We’re just 10 games into the 2017-18 Premier League season, but some big themes are already starting to emerge. Mark Ogden rounds up the lessons learned so far.
Guardiola’s magic is now working at Man City
Pep Guardiola suffered a culture shock at Manchester City last season, with the former Barcelona and Bayern Munich coach discovering that the Premier League cannot be conquered without the odd tweak to his purist philosophy. He insisted he would not change, but 12 months on, he has altered his approach and City suddenly look formidable.
City now play more direct football, with goalkeeper Ederson not afraid to launch attacks with long clearances; Guardiola’s team is much tougher and more durable, too. They are also devastating as an attacking force, with 35 goals in ten games so far, and remain unbeaten. It’s still early in the season, but City could emulate Arsenal’s Invincibles this season.
Man United are getting stronger, but they’re not back yet
So how do you judge Manchester United and Jose Mourinho 10 games into the season? Take Manchester City out of the equation and United look strong, tough to beat and every bit the genuine title contender. But City are in the equation, so all of a sudden, United look short of what is required to win the league.
The reality is that United still lack the flair and depth to win the title. They are just a year into life under Mourinho and arguably lack three players to make them genuine rivals to City. They need a genuine No. 10 capable of winning games with a moment of magic, a player to give width and goals down the left and they need a solution at left-back, with Mourinho clearly not a fan of Luke Shaw.
United are certainly better than last season, but they remain a work in progress.
Owners make mistakes and get away with them
There have already been three managerial departures this season, and at Crystal Palace and Leicester, the owners have contributed directly to the upheaval in the dug-out. Expecting Frank de Boer to transform a Palace squad built by the likes of Sam Allardyce, Alan Pardew and Tony Pulis was akin to putting petrol in a diesel engine, but the Selhurst Park owners still went ahead and appointed the former Ajax coach.
De Boer was sacked after five games in charge, to be replaced by former England manager Roy Hodgson, but the damage may already have been done and if Palace go down, the owners will be culpable. The same applies at Leicester, where Craig Shakespeare was sacked just four months after being given a three-year contract as Claudio Ranieri’s permanent successor.
If Leicester’s owners were truly convinced that Shakespeare was the man for the job, then why sack him so quickly and turn to Claude Puel, who was sacked himself by Southampton in the summer?
Diego Costa left a big hole at Chelsea
Diego Costa may have been too hot for Antonio Conte to handle at Chelsea, but sometimes the best players need to be accepted for what they are simply because of what they give in return. Costa’s acrimonious departure from Chelsea, having fallen out with Conte at the end of last season, has left a void up front at Stamford Bridge and doubts remain over whether Alvaro Morata can fill it.
Morata is a classy, elegant striker and has started well since his arrival from Real Madrid, yet he is also now showing the strain of a five-game goal drought. Costa also had his barren spells but his presence on the pitch, and the nuisance value he had when it came to occupying opposing defenders, ensured he contributed even when the goals weren’t going in.
Morata is different and more likely to display a lack of confidence. He is probably easier to manage than Costa but does Conte really believe that his team is better without the moody Spain forward?
Is Raheem Sterling finally coming good?
Raheem Sterling has always divided opinion, on and off the pitch. As a forward, he is often perceived to be lacking the killer instinct, either with a pass or shot at goal, when it truly matters while off the pitch, supporters continue to target him for criticism because of the manner of his departure from Liverpool to Manchester City in 2015.
This season, though, he has shown signs of eradicating the doubts over his quality, with seven league goals and two assists already this campaign. Sterling’s awareness has improved greatly by working under Pep Guardiola and he is showing that the City manager was right not to allow him to move to Arsenal in part-exchange for Alexis Sanchez in August.
The 22-year-old still has flaws in his game but he remains relatively young and his current rate of improvement should be a sign of encouragement.
Rafa Benitez proving his class at Newcastle
Newcastle United’s supporters idolise Rafael Benitez and the club’s performances and results this season go some way to explaining the high regard the former Liverpool manager is held in on Tyneside.
Benitez stuck around after relegation at St James’s Park and guided the club back to the Premier League last season, but he and the team have already surpassed early expectations with their start to this campaign. Even after a summer of relatively low spending in the transfer market, Benitez has Newcastle sitting comfortably in the top half of the table, with any early fears of a relegation battle evaporating with each passing week.
Sometimes, it just needs a good manager to make a team and a club better and Benitez is offering proof of that. Newcastle are fortunate to have him.
Has Klopp really improved Liverpool?
Jurgen Klopp is now just over two years into his reign as Liverpool manager, but the team’s inconsistent start to the season has raised legitimate questions over the extent of improvement under his stewardship at Anfield. Statistically, he’s faring worse than predecessor Brendan Rodgers, who was sacked just over a year after guiding Liverpool to within a whisker of the club’s first title since 1990.
Rodgers was accused of building a team that was exciting going forward but unreliable at the back, yet Klopp’s Liverpool is facing the same criticisms and while Rodgers made Liverpool truly competitive at the top of the table, Klopp cannot argue that he has done the same. The former Borussia Dortmund coach has had two years, and four transfer windows, to eradicate the problems, but it is the same old story and Rodgers, who has rebuilt his reputation in Scotland with Celtic, can probably feel a little hard done by.
Arsenal are actually doing all right, aren’t they?
Arsenal remain the Premier League’s great enigma but are they doing as badly as has been suggested at times this season?
Ten games in, they are sitting in fifth position, just a point adrift of third-place Tottenham and are coasting in their Europa League group, with a Carabao Cup quarterfinal to look forward to in December. They somehow managed to keep hold of Alexis Sanchez in August, at the same time as doing great business by selling Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain to Liverpool for £35 million, and have bounced back well from their 4-0 mauling at Anfield in August.
Perhaps, with the burden of expectancy lifted slightly this season, Arsenal are building momentum quietly. Still, their next two games are at Manchester City and against Spurs at the Emirates, so let’s see how the landscape looks after that double-header.
Watford, Brighton prove that bargains can be found
Richarlison and Pascal Gross are two names that would have left Premier League watchers scratching their heads back in August but the pair of new arrivals have been outstanding for Watford and Brighton respectively. Richarlison’s goals, following an £11.2m move from Fluminense, have lifted Watford to the fringe of the top six while Gross’s contribution with assists have kept promoted Brighton well away from the drop zone.
Burnley, meanwhile, spent a club record £15m on Leeds forward Chris Wood (a small fee in today’s market) and have also been rewarded with crucial goals from the New Zealand forward. Smart scouting and wise investment can combine to give the top flight’s smaller clubs a chance of competing.
It’s still early … anything can happen
Manchester City may look unbeatable at the top and Crystal Palace doomed at the bottom, but the Premier League is littered with stories of clubs either throwing away seemingly insurmountable leads or pulling off miraculous escapes.
Early-season form can be deceptive. Injuries, fatigue and loss of form can hit any team hard, so time will tell as to how the season plays out. But the chasing pack and relegation strugglers should not throw in the towel just yet.
Mark Ogden is a senior football writer for ESPN FC. Follow him @MarkOgden_