FFT's Best of the Premier League weekend: Pep, Pogba and piledrivers
Performance of the Weekend – Manchester City (vs Stoke City)
When Manchester City carved Steau Bucharest up in Romania last week, their fabulous attacking play came with a caveat: their opposition was poor and it was really just an exercise in flat-track bullying.
Four days later, however, in windy conditions against a tough Stoke team built on back-six resilience, they were just as potent. Their win was eased by Mike Dein's generosity and neither of their first two goals owed anything to Pep Guardiola’s high-paced attacking patterns, but the nature of their general forward play certainly did; the Catalan's imprint is already visible on this team. That's remarkable.
Guardiola's philosophy doesn't hinge on basic ball-retention, but rather on a purposeful use of possession and employing disciplined attacking structures to keep defences in a state of perpetual imbalance. Tiki-taka is a highly reductive phrase and one which Guardiola himself loathes: his football is far more complex than commonly assumed and should reasonably come with a sharp learning curve.
But while City are still a work in progress, the win at Stoke showed how far they have already come. Under Manuel Pellegrini they would often add up to little more than the sum of their expensive parts, but Guardiola already has them performing in a dauntingly cohesive way. Sergio Aguero scored two goals on Saturday and David Silva played with his customary impish brilliance. No change there.
But rivals should fear the more subtle detail in City's play and recognise the wider passing angles which now exist, the attacking overloads which they now always seem to have, and each player's growing awareness for the surrounding movement. This team has had individual power for some time, but now it's being nourished with slick one-touch play, clever step-overs and perfectly timed runs.
Hull City's win over Swansea continued their fine resistance at a difficult time and Burnley's defeat of Liverpool is clearly worthy of mention, but scoring four times at the Bet365 stadium is always impressive and, in this case, it felt like the beginning of something and a measure of Manchester City's rapid evolution.
Goal of the weekend – Cristhian Stuani (for Middlesbrough against Sunderland)
A stunning goal. Not solely due to its dynamic, but because nothing in Stuani's past suggested that he was capable of it. Throughout his career, he's averaged just over a goal every three games, but – courtesy of some YouTube scouting – the majority have conformed to a particular type. Stuani moves well inside the box and a lot of his chances typically occur as a result of his anticipation: his time at Espanyol was notable for his back-post runs and his tendency to arrive late into dangerous space.
Almost all of the 12 goals he scored in his last La Liga season (2014/15) came as a result of those specific attributes – as, not coincidentally, did his second goal at the Stadium of Light. He's a "right place, right time" player rather than one who routinely threatens the top-corners from 30 yards.
So his first was as shocking as it was brilliant. Maybe the Sunderland defenders were aware of his short-range tendencies and that's possibly why he was allowed to manufacture a shooting angle, but Stuani will likely never make such perfect contact again. It wasn't just the power and it wasn't just the shape, it was the confluence of the two in a swirling thunderbolt that nearly ripped the net from its moorings.
Player of the Weekend – Paul Pogba (Manchester United)
The Pogba saga has been so protracted that, by the time he actually took the pitch for Manchester United, the odds on him justifying all the hype were impossibly long. But, remarkably, he did. Maybe his statistical contribution wasn't fantastic and he perhaps wasn't a definitive influence within United's win over Southampton, but after all the rumours, the conjecture surrounding his agent's fees and the ceaseless debate over whether he was worth the amount paid, Pogba produced the nerveless, expressive performance of a true star.
At his best, he is of course a staggeringly dynamic midfielder capable of changing games in countless ways. Beneath that highlight-friendly veneer, however, resides a charmingly textured footballer who plays with a free spirit and, invariably, at his own speed. There is no fear to Pogba; his gentle, caressing touches repeatedly show that and, irrespective of what he's doing, he is a joy to watch. His goals and velvet-slipper technique make him fun in an obvious way – of course – but the rarity of his talent makes every touch entertaining.
Whether he's on the edge of his opponent's box or his own, there's such style and swagger in how he controls, manipulates and distributes possession. That may sound like quasi-perceptive rhetoric, but it's incontestably true: Pogba doesn't need the Premier League's gaudy stage, he is his own star and he showed that throughout Friday's game.
United paid more for Pogba than any other British club has ever spent. That comes with a natural pressure to perform. In addition to that, Brand Pogba was exploited to the full before, during, and after a deal had been struck with Juventus. There were the Instagram posts, Adidas' mini vignettes with Stormzy, and that almost cinematic unveiling once an agreement had been reached; has any player ever been elevated to such knee-trembling height? Or, put another way, has one ever been so obviously set-up to fail?
It would have been reasonable to expect some first night nerves or at least some hint of inhibition, but there was none. With no pre-season behind him, he performed as if it was his hundredth appearance rather than first. Pogba may have been returning to a club he once called home and, admittedly, that probably eased his transition, but it's still a special player – and person – who can tune out such deafening noise and glow as he did.
Save of the Weekend – Eldin Jakupovic (for Hull City against Swansea)
In the goalkeeping world, there's nothing prettier than a top-handed save. Jakupovic had a good game against Leicester City a week ago, but he was also the beneficiary of some truly appalling finishing. On Saturday, though, there were no asterisks. Clawing a Gylfi Sigurdsson half-volley onto the bar in the first-half, he kept the game level at a critical time. Despite their loss, Swansea played quite well at the weekend and, had they gone ahead, they would most likely have won.
The Jakupovic stop was mechanically similar to one made by West Ham's Adrian on Sunday afternoon: both relied on a great reach, both were made with the opposite hand. What separates one from the other, though, was the difficulties Jakupovic faced in making his.
At the point at which Sigurdsson struck the ball, the goalkeeper's view was partially blocked by Curtis Davies, reducing his reaction time. More impressively, though, a slow-motion replay shows that – before he has a clear sight – he's anticipating a low drive towards his bottom corner. Sigurdsson didn't quite catch the ball cleanly and so, with the trajectory rising sharply, Jakupovic was forced into a split-second readjustment to keep the ball out.
The save was described as merely "sharp" on television, but it was actually outstanding and as good a stop as the league will see this season.
Moan of the weekend – Sky Sports' Friday Night Football
The logistical concerns surrounding the Premier League's new Friday time slot have been thoroughly addressed. Legitimate as they are, though, this is not a new problem: broadcasting schedules have a history of placing unreasonable demands on supporters. Southampton to Manchester on a Friday night and with a limited train service? When television revenue is at stake, football just doesn't care and it hasn't done for decades.
So, given that this is an established issue, the weekend's real evil was Sky Sports' new Friday Night Football programme: what a hodgepodge of banterific gibberish. A poorly constructed format with an irritatingly laddish emphasis, delivered with cartoonish over-exuberance. It was, as one Twitter user remarked, as if football had never been on television before.
Who really knows what drives programme design, but one of the restraining factors must surely be a desire not to belittle the viewer – or, at least, to not make him or her feel foolish for staying in to watch the football. Unfortunately, Sky ran cheerfully into that landmine: an over-caffeinated Chris Kamara, a whooping jester from Soccer AM, and a hopeless Manchester United emphasis reduced it to a Lovejoyian nightmare. It was still football, but with exclamation marks, emojis and that forced brand of fun which all true supporters lost the capacity to feel years ago.
Experimentation is welcome because almost everybody has at some point rallied against football broadcasting's tired formulas. But when that same public finds itself yearning for safe clichés and white noise, something has gone wrong.