More from PST | |
The 2016-17 Premier League season wasn’t supposed to be like for West Ham United. After moving into their new home, the repurposed Olympic Stadium in London, this year was meant to be about building on top of last season’s seventh-place finish, which saw them in the top-four race until the final days of the campaign.
[ MORE: All of PST’s PL coverage ]
Fast forward four months, and Slaven Bilic‘s men have just one win from five games this season and find themselves 18th in the league table heading into Sunday’s clash with Southampton (Watch live, 11 a.m. ET, on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com). Home form (one win, one loss) has only been slightly better for the Hammers’ form away from home, where they’re 0-for-3 thus far. Michail Antonio has five goals this season, joint-top in the PL, all of which have been scored via headers.
Early-season fortunes have been only marginally better for Saints, having won five points from their first five games of the season. Manager Claude Puel got his first PL victory last weekend, though, over Swansea City, as his side notched its first clean sheet of the season.
Following another summer of key departures in the transfer market (Sadio Mane, Victor Wanyama and Graziano Pelle), one can’t help but wonder how many more times the south coast can reload at the top of its squad without a noticeable falling-off, even if for just one season. Through five games, Saints have scored just four goals, including one own goal — Charlie Austin, Nathan Redmond and Jay Rodriguez the scorers. European qualification looks a long way off from 15th place, where they currently stand, and even farther off from Saints’ early-season performances.
LONDON — Antonio Conte almost shook with rage as he addressed the media post-game at the Emirates Stadium.
[ MORE: 3 things we learned ]
The Italian manager isn’t used to losing games.
In fact, Chelsea’s humiliating 3-0 defeat at Arsenal on Saturday was the first time since 2009 that he’s lost two-straight league games as a manager. All is not well.
Speaking after the game, Conte’s voice became louder and louder as he discussed Chelsea now being a “great team only on the paper” and not on the pitch.
“We must work a lot. If someone thinks this season it is easy, we must work a lot to improve and to change the situation. I think that now we are a great team only on the paper. Not on the pitch,” Conte said. “To be a great team, I prefer to be a great team not only on the paper but also on the pitch because the pitch speaks. The pitch is the truth. The pitch is the most important thing for us. Not the words. Not the paper. We must change this. We must change this. Last season was a bad season. Last season we were a great team on the board. This season we want to be a great team on the pitch but we know there are many difficulties. If we understand this we are in a good position to recover and to change the situation.”
After three wins to open the Premier League season, Chelsea were tipped for great things. After two consecutive defeats to Liverpool and Arsenal we shouldn’t dismiss their title hopes either but Conte is concerned about his teams defensive display once again.
Chelsea has now conceded at least two goals in each of their last four games — a 2-2 draw at Swansea, 2-1 loss against Liverpool, 4-2 win against Leicester in the EFL Cup and the 3-0 hammering at Arsenal — and Conte stood with his arms crossed for most of the first half. He usually charges up and down the line, urging on his players. Not on Saturday. He looked embarrassed by the defensive errors.
Gary Cahill was inexplicably caught in possession by Alexis Sanchez for Arsenal’s first goal and his full backs were dragged out of position on multiple occasions as Branislav Ivanovic had a particularly bad evening. His defenders keep on making huge errors and it is something which has to change if Chelsea is going to challenge for the title this season. Right now John Terry‘s absence through injury is a huge loss as the veteran is by far Chelsea’s best center back.
In the second half of the London derby humbling at Arsenal, things got so bad that Conte changed from a 4-1-4-1 formation to a 3-5-2. That system is one he mastered with Juventus and the Italian national team over the past few years.
As a proud Italian coach who, like many of his countryman, prides himself on having a good defensive organization, Conte was seething with rage when asked if Chelsea were ready to switch to a 3-5-2 system permanently.
“I have to solve the situation. That is the most important thing. The situation is that every game we concede two goals, at a minimum,” Conte said, furiously. “For this reason, three back or two back or four back, I don’t care. It is important to solve the situations. I must find the right solution for this team because in every game we are conceding two goals. I work a lot to find the right solution.”
Conte will try to lift his squad as the Italian manager said the players and management win and lose together, a philosophy he has always had in his playing and coaching days. However, we are getting an increasing sense that he knows he has a huge challenge on his hands to transform Chelsea who are now eight points behind leaders Manchester City after six games of the season.
“The title? I think we must work a lot to find a continuity. I think that now the most important thing is to work and don’t think about other situation,” Conte said. “I repeat, we must show on the pitch to be a great team because Chelsea is a great team on the paper.”
ProSoccerTalk asked Conte about yet another slow start for his side as he bemoaned them throwing the game away in the first half against Arsenal and against Liverpool last Friday.
Why this is happening?
“I was a footballer and it happens in one game. It can happen,” Conte said. “You don’t have a good performance for many reasons. I hope to improve this situation because this is the second consecutive defeat after Liverpool. They are great teams, Liverpool and Arsenal. We must reflect on this because we had two defeats in two big games. For this reason we must be humble and understand the moment. To understand we need to work a lot and improve to change our story.”
A roundup of all of Saturday’s action in the Premier League…
[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s PL coverage ]
Arsenal 3-0 Chelsea — FULL RECAP
Arsene Wenger was appointed Arsenal manager 20 years ago next Saturday, deservedly making the upcoming week all about the legendary Frenchman. On top of his two decades of guidance, Arsenal also fans have a 3-0 thrashing of London rivals Chelsea to celebrate. Saturday’s meeting at the Emirates Stadium was over not long after it started, Alexis Sanchez and Theo Walcott putting the Gunners 2-0 up inside the first 15 minutes. Mesut Ozil made it 3-0 not long before halftime, and that was that. The best Arsenal performance since … when, exactly? It’s been a while.
- Three things we learned
- Mendola: Don’t look now, but Arsenal set up for a run at the title
- JPW: Furious Conte knows he has huge challenge ahead of him
- “Style and steel” — Wenger beams after derby win
Swansea City 1-3 Manchester City — FULL RECAP
Will Pep Guardiola ever
lose a game drop a point in the PL? That almost seems the more proper question, rather than, “When will he?” Swansea were his latest victims on Saturday, with many thanks due to the return of Sergio Aguero (suspension) and the brace he scored. Raheem Sterling bagged the other for Man City, a spectacular piece of dribbling that left Kyle Naughton‘s body on the floor and his soul in Aguero’s back pocket (WATCH HERE).
- VIDEO: Sterling breaks ankles, takes names, puts the game away
- Guardiola praises Aguero, promises to make him even better
Manchester United 4-1 Leicester City — FULL RECAP
Wayne Rooney was dropped to the bench, and voila, Man United were a devastating attacking team against Leicester. Coincidence? The world may never know. The personnel move did allow Paul Pogba to play further up the field, just behind Zlatan Ibrahimovic, which resulted in the world-record signing scoring his first goal for the club. It came in the 42nd minute, and it capped off a four-goal first half for United, which also saw Chris Smalling, Juan Mata and Marcus Rashford on the scoresheet.
- Three things we learned
- Rooney still “happy” despite being dropped by Mourinho
- Ranieri baffled by Leicester’s set-piece defending
Liverpool 5-1 Hull City — FULL RECAP
James Milner‘s pair of penalty kicks led the way for Liverpool, who also got goals from Sadio Mane, Philippe Coutinho and Adam Lallana, in a 5-1 demolition of 10-man Hull. Coutinho’s goal was the pick of the litter (WATCH HERE), and perfectly exemplified the ruthless nature of the Reds’ devastating attack. Now level with Arsenal and Everton, just one point back of Tottenham Hotspur, Liverpool are unquestionably in the race for the top four, and one of a few clubs with an outside shot at making a play for the title if everything falls their way.
Middlesbrough 1-2 Tottenham Hotspur — FULL RECAP
Heung-Min Son‘s first season in the PL was a largely forgettable campaign for the Tottenham attacker — four goals in 28 appearances — but after a full season in England, and a regular place in the starting rotation in 2016-17, the South Korean has matched last season’s output of goals already, through three appearances this season. Nos. 3 and 4 came in the first half on Saturday, helping Spurs to six games unbeaten on the season (one of two sides without a loss). No Harry Kane, no problem for Mauricio Pochettino.
Bournemouth 1-0 Everton — FULL RECAP
Everton were the side stricken from the ranks of the unbeaten on Saturday, losing 1-0 away to Bournemouth. The goal, scored by Junior Stanislas in the 23rd minute, was one of just three shots on target between the two sides. What the Cherries and Toffees lacked in quantity, Stanislas more than made up for with quality (WATCH HERE).
Sunderland 2-3 Crystal Palace — FULL RECAP
The spending power of PL clubs is simply unmatched the world over. For proof, look no further than Palace, a relatively small club in the grand scheme of the world’s game, spending $41 million on Christian Benteke this summer. A year after transfer rumors linked the big Belgian to some of the biggest clubs in Europe, he’s signed for last season’s 15th-place finishers. On Saturday, he’s scored his second goal in four games for the club, the 93rd-minute winner at the Stadium of Light. Imagine being, say, Atletico Madrid, AC Milan, Inter Milan, Schalke, or any club of that size, and saying to yourself, “We’d love to have Benteke, but Palace are in for him. We can’t compete with that.” Palace, by the way, came back from 2-0 down to win 3-2 against Sunderland.
Stoke City 1-1 West Bromwich Albion — FULL RECAP
The hits just keep on coming for Stoke and Mark Hughes. The Potters just had to survive a few minutes of stoppage time, and victory was theirs for the first time in 2016-17. Instead, Salomon Rondon grabbed a 91st-minute equalizer, and Stoke would settle for their second point of the season. Fortunately for Stoke, Sunderland’s loss means the Black Cats replace them at the bottom of the league.
Sunday’s PL schedule
With a suspect Arsenal defense to open the season, the world watched as Liverpool battered Arsene Wenger‘s squad on Opening Day, a 4-3 loss that had the #WengerOut crowd foaming at the mouth, perhaps justly.
This was a manager who hadn’t exactly buoyed the confidence of his fans, and in fact had given his detractors more fuel. The same man who lamented the fee paid for Anthony Martial last year only to see the young Frenchman shine for his rivals was lamenting the ineffectiveness of “Financial Fair Play”.
A funny thing happened, though, on the way to the Champions League group stage; We saw a confident Wenger carry a bit of a strut en route to Paris, claiming readiness to succeed in ways the Gunners hadn’t in a while.
On Saturday, after a rollicking 3-0 home win over Arsenal earned his side a standing ovation from the Emirates Stadium crowd, Wenger was beaming at his side’s “style and steel“.
And as our own Joe Prince-Wright heard in his post-match comments, the man celebrating his 20th year running Arsenal has an increased appetite for success. He was asked how his hunger compares to when he began his time at Arsenal.
“I’m hungrier because I know I don’t have 20 years in front of me, and as well because I feel more responsibility. I’m more conscious of what’s all about Arsenal. The weight of keeping people happy is heavier than when I arrived.”
And rightly so. After drawing at Leicester City on Matchday 2, Arsenal is 4-0 in the Premier League, 1-0 in the EFL Cup, and showed terrific heart in drawing on the road at Paris Saint-Germain.
While the money he paid for new players Shkrodan Mustafi, Lucas Perez, and Granit Xhaka wasn’t a pittance, the moves are looking shrewd right now. And the cupboard has been stocked with stars who were on show Saturday, including standout days for Hector Bellerin and Mesut Ozil.
When I was researching numbers for my post on Pep Guardiola’s hot start at Manchester City, I couldn’t help but be surprised at how many times Arsenal’s name was showing up either on their heels or leading in key offensive and possession categories.
[ BUNDESLIGA: Chicharito nets three ]
Arsenal has a very forgiving schedule in the lead-up to a brutal November, and can build itself a cushion in the competition for a Top Four spot before a 17-day stretch that sees it hosting Spurs and PSG with a visit to Manchester United in between.
Wednesday — HOME vs. Basel (UCL)
Oct. 2 — at Burnley
Oct. 15 — HOME vs. Swansea
Oct. 19 — HOME vs. Ludogorets (UCL)
Oct. 22 — HOME vs. Middlesbrough
Oct. 25 — HOME vs. Reading (EFL Cup)
Oct. 29 — at Sunderland
Gooners will be begging their side to give them 12-straight points, and a strong UCL performance could even render the PSG match in November more about positioning than advancement.
[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays ]
In the meantime, Man City will be heading to Tottenham and hosting Everton amongst its fixtures, while Liverpool tangles with Manchester United. Those Red Devils also have to face Chelsea in October.
Wenger’s no fool: He’s seen the fixtures. Arsenal is primed to be atop or close to the top of the table in early November. With PSG slipping a bit in league play, perhaps a UCL slip-up could have the Gunners atop their group before that November match-up.
It’s too soon to talk title, but watching Arsenal on Saturday was to be reminded of the best times under Wenger.
And to imagine what could be come May.