Seven matches of the English Premier League in the bag, and the average person could be forgiven for thinking that there is already a familiar look to the table. The season is less than two months old, but there are teams that are destined to have a rough campaign and others who will be looking to challenge for the title.
Three teams remain unbeaten, three teams have not registered a win. The top five is filled with the big hitters, Manchester City are top, while the bottom half of the table has the usual suspects. And there are three teams in the top 10 who are seemingly punching above their weight.
The latest round of the EPL saw victories for Manchester City, Tottenham Hotspur, Arsenal, Everton, Bournemouth, Leicester, Burnley, Wolves and West Ham, with the Hammers beating Manchester United to heap more misery on Jose Mourinho. Out of the 10 games played, only one ended in a draw—Chelsea vs Liverpool—although it could be argued that this was both the game of the weekend and included a contender for Goal of the Season.
Even on a weekend that clashed with the emotion of the Ryder Cup, the EPL was filled with drama and (potentially) a Manchester-based storyline that may not end well. So let’s take a quick dive into what made the headlines and what we learned.
The vultures are circling around Mourinho
There is something rotten in the red half of Manchester. After a fractious week that included a draw at home to Wolves and a cup defeat to Championship side Derby, the “Special One” needed his side to roll up their sleeves and respond at West Ham. Which they didn’t. Again.
The 3-1 defeat at the London Stadium was desperate on nearly every level.
United – playing once again in those bizarre light pink shirts – were one down after five minutes and pedestrian throughout. West Ham, who lost their first four games of the season, tore into Mourinho’s boys and deserved their victory. Jose complained after the game that “one goal is offside, the second goal is an own goal and the third goal is the referee’s mistake,” but United were second best for 87 of the 90+ minutes.
Rumors of player discontent had rumbled along in the media all week, with Mourinho publicly announcing that Paul Pogba would not captain the team again after his performance against Wolves. Most of the talk around Manchester United in recent weeks has centered on the off-field atmosphere, and it is clear that Jose is facing one of the biggest challenges of his managerial career.
Nothing cheers up the soccer media like a good crisis at a major club, with United, according to former midfielder Paul Scholes, in “a bit of a mess.” Record signing Pogba was taken off after 70 minutes at West Ham, although Mourinho did sort of pat him on the back as he left the field. The defeat means that United have made their worst start to a season since 1989-90 and last season’s runner-up position to Manchester City is already looking a distant memory.
I am not a fan of Mourinho and take some vicarious pleasure in his current struggles. However, Manchester United is a global brand and there is an argument that the club is still coming to terms with the departure of long-time manager Sir Alex Ferguson in 2013.
Mourinho is the third person to fill the manager’s chair since Sir Alex retired, and it is fair to say that (despite winning two trophies in his first season) he has not really covered himself in glory.
Public criticism of his players has become part of his routine, with the negative vibes around the club contributing to a feeling among former United players that not only could Jose be on his way out of Old Trafford but also turn the club into a “circus” if he doesn’t leave. Off-field problems aside, the team are struggling to play the sort of football that made them a feared opponent for over 20 years, with the consensus being that something needs to change … and fast.
Whether that change includes Mourinho remains to be seen.
Newcastle fans deserve our sympathy
After Week 5, Turf writer Ryan Matott said that Newcastle owner and chairman Mike Ashley needed to find another way to spend his time. And I have to agree.
Ashley actually turned up to watch his club’s latest defeat—a 2-0 home loss to Leicester City—and probably wished that he had stayed away. The Newcastle owner had not been to St. James Park since May 2017 and fans chanted “Stand up if you hate Ashley” for most of the game. Which he apparently found vaguely amusing.
Newcastle United are winless in seven games and lost five. The team has scored four goals and conceded 10. If it wasn’t for the fact that Cardiff and Huddersfield are even worse than Newcastle, then the Magpies would be bottom of the table. Even by Newcastle’s perpetually low standards, the start to this season has been dreadful.
Manager Rafa Benitez is well respected in the game, but has not been given the money for the players that could turn around the fortunes of the so-called “sleeping giant.”
Newcastle have a 52,000 capacity stadium that is filled every week with die-hard fans, many of whom have suffered on an unimaginable level for years (think New York Mets, but with unintelligible accents and a love of fried Mars bars). The club is still considered one of the bigger teams in England, irrespective of the fact that Newcastle basically bounces between the Premier League and the Championship on a regular basis.
Talk to any Newcastle supporter and they will lay the blame squarely at Ashley’s door for both a lack of investment and a reluctance to just sell the club.
There has been interest from several consortiums in recent months, but (at the time of writing) the owner is still waiting for the right offer. According to numerous media reports, Ashley wants more than $450 million to walk away, which nobody has come even close to. Ultimately, he will sell but until then Newcastle United fans will remain in the purgatory to which they have become accustomed.
Punching above their weight
The top five may make familiar reading—Manchester City, Liverpool, Chelsea, Tottenham and Arsenal—but it is the clubs below them that are making headlines for all the right reasons.
Watford, Bournemouth, Leicester City and newly-promoted Wolves are all above 10th-placed Manchester United, with all four teams playing some glorious football in these early stages. Wolves, for example, have taken the jump up from the Championship in their stride, recording a 2-0 home victory over a relatively dreadful Southampton to maintain an impressive start to the season that has seen them suffer just one defeat.
Bournemouth and Leicester have also been worth watching, the former beating Crystal Palace 2-1 on Monday night. Leicester, who pulled off the most unexpected title victory in Premier League history in the 2015-16 season, have shaken off the season-long hangover that accompanied that success and are unlikely to be anywhere near the bottom of the table when the campaign wraps up in May. New signing James Maddison continues to draw my eye, with the player directly involved in five goals in the last six games.
The Bournemouth game was decided by an 87th minute penalty but the majority of the post-match analysis focused on a “moment of madness” from Palace defender Mamadou Sakho who conceded the spot-kick. NBC’s Robbie Earle was especially scathing, ranting about how an international player should not be “swinging his arms in the penalty box,” and suggesting that Sakho should apologize not only to his manager but also Palace goalkeeper Wayne Hennessey, who had made two great saves to keep his side in the match before the forearm smash.
Watford’s recent good form had seen them score in every league game to date and they travelled to Arsenal with high expectations.
Sadly, two goals in the last nine minutes for the home team meant that Arsenal Fan TV had little to complain about, and the Gunners have now won seven games on the bounce in all competitions (EPL, Europa League, Carabao Cup). The jury is still out on new manager Unai Emery, and it is worth noting that these seven victories—with the exception of Watford, perhaps—have been against less-than-stellar opposition.
Emery has promised to return Arsenal to the European elite after they failed to qualify for the Champions League in the last two seasons under long-serving manager Arsene Wenger and it will be interesting to see if he can do that in his first season.
However, breaking into the top four is not going to be easy, especially when you consider that City and Liverpool will likely claim two of those spots. And Spurs and Chelsea may also have something to say about Arsenal’s ambitions.
The road is long …
Newcastle aside, the season will be a long and frustrating experience for at least three other clubs.
Cardiff City and Huddersfield Town are both winless so far, while Fulham’s massive spend over the summer has seen them secure one victory. The latter lost away at Everton, with the hosts recording their 22nd straight win at Goodison Park against the West London club—a record in English top division football. At the same time, Fulham have now failed to keep a clean sheet in any of their last 22 away games, which is also a record among the clubs currently in the Premier League.
“We must show more solidarity and fight like it’s the last second in our life,” said Fulham manager Slavisa Jokanovic, in a post-match interview. “In one moment we give up and trust that we can change the situation and this is not acceptable. I cannot be frustrated, I must open my mind and find the solution. We need to improve many things and we must believe in ourselves and find the way for improvement.”
Finding a way for improvement must be the least that Cardiff and Huddersfield should do. Even after seven games, the tables do not lie.
Both clubs have struggled to score goals and Cardiff’s gritty performance against Burnley could not paper over the fact that the Welsh club are struggling to adapt on their return to the top flight. Manager Neil Warnock has been part of the football furniture for years, but even he must be thinking wistfully of retirement in the not-too-distant future.
Huddersfield are a different animal.
The club surpassed expectations by staying up after promotion the previous year and there were hopes that they might kick on. Sadly, this has not happened, and the odds on manager David Wagner remaining in charge until Christmas are shortening by the hour. Spurs were fairly comfortable all day, even without a number of injured players and with one eye on their Champions League game with Barcelona.
I predict that all of these clubs at the bottom of the table—and I include Southampton in this—are already bracing themselves for a long, hard season, with any three of these five equally likely to get relegated come May.
The best of the rest …
Manchester City’s win over Brighton and Tottenham’s away win at Huddersfield meant that the top four teams can be happy with the opening seven games. City remain undefeated, while the mini-crisis at Spurs looks to be on hold with three wins in a week. Harry Kane grabbed a brace in the 2-0 victory, while City comfortably brushed aside the Seagulls to go top of the table on goal difference.
Chelsea and Liverpool’s game was picked as one-to-watch by The Turf’s Kevin Morin, and it did not disappoint. Both teams were unbeaten coming into the match, with Liverpool looking to maintain their 100% start to the season. However, Chelsea had knocked Liverpool out of the Carabao Cup in mid-week, so it was clear that the London club would have a slight edge.
The game was a joy to watch, both teams playing end-to-end football that would have destroyed lesser teams.
Chelsea’s Eden Hazard was awesome, the Belgian superstar justifying why many pundits have called him the difference between a trophy-less season and one that ends with honors. Hazard’s goal in the 25th minute was pure class and looked set to be the game winner … until Daniel Sturridge stepped on to the pitch.
The Liverpool striker has had a series of well-publicized injuries and spent most of last season on loan at relegated West Brom. In fact, the last time he played at Stamford Bridge (January 12), he lasted four minutes before limping off and did not play a full game for the rest of the season. This time, his brief cameo ended on a high note.
Sturridge replaced an out-of-sorts Mo Salah with less than 10 minutes remaining and he made an almost immediate impact. In the 89th minute, he collected the ball around 25 yards from goal, took a couple of touches and then curled a shot beyond the Chelsea keeper to rescue a point and ensure that Liverpool remined unbeaten after seven games. And made sure Jurgen Klopp left London with a smile on his face.
“We had chances and we played fantastic football,” said Klopp, in an interview with the BBC . “I love to win, but getting a point at Chelsea is good anyway. I know we deserved that point at least so I’m happy with that.”
What to watch in Week 8
The EPL kicks off on Friday, with Brighton taking on West Ham on the South Coast. Six games then follow on the Saturday before the cream of the crop arrives on Sunday with Liverpool versus Manchester City.
Aside from the mouth-watering spectacle of watching two heavyweights slug it out at Anfield, there are potentially tricky games for Watford (home to Bournemouth), Leicester (home to Everton) and Fulham (home to Arsenal). Spurs entertain Cardiff at Wembley, while Manchester United should—and I stress should—be able to beat Newcastle. Chelsea go to Southampton and Crystal Palace will have to contain a rampaging Wolves. Last, but by no means least, Burnley welcome Huddersfield in what is already looking like a relegation six pointer.
Seven weeks down … 31 to go.
- / 11 months ago
To me, Rachel Nichols is the personification of posting a black square on Instagram.