The Come Up: Six Down, A Way to Go in the Premier League

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Photo: AFP

The first six weeks of the Premier League season have come and gone in a blur, taking nearly a sixth of the long and arduous campaign with them. Already, the table has taken a specific shape — and unlike last season, when a league deprived of any legitimately top-tier quality sides provided the vacuum for Leicester City’s unforgettable triumph, the moneyed hegemony that has traditionally dominated English football has already assumed its place at the top.

Manchester City have yet to drop a point. Last year, they took the first 15 points available to them and looked like the best side in the country by some distance, before subsequently losing their following two matches; they would finish fourth on goal difference, barely qualifying for the Champions League. This year, they look an entirely different proposition. Pep Guardiola is a visionary and a progressive; his perception of the game, and his ideas about how it should be played, are innovative and forward-thinking. But they also work on the football pitch itself, and that’s a credit both to Guardiola and the immensely talented squad of footballers he has at his disposal.

Kevin De Bruyne has arguably been the standout player in the entire competition up to this point, so it’s a shame that a hamstring injury sustained against Swansea on Saturday looks set to keep him on the sidelines for more than month. But Guardiola is spoiled for choice; Ilkay Gundogan is already solidifying his claim to the central midfield position that De Bruyne had assumed brilliantly until recently, while Leroy Sane has looked nothing short of spectacular thus far — brimming with sheer pace, athleticism and skill on the ball. Even with the Belgian out, you wonder where Jesus Navas gets his game.

Yet City have only played one team so far this season that they could consider a genuine rival for the top domestic places, and it remains to be seen how well Guardiola’s side fares against other ball-playing teams that can match them (or at least come close) in quality. They did beat Manchester United at Old Trafford — a pulsating game from start to finish — but as results since have shown, United remain a work in progress.

United definitely looked to be making progress on Saturday, when they hosted the defending champions and, after a tight first 20 minutes, exploded into the game and blew Leicester City out of the water. Wayne Rooney was on the bench, so Juan Mata took the central attacking role behind Zlatan Ibrahimovic, and proceeded to look the best player on the pitch. Paul Pogba remains an awkward proposition in a deeper role in Jose Mourinho’s double-pivot, but seemed relieved to have the tenacious, disciplined Ander Herrera (a better footballer than Marouane Fellaini by most measures) alongside him.

Make no mistake about it: the last 25 minutes of the first half threatened to turn into a complete embarrassment for Leicester, who conceded United’s third and fourth goals on back-to-back corners (the third saw Leicester’s entire team caught out by Daley Blind’s low, fired delivery along the goal line, which Mata and Marcus Rashford waltzed in; the fourth was Pogba completely bossing Christian Fuchs). United’s first also came via corner; they were up 4-0 at halftime, an advantage that was entirely deserved.

Leicester got their heads back in the game in the second half and kept it from getting any worse, Demarai Gray’s beautiful curler from outside the box on the hour mark pulling one back. But it’s becoming evident Leicester will find this league more difficult than the last; Champions League football is an undeniable and justified distraction, the defense is another year older and a league-winning campaign is often a draining proposition for the players involved. This month, they went to Anfield and Old Trafford and got thwacked 4-1 on both occasions — results that are understandable, yet simultaneously an indication of a side regressing to the mean.

Football - FA Premier League - Liverpool FC v Hull City FC

Photo: David Rawcliffe/Propaganda

Liverpool, meanwhile, are proving themselves far from average. Jurgen Klopp’s side destroyed Hull at home on Saturday, and the 5-1 scoreline flattered Mike Phelan’s overwhelmed outfit. Even before Adam Lallana opened the scoring in the 17th minute with a awkward yet effective, slow-rolling finish into David Marshall’s net, Liverpool were unfortunate not to be up two goals via efforts from Joel Matip (who headed over the bar) and Philippe Coutinho (who, for not the first time this season, did poorly not to convert an opportunity directly in front of the opposition goal). Lallana was the outstanding performer over the course of his 69 minutes on the pitch; five minutes after scoring, he won a terrific lunging challenge on Tom Huddlestone as the Hull midfielder approached the Liverpool penalty area, and was immediately rewarded in having his name sung by the Anfield faithful.

Lallana has been a revelation in a deeper, central role in Klopp’s midfield this season, working alongside Georginio Wijnaldum and just ahead of Jordan Henderson. It’s a position that plays to his strengths (his ability to retain possession, create space for himself and pick a pass) while working around his weaknesses (a lack of raw pace and athleticism that is often exposed in wide positions). But he’s not the only one who has benefitted from such a change; Klopp is crafting a side that looks more formidable by the week, and a big part of that has been his willingness to deploy players where he sees them fitting best within his aggressive system, rather than their conventionally acknowledged positions.

Out of possession, Liverpool seek to defend almost every blade of grass on the pitch. They do so via a high press that chokes the life out of the opposition, throwing red shirts into concentrated areas and winning the ball back with ferocity and organization. It is a system that demands mobility, awareness and intelligence from those who implement it, and that’s exactly what Klopp has at his disposal. He also has technically talented footballers in virtually every position — hence the aforementioned midfield trio, and the selection of James Milner at left-back. The Milner decision has proven inspired; he gives Liverpool a formidable and more nuanced attacking outlet down the left flank, as well as the usual loads of industry, aggression and leadership. It is apparent now that Klopp is using Milner much like he used Kevin Großkreutz at Borussia Dortmund, and the similarities are certainly there — both men started their careers as wingers, both are renowned for their work rate and both bring an all-action approach as converted fullbacks.

It is what this Liverpool side has shown in possession, however, that has been most encouraging this season. Klopp’s front six was all over the place against Hull, even before Ahmed El Mohamady’s intentional handball in his own penalty area saw his team reduced to 10 men and gave Liverpool a spot kick that Milner converted to make it 2-0. Liverpool’s positional fluidity was remarkable, with players constantly interchanging positions and asking too many questions for Hull to answer. Firmino’s unorthodox movement is a wonder to watch, the Brazilian operating as a center-forward only on paper and asking more questions of Hull defenders than they could possibly hope to answer. When he drifted wide, Mane rotated centrally; when Coutinho dropped deep, operating alongside Henderson at times, Wijnaldum pushed ahead to the edge of the Hull penalty area.

And where some may have figured Klopp’s sides to be built around quick offensive transitions and direct counterattacks, Liverpool are proving themselves an outfit that wants to keep the ball and play it until the opposition lays — an approach that, if worked well, should give them a more reliable blueprint to breaking down inferior teams that are happy to sit deep and seek to frustrate. It’s a tactic that’s worked far too well against the Reds in recent times; Burnley found it successful only last month, when Liverpool had 80 percent of possession and still lost. The Hull game was a positive indicator of the progress Klopp’s outfit has made in this department, but tougher challenges lay ahead as far as opponents rolling up to Anfield and setting up shop in front of their goal — Tony Pulis’ West Brom come to town late next month.

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Photo: Ian Kington/AFP

Arsene Wenger’s selection for his side’s clash with Chelsea at the Emirates Stadium was confounding. Sure, he stuck with the same 11 guys who had gone to Hull the week prior and won 4-1, but you looked at the lineup — Alex Iwobi and Theo Walcott retaining their roles on the flanks, Alexis Sanchez yet again fielded at striker — and thought about the times you had seen a lightweight Arsenal picked apart on their own turf by a gnarly, impetuous Chelsea.

Of course, it didn’t nearly work out that way. Arsenal found themselves up 2-0 before 15 minutes had passed, thanks both to a vigorous Arsenal press that killed Chelsea’s ability to build up play and, of course, massive individual and collective errors by Chelsea defensively. Sanchez opened the scoring in the 11th minute after strolling onto Gary Cahill’s disastrous, errant backpass to no one in his own half, and the next five minutes were a slaughterhouse capitalized by Arsenal walking it into the net to make it 2-0, courtesy of Theo Walcott.

Finding themselves down two goals, Chelsea then tried to get themselves back into it — and they had some success, playing out of Arsenal’s relentless pressure with a 20th minute move that saw Eden Hazard and Diego Costa create an opportunity in the opposition box for Willian, who fired his effort wide across Petr Cech’s goal.

But Chelsea were unable to find a breakthrough that would have gotten them back into the contest and continually succumbed to the Arsenal press, giving the ball away particularly during offensive transitions that saw Arsenal win it back in favorable positions and throw another wave of attack at Chelsea’s shaky backline. It was an assertive, frankly dominant performance by Wenger’s men that had a whiff of Klopp’s Liverpool about it — such was Arsenal’s ability to constantly put Chelsea under pressure via similarly aggressive counter-pressing tactics.

Mesut Ozil effectively put the game to bed on 40 minutes, teaming up with Sanchez on a two-man counterattack that exploited loads of open space in Chelsea’s half and made Cahill and David Luiz’s efforts to stop them look pedestrian. It was an Arsenal performance that brought to mind the 3-0 hammering of Louis van Gaal’s Manchester United at the Emirates last October, though that game was done and dusted in the first 20 minutes. Arsenal can do this to any side that rolls up to their turf, but it’s the fact that they did it to Chelsea — who have punched Wenger’s boys square in the mouth time and again in recent years (and hadn’t lost to Arsenal in a competitive match in nearly five years) — that gives this result such weight.

Chelsea, meanwhile, look old and creaky and shot of confidence after back-to-back defeats to top four rivals in the league. In both instances, they appeared unable to cope with the sheer pace, aggression and organization of opponents who ran at them in waves and gave them little time to play on the ball. Antonio Conte switched to a three center-back system — the kind that brought him so much success at Juventus — in the second half, and it’s safe to presume that will be an option moving forward for a Chelsea team that’s suffered serious defensive lapses in John Terry’s absence. You could see Branislav Ivanovic doing well in a right-sided center-back role that provides him some license to push forward; something needs to be done about Ivanovic, who is fast approaching 33 years of age and has somehow kept his right-back berth in this side, despite frequently turning in shocking performances over the last year and change.

Next weekend will see them go to Hull — an opportunity to get their season back on track at this early juncture. Arsenal go to Burnley, who are no mugs, while Liverpool travel to Swansea and United host floundering Stoke City. But the biggest contest of the weekend has first-place Man City traveling to White Hart Lane to play second-place Spurs, who have conceded the fewest goals in the league (three) and will almost certainly prove, by far, to be Guardiola’s toughest test in English football to date. The campaign is well and truly underway.

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