*Extremely Jeremy Corbyn on his return to parliament following the 2017 General Election voice* We’re back – and we’re ready to do it all over again. You can have your Benjamin Pavard screamers and your Iranian somersault throw-ins. Keep your German exits and your England penalty shootout wins. Because Southampton 0-0 Burnley on a drizzly Sunday afternoon is all I need (well, for the next ten months at least). As always the Premier League soapbox rolls on and, even though we’re only ten games into the 2018/19 season, tongues are already wagging. Here are the talking points:
Mourinho finds success in scrapheap challenge…
Those of us hoping the Premier League season would start with a bang were surely crestfallen to discover that Manchester United v Leicester City had been chosen as the completely untraditional Friday night curtain raiser. Two sides that embark on the new season with some trepidation and no shortage of question marks over the short term futures of both’s respective managers. Both sides fielded summer signings, with Fred making his competitive debut for the hosts, while James Maddison and Ricardo Pereira were given maiden starts by Claude Puel, but there were a few more surprised to be had once Jose Mourinho handed in the teamsheet. With injuries to Nemanja Matic and Antonio Valencia, the Portuguese manager made the bold move to draft in Matteo Darmian and Andreas Pereira – the latter making his first start for the club since a 5-1 Europa League win over Midtjylland in 2016, the night of Marcus Rashford’s Old Trafford debut. Rashford himself was a surprise inclusion at centre-forward in place of first choice Romelu Lukaku, particularly given Mourinho’s criticism of the young striker towards the end of last season, while Victor Lindelöf, barely trusted last term, slotted straight into the centre of defence with Eric Bailly. The biggest surprise, though, was the inclusion of Luke Shaw at left-back.
The £30m man has endured a difficult time since moving to Manchester from Southampton, with a double leg fracture in his second season at Old Trafford putting his career on hold for the best part of a year. By the time he was back to full fitness, Louis Van Gaal had vacated the manager’s office and Mourinho had arrived in his stead. And if Shaw thought a broken leg was an obstruction to his career progression, he hadn’t seen anything yet. Over the course of Mourinho’s first season, the pair’s relationship would fluctuate between quiet admiration and full blown criticism. On several occasions United’s manager criticised Shaw’s efforts in training, claiming he was “way behind” Darmian, Valencia and Ashley Young for starting berth. What started as seemingly innocuous commentary soon appeared to blossom into full-blown bullying. Last season, having already criticised Shaw’s “footballing brain”, Mourinho began to use the full-back as a go-to excuse for poor performances from his team, though that criticism would regularly be peppered with positive comments – back in January the manager was quoted as saying “I don’t see many left-backs better than this Luke Shaw” – note the snide addition of ‘this’. Treat them mean, keep them puzzled as to why you’re being a shithouse in front of the media.
With all this taken into account, few expected Shaw to start United’s first game of the season, and his manager perhaps didn’t expect to witness a Man of the Match performance from his long-term victim. The 23 year old finished the game having had the most touched, the second highest amount of completed passes and the joint highest amount of shots on target, all capped off with his first senior goal to double United’s lead late on. Provided his manager doesn’t experience a change of heart, this could finally be the season Shaw fulfills his potential.
…but Harry Kane’s self-fulfilling prophecy continues.
One of the most frequently uttered phrases over the first weekend of the season, besides “that new kit looks horrendous” would have likely been “I can’t believe you’ve got Harry Kane in your Fantasy team”. The World Cup Golden Boot winner headed into the new season looking to break what has widely become known as his ‘August Hoodoo. The Spurs striker had made an ominous thirteen appearances in the opening month of the season since his breakthrough in 2014 without finding the net, but was given a starting berth at St James’ Park in order to rectify his bizarre summertime drought. That Kane started after a physically demanding close season, in which he played almost 600 minutes for England, perhaps says more about Spurs’ lack of strength in depth than the national team captain’s match fitness. Fernando Llorente enjoyed a prolific pre-season but has yet to rediscover the form that convinced Daniel Levy to part with fifteen million of his precious pounds last year, while Kane and his fellow World Cup final four participants only returned to pre-season training last week.
On the evidence of his showing across the full ninety minutes, Tottenham’s #10 has some way to go before he’s up to speed, looking largely ineffective against a Newcastle United defence that at times offered their visitors the freedom of St James’. Registering just 52 touches, the lowest of any Spurs outfield player besides Lucas Moura, Kane spent most of the afternoon on the fringes of the action. Having largely built his game around playing the percentages, the fact that he only managed two shots on goal across the 90 minutes gives some indication of his lack of involvement – last season he averaged five shots per game. Thankfully for the visiting supporters, their striker’s out of sorts performance wasn’t punished. First half goals from Jan Vertonghen and Dele Alli – both fellow late returnees from Russia – sandwiched a rare appearance on the scoresheet from Newcastle’s much maligned striker Joselu, and despite a dominant second half performance from the Magpies, a mixture of poor finishing, good goalkeepeing, and plain old luck saw Mauricio Pochettino and his team escape the North East with all three points.
Given his lack of form at the beginning of previous seasons it was no surprise to see Kane labour during the opening game. How much of it can be put down to over-exertion in the summer is up for debate – Alli, Vertonghen and Lloris all put in excellent performances, though it could be argued the former offered little for England in Russia. Whether his ability to transition from pre-season into competitive games is a physiological or psychological issue remains to be seen – as has been the case in the last four seasons, Kane’s form generally takes a dramatic turn for the better once he’s got a few games in his legs. That being said, a meeting with newly promoted Fulham on Saturday offers the ideal chance to get that monkey off his back.
The new boys suffer a rude awakening…
When the fixture computer bleeped and blooped and spat out the schedule for the 2018/19 season, Messrs Espirito Santo, Jokanovic and Warnock wouldn’t have been too disappointed with the challenges presented to the promoted sides on the opening day. In reality, all three were reminded that the step up to the Premier League from the Championship can be a daunting one. For Wolves, the only newly promoted side to end the opening weekend with a point on the board, the visit of Everton presented a tough but winnable return to the top flight. With Marco Silva having completed much of his transfer business late in the window, only Richarlison of his summer recruits was given a full debut. Typically, it was the Brazilian that opened the scoring after seventeen minutes. Having shaded a tight first half, momentum appeared to swing the way of the hosts when Phil Jagielka received the first red card of the season five minutes before the break for a mistimed challenge on Diogo Jota that perhaps looked more reckless than it actually was. Regardless, Portuguese wonderkid Ruben Neves dispatched the resulting free-kick beyond the helpless grasp of Jordan Pickford, and suddenly Wolves were in business. Still, the Premier League can be a fickle mistress and, despite their one man advantage, Wolves found themselves behind again with just over twenty minutes to go – Richarlison adding a second to his Toffees tally, and already closing in on his total of five for Watford last season. Wolves, though, would reap rewards for their dominance in possession, as Neves provided an inch-perfect cross for the on-loan Raul Jimenez to head in a late equaliser. A positive start for Nuno, but a result they may rue given their one man advantage.
Like Wolves, Fulham looked to take the game to their opponents as they hosted Crystal Palace on the opening day, only to find Wayne Hennessey in inspired form. Aleksander Mitrovic is no stranger to seeing his name in sentences that end with ‘hat-trick of misses’, but for once the Serbian can feel hard done by as Palace’s ‘keeper pulled off three fantastic saves to keep Fulham’s £22m man at bay. Happy to cede possession to the Premier League new boys, Roy Hodgson’s team were content with catching their free-flowing yet tactically naive opponents on the break, and Jeffrey Schlupp’s rifled effort shortly before half-time gave the visitors a barely deserved lead. With Fulham chasing the game, the Eagles continued to find space in the opposition’s half, and after another brilliant point-blank save from Hennessey, the pace of youngster Aaron Wan-Bissaka caught Slavisa Jokanovic’s men cold, and Wilfried Zaha was released to round Fabri and seal the win for Palace. With 66% possession and 15 shots on goal, there aren’t many teams that will enjoy as much dominance as Fulham against Crystal Palace and fail to make it count – it’s now a matter of how Jokanovic addresses his team’s shortcomings.
Down on the south coast, Cardiff City’s Premier League awakening was an altogether more brutal affair. A lack of goals last season was a cause for concern as they returned to the top flight, and after registering just one shot on target in their opening game at Bournemouth, Neil Warnock will undoubtedly have his frontline in for some chance creation sessions this week. Considering their relatively subdued transfer winow – David Brooks was the only new face in Eddie Howe’s starting line-up – Bournemouth looked a refreshed, revitalised proposition against Cardiff, and should have had the game sewn up long before Callum Wilson atoned for his first-half penalty miss in the 91st minute to add to Ryan Fraser’s opener. Games against Newcastle and Huddersfield lay in wait for the Bluebirds over the next couple of weeks, and accruing points as quickly as possible will be vital to any kind of survival bid they’re able to put together. On the strength of their showing at the Vitality, it’s going to be a long and tortuous season.
…and it’s As You Were for title favourites.
The Premier League Champions and the team tipped to push them closest to this season’s title both made their bow on Sunday, though facing altogether different propositions as Liverpool hosted last season’s punchbags West Ham, while Manchester City traveled to Post-Wenger Arsenal. After a summer of outrageous spending, Jurgen Klopp was able to name Alisson and Naby Keita in his starting lineup, while Manuel Pellegrini handed debuts to five of his summer signings. Despite a change in personnel, a familiar tale unfolded at Anfield, as the Reds set a marker down for their season against a lacklustre Hammers side. It took all of nineteen minutes for Mohamed Salah to damped any talk of him being a one season wonder, as he slotted home past Lukasz Fabianski to give Liverpool the lead. In a half in which the hosts could easily have scored three or four, Sadio Mane finally added a second in stoppage time after good work from James Milner. If Pellegrini’s decision to play 4-3-3 against one of the most dynamic teams in the league looked bold before kick-off, it was downright daft by half-time. The introduction of the more attacking Robert Snodgrass for Declan Rice at the interval seemed little more than a token of ambition from the Chilean manager, with the Scottish wide-man completing just nine passes during a half that Liverpool utterly dominated. Mane, who’ll be looking to better the efforts of his fellow strikers after finishing as the club’s third highest goalscorer last season with only twenty, added his second of the afternoon shortly after the break and, after watching his team-mates spurn a host of chances, Daniel Sturridge arrived from the bench late on to add a fourth for the hosts with his first touch. Another striker that can light up a game on his day, Sturridge’s return to the first-team fold at Anfield offers another reminder of the wealth of attacking options at Klopp’s disposal. If the first three don’t get you, four, five or six might. If this is a sign of things to come from Liverpool this season, then Manchester City might just be looking over their shoulder.
Or will they? Because the comfort with which Pep Guardiola’s side dispatched Arsenal at the Emirates suggests that very little pressure is being felt in the blue half of Manchester. Able to leave Kevin De Bruyne, Leroy Sane and Gabriel Jesus on the bench, Guardiola opted to give Riyad Mahrez his Premier League debut, while Bernardo Silva took up position behind Sergio Aguero. In his first competitive home match since replacing Arsene Wenger, Unai Emery opted to retain Petr Cech in goal at the expense of summer recruit Bernd Leno, while Sokratis and Matteo Guendouzi were introduced from the start. At just 19, the Sideshow Bob enthusiast Guendouzi was a surprise inclusion in Emery’s first eleven, and the criticism garnered from his teammates after failing to close down Raheem Sterling before the City attacker lamped an effort inside the right post to give the visitors the lead might have been a blow to his confidence. Still, the £7m signing put in an assured display against the league champions. Having been roundly second best in the first half, Emery’s side ramped up the pressure after the break, enjoying a decent spell of possession in the City half, but failing to create any clear-cut chances. Predictably, the hosts were made to pay, as Silva turned Benjamin Mendy’s pass into the top corner to seal the points. Though nowhere near their devastating best, Guardiola’s side showed that they’ll be just as difficult to beat this season as they were last, though Arsenal fans will have seen plenty to suggest better times are on the horizon.