Gary O’Neil stuck it to Bournemouth, while Unai Emery, Neal Maupay and Darwin Nunez all shone. But Vincent Kompany, Steve Cooper and West Ham have problems.
Undoubtedly too proper a football man to outwardly indulge in revenge or pettiness, O’Neil can allow others to wade through those narrative frivolities. He will simply see three points as valuable as any other to a Wolves side that has created tangible separation from the struggling pack.
Considering the tumultuous nature of this past summer at Molineux, to be closer in points to Newcastle than the relegation zone is one of the more understatedly impressive achievements of the season so far.
O’Neil inevitably insisted that victory over Bournemouth was “not about me, not about my old club”, but a part of him must have savoured this win more than any of his previous 12 as a Premier League manager. Something in O’Neil’s subconscious, deep in the recesses of his mind, this was a middle finger to the club that, justifiably or otherwise, felt they could not evolve without him.
The second Bournemouth came to that decision, their path and O’Neil’s diverged, only ever to cross again temporarily when the latter found employment at a club similarly fighting the Championship tide. The Cherries might point out they parted with the 40-year-old to raise their ceiling of ambition and potential; O’Neil may retort that he has proven capable of installing the sort of solid floor of performances and results that now seems beyond them.
That, ultimately, was both the irreconcilable difference found between Bournemouth and O’Neil in the summer, and the contrast between Bournemouth and Wolves on Saturday: the former have grand ideas but the latter are undeniably more comfortable with their current reality. O’Neil has his clear limitations as a coach, but his strengths are equally obvious and no less relevant.
Gary O’Neil again
Absolutely phenomenal work to describe Bournemouth as “a difficult place to come”. The only team that’s true for currently is Bournemouth.
In a Premier League table of results since Emery’s first game as manager last November, Aston Villa are above Manchester United and Newcastle in fourth, three points behind Liverpool having played one game less. In 2023, only Manchester City are outperforming them.
An 11th consecutive home Premier League win, inspired by one of the country’s best central midfielders and Europe’s most complete forward on current form, with the manager’s Midas touch extending to his only two substitutes combining to put West Ham down for good with a fourth goal.
Emery can pretend all he likes that Villa “are after seven teams” in terms of Champions League qualification but they are firmly in the mix on merit after almost an entire year of sustained improvement across the board.
The BMW MKIII is up and running. After the success of Benrahma, Maupay, Watkins came Benrahma, Mbeumo, Watkins. Six games without a Premier League win, Brentford went back to basics with Bryan, Maupay, Wissa and duly recorded their biggest home victory since February.
Brentford started the weekend in 15th but an unwelcome characteristic of the problems Thomas Frank had encountered was that there were no obvious solutions. Injuries to key personnel have stretched an already thin squad to breaking point, while the rub of the green had almost entirely evaded the Bees. Ivan Toney and Rico Henry are not easy players to replace and Brentford were falling on the wrong side of those fine margins they have straddled wonderfully since promotion.
A home game against Burnley undoubtedly helped but things finally clicked again for Brentford. Twenty-three shots is the most they’ve had and six is the fewest they’ve faced in a Premier League game this season; for once, the numbers did not lie. And though Maupay’s personal goal drought was dragged into a 34th game by some VAR fun, he deserves credit for offering Brentford something different.
There is no substitute for Toney’s finishing. It is rare for a team like Brentford to possess one such talent for too long, and unprecedented for them to harbour two. But Maupay can provide the perfect foil for his teammates like a selfless and hard-working centre-forward of his ilk should, as shown by his gloriously-weighted pass in the build-up to Wissa’s goal and the perfect lay-off for Mbeumo’s. Just don’t ask him to score the chances he helps create.
There is something charming – if you ignore all the stuff – about Howe being bequeathed an actual fortune to invest as he pleases, yet two years into his Newcastle reign ranking Fabian Schar (77 games), Jacob Murphy (75), Miguel Almiron (74) and Joelinton (73) as his four most-used players.
That captures the essence of Howe’s Newcastle revolution perfectly. Money has been spent, and thus far nearly faultlessly, but the manager’s true strength has been in turning the supposed trash he assumed from his predecessor into treasure.
None of those players were regulars during the old regime but each have become valuable members of a Champions League side. Schar has been one of the league’s best defenders for some time, Murphy is making substantial contributions to an elite-level attack, rotating with the similarly polished Almiron, and Joelinton remains a highly effective cog in this whirring machine. Each underline the importance of coaching as a complement to spending, instead of the latter being used as an excuse for shortcomings in the former.
Only three teams across Europe’s top five divisions have scored more league goals than Newcastle this season, and just Barcelona (13) have had more different scorers than the Magpies’ 11. If Dan Burn is willing to do the right thing and go in net, they can already field an entire starting line-up of goalscorers, thanks in large part to Howe’s acumen.
After the absolute failure that was his debut season in England – 15 goals and four assists as the second-highest scorer in a painfully transitional Liverpool side – Nunez has found his stride.
Of all players to have started more than a single Premier League game in 2023/24, the Uruguayan has the second-best rate of combined goals and assists per 90 minutes (1.58), behind only Leon Bailey (1.6) and ahead of Callum Wilson (1.35) and Mo Salah (1.28). Extend it to Europe’s top five leagues and just Bailey, Serhou Guirassy (2.11), Harry Kane (1.71) and Abdon Prats (1.61) are proving to be more decisive in attack.
Harvey Elliott was pivotal in breaking Everton’s resistance but Nunez, the other half of that double substitution on the hour, continues to be far more productive and impactful than his evaporating pool of critics would care to admit.
That’s 599 minutes of their Premier League games played 11 versus 11 this season, compared to 211 without a numerical parity otherwise taken entirely for granted.
Praise be to Marcus Tavernier, the only player to dribble past Branthwaite in a Premier League game this season. That came in a 3-0 win for Everton so the centre-half can claim the moral victory, if not absolute defensive perfection at 21 in a relegation-battling side.
Branthwaite is a truly special talent, name-dropped by Jurgen Klopp before the derby and emerging with his reputation enhanced despite eventual defeat. Alongside Amadou Onana, he was at the forefront of a rearguard which so blunted Liverpool until Michael Keane’s little silhouetto of a man cropped up.
The responsibility for neither goal falls even in the vague vicinity of Branthwaite, whose rare blend of pace, power and proactivity make him a Sean Dyche dream: prowess in front and back-foot defending, while sitting directly under the James Tarkowski learning tree after time spent honing his craft abroad. Signing him to a four-year contract earlier this month is one of the wisest decisions Everton have made in the last decade.
It was a chastening, catastrophising August for Luton, beaten to the tune of three goals by both Brighton and Chelsea and shown to be as far out of their depth as first fearfully forecast.
Since then, the Hatters have drowned out the madness. Their seven games in September and October so far have all been settled by no more than a single goal either way and while that can inevitably induce disappointing narrow defeats such as those to Fulham and Burnley, it also helps Luton draw and win games they might have otherwise lost.
Rob Edwards stressed the imperative need for Luton to “fight” because that is their great leveller, the ultimate equaliser. They are underdogs in almost every game, laughably out of place on a financial level and outstripped by most in terms of ability. But if they can beat every opponent in terms of effort, work-rate, application and attitude, they will always have a chance against anyone who lets their own standards slip for even a moment. Only Arsenal, Aston Villa and Liverpool (all six) have scored more goals from the 76th minute onwards this season than Luton (five), who know Nottingham Forest will not be the last team to make that mistake.
Twenty-eight players have won every single Premier League match they have played in this season. Only one of those has started more than three games. Manchester City have lost the last three Premier League matches in which Rodri has not featured, winning all but one of the last 20 he has; the other was a 0-0 draw in which he played at centre-half.
There is no player more important, more fundamentally intertwined with their team’s performances and results, than Rodri is to and with Manchester City. What a shame he feels he has completed the game to such an extent that he is practically daring referees to send him off now.
Is the £62m defender actually… good? If Mauricio Pochettino reckons Cucurella “deserves the credit” for his performance against Arsenal and part in the overall Chelsea renaissance then it would be churlish to argue otherwise. Him almost joining Manchester United in the summer feels like a weird distant memory.
In 2019/20, his first half-season as Arsenal manager, Arteta’s 73 substitutes scored or assisted nine goals (a goal every eight substitutions). In 2020/21 that became seven from 114 (16.3), in 2021/22 it was eight from 107 (13.4), then by 2022/23 it shot up to 16 from 150 (9.4).
This season, Arteta’s “finishers” have scored or assisted eight goals already, the Spaniard having made 39 changes (a goal every 4.9 substitutions). Shame he was too much of a coward to follow through on that chat about subbing keepers.
That equaliser against Manchester City at the City Ground in February felt conspicuous at the time but a glance at the other teams Wood has scored against in his last two Premier League seasons tells a story: Luton (promoted), Sheffield United (promoted), Leicester (relegated) and Southampton (relegated). In terms of too good for the Championship but no longer quite good enough for the top flight, it’s a little on the nose.
Accidentally England’s form centre-half again, probably alongside Jamaal Lascelles. Watched Marc Guehi fail to thwart the irresistible force that is Sean Longstaff, before rolling back the years by heading everything in sight at Bramall Lane. That’s 15 victories in 19 starts under Erik ten Hag at Manchester United now. Did someone mention win percentages?
Only two players have scored a greater number of goals than the sum their respective teams’ points tallies thus far, and as impressive as Gustavo Hamer outdoing Sheffield United’s solitary draw with two goals is, Solanke getting four for a pretty shoddy Bournemouth side is close to witchcraft.
While it is undeniably hilarious that O’Neil was sacked by Bournemouth, then returned to win a game at Bournemouth before Bournemouth had won any Premier League game at all under his successor, Wolves emerging victorious from the Vitality and sitting pretty in mid-table under a coach deemed not good enough by the Cherries does not necessarily reflect as poorly on them as most would suggest.
“It really wasn’t so much about Gary not doing what he was asked to do, it was more about the opportunity to give our football club a different identity through the coach we made contact with some time ago and then initiated contact very recently,” Bournemouth owner Bill Foley said in the summer.
“It was not so much about Gary not delivering. I like Gary and he’s going to land on his feet. He’s coming out with a CV showing he kept a team from being relegated and kept a team in the Premier League. We had to make a difficult decision and we weren’t happy to do it, but felt we had to do it for the benefit of the team. That’s really the long and short of it. It wasn’t about Gary, it was about a different opportunity,” he reiterated.
And that is fine. A perfectly justifiable decision, if an understandably jarring one. The Bournemouth owners inherited O’Neil as part of their takeover last December and they simply wanted to appoint their own man to take them in a different direction. It was harsh, sure, but ultimately fair.
The problem – and Foley alluded to it by saying “if it means that we are relegated at the end of the season because of a mistake, then I will live with it” – is that Andoni Iraola’s only direction appears to be backwards.
The Spaniard has been thrown in at the deep end in so many ways. This is Iraola’s first Premier League job, tasked with overhauling the club’s playing style, yet his coaching staff is currently comprised of former Bournemouth players who were in place under the previous two managerial regimes of O’Neil and Scott Parker; would any other top-flight club keep Tommy Elphick and Shaun Cooper in such high-profile positions?
The Cherries spent more than £100m in the summer, but the two most expensive signings came in with long-term injuries. This is nevertheless a team with a nice blend of experience and youth, but it’s difficult to see what a manager can do when the club’s second longest-serving player gets sent off for a vague headbutt and a Brazilian international former Barcelona keeper can’t sense the danger in passing to a surrounded teammate from a short goal kick.
There is a chronic lack of accountability behind the scenes and on the pitch at Bournemouth and that tends to only ever translate to a manager sacking. Iraola’s case is becoming harder to argue with each game, yet there is a sense he is being hung out to dry.
Few Premier League managers seem to have as loose a grasp of what their best possible team is than Kompany. Perhaps losing key loanees after promotion and spending around £100m to renovate every position in the squad will do that, but so many of Burnley’s problems do appear to be entirely self-inflicted.
Only three of the club’s top 10 players for Championship minutes last season are in the top 10 for Premier League minutes so far this campaign. The player in second on that metric for 2022/23, Arijanet Muric, has been unceremoniously dropped for James Trafford, a 21-year-old whose only prior career league experience before this season was in the third tier.
That £14m seems like money peculiarly spent so far, but the area in which the most was invested in the summer was in the wide positions. Burnley have somehow used eight different starting wingers in nine games, along with five unique starting defences and four individual starting left-backs.
With this level of chopping and changing, players already unfamiliar with each other are inevitably unable to build relationships, establish an understanding or trust teammates without thought. And it is showing in the most painful of ways.
Before even getting to Sander Berge being used in defensive midfield, Charlie Taylor being relied upon to provide pretty much the side’s entire previous top-flight experience, and one of the Premier League’s greatest centre-halves building a defence that would raise suspicions in the Championship, the misery is piling up for Kompany in the sack race.
David Moyes described Aston Villa as being “just behind the top three or four teams… just on the coattails of them” after watching his West Ham side flounder in Birmingham. It was intended entirely as a compliment but could also be read as a touch envious.
The teams West Ham have beaten in the Premier League so far this season are currently 7th, 10th, 17th and 20th. They have drawn against the sides in 6th and 19th, losing to opponents in 1st, 3rd and 5th – 3-1, 3-1 and 4-1 respectively. The Hammers are the Premier League’s litmus test.
And their start has been horrid: facing five of last season’s top seven, plus Chelsea, makes sitting ninth after nine games an achievement in and of itself. Their upcoming fixtures are against the sides in 16th, 14th, 15th, 18th and 11th, before a trip to Spurs in early December. As shown, it would be no surprise to see them go into that game on the back of five straight wins, nor for them to subsequently lose.
In a domestic sense, being one of the best of the rest is a clear improvement on last season. But that does little to make performances and results such as those against Villa any more palatable; they should be in that sort of position themselves.
Maybe postpone the podcast, just for a bit.
Never is outcome bias as present as it is when assessing a manager’s substitutions. But conceding five minutes after a triple change, then three minutes after replacing two more players to fritter away a two-goal lead at home to a promoted side is a level beyond mere carelessness.
There have been suggestions of arrogance and complacency, although Cooper ought to be taken on his word that the alterations he made – particularly the first three, which came almost immediately after Wood’s second goal – were pre-planned with jet lag and fitness in mind rather than tactics.
Cooper “would never usually substitute a centre-back” and surely never will again if he can help it, but claiming that his substitutions did not have “an impact on how the game ended” is obvious nonsense. Joe Worrall was bullied by Elijah Adebayo in a way Willy Boly never would have been for the equaliser.
That Manchester United attack
A front four assembled at the potential cost of £213.9m, plus an academy-developed player on the biggest reported wage of anyone at the club, should probably be better than that.
Almeria and Granada have conceded more goals but Sheffield United have still allowed 24 more shots and eight more shots on target than any other club in Europe’s top five leagues. It’s a bold strategy that is not paying off.
Win, loss, draw, win, loss, draw, win, draw, loss. A 33% win percentage and one goal scored in their last four games does feel much more like Hodgson’s Crystal Palace.
Someone skipped the Jeremy Doku level on their lactate test.
England’s Euro 2012 squad
Between that pair, Ashley Young getting sent off, Danny Welbeck coming off injured after a quarter of an hour in defeat and Al-Ettifaq (Steven Gerrard and Jordan Henderson), Besiktas (Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain) and Birmingham (Wayne Rooney) losing, Andy Carroll is still doing an awful lot of heavy lifting for that England Euro 2012 squad more than a decade later.