to lean into. Chris Wilder has no such excuse. Aaron Ramsdale, Jayden Bogle, Max Lowe, Oliver Burke and Rhian Brewster cost a combined total in excess of £50mil, probably closer to £60mil. A massive outlay for the club. They also added Ethan Ampadu on loan. On paper, they did good business, but Wilder has thus far failed to work Ampadu, Lowe and Bogle into the team regularly. Brewster has made a couple of starts but the partnership with McBurnie looks clunky, they desperately need Mousset back. They’re not dead yet, there’s a lot of football to play but they need to come out of this international break as a completely different team to the one who’s gone into it.
Can Somebody Please Take A Look At These Rules? Please!
Week after week, game after game, we are seeing more controversy in the Premier League than every before. This week we had disputed handballs, and the most ridiculous offside call you will see anywhere in the Premier League this season. Dale Johnson of ESPN, in his Monday Twitter thread does a fantastic job of breaking down the decision and explaining why they are made but it’s become clear that the rules need adjusting.
Patrick Bamford may have been offside according to the rule, but that is just further prove that the rule is wrong. Bamford is easily two feet onside in terms of his body, his head and his feet – you know, the parts he can score with, but because he is pointing towards where he wants the ball played, he is deemed offside. It’s the most ridiculous call of the seasons. Surely the VAR could apply common sense here. The ridiculous new handball rule has had a dreadful effect on the offside rule and the two things need to be both changed, and separated.
You can’t be offside for pointing, it’s ludicrous. You’ll note that not one Palace player or staff member called for Bamford to be ruled offside. All of them looked just as baffled as Bamford and the Leeds player. Bamford said the rule was “killing football”. It’s a phrase that’s overused. In this case though, it’s accurate. If it keeps going like this, forwards are going to have to be three feet to the “onside” side of a defender just to ensure they aren’t called for offside.
The PGMOL needs to take a long hard look at themselves, and at these rules.