I’m happy to concede that I thought signing Cavani was nothing more than an expensive stab in the dark, albeit from a club that can afford them. He was a free agent after being released by Paris Saint-Germain and had only started seven league games in his final 12 months in France. Given the high wages and ageing legs, it seemed that Manchester United’s transfer scattergun had misfired again.
All that now looks foolish. Cavani clearly kept his fitness up during his final year in Parisian purgatory and is determined to end his top-level career on a high. In the brief windows of opportunity afforded to him in the Premier League, he has demonstrated not just that this might work out but that he is Manchester United’s best No. 9.
This is partly a question of design. Anthony Martial broke through as a wide forward and has occasionally excelled there, but he is not a natural central striker. Marcus Rashford is also comfortable out wide, particularly for a club that prefers to play on the counter. His pace makes him the ideal option to carry the ball forward and create the chance rather than finish it.
Sunday gave us the perfect example of that, not just because Cavani scored two goals and assisted the other. In the first half, Rashford and Mason Greenwood touched the ball seven times in the Southampton penalty area, thrice more than Cavani managed in the second half. But none of those seven touches came in the smaller area between the goalposts; all were on the left or right of the box. All four of Cavani’s penalty-box touches were between six and 12 yards from goal, slap bang in the centre of the box and two were opportunistic, first-time finishes.
Here’s another marker: Edinson Cavani is now Manchester United’s joint highest contributor of headed league goals since the start of 2018/19 and he’s played 127 minutes in the competition. That’s what you want from your No. 9.
We tend to overuse ‘mentality’ as a judge of a player; it has become an easy punditry trick to differentiate between good performances and bad. But when you watch Cavani, you can see a centre-forward desperate to get into the areas that will lead to clear cut chances. Unfortunately for Martial and his two shots on target in five league games, the contrast is night and day. (As an aside, imagine anyone being stupid enough to tout Martial for the Golden Boot).
Solskjaer will clearly have to manage Cavani’s minutes, but Sunday has surely propelled him into the role of Manchester United’s first-choice striker for big games. His presence can be the perfect complement to the counter-attacking weapons. Which makes you wonder why United spent so bloody long this summer chasing yet another wide attacker for £100m.
We demanded more attacking and we got more attacking. Newcastle had seven shots on target on Friday night, their second highest in a Premier League away game since October 2018. They also had 16 touches in the opposition box, more than in any of their previous five matches.
There’s no doubt that Newcastle were helped by the paucity of their opponent’s ambition. Crystal Palace have the lowest average home possession in the Premier League. With both sides typically happy to sacrifice the ball and play reactive football, Newcastle did not have to offer much more than normal to impose themselves on the game. It would also be remiss not to say that the match could easily have gone either way, won with two goals in two minutes in the final throes. This was hardly caution-to-the-wind attacking football.
But it was still different. Bruce played two strikers and saw Joelinton have three shots on target, the joint-highest total in his Premier League career and more than he’d managed in total since June. Callum Wilson enjoyed having the support; both strikers assisting the other is proof of that.
Now Bruce must keep faith and prove that Newcastle can play front-foot football against teams who are more intent on attacking them than Palace. More immediately, they have a run of fixtures against non-Big Six opponents that provides a window of opportunity for an under-pressure manager.
Leeds against supposed better teams
Leeds may still be in the bottom half after their win at Goodison, but we must put that into the context of their fixture list. In ten league games, Leeds have faced five of last season’s top eight and two surprise success stories (Everton and Aston Villa) of the early season. They won both of those away from home without conceding.
Marcelo Bielsa has always been comfortable setting Leeds up away from home. They had the most away wins and scored the most away goals in the Championship last season and have taken four points more away than at home so far this season.
But their attacking endeavour and ability to unnerve supposedly stronger opponents has still been surprising this season. Leeds had 25 shots against Arsenal, 23 against Everton, seven on target against Manchester City and scored three times at Anfield. Only City have created more chances away from home this season. Only they and Liverpool have had more touches in the opposition box.
Given those tough fixtures, that raises the ceiling of Leeds’ ambitions, assuming that fatigue and injuries do not become a factor across a small-ish squad. European qualification is a genuine possibility.
The record of the bottom four clubs in the Premier League against those who sit outside the bottom six has been abysmal. They have played 26 such matches and taken a single point: West Brom’s 3-3 draw against Chelsea.
That must – and probably will, slightly – improve over time. But it also increases the importance of matches between those bottom four clubs. At least one of them is going to survive, possibly with a significantly lower points total than is usually required. Beat the dross and you keep your head above water. Cut to Slaven Bilic fist-pumping as West Brom were able to squeeze past Sheffield United and move outside the relegation zone.
Wolves’ Big Six away record
Wolves have now played 13 away league games against Big Six sides since their promotion and they have won as many as they have lost. Their matches against the Premier League’s rest can often be a little dull, but put Wolves in a situation where they can counter-attack at will with Adama Traore in the right mood and they can dismantle your lofty reputation.
The doubts about his big-game performances and tendency to hang onto the ball too long in a free-flowing, pass-and-move system all remain valid, but Mahrez has plenty enough ability to embarrass an average Premier League left-back when allowed to cut inside onto his left foot. He also now has more Premier League hat-tricks than Dennis Bergkamp and Eric Cantona. Next task is to pull level with Tony Cottee.
Chelsea and Tottenham
I have to mention it, but I’ll keep it brief because there were precious few winners or losers from a match after which both managers will be relatively satisfied. Liverpool’s dropped points against Brighton made shared spoils the most likely Sunday afternoon ending and so it proved. Tottenham didn’t want to risk over-committing on the press and being passed through; Chelsea didn’t want to risk overloading the final third and being caught on the counter.
As Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink alluded to on Sky Sports, this was a result that can only be judged in hindsight. Win your next two matches and it was firmly one point gained. Trip up over the next fortnight and it was an opportunity missed.
Now go and read 16 Conclusions.
I’m not saying England are going to win the European Championship next summer by Jack Grealish winning the free-kicks and Ward-Prowse curling them into the top corner, but I’m not not saying it either.
You will hear plenty of comparisons between Arteta and Unai Emery over the next few days, because that’s how these things work. But you would struggle to find two more different coaches. Emery muddled on at Arsenal, trying to improve the areas that had stopped working. He didn’t do so under the umbrella of any overriding philosophy.
Arteta is the opposite. He saw the decline of Arsenal over a five-year period and reasoned that the only way to remove the disease was to burn everything down and build it from scratch. The playing style, team shape and personnel (at least as much as he could) all changed.
We have to assume that Arsenal knew what they were getting here. Arteta had made no secret of his preferred style and they must have known that would take time. Given that Arsenal were so keen to appoint Arteta over established names, it suggests that they too believed the ‘rip it up’ strategy was the best one. That will give Arteta more time than was afforded to his predecessor. The sense with Emery was that this is as good as it will get; with Arteta there is room for progression.
But we are allowed to get a little itchy about the whole thing. Arteta’s biggest shift, to a style that has Arsenal passing out from the back, has largely worked in and of itself. Yet the defensive mistakes remain, the balance of midfield is still missing and the chronic lack of chance creation continues.
Those negative aspects are casting a long shadow over any improvements simply because they are dictating Arsenal’s results. They have taken 29 points from their last 20 league games, a record exacerbated by their general inability to grind out draws from games in which they don’t play well. Maybe that’s a feature of the Pep Guardiola and Arteta management model – things either go very well or very badly? Arsenal have drawn two of their last 35 matches, City three of their last 52.
We always knew that restoring Arsenal to a top-four team would not be a continuously upward curve. But you also need markers along the road to offer evidence that things are moving in the right direction and Arteta is scratching around for those. In their last 14 league games, Arsenal have had more shots than their opponents just three times. A nagging doubt festers in the minds of supporters: What if this bold new approach, sold to us as the only answer, just isn’t right for this squad?
We covered Sheffield United’s looming difficult decision last week, but things are only getting worse at Bramall Lane. They have now taken one point from their last 39 available in the Premier League. Their inability to score against the teams around them is most worrying. They have played West Brom, West Ham, Leeds, Fulham and Aston Villa this season and scored a single goal: the 85th-minute penalty from Billy Sharp that rescued a home point against Fulham.
There is a romantic notion that those great recent overachievers (David Wagner, Eddie Howe, Chris Wilder) earned ‘job for life’ status at their respective clubs, but that does not represent reality. The financial limitations imposed by relegation, and the benefits of staying in the top flight, means that nobody has complete carte blanche.
But it also presupposes that those managers are able to turn around the slumps, given time. The argument is not that Wagner and Howe should not have left Huddersfield and Bournemouth, but that they stayed long after it became clear they were incapable of altering the mood.
Wilder may still be able to flip this season on its head, but we can be forgiven for our faith in that waning (and many Sheffield United supporters will be feeling exactly the same). There is less energy in midfield, chances are being missed, they are softer defensively and the new signings aren’t really working out. Sheffield United are still a small club in terms of eye-watering Premier League economics, but they have spent £120m on new signings since promotion.
With Leicester City, Southampton and Manchester United to come next, Sheffield United are in danger of being cut adrift. Until now, Wilder’s most regular explanation has been that his players are not showing enough desire or hunger. Either he must dig a little deeper for a solution or transform the mood in the space of a few days. And that’s not going to be easy.
Crystal Palace are in one of those ruts that Hodgson has repeatedly proven himself capable of ending with a run of two or three league wins in a row, often away from home when we expect Palace to be comfortably beaten.
But the long-term picture is a little depressing for Palace fans. Their team has now collected 30 points from their last 29 league games. That’s almost certainly enough to survive relegation but never enough to provoke hope of a brighter future.
That’s a problem for Hodgson because of his age. Were he a 30-something bright-eyed and bushy-tailed coach with hopes of establishing a philosophy and taking Palace on, there would be more reason for patience. But this is Hodgson; he is delivering exactly what could reasonably be expected, for better and for worse. The football isn’t great to watch but occasionally it gets results.
Inevitably, Palace supporters will wonder ‘What if?’. The unlikely threat of impending relegation creates an opportunity for the club to seek something more exciting and more aesthetically pleasing. Hodgson’s departure would provoke a swathe of “Be careful what you wish for” reactions, but if Palace drift like this for much longer it is surely time to try something new.
Jurgen Klopp and the wrong target
I can see why Klopp was annoyed. He has just had a marginal VAR call go against his side (although he accepted that it was the correct decision) to cost them two points. Liverpool had suffered another injury to a senior player. Every high-level football manager is a terrible loser; we’ve just not seen many Liverpool setbacks recently.
And Klopp does have a point. While clubs across Europe routinely have their matches shifted according to their continental commitments, we do things differently in the Premier League. Liverpool have had a disproportionate number of Saturday, 12.30pm kick-offs following Wednesday night Champions League engagements.
But on Saturday Klopp went after the wrong target, both individually (interviewer Des Kelly) and generally (Premier League broadcasters). The contract that clubs agreed with the broadcasters gives Sky Sports the first pick (which usually goes into the Sunday 4.30pm slot) and BT Sport the second pick (almost always the Saturday 12.30pm game). With Sky understandably picking Chelsea vs Tottenham, BT Sport were perfectly entitled to go for Liverpool as their first-choice selection.
Klopp might well think that it’s unfair to have to play on a Saturday lunchtime after Wednesday Champions League commitments. But while Europa League participants have to play their league games on a Sunday, there are no restrictions about Wednesday-Saturday scheduling. If Klopp believes that to be wrong, he should instruct his club to include the clause in the negotiations with broadcasters. It would presumably lower the value of the contract, affording Liverpool less broadcasting revenue.
Until then, his gripes will – and should – fall on deaf ears. If his anger must be directed at anyone, it is those within his club who failed to address any concerns he may have had about post-Europe fatigue.
Southampton and those lost leads
How utterly infuriating for Ralph Hasenhuttl. His Southampton team rode their luck early on, capitalised on that fortune emphatically and then promptly threw away the game in a fog of sloppy passes and slapstick defensive positioning. Burno Fernandes was given three yards of space in the penalty area just by standing between two defenders, Jannik Vestergaard chose not to push out to play Cavani onside and then everyone fell asleep for a late free-kick. 2-0 became 2-3.
This is becoming the only negative theme of Hasenhuttl’s Southampton reign. They have now dropped 42 points from winning positions since his appointment, seven more than any other Premier League club in that time. Wolves, one club who Southampton may look to finish above if all goes well this season, have dropped just eight.
That matters because it can become self-fulfilling. The next time Southampton take the lead, their opponents won’t feel deflated but be buoyed by their inability to see out victories. You’re handing the opposition an unnecessary psychological advantage.
Burnley against Manchester City
Burnley’s last seven games against Manchester City:
Games won – 0
Games drawn – 0
Goals scored – 1
Goals conceded – 28
They have lost their last four matches at the Etihad 5-0, and on Saturday barely bothered to try and do anything other than avoid heavy defeat and still didn’t manage that. Just put them down for a 4-0 next time and everyone’s happy.