We are three weeks into the Premier League season and there are already some interesting storylines being played out on the pitch. One of my relegation picks, the Hornets of Watford have bagged all nine points available, and in convincing fashion against solid mid-table teams Burnley and Crystal Palace as well as a plucky Brighton Hove Albion team, (more on the Seagulls below.) Early wins like these will be valuable in staying up, especially as the team gets more predictable drubbing against the top six. And nobody is going to want to go to a rejuvenated Molineux Stadium to face Wolves, a team that has put together a great plan for their promotion campaign.
But the biggest news comes from the capitol city of British football, Manchester.
Manchester City: Are they human this year?
The defending champions are not one of the four teams with perfect records so far. They certainly looked that way in the week one fixture against Arsenal, clinically dissecting the beleaguered Gunners in their first home game under new manager Unai Emery. Then they opened their home schedule with a thorough thrashing of a completely over-matched Huddersfield squad, six goals to one. It was the kind of dominance we saw all season from City, with a Sergio Aguero hat-trick leading the scoring.
Then last weekend they went to Molineux.
To say that City had a frustrating time in Wolverhampton would be an understatement. The woodwork deserved a game ball as several City shots ricocheted off the post and away from danger. The Wolves lived up to their name, harassing City attacker in packs and threatening quick breaks. They took the lead early in the second half on a Joao Moutinho cross from a corner to defender Willy Boly, who tucked the ball into the lower right corner of goal from point-blank range.
City equalized with a header from Aymeric LaPorte off a set piece in the 69th minute but were frustrated the rest of the way. A free kick from Kun Aguero in stoppage time hit the crossbar and that was that. Wolves get their second point and City’s rampage through the list hits a bump in the road.
Pep Guardiola was his usual inscrutable self in the post-match interview, crediting the Wolves for a game well played and only mildly chastising his squad. If anything it’s the head man’s reaction that leads me to believe that City will be fine. They had a similar early stumble last year, a week two draw with Everton, and then they didn’t miss a point until drawing at Crystal Palace on New Year’s Eve. Man City will be fine until proven otherwise.
Manchester United: I Have a Bad Feeling About This
Things are not looking pretty over on the red side of Manchester. United opened the season beating Leicester at Old Trafford 2-1, with World Cup winner Paul Pogba wearing the captain’s armband and slotting home a penalty in the third minute of the game. Luke Shaw scored his first ever top flight goal and United picked up the three points. Keeper David DeGea had a brilliant match despite a stoppage-time score from England’s most aggrieved woodland creature Jamie Vardy, (h/t to The Men in Blazers.)
Brighton Hove Albion was next, the kind of recently promoted team that the thirteen-time Premier League Champions usually squish through sheer force of talent. Instead, the Seagulls scored three first-half goals, one from the evergreen veteran Glenn Murray, a top of the box shot from Shane Duffy off a corner and a penalty conversion from Pascall Gross. A Lukaku header at the end of the first half and a stoppage-time penalty from Pogba were the only signs of life in United’s offense.
Jose Mourinho was… shall we say not very happy.
It Gets Worse…
United returned to Old Trafford to face Tottenham Hotspur on Monday night. Spurs have not had a great history coming to Manchester, and their star, World Cup Golden Boot winner and very handsome man Harry Kane, has had a lot of trouble scoring in the month of August.
Mourinho’s response to the debacle on the seashore the previous week was… interesting. Having complained about his center back situation all year, Jose decided the solution was to sit Eric Bailly and Marcus Rojo and go with a back line of Antonio Valencia and Luke Shaw on the flanks, joined by Chris Smalling and Phil Jones in the middle (Jones would make way for Victor Lindlof at 58′ after an injury.) However, once the ball was moving it became obvious that Mourinho had a different idea. Valencia and Shaw pushed forward as wingbacks and midfielder Anders Herrera dropped back to join the center backs on the back line.
This was a curious move…
The first half featured Spurs absorbing a furious attack from United without breaking and the teams headed into the locker room deadlocked. It wouldn’t last long. In the fiftieth minute, Harry Kane broke his August drought and scored the first Spurs goal at Trafford since their last victory there in 2014 with a gorgeous header into the top right corner.
Two minutes later Christian Erickson darted past an out of position Herrera, sprinted unmolested down the pitch and found Lucas Moura with a precision cross. Moura threaded the shot into the left corner and that was the end of Herrera’s day. I’ll link to the video, you really need to appreciate how badly Herrera was burned on this play. Moura would score again on a fast break past a stumbling Smalling, and that was that.
United threw everything into offense in the second half trying to claw back into the game, but it was a disorganized and aimless attack. Romalu Lukaku kept finding himself chasing balls down the wing instead of receiving service as striker. Alexis Sanchez came off the bench with some fruitless razzle-dazzle. Paul Pogba basically disappeared. It was an all-around disheartening performance.
So What Now?
Mourinho has the demeanor of a man who is about to be fired. He has clashed with upper management and his players ever since taking over in 2016/17. His three Premier League titles with Chelsea are a decade in the rearview mirror and French legend Zinedine Zidan is conspicuously unemployed at the moment. He’s obviously unhappy with the roster he has been handed and his expensive superstars are unhappy with their roles, especially Paul Pogba. Another flat performance against a struggling Burnley squad could earn Jose the axe.
Not that a victory at Turf Moor should signal all’s well. Manchester United has an immensely talented roster that Jose Mourinho is mishandling badly. Whatever you think of his options at center back, teams have won the Premier League with less than superstar backfields before. Eventually, the blame for the team’s struggles has to land on the man in charge.
“From our Haus to Yours”