It was a Premier League weekend when the big guns won, while Tottenham got handed the harshest of self-inflicted lessons.
An attacker scored his first goal at Old Trafford since returning from a prolific stint elsewhere. Still, enough about Jesse Lingard.
Cristiano Ronaldo’s capacity to bend events to his will has been proved time and again before he marked his second Manchester United debut with a brace against Newcastle. For Ronaldo, in an attempt at modesty, the surprise was that he scored not once, but twice. But there were the goals, the stardust, the soundbite. “I belong to Manchester,” Ronaldo said in multiple interviews: it was what United wanted to hear, the ego boost they required. The love from a bona fide superstar was reciprocated. Maybe United were transported back in time. Perhaps the atmosphere, the stepovers and the scoreline all felt something of a throwback to the days when United were a byword for excitement and glamour. It felt the United of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s imagination.
It may be curmudgeonly to point out that United would probably have beaten Newcastle without Ronaldo or that he is a particularly expensive way of making them feel good about themselves, but they could take heart from the way Bruno Fernandes seemed galvanised by his compatriot’s arrival and the ease with which he slotted straight in. Ronaldo’s record always suggested he would score loads of goals, and he will.
The broader question is if he alters United’s fortunes and restores them to the status of champions they had when he left in 2009. But Saturday was not about the bigger picture as much as the day itself. It went wonderfully for Ronaldo and United.
Manchester City’s 2019 stars
Together with Raheem Sterling, Aymeric Laporte and Bernardo Silva were two of Manchester City’s three finest players in their treble-winning season of 2018/19. There are different reasons why neither has touched such heights since but it nevertheless felt a little incongruous that they were two of the serial winners who eyed the exit in the summer. The reduction in the number of £50 and £60 million deals, and the inability of many clubs to afford them, explains why both stayed. Perhaps the prospect of a change has been enough to rejuvenate each.
Laporte was quietly excellent again at Leicester and City are yet to concede with him on the pitch this season; after losing his place to John Stones last season, now the left-footer feels like the man in possession. Silva’s winner was the goal a performance merited: he had almost scored earlier, had helped provide a host of chances and kept ghosting into space. Pep Guardiola’s logic in swapping him with Ilkay Gundogan – to get one left-footer on that side of the pitch while the right-sided Jack Grealish is on the left wing – could help him keep his place: so, more importantly, will displays like these.
Crystal Palace have fielded many a shot-shy striker in recent seasons. Indeed, at times it has appeared that their job description did not even include attempting to score. Odsonne Edouard arrived with 74 goals in his last three seasons at Celtic and showed immediate evidence of his predatory instinct on one of the more remarkable bows. A brace in eight minutes, a first goal 28 seconds after his introduction and with his second touch – in itself the quickest debut strike in Premier League history – may have come against a depleted and tiring Tottenham team but it already means he has more goals for Palace since the start of last season than Jordan Ayew. And as Palace may stand or fall on their signings this season, a second double for a newcomer – following Conor Gallagher’s against West Ham – was another auspicious sign.
He’s very good. That should not be news, least of all to Chelsea who paid £97.5 million to get the finished article, but they should relish the evidence that this was the least risky of transfers. Lukaku’s two goals against Aston Villa were terrific. They illustrated his attributes: the first came with his right, the second with his left and, arguably, there is no more two-footed a striker. In each case, he had switched the ball from one foot to the other. And his opener showed the pace to spring the Villa offside trap. Timo Werner has the pace to run in behind defences, but rarely the finish Lukaku provided.
The assist came in injury time, when Sadio Mane finally found the target after a host of misses, but Thiago Alcantara’s influence had been apparent at Elland Road long before then. This was the sort of performance Liverpool must have envisaged when they signed the Spaniard: the class in possession, the calmness to pick the right ball, the sense of understated superiority. It was perhaps notable that Thiago was picked away at Elland Road – a fast and frantic Leeds might not have seemed the ideal game for him but he ensured it was – and that Fabinho was alongside him. The finer moments of his disappointing debut year tended to come when the Brazilian was in midfield. Perhaps Fabinho can help turn Thiago into the player they thought they had bought.
Arsenal’s young Gunners
Arsenal’s belated first league goal of the campaign came from their oldest starter, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. The other pivotal figure, Nicolas Pepe, was the second oldest. Yet they were the only two over 24 in Mikel Arteta’s selection. The youngest starting XI in the division this season produced the most shots Arsenal have had in a game since 2017 (30). They brought the vibrancy and energy of youth. There was a symbolic importance, too: Arsenal’s decision to invest around £150 million in young players relies on the promise of a brighter tomorrow, whereas results had simply suggested a club in decline today. But in the encouraging debut of Takehiro Tomiyasu, the first clean sheet for the partnership of Ben White and Gabriel Magalhaes and the fine passing from Albert Sambi Lokonga, there were hints that Arsenal’s expenditure has not been wasted. A positive performance showed potential. There will be stiffer tests, but for now there may be a little less dissent and, after a dreadful August, Mikel Arteta and Edu require believers that they are building towards something better.
Bruno Lage’s Wolves
They scored. They won. It only took them 69 shots to get a league goal under their new manager and even then Francisco Sierralta accidentally opened Wolves’ account under Bruno Lage. Even the Wolves player to score for Wolves, Hwang Hee-chan, isn’t actually owned by Wolves. But whereas Nuno’s Wolves were too tedious too often, the early indications are that Bruno’s Wolves are more entertaining. Yet without a victory or a goal, the new regime could have looked like fool’s old gold. Now they seem to have more substance.
Tottenham’s dull midfield
It felt a lovely tribute to Patrick Vieira, one of the defining destroyers of the Premier League era, when Tottenham selected three defensive midfielders at Selhurst Park. As Vieira earned his first win as Crystal Palace manager, it was in part because of Spurs’ safety-first approach.
There were more direct causes: the unnecessary aggression of Japhet Tanganga that brought his red card, the wandering arm of Ben Davies that conceded a penalty, the instant impact of Odsonne Edouard. But while Tottenham suffered their first defeat with 10 men, their problems began with 11, three of them giving them too little chance of winning.
Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg, Oliver Skipp and Harry Winks may have amounted to too much of the same thing. Certainly they brought too little in terms of attacking contributions: no shots, one key pass, two crosses. They left the front three starved of service, to such an extent that Harry Kane had no touches in the box, and the visiting fans reduced to singing “we’ve had a shot” after a rare attempt in the second half. By focusing on defence, they encouraged Palace to attack. Their selection spoke of a needless caution; so, too, the reluctance to change anything at half-time. Tottenham’s midfield lacked the ambition and intent Gallagher exuded for Palace.
And while Nuno Espirito Santo’s reign has lent more cause for optimism than pessimism, this revived a criticism of him from his Wolves days: that he is too negative. Spurs made a little go a long way in their first three games, three goals yielding nine points as Skipp and Hojbjerg worked well as workhorses, but they showed precious little creativity in the centre of the park. And, by bringing in Winks, they got more defensive.
There are mitigating factors. Giovani Lo Celso is in Croatia, possibly on the run from the Brazilian health authorities. Tanguy Ndombele is in a different form of exile on the bench after a summer where he seemed to want to leave. Dele Alli was in the front three, shunted further forward to compensate for the absence of the injured Heung-Min Son and Steven Bergwijn. If Mauricio Pochettino and Jose Mourinho have struggled ways to get even two into the team, having none in midfield, albeit with Alli further forward, left Spurs with too much graft and too little craft. But it was a problem of mentality as much as of personnel. By prioritising solidity, they were damned by their own dullness.
Thomas Tuchel can be brutally quick to make a decision, as both Tammy Abraham and Callum Hudson-Odoi know to their cost. The Chelsea manager can be as undiplomatic as he is decisive. And so it was that Saul Niguez’s Premier League debut was curtailed after 45 minutes in which he had lost the ball rather too often, won just one of nine duels and failed to subdue John McGinn as Aston Villa outshot, if not outscored, Chelsea. Their midfield can specialise in affording protection but Edouard Mendy and Thiago Silva were required rather too often in the first half.
Tuchel also has a habit of being right and the introduction of Jorginho gave him the element he seems to prize most: control. Tuchel’s midfields can be defined by positional discipline as much as excellence in possession. They can remove the drama from games, and Jorginho did it expertly. Tuchel took responsibility, arguing Niguez found it hard to adapt to the physicality, intensity and high pressing, even if years playing for Diego Simeone ought to have provided something of a grounding.
Many a Chelsea debut in recent years, both good and bad, has proved a sign of things to come. That Silva’s lamentable Premier League bow, as he helped West Brom into a 3-0 lead last September, was not is an indication that first appearances can be deceptive. So, in its own way, is the experience of the last midfielder Chelsea borrowed from a Madrid club. Mateo Kovacic had an underwhelming first year, as part of his strange job-share with Ross Barkley under Maurizio Sarri. He has fared rather better since and set up Chelsea’s first goal with a lovely pass for Romelu Lukaku before scoring the second. A rival could be a role model for Niguez.
Man of the match in the win against the champions on the opening day, a cornerstone of a defence that began with three consecutive clean sheets but now looking a candidate for the bench. With Tottenham signing a right-back, Emerson Royal, his chance in the middle came because two of Spurs’ premier centre-backs are in Croatia. With Eric Dier going off injured, Tanganga then assumed further importance. Then he did his utmost to get sent off with, arguably, three bookable offences in a few minutes. Nuno’s Wolves were very good at keeping 11 men on the pitch – they only had four red cards in three seasons in the top flight – and Tanganga’s new manager may not appreciate his indiscipline.
It won’t be soon, but it has to be hoped he makes a full recovery. Any injury of the severity of a dislocated ankle is awful but Elliott seemed still unluckier because he was playing so well this looked a breakthrough season for a huge talent.
An inauspicious start does not necessarily make a footballer a bad signing but suffice to say Junior Firpo’s Leeds career has not begun well. They conceded four goals in the 45 minutes he played against Manchester United. He was taken off with them trailing to Everton. He at least played well against Crewe but then caught Covid. And Marcelo Bielsa’s policy of man-marking left him isolated against Mohamed Salah on Sunday. The Egyptian ran riot. Leeds struggled in particular on the left of their defence. At this rate, the ultra-versatile Stuart Dallas may find himself reverting to left-back.
Got to pick the ball out of his net five times against Manchester City and got dropped so Aaron Ramsdale could keep a clean sheet against Norwich.
When someone has scored more goals than anyone else in the history of football, they probably don’t need any help to get a couple more. Woodman offered it nonetheless.
The promoted clubs
It was the first weekend when all three promoted clubs lost. It almost certainly won’t be the last, given the gulf in resources and the difficulties of many of the games. The details may have been the disappointing part: Brentford lost their unbeaten run to the sucker punch of a last-minute goal by Brighton and Watford and Norwich went down to the two teams, in Wolves and Arsenal, who kicked off both pointless and goalless. In isolation, none is a particularly poor defeat, but these were occasions that offered the opportunity to plunge others deeper into trouble. Instead Watford suffered a third straight defeat and Norwich a fourth.