Premier League Playback: Manchester United’s struggles, Liverpool’s new philosophy

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New season, same struggles for Manchester United

Okay, it’s too early to judge Louis van Gaal’s tenure at Old Trafford, even though plenty of folks have already pointed fingers angrily at the Dutchman following United’s 2-1 opening day defeat at home to Swansea City. Yeah, it’s happening again. In the video above the new man in charge bemoans how his side “didn’t play as a team.” The similarities between van Gaal’s United and David Moyes’ side are striking. That’s because, well, not much has changed. In what was supposed to be a ‘Dutch Revolution” over the summer, two players Moyes helped to sign (Luke Shaw and Ander Herrera) are the only new faces. Only one team, Exeter City, have signed less players than United this summer out of the entire 92 professional teams in England and Wales. With two weeks until the transfer window slams shut, van Gaal needs to act fast if United are going to succeed this season. This may all sound like a knee-jerk reaction, but in their defeat to Swansea one thing was clear: the quality of players is not good enough at the club. Van Gaal has since said that.

“I thought that before this match. When we were playing in the United States I saw the same. I know in what positions we need better players but I won’t discuss [how many].”

Okay, United have been ravaged with injuries as Robin van Persie, Shaw, Antonio Valencia, Michael Carrick and others were missing for the curtain raiser, but if LVG plans to keep employing a 3-5-2 formation, he needs some top quality defenders to arrive. Fast. On Saturday Swansea exposed Chris Smalling and debutant Tyler Blackett with pace down the flanks that left them in two minds whether to step out or retreat. That’s how Swansea’s winner arrived as Jefferson Montero beat Smalling down the wing and whipped in a cross as Gylfi Sigurdsson scored a late winner. Phil Jones had far from a stellar match, and the only other central defensive option they possess is Johnny Evans. The Red Devils are in deep trouble in defense. No disrespect to Swansea, but if they are recording their first ever league win at Old Trafford and exposing United’s weakness with ease, van Gaal has some serious issues. Also, it was the first time United had lost at home on the opening day since 1972. Those records, not the good kind, continue to tumble.

[RELATED: Why are United struggling to buy players?]

Premier League Schedule – Week 1

Result Recap & Highlights
Arsenal 2-1 Crystal Palace Recap and watch here
Burnley 1-3 Chelsea Recap and watch here
Leicester 2-2 Everton Recap and watch here
Liverpool 2-1 Southampton Recap and watch here
Man United 1-2 Swansea City Recap and watch here
Newcastle 0-2 Man City Recap and watch here
QPR 0-1 Hull City Recap and watch here
Stoke City 0-1 Aston Villa Recap and watch here
West Brom 2-2 Sunderland Recap and watch here
West Ham 0-1 Tottenham Recap and watch here

A hangover from last season is impacting United. Rooney’s tremendous bicycle kick and Adnan Januzaj’s powerful running aside, the Red Devils showed little to suggest an aspirin will soon arrive to relive them of their misery and return things to the way they once were. The hangover is here to stay, until new faces and fresh impetus arrives. And plenty of it. The Red Devils have been linked with Mats Hummels, Angel Di Maria, Edinson Cavani, Arturo Vidal, Marco Rojo and pretty much every other available player this summer but so far, to no avail.

Let’s not panic. LVG has two weeks to bring in four or five top quality players to strengthen his side and get them into the top four. However with star players turning down one of the largest and most famous clubs in the world, United are running out of time. The fact that they now need to persuade players to join them is a little sad and shows how far the mighty have fallen.

[RELATED: United’s confidence “smashed down”]

The opening day marked the worst possible start to the season van Gaal could have hoped for. Maybe it will act as a wake-up call to Executive Vice-Chairman Ed Woodward that money needs to be splashed before it’s too late. The squad at van Gaal’s disposable isn’t good enough and is looking thin after his summer clearout. Moyes made a mess of last season but was it really all his fault? Now, increasingly, we have seen the same players putting in mediocre performances time and time again. Van Gaal’s task to return United to their past glory is suddenly looking like a rather ominous one. Where have we seen this before?

Liverpool’s new philosophy, post-Suarez

Against Southampton on Sunday, Liverpool kicked off the post-Luis Suarez era with a 2-1 win at a strangely subdued Anfield. One of the most atmospheric, spine-tingling and boisterous stadiums in world soccer sat in silence for vast swathes of a nail-biting match.

Chants of “Is this a library?” rang our from the small section of Southampton fans at the Anfield Road. They had a point.

As NBC Sports analysts Robbie Earle and Robbie Mustoe point out in the analysis above, Liverpool’s tact will be a lot different this season without Suarez. Last year their swashbuckling style stole the hearts of neutrals across the globe. the gun-ho approach saw them score 101 goals but they let in 50. That last stat is crucial. It is what cost them the title last season and if they are going to go one step further and win the Premier League crown, they need to be able to grind out wins 1-0, 2-1 and settle for a draw on the road.

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Premier League Star Performers

Player Reason
1. Raheem Sterling (L’pool) 1 goal, scintillating speed
2. Aaron Ramsey (Arsenal) 1 goal, dug deep, got winner
3. Allan McGregor (Hull) Clean sheet, saved late PK
4. David Silva (Man City) 1 goal, silky skills galore
5. Saido Beraihno (WBA) 2 goal, pivotal for Baggies

Without Suarez, who joined Barcelona for $128 million this summer in case you’ve been living under a rock, they have lost 31 goals from last seasons total already. They need to shave at least 15 goals off the goals conceded column too. With Dejan Lovren arriving in central defense, plus full backs Alberto Moreno and Javier Manquillo on board, Brendan Rodgers has realized his side can no longer plan to outscore the opposition and hope for the best. Against Southampton they lined up in a 4-2-3-1 formation, with Steven Gerrard and Lucas holding in front of the back four to give them extra stability. Sure, there will be times when Liverpool obliterate teams 4 or 5-0 this season, but picking and choosing when to do that will ultimately leave them with a much stronger defensive core. In the long run, especially without Suarez, that is the most sensible and attainable recipe for success. With the goals of Raheem Sterling and Daniel Sturridge, who both scored to seal the win on Sunday, they will still rip teams apart.

Even if it fails to flex the vocal chords at Anfield as vociferously as last season, Liverpool’s fans should be pleased their manager has addressed the areas he needed to over the offseason and the Reds are a stronger defensive unit for it. As for Suarez, does the old half of S.A.S. believe the Reds are stronger without him?

“I think so, with the players we’ve brought in,” Sturridge said. “No disrespect – he’s a great player and will be missed – but we move on.”

Let’s see if Liverpool’s new-look after Suarez sees them challenging for the title again this campaign. The thought is that Rodgers has used the $128 million to bolster the quantity of the squad, with Champions League soccer in mind, instead of bringing in top quality to replace Suarez. Let’s see how this goes.

Top 10 TV markets across the USA

Across the U.S. on Saturday NBC’s blanket coverage of the PL was consumed copiously by fans. It’s good to be back, I;m sure you’ll agree. Above are two tweets from NBC Sports PR which state the top 10 TV markets in the country from Saturday’s slate of opening games. Plus, you guys broke all of our records for watching every single PL game online via NBC Sports Live Extra. You savvy bunch, you.

Away day delight

Just two home teams won on the opening weekend of the Premier League. Arsenal and Liverpool, who both scored late on to seal narrow 2-1 wins. For a long time now, away teams seem to be faring better away from their homely confides. With no pressure on them to go and get a result, plus the home fans eager for their teams to succeed, the onus never seems to be on the visitors. Until Aaron Ramsey’s late winner for Arsenal on Saturday, we were looking at the first PL Saturday since 2004 where not one single home team won. Free-flowing soccer from teams likes Manchester City and Swansea produced away wins, while the likes of Tottenham Hotspur and Hull City set up their stall, defended for their lives and grabbed all three points on the road. Yes, it’s only a stadium and a different pitch in another part of England or Wales, but we are increasingly seeing teams play with extra freedom on the road. Will this away day delight continue?

All of Saturday’s highlights and goals are in the video above, while Sunday’s are below.

USMNT update

Brad Guzan takes the gong (if such a thing exists… perhaps it would be a Captain America shield placed in the arms of a Statue of Liberty replica?) for the best performed U.S. national teamer in the PL on opening weekend. Guzan’s Aston Villa went to Stoke City and won 1-0. The American goalkeeper dealt with Stoke’s aerial bombardment expertly and has started his third season as a PL regular in the best possible fashion. As for his U.S. teammate Geoff Cameron, his situation at Stoke is a strange one. Despite starring for the USA at the World Cup, Cameron has been somewhat on the outside looking in since he returned to England and was left out of the 18-man squad against Villa on Saturday. I’ve heard plenty of rumors that several top teams in Germany, Italy and elsewhere in England have been alerted as to his situation. Cameron could be on the move in the next two weeks, while fellow American Brek Shea is available on loan from Stoke.

Tim Howard’s Everton let two leads slip away at newly promoted Leicester City to draw 2-2 on the opening day. Jozy Altidore was also involved in a 2-2 draw, Sunderland scored late to deny West Brom, as he jumped off the bench to play in his first competitive match since tearing his hamstring in the USA’s World Cup opener vs. Ghana back in June.

Men In Blazers wrap things up

Let’s finish off the first Playback of the 2014-15 season in style by getting the lads from Men In Blazers to sum everything up in the way that only they can. From Ashley Young’s ‘incident’ with a bird, ew, to Jordan Henderson’s sublime skills, take it away Rog and Davo.

Premier League Playback comes out every Monday and takes an alternative look at all the action from the weekend. Read the full archive, here

Benitez happy to stay at Newcastle if he “has the tools to compete”

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Rafa Benitez is approaching something vaguely resembling sainthood in the northeast of England — with the Newcastle United-supporting portion, at least — but his future remains in doubt as the end of the current Premier League season draws nearer and the next one approaches.

[ MORE: Salah beats De Bruyne to win PFA Player of the year award ]

Benitez and Newcastle owner Mike Ashley have endured an unhappy working relationship for much of Benitez’s 25 months at the club. The Spaniard was true to his word, though, when he stuck around another season after being relegated from the PL in 2016, then again after winning promotion on the Magpies’ first attempt, but he’ll be faced with the same dilemma again this summer, even after guiding Newcastle to a mid-table finish (they currently sit 10th with five games left to play).

[ MORE: Man United reach FA Cup final | Chelsea join them ]

If he’s not given assurances that he’ll be handed the necessary funds to properly strengthen his squad during the upcoming summer transfer window, the 58-year-old could very well walk away and leave Ashley to play the part of all-too-familiar villain. Or, as Benitez put it this weekend, Ashley could fork over “the tools to be capable of competing” and make everyone, from the manager to the fans, happy — quotes form the Guardian:

“If they [Ashley’s representatives] want to talk to my people [about a new contract,] they can talk. The main thing is to be sure we share the same ambition.

“I want to win games and I want to win trophies and I want to have the tools to be capable of competing. At the same time, I like to improve players, coach players, follow a business plan, a realistic business plan in modern football. I have no problem with that because I did it in the past.

“We have to be sure to have all the tools to compete and achieve what we want to achieve because Newcastle is a massive football club and we want it to reach its potential.”

Of course, the perfect scenario for everyone involved would have been for any one of the numerous takeover bids to have gone through during the last two years, but as was most recently evidenced earlier this year, Ashley and the Toon can’t seem to quit each other just yet.

MLS: Timbers end NYCFC’s unbeaten start; Seattle get 1st win

Serena Morones/The Oregonian via AP
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Sunday was a very good day for a pair of green-clad Cascadia rivals, the Portland Timbers and Seattle Sounders, as the former put to end the unbeaten start of the best team in MLS, while the latter picked up their first win of 2018…

[ MORE: Saturday’s MLS roundupOther MLS Things — The Archive ]

Portland Timbers 3-0 New York City FC

Through their first seven games, NYCFC were almost inarguably the best team in MLS (aside: how much better is their opening-day walkover of Sporting KC looking these days?), but Patrick Vieira’s side might as well have not even shown up to Providence Park on Sunday. Chalk it up to “it’s only one game,” or “these things happen in MLS,” or “NYC to Portland is a long trip for Russian clubs,” or any other credible rationale you prefer, but they were nothing more than 11 passengers for the whole of 90 minutes.

A quick look at the defending on all three of Portland’s goals…

Vieira was right at halftime, when he said his side was lacking intensity and aggression, and that it’d be nigh impossible to get back into the game in the second half if they continued to play that way. Spoiler: it was, because they did.

Just as I’ll not be rushing to judgment over NYCFC’s no-show performance, I’m not yet buying into the idea that Portland have figured things out defensively on the back of one clean sheet (their first of the season).

Seattle Sounders 3-1 Minnesota United

Speaking of firsts, Seattle are the proud owners of points — as in, more than one point — after putting three past Minnesota but almost fatally failing to kill the game off after going 2-0 up. I’m not sure what any defender in black is doing on this sequence…

Alas, Gustav Svensson, Will Bruin and Jordy Delem were far more clinical with their chances than the Loons…

Still, though, Seattle were completely helpless when it came time to grab control of the game while in a commanding position. Osvaldo Alonso is nowhere near the player he once was, which is a massive problem against teams that set up to counter-attack, as Minnesota did on Sunday. It doesn’t help that Roman Torres and Chad Marshall are the plodding center backs behind him.

The obvious answer to the midfield problem is to play Cristian Roldan deeper, alongside Alonso as they did en route to winning MLS Cup in 2016, but injuries to a number of key attackers have forced him into a de facto no. 10 role for the time being. These things will work themselves out with a bit of time, I suppose.

Full MLS scoreboard

Sporting Kansas City 6-0 Vancouver Whitecaps (Friday) — FULL RECAP
Montreal Impact 3-5 Los Angeles FC — FULL RECAP
Houston Dynamo 5-1 Toronto FC
New York Red Bulls 1-2 Chicago Fire
Columbus Crew SC 2-2 New England Revolution
Orlando City SC 3-2 San Jose Earthquakes
FC Dallas 2-0 Philadelphia Union
Real Salt Lake 3-0 Colorado Rapids
LA Galaxy 0-2 Atlanta United

Salah beats De Bruyne to win PFA Player of the Year award

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LONDON (AP) Mohamed Salah has been voted Player of the Year by his fellow professionals in English football in recognition of an incredible scoring return to the Premier League with Liverpool.

[ MORE: Man United reach FA Cup final | Chelsea join them ]

The Egypt forward collected the Professional Footballers’ Association award at a ceremony in London on Sunday, two days before Liverpool’s Champions League semifinal first leg against Roma.

It is a reunion with the Italian club he left in the offseason for 42 million euros (then $47 million). The hefty fee appeared to be a gamble for Liverpool but now represents a real bargain.

The former Chelsea player has scored 41 goals in 46 appearances in all competitions for Liverpool – enabling him to beat Manchester City midfielder Kevin De Bruyne in second place to the PFA award.

Tottenham striker Harry Kane was third.

[ MORE: Man City thrash Swansea in pursuit of points record ]

“It’s a big honor,” Salah said. “I’ve worked hard and I’m very happy to win it.”

Salah is preparing to lead Egypt into its first World Cup in 28 years and he is the first player from the North African nation to win English football’s top individual prize.

“Hopefully I’m not the last one,” he said. “I’m very proud to win and I’ve worked very hard.”

Salah’s impact has been more remarkable given his underwhelming 2014-15 season at Chelsea before being offloaded by then-manager Jose Mourinho. He went on loan to Fiorentina in early 2015 and Roma in 2016, and then on a permanent basis to Roma in August 2016.

Scoring 15 goals and setting up 11 more for Roma convinced Liverpool to bring Salah back to a second spell in England.

[ MORE: Liverpool draw West Brom in final tune-up before UCL semis ]

His goal at West Bromwich Albion on Saturday was his 31st in the league this season, tying the scoring record in a 38-game campaign held by Cristiano Ronaldo, Alan Shearer and Luis Suarez.

Suarez was the last Liverpool player to be crowned player of the year by the PFA in 2014 before moving to Barcelona.

It’s a sign of his remarkable impact that Salah secured the award with third-place Liverpool and that none of Manchester City’s newly crowned champions won the accolade.

But City winger Leroy Sane was voted PFA Young Player of the Year.

The PFA women’s player award went to Chelsea forward Fran Kirby, while Lauren Hemp of Bristol City secured the young player prize.

CONCACAF cancels women’s U-17 tournament due to violence

CONCACAF
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MIAMI BEACH, Fla. (AP) CONCACAF has canceled the rest of its 2018 Women’s Under-17 Championship following violence in Managua, Nicaragua, where the tournament began Thursday.

The Confederation of North, Central America and Caribbean Association Football made the announcement Sunday. The tournament was to have determined the region’s qualifiers for the Under-17 World Cup in Uruguay, which starts Nov. 13.

More than two dozen people have been killed since Wednesday according to the independent Nicaraguan Human Rights Center, though the government had acknowledged only nine dead. Dozens of shops in Managua were looted during protests and disturbances sparked by government social security reforms.

The U.S. opened Friday with a 4-0 win over Costa Rica and had been scheduled to play Bermuda on Sunday and Canada on Tuesday.