Chelsea show the value of patient rebuilding
Let’s start with the negatives so we can end with the positives. As was pointed out several times over the last two seasons and the course of the summer, Daley Blind is too often an abject clown in defence, despite him being mediocre in most positions when against cack opponents. Chris Smalling only looked good last season because he had two defensive midfielders to protect him, and a sea of cowards around him. The new negatives have an element of novelty and some degree of surprise: Zlatan Ibrahimovic is starting to make the dropping of Wayne Rooney look hypocritical. Like David Jason in a sprint race, he has a touch of sloth. Paul Pogba is obviously brilliant, but his summer rest (needed, let’s be clear), means he is not up to speed, and perhaps he is not mature enough to lead a team by example yet. This, and more, meant that Jose Mourinho got absolutely tonked. But, for all those waiting to be told, it is not worth worrying. They were awful under Louis van Gaal and David Moyes, and mediocre under Alex Ferguson at the end. It will take more than a few months of Mourinho to fix that completely.
The positives are entirely with Chelsea. Last week they started to look like they were capable of living without John Terry. Three at the back makes sense even if there will be teething trouble. Eden Hazard needs to be happy to play his best, and right now he looks more than happy. David Luiz remains a violent buffoon, so obviously Chelsea fans like that, but he is not an aged husk like John Terry, so still an improvement.
Antonio Conte, like Mourinho, has much to do. The team Mourinho got sacked for managing was struggling not just because of their previous manager’s antagonistic ways, but because of underinvestment. This has not yet been completely fixed in a single transfer window, nor should it be. It takes time to overhaul a squad and for a manager to build authority. Chelsea are starting to improve, but fans should be happy they haven’t had one single, drastic change: it means there are many more, smaller ones to come, if they have support of Roman Abramovich.
Best goal of the weekend: Sadio Mane
Xherdan Shaqiri - doubtless a regular reader of this column - will be miffed to miss out, having scored two superb goals for Stoke City as they kickstart their flailing season, but it was Sadio Mane who scored the best goal of the weekend. A flowing move, opening up a team that is set up to defend and do little else. Philippe Coutinho measured a perfect cross to meet Mane’s run at the back post. Other players - indeed Mane might have in only slightly different circumstances - might have rushed the volley and sent it miles wide. They might have taken a touch and given the goalkeeper and defender time to recover and set themselves properly for a challenge or save. Or, they might have just pulled off the always entertaining airshot.
This time, though, Mane kept his head and clipped his effort inside the post. It wasn’t just the finish that deserves praise, but the rapid and accurate build-up that we are all used to from Jurgen Klopp’s Borussia Dortmund. They have a long way to go to match that level, clearly, but the work he has done so far suggests fans can be confident of something similar in the coming seasons.
Most important goal of the weekend: Ahmed Musa
There are plenty of contenders for such recognition, this week. Philippe Coutinho’s continued excellence was capped by a deft dummy and finish to secure three points against West Brom. Scott Arfield measured a controlled, but deceptively difficult, shot past Maarten Stekelenburg to complete a definite mugging on their possession-heavy opponents, consigning Everton to five games without a win and giving Burnley an air of mid-table comfort as the season really gets going now. Perhaps the most important, though, is Ahmed Musa’s for Leicester City against Crystal Palace.
Until Musa scored, Palace were comfortably in the game, and had at points looked like the most threatening side, as they negotiate their way out of some trademark Alan Pardew misery. Leicester had continued their brilliant Champions League form, but their Premier League efforts had suffered. It’s a fair trade off, but it doesn’t stop some of the domestic results disappointing fans.
Musa’s goal set Leicester on the way to what was ultimately a comfortable and impressive victory, and it might be the turning point that marks the assimilation of the new batch of signings for the side. Additionally, it was his first goal for Leicester. It is a cliche to say that it’s important for a striker to get a goal quickly for his new club, but just look at how Diego Forlan suffered at United and flourished elsewhere.
It’s a miserable weekend for: David Moyes
Sunderland does something to managers. They go to a club that has more money than plenty of relegation candidates. It’s a club with an ardent, loyal fanbase that generally gives players and managers time and patience - even if they are sent to jail for child abuse, celebrate fascism or downplay racism. They are almost assured of a full season to get their act together and try to improve the lot of the club.
And every year it seems to be the same. There’s the inevitable, but scarcely credible, escape with a few games to spare, but the preceding misery can’t be worth it. The rubbish, scattergun signings for loads of money, with almost none of the players bought improving enough to get a move to a decent club. The bright sparks of youth who are eventually too depressed to embrace their potential. And the decision to defend so deeply for so much of the game that the whole side must wonder if it’s a different sport than the one they spent their childhoods dreaming of playing.
It’s happening to David Moyes, now. Two draws and seven defeats, the last of which was a heart-exploding, joy-negating, synapse-bothering late defeat to West Ham. West Ham might have started a process of slow improvement, but still, Sunderland might have been keener to play them than other, more assured teams. Instead, it was another defeat. It’s only the scandal, sacking of the manager and the late recovery to come for Sunderland.
Honourable mentions also go to Mike Phelan and the city of Hull, Vincent Kompany and the career he waved goodbye to two seasons ago and Arsene Wenger’s birthday.
Hysterical overreaction of the weekend
MANCHESTER CITY HAVEN’T WON IN FIVE GAMES. Ok. SOME OF THEIR PLAYERS HAVE MADE MISTAKES. Ok.
As bobbins as John Stones will occasionally look this season, working with the best manager in the world, with the technique he has and all the lessons that he will learn if he wants to, there’s probably not much point worrying. Far better to buy a young, impressionable player and get him to learn from the very best than to buy Nicolas Otamendi and accept that he will forever be seven out of 10 regardless of what he is told.
Claudio Bravo might sometimes look like he’s wearing clownshoes, too, but casting an eye on Bayern Munich and Barcelona, it seems likely that Pep Guardiola knows what he’s doing. There have been nine matches in the Premier League, and apparently that’s enough for Stones, Bravo and Guardiola to be written off. Paul Pogba and Zlatan Ibrahimovic are going through the same, too and countless other players will have been cast out by their fans already. This is the time to ask people to wait, and say there are no prizes for calling everything crap straight away and then claiming victory when occasionally proven right.