theScore examines the most important Premier League developments from the weekend, dissecting the biggest talking points after a busy slate of action.
Chelsea’s marauding defenders wreak havoc
Chelsea didn’t need a full squad to produce a complete 3-0 shellacking of Leicester City on Saturday. Even with Romelu Lukaku out, Timo Werner watching on as an unused substitute, and Hakim Ziyech and Christian Pulisic starting on the bench, the Blues produced enough chances to more than double their score.
That’s because Thomas Tuchel has coached a system and style of play that relies not just on one player but the entire collective. Tuchel also tasks his defenders with pushing forward and joining the attack. The wing-backs look like de facto wingers out there, almost creating a front five when they enter the opposing half. We’ve seen Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City operate with so-called inverted full-backs, and Chelsea are pulling off something similar. Reece James and Ben Chilwell routinely find themselves in the final third and even in the penalty area.
On Saturday, James had more touches in the 18-yard box than Jamie Vardy, and Chilwell created more chances than any of his teammates. Trevoh Chalobah, one of Chelsea’s three center-backs, progressed the ball up the field like a midfielder, and Antonio Rudiger scored off another set piece. Chelsea’s defense is so prolific due to Tuchel’s aggressive tactics.
Leicester regressing under Rodgers
Leicester slid into the bottom half of the table with Saturday’s dismal showing, and the fans let them have it. All the goodwill manager Brendan Rodgers had going for him seems to be evaporating.
It feels very much like the beginning of the end.
The stats read like an obituary: with one clean sheet in 17 league matches and just two wins out of six at home, the Foxes look nothing like the high-pressing, all-action side Rodgers unleashed in his first few months in charge. Vardy’s struggling to run off the shoulders of defenders as he usually does, and the midfielders are completely capitulating ground to their opponents. Jonny Evans, an otherwise sturdy presence since joining the club in 2018, can’t possibly mistime any more tackles without getting a red card, and Caglar Soyuncu has offered futile resistance to onrushing opponents.
Youri Tielemans’ absence certainly took a toll on Saturday – it was the first time he missed a Premier League fixture in nearly two years – as his teammates couldn’t cover the cracks. Chelsea had tons of space whenever they ventured forward, and their long balls over the top forced Leicester’s slower defenders into foot races that showed them up.
It was also peculiar to see Patson Daka – Leicester’s young livewire and author of four goals in last month’s Europa League match at Spartak Moscow – sitting on the bench alongside the club’s No. 10, James Maddison, while Marc Albrighton started in the year 2021.
Solskjaer’s firing long in the making
Nothing was going to save Ole Gunnar Solskjaer this time around, no last-minute push for an equalizer to salvage this lost cause. Last month’s 5-0 capitulation to Liverpool was embarrassing, the 2-0 loss to Manchester City humiliating, but Saturday’s listless 4-1 defeat to Watford was perhaps the worst of all. Watford had scored just twice in their previous five home fixtures, but the goals came easy against Manchester United, who conceded chance after chance to their relegation-threatened opponent.
Afterward, the Norwegian held up his hands to the traveling supporters in the corner of Vicarage Road, apologizing for his team’s lethargic display. Midfielder Bruno Fernandes insisted Solskjaer wasn’t to blame. But many of the problems that plagued the team in recent months – the lack of cohesion, the absence of a game plan, the shortcomings in defense – had resurfaced. The manager hadn’t found a fix.
Reeling from their fifth defeat in seven league matches, United had no choice but to fire Solskjaer. The club gave its former player of 18 years every opportunity to succeed, committing over £400 million in transfer fees across the past three seasons. It even awarded him a contract extension in July. But nothing worked. The buzzing positivity that marked the early days of his reign had long evaporated. After 168 matches in charge, Solskjaer failed to establish forward momentum.
Now, the club has to find a capable replacement midseason. Is Michael Carrick really the only interim solution? Did the board not learn its lesson about former players with limited coaching experience? United made a mistake allowing Solskjaer to stay for so long. They could’ve appointed Mauricio Pochettino last year or Antonio Conte earlier this season. Both are now unavailable. Not even Zinedine Zidane seems interested. So around and around United go, searching for answers in familiar places.
Maguire’s fallen off a cliff
What on earth has happened to Harry Maguire?
The England stalwart was legitimately excellent last season for Manchester United. The Red Devils boasted one of the best backlines in the nation and the imposing captain was a critical reason why, anchoring the defense while logging over 3,000 league minutes.
However, he’s been a downright liability this season.
It seems obvious that rushing back from injury to feature for England at Euro 2020 has played at least some part in Maguire’s downfall. The malaise at Manchester United doesn’t help, but some of it comes down to egregious mistakes Maguire simply wasn’t making last campaign.
The horrible sequence that led to his sending off against Watford – turning the ball over under absolutely no pressure before lunging wildly in a desperate effort to recover – was another low point for the 28-year-old.
Maybe the suspension-induced absence will be a good opportunity to reset.
Gerrard settles early nerves at Aston Villa
Aston Villa supporters were chanting Steven Gerrard’s name by the end of Saturday’s victory over Brighton & Hove Albion. Ninety minutes prior, many were unsure how to feel about their new manager. Fans had just bid farewell to “one of their own” in Dean Smith, the man who led Villa back to the Premier League. Gerard is undoubtedly a legend of the English game but is still an apprentice in the coaching department.
Still, Gerrard inherited a capable squad, and he’s fostered some kind of team spirit in the short week-and-a-half he’s had in charge. He can be proud of the 2-0 win at Villa Park, his first as a Premier League manager, and he’ll be happy with the contribution of veteran Ashley Young, who supplied a superb assist to Ollie Watkins on the counterattack. Gerrard’s Rangers played at pace on the break, and the early returns suggest a similar strategy could work at Villa Park as well.
Maybe some would’ve liked Villa to show more ambition at home – the hosts had less than 40% possession – but the result was paramount. Villa now have their first win in six league matches, and Gerrard has some breathing room as he settles into the club.
Arsenal still a work in progress
Arsenal have made some clear strides in recent weeks – their 10-match unbeaten run was cause for legitimate optimism – but the Gunners were given a harsh reminder of the gap that still exists between themselves and the Premier League’s elite on Saturday.
Liverpool steamrolled Mikel Arteta’s men in the second half of a dominant 4-0 win at Anfield; the visitors looked overawed as the Reds ramped up the pressure, a telltale sign of a young team still under construction.
“When we had to grow momentum at the start of the second half we gave the game away,” Arteta said after the defeat. “We gave the ball away under no pressure and were punished. They had all of the momentum. They were the better team and that is the level. They have been together for six years. We haven’t. That is the difference.”
There were only two points – and one place in the table – between the two sides before the contest, but that gap was an illusion. That Aaron Ramsdale had an excellent outing and still conceded four goals tells the whole story.
What was in the water on Saturday?
Saturday was hectic in England’s top flight.
There were 30 goals scored across the eight matches played, with teams seemingly throwing caution to the wind and going for broke. That was especially true near the foot of the table, with Newcastle United and Burnley playing out relentless 3-3 draws against Brentford and Crystal Palace, respectively.
Was it just a one-off, or a sign of things to come?
Particularly for teams mired in the relegation race, wins are infinitely more valuable than draws. Those sides might be willing to take more chances and risk throwing away one point in their quest for all three.
For the sake of the neutral viewer, hopefully managers don’t overreact to this weekend’s chaos and revert to conservative tactics.
Rodri integral to City’s title bid
Picking the Man of the Match from Manchester City’s dominating win over Everton couldn’t have been easy, but on a night when a host of City stars could have laid claim to the honor, it was Rodri who stood above the rest.
He was simply unplayable against Rafa Benitez’s uninspired side. He capped off his commanding performance with a 25-yard screamer to help seal another three points for City. The goal was a thing of beauty, but it was Rodri’s work in the heart of Pep Guardiola’s midfield that proved once again why he’s one of the best holding midfielders in the world.
Performances like this would have been difficult to forecast earlier in Rodri’s career at City. His highly anticipated arrival in 2019 was quickly followed by concerns over his ability to adapt to life under Guardiola.
But, just over three months into the season, the Spaniard has established himself as a stalwart at the Etihad. His development will also give Manchester City supporters peace of mind about a smooth transition when Fernandinho calls time on his legendary career.
In awe of Cancelo’s pass
If you haven’t yet seen it, do yourself a favor and marvel at Joao Cancelo’s otherworldly assist from Manchester City’s win over Everton (45-second mark of the video):
Is there anyone in world football who can manipulate the ball with the outside of their foot like the Portuguese star? Eat your heart out, Ricardo Quaresma.
Cancelo had six assists in 76 appearances over the last two seasons for City. He’s already matched that total in just 18 matches this term. With passes like that, it’s no wonder.
Spurs break out of malaise
Over 250 minutes without testing the opposition is long enough to drive any football fan crazy.
After a dismal first-half performance against Leeds United on Sunday, tempers boiled over among Tottenham supporters who booed the home side off the pitch at halftime. It was a deserved response to an opening 45 minutes that saw Daniel James give the visitors the lead, while Tottenham Hotspur’s streak without a shot on target was extended to six consecutive halves.
The second half was a different story.
Harry Kane ended the streak a minute after the break for a side that implemented a much more aggressive game plan. Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg brought Tottenham level before Sergio Reguilon scored his first for the club, securing Conte’s first Premier League win as Spurs manager.
Now unbeaten in three games as Spurs boss, the manager celebrated the victory in true Conte fashion. When the aggressive fist pumps and hugs were finished, the Italian tactician said he was confident the victory could be a springboard for Tottenham, saying, “This is a point to start for the rest of the season.”