Crunch period for Solskjaer and Man Utd
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer spoke of his players’ hungry mindset, of their determination to improve, of his sureness that, Manchester United “had something going,” and of his enduring belief in his coaching staff as well as his players.
It felt a wearily familiar answer – the sort that these days, with this set of players, is more difficult to digest.
His team selection against Everton had divided opinion, and while there could be no doubting that the midweek win over Villarreal courtesy of Cristiano Ronaldo was draining, it was fair to think that Ronaldo – who has for a long time lived for moments rather than extensive exertions – could have gone again. It looked like he felt the same judging by his hasty exit down the tunnel.
United had in fact made an urgent start, with Anthony Martial’s opener the climax to a sweeping crossfield move.
But the promise gave way to another disjointed display and the focus is sharply back on their structure out of possession. Solskjaer said they dominated, but 71 per cent of the ball still gave up 10 shots inside the box.
United look as vulnerable to the counter as they have at set-piece situations, and a longstanding issue is plain to see in the most simple of stats: they have not kept a clean sheet in 18 games.
The Manchester United boss did his best to strike an upbeat tone but readily admitted that a “big month” awaits. There is little escaping the fact that his side face Liverpool, Tottenham, Manchester City, Chelsea and Arsenal before the end of November, with important assignments ahead in the Champions League too.
Saturday’s opponents – depleted yet individually revived and collectively coherent – were what United still are not: a unit seemingly sure of the gameplan and able to make the ample sum of their parts add up.
Solskjaer appeared to welcome the break, adamant his side will return with “energy and clear focus”. But the time must turn into something tangible. As he signed off himself at his press conference: “The proof is in the pudding.”
Werner ready to answer Tuchel’s call
Thomas Tuchel took the defeat against Manchester City personally. He admitted he struggled to find the offensive solutions to break down their opponents and claimed responsibility for not being at the same level as his title rivals.
The Chelsea boss expressed the need for a less passive defensive plan, but the further setback in Turin in midweek sharpened the focus – and Timo Werner led the response from the front to overcome yet more VAR misfortune.
Curiously, Southampton had only conceded in the second half of Premier League matches prior to Saturday – all seven coming after the break – but that was ended within nine minutes when Trevoh Chalobah capitalised on static defending from Ben Chilwell’s corner.
The hosts had to be patient here, but that was only after an opening period in which they dominated and headed down the tunnel with the bitter taste of injustice at seeing Werner’s header ruled out for the softest foul in the build-up you’re likely to see all season.
Southampton used the let-off as a springboard for an improved second period that was rewarded when James Ward-Prowse punished Ben Chilwell’s foul on Tino Livramento inside the box. The Saints captain turned villain when his challenge on Jorginho was upgraded to a red card and with the momentum swinging back in Chelsea’s favour, Tuchel was indebted to Werner’s never-say-die attitude.
It has been a frustrating season for the German, who had hitherto not scored in the Premier League since February. Saturday felt like a pivotal moment, given the chance from the off against a team he scored twice against in the corresponding fixture.
Chelsea were in need of a hero, and with Romelu Lukaku again finding himself often marked out of the game as Ralph Hasenhuttl bolted up his defence, it fell to Werner to answer their call.
Tuchel’s men are top and will have to overcome stiffer opponents if they are to stay at the summit but Werner showed why he certainly still has a big part to play if Chelsea are to have any success this season.
Ramsdale, White, Gabriel axis shine for Arsenal
Arsenal have been accused of folding like a pack of cards when the pressure is put on their defence over the years. However, that was not the case in the 0-0 draw with Brighton. Instead of being the reason why Arsenal dropped points, this time the defensive axis led them to a gritty draw. In other seasons this would have been a defeat.
The stalemate means another clean sheet for the Arsenal defensive axis of Aaron Ramsdale, Gabriel Magalhaes and Ben White, who have now conceded just one goal in four Premier League games. Ramsdale had to be at his best in the final 10 minutes, making three saves to help his team to a gritty point whilst White – on his Brighton return – and Gabriel were more often than not first to various dangerous balls into their box. It’s a centre-back partnership that certainly has the potential to become one of the strongest in the Premier League.
“They’ve gained a good connection, a good chemistry,” Arteta said.
“Their qualities match each other really well. I thought both of them today were terrific.”
Gabriel exclusively spoke to Sky Sports’ Nick Wright in the week about how a “year of learning” is helping him blossom at Arsenal, and here was further evidence of his rapid development with another impressive defensive performance.
Arsenal have won eight of the last nine Premier League games in which Gabriel has started, conceding three goals (0.3 per game) whilst they have won just one of the last seven games without him, conceding 14 goals in that period. He is quickly becoming their most important player.
Gray sparks in sign of shrewd Everton business
Jadon Sancho was eventually unleashed but at a sodden Old Trafford, another winger back in the Premier League from the Bundesliga really made his mark.
How shrewd the Toffees’ business for Demarai Gray looks at £1.7m; how shrewd their business for Gray and Andros Townsend, picked up from Crystal Palace in the summer, looks for a combined £1.8m.
Townsend, who has scored five goals in nine games in all competitions for Everton – as many as he scored in his final 79 appearances for Crystal Palace – was decisive when it mattered. Abdoulaye Doucoure, who afforded him the chance, was everywhere, his bustling performance prompting Jamie Carragher to declare him one of the standout performers of the season so far.
But Gray, benefittng from a run of games and the astute eye of Rafa Benitez, was also worthy of the plaudits.
No one made more sprints and intensive runs in a blue shirt but Gray is far more than just pace; he cleverly tracked Mason Greenwood as United looked to counter and he embarrassed Fred on the touchline as Everton made United pay in a chaotic minute.
Gray, still only 25, played just 18 minutes of top-flight football in his final half-season at Leicester but even in Leverkusen there were only five starts between February and May, and he later admitted the move was difficult. After stagnating on the bench, there is a fresh swagger; the sort that only comes with confidence and continuity. Benitez can help him realise his potential.
Leeds make the breakthrough, but it could have been more
If there was one way to sum up Leeds’ performance on Saturday, it would be – that’s more like it.
Marcelo Bielsa’s side had yet to win in the Premier League this season and after finishing ninth last term, somehow found themselves in the bottom three early on this time around.
But against a truly woeful Watford side, they began to look more like the Leeds we have come to expect – plenty of possession, aggressive and lightning-quick in attack. Diego Llorente’s first-half strike was enough for the first three points of the campaign, but in truth, it should have been more.
Leeds saw a plethora of chances come and go. Some of it was down to bodies on the line defending from Watford, and some from simple poor finishing. Stuart Dallas, Raphinha and Mateusz Klich should all have found the net at least once.
Perhaps the lack of a second goal was summed up when Tyler Roberts saw a shot cleared off the line by Juraj Kucka and his rebound hit the bar. They had an incredible 20 shots, although only four found their way on target.
Leeds were almost punished for not finding the net again too. Christian Kabasele poked the ball home in the second half after some poor handling from Illan Meslier – the only real save he made all evening. However, it was ruled out for a contentious Kabasele foul on Liam Cooper, with VAR choosing not to intervene.
Leeds manager Marcelo Bielsa said after the game: “The amount of chances, the amount of balls we had to attack, made us think we could have score more goals. But as we defended well, the triumph was never in danger.”
But ultimately, it was a truly deserved victory for Leeds and there is something special about a celebratory Elland Road. Here’s hoping they can now take that on after the international break and begin moving further up the Premier League table.
Norwich finally pick up a point but survival looks a long way off
Norwich are up and running. After six defeats from their first six Premier League games this season, they finally earned their first point with a battling display at a wet, wind-swept Burnley.
The result also ends a streak of 16 Premier League defeats in a row, stretching back to their previous stint in the top flight in 2019/20. However, it appears they have a huge task on their hands to avoid another dip back down into the Championship.
This was a contest between two sides low on confidence and struggling to find quality in difficult conditions, but Norwich were somewhat fortunate that none of the hosts’ four first-half penalty appeals were interpreted differently by ref Kevin Friend.
They also had let-offs from Jay Rodriguez, Dwight McNeil and Matt Lowton, who missed chances the Burnley trio would have backed themselves to put away.
Norwich clipped the bar with a Matthias Normann cross-shot and there was an encouraging performance from the new midfield signing, while Max Aarons was a recurring threat from right wing-back.
However, in truth, Norwich boss Daniel Farke will be left mulling over how he can make his side more effective in the final third, with their two goals in seven games a cause for concern. How they would love to still have Emi Buendia in their ranks.
The commitment they showed at Turf Moor will be a key ingredient for Norwich if they are to pull off a special survival season. But they will need more than that when they come up against more dangerous opposition this year…
Hwang double bodes well for Wolves
Wolves manager Bruno Lage was singing the praises of Hwang Hee-chan after the on-loan striker’s two goals helped his new side beat Newcastle 2-1 to record their first Premier League home win of the new season.
Wolves have now won three of their last four games, climbing to 10th in the table as a result, while the South Korea international – who only joined on a season-long loan from RB Leipzig in August – now has three top-flight goals to his name.
And Lage knows the 25-year-old will be key to Wolves’ hopes this term, saying of his new forward: “He has adapted to the Premier League, he fits our way of playing because we need a player like him.
“I believe the players want to play with the ball. Top players can enjoy our game and he is a top player, like the other guys.
“I knew him before because when I was at Benfica I had some reports on him. But it’s not just about Hwang, what I want is to take the best from all the players.”