Another exciting international break is behind us. The field for next years Euro 2020 is taking shape, with the surprising inclusion of Ukraine and Russia, two nations actually kinda at war with each other joining the usual suspects already qualified. Meanwhile defending champions Portugal, the Three Lions of England and mainstays like the Netherlands and Denmark still have work to do next month.
Looking back at match-week eight there were three big upsets of traditionally top six teams. With Liverpool still unblemished, three teams took big steps back, whilst three underdogs took steps forward.
Newcastle United 1-0 over Manchester United
In my last post I questioned whether the Red Devils were still a top team after a dismal loss to West Ham. United followed up with a tough 1-1 draw at home against Arsenal that left them in 10th place, three points off the Gunners for that last Champions League spot. They followed that with a disasterous 2-0 loss at West Ham. Something positive needed to happen on the trip to St. James Park to visit Newcastle United.
Perhaps still fatigued from their goalless draw at AZ Alkmaar in Europa League action, Manchester United was unable to muster much goal threat, with only three of their twelve shots on target. This against a Magpie defense that had surrendered five goals to Leicester City a week earlier. Absolutely no one shone as the players continued to struggle with their roles in Olé Gunnar Solskjaer’s offense.
The hero of the day was a player making his Premier League Debut,. 19 year old Matthew Longstaff playing next to his big brother Sean to form the most innuendo laden midfield in the EPL, blasted a cutback pass from Dutch fullback Jetro Willems into the bottom left corner from outside the box.
What we learned, what to expect
The loss leaves Man U in twelfth place, only two points above the relegation zone. They’ve only scored nine goals, which makes shipping last years top scorer Romelu Lukaku off to Inter Milan even more baffling. The Belgian striker already has three and is a crucial piece of Inter’s campaign to unseat Juventus at the top of Serie A.
With Liverpool storming into Old Trafford on Sunday, the stage is set for history to repeat itself. It was a brutal beating at the hands of the Reds last December that led to the sacking of José Mourinho and the elevation of Solskjaer to the managers seat. It was somewhat surprising when management took the caretaker tag off of the Norwegian this season. He’ll need to at least put on a good fight to ensure his job security. After Liverpool, a November filled with matches against the bottom half of the league would normally look like a tonic. But lately it looks like the bottom half of the league is where United belong.
Newcastle still aren’t very good. But for one week they looked like they were having fun. It’s game, it’s supposed to be fun!
Brighton and Hove Albion 3-0 over Tottenham Hotspur
Spurs trip to the seashore should have been a nice vacation for the Champions league runner ups. The Seagulls hadn’t won a game since beating up Watford 3-0 to open the campaign. Three minutes in disaster struck. Brighton’s main man up top Neal Maupay put his head to a loose ball after Spurs keeper Hugo Lloris bungled the deflection of a high cross. As the big Frenchman flailed after the loose ball he landed clumsily on his left elbow, suffering a gruesome dislocation that will see him sidelined for the rest of 2019 at the least.
Paulo Gazzaniga was summoned off the bench and he was obviously a bit befuddled. Young Irishman Aaron Connolly joined the “19 year old scoring in their debuts” party by collecting the scraps in front of goal in the 32′ minute, then putting the final nail in the coffin with a gorgeous curler from the left side of the box at the 65′ minute.
Losing a player of Lloris’ caliber is certainly a huge blow to Spurs hopes of getting back into the top four or returning to the Champions League final. Veteran keeper Michel Vorm returned to the side to shore up the position and may feature in this weeks tilt against Watford. But it’s hardly the only problem BHA exposed in embattled coach Mauricio Pochettino’s squad. Harry Kane (still incredibly handsome and English,) and his fellow attackers were listless and uninspired against a Seagulls side with only two clean sheets to its name.
What we learned, what to expect
Spurs aren’t in as dire straights as United, but losing Lloris certainly casts doubt on their ability to keep up with the teams ahead of them for top four status. Leicester City are playing lights out right now, Chelsea and Arsenal are playing solid, and West Ham is putting together a surprising run of play, making the battle for the last two Champions league slots pretty fierce. There may need to be some shakeups in North London come January.
Meanwhile Brighton and Hove Albion have pocketed a desperately needed three points as they ease out of the relegation zone. The Seagulls can be a lot of fun to watch so I’m rooting for them to continue to grow into a solid mid table team.
Wolves 3-0 over Manchester City
Neither Wolverhampton Wanderers nor Manchester City entered this game satisfied with the opening two months of the season. Wolves went in with only seven points out an available twenty one and struggling to score goals. The defending Champions were in second place watching Liverpool pull away and struggling to stop goals with a patchwork defense. Still, the Citizens were leading the league in goals scored after embarrassing Watford 8-0 and clobbering Everton 3-1 to wash the taste of the Norwich City loss out of their mouths. It certainly seemed like Pep Guardiola could depend on his “sent from the future to destroy English football” offense to put away Wolves at the Etihad. But Nuno Espírito Santo had different plans.
Wolverhampton has mostly used a formation with three center backs, three midfielder and two strikers, with wingbacks on each side who push forward or fall back depending on possesion or the flow of the game. Sometimes it’s a 3-5-2, sometimes a 5-3-2, and it’s the formation that they used in their promotion campaign two years ago to great success. Smart play from the wingbacks is essential to the system, especially when facing a team with the talent at City’s disposal.
Both Jonny on the left and the mercurial Adama Traoré had excellent matches, harrying the Man City flankers up and down the pitch, bottling up Raheem Sterling, David Silva and Ryad Mahrez and cutting off supply to Aguero and De Bruyne. Meanwhile the midfielders cut off the intricate passes that City depends on to build through the middle. City was held to a mere 12 shots (2 on target,) when they average 20 a game. The vaunted Sky Blue attack was strangled.
The Adama Conundrum
The match remained deadlocked well past the sixty minute mark. Manchester City dominated possession but failed to create many chances. Wolves meanwhile had some excellent breakaways in counter-attack, with striker Raul Jimenez making Ederson’s day interesting a couple times. But the game swung the Wanderers way when Nuno swapped in veteran Matt Doherty at right wingback. But not for the Spaniard, it was forward Patrick Cutrone (who had a pretty nice game as well,) coming off. Adama Traoré, who had been smothering Sterling all game, was moved up top for the first time this year.
EA FIFA Career Mode players have been aware of the speedy Spaniard for years now. Arriving in English football in 2015 after rising through the Barcelona academy, Traoré showed tantalizing talent with Aston Villa. But maturity issues (and Villa imploding issues,) saw him cut loose at the end of the year. He resurfaced at Middlesborough and was the last piece of business in Wolverhampton’s preparations for the 2018/19 season.
Built like an NFL tailback, with incredible agility, speed and ball skills, Adama is the kind of athelete that scouts dream of finding. But some he has struggled at times implementing instructions from the coaches. Last year he featured in 29 matches, mostly as a substitute and certainly showed flashes of what he could do, but he had struggled to impact the game. Starting at right winger in a few games this year, Santos was visibly upset with Traoré on several occasions as he allowed defenders to herd him into the corner, forcing turnovers and errant crosses. But something clicked in this game as he followed orders to the letter on defense. And then when he was set free in the last 30 minutes, he shined.
Off to the races
With 20 minutes to go, Jimenez collected the fruits of a poor pass by Joao Cancelo and raced downfield. At first it looked like City’s defense had recovered, but the Mexican international got his head up to find Traoré effortlessly pacing him. One slick pass later and Traoré had opened his account for the season and the Etihad was stunned into silence. Then with maybe a minute of stoppage time left Jimenez found Traoré on the break again, this time with a long threaded pass that caught the City back line completely off guard and saw Adama sprinting the length of the opponents territory ahead of everyone to ice the game.
What we learned, what to expect
On the Man City side of the ledger you might be forgiven for experiencing some de ja vu. Last season followed a similar script, with Liverpool racing off to a red hot start with the defending champs just off the pace. Eventually the Sky Blues went on a winter tear after banged up stars like Kevin Debruyne got back on the pitch and the Reds left too many points on the table from draws, losing the league in the closing weeks.
This year feels different. The injury situation is worse, with Aymeric Laporte and John Stones out the defense is tissue thin. Fernandino has dropped to the back line to help out admirably, but his absence from midfield exacerbates problems with Pep’s intricate passing game. And poor Leroy Sané will miss the majority of the year after his ugly knee injury in the last preseason match. Plus City has started the year with a remarkably easy schedule, the week two draw hosting Spurs is their only top six matchup so far. Surging teams like Leicester and Chelsea will be looking at what Wolves did two weeks ago to plan their own upsets of the champions. And a trip to Anfield on the 10th of November looms huge. The margins for error are razor thin if City wants to pull off three in a row.
Wolverhampton on the other hand can start breathing a little easier. They started the season with three straight draws and a brutal pair of September losses to Everton and Chelsea. Fatigue was certainly a factor, as the curse of Europa League qualifying burdened them with extra fixtures to cover. But with a solid seven points from their last three matches Wolves seem to have avoided Burnely’s fate from last season. In fact they are thriving, with a surprising 1-0 victory in Istanbul over Turkish giants Besiktas they sit third in a winnable group H.
Nuno will still need to keep innovating to unlock his squad’s full potential, but he’s shown a willingness to change when things aren’t working and now his Wolves are responding well to his instructions. In previous years Adama Traoré might have reacted poorly to vocal criticism from the skipper, instead he’s showing growth and maturity. That’s a great sign for a young and hungry team.
“From our Haus to Yours”