There was plenty more drama in the Premier League this weekend as Manchester United, Chelsea and Liverpool stole a march in the title race after Manchester City dropped more points.
Brighton won again and continued their surprise start to the season while Everton suffered their first defeat under Rafael Benitez and Tottenham suffered a second consecutive 3-0 defeat.
Here’s everything we learned from this week’s round of Premier League fixtures…
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CHELSEA’S BIGGEST WEAPON IN TITLE WAR
This Premier League title race was billed to be one of the most fiercely contested in recent years, with Manchester United, Chelsea, Manchester City and Liverpool all boasting incredibly strong squads to go to battle with.
However, while United, Liverpool and Chelsea sit top of the tree with 13 points from a possible 15 so far, there is one who stands out more than the rest as the early title favourite.
While Liverpool have been fairly comfortable so far and Manchester United have relied on their embarrassment of riches in attack, Chelsea have been the one team who stumbled upon problems but had the bench to be able to confront them and overcome them.
Monday morning’s (AEST) 3-0 win over Tottenham was a perfect example. The Blues struggled to break down a dogged and determined Spurs defensive for the first 45 minutes before Thomas Tuchel introduced Ballon d’Or nominee and World Cup winner N’Golo Kante to change the game.
Chelsea score three in the second half, including one for Kante in an inspired performance, to make a real statement to the other title contenders.
It comes a week after Chelsea encountered similar problems against Aston Villa when Tuchel was able to introduce European Player of the Year Jorginho to turn the tide and inspire a 3-0.
Manchester United have a similarly strong bench and Liverpool have a similarly tactically brilliant manager, but Chelsea have both. And that could be the biggest difference in where the Premier League title heads at the end of this season.
UNITED’S PLEASANT ATTACKING SURPRISE
Jesse Lingard’s future at Manchester United is a peculiar one. He was supposed to leave in the transfer window for a cut-price fee with his contract due to expire at the end of this season, only for his form on loan at West Ham last term making everyone think again – particularly those who had hope to sign him cheaply.
He still hasn’t signed a new contract but he’s fast having a game-changing impact on every game he plays for Manchester United.
He came off the bench against Young Boys in the Champions League and was the man responsible for giving away a point as his sloppy back pass in injury time condemned United to a shock – and shocking – defeat.
He was given a hero’s welcome on return to the London Stadium when he was introduced alongside Jadon Sancho with 20 minutes to go, but he quickly silenced all of those fans who grew to adore him during his six-month spell there earlier this year.
His superb 91st-minute winner earned Manchester United all three points to see them keep pace with Chelsea at the top of the Premier League table and has seen him emerge as yet another key attacking option for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.
Lingard looks as though he will play a crucial role in the season to come and likely earn himself another contract at Old Trafford if he continues the way he is going.
“I think today was a good answer! Jesse was quite clear he wants to fight for his place and be part of a Manchester United team that is going places,” Solskjaer said.
“I’m so happy for Jesse, he had a tough evening on Tuesday, he knuckled down, he’s a positive lad, so happy for him. A good turn by Jesse, good finish.
“He’s becoming a grown man and is a very good player.”
DÉJÀ VU AS JOSE 2.0 REARS UGLY HEAD
It’s a real headscratcher what has gone on at Tottenham since Mauricio Pochettino was sacked and replaced by Jose Mourinho.
Mourinho had his moments and even led Spurs to a final before meeting the same fate as his predecessor but his tenure marked a big change in Tottenham’s philosophy, from a pressing, attacking team to a defensive one, tougher to watch one.
His sacking was thought to be because Spurs and Daniel Levy wanted a more aesthetically-pleasing style of play, yet after being rejected by four managers and then pulling out of talks with a fifth, they settled on Nuno Espirito Santo, a manager known for his defensively-tough style of play.
A Portuguese manager who thrives on grinding out 1-0 wins? Spurs may have fallen into the trap of hiring Jose 2.0.
Three consecutive 1-0 wins, including a season opener against Manchester City, was a strong start but that’s been backed up with two back-to-back 3-0 wins and Spurs are in real trouble.
Harry Kane is looking like a shadow of his former self after suffering the disappointment of seeing his dream move to Manchester City fall through while Heung-min Son has been the latest to fall foul to Spurs’ current injury nightmare.
It was a stubborn first-half performance against Chelsea as they managed to keep Romelu Lukaku and co. quiet but they capitulated in the second half and showed a real lack of fight, something that Roy Keane said left him “angry”.
“We have had problems,” Nuno said. “There are a lot of reasons — a lack of time to work together. That’s the main reason. I’m disappointed. It was a game of two halves clearly.
“The first half was fantastic, we competed very well, were the better team and controlled things. For 50 minutes we held on before the first goal but after that the game changed. It was very hard for us. Chelsea are a good team and created us many problems.
“I don’t know if we surprised them but we needed to start the match really strong and we did that. We did good pressing, recovering the ball and creating good situations. The plan was to score. There were chances to do it, we didn’t do it.
“Since we started, we have a lot of things to improve on. Even with good results and good performances we are aware we have a lot to improve on and a long way to go. We keep believing. The boys are working hard and we keep pushing. The first 45 minutes was huge for us. Now we have to sustain this level over the whole game.”
He will be relying on the patience of those above him to make sure he can ride out this tough start to the season.
LIVERPOOL’S GREATEST WEAKNESS IS NOW A STRENGTH
Last year, Liverpool used over 20 different combinations of centre-backs. Their three core central defenders – Virgil van Dijk, Joe Gomez, and Joel Matip – each managed less than nine league starts. In fact, Liverpool players missed more combined games than any other squad in the league. In May against Southampton, they had ten first-team players missing due to injury. In almost half of their fixtures in the season, at least seven players were unavailable through injury.
Compare it to the year before, when they fielded just three combinations of central defenders: Van Dijk played all 38 games alongside either Gomez, Matip, or Dejan Lovren. Little wonder they conceded the fewest goals en route to a drought-busting Premier League title.
Now van Dijk, Gomez and Matip are all fit and firing – helping Liverpool concede just once in their first five games. Matip’s ability to carry the ball into the midfield with a bursting run helps stretch defences and create spaces for midfielders to receive the ball and spark attacks. He started every league game until this weekend, with Gomez only appearing once off the bench – though the duo started together in the Champions League with van Dijk rested. This weekend, it was Matip rested – left out of the squad completely – with Klopp handing a full debut to the club’s only signing of the offseason.
Ibrahim Konate, the French 22-year-old, cost Liverpool £36m from RB Liepzig. His debut was impressive – holding a talented Palace attack of Wilfried Zaha, Christian Benteke, Andre Ayew and Odsonne Edouard scoreless. He won three of four ground duels, two of three aerial duels, and his stats across the park were similarly solid: three clearances, three tackles, two blocked shots, an interception, plus 48 of 55 passes were successful. His reading of the game and his physicality were both noteworthy.
Jurgen Klopp said: “We all saw what potential the boy has, it is incredible, physically, his technique, his game-understanding, it is all there.. Konate is in a good way, I am really happy. But there is a lot more to come from Ibou, he is still young and yes, he has to adapt, they have all had to adapt to the way we play and to the league as well because it is a special league.”
With Nat Phillips coming off 20 appearances (17 in the league) last season, Liverpool now have FIVE fit centre-backs. It will be crucial given a packed schedule – this week alone they played on Wednesday and Saturday, and have a cup game to come on Wednesday.
They’re top of the league, and the injury curse that dogged them last year appears to have broken. If midfielder Thiago’s calf injury, which saw him leave the field in the 62nd minute, doesn’t turn out to be serious, that is.
CITY LOOK MORE LIKE ARSENAL THAN ARSENAL
Pep Guardiola sparked something of a storm when he pleaded for City fans to turn up this weekend after a small crowd at their Champions League during the week. 52,698 did, and chanted his name upon kick-off. Then they were forced to witness a lacklustre-at-best performance.
“Always when the game is not good I feel bad for them,” Guardiola said. “They come to see a show, to see a game and when it doesn’t happen I feel a bit guilty because we didn’t play good.”
City had just one shot in target in the entire game – and that was in the 90th minute. It’s their lowest tally since a similar one-shot effort in March 2017 against Stoke, a full 1,655 days ago.
They looked limp and lifeless, slow in possession and struggled to create anything of meaning – always looking like they were waiting for individual moments of magic rather than the devastating sweeping attacking moves that Guardiola’s City normally produce so easily. In short, they looked like Arsenal in recent weeks – except Arsenal put in a gritty effort to beat Burnley 1-0. Mikel Arteta said of that game: “It was a really hard-fought victory in a place that is really tough to come and win. You have to be ready for a fight.”
Southampton came ready for a fight against the reigning champions. Guardiola’s men looked tired, and their spaced-out formation meant the defensive and midfield lines were separated by a chasm. Fernandinho was overwhelmed in the heart of the pitch by the Saints’ press, who profited from the huge spaces by playing passes straight up the park with ease.
City were made to pay for leaving Kevin de Bruyne out of the starting XI, while their lack of a striker – how many times will we mention that this season? – also hurt them. Raheem Sterling was silenced in the first half up front, before Gabriel Jesus had a go in the role in the second half before being taken off in the 67th minute.
Sure, City had a Sterling goal in the 92nd minute ruled out by VAR for offside, but they were lucky to even pick up a point, after Kyle Walker’s penalty and red card were overturned.
City have looked so good in their past three matches since losing to Spurs on the opening day. In this – their first real challenge – they stumbled again.
Next up they face Wycombe in the Carabao Cup. The three matches after that could define their season: away trips against Chelsea, PSG and then Liverpool.
NORWICH RELEGATED ALREADY
A horrible start to the season had plenty of fans and pundits deeply concerned about Norwich’s prospects. I’m now all-but-ready to declare that they will be relegated this season. Five games in, zero points.
Add that to their last top-flight season, and they have now lost each of their last 15 Premier League games under Daniel Farke. It’s the worst losing run in England’s top-tier history under a manager.
Daniel Farke made five changes to his team that lost 1-0 to Arsenal last Saturday, but it wasn’t the players that were the issue in this weekend’s 3-1 defeat to Watford. It was Farke’s approach. Playing aggressively with a spaced-out offensive style works well in the Championship. But it can be a recipe for disaster in the Premier League. The Canaries leave massive gaps down the flanks, and don’t get nearly compact enough in defence.
Against Watford – who love to hit on the counter down the wings – Norwich were torn apart. The Hornets got behind the defensive line with ease, and even though Teemu Pukki levelled for Norwich after opener, they were well beaten.
Farke said: “It’s not time to feel sorry for yourself. It’s time to roll your sleeves up and work on it individually and as a team on the training pitch.
“We have to improve defensively because we have conceded too many goals so far. A change of formation also perhaps helps.”
That’s a necessary change – otherwise Farke probably won’t be around to see out the season.