What a weekend for the Premier League! Fulham – Brentford made for a solid start on Saturday, but Sunday and Monday really delivered the goods. And even though I missed Leeds United thoroughly beating Chelsea, I did manage to get a good game from La Liga in as a substitute, I guess.
West Ham United 0 – Brighton and Hove Albion 2. The better game at this time was definitely Leeds United – Chelsea, but one can’t always make the right choice. Though the winning goal came from a penalty that was only just on the line, Brighton and Hove Albion were clearly the better side virtually from start to finish. Other than a strong opening five minutes from West Ham and another five minutes at the end, Brighton was the team to watch in this game. Their second goal was a lovely attack, as Alexis Mac Allister played a ball up the middle for Moisés Caicedo, who touched it in behind for a breaking Leandro Trossard to score. I was particularly impressed with Mac Allister’s passing in the game, as he’s not a player that had previously drawn my attention.
West Ham looked flat and a bit off the pace, and the introduction of recent transfers Gianluca Scamacca (after the hour mark) and Maxwell Cornet (with a quarter-hour remaining, accompanied by Manuel Lanzini and Ben Johnson) had little impact. Thilo Kehrer got a first start, but was responsible for giving up the penalty with an unwise if energetic tackle. Overall, this was a depressing game for West Ham fans, notwithstanding a fine performance from Graham Potter’s Brighton.
While West Ham are struggling with injuries and will need time to fully integrate so many new players (including center Nayef Aguerd, who is recovering from ankle surgery and has yet to play), this is a worrying start to the season. Though the influx of new players should create the possibility of rejuvenation, the losses to both Nottingham Forest and Brighton (as well as their midweek Europa Conference League qualifier against Danish side Viborg, notwithstanding their 3-1 win) suggest a stale and disengaged team. Something needs to change soon, as West Ham will be facing both Spurs and Chelsea in the next two weeks.
Newcastle United 3 – Manchester City 3. I watched this game, which turned out to be the best of the season thus far, with my friend Chris. Newcastle came out of the gates pressing and attacking, and within five minutes had gone a goal down, Bernardo Silva feeding İlkay Gündoğan just above the six-yard box for an early opener. Given that Eddie Howe’s Newcastle had lost it’s last two games against Pep Guardiola’s City 9-0, it was easy to expect more of the same.
There was more of the same–from Newcastle’s relentless pressing and left-sided attack through Allan Saint Maximin, who had one of the games of his career. Allowed to lurk high on the left as a perpetual threat on the counter-attack, Saint Maximin provided the assists for both of Newcastle’s first half goals and won the second half free kick that Kieran Trippier converted to give his side a 3-1 lead. Howe deserves credit as well for anticipating and ruthlessly exploiting Pep Guardiola’s strategy of having Kyle Walker drift inside to support Rodri Cascante in the midfield, leaving Saint Maximin free to roam on the left.
But even more impressive than Saint Maximin was Newcastle’s collective pressing, a system which held Man City at bay for the majority of the game and made this a lively and entertaining, two-way encounter. Ova D Ba has produced a much better account of that system than I could have, and it’s worth taking a look at.
But for all of Newcastle’s impressive performance, City were never out of the game. While unable to pen Newcastle into a defensive shell, they threatened throughout the first half and the opening of the second. Shortly after Trippier’s fifty-fourth minute free kick, Erling Haaland scored off a corner kick to pull City back within one. Then it was the Kevin De Bruyne show, as he fed in Haaland on a break just minutes later (Nick Pope saving); and then minutes after that slipped a ball through for Bernardo Silva to score an equalizer with twenty-six minutes remaining.
In the late-going, City were finally able to pen Newcastle in despite a series of changes to provide fresh legs for the home side. Trippier was given a VAR reprieve on a red card that was surely harsh, though less surely a clear and obvious error. In the end, a tie was probably a fair outcome for this magnificent game. Certainly, Newcastle warranted a point for such an impressive performance.
Real Sociedad 1 – Barcelona 4. This was a very even game through the opening sixty minutes, with Real Sociedad probably taking a slight edge in the first half despite Robert Lewandowski scoring in the opening forty-six seconds off an Alejando Balde cross in. But La Real’s press was working very well, and five minutes later they had equalized off a Frankie de Jong turnover that Brais Méndez fed to Isak Alexander in the box for a right post goal.
That score held for the remainder of a very solid first half for Sociedad, and with expected goals tied at 0.71, neither side could really complain. Barcelona employed a back three with Balde and Ousmane Dembélé as wing backs in a 3-4-3/3-4-2-1, though Gavi Martín would sometimes drop off from his attacking role on the right to join the midfield and create a de facto 3-5-2.
Nothing much changed until shortly after the hour mark, when Xavi Hernández brought on Ansu Fati and Raphinha, moving Dembélé to the left wing back with Fati on the left and Raphinha on the right of Lewandowski up top. Almost immediately, the trio combined for a go-ahead goal, Raphinha passing in from the right to Fati at the top of the box, who back heeled it on for an unmarked Dembélé on the left to put home.
At the restart, Dembélé returned to the right and Raphinha moved up top in support of Lewandowski, with Fati serving as the left wing back (albeit a narrow one) and Gavi underneath the strikers, a kind of 3-2-3-2. That immediately produced an insurance goal, Pedri González finding Fati in the box to assist an attacking Lewandowski. Imanol Alguacil made changes for La Real, but they weren’t able to change the dynamic of the game. With just over ten minutes remaining, Raphinha crossed in from the right for Lewandowski, whose deflected touch still found Fati on the left to score Barcelona’s fourth.
After last weekend’s loss to Rayo Vallecano, this was an important win for Barcelona, if a much more difficult one than the scoreline suggested. Given the overwhelming impact of Xavi’s second half changes, it will be interesting to see how Barcelona line up next week against Real Valladolid (though the next real test will probably come the weekend after that, against a struggling Sevilla side). As a kind of footnote on the weekend, Barcelona and Manchester City played a midweek friendly–the friendliest of friendlies, given the two managers–that ended 3-3 with fairly strong sides for both teams.
Manchester United 2 – Liverpool 1. For me, Monday’s game was the biggest upset of the weekend, bigger than Villarreal’s win over Atlético Madrid or Leeds United’s over Chelsea, bigger even (if somewhat less dramatic) than newly-promoted Werder Bremen’s win over Borussia Dortmund after trailing 2-0 in the 88th minute. While Liverpool had been struggling to live up to expectations, they were nonetheless on a run of twenty-one unbeaten games. United, by comparison, were riding a four-game losing streak. The last time they lost five in a row was just over a half century ago.
But United’s train wreck of a start seemed to embolden Erik ten Hag. In the previous weekend, he had essentially reversed a brave decision in the opening game by returning the benched Cristiano Ronaldo to the starting line-up in place of Scott McTominay. But for this biggest match of the young season, ten Hag benched captain Harry Maguire and left back Luke Shaw–half of his defensive unit–as well as bringing back McTominay in place of fellow defensive midfielder Fred. Most striking of all, he replaced Ronaldo with twenty year-old Anthony Elanga at left wing.
The change proved inspired. Though it was an evenly-matched first half, Elanga tormented Trent Alexander-Arnold throughout, getting behind him for a cut back assist on Jaydon Sancho’s opening goal. That made the 7th straight game in which Liverpool had conceded an opening goal–though in the other six they had recovered at least a point. They had 70% first half possession and had roughly matched United in shots (on goal) 6(0) to 5(1).
Given Elanga’s performance, ten Hag’s decision to remove him at halftime proved another bold decision. Anthony Martial came on in his place, going up top with Marcus Rashford shifting to the left to become Alexander-Arnold’s prime tormentor. And less than ten minutes into the second half, Martial won a ball at the midline and fed Rashford in behind to score United’s second. Though Mohamed Salah was able to score a poacher’s goal off the rebound from substitute Fabio Carvalho’s eighty-first minute shot, United were able to hold on for their first win against Liverpool in four-and-a-half years.
This was a pretty great end to the weekend. It’s worth noting that Virgil van Dijk was particularly poor in this game, while United’s new center back Lisandro Martínez was magnificent.