Sports Desk:LT24::The biggest worry of all is that it had been coming, and been seen to be coming, and still Manchester United had no answers.
And before that, after watching United’s lethargic display against Palace, Jamie Carragher had spotted another issue: “I’m not convinced by this team, who are now becoming a more possession-based team since Fernandes arrived. The more possession you have, the more chance you can get counter-attacked. This midfield, for me, is not right. That team will be far too easy to counter-attack again.”
United’s humiliation will – rightly – be seen through the prism of their failure to adequately strengthen in the transfer market since qualifying for the Champions League. As Neville memorably put it during commentary as Spurs ran riot: “There was then a couple of months before the start of the season where I believe they grabbed defeat from victory.”
But with the mitigation that the off-field failures must have damaged the mood in the dressing room, this was first and foremost a humiliation of a team that failed to perform. Neville again: “The performance is pathetic, absolutely pathetic. There is no excuse for those players who were out on that pitch today, they were absolutely pathetic. Their body language was terrible, it was spiritless and spineless.”
Have we totally misjudged them?
Shortly after he was sacked as United manager, Mourinho claimed: “I consider one of the best jobs of my career was to finish second with Man United in the Premier League.” Sunday’s exposure of successor by predecessor had an unnerving undercurrent. Will the claim be made before soon that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s greatest triumph was to take this United team into the top four last season?
The warning is already there.
Only a couple of weeks after they combined for all five goals in Tottenham’s thrashing of Southampton at St Mary’s Stadium, Harry Kane and Heung-Min Son activated demolition mode again. This time, the setting was Old Trafford and the victims were Manchester United.
Tottenham’s second goal encapsulated their seemingly telepathic understanding, with Son sprinting onto Kane’s quickly-taken free kick before deftly finishing past David de Gea. It was a near carbon copy of the goals he scored at Southampton, all of which involved Kane playing him in behind.
Kane’s distribution is becoming a formidable weapon. The 27-year-old, previously viewed as a pure goalscorer, is now dropping deeper during attacks, allowing him to create space for Son then provide the service. Their relationship works both ways, too, as shown by the moment Son unselfishly set up Kane to score the third goal himself.
The pair added another goal each after that, with Son flicking home Serge Aurier’s cross and Kane converting from the penalty spot after Paul Pogba had fouled Ben Davies. As a result, the pair have now registered nine goals and seven assists combined in just four Premier League games so far this season.
With a fit-again Gareth Bale soon to be added into the equation, it’s little wonder optimism is growing at Spurs.
“That’s what you pay £75m for,” said Alan Smith on co-commentary. The Sky Sports pundit had just watched Nicolas Pepe charge inside from Arsenal’s right flank, sprinting at full speed, then pick out the bottom corner with a supremely controlled finish using the inside of his left boot.
It was a superb goal – one which proved decisive in Arsenal’s narrow victory over Sheffield United – and a reminder of the 25-year-old’s considerable quality. Pepe, a club-record signing from Lille last summer, had only been on the pitch for eight minutes having come on as a substitute.
That has been his role all season. Pepe finished a mixed debut campaign in English football strongly, playing an important role in Arsenal’s FA Cup win in August, but he has been relegated to the bench since the arrival of Willian, his only starts coming in the Gunners’ Carabao Cup games.
If it is a tactic to coax more from him from Mikel Arteta, then his impact at the Emirates Stadium on Sunday suggests it is working. As well as taking his goal brilliantly, Pepe worked tirelessly in a defensive sense, tracking back diligently and charging down crosses.
The Ivorian will hope to feature from the start when Arsenal resume their Premier League campaign against Manchester City after the international break. Then it will be down to him to pick up where he left off against Sheffield United and start showing his quality on a more consistent basis.
“It’s four games, not seven games, that was last season, we have a new season, it’s 2020/21, I believe,” Chris Wilder insisted after Sheffield United’s latest defeat.
Wilder may want to take this season in isolation, but whichever way you look at it, Sheffield United have lost their last seven games.
Has the energy dropped? Maybe. Have they been found out? Perhaps. Has luck been against them? Certainly. At the Emirates they had a legitimate claim for an early David Luiz red for a last-man tug on Oliver Burke, something they were on the wrong end of in their 1-0 defeat by Aston Villa two weeks ago.
As Wilder noted after the game, it’s all about fine margins and little wins for Sheffield United. With their resources, and their style of play, they need those small victories to swing games in their favour. They haven’t had them this season.
The positive for Wilder is that they didn’t look a bad side for nearly an hour. Organised, stubborn and full of effort, they gave Arsenal nothing in the first half. It took a quite superb team goal to cut them open.
But it’s up the pitch where they still struggle. In possession, there is an alarming absence of a central midfielder who can dictate tempo and bring Sheffield United up the pitch in transition. And up top, the arrival of Rhian Brewster for £23.5m is an expensive necessity. The international break gives Wilder a chance to reflect, and if their luck turns, results should fall their way.
Gareth Southgate has an embarrassment of riches in forward areas, to the extent that the top goalscorer in the Premier League since football returned in June does not even make his 30-man England squad. Michail Antonio’s goal against Leicester – capping another energetic, classy and completely dominant performance against two of the best centre-backs around in Jonny Evans and Caglar Soyuncu – took his tally to 10 during the restart period.
Antonio – now 30 – is competing against Danny Ings and Dominic Calvert-Lewin in the striking department as back-up for Harry Kane for England, but his versality could be a useful weapon. Remember, Antonio was called into Southgate’s very first squad for matches against Germany and Lithuania in March 2017 when tearing it up as a winger. His pace and power would be perfect for a team that love to play with pace and power. Keep playing at this level for the next few months and Southgate will not be able to ignore him much longer.
Before Sunday, only Danny Ings had scored for Southampton this season, against Tottenham and Burnley – not too much of a surprise for one of the Premier League’s in-form frontmen.
But Southampton did not need their star man to beat West Brom, with two others getting off the mark for the season. Although Moussa Djenepo did not offer too much else attacking wise, he was in the right place for his well-taken goal, netting for the first time at St Mary’s. The second was a headline-grabbing effort from the most unlikely of sources as Oriol Romeu hammered a volley home, scoring his first goal in 43 Premier League outings and with his first touch inside the opposition box this season.
In his post-match press conference, Ralph Hasenhuttl said: “We had a lot of chances again, it’s important we get in positions for other players to score goals because it can’t always be that Danny makes a goal. This is a team.”
Overall, Southampton looked dangerous and creative in attack, adopting the pressing style that Hasenhuttl is a fan of. Stuart Armstrong, Che Adams and Kyle Walker-Peters shone, as did Nathan Redmond when he came on in the second half, and although Ings had a quieter afternoon goalwise, he also performed well and did what he had to do to help his team.
The Saints have now kept clean sheets in their last two games and, after a losing start, have rediscovered the form that served them well after the Premier League restart. Here’s hoping it continues after the international break.
So far this season, scoring goals had not really been West Brom’s problem. They netted twice against Everton and three in the first half against Chelsea alone, while their defensive frailties were exposed in defeat.
Against Southampton, though, it was like the tables had been turned. West Brom did not look too bad at the back, especially when the Saints were at their free-flowing best in the first half. But they were also saved time and again by Sam Johnstone and even Slaven Bilic admitted after the game that it says a lot when your goalkeeper was the best player.
But it was up front where West Brom looked out of ideas. Their few chances came from Matheus Pereira’s well-taken set-pieces – drawing Alex McCarthy’s only save of note in the 51st minute – but the Southampton back-line was rarely tested. Callum Robinson had only 20 touches of the ball and Kyle Edwards just 18 on his first Premier League start. Grady Diangana showed flashes of what he is capable of but never really got going.
Another defeat means West Brom have fallen even further behind the pack. They have already conceded 13 goals, although the Southampton defeat was their lowest tally thus far, and have taken just one point from their four games – their fewest at this stage of a top-flight campaign since 1985/86.
Bilic has said he is in desperate need of reinforcements and it remains to be seen if he gets his wish on Deadline Day or further on to the closure of the domestic window on October 16. Their Premier League survival could depend on it.