Oh Premier League, How We’ve Missed You
After a long summer of meaningless friendlies and protracted transfer sagas, actual football returned to the docket last Friday with Liverpool’s premier league opener at Anfield. Now that the teams have given viewers and fans their first impressions to mull over, what did these sides tell us about their ability to compete?
Liverpool 4 – 1 Norwich City
SC: The European defending champions received the task of entertaining the masses with a Friday seasonal kickoff and did not disappoint. A Liverpool side without Sadio Mané seamlessly integrated last season’s pop-up hero Divock Origi into the forward line and scored goals for fun in the first half. Origi, Mohamed Salah, Virgil Van Dijk, and a Norwich own goal put Liverpool on pace for a goal every ten minutes before lowering the pressure in the second half. Really, it’s just a continuation of their good form from last year. And once Mané is fit and Klopp can regularly call on Naby Keita, expect them to kick on and provide another thrilling challenge to Manchester City. Of course, the injury to Alisson isn’t good, but the fixture list isn’t too bad, with matches against Arsenal and Chelsea maybe providing more pressure.
MH: Honestly, the Canaries’ decision to not back down was refreshing. Most newly promoted teams would bunker down and try to nick one on the counter. Instead Norwich went forward and created some good chances. If goalscorer Teemu Pukki and his teammates continue to play this well going forward, Norwich will be entertaining with a good chance of staying up.
West Ham 0 – 5 Manchester City
SC: In case Liverpool had any ideas about setting a benchmark, Manchester City set one of their own by hammering West Ham United. With Sergio Aguero and Bernardo Silva on the bench, and Leroy Sane confirmed to be out for months, Raheem Sterling stepped with a hat trick past a hapless West Ham defense. Gabriel Jesus filled in admirably up top with a goal of his own, but it’s still tough to see him displacing Aguero. New midfield addition Rodri feels like a perfect fit, with his defensive discipline and willingness to foul frequently when defending in transition both necessary bedrocks for Pep’s style. Meanwhile, a back-four without Vincent Kompany held up well.
On the other hand, West Ham continued their Jekyll-and-Hyde tendencies from last season. On paper, this team has some pretty good attacking talent from last term with Felipe Anderson and Manuel Lanzini. Plus, the addition of Sébastian Haller from Eintracht Frankfurt should give them more presence up top. But sometimes, this team just looks out of its depth. A midfield rotating through Declan Rice, Mark Noble, and Jack Wilshere is serviceable, but shouldn’t trouble superior sides too much. It’s harsh to judge them against one of the world’s best, but West Ham didn’t give any indications that they’ll press higher up the table this year.
MH: Remember when Wilshere was going to be the English Iniesta? Well, it’s a good thing West Ham won’t be relying on another overhyped English midfielder to make a leap again this year… Oh sorry, didn’t see you there Declan.
AFC Bournemouth 1 – 1 Sheffield United
SC: We’ve seen this song and dance before, Bournemouth. Eddie Howe, as always, has done a brilliant job of constructing an entertaining and proactive side on a shoestring budget (he literally has to barter with shoestrings instead of cash [source required]). But that defense! After struggling to break through for most of the game, Bournemouth looked set to open their season with three points, but a late concession meant they came away with a point from a frustrating afternoon.
On the flip side, that late equalizer meant a lot to the entire Sheffield organization. They’ve been marked as fodder meant to go straight back to the Championship, with many pundits believing that manager Chris Wilder and his overlapping centerbacks couldn’t cut it at the top level. But the newly-promoted side gave a good account of themselves, with long balls to forwards David McGoldrick and Callum Robinson making them look dangerous on the counter. McGoldrick probably had some of the best chances of the game when played in for a few 1v1 opportunities, but couldn’t quite convert. Indeed, Sheffield might even feel they could have come away with a win. But as it is, it’s a point gained on their Premier League return via veteran Billy Sharp. It’s still tough to tell whether the Blades can stand up to more sustained pressure, but for the time being, it may be best for fans to celebrate a decent opener. Now, can we get some more of those overlapping center backs, please?
Burnley 3 – 0 Southampton
MH: I guess I have to save my diatribe about Burnley never attacking and being one of the two most boring teams to watch in the Premier League. Not deleting, just saving that draft.
SC: This came as quite a surprise! If anything, I would have expected a dour 0-0 draw from these two teams. But Burnley manager Sean Dyche continues to confound. Everpresent Ashley Barnes tucked away two goals to get his season started on the right foot, while Johan Gudmundsson also ensured he begins the season in good form. Let’s call it what it is: the “rainy day at Stoke” has been replaced by “rainy day at Turf Moor.” And I’m sure Dyche relishes that designation I’ve gifted him (I know he’s a big fan of this blog [source required]). Overall, the game was fairly even, but Burnley’s scoring spurt means they’ll be delighted about their opening performance.
Southampton, however, should take a long look in the mirror after a few defensive lapses saw them lose the game in an egregious 12-minute span. Jannik Vestergaard needs to check his depth perception after completely misjudging a high ball prior to Barnes’ opener, while Ryan Bertrand could have been expected to do better than his weak challenge on Gudmundsson before Burnley’s third. Really, for goals one and three, it was a Southampton error that led directly to scoring. More displays like that, and it’s back down to the Championship for Southampton and likely back to Germany for manager Ralph Hasenhuttl.
Crystal Palace 0 – 0 Everton
If you guessed that Crystal Palace might seem toothless without their offensive dynamo Wilfried Zaha, well, you were right! It only took one weekend for the first 0-0 draw of the season. If the winger does indeed leave, Palace will be joining Southampton on the escalator back down to the Championship basement. The lineup doesn’t exactly inspire confidence, with Liverpool castaways Martin Kelly and Christian Benteke both earning starting spots. Old man Roy Hodgson seems to be sticking to his principles of boooooring football (I get it, you do what you can to stay up, but surely they can bring in a younger, more entertaining coach who would liven things up? I’m not ageist though, I promise). Can we just send them down already? I get that there’s a school of thought for sticking close to ‘traditional’ and ‘very British’ values, but that kind of thinking also led to Brexit, so…
MH: It would have been nice if they had spent any of the $62 million they made off Wan-Bissaka to improve their squad. Bringing in cheap recycled veterans James McCarthy and Jordan Ayew do not count. Maybe a younger coach would also want some younger players!
SC: But Matthew, recycling is good for the planet!
MH: It’s certainly good for everyone else’s chances of staying in the Premier League.
SC: Everton should have won this game, even counting for Morgan Schneiderlin’s red card. Gylfi Siggurdson was at the heart of everything they did early on but was guilty of missing some great chances. That proved true for the rest of the Everton squad, who couldn’t direct any of their shots past Vicente Guaita in the Palace goal. While Theo Walcott’s connection to Arsenal would make anyone think twice about starting him, he’s surely merited that spot over Bernard, who contributed [checks notes] one goal last campaign. Wait, seriously? Just one goal? Yikes. Maybe pushing for that top six spot is a bridge too far after all. But what’s a Marco Silva to do?
Watford 0 – 3 Brighton & Hove Albion
SC: I’ll admit, this was a surprise. Sure, Watford are suffering a bit of a hangover after reaching the FA Cup final last season, but against a Brighton team that many picked to be one of the first teams to go down, it was supposed to be smooth sailing for the Hornets. Alas, they were undone by some defensive ineptitude, with José Holebas one of the main culprits at right back. Watford’s owners are notorious for their itchy trigger fingers, so maybe manager Javi Gracia is wishing he’d taken the Chelsea job after all (likely not). Deolofeu will need more of last season’s dynamism to get things ticking again, but Troy Deeney and Andre Gray as a top-two attack pairing doesn’t really make defenders quake in their boots.
For Brighton, this couldn’t have gone any better. Watford’s Abdoulaye Doucore gifted them an own goal for the go-ahead goal, while Florin Andone and debutant Neal Maupay sealed the three points with two well-taken goals. Brighton were destined for misery at the end of Chris Hughton’s tenure last term, mired in a spiral of mediocrity that surely would have seen them relegated if the season had been any longer. Instead, the team pivoted to unknown quantity Graham Potter to lead the team (so unknown that if you google “Brighton coach,” Hughton’s wikipedia profile comes up first). He’s switched to a back five with attacking wing-backs, and the more attacking display proved effective. Now, Brighton have achieved their highest ever league position of 3rd place! Wow! This is also their first opening day top-flight win since 1980. Not a bad start, eh?
MH: Maybe I won’t want to gouge my eyes out watching Brighton this season! On the other hand, Sam, you shouldn’t have to google the Brighton ‘manager’. Coaches are for American sports.
SC: Silly me. For some reason, I thought that Brighton had referred to Potter as the team’s new coach.
Tottenham Hotspur 3 – 1 Aston Villa
SC: It was a bright summer for Tottenham, with notorious club chairman Daniel Levy making not one, not two, but three big summer signings (four, if you count Jack Clarke, who was loaned immediately back to Leeds). Tanguy Ndombele and Giovanni Lo Celso are the star attractions here, both with top-level pedigree that will immediately upgrade Spurs’ lackluster midfield. Plus, Ryan Sessegnon adds depth for both left back and left wing positions. But then Villa’s John McGinn scored, and Spurs repeatedly watched the kitchen sink bounce off the Clarets’ defensive wall as they struggled to create chances. But then Eriksen came on and everything changed. Ndombele fired in a shot from outside the box that equalized at 1-1, and Harry Kane struck twice late on to secure victory. Spurs have some great new signings, but if last weekend’s game was any indication, they better hope no one comes in for Eriksen before the transfer window officially shuts for the rest of Europe. Before the Dane was subbed on, Tottenham had 12 shots in 64 minutes. After his arrival, it was 19 shots in 26 minutes. Despite a muted season last year, having Eriksen as a creative fulcrum is crucial for this team. Erik Lamela filled in gamely but couldn’t provide any incision, so it’s on Eriksen to continue being a difference maker.
MH: Eriksen cleared the first man on a corner so you know it’s a good season. But considering we lacked Dele Alli and Heung-Min Son, a good result overall. Kyle Walker-Peters played extremely well going forward, whether or not he can hold up defensively against more attack-minded clubs will be a key to Spurs’ season.
SC: He can’t.
Even though they lost the game late on, Aston Villa didn’t look out of place in the top flight. There were question marks over the squad, as the team purchased twelve new players to join the side. That’s akin to what Fulham did last year, and all they had to show for it was a one-way ticket back to the second-tier. To be fair, Anwar El Ghazi and Tyrone Mings had already been at the club on loan last season, so locking them down was a good decision. Against Tottenham, I can’t remember how many times I heard “block by Tyrone Mings” as he commanded a resolute rearguard action. Going forward, their hopes pin on attacker Wesley from Club Brugge (they also signed playmaker Marvelous Nakamba, so let’s hope we see more of this…marvelous… signing? Think of the word play!). With star loanee Tammy Abraham back at Chelsea, it’s uncertain where the bulk of their goals will come from. Jack Grealish will also have to step up to ensure Villa remain competitive, but they showed enough in this first game to let fans know they won’t give up without a fight.
Leicester 0 – 0 Wolverhampton
MH: The clash between Leicester and Wolverhampton last January was a 4-3 thriller, but there were no suchy fireworks last weekend. Both of these teams have aspirations for breaking into the top six and they both can walk away with reasons to keep believing. Leicester controlled most of the game with young James Maddison and freshly signed Youri Tielemans in particular excelling. In defense, the Foxes did not miss Harry “Slab Head” Maguire just yet, as Çağlar Söyüncü looked like a cool and collected veteran in his place.
Wolverhampton showed they are still dangerous on the counter and will feel aggrieved that VAR took away their goal for an intentional handball. Both these teams will be able to compete with anyone this year and with a couple breaks they will challenge the top six hegemony.
Newcastle United 0 – 1 Arsenal
SC: Arsenal struggle on the road, and Newcastle are probably going down. That about wraps it up.
MH: If you are here for positive Arsenal content your GPS has malfunctioned.
SC: But in the interest of objectivity and integrity, Arsenal picked up three points on the road! That’s something they really struggled with last season. And when you look at the lineup they put out there, well, it’s certainly a good three points to have, even against a Newcastle organization that more closely resembles a chicken with its head cut off. A good chunk of the matchday starting XI looked like a youth academy side, with Unai Emery selecting Joe Willock, Matteo Guendouzi, Reiss Nelson, and Ainsley Maitland-Niles. Plus, Calum Chamber was thrown in at center back for good measure. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang bailed them out, but things should get better when Alexandre Lacazette returns and Nicolas Pepe has more time to adapt.
Newcastle, though…It’s not looking good! Owner Mike Ashley sold last season’s two top scorers Ayoze Pérez and Salamón Rondón and replaced them with unproven Brazilian striker Joelinton. World-class manager Rafa Benítez didn’t receive any backing and left for China. Then, they brought in washed-up Steve Bruce to replace him. Newcastle fans, who have been incredibly loyal supporters, protested by neglecting to purchase a large number of season tickets. As if there weren’t enough going wrong off the pitch, Bruce subbed on left back Jetro Willems, who apparently misunderstood his instructions and then proceeded to play at…center midfield? Arsenal took advantage of that gaping hole and duly proceeded to score the winner. If you’re a fan of drama and ineptitude, stay focused on Tyneside.
Manchester United 4 – 0 Chelsea
MH: Well, well, well. Only the most ardent Red Devils supporters would have predicted this scoreline, and even then only after a few pints. United looked on the back foot for most of the first half, but their new, expensive defenders, Harry Maguire and Aaron Wan-Bissaka, kept Chelsea from scoring with a little help from the goalpost. United looked quick on the counter and eventually capitalized on Kurt Zouma’s anxiety. In the second half, they overwhelmed a Chelsea team pressing for a goal. Anyone doubting Paul Pogba’s quality will have to re-think their stance after his two beautiful assists broke the game wide open.
SC: I also saw Pogba slip and fall several times while in promising positions, so maybe we just reserve judgement for future games?
MH: Daniel James even scored a goal on his debut to put the cherry on top for the fans at Old Trafford. Despite the favorable scoreline, United should not be too quick to claim their Champions League spot. They struggled to keep possession for much of the game and their attack looked very dependent on Pogba.
While Chelsea did have some good spells, they clearly have a lot to sort out. Lampard starting Christian Pulisic and N’Golo Kante on the bench raised some eyebrows, and the team capitulated when trying to chase United’s lead. There were some bright spots: Emerson Palmieri looked excellent going forward from his left back spot and surely offers more defensively than Marcus Alonso. Mason Mount was active and lively, if not particularly incisive. Tammy Abraham didn’t get much service, but he did hit the post on a well-struck shot. Much of the midfield simply does not look top class at the moment. With the veterans providing so little, the younger players are in danger of being thrown in without much support. Hopefully, the fans at Stamford Bridge will give Lampard, Pulisic, Mount, and co. some time to grow.
Workmanlike Performance of the Weekend
Lee Dixon’s Casual Racism
MH: When asked what to expect about Tottenham’s new signing, Tanguy Ndombele, Lee Dixon replied “pace”.
SC: Oh really, Lee? Now, why would your mind jump to pace? Surely it’s not because the color of his skin is…
MH: While Ndombele is not slow, pace would not be considered even one of his top 5 qualities. An excellent dribbler who breaks through the lines, as well as a smart, aggressive distributor, Ndombele shines with his technical skills, not his athleticism.
SC: Now, maybe if Ndombele were an unknown quantity, I could, not forgive, but maybe understand while still condemning…nope, it would still be bad. The midfielder played for one of France’s historical teams, Lyon, and played in widely-televised Champions League matchups, including against English champions Manchester City! So how is it you didn’t know anything about him, Lee? Very curious. Google is a wonderful thing.