‘Colossus’ Saliba typifies Arsenal transformation
William Saliba was hundreds of miles away, literally, and, perhaps, figuratively, when Arsenal suffered their ignominious 2-0 loss to Brentford last season. But he is here now. You couldn’t really miss him at the Gtech Community Stadium on Sunday.
The Frenchman, outstanding all season having spent the previous campaign on loan with Marseille, produced arguably his best performance yet to help Arsenal secure a 3-0 win which underlined their transformation over the course of the last year.
His goal, his second of the campaign following his superb finish against Bournemouth, showed his aerial threat from set-piece situations, his towering header from Bukayo Saka’s corner bouncing off the inside of the post and over the line.
But it was everything else he did – the “ugly” things, as Mikel Arteta described them afterwards – that made his performance really stand out. Ivan Toney left Arsenal shell-shocked in this fixture last year. This time, he was dominated by Saliba from the start.
The 21-year-old was a colossus, winning duels, snuffing out danger and ensuring a side who scored five goals in their last home game could this time only muster two shots on target.
Even Brentford manager Thomas Frank could not help but be impressed, using his post-match press conference to laud the centre-back’s performance. “He’ll play in the starting line-up for France and that’s a strong international team,” he said.
Saliba relished his physical battle with Toney and he was just as impressive on the ball, providing composure in the face of Brentford’s pressing, at times slaloming away from challenges deep in his own half before sending Arsenal forward on the attack.
His presence is not the sole reason for Arsenal’s transformation. Gabriel Jesus’ impact has been similarly significant and Fabio Vieira, another summer signing, provided a glimpse of his class on Sunday too. But it is Saliba, Arsenal’s new colossus, who best shows the extent of the progress.
Flat Brentford outclassed by Arsenal
Brentford were outclassed on Sunday by Arsenal as the Bees were deservedly beaten by the Premier League leaders.
Brentford head coach Thomas Frank changed things tactically for the visit of the Gunners as he moved away from the 4-3-3 that was so successful in the win over Leeds, to a 3-5-2.
But the switch backfired as Arsenal dominated the midfield, while Brentford’s front two of Ivan Toney and Bryan Mbeumo ended up doing more work in their own half than in the opponent’s.
But when asked whether the change to 3-5-2 from 4-3-3 contributed to the defeat, he replied kindly: “No.
“I can say that we beat Manchester United 4-0 with 3-5-2, we went to Stamford Bridge [last season] and beat them with 3-5-2 so I guess that’s okay.”
So if it was not the tactics, then maybe it was the early kick-off time that led to Brentford’s downfall?
The midday start certainly cancelled out Brentford’s 12th man, who superbly carried their side in that famous opening-night win against the Gunners just over 13 months ago.
But Frank refused to use that as an excuse.
The Dane said: “If it’s a nice evening kick-off under the floodlights for every home team, even at Anfield, there’s a better atmosphere, so of course that means something.
“But I’m a big believer that if we have to play at 12 o’clock, three o’clock, 10 o’clock in the evening or at 3am, we just have to perform.”
Christian Norgaard was definitely a big miss for the west London side – his presence in the middle of the pitch would have certainly helped combat Arsenal’s midfield control. Frank will be hoping the injured Dane returns after the international break.
But for the Bees boss it was just simply a difference in quality that led to his side having a bad day at the office.
“It was a well-deserved win for Arsenal, who are a slightly bigger club with a slightly bigger history than us,” he said with tongue-in-cheek.
“They showed the difference in the size of the clubs: (Martin) Odegaard is out, but they brought in a £35m guy [Fabio Vieira] who scores.
“They’re the in-form team in the division so we had to perform at 10/10, but we didn’t.”
Iwobi and Gray lead the way for Everton
Neal Maupay grabbed the headlines with his match-winning goal on Sunday, but after the game his comments highlighted the importance of those around him.
“We’ve got good players in the midfield and on the wing and I trust them to make the difference,” the striker told Sky Sports.
It was Alex Iwobi who delivered the precise pass for Maupay to score, opening his body up quickly before drilling it into the Frenchman’s feet without hesitation.
Iwobi has rediscovered his confidence under Frank Lampard and is becoming a key player for Everton as a No 10 or at wing-back. He carried the ball well in central areas on Sunday and was impressive in his distribution as showcased by the assist.
No Everton player had as many touches, entries into the final third or passes in the final third on Sunday. Iwobi also had a team-high two chances created.
The only man to equal that stat was Demarai Gray, who could have had an assist or two himself.
Gray provided a different kind of threat out wide. The former Leicester winger was always asking questions of Vladmir Coufal with his driving runs and one of the few players who injected some life into the game.
The 26-year-old delivered more crosses than anyone on the pitch (11) and was unfortunate his team-mates weren’t gambling at the back post on a couple of ocassions.
His fearlessness is infectious and lifts the rest of the team. Everton will rely on him for that spark as they go through this transitional period with more frustrating afternoons expected.
Worrying times for West Ham
West Ham look out of ideas after seven Premier League games. Five defeats, one win and a draw mean they go into the international break in the bottom three.
Few would have expected that after last season, especially after a summer which saw them spend £179m on new signings. Only Chelsea and Manchester United spent more in the Premier League.
Sunday’s defeat to Everton was another Hammers performance below the standard we have become accustomed to under David Moyes. They had the chances to equalise at the end, although there was never really a feeling that they had the conviction to score
Moyes called out the players that brought him so much success last season after the defeat to his former club. “Today we found out little bits [about the new signings], but it was mainly the players I know about – they are the ones who let me down with poor play overall,” he told Sky Sports.
Only two of the six new first-team signings were involved from the start on Sunday. Moyes has been holding them back as he gives the arrivals time to gel with their new team-mates. But maybe it’s time to roll the dice?
De Bruyne remains City’s main man
Four months ago, Kevin De Bruyne completed a first-half hat-trick for Manchester City at Wolves, ran to the corner and unveiled a recognisable celebration.
De Bruyne raised his hands and imitated Erling Haaland’s ‘meditation’ posture. The Norwegian’s move to City had just been confirmed that week but De Bruyne’s goals at Molineux – which ended up being four overall in a 5-1 win – dominated the headlines in a big win that sent the club to another title win.
The celebration acted as a reminder, perhaps, that while Haaland’s arrival would lead to excitement, De Bruyne was still City’s main man.
City returned to Molineux on Saturday with Haaland in their team this time but, come full-time, the narrative remains the same. Yes, Haaland’s form is exceptional. His goals, adaptability and pure physique are all like nothing we have seen in this league before.
But De Bruyne is the man that makes this City team properly tick – and his form will determine how the club fare in the title race.
The Belgian midfielder unleashed two key assists in two different circumstances – in the first minute for Jack Grealish’s opener and the 70th minute for Phil Foden’s result-sealing strike, after a period of dominant Wolves pressure.
When City needed leadership and inspiration, their captain for the day stepped up to send them top of the table again. While the headline-grabbing Haaland also scored at Molineux this weekend, De Bruyne continues to control City’s fate.
Son banishes early-season slump
Heung-Min Son has a habit of delivering the spectacular, but his second-half cameo which put the seal on Tottenham’s 6-2 victory over Leicester was right up there with anything he’s produced during his stint in north London.
After drawing blanks in Tottenham’s first eight games of the season, Antonio Conte had no qualms taking the South Korean out of the starting line-up for the visit of the Foxes, insisting it was irrelevant if Son was unhappy at the decision.
No player likes being dropped, and Son would have been no different, but instead of venting his anger at his manager, he ruthlessly meted out his frustrations on the Foxes to vindicate Conte’s bold decision.
Son’s uncharacteristically subdued and stationary celebration to the breathtaking, drought-ending first strike was an indication of relief, of the weight lifted off his shoulders. From there, it was as if his early-season struggles had never happened.
Another trademark long-range strike, this time off his left foot, shook off any lingering cobwebs before he re-established his relationship with Harry Kane, a partnership Spurs have relied on so heavily, to complete his memorable hat-trick and ominous return to form.
Wolves still look toothless in attack
Taken in isolation, this result should not spark panic. A three-goal defeat to the Premier League champions in which Wolves were forced to play for an hour with one man fewer following the first-half red card for Nathan Collins is no great shock.
The concern is that it felt like a continuation of a theme. Wolves actually had possession in good areas against Manchester City but the goal never looked like coming. No team has scored fewer this season. It is 13 goals in 17 games under Bruno Lage now.
There are some good players in this Wolves squad but the balance feels wrong right now. Lage has three strikers but none are fit. Diego Costa needs time to get up to speed. Sasa Kalajdzic suffered ligament damage on his debut. Raul Jimenez’s return is uncertain.
What Wolves are left with are talented wide forwards who flatter to deceive and are never likely to be prolific. Pedro Neto has started all seven Premier League games but is yet to score. Goncalo Guedes has been bright but is still waiting for his first Wolves goal.
Matheus Nunes looks a fine signing but midfield is not the concern. For Lage, it is the lack of defensive cover that left him playing Ruben Neves in defence. It is the lack of options in attack that has him persisting with a false nine. The plan? Pray Costa can roll back the years.
Leaky Leicester look devoid of confidence
Leicester recorded more shots, more possession and nearly three times as many final-third entries as Spurs at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium. After looking at those statistics, you’d be forgiven for having to double check the scoreline after seeing the Foxes were thrashed 6-2 in north London.
But conceding six at Spurs means Leicester have shipped 11 goals in their last two games and 22 since the start of the season. No team in the top four divisions has conceded more and belief appears to be at rock bottom among the Foxes players.
The manner of Spurs’ goals was frighteningly easy, with most of them featuring defending from Leicester’s beleaguered players that ranged from slack to hopeless.
The hosts’ first two strikes came from set pieces, which have long been an easy route to Leicester’s goal. Rodgers’ side have conceded 25 goals from set pieces since the start of last season – more than any other Premier League side.
Spurs’ third and fourth goals came after Wilfred Ndidi and James Justin were caught on the ball, while their fifth and sixth came after Heung-Min Son was given the freedom of Leicester’s half to pick his spot in Danny Ward’s net.
The fact that Spurs scored six times from an expected goals total of just 2.18 can partially be explained by Son’s first two goals being screamers from outside the area, but it also shows the resistance being put up by Leicester whenever opponents get near their goal is nowhere near good enough.
The Leicester defenders and goalkeeper look as though they fear conceding whenever they’re put under pressure, while their attackers – with the exception of James Maddison – also appear to be suffering from a crisis of confidence.
Leicester pinched the ball in Spurs’ final third 11 times compared to the hosts’ two but, through a combination of picking the wrong pass, trying too many passes or resorting to speculative long-range efforts, consistently wasted their openings.
Speaking to Sky Sports after the game, both Maddison and Rodgers sounded as though they were out of ideas to stop the team’s slump. All the worries caused by Leicester’s troubling transfer window are coming to pass.
Newcastle lack final-third creator
When the season started Newcastle were tipped to challenge the established order and break into the top six.
Things haven’t quite gone to plan seven games in with their only win coming on the opening day against newly-promoted Nottingham Forest, who are currently in the relegation zone.
Last season is proof that a push for the top six is by no means out of the question at this early stage, but their struggles to break down a low block could hinder their lofty ambitions this season.
Newcastle’s two best performances of the season have come against Manchester City and Liverpool – two games in which there has been space on the counter. They can go toe to toe with the big boys, but lack the imagination to break down more stubborn opposition.
Saturday’s frustrating meeting with Bournemouth laid bare the lack of a creator in the final third for Newcastle, with right-back Kieran Trippier the only consistent threat going forward.
It was Trippier’s cross which forced the penalty, his free-kick which struck the post from 30 yards and the England international who had the most passes in the final third of anyone on the pitch (42).
With Bruno Guimaraes operating in a deeper role, Miguel Almiron, Joelinton, Joe Willock and Ryan Fraser – who have one goal involvement this season between them – were tasked with providing chances for Alexander Isak on Saturday afternoon and fell well short of the required standard.
Fans were pining in the summer for the signing of Lucas Paqueta, who was scooped up by West Ham, as Newcastle prioritised the transfer of striker Isak after an early injury to Callum Wilson. It is clear Newcastle need to go back into the transfer market and improve their options in those attacking areas.
O’Neil brings much-needed steel to Bournemouth
After three league defeats in a row against Man City, Arsenal and Liverpool with an aggregate score of 18-0 alarm bells were ringing at Bournemouth.
The sacking of Scott Parker did little to ease those concerns.
But the arrival of interim boss Gary O’Neil has quite drastically changed the outlook at the Vitality Stadium.
Where there was an abundance of space for opposition sides against Bournemouth, there is now a hungry pack of players defending compactly and working together.
Bournemouth will undoubtedly face sterner tests than the one they faced at Newcastle on Saturday, but it provides the template for the rest of the season. A counter-attacking team that defends in numbers.
There are still question marks over the quality in the team and whether they will have enough to stay up, but their interim boss is making the most of the tools at his disposal.
It is unclear how long O’Neil will be in post, with the sale of Bournemouth to American Bill Foley at an advanced stage, but his pragmatism has given Bournemouth a platform from which to build.
Mings and Coutinho help Villa get back on track
Aston Villa’s draw with Manchester City was a huge result for Steven Gerrard given the pressure that he had been facing going into the game but that point there was never going to sate the supporters if his team could not follow it up at home to Southampton.
This was not a flowing performance but it was a fine result. Villa did not look fantastic but they helped to make Southampton look awful and that was more than enough to win it. The sight of Emiliano Martinez on his knees at full-time showed how much it meant.
The Villa goalkeeper has had to wait almost five months for this clean sheet. He had Tyrone Mings to thank. What little momentum that Saints could build up around the Villa box was repelled by his head, towering above everyone else inside the penalty box.
Gerrard has bemoaned individual errors throughout his time at Villa Park but here there were none of note – only players fighting for the fans and each other. If this group can do that then there remains a belief that they have the quality to come up with something.
Philippe Coutinho brings that quality. The Brazilian made a quick impression on supporters but they have not seen enough of him in this mood of late. It was not thrilling but he provided the sparkle. Gerrard will settle for that if it brings results like this.
Southampton struggles put pressure on Hasenhuttl
What a strange season this has been for Southampton already. Two down to Leeds in the second game of the season having been overwhelmed by Tottenham on the opening weekend, Ralph Hasenhuttl was under pressure quickly but came through it.
After salvaging a point against Leeds, they won at Leicester and finished August with an impressive win over Chelsea. But just when there was a buzz about this new Saints side, they have succumbed to back-to-back 1-0 defeats to Wolves and now Aston Villa.
Hasenhuttl saw similarities in both performances but at least there were chances at Molineux. “Today, we did not have chances. For me, this is the very frustrating thing. Our play was not sharp enough, not quick enough and not good enough.”
Alarmingly, he talked of his team being “not brave enough” and “bouncing” off their Villa opponents in every duel. There are some big players in that Southampton side who should not be being bullied but perhaps patience will be required of a young squad.
Hasenhuttl left most of his summer signings on the bench. Ainsley Maitland-Niles did not even make the squad. “He has to adapt to our game and that takes time.” The problem is that the supporters want to see these new players given their chance now.
On this evidence, there is little sense in delaying. The international break will see most of the squad go in separate directions but it is still an opportunity for a reset. What is certain is that it will need to be better than this when they return to face Everton at St Mary’s.
Palhinha proving his worth to Fulham
Erling Haaland has killed any debate around the Premier League’s signing of the season but Fulham’s Joao Palhinha must be near the top of the list of those behind the free-scoring Norwegian.
The midfielder, a £20m addition from Sporting Lisbon in July, was instrumental in Fulham’s 3-2 win over Nottingham Forest on Friday, his stunning goal helping to clinch a victory which put them sixth.
In conversation with Sky Sports last month, Marco Silva revealed Palhinha was primarily signed for his off-the-ball qualities and those qualities have been apparent all season. He has made more tackles (35) than any other Premier League player.
But the 27-year-old gives them plenty more than that.
Palhinha is also a considerable aerial threat, as he showed with his headed goal in Fulham’s 3-2 win over Brentford in August, and his strike against Forest, brilliantly executed from outside the box, showed he has the technique to match.
It is little wonder Silva moved swiftly to secure his signature following Fulham’s promotion and it will not be long until the rest of the Premier League start to take notice. Palhinha is proving his worth.
Forest crumble again in second half
If all of Nottingham Forest’s seven Premier League matches this season had finished at half-time they would have 11 points – seven more than they have now.
That tally would see them level with their newly-promoted rivals Fulham, instead they are languishing in the relegation zone for the next few weeks as we head into the international break.
A worrying trend is starting to crop up for Steve Cooper’s side, with their last nine goals conceded all coming in the second half of games.
“I think a lot of it is self-inflicted,” said head coach Steve Cooper on Friday night. “We just aren’t managing conceding the first goal very well. There’s been a few occasions now when once one goes in we look vulnerable and that was the case tonight.”
That vulnerability cost them after Tosin Adarabioyo’s towering header levelled the game for Fulham.
The memory of Bournemouth – another newly-promoted side – coming back from two goals down to win at the City Ground just two weeks before clearly left its mark on this squad, and they failed to regain their focus, conceding two more goals within five minutes of the equaliser.
Cooper now has a few weeks to take stock and consider how best to remedy his side’s susceptibility to crumbling when conceding, but he needs to find a solution fast.
Four defeats on the bounce in the Premier League brings pressure on a manager’s shoulders, and we’ve already seen how ruthless owners can be this season in the cases of Bournemouth and Chelsea.
The light at the end of the tunnel for Forest is that they next face the Premier League’s basement club Leicester, who have looked out of ideas so far this season after a summer of inactivity in the transfer market.