Wild American Gooner

When Sports Are More Than Just Sports


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5 Observations From Week 1 of the EPL Season

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).


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A Comeback From Nowhere – Player Ratings and Analysis from Everton Arsenal

Somehow, someway, Arsenal rescued a point on the road against Everton, scoring two late goals to earn a 2-2 draw. It will amount to what is a pretty good point at Goodison Point, but it was as strange a game as I’ve watched. The first half performance was abysmal, and for much of the match, Arsenal looked as lost as they were on the road all of last year. But then something changed. The introduction of Santi Cazorla and Joel Campbell in the 74th minute injected some urgency in the side. And the two necessary goals came, but not as you’d expect.

The goals weren’t your typical Arsenal goals. The first came almost at a stand still, as Cazorla sort of walked into the box before driving a low cross at the feet of Aaron Ramsey. Then the second came from a horribly overhit cross that Nacho Monreal tracked down near the corner. Monreal, who’d been overhitting crosses all day, picked out a perfect one that Oliver Giroud headed home. They weren’t beautiful goals. They didn’t come from added pace or creativity. They came from patience and determination.

The first half performance was sickening to watch. Arsenal’s demons from a year ago were back, and in a big way. The defense and midfield were unorganized, letting Everton run free all over the park. And offensively, with Alexis Sanchez up top, there was no outlet to hold the ball. Everton’s first was the result of Mesut Özil not marking his man, but it was a goal that was always going to come for the Toffees.

Playing without a physical striker against Everton probably wasn’t the best decision. It may have worked had Arsenal developed an element of cohesion this year, but with nothing going in the midfield due to Everton’s constant pressure, they needed a vertical outlet that Sanchez couldn’t provide. It wasn’t his fault, and to his credit, he worked hard hard in possession as he dropped deeper and deeper. But today wasn’t the time to experiment, even if this is the ultimate solution.

Everton’s second goal was offside, and the assistant referee’s non-call was atrocious. However, as rough as the call was, the Toffees deserved a second goal for the way they dominated the first half. The spaces Arsenal were leaving all throughout the midfield saw Everton do whatever they wanted when Arsenal lost the ball. The only defensive successes for Arsenal came as a result of gambling – be it Mathieu Flamini or Calum Chambers going in hard one-on-one – and when they missed a tackle, there was even more space for Steven Naismith and Romelu Lukaku. The second goal exposed that directly, as both Per Mertesacker and Calum Chambers gambled on Lukaku upfield and missed.

Arsenal were far too narrow for the first seventy minutes. There was nothing happening out wide for much of the match, so the passing game in the midfield became all the more difficult with extra bodies around. And near the box, there was no space to do anything. Mesut Özil should not play out wide, as his creativity gets stunted in that position and he constantly falls asleep as he did on Everton’s first goal. Things were looking bad.

The introduction of Santi Cazorla and Joel Campbell came just in time though. The two of them provided the width and energy that was so badly needed, and Campbell also added the ability to hold up the ball a little bit, creating a second outlet. Cazorla’s work rate was evident right away, a stark contrast to those that had been on the wings earlier in the match. One can only wonder what would have happened had the two of them come on ten minutes earlier.

It will be easy after to freak out about what happened in the first half, but I urge everyone to have patience. The talent is there, but the cohesion is not at the moment. It’s worth remembering that Mesut Özil and Per Mertesacker have not had a preseason game before today. The transfer window closes in a little more than a week, and today’s defensive struggles might see Arsene Wenger go back in on some of his targets. But none of them will come unless Arsenal advances in the Champions League on Wednesday. That game holds immense importance.

With ten minutes to play, not a single person watching the game around the globe would have seen the comeback coming. But it came nonetheless, and Arsenal grabbed a point on the road against a top side. The has been no shortage of struggles so far this season, but the late goals have saved the team. Spirits can be lifted with big late goals, and comebacks like this do a lot for morale. Down the road, we could be looking at this comeback as a big point in the title race.

Player Ratings (1-10)

Alexis Sanchez – 5.5/10 – Sanchez was given an impossible task today as I wrote above. It seemed harsh to take him off after the first half, as he was working hard and making good runs, but it was necessary to put on a physical focal point in the second half. His runs weren’t often spotted, and he needs to develop a better understanding with his teammates.

Mesut Özil – 5.5/10 – Asking Özil to start straightaway without any preseason didn’t set the World Cup winner up for greatness today. He was noticeably quiet on the wing in the first half, except for his defensive lapse. It wasn’t until he drifted inside in the second half that he began to pick out a few nice balls. Expect his form to pick up in a week or two, as it is still preseason for Mesut/

Aaron Ramsey – 6.5/10 – Ramsey found a way to score another big late goal, making a wonderful run into the box to get on the end of Cazorla’s cross for Arsenal’s first. But for much of the game, he was a frustrated figure, skewing shots and overhitting passes. He and Wilshere got in each other’s way, and Ramsey wasn’t finding any space to shoot in the final third. He did alright defensively, but he doesn’t look as eager to go into tackles this year as he was a year ago.

Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain – 6/10 – The Ox had a better game than most Arsenal players, especially in the first half. He had a little bit of success down the right, and looked most likely to score in the first half. He might have done better with the shot he got from a poor Everton clearance early on though. He faded in the second half, and was rightfully replaced.

Jack Wilshere – 5/10 – Wilshere hardly did anything today. Defensively, he didn’t help Flamini out in any great way, and he got knocked off the ball a lot in the final third. I don’t like the setup of having him and Ramsey next to each other in the midfield, as they seem to want to make the same runs. His team in the starting XI would seem to be running thin.

Mathieu Flamini – 6/10 – Flamini had a rough first half, as his fellow midfielders and defenders left him with a ton of space to cover. He also was careless in possession in his own half, which his manager won’t appreciate. Many will say he needs to be replaced in the transfer market, but the truth was that he didn’t get the necessary help today to stop Everton’s counter attacks. He made a few good, hard tackles as always, and towards the end of the match, he looked much more assured. A bit of a mixed bag from the Frenchman today

Nacho Monreal – 6/10 – Right as my frustration with Monreal was boiling over, he sent in the perfect cross for the equalizer. Were it not for that ball, I probably would have given him a 4.5. He looked shaky defensively again, although to be fair, he had very little help from Mesut Özil. Offensively, his passing was poor, and he didn’t provide much width to a side badly needing it. But then he hit that cross, and all was forgotten.

Per Mertesacker – 5.5/10 – Mertesacker shifted over to the left side of the defensive, and he looked uncomfortable over there. He was caught off balance once or twice, and he needed to do a lot better with Lukaku on the second goal. His early yellow card prevented him from halting play with a foul in that situation, and it was a good example of why players need to avoid cheap yellows.

Calum Chambers – 6/10 – Chambers gambled a lot today, and generally, he won the ball. But he was way off on the second goal, not coming anywhere close to Lukaku in his attempted tackle. Aside from that though, he had a decent game. He definitely seemed less comfortable with Mertesacker than he does with Laurent Koscielny.

Mathieu Debuchy – 6/10 – It seems pretty clear at this point that Debuchy has very little understanding with his teammates in the final third. He has been noticeably quiet going forward, but yet still got caught out of position a few times today, leaving loads of space behind him. His one-on-one defending hasn’t been horrible, but he needs to get his offensive game going soon. He got forward a little bit at the end of the game, but he needs to do more.

Wojciech Szczesny – 5.5/10 – Szczesny had very little action today aside from the two goals. He wasn’t at fault for either, but I felt he could have saved both. The first header would have been a tough save, but Szczesny did get a hand on it and was just a tad slow to react. On the second goal, I thought he wasn’t quick enough off his line, and he left his legs wide open as he often does when he goes out. Many goalkeepers would have saved that one.

Substitutes

Olivier Giroud (46th) – 7/10 – Giroud changed the game when he stepped on the pitch at the start of the second half, as he allowed Arsenal to hold possession. He could have scored three times before Arsenal eventually got on the board, and probably should have got at least one of those. But he deservedly got the tying goal with a well-taken header. This performance was certainly a large step up from Tuesday for Giroud.

Santi Cazorla (74th) – 7.5/10 – As soon as he got on the field, Cazorla was buzzing everywhere, picking up the ball deep and bringing it forward. He was good in possession, and posed a different sort of threat to Everton going forward. His cross to Ramsey for the first goal was superbly hit, and it showed Cazorla’s quality. Quite simply, Arsenal would not have gotten that point had Cazorla not been on the field late on.

Joel Campbell (74th) – 6.5/10 – In his first Premier League action, Campbell made an impact. He was all over the field, showing off his touch. He looked at home in Arsenal’s passing game. He wasn’t involved in either goal, but he made a difference in the momentum of the game. And he sent in a pretty decent cross late on might have led to a winner had anyone gotten on the end of it.

What were your thoughts on that strange game? Are you satisfied with the comeback? Or angry about the first half? Please comment below.