Tuesday Morning Tea Week 10: The ‘Big 6’ Reign Begins

Take a quick look at the Premier League table and you might be bored with what you see.

Manchester City, Manchester United, Tottenham, Chelsea, Arsenal and Liverpool all make up the top 6 in the standings and, for the first time this season, I can actually and honestly say that I’m not at all surprised with what’s going on in England. The ‘big 6’ have finally separated themselves and make up the top 6 in the table for the first time this season.

5 out of the 6 teams won this weekend and the only reason that all 6 didn’t win was because Tottenham had to play United. For as competitive a league as the Prem has been thus far, it’s starting to sift itself as we all planned when the season started. Entering week 11, only 6 teams have a positive goal differential and I’ll bet you can never guess who those 6 teams are.

We’ve passed the quarter pole of the 2017-18 season and there will now be several split up battles the rest of the way. The battle for the top between the Manchesters, Tottenham and Chelsea, the Champions League battle between the ‘big 6’, the Europa League battle between upstarts like Watford, Burnley and Newcastle and the relegation battle at the bottom.

City are now 5 points clear at the top after extending their season opening league unbeaten streak to a club record 10 games with a tight win over West Brom 3-2. Liverpool handed down the most decisive victory of the weekend with a 3-0 hammering of Huddersfield, Wilfried Zaha salvaged a deserved point for Crystal Palace with a 97’ equalizer against West Ham while Brighton and Southampton drew 1-1 in the most irrelevant game of the weekend.

Those are your weekend quick hits, here are the headlines:

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No Harry Kane? Big Problem for Spurs

Coming into this past weekend’s showdown with Manchester United, Tottenham have been in rampant form, with 4 consecutive league wins and a spotless Champions League record that includes a victory of German powerhouse Borussia Dortmund and an away draw with Real Madrid.

That form has matched the quality of Spurs’ ace striker Harry Kane, who bagged 13 goals across all competitions in the month of September and is currently the Premier League’s top scorer with 8 goals in 9 appearances. As Kane goes, so goes Tottenham.

Which goes a long way in explaining why Mauricio Pochettino’s bunch sputtered their way to a crucial 1-0 defeat at the hands of Manchester United this past Saturday. Tottenham managed 4 shots on goal, but none of them were remotely dangerous and the only real chance that Spurs had was steered wide by an otherwise hapless Dele Alli.

It’s been several weeks since Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola referred to Tottenham as “the Harry Kane team” in a Champions League press conference and Pochettino was rightly outraged at the time. In form, Spurs are much more than just the England striker, with Dele Alli and Christian Eriksen buzzing around the midfield and creating dangerous chances, a quality defensive shape at the back and Hueng-min Son flying around the wings.

Martial
Photo Courtesy of PA

But Saturday actually gave some merit to Guardiola’s claim. Spurs looked wholly toothless without Kane, unable to finish anything in the final 3rd or menace the United defense enough to create consistent chances.

Yes, Tottenham are more than just Harry Kane, but with the superb form that he’s been in recently, it’s been pretty clearly shown that everything about them keys off of his individual brilliance.

To further drive that point home, Kane returned for a midweek Champions League clash with Real Madrid. Tottenham trashed Los Blancos by a 3-1 scoreline without Kane’s name appearing on the scoresheet. He’s simply that damn influential.

Spurs need their ace striker to have any hope of winning the league and this past weekend was possibly the worst time to be without him and Tottenham paid for it dearly.

Claude Puel Era at Leicester off to a Sparkling Start

In the past 12 months, Leicester City have had an Italian and an Englishman in charge of the club. Both have been fired and now in steps plan C, the Frenchman.

Puel, the former Southampton boss, was appointed prior to Leicester’s weekend clash with Everton and met with some derision due to his Saints’ side of last season only being able to muster up 41 league goals. Playing a home match against a seemingly desperate Everton side – also under brand new (interim) management – there were a lot of anxious eyes on the Frenchman’s Foxes debut.

He passed his first test with flying colors.

Leicester City provided the world with a throwback to the shock title winning side of just two seasons ago in a convincing 2-0 victory over a hapless Everton team. The Toffees has more of the ball, spent most of the game in the Leicester end, held a much higher line than the Foxes, consistently had attacking players in advanced positions, and still lost by two goals – both given up on lightning quick counter attacks.

It was textbook, trademark, vintage Leicester.

Vardy.jpg
Photo Courtesy of Getty Images

The problems that got former managers Claudio Rainieri and Craig Shakespeare fired surrounded the fact that neither of them seemed willing to play the style that had won Leicester the league title. Both wanted to hold more possession, play more advanced positions and get on the front foot.

That’s just not how Leicester City succeeds, and Puel – much to his credit – has seemingly immediately realized that and gone back to a tried, true and successful approach.

The man of the match was Demarai Gray, who turned in a stunningly good performance. The 21 year old Englishman was fantastic in his own end and looked constantly ready to pounce on loose balls and spring furious counter attacks. His blistering pace created the first Leicester goal on a counter attack, taking an Everton free kick in the Foxes’ half and then winning 3 separate take-ons before dishing off to Riyad Mahrez, whose cross was finished at the back post by Jamie Vardy.

Gray’s relentless energy and blazing pace create matchup headaches for any opponent and he should be vital on the counter attack for Leicester as this season goes along. If Puel can find a way to work Kelechi Iheanacho and his itching nose for the net into the front line, Leicester will reasonably fight be fighting for a Europa League spot.

Combining a re-born attack with a defense that looked wholly impenetrable against Everton on Saturday bodes well for the former champions. As has been noted, Everton dominated the second half, holding close to 75% possession and generating 10 shots, but only 2 of them were put on goal and a Wes Morgan-led Leicester back line rarely looked like they would be breached.

The Foxes’ performance this weekend was a harbinger of the future to come. Keep your eyes in Stoke this weekend because the Potters might get trashed on Saturday. Leicester are back.

Arsenal Finally Use Their Weapons

Barely 2 weeks after I proclaimed them a “pitiful, bloody mess,” Arsenal have resurrected themselves all the way up to 5th in the Premier League table and appear on the verge of putting together a quality run of form. The catalyst for this recent re-birth in North London can be drawn from the playing of a brand new front 3.

Finally, after 8 weeks of squabbling and politicking, Arsene Wenger has played Lacazette-Ozil-Sanchez on top of his 3-4-3 formation for two straight league matches. Conveniently, Arsenal have won both of those league matches.

Arsenal have always been able to use the relentless pace, movement and creativity of Alexis Sanchez to create problems for opposing defenses, but when combined with the precision passing of Mesut Ozil and the piercing runs and deft finishing ability of Alexandre Lacazette, the Gunners now have a truly dynamic and threatening attack.

Ramsey
Photo Courtesy of Getty Images

Ozil in particular, amid criticism of his character from all corners of the world – including me – is having a terrific season going forward. He is now tied with Man City starlet Kevin De Bruyne for the most chances created this season with 30.

Playing a front 3 does several important things for Arsenal. Firstly, it allows Alexis Sanchez to play as a wide winger instead of a centre forward. The Chilean has not been at his best this season when forced to play centrally below Lacazette because it mostly negates his strongest qualities.

When in a wider role, Sanchez is better able to use his incredible dribbling ability, electric pace and penchant for cutting inside. In combination with that, Lacazette’s strongest qualities are also accentuated because Sanchez being a constant wide threat allows him to make his signature off-ball runs. And adding the cherry on top of the Arsenal attacking sundae is Mesut Ozil providing world class service to both of them.

Sead Kolasinac has been Arsenal’s best player so far this season and saved them this weekend with a 51’ equalizer. With a front 3 running wild in front of him, he will now be able to solely patrol the left side of the Gunners’ formation without having to worry about covering the middle of the field in attack. He was absolutely brilliant against Swansea City on Saturday while playing in his left side role, as his touchmap against the Swans shows.

Kolasinac
Touchmap courtesy of BBC Sports

Arsenal have seemingly righted the ship with 3 straight comeback victories in all competitions over Everton, Norwich City and Swansea City. Their new formation and mettle will be in for a stern test this weekend as the Gunners travel to the Etihad for a crucial Sunday match against table-toppers Manchester City before the international break.

The matchup to watch in this game will be Alexis Sanchez vs Kyle Walker on the right flank. City will look to press high up the field and try to pin back Arsenal’s attackers on the negative side of the field while pelting away at a still weak back 3. Sanchez will be Arsenal’s key man on counter attacks and it will be up to Walker to handle the Chilean’s pace and creativity on the right wing.

Arsene Wenger’s squad are currently tied for the final Champions League spot with Chelsea heading into their matchup with City and this weekend’s game could be make or break for the Gunners in their quest to reclaim a spot in Europe’s top competition.

If Arsenal are able to hand City their first league defeat of the season, this new front 3 will have been at the heart of the play.

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Where I Was Right Last Week:

“Everton are a mess” was the sentence I wrote before talking about how the Toffees currently have the look of a U17 side. Another 2-0 loss to Leicester in which next to nothing was created has done nothing to sway me from my position. Crystal Palace are currently off the hook as ‘most talented team to be relegated’ because Everton have taken the reigns of that sleigh.

Where I Was Wrong Last Week

I incorrectly mentioned briefly that Tottenham and Crystal Palace were playing last week. They didn’t, that’s this week. My bad

Other than that one minor miss, I wasn’t wrong about much of anything else last week. Snaps for me.

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Team of the Week: Liverpool

It took 50 minutes for the Reds to breach Huddersfield’s stubborn defense on Saturday, but once Daniel Sturridge found the back of the Anfield net, Liverpool were well on their way to producing a final result that matched the way they played.

After looking mostly pathetic in a 4-1 defeat at the hands of Tottenham last week, Jurgen Klopp’s men flipped the prior narrative on its head en route to the most dominant performance of the weekend. 73% possession, 16 shots vs only 1 Huddersfield shot allowed and only 2 Terriers’ corner kicks.

An utterly dominant display of football by the Reds.

Runners Up: Leicester City, Chelsea, Arsenal

 

Player of the Week: Joe Hart

Crystal Palace put 9 dangerous shots on target in a Saturday barn-burner with West Ham and Joe Hart was able to make 7 spectacular saves. In the 96th minute, the Hammers were on the verge of an improbable victory almost solely because of Hart’s heroics.

The England #1 turned in a performance reminiscent of some of his younger Manchester City days. Hart made several terrific saves, including a mental sequence of reactions in front of the net.

Maybe there were other players who turned in cleaner performances than Hart, but the West Ham keeper was spectacular and no player was more influential in attempting to win his team a game this weekend than Joe Hart.

Runners Up: Demarai Gray, Sead Kolasinac, Wilfried Zaha

 

Moment of the Week: Anthony Martial’s Manchester United Winner

The most important goal of the weekend.

The finish was nothing spectacular and the overall goal was incredibly simple, but no moment had bigger overall impact than Anthony Martial winning a crucial game for Manchester United with his 81st minute tally.

Only 3 players touched the ball on the goal. De Gea cleared the ball, Lukaku flicked a header into the path of Martial and the Frenchman finished past a sprawling Hugo Lloris. The Red Devils have taken full control of 2nd place for the time being and are in position as the most significant challenge to Manchester City’s title quest.

Runners Up: Wilfried Zaha’s 96’ equalizer, the Watford-Stoke fight, Jamie Vardy’s Leicester City opener

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10 Thoughts I Have

  1. Sean Dyche – aka ‘Ginger Mourinho’ – has Burnley, yes Burnley, legitimately competing for a Europa League spot. With another victory this weekend against fellow upstart Newcastle, the Clarets are up to 7th in the table while only scoring 9 goals all season, 3 of which came in one victory over Chelsea. I’ve talked at length before about how sharp Burnley’s defensive shape is, but it’s worth mentioning again. This is an extremely stubborn side that just rarely ever breaks down. The Clarets’ upcoming matchup at St. Mary’s against Southampton pits two notoriously stingy sides against each other, but I’d put a lot of money on Burnley coming out on top
  2. Honestly, there wasn’t much else to care/write about. Next weekend, though? HOO BOY
  3. Chelsea vs Manchester United? YES PLEASE
  4. Arsenal vs Manchester City? Oh hell yeah
  5. Everton vs Watford? Don’t scoff, might be a quality match
  6. Even West Ham vs Liverpool should be a quality game
  7. I’ll see y’all next weekend with a ton of stuff to talk about
  8. Also, name me another soccer pundit that will use the word y’all
  9. Hire me, please
  10. Someone?
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Tuesday Morning Tea Week 10: The ‘Big 6’ Reign Begins

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