Redemption for De Gea
David de Gea had all summer to stew over his fateful role in the conclusion to last season’s Europa League final.
With Manchester United and Villarreal’s penalty shootout locked at 11-10 after opposite number Geronimo Rulli had scored his pressure penalty, up stepped the De Gea for a sudden death spot-kick he couldn’t afford to miss…but miss he did.
De Gea wasn’t even afforded the chance to take his mind off things with an appearance for Spain at Euro 2020, as he watched the entirety of their run to the semi-finals from the sidelines.
Given his long-term future at Old Trafford has been the subject of speculation for many a year, and the recent emergence of Dean Henderson, the manner in which last season ended for De Gea could well have spelt the beginning of the end of his time in Manchester.
But United’s first five games of the season have dismissed any lingering thought that De Gea’s days are numbered. The Spaniard returned for the new season with renewed vigour and purpose – and is seizing the opportunity placed in front of him.
It all culminated in a redemptive final word at the London Stadium as Mark Noble’s long sequence of converted penalties was brought to an abrupt halt as De Gea saved his first in Premier League since 2014 having conceded his previous 40.
De Gea’s stoppage-time heroics, and his performances this season, were not lost on Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, who told Sky Sports: “David is a different man. He asked to come back early for pre-season, he wanted to show how good he is and he’s been so focused. He saved two points for us today.”
Solskjaer has declared De Gea is back. With the in-form Spaniard back to his best between the sticks, Manchester United may well be too.
Nuno’s honeymoon at Spurs ends abruptly
Roy Keane called it “men versus boys”, and here was evidence of the work that lies ahead for Nuno Espirito Santo, whose honeymoon period as Tottenham head coach is now officially over.
As Thomas Tuchel took the praise for noticing how things weren’t working for his side during the first half on Sunday, his opposite number stood motionless as Spurs were swept aside.
Graeme Souness told Sky Sports: “We talk about how wonderful Chelsea are but they’re also just doing the basics right. They’re playing like a team, stopping crosses, getting blocks in and pressing together – not individually.
“Spurs didn’t look like a team. They were making fundamental mistakes which led to goals. At this level, the highest level, if you don’t do the basics right you will get punished.”
Tuchel could turn to a World Cup winner in N’Golo Kante but Espirito Santo’s patched-up Tottenham team had no response. Having won his first three league games by slender margins, back-to-back 3-0 defeats have put a very different complexion on the start he has made.
Of greater concern will be that Tottenham have scored just one goal from open play in their first five league games. Harry Kane has no league goals and has attempted just four shots in as many games, and his body language was questioned by Keane.
By the end of their defeat to Chelsea, Spurs had mustered just 14 touches in the opposition box to their opponent’s 40 with just two of their eight shots being on target. Chelsea had 10 on target, all of them coming in the second period.
Nuno is still in the early stages of his career at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium but, having been dominated in the end in every department, his August manager of the month accolade has turned quickly into a distant memory.
Having looked so toothless against Chelsea, next weekend’s North London derby at Arsenal would be the perfect time for Tottenham to rediscover their goalscoring touch.
No goal but Lukaku evolution evident
There was no goal for Romelu Lukaku. But even so this was a performance to show just how far he has come as a striker since his difficult spell at Manchester United. There is much more to his game than scoring these days and Spurs found that out on Sunday.
The Belgian was closely marshalled by Eric Dier and Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg for most of the afternoon at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, ensuring he had few scoring opportunities himself, but that didn’t stop him causing the hosts problems.
Indeed, his mere presence was enough to distract Tottenham’s defenders from the other players around him and there were numerous occasions over the course of the 90 minutes when he showed the selflessness and creativity that is now typical of him.
Indeed, on another day, the Belgian might have had a hat-trick of assists. In the first half, he twice resisted the urge to shoot when others were better placed, only to watch Kai Havertz and then Mason Mount fail to connect properly with their shots.
He was at it again in the second period, when he slid a pass through to the onrushing Timo Werner on the left-hand side of the Tottenham box. The substitute had a clear sight of goal but could not beat Hugo Lloris.
Lukaku’s goals have been the focus of his Chelsea return. There have been four in five appearances so far. But this was not the first time he has provided ammunition for his team-mates too.
In fact, only Reece James and Marcos Alonso are creating more chances per 90 minutes among Chelsea players this season. Lukaku has created as many scoring opportunities in his last four Premier League appearances (eight) as he did in his final 18 appearances for Manchester United.
It shows his evolution as a player. Throw in his leadership as well – note how he offered Werner encouragement rather than berating him after his miss – and it is clear that Romelu Lukaku is now a very different proposition.
Rodgers’ Maddison challenge
Of all the challenges facing Brendan Rodgers – negotiating injuries to key players, addressing his side’s vulnerability from set-pieces, managing workloads for the likes of Youri Tielemans as his side competes again on multiple fronts, the most delicate – and scrutinised – appears to be rejuvenating James Maddison.
Rodgers had every right to feel aggrieved at Stuart Attwell’s neglect to use the touchline monitor to review a penalty awarded against his side at the Amex. Also at Wilfred Ndidi’s disallowed goal with Harvey Barnes’ infringement dubious.
But his side was for too long second-best against Brighton and the impact of Ademola Lookman in the second half only highlighted how Maddison, hooked after struggling on the right in a 4-3-3 formation, has lost his swagger.
Amid injuries and Arsenal links, Maddison has not mustered a shot on the target in any of his five Premier League matches this season and has not recorded a goal or an assist in the top flight since February and so the post-match questions keep coming.
How to get him back to his best?
“Time, patience, support,” Rodgers said. “Understanding that no matter how confident someone is, and how good a player they are, you have to take them back to the basics: work your socks off, work even harder and when you do that, that gives you confidence.
“He’s a brilliant talent, he’s just in a little moment where it’s not quite happening but he won’t feel sorry for himself.”
The challenge to get back to basics is one Maddison – always refreshingly candid in front of the camera – must grasp himself.
But in Rodgers, he has a manager as attuned to the psychological as he is to the tactical, a mentor who will afford him the conditions to step back out of the shadows.
Cucurella can keep Seagulls flying
Graham Potter has already been impressed by Marc Cucurella’s linguistic skills but the Deadline Day signing from Getafe seems to have adapted at speed on the pitch in the Premier League as well as in the dressing room.
The Barcelona academy product nicknamed ‘The Hair’ for his tight, flowing curls is learning English after his £15m move but here, on this energetic home debut in Brighton’s incident-packed win over Leicester, there were plenty of signs of footballing telepathy with his new team-mates.
Cucurella was influential throughout – no Brighton player had more touches in Sunday’s game, nor made more accurate passes – but notably in the first half where the hosts dominated as he sparked a series of attacks from the left.
There were a game-high 11 sprints in possession and promising patterns weaved with Leandro Trossard, Adam Lallana and the strikers in front of him but the verticality of Cucurella’s play caught the eye as well as his pace and penchant for a tackle.
One long forward ball, after an impudent nutmeg, gave Neal Maupay a fine first-half chance and he offered variation, too, a smart scooped ball affording Lallana another opportunity.
“He can play as a left wing-back, a left-back, wide left,” Potter had said. “At times we missed this left-footed balance last season, especially from an offensive perspective. He gives us options. He’s a really intelligent player.”
Last season’s campaign of promise carried frequent frustration for the division’s expected-goals darlings and while the new term remains in its infancy, Cucurella looks to possess the technical and physical traits to add further impetus to Potter’s progressive side.
With Tariq Lamptey finally back in the fold after an agonising series of injury setbacks, Brighton supporters should have fun watching their side from both flanks.