theScore examines the most important developments and biggest talking points as the 2023-24 Premier League campaign restarts following September’s international break.
Arsenal have lots of room to improve
Performances like Sunday’s won’t help Arsenal’s bid to end their title drought.
Despite being in the thick of the early-season title race after beating Everton 1-0, Arsenal have only shown glimpses so far of being a cohesive unit capable of threatening Manchester City’s quest to become the first team to win four Premier League titles in a row. Sunday’s tightly contested clash at Goodison Park was an eyesore decided by a moment of brilliance.
In what’s become a familiar theme for the 2023-24 edition of the Gunners, three points were anything but guaranteed for the majority of the contest against an extremely poor Everton side. Arsenal started off brightly but seemed to lose their spark after Gabriel Martinelli was forced off with an injury. Arsenal eventually broke down the stubborn Toffees defense, though, taking the lead in the 69th minute courtesy of a clever strike from Martinelli’s replacement, Leandro Trossard.
While it’s hard to bemoan a team that’s won four of its five games, Arsenal haven’t produced the same type of complete and dominating performances or generated the same buzz as last season when they came out of the gates flying.
Ultimately, any uncertainty about Arsenal could be a product of the standard being raised after their surprise second-place finish last season.
But maybe the dip in quality can be blamed on the inconsistency in attack, which partially stems from Kai Havertz‘s failure to acclimate himself to a new attacking scheme after arriving from Chelsea. Perhaps it’s Arteta’s seemingly unnecessary tinkering with his team selection that’s caused instability within the squad. Or even a slightly more difficult run of games to start the campaign compared to 2022-23.
Whatever the issues are, Arteta needs to identify and resolve them quickly if Arsenal have any hope of exceeding their own high expectations. And he might want to work quickly to ensure Arsenal hit their stride when they welcome bitter north London rivals Tottenham Hotspur to the Emirates Stadium next weekend.
Honeymoon phase over for Ten Hag
For the first time since assuming one of the most heavily scrutinized positions in all of world football, Erik ten Hag faced vocal and widespread backlash from Manchester United supporters over one of his on-field decisions.
The manager’s call to remove Rasmus Hojlund just after the hour mark of Saturday’s loss to Brighton & Hove Albion was met with fury by the Old Trafford crowd, which jeered in unison when it became clear the promising young Dane was being substituted for Anthony Martial. The Red Devils, trailing 2-0 at the time, eventually fell to a 3-1 defeat, their fourth consecutive setback in the league against the high-flying Seagulls. Based on his post-match comments, it appears as though it was always the plan to give Hojlund roughly 60 minutes of action, an understandable stance considering the 20-year-old is coming off a back injury that delayed his debut for the club following his big-money summer move from Atalanta.
“He came in with a small issue, he is not ready for a whole game,” the Dutch tactician said after the match, according to Laurie Whitwell of The Athletic.
Fair enough. But that explanation, while totally reasonable, will likely do little to appease a frustrated fan base that’s already on edge after the events of recent weeks. There are serious off-field matters that can’t be ignored, and the on-pitch performances, the one thing fans will often cling to in times of distress – rightly or wrongly – are insipid. It’s not a great combination.
United, coming into the campaign with genuine optimism and expectations of continued growth after last season’s encouraging step forward, have now lost three of their opening five Premier League matches for the first time ever.
Ten Hag said that his club isn’t in crisis despite everything happening right now, insisting that United will turn things around. Their first obstacle on that path is an ominous one: a Champions League trip to Bayern Munich. If Ten Hag isn’t careful, things could spiral out of control quickly.
Richarlison rises above
What a moment for Richarlison.
The Brazilian, in tears on the bench during his country’s World Cup qualifying win over Bolivia eight days ago, opened up about a trying last five months in his personal life, saying that he would seek a psychologist upon his return to England.
“I went through a turbulent time in the last five months off the field. Now things are right at home,” the 26-year-old explained. “People who only had an eye on my money walked away from me. Now things will start to flow, I’m sure I’ll get a good run at Tottenham and make things happen again.”
It was a welcome moment of vulnerability from a professional footballer, and the response to his candid revelation, particularly from empathetic Tottenham Hotspur manager Ange Postecoglou, was heartwarming and refreshing. Against that backdrop, Richarlison’s game-changing performance off the bench against Sheffield United on Saturday carried additional weight. He came on with Spurs trailing 1-0 and proceeded to equalize in the 98th minute before setting up Dejan Kulusevski’s 100th-minute winner, playing a starring role in the latest-ever comeback victory in Premier League history.
On the field, it was obviously encouraging to see the Brazilian make such a crucial contribution after his well-documented issues finding the net for Tottenham since his arrival at the club; he now has two league tallies for Spurs since his move from Everton in 2022. Far more importantly, though, it was lovely to see the way his teammates rallied around him in the aftermath, celebrating and supporting someone who has been open about his off-pitch struggles and who is clearly a popular player within the squad.
Postecoglou, who said he’s trying to create an environment where his players can “feel comfortable to come into that space,” deserves immense credit for the way he’s managed the situation on a human level. The affable bench boss has quickly changed the culture at Tottenham. The club, and Richarlison, are benefitting as a result.
Salah provides more than just goals
Just how long Liverpool can fend off the Saudi Pro League’s interest in Mohamed Salah remains to be seen. At some point, it’s going to behoove the Reds to sell their 31-year-old star forward if the Saudis continue to persist with mammoth – and potentially record-breaking – transfer bids.
That time isn’t quite yet, though.
Salah propelled his team forward after Jurgen Klopp’s squad put forth a wretched first-half display in Saturday’s early match against Wolverhampton Wanderers. The Egyptian, lauded most often for his scoring ability, set up both Liverpool’s equalizer and their go-ahead goal after the interval, and also played a key role in the late insurance marker for good measure.
“He probably only gets credit now when he gets goals now which is slightly unfair, he’s got two assists today and he’s got us back in the game,” Andy Robertson, one of the benefactors of Salah’s creativity, told TNT Sport after the 3-1 triumph that extended Liverpool’s unbeaten run in the Premier League to 16 matches. “He’s created the chances for us and second half he was really good and probably set the tempo for us.”
Salah’s the fourth player to register at least one assist in five consecutive Premier League away matches, and the first Liverpool player to accomplish the feat, too.
Liverpool’s addition of several new forwards in recent years suggests the club is being proactive when it comes to preparing for a future without their talisman, whenever that moment does indeed arrive; Salah won’t be there to lead the attack forever. Thankfully for Klopp and Co., he still is for now.
More Mudryk misery
It was clear during Shakhtar Donetsk’s impressive 2022-23 Champions League group-stage displays: Mykhailo Mudryk was fast and daring during his team’s counter-attacks, but his upfield bursts could’ve ended with more goals. He was entertaining but a tad wasteful: a little more Adama Traore than Eden Hazard. That’s not to say he can’t polish his natural gifts at 22, but the ideal environment to aid his improvement – stuff like stability and time – isn’t on offer at Chelsea. Mudryk tallied the most unsuccessful touches (six) and attempted no shots during his 62 minutes on the pitch at Bournemouth on Sunday. The match ended 0-0 and posed even more questions of Mudryk and the other youngsters seemingly drowning under the weight of expectations at the spendthrift Blues.
Bournemouth vulnerable through the middle
Bournemouth were regularly bailed out by Chelsea’s fluffed final ball or finish. The heart of Andoni Iraola’s lineup was porous, with Conor Gallagher and others encountering little resistance as they charged through central midfield. But how will this change once summer recruits Alex Scott and Tyler Adams are available? Scott is unlikely to address the Cherries’ problems out of possession: His ability to ride challenges and progress the ball make him a strong bet to be playing for England within a couple of years, but he won’t offer much protection for the defense. So, it’s ex-Leeds United man Adams, who ranked eighth for completed tackles per 90 minutes last season, who should make the biggest difference to Iraola’s side from a defensive standpoint. It’s still unclear when Adams will be fit and Bournemouth could do with him now as they prepare for tricky Premier League fixtures against Brighton and Arsenal.
Brighton own Manchester United
Brighton fans had a blast at Old Trafford on Saturday. The “olés” rang out in the latter stages of the Seagulls’ latest triumph over Manchester United, and the traveling supporters ribbed the home side on the rare occasion it did get the ball back from Roberto De Zerbi’s team. In truth, the 3-1 scoreline flattered the Red Devils; substitute Ansu Fati could have scored a brace on his club debut – he certainly should have scored at least one goal after coming on in the second half. De Zerbi, appointed almost exactly one year ago, has turned Brighton into one of the most enjoyable sides to watch in the world. Leading 2-0 on the road against one of the league’s perennial powers, he stuck to his philosophy and brought Fati and Joao Pedro off the bench shortly after the hour mark. Burgeoning striker Evan Ferguson followed. Brighton embark on their first-ever Europa League campaign next week, where they’ll bring their collection of blossoming talents to the European stage. There’s still much to come from arguably the most well-run club in England, but this exact moment in time feels like a significant one.
Promising signs from Hojlund
When he’s fully fit and able to go 90 minutes for Manchester United, Hojlund has shown in limited spurts that he has all the tools necessary to thrive as the focal point of the attack for a top club in the Premier League. Physically dominant at just 20 years old and absolutely rapid once he hits full speed in a straight line, Hojlund was denied his first goal for the club by a matter of millimeters on Saturday after the video assistant referee adjudged that Marcus Rashford, with whom he’s quickly developing a nice understanding, had taken the ball just over the line before pulling it back for the former Atalanta striker. All the signs suggest Hojlund won’t have to wait much longer to get on the board for the Red Devils, though. Ten Hag, and United as a whole, desperately need that to be the case.
Doku spices up Man City’s attack
Manchester City allowed a lot of individual creativity to walk out the door this summer. Riyad Mahrez, one of the trickiest and most mesmerizing dribblers in the entire league, departed for Saudi Arabia. Cole Palmer was lured by the promise of more minutes and a more prominent role at Chelsea. Even Joao Cancelo, while a virtual non-factor for City last season, was undeniably one of the Premier League’s most imaginative full-backs. Based on his quick acclimation to Pep Guardiola’s team, Jeremy Doku is capable of replacing the one-on-one inventiveness that City lost during the transfer window. The Belgian winger, 21, scored his first goal for the club in Saturday’s comeback victory over West Ham United, forcing his marker to back-pedal into the penalty area before quickly sorting out his feet and guiding the ball into the bottom corner. Doku was one of the most explosive dribblers in France during his time at Rennes, and with City’s ability to carve open the opposition through the midfield, he should get plenty of chances to run at isolated opposing full-backs this year. That’s bad news for the rest of the league.
A lifeline for Luton Town?
Luton Town were always going to be in tough this season to avoid heading back down to the Championship, and their opening four matches – all losses – have put them on the back foot right away. The schedule wasn’t kind to Rob Edwards’ team to begin the campaign, with defeats to Brighton, Chelsea, and West Ham preceding Saturday’s contest against Fulham. But, while the end result was the same – this time it was a narrow 1-0 scoreline – the Hatters did look more lively in attack and created some quality scoring chances. On paper, at least, there’s a reprieve coming, as Luton will take on Wolves, Everton, and Burnley in their next three Premier League outings. If they still haven’t secured their first point after that run of games, then any hope of an unlikely top-flight survival will seriously start to dwindle.
Stat of the weekend
Raheem Sterling had notched 11 goals and four assists over 14 league and cup appearances against Bournemouth before this weekend. Finally, the Cherries kept him quiet.
Tweet of the weekend
It’s a bit poetic, isn’t it?