On Saturday morning, I made my way to London Euston station with hoards of soccer fans. Manchester United fans came in droves for the 8 o’clock train to Manchester while I joined many fans clad in blue and headed to Liverpool. Four hours later, I was in an Everton pub for the start of the Premier League season. Over the next two days, I would attend two matches and watch another two on tv in full. So rather than dwell on the Arsenal loss and write only about that, I’ve decided to break up this piece into five sections.
Manchester clubs are looking strong
With all the talk about Chelsea and Arsenal’s title race, the Manchester clubs made statements of intent on the first weekend. City especially played at a level which they didn’t often reach a year ago in a 3-0 dismantling of West Brom yesterday. If Yaya Toure and David Silva play they that the rest of the year, City suddenly become title favorites. If City deal with Chelsea this Sunday, the season could be turned on its head after only two weeks. The pressure is squarely on Chelsea in that match. At Old Trafford, United were unconvincing but ultimately successful. With Sergio Romero looking determined to make headlines of any sort with unnecessarily dramatic parries and strange clearances, his fellow newboys stole the show. Matteo Darmian earned the plaudits, but I was also impressed by how seamlessly Memphis and Morgan Schneiderlin fit in. However, what stood out to me above all else was the play of Juan Mata, who was at the center of the action at all times. When United click, they will be a side to be reckoned with.
Arsenal shouldn’t panic, but must address issues
The Emirates was a sad place to be Sunday afternoon. Everyone arrived filled with so much optimism, and left cursing out everything in sight. It was not pretty, and the bad performances across the board were particularly deflating. The loss is on everyone. Not just Petr Cech, Mesut Özil or Olivier Giroud. Francis Coquelin had his worst game in nine months and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain endured a nightmare defensively while Aaron Ramsey and Santi Cazorla looked lost and out of position. Somehow Arsene Wenger didn’t try to expose the fact that West Ham were playing a center back at right back. It is easy right now to say changes need to be made. However, I think patience is needed. Karim Benzema wouldn’t have stopped those two goals from being scored. Aside from restoring Cazorla to the middle to help take some of the burden of distribution away from Coquelin, I wouldn’t make any changes right away. That being said, this needs to be a stark wakeup call. Nobody should be safe from being dropped. A tough trip to Crystal Palace looms, but maybe that’s a good thing. In order to win that match, they’ll need to defend as a team and scrap for goals. It’s time to man up, Arsenal. Or face another long year.
Everton haven’t changed one bit
Like with Arsenal, Everton had aspirations of doing better this year with largely the same group of players as last season. It didn’t take the crowd at Goodison Park very long to realize how foolish that hope was. First off, I want to say how much I liked watching a game there. It felt a lot like Fenway Park, and aside from the grumbling when the Toffees went behind on two occasions, everybody was friendly and into the game. Everton has too many good players not to be better, but their approach looks largely naive at the moment. Despite being able to hit absolute rockets (I had a great sightline for his equalizer this weekend and oh my, did it move), Ross Barkley’s passing is not good enough for him to be a viable number 10. And Tom Cleverley is not the answer on the left, especially given the uncertainty of Leighton Baines’s return. Romelu Lukaku can hold the ball up like no other, but there needs to be more support behind him to get onto balls he knocks down and more width beyond Seamus Coleman, who was dealt with well by Miguel Layun. Only when Aruna Kone came on next to Lukaku did Everton look remotely dangerous. Gerard Deulofeu would seem a good option to fill these roles, but they can’t put too much on his plate right away. Also, despite looking good on paper, this defense is in shambles. For all the talent, Everton looks a long way away from making a sustained run.
Watford and West Ham are quality sides
What stood out to me in the two games I attended was the talent at Watford and West Ham. Unlike most promoted clubs, Watford has assembled a squad full of experienced internationals to complement hard-working types like Troy Deeney, who I thought was spectacular against Everton. Jose Holebas, Sebastian Prödl, and Etienne Capoue are not Championship-level players. And even off the bench, they have players who can make positive impacts. I came away convinced Watford will stay up, as they have the talent and experience necessary to beat a lot of teams. West Ham too impressed me. Dimitri Payet is good enough to play for anybody in the Premier League. But beyond him, West Ham got a standout performances from 16-year-old Reece Oxford, who was a stud in midfield shutting down Özil and Ramsey. And the pairing of Winston Reid and Angelo Ogbonna looked like they’d been playing together for years. These two teams aren’t going to win the league. But they are good enough to play spoiler week in and week out. They aren’t to be overlooked, and as seen this weekend, they can play with the big boys.
Exciting foreign players are flocking to mid-tier clubs and equalizing the field
What became apparent over the summer is that players around the world want to play in the Premier League. When Stoke City can recruit Xherdan Shaqiri (this deal would be a steal if they can lock it down this week) and Ibrahim Afellay, things have changed. Across the board, middle and bottom clubs have filled up with new players this year, more than I can remember. Aston Villa is unrecognizable from a year ago. Where these clubs used to be filled with marginal British talent, it is notable that many of the new arrivals are foreign, from countries like Benin that aren’t usually represented. If the allure of playing in England can attract big names like Georginio Wjinaldum and Dimitri Payet to the likes of Newcastle and West Ham, maybe this can bring about a shift in the Premier League, one that begins to equalize the playing field a little bit. Even if Crystal Palace and Swansea can’t spend like Chelsea and Manchester United, shrewd signings of foreigners like Yohan Cabaye and Andre Ayew combined with young talent already at the clubs can elevate them to new levels. Even if this shift is a one-off, the arrival of foreign talent across the board will make this an exciting year.
Predictions for Week 2
Aston Villa 0 – Manchester United 3
Southampton 2 – Everton 1
Watford 1 – West Brom 1
Sunderland 1 – Norwich City 1
Tottenham 2 – Stoke City 1
West Ham 2 – Leicester City 2
Swansea 2 – Newcastle 0
Crystal Palace 1 – Arsenal 1
Manchester City 2 – Chelsea 0
Liverpool 3 – Bournemouth 0
I’ll be experimenting with different types of Premier League related content in the coming months to determine how I want to write this school year. If you have any ideas, please let me know, either in the comments or on Twitter (@Klaus_Faust).