reviews the weekend's Premier League action.
Guendouzi steps up in class for Arsenal
It would hardly have been highly controversial to label Matteo Guendouzi as Arsenal’s best defensive midfielder at the start of the season, but there is surely no doubt now.
While Lucas Torreira’s terrier-like qualities stand out, Granit Xhaka is increasingly becoming a liability. Guendouzi combines tenacity with a calm head when it matters and an eye for the penetrative pass.
His pass for Arsenal’s equaliser against Tottenham was supremely disguised.
It is easy to forget that Guendouzi is only 20 when you watching him controlling and patrolling in midfield.
There is still uncertainty about which players in Unai Emery’s squad merit more and more patience, but there is no doubt about him. He looks like a future captain.
Laporte injury gives Liverpool their title shot
Talk about bad timing. Pep Guardiola insisted this week that he considers Aymeric Laporte to be the best left-sided central defender in the world, but Manchester City’s manager must have cursed his pride before the fall as Laporte was stretchered off on Saturday.
We have no firm prognosis yet, but Laporte will surely miss months rather than weeks.
Great way to start the season! thanks for your support! 🦈 ⚽️👍 #mancity #AL14 pic.twitter.com/Ja6ja34XSI— Aymeric Laporte (@Laporte) August 10, 2019
That opens the door for Liverpool’s title challenge.
For all the attacking brilliance of Jurgen Klopp’s team, they are reliant upon weaknesses being exposed in City’s armour if they are to push their rivals all the way and this time prove victorious.
With John Stones not yet fully fit, Vincent Kompany departed and now Laporte injured, City have a central defensive crisis.
Kyle Walker could play in central defence with Joao Cancelo on the right, or Fernandinho could fit in as on Saturday.
But neither adequately replicate Laporte’s characteristics, and opposition managers will know as much. If Liverpool can stay at their current level, the pressure increases on City.
Top four hopefuls have lost their fear factor
There used to be a degree of predictability to matches between Big Six teams and the rest played at the home of the bigger club.
Some clubs would sacrifice those fixtures, concentrating on collecting their league points against more gentle opposition.
Liverpool and Manchester City are still maintaining that pattern. City eased past Brighton on Saturday while Liverpool won their only home game against non-Big Six opposition 4-1 against Norwich. But outside of the top two, the fear factor has gone.
Since April 20, Chelsea, Manchester United, Arsenal and Tottenham have played 13 matches at home to teams outside the usual top six.
In those 13 matches they have dropped 25 points, including defeats to Brighton, Newcastle, Cardiff City and Crystal Palace (twice). Sheffield United’s comeback at Stamford Bridge was the latest setback for the established elite.
The gap really could be bridged this season.
Watford need Doucoure to find his form
Javi Gracia may consider a point away at Newcastle United on Saturday to be a satisfactory result, given their atrocious start to the season.
There were strong rumours that defeat would spell the end of his time in charge at Vicarage Road.
The international break provides Gracia with a chance to rebuild and resolve his players to improve.
But there is no great secret to Watford’s problems or the reason for their long run without a clean sheet.
Abdoulaye Doucoure was magnificent last season, providing support to Etienne Capoue but also driving forward with the ball to link midfield with Watford’s strikers.
So far this season, Doucoure has been in wretched form. All the dynamism seems to have vanished, replaced by lethargy that leaves Watford’s strikers isolated and holding midfielder struggling to stay afloat.
VAR still struggling to achieve any consistency
One of the problems of VAR implementation is that it was sold as a solution when in reality no perfect answer exists. Even so, the first few weeks of its presence in Premier League football has not gone well.
The ‘high bar’ position is understandable; there is a reticence to referee matches from Stockley Park and overturn every subjective decision.
But as with the David Silva incident at Bournemouth last week, what is the point of interrupting the match to view slow-motion replays for two minutes if you aren’t going to end up with the correct decision for fear of reversing a subjective call?
However, offsides and handballs are not subjective calls but yes/no decisions. So there is no excuse for a handball in Newcastle United’s equaliser on Saturday not being spotted by the VAR officials, particularly given the level of scrutiny afforded to Manchester City’s disallowed winner against Tottenham.
It all combines to present an inexact, unideal picture. Which is what we had before we were told VAR was the answer.
Manchester United’s options already running low
Manchester United’s recent second-half performances have been disastrous.
They lost the second half to Wolves and against Southampton, and drew 1-1 in the second half against Crystal Palace despite scoring in the 89th minute.
That is a reflection of the options at Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s disposal.
With the game level at 1-1 at St Mary’s on Saturday lunchtime, Solskjaer looked to his bench and called upon Nemanja Matic and Jesse Lingard, a now dismally slow defensive midfielder and an attacking midfielder who doesn’t score or assist goals.
Solskjaer surely made a mistake by not bringing on Mason Greenwood earlier, but it is remarkable that these are his go-to options in the fourth league games of the season.
What on earth is going to be the situation in March when United have participated in four competitions?