Yes, we have been here before. It was the beginning of last season that Manchester United started like ass, got utterly thwacked by Brighton, manager Erik Ten Hag made them run a few more miles in training, and then it was fine for a while. It was mostly fine because Marcus Rashford turned into the Human Torch, and Casemiro arrived and rolled back the years. Well, one of those things is still happening, but so far it hasn’t been enough this season.
United once again got paddled by Brighton at home, going down, 3-0, on three vicious moves by the Seagulls before getting a late consolation. Sure, the match might have been different had Rasmus Højlund’s equalizer at 0-1 counted instead of being ruled out by VAR thanks to it rolling an inch or two over the endline. But a team like United isn’t supposed to collapse over one moment. Even if they’ve been doing exactly that for many years now.
Whatever aspect that United supporters want to get worried about would be correct. Their attack on Saturday was incredibly Rashford-dependent again. United had 14 shots total. Rashford had nine of them. He didn’t score on any, which United badly need. Christian Eriksen looked great last season with an all-action Casemiro next to him. United don’t have an all-action Casemiro at the moment, and Eriksen created exactly no chances on Saturday.
Casemiro is another problem. Here’s what some people think of his season so far:
Casemiro was nowhere on Brighton’s first two goals as they stormed through United’s midfield and into their box. You can see him huffing and puffing behind Welbeck both in midfield and then in the box as the cross to Welbeck goes right by him:
Maybe Sofyan Amrabat helps with this when he’s up to speed. Maybe that more solid foundation, should it happen, enlivens Eriksen and Fernandes again.
There’s also some question about why Ten Hag spent the week leading up to the Brighton match picking a fight with Jadon Sancho. In case you missed it, after the Arsenal loss, Ten Hag decided to air out Sancho in the press about his performance in training. Sancho didn’t take kindly to it, ended up arguing with Ten Hag in person and through the press, and is now training by himself. This was right after United lost another wide-attacking player in Antony, who might be a hunk of abusive garbage and on his way to prison (contagious at United, it seems). Did United really need this? Without both of them, United reverted to a 4-3-2-1, which Brighton found no problem cutting right through as Scott McTominay, Casemiro, and Eriksen all tried to figure out where they were supposed to be.
It’s still only five games in, and Ten Hag has turned this ship around before. Still, the metrics from last year suggested they were kind of lucky to finish third, especially as their xGA was much higher than the actual goals they let up. The eight they’ve let in the previous three matches might suggest that market correction is coming in the form of a baseball bat to the back of the skull.
The upcoming fixtures are a little kinder, but Brentford and Palace are capable of biting anyone on their day, and Brentford have made a habit out of making United look awfully silly. Maybe Rashford will start scoring every game as he did last year. It seems to be United’s only solution.
What else went down in Round 5?
Y’know, I was just thinking that the one thing Manchester City could use is a devastating one-on-one winger who can dribble his way right into the penalty area whenever he damn pleases. Wouldn’t it be great for everyone if they had that kind of toy? Just great, here’s Jérémy Doku.
Doku was basically unplayable against West Ham, and right back Vladimir Coufal will be seeing people who aren’t there for a few weeks after this one. Doku had two shots on target, created three chances, had 0.68 worth of expected assists, while terrorizing the West Ham defense. Whereas when Jack Grealish plays on the left of City’s attack, you know exactly what you’re getting (and it’s quite good). Doku felt like he could go anywhere and do anything on Saturday. It’s a new trend for City, who seem to be focusing on carrying the ball more rather than just passing teams to death. So far this season, City have averaged 30.0 progressive carries per match. It was 26 last year. They still can pass and pass and pass, but they’ll dance around a blockade now if they have to.
Whether Doku grabs a regular role or just changes games from the bench, Pep has a new tool to deploy that defense will have to solve along with all the other ones Guardiola has found this season, such as Julian Alvarez as a #10 or Phil Foden running everywhere or Kyle Walker as a straight right winger and also a fullback at the same time. Some guys have it all.
Liverpool are off to a flying, although extremely weird start. It’s easy to identify when they’ve been terrible this season. They were awful in the first half against Bournemouth, Newcastle, and Wolves. They won all three games. How long this trend can continue is anyone’s guess, though with the array of attacking talent the Reds have, a comeback is always a possibility.
Some of this is due to the brilliance of Alisson, who certainly kept them in games against Newcastle and Bournemouth when it might have gotten away from them. Alisson was the only reason Liverpool even hinted at crashing the top four last year, saving some nine goals from expected, the best mark in the league.
This season, it feels like strikers are already spooked by Alisson before they even shoot. Liverpool have given up 5.9 xGA in five matches this season. But the post-shot xGA, which accounts for where the shot is placed and not just where it’s taken from, is just 4.3. Last season, the post-shot xGA for Liverpool was higher than their simply xGA, which meant Alisson had to be immense. This season, he’s had to do less work so far because attackers are making their chances worse than they should. Y’know, like this:
This was something of a staple of Liverpool’s title-winning season, when Alisson turned every striker into Mr. Bill when they got into the box. Or it was just general voodoo. Either way, it’s helped Liverpool dodge some serious damage from their growing pains as they try and retrofit an entire midfield.
There was a book not so long ago, Soccernomics, that suggested that all the math said that teams should just take all their corners short and start an attack from there instead of sending in cross after cross. That getting the ball near the endline and no one within 10 yards was more advantageous.
Certainly, Arsenal thought so, as a Sean Dyche team is always built with several frost giants in defense and most crosses are going to be swatted away easily. So Arsenal took a different approach:
When thinking about Arsenal’s lineup, it’s not exactly rife with tall players. So this was the sensible approach. It was also a highlight of Fabio Viera’s performance, who was brought into replace the wayward Kai Havertz. It got lost in the shuffle of Mikel Arteta also changing goalkeepers, and maybe that was intentional. Viera didn’t manage to put any of his four shots on net, though he was denied an assist in the first half by a marginal VAR offside call. He was certainly more active than Havertz has been, and didn’t hide as Havertz has done at times. This will be something worth watching over the coming weeks.
Jhon Duran moved from the Chicago Fire to Aston Villa in January. He managed a couple sub appearances both last season and this. It’ll be hard to break up the Ollie Watkins-Moussa Diaby axis up front, but doing this on occasion will at least give manager Unai Emery something to think about:
And I was the one who thought he should have stayed in Chicago for one more season to tear up MLS and drive up his value and salary. I’m good at stuff.
Follow Sam on Twitter @Felsgate and on Bluesky @felsgate.bsky.social