September review: Man City rampant, Palace atrocious, Harry Kane on fire
September can be a slog but it didn't disappoint as far as the Premier League goes. Adam Hurrey looks back at the month's winners, losers and biggest storylines.
Who won the month? Manchester City
While Manchester United hit the ground scoring in the opening weeks, Pep Guardiola's rebooted Manchester City took their time to gather their rhythm: late wins at Brighton and Bournemouth with a 10-man salvage operation at home to Everton sandwiched between them.
A busier September promised plenty of opportunities to build up some pass-and-move steam, and so it has proved. Seven games in all competitions have yielded seven wins, 25 goals (with just one innocuous EFL Cup goal in reply) and, most importantly, the visible flexing of their squad's muscle. Even in a month that denied them their captain Vincent Kompany (upon whom they are now comfortingly less reliant) and ended with Benjamin Mendy being ruled out until the spring while Sergio Aguero fractured a rib in a car crash, they barely broke stride.
Aguero scored six times before his unfortunate Amsterdam taxi ride -- a hat trick at Watford was the highlight thanks to one slaloming run through a helpless defence -- that brought him within a single goal of the club's scoring record. His terrifyingly youthful support acts added another 13 to the month's tally, Gabriel Jesus now looks like the heist of the century at £27 million, Leroy Sane has quietly chipped in with several gorgeous goals, and Raheem Sterling continued to confound his prevailing critics with four of his own. Sterling (somehow the veteran of that trio) is now more than halfway towards his best scoring season of his career.
Elsewhere, the lingering concerns over their imbalance were calmly dispelled. Ederson continues to tick all of Guardiola's very specific boxes behind a defence who now keep their eccentric moments (aka Nicolas Otamendi) to a minimum. Just as questions were asked about how Mendy's injury could leave them so exposed after a £200m summer outlay, Fabian Delph stepped in as if he'd been a left-back all his life.
That one can write precisely 300 words on City's September without even mentioning Kevin De Bruyne, who took Chelsea by the scruff of the neck at Stamford Bridge to round the month off nicely, is testament to Guardiola's embarrassment of riches.
Who lost the month? Crystal Palace
There's no point skirting round this one: Crystal Palace are bad. Emphatically, dismally, historically bad. Of the 316 top-flight teams playing in Europe's top 20 ranked nations, 315 have somehow managed to squeeze the ball over an opposition goal line at least once. The other is Crystal Palace.
Having already made the most impotent start to a season in the 129-year history of the English league system, sacking Frank de Boer after four games and bringing in Roy Hodgson to almost no effect whatsoever, Palace then had to drag themselves to Old Trafford in another vain search for the most fundamental act of the game of association football.
"We are a boxer fighting in a class he's not able to handle," Hodgson analogised after six barren games became seven. "We took blows to the chin and got knocked down, but we didn't stay on the canvas. We tried to get up as best we could." To extend the boxing metaphor, Palace's problem is not even that they're reluctant to throw a punch. Ten teams have fired in fewer shots this season (well-funded Everton, former champions Leicester and fifth-place Watford among them) and they're closing in on 50 attempts from inside the penalty area.
Palace have two weeks to wait until their next attempt to end their extraordinary barren run -- before Thibaut Courtois and Chelsea pay them a visit. Hodgson may need some more metaphors.
Player of the month: Harry Kane
As perceived mind games go, it was fairly tame stuff, but Mauricio Pochettino, a committed cultivator of collective team spirit, might have been unimpressed by Pep Guardiola referring to Tottenham as "the Harry Kane team." Guardiola's tone is hard to gauge at the best of times, but whatever his intentions, he could be forgiven for focusing on football's most relentlessly in-form goal scorer.
After his traditionally, bizarrely barren August, Kane scored 13 goals in eight games for club and country in September, the sort of numbers not associated with an English striker since top-flight highlights were available only on Pathe News. Unfussy finish after unfussy finish was dispatched beyond goalkeepers from Malta to Merseyside, mostly celebrated with an even less fussy skip and punch of the air. A Harry Kane goal is no longer an event; it's just data.
And so, it's perhaps time to stop talking about where Kane has come from (even if his rise has been a refreshing change) and discuss where he can go from here. In October, it's the Bernabeu and Old Trafford. Beyond that, the World Cup. By next summer, we might still be wondering just how he does it but his world-class pedigree should be beyond question.
Match of the month: Atletico Madrid 1-2 Chelsea
It took Antonio Conte until the end of September last season to decide how best to arrange his chess pieces at Chelsea. With that formula now well documented, it's taken almost as long for his second season to produce an all-round statement performance. The recent win at Tottenham was a great result, but one that relied on a concerted rearguard action at Wembley, before Arsenal came to Stamford Bridge and dealt comfortably with what Conte's side could throw at them.
In the Champions League, Atletico Madrid could enforce the former but were virtually guaranteed to do the latter. Even though they had been made to wait until mid-September to competitively christen their new Wanda Metropolitano stadium, Atletico had improved their home record to 16 clean sheets in 19 games. Plenty of those who were present for Chelsea's visit testified that the atmosphere of the Calderon had been safely transported in the move, too.
For Chelsea to dictate the game almost from the outset was impressive enough -- Morata burrowed away tidily up front supported by Eden Hazard, who was buoyed by not having defensive responsibilities down the left flank -- but to keep their collective composure even after David Luiz's error was even more notable.
With a lead to protect, Atletico are the surest of sure things. But as the all-purpose N'Golo Kante-Tiemoue Bakayoko midfield axis continued to sniff the ball out and shuttle it forward, Hazard's whipped cross met the trusty head of Morata for a thoroughly deserved equaliser. Conte might have settled for a point, but with the final kicks of the game, Marcos Alonso, Kante, Bakayoko and substitute Michy Batshuayi completed an outstanding display of discipline, endeavour and composure. English sides are not known for that on the road.
Goal of the month: Antonio Valencia vs. Everton
There are few players so quietly dedicated to kicking a football as hard as possible. Antonio Valencia's name rarely appears next to verbs like "floated," "caressed" or "dinked." For him, it's more like "drilled," "rifled" or, in the case of his particularly straightforward crosses from the right flank, "driven." His fourth-minute battering-down of Everton's flimsy front door at Old Trafford was certainly no departure from that theme.
Instead of swinging in a cross from the left, Nemanja Matic opted at the last second to ignore the obvious penalty-box targets of Romelu Lukaku and Marouane Fellaini and guided the ball instead to the loitering Valencia. If this were any other player, the shot could be described as being "gleefully thumped" beyond Jordan Pickford, but there's nothing gleeful about the way Valencia does it.
Having cut across the ball as it arrived on the laces of his unquestionably stronger foot and sent it swerving into the net, there was a hint of a smile as he trotted back to his defensive station. Kicking the ball seriously hard is clearly serious business.
Good month for: Pointless postmatch pleasantries
As September rolled to a close, Twitter announced that our ephemeral thoughts could now be extended to 280 characters from 140. This was good news for those of us with more words than sense but certainly for Premier League footballers, who had long perfected the art of concise, forgettable postmatch sentiments.
We shouldn't underestimate the skill it takes to squeeze some vague observations about the result, the volume of the fans' support and the upcoming fixture (often in two languages) into just 140 letters, numbers and emojis. Perhaps the extra characters will allow some extra character, but until then, great result today, fans were amazing as always, onwards and upwards to the next game!
Bad month for: Reluctant heroes
You cannot move for milestones these days: the 100th-this, the 250th-that, 25 years since X, the 10th anniversary of Y. The latest was Gareth Barry's record-breaking 633rd Premier League appearance, as West Brom trotted out at the Emirates against Arsenal. Before the game, the 36-year-old midfield fire extinguisher was interviewed for what felt like the 633rd time about his record, how he felt about it, what his secret was, how much longer he could keep going and how nice it all was, really.
Setting aside the fact that a trip to face Arsenal was unlikely to bring a result to go with the personal story (Barry's postmatch interview, again about his record, definitely used up the last of his patience with the whole thing), it all felt a bit laboured. The very reason his career has lasted nearly 20 years is because he happily operates under the radar, and no matter how many times we heard "yyyeahhhno, as I say, it's a proud moment," it was clear that he couldn't wait to get back there.
What October needs to deliver
A goal -- from 30 yards, the penalty spot or delivered off someone's backside if necessary -- for Crystal Palace because it all feels a bit cruel now. Otherwise, a stern test for Manchester United might be nice, too: a trip to Liverpool and a visit from Tottenham should eventually deliver that.
Adam Hurrey analyses the language of football. You can follow him on Twitter: @FootballCliches.