Let’s face it, that wasn’t a great deal of fun. It took 67 minutes for Liverpool to muster a shot on target and you got the distinct and understandable impression that they would have been happy to walk away with the 0-0 draw after the catastrophe that was the end of last season. The bottom line is that they absolutely needed not to lose – compounded perhaps by Arsenal’s abject failure and Chelsea’s stumble.
So the victory, when it eventually came via a strike from Philippe Coutinho that basically looked just like every other whipped long-range strike from Philippe Coutinho, was almost a bonus.
The positives for Liverpool? A promising performance from Joe Gomez, a far better defensive understanding between Dejan Lovren and Martin Skrtel, Nathaniel Clyne looking like the excellent Premier League right-back we already knew he was.
There were issues – James Milner and Jordan Henderson predictably trying to do the same job, an utter failure to give Christian Benteke the right kind of service and Adam Lallana looking exactly like the underwhelming and overawed Adam Lallana of last season. But there was resilience, there was desire and apparently there was even some defensive organisation.
“We showed a different character to the last time we were here,” said Brendan Rodgers. They needed to. This was not the performance of a great Liverpool side but it was the performance of a solid Liverpool side with one great moment from one great player.
“I think for him, West Ham is not enough. Maybe like some players, they say, ‘If I play one year in a good club but not the best, next year I could get a club like Chelsea or Arsenal’,” said French coach Raymond Domenech of nearly man Dimitri Payet. He might want to re-visit that quote after Payet played a key role in a textbook victory for West Ham over Arsenal. And we say ‘textbook’ not because the Hammers played wonderful football but because we have seen this before. So, so, so many times before.
Face Arsenal and surrender the majority of possession? Tick. Have an inferior pass completion rate? Tick. Have fewer shots than Arsenal? Tick. Still come away with three points? Tick. It’s a textbook win over Arsenal.
Before you accuse me of not giving enough credit for West Ham, have this: The Hammers were excellent. Defensively, they shackled Olivier Giroud with ease, Reece Oxford was more assured in midfield than he had any right to be, Payet brought the expected touch of class, Cheikhou Kouyaté’s burst of pace caused Francis Coquelin a whole season’s worth of problems and Diafra Sakho ran and ran.
“Are you watching Allardyce?” sang the West Ham fans at the Emirates. See Sam, you can take on better sides without either Kevin Nolan or Carlton Cole.
Born in 1998. Football365 is older.
When I saw that Crystal Palace bench featuring Yannick Bolasie (worth £60m but not good enough for the Palace starting XI), last season’s outstanding midfielder Mile Jedinak and two strikers in Conor Wickham and Patrick Bamford, my first thought was that I really should have picked Palace as my ‘best of the rest’ in our pre-season predictions. Ian Wright may have come over all unnecessary when he tipped them for a European place but this really is a squad built for a top-half finish.
Alan Pardew even had the luxury of picking “the wrong team” and still destroying Norwich on the counter-attack with the pace of Wilfried Zaha and Jason Puncheon and the calm class and clever runs of Yohan Cabaye. Seriously, why on earth did Tottenham not make the Frenchman an offer he could not refuse? Buying a 29-year-old for double figures might not be in their ‘philosophy’ but it might just have helped them, you know, win games. We’re pretty sure that is still the point of this whole shebang.
Pape Soare and Damien Delaney
That must have felt really, really sweet.
The reaction to the appointment of Ranieri at Leicester can be summed up in seven words: Nice bloke but not the right man.
The expectation was that the very English gung-ho approach that kept Leicester in the Premier League could not be replicated by Ranieri. As it turns out, it’s a case of ‘welcome to the new Leicester, it’s the same as the old Leicester’. We have to credit Ranieri for keeping hold of Nigel Pearson’s backroom staff and largely playing the same side that produced those heroics. The momentum remains and that momentum will allow Ranieri to ease in new signings Christian Fuchs, N’Golo Kanté and Yohan Benalouane.
They will face far tougher tasks than Sunderland – with the excellent Riyad Mahrez unlikely to face such generous ‘opposition’ as Patrick van Aanholt too often this season – but early signs indicate that Ranieri, quick to namecheck local heroes Kasabian, does ‘get’ the club and what made it the comeback story of last season. The performances of Jamie Vardy, Mahrez and Marc Albrighton in particular indicated that they appreciated the faith.
Nice bloke and> the right man? We only have one game as evidence but maybe. Just maybe.
Honestly, who amongst you assumed that Tim Sherwood would fill his Villa side with Tottenham reserves and ‘good lads’ from the middle reaches of the Premier League? That he has instead bought in bulk from France like an Englishman preparing for a very boozy party is both refreshing and brave. If this goes right, all vestiges of the Tactics Tim persona can be discarded. If this goes wrong, he may never be seen in the Premier League again.
Picking five new signings on the opening day of the season was a decision that put the pressure firmly on his own head, and the decision was largely vindicated – Jordan Ayew was anonymous and Jordan Veretout was clearly not match-fit, but Idrissa Gueye showed promise and Micah Richards looked solid enough in one game to immediately make himself roughly the fifth-best English centre-half in the Premier League (the competition is not great). As for Jordan Amavi, he is already a hero to a Villa faithful who have been craving a decent left-back after suffering Aly Cissokho, Kieran Richardson and various out-of-position right-backs last season.
Villa did not play particularly well in Bournemouth but Sherwood certainly deserves credit for at least attempting to move Villa out of their depressing rut of relegation campaigns. And we do bloody love a good header so thank you, Tim, for Rudy Gestede. Emmanuel Adabeyor’s refusal to move to the Midlands might well become the day that neutrals started to warm a little to Villa again. It’s been a while.
“It was a big victory for us,” said Wayne Rooney, whose world-class dithering when presented with an excellent chance gave Kyle Walker no other option but to score the game’s only goal. Genius. It was indeed a big victory when contrasted with last season’s opening-day defeat to Swansea and it’s backwards that United staff, players and fans will point and say ‘it’s nowhere near as bad as that’. And indeed it wasn’t. United won the game 1-0 and the defence cited as their biggest weakness was barely troubled. Job done. Why worry?
Well, because Rooney is their only senior striker and he is notoriously a spurter (sorry). And judging by his chugging performance against Tottenham, one of those goalscoring spurts is unlikely to come any time soon. He lacked sharpness and Louis van Gaal lacked the options to replace him. The only striker on the bench is one unashamedly unwanted by Van Gaal so Rooney toiled for 90 minutes, rarely looking like he is remotely capable of reaching the 20-goal mark he has apparently promised his manager. It’s difficult to see – on the basis of everything we know about Rooney, culminating in the opening game of this season – why bringing in a new striker, moving Rooney into the No. 10 position and moving Memphis wide is not the obvious answer. Van Gaal talks incessantly about “speed and creativity” but has put all his striking eggs into a slowing, slightly hefty basket.
If Van Gaal is trying to persuade Edward Woodward to pay Barcelona’s incredibly reasonable asking price for Pedro, he could have made no better argument than Saturday’s lunchtime toil, when United’s lack of speed and creativity produced one low, weak shot on target. And if there is money still left in the pot, buy a sodding striker.
‘”I think I shall play Shaw with Blind and Matteo Darmian and then the right central defenders position I have to consider,” said Van Gaal in July. For now, the shirt is Smalling’s and he is finally playing like the senior member of the defence that he should resemble after five years at the club. Is this a defence that can win the title or truly compete in Europe? Unlikely. Is it a defence that will cope against the majority of the Premier League? On this evidence, then perhaps. Is that enough? Ask the United fans who are desperately hoping that talk of not strengthening at centre-half is a bluff designed to drive down prices.
His Newcastle team were applauded off by the fans despite throwing away a lead. When was the last time that happened? McClaren took a couple of risks – playing Gabriel Obertan, sticking with Papiss Cisse and throwing Georginio Wijnaldum straight in – and they all paid off. Reinforcements are still quite clearly required in central defence and midfield, but there was enough in the 2-2 draw with Southampton to suggest that following Newcastle might be fun again for the first time since 2011/12.
First league start for 491 days. Who can’t be happy about that?
Multi-culturalism in Watford
Watford’s starting line-up featured 11 different nationalities.
They have been understandably a tad aggrieved that their evil, manager-sacking club has been anointed media favourites for relegation while plucky little Bournemouth are simply media favourites. Not only did the opening day bring a precious first point of the campaign but also four goals and a whole barrel-load of entertainment. Whatever happens in May, this is going to be one hell of a fun ride.
Bafetimbi Gomis and Andre Ayew
One game in and they already look like the partnership that could keep Swansea in the top ten. If the TV money brings players of this quality to the Premier League on free transfers, then I won’t be Standing Against Modern Football any time soon.
Owners Of A Cech Abacus
John Terry said 12-15 points and the Daily Telegraph’s Ben Rumsby agreed. Others said it would be more like ten points. The consensus was basically that Cech would magically take Arsenal from a place 12 points adrift of Chelsea (who did not want Cech) to within touching distance of Chelsea (who did not want Cech), as if the Gunners had been playing a 12-year-old in goal and were just waiting for somebody to come along who could catch.
If we are starting the Cech count, are we now at -1 or -3 for the season?
When I wrote last month about Arsene Wenger’s infuriating reluctance to upgrade, I was met with many, many responses. Some do not merit repetition – and would wear out the ‘8’ on my keyboard – but the remainder followed three themes: a) Petr Cech was the upgrade, b) there really didn’t need to be an upgrade because Francis Coquelin is better than Morgan Scheiderlin and c) there’s still time – Arsenal would not start the season with the same outfield players that ended the last.
Wenger has spoken repeatedly about ‘cohesion’, as if the answer to a moderately successful but flawed season was to do exactly the same again. So Arsenal began this season looking exactly like the Arsenal who started last season – with the same domination of possession, the same passing, the same soft underbelly. Even Santi Cazorla was back on the left like the second half of the season never happened. The only difference is that the goalkeeping is worse.
“One of our targets is to start strongly, we’ve had good preparation and that should give us much-needed confidence. The Premier League is a fight in every single game so we have to prepare ourselves mentally for that and come out of the blocks straight away against West Ham,” said Wenger on Friday.
By Sunday the story had shifted: “We know fitness wise, West Ham were ahead of us, they had already played competitive games.”
Is this the first time the Thursday-Sunday combination has been cited as mitigation by the opposition?
Thanks to Ali Tweedale for this statistical comparison between Coquelin and 16-year-old West Ham midfielder Reece Oxford:
Oxford vs Coquelin at 57 mins:
Pass success 94%-85%
Duels won 4-3
Duels lost 2-5
But there definitely weren’t any better options available.
“First game of the season, I don’t want to start,” said Jose Mourinho when asked why he would not comment on the performance of a referee who made a series of excellent decisions.
And then he did start – on the opening day of the season – with the kind of nonsense that he knew would dominate the headlines instead of the fact that his champions looked incredibly ordinary against Swansea. If you can’t blame the referee, what can you blame? The opposition’s tactics? The pitch? The ballboys? When the opposition come to play and the referee and the ballboys are your own, you are apparently left with the medical staff. As smokescreens go, it’s a pretty skinny one that hides nothing.
Chelsea started with the XI that basically won them the title and they still looked like they were in April mode, cruising towards the big trophy and thinking it was okay to do just enough to keep on keeping on. Cesc Fabregas, Nemanja Matic, Eden Hazard and Branislav Ivanovic all looked like they had 50 games in their legs rather than a summer holiday. But perhaps you can forgive them for playing like it’s 2014/15 when they look around and see the same faces. None of those Chelsea players have any serious opposition for their place in the side. I thought that would be a problem before the season and I sure as hell think that is a problem now when Mourinho is the first to admit that they need to be even better this season. How do you get an extra 5% out of title winners? Sir Alex Ferguson would tell you that you make them fight for their place.
Bringing in £22m for the sale of three unwanted central midfielders in Paulinho, Etienne Capoue and Benjamin Stambouli looks like half-decent business until you start the opening game of the season against Manchester United with Nabil Bentaleb and Eric Dier in midfield. Bentaleb was so lackadaisical that he was hooked after 52 minutes and Dier followed him to the bench 24 minutes later. Neither recorded a pass completion rate over 80%.
Spurs are not alone in this but their outfield bench at Old Trafford (Lamela, Mason, Alli, Wimmer, Trippier, Carroll) was arguably weaker than that of Crystal Palace (Jedinak, Bolasie, Wickham, Bamford, Hayle, Kelly). So when things started to go flat after an impressive opening 20 minutes, Mauricio Pochettino had no safety net, no change-up option. What would have happened if Harry Kane had got injured? Erik Lamela as a makeshift striker? Mousa Dembele back in the position he originally played for Fulham?
When Tottenham fans fling their hands in the air and ask why they are not considered part of the Big Five after finishing fifth, we will point you towards that bench. Spurs fans will instead point to a calendar that shows three more weeks of the transfer window; on September 2, we can talk again and decide whether Tottenham deserve to be mentioned in the same breath as Chelsea, Manchester City, Manchester United, Arsenal and Liverpool. Unless they have bought two new strikers and at least one central midfielder, the conversation might be brief.
“That wasn’t the first game of this season; that was the 39th game of last season,” said an incredibly irate Everton fan on 6-0-6 on Saturday night after watching the Toffees dominate possession once again (67%) and still draw 2-2 with a newly promoted side.
“In the first half, we were in a little bit of a pre-season mode,” said boss Roberto Martinez. “That can happen sometimes especially playing against a newly-promoted side who have that enthusiasm and readiness for the game. They shocked us a little bit in that respect.”
Why on earth were they ‘shocked’ when exactly the same thing happened last season against Leicester? And whose fault is it that Everton were in ‘pre-season mode’? Or perhaps the worry is that they were in ‘last-season mode’, when the Toffees were too often slow and pedestrian. Adding only Tom Cleverley to a failing squad is not going to solve the problem when the problem is a lack of oomph.
That Martinez is still only fourth favourite to be the first Premier League manager to leave his club this summer owes more to Bill Kenwright’s legendary patience than any hope that Everton are suddenly going to improve. They desperately need new blood or this is going to be a very, very long season.
The poor buggers. It took only 25 minutes to find out that this season’s Sunderland are very much the same as last season’s Sunderland, that this year’s Sunderland defence is equally as bad as last season’s Sunderland defence and this season’s target is exactly the same as last season’s target: Survival.
Lee Cattermole was dragged off after just 29 minutes but Dick Advocaat could have picked any of five or six players for that ignominous exit.
“I have seen what I already knew, it’s difficult to change that at the moment but we have to change something because we cannot go on this way,” admitted Advocaat, who is clearly under no illusions that three new faces can change a side that survived only through the incompetence of others.
(At this point on Sunday I had written something about Sunderland badly needing Yann M’Vila; then he got sent off for a headbutt while playing for the Under-21s. And people said he might be a liability…)
The hackles of Norwich fans have been raised this week by many in the media (including us) writing off Norwich as basically the same squad that went down two seasons ago and thus lacking in true quality. While taking the point that Alex Neil is a more inspirational manager than Chris Hughton, Norwich have basically the same squad that went down two seasons ago and thus lack true quality. They will go down.
Starting with a striker that scored only 12 goals in the Championship last season does not hint at an unlikely survival bid. And nor does replacing him with one whose only double-figure Premier League campaign came six seasons ago.
To have that perfectly legitimate Jerome goal disallowed was unlucky but Neil – who seems a thoroughly pleasant chap – was correct in saying that the referee did not make them miss chance after chance in the opening spell, when even Palace manager Alan Pardew admitted he got his tactics wrong. If you have 62% possession and 17 shots at home, you have to score more than once. And when your defence still ‘boasts’ Steven Whittaker and Russell Martin, you probably need to score more than once to win most games.
Norwich’s most creative player and he started on the bench. If Alex Neil watched any of Leicester-Sunderland, that should change at the Stadium of Light next week.
For most of us, a bad first day in the office simply involves walking into the wrong toilets.
There was nothing between them and Liverpool but a Philippe Coutinho. Which is presumably why they’re trying to buy a Xherdan Shaqiri and are desperate for the return of a Bojan. And yes, we do know there is only one of each.
Carnival atmospheres are all very lovely but top-flight football matches are generally not played at carnivals. Whenever a team like Bournemouth reach the Premier League, we always hear about buckets being shaken to keep the club alive four/five/six years ago, of wage bills dwarfed by those of the opposition and of 100-year-old fans having not missed a game in 87 years. It makes marvellous television but the only thing that should matter to Bournemouth right now is that they lost 1-0 at home against one of the Premier League’s poorer sides.
“I felt for long periods of the game we were the better team,” said Eddie Howe. True enough. And not surprising when you take into account that Villa fielded four players who had never played in the Premier League before. Howe lamented that they were “not clinical enough in both boxes”, which is what basically decides every single football match. If that lament becomes a weekly mantra, Bournemouth will – as I predicted before the season – pick up ‘more good will than points’.