The fourth round of Premier League fixtures, and the last before the international break, contained few big surprises. Manchester City, Liverpool, Arsenal and Chelsea all picked up wins, and Manchester United bounced back from their home loss to Tottenham at the expense of an exhausted-looking Burnley.
Joining Burnley in the relegation waiting room are West Ham, who maintained their 0 percent record with a defeat to Wolves; and Huddersfield, although the Terriers managed an encouraging draw at Everton. Southampton also secured points away from home, winning 2-0 at Crystal Palace, while Fulham continued their solid start with a point at Brighton.
1) Manchester City Keep Finding a Way
City were awesome in strolling to the Premier League title last season, but the new campaign was always going to provide fresh challenges. So far, however, Pep Guardiola’s side seems to be equal to what their opponents are throwing at them.
Saturday’s fixture saw a typically well-organised Rafa Benitez side attempt to park the bus at the Etihad Stadium. After their frustrations against Wolves last weekend, this game was a real test of the City players’ patience and resolve. That test grew harder when DeAndre Yedlin equalised for Newcastle shortly before half-time.
But so far this season, Guardiola and his players have shown an excellent capacity for adapting and adjusting. They did so again against the Magpies, tweaking their system, yet still managing to achieve possession stats of 78 percent. They also had a hefty 24 shots on goal, including the winner from Kyle Walker early in the second half.
With Liverpool breathing down their necks, and Tottenham, Chelsea and Arsenal all capable of mounting a challenge, the pressure is on for City this season. The early signs are promising, however, and they remain strong favourites.
2) No-One Wants to Play Watford
Javi Gracia may have had no experience of English football before his appointment by Watford, but he has moulded a team that plays a quintessentially English style, spearheaded by a captain who epitomises the blood and thunder qualities of English football past.
The shoulder charge with which Deeney flattened Davison Sanchez was painful to watch, sent a shudder through the Tottenham ranks, and gave the Watford fans something to cheer about.
Haha Troy Deeney bullying Davison Sanchez, love it 😂😭💫 pic.twitter.com/qkfzXNtZDW
— RatedPereira.♤¹⁵ (@RatedPereira) September 2, 2018
Shortly afterwards, Deeney powered home Watford’s equaliser. When Craig Cathcart headed in the winner, the Watford captain was the first to join in the celebration.
Watford’s perfect winning record will end at some point, but they have served notice that they have the potential to mix it with the top six. Well organised, physically strong and relentless in their pressing, there will be more to come from this Watford side.
3) Arsenal’s Defence is Not Improving
When Unai Emery prioritised defensive-minded players in his first transfer window as Arsenal boss, many of us assumed that we would see a different approach from the Gunners this season; perhaps even a return to the kind of defensive solidity that provided the backbone for five top flight triumphs between 1989 and 2004.
But the arrivals of Sokratis, Stephan Lichtsteiner and defensive midfielder Lucas Torreira have not had the expected impact. Instead, Emery’s Arsenal looks like a more hyperactive, gung-ho version of Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal, with even less of a clue defensively.
Against Cardiff they were irresistible going forward, managing 17 shots on goal, scoring 3 and showing more resilience than Wenger’s sides in taking the lead three times against stubborn well-organised opponents. But they allowed Cardiff to have 14 shots of their own, and enabled Neil Warnock’s limited side to score their first two goals of the campaign.
Admittedly, we haven’t yet seen the best of Lucas Torreira, who will surely have a pivotal role to play as the screening player in midfield. In the meantime, the attacking adventures of Hector Bellerin and Nacho Monreal are leaving their defensive comrades desperately short of cover, and only four teams have conceded more Premier League goals so far.
4) Tottenham (Still) Have No Plan B
Tottenham boss Mauricio Pochettino was criticised in some quarters for his downbeat assessment of his side’s victory at Old Trafford last week. A more meaningful critique of his management would instead focus on his lack of a Plan B.
Under Pochettino, Spurs have improved from Europa League possibles to Champions League regulars, yet have been unable to take the final step and become trophy winners. Sunday’s game against Watford gave an indication of why that might be.
Spurs dominated the first half and eventually took the lead early in the second thanks to a fortuitous own goal. But when the inevitable Watford fightback – led by a typically rampaging performance from former Walsall star Troy Deeney – gave the home side a 2-1 lead, Spurs had no answer. Thanks to their transfer policy, they had no match-winners on the bench either.
For a top four Premier League side, they have a poor record of coming back in games where they go behind, and on Sunday they never looked like salvaging anything. If they are going to progress this season, they need a Plan B to go with their impressive Plan A.
5) Manchester United Aren’t Chelsea
Alternatively, Ed Woodward isn’t Roman Abramovich or Florentino Perez. Abramovich and Perez show little patience with managers, even successful ones, so had no compunction about ending the tenure of Jose Mourinho at Chelsea and Real Madrid respectively as soon as things began to turn sour. Yet Ed Woodward, it seems, is built of sterner stuff.
If Mourinho’s increasingly bizarre media performances – along with his unorthodox team selections – suggest a desire to bring matters to a head, and perhaps even to engineer his own departure, it seems the Manchester United hierarchy are not willing to play along.
Woodward’s reward for backing Mourinho in the wake of last week’s humiliation against Tottenham was to make himself the target of anger from United supporters, for whom the memory of the glory days when the club had infinitely higher standards has not entirely faded.
— YNFA (@ynfafootball) September 2, 2018
Meanwhile, United picked up a welcome three points against struggling Burnley in a game that included a missed Paul Pogba penalty, an aerial protest from United fans and a Marcus Rashford sending off. Still, at least they picked up the win, which is an improvement on last week.
This particular circus, it seems, has a while longer to run.
6) West Ham Really Need a Win
More accurately, Manuel Pellegrini is in trouble.
Defeats at Anfield and the Emirates weren’t necessarily a problem, although conceding seven Premier League goals in the process was a worry. Of greater concern are the two home defeats, to Bournemouth and Wolves, in which the Hammers have looked overly cautious as well as shaky at the back.
Saturday’s defeat had an element of cruelty about it, given that Adama Traore’s winner came in injury time, but West Ham only had themselves to blame. Their approach in the first half was way too negative, and to compound their problems, when they did have chances, they wasted them. The second half performance was a little more encouraging, and it is probably worth noting that all four of West Ham’s opponents so far could well finish in the top half this season.
Still, four defeats from four is an abysmal start, and with a week off for fans and hierarchy to brood over the situation, these are worrying times for Pellegrini.
7) Burnley Need a Breather
There can be few Premier League managers more relieved at the arrival of the international break than Sean Dyche.
The Clarets have already played 10 competitive fixtures this season, twice as many as their rivals. More importantly, they have been playing two games a week since the end of July, and have had to recover from tough away fixtures in Turkey and Greece, as a result of their Europa League commitments.
Such fixture congestion is par for the course for the main Premier League contenders. Burnley don’t have the squad depth to cope, though, and their hectic start to the campaign is having an effect in the most important competition of all. One point from four games is a poor return, and more worrying still is the fact that their opening run of fixtures was relatively straightforward, including winnable games against Fulham and Southampton.
Sunday’s match against Manchester United was tougher, but Burnley at their best could have been expected to push their visitors hard. Instead, they offered little opposition, and could have lost 3-0 if Paul Pogba hadn’t missed his penalty.
The Burnley game plan depends on maintaining a high pitch of defensive alertness and a physical effort that is proving impossible to sustain. The two-week break, and the relatively swift end to their Europa League campaign should give them a respite, but they need to rediscover their intensity… and quickly.
Crunch Clash at Wembley Upcoming
The Premier League takes a break next week as players fulfil their international commitments, but it returns with a bang on September 15.
The opening lunchtime fixture sees Tottenham take on Liverpool at Wembley, while Manchester United face a tough trip to Watford, and Leicester take on Bournemouth in an early clash of the Europa League pretenders.