A New Season, But United Remain As Losers

Matthew Stanger's Winners and Losers returns after a long summer off. Here he is on the rot setting in at Old Trafford, Man City's depth and Rodgers' obsession with Suarez...

Last Updated: 19/08/14 at 09:15 Post Comment

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Manchester City
Despite one or two hairy moments, the champions were largely unperturbed by their trip to Newcastle, clocking up an 11th successive victory over the Magpies with the last five meetings making an aggregate scoreline of 14-0.

Once again, the depth of quality in City's squad proved a telling factor, with Gael Clichy delivering an outstanding performance at right-back as Pablo Zabaleta remained on the bench. Micah Richards and new signing Bacary Sagna weren't even included in the matchday squad, emphasising Manuel Pellegrini's embarrassment of riches.

This point is further reinforced by another lively display from Stevan Jovetic, who looks ready to finally make an impact following his move from Fiorentina. With Sergio Aguero also coming on to score, it was an excellent afternoon for City before next Monday's clash against Liverpool at the Etihad. It may be early in the season, but the outcome of that game should give us a decent idea about the two teams' respective title hopes.

Joe Hart
He holds the gloves for now, but there isn't any room for mishap with Willy Caballero waiting on the bench.

Garry Monk and Gylfi Sigurdsson
"I don't revel," said the Swansea boss after he ruined Louis van Gaal's big day. Garry Monk wants to be taken seriously this season, as sleeves were given a reprieve and his gilet consigned to the bin.

Of course, Monk's erstwhile brother-in-arms Tim Sherwood also won at Old Trafford last year, which suggests we're no closer to finding out the Swansea manager's credentials. However, Monk oversaw a well-drilled and stubborn performance on Saturday, before delivering a damning verdict on United's display with the finesse of a much more experienced manager. "We can be better than that," he said. "We limited them to very little chances."

One of the most encouraging aspects of Swansea's display was the cohesive midfield unit of Jonjo Shelvey and returning duo Ki Sung-Yueng and Gylfi Sigurdsson. In his position at the front of the triangle, Sigurdsson excelled in finding space to exploit on the counter-attack as he began his second spell at the Swans with an assist and the winning goal. It is already evident that Monk knows how to get the best out of the Icelander, a problem neither Sherwood or Andre Villas-Boas could solve at White Hart Lane.

There aren't many things in football more satisfying than a last-minute winner against a city rival, and one scored by a debutant after playing for an hour with ten men. As Sarah Winterburn wrote here, Eric Dier's strike was just reward for Mauricio Pochettino's ambition to try and maintain Spurs' game plan after Kyle Naughton's early red card.

Much has been said about Tottenham failing to strengthen this summer, but it will be difficult for Pochettino to add to the squad before several of the club's hefty earners are off-loaded. As the manager said last week: "We have a long, long squad. For me, too many players. My idea is 25. No more than 25."

Until players are sold, Pochettino will have to continue eking the most out of the players currently available to him, with Christian Eriksen and the fit-again Erik Lamela central to his plans. There is plenty of talent to work with at Spurs, but the gap to fourth looks wider than it has been for several years. Winning the Europa League may be their best chance of returning to the Champions League next season.

Life after Luis Suarez has finally begun...with Brendan Rodgers still talking about Luis Suarez. "He sent us a lovely text wishing us all the best, which was a great gesture," said the manager after his team's victory over Southampton. "He is a friend now of Liverpool. He is a good boy but he is gone. His heart will still always be with Liverpool. Our ambitions have to be bigger than one player."

Rodgers was presumably only answering a question in his post-match press conference, but it seems odd that he would be so willing to discuss Suarez on a day that should have been all about those who want to play for Liverpool. Especially after he said in July: "Luis Suarez isn't a Liverpool player so I don't need to talk about or reference Luis Suarez."

For someone who bases much of his management style on mentality - to the extent that Dr Steve Peters earned an England World Cup call-up - it's bizarre that this jilted lover act persists. Who cares that Suarez sent a good luck message? He made it clear that he was desperate to leave two summers in a row, even requesting to join a rival at the beginning of last season. A line needs to be drawn, and quickly.

As Liverpool battled to a hard-fought win over Saints, a bright attacking display suggested they can still flourish in Suarez's absence. Raheem Sterling was the stand-out performer with his penetrating play from the left, while Daniel Sturridge reminded everyone of his goalscoring ability with a well-taken winner. It was the forward's 32nd strike in just 44 Premier League matches since his move from Chelsea - a record on which another top-four push, and possible title challenge, can be established.

The worry for Rodgers, as Daniel Storey wrote here, is that Liverpool were increasingly vulnerable to the visitors' attacks as the match progressed. Joe Allen's introduction for Lucas Leiva was partly responsible for this, but the Brazilian did little during his 63 minutes to prove he can still dominate matches in the manner required. As I said earlier in the summer, recruiting a midfield enforcer with more experience than Emre Can is almost as important as finding an alternative to Sturridge.

One deal that should bring relief to Liverpool supporters is the £12m capture of Alberto Moreno. Glen Johnson has often flattered to deceive during his Anfield career, but the speed of his decline in 2014 has been alarming. He was caught out of position on a number of occasions on Sunday and was one of only two outfield players for Liverpool - Sturridge being the other - to complete 90 minutes without making a single tackle. It was not a good time for Johnson to have an off-day, with Javier Manquillo making a strong audition for his regular role on the right.

It was obviously satisfying to kick off with a victory, but the biggest plus of Liverpool's weekend was the result at Old Trafford. Considering the loss of Suarez and the added pressure of playing in the Champions League, the Reds face a huge test to retain their top-four spot ahead of Manchester United, Everton and Tottenham. However, Rodgers will be greatly encouraged by the depth of United's struggles as he was vindicated for saying it won't be easy for Van Gaal. Unless United add more quality in the next two weeks, they have lot of catching up to do.

Victory on the opening day for the first time since 2009, when Everton were blitzed 6-1 at Goodison Park. Aaron Ramsey came on as a late substitute for Cesc Fabregas on that occasion, the Spaniard having scored twice, but it is only in the past 12 months that he has really stepped up to replace his former teammate. By grabbing the late winning goal on Saturday, Ramsey underlined his status as Arsenal's most important player and the man who is likely to be the driving force behind a genuine title challenge.

"Aaron's on fire. A player like this coming from midfield to score that many goals gives you something extra," said Mikel Arteta. "He reminds me a bit of Fabregas when he was here. At his best, Fabregas was coming off the front, making the final ball and scoring very important goals.

In truth, it was a sluggish performance from the Gunners, and they will need to be more alert in their trip to Turkey on Tuesday. But the result is all that matters at this stage as new players are integrated into the system and the team finds its rhythm. There were flashes of Alexis Sanchez's talent to unlock defences as resolute as a Crystal Palace back line toughened by Tony Pulis while, in just two matches, Calum Chambers has proved himself a worthy replacement for Thomas Vermaelen.

The nagging concern for Arsenal supporters is Arsene Wenger's insistence that he no longer needs another striker, despite Yaya Sanogo again failing to impress. Sanchez can play in the role but is better deployed behind a No.9 while Joel Campbell's best position is on the wing. Had the Gunners signed Diego Costa, then they would probably be considered joint-favourites for the championship with Manchester City; instead Wenger has chosen to gamble by strengthening his faith in Sanogo and hoping that enough goals come from elsewhere to support Olivier Giroud.

It's a risky strategy but one that is perhaps necessitated by a lack of outstanding candidates to usurp the Frenchman. As Liverpool have found, other than Edinson Cavani and Radamel Falcao, it is difficult to think of strikers capable of leading a title charge who might be available between now and the end of the window. At least the days of signing Park Chu-Young and giving Nicklas Bendtner another last chance are finally behind Arsenal.

Aston Villa
A winning start for the Keanbert/Lambeane managerial duo, with Aston Villa gaining revenge for their 4-1 thrashing at home to Stoke in March. At the start of last season, I tipped the Potters for a first top-ten finish in the Premier League, and those of you who read this column on a regular basis won't have been surprised when I was proved correct, yet again. 'Just how does he do it?' some of you may have wondered. The simple answer: it's a gift.

Anyway, this year my mid-table prediction is that Villa will defy the naysayers by not being completely awful and keeping themselves clear of danger. A 1-0 win at the Britannia stadium marked a good start for that prophecy, with home matches against Newcastle and Hull affording Villa the chance to build before a nightmare September.

Saido Berahino
The road to Euro 2016 starts here, with the West Brom youngster scoring a brace against Sunderland to almost earn Alan Irvine a debut victory. Knowing his policy to give youth a chance, it wouldn't be a surprise if Roy Hodgson hands Berahino a call-up for England's friendly against Norway on September 3 before the qualifier against Switzerland. Just thinking about that unwelcome international break so early in the season is enough to make us fret.

'Will Hull and Steve Bruce do a Hull and Steve Bruce?' we asked in an idea for a piece that was dropped due to disinterest back in July. The reasoning was that Hull's dreadful end to the previous campaign (four wins and 13 defeats in 19 matches in 2014) was ominously reminiscent of their lucky escape in 2008/09, which was followed by just two wins in the first 11 matches of 2009/10.

Similarly, Sunderland's slide under Bruce in 2010/11 (three wins and ten defeats from the start of February) paved the way for a desperate start the following season, as the Black Cats won just two matches before Bruce was sacked on November 30.

With the added distraction of a first European campaign, we expected Hull's 2014 struggles to continue, but Bruce came out on top of the three-at-the-back battle against QPR. It was a welcome three points before the trip to Lokeren, with Bruce's attention split a third way as he seeks another striker.

To think some people thought they'd be relegated. Fools.


Charlie Austin
Missing a penalty on your Premier League debut in a 1-0 defeat. It doesn't get much worse, until you turn around and remember you also have to spend an obscene amount of your waking life in close proximity to Joey Barton.

Shane Long
Some good work in the channels before heading wide with the goal gaping late on. It's exactly the contribution anyone should expect from Long, and not the sort that demands £12m. He may not have set the price, but it's the striker who has to bear his bloated fee and unflattering comparisons to the talent Saints have sold.

Just two shots in the second half - both coming in injury time and off-target - after 11 during a first half in which they twice took the lead. It's a clear indication that Everton are still finding their fitness but, with the Europa League soon set to begin, Roberto Martinez's side can't afford a slow start in the Premier League. The loss of Ross Barkley for five months is an enormous blow to a squad already lacking in numbers.

Crystal Palace
Two goals conceded from set-pieces; Tony Pulis would have been fuming. There was enough resolve about Palace to suggest they can plod on until a new manager is appointed, but the loss of Pulis is a huge blow to their survival hopes.

It certainly seems a ridiculous decision by chairman Steve Parish to allow the manager to leave, owing to the implication that he wanted too much money to spend. That concern might have made some sense had Pulis been afforded funds at any point during the summer and was now demanding more, but thus far Palace have spent just £2.4m - a pittance in Premier League terms and pathetic reward for a coach who performed nothing short of a miracle to keep the club up last season.

Football is often guilty of living too much in the past. There were knowing nods at Pulis' departure on Twitter as the Welshman's net spend with Stoke was shared, but his problem with buying high and selling extremely low at the Potters doesn't necessarily translate to his spell at Selhurst Park. In fact, excellent value has been found in Fraizer Campbell and Martin Kelly this summer - two players who have previously represented England - while the £7m Pulis spent on four players in January (plus Tom Ince on loan) was crucial in Palace's unlikely survival.

It is about finding the right balance. At Stoke, Peter Coates gave Pulis too much money to use as he wished, resulting in bloated fees paid for the likes of Wilson Palacios. But Palace didn't have to go down that route. They could surely have provided more than the measly budget on offer in the three months since the end of last season without breaking the bank. It's no wonder that Pulis eventually reached the end of his tether as Parish continued to drag his feet.

What odds on Pulis being in the Premier League in a year's time with Palace in the Championship?

Sam Allardyce
Not a minute for Mauro Zarate, but 81 of the b*stards for Carlton Cole, a striker with 13 goals in his last three Premier League seasons. Like Sisyphus rolling his boulder up the hill, the two Davids needs to realise the futility of their big plan for Big Sam.

"We're just working on our new style as we've got to get a bit more open and expansive as it seems to be what's demanded in the game now," said Allardyce over the summer. "We're working on that side of it but have lost the defensive resilience that saw us get 14 clean sheets last season."

He won't change. That isn't necessarily a bad thing for West Ham, but it does mean that the relationship is terminal.

Manchester United and Louis van Gaal
A wake-up call, the harsh reality, and unwelcome truth. It has all been written about Louis van Gaal in the past two days as the Manchester United manager learned the true extent of the task he faces at Old Trafford. There may have been nine players missing, but Van Gaal will still have expected a much more convincing performance from the players involved on Saturday. "Do what we have agreed. And then we will win," were his final words before kick-off.

"I always train in the brains and not in the legs," wrote Van Gaal in his programme notes. But it does not require a brain surgeon to see the problems at United. The squad is malnourished and unbalanced, the result of years of neglect under the Glazer regime, Sir Alex Ferguson's insistence that the owners always provided when asked, and the hopeless attempts of Ed Woodward and David Moyes, which resulted in £65m being spent with almost no discernible benefit to the first team. The rot is setting in.

Make no mistake, Van Gaal will be privately seething at the club's failure to strengthen. His ego was bruised by the defeat to Swansea, and the embarrassment may well have catapulted him into Woodward's office to lay bare the executive vice-chairman's staggering ineptitude. After Woodward's insistence that Van Gaal can spend what he pleased, the manager reportedly named Arturo Vidal, Angel di Maria and Mats Hummels as his top three targets. A shortlist to make any negotiator blush, and Woodward to run and lock himself in a cupboard. Try the trophy cabinet, Ed, there's bound to be room in there the way things are going.

The idea of United recruiting that sort of quality is ludicrous, especially after two-and-three-quarter transfer windows of Woodward's incompetence. Historically, the club have avoided buying in the top bracket of the market, but following Ferguson's retirement they needed to. Instead, Marouane Fellaini has arrived for £4m more than his release clause, Juan Mata joined after Woodward refused to negotiate with Chelsea for fear of accidentally selling them Wayne Rooney, Ander Herrera's buy-out was activated, and £30m has been splurged on Luke Shaw after Chelsea decided his wages were too high. United may have spent well over £100m in the past 12 months, but fighting off competition for the most sought-after players is a different matter entirely.

Van Gaal was certainly not blameless for Saturday's defeat, sticking with his 3-5-2 formation despite injuries demanding Ashley Young and Jesse Lingard began the match as wing-backs. The manager claimed that the impressive Adnan Januzaj wasn't fit enough to start in his post-match press conference, but the personnel to play 4-4-2 was available, which might have been the best solution given the circumstances. Similarly, his decision to replace Herrera with Fellaini for the final push was puzzling enough to provoke gasps of 'If Moyes Had Done That'.

But the loss to Swansea is a drop in the ocean of United's troubles. Unless Woodward can pull off the unexpected in the next two weeks - assuming the funds are actually available - a return to the top four looks increasingly unlikely. And then who knows what the knock-on effect could be of United languishing in mid-table? Adidas have already stipulated that their record-breaking kit deal will not be quite so record-breaking should the club remain outside the Champions League, while Mister Potato may also get itchy feet and take his stack of gold elsewhere. It should be a time of great excitement, but instead United continue to be dogged by doubt.

Matthew Stanger - he's on Twitter

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was there, it was embarrassing - the team looked totally unbalanced from the off, the defence was woeful and when Mikel came off injured it got even worse with nobody in front of them. Up front on several occasions we had opportunities and nobody would shoot - it was a complete farse! On the back of Salah's performance I'm glad there is talk of getting shot...

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