In six months’ time, Manchester United might look back on Saturday’s home defeat to Crystal Palace and conclude that it was a blessing in disguise.
If the club’s erstwhile owners are sparked into transfer-market action by a dismal early-season loss and finally address overdue problems in holding midfield, left-back, and central defence, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer will be relieved. But that only offers a part-excuse for such on-field ineptitude. Solskjaer is indeed lacking options in key positions to fuel a title challenge, but that’s no excuse for losing to a team and manager with a far lesser squad than their own. Solskjaer has repeatedly proved himself incapable of swatting aside opponents who cede possession and challenge United to break them down.
His team is occasionally majestic on the counter attack, but they lack ideas and cohesion outside of those situations.
Buying more attacking midfielders (Donny van de Beek) and wide forwards (Jadon Sancho) will not solve that issue — it comes down to management.
Solskjaer’s United side are a mirror image of his own management: Sporadic flashes of excellence and one-off results against Big Six rivals that only highlight long-term doubts about the general performance.
The form centre forward in the Premier League? Perhaps. Since Carlo Ancelotti was appointed in December 2019, only one player in the division has had more shots on target. Given the misery of Everton’s midfield last season, that is a remarkable statistic.
Strikers are often criticised for being flat-track bullies (Romelu Lukaku suffered the same tag at Everton), but Ancelotti needed a forward who would punish defensively -lax opponents and in Dominic Calvert-Lewin he has a young man who is improving at a remarkable rate. His heading is probably the best of any striker in the country, and his movement will inevitably get better with James Rodriguez providing the service. Danny Ings’ form for Southampton and the arrival on the scene of Mason Greenwood kept Calvert-Lewin out of Gareth Southgate’s last England squad, but he must surely be close to earning the chance to be Harry Kane’s natural deputy.
Most England managers have relied upon a centre forward in reserve that flourishes when they need to go more direct in search of a goal. At 23, Calvert-Lewin deserves the chance to fit that purpose.
A mugging at St Mary’s, fuelled by individual Tottenham brilliance. José Mourinho’s side didn’t even register their first legal shot of the match until the 45th minute, but they blew Southampton away with the sensational striking partnership of Harry Kane and Son Heung-Min. Kane’s brilliance as a finisher makes it too easy to overlook his ability as a creator. The party trick where he drops deep and plays a first-time ball around the corner has long been established, but yesterday we saw a virtuoso creative display in which Kane contributed 13% of his career league assists in a 28-minute period.
This helps Tottenham because, as Mourinho alluded to after the game, it creates a new position for Son in which he can hang on the last shoulder of the defender and play in behind as Tottenham’s No 9. With Gareth Bale potentially doing the same from the opposite flank, we might just have seen the future of Spurs’ attack.
Having discussed Calvert-Lewin for England in the last section, this might also be a new option for Southgate. Kane dropping deep to play passes in behind to Raheem Sterling and Jadon Sancho is a mouth-watering prospect.
There is a general rule of thumb when getting promoted to the Premier League: Spend your money on defenders. The team that scores the fewest goals doesn’t necessarily get relegated, and the attacking cohesion that got you promoted generally lasts out, but the team that concedes the most goals almost always goes down.
It’s still early days, but the three promoted clubs surely need to invest in better defenders over the next fortnight. They have conceded 22 goals between them in six matches, allowing their opponents to take 89 shots. Marcelo Bielsa, Scott Parker and Slaven Bilic don’t need me to tell them that is not sustainable. Fulham have roughly the same defence that had the worst record in the league two years ago; West Brom have barely invested but lost Nathan Ferguson, and Leeds replacing Ben White with Robin Koch represents a step down.
What has happened to defending in the Premier League?
Will this be the most prolific season in the league’s history? And do we insert a lame joke about social distancing in the penalty area here?
The 2020/21 season is still in its embryonic stage, but having matches at different times has created a binge of outrageous sporting entertainment. After two gameweeks, one still incomplete, we have already had as many hat-tricks as in the whole of 2006/07 and four matches with seven or more goals. The highest total for any season since 2012/13 is seven.
It may be superb viewing for those of us watching from the comfort of our own homes, but for managers on the touchline it must be infuriating. The marking from set pieces, pressing players on the edge of the box, and vulnerability to counter- attacks have been appalling. Long may it continue.