Game to watch – Arsenal vs Manchester City
There is a strong argument to say that both teams would rather have avoided this opening fixture more than any other. Pep Guardiola knows that title defences cannot be made in the first few weeks of the season, but they can certainly be lost. An away trip against a top-six rival under new management before his World Cup stars have regained match fitness counts as several banana skins strewn across the street.
Unai Emery must be even more frustrated. Arsenal’s first two matches of the season are against Manchester City and Chelsea. The most damning indictment of Arsene Wenger’s final years was his inability – or unwillingness – to adapt his tactics to counter the threat of high-class opposition, instead playing into their hands. Emery is going to be tested on that measure immediately, and the extremism of football opinion means that he will be judged immediately on them too. It is ludicrous to say that the tone for Emery’s season will be set in the first two weeks, but it might also be true.
Against City in the Community Shield, Maurizio Sarri played perfectly into Pep Guardiola’s hands. The risk with a new manager is that their philosophy takes time to sink in, leading to a cut-price, vague version of the vision. There is no better team in the country at identifying and exploiting rough edges than City.
Arsenal must have more nous than Chelsea. There is little to be gained in high pressing if every member of the midfield is not up to the task, and Emery has a question to answer on how to fit Aaron Ramsey into the starting XI without leaving the most defensive central midfielder exposed. A front five of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Alexandre Lacazette, Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Ramsey and Mesut Ozil is mouth-watering, but of little benefit if the rest of the team is left exposed.
For all the excitement at Arsenal’s signings, clear weaknesses remain. It is a tough ask for Lucas Torreira to resolve the central midfield issues at 22 and in a new league. Plenty rests on the shoulders of Sokratis Papastathopoulos given the injury to Laurent Koscielny, and Sead Kolasinac will miss the first two months of the season.
The great unknown is what difference Emery will make, and how quickly he will make it. Arsenal looked like a squad who were under-coached and under-cooked for almost all of the last two years, lacking too the mental fortitude to deal with the adversity that came their way. If Emery’s arrival – and Wenger’s departure – has caused a jump forward, Arsenal are a different force.
But there are fewer reasons to think that City will be weaker than stronger than 2017/18. Aymeric Laporte and Benjamin Mendy will actually feel like new signings, while Riyad Mahrez is one. Phil Foden’s performance at Wembley suggests that he is ready for the Premier League and Bernardo Silva was the Community Shield’s best player. Should they click again, defences better than Arsenal’s will struggle to cope.
Player to watch – Alexis Sanchez
Manchester United did suffer a rotten pre-season, but some of their wounds were self-inflicted. You can both believe that Jose Mourinho has valid arguments against their transfer business and yet believe too that he has dealt with the situation appallingly.
Mourinho is right that United were not as proactive as they should have been in the transfer market. Even if Mourinho would prefer to ignore that Guardiola schooled him last season, United are the biggest club in the world in terms of revenue. They can afford to artificially bridge the gap, but have chosen not to. Mourinho believes that goes against promises that were made to him by the club’s hierarchy.
But there are ways of going about these things. Mourinho has never been a man prepared to toe the party line if he feels aggrieved. His behaviour this summer has only increased United’s problems.
Nothing Mourinho has said is factually untrue. Paul Pogba does need to show his France form at domestic level. Most of the young players on the pre-season tour won’t play in the Premier League this season. Anthony Martial should have given the club more notice and indicated when he would be returning to training. But in choosing to enter into spats with each of them almost simultaneously, Mourinho risked the morale of those individuals and their friends within the team. That is a ludicrous thing to do on the eve of a crucial season.
One man who stands way above criticism is Sanchez, the star of United’s summer. Mourinho might not care to revisit the quote, but in January he described Sanchez’s arrival as one for the summer window, not winter. Sanchez’s patchy form between February and May was therefore excused.
Now the Chilean must hit the ground running. Romelu Lukaku will surely be half-knackered after semi-constant football over the last few years, but Sanchez has finally had a full summer break and will start as a centre forward against Leicester with Lukaku still getting up to speed. That’s the role he so coveted at Arsenal.
Sanchez is an obvious Mourinho teacher’s pet: intensely passionate, hungry and desperate to change games. He might just be the man to ensure that United win their opening two league fixtures before the team is back to full-strength.
Manager to watch – Rafael Benitez
Who only knows what the mood is around St James’ Park now. Benitez made no secret of the need for recruits in May, June and July. Newcastle’s only signings were two players they had already had on loan (and one of those on loan again), three players from relegated clubs and a Bundesliga forward who is expected to be back-up to Ayoze Perez. This is a squad that stinks of the Championship.
Benitez will probably not walk away. It would be financially punitive for him to do so, and would require him to leave stranded a support with whom he has built up a relationship. There will be no flouncing off, merely an excellent manager leaving via a side door at the end of the season after three years of broken promises.
It really will be worth watching Benitez this weekend, and the love he is given from the Newcastle fans who believe in him and just about nothing else. Mike Ashley might hold the power, but Rafa receives their support. He is one of them. And when he leaves, they might do too.
Team to watch – Liverpool
Until now, Jurgen Klopp has been able to avoid the most intense scrutiny as Liverpool manager. There were some old tabloid reports that he was one game from the sack that now look a little silly, but such was the spending of his peers that Klopp could continue to play the underdog card. Liverpool were never expected to reach the Champions League final or challenge for the Premier League.
But in the space of six months, Klopp has normalised that level of success, and so turned aspirations into expectations. The run to the Champions League final persuaded supporters and media that anything is possible, and then Liverpool moved to address the only obvious weak links within their squad.
Alisson is an exceptional goalkeeper, Naby Keita was one of the standout Bundesliga midfielders (but may have to control his discipline) and Fabinho is a good enough No. 6 to make Tiemoue Bakayoko look like a £40m central midfielder. The sheer range of options at Klopp’s disposal now makes a title challenge a reasonable expectation.
With expectation, comes pressure. No longer can Klopp point at Manchester United’s spending and shrug his shoulders. No longer will the cheery disposition be enough to dismiss disappointing results. Having dismantled Manchester City twice last season and beat them once more, Klopp’s Liverpool must display the consistency to keep pace with the best.
As fate would have it, Liverpool face West Ham in their first game of the season, rejuvenated off the field after the arrival of Manuel Pellegrini and a clutch of new signings. Liverpool’s last four home games against West Ham? One win, two draws and a defeat. These are exactly the type of teams they must learn to swat aside with the minimum of fuss.
Football League game to watch – Derby County vs Leeds United
I don’t need to spend paragraph upon paragraph persuading you to watch this. It’s literally Frank Lampard against Marcelo Bielsa, which is absolutely sodding ridiculous.
European game to watch – Barcelona vs Sevilla
Only the Eredivisie and Scottish Premiership are back in full swing of the major European top flights, but Sunday evening brings the first leg of the Spanish Super Cup. Unlike the Community Shield, they care about this one.
Barcelona are partaking in their ninth Super Cup in ten years, remarkable when you consider that Real Madrid have only managed four in the same time period. Ernesto Valverde has looked to build for the future this summer, signing Malcom (21), Clement Lenglet (23) and Arthur (21). Arturo Vidal adds experience in midfield following the departure of Andres Iniesta and Paulinho.
For Sevilla, a chance to bed in a squad that has undergone extensive change over the summer. Ibrahim Amadou, Roque Mesa, Tomas Vaclik, Sergi Gomez, Joris Gnagnon and Aleix Vidal have all joined on permanent deals. They have lost key players in Sergio Rico, Lenglet and Joaquin Correa. At the very least, it should be interesting.