Without unnecessarily disrespecting Manchester United’s first five opponents under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, their fixture against Tottenham provided United’s caretaker manager with his first truly serious test. They passed it with flying colours. Suddenly a top-four place is a distinct possibility.
Look at the players who were struggling most under Jose Mourinho. Marcus Rashford took his chance superbly. Anthony Martial is now running directly at full-backs. Paul Pogba played the most delicious pass for Rashford’s goal and is now running central midfield when United look to counter.
Manchester United did ride their luck, grateful for David de Gea’s brilliance and Tottenham failing to take their chances during the second half. But they earned that good fortune through courage. Compare and contrast this display with the limp defeats to Liverpool and Manchester City.
Six weeks ago we were told that Manchester United did not have a midfielder who could pass the ball 10 yards.
That was a nonsense then and a nonsense now. This was never a collection of poor players, merely a group broken by their manager.
There is a usual checklist when a manager joins a top-six team: Pay a back-handed compliment to your predecessor, talk up the immediate response you’ve seen from players in training, remark that there are areas to strengthen and then embark on a period of significant spending. New managers bring new ideas that need new faces.
Unai Emery is being forced down a different path. Arsenal’s manager admitted this week that he has no money to spend on transfer fees. Any incoming business will be restricted to loans and free transfers. That’s after a summer in which Arsenal hardly went berserk. A list of clubs that spent more than them on new signings: Manchester United, Liverpool, Chelsea, Everton, Leicester City, West Ham, Wolves, Fulham.
If Emery is paying for the business done last January, the signings of Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and new contract handed to Mesut Ozil, the empty piggy bank on the manager’s desk raises questions of how poorly Arsenal have performed in the transfer market. The Aaron Ramsey situation, leaving on a free transfer because the club cannot afford to keep him and Ozil, is a perfect embodiment.
Ozil was left out of Arsenal’s matchday squad for an away game again, despite the club confirming that there were no fitness issues at play. Ozil is intent on seeing out his new contract, but Emery is clearly not convinced by his workload. Even so, omitting to put a game-changer on the bench sends a pretty pointed message. Ozil has earned almost £1m per game since signing his new deal. This is becoming a farce.
Declan Rice has recently committed his future to West Ham by signing a new six-year contract, but his international future is less secure.
Rice has played for Republic of Ireland at age-group level, but is eligible for England and has not yet declared his final intention. Gareth Southgate is known to be a huge fan.
On this evidence, the Football Association will try and do everything in their power to tempt Rice. It is one thing for young attacking players to flourish in the Premier League through the exuberance of youth, but another entirely for a defensive midfielder to thrive under pressure. Rice is astoundingly mature for someone of his age, and he’s getting better all the time.
Holding midfielders shouldn’t be judged on goalscoring, but it’s certainly one way to get noticed. Rice’s first goal for West Ham was the winner in a London derby against Arsenal. It doesn’t get much better.
Chelsea beat struggling Newcastle United on Saturday teatime, but they did so with little conviction and no sign of swagger. Maurizio Sarri stuck with his attacking plan and used Eden Hazard as a false nine, but it is a frustrating spectacle when we know how sensational the Belgian can be wide left.
With Alvaro Morata now out of the picture and Olivier Giroud still seen more as back-up option than leading man, Sarri wants another striker if he is to keep Chelsea in the top four. Milan manager Gennaro Gattuso confirmed on Saturday evening that Gonzalo Higuain wished to leave the club. Stamford Bridge is his assumed destination.
Higuain is past his best, of that there is no doubt, but if the Argentinian’s arrival allows Hazard to play in a position in which he thrives (and, more importantly, is most happy) then it must mean good news for Chelsea.
The positive spin is that Huddersfield Town finally ended their run of nine straight defeats in all competitions. But a 0-0 draw against Cardiff means that David Wagner’s side missed another chance to beat a bottom-half team and another chance to score against one. They are far too easy to defend against.
Huddersfield’s other big problem is that the teams directly above continue to pick up points. They are now eight points from safety with only 16 league games remaining. If they relied upon sensational results against Big Six teams to beat the drop last season, it’s going to take a repeat in 2019. It would take an eternal optimist to believe in their chances.