Columnist Alex Keble reflects on the latest Premier League weekend, including fun from the front two, Chelsea's 'disastrous' high press and Marco Silva's Watford return.
A reminder that football is supposed to be fun
Among all the tribalism, the whinging, and the incessant discussion of which club is ‘bottling it’ more than the other, it can be easy to lose sight of why we love football. Rampant, attacking performances from two world-class title challengers this weekend reminded us of its joy and beauty.
In Manchester City’s case it was Sergio Aguero who stood out most, not just for his goals but for his all-round positional play. He drifted off the front line like a true Guardiola forward, consistently popping up in the left half-space to take advantage of the gap that developed between Chelsea’s defence and midfield.
N’Golo Kante should have been next to Jorginho, but Maurizio Sarri refuses to change his tactics – and Aguero capitalised intelligently. His link-up play was the defining feature of City’s slick, exciting performance at the Etihad, a 6-0 victory which was the perfect way to sign off for a brief hiatus.
Liverpool weren’t quite as ruthless, but it was a joyous sight to witness Roberto Firmino and Mohamed Salah in their pomp, exchanging passes superbly for Liverpool’s second goal against Bournemouth.
Behind them, Fabinho, Naby Keita, and Georginio Wijnaldum are emerging as the ideal trio of midfielders for Jurgen Klopp, balancing high-tempo forward passes with sharp defensive energy. The final months of the season are surely guaranteed to deliver.
Tom Heaton’s brilliant, Hart-condemning goalkeeping
A string of magnificent first-half saves from Tom Heaton kept Burnley in the contest at Brighton before a Chris Wood double helped them extend their unbeaten run to seven in the league. Burnley’s sudden upturn in form correlates exactly with Heaton being reinstated ahead of Joe Hart – whose reputation diminishes with every fresh victory.
The issue with Hart isn’t just shot-stopping, it’s about organising his defenders both tactically and psychologically. All that shouting and grimacing – once mistakenly seen as a sign of leadership – in fact betrays Hart’s nervousness, which spreads like a virus to his defenders.
With the benefit of hindsight it has infected England, West Ham, and Man City during Hart’s career. Heaton’s quietly reassuring presence, on the other hand, has stabilised Burnley following a disastrous first half of the campaign.
Tielemans debut energising Puel-ball
Youri Tielemans may have been on the losing side at Wembley on Sunday but the 21-year-old midfielder, on loan from AS Monaco, demonstrated why he is considered one of the brightest young players in Europe. Leicester's run of five games without a win will surely end soon.
Tielemans’ clever passes into the final third not only relieved some of the creative pressure on James Maddison, they also dramatically increased the tempo of Leicester’s often prosaic football; Maddison dropped into a deeper role than usual, helping the Foxes transition with greater speed.
If Jamie Vardy had only started the match the result could have been very different. Benching Vardy, a Leicester icon, is probably the beginning of the end for manager Claude Puel. With Tielemans in the side, Leicester’s results should improve no matter who is in charge.
Chelsea’s disastrous high press
Trying to beat the champions at their own game – and at their own stadium – is a strategy of such brazen risk that it was doomed to fail. Chelsea pressed throughout the game, often committing six men to charge down the ball, which allowed Man City to pass the ball around them and then attack the huge open spaces left behind.
The gap between the defenders on the halfway line and the rest of the Chelsea team was enormous, which is why City dominated the match so easily. Sarri’s stubbornness will cost him his job at this rate; no team should deploy the same tactics in every Premier League match, where pragmatism and variety are crucial components for success.
So far, Sarri has not shown the humility needed to adapt his methods, and on Sunday, Chelsea did not show the humility needed to moderate their pressing. The results were disastrous.
Marco Siva’s embarrassing return to Vicarage Road
Everton conceded yet another goal from a set-piece on Saturday, and lost yet another game – their 12th of the season, the same number as Southampton down in 18th. Marco Silva, like Sarri and like Puel, is in a very precarious position following a sequence of just three wins in the last 13 league games. The reception he received at Vicarage Road may have hastened his demise.
Watford’s victory, among sneering jibes from the home fans towards their former manager, sent the Everton board a clear message. The narrative is clearly turning against Silva, which ironically could be bad news for Watford fans. Javi Gracia would probably be high on Everton’s shortlist.
Fulham’s lack of a plan to handle Martial
There’s a helplessness to the way Fulham are sliding down the Premier League table. It looks as though Claudio Ranieri’s attempts to change the club’s tactics have fallen on deaf ears, with Fulham once again looking far too open and attack-minded for the visit of Manchester United on Saturday.
Given the visitors’ recent form, it seemed obvious that Fulham should sit deep and look to counter-attack – but instead they were oddly expansive and for that they paid a high price.
Denis Odoi, the makeshift right-back, continually drove forward to provide width in the Fulham attack despite the fact Anthony Martial was lurking behind him. Odoi’s poor defending against the Frenchman led directly to the first two United goals: first he backed off, allowing Martial to feed Paul Pogba, and then he was caught too high up the pitch as Martial broke forward.
Ranieri should have instructed Odoi to stay back, and should have given him extra support to avoid the sort of one-on-ones that gave United their opener. Ranieri is having very little impact at Craven Cottage.