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A Finnish journeyman lighting the league on fire, overlapping centre backs, and speed bumps for the top six: it’s the second week of the Premier League season! Only two teams have perfect records, while yet another contest between Manchester City and Tottenham becomes mired in controVARsy! Let’s dive in, shall we?
Matt Hein: Arsenal are playing youth players? They have one of the most exciting attacking lines in the Premier League? If their players didn’t have those ugly little cannons on their jerseys, I would almost be happy for them. They’ve only defeated Newcastle and Burnley so far, so let’s all calm down a bit. But why did Madrid coach Zinedine Zidane not want Dani Ceballos again?
Sam Cicci: I’ve always liked Ceballos. He’s still young, has a good bit of tenacity about him, and skill to boot. The Spaniard embodied that in the lead up to Arsenal’s second goal, when he gave the ball away, but then immediately retrieved it to assist Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. Now that he’s got a platform to showcase his talent on a regular basis, I think he’ll be able to step up to the next level.
MH: The next level, AKA not Arsenal.
SC: Exactly! But for the Gunners, both strikers have hit the ground running, which is crucial for Arsenal’s season. Nicolas Pepe doesn’t look like he’s quite ready to be a starter, but he may have to adjust quickly. Arsenal’s next two games are against Liverpool and Tottenham, so it’s a trial by fire for their record signing and the youngsters, if they play. Despite hogging two-thirds of the possession, Burnley outshot the home team and could consider themselves a tad unlucky (but not too unlucky) not to equalize. Burnley manager Sean Dyche is always harping on about something or other after matchups against the Red half of North London, but his comments about simulation were quite the priceless gem this time around. You can always count on him to grouse about something.
SC: The tides of the South coast swept over Aston Villa, who are now sitting 17th in the table. After a great start in their season opener, they had the worst possible start when conceding a penalty after a dumb challenge by Villa keeper Tom Heaton. The Midlanders were again architects of their own destruction just ten minutes later when midfielder Douglas Luiz dummied a pass with no teammate in sight inside his defensive third. Liverpool loanee Harry Wilson gleefully settled the ball and fired in off the post to make it 2-0 Bournemouth.
Villa dominated the ball thereafter and peppered the Bournemouth goal with plenty of speculative shots, but didn’t make the breakthrough until Luiz atoned with an absolute screamer. Villa pushed to repeatedly get the ball into the box but couldn’t make anything stick. Bournemouth aren’t exactly known for their defensive prowess, so if Villa can’t finish against a team like this, it will only get tougher down the line.
MH: Fabianski appears to be auditioning for another appearance in the Workmanlike Performer’s team of the season! Brighton’s new manager, Graham Potter, has the Seagulls playing a much more exciting brand of football, although it doesn’t take much to raise the bar after last season.
But somehow a midfield pivot of Declan Rice and Jack Wilshere couldn’t control the game for West Ham? You don’t say.
SC: It’s unfortunate for West Ham, because a match against Brighton, even away, is one they could reasonably expect to win with the talent at their disposal. Manager Manuel Pellegrini has historically done a great job of turning water into wine, so maybe it will just take a little bit longer for him to mold his team. Of course, the recent saga with Marko Arnautovic didn’t help things. The void without one of their best attackers may take some time to fill, but that’s at least one less toxic presence in the dressing room. Chicharito’s goal was well-taken, but some poor defending allowed Brighton to equalize. Will West Ham be able to fulfill their potential, or will it be another middling season this year?
SC: Crikey! Here it comes, one of the rarest of specimens: a Bernard goal! The Brazilian matched his goal tally from last season only two games into the season via a cleverly disguised shot to the near post after an excellent ball by Lucas Digne! If he can continue to play well alongside Siggurdson and Richarlison as an attacking midfield trio, maybe Everton and Marco Silva can make a push for the top six after all. This squad continues to look very talented on paper; if Moise Kean can mesh well with his teammates, he should definitely displace Dominic Calvert-Lewin up top. They need to be more clinical, but are creating enough chances that it shouldn’t be a concern just yet. Watford, though, are another story. Other than a Troy Deeney one-on-one and a few opportunistic moves, they couldn’t get much going. The Hornets haven’t looked great in their opening fixtures, and even look frustrated and testy. What seems to be the problem there?
MH: Many pundits had Watford pegged for relegation in the 18/19 season but they surpassed expectations and pushed up to 11th. It’s mostly the same team and reliable stalwarts like Deeney and Étienne Capoue aren’t getting any younger. Both youth and dynamism are lacking in the squad, especially if Gerard Deulofeu is unable to replicate his excellent season. New signings Ismail Sarr and Danny Welbeck to make an impact this campaign if they want to avoid a relegation scrap.
MH: Captain Teemu on duty! The Finnish striker Teemu Pukki is the story through the first two weeks, bagging a hat trick in this game to bring his total goals to four. These were not simple tap-ins either and he showcased a variety of skills: his first a sweetly struck volley, his second dancing around defenders, and his third on the counter Norwich ran rampant over a torrid Newcastle side. Moritz Leitner in the midfield completed over 90% of his 105 passes, attempting more passes than the whole Newcastle midfield combined. With promising young fullbacks Jamal Lewis and Max Aarons rampaging down the wings, the Canaries made good on the attacking promise they showed against Liverpool.
SC: Is there anything positive we can say about Newcastle? The Steve Bruce appointment still confounds, and Mike Ashley will likely end the season being bodily dragged from his office by Newcastle fans and tossed into the River Tyne with an anvil tied to his feet. And he’ll be lucky if that’s all he gets!
MH: In the Premier League, Steve Bruce has won 110 of 394 matches as a manager.
SC: Nothing exudes confidence like a 25% win percentage? I do feel for Miguel Almirón, who arrived last season to cut his teeth at the top level but now finds himself stuck in a disastrous situation beyond his control. I’d be booking that first flight back to Atlanta. Have mercy and take Joelinton with you, too.
Is it too early to bet that Sam Allardyce is waiting by the telephone? Ok, ok, we’re only two games into the season, and stranger things have happened. But it really doesn’t look good for Newcastle, in any capacity. And next up is a trip to White Hart Lane against Tottenham! Kane must be licking his lips.
MH: Liverpool will be toasting their early lead on last season’s champions. But although they are one of only two perfect teams Klopp’s men have not convinced in their performances. This past weekend, a Southampton team that will likely be fighting a relegation battle once again found the going a little too easy, outplaying the Reds for much of the game. If Ings doesn’t repay his old team by missing an easy chance at the end, talk would be much gloomier at Anfield this week. So Sam, are these mediocre defensive performances from Liverpool simply a blip or something that will haunt them later in the season?
SC: It’s a blip. They had a long summer, Alisson is out, and Adrian cocked up a routine clearance. He’s not going to do that every game, and I think Liverpool will be fine. Now, maybe an unpopular opinion, but Mohamed Salah will have to work a little harder and maybe not wait for the ball to be delivered to him up top against tougher opposition.
MH: In good news, Tottenham took a point at the Etihad. In bad news, Spurs looked absolutely outclassed the entire game. Nothing about this game besides the result suggested that Man City will not march inevitably to the title. Most the Tottenham’s players were ineffective at best. Not having Heung-Min Son or Dele Alli available hurt, as Moussa Sissoko and Christian Eriksen were ineffective outlets against the press. Pochettino’s decision to sit far back defensively while also trying to play out of the back should be called into question despite the result. Time and time again Spurs passed futilely around the back before eventually turning the ball over in their own half. None of the Spurs midfielders could advance the ball besides an occasional Tanguy Ndombele pass or dribble.
SC: VERY occasional. One of the few times he passed forward, it led to Lamela’s cleverly-disguised goal to catch Ederson out of position. Beyond that, most of the team just looked too scared to take risks.
MH: City is death, and Kevin De Bruyne has come to ferry us across the Styx. Can anything short of a meteor stop Pep’s men this season?
SC: The one thing that is stronger than all forces, including this Manchester City team, is the power of friendship.
Since that kind of thing isn’t quite available to Premier League managers, it’s gonna be tough. But don’t engrave City’s name on the trophy yet! They’re coming off two record-setting seasons, and that type of level is very hard to sustain. De Bruyne’s return certainly gives them even more quality (can’t stress enough how astounding that one-time cross to Sterling was), while Rodri solidifies the defensive midfield role. Leroy Sané’s absence, I think, will be a bigger factor than people think. He was incredibly useful and incisive as an impact sub, and with City shorn of his qualities for months, they may drop just a few more points here and there. Now, they still have the strongest squad, and Liverpool will need to be at the top of their game yet again all season.
Tottenham don’t look like contenders after this performance. Manchester City took 30 (!) shots to Tottenham’s 3. That doesn’t look like a top-six matchup. It’s like City beating up on a third division team. And the equalizer was a corner-kick header by Lucas Moura. That will likely never happen again. Pochettino has never really demonstrated he has a plan to deal with Guardiola sides, so unless he figures that out quick, it may be another 3rd place season.
And VAR won’t save them every game. It looked to be yet another crushing last-minute defeat like last season’s Champions League quarterfinal matchup, but once again it was video review to Tottenham’s rescue! Is this something we get to look forward to every time these two teams meet? If so, sign me up immediately. These emotionally charged U-turns are what the game is about, after all. Right?
Also, where in the world is Jan Vertonghen??
MH: Sheffield United, after 12 years away from the Premier League, picked up their first win against an abject Crystal Palace team. The less said about Palace the better. Chris Wilder’s Blades, however, are doing some really interesting things tactically. He’s given players positional freedom, which allows his players to overload sides and create mismatches. In the build up to their goal, Jack O’Connell, a centre back, overlaps to the outside and continues his run all the way up the wing. Meanwhile, a forward drops back to cover the space he vacated. Such positional flexibility is rare and should make Sheffield a fun watch this season, even if they must battle to stay up.
SC: But do you know who isn’t a fun watch so far? Crystal Palace. Only six shots, amid another dire performance, means it’s going to be a long, hard season for the Londoners. Should we pencil them in the relegation zone next to Newcastle just yet?
Also, I would imagine that anytime any defender, on any team, approaches the halfway line, we’ll hear “overlapping centre back” from pundits.
MH: Lampard sacked in the morning? Starting Captain America and N’golo Kante produced a point this week, but once again the Blues looked lively and energetic for a half hour before falling almost completely out of the game. Jorginho was ineffective in a double pivot with Kante, as no one on the Chelsea side could take control of the game. What should Lampard’s plan be going forward?
SC: Chelsea can play with verve, tenacity, and skill…for 30 minutes. Then, it’s off the rails and hoping for the best for another hour.
Lampard has a lot of goodwill to burn through before his job is under threat, but there’s no overnight fix for this. Chelsea lost their best player over the summer, were unable to replace him, and are now relying on a group of “kids” who, while they may well be talented, don’t have a ton of top-flight experience. The group needs time to gel and learn each other’s games. The Super Cup against Liverpool showed Chelsea can put together a solid full-game performance, but they need to do it on a consistent basis. On the veteran side, Pedro looked lively against Leicester, constantly running around, looking for the ball, and continuing to try and make things happen even when it wasn’t quite clicking for him. Christian Pulisic is still bedding in, but he needs to look for the ball more, else he risks being a peripheral player, as he was at times this game.
Defensively, Antonio Rüdiger’s return will strengthen the back line enormously, although Cesar Azpilicueta, usually Mr. Reliable, has been off-color recently. Even worse, though, is Willian. He looks disengaged and totally uninterested. After coming on against Leicester, he constantly gave the ball away. But instead of pressing to win it back, he would hang his head in frustration. I’m not sure what’s going on with him, but as one of the longer-serving players in the squad, his attitude is troubling.
If Lampard can’t sort these things out, well, it’s only a matter of time before the kids start singing “Stamford Bridge is falling down…”
MH: On the Leicester side, nothing about this game makes me think they can’t challenge for a place in the top six. They may only have two draws to their name but the wins will come if they keep playing like this. Vardy and co. couldn’t quite find the go-ahead goal, but fans walked away feeling that the Foxes would have the upper hand when the fixture heads to King Power Stadium. James Maddison was around the ball all game, and if he can be a touch more decisive, he may be knocking on the English national team’s door soon. The midfield with Maddison, Hamza Choudhury, and Youri Tielemans may be one of the best Under-23 units in all of top-flight soccer.
MH: As usual, a star player’s missed penalty will overshadow all the interesting parts about this game.
SC: Interesting parts? United had two shots on target, one of which was the penalty.
MH: Paul Pogba taking unwarranted heat from Man United supporters is not new, but castigating him for missing a penalty he did all the work to draw irks me. He is by far the most creative player the side lines up week after week. At times this game, Pogba clearly felt that pressure, consistently trying to do a little too much. It’s hard to fault him for that, as besides their extremely well-worked goal, they struggled to create any clear cut chances. Martial taking his opportunities like a true number 9 is encouraging (it’s almost like he is actually a really good player when he gets to, you know, play!) but youngsters like Scott McTominay, Daniel James, and even Marcus Rashford struggle to break down a solid compact defense.
SC: I will disagree with you there about the penalty flak. Winning a penalty does not mean you take the penalty. I can’t fathom why Ole Gunnar Solskjaer didn’t reinforce this point. Rashford’s record from the spot in recent times is far superior to Pogba’s, and many of the England striker’s spot kick tallies have come in high pressure situations. Too many people take scoring a penalty for granted these days, and this is what happens. Never undersell an immaculate record from the spot. It’s why players like Luka Miljevojovic take penalties every time they’re awarded. I won’t knock Pogba for trying to make things happen, but I will knock him for not giving the ball to Rashford.
MH: I also feel like most of the criticism directed at Pogba is related to things other than his play, which is why I am quick to leap to his defense.
Speaking of defense, Wolves did what they do best in this game: defend compactly and strike quickly and efficiently. Ruben Neves already has a goal of the year candidate with his brilliant equalizer, but Matt Doherty’s injury highlights what will be the problem for them all season: depth. Wolves played the same 11-13 players almost all of last season and only brought in a couple of reinforcements. With their Europa League campaign already in full swing, injuries and fatigue may limit this squad from truly challenging the top six teams.
Angry Veracruz Fans
We get it; when your team is on a 31-game winless run, it gets frustrating. For fans of Mexican club side Veracruz, however, it was just too much, so a few enterprising ne’er-do-wells hacked into team president Fidel Kuri Grajales’ Twitter account. It was, supposedly, the first step for this rogue element “taking back the club.” They wanted to make their displeasure known, so they put their heads down and got the job done, no matter how illegal or worrying it might be.