THE WEEKEND GRADEBOOK
CAN YOU BELIEVE IT! IT IS FINALLY HERE! THE PREMIER LEAGUE IS BACK!
People may argue that the Spanish League is better, just look at the Champions League and Europa League winners (again), but when I compare it all comes down to the weekend fixtures.
I just don't see what is that fun about watching Barcelona run around and win 7-0 against Grenada.
(Who we apparently invaded in the '80's. And people say Americans don't care about soccer!)
Anyways, the Premier League offers the chance for 10 competitive matches a week, and while there are certainly games that prove to be mismatches, you rarely enter into a match with the feeling the outcome is predetermined.
Yeah, the same teams generally finish around the top of the table, but it is certainly not the iron clad lock it is in Spain, or Germany for that matter. (See Leicester City)
So when the PL starts back up I get really excited for EACH AND EVERY EVERY match, and I will do anything to watch them.
7:00 AM kickoff between Burnley and Sunderland?
8 hours on the couch when the league is already decided just to scout teams for next season?
Starting a website to feed your addiction and tell your wife it has to be legitimate, because for GOD'S SAKE IT IS .NET!!!
It is such a long season that I have learned not to get revved in the early weeks about results, and certainly not about form, as the transfer window is still plenty wide open to give Chelsea and other teams plenty of time to panic buy after slow starts. In fact, you will note I haven't released a league wide preview/ prediction post yet, because there is no point in doing so until September when the transfer market dust settles and we know exactly who the teams will be. (Until January that is).
So with a triple-header lined up for opening Saturday, including a nerve-racking Everton match up with a Harry Kane surely motivated after reading my article, I sat down, digested a bunch of matches and here are the grades.
HULL CITY 2 LEICESTER 1
I made sure I got up early this morning to make sure my kick ass breakfast casserole would be ready to go to catch the first match up of the day between Hull City and the defending champions Leicester.
Let's compare the Leicester starting lineup from the opening day of 2015 and 2016
There are obviously a couple of notable changes (and no Kante at CM in either one), but overall there are not a ton of differences. Gray was the attacking sub last season and will continue to see starts out wide, especially with Champions League on the slate this season, Musa is probably an upgrade on a CRAFTY and industrious Okazaki, Fuchs won that spot in a Best XI season, and Huth will be back to win headers eventually.
Point is, the Foxes have doubled down (as is to be expected) on the core of their team (and in doing so their style of play as well), but how will they cope with the loss of Kante? What is even more interesting is whether or not Mahrez stays and how he plays if he does.
Hull City enters a calamity. A forthcoming article to introduce the newly promoted teams later will post later this week, so I won't spoil the surprise, but needless to say they are a mess and enter the weekend the biggest underdog in the league. They don't even have a coach.
But as they say, that's why they play the game.
This game was ugly to start. You forget how teams looks at the beginning of the year as they are still finding their rhythm and establish their confidence.
Leicester looked a shell of it's self to begin the match. Then, miraculously, Hull City took the lead on the champions with a double bicycle kick!
First, what a save by Schmeichel, then both players attempting a bike that one connects with then deflects off the other?!?!
Welcome back Premier League.
Leicester woke up at halftime and drew and converted a penalty they let Mahrez take, (probably in hopes of convincing him to stay), but then this happened:
Well, well well, I guess my point that every game is competitive was proven right off the bat. I doubt this signals a Hull run to the title, or a terrible season by Leicester, but there were a few items of note:
When you win the Premier League you should play every game, at least certainly your first one) with a certain amount of swagger that should unsettle your opponents, especially when your opponents were playing the likes of Bright Hove & Albion while you were winning a title
I;m not going to overreact, but with early Champions League matches only just around the corner it will be imperative that Leicester get their feet underneath them to avoid being viewed as a flash in the pan in the quick judgement world of sports we live in.
Hull on the other hand, only has but so many souls to sell before their average starts to plummet. For today, however, they pass with flying colors.
CRYSTAL PALACE 0 WEST BROM 1
In a match up of two teams hoping to establish mid table footing as early as possible, the champion of avoiding the drop, Tony Pulis, gave the champion of being a jack ass, Alan Pardew, a lesson in modern boring soccer.
Crystal Palace showed that they are going to struggle to sign goals,and I would think they would want to wrap up their deal to ship off Bolassie to Everton as soon as possible before Liverpool raises the price on Benteke due to the reek of desperation.
Palace has the ability to be a avoid the relegation battle, but in order to do so they need to establish an identity and create consistant scoring chances, something they relied heavily on Bolasie for last season. Can they bring in a creative midfielder to drive the team forward? We will see, but I wouldn't hold my breath.
I personally that believe West Brom can finish in the top half this year. They are solid in the back, get good service from their backs and have a varied attack. Solomon Rondon picked up a flick on header goal, just his (VERY limited) style, but they have Berahino to offer pace and guile, assuming he doesn't pout his way through another season and finally realizes the only way he is getting out of the Hawthornes is by growing up and playing his best, driving up his value and forcing West Brom to cash in.
I'm not saying they are winning the title, but Leicester has shown that the Athletico Madrid counter, score, bunker method can be successful in the PL. Tony Pulis is no nonsense and would look just as comfortable watching his sons rec soccer match as he does winning on the road in the PL.
The remainder of the transfer window is crucial for both teams, but West Brom will see themselves three points closer to their survival goal. Just 37 more points to go.
CRYSTAL PALACE: F
WEST BROM: B+
BURNLEY 0 SWANSEA 1
As you will read about Burnley later this week, their biggest issue during their last stay in the PL was their glaring inability to score goals. One of the most nerve racking aspect for their fans coming into the season was who was going to rectify that problem. After 90+ minutes of the season, their fans will be no less nervous than they were before kickoff.
Burnley struggled to create opportunities, and against a Swansea side reeling from the loss of their captain Ashley Williams to Everton earlier this week, they were ripe for the picking. Add in starting your campaign at home and if the chips were ever going to fall for Burnley, this was it. Unfortunately it wasn't.
Burnley didn't do terrible in the attack, earning 7 corners, but only mustered three shots on goal.
The reality is, though, that Swansea wasn't overwhelming in their own right. While their goal came off a nice combination play and follow up finish (see video below), they really should have been able to open up the Burnley defense more often than they did.
9 shots on goal would seem to imply an attacking prowess, but they often settled for shots outside the box and actually scuffed some better opportunities in the box.
This is going to be a tough season for Burnley, but I think even a bigger gut check for the Swans. They will be looking for leadership to replace Williams and some front line scorers to chip in. They have broken their transfer record to sign a new striker (Borja Baston from Athletico), so I am sure fans will be looking for the team to build off the opening day win.
Wins are wins.
EVERTON 1 TOTTENHAM 1
As you can imagine I spent more time watching this match in live time than any of the others. This was a tale of two halves, with the draw being the fair result.
The first half belonged to Everton and they attacked with relentless pressure. They earned an early free kick that Ross Barkley stood over:
That is textbook free kick taking right there. Barkley hits it just inside the back post so that if no one touches it it will still go in. Everton's new manager Ronald Koeman was a MASTER on free kicks and the players have said he has been giving them tons of tips. I hope to see plenty of this in the future.
Unfortunately for Everton, they were unable to capitalize on numerous opportunities, with Gerard Deulofeu proving frustratingly unable to clean up his finishing. A 2 or 3 goal lead was not out of the realm of possibility, but the Blues settled for a one goal lead at half.
In the second half Koeman's mid week words about his teams lack of fitness proved to be prophetic. An ever-tiring Everton squad couldn't quite hold onto the lead. Erik Lamela's back post header tied it up and the game fizzled out from there.
It will be interesting to see who the Blues add before the transfer window to strengthen the squad. New boys Stecklenburg and Gana were the best two players for the Toffees so more new faces would prove fruitful. Without Lukaku, Williams and Coleman they did a good job of playing as a team. Koeman's impact is immediately noticeable.
Tottenham, on the other hand, looked stale early but found their groove late. They will need to pick up the pace in order to maintain their league standing.
I'll just leave this here:
MIDDLESBOROUGH 1 STOKE CITY 1
Middlesborough fans were excited to host their return to the big show after so many years out of the limelight. As you will read later this week, MIddlesborough's promotion earned them a new owner with lots of money, so the team is one in the midst of MAJOR turnover, and trying establish itself as a perennial Premier League side.
This couldn't have been manifested itself any more clearly than when 11 minutes into the season one of their pretty new toys, former Man City striker Alvaro Negredo, did this:
That's what Mark Hughes gets for not playing Geoff Cameron, a free back post header. As you can see, however, Shaqiri shook his hips and knocked in a sweet free kick to earned the point.
Middlesborough will be happy with their performance, if not disappointed not the get the three points. The free kick goal was the only time Stoke was able to get the ball on target. I am beginning to wonder if Stoke will continue to ignore their glaring hole at the striker position.
Mama "just doesn't" Diouf it for me and with the spoil of riches in midfield it seems as if they are continually unable to get finished products on goal. Not just last season, but then two season before it too. You can't paper over it with Peter Crouch or play a false 9. This is the PL and you have to have a top level striker on your team to have a chance to reach the holy land of European soccer on a consistent basis.
A move for a big striker (Mandzukic?) might be the kick Stoke needs to get into gear. For this week, they will take the point and head home.
STOKE CITY: D
SOUTHAMPTON 1 WATFORD 1
Southampton had a tough off season. Two years after having to replace Mauricio Pochettino, and pulling a coup when they secured Ronald Koeman, they now find themselves forced to reinvent the way they do business. Koeman was poached by Everton with promises of bigger budgets and more power. They lost more key components to bigger clubs.
This begs the question: what type of club are Southampton? Traditional sellers who cash in on their top players (Victor Wanyama, Sadio Mane), or a buying team who are trying to build depth for another European filled season?
It's easy to forget that they have finished 6th the last two years, but Southampton is (was?) on the verge the big things. The club that brought us Gareth Bale now must decide where they stand in the PL world. Some key missteps this season could have long-lasting ramifications.
Sorry, I just had to get that off my chest. I'm trying to be ominous, but these are the types of seasons that can send a club one way or another. Wasn't that long ago that Villa was a top 8 club, time moves fast.
As far as their opening match went, though, it was just like old times.
With tons of possession and 24(!) shots on goal, the Saints will be saltier than ballpark peanuts not to have gotten three points. ESPECIALLY when you consider the fact that Watford mustered only ONE shot on goal! It's not hard to see why they had trouble finishing.
They miss Graziano Pelle. A LOT. His hugely expensive move,however, did have the positive side effect or producing one of my favorite meme's ever:
It would be easy to shrug this result off as an aberration, and I won't make a huge deal of it all, but it will be IMPERATIVE for Southampton to get some momentum early in the season to settle their supporters (and their own) nerves.
I must give credit where credit is due though. Watford is attempting to to carve themselves out a niche in the 13-15 range, and so far so good.
While they are always an injury or two away from crumbling like a house of cards, another season with another new coach seems to have them energized for the long road ahead.
If they step up and sign some reinforcements in the back they might find themselves fighting for a top half finish.
MANCHESTER CITY 2 SUNDERLAND 1
There was a lot of anticipation for this game as Pep Guardiola made his PL debut against Sunderland, who themselves welcomed a new manager this off season.
After surviving the relegation fight with Sunderland, Sam Allardyce was rewarded with the England job! Congrats Sam. England will love your forward thinking style of play. I'm sure the media won't be down your throat the moment you beat San Marino only 3-0.
(Hint: Don't start Harry!)
In his place, 8th place champion David Moyes was brought into the fold. He is pretty much the Scottish version of Allardyce. Except smaller. Much smaller.
Anyways, Pep decided to send a message well before kickoff when he decided to omit Joe Hart from the lineup. Then he played Kolarov as a center back, and is currently busy attempting to turn Silva into Iniesta.
Nolito looked dangerous, and will only get better over time. KDB certainly did and he is one tough biscuit.
City controlled the play but couldn't put the Black cats away. Jermaine Defoe's corpse scored late to make it seem like City's effort were for naught.
But thankfully for City this is Sunderland and a Donald Love own goal wrapped up up for them.
Raheem Sterling seems like a different player, fooling Van Aanholt into conceding a penalty, and being a pest all game.
If he can regain his confidence and the new signings, including Leroy Sane and Ilkay Gundogan, can add even more bite to this team they can be scary.
Toss in a reported move for Carlos Bravo and we may eventually see a whole new team playing for City.
MANCHESTER CITY: C
BOURNEMOUTH 1 MANCHESTER UNITED 3
As much build up as there was for the Pep's City debut, their neighborhood rivals were unveiling their own new signings. From the new manager Jose Mourinho, to Zlatan and Pogba, there was no shortage of story lines as Man U headed to Bournemouth to take on the Cherries, fresh off surviving their first season ever in the top flight.
Bournemouth dealt with a comedy of injuries last year, losing their top scorer and defender for the season before week one. Their survival, and the ho-hum nature by which it was achieved, led them to be a dark horse this season.
It was evident from the first whistle the renewed intensity with which the Red Devils would play. Kind of forgot what it looked like for that jersey to be worn by players hustling for an actual quality manager. (Sorry David).
To be totally honest, it wasn't an all-ecnompassing performance that blew me away, it was how natural the team looked performaing their duties this early in the season.
THAT BEING SAID, HOWEVER!
There was a glaring tactical trend that I saw continually popping up during the match. It wasn't something that will hurt them when they have the fair share of the ball, but check out their starting formation compared to their zones of influence throughout the match:
You will notice that in their lineup, Mourhino's standard 4-2-3-1, there are four clear distinct lines of attack and defense.
Now look at the influence map. There are really only three lines. For most of the game, Man U was playing a 4-2-4, which Antonio Valencia covered up by playing left back and outside mid. He can't do that when pinned back by quality wingers.
A winger tucking in (Mata, and to a lesser degree Martial) is not a new strategy, but the lack of discipline of Zlatan to stay high will eventually hurt the Red Devils. Don't think Jose said something about it after the game?
Look at a 2014 Champions League semi final in 2014. THIS is how he wants his lone striker to play:
Look at how isolated Torres is. It would seem counter productive to have him alone, but look at how well balanced the rest of the team is. With the wide players staying unpredictable by tucking in sometimes and maintaining width at other times. Torres knows he will always have at least two options to play off of and those supporting players know they can count on him as an outlet. AND they will have space underneath him to be creative.
While they don't have Champions League opponents to compete with this year, they won't be able to depend on Moron Fellatio-ani and Ander Hererra to hold down the middle of the field against top quality Premier League opponents.
And before you get your knickers in a twist, Pogba doesn't solve this problem. In fact, his lack of desire to track back will only exacerbate it.
The way the Red Devils are playing now they will find themselves struggling to create clear cut chances against quality teams. A trend to keep an eye on.
MANCHESTER UNITED: A
ARSENAL 3 LIVERPOOL 4
Well. What a game. THAT is why this match was named match of the week. First, the lineups.
Anyone who watched Borussia Dortmund play under Klopp knows that this 4-3-3 is his bread and butter. It is a high pressure, quick counter game. The forwards are allowed to interchange, and across the midfield you see strong two-way players and no true bruising #6. Henderson will play the role, but he is more petulant that powerful.
Arsenal roll out the same fucking lineup as the last three seasons. Arsene Wegner has so much self belief that he trots out Chambers and Holding, the latter of whom was just recently signed from Bolton. Who are awful.
The first half was pretty tactical, with both teams feeling each other out, and Arsenal probably had the run of play when Alberto Moreno pulled, well, a Moreno, leading to Walcott to be himself and hit an easily saved PK. Then 60 second later this happened. Watch the rest of the highlights if you missed them then we will continue.
Couple of notes:
- What a free kick by Coutinho. So much power AND precision needed.
- Sadio Mane is terrifying. That finish?? Wow.
- There are rumors that Arsenal are close to signing Mustafi. They need AT LEAST one more center back in addition to bringing him in.
- Liverpool can't run on emotion forever. (Right?)
Once both team came out of the tunnel after halftime, you could tell that Klopp had gotten his boys fired up, while Wegner probably just pursed his lips and mumbled.
Arsenal fans are getting sick of watching teams pass them by
I know what Gunners fans want. Their manager going crazy in the transfer market:
It feels like every year Arsenal is picked to either win the whole thing or crumble and finally miss out on Champions League. This year is no different.
THEY ARE FINALLY GOING TO MISS OUT ON CHAMPIONS LEAGUE!!!
At least based on what I saw for 90 minutes. If you are arguing that Giroud will solve the problems, reread that sentence, then know your apology is accepted.
Liverpool, on the other hand, must be on cloud nine. The win definitely brings good feelings, but the performance was really concentrated to the second half, and even then the back line looked weak, but Arsenal couldn't capitalize, though they did make it interesting late on.
I think you will see Liverpool bring in one more big signing, and if they can find consistent output, and shore up the back line, they could push for top four. Excuse me while I go throw up.
Let's see what the future holds as these two teams jockey to stay in/ rejoin the Big Boys club.