It seems a little crazy to link the weekends before and after the international break in a single post, but that’s how I’m rolling. Before the break, I was mostly at the bottom of the tables in both La Liga and the Premier League, while my return from the international break saw me returning to the Premier League sides I watched two weekends previously (including an Arsenal team that is decidedly NOT bottom of the table) plus a touch of Serie A. These will mostly be quick summaries, just to mark where I’ve been.
Weekend 7 (16-18 Sept)
Real Valladolid 0 – Cádiz CF 1. It was a relegation three-pointer on Friday night for last place Cádiz and 17th Valladolid. Cádiz are only the 5th team in La Liga history to complete five games without scoring a goal, and in truth they looked unlikely to change that in this game. Valladolid were the better side in the first half, and came out even stronger in the second half. By the end of regulation, they led expected goals 1.99 – 0.21. And then in extra time, veteran second half substitute Álvaro Negredo scored Cádiz’s first goal of the season, giving them a first, probably undeserved, win.
Mallorca 1 – Almería 0. Only a point separated these sides in the bottom half of La Liga’s mid-table, both of whom played in a 3-5-2, with Almería shifting between 5-3-2 in defense to 3-4-1-2 in attack. But it was Mallorca’s Pablo Maffeo who scored shortly after the half hour mark when Almería were unable to clear an attack from a left corner. Almería had a strong spell to start the second half, and again late in regulation, as the game began to get chippy. But it was Mallorca substitutes Francisco Portillo and Dyego Sousa who almost combined for a second in stoppage time.
Brentford 0 – Arsenal 3. I hadn’t watched Arsenal since their opening match against Palace, but this was enough to convince me that they are the real deal this season. Brentford is a solid and well managed team, but Mikel Arteta’s Arsenal were untroubled. It wetted my appetite for the North London derby after the international break.
Everton 1 – West Ham 0. This was an utterly dispiriting game. Though the stats suggested West Ham were the better side in the first half, it didn’t quite feel that way. When Neil Maupay scored early in the second, I started wondering if Leicester City would be firing Brendan Rodgers in time for him to her available as a replacement for David Moyes.
Weekend 8 (30 Sept-3 Oct)
Arsenal 3 – Tottenham Hotspur 1. This early Saturday game really felt like Mikel Arteta and Antonio Conte were laying claim to being the new Guardiola and Mourinho. With Oleksandr Zinchenko back in the line-up, Arteta chose to deploy him in the “inverted” fullback role he had frequently played at Manchester City, supporting Thomas Partey in midfield. Arsenal absolutely dominated possession, and when they were pinning Tottenham in, Ben White began to work, as a second inverted fullback from the right, essentially transforming Arsenal’s 4-3-3 into a 2-3-5, Granit Xhaka and Martin Ødegaard becoming inside forwards in a Guardiola-esque un-inverted pyramid.
Conte’s Spurs sat back and tried to attack on the counter. While some of that may be down to Arsenal’s strong play, this Spurs side is feeling more and more defensive in its set-up. Conte’s sides have always been direct teams featuring attacking wing backs, the current midfield of Rodrigo Bentancur and Pierre-Emile Højbjerg seems built more for defensive solidity than for creativity. Though still capable of a threatening counter-attack, they seemed unwilling or unable to really take the game to Arsenal.
One wonders whether Conte is at the start of a similar transition in his approach to the one that occurred in José Mourinho’s career. Though Mourinho earned a reputation for pragmatism early on, his teams up to and including his time at Real Madrid were also capable of fluent attacking play against lesser opponents, and on occasion even against direct rivals. It was only later on that his teams began to sit deep regardless of the opponent. In any case, this game felt like a kind of shadow version of a Guardiola – Mourinho duel, albeit without fewer theatrics.
West Ham United 2 – Wolverhampton Wanderers 0. This game suggested that David Moyes used the international break to work on integrating his new signings, as Gianluca Scamacca, Maxwell Cornet, and Lucas Paquetá all started, while Thilo Kehrer finally featured in his preferred right back role. Just before the half hour mark, Scamacca scored his first league goal, lighting up the crowd. When Jarrod Bowen scored a second early in the second half, things seemed settled.
It’s difficult to know how much comfort to take from a win against this dire a team. The loss cost Bruno Lage his job, the 3rd sacking this season (Graham Potter also left, but by choice, having been tapped up to replace the sacked Thomas Tuchel at Chelsea). Moyes has built up a lot of credit, both with fans and ownership, so all of these parties will be hoping that this is the start of a turnaround. Certainly, this is the best that Kehrer, Scamacca, and probably Paquetá have looked thus far.
Atalanta 1 – Fiorentina 0. Somewhere along the line, Gian Piero Gasperini’s Atalanta has somehow shifted from a team that would rather win 5-4 to the best defensive team in Serie A this (admittedly, young) season. Some of that is down to player movements, with Remo Freuler and Josip Iličić departing and former Juventus center back Merih Demiral arriving; but it is suggestive of a flexibility in Gasperini that is impressive.
This was an even game, decided just before the hour mark by a bit of brilliance disguised as a bit of luck. Atalanta’s Luis Muriel received a throw-in on the end line and appeared to bundle it past Lucas Martínez Quarta to feed Ademola Lookman for a tap-in. In fact, he had not simply pushed the ball past Quarta, but had responded to the defender initially tipping the ball away from him with a rabona that nutmegged Quarta and gave him space to feed Lookman. The win left Atalanta level on points with Napoli at the top of the Serie A table.