The biggest match-up of the weekend kicked us off on Saturday lunch-time, and it certainly did not disappoint. Rife with controversy and incidents to provoke animated discussion, Chelsea defeated Arsenal 2-0 at Stamford Bridge. As frequently seems to be the case, Diego Costa was at the centre of the storm, with his provocative actions and flailing arms resulting in the dismissal of Gabriel before half time. After Blues resounding win in mid-week, it would appear that their domestic aspirations are beginning to show signs of being back on track, although the caveat being that The Gunners were left with only 9 men by the end of the game.
Saturday evening saw West Ham United leave the Etihad Stadium with all three points, halting Manchester City’s unrelenting run of results in the process. In addition to earning the accolade of being the first side to score a goal against The Citizens or take points off them in the Premier League this season, The Hammers also completed an unprecedented trio of away victories in the opening weeks of this campaign. With their home form being questionable to say the least, they have now defeated Arsenal, Liverpool and Manchester City on their respective home patches. This is a feat that I imagine will remain unmatched throughout this season and possibly for a few years to come.
Other notable moments were Leicester City coming back from a two goal deficit for the second week running; although only able to salvage a draw this time, and want-away Saido Berahino grabbing the winner for West Brom in his first start since the deadline day madness of a few weeks ago. Manchester United came away from St Mary’s with a hard-fought three points; winning by the odd goal in five, and Liverpool’s win-less streak lengthened to five as they were held at home by Norwich City.
In a weekend packed with talking points and dramatic results, which players stood out above the rest? I have picked the best eleven from the Premier League action across Saturday and Sunday and compiled a Team of the Week. Feel free to discuss my selection and leave your own opinions in the comments section or on twitter @TBRFootball .
Adrian: West Ham United’s goalkeeper arguably had a slightly shaky start, punching and palming away efforts that could well have been held onto. He was also slightly fortunate to avoid any contact with Aguero in the early minutes of the first half when the Spanish ‘keeper advanced far out of his area but the Argentine took it round him, failing to find the target however.
Once Manchester City had pulled one goal back through new signing Kevin De Bruyne, the onslaught on Adrian’s goal began in earnest. He pulled off several close range saves from Aguero in quick succession. Adrian smothered the angle available to Aguero and used all parts of his body to block the efforts, often the sign of a top quality shot-stopper. As Yaya Touré let the shackles off, the Ivorian made powerful burst through the heart of West Ham’s defence only to come up against a determined Adrian, who threw up a stiff arm to pound away the goal-bound shot. As the minutes ebbed away, a corner led to an Otamendi header from only a couple of yards out but an instantaneous reaction from Adrian tipped the shot over. West Ham’s number one had a terrific Premier League season last year and the display against Manchester City was reminiscent of this.
Antonio Valencia: Despite only being on the pitch for the second 45 minutes against Southampion, Antonio Valencia made a notable improvement to Manchester United in both halves of the field. Juan Mata had been drifting infield just as much if not more than usual and for some reason, Matteo Darmian was not being anywhere near as adventurous as has become the norm. Southampton’s tactics in the first half hour of the game at St Mary’s had worked to perfection and The Red Devils’ lack of width on the right hand side hardly helped matters.
When Louis Van Gaal’s side began to truly dominate every aspect of the game from the half-time whistle until there were ten minutes remaining in the match, the south coast outfit were barely able to establish themselves at all. With four tackles and three clearances in the 45 minutes he was on the pitch, Valencia’s destructive impact is clear to see. In addition, the pacey Ecuadorian was much keener to progress forwards, giving Tadic a problem to think about behind him. The freedom to float between positions that had been afforded to the Serbian in the first half no longer existed, allowing Manchester United to dominate the football and the territory which came with it. LVG is perhaps faced with a tough choice now as to who should be the starting right-back for the next few matches.
Kurt Zouma: Mourinho has demonstrated his faith in the young physical specimen in the past, but starting Kurt Zouma in place of John Terry against Arsenal is perhaps the biggest moment yet in the young Frenchman’s Chelsea career. The 20 year old would always have the world’s eyes upon him from minute one as he was seen as the man who could have signalled the genuine start to the end of Terry’s career at Stamford Bridge. Zouma more than justified his inclusion in the starting eleven with a dominant overall display and a goal to boot.
The most obvious advantage that Zouma possesses over the former Chelsea captain is speed over the ground and with Theo Walcott and Alexis Sanchez providing the attacking threat for Arsenal, it is not surprising that Zouma’s attributes came to the fore. Using his heralded pace, he was able to rescue situations that otherwise could have developed into shots on Begovic’s goal. In individual aerial tussles, the signing from St Etienne leaps to a terrific height and combined this excellently with revered upper body strength. Zouma headed in a fairly easy chance to initially capitalise on Arsenal’s man disadvantage but did not let the exhilaration mar the rest of his display. Over the ninety minutes in the Premier League against Arsenal, I saw nothing to suggest that Terry would have added anything to the mix, fuelling the rumours that Zouma could become a fixture in the side.
Winston Reid: In partnership with Adrian; West Ham United’s last line of defence, Winston Reid was a mountainous presence at centre-half. Whilst it will be The Hammers’ fluid attacking play which will receive the praise for their first two goals, were it not for Reid and the other defenders to a lesser extent, this would not have been possible. Sergio Aguero returned to the starting line-up and other than a couple of half-chances, the Argentine was out-muscled and out-thought by Reid for most of the match. The New Zealand international did not only have Aguero’s pace and intelligence to cope with however, also facing Jesus Navas since the beginning and dealing with Wilfried Bony in the latter stages of the game. Although David Silva was absent, the presence of Kevin De Bruyne, Raheem Sterling and Yaya Touré all occupying areas of space in front of the back four provide a great challenge to defenders of even the highest quality. He dealt magnificently with everything that Premier League leaders Manchester City threw at him.
Winston Reid could frequently be found defending the region around the front post heroically, making block after block and clearance after clearance. His positioning was perfect on countless occasions, cutting out crosses from The Citizens’ flying Spanish winger. Reid was the main reason that of the 13 crosses that the Spaniard attempted, none found their intended target. Understanding when to maintain a relatively high line and when it was essential to drop deeper, the colossus at the heart of West Ham’s defence performed well in adverse situations. Manchester City had 27 shots, 16 corners, and 275 passes in the attacking third. Against all of this, Reid stood strong, making 12 successful clearances and 5 interceptions.
Alberto Moreno: Earning his first start in this year’s Premier League alongside Mamadou Sakho, Alberto Moreno acquitted himself well on Sunday evening despite Liverpool being disappointingly held at home to Norwich City. While Joe Gomez has made a supreme start to his Anfield career, there is no doubt that the attack-minded Spanish full-back offers more to The Reds in an offensive sense. This was clear to see as Rodgers’ side toiled to break The Canaries down, with the majority of the chances being conceived in wide areas and through Moreno in particular.
In a far from impressive first half, the signing from Sevilla; along with Nathaniel Clyne, was the only real positive aspect from a Liverpool perspective. He bombed on throughout the match and was able to supply some dangerous crosses into the box which the Liverpool forwards should have probably done a great deal better with. As Brendan Rodgers changed the tactics and system to accommodate other players and the urgency to score a goal, Moreno’s attitude did not change. The promising acquisition in 2014/15 produced a well-directed lofted ball to assist Danny Ings’ strike early in the second half and began to show the sort of form which Liverpool fans have been hoping for since his arrival.
Dimitri Payet: Proving to be a certain candidate for signing of the season, Dimitri Payet continued his terrific start to the 2015/16 Premier League campaign against Manchester City. Thus far, it has been his offensive prowess and creativity which have drawn the most praise and while this hardly disappeared from his display in Manchester, it was his defensive endeavour which impressed me the most. Never far from the action throughout the 90 minutes, Payet created two chances and was also on hand to pass the ball to Moses who proceeded to thunder a shot past Joe Hart. So far, West Ham’s summer signing from Marseille has primarily operated on either flank but he was called upon by Bilic to work as the most attacking oriented of a midfield three. Payet was clearly very aware of his defensive responsibility and put in a tremendous amount of work, both applying pressure and tracking back towards his own goal.
Manchester City are frighteningly strong in central areas, possessing a spine to their side that almost any outfit in world football could only dream of being able to field on a match-day. The trio of Payet, Noble and Obiang would always be faced with a difficult task, but they stood up to it manfully. Up to this point, I have seen a tactical understanding partnered with excellent desire demonstrated by Payet when he has embarked on lung-busting runs to the corner to use up time in the dying minutes. However against Pellegrini’s men, he revealed that he has yet another string to his bow, adding more confusion to the question of why the Frenchman was not picked up by a Champions League side.
Dele Alli: I have been pleasantly surprised to see the extent that Pochettino has used Dele Alli so far this campaign, but the youngster has certainly repaid this faith. Having been pushed out to the right flank in previous matches; more out of necessity than choice, Alli was switched to a more conventional midfield position against Crystal Palace. In this role, he replaced the injured Ryan Mason both in the formation and in the contribution to the side.
At only 19 years old, Alli was handed the responsibility to control the tempo of the entire match and dictate the flow of the play. Demonstrating marvellous maturity far beyond his years, the former MK Dons midfielder put in almost a complete performance in the middle of the park. He was combative and creative in equal measure, making five tackles, three clearances and four interceptions, whilst also creating two chances. To be this effective when having to contend with the attacking threat of Crystal Palace and the quality oozing from Cabaye’s every pore was a great sign for the future. Karl Robinson has recently claimed that Dele Alli has earned the accolade of MK Dons’ greatest ever player and the youthful England man appears to be embracing this pressure rather than shirking the limelight that comes with it.
Cesc Fabregas: Unsurprisingly coinciding with a return to form for Chelsea’s team as a whole, Cesc Fabregas was back to his creative best in the Premier League against Arsenal. Not only did this aspect of his game experience a healthy improvement, but he appeared to be back in the mood for the tussle in general. He had been criticised for being exposed defensively in the weeks leading up to this match, but the Spaniard was rarely caught out with balls in behind him on Saturday.
In possession, Fabregas was metronomic once more, able to keep the ball ticking over and finding team-mates in one-on-one situations, achieving an 86% completion rate in the process. Furthermore, he picked up the pace when necessary, injecting speed into attacks so that Arsenal would be left struggling if over-committing players to one area of the field. Dead-ball delivery had been far from top drawer this season up to this point, but Fabregas delivered an inch-perfect free-kick onto Zouma’s head to open the scoring. Chelsea’s comfortable win by a four goal margin in their Champions League group match may well be looked back on as a crucial moment in the season for the club and several individuals. Fabregas grabbed a goal which was by no means a stunner or important to the overall result, but it seemed to release a great deal of pressure on the playmaker. The relief was written all over his face as he tapped in from close range and could prove to be vital to the Spaniard’s form for the remainder of the campaign.
Son Heung-Min: On what was eventually a successful afternoon for Tottenham Hotspur, their new signing from South Korea was the man to spark everything positive in an attacking sense. Not only did Son Heung-Min grab the goal which went on to be the winner, but for much of the game he appeared to be the sole player in a Spurs shirt capable or willing to take on their man. Harry Kane looked to be a shadow of himself last season, and Lamela and Chadli were predictably poor, but Son was direct and hard-working throughout.
Already well on the way to securing a place as a favourite amongst the White Hart Lane faithful after a brace in the Europa League, Son has demonstrated early on just why Daniel Levy secured his signature in the summer from Bayer Leverkusen. He did not come cheap; costing £22 million, but injects pace into proceedings every time he picks up the ball. A refreshing trait is that Son’s first thought is always: “How can I take the ball forward?”, looking to threaten defenders and force them into making a detrimental decision.
Once Christian Eriksen came onto the field of play, he and Son were singing from the same hymn-sheet and soon linked up to produce the winning goal. The 23 year old South Korean burst forward beyond Spurs’ Danish creator, driving into space and scoring a well-deserved goal. If his last two performances are anything to go by; one in the Premier League and one in Europe, the North London club could well have a fantastic prospect on their hands.
Odion Ighalo: Watford continued their positive start to life in the Premier League with a 2-1 victory against Newcastle United at St James’ Park, and once more it was their Nigerian striker who was on hand to pop up with the goals. Odion Ighalo bagged a brace on Saturday to take his tally for the season to four. Fabricio Collocini in particular found him difficult to handle and The Magpies’ Argentine captain was bullied in a physical battle, with Ighalo showing good strength and hold-up play to be a platform for The Hornets. A lively threat all afternoon, he produced a volleyed effort that nearly found its way into the bottom corner in the early minutes. This was a warning sign which Newcastle’s defenders appeared not to heed, as not long afterwards, Ighalo was on hand to open his account for the day. Firing in four efforts in addition to his two goals, they never found a method to limit Ighalo’s influence on proceedings.
Both goals were well taken and demonstrated both a fine instinct for finishing chances and that he is suited to life in the Premier League. For his first strike, he received the ball inside the penalty area and after trapping the pass perfectly, took a neat step inside the defender before stroking the ball past Tim Krul. For the goal which proved to be the winner, he beat the offside trap with an intelligent run before rounding the ‘keeper, allowing him to slot home easily.
Prior to the season kicking off, all the talk had been of Troy Deeney and perhaps rightly so. Watford’s captain scored the majority of goals in their promotion campaign and for several years previously too. However, Ighalo also proved to be a force to be reckoned with in the Championship and has somewhat outshone Deeney so far in the Premier League. Watford’s signing from Udinese has been tied down to a new five year contract in the week and he is proving to be the main man in the club’s bid for survival.
Diego Costa: As a man who always cuts a controversial figure, even by Diego Costa’s standards, the match on Saturday against Arsenal was one to provoke serious debate. His selection in my Team of the Week may well spark some disagreement among some readers as his conduct on the field of play is certainly questionable at times but his performance can still be classed as excellent. If you put all of his antics to one side, it cannot be denied that the Saturday lunchtime fixture was the striker’s best of the season to date. He certainly received Mourinho’s vote for Man of the Match in an interview after the 90 minutes were up.
In a very similar way to Fabregas, his goal in The Blues’ Champions League group opener; notably his first in the competition for Chelsea, seemed to make him a great deal more motivated and buoyant. The Spaniard looked fitter than he has done all season, regained the yard of pace that he appeared to have lost, and held the ball up well. By employing legitimate methods; running the channels and using physicality, and by infuriating them as discussed earlier, they were occupied throughout and could never rest. His presence alone created the space for a much more effective Hazard and Fabregas to operate in. The burly forward looks to be approaching the fearsome form of last year and this could well coincide with a consistent return to winning ways for Chelsea.
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