Premier League Review: Fortune – Always Hiding
There wasn’t a great deal of booing when the full-time whistle blew at the Olympic Stadium earlier this afternoon, although the biggest single reason for this was most likely because there weren’t that many home supporters still present when the referee put it to his mouth. Say what you like about the ham-fisted nature of the arrangements now surrounding West Ham United and their new home, but on the evidence of this match at least the exits are still working properly. At the very start of the season, West Ham United’s lack of ignition was something of a mystery. Now, however, it has become sentient, feeding off the uncertainty of the team, disquiet in the stands, and the feeling that if there is any such thing as a “West Ham Way”, this consists of being maddeningly inconsistent. Fortune’s always hiding, indeed.
In truth, at this stage it will take a good deal more than good fortune to revive West Ham United’s flagging season. For the opening fifteen or twenty minutes, Southampton – who themselves have largely failed to come alive in the respect that they might have expected so far this season – struggled to find any meaningful rhythm, but from the moment that Charlie Austin was given the freedom of the West Ham penalty area to roll the ball in to give the visitors the lead there seemed little question about the eventual destination of the three points on offer. Southampton will now be looking to kick-start a push towards a European place. Where West Ham United go from here, however, is anybody’s guess. They’ve now lost five matches in a row and, in the hair-trigger world of modern Premier League football, that spells a crisis for manager Slaven Bilic, but it is starting to feel as though leaving the Boleyn Ground has been somewhat ill-starred. There is, however, no “reset” button that can be pushed, six matches into the season.
Anything that West Ham United can do, however, Sunderland can do worse. On Saturday afternoon at The Stadium of Light, they ran into a bright enough two-nil lead against Crystal Palace with Jermain Defoe looking particularly perky after having scored twice, but the fog that descended over the Wear with a third of the game remaining proved to be particularly impenetrable this time around, with Joe Ledley taking barely thirty seconds to drag Palace back into the match and expose familiar Sunderland insecurities. James MacArthur levelled things up with fourteen minutes to play, but it took Palace until the fourth minute of stoppage-time before Christian Benteke showed up some almost admorably dunderheaded defending by charging into the penalty area without challenge to head a winning goal for the visitors.
Sunderland’s result saw them drop to the bottom of the table after Stoke City picked up their second point of the season with a one-all draw in The Tony Pulis Derby, at home against West Bromwich Albion. This being Pulis’s thousandth match in charge of club, it was perhaps appropriate that it took more than seventy minutes for the deadlock to break, but when Joe Allen’s first goa of the season for his new club gave Stoke City the lead, it looked as though Mark Hughes’ – who has gone from being almost seriously touted as the next Manchester United manager to hanging on for dear life as a Premier League manager in barely months – team was finally going to manage its first league win of the season. This being The Tony Pulis Derby, however, there had to spoiler move thrown into the mix as well, and Salomón Rondón’s headed equaliser twenty seconds into second half stoppage-time was enough to keep Stoke City in the relegation places at the foot of the table.
Still, at least the Premier League’s other crisis manager du jour, Jose Mourinho, had a rather more successful weekend. His decision to relegate Wayne Rooney to the substitutes’ bench for the match against Leicester City had the capability of blowing up in the manager’s face, but an altogether more fluid team performance coupled with some undoubtedly Keystone Kops inspired defending from Claudio Ranieri’s team meant that at least the pressure lifted from the Manchester United manager for a while. The rumour mill doesn’t just wither away with one result, though, so it is Rooney that will be the centre of attention again. Of course, the story of the last couple of years of Wayne Rooney’s career has not been as black and white as Manchester United playing fluid, attacking, expansive football when he’s not playing and a dour, reductionist variant of the game when he is, but it does feel as though we are ever more rapidly approaching the singularity at which the question of whether he still has a meaningful role within the team has to be asked.
For an hour or so from kick-off on Saturday afternoon, it felt, perhaps for the first time this season, as though there may finally be some chinks in Manchester City’s formidable armour. Pegged back in four minutes after taking an early lead, it took them until twenty-five minutes from time and with the assistance of a penalty kick to regain the lead, whilst Swansea City had chances to snatch the lead while the scores were still level. Still, City looked reasonably comfortable by the end, and their place at the top of the table remains at four points. When a gap is already starting to open up at the top of a league table before the end of September, it is often a warning to the rest of a division of some difficult months ahead, and as things stand Manchester City, with ten wins out of ten in all competitions this season, are starting to look mighty ominous.
The attention lavished upon Pep Guardiola and Jose Mourinho so far this season hasn’t been completely unwelcome everywhere, though. Tottenham Hotspur stay in second place in the Premier League table after winning by two goals to one at Middlesbrough, but continue to remain somewhat below the radar on account of the attention being lavished elsewhere. Harry Kane-less for the next couple of months, two goals within the opening twenty-five minutes from Son Heung-min, who is building up a formidable head of steam so far this season, gave Spurs a comfortable lead which they didn’t have too many difficulties holding onto and which banished the demons of their recent Champions League capitulation against Monaco a little further into the recesses of the past.
Jurgen Klopp is carrying out similarly low-key work at Liverpool at the moment, and his side’s five-one win against Hull City on Saturday afternoon provided further ammunition to Klopp’s pre-season confidence that he didn’t need his team to be further altered in the end of August transfer window bum rush. The counterpoint to this argument would be to mention that Hull City won their opening two matches of the season but have been reverting to the type that many predicted before the start of the season, but Liverpool could only beat the team put in front of them at any given time, and the fact of the matter is that they might have won this match by a considerably greater margin than the four goals that they managed at the weekend. At the time of writing, they remain the second favourites behind the inevitable Manchester City to lift the title at the end of this season. With Anfield crowds now regularly over 50,000 on account of their new stand opening and the team playing the sort of football that the team did on Saturday afternoon, it’s not difficult to see why this should be.
It was a somewhat trickier weekend for the other side of the Merseyside divide. If Everton are serious about bidding for a Champions League place this season, we might have expected a trip to Boutrnemouth to be exactly the sort of match that they would be needing to win. A first half goal from Junior Stanislas was enough to win the match for Bournemouth, and this says about as much as needs to be said about a curiously lacklustre Everton performance. What was particularly noteworthy from this match, however, was a reasonably accomplished performance from Smokin’ Jack Wilshere, who left the field of play to a standing ovation upon being replaced late on in the game and who added a cohesiveness to the Bournemouth midfield which indicated that there should be at least three inferior teams to theirs for the duration of this season.
Antonio Conte must have spent much of Saturday night wishing for such cohesiveness from his own team, following Chelsea’s three-nil humbling at Arsenal on Saturday evening. The main targets for derision on Saturday evening were Gary Cahill and Branislav Ivanovic, and even last season’s Chelsea vintage seldom put in performances during which well-established defenders played as though they’d only been introduced to each other in the tunnel before a match to this extent. As Conte’s face disintegrated throughout the course of the first half, one was almost lent to some degree of sympathy for Cahill as he trudged from the pitch to face the music at half-time. By this point in the match, however, all considerations were academic apart from what sort of tally Arsenal’s buzzy attacking options might be able to run up against such a shambolic defence. They eventually settled to stick on the three that they already had, but one sparkling Arsenal performance – as Arsenal supporters already surely know fully well – will not be enough to see the team challenge at the very top of the table for the entirety of the season. For now, though, Arsene Wenger will doubtless be pleased enough that the booing this weekend was coming from a different part of Arsenal to his.
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