Premier League talking points: Arsenal more unsettled than Spurs?
Arsenal and Spurs slug it out for north London bragging rights, pressure falls on Paul Pogba, Frank Lampard still learning on the job, no Friend for Villa, Palace storm a surprise, and...
Last Updated: 02/09/19 4:32pm
Big questions still for Emery to answer
A year-and-a-half or so into his tenure, there are some pertinent things we still don't know about Unai Emery. Top of the list is the identity of his first-choice team and the small matter of whether or not Emery actually believes in establishing a clearly defined elite XI. On balance, it seems not.
As is his wont, the Arsenal boss tried something different for the north London derby, switching formation and selecting his new PALs - Nicolas Pepe, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette - in unison for the first time. While the deployment mostly worked, the awkwardness of shoehorning a centre-forward poacher as an inside forward was a major post-match talking point for the Sky Sports pundits.
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The 4-3-3 presented other issues too. Although Matteo Guendouzi shone, Lucas Torreira is better suited to centre stage and the argument over whether Granit Xhaka ought to be Arsenal's anchor is surely now over: since the start of 2016/17, no player has conceded more penalties in the Premier League than Xhaka. It was noticeable, too, that Arsenal's most threatening period of the game coincided with Dani Ceballos's introduction. If Emery sticks with a 4-3-3, how does he incorporate Ceballos? And, for that matter, the impressive Joe Willock? As for whether Emery regards the club's highest earner as anything more than a bench warmer, let's leave the Mesut Ozil debate-athon for another day.
Emery still has plenty to dwell on over the international break.
In contrast, Tottenham reverted to type at the Emirates, the cunning wheeze of selecting their best players inspiring the best showing of the season to date. Funny that.
If, as is now expected, Jan Vertonghen and Christian Eriksen are still Tottenham players on September 3, the clearer sense of Mauricio Pochettino's preferred XI should bring some much-needed harmony to a team which has stuttered and fretted through August. The league table currently says otherwise, but Tottenham rather than Arsenal still possess the most clearly-defined answers to the question of how to catch Manchester City and Liverpool.
Pressure still on Pogba
Paul Pogba produced another maddeningly inconsistent display in Manchester United's 1-1 draw with 10-man Southampton. The 26-year-old had some eye-catching moments going forward, creating more chances than anyone else, but he also made a string of needless errors.
Shortly before half time at St Mary's, he could be seen directing an eight-yard pass straight out of play deep in his own half. He followed it up by losing possession twice more in the space of a minute. It allowed Southampton to pile on the pressure and finish the half strongly, paving the way for Jannik Vestergaard's equaliser after the break.
Pogba has now lost possession on 90 occasions in just 360 minutes on the pitch this season. It is the second-highest total of any Premier League player and while it is partly due to his desire to make things happen - creative players are naturally risk-takers - it is also symptomatic of carelessness.
Manchester United's youthful squad is light on the kind of experience and proven quality Pogba possesses. If they are to overcome their poor start to the season, they will need greater focus from him. The pressure on Pogba is nothing new but it weighs more heavily than ever now.
Lampard learning on the job?
Billy Gilmour became the latest Chelsea academy prospect to make his debut for Frank Lampard on Saturday as he was given the final eight minutes against Sheffield United. The Scottish U21 international is highly rated within Stamford Bridge. But was this the right environment to throw the 18-year-old in to?
Chelsea were 2-1 up at the time and the game was very much in the balance against a sparky Blades outfit that never give up for their boss Chris Wilder and that sensed a nervousness in the Chelsea ranks. Did Lampard take Sheffield United too lightly?
Gilmour wasn't at direct fault for the eventual late United equaliser but he struggled in his cameo - understandably, perhaps, after being thrown into the heat of Premier League battle when your side is trying to defend a narrow lead.
Hindsight is obviously a wonderful thing for writers to beat a manager with but even at the time of the substitution a few eyebrows were raised in the stands and in the press box at Lampard's daring move to send the young man into midfield instead of a more experienced head in Andreas Christensen.
Lampard defended the decision in his post-match exchange in the press conference, claiming that Gilmour is a part of his first-team squad and is seen as a genuine option for him as one of his three midfield players.
But you wonder if Lampard, privately, will use this experience as a learning curve - that's twice under his watch Chelsea have thrown away leads at Stamford Bridge.
Under-rated Palace deserve to go fourth
Given their summer was both permanently clouded by the Wilfried Zaha saga and rained on by the departure of Aaron Wan-Bissaka, there must have been generous odds available on Crystal Palace entering the international break fourth in the Premier League table.
But Palace are becoming specialists at surprises. They are, after all, the last team to win away from home at Old Trafford, the Emirates, the Etihad and Anfield (In case you were wondering: Manchester United 1-2 Crystal Palace, August 24 2019; Arsenal 2-3 Crystal Palace, April 21 2019; Man City 2-3 Crystal Palace, December 22 2018; Liverpool 1-2 Crystal Palace, April 23 2017).
Not that there was much of a surprise to their victory over Aston Villa this weekend. After banging on the door for over an hour, the Londoners finally made the breakthrough when Jordan Ayew, a low-price summer signing from Swansea, bundled through a couple of challenges and slotted past Tom Heaton.
Ultimately, victory required a helping hand from a dreadful decision from Kevin Friend, but it's hard not to think that Palace, having survived the heat of their difficult summer, are currently making their own luck. As the club proudly noted on Saturday night, only three clubs have more wins than Palace in the Premier League this year.
Don't make the mistake of dismissing their heady position in the league as a fluke.
Aston Villa's dismal day
There will be few happy memories from Aston Villa's trip to Selhurst Park. Dean Smith's side had one of those games where very little goes your way and it started when they picked up four bookings in the first half as Crystal Palace piled on the pressure.
The fourth and fifth were both for Trezeguet, who was sent off early in the second half, but of course, the attention was focused on the end of the game as Henri Lansbury's 96th-minute equaliser was disallowed when Jack Grealish was penalised for simulation.
VAR was not in a position to help the visitors - Friend's decision was not deemed clear and obvious enough to overturn - although having seen numerous replays, it was certainly a foul and enough contact to send Grealish over.
It was easy to understand Smith's frustration after the game, where he defended his captain and criticised the officials, and the anger spilled over in the away end. The Villa fans had a clear view of the incident and unfortunately, their dismal day was capped off with confrontations with police and stewards at full-time.
They were unsavoury scenes but there will now be a break of just over two weeks for Aston Villa as they look to regroup for another round of fixtures. As for VAR, it continues to pose more questions than it answers and organisers may also need the international break to assess how it has gone so far.
Richarlison is the star for Everton
Richarlison opened the scoring for Everton in their 3-2 win over Wolves on Sunday and he had the last say too - rising above Willy Boly to head home the winner just when the visitors looked to have snatched a scarcely deserved point. After also scoring against Lincoln in midweek, it's been a welcome reminder that the 22-year-old Brazilian is a serious talent.
He sets the tone for this Everton team, pressing from the front and never giving the defenders an easy time. Since arriving in English football in the summer of 2017, only Mohamed Salah has won possession of the ball more times in the opposition third than Richarlison. He is integral to how Marco Silva wants his team to play the game.
A comment by Jose Mourinho in the build-up to the game stood out. He made the point that while a number of Everton's other signings had come from clubs such as Barcelona or Arsenal, it was the young player from Watford who looks most likely to go up another level in his career. He is the one who is hungry for more. The signs are that he might get it too.
'The beauty of Bobby'
Liverpool are in the early groove - a 3-0 win at Burnley made it four out of four in the fledgling season - and so is Roberto Firmino.
He might have returned late to Jurgen Klopp's ranks after his triumphant Copa America campaign with Brazil but Firmino looks fit, fresh and in the mood; at Turf Moor he scored one - becoming the first Brazilian to reach 50 Premier League goals - made one and sparkled throughout, drifting, linking, always moving.
Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane had briefly squabbled on the pitch over a pass that never came and as the Senegalese continued to huff on the bench as the game drew to a close, it was Firmino who the cameras caught with a comforting word. Afterwards, Klopp made the point of talking up the overall contribution of his fearsome attack's third prong.
"What a player!" Klopp beamed."It's unbelievable just how smart he is in decision-making, how good he is technically, how fit he is, how much he enjoys the really hard work. But being skilled like Bobby is one thing. Mix it up with the attitude he puts in, that's unbelievable."
Andrew Robertson purred about his team-mate, too. "I don't think there's anyone like him," said the left-back. "He does everything, and that's the beauty of Bobby."
Salah and Mane have starred in successive seasons for Klopp but the smart and selfless Firmino could be key this time around if Liverpool are to win the Premier League prize they crave.
Nuno cannot hide the problem
Wolves boss Nuno Espirito Santo is adamant that the club's Europa League commitments are not a factor in his team's form. Perhaps the intention is to remove that as an excuse for his players but he can't kid the rest of us. It was evident not just in Wolves' sloppy display at Goodison Park but also in his team selection for such a big Premier League game.
The partnership between Raul Jimenez and Diogo Jota - so profitable since the turn of the year - was broken up with the latter named on the bench. Joao Moutinho, who has already started nine games this season, finally got a rest. So did Jonny Otto. The changes weakened the team as Wolves were sluggish from the start and the stats back it up.
No team made fewer high-intensity sprints over the weekend - and Aston Villa had 10 men for almost half the game. Wolves might have won more matches than any other Premier League team so far this season thanks to their Europa League efforts, but none of those wins have come in the Premier League.
The international break will be a time to take stock.