Big Weekend: Wenger, Lukaku, Tottenham, Klopp

Date published: Friday 11th August 2017 11:40

Game to watch – Brighton vs Manchester City
This is the first time since 2003/04 that the defending Premier League champions will not play their first league game on UK television. With Arsenal, Liverpool and Manchester United as bankers for live coverage on the first weekend, the other two places were taken by promoted teams vs title hopefuls. One of those is your game to watch.

Saturday’s late game promises to be a wonderful spectacle, Brighton’s first ever Premier League match against a club who have spent a record amount for one transfer window and have still not bought a central defender or central midfielder.

Despite City’s rollicking start to last season, Brighton may consider this a good fixture to begin their own campaign. Pep Guardiola has not fully bedded in his new signings, nobody quite knows which starting XI he will pick and there is still a huge amount of residual goodwill at the Amex Stadium. Playing the title favourites gives Chris Hughton’s team a free shot on the first weekend, a nothing-to-lose game against a team who will be expected to canter past their opponents.

There is nothing quite like the buzz around the stadium of a newly-promoted team when it hosts one of the big boys for the first time in the league, however patronising that sounds. Playing Stoke, Burnley or Swansea City in your first league game is still special, but not a patch on the fervour of a truly monumental match. The Amex will be jumping.


Player to watch – Romelu Lukaku
If Lukaku was left in any doubt as to the pressure he would be under at Manchester United, he will have been persuaded after Tuesday evening. At Everton, had he missed one good chance and scored the other, praise would have been the lingering response. Having done the same in Skopje, the Daily Mail mocked him for ‘not being able to score from six yards’, the BBC’s live text pointed out that ‘even he’ couldn’t miss the chance he did take and The Sun labelled Lukaku and his teammates as flops.

It is all utterly ludicrous, of course, but that fails to lessen the glare of the spotlight. Manchester United’s problem last season was killing off weaker teams at home, and on Sunday afternoon comes one of those teams in one of those games. It is batsh*t mental, but miss a couple of chances and people will already be on his back. See the ridiculous comparisons between Lukaku and Alvaro Morata before either had even kicked a ball for their new clubs for details.

Still, Lukaku couldn’t hope for a better first league opponent. The Belgian scored in his first nine games against West Ham during his time at Everton, making them comfortably his favourite opponent in England. One more in victory on Sunday, and his Manchester United career will have begun at a sprint.


Team to watch – Tottenham
Quite a few weeks, then. Mauricio Pochettino must have been confident of adding to his squad following the sale of Kyle Walker, but has now entered firefighting mode following the incendiary quotes given by Danny Rose to The Sun’s Dave Kidd.

While Tottenham supporters might find fault with Rose’s timing and decision to break rank, you can see his point. As I discussed here, when your mate and former teammate has doubled his wages and more than doubled his chances of winning the Premier League in one squiggle of the pen, doubts are likely to fester. Rose has merely voiced what many supporters were thinking.

Yet Pochettino can win back this situation. Whilst Tottenham’s squad could indeed do with some choice additions, their manager continues to back himself to improve the players that are fully committed to this project. If players leave for massive fees, it is at least partly because Pochettino made them better. He will aim to continue that pattern.

Yet with everyone around them increasingly confident that money makes this Premier League world go round, this season is the litmus test of Pochettino’s project. He will not – or should not – be deemed a failure if Tottenham fall out of the top four places, but there will be scores of people queuing up to opine that this holistic approach is nothing but a pipe dream given the money at clubs’ disposal.

The start to the season is therefore crucial, including Sunday’s trip to a stadium where they lost 5-1 on their last trip. The only way Pochettino can make the doubters disappear is if Tottenham are again brilliant beyond our expectations. Now, rather than in June and July, is Spurs’ time to shine.


Manager to watch – Arsene Wenger
Arsene, you’re back. And we thought you were leaving after all that mutiny and shouting and pieces of A4 paper. Still, we remember those stories of transfer warchests from your useful lickspittles in March and April, so presumably you have spent big on a central midfielder, goalkeeper, right-sided midfielder or forward and anything else that was needed? Oh. Just the one player for a fee then? Small warchest, was it?

I should probably desist from talking to a 67-year-old man in my imagination now, but the point still stands. Arsenal have indeed strengthened this summer, just so long as Alexis Sanchez does not leave, but if you thought last season was important for Arsenal then 2017/18 is the real deal. Should Arsenal fail to qualify for the Champions League, Sanchez and Ozil will leave on free transfers and Arsenal’s attacking invention and drive will have been decimated. Players happy to sign under the guise that a season without Champions League is the exception will be thinner on the ground should they miss out again.

The summer must be a pleasant time for Wenger, without planes with banners flying over his place of work as everything capitulates around him, but those times can quickly return. Arsenal will begin the season without the injured Sanchez or Ozil and speculation still rife over the short-term future of the former. Even the arrival of Alexandre Lacazette as the necessary striker upgrade would be overshadowed by a disappointing start to the league campaign. This time there is no Champions League group stage form to fall back on.

Arsenal should beat Leicester on Friday, but they have a habit of being ill-prepared for the start of league seasons. There can be no repeat of the shambolic defending against Liverpool last August, and little room for error. Having signed his new contract, Wenger does not even have the uncertainty over his own future as an excuse.


One-on-one battle to watch – Andre Gray vs Joel Matip
Watford have quietly gone about some lovely business this summer, with Andre Gray the unlikely cherry on top of a perfectly iced cake. Will Hughes adds creativity to midfield and Nathaniel Chalobah some steel, while Richarlison and Kiko Femenia add that vital Watford ingredient of ‘who knows what on earth will happen there’.

Yet it’s Gray who most indicates that Watford have a relevant and logical plan for Premier League consolidation. He may have only scored nine league goals for Burnley last season, but the striker can be a focal point of an attack that so often lacked one last season given Troy Deeney’s haphazard form. At a time when Championship strikers without any Premier League experience are moving for £15m, signing the key player of a likely bottom-half rival for £3.5m more is good business.

On Saturday lunchtime, Gray may get the chance to begin his feather-ruffling in earnest. Jurgen Klopp has still not been able to add to a collection of central defenders that everyone knows needed upgrading. His recent insistence that Liverpool have four central defenders and that four is sufficient only falls short of extreme naivety because Klopp himself doesn’t believe it.

In August 2016, Gray scored the second goal in a 2-0 win against a shambolic Liverpool. A defence of Alberto Moreno, Nathaniel Clyne, Ragnar Klavan and Dejan Lovren – that had conceded three goals against Arsenal the week before – were opened up with embarrassing ease in the first half, and Burnley held on despite huge Liverpool pressure.

In February 2017, Marco Silva’s Hull City beat Liverpool 2-0. A defence of Clyne, James Milner, Joel Matip and Lucas Leiva were opened up with embarrassing ease and Hull held on despite huge Liverpool pressure.

Silva will be hoping for an exact repeat. With Gray as a the focal point in attack, he will instruct midfielders to flitter and flutter around the new signing and again hope to take advantage of continued defensive uncertainty at Liverpool. This is a stern test for Klopp et al.


Football League game to watch – Middlesbrough vs Sheffield United
Yeah yeah, the Premier League’s back. Most exciting league in the world, yadda yadda. But some of us have been enjoying football all week. And by ‘enjoying’, I mean watching through our fingers as our teams play terribly against Millwall and Shrewsbury and somehow win both games.

There are two Football League offerings on Sky Sports this weekend, but I just cannot get excited about Norwich City vs Sunderland. Instead, Middlesbrough and their Band of Many Strikers host Sheffield United in a fixture between two teams who were two divisions apart three months ago.

Boro might have changed their manager to bring in Garry Monk, but their forward addiction remains. Monk has Britt Assombalonga (£15m), Patrick Bamford (£6m), Martin Braithwaite (£9m), Rudy Gestede (£6m) and Ashley Fletcher (£7m), all signed since the beginning of 2017. They promptly lost at Wolves without scoring last weekend and 2-1 at Fulham with a goal scored by David Nugent. Go figure.

Sheffield United’s most expensive signing of the summer was Richard Stearman for £1m from Fulham, indication enough that they are club offering on a different financial plane to Middlesbrough. As favourites for promotion before a ball was kicked, Monk will know only too well the pressure that comes with fighting at the top end of the Championship. He will need his first victory in charge to come soon.


European game to watch – Real Madrid vs Barcelona
Oh yes, an El Clasico so early in the season. Barcelona’s victory in the Copa del Rey means that the Spanish Supercopa is contested between them and Real Madrid for the first time in six years. It isn’t outside the realms of possibility that these two could play each other eight times this season, enough to make Sky Sports purr.

The Supercopa is far more than a Spanish equivalent of the Community Shield, and this season’s version gives Zinedine Zidane the chance to lay down another marker ahead of a league campaign in which Real Madrid are again favourites for La Liga. Ernesto Valverde has endured a difficult first summer in charge following the loss of Neymar, but looks to be close to signing Ousmane Dembele from Borussia Dortmund and is still chasing Philippe Coutinho. Weakened Barcelona is hardly weak.

Real Madrid had a slow pre-season, but were dominant for long periods against Manchester United on Tuesday. They travel to the Camp Nou for the first leg with the return fixture in Madrid on Wednesday, hoping to win the trophy for the first time since 2012. Barcelona have won the Supercopa in five of the last eight seasons.

Unusually, there are very few sparkly new signings to keep an eye on. Real Madrid have signed Dani Ceballos and Theo Hernandez and Barcelona re-signed Gerard Deulofeu and bought Nelson Semedo, but the smell of the Galactico has been lost on the wind. There’s still time…

Daniel Storey- Enjoyed this? Please do a lovely thing and buy Daniel’s Portrait of an Icon book here. Proceeds go to the wonderful Sir Bobby Robson Foundation. If even 1% of you bought it…

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