The pressure is already on Erik ten Hag and Steven Gerrard. Tottenham’s trip to Chelsea should be a doozy, while we all wait to see the state of Barca.
Game to watch – Chelsea v Tottenham
The first big-six clash of the new season sees Tottenham go to Chelsea hoping for only a second win at Stamford Bridge in 32 and a half years. Spurs fans will be entitled to think this time might be different to all-but-one of their last 36 shleps across London.
“It’s very clear, there is an important gap,” said Antonio Conte after their most recent league defeat at the Bridge back in January. But since then, with Conte’s nous and some decisive and savvy-looking recruitment, the chasm seems to have closed between last season’s third and fourth-placed finishers.
Indeed, many – well, many of us – reckon Conte’s men look better placed than Chelsea to bridge the even wider void between the top two and the best of the rest.
Regardless of whether you believe them to be capable of challenging for the title, this is certainly the first major test of their credentials, the result of which will doubtless prompt knees to jerk in all sorts of weird and awkward angles either way.
Spurs began their campaign by smashing Saints with a team made up entirely of players who were there last season, which presents Conte with a dilemma when he goes back to his former club: stick with the old, or twist with some of the new?
The temptation to highlight how far his coaching has brought ‘the older players’ may be too much to resist, but the biggest difference with Spurs this season is the depth Conte has at his disposal. Of the six new faces, Ivan Perisic and Yves Bissouma look best placed to come in, with the latter’s aggression perhaps required to cause havoc in Thomas Tuchel’s engine room.
This will also be Kalidou Koulibaly’s first real test after his debut at Everton last week. Tuchel wanted his defence sorted by now. That it isn’t yet could play directly into Conte’s hands, with Richarlison available to make his debut after sitting out last week through suspension.
Aside from being a litmus test for Spurs and Chelsea and each side’s prospects for the season, we should also relish this match-up in isolation – it could be an early-season classic.
Team to watch – Aston Villa
There’s no sugar-coating it – Villa were sh*te last week.
Steven Gerrard’s side began his first full season (assuming it becomes such) with a defeat at newly-promoted Bournemouth, turning in a performance that made you wonder if the Villans actually realised it was business time. The display prompted many more questions of the manager than answers.
His first big call of the campaign – dropping the armband-less Tyrone Mings – was not the raging success he had hoped when pairing £26million new boy Diego Carlos with Ezri Konsa. Similar debates were triggered in midfield and attack.
Perhaps so early in the season it is too much to expect that Gerrard knows his best XI, but he appears a lot further from an answer than Villa fans might hope. In pre-season, the manager identified the volume of individual errors as the area most ripe for improvement. There are also structural faults with the Villans that Gerrard needs to rectify – and quick.
Gerrard welcomes Frank Lampard and his Everton side to Villa Park on Saturday prior to a trip to Palace that precedes a tricky run that sees Villa face West Ham, Arsenal and Manchester City. There will be changes in personnel, but it’s already obvious that simply tinkering with the individuals in the XI won’t lift them out of a run of only two wins in 12 stretching back into a disappointing end to last season.
Player to watch – Youri Tielemans
With the window still open for the first weeks of the Premier League season, it gives some players a wonderful opportunity to audition for their next role. Tielemans’ chance comes against Arsenal on Saturday.
Everyone, most likely including Tielemans’ himself, is surprised the midfielder is still turning out for Leicester with his contract now well into its final year. The Belgian was expected to be the sale that funded Leicester’s own strengthening – that seems to have been the Foxes’ thinking – but so far, despite it seeming obvious that he would improve at least half of the big six, no side has made a decisive move.
Arsenal seem to be most interested in Tielemans but they are playing the long game. First they have to do some shifting of their own to make room for the midfielder, while any delay only serves to play into their hands financially since Leicester are likely to be open to negotiation as the deadline creeps closer.
In the meantime, Tielemans will be gasping to show Mikel Arteta what he can offer while highlighting why Arsenal need him by picking holes in a midfield still ripe for improvement.
Manager to watch – Erik ten Hag
It’s been a chastening first week in the Premier League for Ten Hag. It started with a defeat to Brighton that highlighted the size of the job on his hands; continued with further frustration in the transfer market; and closes with a trip to a Brentford side just as a capable as the Seagulls of showing United what a well-drilled team looks like.
Christian Eriksen aside, there isn’t a United starter from last weekend who could justifiably moan if they were benched at Brentford on Saturday evening. Sadly, though, for Ten Hag, he can’t drop them all.
The McFred combination was binned in the later stages last week but Ten Hag has little choice other than to turn back to Scott McTominay and Fred since the club have failed to furnish the manager with any other midfielders. And if Ten Hag wants to play on the front foot, then the likelihood is that United’s engine room with be ransacked once more.
We have to assume Cristiano Ronaldo will be recalled since, again, Ten Hag has little other viable choice if he wishes to field a centre-forward. That brings plenty of its own problems, however, but already the new manager must be aghast at his lack of options.
If we are being optimistic – very f***ing optimistic – then maybe another week on the training ground might help plug some of the gaping holes in his side but under their previous managers these individuals have already proven themselves to be incapable of playing how Ten Hag wants.
Until he gets more of the players he wants, Ten Hag just has to make make the best of a needlessly-sh*tty situation.
After Brentford? Liverpool.
Football League game to watch – Watford v Burnley
What better way to spend a gloriously sunny Friday evening than holed up in front of a TV watching two sides relegated from the Premier League?
Mercifully, both Watford and Burnley are taking on a rather different look to the end of last season, even if they have started the campaign in similar fashion to one another with a 1-0 win and a 1-1 draw apiece.
Robert Edwards has promised an improvement from Watford on their draw at West Brom on Monday when the Hornets were distinctly second-best, even if they should have won the game when Ismaila Sarr failed from 12 yards having already succeeded from 60. Edwards, though, could lose Sarr soon and Emmanuel Dennis even sooner.
Burnley’s attempted transformation is even more stark, with Vincent Kompany introducing the concept of passing and possession to the Clarets. That hasn’t led to much in the way of shooting yet – their goal from Josh Brownhill was their only effort on target at home to Luton last week – but facing a side Kompany reckons is better geared for an immediate return to the Premier League will offer a good indication of where the new Burnley stand.
European game to watch – Barcelona v Rayo Vallecano
The La Liga and Serie A seasons get under way this weekend, when most eyes will be fixed on Barcelona to see what state they are in when they kick-off against Rayo Vallecano on Saturday night.
Barca fans are hoping to see at least four new faces in their side but, as things stand, none are currently registered while Joan Laporta scratches around the Nou Camp looking for things to pawn just to get his squad within the La Liga salary cap.
Don’t bet against Laporta conjuring up more levers to yank and it would be fascinating to get a glimpse of how Robert Lewandowski, Raphinha, Franck Kessie and co. might improve Barca. But it would also be extremely funny to see them all sat in the stands.