Ten Hag makes his Winners and Losers debut as Gerrard and Liverpool keep him company

·12-min read
 Credit: PA Images
Credit: PA Images

In the first of what seems likely to be many appearances in the latter column, Erik ten Hag sits among the losers. William Saliba does not.

 

Winners

William Saliba
The world’s most expensive centre-half might feel justified in saying he and his new teammate had “not played much together” and thus “weren’t on the same wavelength” at all times in defeat. He certainly had a point in claiming that “centre-back partnerships are built over time” and thus gradual improvement was to be expected from a base of conceding twice at home. But William Saliba scoffed at that idea with an imposing performance against Crystal Palace, displacing the £50m element of a solid Arsenal defensive pairing and vindicating three years of questionable career management.

Saliba had enjoyed a full pre-season with his new cohorts, unlike some of the Frenchman’s contemporaries at other clubs. But the ease with which he stepped into an established defence on his Premier League debut at 21, in an away game so difficult that Arsenal lost it 3-0 four months ago, and carrying immense expectation on his shoulders, was remarkable. He was assured on and off the ball, an excellent passing range and assuredness combining with zero fouls against the trickery of Wilfried Zaha, Eberechi Eze and co. The best defenders seem to take it as a personal affront not only to concede, but to allow the opposition within 10 yards of goal; Saliba embodied that trait and will only get better with experience.

 

Unai Emery
Forever the manager who signed Saliba and Gabriel Martinelli for Arsenal. And Stephan Lichtsteiner, Matteo Guendouzi, Nicolas Pepe, David Luiz, Dani Ceballos and Denis Suarez but shut up and be nice for once.

 

Aleksandar Mitrovic
There was always a relatively unfair aspect to his reputation as a typical Championship bully who struggled when picking on defenders his own size in the Premier League. Aleksandar Mitrovic scored 20 goals in 71 games during relegation seasons with Newcastle and Fulham, then three more as the Cottagers went down and the Serb was often either rotated or injured in 2020/21.

While Mitrovic has never been prolific in the top flight, nor is he perennially ineffective. Trent Alexander-Arnold and Virgil van Dijk can vouch for that. Jordan Henderson, too, when he picks himself up off the ground.

With the conditions just right and the unshakable faith of his manager flowing through him, Mitrovic led the line like most suspected he was ultimately able to at this level. The questions have rarely pertained to ability but the temperament and confidence of a centre-forward enigma: one who freely throws elbows but needs an arm around him all the same.

Marco Silva is the perfect manager in that regard and he deserves just as much credit as his star striker for the towering back-post header, the penalty-inducing footwork, the pressing and the impeccable hold-up play. His tactical adjustments were crucial. Fulham averaged 58.1% possession in the Championship last season and created chances for Mitrovic at will. They had 33.1% of the ball against Liverpool and Mitrovic scored from two of his three shots.

 

Erling Haaland
The first Manchester City player to score twice on their Premier League debut since Sergio Aguero channelled his spiritual predecessor to silence the preposterous critics. Erling Haaland punished the West Ham defence as many times as he breached the Sky Sports swearing protocols and those hot Community Shield takes were rendered positively glacial by around the hour mark of the Norwegian’s actual competitive debut. No-one could have seen that coming. He was quicker, sharper and more composed than against Liverpool at Wembley, twice snapping into action and invading the sort of space behind the defence that many felt would not be made available to him in England.

Sprinting between Ben Johnson, Kurt Zouma and Declan Rice as Ilkay Gundogan span wonderfully for the first goal, Haaland repeated the trick and complemented his earlier penalty with a finish as cool as they come from Kevin de Bruyne’s second-half through ball. It was a centre-forward masterclass that challenged the prestige of the Premier League, so similar as it was to his regular deconstruction of Bundesliga defences both Austrian and German. His own post-match self-assessment of “a bit sh*t” was ominous when you consider this was him barely breaking into stride.

Haaland Man City Credit: PA Images
Haaland Man City Credit: PA Images

 

Scott Parker
In the emerging sub-genre of former England international midfielders whose managerial careers carry a vague stench of over-promotion in terms of both roles and media fawning, with coaching acumen that either makes them the greatest minds of their generation or absolute frauds with no in between, Scott Parker has been forced to take a step back from the spotlight. Doubts remain over his aptitude in the dugout but bigger names with grander reputations have taken precedent. Bournemouth dispatched one of those with an impressive victory over Steven Gerrard’s Aston Villa, who might have been lured into a false sense of security by Parker’s pre-match claim that his squad was “lacking”, “short”, “light” and generally “much weaker than it was when we got promoted”.

The Cherries scored early and late, weathering the mild winds of Villa onslaught in between by making up for any perceived gulf in quality by doubling their efforts. Bournemouth ranked sixth for tackles, joint-fourth for interceptions and first for fouls of all Premier League teams on the opening weekend and that endeavour – a hallmark of Parker’s playing days – will be required throughout this season.

Barcelona keeper Neto has strengthened the manager’s hand and reports suggest Marcos Senesi of Feyenoord will soon do the same. This scrappy, hard-fought victory laid down a marker as to their bare minimum requirement as part of the team.

 

Jesse Marsch
He is still, critically in the minds of many a Leeds supporter, both an American person and not Marcelo Bielsa. But Jesse Marsch coaxed and coached a more focused team press while implementing four new signings, fielding the fifth-youngest XI of the opening weekend and inspiring a comeback victory through his substitutions. Most teams would struggle after selling their two best and most influential players but Marsch has proved there is life for and in Leeds after not only Bielsa but Kalvin Phillips and Raphinha, too.

 

Dejan Kulusevski
It’s mad to think that Harry Kane and Heung-min Son are fighting it out to be recognised as Tottenham’s second-best forward.

 

Thiago Silva
The oldest outfield starter on the opening Premier League weekend by two years and four months. And while Jamie Vardy was toiling against Brentford, Thiago Silva enjoyed a late afternoon stroll at Goodison Park.

 

Bruno Guimaraes
He’s really sodding good. The best player outside the Big Six and a vast upgrade on many of those in it.

 

Thomas Frank
Three managers used their full complement of substitutions. Thomas Frank keeps esteemed company with Antonio Conte and Pep Guardiola in that regard, although his prior approach meant five changes were tactically necessary rather than basic rotation.

Brentford were poor early on against Leicester, ponderous and lacking aggression. By the time Kiernan Dewsbury-Hall had doubled the hosts’ lead at the King Power Stadium, the Bees had had two shots and little over a third of possession.

They stayed in touch until the hour mark, when Josh Dasilva and Keane Lewis-Potter were introduced. Three minutes later, Ivan Toney scored.

After Shandon Baptiste replaced Christian Norgaard with a quarter of an hour remaining, Frank waited a little longer to make his final changes. Mads Bech Sorensen and Halil Dervisoglu came on. Three minutes later, Dasilva equalised.

Mistakes were made and lessons learned, like not pairing Ben Mee with Pontus Jansson in central defence. All in all, a successful afternoon.

 

Losers

Manchester United
Erik ten Hag was appointed Manchester United manager on April 21, 109 days ago. Their pre-season commenced on June 27, 42 days ago. Their first summer friendly was on July 12, 27 days ago.

Their summer preparations have been relatively uncharacteristically settled, incomings and Cristiano Ronaldo’s future notwithstanding. Yet it took 14 seconds for that familiar sinking feeling to replace any lingering new season optimism.

Danny Welbeck and Leandro Trossard pressed all naive hope and confidence out of their hosts, Lisandro Martinez and Diogo Dalot panicked and Old Trafford had the atmosphere sucked out almost instantly.

It was as if the last few months had never happened. Manchester United slipped back into their old bad habits. Half-time, full-time and the second Brighton goal from Pascal Gross were all greeted by a chorus of boos.

The sliver of a silver lining to this menacing cloud is that it was a performance that might force a change in transfer window approach over the next three weeks. Manchester United’s eternal desperation to sign a central midfielder was common knowledge and this defeat only made it even more painfully obvious, while also highlighting their need for a centre-forward.

Ten Hag has to use this to his advantage. Or he has to realise that Manchester United’s transfer department remains an absolute mess, set the bar accordingly low with 33-year-old Marko Arnautovic and watch them still fail to clear it. That works, too. Chuck in Adrien Rabiot for good measure. That dressing room won’t know what’s hit them.

Manchester United manager Erik ten Hag watches the defeat to Brighton. Credit: PA Images
Manchester United manager Erik ten Hag watches the defeat to Brighton. Credit: PA Images

 

Steven Gerrard
A common refrain among football supporters is that clubs should get their business done early in the transfer window. Steven Gerrard clearly agreed, completing his most recent signing this summer on July 1. Yet they were fairly beaten by a newly-promoted team that remains under construction and Aston Villa really did look little more than ordinary in the process.

Last season was his free hit. Things were never going to deteriorate to the extent that Villa were in genuine relegation trouble; Dean Smith three places above the relegation zone and Gerrard had copious funds made available to him in January.

But with everyone starting on equal footing, Villa have already stumbled behind the pack. This is their second sequence of five winless games since Gerrard’s appointment and with three months to go until their one-year anniversary, his identity and ethos is no clearer.

 

Liverpool
There is a confirmation bias factor which must be considered – particularly in light of modern trends – but Liverpool naming the oldest starting XI of the Premier League weekend and subsequently being beaten in the energy and aggression stakes by Fulham felt instructive. It was the first time since February 1994 that more than half of their starters for a Premier League game were aged 30 and over.

James Milner coming on before the hour mark hardly dispelled the sense that Liverpool need a little more fresh blood, especially in midfield.

More worrying for Jurgen Klopp will be those slow, sluggish starts. Liverpool have conceded first in each of their last five league games and while they have the requisite talent to overcome such deficits, it is a counterproductive routine to have settled into. There is a fine line between mentality monsters and basic complacency.

 

Jose Sa and Rayan Ait-Nouri
The two best Wolves players of last season rather summed up the defeatist feeling surrounding this campaign. Rayan Ait-Nouri’s defending was dreadful for the equaliser, if a little unfortunate when it came to the winner. Jose Sa will have provoked all the right people by being beaten softly at his near post.

Bruno Lage will welcome the Goncalo Guedes developments but it still feels as though Wolves need a little more imported inspiration.

 

Ralph Hasenhuttl
Southampton have conceded at least three goals in 33 of Ralph Hasenhuttl’s 138 Premier League games. That’s once every four matches or so and it honestly feels like that might not be overly sustainable.

It turns out that Jan (Bednarek) plus Yan (Valery) equals minus three. When that comprises two-thirds of your defensive heart, there will be issues. When the other third loses control of their feet in the manner Mohammed Salisu did against Spurs, it is almost pointless trying to resist it.

 

Brendan Rodgers
The first half was better than most expected but Brendan Rodgers and Leicester somehow still contrived to fall back into those negative patterns for the final half an hour at home to a team still wet behind the Premier League ears.

It was a better start than most envisaged for a transfer-less team that attracted a handful of pre-season relegation predictions. Kiernan Dewsbury-Hall’s goal just after half-time seemed to confirm the destination of all three points. Yet it was his removal which completed the reversal of momentum in Brentford’s favour.

Leicester invited needless pressure at 2-1 and a summer of deep breathing has not magically solved their defensive problems. There were eight players behind the ball as Dasilva shaped to equalise, including each of Daniel Amartey, Wilfred Ndidi and Jonny Evans occupying the same space within a couple of yards of the Brentford midfielder in forlorn attempts to block his effort. Too many chefs in the kitchen come to mind.

Three of Leicester’s five shots after Dewsbury-Hall’s 46th-minute strike came in stoppage time. The horse had already bolted and the juxtaposition between Rodgers making one substitution and letting a two-goal lead slip, while Frank made five and salvaged a point from a losing position, was telling.

 

Graham Potter
Imagine only beating this Manchester United side 2-1 at Old Trafford. How embarrassing.

 

Dele Alli
Harsh as it is to single out a substitute for 30 damning minutes in a 1-0 defeat, Dele Alli looks an absolute shadow of even his Tottenham worst and it is so weird.

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