Last season Wilfried Zaha played almost every Premier League match either as a right- or left-winger. That didn’t limit his touches in the opposition box (239, ranked third in the Premier League), but Zaha was ostensibly used as a creator who often suffered from being double-marked. It seemed likely that he would leave Selhurst Park this summer.
But with a move away impossible with potential suitors unwilling to match Crystal Palace’s asking price, Zaha stayed and has been reborn this season. Roy Hodgson has switched to a two-striker formation and used Zaha in the frontline.
The change in him is remarkable. Zaha’s goal against Fulham on Saturday took him past last season’s total in six league games. He is still creating chances, with licence to roam from a centre forward position, but Zaha is taking shots closer to goal and having a strike partner means that opponents find it much more difficult to double mark him. Suddenly Palace are seeing the best of their best player. It’s no coincidence that they’re enjoying a wonderful start to the season.
In his post-match press conference, Ole Gunnar Solskajer talked up the merits of a home point against Chelsea, referencing Manchester United’s disastrous form after their last win in Paris. Solskjaer has a point, but it was still interesting to hear a manager discuss so openly the worst period of his tenure. It suggested that it still haunts him.
In fact, Manchester United avoided defeat because they were far too unadventurous and Solskajer got his team selection wrong. Solakjaer and Frank Lampard both approached the game haunted by the potential impact of defeat to the other. That led to a stalemate not because both sides counteracted each other’s strength but because they barely attempted to expose their weaknesses.
Solskajer’s standing was greatly improved by the victory over PSG; it is silly to pretend otherwise. But United have won two of their opening five matches and have now gone five league games at Old Trafford without winning - Southampton, West Ham, Crystal Palace, Tottenham and Chelsea. This season has created an opportunity for supposed title outsiders to gatecrash the new normal top two. That makes this two points dropped rather than one gained.
The only surprise is that anyone is still surprised. Manchester City conceded from their first shot on target, were affected by defensive incompetence and missed chances to win the game that might usually have been taken. But this is City now. Over the last 18 months, these same issues have deeply limited their potential to mount a consistent run of form that propels them into the title race.
It all starts in midfield. Rodri is not the right player to protect a defence on his own and Fernandinho’s ageing legs cannot do it either. Ilkay Gundogan has become a jobbing central midfielder rather than one who you can build a system around. City must find a better balance that allows them to dominate opponents without leaving themselves vulnerable to the counter-attack. On Saturday’s evidence, Phil Foden must start every week.
For Pep Guardiola, this is the greatest challenge of his tenure in Manchester. His contract expires at the end of the season, but if he can’t reverse the current trend doubts will creep into the minds of supporters - if they haven’t already - about whether the club might pursue a different option to change the mood. Caveated positives intersected by mid-game slumps have become the worrying new normal.
Patrick Bamford is one of those players who always feels young, the inevitable result of a stop-start career that saw him score one Premier League goal before turning 27 despite the hype that saw him move to Chelsea at such a young age.
Bamford’s breakout season was long overdue. He remained firmly on the fringes of the first team at Crystal Palace, Burnley, Norwich and Middlesbrough, starting four Premier League matches across one permanent and three loan moves. Majority opinion suggested that he would struggle to cope this season through his lack of efficiency in front of goal. His chance conversion in the Championship last season was 11.2%.
But Bamford has hit the ground sprinting back in the top flight. He scored his second career hat-trick on Friday night, one opportunistic finish and two supremely taken half chances. Bamford’s six goals constitute a mightily impressive return, but he has also more than doubled his conversion rate from last season. On this evidence, you can see why Marcelo Bielsa values him so highly.
We have delighted in Everton’s early-season form. Rightly so, given the paucity of what went before and with the verve and vigour they displayed in their first five league games. Sunday was a dose of reality. Carlo Ancelotti may be trying to shift the mood at Goodison, but Old Everton will rear its ugly, mediocre head.
There was only one change to the starting XI, but Everton badly missed Richarlison’s drive and ability to hold onto the ball; Alex Iwobi lasted 45 minutes and was woeful before being substituted. It left Dominic Calvert-Lewin isolated, forced to feed on gruel as Everton’s midfield was held at arm’s length and James Rodriguez closely marked by at least two Southampton players.
When Ancelotti looked to his bench to change the game, the cupboard was bare. Bernard hadn’t played a minute in the Premier League this season and offered nothing.
Fabian Delph is a workmanlike central midfielder but nothing more. Anthony Gordon is a willing attacking midfielder but not a game-changer. This was proof of a work in progress taking a significant backwards step.