The Workmanlike Performers: Premier League Gameweek 3 Review

The dust has settled from gameweek 3, and there were some surprises in store! Chelsea’s season is up and running, Manchester United crumble at the finish line, and Tottenham trip straight out of the gate. Plus, Manchester City reassert their dominance, while Liverpool wring the life out of Arsenal’s hopeful squad.

London Calling

Sam Cicci: Frank Lampard’s Chelsea managerial reign finally got up and running after an energetic, back-and-forth match away at Carrow Road. Norwich put up quite a fight, with Teemu Pukki and Todd Cantwell especially impressive. But Chelsea’s young squad finally clicked (aided by a forced change due to Pedro’s pre-match injury), and the trio of Tammy Abraham, Mason Mount, and Christian Pulisic combined effectively for three goals. There was plenty of attacking talent to go round, but who on either side impressed you the most?

Matthew Hein: You have to feel good for Tammy Abraham. His first goal clearly meant a lot to him, as he ran over to hug Lampard with relief written all over his face. After being loaned out for years, Abraham has proven everything he needed to at the lower levels. His two goals were difficult, but he took them well. To get a vital game-winner over a feisty Norwich side is huge for his confidence, and I hope he can continue to prove he deserves his place for Chelsea.

SC: But moving to the upper parts of the capital…what on earth is going on in North London? Tottenham were utterly abject in their 0 – 1 loss to Newcastle, while Arsenal were all over the place in their less-surprising shellacking against Liverpool.

Let’s start with Spurs: I am, frankly, baffled by Mauricio Pochettino’s starting 11. Do you have any idea why he chose to roll out that lineup against Newcastle?

MH: No. While Tanguy Ndombele and Dele Alli’s injuries did limit the squad, Pochettino will rightfully take some heat for his selection. Sissoko is not a player to break down set defenses, and Winks needs to learn how to make a pass between the lines. All this caused their center back, Toby Anderwield, to try and be the playmaker. Pochettino seems reluctant to play Eriksen without knowing how committed he is to the team, and Giovani Lo Celso has apparently not met his fitness requirements. However, Spurs immediately looked more dangerous when those two were substituted on. The rest of the players did not help him their coach out, with little in the way of offensive creativity and Davidson Sanchez and Danny Rose occasionally forgetting how to play defense (it makes you wonder why Jan Vertonghen has been absent without explanation). Kane’s penalty shout was denied as the Premier League still sorts out how to best use VAR, and Spurs missed a couple of chances they would normally bury.

Arsenal’s Nicolas Pepe / photo credit: Twitter @PhotosArsenal

SC: But in case Tottenham fans were worried about the squad’s mentality heading into next weekend’s North London derby against Arsenal, the Gunners were equally terrible in their 3-1 loss to European Champions Liverpool. And, like with Pochettino, Unai Emery’s formation raised some serious questions. Sure, a midfield diamond isn’t a terrible idea…but when you leave the flanks open to a team with two world-class fullbacks like Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson, well, you’re just asking for trouble. Sure, Arsenal kept it compact for the first half an hour or so before Joël Matip’s opener, but that owed more to Alexander-Arnold’s oddly lackluster delivery than a stout rearguard action. Klopp dusted off his extra-strength gegenpressing machine for this match, and an Arsenal side trying to play out from the back with no width were understandably stifled.

Oh, what a performance it could have been otherwise! The few times Arsenal tried to play long balls, it worked incredibly well. If you’re facing a suffocating press and have two incredibly quick forwards up top, it makes sense to take advantage of their speed. Arsenal’s record signing, Nicolas Pepe, looked quite sharp the few times Arsenal were able to get him the ball. His best moment of the game came when he stole the ball of Jordan Henderson, dinked past Robertson with some nifty footwork, and drove into the box. Unfortunately, he couldn’t find the finish, but it showed what the youngster is capable of when firing on all cylinders.

Dani Ceballos, unfortunately, had a bump back down to Earth after his man of the match performance against Burnley. He dawdled on the ball too often, didn’t seem to know what to do with it when he had openings, and even had a shocking “pass” to a wide open Sadio Mané inside the Arsenal box. He won’t be stellar every game, but this was a reminder that he can’t fix all of Arsenal’s problems by himself.

Especially David Luiz. He’s always entertaining, I’ll give him that. But the blatant tug-back on Mohamed Salah to concede a penalty, plus the ridiculous “challenge” that saw him burned on the sideline before the Egyptian raced away for goal number two, means that he can only hang his head in shame. Instead of listening to me explain it, maybe just watch for yourself.

If these two teams are so error prone this weekend, we should be in for a delightfully chaotic North London Derby.

Manchester United winger Daniel James celebrates his 89th minute equalizer against Crystal Palace / photo credit: Twitter @speltcia

Mancunian Mayhem

Manchester United and Manchester City are two sides of a coin right now. Over at Old Trafford, the Red Devils somehow contrived to capitulate to a less than threatening Crystal Palace in the final minutes of the game to lose 2-1. There’s a lot to unpack here, but let’s get started:

United didn’t have a bad game. Sure, they didn’t have a great game either, but you don’t need to perform to the best of your ability to emerge triumphant, at home, against a side like Crystal Palace. One thing we’re seeing more of, however, is United’s inability to break down packed defenses. The pace of Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford is a deadly counter-attacking threat, but when players are jammed into the box, Paul Pogba has to come up with some magic or it’s bust for the Red Devils.

What should be better is the defense. Yet, there they were out of position, with Aaron Wan-Bissaka not even bothered to backtrack, as Jordan Ayew made a relatively simple forward run to beat the offside “trap” and have an easy 1v1 against David de Gea. United labored for chances, but should have equalized after drawing a penalty. However, more spot-kick drama ensued, with Rashford crashing his shot off the post. It’s the last thing the team needed after previous drama following Pogba’s prior penalty miss against Wolves, and it even prompted some poisonous fans to hurl racist invective at Rashford (similar to the treatment Pogba was given after his miss). Now, instead of just focusing on footballing matters, United need (and must prioritize) to weed out the fans who would conduct themselves in such a way.

Amidst all this turmoil, Daniel James continued his good run of form with an excellent curling effort to equalize late in the game. While it wasn’t enough to see them to victory, he’s been stepping up with some key contributions. On the other hand, it’s a flawed game plan that requires  the new 21-year-old signing with minimal Premier League know-how to carry his more experienced teammates. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer needs to unlock this squad’s potential, and fast. Otherwise, the Pogba agitating will continue, United’s morale will continue to drop, and it will be yet another season without Champions League participation.

Don’t worry about Manchester City, though. They steamrollered their way to a 3-1 victory against Bournemouth. There were no hard feelings from Pep Guardiola as he started Sergio Agüero, who duly replied with two unstoppable goals (although this may have been because Gabriel Jesus was injured). There was a slight wobble when Bournemouth reduced the deficit close to halftime, but City soldiered on without really missing a beat. Count on it being another two-horse race between them and Liverpool.

Half-volleys

  • Liverpool loanee Harry Wilson has been impressive for Bournemouth recently, with strikes from outside the box in back-to-back games. His latest, against City, was an exquisitely struck free kick that wove into the top corner. Unstoppable, even against a top-class keeper like Ederson. Liverpool will be delighted to have his artillery skills if he returns a well-rounded player after this season.
  • Everton looked utterly abject as they fell 2-0 to Aston Villa. It’s a bit worrying, as they invested heavily in their squad over the summer, and some (myself included) think they can challenge the top-six hegemony. But if Marco Silva continues to leave out Moise Kean at striker, and Richarlison and the other attackers continue to have no-shows, then it’s another season of “what could have been” for the Toffees, and Silva will find himself out of a job yet again, I would imagine.
  • Don’t sleep on “second-tier” forwards in the Premier League. While the top teams may provide the most goal-scoring action, a few mid-table strikers are worth watching. Raul Jiminez is no surprise after his breakout season last year, but he’s continued his good form, dispatching a 97th minute penalty against Burnley to snatch a point. On the opposite side that day, Ashley Barnes scored the opener with a long-range volley to make it four goals in three games (same with Teemu Pukki). Meanwhile, at West Ham, new signing Sébastien Haller scored his first two goals for the club to win three points on the road. After producing 15 goals and 9 assists for Eintracht Frankfurt in the Bundesliga last season, there are high expectations for him. This was exactly the start he needed.
  • Nicolas Pepe was the first player to successfully dribble past Virgil van Dijk in the Dutch defender’s last 50 premier league appearances!

–Matt Hein and Sam Cicci

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