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The Warm-Up: London labours behind the Premier League's northern powerhouse

September 18, 2017 7:19 AM
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The Warm-Up: London labours behind the Premier League's northern powerhouse

Adam Hurrey admires the Premier League's north stars and some Continental consternation...

Enough clowning around: Jose Mourinho’s Manchester United now go straight for the jugular. Everton – and Wayne Rooney – arrived at Old Trafford on Sunday in mild disarray but, despite falling behind to Antonio Valencia’s vicious swipe at the ball in the fourth minute, started to make a game of it in the second half.

It was during these moments last season that United fans were saving their best howls of derision for a side lacking in purpose and penetration, especially at home. They now have another gear.

10 of United’s 19 goals in all competitions have come in or beyond the 80th minute. This was their third 4-0 victory of the season, all of which have been wrapped up in clinical fashion as the opposition poke around for an equaliser.

Everton’s poking nearly did pay off – Rooney squandered a presentable chance before being withdrawn to a polite ovation – but United eventually picked them off on the break, with Romelu Lukaku revelling in the space left behind to set up Henrikh Mkhitaryan and then score himself from close range. Both were celebrated in the manner of a man who doesn’t regret leaving Goodison Park one bit.

Across Manchester, they’re enjoying the exact same numbers: 13 points, 16 goals, 2 conceded. That’s more or less where the similarities end. Pep Guardiola’s side have found his rhythm – and detected his impatience too. Watford were buried before half-time at Vicarage Road, on the way to City racking up 15 goals in the space of a week.

Perhaps even the combined threat of a ten-man Liverpool, Feyenoord and Watford isn’t enough to confirm that City’s defensive concerns are dead and buried but, thanks to their knife-through-butter work at the other end, perhaps it doesn’t matter: their next three games are against West Brom, Crystal Palace and Shakhtar Donetsk.

After their identical (but very different) starts to the season, it’s perhaps a shame that we won’t get a Manchester derby until the second week of December. For now, City’s first-strike capability perhaps gives them the edge, but Jose Mourinho’s men have the staying power.

The capital’s six clubs couldn’t muster a goal between them: Chelsea and Arsenal drew a muddled (if mutually acceptable) blank at Stamford Bridge, Tottenham ran out of ideas against Swansea, Watford were annihilated by Manchester City, literally nobody cared about West Brom 0 West Ham 0, and Crystal Palace remain goalless and pointless.

The Premier League’s northern powerhouse have only a three-point lead at the top but, on current form, they feel like a country mile ahead. Chelsea are still slowly gathering steam after their opening-day jolt, with Eden Hazard yet to be unleashed after regaining match fitness.

Spurs, meanwhile, are lacking the relentless drive of last season. Swansea held firm on Saturday and, despite the late introduction of Mauricio Pochettino’s plan B in the shape of Fernando Llorente, their lock remained unpicked.

Two draws and a defeat at home so far suggest this is more than just a Wembley hoodoo. The sight of Moussa Sissoko and Kieran Trippier on the right and left flanks perhaps summed up the difficulty of maintaining last season’s momentum.

Meanwhile, in Ligue 1, Paris Saint-Germain needed two own goals to see off Lyon, with Neymar’s £200m ego once again wrestling for centre-stage.

Edinson Cavani’s patience with this sort of thing might not last until Christmas.

All hail the pint-sized striker. As elite footballers increasingly evolve into Olympic decathletes, it’s reassuring that the vertically-challenged among them can still flourish.

Sergio Aguero’s hat-trick at Watford took him to 175 goals in six years for Manchester City, and he is now just two short of Eric Brook’s club goalscoring record.

“He’s a legend, and it’s a part of history in the club,” Pep Guardiola said on Saturday. “Aguero’s numbers speak for themselves – he is amazing.” Those numbers also demonstrate that, even with the ongoing rise of Gabriel Jesus, City wouldn’t be City without their stocky, explosive finisher – he’s averaged a goal every 108 minutes since arriving in 2011.

The whispers of Aguero being made available this summer felt strange, even if his fitness hasn’t been a guarantee in recent months. Perhaps only Harry Kane rivals the Argentine for the ruthless snapping-up of half-chances in the area, but only Aguero could combine such lethal finishing with the slaloming, barrelling run through a defence that he produced at Vicarage Road.

Jose Mourinho’s accidental mind games had done their trick. Whether it’s wise for a manager to publicly respond to some programme notes is one thing, but Ronald Koeman is now fully familiar with the pressure that comes with money and ambition.

Everton are now without a win in six games, losing their last four with an aggregate score of 0-12. Their attempted salvage operation at Old Trafford – which ran aground in the absence of the sort of imposing finisher United had at the other end – was a marked improvement on the scandalous Europa League no-show against Atalanta on Thursday, but this is more than simply a work in progress.

The calendar has granted Koeman a run of four home games in succession up to the start of October, across three competitions. A failure to gather any sort of meaningful momentum will raise concerns about his long-term suitability for taking them to a new level. As we’ve already seen this season, Dutch defenders-turned-managers have been sacked for less.

It’s 30 years since Liverpool were so good that they provided all ten contenders for the BBC’s Goal of the Season competition. Click “play” for some vintage Beardsley, some classic Barnes and – if you’ve got your sound on – some Rick Wakeman on synths.

Your Carabao Cup cravings will have to wait another night: in La Liga, Espanyol and Celta Vigo go head to head to see whose start to the season can be made even more inauspicious.


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