EARLY IMPRESSIONS: ASSESSING THE TITLE CONTENDERS
Okay, so we’ve seen 90 minutes of action from each of the Premier League’s 20 teams during the opening weekend of the 2015-16 season and, as is always the case in August each year, plenty of people are jumping to hefty assumptions about each club.
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Let’s pump the breaks a little and take a closer look at the five title contenders to see how they fared on the opening weekend and if there’s any correlation between these early displays and their title chances. Remember, it’s a long old season.
Chelsea: A 2-2 draw at home against Swansea City isn’t the perfect way to start a title defense. Throw in a shaky defensive display and your star goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois getting a red card and giving away a penalty kick and Jose Mourinho has certainly had better days at the office. Chelsea led 2-1 at the break against the Swans but Branislav Ivanovic had a nightmare against Jefferson Montero and Blues players lost individual battles across the pitch. Playing with 10-men for over 30 minutes wasn’t ideal, and this start to defending the crown they won in 2014-15 wasn’t ideal either. Mourinho wasn’t happy with his medical staff towards the end of the game as they left his side with nine-men, but the Blues show plenty of grit to grab a draw against an impressive Swansea side. It’s too early to drawn conclusions, but it certainly seems like the Blues will have a tougher time of winning the title this time around and most of that will be down to themselves and the fact that their rivals have spent big this summer.
Manchester City: Manuel Pellegrini’s men saw their odds to win the PL title slashed following their impressive demolition of West Bromwich Albion away from home on Monday. The Citizens strolled and led 2-0 after 25 minutes with Yaya Toure scoring a beauty and Vincent Kompany powering home a header to round off a 3-0 win. If Toure and Kompany regain their best form and stay fit this season — the regression of those two last season was key to City’s slump in the second half of the campaign — then they will push Chelsea all the way for the title. With Raheem Sterling, David Silva, Sergio Aguero, Wilfried Bony and possibly Kevin De Bruyne in attack, Pellegrini has an embarrassment of riches to choose from. The Chilean boss signed a contract extension on the eve of the season which will add stability, as City aim for success domestically and in Europe. The PL champions in two of the last four seasons looked the best of the bunch on the opening weekend and hungry to not finish in second once again.
Arsenal: As you can see in the video above from our analysts, just when everyone thought they were on the up, Arsenal’s problems persist as they fired a blank on the opening day and suffered a shock defeat to West Ham United. Over the offseason the Gunners won every single game, even beating Chelsea at Wembley in the Community Shield, and Arsene Wenger’s men looked to have solved their defensive issues with the signing of Petr Cech in goal. Think again. Cech, 33, has been their only signing of the summer and in his home debut against the Hammers he was at fault for both the goals Arsenal conceded. That’s not the way Wenger was expecting to start the season and if Arsenal are going to be genuine title contenders then bolstering their forward line is key.
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Karim Benzema has been linked with a move to the Emirates and if Wenger is serious about winning the league for the first time since 2004, he must spend big on a striker in the final days of the window. There was lots of optimism around the Gunners this offseason, but most of that has already dissipated after a poor opening day result.
Manchester United: The Red Devils put in a workmanlike display against Tottenham Hotspur in their 1-0 opening day win, but it certainly wasn’t pretty from Louis van Gaal’s side. The new boys all settled in well, with Matteo Darmian looking particularly solid at right back, but you feel like they still need to strengthen at center back if they’re going to challenge for the title this season. And then there’s the issue with David de Gea to sort out. The Spanish international goalkeeper was sat to my left at Old Trafford in the stands on Saturday, as van Gaal said he wasn’t focused enough to play.
Asked afterwards if De Gea will ever play for United again, here is LVG’s response.
“Of course,” van Gaal explained. “Especially with the position of the goalkeeper, it is a position where you need the highest concentration, the highest focus during 90 minutes. When you are in circumstances where David de Gea is, it is difficult to cope with that. We have seen that, we have observed him in the matches against Barcelona and Paris Saint-Germain, and that was not the David de Gea — he felt the same — as last year. Of course when the situation has been cleared after the first of September, we look again. But I am very happy Sergio [Romero] did well.”
De Gea, 24, still hasn’t committed his future to United and rumors regarding a switch to Real Madrid remain as he has just one-year left on his current deal. New signing Sergio Romero stepped in and made some big saves late on after a shaky start, but de Gea was United’s star man last season. If he leaves and they can’t sign a new center back, United will be unlikely to make the top two.
Liverpool: As other teams stumbled to start the season, Brendan Rodgers’ boys exorcised a few demons and sealed a solid 1-0 win away at Stoke City. Philippe Coutinho’s stunning winner five minutes from time (see in the video below) was worthy of winning any game, but Liverpool’s display was still a little disjointed, but that’s to be expected. Going to the stadium where they closed out their 2014-15 season with the heaviest defeat of their PL history, 6-1, Liverpool rolled up at the Britannia on the opening day and looked more business than brilliant. With James Milner and Jordan Henderson in midfield, they have a solid base to build off and new full backs Nathaniel Clyne and Joe Gomez impressed in an improved defensive display. Going forward, Liverpool lacked spark, but that will come as Christian Benteke and Roberto Firmino settle in and Daniel Sturridge returns. Liverpool may not be many people’s title favorites, but maybe their additions this summer after the departures of Raheem Sterling and Steven Gerrard will give them a better chance of finishing in the top four than many previously thought.
DEBUT WATCH: HIT, MISS, MAYBE
There were plenty of players either making their bow in the Premier League, or just starting with new clubs after transferring over the summer.
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After their opening day displays, let’s take a look at some of the players who looked the part, others who certainly did not and some we haven’t quite made our mind up about yet.
Reece Oxford (West Ham United) – Just 16 years old, Oxford is the second youngest player to start a game in PL history. He played 80 minutes and shackled Mesut Ozil and Aaron Ramsey in the Hammers’ stunning 2-0 win. A huge prospect.
Dmitri Payet (West Ham United) – Another key part of West Ham’s big win, the man who signed from Marsielle this summer has bags of creativity and was the man threat going forward. Looks like a key addition for Slaven Bilic.
Andre Ayew (Swansea City) – Scoring on his debut for the Swans at Chelsea, the Ghanaian forward linked up well with Swansea other attackers (Montero, Sigurdsson and Gomis) and took his goal really well. Promising.
Georginio Wijnaldum (Newcastle United) – Could have had a debut hat trick on another day, but his towering header at the Gallowgate End put Newcastle 2-1 up in the second half. The Dutch midfielder made several lung-bursting runs. He’s already a fans favorite at St James’.
Matteo Darmian (Manchester United) – Louis van Gaal singled the Italian right back out in his post-match press conference as the best of United’s debutants. It’s hard to argue with that. Darmian was solid and steady in United’s 1-0 win at home vs. Spurs. His presence will help to steady the backline.
James Milner (Liverpool) – An experienced head in the center of midfield, exactly the type of player Liverpool needed to win away at Stoke on the opening day. Milner returning to his preferred role in the center will bring the best out of him.
Ibrahim Afellay (Stoke City) – Plenty of sparks to excite Stoke’s fans, as the former Barcelona winger dazzled out on the left wing. When Bojan comes back, those two will be a joy to watch.
Yohan Cabaye (Crystal Palace) – A debut goal wrapped up Palace’s 3-1 win at Norwich and it’s like Cabaye never left the PL. So graceful on the ball, he’s a calming influence in midfield.
Jose Holebas (Watford) – Solid and dependable at the back for Watford and had a hand in their first goal, the Greek international who signed from AS Roma this summer has real quality.
Sebastian Prodl (Watford) – Another new defensive signing shone for the Hornets, as Prodl was composed and Quique Flores’ men were unlucky to not beat Everton away on the opening dday.
Jordan Ayew (Aston Villa) – Hardly had a touch on his PL debut and was replaced by Rudy Gestede who subsequently scored the winner.
Aleksandar Mitrovic (Newcastle United) – Must have broken the record for the fastest-ever booking in PL history. Mitrovic came on in the second half and could have got a red card for lunging into Matt Targett. Lucky boy. Not a great first impression.
Petr Cech (Arsenal) – Well, that didn’t go to plan. Cech came flying out in full Superman mode but missed the ball on West Ham’s first goal, then for their second he went down in installments as Zarate’s shot bobbled past him. Poor debut from the man who was meant to be Arsenal’s savior.
Younes Kaboul (Sunderland) – The French center back had a day to forget on his Sunderland debut. Kaboul and the Black Cats were all over the place at the back and trailed 3-0 at half time. Oh dear.
Tom Cleverley (Everton) – Roberto Martinez managed Cleverly at Wigan Atheltic in the past so knows what he is all about, but the former Manchester United midfielder did little to suggest his patchy form for Aston Villa last season has dissipated.
Memphis Depay (Manchester United) – Some flashes of brilliance, especially early on, but Memphis (as he wants to be known) didn’t look happy when he was hauled off early in the second half. Jury is out.
Joe Gomez (Liverpool) – The 19-year-old is a right back by trade but Liverpool deployed him at left back against Stoke and he did well. Can he make the spot his own ahead of Moreno?
Sergio Romero (Manchester United) – Two really good saves late on from Christian Eriksen proved that there may well be life after David de gea at Manchester United. Distribution was sloppy though.
Angelo Ogbonna (West Ham United) – A powerful display from the West Ham center back who was key in their clean sheet at the Emirates Stadium. Looks the real deal alongside Winston Reid.
Rudy Gestede (Aston Villa) – Only took 13 minutes for him to score on his Villa debut and what a superb header it was. Tim Sherwood raves about his aerial ability and after excelling with his beautiful bonce in the Championship, Gestede made a dream start. Now, can he become more than an impact player?
NEW BOYS ON THE BLOCK
New boys Bournemouth, Watford and Norwich City struggled on the opening weekend as both Norwich and the Cherries lost at home. Watford came within a few minutes of beating Everton away from home and were good value for their point, as the Hornets’ host of new signings and new manager Quique Flores may have the best chance of staying up this season. Very promising start from the Hertfordshire club who were relegated at the first time of asking in their two previous seasons in the PL.
For Bournemouth, their first-ever PL game ended in a frustrating defeat down at the Vitality Stadium. Basking in the sunshine on the South Coast of England, Eddie Howe’s boys started off brightly and should have led but Marc Pugh, Dan Gosling and Callum Wilson were all guilty of missing gilt-edged chances in the first half. Then, they were welcomed to the PL and its brutality in the second half as Aston Villa stepped up through the gears and Gestede’s header gave them all three points despite the Cherries bossing most of the game and creating plenty of chances. Welcome to the Premier League.
As for Norwich, they could also feel slightly aggrieved. They started brightly too, with Alex Neil’s side flying out of the traps at home to Crystal Palace. But then Lewis Grabban missed a glorious chance six-yards out in the first half and either side of half time sloppy defending cost them dear with Wilfired Zaha and Damien Delaney punishing the Canaries. Again, welcome back to the Premier League. To their credit, Norwich rallied late on at Carrow Road with Nathan Redmond pulling one back and Cameron Jerome inexplicably having what looked to be a perfectly good equalizer ruled out for a high foot, but Neil’s side were naive defensively and that will cost you dear when you’re back in the big time.
GOALS GALORE ON OPENING WEEKEND
30 goals were scored this weekend in the Premier League, as any early season apprehension went out the window. From a thriller at St James’ Park between Newcastle and Southampton, to slack defending at Stamford Bridge and the King Power Stadium, we had plenty of good finishes and terrible defending which always combines for a good time for neutrals.
If this weekend is a precursor of what is to come, we are in for a goal-fest in the PL this season. Check out the video above which has every single goal scored on Saturday. While the video below has all the goals from Sunday.
USMNT CORNER: GUZAN, HOWARD, CAMERON ALL START
Three out of the four U.S. men’s national team players with PL clubs started at the weekend, but Brad Guzan was the only victor. The Aston Villa goalkeeper made a superb reaction save just before half time at Bournemouth as he blocked Marc Pugh’s thunderous effort to seal a clean sheet. Elsewhere, Tim Howard and Everton struggled against Watford with the Toffees twice falling behind but they managed to grab a point late on.
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As for the other USMNT players in the PL, DeAndre Yedlin was not in Tottenham Hotspur’s 18-man squad for their 1-0 defeat at Manchester United, while Geoff Cameron started and played the full 90 minutes at center back for Stoke City in their narrow 1-0 defeat to Liverpool. If Cameron gets some serious minutes at center back in the first few months of the season in the heart of Stoke’s defense, which he is very likely to do after a solid start, Jurgen Klinsmann will almost certainly play him at CB for the Confederations Cup playoff game against Mexico in October… right?
Premier League Playback comes out every week as PST’s Lead Writer and Editor takes an alternative look at all the action from the weekend. Read the full archive, here.