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Premier League Matchweek 4, Part 1: What Just Happened?

Well that was BONKERS! After Saturday, if you thought the highlight of Matchweek 4 was going to be  the absolutely thrilling 1-1 tilt between Man City and Leeds United, or Everton’s 4-2 win over Brighton, looking more and more like they belong in the top six conversation, well Sunday had some surprises for you, with two titans of English football humiliated by a combined 13 goals to 3. We’ll deep dive into those two games today and come back tomorrow to wrap up before the international break. BTW, I’m trying a new thing, click on (Highlights,) to go to the NBC Sports Youtube Channel for all the big plays in case you missed them.

Game of the Week #1: 7 vs  2 at Villa Park (Highlights)

Teammates congratulate Ollie Watkins after one of his three goals on Sunday (via premier league.com)

Never before has a defending Premier League Champion been defeated so soundly. Liverpool has mind you, this thrashing wouldn’t crack the top five defeats in the club’s storied history. But it is hard to imagine a more unexpected result from facing a team most (not me,) think of as relegation fodder. Yes Sadio Mane and Thiago were quarantining after Covid 19 diagnoses, but Liverpool has a deep squad, right? Another unlucky twist came as #1 Alisson Becker suffered a nasty shoulder injury in training, forcing backup Adrián into lineup. So you could maybe see a tough game for the Reds, but nothing like this.

It was a coming out party for 24 year old Ollie Watkins, who scored his first Premier League goal after Joe Gomez lazily mishandled an ill advised  Adrián pass that Jack Grealish pounced on and distributed to his new striker. Defensive mistakes would become a running theme in this match. At 22 minutes Grealish found Watkins on the shoulder of the last defender for a breakaway that ended with a well worked second goal, leaving Jurgen Klopp stunned on the sideline.

When Mo Salah struck home a rebounding ball for his 100th goal in English football it felt like perhaps the world had returned to a semblance of normalcy. But that would require ignoring the fact that another new Lion, Ross Barkley on a year long loan from Chelsea, had two near misses on the break and after his third took a corner that was cleared out to the foot of John McGinn. McGinn’s stinging outside the box volley ricocheted off of Virgil Van Dijk’s ankle, leaving Adrián diving the wrong way as the two goal lead was re-established.

Barkley used his wheels to earn a free kick in the Reds half (and a yellow card on VVD,) then found Grealish with a superbly weighted ball into the box, who then found Ollie Watkin’s on the other side of the six yard box to complete the hat trick and send the Villains into the locker room with a 4-1 lead.

Watkins completes his hat trick with a powerful point blank header (via premierleague.com)

There are lots of ways one could expect the second half of this match to go. If Liverpool come out attacking and add a quick score, a path back into the game may open up. It’s not like we haven’t seen Klopp’s boys score three or even four times in a half. And they certainly tried, but ten minutes in Ross Barkley was rewarded for his hard work with his first goal in Claret and Blue. Salah clawed one back at the hour mark, but then Jack Grealish saw how much fun it was and scored a brace of his own to finish off the Champs.

Klopp was appropriately diplomatic, applauding the Villa side for “wanting it more.” And he went out of his way to spare Adrian undue criticism, save for the error on the first goal, it was a team failure. This is important because Alisson may miss six weeks, so starting with the Merseyside Derby against first place Everton Klopp will be depending on a second choice keeper for a few games at least.

Mo Salah’s brace was cold comfort to Reds fans at home (via premierleague.com)

As for Aston Villa, it’s a dream start of the season for Deann Smith’s men. They’ll head into the break with all nine points offered so far. what’s more they have made a statement that they will not go lightly back to the Championship. New faces Watkins, Barkley team with McGinn and Grealish for a blistering attack, while new keeper Emiliano Martínez has added stability and leadership to the back line. The only thing missing was the fans… can you imagine how nuts that crowd would be?

Game of the Week #2: Manchester United 1 vs Tottenham Hotspur 6 at Old Trafford (Highlights)

Son Heung-Min is just playing with United defenders (via premierleague.com)The story of the last game of the weekend was one of a scrappy but determined underdog catching the champions off guard and short handed, a bit of a fairy tale. The story of the previous match that day was more grim, a grizzled warrior entering his former demesne and rousting the pretender to his old throne, more Conan than Cinderella.

Jose Mourinho’s exit from Manchester United in December of 2018 was sadly predictable at the time, but there was an open question hanging over it, was the problem Jose or the team? Was Mourinho incapable of getting the best out of the half a billion dollars worth of players signed by Ed Woodward? Or was management incapable of identifying players that their manager could best use?

The Glazer family and Woodward evidently believed  the former story, tapping ream legend and coaching neophyte Ole Gunnar Solskjær as caretaker, who  finished the 2018/19 season strong, was awarded the job full time,  then pushed the side to a surprising run of play in Project Restart to secure a third place finish.

Is Ole part of the solution, or part of the problem say Old Trafford?

Daniel Levy however was betting on the latter scenario after he let Mauricio Pochettino go almost a year afterwards and named Mourinho the new manager of Tottenham Hotspur. At the time Spurs were in 14th place, and Mourinho managed to pull them back into a Europa League spot by the finish. The first test of these competing theories last December was a close 2-1 win for the Red Devils. Yesterday’s rematch was not close and may turn out to be the definitive answer to the Mourinho/United conundrum.

Things looked bright for United as Bruno Fernandes converted his second penalty kick of the year merely two minutes into the contest after Anthony Martial earned the chance with a darting run into the box. However Tanguy Ndombele poked home his first of the season after a Harry Maguire miscue left everyone scrambling in front of goal. Get used to the phrase “Harry Maguire miscue,” as the season progresses folks.   Harry Kane and Son Heung-Min hooked up once again three minutes later on one of Kane’s patented quick free kicks for the Korean’s league leading sixth goal and the Incredibly Handsome Englishman’s league leading sixth assist to turn the game in Spurs favor.

It’s like the Captain sees the iceberg coming and doesn’t know which way not turn… (via premier league.com)

At this point one might expect a close affair. Tottenham would tighten up their defense against a Man U offense struggling to create chances. Instead what we got was a meltdown. In the 28th minute, Martial and Erik Lamela were scuffling in front of goal when the Argentine’s elbow strayed into the Frenchman’s chin and Martial responded with a mild slap to the face. Lamela went down like he’d been KO’ed by Mike Tyson and just like that United were down to ten men (opinion was almost universal that both men should have been sent off.)  And it could have been worse, as both Luke Shaw and Eric Bailly would both commit some pretty heinous fouls in the second half that should have been red cards as well.

Son Heung-Min playing games with United defenders (via premier league.com)

Harry Kane scored two minutes later after recovering a baffling Eric Bailly pass to Maguire right in front of goal. Bailly would give the ball away again seven minutes after that, allowing Serge Aurier to flash down the right sideline, draw Harry Maguire out of position and then feed a laser precise pass to Son, who tapped it in for his second of the half. Both Maguire and De Gea suffered the indignity of a nutmeg on the play. Aurier, getting his first action of the season, rifled in the game’s fifth goal just after halftime and Kane rounded off the scoring with a 70th minute penalty.

So round two of the Jose Derby goes to the men in white, although the long term answer is up in the air.  After looking unprepared for a newly ascendant Everton squad in week one, Spurs bounced back with their 5-2 decimation of Southampton. Then there was a 1-1 draw versus Newcastle that featured the handball that changed the rules by Eric Dier. Now a decisive victory and Gareth Bale has yet to hit the pitch. Mourinho has his talented players doing what they do best and so far it’s working well.

On the other hand, Manchester United could be in serious trouble. When Solskjær took over for Mourinho, the gregarious Norwegian seemed a perfect antidote to the acerbic Portuguese. He let his talented players play and they responded with some excellent performances. But his success in the standings last year covered for some disturbing trends on the pitch. They’ve garnered 66 points each of the last two seasons, the difference between a Europa League or Champions League finish having more to do with thee fate of the teams around them than any improvement on their part.

After three games this year they have beaten Brighton twice, a 3-0 EFL Cup win appearing over a tight 3-2 PL victory over the hard luck Seagulls. They’ve been outscored, with a -6 goal differential. Harry Maguire is nominally the captain, but he can hardly keep the back line organized, let alone keep the rest of the team focused. Bruno Fernandes has been a solid addition to the midfield and Donny van de Beek looks like a keeper as well, they are playing on a team that looks rudderless. The ever mercurial Paul Pogba lines up as a holding midfielder next to the Nemanja Matic Memorial Statue, rarely venturing anywhere near the opposing goal. Marcus Rashford, Anthony Martial, and Mason Greenwood are theoretically a talented young front line, but none of the three are proven goal scoring threats, and there doesn’t appear to be a plan in place to get them into scoring position.

Fortinbras, I mean Pochettino, waits patiently for the Manchester United office to call on him… (via premier league.com)

Reinforcements arrived on transfer deadline day in speedy wingback Alex Telles from Porto and 33 year old free agent Uruguayan gunslinger Edinson Cavani. The former Paris St Germain star will hope to replicate Zlatan Ibrahimovich’s 2016 stint at Old Trafford, providing some much needed finishing to the attack if he can stay fit. But new players may not make a difference for a team that simply isn’t being coached well. And the top brass are not happy, leading to the next twist in this tangled tale… reaching out to Mauricio Pochettino.

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