Sometimes, I sit back and question why I would wake up at 6:30 on a Sunday morning. After all, it’s my only day to sleep past 8 AM, so why would I waste it by waking up that early just to watch English soccer that doesn’t affect me at all?
That questioning is fulfilled by Sunday slates like the one in week 11. I mean, what an unbelievable quartet of games to christen the Lord’s day.
Starting the day off was a surprisingly fantastic matchup between Tottenham and Crystal Palace. The Eagles came to play on Sunday and should have come away with a point, but it was Spurs who played the full 90 minutes and were rewarded with all 3 points.
Next up was Manchester City hosting Arsenal in an entertaining 3-1 fixture. Then, to cap it all off, Manchester United and Chelsea played to an electric 1-0 result in favor of the Blues while Watford and Everton played the game of the weekend, with the Toffees picking up a crucial 3-2 win.
Saturday’s action was pretty typical of the league so far this season. Some late goals, some great goals, some good action, but mostly boring and inconsequential results between mostly boring and inconsequential teams. Sunday’s action was almost the complete opposite, with incredible action between extremely relevant sides that made me care about games I wouldn’t otherwise have cared about.
Example ‘A’ is the fact that I wasn’t remotely planning on being entertained by a 6:30 matchup between Spurs and Crystal Palace, but holy cow was I wrong about that one; what a game it turned out to be.
With all of that said, pardon me while I might talk extensively about the games on Sunday and only briefly mention Saturday’s events. So if you tuned out after Liverpool-West Ham ended on Saturday afternoon, here’s a spoiler alert for you, I guess.
In addition to that spoiler alert, here are your weekend headlines. Class is in session.
“We’re Just a Rich West Brom”
Entering the weekend, I – much like almost anyone else – had Manchester United vs Chelsea circled as my fixture of the matchweek. The entertaining Sunday affair ended with a 1-0 win for the home side, the lone tally coming courtesy of an Alvaro Morata header because how else do Chelsea score…?
The result for Antonio Conte’s side will go a long way in calming down some of the talk surrounding the Italian manager’s job security at Stamford Bridge. Meanwhile, Manchester United manager Jose Mourinho has now last all 3 of his side’s fixtures at the Bridge since he was jettisoned as club manager before signing at Old Trafford.
The Blues gladly welcomed back star midfielder N’Golo Kante and he may as well have pivoted the entire match just with his gritty presence. The dynamic Frenchman won the ball back 11 times for his side, more than any other player in the game, and was crucial in denying service up towards a mostly silent Romelu Lukaku.
And, for Manchester United, Lukaku’s struggles were a microcosm of their whole day in London this past Sunday. The big Belgian striker was unable to manage even one single touch inside the opposing penalty area and spent the afternoon with embittered looks on his face, kept well in check by a brilliant Andreas Christensen.
The Red Devils’ frustration was almost perfectly summed up by a Monday morning caller on Ian Wright’s BBC radio show. The United fan, named Hasson, furiously dismissed his side’s Sunday disappointment with a soundbite for the ages.
“We’re nothing more than a rich West Brom right now,” Hassan said before continuing, “I’m just really angry at that diabolical performance. When we’re struggling, we bring on a tree in Fellaini, lump it forward and just hope for the best. We’re playing boring, horrific football.”
But although they are undeniably hilarious, Hassan’s criticisms are well merited and do have some substance.
Since taking over as manager at Old Trafford, Jose Mourinho has played 10 games against the ‘big 6.’ In those 10 games, the Portuguese boss holds a record of 0-5-5, with all 5 of those draws being of the 0-0 variety.
Say what you will about how well Mourinho’s bus parking can work at times, it’s not entertaining at all. Losing or drawing is one thing, but on a club with the prestigious and prodigious attacking talent that Manchester United have, it’s unacceptable to be boring and fans are beginning to lash out.
The Red Devils’ last 4 league games have featured a scoreless draw to Liverpool, a loss at Huddersfield, a 1-0 win over Tottenham and a 1-0 loss to Chelsea. In such a tight race at the top of the table against a currently rampant Manchester City squad that show no signs of slowing up any time soon, this stretch of poor form from United could prove to be the difference between 1st and 2nd place at the end of the season.
United were out-classed in every way on Sunday by a much better and more fearless Chelsea squad. Jose Mourinho’s ‘park the bus’ strategy has played itself out and is clearly failing against the top teams in the league. Will the ‘Special One’ be able to adapt to his changing circumstances or will he stay stubborn as ever and potentially sink his squad’s rapidly evaporating title chances?
For my money, there’s no way Mourinho’s ego will let him adapt his style. He’ll just continue insisting that his squad is struggling because of injured players, which might be true, but it’s not an excuse anymore.
United should win their next two matches against Newcastle and Brighton purely on class alone, but a week 13 trip to Vicarage Road to take on Watford should prove as a make-or-break game for Mourinho’s squad. Will they or won’t they adapt? Time will tell…
Take 2 on the Everton Comeback Story…?
Do me a favor and rewind the season 5 weeks back to match week 6. Everton were coming off of 3 straight shutout losses to Chelsea, Tottenham and Man U – a brutal stretch of games for any team in the Prem – but had just beaten Bournemouth thanks to two late goals from Oumar Niasse.
After that win, I proudly declared that Everton were “back on track in a big way.” The Toffees, to reward my faith, went on to go 0-2-6 in their next 8 matches over all competitions. The firing of Ronald Koeman seemed to be the culmination of early season frustration so far at Goodison Park and Everton entered this weekend 19th in the table with a pathetic goal differential of -13.
Greeting them on Sunday was an upstart Watford team sitting 8th in the standings at the time, 2nd behind Burnley in the battle of all non-big 6 teams. 64 minutes into the weekend tilt, Everton found themselves down 2-0 to a thus far dominant Watford side and seemingly digging themselves deeper into the already abyssal hole being dug at Goodison Park.
But then, something magical happened. Oumar Niasse received a fortuitous bounce in front of the Hornets’ net and, try as he might, was unable to miss. Suddenly, the score was 2-1 and Everton were back in the game. 7 minutes later, in the 74th minute, Dominic Calvert-Lewin headed in off of a corner kick and the Toffees had tied it.
Oh but it got better from there for the home side.
After an announced 12 minutes of stoppage time – that number is outrageous, but that’s how wild this game was – Leighton Baines only needed 1 of those extra minutes to both win and score a penalty.
After Tom Cleverly somehow missed a penalty of his own in the 99th minute of the game, Baines’ goal was able to stand tall as the winner in one of the wildest games all season and certainly the most important result of Everton’s season thus far.
The Toffees came from two goals down to win at home in the Premier League for just the second time ever, the first being a 1994 game against Wimbledon. Interim manager David Unsworth’s side now find themselves 15th in the table, 2 spots clear of the danger zone.
With their next four games being against Crystal Palace, Southampton, West Ham and Huddersfield, this appears to be the perfect time for Everton to have potentially gotten themselves back on track.
5 weeks ago, I thought the Toffees were set to begin their comeback to relevancy after a comeback victory over Bournemouth. At the risk of being wrong about an Everton comeback for the second time in a span of 2 months, now is the time that the Toffees begin to dig out of the hole at Goodison Park.
Everton will find themselves in the top half of the table after this upcoming 4 game stretch concludes, a much more confident and formidable foe. All it took was a 2 goal comeback over a top half team instead of a one goal comeback over a bottom half team, I suppose.
It’s Time to Talk About Brighton
We’ve avoided it up to this point while lauding and heaping praise on the other two newly promoted sides having success, but it’s time to stop ignoring Brighton and acknowledge that this is a team and a story worth being excited about.
Following this past weekend’s 1-0 win over Swansea City, the Seagulls (my favorite nickname in the Prem, by the way) find themselves sitting 8th in the standings with an even goal differential and hopes of not just avoiding relegation, but maybe finishing in or around the top half of the table.
Four straight league games without defeat, two away wins in a row at West Ham and now Swansea, disciplined defending and renewed confidence in attack have the Seagulls flying into the top half 11 weeks into the season. This certainly isn’t a storyline that I think any of us were planning on experiencing this late into the campaign.
After losing the first 4 games of their debut season in the top flight, Chris Hughton’s side have recovered in a big way, with the Seagulls suffering defeat just once over the last 6 matches by following a simple formula of organized, methodical defense and opportunistic attacking.
Brighton’s front 3 of Glenn Murray, Pascal Gross and Anthony Knockaert are able to give opposing defenses problems with wily, smart movement and great chemistry. They certainly don’t have the most skill or pure ability of any attacking trio anywhere in the world, but they’re no less dangerous and know exactly when to pounce on sleeping defenses.
Such was the case on Saturday when Murray scored the only goal of Brighton’s match with Swansea. Knockaert received a pass with plenty of space out on the right wing before picking out Murray in the box for a simple cross that the veteran Englishman meekly slotted home with a re-direction off of his thigh.
The Swans, playing on the front foot up to that point in the game, shut off for maybe 30 seconds defensively and were made to pay for it. Murray was left unmarked at the back post and ran directly in between the two Swansea centre backs who had lazily left way, way too much room in between them.
It was such a simple goal, but a clinical one from Brighton’s standpoint. Murray’s savviness, combined with the service and creativity of Knockaert and Gross are making goals like this increasingly common for the Seagulls, who have employed a combination of simplistic attacking quality with renewed confidence to give opposing defenses headaches.
Murray now has 27 league goals for Brighton since the beginning of last season, a tally only bested by Harry Kane among all players to play both seasons at either of the top two levels in English football.
Brighton are winning in all sorts of different ways now, having scored in 7 of their last 8 matches while still holding clean sheets in 3 of the last 6. This past weekend’s match against Swansea featured a meager 15 shots, the fewest combined of any game in the Premier League season, and the Seagulls were able to comfortably come out on top, a testament to their disciplined defensive ways.
I mentioned earlier in the season how I’d underestimated the fight and desire levels of newly promoted teams and Brighton are proving just how wrong I was. This is not a particularly talented team, but boy do they fight like hell every single time out.
The Seagulls have ridden a wave of surprise results all the way up to 8th in the table but they may have lost an important quality; they won’t be able to sneak up on unsuspecting opponents. Brighton will now be given the respect they deserve and taken seriously as a top half contender.
This is the tough part for Chris Hughton’s squad. They’ve announced their presence and are in the top half of the table 11 match weeks into the new season, but can they stay at that level?
I want to believe so, but I need more confirmation first. A convincing victory over Southampton and a point against Manchester United would do that for me in Brighton’s next two games.
But, for now, snaps for the Seagulls. This is a story worth following and worth talking about because absolutely nobody expected anything like it. May the Cinderella ride at the AmEx only continue on the up and up.
Where I Was Right Last Week
I lauded new Leicester manager Claude Puel for allowing his squad to return to their counter-attacking ways in their week 10 matchup with Everton. This week against Stoke didn’t yield 3 points, but the two Foxes’ goals were both scored on…you guessed it…the counter attack.
The first came courtesy of a thumping Vicente Iborra strike off of a Wes Morgan flick on header, while the second came off of a lovely solo run and effort from club starlet Riyad Mahrez. There are some things that need to be tightened up defensively at the King Power, but Leicester look back to their old attacking ways under Puel, which is great news for supporters.
Also, I wrote a sentence last week that read, “the Clarets’ [Burnley] 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.”
Well, guess who beat Southampton on Saturday by a 1-0 scoreline. Thank you very much.
Also, I lauded Liverpool as last week’s team of the week before writing, “the attacking Reds are back and should thrash West Ham this week as well”
GUESS WHO THRASHED WEST HAM THIS PAST WEEKEND. Thank you very much again.
Where I Was Wrong Last Week
This is a bit of a technicality, but I still got it wrong so…..
I mentioned the key battle in Manchester City vs Arsenal as being Alexis Sanchez vs Kyle Walker on the right wing. Arsene Wenger apparently didn’t read Tuesday Morning Tea last week because he ignored my strong suggestion of starting Lacazette-Ozil-Sanchez as a front trio in favor of keeping the Frenchman on the bench and playing Sanchez in a centre forward role.
It didn’t work at all and only once Lacazette was off the bench and on the field were Arsenal able to sustain some sort of attack. That being said, because Sanchez was in a centre forward role, he and Walker didn’t see that much of each other on Saturday, with John Stones and Nicolas Otamendi handling the pacy Chilean instead.
Like I said, a technicality, but still one that I was wrong about.
Team of the Weekend: Chelsea
Whether unfairly or not, Antonio Conte’s job may have been on the line this weekend. His Chelsea squad responded accordingly with a convincing 1-0 win over Manchester United. The Blues generated 8 shots on target while conceding only 2 to the Red Devils and were in complete control of the game from start to finish. Chelsea still find themselves 9 points behind leaders Manchester City, but a victory this weekend was crucial for the club and they got the job done.
Runners Up: Brighton, Liverpool, Burnley
Player of the Weekend: Leighton Baines
The leading charge of the Everton comeback, Baines swung in the cross that resulted in the Toffees’ second, equalizing goal while also slotting home the winning penalty in the 91st minute, setting a club record with his 24th made penalty shot in the process. Everton’s longest tenured player led the fight that may have saved their season for the time being. There will be many more performances like this one needed in the future, but Baines brought about the start.
Runners Up: Kevin De Bruyne (every freaking week) Glenn Murray, Paulo Gazzaniga
Moment of the Weekend: Tom Cleverley’s Penalty Miss
As huge as Everton’s win was for the Toffees, there’s another side to the coin. After what was a stunning win against Arsenal, Watford had lost 2 straight league matches entering Sunday’s tilt at Goodison. Up 2-0, they seemed to be in perfect position to redeem all their previous woes, but that lead evaporated. However, after everything, Richarlison won Tom Cleverly a 99th minute penalty and the Hornets seemed like they just might be able to salvage this one. Instead, Cleverly’s miss capitulates Watford’s poor run of form and sends them spiraling further down the rabbit hole.
Runners Up: Peter Crouch’s Stoke equalizer, Alvaro Morata’s Chelsea winner, Rajiv van La Parra’s Huddersfield stunner
10 Thoughts I Have
- PETER CROUCH IS BACK!!! Pulled off the bench by a desperate Mark Hughes in the 69th minute, the big guy did what he always does and snuck his way to the back post to head in an equalizing goal and salvage a point for Stoke City. At 36 years old, the former Liverpool striker is clearly on a downswing of his career, but he…just…keeps…scoring…goals. Apparently, an England recall is a serious possibility for the in-form Crouch and honestly, few things would make me happier. I just love him so much…keep on keeping on, Peter Crouch.
- Man, oh man did Wilfried Zaha have the missed chance of the weekend. Having rounded Tottenham keeper Paulo Gazzaniga and being in brilliant position to break a 0-0 deadlock between Crystal Palace and Spurs, Zaha rushed his shot and put the ball wide of the yawning cage. In a game where the Eagles certainly deserved a point, Zaha had a chance to give them the lead and maybe shock Wembley. Instead, he missed and left his club with the same feeling they’ve had all season long. More cellar-dwelling at Selhurst Park.
- Riyad Mahrez is giving everyone a clinical reminder of just how great he is. Leicester’s Algerian star has two goals and two assists in his last four games and is approaching the world class form he was in while being a lynchpin in Leicester’s title run of just two seasons ago. As I’ve mentioned before, I have an immense amount of respect for the way that Mahrez handled his transfer request, quietly going about his business and not whining about not being able to move to a bigger club. Now that he’s approaching his best form again, he’s a complete joy to watch. Hat tip, Riyad.
- Rajiv van La Parra scored the goal of the weekend with this absolute screamer. Huddersfield have had many magical moments so far, this one is up near the top.
- Other notable tallies include Kevin De Bruyne’s left footed opener, Xherdan Shaqiri’s beautiful finish off of a lovely first time flick on, Mohamed Salah continuing his hot streak and a magnificent Riyad Mahrez solo effort.
- Your unsung hero of the weekend is Heung-min Son. In the process of breaking Crystal Palace hearts by scoring the only goal in Tottenham’s 1-0 win on Saturday, Son now stands alone as the Premier League’s highest goalscorer from Asia with 20 league tallies. Spurs’ superstar South Korean has been nothing short of magnificent since being signed for 22 million pounds from Bayer Leverkusen in the summer of 2015 and will only continue getting better. What a milestone, though.
- Manchester City won an extremely important game this weekend in an extremely important way. Only being able to hold 52% possession against Arsenal, City had to adapt their playing style to match the game and did so wonderfully. Instead of pressing higher and trying to force their way into holding more possession, the Sky Blues let Arsenal come to them and then were lethal on the counter attack. The pace of Leroy Sane and Raheem Sterling caused problems for Arsene Wenger’s back 3 all day long and Kevin De Bruyne was a brilliant orchestrator for the City machine on Sunday. Last season, Pep Guardiola’s squad had no backup plan if they weren’t able to control 65% possession or more and they were caught out too often by teams able to possess the ball. This game was an example of City’s adaptation and the main reason why they will run away with the league by Christmas. Just so, so good right now.
- Swansea City are absolutely toothless right now and it confuses the hell out of me. Tammy Abraham can’t find the mark, Wilfried Bony has been silent since his deadline day return and Renato Sanches isn’t influential enough to save all of them right now. Paul Clement’s bunch are completely devoid of confidence at the moment, something the manager mentioned after his side’s latest loss to Brighton on Saturday. The Swans have managed just 22 shots on target over their first 11 games, the fourth lowest total through 11 games in Premier League history. Swansea just needs to find a way to generate more shots on net and the goals will come. Facing Burnley in 2 weeks certainly won’t help, but if the Swans can steal one it will go a long way for their confidence. They won’t steal one, though…
- Sam Vokes’ 81st minutes header was the most underrated goal of the weekend. Firstly, the header itself is phenomenally taken by the Welshman and secondly, it won Sean Dyche’s upstart Burnely squad yet another league game. The Clarets are now up to 7th in the table and continue to frustrate teams week in and week out with their terrifically organized and stubborn defensive ranks. This isn’t a club with the talent and structure to beat the top teams in the league – Chelsea was a fluke – but it’s a club structured to beat literally everyone else in the league, which bodes extremely well in the fight for Europa League spots.
- After this latest international break ends, the big match to watch in week 12 is a Monday night tilt between Brighton and Stoke City…………………………man, I can’t even say that with a straight face. Obviously it’s the North London Derby between Arsenal and Tottenham. If you have anything else scheduled on your Saturday morning at 6:30 AM, cancel it and watch the best rivalry in English soccer. Should be a barnburner, but I have Spurs coming out on top via an entertaining 3-1 scoreline.