Now that another enthralling weekend of action in the Premier League has drawn to a close, it is time to examine which players really hit the heights for their respective sides. Perhaps the most notable result of the weekend came in the first fixture where Chelsea lost 3-1 to Everton at Goodison Park. The Blues’ start is now their worst in the top flight since 1986 and is indeed the joint worst start ever to a Premier League title defence, matching the efforts of Blackburn in 1995 with four points from the five opening games.
In stark contrast to José Mourinho’s troubled side, the juggernaut that is Manchester City continued to roll on, although far less convincingly it has to be said. The Citizens kept another clean sheet but were only ensured of the victory by a last gasp winner from an 18 year old. Could this result come at a heavy price for Pellegrini however, as Sergio Aguero picked up a nasty-looking injury that; judging by the Argentine’s injury record, could side-line him for the foreseeable future. Going into the weekend, the stand-out fixture was Manchester United against Liverpool. This finished 3-1 to the home side and it is a final score that will encourage Van Gaal after a much improved display in the second half secured the points. On Sunday evening, Leicester City completed a miraculous second half comeback to record a 3-2 victory over Aston Villa, lifting Ranieri’s side to second in the Premier League table.
As ever, feel free to leave your thoughts and feelings on my choices for the Premier League Team of the Week down below in the comments section or on twitter @TBRFootball .
Jack Butland: Stoke City’s newly appointed number one has been a regular member in my ‘Premier League Team of the Week’ series, in fact he has arguably been the man of the match on many occasions. Jack Butland is now firmly established now as the understudy to Joe Hart’s number one jersey for The Three Lions and continues to apply pressure to the Manchester City goalkeeper with strings of top class saves that thwart opposition strikers. Despite Joe Hart’s enviable record of five consecutive clean sheets, Jack Butland has been the more impressive of the two in my view and provided yet more evidence for this on Saturday. On the wrong end of an Arsenal onslaught for the majority of the day, the former Birmingham man was forced into making ten saves in all and in all honesty, was unfortunate to be on the losing side.
Setting the tone for what was to come in the first three minutes, a close-range header from Alexis was saved by Butland who was able to tip it onto the upright before; fortunately for Stoke City, an unbalanced Walcott could only blaze over. Butland had to fling himself to his right to tip away a goal-bound effort from the Chilean superstar only two minutes later, this time the strike coming from a direct free-kick. The next test of the keeper’s superb form came from an unlikely source – a 35 yard pile-driver from French centre-half Laurent Koscielny. Butland dealt with this one too and was on hand to deny the 30 year old later in the game when he palmed away a headed attempt as The Gunners looked to put the outcome of the game beyond doubt. There was no let-up for the former Olympic footballer in the second half and Stoke City only went two goals behind with five minutes remaining. This was party down to more Butland brilliance, but it has to be said that Arsenal’s finishing left much to be desired.
Matteo Darmian: Despite the flurries of magnificence from Memphis, it is arguably Matteo Darmian who has settled the quickest into life at Old Trafford. Fast becoming a fan favourite for his energetic displays from right-back, the young Italian impressed once more in Manchester United’s 3-1 defeat of Liverpool on Saturday. With three interceptions and an equal number of tackles to his name, his importance in The Red Devil’s defence should not be overlooked.
Much of the discussion once the team news had been announced was either surrounding the loss of Rooney to United’s ranks and also how Ings would play on his full debut for Liverpool. With Brendan Rodgers sticking with a 4-3-3, Ings operated on the left flank, placing him firmly in Darmian’s domain. Instead of the English forward impacting on proceedings, United’s summer recruit kept him at bay with apparent ease, as Ings found himself running back towards his own goal more often than not. Opportunities for the ex-Burnley striker to link up with Christian Benteke were nullified by Darmian, in turn giving him the license to push forward as he enjoys to do. With Mata’s tendency to come infield onto his favoured left foot, Darmian’s willingness to overlap is almost essential to maximise the width of the pitch.
John Stones: Much heralded for demonstrating maturity far beyond his 21 years in the last couple of seasons, John Stones emphasised this point to the greatest extent on Saturday against Chelsea. After a stand-off between Everton and Chelsea over his signature; an issue which appeared to encourage Stones into handing in a transfer request, there was much discussion and anticipation surrounding the days leading up to the game. As expected, the Everton youngster was selected to face off against what might have so easily been his new employers. Throughout the game, Stones was extremely impressive in how he handled the pressure that would have certainly become so apparent at the slightest of slip-ups.
In the early minutes of the game, Stones faced his first real test of the day against Diego Costa near the dead-ball line. Although the Spaniard knocked the ball through the Evertonian’s legs, he did not panic for one second and applied terrific strength at the same time to brush Chelsea’s bruiser off the ball with consummate east. It has become clear that situations presenting the greatest danger are where he shines the brightest.
Stones not only demonstrated his staunch defensive attributes and commitment to the cause during the match, but also his ability on the ball that helped to maintain the pace in the Toffees’ attack. He played neat, first-time passes into the feet of Barry and McCarthy out of defence and even pulled off ‘Cruyff turns’ to escape the attentions of opposition attackers. There was one occasion when he beat three or four Chelsea men, all with aspirations of robbing him of the ball. Jinking from side to side before releasing the ball cleanly to the right flank, the defender’s actions were reminiscent of some of the great Brazilian sides in years gone by. In addition, the part he played in the build-up to Everton’s third of the day should not be underestimated. Due to Stones’ sharp release of the ball to a team-mate, Chelsea were unable to settle into a defensive shape and as a result, were powerless to stop Naismith’s third.
After the match, Roberto Martinez drew attention to the fact that his Everton side scored three times against Chelsea last season too, but a lack of solidity at the back turned the result into a drubbing. Both John Stones and Phil Jagielka were magnificent for Everton in Saturday’s early kick-off and the combination between the pair of Englishman bodes well on Merseyside and hopefully for England as a whole.
Daley Blind: Praised thus far this season for his efforts in defence, Daley Blind was in fact the man to bring the game against Liverpool to life after a distinctly forgettable first 45 minutes. Loitering in a position just outside the penalty area, he evaded Liverpool’s deep defensive line to pounce on a Juan Mata pull-back, applying a first-time finish with equal measures of power and precision into the top corner.
In addition to his usual proficiency in possession of the ball, he was also able to demonstrate excellent defensive positioning in order to appear in precisely the right place at the crucial moment. Statistical evidence in addition to particular instances can be found to support this opinion; making eight successful clearances, four tackles, and achieving an 86% passing completion rate. Covering behind David de Gea from a corner, a deflected Skrtel header seemed destined for the back of the net before Blind hooked clear and in the ensuing melee, he managed to prevent Firmino from opening his Liverpool account at the back post, putting his body on the line in the process. Throughout the match as the Anfield outfit looked to feed their £32.5 million recruit from Aston Villa, Blind was on hand to nick in ahead of Benteke and steal the ball back for The Red Devils, overcoming the obvious deficit in physical strength compared to the Belgian.
Patrick van Aanholt: Sunderland produced a much improved display against Tottenham Hotspur in comparison to some of the drab affairs in the Premier League campaign thus far. Whilst the team as whole showed more determination, the performance of Patrick van Aanholt at left-back was a big reason for the threat the Black Cats posed. The former Chelsea loanee produced many marauding runs into forward areas of the pitch, frequently overlapping his left winger. Whether it was Borini or Lens who found himself on the left flank, van Aanholt was a constant outlet for them and used his pace to great effect. Allowing his winger to cut inside, the Dutchman continued onward and drove towards the corner flag, committing defenders as he went.
Although the offensive aspects of his game were more noticeable, he certainly remained solid in the face of a difficult task. The way that Spurs’ attackers operate; especially with the addition of Son to their ranks, means that players frequently interchange positions. This does not make it simple to stay in control of the situation but van Aanholt managed it admirably. The addition of Andros Townsend to the fray caused him more problems initially, as the England winger used his fresh legs and direct dribbling to place the left-back on the back foot. Nonetheless; and to his credit, van Aanholt rallied and did not let Townsend dominate him. Showing great feet in tight spaces, he combined this with his natural athleticism to plot a route out of many a tough situation. With Sunderland so desperate for both defensive security and attacking creativity, their Dutch left-back could become a vital player in the quest for Premier League survival.
Ryan Mason: Along with Harry Kane last season, Ryan Mason was one of the few shining lights for Tottenham Hotspur and he has started this Premier League campaign well too. During the first matches of this term, Spurs have been crying out for players to give Harry Kane some assistance in attacking areas. Not that his efforts last year were destined to be a one off, but he cannot be expected to continually take on all before him by himself. He needs midfielders breaking beyond him to provide an option for flick-ons and short passes, exploiting the space that Kane’s presence creates. Mason did just that as the game looked to be edging to a 0-0 final score-line. Showing great energy to run behind the Sunderland defenders, he took the ball in his stride before applying a deft flick over the on-rushing Pantilimon’s legs. He did indeed win Spurs all three points but unfortunately injured his left knee in the process. It was serious enough that the Englishman was unable to continue and Pochettino will have to hope that the injury is not as serious as it first appeared, requiring a stretcher to leave the action.
In addition to this obvious direct influence on the outcome of the proceedings, Mason was metronomic in his passing in the middle of the park. Eric Dier’s prolonged deployment in a holding role and Dele Alli’s position predominantly on the right of midfield, Mason has been left as the only genuine central midfielder but despite his slight build, was not overpowered. Yann M’Vila and Jordi Gomez put in combative and energetic displays, so space was at a premium for the Englishman but in his now recognisable manner, he glided effortlessly across the park at times and kept possession ticking over for Pochettino’s men.
Yann M’Vila: A player who was much sought after by Premier League clubs who were competing in European competition and with aspirations of cup success, Yann M’Vila has wasted little time in proving that he is good enough for that level. With Ola Toivonen given a free license to support Jermain Defoe, M’Vila was left with the task of shutting down Spurs’ midfield with only Jordi Gomez in support. Both of Sunderland’s central midfielders performed admirably in the face of superior technical ability and being at a numerical disadvantage, but the Frenchman stood out for me.
With Tottenham’s attack-minded players preferring to occupy central areas of the field rather than remaining out wide, threats came at Yann M’Vila from all angles. Clearly possessing a terrific engine, he closed down the ball when ahead of him and also tracked back to cut off attacks in behind. Somehow, the midfielder on loan from Rubin Kazan was still able to occasionally look forward himself. Two chances for The Black Cats can be attributed to him, in addition to four clearances and five tackles during the ninety minutes. Sunderland fans should be heartened that they seem to have finally unearthed a midfielder not only of true quality, but with determination and energy in equal supply too.
Riyad Mahrez: The man with four goals from four games going into this weekend was unfortunately unable to add to his tally against Aston Villa, but his contribution was no less vital. Riyad Mahrez has arguably been the star of the Premier League thus far; certainly the most consistent, and he is brimming with confidence. This is clear in every action he takes, attacking defenders at will with no fear because he just does not believe that they have the capability of stopping him.
Although he was certainly not ineffective in the first half, Jordi Amavi had done a good job of minimising his impact on proceedings. Once Nathan Dyer was thrust into the fray and Mahrez moved infield to be in closer proximity to Jamie Vardy, he began to wreak havoc as is becoming an all too familiar sight for Premier League defenders this campaign. No defender could tie him down or hope to stop him in a one-on-one scenario. Equally willing to cut onto his right or left foot, any slight misjudged motion from a defender was pounced upon in an instant as the Algerian changed direction rapidly, danced past tackles, and darted into space once more. There was one memorable incident when in a single motion, he had three Aston Villa defenders floundering on their backs; a testament to his ability to mislead. My sole criticism would be that he occasionally became a victim of his own self-belief, beating so many men that he became isolated and eventually overwhelmed by opponents.
It was his turn of pace and quick feet; starting near the half-way line and progressing rapidly towards the penalty area, which created the chance for Leicester’s equaliser. Furthermore, his chipped delivery over the top of the defenders gave the diminutive Nathan Dyer the opportunity to be a Leicester City hero – a chance he grasped with both hands. Having notched two direct assists in total; the first being his delivery from the corner which De Laet flicked in, he achieved another wonderful statistic in accumulating 12 successful take-ons, many of these involving multiple defenders at once. All in all, another marvellous Mahrez performance.
Wes Hoolahan: Norwich City lacked creativity and a genuine attacking potency last time they were in the Premier League, so it is no surprise that Wes Hoolahan’s positive influence on the side has coincided with a string of good results. Indeed, it was as a consequence of Norwich’s number 14’s skill on the ball that The Canaries were able to open their account for the day. Hoolahan linked well throughout with the English front man and provided an opportunity for Jerome; prior to the striker scoring, that he perhaps should have done a lot better with. Jerome latched onto a clever Hoolahan pass but only able to find the side-netting. Not to be denied the assist however, the former Blackpool playmaker beat Cook with some fabulous foot-work before laying the ball on a plate for Jerome who made no mistake this time.
Hoolahan’s overall performance was truly deserving of a goal and this is indeed what he was rewarded with in the second half. In the first few minutes of the second half, he burst through midfield and from just outside the penalty area, was able to plot a path for the ball into the back of the net. The Irishman was withdrawn from proceedings when the game was as good as won, with Alex Neil recognising the need to keep his most technically gifted player fit and healthy. Although his natural talent has never been in question, the consistency of Hoolahan’s displays certainly have been criticised in the past as several managers have failed to glean the best from him, finding it a challenge to fit the so called ‘luxury’ player into the side. Now though, operating in the space opened up by the barrel-chested Jerome, Hoolahan is thriving and you imagine will have a huge part to play if Norwich are to stay up in their first season back in the Premier League.
Steven Naismith: Any time a player scores three goals in one game, the occasion is both a magnificent and memorable one, but it was perhaps the ultimate experience for Steven Naismith when he bagged three strikes against Chelsea on Saturday. First of all, he found the back of the net using both feet and his head; an achievement that has been coined as the ‘perfect hat-trick’. Furthermore, Naismith is now the first Premier League performer to notch a hat-trick against Mourinho’s Chelsea. He is also in possession of another noteworthy statistic involving Mourinho’s Chelsea side, with his display on Saturday lunch-time resulting in him becoming the first player to score in three different Premier League games against the Stamford Bridge outfit when managed by the Portuguese. Quite the record-breaking day for Steven Naismith and The Blues will not be relishing facing him again later in the campaign.
The Scotsman opened his account only six minutes after entering the field of play to replace an injured and frustrated Muhamed Besic. A demonstration of quick feet and direct approach had the centre of the Chelsea defence looking ineffectual for seemingly the umpteenth time this season, and Naismith was then able to direct a firm header past Begovic after his good work in the build-up had created the space for Galloway to cross. The second of his goals came from what initially appeared to be merely a rather speculative effort on his left foot from outside the area but the well placed strike found its way into the net.
Naismith had really put Chelsea to the sword in the first quarter of the game and this was to continue in the latter stages too. The final goal of Steven Naismith’s magnificent display was much more of a team effort, as a fast interchange of passing between several players on The Toffees’ right flank gave the Scot the chance to complete a famous triple. The finish was not at all an easy task, but he tucked it away with aplomb. Steven Naismith’s time at Goodison Park has been a peculiar one in my view. He can go through periods where he is seemingly unplayable from week to week but can then find himself out of the reckoning. Martinez would do well to capitalise on the forward riding high on a wave of confidence and can hopefully form a lethal understanding with Lukaku and Koné.
Jermain Defoe: Although Sunderland suffered a defeat at home, their performance roused the fans and the efforts of Jermain Defoe up front were what conceived the positive feeling around the ground. Defoe’s willingness to hassle and harry nearly forced Spurs defenders and goalkeeper into mistakes several times. Average balls lofted forward into the channel were transformed into a challenging test for the defence. His endeavours produced many openings, but the stand-out chance came and went as he hit the post with only Lloris left to beat. Defoe scuffed his shot somewhat, resulting in the only blot on a terrific first half display. Indeed, by the interval against Spurs, he had already produced more shots on goal than in the entirety of any other game so far this season. This emphasises the point yet further that he can indeed lead the forward line alone and is much more potent through the middle than coming in off a flank.
In the second half, the former Spurs hitman began to create more for team-mates rather than being on a solo mission at times to beat Lloris’ gloves. Despite giving away a great deal in height and physical presence to Alderweireld and Vertonghen, Defoe still won his fair share of aerial battles. Jeremain Lens was the beneficiary of the striker’s work on two occasions. In the first instance, he surged through the middle of the park after breaking away from the attention of Eric Dier and, drawing the Spurs central defenders, fed Lens who found his shot to the far post smothered by Lloris. Later on, he showed no signs of an aging body when he demonstrated great speed of thought and awareness on the half-way line. The England international came up with a neat flick to set Lens away into space, clearly understanding the need for immediacy in the play to create the opportunity. Dick Advocaat has surely seen enough to persuade him to retain Jermain Defoe in a central role for the foreseeable future, as both his work on an individual basis and that when combining with Borini and Lens showed promise.
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