At the close of week three in the Premier League, a few things are clear: Chelsea and Manchester United look like Antonio Conte and Jose Mourinho teams—which is to say they strangle the opposition attack and manufacture just enough goals to produce results. Manchester City looks about how you’d expect this Manchester City squad with Pep Guardiola to look: They’re innovative, attack-minded, fun, and occasionally a clown car disaster.
Past that, Arsenal continues to Arsenal, which is to say they have some categorically bad results mixed with a few wins where the scoreline flatters the Gunners. Liverpool still look like classic Klopperpool, occasionally brilliant but unable to produce results that reflect the quality of their play. Spurs, meanwhile, have disappointed on xG so far, but are clearly missing Mousa Dembele.
Chelsea continue to look the real deal.
While many pundits were talking up the two Manchester clubs in the preseason, I personally have been terrified of Chelsea ever since the Conte hire was announced. The addition of N’Golo Kante over the summer only added to my fear. The reason is simple enough to understand: Chelsea is at their best when they have the persona of a peak Mourinho or Simeone club: Determined, hard-working, and defensively perfect.
When Chelsea try to be the entertainers, they produce occasionally brilliant football, as they did in the first half of their most recent title-winning campaign. But for whatever reason, the one constant in the Abramovich era, despite their owner’s ambitions, has been that they are best when they are a rugged, attritional meat grinder of a club.
That’s what makes Antonio Conte such a frightening prospect at Stamford Bridge and what makes Kante such an ideal Chelsea player. Conte is, perhaps even more than Mourinho or Simeone, the master in world football at building these kinds of teams. Simeone has only done it at Atletico, a team whose underdog persona in La Liga lends itself to this style. But Conte has produced these sorts of teams that Juventus, a team that should never lose Serie A given their financial advantage. It’d be easy for such a team to become complacent and indifferent, perhaps even resistant to the demanding style of Conte. But somehow Conte produced the same team year-after-year and, with it, more and more trophies.
His early work at Chelsea suggests he’s on his way to doing the same at Stamford Bridge. Through three games, Chelsea has conceded 1.3 xG. Over a full 38 game season, that translates to 16.47 xG. Last season’s best defensive team on xG was Tottenham Hotspur, who conceded 31.3 xG over the season. Granted, Chelsea so far have only faced West Ham, Watford, and Burnley. Even so, their defensive work has been impressive. We’ll know more, though, by late October, at which point Chelsea will have hosted Liverpool, visited Arsenal, and then hosted Leicester and Manchester United on back-to-back weekends.
Manchester United is looking more like a Jose Mourinho team than last season’s Chelsea ever did.
We need the same caveats here that we have with Chelsea: United’s schedule has been about as soft as Chelsea’s so far: Southampton, Bournemouth, and Hull. Even so, they’ve only conceded 1.6 xG so far. More over, after a halting and stumbling performance against Southampton in which the scoreline massively flattered the Red Devils, the last two games have been much better.
Part of that, no doubt, is down to Paul Pogba’s quality. But Wayne Rooney has managed to contribute more than I expected him to and Zlatan has looked more capable of keeping up with the Premier League’s pace than I thought he would at his age. It’s early days, but it looks like this United team is primed for a serious run at the Champions League, even if I don’t see them competing for titles at this stage.
Leicester finally looked like Leicester.
Riyad Mahrez wasn’t at this best, but Jamie Vardy looked like the Jamie Vardy of last season over the weekend. What’s more, the Leicester attack and defense did what we expect Leicester to do at this point: They limited the opposition’s chances and, though they did not produce a high volume of scoring chances, the ones they did produce were generally quite good.
In week one, Leicester limited was desperately unlucky to go down to Hull. The result was almost entirely down to Vardy’s poor finishing combined with Hull’s rather absurd finishing luck at the other end. In week two, we saw the Foxes struggle to produce chances against Arsenal while still looking like a very solid team defensively. This week we finally saw everything come together for the champions, as Vardy’s finishing returned to him and the defensive work continued to impress. Granted, this came against Swansea and the Welsh side may be the weakest of the 17 teams still in the top flight from last season. But even so, this is a nice result for Leicester and one that suggests they’re still a solid, quality side.