MONDAY'S BIG STORIES

One, Two, Three, Four

Mid-September is no time for league tables. The season is young, too young, to be considered in any scientific arrangement. And we all know this, which is why Arsenal fans can make jokes about the relegation battle, safe in the knowledge that their club is far too rich for this ever to be a real problem. Relegation is for peasants, not for a clothing brand as strong as The Arsenal.
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But if the table is still unformed, the top four in the Premier League currently reads: Manchester United, Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester City. Without making any prediction as to their final order, we're having a very hard time imagining any other teams occupying those four places come the end of the season.
Liverpool's win over Leeds was overshadowed by Harvey Elliot's injury, which naturally takes attention away from such matters as goals, results and other trivialities. But when Klopp finally runs the tapes back, he'll find that Leeds were their normal selves: frantic, inventive, all weird angles and hard running … and they were well beaten.
On Saturday Aston Villa — another of last season's success stories — went to Stamford Bridge to play Chelsea. They played well, they made chances, they forced good saves and scrambling blocks … and they were well beaten. City went to Leicester, who made Ederson work for his clean sheet … and City won.
Early days, early days. It's not like they haven't dropped points. Spurs have demonstrated one way to beat this emerging aristocracy: catch them cold on the opening day. Southampton have taken points off Manchester United, thanks to Ralph Hasenhüttl's clever tactic of getting the game in before Cristiano Ronaldo turned up. Liverpool and Chelsea have taken points off each other. And, er, that's it.
This shouldn't be a huge surprise, of course: this was the top four last season, and since then three of them have spent big money on goals, goals, and Grealish, while the fourth have welcomed Virgil van Dijk back from injury. But the manner in which first Manchester United and then Liverpool have strolled past Leeds is perhaps more illustrative that the early table. Normal teams, merely good teams, find Leeds very irritating. At one point, to quote Gary Neville, Liverpool were "toying" with them.
Still, if one through four is stitched up, that does at least come with the hope of a proper title scrap. And if you've got any firm predictions to make about the identities of the teams that will finish fifth, sixth or seventh, we're all ears. Our notes on this question read, in full: "Probably not Norwich?" Sorry, Norwich. But you can't be losing relegation six-pointers this early in the season.

The Comeback Kid

While we're on the subject of the Premier League's elite, it would be remiss of us to let events at Old Trafford go unremarked. One of Manchester United's own came home after a time in the wilderness. He marked the occasion by scoring. And the whole nation, red or otherwise, joined together in joy and celebration. Welcome back, Jesse Lingard. Welcome back to the place you belong.
Yes, yes, we're hilarious. But the maths is on our side. 14 is twice 7, right? That's just basic maths. Twice as good. Twice as important.

Who else could we have been talking about?

Image credit: Getty Images

Sure, the headlines may have gone to the other guy. But we were worried, during the international break, that Lingard was going to end up stuck in limbo: not wanted by United, not affordable by anybody else. Instead, Solskjaer has remembered that he's a useful footballer. Must be nice, finding a goalscoring international down the back of the sofa.
And United are probably going to need him. Unlike Manchester City and Chelsea, United's squad is a wonky thing: endless options up front, endless weirdness elsewhere. An engaged, in-form Lingard is probably the closest thing United have to direct cover for Bruno Fernandes, in that very important position of buzzing around and trying cool stuff.
As was clear on Saturday against Newcastle, Manchester United are going to try and win the title with a midfield anchored by one or two of Nemanja Matić, Scott McTominay and Fred, who between them add up to one top-class defensive midfielder. This approach — the Solskjaer Donut — will only work if the rest of the team, the fun bits, perform and then over-perform. Goals from the first eleven. Goals from the bench. And goals from Jesse Lingard.

Tick, Tick, Tick

Fourth official looks like a miserable job, for the most part. Any time anything interesting happens, one of the managers comes over for a moan. On very special occasions, they both come over. But it must all be worth it for the glorious moment, right at the end of a tight game, when they get to hold up a large board with a number on it and a proportion of the crowd absolutely loses it.
This weekend, one lucky official got to live the dream. He got to hold up a big old number 10, and there wasn't a nasty injury to explain it. The referee had simply had enough of Espanyol's nonsense. A bit of VAR here, a lot of timewasting there: 10 minutes! Why not? These people have come to see a football match, and nobody's going home until they've seen one.
Obviously, Atlético Madrid scored the winner in the 99th minute. That was a certainty from the moment the big shiny number went up. A nice moment for Thomas Lemar, and a nice one for too for Diego Simeone, who got his starting 11 all wrong but substituted his way to the win. But most of all, this was a victory for the fourth official. Football's least important most important person.

IN OTHER NEWS

You know what they say, that mysterious "they", about Zlatan Ibrahimović. "Love him or hate him, you can't ignore him." But this is not true! Look! Here's the entire Lazio defence, ignoring him all the way to disaster.

RETRO CORNER

Watch too many Youtube compilations, and the extraordinary becomes ordinary. A flying backflip scissor volley set to thumping Eurobeat? Another one? So to mix things up a bit, here's a compilation of Fabio Cannavaro — happy birthday, dear Fabio — defending in the 2006 World Cup final. Snide shoulder barges. Routine sideways passes. Big tackles. Small tackles. Some standing about. Weaponised baldness. No wonder they gave him the Ballon d'Or.

HAT TIP

On Friday, Lionel Messi scored one, two, three goals against Bolivia: a hat trick in his first game in front of an Argentine home crowd since winning the Copa América. Then — appropriately, correctly — he wept. Here's Marcela Mora y Araujo, over at the Guardian, looking for the meaning in those tears.
It is always a pleasure to watch players enjoying their craft, but particularly so in the case of Messi wearing the Argentina strip. For so long it has seemingly weighed him down; the transformation into magic cloak is adorable. The way he gently strokes and kisses it at chest height after scoring is fast becoming an iconic insignia.

COMING UP

Fun fact: if you translate "Everton vs. Burnley" into Italian, you get "Bologna vs. Verona". And those are just two of the games on this evening. What a coincidence, eh?
Love him or hate him, you can't ignore him: Ben Snowball will be here with the Warm-Up tomorrow.
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