Monday, 18 August 2014

What we’ve learned from the opening weekend

The 23rd instalment of the Premier League got underway on Saturday and although there weren’t fireworks, it’s a relief to have finally shaken off the World Cup hangover.  

There's still one more fixture to come tonight as Chelsea travel to Burnley, but what of the opening nine games?

Manchester City were solid if not spectacular in a 2-0 win at Newcastle. Manuel Pellegrini has added astutely to his group of champions. Fernando already looking a more solid option in front of their back four than his compatriot Fernandinho. Edin Džeko continues to impress and is now one of the first names on the team sheet, while strike partner on the day Stevan Jovetić will be better off going into his second season. Joe Hart was chosen ahead of Willy Caballero, Gael Clichy was solid out of position at right back and Aleksandar Kolarov was a powerful threat in a more advanced left-sided role.

Newcastle put up a decent fight. Five of their eight new arrivals featured, as Alan Pardew attempts to banish the daemons of the second half of last season. They’ll understandably take time to gel, whether Pardew will be around to enjoy the fruits of his summer labours remains to be seen. At 10/1 with various bookies to be the next managerial casualty, punters are already licking their lips.

Arsenal’s Aaron Ramsey cemented his status as the heir apparent to Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard in scoring crucial goals from midfield. His last-minute winner sealed a belatedly deserved 2-1 win over ten-man Crystal Palace. Ramsey’s now scored in three of Arsenal’s last four league games. If he remains fit for the majority of this season, Arsenal will surely be title contenders. Arsène Wenger’s headache over where best to utilise Calum Chambers intensified after an impressive central showing from the Southampton academy graduate. Box office arrival Alexis Sánchez showed glimpses of what he can do but, assist aside, has more to offer.

Palace were uncharacteristically generous in gifting Arsenal two goals from set plays. Whether this is an immediate differential between the stoic defensive unit seen under Tony Pulis and their new side remains to be seen. Co-Chairman Steve Parish has already admitted the need to appoint a new manager sooner rather than later to make best use of this transfer window. How the next couple of weeks pan out will have major repercussions on their season.

Liverpool began life without Luis Suarez with a similar performance to City – they ground out a 2-1 win at home to Southampton. Jordan Henderson continues to grow in stature in this side. His role in their opener further demonstrating how his all-round game has evolved as he snatched possession before delivering a superb through ball for Raheem Sterling. Saints old boys Dejan Lovren and Rickie Lambert were missed more by the visitors than they were enjoyed by home supporters, while Adam Lallana sat this one out with a knee injury.

The new Southampton weren’t too bad. Many expect them to struggle after allowing several stars to leave. But this side didn’t role over, quite the opposite. They did enough to merit at least a draw, and came close several times to not only going ahead at 1-1, but equalising after falling behind to Daniel Sturridge’s 79th minute winner. Dušan Tadić looks a shrewd acquisition – fantasy managers will know the Eredivisie’s stand-out performer last year created 133 chances, made 119 key passes and picked up a league high of 14 assists. Manager Ronald Koeman has tasted success in three different European countries with Benfica, Valencia, Ajax and PSV and is the right man to lead a revolution.

Much has already been written on Manchester Utd’s opening day defeat at home to Swansea. ‘New season, same United’ the general gist. Hard to add too much to this, other than it was clear to see systems don’t come into it. They were as poor in a 3-5-2 as they were when Louis van Gaal switched to a back four. As refreshing as it was to see youth given a chance, the squad requires two or three stellar signings before the window closes if they are to mount any assault on the title.

For all of United’s failings, Swansea were impressive. They accomplished Garry Monk’s game plan of being clinical on the counter. Despite having less possession (60-40%), shots on goal (14-5) and corners (4-0), they did all you need to win a football match by scoring more than the opposition (1-2). While observers continue to write them off, they’ll flourish – as has been the case in their recent history. Gylfi Sigurðsson arguably the player of the week.

Everton are going to miss Ross Barkley’s brilliance for at least five months if rumours of the England protégé’s knee injury are to be believed. His enterprise may well have been the difference for Everton at league new boys Leicester, but Aiden McGeady and Steven Naismith did their prospects of filling in for Barkley no harm with a goal each. The visitors’ defence continues its steady evolution into Wigan’s under Roberto Martinez. That’s now at least two goals conceded in three of their last four league games. Various internet tributes were bestowed on Tim Howard for his heroics at the World Cup (preventing the extinction of the dinosaurs a personal favourite), yet he was powerless to stop Leonardo Ulloa and Chris Wood.

It was always a tough ask for Everton to win on the opening day at Leicester, as history dictates new boys invariably pick up something on the opening day at home. Yet this Leicester side are doomed for an instant return to the Championship if they don’t make significant movements between now and the transfer window closing. Susceptible at the back, devoid of creativity in midfield, one thing going in their favour is Ulloa’s ability to find the back of the net (16 goals in all competitions for Brighton no mean feat). He’ll need to remain injury free if they’re to stand any chance.

It’s looking increasingly likely it’s best for all parties if West Ham and Sam Allardyce part company. This inevitable outcome was accelerated after a late home defeat to Tottenham. Their fans have been brought up on an exhilarating brand of expansive football that’s seen them peak domestically with a third-place finish in 1986 (although they’ll have you believe they won the World Cup in ’66). Cries of a return to these glory days appear to have fallen on deaf ears as the social-media challenged David Gold drags his feat. Big Sam’s cave-man-like football does have a place in this division, and will continue either at the Boleyn Ground or at some other relegation-threatened outfit in a few months’ time.

Tottenham snatched the win in the last minute through newbie Eric Dier. They weren’t impressive and will need to find their rhythm if they are to remain in the Champions League positions. That said, the old mantra of winning without playing at your best will be needed this year as they juggle domestic issues and Europa League commitments.

QPR surrendered 1-0 at home to Hull – James Chester now with a strike rate to rival Cristiano Ronaldo’s after two goals in his last two games (the first coming in May’s FA Cup final). Charlie Austin failed to register his first Premier League goal after missing a penalty and it goes without saying these are the games Harry Redknapp needs to win if they’re to stand any chance of retaining their top flight status. Steve Bruce, on the other hand, will be delighted with this one. Not least because it was Hull’s first win at Loftus Road since 1963.

Stoke may have contracted second-season syndrome early under Mark Hughes after a similarly disappointing reverse at home to Aston Villa. Despite an impressive ninth-place finish last term, it appears they still have teething pains as they abandon their tag of route-one specialists for a more technically and tactically flexible outfit. This switch is personified in former Barcelona starlet Bojan.

Stoke’s victors Aston Villa now have Roy Keane on their bench…

His presence almost certain to spark new life into the majority of last season’s passengers and move them up several places from an uninspiring 15th place finish last time out.

West Brom and Sunderland served up an entertaining 2-2 at the Hawthorns as they refused to appear last on Match of the Day. Both will need to strengthen defensively in the coming weeks, but appear to have no problems in the attacking third. The Baggies will benefit from Saido Berahino’s continued development, while Gus Poyet will hope to resolve one way or another the future of Connor Wickham, who has only a year remaining on his contract. For the record, they appeared midway through Saturday’s show. Both managers would settle for a similar league placing come May.

So, the Premier League’s back. In summary: Hard-earned wins for City, Arsenal and Liverpool as United continue to flounder. Tottenham finally beat West Ham as Pochettino confirms reports he speaks English. English goalkeeping talent given fresh impetus with Fraser Forster’s arrival in the Premier League, while the league’s longest-serving player Gareth Barry shows all his nous by doing his best impression of getting sent off without leaving the pitch. Teammate Romelu Lukaku’s only just escaped Wes Morgan’s back pocket while another centre back, Brede Hangeland, continues to love London life with Palace. Aly Cissokho rocks up at Villa, while Southampton's Pelle is not quite Pele. West Brom lose their stripes as Southampton find their’s. Joey Barton remains a dirty bastard and Erik Lamela’s still shit.

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