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

Europa League: Wolves through to Round of 16, Portuguese sides stunned

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Arsenal and Manchester United are still set to take the field, but there was an early round of Europa League matches that saw nearly half the Round of 16 field set.

Wolverhampton Wanderers knew it had room to breathe, and they made use of that, advancing cooly to the Round of 16 despite a 3-2 loss at Espanyol that saw them advance 6-3 on aggregate. The 4-0 first-leg win set Wolves up nicely, and they held firm behind equalizers from red-hot winger Adama Traore and Matthew Doherty.

 

Jonathan Calleri picked up a hat-trick for the hosts, including the winner in the 91st minute, but it wasn’t nearly enough to see the Spanish side truly challenge the massive deficit.

Elsewhere, Justin Kluivert gave Roma a spot in the Round of 16 with his 29th minute goal that saw the Italian side through via a 2-1 aggregate win over KAA Gent. The 20-year-old got a sumptuous through ball from Henrikh Mkhitaryan who laid it on a platter for Kluivert’s calm finish. The goal answered Jonathan David’s opener four minutes prior and set Roma up for a 1-1 draw that followed their 1-0 home win in the first leg.

USMNT veteran John Brooks started and played the whole 90 minutes as Wolfsburg rode a 3-0 second leg win to a 5-1 aggregate victory over Norwegian side Malmo. 21-year-old Croatian youth international Josip Brekalo was the lone goalscorer in the second leg, finding the net just minutes before halftime to seal advancement to the next round. Yannick Gerhardt and Joao Victor added second-half cherries on top with his 65th minute to put Wolfsburg into the next stage.

Bayer Leverkusen passed a tough test with a 3-1 aggregate victory over Champions League dropouts FC Porto. After a 2-1 home win in the first leg, the German side got an early 10th minute goal from Argentine international Lucas Alario, initially flagged for offside but corrected by VAR. Porto was awful, managing just one shot through the entire first half and conceding twice more after halftime to Kai Havertz and Kerem Demirbay. Mali international Moussa Marega got 65th minute goal for Porto but it was little more than a consolation.

The other Portuguese club in the competition, Sporting CP, suffered an equally disappointing result as they coughed up a 3-1 first-leg lead and to Istanbul Basaksehir in Turkey, falling 4-1 in extra time to complete a 5-4 aggregate defeat. After the hosts brought the aggregate back level, it seemed Luciano Vietto had saved Sporting’s lives, but Edin Visca scored in the 92nd minute to send the match to extra time on a 4-4 aggregate draw. Visca then played hero as he blasted a wonderful penalty in the 119th minute to win the matchup.

Former Liverpool defender Martin Skrtel scored the opener just after the half-hour mark via a corner, nutmegging the goalkeeper with a header on the doorstep. Danijel Aleksic bagged Basaksehir’s second just before halftime with an absolutely incredible free-kick from miles away to put the hosts 2-0 up and level the aggregate at 3-3, with Basaksehir holding the away goal advantage from the first leg. Sporting CP was saved, however, by Vietto who scored with 22 minutes remaining 

Dutch side AZ Alkmaar slumped out of the competition to LASK, losing 2-0 in Austria which sealed a 3-1 aggregate defeat. 21-year-old Austrian youth international Marko Raguz hit for a quickfire double just before halftime, including one from the penalty spot, to send LASK through to the Round of 16.

Full Europa League results (bolded team advances)

Espanyol 3-2 Wolverhampton Wanderers
FC Porto 1-3 Bayer Leverkusen
KAA Gent 1-1 AS Roma
Malmo FF 0-3 Wolfsburg
LASK 2-0 AZ Alkmaar
Istanbul Basaksehir 4-1 Sporting CP (AET)
FC Basel 1-0 Apoel Nicosia

2020 MLS Power Rankings, Vol. 1

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With the 2020 Major League Soccer season kicking off this weekend, here’s a (surely brilliant) predictive edition of the Power Rankings, which will be updated at the start of every month here on PST…

[ MORE: Jurgen Klinsmann’s parting shots cause anger at Hertha Berlin ]

MLS Cup favorites
Los Angeles FC and New York City FC

We all remember what LAFC did last year, and the fact they didn’t win MLS Cup despite settling most every relevant league record will only serve as further fuel for Bob Bradley to demand even more from (inarguably) the most talented team in the league. One potential pitfall: after trading Walker Zimmerman (for a record amount of allocation money), it’s unclear who’ll start at center back, and if you think it’s clear it’s a less than ideal situation. As for NYCFC, they managed to fly under the radar last year despite finishing top of the Eastern Conference by six points. While they don’t have the household names of an LAFC or Atlanta United, Domenec Torrent’s side (now that of Ronny Deila) played every bit the attractive, fluid attacking soccer of the league’s darlings. In a week East, NYCFC could wind up Supporters’ Shield winners.


MLS Cup contenders
Seattle Sounders, Atlanta United, LA Galaxy and Toronto FC

These teams will be in the playoffs, 100 percent guarantee. (fingers are now crossed) With satisfactory answers to certain questions, they could make the leap from contenders to favorites with ease. Those questions are… Seattle: does the completely rebuilt backline come together, and how long does it take? Atlanta: will head coach Frank De Boer find the right balance between his preferred defensive slant and the roster’s natural tendency to attack at all costs? Galaxy: is the defense, which has been horrific for five or six years now, any better? Toronto: wait, why aren’t they on the “favorites” line? Ah, yes, because only one team per conference is allowed.


See you in the playoffs
Real Salt Lake, FC Dallas, Philadelphia Union and D.C. United

Here’s the thing about this group: the two teams from the East should finish fourth or fifth in the junior circuit (some ways back of the clear-cut top-three), but they probably wouldn’t make the playoffs in the West. By default, Philadelphia and D.C. get a bump in the tiers for the fact they’ll walk into the playoffs in the East. That is not — repeat not — to say they are as good as RSL or Dallas, who would actually push Atlanta and Toronto for second and third.


In the hunt
Portland Timbers, Sporting Kansas City, Minnesota United, Colorado Rapids, Chicago Fire, Houston Dynamo, Columbus Crew SC, San Jose Earthquakes, New York Red Bulls, New England Revolution and Montreal Impact

That’s a long list of teams. As stated above, the teams from the East will be in playoff contention due to not having seven standout sides. Basically, any combination of these teams could wind up in the playoffs. Looking to the West, Portland, Sporting KC and Minnesota have the potential to climb a tier (or two) if all goes right for them, but each of those sides has a glaring, and potentially fatal, flaw. The temptation to say Colorado will actually be quite good and also a playoff team is very strong, but it goes against all human instincts when you think back to how they opened the 2019 season, before firing Anthony Hudson and hiring Robin Fraser and almost making the playoffs anyway.


Fulfilling obligations
FC Cincinnati, Orlando City SC and Vancouver Whitecaps

Barely a month into their first season (last season), Cincinnati was very clearly the worst team in the league. Somehow, the offseason has gone even worse for them. They (probably) managed to improve enough so as to not claim back-to-back Wooden Spoons, but enough to contend for a playoff place? Highly unlikely. Orlando City has never — not once in their five-year MLS history — given me, or anyone, reason to believe they are a competent organization. Until they do so for a period of six (6) months or more, they just exist for existence’s sake. Speaking of merely existing, the Vancouver Whitecaps.


Expansion teams, TBD
Inter Miami and Nashville SC

Here’s the thing about expansion teams: they aren’t to be trusted, either way. What looks good on paper can sometimes look terrible on the field, and what looks terrible on paper can sometimes look great on the field. We’ll give Miami and Nashville their first assessments after a month of games.

LIVE, Europa League: Man United, Arsenal, Wolves go for last-16

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It’s time to settle 14 more ties in the Europa League round of 23, including three involving Premier League sides.

Ahead of Thursday’s seconds legs, Arsenal lead Greek side Olympiacos 1-0, Manchester United are level with Portuguese side Club Brugge at 1-1, and Wolverhampton Wanderers are the comfortable ones of the bunch with their 4-0 advantage of Spanish side Espanyol.

[ LIVE: Europa League scores  ]

All three PL sides are expected to go through to the round of 16, where they are once again eligible to face one another.

Meanwhile, some of the competition’s other remaining heavy hitters are also in action: Inter Milan lead Ludogorets Razgrad 2-0; Roma lead Gent 1-0; Sevilla are level with Cluj at 1-1; and Ajax trail Getafe 2-0.

Full Europa League schedule

12:55 p.m. ET
Espanyol v. Wolverhampton Wanderers
Basaksehir v. Sporting CP
Porto v. Bayer Leverkusen
Gent v. Roma
Malmo v. Wolfsburg
LASK v. AZ Alkmaar
Basel v. APOEL Nicosia

3 p.m. ET
Arsenal
v. Olympiacos
Manchester United v. Club Brugge
Inter Milan v. Ludogorets Razgrad
Ajax v. Getafe
Sevilla v. Cluj
Benfica v. Shakhtar Donetsk
Celtic v. Copenhagen

Colossal Juve-Inter clash could be played in empty stadium

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MILAN (AP) Inter Milan coach Antonio Conte probably won’t have to sit through a torrent of boos when he returns to Turin for the first time to face former club Juventus.

That’s because there could be no fans there to see it.

[ MORE: Jurgen Klinsmann’s parting shots cause anger at Hertha Berlin ]

The Derby d’Italia, one of the season’s biggest matches, may be played in an empty stadium on Sunday because of the virus outbreak in northern Italy. The epicenter of the outbreak is in the Lombardy region, and Milan is its capital.

“I hope that from today there will be a regression in the diffusion of the virus so that I, too, can go see Juventus-Inter,” said Attilio Fontana, the governor of the Lombardy region. “We’re monitoring the situation. I’m very calm. We need to see what the situation is. It’s the same as for the schools. We’ll do a check Saturday and then we’ll see.”

Four Serie A matches scheduled for last weekend were postponed, including Inter’s match against Sampdoria. Italy has the most cases of the virus in Europe.

Serie A president Paolo Dal Pinto sent a letter to the government on Monday asking that games no longer be postponed in the affected areas but played without fans in attendance, something which Sports Minister Vincenzo Spadafora said they were in agreement with.

[ MORE: Man City makes statement, comes back in Madrid ]

However, no official decree has been made by the Turin council and Serie A’s governing body has also yet to release a statement, giving rise to the hope fans could be allowed in.

Italy had 447 virus cases as of Wednesday. Twelve people have died, all of them elderly or suffering from other ailments, or both.

Italy has closed schools, museums and theaters in the two hardest hit regions and troops are enforcing quarantines around 10 towns in Lombardy and the epicenter of the Veneto cluster, Vo’Euganeo.

Inter’s Europa League match against Ludogorets was scheduled to go ahead in an empty stadium on Thursday.

On Sunday, Conte will return to Juventus as opposition coach for the first time since he left the club in 2014. Conte led Juventus to the first three of its eight straight league titles and also spent most of his playing career with the Bianconeri.

[ MORE: Alan Pardew confronted by frustrated Den Haag fans on training field ]

“Soccer needs the crowd, to hear the atmosphere around it,” Conte said. “That’s the best thing about the game, the atmosphere around the soccer being played. These decisions have been taken with public health in mind but I hope that everything returns to normal as soon as possible.”

Inter trails the Serie A leaders by six points, although it has played a match less. Juventus, meanwhile, will have to bounce back from Wednesday’s surprise 1-0 loss at Lyon in the Champions League.

“We didn’t play the match we wanted. We have a lot of work to do,” Juventus midfielder Aaron Ramsey said. “Let’s focus on ourselves and do better than we did today, starting on Sunday with Inter.”