Friday 23 August 2019

Paul Pogba back with a bang: Seven talking points from weekend Premier League action

Manchester United's Paul Pogba applauds the fans as he is substituted
Manchester United's Paul Pogba applauds the fans as he is substituted

Here are the seven main talking points from the weekend's Premier League action.

Stones injury will showcase City's title credentials

Manchester City may have maintained their sublime start to the season on Saturday, beating Leicester 2-0 in another impressive away outing, but victory was marred by news that John Stones will now be sidelined for a minimum of six weeks due to a hamstring injury.

With Stones absent, and games against rivals United and Tottenham to come in December, there’s a sense that City could be about to face their first major stumbling block of the season. Under Pep Guardiola, Stones has grown from strength to strength as a mature, disciplined and undeniably talented player at the heart of City’s defence – his absence will be missed and places greater strain on the side’s backline, in particular Vincent Kompany whose fitness remains a constant source of concern for the club.

How Guardiola tinkers with his tactics and formation will be interesting to see; indeed, there’s no doubt that this will be the biggest test of City’s title credentials yet. If they can emerge from this unscathed, then the league will be theirs.

Pogba back with a bang

It would all be better once Paul Pogba comes back, they said, and one look at the scoreline would suggest they were correct. The Manchester United midfielder, on his first appearance since straining his hamstring in September, inspired his side to what was ultimately a dominant win over Newcastle United.

It was a performance manager Jose Mourinho described matter-of-factly as “top,” which does the Frenchman something of a disservice. Pogba was back, and back with a bang, as he pulled the strings from the heart of United’s midfield. His presence and creativity in opposition side’s final thirds has been sorely missed from United’s recent run of underwhelming results, so it was a much-welcomed sight to see the 24-year-old once again creating chances and bringing a rejuvenated sense of purpose to the home side’s front line on Saturday.

As Pogba’s performance against Newcastle showed, his fitness and form will be vital to handing United any chance of catching Manchester City this season.

Spurs out of sorts at the back

Forget the likes of Harry Kane, Dele Alli and Christian Eriksen for a moment: Pochettino’s success at Tottenham has been built on keeping things tight at the back. For the last two seasons now they have had the best defensive record in the Premier League, with the recent acquisition of Davinson Sánchez for a club-record £42m beefing up their defence even further.

But with Toby Alderweireld out with a hamstring injury against Arsenal, Spurs looked a mess at the back on Saturday. Shkodran Mustafi was completely unmarked for Arsenal’s opener while Alexis Sanchez was shown far too much space by Eric Dier and Kieran Trippier for their second.

Ironically, even when Spurs got things right at the back they quickly went wrong. Sánchez denied his Arsenal namesake with a fine sliding tackle in the first-half, only for Mike Dean to blow his whistle for a foul for a perceived shirt-pull. From there, it was all downhill.

Ozil teaches Christian Eriksen a gentle lesson in how to be a perfect 10

Not much is known of the inner workings of Mesut Ozil, what he cares about or what motivates him. But you wonder, watching him play like this, whether he had noticed all the praise heaped on Christian Eriksen in the last few weeks.

Against Tottenham, though, Ozil gave his counterpart a gentle lesson in what it means to be a number 10 of the highest class. Ozil was the future once – now he is 29 years old – but he has the concrete achievements to his name that Eriksen is still working towards. The Dane may have overtaken him as a player, but on Saturday Ozil strutted his stuff, revelling in his superior nous.

Ozil set the tone throughout, not just with the ball but without it. You know Ozil is on it when he starts hassling opponents and after just seven minutes he nearly set up an opener, robbing Jan Vertonghen only to be unfortunately penalised by Mike Dean. But he was part of a front three, with Alexis Sanchez and Alexandre Lacazette, who disrupted Spurs’ rhythm and never let them get a foothold in the game. When he showcases this sort of form and desire, Arsenal are capable of playing the high-level football needed to beat the league’s best.

Salah offers Liverpool cause for optimism in the dark months ahead

Winter is coming. Liverpool will play a game every four days between now and the end of January should they progress beyond the third round of the FA Cup. Liverpool had entered the corresponding section of the campaign last year at the top of the Premier League table. By the end of it, they had fallen to fourth – 10 points behind leaders Chelsea, tumbling out of both domestic cup competitions as well.

But whereas 12 months ago Liverpool lost momentum, now they are gaining it, and Mohamed Salah has been intrinsic to this progress. Alongside Philippe Coutinho and Sadio Mané, the Winger has emerged as a fourth reference point in this Liverpool team.

There is no doubt that while Salah has improved the quality of Klopp’s side as an individual – his stunning goal against Southampton was testament to this - his presence is gradually helping the midfielders behind him to perform better. Jordan Henderson, for example, is learning there is nothing wrong with knocking a pass into space and letting Salah chase with all the enthusiasm of a Jack Russell hunting after a ball on the beach. If that isn’t a possibility and defenders drop deep, it gives someone like Coutinho the room to operate and supply the assist like he did for Salah’s second goal. Coutinho later scored Liverpool’s third. Winter is coming, but Liverpool have cause for optimism with Salah in some of the best form of his career.

Nightmare start for Moyes

It was David Moyes' 500th Premier League game as a manager but Sunday’s trip to Watford was sadly one to forget as his West Ham side were beaten 2-0 by their hosts.

The noises emanating from their Rush Green training ground had been encouraging, with the no-nonsense Scot apparently going back to basics with a squad who were not only in the relegation zone but also bottom of the statistical charts when it came down to the basic requirement of running.

But a fortnight on the training ground is clearly not long enough to knock this West Ham squad into shape. Moyes has inherited the worst defence in the division, and it took all of 11 minutes for the Hammers’ backline to be exposed, with Will Hughes opening the scoring. The former United boss needs time to implement his ideas, to effect some sort of change in the players’ outlook and ultimately to get the players believing in themselves again. Whether or not he’s the man to do that remains to be seen.

Straw that breaks the camel’s back?

The same old story, the same old result. Another defeat for West Brom and one that extends their winless streak to 12 straight games. Against Chelsea on Saturday they were dismal, handing the current league champions the freedom to make the most of their talents.

Tony Pulis finally got the bullet today. He looked a resigned figure on the touchline, wearing the same face of despair as Slaven Bilic did towards the end of his time at West Ham. This outlook only quickened his downfall and looks set to do the same at the Hawthorns, with supporters calling for Pulis’ head. The Welshman has simply run out of ideas at the club – Saturday’s defeat was another stinging reminder of that – with the club in desperate need of a shot to the arm.

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