FanSided Premier League Week 6 roundtable

Photo by Bryn Lennon/Getty Images
Photo by Bryn Lennon/Getty Images /

This weekend in the Premier League, Manchester United looked back to their best against Leicester, Arsenal dominated Chelsea and Southampton impressed away at West Ham. FanSided’s soccer staff share their reactions in our weekly roundtable. 

Manchester United finally finding a new identity

Rory Masterson, @rorymasterson

Manchester United have spent the past few years just sort of stumbling aimlessly from Premier League divot to Premier League divot. Despite their record number of league titles and esteemed lineage of world-class talent, the Red Devils have struggled to carve out a distinct identity in the post-Alex Ferguson world. Indeed, his shoes left an indelibly seismic footprint in Manchester, so large that daring to compare any successors is so unreasonable as to be downright foolhardy.

All of which makes it simultaneously surprising and completely predictable that a Jose Mourinho-led United team is the first since 2013 that has really made a mark this early in a Premier League season. Under Ferguson, the cult of personality mentality was strong; no manager is more closely identified with a club than Fergie is with United.

The David Moyes and Louis van Gaal teams were bland and desultory, and their results seemed to interact inversely with effort. For all their clout, neither Moyes nor van Gaal possessed the necessary temperament to helm a Galacticos-like collection of frustrated talent.

With Mourinho, United were bound either to shine brilliantly or combust in spectacular fashion, with little room for a gray area in between. Though neither has quite come to fruition, the former is starting to seem more likely, at least for the foreseeable future. Despite the continued inconvenience of Wayne Rooney drawing attention from the on-field product, that product is starting to come together in a more recognizably United way.

Of course, Mourinho is only partly responsible for the new United identity. The talent this team has corralled is living up to the hype, and Saturday’s 4-1 rollicking over the defending champions Leicester was indicative of that. A stirring first half saw four goals, virtually ending the game before it even had a chance to start. Chris Smalling, Juan Mata and Marcus Rashford all scored, before Paul Pogba went far post on a header for his first United goal just before halftime.

It was United at their best, or at least the best we’ve seen them in some time. Even with four goals, United had flashes that indicated room for improvement. Pogba’s scoop pass to Zlatan Ibrahimovic, which the latter chested down before turning and hitting a slightly misguided effort on the volley, may have been the best play of the game, and it shows how much higher United can still go.

A word here on Wayne Rooney’s plight: to see him come off the bench for Marcus Rashford with less than 10 minutes to go is as sure a sign as any that that all traces of the Ferguson era
are bound to dissipate eventually.

Rooney remains an effective enough player, though one whose intense work ethic has been papering over the cracks in his game for some time now. Mourinho has deployed Rooney all over the field, reducing him to a jack of all trades and master of none. It seems clear United have too much talent in Rooney’s comfort zones — up front, just behind a lead striker, in the attacking midfield, etc. — to carry on the charade that he will be an integral part of their next title-winning XI. How United deal with a veritable club legend, whether strictly on their terms or partially on his, will be even more of a signal post for the direction the team wants to take in establishing its next identity.

For those who spent most of the last two decades watching Manchester United mount an inevitable charge to win the league, crushing the hopes of everyone else in maddeningly efficient fashion, the post-Ferguson years have been a relief. Welcoming top managers and watching them crumble under the weight of expectation invites a certain brand of schadenfreude that only sports can provide. As impossible as it seemed already, is there any chance Fergie would have let Leicester fall into the title last season had he still been United’s manager?

If Jose Mourinho can have United consistently playing the way they did against the Foxes on Saturday, by controlling the midfield and orchestrating a consistent, balanced attack, the air of inevitability could return to Old Trafford. Finally and unequivocally at his best, Pogba showed what he can bring and what a team with him as its focal point could look like. The ongoing identity crisis in the post-Ferguson era of Manchester United’s history may be coming to a head, which could in turn spell disaster for everyone else.

Arsenal’s righteousness finally pays off against Chelsea

Matthew Miranda, @MMiranda613

Early in the second half against Chelsea Saturday, Arsenal forward Alexis Sanchez broke down the middle of the field deep into Chelsea’s half, then passed to his right to Theo Walcott, who, rather than shooting, passed it back to Sanchez, who for stylistic reasons having nothing to do with gaining an advantage lobbed a no-look pass to Mesut Ozil, who promptly sent the ball back toward Sanchez, only for the play to be broken up by Granit Xhaka.

Seeing as Xhaka plays for Arsenal rather than Chelsea, this would normally be ironic. Being Arsenal, though, it felt entirely apropos for all that complex ball movement to end in one Gunner kicking the ball directly into another. Xhaka looked like Charlie Brown racing full speed to finally kick the ball; rather than Lucy pulling it away, his indignity was having his shot blocked after it drilled Sanchez.

It was an overwrought possession, a failed stab at clockwork precision when a simple, straightforward hammering home seemed sufficient. Too much passing. Too much thinking. Too much intricacy. Wasteful. Wasted. Typical Arsenal. It was glorious.

The Gunners stuck to their philosophical guns both in building a 3-0 first-half advantage and looking to build on it in the second: they played positive soccer, looking to add to their lead rather than sit on it. The only thing difference between this game and the prior winless nine against Chelsea — for years the sand-kicking bully to Arsenal’s 98-pound voyeuristic weakling — was that this time, Arsenal laid the smacketh down. Their first goal was born of a sloppy Gary Cahill touch that allowed Sanchez to steal the ball — a play eerily similar to one Cahill made last week against Swansea.

Always pressing forward and tracking back, setting up teammates and scoring himself, Theo Walcott was man of the match. An early run through open space drew four defenders, creating room for a Sanchez shot; soon after, a lovely cross to the back post forced Chelsea to clear. Minutes later his passing kept the Arsenal attack on the front foot, and Walcott’s juke of Cahill sparked a perfect sequence of ball and player movement co-starring Hector Bellerin and Alex Iwobi, ending with Walcott netting the second goal.

Iwobi could have shot but unselfishly passed it up to give his teammate an even better look. It seems reductive to praise such charity, because it led to a goal, and (duh) goals are good, and because Arsenal won, and (duh) wins are double-plus good. But his pass wasn’t the right play because it led to a goal. It led to a goal because it was the right play. Arsenal kept making the right plays, whether they led to goals or not.

In addition to scoring in consecutive league games for the first time in three years, Walcott was flicking no-look passes between his legs (passes that, unlike Sanchez’s no-look attempt, served a purpose), and outfighting, at various points, bigger men in Cahill, Nemanja Matic and Cesar Azpilicueta for loose balls he had no business winning.

Another North London hero: Laurent Koscielny. The Frenchman was the clear victor in his matchup with Diego Costa, aided in part by Chelsea failing to position anyone behind the striker, allowing the Gunner center backs to focus exclusively on Costa. Minutes after kickoff, Costa and Koscielny took turns colliding with and stumbling over each other pursuing a loose ball. A perfectly-placed tackle early in the second half prevented a Costa breakaway into acres of open space.

Late in the game, Koscielny came out on top of another challenge, after which Costa ran after the defender, yelling and earning a booking. Cahill could be seen berating Courtois; later Courtois appeared to be damning his entire defense. In recent matches, Arsenal fell victim to Chelsea’s dark arts over and over, forcing them to play long spells with 10 men. On Saturday they were the hotter team and, perhaps as a consequence, the cooler heads.

NBC’s halftime analysts wondered whether Arsenal would keep hunting for goals, which they described, paradoxically, as a bad thing, or shut things down and focus on keeping a clean sheet, which they presented as a positive. God forbid a professional sports team wants fans to be entertained, to test and stretch our imaginations.

I’m not a Gunner fan, so I don’t know if it truly is hell being good enough for the top four in the league and top 16 in the Champions League every year for decades. But I’m a fan of what they stand for. They want to win, but they want to win beautifully. This philosophy — along with the club’s philosophical (or is it pragmatic?) refusal to humor the vertiginous costs and volatile realities of the transfer market — has led to their being slandered as fancy over function, all sizzle and no steak, not quite the meaty, manly fare found in recent years at the Etihad, Old Trafford and Stamford Bridge.

The Gunners win Saturday merely lifted them above Liverpool and Everton into third place, behind City and Tottenham. But ideologues live lives committed to the day-by-day unfolding of an ideal. Wenger has confused and confounded supporters for years. But all revolutions look impossible until they’re too far along to stop. They don’t cease mid-crescendo to ask what we make of them.

Winners of four league games in a row, having finally topped their chief tormentor, perhaps Wenger and his team are too busy making the right plays to care what we make of it. We shouldn’t be surprised. Would you really expect Charlie Brown to quit after finally kicking the ball? He’d press on, hungry for more. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be filled. Luckily for those who enjoy soccer that’s fun to watch, when Arsenal’s righteousness pays off, we’re all filled.

Southampton building momentum under Claude Puel

James Dudko, @JamesDudko

West Ham manager Slaven Bilic’s demise might seem like the biggest story from Southampton’s 3-0 Premier League win at the London Stadium. Yet, just like Bilic and the Hammers, whose success last season went to their heads, that story is loud and showy but lacks any real substance.

The real story from the game is the fine work Claude Puel is doing in charge of the Saints. Southampton are up to ninth after demolishing West Ham, and Puel is quietly, very quietly, making the South Coast club one to watch. Just don’t feel bad if you’re not hearing much about it.

Puel replacing Everton-bound Ronaldo Koeman was frankly one of the blandest storylines of the summer.

Southampton replaced Koeman with a man who had four stops in France’s top flight, winning a solitary Ligue 1 title along the way. Meh. Pffft. And a tall glass of so-what juice.

Well, four wins in a row in all competitions have flipped the narrative. Puel’s Saints are playing quick and imaginative football, especially on the break, and the back five is becoming increasingly stingy.

Of course, mid-table success with Southampton has become the norm. Big deal, right? Isn’t Puel merely the latest in a line of managers who’ve punched above their weight at a club so well run even a barely competent custodian could succeed?

Southampton is one of the finest-run clubs in the game. If it was Manchester United or Real Madrid, the Saints’ precision and continuity would be likened to a Swiss Quartz. Yet, even for a club playing in England’s third tier as recently as 2011, there’s something Omega-like in the way things fit together.

But ask yourself, are terrific scouting and a prolific youth academy the reason for Southampton’s success? Or is the decisive factor actually the knack for hiring smart coaches, with Puel just the latest?

Like Koeman, Puel has adapted after losing key players. Striker Graziano Pelle and winger Sadio Mane were the latest to bolt this summer. They represented the fulcrum of not only the Saints’ forward line, but also their tactical flexibility.

Puel’s simply plugged in new faces into a system conducive to both pragmatism and attacking intent. The best of the new faces has been Nathan Redmond, a £10 million bargain signed from relegated Norwich City. He’s speedy, intuitive, flexible, tricky and has an eye for goal.

Puel committed £11 million more of the club’s money on 20-year-old danish midfielder Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg from Bayern Munich. He’s been industrious, stylish and resourceful. The perfect description of Puel’s Southampton.

He’s placed his new buys alongside the best from the Koeman era. To put all the pieces together, Puel has even played a midfield diamond. Remember them?

Hojbjerg, the underrated Steven Davis and Oriol Romeu are the worker bees who protect and support Serbian maestro Dusan Tadic, the tip of the diamond and the pulse of Southampton’s creative heartbeat. Tadic’s creativity and passing dovetail superbly with Redmond, and both players have looked excellent around Charlie Austin, a throwback center-forward revitalized under Puel.

Redmond and Tadic’s rotations are baffling defenders every week. The Hammers found that out when Redmond vacated his number 10 role to thread passes in midfield as part of a move Tadic, who had roamed through the middle, finished off for Southampton’s second.

But it’s not all free-flowing under Puel. There’s actually something decidedly un-French about his team.

There’s none of the Gaelic romance associated with Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal. Puel learned under Wenger’s wing during his playing days at Monaco, but he’s far from the paragon of footballing purism the Gunners boss is. No, Puel is an altogether more pragmatic, yet unfashionable manager.

There’s a stubborn streak running through Southampton. Puel’s default to caution and attention to detail has led to four straight clean sheets. It helps to have center-backs Virgil van Dijk and Jose Fonte in front of goalkeeper Fraser Forster. Van Dijk is becoming a star, but Puel has given the Dutchman and his mates a consistent screen by developing Romeu into a handy holding player.

Puel’s Saints are at least as tough at the back and suave up top as Koeman’s. The new Everton boss slipped to a pair of defeats after praise from this author last week.

Hopefully this blurb doesn’t jinx Puel and Southampton. Because he’s quietly building something special.