theScore examines the most important developments and biggest talking points from Saturday’s slate of action in England’s top flight.
City’s arrivals already paying off
Manchester City’s signings having teething problems is a regular theme under Pep Guardiola. In Jack Grealish’s first season at the club, he would consider taking on a player before turning away and playing the ball backward, and he took time to adjust to the rotating cast of left-backs behind him. John Stones had to learn from his errors, and Rodri becoming an authoritative force in midfield was a drawn-out process. There are many more examples throughout the squad.
Players hitting the ground running like Erling Haaland are quite rare.
But this season is different. Josko Gvardiol’s encountered few issues while playing almost exclusively at left-back and dealt well with Morgan Gibbs-White’s movement and physicality when he moved to center-back during Saturday’s 2-0 win over Nottingham Forest. Mateo Kovacic, who’s missed the last three matches due to injury, has been a natural fit as one of the No. 8s.
Matheus Nunes and Jeremy Doku have been most impressive. They slotted into good areas out of possession and carried the ball forward at any opportunity against Forest. Until Doku was unfortunately sacrificed following Rodri’s needless red card, the Belgian winger and Nunes were even switching positions.
Nunes’ cross for Haaland’s goal was perfection, and he earned another appreciative hug from the Norwegian striker after battling to win a corner late in the second half.
There could be a few reasons why the new arrivals are settling in so quickly. Unlike most campaigns, these players have been brought in out of necessity rather than to provide competition after three players who were key in recent seasons – Ilkay Gundogan, Riyad Mahrez, and, to a lesser extent, Aymeric Laporte – departed. Additionally, City’s injuries have increased the need for the fresh recruits to play plenty of minutes.
Nunes, Doku, and Kovacic also neatly fit into a stylistic shift to Guardiola’s side. The team has lifted its number of progressive carries and decreased the amount it moves the ball forward with passes, and each member of that trio is gifted at sidestepping or riding challenges and then filling space ahead of them. Instead of adapting to an existing plan, they’re part of a new plan.
And, with the exception of Doku, the summer arrivals aren’t projects. Doku is relatively inexperienced, and numerous aspects of his game will be improved; he’s typical of the kind of player City have brought aboard during Guardiola’s tenure. However, Nunes, Kovacic, and Gvardiol had already proven their ability to fit into a top-level team. They were ready to go.
Handball rule still a disaster
Gary O’Neil was right to be incensed.
Wolverhampton Wanderers’ manager bemoaned a decision from referee Josh Smith to award Luton Town a spot-kick in their eventual 1-1 draw, branding the rookie official’s handball call on Joao Gomes as “absolutely terrible” after Saturday’s stalemate. Gomes, racing back into defensive position inside his own penalty area, blocked Issa Kabore’s powerful effort, only for the ball to violently ricochet off his leg and up onto his outstretched arm. Carlton Morris’ subsequent goal from the spot earned Luton their first Premier League point.
O’Neil wasn’t alone in his criticism.
In most cases, the deflection would negate the penalty call; the UEFA Football Board recommended earlier this year that the handball law be amended to clarify that “no handball offense should be called on a player if the ball is previously deflected from his own body.” Former Premier League referee Mike Dean, speaking after the match on Sky Sports, said he had “no idea” why the on-field penalty decision hadn’t been overturned after a VAR review; when even your fellow referees are baffled, something’s wrong.
The International Football Association Board (IFAB), which administers the laws of the sport, didn’t take UEFA’s recommendation going into the season. The only explanation for upholding Saturday’s call against Gomes is that, despite the deflection, the Brazilian midfielder’s arm was adjudged to have made his body “unnaturally bigger,” based on the IFAB’s wording of the ever-changing, always-confounding law that nobody within the sport seems satisfied with. “A player is considered to have made their body unnaturally bigger when the position of their hand/arm is not a consequence of, or justifiable by, the player’s body movement for that specific situation,” according to the IFAB. That’s inherently subjective, and that’s the issue.
Luton supporters will say that Gomes’ arm shouldn’t have been raised when he tried to make the initial block, but Wolves fans, justifiably upset, will counter by saying that it was impossible for him to react to the deflection, and the initial block should supersede the handball. Players can’t move robotically on the pitch with their arms stuck to their sides all the time, and the rules should reflect that.
After Wolves received an official apology from the Premier League’s refereeing body following a blown penalty call in their match against Manchester United earlier this season, this is just more fuel on the fire for O’Neil’s team.
Gibbs-White does Arsenal a favor
Mikel Arteta’s thank-you card is probably in the post. Morgan Gibbs-White may have handed Arsenal an advantage when they face Manchester City next month after his tangle with Rodri culminated with the influential midfielder’s dismissal. City’s trip to the Emirates represents the final match of Rodri’s anticipated three-match suspension, meaning the base of the reigning Premier League champions’ midfield could instead be manned by Kalvin Phillips, John Stones, or Mateo Kovacic, although the latter pair have missed recent matches through injury. “Hopefully Rodri will learn. He has to control his emotions,” Guardiola said of the needless red card.
Midfielders conduct Everton’s best display so far
Everton’s attack-minded midfielders stepped up for Saturday’s 3-1 win at Brentford. Abdoulaye Doucoure’s excellent half-volley to open the scoring lifted him to seven goals over his last 16 Premier League appearances, and he cracked the woodwork with another effort later in the first half. Dwight McNeil’s improvement toward the back end of last season continued as he delivered a perfect corner-kick for James Tarkowski’s header. And James Garner, who’s struggled to recreate his Championship form in the top tier, squeezed the ball off Nathan Collins before clipping through an excellent pass for Dominic Calvert-Lewin to score. With more performances like these, Everton can compensate for the work rate and dribbling ability they lost when Alex Iwobi moved to Fulham late on transfer deadline day.
Evans steadies the ship
Jonny Evans, now 35, obviously isn’t the long-term solution for Manchester United. Nor will he rectify the many ongoing issues at the club. But the veteran defender can, in the immediate term, help stem the tide and provide a calming presence for the injury-ravaged Red Devils. Evans, starting his first match for the club since 2015, provided a lovely assist for Bruno Fernandes’ stunning goal in Saturday’s win over Burnley and nearly had a goal himself before VAR intervened. He was stout at the back when Burnley pushed for an equalizer that never came in the second half, too. For a club in utter turmoil right now, Evans, signed as a free agent after leaving Leicester City, could play a vital role in helping Erik ten Hag’s team get back on track.
Stat of the day
Manchester City put on a passing clinic for their opening goal against Nottingham Forest.
Tweet of the day
Wolves’ wonderfully named midfielder Jean-Ricner Bellegarde set a club record by getting sent off in just his second Premier League appearance.