It has become tradition for us to round off opening weekends with some jerking of knees. Not so much what we learned as what we think we might have learned. We’ll see…
10) Burnley need players, and fast
Sean Dyche may have grumbles about Premier League diving and a lack of jobs for British managers, but Burnley’s manager must now focus on adding some recruits to his Burnley squad. Against a Swansea side supposedly in crisis after selling three key players, Burnley managed three shots on target. Two of those were from distance.
To read a list of Burnley’s matchday squad on Saturday was to scan through those who were accomplished in the Championship, but will surely struggle in the Premier League. Just as two years ago, when Burnley virtually accepted relegation through their lack of spending. The five signings over £500,000 they made that summer were all in the squad to face Swansea.
Steven Defour will arrive from Anderlecht before next weekend, but Burnley need more reinforcements still. Support for Andre Gray, back-up in full-back areas and pace out wide would all be welcome. Otherwise it might be a long, cold winter.
9) Alan Pardew is in big trouble
Let me take you through Crystal Palace’s next few defeats, through the medium of Alan Pardew excuses:
If they lose to Tottenham – “This is a team that will be up at the top come the end of the season.”
If they lose to Bournemouth – “This is a team fighting for their lives and have real quality”
If they lose to Middlesbrough – “They’ve added real quality over the summer.”
There is no doubt that Crystal Palace are crying out for some further investment, but the lack of forthcoming funds speaks volumes about the lack of trust in the manager. Newcastle and West Ham fans both offered warnings about Pardew’s inability to turn around a rut, and Palace supporters are seeing that exact problem in technicolor.
If Chunky thought he could leave last season’s problems behind, he was sadly and badly mistaken. That 2016 league record reads: Played 20, Won 2, Drew 5, Lost 13.
8) Yaya Toure’s time at Manchester City is over
While Pep Guardiola might have offered Joe Hart a modicum of reassurance after Manchester City’s victory over Sunderland, there was little in the way of comfort for Yaya Toure. The midfielder has only ever been on the bench for eight league games in six years since arriving in England, and he continued that record by failing to make the squad completely.
With David Silva playing in a deeper role and Fernandinho being as excellent as he always is, it’s now hard to see where Toure ever fits in, particularly after the arrival of Ilkay Gundogan in central midfield. Guardiola’s all running, all-action style doesn’t suit a 33-year-old slowing down after playing over 260 club games in six seasons.
Also excluded from City’s Champions League trip to Bucharest, Toure’s time in the sun must surely be coming to an end. Don’t be surprised if his agent is happy for his client to pick up that £220,000 a week.
7) West Ham will struggle to replicate their exploits of last season
Dimitri Payet has had a long summer. Manuel Lanzini, Andre Ayew, Sofiane Feghouli, Aaron Cresswell and Diafra Sakho have sustained injuries of varying degrees of severity. Slaven Bilic insists on playing Michael Antonio as a right-back. Bilic has added depth to his squad, but it’s hard to shake off the feeling that West Ham’s ability to replicate last season’s heroics depends entirely on Payet repeating his own tricks.
The added concerns for West Ham supporters are how their team copes with a) playing in a new stadium, and b) the travails of Europa League football. Should Bilic’s team get past Astra Giurgiu in their play-off round, it is feasible that they could play 33 competitive games before the end of December (and at least 31). Already struggling at full-back and up front, this squad is going to be stretched at the seams.
6) Leicester are going to drop rapidly
It does not really matter where Leicester finish this season, for only relegation would truly dampen the spirits of supporters still pinching each other to check that 2015/16 wasn’t one long acid trip.
Yet their first match in defending the title was a sh*tshow of substantial proportions. Gone was the solidity in midfield, gone was the resilience in defence, and gone too was the ability to overrun their opponents on the counter attack. This was not a title rival from last season making Leicester look suddenly average, but a relegation favourite.
“When I say ’40 points’, a lot of people are laughing but it is true,” Claudio Ranieri said after the game. “I think we forget…champions or not champions, we know very well last season was something special. Now we are back with feet on the ground and we have to work hard.” There’s nothing quite like defeat at Hull to bring you back to earth with a bump.
5) Harry Kane will need that back-up
The Mailbox is a place where normal views are placed through a controversy filter, so when you read the question ‘Is this the season Harry Kane is unearthed as a fraud?’, what it really pondered was whether Kane could struggle to match the achievements of last season. And that’s a valid question.
Writing Kane off on the evidence of one game is proven stupidity, for he failed to score in each of his first four games last season. Yet after two years of football with very little break, Tottenham’s striker must be close to knackered. His performance against Everton was laboured and lethargic.
Enter Vincent Janssen, who will surely prove a useful purchase for Mauricio Pochettino. Finally Kane has the support/competition/back-up he needs, and you can delete as appropriate as the weeks go on.
4) The Eden Hazard of 2014/15 is back
There are myriad reasons why Eden Hazard struggled last season: fatigue, confidence, anger at his manager for hanging him out to dry on the first weekend of the campaign so soon after winning him the title. Some blame must be laid at the Belgian’s own feet; he looked disinterested for large swathes of a bitterly disappointing season.
If the last month of last season gave us hope of an instant redemption, and Euro 2016 did little to change our minds, Chelsea’s victory over West Ham heightened our anticipation further. Hazard was named Man of the Match, scored the opening league goal of Antonio Conte’s reign and generally looked back to his best. Only one player in the match had more touches of the ball and none had more shots, but it was the winger’s dribbling statistics that most impressed. The other 27 players used on Monday evening completed ten dribbles combined; Hazard completed nine on his own.
3) The Wayne Rooney conundrum is coming to a head
Jose Mourinho handily side-stepped the issue of Wayne Rooney’s selection by leaving out Henrikh Mkhitaryan, but outside Guy S’s fan club (see: below the line) there is very little love for Manchester United’s captain among the club’s supporters. Is this the season than Rooney is pushed into the fringes of the squad?
Well, perhaps. Rooney now only has the No. 10 role to cling to, and his first audition was largely miserable. To steal a line from our post-match piece, Rooney lumbered around the final third with the grace of a hungover giant panda, the ball regularly evading his control in the manner to which we have grown accustomed.
Mourinho is, above all else, a winner. If United have a shot at the title he is a manager who will do whatever necessary to ensure maximum performance. With Mkhitaryan, Mata, Anthony Martial and Memphis Depay all competing with Rooney for three positions behind the striker, the captain must up his game to stay afloat in the deep end.
2) Daniel Sturridge will struggle for a starting place
‘With Christian Benteke and Mario Balotelli unwanted, Danny Ings still gaining full fitness and Divock Origi raw, it may be left to Sturridge to lead Liverpool’s line ahead of a glittering array of attacking midfielders,’ I wrote in our reasons for Premier League excitement. ‘Stay fit for the majority of the season, and Jurgen Klopp could generate something really special. He’s already facing a fight to be fit for the opening weekend.’
…And Sturridge didn’t win that fight. On July 28 Klopp discussed how impressed he was with his striker’s “intense” training sessions, but by August 13 Liverpool’s manager was discussing missed training sessions and a niggling injury. It’s a familiar story.
Klopp will want to utilise a striker of Sturridge’s obvious ability, but can he ever truly rely on his consistent availability? Instead, Klopp’s fluid front three of Philippe Coutinho, Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mane did wonderful things at the Emirates, with Divock Origi impressing from the bench. The salient question is this: Is Sturridge good enough to walk into the team whenever he is 100% match fit?
1) Arsene Wenger could leave Arsenal mid-season
Well, you wanted kneejerk. The performance, collapse and reaction may now be well-worn, but it would be wholly inaccurate to suggest that Arsenal fans are becoming immune to these regular crises. You can’t just laugh at such a sorry, predictable situation; that’s just not how football works.
Wenger now has three weeks to hit his third deadline for signing players, having comfortably missed his first (the start of pre-season training) and second (start of the season). Unless the manager changes his mindset, Arsenal are likely to fall short of their need for a central defender and striker. Nobody’s even mentioning the right-winger issue, a fact that can be celebrated by holding the world’s smallest party.
Fail to do so, and it isn’t hard to see how the dark mood at the final whistle on Sunday can hang like a smog over the club. Unfortunately, it’s impossible to see Arsenal winning the league, whatever their manager claims to the contrary.