PREMIER LEAGUE: 9 talking points from the Weekend
1) Guardiola’s men chasing possible record number of records
After another victory that seemed inevitable, despite West Ham basically building a wall, then behind it a slightly taller wall on the edge of the penalty area, it’s worth having a look at some records that Manchester City could have their eye on. Beat Manchester United next weekend and they will equal the mark for most consecutive wins (14, by Arsenal in 2002) in the Premier League era. They are nearly halfway to the most wins in a season (30, by Chelsea last term) and well on the way to the points record (95, by Chelsea in 2004-05) and goals record (103, Chelsea again, in 2009-10). A victory over United will put them on 46 points from 16 games, which would have been enough to come eighth last season, and their 46 goals are already more than were managed by the team that did finish in that spot, Southampton.
2) Brilliant Hazard challenged to aim even higher
Eden Hazard has played the best football of his career under Antonio Conte and it is clear that the Belgian can get even better if he trusts his manager. Conte is a relentless coach and, though he regularly champions Hazard’s talent, the Italian was quick to point out that the world’s finest players make their names on the biggest stages. Hazard excelled in Chelsea’s 3-1 win over Newcastle United, scoring twice, but the forward has been challenged to aim even higher than destroying Premier League defences. “I don’t think that Eden is at the peak of his career,” Conte said. “It’s important for him to work, work, work in every training session to improve himself. You are at the top when you win the Ballon d’Or the first time, when you win the Champions League, when you win the World Cup. At that moment you are at the top of the world.
3) Lacazette showing his worth even in defeat
Arsène Wenger seemed a bit vexed trying to explain the slightly paradoxical nature of Arsenal’s loss to Manchester United because he had seen something very positive from his team’s attacking waves, yet it was all overshadowed by the result. One theme that has emerged in the last week, over the home games against Huddersfield and United, is how Alexandre Lacazette has taken a big step in his integration. Wenger took a cautious approach with his record signing in the first part of the season, rather puzzlingly holding off on starts and regularly substituting the French striker. The match against United was his first complete 90 minutes in the Premier League since the opening day. His adjustment to Arsenal’s game – and his team-mates better reading of his excellent movement – has taken time but he now looks totally involved and pivotal to the way Wenger wants his team to attack.
4) Pochettino unfazed by latest defensive setbacks
With Davinson Sánchez likely to miss three matches as a result of the straight red card he received for throwing his arm into Richarlison’s face, Spurs are facing a defensive shortage. Toby Aldeweireld has suggested he could be out for as long as four months with injury, while Cameron Carter-Vickers is on loan at Sheffield United with no recall option. Mauricio Pochettino, therefore, has only Jan Vertonghen and Eric Dier with significant experience at centre-half. On the other hand, Ben Davies has deputised in a back three and there is the Argentinian teenager Juan Foyth, signed from Estudiantes in the summer. Pochettino remained unruffled, though, after watching his team battle for a point at Watford (only their second in four matches). “I am not going to complain if Sánchez will be out for a few games”, he said. “That is football. It is about the squad. If he cannot play we will play with another.
5) Rooney renaissance enthuses Allardyce
Wayne Rooney gave a display of passing and pointing. His defence-splitting ball led to Dominic Calvert-Lewin’s goal and he also enforced Sam Allardyce’s orders, talking team-mates into position. This authoritative display, coupled with his hat-trick against West Ham three days earlier, came after he had been an unused substitute in the previous two league games. That may not happen again soon. “He produced a good performance today and a brilliant one on Wednesday,” said Allardyce. “So we have to really make sure we get him ready for every game. If we get the physical side of Wayne right then that ability never ever leaves you.” He remains such an admirer of Rooney that it feels possible the stand-in skipper will replace the injured Phil Jagielka as captain. “He has had more criticism in the last couple of years than he has had praise and I think that he has handled that brilliantly,” added Allardyce.
6) Liverpool leave tantalizing taste of what could be
It was a slightly curious experience watching Liverpool thrash Brighton 5-1. On the one hand, their counterattacks were so good they were life-affirming. But on the other you were left with the nagging question: if Liverpool is this good, then why aren’t they better? The win, their fifth in six Premier League games, took them up to fourth, but their vim and quality going forward is that of a side who should be challenging Manchester City. The obvious answer is their defence but the glint of mental fragility that led to them conceding a three-goal lead against Sevilla is a big part of it, too. After the win at the Amex Jürgen Klopp admitted that when Glenn Murray made it 3-1, that game flashed before his eyes. “When you have it once, unfortunately it needs a bit of time to get rid of it completely,” he said. When that speck of doubt is erased, Liverpool will be much stronger.
7) Further justification of Puel intentions
When Leicester sacked Craig Shakespeare eight games into the season, a few months after he saved them from relegation, it was fair to wonder if the board had acted hastily. Less reasonable was the antipathy that greeted the appointment of Claude Puel. The rules that govern such matters are not scientific, but he had previously led Monaco to a Ligue 1 title and Lyon to the Champions League semi-finals. Then in his first season in England he took Southampton to a final – where they played superbly – and to an eighth-place finish, only to be sacked for football unbefitting the club’s sophisticated tastes. At Leicester, he is extracting the most from Riyad Mahrez, Jamie Vardy, and Demarai Gray – whose talent Shakespeare was not prepared to trust. City, third-bottom when he was appointed, now sit ninth, two places and three points above Southampton
8) Bournemouth hope for best of Fraser
Ryan Fraser’s biggest challenge has been finding some consistency. If he can perform well regularly, Bournemouth will reap rewards. The Scotland winger’s indifferent form has frustrated himself as much as it has Eddie Howe, so much so that he asked to play for the under-21s against Plymouth Argyle last month to build some confidence. Fraser, a £400,000 signing from Aberdeen four years ago, scored his first league goal of the season against Southampton on Sunday and Howe is hoping that strike will prove significant in the long run. “I’m one of Ryan’s biggest fans,” the Bournemouth manager said. “For whatever reason he’s had a slightly stuttering start to the season. We haven’t seen him at his fluent best. I can’t speak highly enough of his ability as a player. I just hope he can do it on a consistent basis.
9) Field and Loftus-Cheek stand out in stalemate
It was edifying to see some of the best moments of quality from Saturday’s goalless draw between two relegation-threatened teams at The Hawthorns come from a couple of England youngsters promising to make a consistent impact in the Premier League. Ruben Loftus-Cheek, now 21, has long been heralded as the best of Chelsea’s loan stars and is playing without fear despite Crystal Palace only just rising off the foot of the table; Sam Field, 19, has returned to West Brom’s team since Tony Pulis’s dismissal and played three games in an unbeaten week. Recently promoted to the England under-21s after starring for Keith Downing’s Under-20s, the local lad has grace and poise. Outstanding on his recent full senior international debut, Loftus-Cheek is also being edged into a wide role in a compact midfield four for Palace. But while he has licence to roam, he is also willing to track and do some of the dirty work required of that position in a lower-half team.